Lima’s Squatters Settlements

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Growing lands - What happens when the land no longer yields?

Unlike this terraced land, what happens when the land no longer yields?

Putting down the city

Putting down the city

Shantytowns and Squatters

They abandon mountains or fields for an uncharted journey into a city that doesn’t want them. In post cards, they were the picturesque peasant farmer who gave character to the landscape; in the cities, they are the forgotten, left on their own to reinvent themselves.

In one of history’s largest mass migrations, the rural poor of the developing world are flocking to cities in overwhelming numbers, challenging already failing infrastructures to accommodate millions more hopefuls. With no more lands left for discovery, these are today’s pioneers.

They are converting the world’s mega cities into warrens that are 43% slums; they have each made anguished decisions to abandon the only turf they know and march their families off to an imaginary urban landscape with little more than a pocketful of dreams.

Cities worldwide host intricate tiers of self-constructed living, where vast seas of plastic tarps serve as roofs and rats scurry like household pets through a maze of fumes and cries and stench. Squatters settlements crop up in every imaginable place: in Egypt, squatters have long lived amidst the tombs and chambers of Cairo’s City of the Dead Cemetery; in Latin America and Asia, landfills provide endless opportunity for the newly arrived, as overnight colonies of squatters stake out claims amongst their hopes and the flies; and specifically in Peru, lowland and highland dwellers have settled amidst the chaos of Lima to chase their next meal and mold the dust of the city into futures for their kids. For now, these children will take to the streets, haunting restaurants for meager scraps and begging on corners with tiny brown hands too little to hold all that they need.

In many cities, the less desirable hillsides and beaches find themselves host to the shoeless arrivals whose shanties and shacks then further denude the slopes, inviting the wet-country rains to create a lethal cascade of mud, people, and belongings. Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro has launched urban reforestation programs to prevent such tragedies. Around Lima, the drier, unclaimed land easily finds itself occupied by the scratch-dirt poor who slip into place with pre-dawn stealth.

Lima’s Villa el Salvador

Lying on Lima’s Southern edge, near Pachacamac ruins, a warren of squatter housing evolved into what is today portrayed as an “Oasis of Hope.” Villa el Salvador (VES) was founded in the early 1970’s by an initial wave of 10,000 migrants who either fled from the mountain areas in the wake of an earthquake or fled for their lives from the guns of The Shining Path, the Maoist guerilla group that commandeered parts of Peru in the 1970’s and 1980’s. At present, Villa el Salvador is home to 350,000 people and thrives as an economic hub for both the established and newly arrived.

What emerged like spontaneous combustion in the dry-dirt dust outside Lima was an almost catastrophically large collection of refugees in an inhospitable space. Initially, violence erupted and hundreds starved – the state totally incapable of assisting at a time when it, too, was held hostage by rebels. Taking the reigns into their own toughened hands, these uneducated, peasant farmer transplants evoked the wisdom of their cultural roots and made manifest what millions of squatters have done throughout time: they took responsibility for their own lives.

Pueblo jven  [Photo courtesy of Liz Wurster]

Pueblo joven - Photo courtesy of Liz Wurster

Mimicking the management of their own small plots of village land, they divided themselves into smaller units, each a tiny communal democracy within itself. From within that framework, they prioritized tasks, setting goals and standards. In time, they brought order to the proverbial desert, establishing garden plots, sewage control, schools, police cadres, clinics, rehab centers, libraries, a community radio station, etc. Their women were invited into leadership, micro enterprise was launched, and social responsibility became the standard. VES was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and received the UN designation of Messenger of Peace. Malnutrition and unemployment still exist in this oasis, for its outer circles are active squatter areas, but never let it be said that the tired bodies of the poor are lazy.

Pueblo joven  [Photo courtesy of Liz Wurster]

Pueblo joven - Photo courtesy of Liz Wurster

Pueblo joven [Photo courtesy of Liz Wurster]

Pueblo joven - Photo courtesy of Liz Wurster

VES today is still more documentary than tourist brochure and its sounds are more like a radio stuck permanently on “scan.” It is an anthill of life, oozing out on itself. It is both order and chaos. Dirty children and dirtier dogs scavenge through discarded piles of that day’s hope. Men with strong hands chisel furniture to sell while lipsticked ladies in high heels click-clack along streets to other men with different dreams. Commercial sections have long since established themselves into a thriving alternative economy. Shoppers from Lima frequent the more upgraded sections of VES, visiting the typical thematically arrayed streets of the developing world where shoe stores line one street, furniture another, clothing yet another. VES is both the sordid and the sublime. It is a window on the world, testimony to the many forces that move and shape human life.

Peru has only one primate city – Lima, so squatters spread themselves on its edges or on the peripheries of nearby coastal towns. It is both scrabble-dry hillsides and the next adjacent ring that attract new arrivals. In South America, where population numbers don’t present quite the same pressures as in Asia, structures begin more independent of one another, until eventually conjoined into a bustling array of interconnected huts.

When the poor settle on barren land, the first semblances of structure to rise up are several sides of a house, rarely four and commonly pieces of whatever scrap might be found. What has become standard due to a serious lack of scrap wood is a type of woven mat. Making mats for walls has become a small industry in itself. Narrow strips of sliced bamboo from the rainforest are woven into approximately 7- by 12-foot sheets. Staked and laced together, these mats begin to make a house. Eventually a roof is added and as a family finds more success with its street endeavors, mat walls are replaced with adobe or block. Because of Peru’s desert coastal anomaly, rain poses little threat to Lima’s unique mat walls. When cement walls are painstakingly constructed, long sections of rebar are left to protrude upward – prayer flags to the heavens, begging for future growth.

Pueblo joven  [Photo courtesy Liz Wurster]

Pueblo joven - Photo courtesy of Liz Wurster

In more established areas, building can be a communal project. Sand, cement, and water are dumped right into the street, mixed by friends with shovels, who then navigate wheelbarrows or buckets up precarious, planked ramps to transport the wet mix to its destination.

Communal building

Communal building

As I walked an unkempt street, I gazed down a passageway, only to discover that I was looking into someone’s home, created by the two available walls on either side. There was no roof, just a stained blanket suspended over one section of the narrow run of dirt. A bench to one side held a few pans, some onions, and a bucket for water. A sweater hung on a hook, brown, weary, and as slump-shouldered as the person who had recently slipped out of it; the inevitable scrawny dog slept under the bench. Farther back in the shadows was a pile of blankets – probably beds. A broom rested against a wall, a civil statement amidst the poverty. Sidewalks and floors are brushed every morning in Peru, even if they are only dirt.

An old lady, dark skirt and layers of blouses stretched tightly across her chest, stirred a greasy something in a large pan. She sat on a stool, stirring as she must have for decades, the balance of the world in her rhythm. Family members were likely scattered about the community, looking for castoffs, crumbs, or boots needing polished. The lady looked up. I did not take the photo I so wanted to take. Instead, I somehow I let her know I was there as witness, not judge; she did not look away as most do. I stood while she stirred; for seconds la vieja and I were part of the same tapestry.

In 1983, this pueblo jóven (young town, as squatters settlements are called in Peru) was formally established as a district within the greater Lima Province. Today, VES boasts high literacy rates and primary school attendance, lower child mortality rates than the state average, numerous social clubs, large numbers of libraries and schools, and innovative urban planning. It is deeply committed to community endeavor.

Commercial area of VES

Commercial area of VES

Out the window of our departing van, I saw a man on a bicycle, balancing a bamboo mat on his head. I smiled, privileged to be watching the fruits of human endeavor.

Scraps from the Cutting Room Floor: Snippets about Peru and Bolivia

Tiahuanaca ruins

Tiahuanaca ruins

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La Paz:  City in the Sky

One gasps upon flying into this city in a bowl. Lying at a sobering 11,942 feet in elevation (3,640 m), La Paz and its two million people are stuffed tightly into a canyon amidst the jagged Bolivian Andes. It is a city seemingly painted onto the valley floor, spreading precariously up the hillsides in a checkered array of color and adobe.

Dawn over the hillsides of La Paz (see Squatters story)

Dawn over the hillsides of La Paz (see Squatters story)

El Alto, its suburb and international airport host, hovers proudly at 13,615 feet (4150 m), while 20,741 feet (6,322 m) saintly Mt. Illimani stands sentry overhead. There is no moment in La Paz when one loses sight of the heights at which this city is perched.

La Paz’s alleys and byways hum with the oozing of commerce and poverty. Shop doorways open abruptly onto narrow sidewalks, while small cars maneuver cobbled streets like frenzied wind-up toys. Much of the developing world is a mosaic of color and La Paz is no exception. Red is everywhere, pulsing the blood of Bolivia through its narrowed arteries in sprays of crimson shawls, hats, and vests. The brujas at their Witches Market sell herbs and talismans in brilliant red and green bags and the cityscape hums with yellows, pinks, and greens.

La Paz outgrew itself years ago and its largely indigenous population in this capital seat feels pinched and squeezed between the mountains and the ruling elite, both of whom dictate conditions of life for these Aymara people without consultation.

But Bolivia lacks options. Much of its terrain is comprised of the mountainous Cordillera or the stunning but barren Altiplano, a vast high plateau second only to that of Tibet’s in expanse. The Atacama Desert lies to the southwest, niching itself as the driest place on Earth, while salt flats from paleo lakes comprise much of the south. The yungas is the rainforest of the east. Bolivia lost its coastal extension to Chile in the late 1900’s, adding it to the list of impoverished landlocked countries around the world. The country’s landscape is spectacular at all turns, breathtaking in its juxtaposition of sky and land, but woefully lacking in hospitality.

Bolivia’s economy is one of South America’s poorest. Since independence in 1825, Bolivia has been convulsed by over 200 coups. None of the five presidents from 1999 to 2005 was able to improve the lot of the poor, who finally took to the streets several years ago with paralyzing effectiveness, calling for new presidential elections, the nationalization of gas and oil industries, and a more even distribution of wealth. This wave of unrest ultimately led to the election of Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, Evo Morales, who spouts a socialist platform, mentored by Venezuela’s Chavez and Cuba’s Castro. The 60% indigenous population is largely stitched into a landscape barely able to support them.

Valle de la Luna, the Badlands of La Paz

Valle de la Luna, the Badlands of La Paz

Just another brick in the wall - Tiahuanaca

Just another brick in the wall – Tiahuanaca




Dusk settling over the Altiplano

Dusk settling over the Altiplano

Driving in Lima

Latin American cities in general are patterned after traditional Spanish layouts, anchored by a primary central plaza linked to a series of smaller outlying plazas, all of which form the hub of residential and commercial life. It is about community and efficiency. And it is not uncommon to see one’s waiter from a small restaurant scurry to the nearest mercado in search of the very greens just ordered. This communal efficiency plays out in surprising ways.

Since Lima is the international arrival point for travelers to Peru, the government has made a concerted effort over the last decade to spit polish the city some. Many sectors have been improved and revitalized, creating a fresher look for the 8 million who dwell there.

The government still has much to do, however, in the area of traffic control. In Lima, traffic lights are more decorative than functional, and mere negotiation down streets requires a skill that few of us possess. Not only do Latin Americans use the metric system, they use it in driving, giving undue credence to millimeters as sufficient distance between vehicles to allow for passage.

In the U.S., we complain about rush hour gridlock; in Lima gridlock is an all-day exercise in crawling, squeezing, and outmaneuvering. The ultimate weapon is, of course, the horn, an aspect of driving whose logic escapes those of us trained that horns are emergency tools, not requirements for movement. To add to the clamor, small buses (which are really vans) noisily travel the streets with two paid staff: the driver with one hand on the horn and the “caller,” poised with either head or entire body out the window or door, continuously yelling out destinations and stops.

If the goal of the caller is to be loud, the goal of the passengers is to pack themselves in the vans like injection foam in a crate. On the edges of the city, the added trick is also to pack in your chickens, small portions of your crop, and about four children each. In Lima we saw fewer chickens.

In spite of the cacophony of noise and the maze of vehicles, accompanied by carts and bicycles vying for street space, traffic functions with a rather unusual form of communal efficiency. It is as if some mastermind hovers above the city, turning the squares on the Rubik’s Cube such that all vehicles get to where they want to go.

Invisible: Street Children of La Paz

[This is part of a series from the South America Compilation.]

033-la-pazThank you for your interest in this site.  Please note that all images are copyright protected and not available for use without permission.  Please contact for any inquiries about the information contained in this site.


By day, they are invisible, scattered about the city like stray dogs on the prowl, digging through yesterday’s trash, begging outside of restaurants, or sleeping in the ragpiles of cardboard and debris.  But as creatures of the night, they regroup, claiming the streets as their own, clinging together for warmth and safety, forgetting the curses and whimpers of their days. This is their moment of grace, when darkness permits brief respite from their lives.

These are los abandonados, the abandoned children of La Paz.  Lying at a sobering 11,942 feet in elevation (3,640 m), La Paz and its two million people are stuffed tightly into a canyon amidst the jagged Bolivian Andes.  Bolivia’s economy is one of South America’s poorest, so it is no wonder that thousands of the world’s 150 million homeless children roam the streets of La Paz.  In bandanas and hoodies, they work the streets by day, begging, shoe shining, or hustling food.

I teach Cultural Geography and was leading a small group of travelers through parts of South America.  I had asked a Bolivian friend of mine who had written about street children if we could meet with some of these kids.  She had arranged for Eduardo, one of her research assistants who often talked with the kids, to take us out one night.  We met at 10:00 PM.  The streets of La Paz still bustled with the remains of the evening’s activities:  people emptied from restaurants, closed down street stalls, or strolled the plaza walks.

Eduardo explained that most street kids are orphaned by fate or choice.  Some, products of shacks or crumbling stucco, come from families where fathers are dead, missing, or just plain mean.  Many men, lost in the wreckage of their own failed manhood, abandon wives and children for the bottle.  Mothers, left with a brood to feed, are often too poor, too sick, too beaten to make much of a blip on life’s radar.  Most of them labor by scrubbing whatever needs scrubbed, selling whatever the trash might yield, or offering their prematurely aged bodies up for whatever form of commerce might find them useful.  With too many mouths to feed, the women have no choice but to send their children out to the streets to beg or permanently fend for themselves.  Other children have exiled themselves onto the streets, fleeing abuse and wanton neglect.  The majority have been left as discards – by death or abandonment – with nothing but the streets.

Girls and boys from three to twenty live on the streets.  These are not squatters living in makeshift homes;  these are children who live literally on the streets.  Eduardo was introducing us to a group of about seven boys.  From a distance, they appeared mildly animated, laughing amongst themselves.  Eduardo approached them, explaining our mission.  They were wary, used to being ignored, beaten or chased, and not at all used to an invitation to talk.

It was awkward at first.  We were all profoundly aware of how trite the typical “How are you?” greetings would sound under these circumstances.  Just what should one’s opening line be when meeting the “pox” of the streets?  After some awkward smiles, some of us pushed forward the bags of food we had been clutching, offering them like pass cards to conversation.

The boys were short, for the most part, with skin darkened by lineage and dirt.  High cheeked like their ancestors, they were dressed in pants of all sizes and worn out shoes.  Their thin, torn jackets and stained sweaters didn’t seem much protection from the cold.  Their faces, shrouded by hats and hoods and night, were still childishly handsome.  One had a two-inch scar running from his left eye toward his ear;  it was the whitest part of his face.  Snot ran from one boy’s nose, the signature snot of poverty, glistening in street lamps when he turned his head a certain way.  I couldn’t see the lice, but knew they were there, thriving in the mobs of coarse, dark hair.

One boy sat on a bench, dangling his foot in a silent, circling motion.  I was momentarily distracted by the laceless shoe, missing its tongue and most of its sole, but graceful in its solo dance.  I stood in the comfort of my hiking boots, wondering how my polished toenails would fare sticking out from that torn remnant of a shoe.

The only one of my group who spoke Spanish, I explained my interest in understanding different parts of the world, touched by the lives of those who relied on the streets.  I was nervous, not from fear, but from that choking of emotions that comes with encountering the frail but enduring spirits whose lives are marked not by momentous events, but by the mere ability to wake up each day and navigate the misery.  I knew the only way to make this exchange work was to stay real, connect on a real level, otherwise the boys would walk away or play us for all we were worth.

They didn’t look us in the eye, at first, answering initial questions by looking at one another or the ground.  In the beginning, it was hard to understand their street Spanish, but the real ice-breaker came pretty naturally as I stumbled through my not-quite-fluent Spanish.  The boys couldn’t resist looking up, curious as to who was so clumsily using their language.

When asked about the biggest challenge of street life, the boys all said it was trying to survive while staying out of the way.  Street children are perceived as a plague and are routinely victimized by strangers, police, even other children.  The more invisible they can be, the better for their safety.  Street children are mirrors of life run amuck, and society would rather shatter the mirror than risk looking into it.  The police are notorious for their brutal treatment of street kids.  Police will beat the children, take their money, and send them out to collect more.  It is a cold, mean world these kids encounter.  Girls face even harder consequences;  many are raped at young ages.  Sexual promiscuity is not uncommon amongst these children.  Some estimates suggested that 60% of La Paz’s street girls have children of their own or are pregnant, setting into motion a perpetual cycle of poverty and pain.

The discussion turned to school and we were dismayed to hear that none of these boys was able to attend.  Survival demands all of their resources.  Yet they are savvy.  They knew of their country’s affairs and of worlds beyond their horizons.  They spoke of child labor laws that blocked their way to working wages.  And they weren’t yet afraid to dream.  One wanted to be a doctor, to help other kids in his situation.

We asked about other boys we had seen while crossing town and were interrupted with clarifications that those were “huffers,” kids lost in a world of bags and glue bottles.  We had seen them, propped against walls, too numbed to shiver or too dazed to care.  Street children sniff paint thinner and glue for varying reasons.  It helps keep them warm, dulls the pangs of hunger, and helps temporarily blot out the fears and pain that haunt their young lives.  The ones we had passed were serious huffers, their brief lives close to an end.  Passers by step around them like sidewalk debris.  It is estimated that 97% of Latin America’s street kids sniff to some extent…girls, boys, pregnant teens.

The huffers rely mostly on a glue from the shoemaking industry.  It’s a highly toxic adhesive that numbs the brain and eventually causes irreversible brain damage, in addition to organ loss and early onset diabetes.  Advocates have called for a formulaic change to a water-based adhesive.  Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela have already banned the use of the deadly solvent toxins.  But Chile and Argentina are South America’s Europe;  Bolivia and the other mountain states are primarily indigenous, where government actions have long ignored their well-being.

I noticed the boys adjusting their hoods, pulling their jackets up high, so finally asked if they were cold, if they needed warmer clothes.   After moments of silence, one finally spoke, explaining they didn’t want to be recognized by the police or anybody else who might beat them.  By day, many wear bandanas or ski masks while shining shoes or performing public tasks.  This is their safety net of invisibility, the shroud that both protects and strips them of their identity.

With great insight, several of the boys told us their biggest fear.  It is not the police, or the cold, or the constant hunger that gnaws at their thin bellies, but is instead the fear of getting older.

As kids, they can ebb and flow through the city with some success.  But they can see the dead ends that face their older friends.  No longer quick and agile, older street teens find themselves in more trouble than kids.  Older beggars don’t have near the success that children do, and so their more desperate actions land them in more fateful fights and bigger trouble.  They quickly find themselves unable to meld into the adult fabric that surrounds them.  With little work opportunity for them beyond the informal sector, the spreading coca / cocaine trade calls temptingly.  America’s addiction to cocaine opened vast networks of opportunity for peasant farmers and underemployed youth in Latin America.  And Colombia’s scourge of narco-vice successfully infiltrated Peru and Bolivia, their jungles presenting perfect growing climates for farmers long mired in poverty.

Most disconcerting, I heard later, is that cocaine is moving much more actively toward the younger kids of the streets, not just to the north.  As northern borders continue to tighten, local growers want to develop an internal market, using the street kids as vendors and rewarding them with freebie samples of their own to hook them.  Lack of available bolivianos used to keep the kids on a budget of glue and thinner, but they are slowly getting sucked into this larger scheme and will potentially forfeit their lives for a bag of something intended for the U.S.

Malnutrition still haunts the children, an inheritance from their mothers and one they pass on to their offspring.  About twenty percent of the babies die before the age of three and disabilities are common.  Government programs for health care are virtually non-existent.

In the Seventies, lots of early oil money hopscotched its way from OPEC countries to Western banks to a network called the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).  Western controlled-World Bank and IMF issued massive amounts of loans to developing countries, grossly misrepresenting development potential and saddling countries with adjustable rate loans.  When financial calamity gripped the world in the Eighties and sent interest rates skyrocketing, these financially strangled countries were forced into additional “Rob Peter to Pay Paul” loans.  With those loans came strings attached, one of which was the curtailment of spending on health, education, and welfare programs.  Many of the countries have still not rid themselves of this choking debt, and La Paz’s malnutrition and lack of health education stand as a remnant of this spectre.

The young kids are conflicted;  invisible for survival, they long to be seen and yearn for nurturing.  But cut off by parents who failed them, they are distrustful of nearly all adults.  Many ignore the programs and shelter offered them, so angered and disillusioned are they by betrayal in their infancy that steel fences guard their emotions.  The voids they are forced to call home know nothing of love and caring.  These kids have been molded into something unnatural – neither child nor adult.

“Where do you sleep?” became our eventual query.  They walked us a few blocks east and pointed down a darkened street toward the river, with a caution that we definitely shouldn’t go down there because it wasn’t safe.  I read later that the river is filthy, one of the dirtiest in the world.  The sewage offers some warmth while also providing some safety from those who might do them harm.  When they can, they sleep curled up with street dogs.  Blue and green tarps provide occasional shelter, along with metal scraps, black plastic, and cardboard.  Many others sleep in doorways, on streets, or wherever their exhausted bodies land them.

Local governments don’t have the resources to address these issues, and national governments lack the will.  The burden falls on NGO’s and private agencies.  La Paz has some excellent programs, offering transitional housing, tutoring, counseling, minimal health care, and job training.  But many programs can only deal with about ten kids at a time, barely getting a few kids off the street before the next batch is born.

This is a pandemic, repeated throughout the developing world.  There is much that could be done, from government pressure on the police to free clinics and from single-parent assistance to birth control help, but each step takes money and will.

Our boys were still young enough to laugh and wily enough to be alive.  We did not walk away in sadness.  Invisible as they may be, they are waiting to be seen.  In seeing them, we are gifted with seeing ourselves.

Passage: Peru’s Sacred Valley to Quillabamba

[This is part of a series from the South America compilation]

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Rumor had it that the best way to smooth out bumpy rides on South American mountain roads was to drive faster. Thus the six-inch strip of road that separated us from the plunging hillside raced alongside our tires like a snake on “speed.” We were well into our journey over the Andes toward the rainforest; Cusco lay miles behind and chance encounters lay ahead.

Valle Sagrado

Valle Sagrado

As with many mountains, one side can be considerably different from the other. The ascent from the drier Sacred Valley had taken us well above treeline, through a landscape devoid of much growth, save for hardy native grasses that velveted the winter-dried terrain in a color resembling faded sunlight in a jar. Occasional stone corrals and huts punctuated the eerie luminosity of the dormant grasses, startling us with the reminder that people lived in this desolation. I could not fathom what sustained them through the winter. The highway was only recently partially paved, so frequent forays to the Valley miles below these 10,000’- to 12,000’-elevation huts seemed unlikely, as did pockets of cash with which to purchase anything.

Stone huts - Abra de Malaga Pass

Stone huts - Abra de Malaga Pass

The few people living in that surreal landscape, in their red and mish-mash assemblage of clothing, offered testimony to the stoic tenacity of the poor. They seemed part of the endless cycles of people living with the land, nurtured by an intuition that guided them through seasons of new llamas, new babies, new grasses, each shadowed only momentarily by the passing of whatever might have been old, no time in their labor-driven days to dwell on losses and grief.


Family receiving supplies

My small group was on an “off-the-beaten-path” journey through the cultural landscapes of Peru and Bolivia, engaging with farmers, squatters, and street children to better understand the parallel worlds of those tethered to an informal economy where survival depended on the resolve of their souls. So we were captivated by the distant dots of people moving about their daily tasks on the remnants of earth left for them.

It felt as if we had been granted passage, given the right to witness the subtle movements that brought life to this landscape. Wanting to acknowledge them in some way, we made several roadside stops when we saw movement around the huts. Waving their tiny figures toward us, we watched them bob for great distances across uneven ground as they ran toward where we had stopped, their movements creating the only micro bursts of color across the otherwise dried terrain. The children would come first. We gave them small bags of school supplies, promising to stop again on our return.

Not used to tourists, their appreciation was humbling. The paving of the road will likely bring more visitors their way, even in this more remote crossing of the Andes. I wondered how much this might change their lives, if their huts and corrals would move closer to the road for faster access, and if they would fall victim to the tourist dependency of many whose only income stemmed from posing for photos, taking them away from any other more sustainable endeavor. I hoped that somehow their lives would become easier without succumbing to the trappings of tourism and development, remembering, however, that we, too, were tourists, leaving our mark on their lives. Wisps of snow began to fall, dusting our path behind us as we continued our climb over the summit.

Snow begins to fall as we approach the summit

Snow begins to fall as we approach the summit

With every new mile of the descent, we found ourselves in a transformed landscape. New imagery replaced old; what had been barren and rocky only a short while ago gave way to verdant brush and crawling clouds. One could not tell what had birthed those clouds: sky or earth. Clouds literally rolled, danced, and tumbled over the terrain, like slinkies made of mist. Cloud Forests are a phenomena created by the perfect mix of climate, elevation, and rainforest, all coming together in a wondrous, repeating cycle of dragon’s breath. These massive gossamer displays dance over the eastern Andean hillsides.

Cloud forests emerging from the mountain sides

Cloud forests emerging from the mountain sides

We pulled over again, this time to gape. Exiting the van was an experience much like stepping out of an airplane into a cloud. I was struck by the knowledge that the mistlets running down my brow and arms were about to become infant drops of the Amazon River. As the dense mist embraced the ground, it turned quickly into rivulets that raced down the hillsides, carving notches in each roadside turn as they scrambled toward the waiting arms of young rivers. Melting snow in other parts of the Andes sent water scurrying down into Amazon tributaries, but in certain areas of higher elevation jungle, cloud forests were the pristine mothers of cascading streams and waterfalls. It was impossible not to stick out one’s tongue to taste a river in the making.


Approaching the cloud forest mist. These images don't capture a real cloud forest. It was too wet to take photos when we were amidst the clouds.

We continued our descent, eventually encountering occasional houses, this time made of scrap wood or disintegrating concrete, coated in faded turquoise and terra cotta pink. These were not postcard homes; pigs, chickens, and scraggly dogs foraged outside in wet soil. A child with blushed cheeks and runny nose poked a stick in the dirt. He was too young to work the fields and too old to be wrapped on his mother’s back. He barely looked up, mostly disinterested in our passage. While we fumbled for cameras, he continued to trace in the ground, not yet realizing that he was enjoying some of his last moments of childhood. In too short a time, he would be herding whatever animals the family might own.

Farther along, we approached rows of village houses. Small, dark, rotting doorways gaped like missing teeth in a mouth badly in need of repair. The locals stared at us, our gringo faces somewhat frozen in awkward smiles. Not many tourists passed this way; few had ever stopped. Most were on the other side of the mountain, doing their Machu Picchu thing. We emerged into the humid air, still grinning like painted dolls. Somehow smiling made us feel better when dropping in uninvited on a secluded town.

I was on a quest to interview some farmers and hoped that our meanderings would lead us to farming villages. Even though it was Saturday, we found the village Farm Committee gathered and enmeshed in sorting out their woes. I explained I was a professor of Cultural Geography, leading a small group. Surprisingly, we were invited in, perhaps because there were stories desperate to be told.

The polite but cautious farmers made room for us, moving back against the walls like pieces pushed to the edge of a chessboard. The worn planking of the now-emptied floor whispered secrets of these gentle people, most of whom wore the Peruvian staple of tire-tread sandals. Men, all shorter than I, told their stories slowly, each adding a part, much like building a fire stick by stick. A stooped man in last year’s shirt spoke with animation, punctuating the air with desperate gestures. I missed much in his hybrid Quecha-Spanish, but certainly felt his angst. Another spoke haltingly, as if uncovering new words from the floor under his slowly shuffling foot.

These were the tea people. They grew, harvested, and then processed tea, but there it lay in huge bulk bags like giant cocoons that never morphed because the village company could not afford the exorbitant middleman costs of tea bags. Tea bags . . . those tiny white discards that most people never quite knew what to do with. These people’s lives were on hold for want of tea bags. They had not been paid in over a year. The coyote middlemen had priced the bags out of the villagers’ reach and the farmers were not connected with any direct buying, even though their factory had one of the coveted contracts with the state to produce tea.

Each farmer continued with a part of the story. I asked how many were still growing tea. Only a few hands rose. A tiny woman stood in the doorway, a worn sweater hanging on her frame. Probably 35, she looked 60. She stood just enough in the doorway to assert her presence, but far enough back not to challenge the men. Her anxious eyes indicated that she, too, had a story to tell.

I asked the inevitable question of the men about how they were getting by. In somber tones they explained that they tried to grow other food, but had little money for seeds. They gestured to empty spaces in the room, as if pointing to ghosts of those who had abandoned their lands and fled to the cities, only to become squatters in an unfamiliar urban landscape.

Sunlight found its way through dirty windows, lighting the dusty air, revealing the spent spirits of these men as they continued to reflect on a friend or a brother who had left, unlikely ever to return. This was all the more disturbing given that land acquisition had only been so recently wrenched from the hands of post-colonial elites.

I braved the burning question: How many had turned to coca growing? I wasn’t certain if they would feel comfortable enough to answer, but they did. Probably seventeen of the nineteen hands went up. Coca is the mostly illegal plant that is shipped to waiting markets in the United States, either already processed, or soon to be, into cocaine. It was the crop that had thrown Colombia into chaos and insurgency. Only in one section of Peru was it legally grown. There its leaves were merely converted into a simple mate de coca drink used to combat altitude sickness and other health concerns. Historically coca was chewed, its caffeine-like qualities key to keeping indigenous slaves alive under colonial rule. Coca was also used in ritual. Its growing in Peru was carefully controlled by a government fearing the devastation that had chopped Colombia off at its knees. Policing a rainforest was no easy task, however, and many of these farmers had no choice but to turn to the more lucrative coca crop. But coca growing deforested hillsides, sending precious topsoil into rivers, silting the waters in ways that choked the fish and blocked light for aquatic plants. All for the want of tea bags.

The woman in the doorway shifted her feet, mouthing a silent story, punctuated by the occasional appearance of the few teeth in her mouth. The men’s stories continued, and I felt then as if the Amazon was seeded by both clouds and tears.

Someone suggested we visit the factory. As I stepped outside, the woman slipped her arm around mine, her story then to be told. She was the president of the mother’s club. One of her children had died, not uncommon in the village. There was no food, except the little that could be grown. There was no medicine. Babies died from diarrhea, one of the leading causes of infant mortality in the world. The woman spoke with a deliberateness, as if in telling her story just the right way, the ending would somehow be different. I understood her Spanish, or perhaps I just understand her eyes.

We toured the factory, roused by the delightful aromas of dried teas. I felt small and helpless; their poverty overwhelmed me, yet their spirit touched me. Once again, because we had stopped, because we had inquired, we had somehow woven ourselves into the tapestry of this village. We emptied our bags of gifts, mostly medical and school supplies. We raided our backpacks looking for more. They had not asked for anything; the gifts were again of our doing. They asked only if we could help them locate tea bags . . . tiny little white bags . . . bags that would allow them to stay on their land. The woman hugged me, holding on tightly, as if pressing her needs into me so I would take her prayers with me on down the road into the clouds.

Inside hut going over Pass.  Note guinea pigs behind woman.  Woman offered us her only food...a pan of potatoes.

Inside hut going over Pass. Note guinea pigs behind woman. Woman offered us her only food...a pan of potatoes.



Coca leaves drying in sun

Coca leaves drying in sun