OMAK We never expected our trip to Peru to have such a hold on us so quickly.
For those of you who have traveled to Third World countries, Peru was typical in its presentation: Dogs roam the streets, old people sit on corners selling whatever produce they have and rusted tin roofs cover adobe buildings that house families and businesses.
The buses, called “combis” in Peru, are overcrowded, dirty and in need of repair, but still managed to keep some sort of schedule.
It is all typical of abject poverty, and survival at its baseline.
For 12 days, my boyfriend and I were able to explore a part of Peru that was noticeably lacking in tourists.
The area is known as Cotahuasi Canyon. It is located 100 miles north-northeast of the city of Arequipa in southern Peru.
It is not jungle, but high mountain desert of the Andes. The Cotahuasi River runs its length. It is considered the deepest canyon in the world, being twice as deep as the Grand Canyon.
The terrain is very steep, with single-lane dirt roads. Farming is done on terraces that have ancient irrigation systems for watering.
Amaranth, quinoa, potatoes and corn are grown in abundance.
The scenery and the people, despite their lack of money or amenities, are welcoming.
We had a guide to help us through this remote region. Marcio Ruiz is a veteran on Cotahuasi Canyon and took us to many places that, alone, I would not have been brave enough to attempt.
One of these places was called Puyca (pronounced poo-ee-cah). Puyca lies at the top of a long road off the valley floor.
The road up is not for the faint of heart. It literally zigzags its way up the face of the mountain, with travelers stopping to ensure they can make the switchback or tossing rocks off the road so others could pass.
It’s a single lane – straight down on one side, straight up on the other.
It takes about an hour and a half to scale the mountain in the combi. The village of Puyca lies on a little plateau on the top.
I was so grateful to arrive safely and unload the 51 people from our little combi van. As we unloaded, we were greeted by groups of children running up and down the dirt road chasing after two bicycle tires.
One tire had no rim and the other was from a broken bicycle that still had the handlebars attached to the front wheel, with the rest of the bike gone.
They were, as children, having a blast rolling these down a small hill. There were no playgrounds or other toys being held or played with.
We were guided to our hostel up a harrow valley, through a gate and into a courtyard. The children there were being washed off on the dirt floor in the center of the 8- foot by 10-foot “house,” using a basin – what we term as a “spit bath.”
They were getting ready for school.
Puyca has a school for the youngest children. It is a kindergarten that schools 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. The older children must ride the combi up and down the mountain every day to go to school in the village of Alca.
They knew I was a preschool teacher, so we were invited to view the school and interact with the children.
The school houses 47 students, divided into three classrooms by age. The biggest class was the 5-year-olds.
It was so hard to view this. I was dismayed that there was nothing in any of the classrooms.
The 5-year-old room had two tables with a few chairs, a bulletin board with the words “bien viendo” written on it (they started school this month), and a few decorations hung from the ceiling.
Some children were playing with a set of animal hats that were dirty and torn, other shared the 10 Duplo blocks. There were a few crayons, broken, in a bowl the teacher held. That was all.
There were no pencils that I could see, no glue or paste, no toy center, no books and certainly no coloring area.
One little boy summed up the absence of classroom tools as he clutched four markers that had no lids, and were obviously dried up.
I asked, through our guide, if there were more markers. The teacher replied that there had been markers about six months ago, but they were gone.
This little boy loved them so much that he refused to let them go. This brought both my boyfriend and me to tears.
How could children hope for a better life when the very basics that we take for granted were missing?
It was then that my boyfriend and I decided to make a difference for that boy and his classmates. Markers, crayons, maybe even a few coloring books, would be such a gift to these children, a gift we can provide.
It’s not easy to get packages anywhere in this region of Peru. The postal system does not work as ours does.
With the help of our guide, though, we have managed to find a way. We can send a package to the main town of Cotahuasi. The postmaster there lives in Alca and will take the package with him. From there, he will ensure it gets on the combi to Puyca, where it will be picked up by the equivalent of the mayor, who will hand deliver it to the school.
I write this as an invitation for our community to become involved and make a difference to one child, if not many.
New markers with the basic eight colors, boxes of large crayons with the basic eight colors, coloring books that have single pictures of animals, trucks or scenery – not Disney or movie-based books, as these kids have no idea what they are – plain paper, glue sticks and colored or plain pencils would be used to help these children learn to read and write, besides making them excited to go to school.
Your donation of these items can be brought to Children’s House Montessori, 521 Jasmine St. Our school will be enclosing a letter to the children of Puyca, inviting them to become pen pals with us.
Our trip to Cotahuasi, Peru, and in particular, Puyca, has our hearts forever. It touched that place that holds all children as precious and swells compassion to try to help.
The need is great, but so is our ability.
Marla Garr is a teacher at Children’s House Montessori in Omak. She and her boyfriend, Rick Dineen of Colville, traveled to Peru March 12-25 to hike and explore. They hired a guide, who learned she is a teacher and arranged the visit to Puyca’s school.