The mountain people...and sweet Hernan

Trip Start Jan 04, 2008
Trip End Apr 08, 2008

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Flag of Peru  ,
Friday, January 18, 2008

Off into the mountains today.  Lisa's interested in the fabrics produced by communities way up in the mountains and I'm interested in the mountains and the people tucked into them.  So we embark on a journey, in a shock-less Toyota minivan, hours and hours over rocky, pothole filled roads, up and down mountains...way up to the places where you're not going to find any tourists and even the locals only have maybe one opportunity a day to take a bus out.  We load up on food at the market in Calca to bring  to the families we will visit...lots of onions, avocados, mangos, bread, cheese, eggs, bags and bags of stuff for about 60 soles worth ($20).  Up there it's cooler,  the growing season just doesn't support things like mangos and avocadoes...seems that gifts of food hold greater value than coins.... We're traveling with Angel (yes, another Angel), who works with rural communities and brings their work to places like Chinchero and Cuzco to sell.  Then there's the driver and this other guy, Armando...I'm not sure what his purpose is but he's got an enormous grin...I think it may have something to do with the coca leaves he's always working in his mouth.  He's in the back seat kind of talking to himself and fidgeting endlessly with the bags of food.  I hear plastic crinkling non-stop...I think he's got a little too much energy to leave those bags alone. 
Anyway, we pass amazing landscapes - sharp, steep mountains, waterfalls, small farms integrated into the ruins that surround them...  There are immaculately weeded plots of mostly potatoes, and tiny homes nestled in the valleys.   We see animals...sheep, lots of llamas, alpacas, and of course, horses, chickens, goats...but mostly it's sparsely covered mountains bathed in low lying clouds.   We've moved from the lush rainforest valleys into sharply sloping landscapes by way of sharply winding roads.  I don't believe that we've gone far on a map, but the hours pass as we switchback across landforms.   Now we're up to where we can see glaciers on the highest mountaintops as the clouds move through these high altitude valleys.  There are more llamas and alpacas up here than people....we're deep into the Peruvian Andes now...and when we make our first stop I know that we have stepped far out of our culture, far out of the tourist world, and into a community of extended family, isolated living, dependence on the land, and drenched in traditional culture
We see the chain of family weaving their way across the landscape to meet us.  They are colorfully dressed and welcome us with hugs and kisses...I later learn that some of these people walked for 6 hours this morning just to be here now.  We are herded into their eyes see nothing... they are used to the light and there is none inside their rock and mud shelter.  We sit with a group of about 20 people, squeezed into this one-room structure while food is being prepared....I can't see it but I smell the fire and I hear the sizzling.  These folks speak Quechua, not Spanish, so our conversation is through smiles and an open energy...a willingness to meet and accept the other and what they have brought into this space.   Lunch begins with somewhat re-hydrated potatoes...I'm thinking this will be it, but then I'm amazed at the soup and fried fish we are generously served...the other 15 people are not eating...I feel somewhat uncomfortable about this but know that it is important to enjoy what I am served...leaving it or offering to share would likely be insulting to our hosts.  
After lunch, we gather under a lean-to like structure...there is light here...I can see the faces of our hosts and their magnificent attire, the children are free to run around...Angel is getting ready for business.   Angel speaks Quechua and so his interactions are unintelligible to me...but I see him calling the women up one-by-one, to receive money for work sold in his store and to show what they are currently working on.  Their weavings are beautiful, you can see for yourself in the photos, but I can't help but feel some paternalism from Angel towards this community...but I am the new person in this picture so I try to sidestep any judgment I feel sneaking up my spine...and I recognize this as a well worn relationship that does not demand my evaluation.  I am the observer here...only grateful to be within this picture... I engage in small ways...taking pictures and then showing them to the subject---praises for the immediacy of digital cameras!  One woman uses the camera as a mirror and tries on every hat she can lay her hands on so that she might assess her image in a photograph.  
I thought this was where we were to spend the night - although I was curious to see exactly where that might happen - but we pack up our things and head down the road after a flood of goodbyes and hugs and a speech given by Angel to the community.  Later when we ask him what he says in such speeches, he says that he tells the women to keep is important that they produce lots of high quality work....that they do not drink alcohol or their work will suffer...he tells them what colors/designs they might produce....the women listen patiently...they nod in affirmation and I wonder what they are really thinking...I guess I'll never know.
Our next visit, about 1 hour up the road, progresses along a similar vein.  We walk down a steep, muddy slope and over some streams to arrive at an extremely muddy corral-like area, which we must walk through to get inside the house.  Now, I have my wonder boots on, and the mud (largely comprised of animal waste), sticks to the sides...but my feet are secure and dry.  Everyone else in this community wears only sandals and walks through these wet muddy areas without showing any sign of discomfort.  I keep thinking how good it might feel to them to have a footwash/soak and some sturdy shoes to trek around with.  But since I'm the only one with the discomfort, the sandals of course will prevail. 
Once again, we are fed, although this time with soup, potatoes, and cuy (guinea pigs).  My appetite is absent...we just finished eating...but I eat some of everything offered (the guinea pig is pretty tasty, kind of rubbery-chicken-like) and show appreciation for what I do not have room for.   In both places, there are mostly women present...only 1 or 2 men. They seem to be the husbands of the women that are president of the weaving cooperatives.  I am told that the other men are working out in the field.  We gather in a grassy area outside the house...the women are always either spinning wool or weaving...sitting on the ground...looks uncomfortable and muddy, but the work is intricate and beautiful.  Angel does his roll call for payment again...we end our visit and drive for about another hour to what is to be our final destination for the day. 
We pass thru a teeny mountain town but there are some sturdy looking buildings...they're painted nice colors...and I'm thinking this must be where we're spending the night.  But we go about 5 K further, pull up in front of a cement structure and are greeted by a traditionally dressed man...this is his weaving cooperative and this is where we will stay until tomorrow afternoon. 
The experience is similar here...women weaving beautiful things (sitting right there on the damp and muddy ground), Angel doing his thing...but in this community there is this sweet boy, Hernan, who is about ten years old... I'm totally charmed by him...he's got bright eyes and he's really interested in the visitors and helpful to his family and so quick to learn.  I've taken way too many pictures of him, but we spent hours together and he's a solid memory of my time with this group of people.  Hernan speaks not only Quechua but Spanish, so he serves as my Quechua teacher- I learn some handy phrases... like "Iman sutiki?" or "What is your name?"..."Sutimi Karen", I learn to respond and he encourages me to practice my new phrases with everyone who walks by.   I play some music for him on my IPOD and show him some photos of my family and friends.  We pull out this spirograph game from Turkey and he's determined to make the perfect drawing.  He shows me his pig and we take lots more photos together...I give him the camera and it takes him about 3 seconds to learn the details of how to work it.  We spend the night in his's very basic...there's no bano anywhere except in the field, and no running water... the molds, dusts, and animals tantalize my allergies.... 
I am aware that this is an opportunity that most visitors to Peru don't ever get.  And I'm not sure how open most would be to it.  It pushes the limits of my tolerance levels regarding sanitation and hygiene, but I feel like the gift of experiencing this world far surpasses any discomfort.  I think about how different my life is compared to the people I've spent the past two days with...I wonder what their passions might be, what is their world me it seems that there is so much work to their lives and so few options, yet my sense is not of their unhappiness, rather their pride in their family / community and what they produce is evident.  It's at times like this that I really begin to get the concept of cultural goes far beyond dress or language or skin color's difference at the core of our existence, at the root of our perceptions and flavors our choices, our understandings, our priorities...   It's time to go back down into the lowlands.  I promise Hernan I will send some of the photos he's taken...I'm curious about where he'll be and what he'll be doing in 15 years. We wind our way back through the mountains...plenty of time to reflect....a slow re-entrance into more contemporary Peruvian culture.    I've been fortunate enough to peek through a little window into traditional Peru and I am reminded of my privilege.

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