Last Sunday, Yannick, Erika, and I spent the day trekking around Quillabamba, visiting host families. What struck me was the difference in the standard of living between each family. One of our student’s bathrooms is carved into the cement, slanted part of the staircase and is a favourite hang out spot for cockroaches. The bathroom also sports a special door; it is not on hinges, so you must move the door to the side, go inside, and then put the door back in order to ‘close’ it. The bathroom looks like a dripping, rotten, cockroach-breeding prison cell. On the flip side, another one of our other student’s not only has her own bedroom, but her own clean, tiled bathroom, complete with a toilet seat, a shower, and even toilet paper with puppies on it!
It is also interesting to note what families choose to spend their money on. The family who cooks on an open hearth owns a television. The family who owns a personal car (very rare here) and a motorcycle does not have toilet seats. I wonder if material worth is associated with status because, in that case, having toilet seats wouldn’t matter, as most people usually are not interested in peeking into your bathroom, but people do notice if you own a car. This luxurious family is very keen to disassociate themselves from any kind of poverty in Quillabamba because they have the means to. It makes sense that those who have experienced poverty and now are well off never want to look back, but it is also extremely commendable when one who was once poor can look back and help those who are still behind. I also wonder if people who own little else buy a television in order to distract themselves from their daily miseries. Is it simply a distraction or are they trying to assert their social status?
Yesterday, the majority of the group, including Yannick and I, took a three-hour bus ride to some old ruins. Our bus was actually a large van that Yannick drove. Driving here is certainly a unique experience. In the Quillabamba area, only main roads in town are paved. All roads leaving Quillabamba are hard dirt and are only wide enough for one vehicle. So, if you encounter another vehicle on the road, depending on how big it is, you either have to slow down and squeeze by each other or back up to a wider part of the road. Twice, we came up against large trucks; Yannick had to back up right into the mountain in order to let it pass and even then we were barely an inch apart. Bumping and tossing around the mountains, in a filthy, falling-apart van, only a few feet away from a most treacherous cliff is an experience in itself. It is quite scary at times, but you really have to forget about the danger part of it or else you would not be able to spend more than a few minutes in that van. The best mind set to be in is to think of it as a roller coaster – complete with live chickens and cows crossing the road at any given time, adding that extra bit of excitement, as well as oncoming traffic that you just barely miss hitting.
After a breakfast stop in a small town restaurant (we had made reservations, but that doesn’t seem to matter here, as they only started cooking when we got there), we made it to our hiking spot by late morning. I feel like I am a broken record here, but the landscape and the view were fantastic once again. A ten-year old kid and his six-year old brother were our tour guides. Apparently, they climb up the old Inca trail to the ruins all the time. They led us up a very steep rock-built trail, during which I discovered how much higher in altitude we were. Usually, I can trek uphill for awhile without getting tired, but here I was almost immediately out of breath! We had been warned that we were going to be in very high altitude, so it is always best to take it easy and take it slow. During the hike, I was thinking about the children, who had appointed themselves as our tour guide, and I was wondering if their parents knew where they were or if they even cared. The kids just took off with us, and I didn’t notice them telling anyone. They were with us for the entire hike, which lasted about three hours, without a hat or a coat (we were caught in a light rain for about twenty minutes) and without any food. Any North American parent would find this absolutely atrocious and would say it was neglect, poor parenting, and just plain dangerous. This just isn’t the case in Peruvian towns. As long as the kids return at night without a wild hyena gnawing away on them, everything seems to be fine.
Either way, the hike was great. Although the ruins were very interesting, I still think I appreciated the landscape and the fabulous view even more. We actually visited two Inca ruins; the first one was used for sacrificial ceremonies. They would bring young women to this site, whom they thought were not virgins, and they put them to the test: the women were told to pee and if their urine went down a specific crack in the ruin, then this meant that they were virgins. If their urine missed this crack, then they were clearly impure and were sacrificed on the spot. After hearing this story from one of the Peruvian women who came with us, a few of the students and I started talking about how happy we were to be in the 21st century and just how many strange myths and tests such as those (ie, those that determined if women were witches or not) existed for so long and were believed as facts. It is curious to think of things that we now believe are facts, even though they are based solely in stories, beliefs, and superstitions.
We had a picnic at the second set of ruins and gave some of our food to the kids. We stayed there for awhile, taking pictures and enjoying the cool air. I even put on my sweater, which I haven’t done since being in Quillabamba.
After stocking up on some snacks, we all made our way back into the van at around 4 pm. Shortly after we got in, the van wasn’t able to make it up a hill, so a few of the students got out and pushed. After pushing the van, one of our students, Jean Philippe, ran up the hill to meet us and then jumped in the van and we were on our way. After a half an hour later, as we were bumping along, Jean Philippe (JP) told me that he needed to get out of the van to get some air. It wasn’t like JP to ask something like this. I assumed he was car sick, so I told Yannick to stop. JP got out and bent over, looking like was going to be sick. Two other students were with him, making sure he was okay. Only a few seconds later, he was on the ground. Now, people were worried. Everyone got out of the car and ran up to JP. He was writhing on the ground, his wrists and fingers turned inwards and his legs flailing. When he talked, it came out all slurred; he said he couldn’t feel his hands and was sure that his hands didn’t exist. It was terrifying. I had no idea what to do. Fortunately, the two Peruvian women with us identified this right away as altitude sickness. We massaged his hands and fingers and gave him a lot of water. Everyone was horrified, as none of us had seen anything like this before. We put him on a mattress in the van, and he fell asleep nearly immediately. Yannick drove the fastest he had ever driven on those roads until we reached much lower altitude. We reached a small town and brought him to the clinic. We were relieved to hear that everything was normal; he just needed to sleep and eat a lot. JP usually eats massive amounts of food, and he hadn’t eaten much that day, and he hadn’t slept well, AND he had ran (albeit very briefly) in high altitude. It was just a bad combination.
This happened on Saturday, and today is Monday, and he is doing much better today. I am actually at his house right now. He is still weaker than normal (he stayed home from work), but he is slowly regaining his energy. It is amazing to see someone so full of energy and spirit come crashing down. It really took a toll on him, even though he is young, fit, and healthy. He was just telling me on how scared he was because he had no idea what was happening to his body. He describes it as, “je sentais que mon corps se crispait”. He also said that it felt like thousands of ants were invading his body and taking over. It is certainly an experience that will stay with him, as well with the rest of us who saw it, although to a different degree.
What I encounter here is something I would never have encountered back home. Some things are difficult, sad, and uncomfortable, but also very valuable.