Thursday, March 21, 2019

A Rock Schoolhouse in the Clouds

Cuzco, the jumping off point to the Andes or Machu Picchu
   At first, we thought it was a nice gesture, to buy school supplies and deliver them to poor kids living high in the Andes. Then came the question, school supplies, for kids with barely enough to eat and who probably need clothing and medicines?
     We’d been in Peru all of three days, two in metropolitan Lima and one in Cuzco, a trendy colonial city up around 11,000 feet altitude, where even the hotels came outfitted with oxygen tanks. For me, when traveling abroad, it takes a few days to acculturate, which means, fusing with my new environment and leaving my “gringo—Chicano-ness” behind, transcending nationality and nationhood. I clearly understand the phrase, “The world is my oyster,” or, to turn a phrase, “I am just another oyster in the world.”
     It remind me of Vietnam, the war, and the assault on my senses, and how the smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and feelings transformed me into my new environment. I was no longer invading Southeast Asia. I was Southeast Asia. This enigmatic transition could be scary to the guys who fought it. They told themselves they hated everything about Vietnam, especially the people, friend or foe, but really, I think, there was a bit of self-loathing, not completely understanding why we were bombing the shit out of these villagers for a larger abstract cause--to preserve our freedom, whatever that meant.
Lake Titicaca's next generation
     And we, of course, saw ourselves as superior to the foreigners; though, deep down, as time passed, we knew it was their world, and they were superior to us. It was like the 1930s King Kong movie, when the beast was shackled with chains in a New York theater, the speaker announced to the audience, dressed in tuxedos and evening dresses, “In his world, he was king.”
     That’s why I understood the guys in reconnaissance, operating in small units, alone, in the jungle for weeks, at a time. They began to smell and look like the bush around them, to take on the spirit of the Viet Cong they pursued, just as T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), had begun to inhabit not just the dress and culture but the spirit of the Arab world.
     Back in Cuzco, the coordinator of our trip recommended we each purchase $10.00 worth of school supplies, whatever we chose. As an anthropologist, he had visited Peru many times and felt the “duende” of the place.
     At a local libreria, I picked up a supply of stuff, heavy writing tablets, along with boxes of pens, markers, and pencils. I ended up splurging, spending over $20, thinking, man, am I overspending, not to mention that now I’d have to lug not only my suitcase and bags but a heavy plastic bag of school supplies; hopefully, it wouldn’t be an albatross around my neck.
     We hauled our school supplies around with us on buses, vans, and trains for the next week and a half, from Machu Picchu to Puno, the floating islands on Lake Titicaca, the town of Ollantaytuabo in the Sacred Valley, and through the beautiful Colca Valley, where volcanoes, some spewing dark billows of smoke, surrounded us on many sides.
Any means necessary to survive at 16,000 feet

     It was then, I began hearing grumbling. “Man, these bags are getting heavy,” or “I can’t carry these bags and my own luggage much longer,” and “when are we going to deliver this stuff.” Ironically, nobody complained about the sacks of souvenirs they'd accumulated, new bags filled of knitted alpaca and llama scarves, sweaters, caps, ceramics, etc. et.
     The school supplies become a burden. Passing one large school, children playing outside, someone in our group said, “Hey, let’s just dump the stuff off with these kids.”
     One morning, our bus pulled out onto the highway, leaving the mountain village of Sicuani behind us. We headed through the clouds, at about 16,000 feet. The temperature dropped down to the 40s. It was a sunny day, the wind blowing hard. All I could see around me were mountains, rock, and llamas dotting the landscape. Brandon, our group leader, called to the bus driver, “Pull over here.”
Boy in red sweatshirt, responding to bus driver's call
On the same level
     We all looked out wondering why we were stopping. The bus driver honked his horn, reached out of the window, and motioned to the rocks, for that’s all I could see. First, a little boy in a red sweater peeked out from a mound of rocks, which I realized was a shanty. In seconds, he came running down to the highway. In no time, other children followed, then mothers with children in their arms, as if emerging from the ground. “Okay,” I heard, “bring out your supplies and give them to the kids.”
A special union
     The kids stood along the shoulder of the road, happily taking pens, paper, tablets, pencils, and rulers, whatever we had. Their faces brightened as if we were giving them pieces of gold. One young mother asked if she could take some supplies for her son who was out working in the fields.
     With our supply depleted, the children hugged us. The older ones shook our hands. Beaming, they looked down at the gifts in their hands, in near disbelief. Every once in a while, a car passed, doing about 65, honking at us to stay off the road.
From me to you
     For this short interlude, I didn’t feel like a tourist or a visitor but like a fellow human being sharing in a bit of delight these kids were experiencing. Back home, children complain if they don’t get the newest cell phone, laptop, Mac Tablet, or video contraption on the market. They don't engage with anyone but their electronic devices. Have we lost them? Is there appreciation misplaced? Is there no appreciation? Are we all in the States now so jaded, even adults, that we take too much for granted, desiring the finest car or house?
Back to the mountains
     Slowly, we board the bus, the kids and their parents waving at us. We don’t want to leave. We want to savor the glory of appreciation, theirs and ours. They have touched us more than we have touched them. They have given us more than we have given them. Brandon, our coordinator, points to a low-ceilinged rock structure, stark and cold. "That's their school house," he says.
     The children continue to wave as we drive away. We are no longer travelers or tourists, and they are no longer poor mountain people. For a small instant, we are not rich or poor, black or white, Americans or Peruvians, we are just people.

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