A Dream Fulfilled in
Peru’s Cordillera Blanca
By Gregory J. Rummo
When Clifton resident Jorge Marin talks about his father and the mountain village in Peru where he was born, his eyes well up in tears. “I remember as a young boy waking up early in the morning, often finding my father sitting alone in the kitchen, with a cup of coffee in his hand. He would be crying; his mind filled with the memories and the regrets over what had happened years earlier.”
Marin‘s father, Fidel left the mountain village of Cajamarca when he was just 14-years old to work with construction crews building the roads that would ultimately connect this mountainous region with Lima, Peru‘s capital city.
”He left home in search of his heart,” Marin explains. “He married mom when he was 21 and the two of them returned to the mountains for their honeymoon. What he learned was that during those seven years of his absence his mother and one of his brothers had died.”
”They had nothing,” he adds. “No one living in the mountains of Peru did. And because of that, it was my dream to return some day and do something really special for the children that still live there.”
We‘re sitting together in Panera Bread on Route 23 in Wayne. I‘m sipping a coffee while Jorge savors a bowl of broccoli and cheese soup—his favorite. In between spoonfuls, like his father years ago he has to choke back the tears, which makes it more difficult than normal for me to catch everything he‘s saying through his thick Peruvian accent.
But these tears are tears of joy.
Jorge returned to Peru‘s mountainous region of Ancash last summer with a group of about a dozen members from the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Paterson. I was among them. We trekked for a week, often sleeping in tents at night in sub-freezing weather, to visit three Quechua villages in the northern extremes of the Cordillera Blanca, Peru‘s snow covered mountains.
His vision became the catalyst that led generous individuals and several small businesses to donate almost six thousand dollars to purchase buzos y zapatillas—sweat suits and sports shoes—for almost 500 children living in the remote valley of Quitaracsa.
It is an amazing story of a series of well-choreographed events working together in perfect harmony from start to finish.
Jorge‘s sister, who lives in Callao, a suburb of Lima, contacted a local clothing manufacturer where everything was produced, boxed and delivered to her door several weeks before we arrived from Newark on the evening of June 10 on the 10:00 p.m. non-stop Continental flight.
The bus that would take us from the airport in Lima overnight to our hotel several hundred kilometers north in the Andes Mountains was already waiting in the parking area outside the terminal when our flight landed. Jorge‘s sister, with the help of members from her church, had brought all of the boxes of clothing to the airport in several small pick-up trucks. They had loaded it on to the bus so that we could leave immediately.
From Lima to Huaraz
After having just flown eight hours, we boarded the bus for the second leg of the journey—another eight-hour trip—overnight. The first three hours took us north along the coast on the Pan American Highway. This was followed by a four-hour climb on a two-lane highway through the southern Cordillera Negra. It‘s a dangerous road that starts at sea level and snakes back and forth; one hairpin turn after another, until cresting at 13,350 feet at the Conococho Pass. Mercifully, we slept through most of this.
We arrived at the pass a little before sunrise and took a break to stretch our legs. The southern Cordillera Blanca rises up in the distance and the early morning rose tinted hues were just starting to brush the summit of Huascaran, Peru‘s highest peak, some 100 kilometers to the north.
An hour later we arrived at our hotel in Huaraz, the largest village in the Callejon de Huaylas, the immense valley that splits the Andes into two separate ranges in Peru.
From Huaraz to Racauy
After acclimatizing for several days in Huaraz—which included a number of practice hikes, one up to 15,000 feet—we loaded the clothing along with all our gear into a large truck meant for transporting livestock. Then we piled into a camioneta –a small passenger bus—for the hair-raising ride north along another highway of sorts that follows the Cañon del Pato (Duck‘s Canyon.) This road is the main thoroughfare through these parts—an amazing consideration in light of the fact that for much of the way it is a single lane dirt road winding along the side of a mountain 1,000 feet above the Rio Santa. Adding to the anxiety were the more than two-dozen tunnels, carved out of the bedrock seemingly by hand through which we drove. Only the headlights cut through the dusty darkness until finally sunlight revealed the far ends.
Our procession crossed over the valley floor on a bouncing metal bridge spanning the Rio Santa where Duke Power maintains a hydroelectric plant. From here, we began the ascent through the northern Cordillera Blanca. The van bucked and swayed as the engine strained against the steep incline. Every so often we passed a statue of a saint, a crucifix or a bunch of plastic flowers that had been lovingly placed in a hollow in the rocks. We all knew what that meant and tried to think pleasant thoughts while others prayed quietly for our safety.
Jorge sat in the back with his oldest daughter, Tiffany. She was too terrified to look out the windows, so instead she buried her head in his chest, sobbing uncontrollably until finally we turned off the road that hugged the edge of the mountain and headed into the interior valley.
“I made a fool of myself crying while in the bus thinking we could fall any minute,” she later told me. “But I was more scared riding in that cattle truck.”
The “cattle truck” to which she referred had been in front of us the entire way. We finally had to pile in, sitting on our gear for the last 45 minutes of the ride, as the van could not negotiate the road any further.
The sun was low in the sky when we finally arrived in Racuay, a sparsely populated village of only several families of sheepherders. It had been nine hours since we left our comfortable hotel rooms at the Steel Guest House. My GPS confirmed what the chill in the air hinted at: We were above 12,500 feet. It was going to be a cold night.
Our Quechua chef had prepared a sumptuous meal that included soup as an appetizer followed by a main course and dessert. How he managed to whip this all up in his eight by ten foot tent on a double burner stove was nothing short of miraculous and he continued to amaze us throughout the week, preparing one delicious meal after another.
Riding along narrow mountain roads for hours while confined in a small seat saps onees energy. It wasnet long after we ate that we all turned in for the evening. Everyone fell asleep quickly.
From Racauy to Quitaracsa
Early the next morning, the unmistakable braying of two-dozen burros awakened us. Our four arilleros, (burro managers) Cenon, Efrain, Ajilio and Javier had arrived with their donkeys. These incredibly nimble animals would carry all of our gear down the steep mountain trails from one village to the next for the rest of the week.
We crawled out of our down sleeping bags to find the ground and tents covered with frost. The sun was just beginning to touch the snow-covered summit of Nevado Champara in the distance. It was 27-degrees.
The cooks had been up since 5:00 a.m. preparing a tasty breakfast of huevos revueltos con tocino y pan tostado (scrambled eggs and bacon with toast), which we washed down with copious cups of steaming hot coffee.
Thirty minutes later the sun had climbed high enough to warm our campsite. As we took down the tents and packed our gear into the duffel bags that the arilleros would tie on the backs of the burros, the families that had invited us to share their field for the night came out to chat.
Just before leaving, we gave each family a small gift of clothing and a copy of the New Testament in both Spanish and the Huaylas dialect of Quechua. After inviting them to join us that evening in the next village for a movie about the life of Jesus in their own language, we thanked them for their hospitality and marched out in single file along a path through a boggy meadow.
It was six hours later, sometime in the early afternoon, when we arrived in Quitaracsa, a quiet pastoral village situated along the river that bears the same name. My altimeter read a more comfortable elevation of 9,500 feet.
There are almost one thousand people who live here--literally in the middle of nowhere--and we soon learned that they refer to themselves as ”the forgotten.”
And they truly are. Living on the Rio Quitaracsa, they feel they have squatteres rights to the water that flows through their village including a portion of the electricity that Duke Power generates in its hydroelectric plant downstream. Yet, there is only one electric line illuminating one street lamp.
“We are the most forgotten of all the people living in this region. Not even the government cares about us,” the president and the director of the colegio wrote to me jointly in a letter, which clearly had been typed on an old, manual typewriter.
We quickly set up our tents near the end of a huge field. The afternoon sun was hot and while some of us rested, others took off to the river to clean up. That evening the Quechua evangelists from AWI traveling with us (the initials stand for the Good News Association) presented a program that included several short movies featuring stories from the Old Testament. This was accomplished by means of a portable Honda generator; a DVD player and a 100-inch screen that folds for easy traveling. Hundreds showed up that evening—virtually the entire village of Quitaracsa and the families from Racauy who made the six-hour trip to join them. They sat on the ground in rapt silence. When the movies were over, one of the evangelists shared several folk songs and a short message from the Bible. He also explained that the next day, we would be distributing clothing at the school, which bordered the other side of the field where we were camped.
The Big Day Arrives
It‘s easy to lose track of what day it is when you‘ve traveled for days to get to the middle of nowhere. But it was a Tuesday that the children of Quitaracsa and their parents will never forget. It was the day that the stigma of ”the forgotten people of Quitaracsa,” was blotted out.
We had set up a huge white tent in the middle of our campsite. It would serve as a Wal-Mart of sorts. One by
one, the children came, the youngest ones with their mothers. At the sneaker counter, we measured the children‘s feet. They were calloused and filthy. From there they passed to the sweat suit counter where they were sized accordingly. Then they received a bag of candy and a bag of toys to go with their new outfits and sneakers.
Four hours and almost 300 children later, we were done.
The entire village had come out to watch. The joy was written across almost every face, including Jorge‘s. Tears streamed down his cheeks. ”I have seen the Face of God reflected in the little faces of these children,” he blubbered.
That evening, the members of AWI along with our other host-missionaries traveling with us from the Wycliffe Summer Institute of Linguistics in Huaraz held another outdoor service, which included showing “The Jesus Film,” a popular evangelistic movie about the life of Christ, available in hundreds of languages and dialects. When the move had concluded the president of the community came to the microphone and called the name of every head of every family who came forward, one by one, to receive a copy of the New Testament.
From Quitaracsa to Secsi
We had one more village to visit before the long hike out of the mountains and back to civilization. The village of Secsi was only a two-hour walk along the river over easy terrain. Several years ago one of the missionaries with Wycliffe who was traveling with us, Adelid Yanac, passed through this village. Two women came out to meet him. They begged him to stay saying, “teach us about the Bible because we are ignorant of the things of God.” Yanac couldn‘t stay but promised the women he would return some day.
Today would be the fulfillment of yet another vision. We arrived around noon, set up camp and after eating a hasty lunch, began handing out the remaining sweat suits and sneakers. There were 50 children here and the work went quickly. That evening we showed “The Jesus Film” and distributed more New Testaments.
The Climb Out
Our jobs of evangelism, Bible distribution and the social gospel had been accomplished. But we still had to hike back to the village where our bus would be waiting to take us back to our hotel in Huaraz.
The laws of science unfortunately apply to hiking: Walk downhill long enough and eventually you‘re going to have to climb back uphill. And climb we did. Starting at 6:00 a.m. we walked non-stop taking a short 15-minute break for lunch until arriving at the pass at over 13,000 feet. We had been walking for eight hours and still had one more to go before finding a steeply inclined meadow where we‘d spend the last night in the mountains.
Sitting together in the mess tent, we hardly had the energy to maintain our balance on the flimsy collapsible camp chairs. It was even an effort to lift forks to mouths. A holy stillness descended over us, brought on by what we had witnessed the last four days.
We slept as soundly as the rocks over which we had pitched our tents that evening, waking refreshed the next morning for the four-hour hike down into the desert valley and to the village where the bus would be waiting.
”It was an incredible trip,” Jorge reminisces as he polishes off the last spoonful of broccoli and cheese soup. “It was the fulfillment of my dream to be part of this group of humble people who dared to hike into the mountains motivated simply by the love of Christ for my people.”
“I am reminded of the verse in the New Testament book of Romans where Paul wrote, ’How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the Gospel of peace and bring glad tidings of good things!’”
Jorge plans to return to the mountains of Peru this June with his daughter Tiffany and the group from the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Paterson.
Gregory J. Rummo is a businessman, journalist and the author of “The View from the Grass Roots,” and “The View from the Grass Roots – Another Look.” Contact him at GregRummo.com