by Thea Evensen (Peru 1964–66)
YEARS AGO, THE TRAIN to Huancayo ran on a regular schedule, an early morning departure from the Desamparados station near the river behind the Presidential Palace in Lima. It was a twelve-hour trip. From sea level through the rugged Central Andes, the train traveled by switchbacks over a 16,000 ft. pass before descending into the Mantaro Valley. On the way to its final destination, there were stops at Chosica, San Bartolome, Matucana, San Mateo, Casapalca, La Oroya, and Jauja. At each station women and children crowded onto the cars with their baskets, selling sandwiches and fruit to the passengers. It was a slow trip, but breathtaking, a chance to ride one of the highest railroads in the world.
Now, the train runs infrequently and most people travel to Huancayo by bus. Transportes Cruz del Sur offers double-decker, first class comfort with wide padded seats, a washroom, and a steward in a grey flannel suit who serves white bread sandwiches and sodas. This deluxe bus doesn’t carry animals or campesinos returning to their villages. The passengers are mostly businessmen heading to appointments in Huancayo, family members visiting relatives in the mountain towns, and occasional tourists coming to see La Feria Dominical, the largest Sunday market in Peru.
IT TAKES US HOURS just to get out of Lima, a city congested with traffic and urban pollution. The bus crawls toward Chosica at the foot of the Andes. Roadside stands sell anticuchos and chicha morada near dirt roads leading to makeshift settlements housing Lima’s poor. Although the highway into the mountains is now paved, it’s still only one lane each way. One lane bumper to bumper with cars, trucks, and buses. It takes over nine hours to get to Huancayo.
As the bus pulls into La Oroya near the highest point on the road, the air is cold. It’s common to feel dizzy and queasy at 12,000 ft. The place is vast and bleak, windswept and ominous. Immense gray and brown cliffs surround the mining town, one of the most contaminated places on earth. A tall smokestack belches residue from the lead smelter. Shantytowns rise up the hillsides, the workers living with poisonous air and water. The town feels deserted except for a few wide-eyed children watching the traffic pass at a snail’s pace.
After La Oroya it’s another 77 miles to Huancayo. The bus crosses the 16,000 ft. pass at Ticlio and begins its slow descent to the fertile green of the Mantaro Valley. It starts to rain and a rainbow appears in the distance. I see it as a good omen.
We’re the only two gringos on the bus, coming to visit the town of Sicaya. It’s my husband’s first trip, but I’ve been here before. It’s where I lived fifty years ago with my former husband when we were Volunteers during the early years of the Peace Corps. I want to see the changes, to close a chapter. As the bus rumbles along, I watch the rain and remember the first time I came here, so young and inexperienced, so eager and terrified, so totally unprepared . . .
THE TOWN ON THE HILL sleeps peacefully in the cold night air. Everything is silent and still except for scrawny dogs prowling for scraps and the rustle of chickens in dusty yards. Far down the valley the lights of a solitary truck make their way toward the steep dirt road leading to the town. The truck carries a pair of gringos coming to live there, to work as community volunteers for the next two years. They’re a young, newly married couple, excited, curious, and apprehensive. The wife rides in the back of the truck so she can feel the cold air and see the countless stars that shine unimpeded by city lights.
As the truck climbs the hill into town, she notices the darkness. There’s no electricity, no streetlamps, nothing to guide their way except the truck’s headlights dancing off adobe walls in a valiant effort to navigate the deeply rutted road. Ahead, the road opens into a small central plaza and she can see light coming from a doorway on the opposite side. It’s the official welcoming committee — the mayor and several town fathers ready to greet the couple by the glow of kerosene lamps. The couple is ushered into a small room where they sit on hard, straight-backed chairs and listen to speeches for the next hour.
She tries to listen politely to words she doesn’t understand while feeling cold and tired, dizzy from the altitude. What she wants more than anything is to sleep in a soft warm bed and wake in a familiar place where she knows what to expect and what’s expected of her. She also knows that won’t happen for a long time.
EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED, of course, but in many ways it’s still the same. Sicaya used to be out in the country, a half hour bus ride from Huancayo, the commercial center. Now it takes twenty minutes by taxi. The open countryside has given way to stores and houses all the way to the road that climbs the hill into town. As we pull into the main plaza, which now has mature trees and a bandstand, there’s a lot of activity — women selling potatoes and corn in a small open-air market, children in school uniforms, a religious procession passing near the church.
The streets around this central area are paved, and electricity is in evidence from the power poles on every corner. When I lived here, there was only one bus that ran a few times a day to and from Huancayo. Now, taxis and colectivos circle the plaza waiting for fares. Transportation is plentiful.
Some of the buildings have grown to three and even five stories, a sure sign of progress. A block full of houses including the Posta Sanitaria, the small medical post where I once worked, has been torn down to make way for a road leading to a large bullring on the edge of town. There’s a plaque at the entrance honoring the town fathers. I recognize some of the names and realize most of them are long gone.
While there’s change, there’s also constancy. The white church and small park in front of it remain the same. Some of the buildings around the main plaza look exactly as they did fifty years ago, whitewashed walls with areas of exposed adobe brick, rough wooden doors. It’s familiar and unfamiliar in equal measure.
On the far side of the plaza is the building where we lived on the second floor, in a room with a narrow balcony overlooking the square. Everything’s still there, almost exactly as it was, except the former cement balcony is now wrought iron, the brown wooden door is now green metal, and the once pale turquoise walls are painted a soft peach. The roof is in serious need of repair with plaster peeling from the overhang, exposing wooden beams.
I remember how cold that room was, especially when the night air came up through gaps in the floorboards. The ground floor used to house the town kindergarten, but now it’s a small tienda. A colorful umbrella shades the open doorway, and I step inside to ask about the upstairs room. No one is there, the place is empty. Instead, I pose outside for pictures, feeling like a stranger . . .
THE ROOM ON THE SECOND FLOOR is dreary and dark. There’s enough space for a small kerosene stove, two tables, a dresser, and a bed with a thin cotton mattress over hard wooden slats. Two small doors with tiny windows open to a narrow cement balcony overlooking the town square. There’s no running water, no electricity. When the sun goes down, darkness and the mountain cold creep into the already shadowy space. A kerosene lantern provides a little warmth and the only light.
Fresh out of college, she’s not prepared for this. Not prepared to haul water in buckets from the faucet on the ground floor, to wash clothes by hand in a tin tub, to cook. With her limited cooking repertoire, she prepares peanut butter sandwiches, tuna casseroles, fried potatoes, and endless cups of Peter’s cocoa with lots of sugar. A treat each month is one shared can of Campbell’s navy bean soup.
The outhouse is at the back of the building and down a flight of narrow wooden stairs. It’s a large pipe in the ground inside an enclosure covered with a ragged tarp. This space also serves as an animal pen housing chickens, guinea pigs, and an old sheep.
This is what life is like in a small Andean town. It’s a far cry from the comfort of the sorority house where everything was provided, and little was expected. This is her new reality.
A short-wave radio provides entertainment: Voice of America broadcasts and endless hours of high-pitched voices singing in Quechua. She reads voraciously, not wanting to go outside because she’s intimidated by her inability to understand or speak, her inability to even bargain for potatoes in the market. The obstacles seem insurmountable, and she feels like a prisoner serving a two-year sentence.
A FEW BLOCKS off the main square, the town is remarkably the same. The streets are still unpaved. The whitewashed adobe houses with their small wooden or metal doors speak silently to their persistence in the face of change. The only evidence of modernization is the row of power poles that march up one side of the street and down the other.
I’m happy to see familiar landmarks, but there are no familiar faces. I ask several people about the family who owned a small tienda across the plaza and about the mayor who lived on the corner. No one knows anything about them. It’s a new generation now. People have moved in and others have moved on.
My thoughts are bittersweet about the visit, but I’m glad I made the effort. I feel tenderness and compassion for my young self who was so terrified in this town without access to the language. After months of hibernation, I finally found work as a nurse’s aide in the small medical post nearby. Nurse Betty came to Sicaya three times a week, and I helped her with basic first aid, health care, and nutrition.
My Spanish vocabulary improved, but never advanced beyond the survival level. I was perpetually stuck in the present tense.
It’s so different for me now. After many summers spent learning Spanish in Mexico, I can finally speak and understand. On this visit there is no language barrier.
Sicaya is moving toward the 21st century. We hear rumors of an airport about to be built outside of town, substantially cutting the travel time from Lima to Huancayo. If that actually happens, Sicaya will boom and prosper in the coming years.
On the third day we begin the long bus journey back to Lima. I feel as though I’ve completed an important chapter in my own journey. As I look out the window at the beautiful green valley and the small towns we pass along the way, I know I’ll probably never see Sicaya again. Suddenly, the memories of those years tumble through my senses: the people who were kind and generous friends during our stay, adobe houses with red tile roofs, thick mud on narrow roads after the rain, the laughter of ruddy-cheeked children, the sun-browned faces of Incan descendants with high cheekbones and jet black hair, the smell of the earth in the women’s heavy woolen skirts, hot sun and cottony clouds in a wide blue sky, the lilting melodies of Quechua and Spanish, and the building on the plaza with that second floor room, my former home, still standing after more than fifty years.
Thea Evensen (Peru 1964-66) has been an ESL teacher for the past 40 years and also a graphic designer and watercolor artist. Her website is theaevensen.com. Last May she spent two weeks working with Central American asylum seekers at Casa del Refugiado in El Paso. She’s traveled widely in Mexico and South America and hopes to see more of Europe and Asia. She is a mother of four and a grandmother of four. Thea and her husband Denis live in beautiful Sonoma County, California.