As much as anyone else, we enjoy visiting world-famous tourist sites and embarking on adventure trips. Peru has been no exception. In fact, in just a few hours we depart for a five-day trek to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu by way of a mountain pass at 4650 meters/15,500 feet.
But there’s almost always another side to the countries we visit. And sometimes we disappear into the hills for weeks to find it.
When we told Peruvians we were headed to the hill town of Huancavelica, their response was often: “Huancavelica? But that's the poorest area in Peru.”
We traveled there to photograph and profile microfinance borrowers and were further exposed to the realities of life in the rural Andes. Here’s what we found:
The Challenge for the Interloper
We departed Lima at 11:30PM.
We fell asleep somewhere after midnight, only to wake up around 3:30 AM to shortness of breath, cold perspiration, and a general feeling of anxiety. In less than four hours, we had climbed over 4,800 meters/16,000 feet to the Anticona Pass at Ticlio, Peru’s highest navigable mountain pass and one of the highest roads in the world.
Aside: It turns out that iPods also suffer from soroche (local term for altitude sickness). At around 13,000 feet, iPods begin to show erratic behavior (freezes, stops playing, makes clicking sounds). Apparently, this is the iPod hard drive's struggle with altitude. A similar thing happened to our iPod in Nepal. Fortunately, on both occasions, the iPod returned to normal when we descended to lower elevation.
Upon our arrival in Huancavelica later that morning, at a mere 3,676 meters (12,000 feet), we downed cups of coca tea (a natural altitude sickness remedy) and spent the better part of the day adjusting to the thinned air. Our heads were fuzzy, we moved slowly, our hearts beat heavily and our thought processes retained a certain murkiness.
The Challenge for the Native
During our visit to the more remote villages outside of Huancavelica, the surrounding peaks outlined how beautiful yet challenging mountain areas can be. Valleys lay vast as sparse villages of mud brick homes clung to the hills. We wondered what steps people took to survive.
Because jobs are scarce and agriculture is often not enough to live on, village men work away from home in the mines. They return home only once or twice a month. Wives left behind raise their children (often in the range of five to nine of them) on their own. Because the money their husbands earn is usually not enough and the lack of jobs also extends to them, women run basic businesses in order to make ends meet.
For our photo project, we visited rural villages – some only accessible by foot – to witness the work being done by ECLOF, a global microfinance organization whose Huancavelica program is less than six months old and funded by Five Talents, a microfinance NGO based in the United States. The program makes small loans to clients (mainly women) in the range of 200-600 soles ($66-$200). Additionally, the program provides skills training and capacity building so that clients may learn how to improve their businesses and in turn their lives.
Over the course of a few days, our heads became filled with stories:
- Juana produces and sells ice cream in a small town to support her seven children (two more grown children live away from home).
- Paolina raises guinea pigs and sells hand-knitted goods and cheese in a small village to support her seven children.
- Isabel weaves and knits her way into providing as a single mother and dreams of someday exporting her work.
- Donaires sells coca leaves at the main market in Huancavelica and shared with us all the natural benefits of chewing coca leaves (it soothes altitude sickness, provides calcium, disinfects the mouth, cures stomach ills, etc.).
- Zenovia runs a small village restaurant, sews blouses, raises guinea pigs, and weaves traditional blankets (mantas) with the help of her whole family.
At one of the borrower group meetings we attended, a woman broke down as she spoke about the support she receives from the women sitting around her. When she got sick, the other members of her loan group made her loan payments for her until she was healthy again. While individual successes are important, the success of the group is the broader aim.
To make the point, another woman captured a rather uplifting spirit, but with tears in her eyes: “When one of us falls, we help her even more.”