Posted by David:
One of the amazing things about traveling is the opportunity to cross paths with people whose lives couldn´t be more different than ours and yet for some short period, we end up in the same place at the same time and have the chance to share our stories (well, really it´s me asking a lot of questions and hearing their stories. Occasionally I´ll add a tale or two about Skokie before quickly getting back to their story). Here is the story of Flavio, our guide through the Andes Mountains on our way to see Machu Pichu.
Flavio is from a very remote Quechua village in the Andes where the families are subsistence farmers. The houses are made from adobe bricks with with grass roofts. Most villages like this didn’t have electricity until 10 or 12 years ago. The main language of these people Is Qechua, the language of the Inca people. He was the last of 9 children and his mother died when he was 14 months old. After his mother died, his father was not able to care for all the kids so the older children left and took the younger ones along and never returned. Flavio was an infant and remained alone with his father who was an alcoholic. Flavio said that he does not know how he survived alone with his dad. He has very early memories of going to the neighbors´ house to be fed.
When he was 8 years old, his father told him that they were going to take a trip to Cusco which was the nearest city to their village. Flavio was excited. When they arrived in Cusco, Flavio´s father brought him to the home of a family he didn’t know. They operated a restaurant in town. He told Flavio that he was going to live with this family from now on as they could take care of him better. What his father didn´t say was that he was now obligated to work in the family´s restaurant, ten hours a day, seven days a week for the next ten years of his life. The family had six kids of their own but none of them worked in the restaurant. The father regularly berated Flavio, occassionaly hit him,and told him that he would never amount to anything but a dishwasher. In exchange for working in the restaurant, Flavio was able to go to school in the evening through secondary school and was also fed and clothed. He recalls seeing his father once during those 10 years in Cusco as well as one of his brothers. The rest of his biological family was lost to him.
After finishing school, he joined the Peruvian army and volunteered to be part of the special -forces unit who was fighting a war against the Marxist Shining Path Guerillas. During basic training, he was severely beaten by an officer for being unable to hit the target with a rifle. While recuperating in the base hospital, a captain came to visit him and asked him if he was right or left handed. He had been trying to shoot right handed like the rest of the squad which was why he couldn´t hit the target. Once he began shooting left handed, he was the best shot in the unit and was assigned to protect the unit´s captain in the jungle. It was during this period of his life when Flavio had to come to terms with a difficult dichotomy: on the one hand, he was told by his guardian and boss that he would never amount to anything more than a dishwasher and on the other hand he was being told by the Peruvian army that he was strong and in complete control of his destiny. He chose to believe the army and it was a major turning point in his life.
During his time in the Amazon jungle, he lost 19 of his fellow soldiers to guerilla warfare, but somehow he survived. After being ambushed during one mission, the surviving members of his unit were lost for more than 8 days in the jungle. When they returned to their base, The found that the army had pronounced them dead after 24 hours. That’s how dangerous this guerilla war was.
After his traumatic time in the army, Flavio decided to learn English and go to school to earn a degree in tourism. He succeeded in both and was eventually able to find work as a guide. He has been leading treks all over Peru for 11 years and lives with his wife and two young kids in Cusco.
Only two of the six children of the restaurant owner actually have jobs while Flavio is thriving.He has been able to offer help (financial and otherwise) to his older siblings who he rediscovered as an adult. He is the first professional to come from his village and returns every year to give back whatever he can and offering thanks in spite of his 8 difficult years there. I asked him if he is bitter at his father or older siblings or the people that took him in and made him work. He said he has no hard feelings for anyone. As hard as it is to understand, I believe him and find it incredible.