a shanty for a home/photos from the collection of melynda thorpe burt

Romario Lives Alone

Never has there been a story like this 

Written while on location in Peru filming “Heart of the Andes,” a documentary film about the plight of the indigenous Q’ero tribes of the high Andes Mountains. View the film on Roku, Olive Tree Pictures channel, beginning Nov. 1, 2013.

His name is Romario and he lives alone here in Hueccouno. He is 11 years old and happy. Though lonely sometimes, and cold, and hungry, he says.

Romario’s House — Sept. 27

After school today, Romario takes us to see where he lives.He walks us to the door and welcomes us to “mi casa.” One at a time we enter the crude shanty the size of a single car garage. He first shows me his “possessions” which comprise a pile of colored glass panes, a small pouch and a masonry trowel. On the wall hangs a bike wheel, no tire, just the metal wheel and spokes. He points to a broken bicycle on the other side of the room and says he is collecting parts to build a bike someday.

In the middle of the room is a crude handmade ladder leading to the loft where he sleeps. On the dirt floor are a few pans and a makeshift gas stove for cooking. He calls this his “kitchen” and says this is where he cooks rice and noodles and potatoes. He says he does not like to cook, and he is not very good at it, but it is necessary because he lives alone.

Each month, his father comes from the mountain to work with him in the fields. Together, they make enough money to buy food for cooking and laundry soap for washing his clothes.

There is also a wheelbarrow in the room, piles of old boards, and a string hung with drying clothes. He has three shirts and two pairs of pants his brother gave him, and a school uniform. Romario says he washes his clothes in the stream that runs alongside his home, and he sometimes misses school if his clothes are too dirty for lack of soap. He is ashamed to wear dirty clothes to school and his mother told him this is something he should never do.

Romario is a happy, resilient boy who has come to Huecouno for the opportunity to gain an education. His parents, of the Hapu Q’ero tribe, live high in the Andes Mountains and have made great sacrifices for him to be here. He loves school, though living alone is difficult. He tells me he is the only boy at his school that lives alone. He does not like sleeping here at night. He says it is cold, and sometimes he feels afraid, but it is necessary.

The son of a tribal chief, Romario was chosen among siblings to attend school for his aptitude. Being a student is a privilege and a responsibility he takes very seriously.

Bertha Ramirez, the school director, tells us that Romario was chosen by his parents among siblings because they feel he is the brightest of their children and they want for him to succeed.

Each month, Romario’s father comes from their family home in a remote mountain village to work with him in the fields. Together, they work side-by-side in the fields and make enough money to buy food for cooking and laundry soap for washing his clothes.

Romario smiles and tells me he likes it when his father comes and wishes he could live here with him. “It is not very good to live alone,” he says. But he does not complain. He seems proud to be able to attend school and he loves to learn history. When I ask what he likes to read, he says “Mathematics.”

I think there must be some loss in translation, so I look to our translator, Vidal. “He does mean math,” Vidal says.

I ask Romario to show me his favorite book to read. He points through the boards above us to a rickety loft. He says this is where he sleeps at night and where he keeps his books. I ask him to show me and he smiles and climbs the ladder.

I am a writer and I have written many stories. Never has there been a story like this.

To keep out the dust, Romario folds his blankets and mattress each morning before leaving for school.

Romario invites me to climb this rickety ladder of thin branches for rungs. The floor boards of the loft are rough planks, thin and cracked, barely sturdy enough to hold the weight of a young boy. I stay on the ladder. There is only room for his cot. We visit about what it is like to sleep up here. He shows me his carefully folded blankets and how he manages to hang them in the rafters to keep them clean. And he points to the bookshelf he has rigged just over the head of his bed. When it is dark, he says he lights a candle and reads. He says if he reads until his brain is tired, then he can fall fast asleep without thinking about being cold or lonely or afraid. But he does not take any concern for himself. This is just how it is. And he repeats, “It is necessary.”

Romario is proud of the way he has arranged his room. I see his excitement as he stands on his cot to reach his books. I ask him what he likes to read at bedtime and he pulls four from the shelf, then goes back for one more. He chooses from about 10, then sits on his cot and starts to show me his favorite bedtime stories. He turns to a favorite page and holds the book up to show me. It is a mathematics textbook. His favorite page has color and pictures and story problems. Vidal helps me understand that yes, this is his favorite book to read at bedtime. He wants to be good at math and he says it helps his mind work hard so he can get tired and fall asleep fast.

Romario’s favorite book is a mathematics textbook.

Waking up early is something Romario says he must do each day to get to school on time. I can tell he looks forward to school and I realize what a gift the Heart Walk Foundation school is to him, and to all the children who attend. Making true sacrifices to learn, they seem to all love to study. Also, they can rely on one good meal each day at the school, and teachers who care about them and encourage their dreams of moving beyond the circumstances that now limit them. Like Romario, all of the children I talk with have hopes of succeeding in their education, gaining professional employment and returning to financially help their families. This is the dream.

He represents the pride of his people and the hope for their future.

Climbing down from loft, Romario thanks us for visiting his home and then says he is going to play with his friends now. His daily routine includes going to school, doing homework, playing, washing his clothes and cooking an evening meal. He tells me this is what he does. Then he locks the door to his home and runs down the road to throw rocks with his friends, turning and waving goodbye.

Families in the high mountain Q’ero villages live on small potatoes cooked over a meager fire of sticks and llama dung.

Much less than his neighbors, more than his people

As we walk away from Romario’s home and make our way toward the ranch house where we are staying, I see that Romario does indeed have much less than his neighbors. His circumstance is meager. But I also think how those in his home village at 15,000 feet, high above the tree line, will likely never know of the luxury of having a gas stove, sleeping on a cot, nor dreaming of owning a bicycle. His siblings and friends in the Q’ero village of the high Andes Mountains have no toys, no pencils or paper, and they go to sleep at night on the dirt floor of their stone and grass homes. This helps me realize that although Romario has very little, when compared to the circumstances he comes from, he lives abundantly. And somehow, the determination I met in this young boy suddenly becomes all the more substantial, and real. When he returns tonight to cook a pot of rice for his dinner, or noodles, he will likely be thinking of his family foraging for sticks and llama dung to build enough of a fire to roast small potatoes for sharing. And when he lights a candle and lies down to read until he grows tired, he will fall asleep to thoughts and dreams of making a difference for the future of his people.

Learn more about the 2013 documentary film based on Romario’s story, “Heart of the Andes,” and about the work of Heart Walk Foundation.

This is Part 7 in a series following https://medium.com/better-humans/432f3b6b1565#6467-c9d868f8c9ea

Continue the series with part 8 at: https://medium.com/heart-of-the-andes/65c967fa60fb

Now available for viewing on Roku at the Olive Tree Pictures documentary film channel. For more information about the film, go to heartoftheandes.org

In case you missed:

Part 1 can be found at: https://medium.com/heart-of-the-andes/6a005fbeaf

Part 2 at: https://medium.com/heart-of-the-andes/c38bca5c7485

Part 3 at: https://medium.com/heart-of-the-andes/a75615be746c

Part 4 at: https://medium.com/heart-of-the-andes/30a4fab1eb61

Part 5 at: https://medium.com/heart-of-the-andes/605cdbcf4df7

Part 6 at: https://medium.com/heart-of-the-andes/daaf77672114

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