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Abandoned in La Nada

¿Sabes qué? Espero que no nos vengan a buscar. Fíjate…tenemos que aprovechar. Jamás vamos a ver estrellas así.”

“You know what? I hope they don’t come to pick us up. Look…we have to make the most of this. We’re never going to see stars like this again.”

It was 9 pm and Daniela and I were laying in the grass plaza of Uruspampa, a caserío in Peru of about twenty families. We were frozen solid and dead from having laughed the entire afternoon and evening. Half an hour later a Uruspamponian would offer us shelter in his house, and thirty seconds later our ride would finally arrive, but in this moment I wanted nothing more than to sleep in the cold, under the stars, and wake up early to see the sunrise over the mountains.

 

The health brigade planned to leave Sarín at 8 a.m., but as is to be expected it left late. What wasn’t expected was that it also left without advising us, given that we had scheduled to make the trip with them two days in advance. We ran around the municipality where we had been abandoned, asking if anybody knew where the brigade had gone. Every official claimed not to have the slightest clue, though the way they laughed when they spoke to us suggested otherwise. Luckily, one gentleman seemed concerned, and he called the truck driver, asking that they wait for us at the other end of the town. We would have to walk to catch our ride.

When we reached the truck we were told there wasn’t room for us. “Sorry, we really hoped to have you guys come along.” We didn’t buy that, nor did we take no for an answer. We really want to come too, we said. So much so, that we’ll just ride in the back of the truck.

“In the back?”

“Yes.”

“With the barrel of gasoline and the gas-powered generator?”

Despite the fact that those two objects filled the bed of the truck, if not with the physical space they occupied then with the oil they leaked all over everything, yes, we will, safety be damned.

And was it ever. It turned out we weren’t the only ones planning to climb in the back. Three of us climbed in, grabbing hold of oily metal posts, our only hopes of not falling out of the truck as it drove up and down treacherous mountain paths for the next hour. Halfway through the trip, we encountered a construction team repairing a faulty bridge, and there we picked up our fourth bed-of-the-truck rider, making a total of 11 people riding in one small 4×4.

 

Three days prior, Daniela and I arrived in Huamachuco, Perú, the capital of Sanchez Carrión, a district in the departamento of La Libertad. From there we were taken to Sarín, a town of approximately 8,000 inhabitants, where we would spend the next week investigating malnutrition in the rural northern sierra of Peru. The week, known as semana de campo, is a tradition of the Department of Anthropology at La Católica, which sends its students out into the field, with a professor, for a week of anthropological research. After two months of preparation, including studying research methodologies, interview techniques, and common mistakes in anthropological field work, we were finally there, in the middle of nowhere, ready to pretend like we knew what we were doing.

On this day in particular, Daniela and I were accompanying a “training and awareness” team of the municipality to the village of Uruspampa. Their plan was to teach the campesinos how to feed themselves healthfully. Mine was to listen to the municipality’s discourse and see what kinds of messages it sends to the community.

 

We arrived in Uruspampa, exhausted from clinging on to dear life and the truck for the previous hour. The motor was set up, a projector plugged in, and half and hour later a PowerPoint presentation began in the community center (photo attached: note the chairs that exclaim, “works, not words.” That’s one way to infuriate a writer.).

The presentation I saw was not a simple discussion of 6-11 servings of grains, 5 servings of fruit and vegetables, etc. No, in fact, what I saw and heard from the speakers was the criminalization of mothers whose children are malnourished (an illness calculated according to European standards of height and weight). These mothers, according to the municipality, are condemning their children to dismal futures because they are too cheap or ignorant to feed their young ones a well-balanced diet. That their children are malnourished and have no future and that the mothers are cheap and ignorant are all debatable, though the municipality drops these words like facts, like they were talking about gravity. And while it is true that some customs of the village don’t lend themselves to a healthy diet (selling chickens and guinea pigs, for example, in order to buy white rice and pasta that complement a diet heavy in corn and potatoes), to blame everything on ignorant mothers is a gross simplification of a complex social phenomenon. But enough of that; you can read my final report if you’re interested.

I had to leave the discussion shortly after it started. I couldn’t hear very well, and as it turns out, I proved to be quite a distraction for all those present in the talk. Within the living memory of Uruspampa, a foreigner has never arrived in the village, much less a tall, blonde-haired blue-eyed gringo. The reactions I received ranged from the fright of the children to the amusement of the mothers. I’m not sure if the later was amusement at my presence or at their children’s terror, but that’s how it was.

I headed outside where the sun would soon burn my face and found a large group of women cooking corn, rice, potatoes, and some sort of tuna and carrot dish. This was lunch for the entire community as well as the health brigade, and every member of the community had brought their contribution to the meal. I asked the women if I might help them peel potatoes and, still amused, they invited me in.

We spent the next hour and a half peeling I-don’t-know-how-many potatoes, hundreds of them. They were enough to fill a bathtub, because I believe the gigantic bucket we put them all in was an actual bathtub from one of the local families. I started asking questions of the women about their lives, their diets, the municipality, etc., but it was hard to get a straight answer. Because I arrived with the municipality, they found it hard to believe that I was looking for criticism – that I was already critical myself – and instead behaved as if I were trying to exam them.

I asked the women what they knew about nutrition and malnutrition. They were, after all, the ones cooking for the community. That is, as the cooks of the day, they were unable to attend the health brigade’s meeting that supposedly would have capacitated these women to make a healthier meal. I assumed, then, that they had already attended such meetings, but this was not the case. What I heard from many women can be summed up by one quotation, something this woman in particular told me at least five times:

“No, I’ve never been to any of the municipality’s talks. We out here don’t know anything, anything. We women are ignorant.”

Halfway through the potato peeling, a woman left the talk to join us and I took the opportunity to ask her what she had learned from what she heard.

“First, you tell me what you learned,” she said.

“But I couldn’t hear anything, I left almost as soon as it started.”

“You tell me first.”

When the talk ended, Daniela and I were invited to eat lunch with the health brigade in the house of a prominent community member away from the plaza (and the “rabble,” as it were). It was disconcerting that we were disconnected from the community while we ate, and even worse that we were given an additional dish, an egg soup, made from this one woman’s personal pantry. The community is malnourished and we’re sectioning ourselves off to eat a more balanced meal…

At the lunch table, I asked the presenters, “Do the people who attend these talks ever ask questions?”

Oh yeah, sure, all the time, they told me.

“What questions did they ask today?”

Silence.

“That is,” I said, “Do you remember any questions, any examples of what they asked today?”

Well…well, today they haven’t asked any questions. But they do, normally.

I’m skeptical. The dynamic of the talks is one-way: we, the municipality, have the knowledge and you, community, do not. Listen and you shall learn.

Daniela and I had asked enough questions for the day. After lunch, the health brigade went to another community for more of the same but they promised to come back within a pair of hours. We decided to take advantage of the break to take a hike, to get away from the villagers and the health brigade who were all suspicious of our motives.

Ten minutes down the road, we had yet to climb a hill or find a foot-worn trail. “Daniela,” I said, “You know what I’ve always wanted to do? Climb to one of the peaks of these mountains and then walk along from peak to peak all through the sierra.”

“Good luck, blondie. You’re crazy.”

“No, but really, what happens if we just walk straight up from here to the peak?” I asked as I turned ninety degrees from the path and began walking into the hill. Moments later, I found out: you can’t get down.

“Blondie, how the f#*k are we going to get back to the trail? Seriously, huevón, what’s your plan? We’re screwed.”

I laughed. “We’ll figure that out once we reach the top.”

Daniela stopped and looked around. “Seriously, I’m concerned that we’re going to be stuck up here.” “Seriously,” I said, “you don’t have to keep coming up. I understand. But I promise if you do that will we find a way down later.” “Godda*& you, Blondie,” she said and, on her hands and knees she continued scaling the mountainside.

Halfway up the mountain, I could no longer breath. Several days in the middle of nowhere had meant several days of chain-smoking. What little breath might have remained in my chest was ripped out when I turned around and saw the vista, which I have poorly approximated in the attached photographs.

“Well,” I said, “de la puta madre, no?”

“You realize I still hate you, right?”

And it was in that moment that we began to die laughing. I don’t know what was funny – perhaps it was me, the gringo, comfortably swearing in Spanish. Or the fact that we had just climbed straight up the side of a mountain. Or that the gringo and the limeña were in a caserío of 20 families where nobody wanted or trusted us. All I know is that as we braved our way back down the mountain Daniela and I continued swearing to/at each other and the laughter followed us all the way back to Uruspampa.

The absurdity factor of the trip got out of hand once we returned to the village. We found out that the caserío didn’t even have an outhouse, but that if we wanted to go to the bathroom we were to feel at home in any patch of grass. I turned to Daniela. “¿Qué carajo am I supposed to do with this paper? Do I stick it in my puto pocket once I’m done?” Years of anti-littering campaigns rendered each of us incapable of leaving toilet paper anywhere outside of the toilet or trashcan and thus we decided to hold it until we returned to Sarín.

Which should’ve been half an hour later. But a pair of hours turned into two, then three pairs of hours and still there was no sign of the municipality. Jokes about being abandoned in the middle of nowhere turned into the realization that we had been abandoned and, out of cigarettes, all we could do was to insult each other and our mothers (love you, Mom!).

The fourth pair of hours rolled around and all of Uruspampa appeared to have gone to bed. The stars were as I had never before seen them. It was as if I were looking at a picture of the Milky Way, the galactic swirls visible in all their beauty, 3,000 meters above the level of the ocean.

 

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