High Altitude Padre

Pamela Coulston with Peruvian children, showing camera.
"If faith doesn't change your life, if faith doesn't make you change your family's life, if faith doesn't move you to change your community's life for the better, then what's it worth?"
Father David Johnson

Nothing. Not one fish. Not even a bite. I've completely encircled this damned but apparently fish-full lake high in the mountains of Pamparomas, a remote district in Peru's Cordillera Negra, trying to reel in my part of tonight's dinner. I would have long since headed back to camp but the priest insists I catch a fish.

Father David Johnson is relentless in his pursuit of fish. The arc we make trekking through this range links a series of small trout-stocked lakes like a string of freshwater pearls. We drop a line in each one of them. He's landed a number of fish, which I attribute to his celestial connections; I, more than a little behind in my prayers, have caught squat.

No doubt another one of the reasons Father David loves this stretch of the Andes is that it brings him more than 5,500 metres closer to God. Up here, only condors flying on four-metre wingspans reach farther to heaven. God and fish.

Father David grew up under the shadow of a mountain range a world away in the coastal mountains of British Columbia. His appearance and demeanor suggests his small town Canadian roots and disguises Father David's true vocation. He is an affable prankster, all too evident one night in a water gun duel with a Peruvian priest. His beard is untended and the impromptu haircut he receives in the village square from the cobbler's wife (the snippets blowing away to tangle in the flowers and bushes) leaves a white outline between his ruddy face and sun-lightened hair (halo being the appropriate analogy). He is built solid and clothed in plaid shirt, jeans and hiking boots. Father David looks like a tree planter, an environmentalist, a biologist on field studies; he does not look like a priest.

The geography of Peru runs in north-south parallel lines. The waters of the southern Pacific, cooled by the Humboldt Current, wash the entire 2,500-kilometre length of Peru's western frontier. The Atacama, a surprisingly narrow strip of desert and one of the driest in the world, follows that entire coastline. Moving eastward and inland, the dozens of individual ranges or "cordilleras" which comprise the Andes stack up in vertical slices like the bellows of an accordion: range, valley, range, valley. The mountains then drop down to the ceja de la selva ("eyebrow of the jungle") and into the fathomless jungle of the Amazon basin.

In northern Peru, at the edge of the sandbox, the first range is the Cordillera Negra followed by the Cordillera Blanca, the highest tropical mountain chain in the world. Black then white. The snow covered Cordillera Blanca (hence the name) has the greatest number of peaks higher than 6,000 metres of any mountain range except the Himalayas. Its crown jewel is Huascaran, a peak reaching 6,768 metres and the centre of this designated world heritage site. Each year an estimated 150,000 people visit Huascaran National Park. On the other side of the 180km-long Huaylas Valley, the Black Range pales somewhat in comparison. Virtually no one goes to Cordillera Negra. Except for us. We went to Cordillera Negra.

A Canadian friend working in Lima, Ken Neufeld, had invited us to Peru. Ken had been impressed by the development efforts of Father David and by the incredible landscape of his parish. Knowing we had a taste for remote travel Ken had been dogged in his efforts to connect us with the transplanted British Columbian and make other arrangements. He also made the long drive to drop us in the cordillera. We spent the first night near Yungay in the Huaylas Valley before heading to Father David's parish of the rugged District of Pamparomas set high in the Cordillera Negra. Peru straddles the cadena del fuego "chain of fire," a deadly combination of volcanic strip astride a geological fault. Seismic activity in the sierra produces an additional threat of breaching highland lakes and sending tons of mud and water down into the valleys. In 1970, such a slide completely interred Yungay and its 18,000 residents under metres of mud. The tops of three palm trees remain to flag the site.

On the second morning, Father David was waiting for us on a dirt road high on the tree-less ridge back of the cordillera, somewhere in God's back-40. It was a height at which even the Jeeps had begun to gasp in the increasingly rarified air. He was leaning against his beaten but backroad-worthy truck listening to the radio's unfortunately good reception of Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive. Our introductions were short. We had a full day of visits in the parish and we were already late for breakfast.

Is not this the fast that I chose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke?
- Isaiah 58:6

Ten years ago, Father David came to Peru as a young seminarian looking for more than just religious contemplation. He had worked with Mother Teresa's missions in Haiti and Mexico but found their emphasis on prayer and the religious community left him unfulfilled; what David wanted was to help people in need. "For me the apostolic life is most important, being with the people, being in the reality. I don't have a calling for religious life," he continued, "I have a calling to be a priest." In 1992, he followed his calling and was ordained in the town of Moro at the western base of Cordillera Negra, which, together with the District of Pamparomas, comprises his parish today.

In Pamparomas, mass and religious duties make up the least of Father David's day. When he does perform them they are done, as he says, "in the reality." It is critical to David that both the church and himself are relevant and not set apart from the parishioners. All his meals are eaten in the modest local restaurants and he has tried, unsuccessfully, to convince them to drop the title of 'Father' and simply call him David.

Before ringing the bell for the Wednesday evening service, he chatted and laughed in the town square with the cobbler's wife and the owner of the tiny dry goods store. About thirty people wandered into the church that night, each of which he greeted individually, his jeans poking out from under his white alb. He inquired about their health and listened to news about a cow that had died leaving a lamenting calf in the care of the sad young storyteller. He blessed and gave host to small frail bodies wrapped in traditional shawls and ponchos and a teenager in a Chicago Bulls jacket. The people of Pamparomas recognize his dedication and in turn appear highly respectful and concerned for David. When he was sick with typhoid and hepatitis, they nursed him back to health. As we traveled through one small village, where an old man had broken his collarbone, David was stopped every few metres by residents wanting to know of his recovery. They listened intently, quietly encouraging David's report with a respectful "ya Padre, ya Padre" and entrusting him with tiny handfuls of soles to pay for the hospital costs.

"God created people with innate talents and dignities which is expressed in culture. As a priest, to preach faith in God I must recognize that beauty."
- Father David Johnson

The church in Pamparomas, rebuilt after the 1970 earthquake, is mission architecture with metre-thick walls and a corrugated tin roof. By Father David's own admission it is too big for a congregation of only a few hundred. Behind the altar two large murals have been painted in joyous Latin American liberation style. In one, an athletic Jesus, muscled, exuberant and hair flowing, runs with arms raised as if crossing a finish line of salvation. The hands of God reach down to offer heavenly encouragement and below natives, women and the infirm break through the chains and barbed wire of bondage and servitude.

In the other mural, a mammoth pair of disembodied, cupped hands surrounded by an idyllic pastoral scene of hillocks, snow-capped mountains, a small village and cultivated fields, spill water into an ocean below. It is not simply a scene of the Promised Land it is a scene taken right out of Pamparomas. Except for the hands of God, it was what we saw when we arrived in the ridge back village of Ochsapampa the morning David met us.

A slightly cacophonous assortment of musicians was playing when we arrived in Ochsapampa, which was less a village than a gathering of families. We were given a quick tour of community projects, including potato fermentation. A few small holes in the earth beside a trickle of a stream were filled with little red and yellow potatoes and covered with water. They will remain like that for up to eight months at which time they will be chock-a-block full of penicillin and eaten as a tonic either boiled or as a sweet mash.

Nearby in a small nursery seedlings were emerging, on their way to becoming eucalyptus, pine, cedar and tumbo serrano trees, a native tree that bears fruit similar to passion fruit. Deforestation in Pamparomas is a critical issue as it is throughout the world. But it didn't arrive as it did elsewhere with the overly consuming, overly populated late 20th century. Deforestation was already occurring during Incan times and in the 19th century great quantities of trees were cut for steamships and firewood, eventually denuding the region.

The village entourage, to the accompaniment of the band led us off to a newly built home for breakfast in the next village of Antaraca. We sat on a low plank bench on the pounded earth floor; acrid smoke from the cook fire filled the room. Heaping portions of machiqui, a roasted barley rubbed with fat, together with barley coffee, home fries and a fried egg were served. We were hungry but David cautioned us to eat lightly as another meal was to be served farther up the mountain at the next village. Young mouths quickly finished that which we left on our plates. The band struck up one last tune to which we all had a quick little jig out on the dirt road before moving on to Pisha.

The Pisha Women's Association, carrying a banner and, once again, along with the local band, greeted us down the road from the village. It was a raucous, colourful welcome. The women were adorned in shirts and layers of skirts and dirndls, ribbons trimming every edge and hem. Some sported as many as six layers of skirts with the effect of a flouncy cone angling 45 degrees down from the waist. Each one wore a finely woven straw stovepipe sombrero over long black braids finished off with ribbons. Many carried and worked their omnipresent wool hand-spindles. We were decidedly underdressed but they welcomed us anyway by tying long ribbons around our necks and leading us the rest of the way to the village. "It's an honour," Father David told us "they honour the statues of the saints the same way in holy day processions."

We spent the day dancing and chatting on the hardened ground of the village square. Father David could recall no more than a handful of people who had made the journey to Pisha during the last decade. The primitive road to the village, much of it cleared and constructed by hand along steep mountain sides, had reached Pisha only in the last year and at 3,300 metres above sea level, high in the mountains, the village had remained isolated. Before the road, Father David would hike to these villages with a backpack, carrying his robe, vestment and other necessities for giving mass.

We were the first to be served lunch, a meal only prepared on high days and holy days: a huge plate of potatoes in broth capped with a flayed and splayed cuye - guinea pig, headless but tiny little claws hanging limp over the edge of the dish.

Pamparomas has never been a feature of tourists' maps and until very recently seemed to have been left off the omitted from government planners and development assistance agencies. Pamparomas is the only district within the department or province of Huaylas that is located on the western slope of the Cordillera Negra; the other 15 districts are on the eastern side together with the capital. Most of Pamparomas' trade had been with the neighbouring coastal department of Santa. This left Pamparomas in a netherworld of no support. In 1996, Pamparomas formed a committee to address development issues and a year later was established as a legal entity to plan the district's development future. They knew what they wanted -- water security, foremost -- now they needed some money to do it.

Inadvertent eavesdropping by Father David eventually brought Canadian development assistance to Pamparomas. The priest overheard a group of people discussing the Peru-Canada General Counterpart Fund (known simply as the Fondo) at a local restaurant. The words "Canada" and "development assistance" quickly caught his attention and before he left he introduced himself.

The Fondo began operating in 1989, financing small projects in the rural sector and after emergency situations such as El Niño. Canadian telecommunications, oil and gas, and mining equipment are sold by Canadian businesses to Peruvian companies. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) reimburses the Canadian companies. In turn, the Peruvian recipients pay the Fondo the full amount of the goods. Small-scale projects financed by the Fondo, which in 10 years has overseen projects worth an estimated $130 million, have benefited 400,000 people, including those in Pamparomas.

Prior to CIDA assistance, the area had received virtually no outside support. "It was a district that was on nobody's agenda," said Andre Deschenes, Canadian Co-Director of the Fondo, "they were very poor, very fatalistic and depended on nature. They were hoping for a savior to come but never thought they'd be their own saviors." CIDA supported them in the rehabilitation of holding tanks, reservoirs, dams and aquaducts, many of them the original structures built by Incan ancestors.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
- Isaiah 58:12

Peruvian myth describes the huacas (gods) settling their differences with urinary displays. Legend has it that these "pissing contests" were the source Andean waters. The huacas' hydraulic prowess extended to the harnessing of water. The god Guari, whose domain was the sea, taught men to construct terraces and irrigation canals and was worshipped throughout the highlands of northern Peru. Irrigation works were often complex structures requiring a large labour force and ingenious technicians and specialists. In a construction boom that lasted about 100 years until they were conquered by the Spaniard Pizarro, the Incans built vast networks of aqueducts, terraced farm land irrigated by canals and large lagoons.

This extensive water infrastructure increased and improved cultivable lands and controlled erosion. There are 40 original reservoirs in the district, many of which have been destroyed or compromised by earthquakes and lack of maintenance. Eleven are currently in operation and are still critical to the survival and stability of the region. Repair of the infrastructure now guarantees water, even during droughts, for agricultural and human needs, including fishing.

We spent a few days acclimatizing to the altitude before heading farther up the mountains. Remoteness and altitude - we were as high as 5,500 metres above sea level - have kept foreigners from exploring this area; apparently Father David was the only outsider ever to have trekked along this string of lakes. At this altitude, barometric pressure is 50 per cent lower than the coast, greatly reducing oxygen intake. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can result in High Altitude Pulmonary Edema or Cerebral Edema brought on by an ascent too rapid to allow the body to adapt.

The four of us who began the trek with Father David and the three muleteers and seven donkeys felt the effects of AMS from the start. The padre apparently felt nothing, despite being a smoker. On the first morning we saw him run up a slope - that we were slowly walking up - in order to get another look at a trio of deer. After the first night two Peruvians, lowlanders from Lima, descended back down with one of the muleteers and one donkey, leaving Mike Beedell and me to continue on with a priest heaven-bent on fishing every lake in the district.

These little pockets of water are natural lakes originally dammed by the Incans to ensure water supplies. They are stocked with trout fingerlings that the padre and others carried up in water bags like pet store guppies. Fishing lends itself to conversation; as we walked and cast it became clear how strong Father David's passion is for Pamparomas and his commitment to ensuring the needs of its people are not overshadowed by spiritual ministering.

Moving from lake to lake consumed the greater part of the day. The donkeys carried our gear which Alejandro, the head donkey driver, strapped onto hand-woven pack saddles lashed with a hand-hewn wood hook and length of rope. We ourselves traveled light with daypacks but even so our movement was laborious. Mike and I had felt the effects of AMS and had suffered from insomnia, nosebleeds and headaches. To ease the symptoms, Pedro prepared steaming cups of mate de coca, coca leaf tea, the residual cocaine a traditional antidote in the Andes to the effects of altitude.

Other than the altitude, trekking is easy in the Cordillera Negra. Because of the cold Humboldt Current, rain clouds that form over the Pacific skip the Cordillera Negra and drop their payload on the Cordillera Blanca leaving the Black Range very dry and low on vegetation. One of the few, but very impressive, flora is the puyas raimondi that grows to impressive erect phallus proportions as tall as 12 metres. The cactus enjoys a long foreplay of 28 years before a three-month spurt produces thousands of flowers and subsequent death. Wildlife too is limited; we had a brief glimpse of deer on the first day and were graced by a couple of sightings of condors; the last was just as we reached the final pass of the trek.

We had woken that morning to a tent encrusted in ice and the water in our bottles frozen. I was over my insomnia and I had had a good night's sleep although my nostrils were thick with coagulated blood from another nosebleed. We broke camp early; we had a long trek ahead of us and one last lake to fish.

We spent most of the morning contouring a large mountain bowl, staying as high as possible to minimize the final push to the pass. Even at a distance our destination was clear. On the far side of the bowl the steep saw-toothed ridge of the mountain opened a perfect door to the other side. A rectangular notch, as true as if leveled and measured by a carpenter, had been cut from the spine. The slope to it rose at an angle of 45 degrees, so steep that at one point the donkey stallion flipped onto its back in the scree, landing on cases of camera equipment. It had the beneficial effect of shutting him up; he'd been braying over a mare in heat the entire trip, honking like a rusty hand pump all night.

We had just about reached the top, our movement laborious: walk 50 paces, stop, walk another 50 paces, stop. Just then, a shadow passed over the ground in front of us. Up in the sky, the last creature between heaven and earth, Icarus close enough to singe his feathers on the sun, flew a condor. Silently and effortlessly the immense wings carried him across the bowl and beyond the far ridge. He was gone by the time we crossed the threshold of the door to the other side of the mountain. Evidence of others' fascination with the birds was immediately evident. There on the ground lay a collapsed condor trap, a ring of stones that would once have held carrion bait. Once caught, the bird would have been paraded through town on fiesta days or strapped to the back of a bull in a contest of strength and endurance. The condor might not have a pretty face but there is no bird that flies with its presence and there are few places on earth that majestically befit the bird as the Andes. No longer hunted to the same extent, their numbers might now have the chance to return to these mountains.

The young people of Pamparomas that moved to Lima in search of a better life are also returning to the mountains. They are homesick for its beauty and encouraged by the prospects for making a living. Their hope is a result of the development that Pamparomas has achieved over the last few years. Much of that has hinged on the harnessing of water and extension of roads. Ironically, Pamparomas has garnered the attention of the government and development agencies, including Canada's, that now come looking to fund projects in the district. By the grace of God and the help of a dedicated Canadian priest, they have shown that the saviors they were waiting for are the people of Pamaparomas themselves. They have proven true their motto si podemos, "yes, we can do it."

Written by Pamela Coulston
Published June 11, 2000
The Ottawa Citizen (Citizen's Weekly)

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