By Dr. David Krier, Volunteer Voyages Founder/CEO
Fortunata was 55 years old when I first met her, just a few years younger than myself at the time. She was no more than about 4’10” tall or so, and weighed in at a whopping 60 pounds. That weight was taken while she was fully dressed, of course. I was seeing her in the clinic in Arequipa, Peru that day because she had developed a cough that seemed to be getting worse over the last 6-12 months or so, she wasn’t really sure about the time frame. In order to examine her we had to remove her beautiful woolen skirts and tops. We counted five layers, I think, of skirts and sweaters, weighing in excess of 2-3 pounds each! I estimated that her true weight could be no more than 45 pounds. She had no body fat, and instead of trying to get a chest X-Ray I was tempted to just hold her up to the window. Other than being cachectic her exam was relatively normal. I went back to her history to figure out her cough. Her story was very interesting.
She and her brother, younger than her by two and a half years, grew up together in the hills and mountains of southern Peru – alone. I am sure there are parts of this story that are missing, but it seems that her mother had died when her brother was born, supposedly due to some problem that occurred during delivery. Sometime later her father left them and they had to fend for themselves. She can recall no caretakers when she was little. She and her brother ate what they could find in the fields and streams and sought shelter wherever they could find it. They didn’t learn until they were grown that, when you caught a fish, you were supposed to cook it – they simply ate them. Other lessons in life were equally challenging, I presume. Until you think about what life without instruction must be like – or encounter someone who has lived it – you simply take parents, society, and school for granted.
Somehow they were able to survive to adulthood, integrate into society, and even to procreate. When I saw her she was caring for two of her grandsons, both under 10 years old. Since she had never developed a profession or trade, she did what she could to just get along in life. She would knit and crochet handcrafts and when she was able to sell some they would have a little food to eat. The grandsons, of course, got fed first – that has to be one of the strongest natural instincts, to feed the young, and was especially important to Fortunata. They couldn’t afford a house to live in so they lived sort of a nomadic lifestyle. When I saw her they were living under a tarp attached to the side of a house that belonged to what I consider a real Good Samaritan.
Fuel was a real issue for her. She needed to be able to cook what meager rations she could gather and they needed some help in keeping warm when the temperature dropped below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. With no body fat it must have been extremely difficult to maintain her body temperature and I am sure she was thankful for her many woolen skirts. A little bonfire that she could cook on and keep warm with was a welcome occurrence, but firewood was extremely scarce since the entire community scavenged every last twig that could be found. Like everyone else should have been doing, she began picking up combustible garbage that was as ubiquitous as the dust. The biggest drawback to that was the fact that it took an enormous amount of the little scraps of paper, cardboard, and leaves that she could find to be able to create any sort of usable fire – and it flared up and burned out so quickly that nothing remained to maintain heat for more than a few minutes. And then she discovered the disposable plastic water bottles that line every roadside. They are everywhere! They are easy to collect, light, and burn intensely for a relatively (to paper scraps) long time, and give off lots of light, heat… and toxic fumes. Well, I had finally found what was causing her cough.
I gave her the bad news that she couldn’t use the bottles for burning anymore and watched her countenance fall. I didn’t have any alternative for her. We were able to sign her up for a free feeding program that was active in the neighborhood so she would get one good (hot) meal per day. As far as warmth goes, I’m not sure what happened there. Perhaps a few more skirts? Maybe, but I’m sure she will do OK, at least I hope so.
She has to be one of the most resilient people I’ve ever encountered. I sometimes wonder how I would fare if confronted with even one or a few of the obstacles she has dealt with or meets each day. I’m not sure I would respond well. But, of course, my name isn’t Fortunata.
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