With All Thy Getting, Get Understanding.”

                                                                                                Proverbs 4:7

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About 20 died because of the unusually powerful, coursing floods and rainy deluge.

About a week after we touched down in Cusco, Peru, the torrential rains washed adobe-walled houses off the hillside like waves at the summer beach wash away childrens’ sandcastles. The “lucky” Andeans got out and survived to re-build their lives. The unlucky ones died in the rubble of their homes.

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Ubiquitous blue plastic tarps were often the only thing that kept homes from “melting” into the hillsides…

I feel pretty guilty sometimes. I won the lottery in life that set me down into an amazingly rich country at an equally amazingly rich time in the world’s history.

My Peruvian friend Juanita works 6 days each week.

Ten to twelve hours each day.

And for this she earns about 8 dollars a day.

I’m pretty sure that Juanita is essentially illiterate, but she is skilled at hiding this from others. Juanita is a hard-working, intelligent woman who didn’t win the same life lottery as me. She deserves to have all of the material wealth that I have. I suspect that if she was fortunate enough to have been born 40 or 50 years later, she would probably come close, as the Peruvian economy and government evolves. There is little fairness to a world where I work significantly fewer hours for a significantly higher income than her.

When we first arrived in Peru and met Juanita, we couldn’t tell her apart from just about any other Peruvian woman. It’s embarrassing to admit, but they all looked the same to me. Dark, caramel-coloured skin, mid-length black hair, broad face, short of stature. Maybe it was the same for her and white North Americans. I kind of hope so.

Conversely, just a month later on, it was inconceivable to me that I could ever confuse her with another woman. Our eyes adapt to the look of different cultures and skin tones like they adapt to coming into a dark room from bright sunshine.

Juanita and her brother Efrain, both neighbouring onto about 30 years of age, semi-adopted us during our stay in the Andean highlands of Cusco, the jumping-off point to the historic citadel of Machu Picchu. Cusco is a city at a thin-oxygen elevation of 10,500 feet in the Huatanay Valley and populated by about 350,000 people, mostly of Incan heritage. Both Juanita and Efrain worked as caretakers and attendants at the residence building we stayed in during our 14 week stay at a Spanish-language school for foreigners. We studied Spanish each day alongside Dutch, German, Belgian, English, Swiss, American, Brazilian, Australian, Polish and even the occasional Canadian, students.

It was a huge, bold adventure for us …

it was everyday for our Peruvian hosts.

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A day in the Peruvian countryside–Juanita in white slacks…Efrain wears yellow soccer shirt. Even my short wife Maureen got to be “tall” in Peru…

Juanita and Efrain brought us to their home for meals, we joined them at Efrain’s soccer matches (where, afterwards, Efrain would get me drunk on local beer shared from one glass for the whole team – I heartily returned their “Salud“s until I was soused!), we celebrated the Carnivale festival with their family where bulging water balloons are pitched at anyone and everyone (except little old ladies!). We participated in their local fundraisers for families who had lost their homes to collapse.

Juanita took us shopping at some large, local, black markets held under plastic tarps and tin roofs where we could purchase any number of material goods at a fraction of the normal retail price. We went out for meals together at nearby restaurants serving locally-popular barbecued chicken and “Chifa” (Chinese) food. We were even designated as the godparents to a new car purchased by some family members to be used as a taxi to bring more funds into the home…religious ceremony included!

Over the course of our 14 weeks in Cusco, our relationship with Juanita (and many other Peruvians) evolved and deepened. Juanita could speak no English at all. Our Spanish abilities began at a low-low novice level and gradually built up with each passing week of learning in classes. By the end of our time, we were able to converse in Spanish at a still relatively low yet satisfying-to-us degree. Sharing our lives back and forth with Juanita grew easier daily, although sign language continued to play a part when our limited vocabulary let us down. And as everyone knows, if you can’t make your point comprehensible with language, then yelling your words really helps to get the message across more clearly!

With passing days and weeks, we sat together during quiet times at a little wooden table in the kitchen area outside our room, overlooking the majestic city of Cusco, and we parceled out stories and pictures about our countries, our families, our lifestyles. Juanita told us stories of her early years and of leaving school and her family at 8 years of age to work in Lima. She didn’t see her parents again for 15 years until she returned to Cusco once again. She explained to us how to cook the local delicacy of guinea pig properly. She heard us talk about our Canadian winters and snow and ice skating. She asked about our families.

Understanding others comes about through time and intimacy. A week or two would never have allowed for the interchange of our life stories that occurred over 14 weeks.

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Juanita with Efrain’s son…Sunday festival celebrations with “fake” American dollars…

When we think of people in different countries, we are removed and apart from them. They don’t feel like they are in the same neighbourhood where we live. They feel strange and foreign. It’s easy to dislike people we don’t know.

But then when we spend the time and share our stories, the world grows smaller and we begin to feel like we belong to the whole earth, not just a small portion of it we call our home country. Technology and rapid travel is making our world an increasingly more compact globe. Each person travelling to a “foreign” land gains a new perspective and a greater appreciation of what makes us all one family. Sharing your smile or joke with an employee at a Caribbean resort or in a European hotel makes the world just a touch friendlier.

Every interaction each of us has brings us one step closer to a place that makes our world safer…we may never achieve total harmony, just as any slightly dysfunctional family is never totally friction-free…but we move bit by bit closer than we’ve ever been to peaceful co-existence.

It’s been 3 years now since our Peruvian adventure and we continue to have some contact with Juanita and Efrain (thanks Facebook!). It’s challenging with Peru’s poor postal service, expensive internet connections, and busy work lives. But life goes on. Since we left Cusco, I imagine they’ve shared their special activities and milestones with a dozen other foreigners.

Those they “adopt” are very lucky people.

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