Editors' Choice

My Journey with Anna Maria

by Scott Bernard

He stepped off the beaten path to offer his help.

Three hours above the suspension bridge over the Urabamba River on Peru’s Inca Trail, we stopped at Huayllabamba, a village of a few scattered houses. The porters had set up camp in front of the one room stone school on a rough dirt patch used by the children for play, and I set up my tent among the others. Throughout dinner a woman watched from the shadows at the corner of the school building, stepping forward, then retreating. When everyone was finished with hot chocolate, she crept from the shadows, crossed the black gap between two worlds, and entered the camp light, stepping carefully. She said something quietly and rubbed a finger up and down her forearm.

Our guide took charge, several porters stood to do the same. The woman’s entry into our tourist camp in her town’s schoolyard was to be barred.

Christina, a Canadian trekker who was becoming something of a friend, understood what she was saying. Earlier that day the woman’s daughter had been carrying a pot of hot water and had spilled some and burned her arm. Christina turned to the few of us who had tried to follow and asked if anyone had anything for burns.

Well, I am Joe Camper; I carry antiseptic, Nu-skin gel for blisters, sterile gauze and plenty of tape to solve any problem. I volunteered my kit bag and services.

Heading up the valley, the woman knew every rock in the dark but Christina and I tripped under the shared eye of my headlamp. The house was a mud hut ten feet by twenty, one room with a dirt floor and a smoky fire in one corner. The light of a single candle warmly defined a girl of about eight sitting on the floor covered in a blanket. The woman offered us tea, but our thoughts were on the girl. Her name was Anna Maria. Removal of the blanket revealed a horror. From both forearms and across her chest hung drapes of loose skin; both hands were red with blisters. The pain must have been excruciating and yet she did not cry. Never having seen third degree burns before, I knew them now. My Joe Camper first aid kit felt stupid in my hand. You don’t put anything on this severe a burn; you keep it clean and go straight to the hospital

The only thing I could think to do was against training in any other circumstance. The girl had been sitting in this dirty house since mid day wrapped in a filthy blanket. We had the mother boil some rags in a pot over the fire, then very carefully cleaned the areas as best we could and wrapped Anna Maria’s hands in the extent of my sterile dressing. I was doing this as much as anything, to relieve my feelings of impotence, knowing that when I was finished, Anna Maria would be wrapped in the same unclean blanket.

Having done what little we could, we took the mother outside. With Christina’s help I explained in every way I could that Anna Maria must go to the hospital, around and around, first getting the feeling that the mother understood, then tasting the metallic realization that this was never going to happen. Out of earshot of the child I explained that without a doctor the girl was going to die. Before translating, Christina looked into my eyes and really understood. With tears Christina pleaded; again the woman claimed to understand and assured us that everything would be taken care of.

Christina and I slumped back to camp, in silence. We knew the girl wouldn’t see a doctor.

Angry frustration prevented sleep. Two cultures had touched and neither could comprehend the other. This woman had brought many children into being without a doctor and had possibly seen some die. It was the way of the natural world. The love of her child brought her to the shadows of the schoolhouse and the edge of another universe. Grinding over the words of the night, convinced the girl was going to die, I believed the mother was also afraid that this might happen. In the stillness and dark I tried to quiet my anger and see her world more closely and mine through her eyes.

A constant flow of people walk the mountains for fun with cameras, fine boots, down jackets, and lights they stick to their heads. Three hours down the mountain is the train she took a few times a year to the market in Ollantaytambo. The grown children of her village moved away to find this other world. Her eldest daughter had married and moved to Ollantaytambo, delivering her babies in a hospital with doctors. Her oldest daughter had rejected the mother’s life and that may have been as painful as any death. Now if she allowed herself to believe two strange people, she was faced with losing another daughter. There was no husband to be seen, no men at all around. She had several small children to take care of and the farm that had been her life; there was no money for the train, no money for the doctor. As my anger ebbed, my frustration grew; there was nothing I could do to change sad truths.

Staring at the ceiling in my dark tent it came to me, as tears like warm molasses puddled in my eyes. How stupid; of course there was something I could do.

With the light of dawn came the stirrings of porters. Dressing, I went to Christina’s tent, found her awake and told her my plan. I remind her that I had done the trail the year before and had seen Machu Picchu; carrying my own gear, I could always start again in a few days.

The day before I had been part of a group of 12 tourists: it had taken me all night to regain the viewpoint of an individual. What had been hard stumbling the night before now seemed effortless. Arriving in minutes to the house we could see Anna Maria through the open door, sitting on the floor shucking corn. She held an ear between bare feet and with one bandaged hand slowly peeled the green leaves. The mother, surprised to see us, a little anger in her eyes, pointed to her girl and how well she was coping. This was not an argument; she desperately wanted to hear everything would be all right after all.

Starting where we had left off, we took another tack. A good mother’s pride and our blindness had left important parameters of the problem unsaid. Explaining that I would take the girl down to the train, I said, I would pay for the train and the doctor and would see Anna Maria safely back home as soon as possible. The woman’s body melted.

There were still arguments but we met each with an answer. An older sister, maybe 15, would come too, for safety. They would stay overnight with the married sister in Ollantaytambo. Eventually the arguments came more slowly and the fine points were sanded smooth. The daily eastbound train came through at 2 p.m.; I would come back to the house at 11 so we could start down. At the suspension bridge there was a police check post. It would cause a problem if these young girls were seen traveling with a strange foreign man; we would cross separately.

Without Christina’s help I could have gotten nowhere with these negotiations. The sun was licking the mountain peaks across the valley when all was settled. We parted with our understanding and rushed back to camp.

Breakfast was over; camp had been packed, including my gear as we entered the schoolyard. Most of the others had started up the trail. Our guide breathed impatience as we quickly explained what had transpired in the last twelve hours and that I would not be continuing with the group. It is a very grave thing for a guide to lose any client from a tour; I hoped Christina could eventually explain the situation.

Disentangling my belongings from the porter, I stood with Christina for a moment; I could smell the sunshine and her hair. She leaned up and kissed my cheek, then turned without a word and was gone.

At 10:30 a.m. the little house was exactly as we had left it hours before. Children played in the yard, Anna Maria sat huddled under her unfortunate blanket and her mother tended the fire. Swallowing crashing insecurity, I entered the open door saying in cheerful English, “Well is everyone packed? Let’s get this show on the road.” As the mother turned I could tell we were right back where we had started.

The 15-year-old did not want to go, or maybe the mother had thought about leaving two daughters in the hands of a strange man. At this point my emotions erupted in broken Spanish with English swear words, “We are going, now! We are going.” As the mother wavered I took my time and said in Spanish, “If your daughter does not go, she will die!” Looking at Anna Maria I pantomimed to get dressed. She heard what I said; children always understood my poor Spanish. She got up to get ready. Both her mother and I saw the veils of skin draped from her arms.

I pointed to my pack, indicating that I would leave it there; I had no desire to carry a full pack down and then back up the mountain, my daypack would be fine for an overnight in town. My trust allowed the mother to trust. We were going!

After she dressed, with her mother’s careful help, Anna Maria disappeared up the path. She did not own a pair of shoes and went to borrow a pair for the journey. A fight started between the mother and the 15-year-old. The mother won, but the girl had been to town before and had to wash her hair. Her mother went to find a certain dress. It was three hours down to make the train and this was surreal. Anna Maria was nowhere to be found and her sister was calmly washing her long black hair. For some reason, I have never been able to remember this girl’s name.

It was an anguishing hour but everything got sorted out. At 11:30 we started down. Anna Maria carried her borrowed shoes in swollen hands; the sister and I carried small packs. We traveled separately, me chasing as best I could, accomplishing the three-hour trip to the river in half that time. Again I realized whose world I was in and thanked God I had left my pack. The bored official at the bridge asked a few questions about why I wasn’t in the sign-in book and had no pass receipt indicating I had paid the $15 trail use fee. We never really solved this mystery.

Over the next hour the shanties became a train station. I bought the three of us Cokes and was paid back a million-fold by Anna Maria’s sweet smile. The sister spent her time with others her age flipping her freshly washed hair. We ticked our time, sharing tangerines in briefly truncated, textured silences. Not only were Anna Maria’s hands hot to the touch but also her forehead.

A smoky avalanche, the train finally rumbled into our silence. I saw something in Anna Maria’s eyes that I had seen just before convincing her to get up and dressed. She might never have ridden a train before. She was terrified.

Through pushing and shoving we climbed onto the train already packed to bursting. The sister boarded with a group of friends. Every jostle was excruciating for Anna Maria but she never cried beyond a whisper. We made it up the three steps to the platform between cars but entering was beyond thought.

Leaning against the back wall, Anna Maria could only use one hand and banged about like a rag doll. I gripped the bars of the window and braced my legs cradling her. We had space. In front of me was a frightened little girl. We looked out the open window at the car behind. To either side were open doors and the stairs down, behind: the closed door to the chaotic activity inside the car. Six people shared the platform, but at the window, we had air. At every village the train stopped and incoming waves crashed through the departing; vendors piled on with bowls of chocolo con queso and cases of soda. As the train started up the vendors scrambled to get off. I walled our space with an iron back.

The carnival I had left in Cusco was equally enjoyed in the countryside, the train bringing out the younger villagers with water balloons. In our semi-open platform we were tangential casualties. When we stopped we were sitting ducks. Carnival went on in the cars as well, the young passengers had water guns. The only time I saw the sister she was climbing people, chasing a boy with a squirt gun. The two of us spent two hours cold and wet, staring at the car behind.

Finally arriving in Ollantaytambo, I wanted to rage at the world but Anna Maria had not shed a tear. We walked into town to the little clinic. The doctor briefly examined the burns, then looked at the two girls and then at me and asked who was going to pay. I said everything should be done that could be done; payment would not be an issue.

Washing his hands in the bathroom sink next to the squat toilet, the doctor very carefully and gently cleaned the areas, removing some of the loose skin and repositioned other bits. Then he wrapped Anna Maria’s chest, arms and hands in clean bandages. When he was done the doctor and I sat in the only other room in the clinic. I sat in a kindergarten chair across the huge desk as he took a very long time explaining the bill. It came to about eight dollars.

Looking up and down at the bill I asked, “But what about medicine? Shouldn’t she have something like penicillin for infection?”

“Oh yes,” he said. “She should definitely have penicillin. Will you pay for penicillin?” Fishing a plastic packet of pills from a cabinet, he thought I had done this to the girl. Pointing out my obvious weak Spanish, I asked him to explain everything to the two girls. The doctor explained how the wraps must be kept clean and dry, how one pill should be taken three times a day until they were all gone, and how he wanted to re-examine Anna Maria two days later before we went back up.

Outside the clinic we made plans to meet Saturday morning 8 a.m. before returning to Huayllabamba. As they started out for their sister’s house it was made plain that I was not invited, so I pointed out a hotel across the street and indicated that this was where I would be. As they turned out of sight I awoke from mental exhaustion and being further flustered at the snub, realizing I had let my responsibility pass into the hands of an irresponsible 15-year-old

The next day I shuffled around the small town hoping to run into the two girls, with no luck, I wandered up into the countryside. I returned to town in time to find a little alpaca cardigan for Anna Maria. Her pullover must have been excruciating to don, if not impossible, wrapped up as she was.

Saturday morning I sat at the clinic for over an hour. The doctor came and opened up and I waited. At about twenty minutes to nine the girls passed in the back of a pickup truck and were lost in a cloud of dust headed for the train. Grabbing my bag, running for the station, my head was spinning. Surely, I calmed myself; they would not head back if all was not well.

Arriving at the station I found the two girls and met the older sister, Marta. Anna Maria was no longer wearing the bandages, her arms and hands looked like balloons. They had arrived at Marta’s house and had taken off the uncomfortable bandages. They had thrown away the pills.

Anna Maria was in terrible pain. I explained to Marta that obviously her sister was very sick and getting worse. Feeling her burning forehead I insisted that if she didn’t go back to the clinic and do what the doctor said, she was going to die. At this point Anna Maria finally started to cry. A train whistle sounded just up the tracks. A decision had to be made and it was Marta who had to make it, I couldn’t drag an eight-year-old through the streets any more than I could make her keep the bandages on.

Marta agreed that we would see a doctor again but not here at the clinic. She wanted to go to the hospital in Urabamba where she had given birth to her babies. With a sigh of relief and exasperation, I felt all would be well. Then the 15-year-old announced that she had had enough, she was going back on this train. About to argue my responsibilities and the promises to their mother a cold look from Marta froze my tongue.

We put the teenager on the train and headed up the Sacred Valley on a bus to Urabamba. At the hospital the same first question about payment was aimed at me. The doctor cleaned and dressed the burns. He explained the dressing and the pills to Marta. I asked in front of the girls, “If she does not take the pills will she die?” He answered, “Yes she would certainly die.”

The bill was as tiny as it had been before but when I did the math, I realized paying it left us without enough for the bus and train back home. I made a deal with the doctor involving my camera. Putting the young woman and her little sister on a bus with Marta’s promise to personally conduct her sister home, I believed they both accepted what the doctor had said. As they headed west down the Urabamba valley, I headed east toward Cusco.

Sunday, re-supplied with funds from my hotel, I set off, first to Urabamba to redeem my camera, and then on to Ollantaytambo where I found no afternoon train runs on Sunday. The next morning I rode the train and climbed back up to the one room house. Three children played in the yard, one shouted at the open door. Mother stepped to the door with a huge smile.

The teenager had reached home Saturday mid-day with a confused story. The other two made it about dark. Anna Maria spent the next 36-hours in bed and Marta had a good long visit with her family. The father and uncle had come down from the high fields. I felt Anna Maria’s forehead, the fever was slight and one bandaged arm poked out of the covers.

Receiving introductions all around, I started to pick up my left luggage and bid farewell when it became obvious that I was expected to stay. A special dinner had been planned. The two men offered me a liter beer bottle and I did what came naturally, I took a big draw. Half of what went down came back up through my nose; it was not beer but local white lightning. Thunderous laughter from everyone and rain drops to my eyes. Wiping my chin, I took a smaller sip and the dinner party was underway. We made small talk. Though the children spoke a little Spanish, the adults spoke to each other in Quesua, the Indian dialect. It had not occurred to Christina or me that a problem with our communication days before had been that we were using the wrong language.

Marta was patient enough to wrestle with my attempts at Spanish; we sat on the dirt floor in the smoky room. In the house with the large family lived a dozen guinea pigs. Mother chased them about, sprawled under the bed; emerging triumphantly with one in each hand she held them by the heads and with a flick of the wrists snapped the two necks, then chucked them into what I assumed was the offending pot of boiling water.

Briefly bubbled, the steaming bodies were fished out and patted dry with a rag. The boiling had loosened the hair. By the time the bottle had been passed again there were two huge naked rats lying on the dirt floor. Mother split them anus to chin and into another pot went the steaming insides. I thanked God when this pot was put on a shelf for another meal. The two gutted carcasses were skewered and tucked into the fire. The boiling pot received potatoes, then ears of chocolo. Including myself I counted five adults and five children; I was going to sample the Peruvian delicacy cuy and figured I would perhaps try a little drumstick. With another sip or two I was convinced I could do this with grace.

Never good at cocktail party small talk, eventually I drifted outside to play with the children. I found a few bottle caps and demonstrated how to thumb snap them across the yard. The two men would not let me escape the bottle and followed me outside. The party games were soon interrupted as dinner was served.

I was handed a plate with potatoes, an ear of corn and a full half a cuy. Instead of being cut up and divided equally among ten, half a burned guinea pig was presented to me in honor with its snarling smile, glassy eyes, and charred paws.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor I took a bite of potato, then several bites of chocolo. The bottle was passed again and I ventured a bite of cuy: a small bite of the rear leg. Cuy has very tough skin and with my first tentative bite came the entirety of it. As I chewed, mouth stuffed, I nodded and smiled at the inquiring eyes all around, wondering what they might think being handed their first Boston boiled lobster. All hopes of grace were gone but I enjoyed the meal immensely.

Anna Maria woke in the middle of dinner and was given a small plate in bed. She was much better. She didn’t speak and would not look at me if I looked at her.

After dinner and cleaning up I motioned that I wanted to take a picture of the family before the evening light was gone. Some of the children were impossible, but the adults assembled in front of the house. Anna Maria came out and positioned herself in the back, the cardigan over her shoulders, a smile streaking her face. I asked the father to take a photo of me with the family. He held the camera chest high and pressed the button I had indicated. Though he missed my head this too was a very special picture.

After dark the three of us men took the bottle and in white lightning committee, set up my tent in the starlight of the side yard. Though several dozen tents pass through the village every week and the schoolyard is often used as camp, my tent was a marvel from another planet, as if Martians had been landing for years and had never explained the simplicity of their spacecraft.

At first light I was awakened with coca tea and warm bread with honey and coarse sugar sprinkled on top. I glided the next three days over magical mountains to Machu Picchu, a place I had barely seen the year before.


I returned to Huayllabamba twice; a year later with pictures, an excuse to go back, then three years later I did the Inca trail with my friend Nancy. Finding Anna Maria at the back of the schoolhouse I recognized her immediately. I had brought a hand mirror and a hairbrush and some packets of seeds from the states. I had tomato, carrot, and watermelon seeds that I had been told would grow anywhere. Wondering what they might think of their first watermelon, I became convinced that she had no idea who I was.

Later, far up the trail, Nancy and I stopped to set our camp. A man approached with a big smile. It was Anna Maria’s father. He had chased after us, two hours up the mountain, with a bag of bread.


Scott Bernard is a writer currently traveling in Peru.



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