Greetings from Cochapata

Ellie returns from Peru on August 8th. It will be a joy to see her. She will have been gone two months and, with few exceptions, she has been out of touch for the entire time. In our contemporary world of Twitter, Facebook, email and texting, it seems even more odd to be “off the grid” as it were for so long.

Happily, last Saturday we did have a chance to hear from Ellie. Thanks to the wonders of Facebook Video chatting, we spent about 90 minutes talking to her and we got to see her at the same time!

It was a sort of mid-term break and Ellie and the other volunteers gathered back in Cusco to touch base, re-connect and get a shower. Ellie said the minute they hit town they went from Starbucks to McDonalds and to virtually every fast food place in Cusco. It was a riotous re-connection with civilization.

Ellie says her family is nice. In fact most people in her community seem to be pretty welcoming. The Peruvians tend to be a bit reserved and there is the language barrier, but overall she said they feel welcome. She is called “Gringita.” I can imagine that with her height and blonde hair, she stands out a bit.

Living conditions in her community are pretty primitive. Her family has a dirt kitchen floor. They do have electricity in the form of one hanging bulb and a tv which receives two channels. Ellie shares a room with the 16-year-old daughter in the family. She said the daughter seems very reserved, but Ellie had launched a charm offensive and was determined to make friends.

Ellie and her two partners take meals with different families to spread the burden of feeding extra mouths. She said the primary diet is potatoes and they have potato soup for all three meals most days. Her host mother was incredulous that Ellie was so inept at peeling and cutting potatoes. After some translation issues, Ellie deduced that her host mother was asking if Ellie had kitchen servants. Well, I suppose she does in a way, Jim and I have both had a turn in the kitchen. I don’t think that’s quite the same. Ellie’s host mother was equally incredulous to learn that Ellie’s father cooked and her mother worked in an office. That is only one small indication of the cultural gulf between the community Ellie is visiting and the culture in which she grew up.

Running water in Ellie’s house is the pump in the yard. There are no showers or baths. Obviously, this limited availability of water impacts many aspects of their lives including cooking, cleaning and washing clothes.

Ellie and her partners teach English in the local school and help their families with their animals. School is only held four days a week and some days the teachers don’t show up. The women tend to leave school early because they are needed tending the animals.  Almost every man in the village is a farmer and they are in the fields all day. The children care for the animals which include sheep. Aside from potatoes and the animals which are raised and slaughtered for food, the diet is pretty unbalanced nutritionally. Ellie said the men and women in the community are all very strong from working so hard, but the high percentage of carbohydrates in their diet makes them a little puffy.

Ellie said it is pretty stressful living in such a different environment, but she also feels she has learned a tremendous amount about how many people in the world live and the tremendous challenges people face who live in poverty, cannot afford to get an education and are basically destined to stay in their villages. This is all quite different from the expectations with which we grow up in our society.

The day that Ellie and her partners were to head to Cusco, they were delayed. Their host family for breakfast had killed a sheep in their honor. Ellie watched it being butchered and then they were served sheep’s liver for breakfast. I asked how it was and her response was, ” After three weeks of potato soup three times a day, it tasted pretty darn good.”

As of last week, Ellie was writing in her journal each day. I think she will be grateful to have this account of her adventure. There are bound to be many events which slip her mind. I am very proud of Ellie’s strength, her respect for the culture in which she now finds herself, her newly gained recognition of the benefits she enjoys in life and her desire to contribute to the world. I think that she will have learned so much in the weeks she has spent in Peru and that it will impact her for the rest of her life. I am both filled with admiration of what she is doing and a little envy.

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One Comment to “Greetings from Cochapata”

  1. Your post beautifully captures the story of Ellie’s journey, both geographically and morally. It throws into stark relief the petty social squabbles that dominate the lives of so many of Ellie’s peers, and I know she will always have this experience to keep such things in proper perspective. Thank goodness she has a gorgeous hand-knit purple sweater to keep her warm in the Peruvian winter and to express, in the global lingua franca of fiber arts, that she too has a connection to the bounty of sheep!

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