There is a place that exists, hidden from the rest of the world by a formidable mountain rage, forgotten, or maybe, simply, yet to be acknowledged. Lacking electricity, the millions of stars that appear every night in the heavens are the only primetime shows the people have ever known. Survival depends on the land, thus the weather dictates the extremity of the poverty these people are exposed to daily. The sunrise can find a whole family huddled in their small kitchen with no windows or ventilation, braving the smoke for a chance to sit closer to the fire while tortillas are flipped in the skillet. Silence becomes a remarkable companion for anyone visiting from below, who has unconsciously become accustomed to a constant stream of noises and distractions.
Up until two weeks ago I had no idea that a place like the Meseta Andia existed. I had heard tales from my good friend Padre Kevin (a Priest from England) who has made two visits to “Las Altura” (the Heights, as the Meseta Andina is referred to by the people in the town below). Padre Kevin works in the Parish of Frias in the Andes Mountains. His parish includes about 100 small pueblos scattered throughout the mountainous terrain, 14 of which are on the Meseta. Padre Kevin, along with the another Peruvian Priest, deacon, and 3 Marist Sisters spend much of their time traveling to each pueblito, ensuring that each one is visited by a priest or nun at least once a year. Padre Kevin showed us pictures and told us tales of sitting around for hours waiting for the person from the next town to come with the horses to lead you to the next pubelito, eating small potatoes, cheese, and tortillas for breakfast lunch and dinner, and staying in the house of a local, sharing food, shelter, and sometimes a bed with these generous people, willing to share what little they have. The stories were impressive, they sparked my imagination and my interest, but they were never able to convey the immense beauty of the Meseta and the people who have made it their home.
Padre Kevin invited my roommates and me to experience the Meseta, accompanying him on one of his pastoral visits. Brenden and I traveled with Padre Kevin while Roger and Ellen went with Hermana Palepa on her visits. We planned to visit three villages, helping Padre Kevin to hold meetings, talk to school children, hold mass, and, yes, sing (a lot). Walking up to the Meseta, it is hard to imagine that anyone lives on the summit of the mountain peaks. The five hour walk up seems to lead to a dead end, the top of the mountain, and nothing more, but the efforts are rewarded, and as the last bend of the trail opens up a whole different world is revealed. As though from a storybook, green hills and small brooks and bright flowers can be found 3,000 meters up, at the summit of a mountain. This place is so cut off from the outside world, only accessible by foot or horse due to a heavy rainy season, it is a sensation unlike any other, as though you have been lead into a different world, where time is slower, and the petty stresses of the world below become insignificant.
In our 4 days, we were welcomed warmly into three different, yet beautiful and generous families. I never appreciated the simple beauty of a mass, a blessing I have taken for granted my whole life, until I celebrated with people who know that this is their own chance to receive Eucharist, talk with a Priest, and celebrate sacraments for an entire year. After mass, instead of rushing off to their busy lives, the people gather, and out of nowhere they begin to pull out food, whatever they may have, and put it all on a table. The people who have just shared the Bread of Christ break the bread of their own hands, of their own sweat, and of their own land; with their neighbors. The food my appear meager by normal standards, but becomes, like the loaves and the fishes, sufficient to feed all of the eager mouths, and everyone leaves knowing they have eaten food given and made of love, shared with neighbors and friends.
Our experience in “Las Alturas” was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. It opened for me new perspectives and expanded my understanding of the world in which we live. I will never forget the people I encountered on the Meseta. Though I doubt I will ever be able to make the trip again, it is a memory I will return to countless times in my life. The tranquility and peace I felt during my visit is something I will always remember and strive to maintain despite the stresses and distractions the sometimes try to overpower.
Chulucanas, Peru 2005-2006