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.