2012 Quechua Benefit Medical Mission
When we boarded the bus in Chivay that morning, I had no idea what our medical team was going to encounter that day other than to expect a long, bumpy bus ride to the tiny village of Tisco high in the puna (grasslands) near the source of the Colca River. What would life be like in such an isolated place? How would the native Quechua people respond to outsiders offering to provide medical care to their close-knit community? These questions kept going through my mind as we wound our way toward the top of the Colca Valley.
During the first two weeks of November, 2011, my wife, Beth and I had the awesome privilege of participating with the Quechua Benefit Medical Team on a campaign to provide medical services to the people of Peru. I coordinated pharmacy activities on one of the two medical teams and Beth helped with the wheelchair team. There were over 65 volunteers on this trip making it the largest Quechua Benefit mission trip to date.
The motivations of those who served on various teams were as diverse as the volunteers themselves. Many came through deeply held faith and the calling to help those less fortunate, some through a sense of gratitude for the people of Peru for introducing us to our beloved alpacas and others from a desire to connect with people from another culture and way of life. Whatever the motivation, the individuals came together to serve a common purpose – to help the poorest of the poor.
The Quechua Benefit, founded in 1996, is an organization dedicated to helping the Quechua people in the highlands of Peru. The organization delivers medical, dental and optical care; distributes warm clothing; provides shelter, food, and sociological services with an emphasis on children.
As a non-denominational faith-based non-profit organization, the Quechua Benefit strives to unite those who feel a call and have a heart to serve the people Peru. The Quechua people often believe that their spirituality and their physical well-being are one in the same. Through common purpose, the organization seeks to lift up those served from physical, environmental and spiritual suffering.
The medical campaign of 2011 was based in Chivay, a town of 5000 people at 12,000 ft. above sea level and a little over 50 miles from Arequipa. From here the teams traveled daily to villages in the Colca Valley. Our team traveled to three villages, most of which had populations less than 500.
One of these villages is the town of Tisco. The ride from Chivay to Tisco is a 3-hour bus ride, most of which is traveled uphill on narrow, bumpy unpaved mountain roads with a breath taking view of the valley. Along the way were beautiful vistas and several alpaca farms (estancias), some with hundreds of alpacas. During the day, the shepherdess drives the alpacas to graze where vegetation is more abundant. We often encountered them along the road side as they searched for good grazing. Before nightfall, they are driven back for the night to the stone corrals and stone barns with thatched or corrugated steel roofs. Human and animal shelter is one in the same – just a wall dividing the living quarters.
According to the Centro Peruano de Estudios Sociales - CEPES (the Peruvian Center for Social Studies), the Alpaca is the key component to the economy of over 65,000 rural families in the Andean region of Peru. These families are mainly "Pastores Alpaqueros" (Indian herders/breeders) who live in remote areas under extreme poverty conditions. These herders/breeders practice a traditional breeding system that has been passed on from father to son and share the same native environment as the animals they herd. The women, who still maintain the spinning and weaving traditions of their ancestors, make a variety of items (rugs, mats, sweaters, gloves, socks, hats, belts, jackets, etc.) that are either worn by their families or sold at the local market. The Quechua also consume the alpaca's meat as the main source of protein in their daily diets.
Once the Indian herders/breeders obtain what they need from the alpacas they own (fleece for clothing and meat for food), they travel to local trade fairs and city markets to meet with "Alcanzadores" (Pursuers) who buy the alpaca fleece - sometimes for money, other times for essential items such as: salt, sugar, medicine, candles, matches, etc. The pursuers, in turn, take the Alpaca fleece they have collected to the "Rescatistas" (Agents) who themselves purchase the fleece on behalf of the large fiber producers located in cities such as Arequipa.
Besides seeing the estancias, our journey also took us past a mountain lake called Lago Condoroma. At over 15,000 ft. is one of the highest lakes in South America. The lake was surrounded by alpacas grazing in the green vegetation and waters were inhabited with pink flamingos - not something I expected to see in this part of the world.
We finally arrived at the little town of Tisco at 13,750 feet. At this altitude, just a little exertion made me struggle to catch my breath. It was a beautiful, sunny day; commonplace for that area. I later discovered that the climate stays fairly consistent year-round. Daytime highs are around 60 degrees F., but the thin air and bright sun makes it seem warmer. Nighttime lows are in the 30's except in the coldest winter month of July, when it can drop to the mid-teens.
Tisco is a small village of 368 people and is one of the highest settlements in the Colca Valley. Its geographical location, in the midst of a large area of puna and grassland, make this area suitable for raising animals such as llamas, alpacas, sheep and a few cattle, but little else. The high puna offers a difficult life, with little able to grow apart from a few potatoes. There are no trees and very little natural vegetation. The thin atmosphere and unfiltered sun create a harsh environment for the human inhabitants.
As the bus pulled into town that Sunday morning, it looked deserted! I didn’t see a single person on the streets. I thought maybe we were in the wrong town or arrived on the wrong day! As we pulled into the town square, the first thing I noticed was the beautiful old church. With its red tinted exterior set against the deep blue sky, the church was one of the most striking buildings I encountered on the trip. I later found out that the church was built several hundred years ago by members of the order of Dominican monks who lived in the area before their expulsion in the 18th century. Made with local materials, following the characteristics of colonial architecture that can be found throughout the Colca Valley, it is distinguished by its red décor which is made with ochre, a red pigment made from the area’s rich soils.
The team leaders finally found our base for the next two days – a fairly modern (by 1960’s standards that is!) medical clinic that is used several times a year to provide medical services to the people of Tisco and surrounding area. As we set up for the clinic, I still did not see any of the town’s inhabitants and was starting to get concerned that we made this long trip for nothing. About that time I heard “morning announcements” streaming in Spanish from the town’s PA system. One-by-one people began showing up at the registration and screening desk.
It was evident by their ruddy faces and rough hands of the harsh life they endured. Obtaining proper nutrition is a common problem in this isolated area. Diet consists mostly of potatoes made into a thin soup. Very little protein is available. Intestinal parasites are also a common problem from unclean water supply. Yet despite their extreme poverty and poor health, they were extremely grateful people. Their smiles were contagious and they always extended a hand in gratitude for even the smallest things we did for them. After learning their many of their stories, I reflected on how much I have to be thankful for and take for granted. One of the team members commented that their garden shed is larger and nicer than the “houses” of these special people.
One of the joys was being able to provide medical care for a group of school kids brought in from the local elementary school. One little boy named Oscar was pure delight. I could tell that he was very popular among his friends. He was also a real conversationalist. He tried several times to carry on a conversation with me in Spanish which I failed at miserably! Some on the team entertained the children with toys, balloons and games to make their wait go faster.
Later in the day I was heartbroken to see an elderly lady being carted up the dirt and cobblestone road to the clinic in a rickety old wheelbarrow. Travel in these areas is not easy even for the healthy and strong, but even more challenging for someone as crippled as she was. Her gnarled body told of a difficult life with few comforts that we take for granted. Watching the transformation in her face as she was carefully removed from the wheelbarrow, fitted with the wheelchair and given instructions on how to use it was so rewarding. It is hard to describe all the gratitude and love we received from the recipients of the services we provided. My wife, Beth, and the entire wheelchair team were blessed so many times by these special people.
This was the first time that providing people with wheelchairs was included in the Quechua Benefit medical mission. The chairs were donated through Joni Erickson Tada’s “Wheels for the World” organization. Earlier in the week in Arequipa, we helped pack over 40 wheelchairs into the bed of small truck that was already loaded with lumber for the boarding school at Casa Chapi. As the truck departed, we watched with concern as the chairs bounced and swayed and wondered if they would survive the two-hour drive over a 17,000 foot mountain pass. How relived we were when we arrived at Casa Chapi to see that all of the wheelchairs survived the trip. At the end of the mission the team had fitted all of the wheelchairs and had taken a few special orders for more chairs, canes and walkers.
As the bus pulled out of Tisco at the end of our final day there, I thought about the people we met and the work that was done there. It was satisfying to realize that the teams had provided medical, dental, and mobility care to 75 very grateful people. But, I struggled with the thought that the services we provided seemed insignificant in the overwhelming world of extremely poor and underprivileged people. As I processed this reality, I came to the conclusion that while it is impossible to help everyone in need, the teams did make a big difference to those people we helped in that tiny town in a remote corner of the world. These often forgotten people were grateful that we had come from thousands of miles away and from a cultural gap a thousand miles apart to care enough to reach out to them. It was then that I realized that the journey to Tisco and the people we experienced there were the highlight of my trip. I came to love the Quechua and look forward to being able to return to serve them again.