Journey to the Living Descendants of the Incas – Part 2
The 1983 Pickup truck rumbled up the winding, foggy Peruvian roads. Inside, my brains swished from left to right, in time with the violent jerking bumps that were part of our journey. Mum, Dad, and Lalika joined me in the elaborately choreographed dance routine of smashing into the truck’s sides and roof, as well as each other. Up in the front, sitting next to the driver was our kind and loud tour guide, Luis. He too was bounding from side to side in a comical fashion and I imagine that for a passerby we would have looked a little strange as if we were trying to get the ants out of our pants. However, in the high Alps of the Peruvian Andes Mountains, there are no bystanders. No one is out on a morning jog or getting a coffee before rushing to get to work. No, we had left behind any modern civilisation’s noise and were heading out into the ancient wilderness, to live with the descendants of the Incas.
Besides the loud engine of the truck, everything was silent, quiet and peaceful. The gray dawn added a reserved feeling to the mountains. I pressed my fingers to the window and gave a little squeal. It was freezing. I edged away from the door and snuggled under my blanket, as the cool wind nipped through the cracked rubber seals around my window. “How can they stand the cold!?” I asked Dad, motioning to the back of the truck. Outside, sitting in the rear of the pickup were seven other people with no seats, safety or warmth. Two women, three men, one toddler and a baby were making the journey to the Q’ero Community with us. Back in Paucartambo (the town we stayed in the previous night), at the beginning of the second leg of our journey, we offered to give up our seats for the family. They insisted on sitting in the back.
The truck suddenly stopped. I must have nodded off somewhere along the bumpy mountain road. I looked out the window seeing nothing but Mother Nature for miles and miles. Not a single man-made object was in sight. “What time is it? Where are we?”
Dad replied, “It’s 7am.”
“What? We’ve been on the road for three hours?”
Where was this market Luis had spoken of? “We couldn’t have arrived yet!? There is nothing here!?”
Luis was in a rapid conversation with the driver. I had seen Luis in a huff before, so I wasn’t sure if this was just his normal excitable manner or if something was wrong. My gut feelings were confirmed; Luis was upset.
“What’s wrong?” asked Dad concerned.
“There is too much mud,” replied Luis. “The truck cannot go on. We will have to make our own way from here.”
The warm and safe feeling in the pit of my stomach fell away at this statement, and now it was time to venture into unknown territory and I wasn’t sure if I was ready yet.
Stepping out of the truck was a big wake up call for me as I realized how much effort it took to simply open the door. We were in the Peruvian Andes at 4000 metres (over 13,000 feet) in altitude, and even breathing seemed a sheer effort of concentration. Merely putting on my backpack was a struggle and taking the first few steps I became anxious, feeling like I was not getting enough air. I had to slow down. I looked to the back of the truck and remembered the tonne of camping supplies we had to bring with us. How were we going to manage? My surprise escalated when I realized that now only two other people were sitting in the back of the truck – Francisco, our Incan host with whom we would be staying with at the Community, and another woman who spritely jumped out of the truck, waved us all goodbye and began skipping up the water flooded mountainside to a small red dot on the horizon.
“What is that?” I asked, pointing to the red dot.
“That is the market,” answered Luis. “That is our first checkpoint.”
Despair began to cave in on me as I realised how far it was and how much we had to carry, but my burden was lightened, literally, when three men with three horses arrived from the marketplace to help take our luggage for a small fee. The smile returned to my face as we set off with an entourage of a tour guide, high priest, three horses, their owners and enough food and supplies to last a lifetime, well, maybe just barely a week.
The walk to the market gave us a taste of what lay ahead: beauty, majesty and a lot of gasping for air. It took us about an hour to make our way up through the fertile mountainside and enter into the hustle and bustle of this open-air, mountaintop market. Something that seemed rather strange and completely different to any of the other markets I have experienced before was that women, dressed in their traditional Andean garb, complete with their multicoloured hand woven ‘rug packs’ on their backs, seemed to be descending on the market from all directions. To the untrained eye, this would seem as if they were coming out of nowhere. When I asked Luis, he explained, that this area had a number of settlements, hidden from view by the surrounding mountains and valleys. It was certainly in the most beautiful setting I had ever seen and my long-term dislike of markets – the constant noise, the frenetic rush of people and endless shopping – dissipated in an instant. I love markets!
Mum, Dad, Lalika and I sat down on a few rocks to catch our breath while Luis went to secure escorts for us to the village of Choa Choa in the Q’ero Community Village. I watched in delight as the people around us went about, making their weekly Saturday market purchases, which would sustain them and add a little extra to their potato only diets. Up here in the Peruvian Andes the only protein that can grow consistently enough is potato, and that is all many live on. The opportunity to eat a simple fruit like an apple, a thing most of us take for granted, may only come about once a month, and that is if you have the means. Most of the people living in the villages are subsistence farmers, with no other opportunities to earn money and with little chance to trade potatoes for other goods.
After walking around the small market and purchasing some tomatoes and fruit, Luis told us that he had secured two men and their horses to take us to the village. Once again, we set off on this scenic 7 km hike to our end destination. Seven kilometres is not much of a distance for us, in fact, it is the absolute minimum of walking we do each day, but now we also had the altitude to contend with, as well as the terrain. Rainstorms had flooded the mountaintops and the natural flow of water ebbing its way down the mountain, made the trek a potluck wet foot journey. The mountain was covered in sponge-like vegetation, that made it near impossible to tell if you were going to stand on solid ground or sink into a big wet puddle of water underneath. Along with this, the currents of water flowing made every step a slippery prospect. Everyone except Dad turned out lucky and unfortunately he slipped not once but twice and fell both times straight into a pile of wet mud mixed with animal excrement. Luis had issued warnings in his broken English before the start of our walk, but what good are words when your feet cannot listen for lack of ears. Another of Luis’ warnings still sends chuckles through our family to this very day: “Be careful not to step into the… uh, shit of the Llama.”
Thank you, Luis, we will remember that one.
That’s right, llamas. Here, they are the most common form of transportation, a source of milk and even food! Also, the humble dried ‘shit of the llama’ is what the locals use to make fire and cook their food, as there are no trees or wood to use for fuel up this high in the mountains. Llamas even take precedence before horses here. Along our walk to the community, we spotted the white, brown, black, and even multi-coloured shaggy fur coats that belonged to these animals and delighted in seeing them up close and personal.
After two and a half hours of trekking through the vibrant and lush green Peruvian mountains, we finally caught sight of smoke. Ten minutes later, the small houses, made out of rock with grass-thatched roofs, came into view, and we were standing over the Choa Choa Q’ero Community.
The Q’ero people live very simply, without any of the distractions modern life tells us we need. Francisco’s house was his father’s house, built by his father’s hands, out of the surrounding blue stones of the mountains, carefully piled one on top of the other. The roof was made of dried thatched grass, and the floor was clay. The door was tiny, perhaps because these people have never been large, but also perhaps because it keeps more of the heat in. It was very cold up here, and we were glad that we were here during the summer. However, the last months of summer are the rainy season, and it was not only cold and windy, but very very wet as well. We welcomed Francisco’s invitation for us to enter his stone and earthen house.
I had never experienced something like this before. I won’t exaggerate; it was somewhat a shock to the senses. To say it was rustic wouldn’t do it justice. More so, it was basic, laid out to meet the needs of Francisco and his family. There was a hay bail to the left of the entrance. The fireplace was around to the right close to the sleeping area and there was a rack made of wood and makeshift twine on which things could be hung, like the bed rolls, blankets and jackets. There was no furniture. Everything was done on the ground; the food preparation, the eating, sleeping and sitting. I understood this through the experiences we had with other indigenous cultures. Being in connection with the earth is of vital importance to the wellness of the human being. I couldn’t imagine anyone we knew in the developed world being able to accept living this way. This is not at all a judgment either of the people we know, or of Francisco and his family. Even Francisco was somewhat hesitant to let us sleep in his home, expressing that it is not what we are used to. We explained that to be among them and in his home was a great blessing. Luis however, insisted that we should sleep in the tent for our comfort and privacy.
For me, this was more a coming to awareness of the diversity of the way in which we as human beings all around this planet live. I feel that understanding and accepting this diversity is the key to our unity. What was immediately obvious to me, was that even though it was dark in this small and simple home, I felt warm and I felt genuinely welcomed.