I am now in South America, the first of many places I would be experiencing in my round-the-world trip. I left my job, my home, my friends, my family and my partner of 15 years. I had decided to trip around the world for six months on my own. I needed to appreciate the familiar, the things I had lost touch with and had neglected. I was neglecting the important values of my life just as much as I had neglected myself. This was to be more than a journey through countries but a journey to rediscover my hidden spirit. I needed time to myself, to remember the person I was deep down. Over time I had grown a hardened emotional crust and needed to shed the skin of what I had become in the scurry and aimless activity of city life.
There was a reason why I found myself here. I came to Cusco (Peru) to carry out volunteer work for a rural community. It was here that I would find some meaning to my life, learn how to relax again and help others who genuinely appreciate anything you can do for them. The simplest action or thought can enrich someone’s life more than you could ever imagine. Having lots of money, the latest gadgets and a bigger house only fogs up the world you are see. Material possessions are worth nothing if you do not have sincere compassion for another human being.
Majestic mountains surround the village. The rooftops of the houses create a patchwork of colour across the valley floor. A woman is walking along the dirt road. She is swathed in a large stained cloth that used to be vibrant in colour. The corners of the cloth are tied in a knot at her chest and inside it is the youngest of her many children – curled up and nestled snugly on her back. She is carrying some pots and corn and potatoes burst the seams of a hand-woven bag. She stops to take a rest and her swollen abdomen shows another child is nestled inside her belly. Her other children keep pace behind her up the long steep hill, laughing and teasing each other while chewing on a stick of sugar cane.
The bricks of the houses in the village are made of mud and straw – all made by hand. Many houses are standing unfinished with families living in the small dark rooms. Rooms are shared by everyone in the family, even the animals. The floors are bare dirt, which has been made smooth from constant sweeping and feet of the inhabitants. The men go out to the fields each day and work their crops or tend to their beasts. Walking through the field you usually find the men standing around talking, a smoke in one hand and a stick in the other. Not only do the men stand still, but also time itself.
The women’s faces are weathered and their eyes tell a thousand stories. They are shy but have a resilient internal strength. Their duty is to produce offspring, look after the house and the children and be subservient to their husbands. Little do they know that they are the ones who shape the lives of their children and the community. The majority of women deal with domestic violence on a daily basis. The women keep to themselves and don’t talk to each other about their problems, as it is a normal way of life for them. They all know what their friends and neighbours are going through and no words need to be spoken. Their faces have a rugged beauty and there is a little child in all of them that comes out when they are together at Mother’s Group. They come alive for two hours and are no longer the shy, quiet women you see in the street. Playing musical chairs, the women come out of their shells and play like children, giggle with their hands over their mouths and smile until their faces hurt. The people in Cusco are very poor. They only have the clothes they are standing in, eat the food they grow, do not have electricity or running water and survive from one day to the next. Although they live in such poverty and harsh conditions, they have such richness in spirit and a strong bond within their community.
Veronica is sitting in the school courtyard with all the other children. This small child looks like a miniature woman. Her little mouth chews on the dry bread and she is watching what is going on around her. Her small dry, brown hands encircle the warm mug of hot watery porridge. She takes small dainty sips of the sweet thick substance so as not to burn her delicate mouth. Her face is older than her age, her skin brown, cheeks reddened and chaffed from the biting wind and harsh sun. Inquisitively, her eyes shift from one scene to another – seemingly deep in thought, observing the activity of those around her.
Her long, thick black hair is plaited down to her buttocks and she has a loveable but prematurely aged face. A hand knitted cardigan with stained shirt underneath covers her little body and she is wearing layers of skirts in the tradition of the Peruvian women. The skirts cover her small but strong legs that carry her up and down the mountainous terrain of her village. Her sandals are made from what looks like the remains of a rubber tyre with straps holding them onto her toughened little feet. One minute she is a grown up with a serious face and eyes of wisdom looking out for those around her. The next minute she can melt your heart with her smile and her musical laughter. Her eyes light up the sky and she has a purity of love that comes from the heart.
She takes your hand – reaching up with those small brown fingers and places them comfortably inside your large, soft white hands. While looking up at you with a smile on her face, she motions for you to sit on the bench next to her. Veronica shuffles her small body closer, carefully sipping her porridge and says nothing. There is no need to speak; she just wants to be near you. I had only met her at the school thirty minutes ago while she was waiting with the other kids to be served breakfast. Her blue plastic cup is held high so as not to make me bend down to fill it with her morning provisions. This is the only nutritious meal she will have all day until dark falls. She stands quietly in line while all the other children excitedly squirm and make noise around her.
Little Veronica wants nothing more but to sit near you and to give you a kiss. She makes sure that those around her are happy in her world, which is full of poverty and harsh living conditions – this makes her older than her years. She doesn’t have many possessions and lives a hard but simple life. Yet her most precious gift to all around her is her beautiful heart and abundance of unconditional love. A small diamond buried in the dust and dirt of her surroundings, yet shines upon you when you unaware of the beauty that is right in front of you.
There is a little Veronica out there for every traveller of the earth. You just need to sit back and take time to look around.