It has already been over a week since I last held Janet’s hand saying good-bye, and watched the kids of Uratari disappear in the rearview mirror of the van coming back to Cusco—for my slow return to New York. But I can’t seem to be sufficiently afar enough to articulate my impressions of the magical place called the Uratari Medical Center. Perhaps it’s the overwhelming warmth of the numerous hands and cheeks they greeted me with, or maybe it was the breathtaking, lush landscape of the Andes after a long rainy season…no, above all, to my greatest surprise, it was the sight of bricks and mortar: a shining white building with an even shinier blue fence and door!
Having had the opportunity to hear an overview about the place from the founder of The Denan Project (TDP) Dick Young, and the local partners at Salgalu (Salvador, Clotilde, and Lourdes), and to see some pictures of the Center’s progress, I thought I had a pretty good idea what to expect. Little did I know…
The experience started to stir up my emotions even before I set foot into the Center. Taken by the breathtaking landscape above and beneath the ever-ascending path to Uratari (13,300 ft above the sea level), I almost missed the lone Quechua woman walking up the road. When the driver (the vice mayor of Limatambo) told us that she is walking to the Center, I turned around to see her—and saw what drives the volunteers of TDP. A woman in traditional Quechua garments and sandals taking brisk steps forward to reach the Center where she can (probably for the first time in her life) receive answers to her nagging health problems in her native tongue, and get the cares she needs—and even see a dentist for the first time—all free of charge.
Upon arrival at the Center, I was amazed by the sheer size and warmth of the reception from the village people, the medical staff, and the local municipal staff. And when I caught sight of the Center, I was completely awed. It seemed decidedly new and different from the mudbrick, rundown houses surrounding it. The Center stood like a shining beacon of promises kept—even exceeded. A functioning medical center with a maternity ward, a dental office, a pharmacy/lab, in-patient rooms, a kitchen, and a work-in-progress garden for medicinal plants…all built, brick by brick, by the people of Uratari with the materials provided by the TDP. Tight hand-shakes and embraces paced my movements as I navigated through the facility with awe. As I was overhearing how the community wanted to surprise Dick by putting the fence up ahead of the schedule, my heart melted with the realization that this place is so perfectly ready to create a better future.
Even with the excitements of the festivity of the 1st day still potent in my senses (my taste buds included), I couldn’t help but notice the challenges still ahead for the Center to provide higher quality of service for a greater number of people—and ultimately expand into all aspects of the five-finger approach of TDP (Health, Education, Water, Agriculture/Food, Cottage Industries). Listening at Dick’s meetings with the medical staff (the Head Doctor, Dentist, Nurses, and Cleaner, who are all hired locally and paid by TDP), the local partner Salgalu, and the mayor of the Limatambo (with jurisdiction over Uratari) for the following days, my heart became full of optimism. A sense of shared mission was apparent in every aspect: the community’s willingness to build a house for a villager who has given his house to the Center for its plans to build a preschool and a guest house; the mayor’s commitment to explore all means to secure an ambulance; the team’s plan to build a footbridge over the Apurimac River to help the neighbors reach the Center; etc.
Walking around the Center during its “normal” day, I found myself uttering a cliché: If you build it, they will come. Come, they did. A pregnant woman who just saw a sonogram for the first time; a shy boy who just sat on a dental chair for the first time; an ancient-looking woman who just found out how old she was (some of the Quechua-speaking people can’t read their own ID cards which are written in Spanish); a long line of men, women, and kids (many with their dogs) waiting patiently to register and see the doctor; dozens of school boys and men lined up in the front yard to receive a haircut by beauticians that came from Limatambo; and many more. Everywhere I turned, I could feel something real, something very tangible happening. All with such warmth and care.
Leaving Uratari, even with a plan of my return, wasn’t easy. I walked around once more with my hands stretched out hoping that Janet (who wasn’t sure of her own age, and was too shy to tell me her name until I had to get it from her friend) would show up and hold my hand as she did on the first day I met her. But no sight of her this time. Then there she was, walking right up to the van just before we drove away…Sitting in the van with my lap covered with the beautiful, hand-woven blanket I received from the Uratari women as a parting gift, I could see the threads that connect us all—all in bright colors and brilliant harmony.