Capturing life at 12,000 feet
By Rebecca Rivas Posted Apr 1 2006
Cold rain began to sprinkle on Sinforosa’s black braids. She retied her Andean blanket filled with about 30 pounds of supplies: a liter of chicha, homemade corn beer, some chicharrones, fried meat mixed with corn kernels, a few baby clothes, and a bundle of hand-picked herbs for the pain.
She threw it all onto her back and said to me in Quechua “Hakuchu?” (Let’s go?), and we continued the six-hour journey to the public health clinic in Ccapacmarca, Peru.
At 12,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes, I was near exhaustion. But, I wasn’t nine months pregnant, so I had no reason to complain. About a hundred hand-laid limestone steps remained to the center plaza of Ccapacmarca. She pushed on, though her legs were wobbly. On the twentieth step, her rubber sandal slipped on the slick stone and her arms began swimming backwards in open air. She grabbed at my chest and caught a handful of my shirt. Somehow, I braced myself and held us both up.
We both glanced back at the mountain of stairs she nearly tumbled down. Below, her daughter clunked wearily up the stairs, unaware that her mother could have fallen and died, leaving her eight children and husband alone.
That journey with Sinforosa was possibly the most overwhelming and powerful moment of making the documentary, At Highest Risk: Maternal Health Care in the High Peruvian Andes.
Peru’s diverse landscapes of jungle, coast and mountains had fascinated me for years. But, more than anything, the Andean traditions and philosophies drove me to learn more first-hand. I discovered that Peru’s maternal mortality rate was the second highest in South America; Ccapacmarca is among the regions with the highest incidence. However, articles and reports on the issue were hard to find. So in January 2004, I headed to Peru on a yearlong journalistic Fulbright grant to investigate.
Unless you’ve lived in the campo (rural area) all your life, you can’t truly hear the rhythm at first. The journalist’s sense of place leaks through the camera and, of course, the article. A few talented photographers have lent me this philosophy: Just sit and listen, for months if you have to, before you pick up the camera.
For one year I lived in some of the most inaccessible parts of the southern Andes. Because the roads are nothing but narrow slivers carved out of the high peaks, travel is difficult. In the rainy season, fallen rocks close down many roads for up to four months.
In the beginning of my journey, I let curiosity take over sensibility. In ways, my concerted interest led me to uncover the most vital pieces of my story. In other ways, it was reckless.
In March, I met a nonprofit health group that was traveling to the areas with the highest maternal death rates in the region. Traveling with a local organization was a perfect way to make my initial entry into the small towns, which were seven to 10 hours away from the city of Cusco. The people trusted the health advocates.
When we reached Ccapacmarca, I decided to stay for a month. The town later became the focus of the documentary.
One day, the teacher of Huascabamba (Sinforosa’s hometown) was heading back and he invited me to come along. I didn’t hesitate.
Huascabamba felt like the Garden of Eden compared to the rest of the Andes. It was right next to a river with waterfalls and a rainbow of daisy-like flowers. All the passageways were lined with mortarless stonework. All the homes were adobe huts shaded by fruit trees. The people smiled and nodded when I arrived with the professor. I soon realized that only one woman in the village spoke Spanish — the rest spoke solely Quechua.
After explaining my project and intentions to the town president, I could feel an instant shift in the townspeople. He must have told everyone to take care of me, because the next day I couldn’t walk past more than a couple houses before someone invited me in for soup. It is disrespectful to turn food away, so I ate it. All of it. I became quite ill.
After a couple days, the reality set in. I was alone. I failed to tell anyone other than the restaurant owner in Ccapacmarca where I was. No telephone. No electricity. My skin began to blister from an allergic reaction to the bed bugs. At that point, I wished that I had planned a little better.
After a few days, I met Sinforosa. Through a translator, we were able to have conversations about her anxiety of giving birth at the public health clinic for the first time. Then, she allowed me to accompany her on the six-hour trek to Ccapacmarca. If I had not gone on a whim to Huascabamba, I would have missed that experience. But, I learned the value of planning, even if it meant just telling more than one person where I’m headed.
But the best stories come when you can melt into the cracked soil and adobe walls and live as the people do.
After eight months, I began to finally feel the cadence of the country. It was then that I began filming.
Accompanied by co-videographer and assistant producer Leah Loyd, I traveled to three different departments (states) over four months to film the documentary. We developed a strong formula: 1) always speak with the town leader, 2) say no when we have to, 3) choose our local guides well, and 4) stick together.
We found families that became like blood relatives. They presented us with pride to all their neighbors. Together we baked bread, farmed, danced and sang traditional ballads. Through them, we truly learned the richest aspects of the Andean culture. When it became overwhelming, we would slide back into our room and listen to some music or read a book in English.
It wouldn’t be long before we heard a knock at the door from one of the little kids. They were so curious about us, and we were happy to share our culture with them.
We had language swaps — a half-hour of Quechua for a session of English. We even threw a Halloween party for the community children, where we had a costume contest. That night the children paraded around the dirt streets of the town square, screaming “Happy Halloween.”
An anthropologist once told me that when you start to hear the same thing over and over again, you have reached a conclusion. Through hundreds of shared meals of soup and long walks on windy mountain trails, I heard the stories of 112 women. Some of these interviews were conducted in groups and others were one-to-one, heart-to-heart conversations. I also spoke with about 70 medical professionals and five nonprofit women’s health organizations. In brief, I found that the Andean women are afraid of Western medicine and male doctors, so they give birth at home. The programs that incorporate traditional medicine into the public health system develop the best relationships with the women and increase the clinics’ attendance.
A large part of the Fulbright program’s mission is to improve our country’s image by positive culture exchange. I found that just spending time and learning from the people with genuine interest means a lot to them.
In a recent National Geographic article on Buddhism, Perry Garfinkel wrote “Stripped of his questions, the journalist has no identity.”
I can relate to this struggle. But just as Garfinkel learned the power of silence with the monks, so did I among the Peruvian women. Listening and simply being present became my most helpful tool in reporting in rural Andean communities.
As the anthropologist said, conclusions come from many trials. It is a wise journalist who can flow like water through the world’s inner workings. One day, I hope to be that journalist.