Causa for a Greater Cause

I have always loved cooking. Even ate the age of four, I can remember climbing up to my family’s kitchen counter to help make chocolate chips cookies. This passion continued throughout my life, as I worked at various restaurants and made artisan breads to sell at local farmer’s markets this previous summer. I hope to eventually have a career in food security, striving for easier access to healthy foods for all people.

While on SST in Peru, I was fortunate enough to be placed with a family during study who shared the same love for food. My host grandmother, Alicia, was the cook for our group and my father, Glicerio, was a cook at a local hotel. One Saturday I spent nearly six hours cooking with Alicia. We had a grand feast in the evening with all of our family, eating lots of Peruvian favorites, tallarín verde, causa and sopa de pollo.

A Return for the Song

I had always known about the LANSA flight 502 plane crash on August 9, 1970 that killed 99 of the 100 Peruvians and Americans on board. I had always known about the flight that killed Albert Sarfert III, an eighth grader from New Jersey who had been participating in a summer study abroad program in Peru. I had always known about the flight that killed my mom’s brother, but it wasn’t until I went to Peru myself that I stumbled upon a tangible piece of my family’s history.

In the weeks before I left for Peru on SST, my mom showed me newspaper articles from the crash and pictures of a memorial site that was supposedly located (according to Wikipedia) on a mountainside near Cusco’s San Jerónimo district for the victims. Coincidence hit hard when I found out that our first portion of study was to take place in that very district. I knew no other specifics of its location, but it was enough to instill within me an incredible drive to find the memorial that no one in my family had seen, and gain a deeper understanding of the event that instantly changed the lives of my mother and her family.

A Walk Through the Thorns

On a hot afternoon in Olanchito, Honduras, I walked back on the dusty streets from the edge of town after my last home visit for the day. I loved my SST service assignment teaching adults in a banana plantation town how to read and write. I would visit their homes several times a week for an hour or two of tutoring in Spanish.

One of the families had four students: Senora Alvarado and her three oldest daughters. The visit would last the entire afternoon, and I treasured our time together. Senora Alvarado lived in a very small, one-room cabin with her 13 children. We always had our lessons on one of the benches outside the house, as all the space inside was taken up with hammocks and cots. I had never been invited inside, but I could see those hammocks through the cotton curtain that covered the doorway.

Her cooking fire was outside, and every day she would prepare strong coffee for me from freshly roasted beans. It seemed that coffee beans and bananas were all they could afford. It didn’t occur to me until much later while in medical school that the explanation for the blond hair and protruding belly of her youngest child was malnutrition.

The Mystery Woman

Her face was etched with deep wrinkles. Her back hunched from decades of carrying the world — in all its forms — on her back. Her black hair had turned silver, shimmering in its long braid under low light.

As I revisit her features now, two years later, each detail seems harnessed with my Peruvian experience. But in that moment, they only represented my fears.

I had been living in Cusco, Peru for less than a week — not enough time to yet have a routine, but sufficient time to avoid getting lost in the mountains of Cusco. After school I would return to my new home of Lucre, a small agricultural town imprinted on the side of the Cusquenan Andes. Our first bus up the mountain seemed laden with handsy men and only enough oxygen for two thirds of its passengers. I felt scornful eyes on me as I struggled to occupy the least amount of space possible.

But perhaps the scorn was my own, as I became increasingly more aware of my whiteness. Our eventual stop in Huacarpay yielded fresh air and a taxi ride of seven adults up the mountain to Lucre (what later came to feel like a spacious ride). Here, I would leave my peers, anxiously cross the makeshift bridge and join my family at their new fish restaurant, where we would eat dinner and I would do my best, through broken Spanish, to tell my family what I learned that day.

From Sipping Tea to Downing Coffee: Life After SST

Five seconds after I’m awake, I check my phone. I respond quickly to the most urgent emails, scan my 12 appointments for the day, down a quick cup of coffee and bike to my first class at 8:30 a.m. I’ll be leading design processes, teaching directing for the stage, organizing rehearsals and planning projects for the next 16 hours, before getting a little sleep and doing it all again the next day.

I am in my first year of grad school. Life wasn’t always like this.

Five and half years ago, I was sitting on a bamboo mat, looking out across endless rice fields in Cambodia’s poorest province, Prey Veng. My service days included glorious hour-long moto rides across vast fields and sitting for hours at a time listening to conversations I couldn’t understand. I was living a life supremely different from the one I am now.