What does a road mean?
Last month I received an email with the words, “We took the van all the way to the Chaullacocha school. The road is now open.” That one sentence cast a melancholy mood over that whole day.
Why, I hear you ask, would such a benign sentence cause such pensiveness?
It’s because the road finally arriving will change everything. Or perhaps it will not change things as much as I think.
I remember my first trek into the village, over that 4300 metre pass with the windswept views across the broad green valley, dotted with stone houses. I recall marveling at the thatched rooves, and that they still went about their day to day work in their eye catching typical dress.
I’d already been living in Peru for five years, on that fateful day when I visited Chaullacocha for the first time – but somehow, I’d never seen anything as unique as their way of life. I suppose, because on the longer treks you expect poverty and isolation. You don’t expect to find such remoteness on a one day trip from Cusco.
It was a fateful day, because I had no idea how entwined my life would become with that of those particular villagers. And I don’t say that from an anthropological sense, because I have never spent weeks on end in the village, becoming part of their community. However, for years now, I’ve made monthly visits, hiking the 2 or 3 hours from the nearest road to visit them.
So now there is a road! It`s not a surprise, before the January 2010 floods the road was bulldozed across the pristine landscape, and we indeed drove half way before becoming spectacularly bogged. The road is an ugly scar on the beautiful mountains, and seeing those machines ripping and tearing at the precious earth, I felt the horror of the Pacha Mama.
And so when the floods caused landslides and impassability, I felt a secret sense of relief. Why such a relief, why would I not want the road to be put in? My daily work is dedicated to the well being of the villagers, and so when the road is such an obvious benefit to them, its somewhat hypocritical of me.
As a Westerner, I have a strong appreciation of cultures and traditions… and coming from a land where there isn’t much culture, I deeply value this pocket of Inca culture high in the mountains. They live much like their Inca ancestors did hundreds of years ago. Part of me wants to preserve this pocket of specialness, protect them from the evil of computers, ipods and smart phones that I am not sure brings us all the happiness that its advertised to! Change is a confronting thing anywhere in the world – but when this unique culture has the potential to be lost – then I wonder if the change is for the best.
However, then I think of my “compañeras”, my work companions, the women that Threads of Peru works with. We are not really friends, we don’t speak enough of each other’s languages to truly have friendships, and my fleeting visits to their communities hardly constitutes a deep feeling of how it must be like to live miles from anywhere.
But I think of of the woman who walked the hours over the pass giving labour, to be taken by our project team to the Health post, where she promptly gave birth to a boy, minutes after arriving. I think of the young girl of 18, who was pregnant at the same time as I was. Apart from the fact that I was close to 20 years older than her, I was on my first pregnancy, and she was on her third and both of the other children had died. Even then, we couldn’t convince her to stay in Cusco or in the Sacred Valley during the last weeks of her pregnancy – because it was just too far away from her home.
The road doesn’t just mean that they can come and go from their village with ease, it means visits from the government services which they are entitled to. I remember working in the village when a few government paid nurses arrived. They asked to address the women via our meeting because they had called their own meeting but no one had turned up. Then, they asked, how far it was to Chupani. I pointed down the valley and said, “an hour if you walk fast.” The women looked at the impending thunderclouds and said, indifferently, “we’ll go next month.”
I think of the teachers at the schools, who sleep in the freezing classrooms week in and week out for a tiny pay. Of the kindergarten PRONOEI teachers who don’t even receive a salary, and yet they would hike out to the village each week to teach the tiny tots. (they receive a tip of $100 per month). Its little wonder that the teachers leave and never come back, to the distress of the village people that then have to travel down to the Sacred Valley to try and find another teacher that is willing to stay up in these high villages.
With the road, all of this becomes so much easier. And yet I wonder, will tourists come in droves now?
However, for all my wondering, I feel comforted that through Threads of Peru we have been teaching the women the value of the traditional ways, and to be proud of their culture. Progress must come, there are many other Andean villages who have recently been connected by road, so we must be boosted by other positive examples and continue to work on creating pride in their culture.
Ariana Svenson, Threads of Peru, Co-Founder