October 25, 2018

Kibbutz in the Andes

We are spending three weeks in the Sacred Valley of Peru. Cradled by soaring, snow-capped peaks and sustained by a verdant, fertile valley where fields of corn sway in the breeze.

The people here are soft, gentle and friendly. Everyone greets each other with a smile and a warm Buenos Dias. Many dress in their traditional hand-woven clothes of crimson and orange; farmers work the land as the Inca once did, preparing their potato fields with a wooden foot plough; and alpacas and llamas graze the mountain slopes.

I could not be farther from hot, arid, tough Israel.  Yet wherever one travels on this incredible planet, Israelis have been there. I wrote about this in a blog post about a trip to New Zealand. And here in Peru, I find it again, yet in a different form.

We first arrived in Cusco, the largest city in the Sacred Valley and the former capital of the Inca Empire. There is a Chabad in Cusco but as it is closed from October through February, we were on our own to make the best of Shabbat and finding food we could eat.
And with a plethora of vegan restaurants to choose from in Cusco, we were very satisfied.

Wandering the side streets of the old city, we soon came upon many signs in Hebrew. We saw stores offering discounts to Israelis and menus in Hebrew. I did not see shops with signs in Cantonese, French or German – just English, Spanish and Hebrew.  One restaurant even had its name written in Hebrew – Chalom Cachol.  Blue Dream.  As October is off season for tourists, we heard little Hebrew spoken, however, evidence of Israeli travelers was everywhere.

We then traveled around the Sacred Valley, some 500 metres below Cusco. Many of these towns were once inhabited by the Inca and Chimu peoples with their ancient temples, altars and spiritual apus dotting the peaks above. Life in the more remote villages has not changed for 500 years. There is no electricity or running water and hardly a car is seen on the narrow dirt roads. 

People still farm potatoes like their ancestors did and shear alpacas for wool which is dyed with native plants, spun by hand and then woven in intricate designs. These people sleep when the sun sets and wake before it rises. 

Babies are wrapped in blankets and slung on mother’s back while she farms, weaves and cooks. The floors are dirt, the walls adobe, the roofs thatched and a smoky fire burns inside warming the squeaking, scampering guinea pigs (cuy) that will be a prized dish served to mark special occasions.

I could not be farther my life in modern, high-speed, fast-paced, technologically-savvy Israel.

Mural painted by the children
Yet we discovered a beautiful piece of Israel in the Sacred Valley – and it was not in the form of Hebrew writing to attract tourists. We met a couple, an Israeli husband and his Peruvian wife, who run an orphanage in Urubamba and are transforming the lives of the children there.

About five years ago, Avishai and Viviana were given the opportunity to run an orphanage that was orphaned – Mama Kia, the woman who created a safe place for these children had passed away. 

Soledad demonstrating a pan flute.
Full of love and giving, they soon found themselves responsible for 22 children, many of whom had once been victims of abuse and violence. Creating Ninos Del Sol (Children of the Sun),  they decided not to call it an orphanage, rather a home. Avishai explains that he actually prefers to call this place a kibbutz, modeling it on the community where he grew up in Israel – a place where everyone shares and takes responsibility.

We visited them for lunch and were given a tour by the youngest girl there, Soledad. She spoke perfect English, thanks to Avishai and Viviana’s efforts. She first showed us the organic permaculture garden that the children plant and tend, pointing out all the vegetables and herbs. I had never seen quinoa growing before! They had chickens wandering about and Avishai took out a few fresh organic eggs from the coop.
Mural of virtues painted by the children.

Inside, we saw the children’s neat bedrooms and Soleldad explained what each child likes to do. One likes art, the other reading and another music. The children had painted murals on the walls with inspirational messages. Upstairs is an art room and a library. We saw the house mother sitting in the library helping a few children with their homework.

A board hung in the kitchen that listed each child’s chores. They all help out with the cleaning, are in charge of cooking meals on the weekends, take turns gardening and they do the laundry.
Love is freedom. Mural painted by the children.

We sat down for a healthy, delicious lunch with Avishai, Viviana and some of the children. On the wall was a large map of the world that I am sure the children are familiar with. On the counter were glass bottles of home-made yogurt and kimchee. Food here is for health and nurturing.

We learned that these children all excel in school and go to a special after-school academy to improve their studies. Some are already grown up and are at college in Cusco, coming home to visit on weekends and vacations. The younger ones all plan to continue  with higher studies. 

Avishai and Viviana will support them until they are in their mid twenties, yet we were surprised to hear that they receive no money from the government. Money to run this magical place comes from donations and from their own pockets.

The children can earn extra money by guiding tourists. Yesterday, Sanko, a 15-year-old boy, accompanied us with a driver to two sites: the circular terraces of Moray and the salt pans of Salineras, as well as a hike down to the valley. 

He was shy yet slowly opened up, wanting to know about books we had read, movies and bible stories. We asked him if Avishai spoke some Hebrew to him and he replied, "Yes, he tells us to not be a 'rosh katan'." (Literally, a small head or one who does not take responsibility.)

Avishai also celebrates Shabbat with the children every Friday night. They light candles and make Kiddush, the prayer on the wine. Since these children are Peruvian, some from Quechua speaking homes and some Catholic, he changes one word in the Kiddush prayer to incorporate everyone into the sanctity of the day. He says that ‘G-d chose us with all the nations’ and not ‘from all the nations’ as traditionally chanted.

It was enlightening and inspiring. Here in the Sacred Valley is a couple who give all they have to transform the lives of orphaned children. Kids who once had nothing now have everything; these children are open-minded, spiritual, healthy, loved, loving and giving.  And really, this is all we need.