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Connecting in the Middle of Nowhere: A Gringas First 2 Days in Patacancha, Peru

Latism members and myself in front of the town’s satellite (From left to right: Alberto Saldamando, Edgar Mejia, Ana Roca Castro, Me, Sisy McDowell)

“How are we going to do this?” Ana asked, as she rose out of bed.

“What?” I asked.

“Stay here,” she replied.

There isn’t a place Ana Roca Castro, founder of Latism, a non-profit organization that empowers the Latino community through social media, and a Babble blogger, hasn’t been. She’s worked in Calcutta with Mother Theresa, taking care of the dying “untouchables.” She’s watched newborn baby girls get purposely drowned in Afghanistan because their fathers didn’t want them. This woman has seen shit. And now, I am here with her in a tiny, remote mountain village called Patacancha in Peru, about an hour and a half away from Machu Picchu, population roughly 1,045.

To give you a sense of what life is like here depends on what perspective you want. From a “gringa” — my pet name throughout this trip as the only non-Latina — point of view this place is POOR. The only shoes people wear, if they even have shoes, are sandals. These one pair of sandals per person go through mud, rocks, cold weather, rain, snow everything. One pair of sandals for all occasions. There’s no hot water for showers and temperatures get as low as 40 degrees (at least since we’ve been here), even in the spring, the current season. There is no heat. There is barely electricity. To get around at night you need a flashlight, or as they call it, linterna. It’s so quiet that all you can hear is a waterfall from across the mountain. Looking at a picture of a Peruvian mountain baby you may mistake burns on their faces from exposure to sun and cold weather as rosy cheeks, as I did upon arrival. Everyone’s hands and feet are darker than the rest of their bodies and coarse, again because of exposure to the elements. They don’t wear bulky coats or gloves like we do in the States; the girls wear traditional skirts, sweaters, and hats that are more decorative than protective, and the boys wear similarly designed ponchos and hats. Their diets mainly consist of potatoes, rice, and some vegetables. They don’t brush their teeth. There is one satellite dish for the entire town. They do not have TVs. They do not have internet. They are completely removed from the rest of the world. And this is all, partially, why Latism, Johnson & Johnson, and Babble are here.

Each year, the board at Latism chooses a place in Latin America in need of an internet connection and a self-sustaining income. Last year they went to Monte Cristi in the Dominican Republic. This year they’re working on setting up a computer room with internet access for the community of Patacancha so that they can sell their goods handmade Alpaca sweaters, art, jewelry, and more directly to the customer online. This is no small feat. Engineers and telephone company technicians have been here off and on for the past two weeks trying to get one little satellite to deliver a connection to 8 computers. They’re also training those who are interested in how to use the computer, get online, take photos and upload them. A tall order for less than 7 days.

In addition to connecting the village to the rest of the world, Johnson & Johnson has sponsored doctors to spend time here checking everyone’s dental health and to work with local dentists in maintaining their progress for the rest of the year.

Considering I didn’t go to medical school and I don’t speak Spanish, not even un pocquito, I’ve paired up with Sisy McDowell, the Philadelphia Latism chapter head, in running a crafts and activities camp of sorts for the kids of the town. (Teaching kids how to play games and do crafts is a lot easier when there’s a language barrier than trying to explain what the @ button is for.)

On our first night in town, Sisy and I showed the kids how to make flowers out of tissue paper and pipe cleaners. Some girls put their creations in their hair, muy bonita. We also had them sculpt with this really cool soap from LUSH that’s similar to clay. The point of the soap is to make personal hygiene fun for kids. They can mold the soap into whatever they want a cat, devil, bird anything. And then they can wash their entire body, including their hair, with it. No assembly or mixing required. The cool thing about this product, which I received in a press kit before I left for Peru, is that when you purchase it, the money goes directly to charities in Fukushima, Japan that create safe places for children to play outside. Though the kids definitely enjoyed these activities, the highlight of the day was a water balloon toss. I can’t even describe how awesome it was to watch these kids laugh and carry on. We were all swept away by the joy of a simple distraction and competition. After all, the last kids standing without breaking their balloon got a prize. Towards the end of the game, the rain starting pouring down and it was getting dark, but these kids would not quit. They could care less about the elements. Finally Sisy and I called a tie because after 6pm you will not be able to see your way down the mountain and back home.

Speaking of home, I really miss heat. Hot water. Clean clothes. But I’m proud of myself. There’s no better way to pay homage to the blessings you’ve been given in life than to take yourself completely out of your comfort zone to do something nice for someone else; kindness breeds humility. Whenever I catch myself thinking: “What am I doing here?” I remember the phrase from my grade school’s motto: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” — Dara Pettinelli

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Did we make it? Did the people of Patacancha get connected? Stay tuned for more stories from a gringa in Peru. In the meantime, you can join #Latism, #JnJ, and #BabbleCares on Thursday, December 27th at 9pm EST for a Twitter party where you can learn more about our work there and meet some special guests …

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