It is March and the streets of Cuzco are filled with people of all ages that live a life of poverty, hopelessness and day-to-day survival. I have a few friends here and I want to tell you about one of them.
Veronica is a young woman in her early twenties with a nine-month-old baby girl named Janet and a 6 year old boy named Julio Cecil. She also is raising her brother’s two children because he and his wife were killed in a bus accident. Veronica's mother lives with them and watches the children while making dolls for Veronica to sell on the street.
The father of the children left after Julio Cecil was born, and then came back until Veronica was pregnant again. He has given no support to the family. Veronica works on the streets selling handmade dolls, and finger puppets that look like jungle animals and other famous characters like spider man, Sponge Bob and Snoopy. She wears the local native clothing. A brightly colored skirt, white blouse with hand stitched embroidery, and a derby style top hat. Her heavy knit leggings keep her warm on the clear cold nights at 12,000 feet elevation.
Veronica carries Janet, her baby girl, in a brightly colored blanket on her back. When the blanket is in front, she is nursing or simply watching her mother go through the ritual of providing for her care. This round faced, bright-eyed doll is unaware that she helps in the sales process. When a foreign traveler peers into the human cradle, any ounce of resistance to the purchase process is gone.
The area of town where she lives is about a 45 minute walk each way. Her home is made of mud bricks and she has electricity for a light bulb but no running water. The only source of heat is from the adobe oven beside the front door. Wood is plentiful but sometimes the price is too high. Given the choice, food is the first priority and warmth during the cold night becomes secondary.
Veronica approached me on my first day in Cuzco and seemed the same as any other street vendor. The persistence she possesses is mandatory for this job. A hundred times a day she talks to a stranger just to be ignored. There is the occasional tourist that laughs with his friends at her expense, a heartless visitor that sees humor in the soft words she uses, “Mister, mister, buy a puppet; it’s for my baby.” Just one sole (about thirty-five cents). “Please, mister, I am hungry too”. Her voice is high pitched and melodic. “Mister. I made this doll.... is beautiful.” On the noisy street I bend down to hear her words. If I avoid her eyes, it's easier to say, “No thank you”. I hesitated but the sincerity of her words steals my heart. What loving mother would not be this focused while providing for her children?
Veronica waves her little boy off of the busy cobble stone street. Cars don't slow down. He jumps up the curb, grabs my leg and hangs on until his mother reaches down to pull him off. He throws his head back and looks up at me and laughs. His big brown eyes, wind burned cheeks and mischievous grin magically turn this small family from street vendor to friend.
It has happened many times before. There is a moment when I know that this is the beginning of a divine appointment that will lead to friendship, and a friendship that leads to a relationship. What is it that causes me to care about a small, poor family on the other side of the equator? I cannot explain it but I know it well. Oh, I'm not naive. Veronica will sell dolls and finger puppets to anyone that will buy. Every customer is the object of intense focus. There is nothing more important then the transaction she is involved with at that given moment, but I noticed the change.
Over the next four days I saw a difference. Whenever we met on the street her eyes would light up. People respond when you call them by name. All of us want to be noticed. All of us want to matter to someone. I saw the spark ignite in Veronica's eyes. By the end of our time in the city, she knew she had a friend.
Veronica waited outside our hotel today because she knew we were leaving. Maybe she hoped for one last sale. Maybe she sat in the rain just to say good-by. I told her that I would see her in July and looked one more time at her baby girl. She made no mention of finger puppets or dolls and she never looked away. I gave her a small gift as I told her good by. She looked at the coins and did the sign of the cross. Her voice seemed softer and a little more like music as she kissed me on the cheek and whispered Thank you.
July has come. Four months have passed and I am a little nervous about the reception we might receive in Cuzco. I have come and gone from South America enough times now to know that the best-laid plans have a way of deteriorating into a shadow of the original intent. I had been in contact with my dear friend Elena on several occasions, and she assured me everything was fine with Veronica but...seeing is believing.
Veronica crossed the street to hug me and welcome us back to Cuzco. Julio was there and we stepped away from the crowd and talked for a while. She didn't try to sell us anything she just smiled and wiped at the tears that kept forming in the corners of her eyes.
She was still dressed in her brightly colored dress and had the Inca blanket wrapped around her shoulders with her beautiful baby girl inside. She is very short and of course has the typical thick black hair in braided pigtails. Now she was wearing sweat pants under her dress due to the cold and really hasn't changed a bit.
Julio suggested that we visit her home and she was very gracious in extending an invitation. I asked if there was anything in particular that we could help her. She thought for a while and became just a little timid. She explained that she has not lived here very long and had moved here so she could sell her dolls and provide for her family. Then she hesitated and talked so quietly that Julio asked her to repeat what she said twice before he could hear her.
She said her mother didn't have a bed to sleep in. She and her two children and her brother’s two children share one bed and her mother sleeps on the floor. Then she just stood there and didn't quite know what to do or say. She had that look on her face like she couldn't believe what she had just said, and maybe she would take it back if she could.
I told her that we would come tomorrow for a visit, and I would love to provide a bed for her little family. Her response surprised me; she stood for just a brief moment with no expression on her face but a distant look in her eye. Her chin started to quiver and tears started trickling down her cheeks. I think she embarrassed herself, because she kind of half-laughed and buried her face in my coat and just hugged me until she gained her composure. Later in the evening we met again on the sidewalk. She beamed a huge smile and asked in her soft Inca voice if we were “for sure” going to meet her at 2:00 tomorrow. The answer was a resounding yes, so she hugged us both and walked away smiling.
Julio and I took Veronica to her home by taxi. We wound up out of the city in the foothills where the communities are adobe huts. The view was breathtaking. I knew for certain that I wouldn't have had any breath at all had I walked the mile and a half up hill with a child strapped on my back, but Veronica does every day.
Her house is about 10x12 ft. The front door is a piece of tin on a hinge. The top of the door jam hit me below the chest. There is a trail leading down from the road about 20 yards to the house, and what we saw looked like a dirt root cellar. Inside were one bed and a little space on either side where several small buckets of withered potatoes sat long beyond their prime. They were the size of golf balls and represented the entire food supply for this family.
She sat on the bed and told us of the loss of her brother. She cried while describing how she struggles doing everything she can, but it is never enough. She was desperately behind on her rent because she had to buy food instead.
I asked to use the bathroom. I was curious to see where it was. Mary Luz took me down a steep trail that I could hardly walk on, and pointed to a piece of plastic hanging in the doorway of a mud brick room. It was so small and low that it reminded me of a large birdcage. I was concerned because Mary Luz was carrying a bucket, and as soon as I used the bathroom I could hear water running into a bucket outside. To my relief (no pun intended) she was filling the bucket from a faucet to rinse the floor of the bathroom that I had just used. It looked just like a dirt shower floor but with two bricks to stand on.
We visited for a while and then headed back to the market to buy a bed. It was great. She was so happy. We sent her home in a taxi with bed in tow. She said there was a neighbor man that would help her set it up. I asked her to come to the hotel to meet with Elena the owner. Elena, Connie the Spanish teacher, from Annie Wright school and I formulated a plan to help relieve the hardship of this young family. Veronica told them her story and everybody at the table including Connie's husband, Tony, had tears running down their cheeks. Elena was deeply moved and has agreed to administrate the money that we send to help each month with the rent, lights and water, so that the money Veronica earns will go for food and other necessities. This was quite an emotional evening. There were many tears of joy as I assured Veronica that we couldn't help everyone but I believe God lead us together and she can go home tonight knowing that she isn't alone anymore in the support of this family.
Veronica came to the hotel last night to say good-bye. Elena the owner of the hotel has done well for her family with this business. There was something about this girl and our involvement that deeply touched her. When I arrived Elena was holding the sleeping three-year-old boy and is now completely involved. We talked all together for quite some time about a plan that goes well beyond financial support.
We discussed employment options. Elena explained that because Veronica was still breast-feeding no employer would hire her. When that is finished we will actively seek gainful employment for her. Because her mother is at home with the other children, babysitting won’t be an issue.
Veronica told us that she was on the verge of hiring out her little 10 year old niece as a housekeeper to rich people because she didn't know how else to provide. While she told us this Mary Luz just stood beside my chair and tears streamed down her dirty face. I hugged her and assured her that she would never have to be a servant, and that she had all of her adult life to work. Right now what she needs is an education. She hasn't been going to school because uniforms, books, supplies and consistent transportation were simply not an option. The other children are still too young.
When I return in September, we will look for a job and decent place for them to live: closer to town. Some of you may be with me and it would be an honor to introduce you to this precious family.
We had a tearful good-bye. Veronica and her niece and nephew cried. The other two were asleep and oblivious. I think her fear is that all of this is a dream, and if she says good-bye and wakes up the next day, it will have disappeared.
Elena asked if it would be OK to go on the first grocery-shopping trip to teach Veronica how to make the most of her money. Up until now she has never had more then a few coins to buy food, so to go into the market with actual money might take some tutoring.
At the airport Elena thanked me for the opportunity to get involved in changing a life. She said that Veronica was heavy on her heart, and assured me that she would keep track of her and find some more clothes and shoes and other supplies right away.
Once again God has pulled people together to bless everybody involved. I believe that this family will one day have a story that will inspire thousands. Perhaps one of the children or Veronica herself will be the voice of reason and change in the mountains of Peru. Maybe someday Veronica will thank you for giving her family a chance. She cried when she told her story because for years she was alone in a struggle to survive. She couldn't afford to let down her guard or show weakness on any level. These last few days she allowed herself to collapse like a runner at the end of a long race, and I am so thankful that we were there.
We have no intentions of creating a permanent dependency but we are interested in giving her the tools that will change her circumstances. It is our privilege to be there teaching, supporting, loving and encouraging a young mother that simply needed a hand.
September is finally here. On our last trip we bought some much needed supplies to make life easier for this struggling young woman. While she was working and her mother went to the market, someone stole everything out of their small one room-mud house including the bed we bought. Elena has moved her to a more secure house and it is a much better living situation all the way around. She assured us that she would buy another bed and we would start all over with the kitchen utensils, clothes and other necessities. Elena has been administrating the funds we left and helping Veronica make good financial decisions. They are growing close and I can see there is a bond that is more like mother-daughter that is starting to form.
A couple of days ago I went with Veronica to the market where the locals shop. It is their Wal-Mart. We bought new outfits for all four children as their clothes were taken in the grand theft. It was fun and obviously something she would not have been able to do without our assistance. After we left the store, I asked if she needed some clothes for herself, and she just beamed and got a little shy and told me she had always wanted some jeans. I have never seen her wear anything but sweat pants or leggings under a dress. They are very popular with the poor people; they can get them cheap in the market. We went back to a store that had women's jeans and she found just what she wanted.
We then went to the food area and bought canned milk, pasta, bread, carrots, onions, oil, a couple chickens and several other items, including a big wash tub to do laundry. I carried all of the food in two huge bags. She had the baby on her back, a large bag of clothes and the one bag with round, flat, loaves of bread the size of trash can lids. I had the handle to the wash
tub hanging on one finger and we made our way to the curb only to discover that the transportation strike was in full swing, and we had no way to haul all of this stuff the mile and a half up the side of a mountain to her house. This house is closer than the last one but we are at 12,000 feet elevation. The air is thin. I am old and the groceries heavy. What could we do? Walk?
Zig-zagging in and out of narrow cobble stone streets, getting passed by 80 year-old women with 50 pounds of potatoes on their backs is no way to boost the ego of a panting tourist. We stopped a couple of times and finally sat down to rest about three quarters of the way up. She fed the baby and I recovered until my resting heart rate was down around 200. The look on the grandmother’s face and the excitement of the children was worth the climb. Veronica's mother cried as we emptied the bags. All of a sudden the broth soup she was preparing looked a little thin. I am so pleased to share the joy of knowing that this night was different for these children and this selfless, loving mother.
Veronica and her mother made about 40 dolls at my request. They started several weeks before we arrived and finished them yesterday. Veronica's hands were swollen and blistered from the work, but I promised to buy all they produced.... and I did.
If you would like to help with the support of this dear family it is easy. Buy a doll. We aren't creating a dependency; instead we are providing an opportunity. Every penny of every doll sold, supports this family and at the same time will serve as a reminder to those who buy them, of how blessed we are.
My intention is to provide an outlet for these hand made cultural dolls, so that Veronica can avoid the 14-hour days on the streets. She wants to go home at a decent hour at night and contribute to the care and nurturing of her children.
Next year Mary Luz and Franklin will start school and the money from your purchases will provide uniforms, supplies, shoes and books. None of the family has ever been to the dentist so there are some immediate needs there. Elena is buying beds this weekend to replace the ones that were stolen but the family has virtually no cooking utensils or dishes except those left behind by the thieves. This new location is more secure and our hope is that it will serve this family well.