Sometimes it is the throw-away comments that get to you.
We were back in Lima after a full day travelling through some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen (described in an earlier post) through the Sierra, the mountains and valleys and rivers and through the desert on the edge of the mighty Pacific Ocean. Now we were back in this city of eight million inhabitants, the air was thick with diesel fumes, burning rubbish and dust: the fine grey dusty sandy that is everywhere, in your clothes and your hair, in your bed and sometime in the toothpaste. It is hard to escape and brushing and washing and wiping is a continual and perpetual chore. The streets are full of crazy traffic massive lorries and busses, combis and cars and mototaxis all fighting for one piece of the road that will carry them to the next, through massive potholes and rubbish piled high at the side, sometimes cleared away for a park with benches, a swing and sad bedraggled bushes and plants covered in dust. Sometimes, as in the vicinity of the fish market, the smell is overpowering . It was dusk. In the mixture of the grey air: the approaching darkness and the mass of humanity, busy trying to get what they needed to live, against the backdrop of hideous concrete half completed boxes, piled high, it seemed on top of one another and fighting for any available space on the side of the steep hills, with no relief save for a brightly painted wall or a modern office building, I was beginning to choke with weariness. I thought I had got used to the squalor of the city but now coming back a different way, it hit me like a concrete block in the stomach. There was something almost gross about it. That people should have to live like this in such ugliness was distressing. I wanted it to be better. I wanted it to beautiful.
The next day my friend showed me the piece of land his father-in-law had given him to build a house for himself and his new wife. It was a yard at the back, surrounded on all sides with 2m high brick walls and on two sides with a three storey buildings. There was no view or outlook, save for a square of sky. We spoke about the design. Inevitable it would have concrete walls, floor and a tin roof. The kitchen would be formed with a concrete worktop sink and space for a cooker. I was suggesting that the construction could be improved dramatically with a ceiling and insulation, which would offer some protection against the fierce heat in summer and the cold in winter. It would make a lot of sense. It would not be difficult to do and it would improve the comfort of the house enormously. He listened silently to my advice and then he turned with a smile said. “Sí sí es verdad, yo entiendo , pero no es importante,… hay personas acá en la iglesia que no tienen nada” (yes I know, it would be good, but it is not really important…there are people here in the church who have nothing)
“It wasn’t really important”. He had grasped what the Hebrews in Haggai’s day had not, when God said ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while my house remains a ruin?’ For my friend, God’s house was his people and that had to be the first priority. It was demonstrated a few days earlier when he with two others visited a lady with cancer at an advanced stage. She was going for her first dose of chemotherapy the next day and the friends called at her home sat around her bedside and prayed for her. A week later she had died. It was the children, the young folk, the old people the sick and the wounded that he was compelled to care for and getting a comfortable home for his new bride was somewhere far down the list. There was the true beauty.
It was a throw away comment, but it stuck to me like cement and I couldn’t brush it off. It rattled and shook me to the core. Even now back in my own home, surrounded by my own creaturely comforts and familiar things it shakes me still. I know could not be what I was not. I could not turn my back and despise the many wonderful things that God has blessed me with. I could not disown what I had been given and disavow the quest for beauty and fine things. I could not be an ascetic. Yet these simple throw away words continue to haunt me and when I think about all the good things, it makes me ask the question: “ are they then really that important?”
We opted for the daytime bus back to Lima with seats on the top deck right at the front which gave us a wonderful 180 deg view. At times we were seeing a bit too much when it seemed as if our driver was playing with our lives. Taking blind corners on the wrong side of the road at speed was his particular style. We left the scramble of Ayacucho and were soon in the wild grandeur of the Andes: rocky crags like saw teeth in the sky and light sandy coloured hills dotted with green. The proud eucalyptus, sometimes in clusters at other times standing sentinel in the hillside and cactus of many varieties in stupendous shapes rising stubbornly from the dry earth. In one particular variety, a cluster of sharp spikey leave-like forms with a strange tree like growth coming up from the centre, as if from a Doctor Zeus book. The fruit bearing cactus “Tuna” or “prickly pear” delicious and refreshing to taste, was also in abundance. Sometimes a small field with terraces would be carved out of the ridiculous steep mountainside, growing potatoes and alfalfa. We were zigzagging up and zigzagging down to small villages and towns and always in the rugged landscape a single or a group of figures in bright deep colours and black hats carrying enormous loads making their way here and there, sometimes with a donkey in toe, a group of grazing alpacas, goats, cows or a wandering dog. Finally, after six hours of this exhausting landscape and at the point when it was beginning to lose its allure, we settled down to the bank of a river with large swathes or fertile land: vineyards and orchards, olives and dates in an almost industrial scale. The river took us on to Pisco to the coasta (the great plain by the sea). With a welcome break from the aircon-less coach, and a stop for food and refreshment we found ourselves in a different world. All around was desert, smooth hills of clear sand where you would expect to see the odd camel caravan, all the way to the sea and the mighty Pacific Ocean. Now we were in dual carriageway and our driver had had his fun for the day and we continue the further three and half hours through this strange landscape to Lima. It has been such an awe inspiring journey; you wonder why you would ever choose to travel by night.
Earlier this year I fulfilled a long cherished dream to visit Peru. It was an interest and fascination with the land and the people, the Costa, the Selva and the Sierra, the Incas, their startling independant civilisation and the massive stones knit together. I felt for the Quechua in their struggles against their colonial masters and the indifference of the ruling class in Lima and I prayed for them during the dark days of the Shining path. But the reason for going was to keep a promise I made to our Peruvian son, Edwin. He lived with us 5 years ago and I always hoped to go, but it never seemed possible until this year. It was a trip ,I will never forget. We spent days in the dusty slopes of the pueblo jovenes in Southern Lima, a week in the jungle city of Tarapoto an idyllic few days in la chacra, a village deep in the Selva and an unforgettable trip to the Sierra to Cuzco, Macchu Pichu and Ayacucho .
It was a breathtaking experience, but I was totally unprepared for where this would lead. I had no idea what I would find. It was In a little hotel, up a narrow street in downtown Ayacucho, that I met Raquel Quicaña. Her family had suffered terribly during the civil war and I had read about her cousin Romulo Suane Quicaña a pastor and bible translator who was murdered along with four others by the Shining path as they were returning from a church dedication in 1989. Raquel was a nurse who ran a clinic inside the hotel and when we met, I felt I had known her all my life. It was as if she had been expecting me. She invited me to visit another clinic that she looked after which was 35 kilometres from the city and further up in the mountains.
The village of Quinua is famous as the site of the battle of Ayacucho when the patriots defeated the colonial army and Peru won her independence. Raquel had patients to see so with my companion we visited the battle site on a plateau overlooking the town with the city of Ayacucho far below and surrounded my the majestic Andes. It was a beautiful scene but the picturesque quality belied the desperate poverty of the people. The clinic a plain concrete building was desperate in its own way. Water was seeping between every wall and roof junction with green algae on the walls. There was no sealing of the buildings or protection from the elements. It was the middle of summer, but it felt quite cold and I shuddered to think what it would be like in winter. The medics described carrying out consultations wrapped in blankets with a hot water bottle at the feet and one on the lap. It was also desperately in need of accommodation for medics and patients on short stay. Some travel for days to get there. It is the only medical facility in the area and supported entirely by voluntary donations. When Raquel said “I hear that you are an architect… we have a problem with our building” I knew where this was going to lead and I knew I had to help.
So began a series of email discussions, plans and sketches, cost estimates and thinking through the feasibility of what could usefully be done. From the start there were challenges not least over effective communication, learning new construction terms and costings in Spanish. But there was also the deeper issue “what was I doing?” . In the controversy over short term mission, would this end up like so many ventures, doing more harm than good? Should I, Just because I could? Would it really help or was I simply feeling good about the idea of being needed? Was I coming in to do something locals could already do? Did they really need a white man to help? Were there no architects in Ayacucho ? It was important to ask all these questions. I had to face up to these challenges and examine my own motives. It would be easy to get carried away. It would be easy to spin the story and fulfil my own prophecy.
Sometimes, however, you first instinct is the right one. I knew in that moment on the rooftop among the puddles of water the debris of pipes and cables and makeshift solar panels, with the clouds receding over the Andes in the distance, I knew then, what I had to do and the later conversations with friends and family, the advice of experts and confidants and the support of so many people, simply confirmed it.
It seemed clear that I would need to make another visit, meet with folk involved, talk about the project, the practicalities of construction, the time scale, the costs and how it could be realised and what help we could usefully give. I needed to plan another trip across the Atlantic, south across the equator , down the coast from Lima and up into the Andes and that begins tomorrow.
The overnight bus from Lima was an experience I would try and avoid, if I could. We drove along the coastal plain on a muggy hot night, stopping to pick up passengers and sellers of choclo, oranges and bottled drinks, on the way, before beginning the long climb up into the sierra. It was a continual zigzag. On the upper floor we were constantly thrown from side to side which put an end to any idea of sleep. All windows were tightly closed and condensation from the heaving bodies dripped down the glass. A cockroach was trying to get into a bag of vegetables. Some passengers had already been sick and the worryingly thin sick bags were sliding around the floor. I was hoping that one didn’t burst just at my feet and I was praying that the driver would not fall asleep at the wheel. It was a long nine hours before the glimmering light of dawn eventually brought relief and the appearance of small farms and dwellings in the hills, now dotted with eucalyptus; cactus and pampas grass lightened the spirit. Then suddenly, we were there, over the hill and looking down on Ayacucho, spread out in the valley below us just coming to life and waking up to a new day.
I had a number of places on my wish list to visit during my trip but this was the one at the top. There were a number of reasons why this was so. It was here in 1824 that the battle of Ayacucho was fought and the victory that not only secured Peru’s independence from Spanish rule but signalled the end of the colonist’s power in South America. Simon Bolivar credited with the victory, changed the name of the city from Huammango to Ayacucho “the corner of the dead” or “field of blood” as a tribute to the many who died on the battlefield. It was in this city in the late 1960’s that the Sendero Luminoso was born under the inspiration of their charismatic leader, Abimael Guzmán. The “Shining Path”, was a Maoist guerrilla insurgent organisation representing pure communism, whose aim was to destroy the existing bourgeois state and replace it with a dictatorship of the proletariat which would in turn precipitate a world revolution. The brutal war between the rebels and the government force, that continued throughout the 80’s and early 90’s , resulted in thousands of deaths. Many innocents were caught in the crossfire. After the murder of one of their lieutenants, the Shining Path took revenge and massacred a whole village including old people, children and pregnant women. Guzman was unrepentant. “We responded with devastating action, neither we nor they have forgotten it, because they got an answer they didn’t possibly imagine, to be sure. lucanamarca, More than 80 were annihilated, that is the truth…. The main point to make is that we are a hard nut to crack and we are ready for anything , anything” The Christian church was a specific target for the terrorists. They refused to take the side of the revolutionaries and suffered terribly as a result. Many congregations were slaughtered and pastors killed. One of those was Rómulo Sauñe Quicaña. He came from a rural community and it is possible that he was descendant from the Inca royal household. He heard about Jesus as a teenager and gave his life to serving his Lord as a pastor among the Quechua people introducing new hymns in the Quechua language, using traditional instruments. As a gifted linguist, he assisted with the translating of the bible into Quechua. The effects of this work were truly revolutionary. The Quechan Christians now had a confidence and assurance in their faith that the Maoists with their dehumanising philosophy could not match. When you know that you are loved by God, being sold the idea that you are an economic unit as part of the proletariat mass holds no attraction. Because Rómulo Sauñe and others refused to bow the knee to the ideology of the Shining Path or to their methods, he was hated. Coming home from visiting a local church in 1992 his bus was stopped at a road block and he and four companions were murdered. Two weeks later Guzmán was captured in an apartment above a dance studio in a fashionable suburb in Lima and the war was effectively over.
In 1987, at the height of the conflict, the Ayacucho Quechuan bible was first published but because of the upheaval and migration over the years, this had to be fully revised and republished. It was dedicated in May 2013 . Those who were there at the dedication describe it as a very moving scene, when massed choirs approached the city square from four corners and thousands joined the celebration, among them, many who had lost family members in the war and who had come through great suffering. I wanted to see the site of the ancient battle. I wanted to walk down those streets. I wanted to be in that square.
Arriving at the bus station that morning my thoughts, however, were not so much with the history and the events that unfolded in this place but with how dreadful I felt. This was brought on partly by the overnight journey and partly on account of the altitude. I was told that when you arrive at altitude the first thing you should do is nothing: no lifting, no walking and no work, just rest, for half an hour or so to allow your lungs to become accustomed to the thinness of the air. I wanted just to sit, but my companion was insistent that we find a hotel first of all. So we took a taxi to the city and called on a few dubious establishments. Each was regarded, by my companion, as too expensive so we searched for other equally disreputable places. Finally she settled on one. It was very tawdry, lacking linen, towels, soap, toilet paper in fact just about everything you would expect in a hotel, apart, that is, for a bed and a remote control for the TV. I was past caring. It was somewhere to rest. I threw myself on the bed and passed out for an hour or so while my companion went looking for a friend she knew. When she returned she had found somewhere better so we paid off the man behind the grill and left. The other hotel was luxury by comparison. But there was something more. The place had an atmosphere. It was hard to describe. Perhaps it was the little things that make up the whole, perhaps it was the way the staff went about their business, perhaps it was just fancy, but it felt a good place to be. My weariness had quickly evaporated and had been replaced with a surprising sense of well being and excitement at new discoveries. I was introduced to the owner, a man in his early seventies cheerful, warm and friendly and later, to his daughter. She ran a small clinic from some small rooms within the hotel and was the first and only person that I met on my trip who spoke English. She was Quechuan and was fluent in four languages. She studied in Brazil and the UK but her life’s work was as a medic among the desperately poor villages that surrounded Ayacucho. For seven years she had worked to provide proper sanitation in this region and was able to witness the astonishing improvements to health, particularly amongst children. Previously there was a very high level of infant and child mortality due to contaminated water supply. We had just met, but I felt I had known her all my life and I had this strange conviction that I had come here for a purpose. She spoke about a clinic she ran in a town outside the city and asked if I would like to see it. It was in Quinua, the site of the battle and a place we had actually planned to visit. Immediately we went looking for a combi bus to take us there.
The village is about an hour and half by combi and much higher up in the mountains (3,300m). Above the village is a large impressive plateau. You can stand here and look out across the valley, down to the city with the Andes circling around and that wonderful gasping sense of space and scale and beauty and the crystal clearness of the air like the purest water you drink or the finest wine. It had all the beauty we associate with the Scottish highlands but on a far far grander scale. At the edge of the plateau is a rather ugly obelisk, a memorial to the battle that was fought on that field. Inside there is a small museum telling the story of how the loyalists in red were defeated by the rebels in blue with the help of the local rural population wielding pitchforks and axes. A young boy acted as our guide and explained the significance of the various artefacts. After some hours the sky began to darken and we knew that rain was about to fall. This was the rainy season after all. We made our way back down to the village and reached the market just before the clouds burst open and heavy rain descended, loading the thin tarpaulin roofing sheets and scattering waterfalls in arbitrary directions. Lunch of cuy (guinea pig) rice and beans was followed by a look at the work of the artisans and their famous pottery.
The clinic is in the centre of the village: a single storey building, up from the road, typically concrete and bricks, and incomplete with reinforcing rods stretching to the sky. Our friend was in the middle of a consultation, so we took a seat in the waiting room. It was the same room and we could hear the discussion that was going on, although busy with our own activities, my companion checking on facebook and me scribbling notes. Quite suddenly, the conversation stopped and there was silence. I looked up. There were three medics, the patient and a relative around the table. All heads were bowed and there was prayer for the situation with the words, I heard many times, “nothing is impossible to God” When I remarked on this to my companion afterwards she was surprised. “Would medics in the UK not pray for their patients?”
Most of the building construction I had seen, apart, that is, from the major public building and the malls, was shambolic, unfinished and in a permanent state of disrepair. The clinic was no different but here the situation was much worse. The actual construction was poor. It wasn’t working. Two columns, hastily inserted in one of the rooms to save the concrete roof from collapsing, bore testimony to this. The junctions between the various parts of the building allowed water to drip down the walls of every room with dark damp stains turning green. Amongst the faded health posters and basic facilities it was a most depressing scene. On the concrete roof in among the debris of water tanks and make shift solar panels, we talked about the work. The need for the clinic was obvious. It was the only one. The government did not have the resources to provide anything here and so it was left to voluntary agencies to run and support this work. It often boiled down to knocking on doors to find someone who would help. The people themselves were desperately poor. Added to this was the spectre of domestic violence and the migration of young people to the cities often leaving the old people to die in desperate conditions with poor shelter. This was the summer and it felt quite cold. I shuddered to think what a winter would be like in these open concrete dwellings with tin roofs and no insulation. While our friend was describing the terrible conditions of these people and their basic needs, she broke down. I felt so helpless. I was a passing visitor a fleeting stranger. What could I do? I wanted to get out my height rod and measure up. I wanted to draw up sketch proposals for accommodation and improvements to the building. I wanted to get the materials, gather some workers, pick up my tools and get started right away. All I could do was to show some sympathy, buy some gifts from the craft shop and leave.
On the final leg of my journey home, all the experiences and memories were cluttering up my mind. They were too many: too many people, too many situations, too many memories to make any coherent and consistent sense of what it all could mean. As the miles and time and climate and language passed and moved into more familiar territory, the idea of helping with the clinic seemed nothing more than the craziest of ideas, an interesting interlude, a story to tell. The realistic possibility of it becoming a serious project, one that I could be part of, seemed more and more fanciful. After all it was in a remote part of a country in the southern hemisphere, on the other side of the world, it was three languages removed, it was among a different people and in a completely different culture. I had learned too much about the disasters that happen when people with misguided zeal blunder into situations to help and leave, having made it so much worse. Yet something niggled and it still does.
I came to see the place of so many memories but left with a memory of a cry of desperate need. One that would not go away.