Life On The Altiplano
By Carol L. Bowman
Our driver, Eber and Walter, our tour leader, had no choice. After we endured a jarring one hour ride on a rutted dirt road, the familiar trail ended abruptly. Boulders placed across the dusty path signaled an impasse ahead. A make-shift route wandered off to the right and tire marks furrowed into the earth suggested that adventurers before us had paved a new way. “Vamonos,” we chimed, with that mixture of fear and excitement the unknown brings. The truth was, we were lost and had no idea where this unexplored detour would take us.
In this desolate Peruvian altiplano, at 11,500 feet, the only visible landmark, Veronica, guided us onward like a daytime constellation. The highest snow-capped glacier in the Cordillera Urubamba range of the Andes, topping 19, 000 feet, Veronica had become our traveling companion; no longer towering above us but now just slightly taller, like an older sister.
Eber maneuvered the van around huge boulders, upward to a flat mesa. Along the steel blue horizon, small dots, looking like a distant village, popped into view; we hoped someone there could provide directions to our intended destination, Pachar, Peru.
We came upon a mere lad walking his burro; a double basket bulging with chicha-filled skins, hung over the mule’s back. Walter informed us that Andean highlanders have few sources of potable water; often family members, including children, drink the 2% alcohol-fermented corn mash as their only liquid intake.
This traveling ‘chicha distributor’ refreshes thirsty farmers he encounters by chance. The young salesman, deprived of human interaction on his lonely route, greeted our interlude with relief. He soaked up every syllable as Walter spoke to him in Quechua. Today, he had already walked for five hours by the sun, but he hadn’t seen one soul. I felt a twinge of abandonment as the van sped away leaving man and beast stranded in their isolation. A day in the life of an Andean Highlander.
The stark terrain changed, as sheep, goats and pigs hogged the roadway. We edged toward the cluster of adobe-brick huts, one displaying a hand-carved pole with a torn red cloth attached to the end, fluttering in the rarefied air. The flag signifies, ‘chicha today’ and remains the universal symbol in Peru to invite passers-by to stop for a cup of brew.
We saw three men manually making adobe bricks in a field behind a house. Eber stopped the van and Walter trudged over to ask if he and ten tourists in his charge could watch the process. Twenty-three year old property owner, Miguel, nodded his consent.
A rare opportunity to interact with a local family unfolded, as we walked to the back of the two-story casa. Blue tarps, blocking icy winds and rain, covered the home’s pane-less windows. In the scruffy yard area, plastic gas cans and five-gallon buckets for carrying water were strewn about. Flimsy, frayed wires attached to the house and stretched from a hand hewn pole, leaning like Pisa, suggested intermittent electricity.
What a scene. Gringos bundled up in alpaca scarves, gloves and thermal jackets to protect against the Peruvian winter chill, faced members of a Highland family, each wearing layers of mismatched clothing, but no coats. After a flurry of conversation in Quechua, Walter introduced us to Miguel’s mother, 83 year-old grandmother, and 20 year-old wife, Nayely. We eyed each other with inquisitive stares.
Dulce, Nayely’s three year old daughter, hid behind her mother and peeked around at these strangers, her knitted cap pulled tight, revealing smudged, puffy cheeks and large black eyes. I asked Nayely in Spanish, “Han encontrado extranjeros antes?” (Have you ever met foreigners before?)
“Nunca. Es la primera vez,” (Never, it’s the first time). The enormity of the moment sank in; the fruits of ‘being lost’ revealed. Mamá sitting on the hard cold earth and grandma cushioned atop a pile of sheep skins, their petticoats and wool skirts furled around them, peeled dehydrated potatoes called moras and sliced them into pink plastic tubs in preparation of the day’s starchy soup.
I peered up at the clay-tiled roof and viewed a crude TV antenna. Nayely announced, with a hint of pride, that they receive two TV stations from Cuzco. “Me gusta las telenovelas,” she giggled. Watching soap operas is a universal pastime for young Latina women. The house had no running water, but it had telenovelas.
Nayely explained that Miguel’s parents gave them this farm land as a wedding present. They were building a dining room off the kitchen, to protect the family from the harsh elements of the altiplano. So far, of the 3000 adobe bricks needed, Miguel and his neighbors had only finished 500. Nayely pointed to the blocks baking in the sun.
We drifted to the field’s edge to observe the brick-making process. After turning over the soil by hand, Miguel and company, made mushy, dense clay, with water carried in plastic buckets from the pond half a mile away. They added straw to the mix, rolled up their pant legs, removed their shoes and mixed the mud and straw together with bare feet, akin to stomping grapes. Miguel shoveled the adobe into a brick mold, leveled it off as if measuring flour and removed the form; only 2499 more to go, knee deep in cold clay. A day in the life of an Andean farmer.
With Miguel’s directions, Eber intersected the road to Pachar and after two jostled hours, we rumbled into town. A barricade of 9 and 10 year-old fifth graders from the Raqchi School greeted us, jumping and squealing with anticipation of our visit. The small-group tour company, with whom we were exploring Peru, donates $10 US per traveler to this high-in-the-sky, school. Former Peruvian President Fujimori, during his pre-scandal first term, ordered schools to be built throughout the Andean highland. A 6th grade education became mandatory. Some children walk an hour one way to meet this requirement.
As each of us stepped from the van, a child waited to take our hand and steal our hearts. Tiny Naisha, so small for 10, clasped mine tightly. My gold and silver ringed fingers rubbed against the built-up dirt, ground into her fragile hand. A blue and yellow uniform showed strain from daily wear and no water to wash it. The anxious smile she wore and her intense longing for attention I sensed, made this moment more powerful for me, than the exhilaration of climbing Machu Picchu.
The children led us into the simple concrete building and frigid classroom and offered wee chairs. Workmen, finishing the school’s first indoor bathroom with funds from the tour’s foundation, hammered away in the adjacent room. The teacher, whose daily commute involves a one-hour bus from Urubamba and a mile walk from her drop-off point, looked on, proud of her eager students.
As Naisha paged through her school notebook pointing out her ‘favorite’ subjects, she spun my silver bracelet round and round, fascinated by its sparkly finish. Although the people in this region speak Quechua, the children learn Spanish in school and in preparation for our visit, they mastered some English words. Remnants of math class chalked on the blackboard, the square root of 81 and complicated algebraic equations, revealed the depth of their studies.
No water, no bathroom, no heat, one computer and one TV for the entire school; yet 5th graders can compute square root. I pondered if these children will ever use algebra.
Being able to communicate with Naisha in Spanish offered me a clearer picture of her life. She lives with her parents and seven siblings in a two-room, adobe-brick house on the edge of town. Despite a lack of experience around foreigners, each child stood in front of the class, poised from practice, and gave his or her name and desired adult occupation. When Naisha’s turn came, it was the only time she let go of my hand. She wants to be a tour guide. A day in the life of an Andean child.