My good relations with the townspeople continued and I began to feel very much at home. Where ever I’d walk, I’d see someone I knew. They’d stop me, we’d speak for several minutes – conversation usually focused on where I was going (no where really), when they could get a copy of the wedding DVD (whenever you want, I have them in the house), and how much I was charging for the DVDs (nothing it’s a gift). They’d smile and I’d be on my way. Everyone was friendly and always smiling. I shouldn’t say everyone. There were at least a few people who viewed my presence as an imposition – they didn’t like the idea of a Gringo hanging around and filming them. “Gringo, what are you looking for?” An elderly woman yelled out at me once as I filmed near her house – a profound question and one I’ve often asked myself. But other than these few objectors, I was a hit. As the time for my departure came closer, conversations centered around the date I’d chosen – October 12th. “And when will you return?” They would ask.
Indeed my final few nights at Yanet’s had an heir of sadness to them. “We’re going to be sad when you leave, Michael.” The father told me at dinner. “I don’t think you should leave. You should stay with us longer,” the sister told me. I reminded her that when I left she could at least have her room back and not have to share a bed with her sister. “I don’t care, you can have my room,” was her response.
However, the comment that will remain with me always came a week earlier, during an interview I did with Yanet’s father, Mauricio. The mother had gone into town for the day and the children were all at school. The house was quiet and we spoke at length. When I had finished all of my questions, as I do at the end of all my interviews, I asked Mauricio, whether there was anything he wished to add. He thought about this for a moment and then looked right at me.
“Don’t forget about us,” he pleaded. “Everyone else forgets about us but you – you remember us.”
I promised that I would.
I as wrap up this account of my first three weeks living with families in the Andes Mountains, I recognize, that I can’t have possibly captured all of the moments that pervaded my time in Antuyo and have indeed shaken the foundation upon which I have built my view of the world. It is an incredible thing to be welcomed into the home of those who have so little, whom happily offer all that they can, not only with a smile but with insistence. Indeed, their generosity was so great, that at times I forgot how poor they are. But they are poor. For a full week of back-breaking work on the canal, each person was paid a salary of 20 soles – less than $7. At the end of my stay, a high electricity bill was the source of much angst. The bill: 12 soles – about $4. (As I had been using electricity to charge my equipment each night, I insisted on paying it).
In addition to the many moments I have described in Antuyo, there were many others – the details of which escape me. There were moments of sheer awe in which the mountain view that my eyes never took for granted offered indescribable miracles of nature. Like in the first hours of the morning, when the mountains blocked the sun’s dominance of the sky, creating the illusion of a battle between the moon and its peaceful nighttime stars and the sun which pushed the night from the sky with all of the power of its daylight. Moments of fears in which guard dogs chased me from their property as I made innocent hikes around the mountains. There were small triumphs of joy when I climbed trees with Bernardo, who sang the whole time, and remembered again what was to be a kid with nothing to do but get dirty, play and be home before dark. Undoubtedly, there were moments of difficulty and foreigness, times when I felt of a different world and that I couldn’t stand another minute there. But above all, what I have learned from my time in Antuyo is that while we all inherit different lives – different challenges posed to us that are met with different reactions – we are above all else the same. And while this appearance of other often clouds our vision and ability to see the undeniable truth of similarity that is at our core, when we demand that our eyes see through this fog, the world offers to us the greatest of its gifts: connection – a bridge between two worlds that allows us to learn, to understand and to grow.
Life in Antuyo is hard and the people are poor. As I mentioned, the greatest problem is a lack of water. To aid in this issue, while I was there, the people of the town joined together to begin construction on a canal that would bring water down from a lagoon several miles away. The construction began on a Sunday. I was told we would be going very high up (“Arrrrrrrrrrrribba!” as they were fond of saying) the mountain, riding along on donkeys. I let myself daydream on the idea of a peaceful ride up the beautiful mountain bouncing along on the back of donkey. I heard wrong. We were not going to ride up the mountain on donkeys, but rather load the donkeys up with bags of cement and herd them up and down the steep mountain. I climbed the mountain five times that day in all, filming the townspeople as they marched their donkeys onward, often carrying bags of cement over their own shoulders – the heavy load pushing them toward the rocky Earth. Everyone in the town participated in this work – young fit men, old men, young women, old women, kids. For fear of being excommunicated if I didn’t help out, I herded a few donkeys myself. It’s pretty easy, you just need to stay behind the donkey and walk at a steady and purposeful pace. On my third trip up the mountain, I got a little slow and the donkey started veering off to the right. I started to run after him, which only caused him to run faster. He started heading downhill, picking up speed – perhaps sensing freedom. I grabbed onto the ropes that tied the cement onto his back. This seemed to piss him off – he darted away, dragging me along for a few moments until I was wise enough to let go. I dropped my heavy pack of gear and sprinted after the donkey.
Here’s a little known fact: donkey’s are fast. Much faster than you’d imagine. I had no hope of catching up with the donkey that ran with great strides toward liberation. The terrible shame that comes with losing one’s donkey started to come over me. I turned to look and see if anyone was looking and was relieved to see Bernardo, my 12-year old savior, sprinting out toward the donkey. Bernardo is also fast. Much faster than I am, even faster than the donkey. Within seconds he was well ahead of me, and managed to make his way in front of the donkey. Upon doing so, he came to a halt and turned back toward the mountain. Apparently, this is all that is needed to curb a run away donkey. Just get in front of them (as you see, not an easy task) and they give up. So, I’ve learned that donkeys are very fast but not very hopeful animals. Bernardo took over from there and the case of the run away donkey was solved. I of course, would not live the episode down, as Yanet’s father would often bring it up during dinner, laughing about the fact that I couldn’t keep my donkey in order.
The next day, with the cement distributed along the canal’s intended path, construction began in earnest on the canal and continued throughout the week. I went to film the construction on Friday. The people gathered on the mountain at 9, they spent an hour relaxing, chewing coca leaves and talking. They split into two groups – each working on different sections of the canal – and many arguments erupted about who had more cement, who had brought more cement, and where each group’s designated territories ended. It was not exactly the quaint, “we’re all in this together scene,” I had imagined. At 10, work began and continued until lunch at 1. First they dug out the canal from the Earth – pulling out large boulders that stood in their way. Then they lined the canal with large rocks, then laid and smoothed cement to preserve the design. By 11:30, satisfied with the footage I’d accumulated, I decided to help out with the canal’s construction. The people were all very pleased with my volunteerism. In fact, they even argued over which group I would help. In the end, I split my time between the two groups. I was assigned three different tasks: first I brought buckets of water to use in mixing the cement; then, once mixed, I brought buckets of cement up and down the mountain from the mixing site to the specific areas where it was needed; finally, I searched for and retrieved large rocks to put along the canal as a type of foundation – this seemingly easy task was complicated by the existence of little black spiders that hide under the rocks. I didn’t quite catch what would happen if I was bitten, other than that it would be rather painful and would include an hour long drive to the hospital. “And I don’t have a car!” The woman who was telling me all this concluded. The point was, I should be careful.
Work finished at four. Too tired for the long trek home, most of the people hung out for a bit before heading home. In helping out, I had certainly won over the respect of the whole community. Before then, while I was a recognizable face, I was still the unknown Gringo who danced kind of funny. Now, the people seemed to actually enjoy my presence. At lunch, I was given food by three different people, each insisting on taking my already full plate and adding to it. And, by the end of the day, my name had changed from “Gringo” to Michael.
I come from a family that’s deeply embedded in the world of education – everyone in some form or another: my mother, my father, my brother-in-law, several of my cousins, and now my sister. They all work hard and are extremely passionate. I must say however, I have never met a more dedicated educator than the wonderful teacher who governs the one-room school house in Antuyo, Peru. The professor of the lone school in Antuyo wakes up every morning between 2 and 3 am. He spends several hours preparing for the day’s class and doing work for the classes he himself takes on the weekends. At 5 am, he starts his round of household errands: he feeds the two donkeys, the three pigs, the two turkeys, the chicken, the four guard dogs, and the cat. He has a quick breakfast with his family and by 6 he has begun his long commute to the village of Antuyo to begin school at 8:30. The day, which lasts until 2:00 sees him governing a class of wild students that range in age from 5 to 13, teaching eight different grade levels (from pre-K to 6th grade) at the same time. Throughout the day he wears the hat of principal, math teacher, grammar teacher, science teacher, gym teacher and custodian. When there is an issue with a student, he makes the long hike up the mountain to visit their families personally. He’s got a tough job.
I’ll shift gears here and say that, perhaps the greatest benefit of life in Antuyo is that it’s socially acceptable to pee anywhere. On a couple of occasions, I found that the person I was having a conversation with while walking had stopped to relieve himself. At night, with the doors to the house locked up, one need only leave his room and take care of business (the whole house is outside anyhow). Despite designated outhouses, the rule of free peeing is in no danger. After all, the animals do it and, as their masters, why shouldn’t we? I found that no one took greater advantage of this luxury than the five-year old, Roy. His bed was upstairs, looking out at the mountains and the outdoor area of the house below. Standing on his bed, Roy would lean over the balcony and let loose. One morning, I was having a conversation with the father below when Roy started peeing from above. The father smiled at me, “It’s raining,” he said. While everyone in the town took full advantage of this privilege (women included), Roy was a true revolutionary – always pushing the envelope. One morning, I went to great lengths to set up a beautiful shot of Roy running freely toward the school. It was really a great shot: the full mountain landscape filling the frame, lit perfectly by the fresh morning sun. Roy ran into frame as if on cue. I was admiring the shot from behind the camera, giving myself a big old pat on the back, when Roy suddenly stopped at the edge of the frame, sat down and took a crap in the middle of the field. I learned a lot from Roy.
Just a few days after my arrival, I learned that my timing was rather apt. It turned out that on the first Saturday I was in Antuyo, Yanet’s sister would be getting married! I was invited to the wedding and, as a gift, agreed to film the wedding for the family (I figured it would also be a good opportunity for me to film their culture for my own purposes). The day of the wedding was a long one. We got into Ahuac around 6 am to prepare for the ceremony that would start at 10:30. I had a breakfast of pancakes and coffee – a welcomed break from my otherwise steady diet of potatoes – while the bride changed at the hair salon. Nothing exciting to report about the ceremony itself – very similar to our own – the party however, was phenomenal. It started immediately after the ceremony (around noon) and went on for two days at three different venues. We started at the plaza right outside the church, with a full band set up. We danced in circles in the plaza for about an hour at which point a parade line formed. The parade made several tours of the plaza, pushed along by the band which played at the rear (throughout the night the band played a slew of Santiago songs – at one point I got into an argument with another guest about whether or not they were playing the same song over and over again. She insisted they were different songs, I’m pretty sure it was the same song all night). After making many circles, we headed down the streets of Ahuac toward the main venue – a big outdoor field with two stages for the two bands. I thought the luxurious venue would be a nice opportunity to seek out a toilet, but was disappointed to learn that it merely offered holes lined by tile. The dancing started upon our arrival at the wedding hall and continued until midnight. Each key part of the party would begin with the key objects being displayed in a dance that circled around the field. Before lunch, the guests picked up the dozen or so full pigs, formed a parade line and danced around, swinging the pigs back and forth, presenting each to the bride and groom. After lunch, gifts were presented. The guests formed lines and danced around carrying their gifts – and these are not little envelopes containing checks, I’m talking about people dancing around for twenty minutes lifting refrigerators, dressers, and ovens over their shoulders. After the gifts came the beer – there must have been several hundred cases of 40 oz bottles, each of which was paraded around. The people drink communally, pouring themselves a shot of beer and then passing the bottle and plastic cup onto the next guest. They drink in circles of five to ten, dancing the whole time. Now, in my dancing days, I’ve made an impression on quite a few people with my natural dancing skills – I’m self-taught. The people of Antuyo are no exception. Behind the bride and groom, I was the most popular guy at the party, dancing with everyone (most of them laughing at me and mocking my moves – I actually got a hilarious shot of two old women, decked out in full Andean costumes, imitating my unique breed of dancing). Things got dangerous as people got drunker. One woman came up to me, grabbed me by the ear and tried to force me to marry her daughter. I managed to free myself from her strong grip and flee only to run into her an hour later, having to go through the whole ordeal again.
The party ended around midnight, and by 9 am the next day, all of the guests were up in Antuyo at the groom’s house dancing to the same music with the same band, drinking case after case of beer and eating all of the leftovers. This went on until midnight.
Creating the DVD turned out to be a much bigger deal than I thought it’d be. From the moment the party ended I was asked when it would be ready. I tried to explain that I needed some time to edit everything together; that these things take time and I’d need to wait until the following weekend when I went to the city for a few days. When I went into the city of Huancayo the following weekend for two days of much needed rest and running water, I spent hours editing the four hours of footage into a tight, hour-long video. I came back on Sunday, feeling generous and excited to show my work to the family. They liked it but were perplexed….what happened to all the rest? Why would I edit it down? They wanted EVERYTHING. Accepting the fact that I’d wasted a whole day editing, I gave them all four hours of footage on two DVDs. They couldn’t have been happier – the DVD became legendary around the town with people constantly asking where they could get a copy. It was practically on repeat from the moment I gave it to them until the time I left. They’re probably watching it right now.
I arrived in Antuyo on Monday morning, September 21st, unsure exactly how long I’d be staying. My arrival by car disrupted the class as all ten students ran outside to see what was up. They all instantly recognized me and, having recently edited all of the footage I had previously shot at the school, I felt like I’d already spent a full week with all of them. The shouts of “Michael” began here and continued for a full three weeks. After school, the teacher lead me to the top of the mountain to Yanet’s house so that I could speak with her parents about the possibility of my staying there. They were delighted by the prospect and offered me a room to take as my own – everyone else shared a room (and things got a bit more crowded because of my presence). They refused to take money from me, nothing for rent nor for the food they generously “forced” on me three times a day (more on this later). The problem, as it turned out, wasn’t an issue of me staying with Yanet’s family. The problem, from the perspective of the rest of the community, would be if I only stayed at Yanet’s house, as many families wanted the opportunity to host me. I was flattered but recognized this insistence as an obstacle to my filming. My hope in living in the town was to come to know a family intimately and not divide my time between many households only getting a superficial view of their life. I explained to the family (and the teacher who was facilitating the discussion) that for my purposes, since my time was limited, it was better that I stay with families who have children in the school and have the chance to get to know one or two families well as opposed to having a brief visit with so many. This discussion would come up several more times during my three week stay, but in the end I prevailed and ended up splitting my time between just two families: Yanet’s family who lived way up at the top of the hill (the furthest house from the school) and Bernardo’s family, who lived rather close to the school. Bernardo is 12-years old and is the furthest along in the class – meaning he’s the only sixth grader in a class that spans pre-school to sixth grade. In March, he’ll begin at the high school, which means he’ll have to walk about forty-five minutes down the mountain into Ahuac each morning and over an hour back (the trip is a lot longer when you’re walking uphill). Along with Bernardo is his five-year old brother, Roy, who provided much needed comic relief throughout my stay.
Both houses were pretty full. At Yanet’s I lived among her parents, her two sisters, her brother-in-law, her sister-in-law, two cows, a bull, three donkeys, two pigs, thirty-five sheep, a dog, a cat, and a number of guinea pig that roamed freely around the kitchen until their day of reckoning (Guinea Pig is considered a delicacy in the mountains). At the beginning of my stay, there was a chicken running around the house, but one night we ate well and thereafter there was no more chicken. Eating in general was a bit of an issue. Meat is a luxury (as is most protein) and is rarely eaten. The favored food group is starch – potatoes, rice, spaghetti. Most meals would start with an appetizer of raw potatoes, along with two local potato-like crops – Mashua and Oca – which would be followed by a big plate of sliced potatoes (sometimes fried, other times boiled or with a sauce) with heaping portions of rice and spaghetti. Sometimes this would be put into a soup and, if I was lucky a newly produced egg would be placed on top. Now, as you probably know by now, I love to eat. I’m rarely too full for another serving and love trying all sorts of foods. In terms of my culinary life, Antuyo was rock bottom. I simply can not eat that many potatoes. Fortunately, the appetizer of raw potatoes was served in a communal bowl and so I could fake how much of it I actually ate. The main course was a different story all together. As the guest I was given the most and as a guest, it was considered rude if I didn’t eat all that was offered to me. That didn’t mean just finishing what was on my plate. I quickly learned that I was expected to ask for and enjoy seconds. In fact, Yanet’s father usually seemed perturbed that I didn’t want thirds. When I explained that I already had two full plates, he’d always respond with, “I’ve had three plates.” “You’re bigger than me,” I’d tell him. This would make him laugh and the suggestion of thirds would be forgotten – worked like a charm every time. But I hope I’m not minimizing the challenge I faced three times a day – two heaping plates of potato, rice and spaghetti (which was served, for breakfast lunch and dinner) is no easy task. I often found myself playing the eating-encouragement game usually relegated to little kids…”Come on, Mike, just two more ‘big boy’ bites and you’ll be finished.” Drinks came in two forms: hot water with sugar or a tea-like drink that was made with water, sugar, and sliced apples. It was actually pretty delicious. All drinks were hot. On more than one occasion, after an afternoon of particularly laborious work in the hot sun, I decided it was worth the forty-five minute walk to buy a Coke in Ahuac. These brief visits into “civilization” would indeed sustain me over the course of what proved to be three difficult weeks of potatoes, cold nights, few showers, and toilet-less bathrooms.
I did have occasion to have meat a few times, however. About half-way through my stay I was sitting in the kitchen with Bernardo’s family after dinner, telling them about my own city. Everyone I spoke to about New York had very similar questions that clearly demonstrate how foreign our two worlds are: “What do you grow there?” was undoubtedly the first question anyone would ask. I’d have to explain that I lived in a city, that they we didn’t grow anything and that all of our food we bought in markets or at restaurants. “So what kind of animals do you have?” Dogs, cats, squirrels. “And what do you eat?” See, if you’re from Antuyo, that question can be answered very easily: “we eat potatoes.” I tried to explain that in my city there were people from all over the world, and so we ate, literally everything.
Well, not everything it turns out. It came out shortly after I made that comment that I had never eaten Guinea Pig. The mother seemed pleased at this prospect – “I will make it for you on Monday.” That was on Wednesday. On Thursday, I returned to Yanet’s house for several nights. In the afternoon, we were having a similar conversation which again resulted in the same discovery but now with an added caveat: “I’ve never eaten guinea pig, but Bernardo’s mother is going to make it for me on Monday.” Not wanting to be shown up by another host family, Yanet’s mother decided she’d beat them to the task and prepare guinea pig – Cuy (pronounced Coo-ey) – that night. The preparation of Cuy is a long and rather explicit process. First several Cuys are picked out of the bunch, based on size – the whole pack shrieks as it loses three of its brethren. The unfortunate few are taken outside where there necks are promptly slit and their blood drained. The Cuy is then sliced down the middle, its guts removed, tossed into a bowl and fed to the dog (who up until this point is watching along expectantly). The Cuy are then boiled, their fur removed and then sliced up, covered with some flour and fried. I was given a plate of two Cuy legs covered in a delicious, thick, red pepper sauce with potatoes on the side. I’ve gotta say, it really wasn’t that bad – a good taste and the consistency of dark meat chicken. I could however, have done without the dessert that was given to me – the much coveted jaw of Cuy. When I ate the same meal on Monday night with Bernardo’s family, Roy beat me to the task of finishing off the face. Can’t say I was upset.
It was a tough decision, but I’d have to say in the first annual Cuy making competition of Antuyo, Bernardo’s family takes the prize – the sauce was a little bit better and, as I said, I didn’t have to eat the face, which definitely made for a better experience.
Growing up with a name like Michael can, at times, be frustrating. In elementary school there was bound to be at least one other Michael in my class and usually two others. This meant that either we’d each have to take on a derivative of the name as our own – one of us Michael, another Mike, and the third, least fortunate of us, Mikey – or, even worse we’d have to use the initial system and I’d end up being Michael K. for the whole year. The frustrations of the initial system came to an ultimate low in fourth grade during a trip to the water fountain. It was probably after gym class or recess and I along with a small group of classmates, was waiting on line. It was during this time – I think I had actually just finished my turn at the water fountain – that Roshini came up to me with some sort of important news: “Michael K., did you hear about such and such?!” Now granted, Roshini, we can’t all be blessed with such a distinct and uncommon name like yours, but for fuck’s sake, I’m the only Michael around right now! Is the “K” really necessary? It’s not that I didn’t like my name – quite the opposite, I think it’s a great one – I just wished there weren’t so many of us.
Well, in the small town of Antuyo, situated deep within the Andes Mountains, I at last got to experience the thrills and popularity that come with being the only Michael. The town consists of approximately 17 families and about 100 people, none of them named Michael. (more…)