The girls at the orphanage were off from classes for a month and a week outside of La Paz
in the Sur Yungas was planned for them and I was asked if I wanted to go too. I had no idea vacations were going on. I had been coming down every morning asking if the girls had English homework and day after day they said no. I couldn´t figure out why the homework just stopped. No one of the personel or professors informed me that the girls were on vacation. I´m really out of the loop sometimes. Anyway, the Yungas lie to the northwest of La Paz, about three hours away and on the eastern flank of the Andes. The climate changes rapidly as you descend into the deep valleys of the Yungas, but because they are to the east of the Cordillera Real, they get a lot more rain and the climate is semitropical, even though they are still many thousands of feet avove sea level.
We crammed everything into two buses, with some of us sitting on the detritus necessary to keep a group of 80 girls and staff fed and clothed and supplied for a week, and set off for our destination. After crossing the Cumbre pass on the same road that leads to Coroico
and the World´s Most Dangerous Road, we turned off for the South Yungas and began descending into a deep valley. Three hours later we rolled into the little village of Yanacachi
and after descending on the one road into the one central plaza we arrived at our destination, an unused boys´ hogar that was large enough to fit all of us.
Surrounded by mountains
I helped unload the buses and clean and organize the kitchen as the cook, Celia, who was to provide all our meals for the week singlehandedly (ok, with the help of some of the girls each day too) got the lunch ready. The scene as the girls all came into the dining hall was something out of Oliver Twist. The all sat down at the long tables and as the wait grew longer started to bang their bowls with their spoon and shout, "We want to eat, we want to eat." It was pandemonium. And then I was in the serving line giving out the soda to each girl. The lunch was a big spoon of rice, some lettuce and tomato chopped up, a small piece of beef, and a tiny spoonful of Yajua, the bolivian answer to pico de gallo salsa. It´s tomato ground with roasted, smoked chile.
Dona Celia and Hermana Nora asking the way...
It sounds good but I don´t like it very much..it has a strange taste. Anyway, Celia and her helpers were yelling at the girls, "hey, get your bowl ready", "over here, move..come on!" and I was asking them which kind of soda they wanted, cola, grapefruit or guarana´. At one point one of the girls helping in the serving line yelled to me, "Don´t ask them what flavor they want, just pour whatever into their cup!!" I started laughing so hard at the scene. It was positively Dickensonian!
That night was simply arroz con leche. The leftover rice is cooked in reconstituted powdered milk and to that they add some cinnamon sticks and sugar. It was accompanied by a bread roll. They brought enough bread for 5 days and by Thursday we were eating rolls so hard that you could have brained someone with them.
Bathing beauties :)
The food was to continue this way all week and maybe that´s why I got sick by Wednesday. But anyway, to continue my story. The next day, Tuesday, we set out for a long walk to the river far below. The night before the personel had a meeting to decide on meals and groups for the week. We got the girls divided up into groups of 6-8 and each of us adults were responsible for a group. The littlest ones weren´t going to go on the excursion because the walk there was estimated at more than two hours. As it turned out, it was over two and a half hours walking down to get there and then much longer coming back because it was all uphill. The last group didn´t get back to the hogar until after dark. It was magnificent scenery as we quickly descended through a woods below the village and then skirted a steep mountain before plunging back into the shade of a Eucalyptus woods, crossed a stream, and continued on.
We finally reached the small river, creek really because now is the dry season. I would imagine it swells up considerably in the wet summer rainy season. Most of the girls quickly jumped in and started playing around. I relaxed and had a bit of chocolate and a piece of bread and some cookies to eat. I was already hungry after the meagre breakfast and long walk. We didn´t end up eating lunch until another couple hours passed and by then I had a headache and was about ready to kill someone. The girls had lugged a sack full of cans of sardines and another sack filled with chopped lettuce and tomatoes. When it was time to eat, the cans were opened and dumped into the sack with the lettuce and mixed by hand. The girls came up one by one with their piece of hard bread and the mixture was dumped on top of it and that was our lunch.
I was so hungry that I thought it was even half decent. We didn´t bring any fruit because there was enough oranges and "limas" (a kind of a cross between an orange and a lime..it doesn´t have any flavor) to put Florida out of business. Some of the girls loaded up and lugged huge bags and sacks of the fruit back with them on the more than 3 hour uphill walk home. I just couldn´t believe it. Every little thing is precious to them. They routinely knock on my door and ask for a piece of bread, or a banana, or anything. I remember when I was young and hungry and I would ask my mom for something to eat and she would suggest the same and I would decline to eat, simply becuase I wanted something better or nicer. I´m ashamed to think about that.
A deep valley
These girls have so so little that even an old piece of bread makes them happy. Anyway, we finally started back up. I was ahead and for most of the way I walked with little Yubinka, an absolutely darling girl. She is 9 or 10 I think, and kind of quiet, but she has a way of stealing your heart. She walked for three hours with me, in the heat, in wet socks and oversize clunky shoes with big heels that must have given her blisters and she didn´t say a word of complaint the whole time. At times I asked if she wanted to stop but she just said, "I´m ok." The sweat was running down the sides of her face and it broke my heart to see her in those terrible shoes. I gave her my cap to put on and that helped a lot. You have to realize the distance from town to the river was about 700 meters, or something like a 2,500 feet drop and then climb.
The lower part of the village
We finally made it back and sat in the plaza savoring a bottle of water that I bought before walking the final short distance back to the hogar. I had some cookies in my room and I shared them with Yubinka and she gave this heart-breakingly grateful smile. I could have adopted her on the spot! The others straggled in over the next few hours and it was night before the last ones arrived. What an exhausting day! My throat was beginning to hurt in the afternoon and climb back home, and I was really tired and had a hard time all the way back. Sure enough, by the next morning I was feverish and my throat was really aching badly.