Letter from Hannah Schonau
Illiteracy surrounds me. It’s something that I am not even aware of most of the time. Paz y Esperanza, the organization I volunteer for, requires signatures for all the help they provide, but a good majority of the people have to use ink to make a fingerprint instead. I feel incredibly guilty every time I ask for a firma (signature) and the person says “no puedo” (I can’t). I feel guilty because I have taken for granted my ability to not only read and write in English, but also in Spanish. I crave time to read, it’s my time to just escape and be totally immersed in a book, but do I really need the escape? If anyone needs an escape from their daily lives, it is these women and children who suffer, the ones who are unable.
On Monday through Wednesday every week a young girl comes to our office to receive extra help in her classes. She is 11 years old and can’t even tell you the alphabet. This is not due to anything but the fact that the education in her small town is not the best. She has gone to school her whole life and never learned how to read or write. For an hour a day she is taught by a private tutor and receives homework to take home with her. She lives about 30 minutes or so from Huánuco, so her mother drops her off on Monday mornings and picks her up on Wednesday afternoons. She spends all of her extra time in my office with Medali, Becky, Doris and I. It was her birthday one Friday, so we all decided to make the trek to her house to celebrate with her.
Early Friday morning we left the office and drove to the girl’s school to pick her up and take her home. While giving us directions to her house she said, “Stop here, we have to walk from here.” I was shocked; we were on the side of a highway… where exactly were we going to walk to? When we asked her, she pointed up the mountain and said, “Up there.” Her house was so far up the mountain that I couldn’t even see it from where we were, but I could see the little trail that they had made to climb the hill. So we grabbed her presents, food for her family, our own bags and started the 20-minute hike straight UP the mountain. I like to think I am in pretty good shape, but this walk had me panting and sweating. How they do that everyday is unimaginable to me. When we finally reached the top, not only were we welcomed with smiling faces from her family, but also with one of the most incredible views I had ever seen. Mountains surrounded us, and the view of the valley and town below was breathtaking.
Her father and uncle were making Pachamanca for her birthday. This is a dish they make in the ground, using hot rocks to cook the meat and potatoes. While waiting for the food to be ready we rested on the hill and talked with her family. While sitting there, the little girl smiled at me and asked, “Does your house look like mine?” Now how exactly do you tell an 11-year-old girl that your house has windows and doors to keep the cold out at night? How do you tell an 11 year old girl that you don’t have to sleep in the same room as your family, in fact you have a room all to yourself? How do you also explain that to bathe, you don’t have to climb down a hill to the creek, but that your bathroom has a shower that produces hot water? I had no idea how to approach this question, so I simply told her, “Yes, my house looks like yours, but you have a better view.”
Her family then graciously provided us with lunch. We were first given a soup made of noodles, potatoes, and cilantro. Next we were given a huge bowl of rice, caramelized onions, potatoes, and chicken. Mind you this family doesn’t have much money, but made sure that we were fed well. We all struggled to finish the plate given to us, and just kept saying, “Muy rico,”(very delicious), knowing that we couldn’t eat another bite. We then sang Happy Birthday to the little girl; first in Spanish, then in English, and finally in Portuguese. Then as we tried to say our goodbyes, her mother insisted we stay for Pachamanca, which would be done soon. Doris, being wonderful in these situations and knowing we couldn’t possibly eat more, simply said, “We would be happy to stay, but can we take it to go?” Her mother happily agreed and after about half an hour sent us back down the hill with bags of Pachamanca, full stomachs, and smiles on our faces.
On the way back to Huánuco, I kept thinking about how little the family had, but how incredibly happy they were. It also made me think of the people I knew who had so much more, but who were unsatisfied, myself included. It reminded me of the quote I frequently see that says, “Rich people are not ones who have the most, but the ones that need the least.” This family might not have much, but they work hard, love each other, and get to wake up to an incredible view every morning. That seems like more than enough to me.