4th of July in Cusco, Peru

A View of Cusco

Since it’s America Day, I thought I would write a blog post about privilege. While I ate Doritos, deviled eggs, ice cream, macaroni and cheese and hot dogs today, I thought about some of the experiences I’ve had here that have made me both terrified and very appreciative. Here is one story:

Our volunteers have been in community for a few weeks now and, since then, I’ve spent a lot of time at the hospital. So far, we’ve seen one orthopedic injury that required surgery, one case of salmonella, a handful of gastrointestinal infections, the case of Giardia that I suspect I am currently suffering and, a few nights ago, a miscarriage.

Now, when our volunteers get sick we call our regular doctor, he makes a home visit and we pay him $25. When someone requires extensive treatment, we go to the fancy private clinic here in Cusco. When one of our volunteers broke her foot, she stayed in a suite, nurses changed her sheets every morning, staff slept on the couch under a heavy wool blanket and we all watched cable television for a few days. It was boring, but not terrible. Doctors let us ask questions, we got lists of the medications. I was allowed to watch the surgery and even got to keep a pair of scrubs. It was not a bad place, relatively speaking, to spend a few days. And the grand total? For two patients, seven nights in the hospital, one surgery and a pharmacy’s worth of medication, we only paid $1,024. To me, this seems like a pretty good deal. I could come to Cusco for all of my medical needs. This is pretty cheap, considering. This, however, is way more than the average Peruvian can afford. As I’ve mentioned before, life in the communities surrounding Cusco is hand-to-mouth. There is no real disposable income. So when most Peruvians get sick, they don’t get taken care of at the private clinic. So where do they go? The regional hospital, which is where one of our Peruvian colleagues had to go when she had a miscarriage the other night.

She was on her way to help our United States volunteers host an educational activity in their community, which is located a three-hour bus ride outside of the city of Cusco, when she started bleeding. She got to the community around 6 p.m. and it wasn’t until 8 p.m. that the girl was in an ambulance – she had been too scared to call right away and then the nearest medical center was over an hour away anyway. Once she was in the ambulance, the nurse had to fill out paperwork. Moreover, they had to make sure that the girl could pay for the gas required to take her to the hospital in Cusco. The ambulance stopped in a municipal center while our volunteers handed over about $50 in cash to pay for gas. Meanwhile, the girl was receiving only rehydration therapy.

The ambulance arrived at the emergency room of the Regional Hospital around midnight – our colleague had miscarried over five hours before and had been losing a small amount of blood ever since. At the hospital, no one would tell us what was going on. No one would let us in the room. We ran behind her as she was pushed in a wheelchair through green and brown hallways lined with dying patients. A little girl vomited blood in the hallway. They finally admitted our colleague to a room with seven other patient beds. No one was allowed to spend the night with her. Our colleague said the next morning that her roommate had cried the entire night. She had been raped and given birth that night. A nurse who didn’t know the girl’s story had lectured her about being a single mother and then berated her for not knowing where the father of her baby was. Another nurse referred to them all as “girls in trouble.”

They discharged our friend in the morning and she’s fine now. But the experience really put into harsh perspective our privileged position here in Cusco. We send our volunteers out into the field to experience the reality of living in rural communities and, hopefully, to give something back. They learn how to live with limited resources but they only stay for two months and they rarely, if ever, see anything bad happen to their host families and host community  members. They don’t often experience the reality of what it’s like to be extremely poor during weaker moments, when the bare minimum of resources isn’t enough. If our volunteers get sick here, they have a huge safety net and they feel extremely secure in this knowledge. Having seen the public hospital in Cusco, I can’t say the same for their community members.

This has all made me think about what we are bringing to communities here in Cusco. I believe very strongly in this program, in its mission and its goals. And I know that a lot of good can come out of it – I’ve seen it happen in Honduras, in Panama and in the Dominican Republic. But I’ve started to think, if all we do is bring them a cultural exchange experience, is that really enough? We’re taking away valuable resources – food, space, money – and giving them a fuzzy get-to-know-you experience? Is that worth it? What if they need that money someday to pay for an ambulance ride into Cusco and we took it away from them? I’m starting to think that our presence here needs to have more concrete benefits. Here, at least, we need to leave more than we take with us. But how? And how do we express that to volunteers without making them feel guilty? Or should they feel guilty – just like I did the entire time I was at that hospital.

Posted by Samantha Balaban – MA Candidate at CLACS/Global Journalism at NYU

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