December 31, 2012 by jiejie768
Ever since arriving in Peru and taking up residency as volunteer teachers at Kids at the Crossroads, Meg and I have eagerly looked forward to the annual KATC trip into the mountains to deliver Christmas presents to village children in surrounding towns.
The annual delivery actually consists of two trips; one to the village of Rosas Pampas and a few nearby towns and a second, one day later, to a series of villages in the community (county) of Chiara. GeGe and some of the teachers buy more than 1,000 toys in advance of the trip, and we also hand out paneton (a cup-cake sized treat akin to fruit cake that is VERY popular in Peru) and chocolate milk to each child.
Saturday was the Rosas Pampas leg of the Christmas adventure, and Meg and I awoke early eager for the planned 7:30 departure. In addition to our long-awaited trek into the countryside, Saturday also marked another very exciting occurrence: the arrival of Meg’s family (minus brother Mark) in Ayacucho to spend Christmas with us.
Clan Anderson was scheduled to land in Ayacucho at 4:45 in the afternoon, and, as Meg and I were not due back from the campo until 6:30 or so, we arranged a cab to pick them up and take them to GeGe’s where we would reunite with them when our bus returned to town. The best laid plans …
The first indication that things would go awry came early in the week as Murphy’s Law took full effect from the get go. GeGe had an immense amount of difficulty arranging for the bus that would take us up to Rosas Pampas and environs. Sunday’s trip was to take place in a city bus owned by a friend of the program and was, thus, more or less easy to arrange. However, since that bus is a city bus that operates from Monday-Saturday, it was not available for the Saturday trip. After going through several disheartening confirmation/cancelation sequences, GeGe nearly canceled the trip Thursday, when it appeared we’d have neither vehicle nor driver. If only.
At the last minute, however, the ever-helpful Alejandro secured a ride (and acquired enough fruit juice to replace the chocolate milk that, of course, had not been delivered as promised in time to make the trip with us).
With the trip seemingly saved, Meg, myself and a most of the teachers from the school arrived at KATC bright and early Saturday to load the bus and start spreading Christmas joy. What would be a harbinger of things to come arrived early (or late) as the bus did not arrive in time to make our scheduled 7:30 departure time, and to make things worse, our would-be driver announced upon delivering the bus that he would not be making the trip. Fortunately (for the time being), Alejandro, who drives a bus for a living, was willing and able to take the reins.
As indicated above, there had been signs that perhaps this trip was not to be KATC’s most successful, but by 8:30 or so (an hour late, but still) we were on the road and the day seemed to be turning in our favor. Back in good cheer and excited for the journey ahead, the crew traded jokes, shared some popcorn and set about making the paneton/fruit juice snack kits to hand out to the children.
An hour-and-a-half later we pulled into the first of four planned destinations: Tunsuya, a tiny pueblito along the highway that eventually goes on to Lima. We had, at that point, risen from the 9,500 or so feet of elevation in Ayacucho to about 13,500-feet. And along with the inevitable cooler temperatures up in the mountains, we were greeted with a steady and unpleasant rain. To make matters worse, the child population of Tunsuya was about half of what we were expecting, and the weather plus our late arrival eliminated a lot of the activities we had planned.
In addition to delivering toys and paneton, the program usually spends about an hour playing games and singing Christmas carols with the village children at each stop. However, this was not plausible given weather and time constraints, so we basically unloaded toys and food, handed them out rapidly and hopped back on the bus. In addition to the unpleasant weather, the experience was somewhat marred by the seemingly endless request for more from the parents (not the children in most cases) of the kids who had already received their toys.
The one advantage to the rapid-fire delivery, however, was that it put us back on schedule as we got back on the bus and headed toward Rosas Pampas. The hope was that the weather would clear up as the day wore on, and we would be treated to the type of experience usually enjoyed on these outings (GeGe said this was the first time in all her years doing it that it had rained on them).
Unlike Tunsuya, which is built along a national highway, Rosas Pampas is about 4-5 miles off the road down a windy dirt trail that (ominously) crosses a river and climbs another 500 or so feet to about 14,000 feet.
At the river crossing, the road forks and drivers can opt for a windy detour that includes a pair of fairly narrow bridges or a more direct route that takes one (or 11 as the case may be) directly into a foot-and-a-half-deep stretch of river for about 30 yards or so. On our way into Rosas Pampas, our driver, Alejandro, decided, despite the protestations of GeGe, that the bus would not do well on the windy detour with it’s tiny bridges and would instead fare better by fording the river, which as any Oregon Trail veteran knows is always a risky proposition. Fortunately (for now), Alejandro’s intuition served and we made it slowly and safely through the river and up to Rosas Pampas.
At Rosas Pampas, our experience was similar to, if not more disheartening than, that of Tunsuya. Again there were fewer children than anticipated, the weather was miserable, and the parents were even pushier and greedier than before. Meg and Yamile, Alejandro’s 14-year-old daughter, in particular were harassed and treated very rudely by a few of the male village leaders. On a positive note, the kids were adorable and for the most part good spirited and excited to see us. But the parents too frequently tried to dictate which toys the children would pick (something we expressly forbid as the gift is for the children and thus should be completely up to them) and would frequently beg for more. It is part of the deal, all arranged and explained well before hand to the town leaders, that for a kid to receive a toy, he or she must be present. However, we were constantly besieged by parents begging for toys for other children (who may or may not exist) who were not present. Additionally, many of the women who came with their infants on their back and received a toy (usually a stuffed animal) and snack, would go to the back of the line and hand their baby to a different woman to attempt to get another toy and snack.
I really don’t want to sound like I hated this, as I did love seeing the kids pick their toys and seeing their eyes light up as we pulled into town. I was glad were doing what we were doing, but I didn’t like being made to feel guilty by parents who were blatantly disregarding the very reasonable guidelines agreed to when the trip was arranged.
Again, after a weather-shortened stop, we boarded the bus and left Rosas Pampas headed for our next stop — Santa Fe. Santa Fe could very well be a beautiful mountain village filled with grateful parents and adorable children. I will never know.
As we descended the hill along the now-muddy dirt road, many children (some of whom had most likely received a gift in the town, others who had heard we were there and wanted a present) came from the fields and approached the bus seeking a gift. This, assuming the children had not received a gift/food at the village, is actually a regular part of the trip, and we are only too happy to stop and hand out toys along the way. After a group of about 20 or so had gathered about 20-yards from the river crossing, we stopped and from the steps of the bus, delivered more food and presents. Again, however, once the gifts had been given to all, people begin to ask for seconds or for presents for relatives who were not there. After obliging more than a couple of these requests, it was determined that we had to go, and Alejandro, perhaps in a hurry to be clear of the imploring villagers, headed into the river.
Whether because of a rain-water-augmented flow, or because of Alejandro’s accelerated pace coming down the hill, the bus traveled about five feet into the river before the engine died and the bus stopped. Submerged in about 18 inches of water. Alejandro tried, to no avail, to restart the bus, and it quickly dawned on the rest of us that we were about to take a dip into the river, which looked pretty cold. We were wrong … it was frigid.
Barefoot, and with pants rolled up to our knees, all of us but Alejandro (including a priest we had picked up in Rosas Pampas who had asked for a ride to Ayacucho) stepped off of the bus into the river to make our way to shore. I cannot express to you, dear reader, how cold my feet and lower legs were at that time. I can however tell you that it was cold to the point of intense pain, and that the river bed was made up mostly of jagged rocks that were met, excruciatingly, by the heightened nerve-endings in my now-frigid feet. After the 10 of us scurried to shore and found relatively comfortable ground, we realized with dread that we would have to re-enter the river and attempt to push the bus back to shore as well. We each drew a deep breath, watched as our exhalation produced a forbidding cloud of steam in the chilly mountain air, and plunged anew into the river.
As I mentioned, the river bed did not provide a comfortable landing spot for our timid steps and was even less welcoming as we planted our nearly numb feet in front of the bus (at least two of our group were literally in tears as a result of the cold) and pushed with all of our collective might to nudge our chariot back on to (relatively) dry land.
“Uno! Dos! Tres! Empujen!” (One! Two! Three! Push!) … nothing
“Uno! Dos! Tres! Empujen” … nothing
“Uno! Dos! Tres! Empujen!” … nothing
“Uno! Dos! Tres! Empujen!” … nothing
“Uno! Dos! Tres! Empujen!” … nothing
On each attempt, we managed to move the bus all of 2 inches before it rolled back to its resting place once again. Though it was about 30 yards to the far shore (the one on the side opposite Rosas Pampas), we though maybe we’d have better luck generating inertia in that direction so we stepped gingerly, and painfully, to the back of the bus and renewed our effort to push the vehicle out of the river.
“Uno! Dos! Tres! Empujen!” … nothing
“Uno! Dos! Tres! Empujen!” … nothing
“Uno! Dos! Tres! Empujen!” … nothing
Again our effort was futile, though in a moderate turn for the better, my feet were now almost completely numb from the cold, muting the blinding pain from the previous 10 or so minutes.
In defeat, we once again exited the river and joined the now sizable crowd of villagers who had gathered along the hillside to watch what, I’m sure for them, was an amusing display. Finally, after one last failed attempt to manually push the bus from the river from the front (toward the nearer shore), help arrived from Rosas Pampas in the form of a giant dump truck with monster-truck sized tires (clearly the type of vehicle which was purchased by the town with the intention of regularly making the river crossing). A few long minutes later, a rope had been tied to the bumper of the bus and our ride was once again headed for solid ground as the dump truck pulled it about 20 yards up the hill and left it at the spot where the road divided (you know, with that other path toward the bridges).
Alejandro (who I might mention was the only one who remained on the bus and dry) again attempted to start the bus to no avail. With the issue of removing the bus from the river decided, and the realization that we were stranded for the foreseeable future dawning on each of us, we mentally settled in for a long wait. We handed out more presents and food to the spectators and especially to each of the villagers who had either helped pull us out, or joined us in our futility as we tried to push the bus out of the water. Besides, with the Santa Fe and Occollo stops looking unlikely, we had toys and food to spare. By the time the bus was out of the water the clock read 1:20 p.m., and we were, at best, a two-hour drive from Ayacucho and a 30-45 minute walk from the highway. Oh, and did I mention we didn’t have any cell phone service …?
Alejandro, dry and warm, hiked back up to Rosas Pampas and used a phone in the village to call his son Jasson, who is an English teacher at KATC but had stayed home in Ayacucho because he had a college exam Saturday evening. He returned to the bus and told us Jasson would call the owner of the bus company that we had rented from and it was assumed either a tow-truck, a mechanic, or another bus would come to meet us. But without phone service, we were pretty much left to wait on the bus without any idea how the rescue mission was proceeding back in Ayacucho.
This, believe it or not, was the most fun part of our day. Realizing there was nothing to be done for the time being, those of us on the bus basically laughed at the situation and spent the next few hours enjoying each other’s company. It was an all-too-rare opportunity for Meg and I to get to know some of our Peruvian co-workers outside of the context of our work at KATC. The highlight came at about 3 p.m. when Gloria, a homework tutor at KATC, decided she was too cold (the bus, being dead was unable to provide any heat to warm us up after our unplanned dip in the river) and took the empty cardboard boxes that had previously contained toys and/or food and built a fire along the side of the road. A couple of the other teachers followed suit and pretty soon we had dueling fires to warm our still-freezing feet.
After we had burned through our cardboard, with bodies (slightly) warmed and spirits risen we returned to the bus and continued wondering how Jasson had fared in finding us a mechanic and/or ride home. After a bit, Alejandro tested the engine again, to no avail, but hope was sparked as for the first time in several hours, the engine coughed a bit and the dome light came to life for a split second. This renewed sign of life gave birth to a new plan of action. We would push the bus up the hill a bit, then back down the hill while trying to roll start it (anyone who’s driven a stick-shift from before the 90s knows what I’m talking about). So began a process that saw about 10 or so of us (villagers included) pushing the bus up the hill about 50 yards, scurrying to the back, and pushing it back down the hill as Alejandro tried to pop the vehicle into gear and kick-start the engine to life. This was ultimately futile, but after about 5 reps of up the hill/down the hill (at 14,000 feet above sea level) Meg and I no longer felt so bad about missing our daily push-up and sit-up routine.
Now, it’s been a long tale to this point (and we’re not done yet), so you’ll be forgiven if you’ve forgotten the bit from earlier about Meg’s family arriving in Ayacucho this same day that we were fording rivers on Peruvian mountainsides. Suffice it to say Meg and I had not. By 4:30, with still no word or sign from Ayacucho, we started to worry in earnest. Between the five of them, Meg’s family speaks maybe 20 words of Spanish. With the exception of Jasson (who was to be at an exam and not home when the family was due) none of the Peruvians that were available to meet Meg’s family spoke any English. This wasn’t a huge issue when there wait was to be about an hour without us, but as time ticked by and we begin to realize we would not arrive until much, much later, we got anxious. Beyond simply being excited to see them and worrying that they’d be bored, we had absolutely no way to tell them what was going on or when we’d be home (especially since we didn’t have any clue either).
Just as we began to despair of our rescue and had sent Alejandro back up to the village to call for a status-update, the owner of the bus company, a mechanic, and our erstwhile driver (the one who backed out earlier that morning) pulled up to the bus in a two-ton (or so) flat bed Ford pick-up; the bed of the truck had been walled in by metal paneling creating something that looked a bit like a livestock truck (and based on the smell we’d later experience, that’s probably what it was).
The would-be rescuers, being financially invested in the bus he’d waterlogged, spent their first 30 minutes with us yelling at Alejandro for his now-obviously foolish attempt to turn the vehicle amphibious. But, once cooler heads prevailed they turned their attention to bus repair. Sadly, though they had a few tricks up their sleeves, the engine was not to be revived this day. Thus, it was decided that the bus would have to be towed. As the truck was not in fact a tow truck, this was to be accomplished by tying a rope (yup a rope, not a chain or any such thing) to each bumper.
The trio from the bus company, still a bit peeved, informed us that it was illegal for us to ride in the back of the truck and that we would need to walk the two or so miles to the highway and hitch-hike back to Ayacucho. Again, I’ll remind you that we were at least two hours, by car, from home once we reached the main road. With nothing to be done, we set about hiking along the dirt road, dodging several herds of llamas, en route to the highway. We did, however, stop long enough to observe the bus being towed across both of the bridges along the path not taken (turns out it did fit after all … hindsight, huh?).
By the time our party had reached the main road (if it isn’t obvious, the priest we picked up in Rosas Pampas had long ago left us in search of another ride), the bus company folks had softened and allowed us to climb into the back of their truck. This was a good thing, but by then it was past 6 p.m., getting dark and the temperature was dropping. Also, that two-hour drive time estimate from Rosas Pampas to Ayacucho does not hold true when you are in a vehicle responsible for shepherding a broken-down bus back to town. The man who earlier that day had opted out of driving nonetheless found himself in the driver’s seat of the bus as the company men determined the best way to get it back to town was to coast it along the mostly downhill highway, with the truck pulling in front and reattaching the rope to pull it along the intermittent flat and uphill stretches.
The first half hour in the back of the truck was pretty fun, as we enjoyed the view, laughed anew at the predicament and all of us were just happy to be on the move toward home again. But the elation faded along with the daylight. As the temperature dropped, so did our spirits. In the initial excitement of obtaining a ride, our worries about Meg’s family were pushed to the back of our minds, but as we huddled in for the long haul, Meg especially begin to get edgy. We still had no way of telling them we were OK and knew they would be worried as we were scheduled to be home at about the time we climbed into the back of the truck. Also, we still didn’t know if they’d even arrived OK and were able to make into GeGe’s house. Moreover, we had no idea how long the trip would take, what time it was, or where we would end up upon arriving back in Ayacucho.
For all of those reasons, combined with the sheer exhaustion of the day’s ordeal, the final three-hours of our trip were the only truly horrible part of the whole day. Seated in the frigid-back of the truck, Meg and I kept ourselves occupied as best we could singing literally ever song we could think of and trying to will the truck to move faster. In the end, the drive took about four hours and we arrived in Ayacucho at about 10:15 p.m.
Though, as we were no longer in control of the bus, we were further annoyed to have to continue with the company men as they escorted their no-longer-functioning vehicle to a garage where we could pull our remaining toys and items off of the bus. Several times as we navigated the streets of Ayacucho, Meg and I considered jumping out of the back of the truck and simply catching a cab, but managed to refrain. Finally at our destination, Alejandro arranged for Sunday’s bus to meet us and take us (and our toys and paneton) back to GeGe’s house. The bus was driven and partially populated by Alejandro’s cousins and we were finally able to glean from their conversation that Meg’s family had indeed arrived OK and were waiting for us. Finally, at about 10:45 p.m., were reunited with Tom, Pam, Ty, Dan and Lolo.
Our plans to go out to eat were shot as nothing in Ayacucho was open at that hour, but we got a cab back to our place in Santa Ana and enjoyed an egg-and-waffle dinner. In our physically and mentally exhausted state (it’s worth noting that after the day’s ordeal, my response to the Huskies losing a bowl game on a late field goal was basically a shrug …), Meg and I were running on the adrenaline of a long-awaited family reunion and were only able to mumble a Reader’s Digest version of events to our visitors. After dinner, Meg’s also exhausted family decided to call it a night. At 12:30 p.m., Meg and I climbed into bed and set the alarm for 6 a.m. so as to be ready for the next day’s trip to Chiara and more spreading of Christmas joy.
We had strongly considered skipping it, but reasoned it would have to be better than Saturday’s. We were right. Sunday, with several members of Meg’s family along for the ride, turned out to be everything we’d thought the KATC Christmas in the Campo trip was supposed be … but that’s another story.