Small town tragedy

A retired policeman went to visit his hometown a few hours outside of Cusco. It’s the kind of small town on a river gringos like me tend to romanticize. A simple way of life, fresh clean air, picture-perfect scenery, all that we miss in our hectic modern lives.

But while life in the small town sounds idyllic to a gringo with a steady foreign income, it isn’t all milk and honey for the people who were born into it. Working the fields is hard and poverty is very real. Alcohol abuse and family trauma are common.

We gringos also like to hallucinate that food in the Peruvian countryside is fresh and healthy but that’s only partially true. While small towns in Peru are mostly detached from the big industrial food chain it’s also a reality that pesticide use is widespread and largely unregulated in small town agriculture. A rarely discussed but tragic side-effect of pesticides in rural communities is that they are often used as poison in a moment of desperation, as was the case with one young woman in this small town.

The young mother had taken poison on various prior occasions but each time she’d been found by someone in her family before it was too late. Small town people have their tips and tricks. They’d make her drink milk to neutralize the poison, vegetable oil to make her vomit, liquids to dilute the poison, somehow she’d been saved every time. I don’t know whether she really intended to take her own life or if it was just a desperate cry for help. Even if it were the latter, it’s not like she would have found any professional help in her small town.

The policeman’s family is well known in the small town. They trace their heritage back there for generations, several of the family live on the main square and even those who moved to the big city frequently come back to visit their hometown. The family runs the only real store and the only hotel in town. The bus stop is in front of their store.

When the young mother poisoned herself again people ran to the policeman’s family store for help. This time she had not been found quickly as on the previous occasions, by the time people found her the young woman was in bad shape. The policeman’s wife is a high-end nurse. She believed the woman could be saved if she were given atropine. They called to the nurse at the local medical post. The post was closed. The nurse said she’d come out but didn’t have a key. There was no way to open the medical post until the next morning. The retired policeman wasn’t going to stop at that. He kicked open the door to the medical post and busted a window to get into the pharmacy. His wife knew every medical post is required to stock atropine. They searched desperately but didn’t find anything. Nada. Nyet. Nichts.

The young woman died, leaving behind a 2-year old and couple of older kids.

Tragic as the story may be, there’s a final twist that says much about Peru today. When the medical post opened again the following Monday and the damage was assessed, the policeman, his wife and all the town’s people pleaded ignorance about the busted door and window. If any of them had admitted to busting the door open to save a young mother’s life they would have been summarily charged. There would have been paperwork, fines, trips to the police station and a long headache. On the other hand nobody will be held accountable for the sorry state of the medical post, the lack of doctors, the lack of atropine, lack of mental health care, none of that.

I’m not sure what the right word is, “authorities”, “bureaucrats”, “powers that be”, “the system”. If they can’t save one life or frankly, care about saving one life, do you expect them to solve the big problems of today?

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