Learning to Coordinate

My eyes scan the mountainside, straining to glimpse a person, or animal, preferably both, making their way down the trail. Before I arrived in Peru, I wasn’t sure what exactly I would be responsible for as a Community Coordinator. Today, it is abundantly clear to myself, five Clemson University students, and two of my bosses, that I am to coordinate the arrival of a donkey to the community of Soccma. The donkey will then carry the many pounds of food, vitamins, and anemia testing supplies that we have just driven to the end of the road.

Community Coordinator, Alana, works with docente, Valentina, in the community of Rayan

I start to tally the people who will be waiting for us two hours up the trail in the community of Marcuray.

  • Josefina, a new promotora, who will carry her two-month-old baby on her back as she makes the forty-five minute trek from her neighboring community of Rayan.
  • Ignacia, owner of the phantom donkey, who balances her time as a promotora with her responsibilities for Programa Juntos, las Rondas Campesinas and her own family of nine.
  • Valentina, who will begin her day by hauling water inside to cook breakfast. She will then carry out the Vitamin and Anemia Campaign with us, review last month’s training with new promotoras, tend to her sheep in faraway pastures, and teach families in her community about nutrition, all while graciously hosting me and fellow Community Coordinator Becka for the night.

Before I can dwell on all these people, or resign myself to divvying up the supplies to carry up the mountain on our own, I see Ignacia’s husband, Santiago, round the bend in the trail with the family’s donkey in tow. I breathe a sigh of relief. It’s not even 7 am, and the most stressful part of the trip, the impending arrival of Ignacia’s donkey, is over.

Laughing with Ignacia’s young daughters in the community of Marcuray

The rest of my day will more closely mimic my official job description: a whirlwind of hiking, weighing and measuring children, practicing first aid skills with promotoras, and reviewing health information with them. I spend what might be my last afternoon at Valentina’s house preparing for her educational house visits that evening, helping her son, Yoel, with math homework, and, of course, pitching in with dinner preparations. This means peeling haba, or fava beans, both my least and most favorite community task.

With two layers—an outer pod and a thin skin on the bean itself—peeling the bean seems to be an unnecessary amount of work, and I can’t say I enjoy the flavor of the eventually boiled or roasted vegetable. It feels like forever to get through even a small bowl of pods, and after a while, bits of peel get wedged deep under my nails.

But peeling haba is useful, and something I can do successfully, unlike peeling potato skins into perfect spirals or dicing an onion in my hand. And it has been during the long stretches of peeling haba that I have had my favorite conversations with Valentina. Like that time she asked me if I live in a Rayan-sized town (10 houses) or Ollanta-sized town (2,000 people), explained the difficulties of Peru’s political systems, and expressed her pride as a docente of four new promotoras.

As I prepare to move to New York City, I get worried that the donkey-coordinating skills I’ve cultivated over the past 11 months won’t have many opportunities to come into play. Who will I introduce myself to in hesitant Quechua? What mountains will I hike?

I console myself with my acquired love and infinite patience for public transportation (school car or combi, market truck, subway; it’s all the same, right?), and what I hope will be a lifelong willingness to reach across the cultural divide, grab some haba, and settle in for the long haul. Medical school probably won’t teach me how to peel the perfect potato, but thanks to Peru, I’m well on my way.

Posing with docente, Valentina, in Ollantaytambo’s main square.

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