Return to La Grama Two Years Later
I recently returned to Peru for a three-week visit, having served as a PCV 2003-2005. My luggage was packed with Spanish books donated by Barnes and Noble, clothes, toys, and medicines Upon arriving, the smog-filled drive through Lima brought back countless memories, and with each deep inhalation of thick black exhaust from the rickety old loudly squealing bus, I felt at home. I first visited the Fargo’s, an American Embassy family that has opened their home to Peace Corps volunteers for many years and then headed to the Peace Corps training center. PC had invited me to lecture the trainees about how to stay healthy in rural Peru. I advised the trainees that each person shapes their individual Peace Corps journey. The more dedication you invest in being a quality, productive volunteer, the more personal growth and satisfaction you attain, I told them.
After visiting the family with whom I lived during my three months of training in 2003, I started my journey to La Grama, Cajamarca, a sleepy Andean village, where I had lived as a PCV. We traveled in a 1985 Toyota filled with provisions, seemingly back to the 19th Century. We passed green eucalyptus trees, burnt red mountains, adobe houses, women spinning wool, rabid dogs attacking passing cars, and donkey traffic jams. Ancient minivans struggled to climb the 9000 feet passes, packed with squeaking guinea pigs. Grama recently completed installing a sewage system, the result of which was explosive diarrhea for the entire village. Enormous black bulls plow potato and corn fields, protected by natural fences of cactus. Señoritas with wind-burned skin washed their torn clothes in the drainage ditch while tending to their sheep.
My best friend’s mother welcomed me, clutching my hand with her crusty muddy, cracked fingers. When I asked about her health, she peeled away a large banana leaf that covered her calf, exposing a deeply infected, baseball-sized, open wound. For the past three months, she had not been able to work due to the excruciating pain. I daily disinfected her wound and applied an antibiotic cream. After two weeks of this care, I was able to pull from her infected leg a one-inch piece of corn stalk; she screamed hysterically in pain. Hopefully, now that the woody stalk is removed, she will heal.
A pack of playful children welcomed me with enthusiastic hugs. I was next greeted by a farmer friend, who swept me off to see his bountiful eggplant harvest. I was pleasantly surprised to see the organic gardens and vegetables that are still being grown and consumed. In addition to the “gardens of life: I had established while a PCV, other new gardens have flourished, with the help of the villagers I had trained. The cookbook we published to create nourishing meals is widely used. I had taught well attended workshops on healthy garden cooking, how to grow more vegetables, and advanced Biointensive organic gardening techniques. The sustainability of our efforts was clearly visible, from one bountiful organic garden to the next. And yet…...
A little girl’s face was stained with dirt and covered with mucous, her belly distended. The level of malnutrition in a microclimate valley where fruit literally falls from the sky is astounding. I suggested to her mother how to more effectively nourish her baby, and she hung on my every word, sincerely wanting to learn. She was astonished to learn that white rice and guinea pig alone do not provide all the vitamins and nutrients a child needs to grow. I gave her a quick lesson in how to cultivate and prepare vegetables for food, then gave her spinach, beet, carrot, pepper, tomato, cucumber, and lettuce seeds, with her promise to try to grow nutritious food.
While strolling the village, I was approached by a friend who seemed to have aged fifteen years in the two short years I have been gone. “Señor Jordan, mi hija tiene cancer,” she cried. She led me to her dark home, which has the stench of death. Behind a curtain made from a torn sheet, lay her daughter, my friend Maritza, on a straw mattress on the mud floor. A pale face peeked out from beneath a soiled blanket, and she moaned an agonized greeting -- “Hoola Señor JJoorrddan...” Her family insisted that I look at the cancer and offer my opinion.
As they lowered the blanket, I was confronted by a watermelon-sized, rotting black puss filled sack of putrid rotting flesh that used to be her breast. The odor was unbearable. I tried, but failed, not to react. Four months ago, the family took Maritza to the hospital for an operation, but they could not afford the procedure so the hospital sent her home to die. In addition to the agony the family is suffering from having their daughter, mother, and wife dying, they had used up all their financial resources and could not afford to give her any pain medicine. The health post provided a small bottle of aspirin, worthless for someone whose entire body is infected with Cancer. I offered to pay for all of her medications. The family couldn’t imagine how I could pay for the “extremely expensive” medicines – priced at eighteen soles per day ($5.80 American). This is the amount of money millions of people spend daily for their morning coffee. Thanks to donations from my family and friends, I left Maritza pain medication for the next few months.
Back in my mud hut, I had a freezing cold shower before the night’s celebration began. The town held a huge surprise party for me. People rode their donkeys long distances to welcome me back, and we danced all night.
Back in Lima, I boarded my plane, a time machine flying me back to the 21st Century. I am grateful for the opportunity to have seen, first hand, the effects of my two years of Peace Corps service. Small businesses that I co-created with my Peruvian friends a few years ago are thriving more than ever. The local cake and yogurt shop, the three table vegetarian restaurant, the moto-taxi transportation service, and the general store are all generating substantial income for families that previously had no economic resources. I also saw clearly the effects the entire Peace Corps experience had on my life and how service shapes how I live in and view the world. I departed Peru with a sense of accomplishment.