Monday, February 2, 2015

Postcards from Peru, Part 4: Climbing the Andes (in a Bus)

We rose early for the chartered bus from Lima to Huancayo in the Andes. When it was delayed, we passed the time getting to know our traveling companions. Lima, a city of nearly ten million, shows all the economic contrasts of many fast-growing world cities. A few days later we would visit a shiny new shopping mall on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. But our ride out of town today took us past shambly shanty towns of rebar and concrete, looking a lot like others around the world. Distinctive to these, though, were the bright colors of many exteriors—greens, pinks, blues—as they crowded themselves one beyond another, rank on crooked rank up the mountainsides.

The road inland follows an old mining railroad that includes some of the world’s stunningly highest bridges and tunnels. The dramatic western slopes of the Andes lack vegetation, resembling Arizona’s rocky cliffs rather than the rainforested tropics I had expected. As you climb higher from the desert, dark green scrub carpets the mountains, softening their starkness. You know when you are about to glimpse a waterfall by the line of green vegetation that traces it. We drove past one foreign mining operation after another, and the towns surrounding them, until we reached Ticlio Pass at nearly 16,000 feet and began to descend.

In the late afternoon we reached La Oroya, mentioned in my first Peru post, the subject of this film and this one, which features our host, Jed Koball, speaking about the children of La Oroya. There a mining operation owned by an American billionaire has left the river and the children severely poisoned by lead. If we don’t realize on a gut level the relationship between consumer thirst, especially for metals, and worldwide pollution and poverty, La Oroya awakens the conscience like no other place I have been.

We stopped at Filomena Tomaira Pacsi, an NGO in La Oroya with which Joining Hands partners. The climb from the bus up two flights of stairs at 12,000 feet was when we felt the altitude most. On the one hand, I felt light in the thin air, almost floating, as if on the moon. Would that I had floated up the stairs! We took them slowly, chagrinned at the sudden weakness of our lungs and legs.

We were greeted by Esther Hinostroza, Wilmer Chipana Veramendi, and others at FTP with steaming cups of coca leaf tea, a traditional altitude remedy. I later learned that coca is the source of cocaine, though it is a perfectly legal traditional medicine in the Andes. Soon our hosts, who had waited for hours to greet us, spread out tropical fruits, flatbread, and cheese, followed by bowls of chicken stew. Through translators they explained the economics of foreign mining operations, which exploit workers or refuse to hire locals, and destroy community health. They take but do not give back to the communities from which the minerals are taken, and leave the country devastated environmentally and economically. 
The poisoned river runs orange through La Oroya, but parts of the town itself, perched high in the Andes, is breathtaking, haunting, as this dusk photo as we left FTP shows. 

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