Madre Teresa: Progress

In just over two weeks, I can honestly say that I think I’ve made some progress - however little - with the kids.

Lucho seems to connect with me more than ever. As soon as he sees me he grunts and motions for me to come over, pointing to his nose. I had spent a full day with him and Yovanny last week, my attempt to allow therapy to continue smoothly for the other kids without the disruption of the higher functioning children running around, throwing toys, and jumping on the more fragile children. The morning started off with Yovanny slapping Lucho’s head, and Lucho pushing Yovanny to the ground. I reprimanded them in Spanish, explaining that we would have to play together if we were going to play at all. I picked up a toy and asked them to play together, but that didn’t work. Yovanny just ran away with the toy. I played with them both, “walking” up their arms with my fingers and counting “uno, dos, tres…” until I reached the top, and then I tickled them. They liked this so much, they started doing it to me, then to each other. I saw Lucho laugh! He was laughing, smiling, and playing with another kid. This was huge; I only ever saw him by himself, causing destruction to him or those around him in order to gain attention. I told them to hug each other, and they actually listened.

I found out that Vania was brought to Madre Teresa by the police just 3 months ago. They had found her abandoned in a home, parents nowhere to be found. I learned that this was a pretty normal story for the kids at Madre Teresa. Usually the police does a full background report with whatever information they can gather about the child, including medical/disability information from a doctor when possible. The parents leave the child alone, fearful of the shame that comes, rightfully so, with the act of abandonment. In some cases they give the child to the police. They never drop the child off directly to Madre Teresa. In many cases the family does not have enough money to support the child and the “baggage” that comes with their disability, and to them the child is essentially dead weight - a person that will consume their income without giving back in any way. It breaks my heart to hear that. I learned from Clairi that for weeks after Vania arrived, she was inconsolable. She cried silent tears, the ones that you know represent a deeper pain. I’ve seen her cry like that since then, once in the last two weeks, and it’s the most awful thing to watch knowing that she is probably remembering her home, her family. Most days though, she is the happiest kid around. She dances to the music playing in the background during therapy, tapping her shoes and bobbing her head. She entertains herself with the toys we give her. Emma and I have been helping her gain strength in her legs so that one day she may be able to walk on her own. We wrap velcro weights around each leg, and hold both her hands to give her stability as she puts one foot in front of the other. It usually takes some coaxing to get her up; she never does this part on her own accord. This past Monday (I missed the morning session), Emma told me she was walking while holding only one hand! Progress. I saw her Tuesday morning, and sure enough, she did it. She still tries to grab you with her second hand, but after saying no enough times she walks while holding only one hand. I’m so excited!

Ruth and Zoila are quite possibly the two most giggly girls. They usually sit next to each other in therapy. Ruth is 20, slightly older than 16-year-old Zoila. They have a great sense of humor. They’re usually watching when you do something stupid and hope nobody saw it, and they laugh loud! I once stepped on a lego and cracked it, startling myself. They laughed. I broke a nitrile glove as I was trying to put it on. They laughed. I tried to put a new clean yellow sweater on Ruth, but the neck hole was too small so she got stuck. They couldn’t stop laughing. Sometimes I dance around to the music playing during therapy, and I try to get them to join in while secretly making it an occupational therapy exercise (rotating their wrists, raising their arms, etc). They have a blast. 

Clairi told me that Juan Daniel enjoys looking at himself in the large mirror that covers over half of one of the walls in the therapy room. Apparently a few years back, she was helping him regain strength in his legs to walk, and he was able to partially support his own weight. She asked me to support him while walking towards the mirror so that he could motivate himself. I could see his smile getting wider, his grunts getting louder as he got closer and closer to the mirror. “Vamos, tu puedes!” we cheered him on. It was difficult supporting him as he required a lot of additional support under his arms to keep him upright. Unfortunately, he had lost a lot of the strength that Clairi remembers him having several years ago. I hope I can continue to help him move forward on that front. 

Now that I had some experience with the children, I was hoping to work on a more sustainable project for Madre Teresa that would help them even after our generation of volunteers return home. I spoke to a couple of the nuns, as well as Clairi about ideas, but I was worried that this was a more sensitive topic to broach. I wanted to talk about what problems they saw that could use some fixing, but I didn’t want to come across as an outsider dictating a list of problems. I only worked 4 hours a day, 4 days a week, for 2 weeks (at this point). Compared to the years, even decades that the nuns knew some of these children I felt awkward telling them what to do. I tried to approach the conversation as more of a discussion, asking them what their thoughts were. I’m not sure if something was lost in translation (as I was speaking fully in Spanish), or if I caught them off guard, or if nobody had asked them something like this before, but my question was received with blank stares and requests for examples. Though I had some ideas, I felt like it wasn’t my place to give them a list of project ideas. Rather, I wanted to talk about the problems and brainstorm solutions together, but this was a lot harder than I thought in Spanish. I ended up listing out some example projects, but I was met with a list of reasons why each would not be very impactful. I knew from the beginning that it wasn’t the right approach, but hey, they asked. One of the nuns suggested we could donate a wheelchair for one of the kids who had outgrown theirs. Definitely a good thing to do, but I was thinking of a different type of "project". The nun said I could speak with another therapist, Chris, when she returns from vacation. Keeping my fingers crossed that we can make some more progress in my last couple weeks!

Arequipa Arequipa Arequipaaaa!

The Friday evening after our Rainbow Mountain trek, two volunteers and I boarded an overnight bus for a weekend excursion to Arequipa, a city just over 300 miles south of Cusco. Arequipa is the third largest city in Peru, behind Lima and Cusco, boasting the second deepest canyon in the world, Colca Canyon (11,488 ft). The Colca Canyon is home to one of the most revered animals in Incan culture, the condor (the other two are snake and puma). 

The bus station was congested with people, some hurriedly trying to make their bus, and others patiently seated on the chairs or even the floor waiting for departure. The sides were lined with small stalls, each a different bus company, but each offering what seemed to be the same tour. The words “Arequipa, Arequipa, Arequipaaaaaa!” chimed over and over again as the tour companies tried to boast their Arequipa tour over the next one’s, the words slurred together into one long city name. Our bus was mostly comfortable, with large plush leather seats that reclined pretty far, personal TVs, and sufficient leg room. I say mostly comfortable since the temperature hit about 90 degrees F a couple hours into our trip, just as we were about to sleep. This made the ride extremely uncomfortable for the remainder of the journey. The bus attendant was nowhere to be found, except in the last hour of the drive. I asked him to turn down the heat, and he told me the heater was broken. Interesting, since if he could have just turned off the heat the outside temperature (30 degrees F) could have easily cooled the bus down… :)

Almost 12 long hours later, we arrived in Arequipa! The city was beautiful. It was a perfect mix between Spanish colonial architecture and the small cobblestone streets lined with tiendas (stores) from Cusco. The main plaza, Plaza de Armas, was bordered by majestic archways, the center filled with palm trees.


We could see the mountains and the volcano in the skyline; it looked as if it were painted into the scenery. We spent the first day wondering around town, mostly eating and relaxing as we were still tired from the overnight bus.

Attempting to explore the historical town near the monastery, we were surprised to find many of the shops and restaurants closed, and practically nobody walking around.


We tried going to one of the museums that houses the best preserved mummified body in the world, Juanita, but the line was about 40 minutes long, so we saw Juanita on the brochure and left. The bus ride was really wearing on us, plus we had an early morning ahead of us for Colca Canyon.

We woke up at 2:30am the next morning to pack up our things and board our 3am bus from the hostel. It felt like the tours were getting earlier and earlier! Needless to say, we slept almost all the 4 hour journey to our first stop - breakfast. After eating, we made three more 10-minute stops on the way to the canyon to various markets. After almost 2 weeks in Cusco, I think it was safe to say that I’ve seen practically all items that can be sold in any of the local markets, other than my favorite in Cusco - San Blas! More on that later. We did, however, spot a condor (right)!

Eventually we made it to Colca Canyon. the scenery was beautiful. Unfortunately it wasn’t a hike as I had expected, but rather a walk down a trail. We found a spot on the rock wall overlooking the steep canyon, put our legs over the edge, and just admired the beauty.


We saw at least 3 (real) condors while we were there, their wingspans over 3m wide, but my pictures and movies don’t do it justice. It just looks like I took a picture of a random bird (below), so you’ll have to take my word for it.


After the main attraction, we boarded the bus and tried to stay awake to admire the beautiful views on the way back. After being stuck behind a herd of alpacas crossing the road, we were cruising through the zig zagging paths down the mountain. Now that I was conscious for the ride back, I realized what I had missed on the way there was not only the breathtaking scenery, but the terrifying drive. I tried not to look down. The buses tend to stay extremely close to the edge of the mountain, unprotected by any railing, going full speed around winding turns. I have to close my eyes each time, hoping there won’t be oncoming traffic also going full speed ahead.

We arrived at the hostel at 6:30 pm, with just enough time for dinner and the drive back to the bus station for our overnight bus back to Cusco.

Pro tip: If you ever go to Arequipa, I would highly recommend a multi-day hike around Colca Canyon. Unless you really like bus rides :)

La Montaña de Siete Colores

All the volunteers on my project get every Thursday off as it is a religious day at the Madre Teresa home. To take advantage of my first Thursday off, I decided to join one of the other project volunteers, Emma, on a day trip to Rainbow Mountain: La Montana de Siete Colores. We were picked up promptly from our hostel at 3:30 AM, after which we boarded a 4 hour bus to a little town where we would have breakfast. I scarfed down 2 pancitas (local bread, like a mix between pita and a bread roll) with butter and jam, a typical breakfast served at the hostel and excursions as well. Then, to my surprise, they came out with scrambled eggs! Though the eggs had shredded carrots in them, I was pretty excited to eat something other than bread, though disappointed I had already eaten 2 pancitas. I chugged some coffee in an attempt to compensate for the few hours of sleep I had that night. The tour guide gave his typical spiel on the day’s schedule, what we would see, and what to expect physically. He repeated numerous times that we should decide before the trek begins if we would like to rent a horse to aid in the hike, since Rainbow Mountain reaches an altitude of 5100m above sea level (over 16000 ft!) and there would be no more horses available after the entrance. I knew this going into it, but he said it so many times that it started to scare me. We had friends who had done the hike before without a horse.. so we decided to go without and just rented hiking sticks instead. Another one hour bus ride later we arrived at the base of the trail.


Within just a few minutes of walking I could already feel my heart pounding fast, as if I had been running for miles already. The altitude was crazy - I could feel the pressure on my heart and my lungs, and it made breathing much more difficult. The hike itself was very mild, but combined with the altitude it was challenging. It was a different kind of “challenging” from the normal hike, however, the one where your quads are killing you and your heart is pounding but you are able to push yourself just a bit more to keep your pace. This was a bit more frightening, as I not only heard of but saw many vomiting by the side of the path, and one guy passed out on the ground at the base camp. So, needless to say, I didn’t want to push myself :) We took breaks every 10-15 minutes to catch our breath, but after 3 hours we made it to the top.


Rainbow Mountain: it was surreal. The natural landscape had colorful striations, like a rainbow, caused by the mineral deposits of iron, copper, and sodium. I felt like I was walking around inside a watercolor painting - the rainbow mountain to my left, the snowcapped mountains to my right, and the rolling green hills behind me. It was breathtaking.


After spending about 20 minutes to rest, take pictures, pet the alpacas (of course) and to admire the natural beauty, we began our descent. I didn’t think it would be so hard (after all, we were going downhill) but our knees were killing us. To make things more difficult, the snow had recently melted and dripped down the dirt path we had walked up, turning the ground into a muddy sludge. The walking sticks came in handy. The start of our descent was the steepest coming down from the mountain, but it flattened into a gradual decline. Emma and I immediately agreed to save our kneecaps and rent horses for the way down (by the way, the guide was wrong - there were MANY horses available along the way). We haggled our way into renting two for 60 soles ($20 USD total) for the trek down, and we were on our way.


After we arrived to the base, we boarded the bus for the 1 hour drive to lunch, and then the 4 hour drive back to hour hostel in Cusco.