Take a pile of puzzle pieces and toss them over the floor of your house until they lie in every corner and behind every piece of furniture. If you can picture yourself coming home everyday and trying to construct a whole picture just from observing the little clues all around, then you have a sense of what its like to really live in a foreign community. It’s a fascinating, frustrating mind game that tests your patience and adaptability until you understand what it is you’re really looking at. Every new object and everybody’s habits feed into a greater picture of their culture, the diversity of which you only see when you live amongst it. They say you master a language when you reside in a country where it is spoken. The same can be said for understanding a different way of living, even living on two dollars a day.
During these few weeks I am sleeping in the attic of a maternity ward perched on the mountainside town of Huancarani Peru. The women waiting to give birth come from their rural community homes to stay on the level below me, and within a five-minute walk of the health center where I volunteer. Their living situations mimic those of their actual houses in the countryside with an adobe wood stove in the corner, one simple bed, and a bathroom of squalor conditions. They found that women would not come if they were provided anything other than what they were used to. This being the case I was always interested to go out on early morning community visits to see what it was really like where these women came from.
On one such excursion I found myself in the Patacancha community running an annual checkup on water reservoirs. The healthcare staff who brought me along introduced the president and from what little conversing I did – between their discussing in Quechua – I learned a great deal about the area: each house makes an average of 150 soles per month, which translates to about $1.80 a day per family. Almost all the income stems from selling potatoes in the tiny shops of Huancarani and the edges of Cuzco, some three hours away. Besides the exporting of spuds the population sustains itself on harvests of grain and beans once a year, storing, selling, and eating each respective gathering in thirds.
The result is an obvious threat of malnutrition. Given that more and more people are born into the village every year the demand to produce and provide is higher. A few NGOs are active in the area and one can observe family names and identification numbers tagged on the outside walls of the homes. There are sixty-two men (who are the heads of households) representing roughly one hundred forty women and children. That means the entire community probably makes about $3,320 a month.
Life in the Andes is without a doubt a spectacle to behold. Observing one group of indigenous peoples go about their day can dawn a whole new understanding of the region as a whole. The value, though, of such an experience is being able to glimpse the intricate clues of where these people come from and how they receive you as a foreign influence. I believe I am blessed to have the opportunity to get an up-close look at all the puzzle pieces, so I may have a better perspective on what it is we’re trying to do as we attempt to alleviate the pressures of two dollars a day.