Stomachs full after a hearty traditional Peruvian lunch, my husband Craig and I sat in the 12-passenger van and enjoyed the scenery as we chatted with Vidal (our guide) and Carlos (our driver). We reflected on how lucky we were to have been the only people who had signed up for this particular departure of a seventeen-day Peruvian adventure. We had Vidal all to ourselves, which meant we were able to get much more personal attention and learn a lot more than we would have if we were joined by eight other travelers.
Carlos drove us down the narrow streets of the village of Moray. The van was about to ascend a dirt road up a mountain so that we could visit the ancient terraced gardens used for agricultural research by Inca shamans, when we noticed a group of schoolchildren in their crisp navy blue and white uniforms crowding the street. School had apparently just let out for the day. When the children spotted our van, many of them broke into a run and started to follow us. They were smiling and shouting, and some of them even grabbed on to the bumper. Craig and I thought at first that they were playing: having a race with the van.
Vidal and Carlos exchanged a knowing look, and Carlos stopped the van. Vidal opened the sliding door, and children immediately started piling in. They were sitting on every available surface (except an entire vacant seat that held nothing but our packs.) They were very respectful of our Belongings, and only when Vidal repositioned our bags to make more room did they take advantage of that empty space. Eventually Vidal had to turn children away because the van was full. He closed the sliding door, and Carlos started to drive.
The students who had managed to get into the van were ecstatic. We still weren't sure exactly why. Was a car ride this much of a treat for these children? What was going on? We counted thirteen boys and one girl. They were all happy, and Vidal started to ask their names and ages. They responded with a hybrid of Quechua and Spanish. The boys ranged in age from six to fourteen, and the girl was nine. The boys chattered happily in the back of the van. The girl, who was riding up front between Carlos and Vidal, sat facing backwards, too shy to say much, but staring at us in curiosity. I was mesmerized by her gorgeous brown eyes, and we locked gazes for a good portion of the ride.
It turns out that these children all live in the mountains. They get up at four o'clock in the morning to begin their two-hour walk to school, in the dark. Often their parents discourage them from going to school at all, as the adults would prefer that the children were at home to help out in the fields. But the children are determined, and despite all of the personal sacrifice involved, they make their own way to and from school each day. When Vidal has room in the van he regularly gives kids a ride up the mountain to save them from walking home. Looking at the children in their school uniforms (they were each wearing several layers, topped off by a wool sweater), and contemplating the heat of the day and the steep slope of the mountain, we understood just how important this simple gesture of a ride was for these children. Some of them don't usually get home until 5 p.m. That's thirteen hours a day spent attending (and commuting to and from) school!
We drove with them for at least fifteen minutes, up and up and up the mountain. When we got to our destination, they got out of the van and said "Gracias" to Vidal. We introduced ourselves in Spanish and told them our ages. They practiced saying our names and waved goodbye to us.
Vidal took us on a hike through the terraced herbal laboratories of the Incas. These were constructed in concentric circles, with the center of the innermost circle being the lowest point. The terracing was used to create microclimates, so the medicine men could experiment growing different herbs in different conditions. We saw three of these structures (a modern-day shaman and some patients were conducting a ritual in the largest one).
Through much of our hike we could still see the silhouettes of the schoolchildren standing up on the distant ridge. Eventually they began walking towards home. Through a swaying field of barley we could see snow-capped peaks and mountain glaciers. We drove back down the mountain to the center of Moray, and passed some other schoolchildren who were still walking home up the mountain. They all waved and smiled and said "Hola", and we felt a twinge of regret that we weren't able to drive each and every one of them home from school.
Our impromptu fifteen minutes with these schoolchildren taught us more about the spirit, pride, determination, and friendliness of the Peruvian people than we had ever hoped to understand. It became one of the highlights of our trip. These Peruvian children overcome both physical and emotional hardships to go to school each day because of how passionately they value and appreciate education.
Two years have passed since our Peru trip. Our neighborhood is currently embroiled in a political battle with the city over busing students to public school. When viewed in contrast to the situation of the Peruvian children, the children in my neighborhood have many options. They can walk the mile and a half to school, they can be driven to school by a parent or friend, or they can pay a fee for the bus. It stands in stark contrast to the limited options faced by the Peruvian children. If they are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, the children of Moray might catch a ride from a passing van, like they did with us. Otherwise, their only option is to walk for several hours.
When we read about Backpack Nation Phase II, we began to contemplate how many rides to and from school $1000 could provide in rural Peru. If we were to receive such an award, we would enlist the help of Vidal (with whom we still correspond via letters and email to this day). With his assistance, we would hire a driver to transport vanloads of children to and from school in Moray each day. We feel that we could touch the lives of many families by making their children's access to education easier. Providing the rides would also mean that the children would have more time to spend at home with their families, helping out with the day to day duties that are necessary for the families' survival.