Peruvian Hospitality – Quechua Style

10 June 2019

Today we pack our bags once again and leave our Sacred Valley hotel for Cusco – but we have a full day ahead of us before we get to Cusco. Bags packed, teaspoon safely in Shiv’s bag, we set off for the Pampallacta region. First stop was a market in a little town called Calca – like the other markets we’d seen, cheese took up a significant proportion of shelf space, as did the giant purple corn and other vegetables. It was breakfast time and many of the stall-holders were sitting by their ware, with steaming hot bowls of quinoa soup – it looked delicious. Men read their newspapers, and children who were too young to be in school, sat (or were made to sit) by their mums who manned the stalls. There were several hiker types at the market – apparently Calca is at the start of one of the hiking trails, and it is where hikers pick up supplies.

There was an eclectic mix of stalls – fresh produce, breads and cheeses, dried food (including Maggi condiments) – and many many piles of various forms of aji (chilly).

Aji (chilly) heaven

Dan got a whole lot of vegetables and warm, freshly-baked discus-like bread – supplies for the family we’d be visiting today, up in the mountains, where we’ll be having lunch. We’d also be visiting a school – all of us missed this on our itinerary, and hadn’t come prepared with gifts for the school / kids. Fortunately, this was a market that sold all manner of goods, not just food stuff. So we managed to get the gifts we wanted – pencils and stationery, a bag of colourful marbles for the children of the family we’d be visiting, and even a rather pretty jug-and-glasses set for the lady of the house; Dan assured us she’d be Very Happy with this – and that it’s usually only the children who get the gifts.

A much nicer looking ‘roti karan’

On our first day in the Sacred Valley, Dan had given us some ‘flower water’ – Agua de Florida – to use when we were feeling slightly out of sorts due to the altitude. It smelt lovely – citrusy, spicy and floral all at once; we felt much better after we had flower-watered our temples and brows with the lemon/orange/rose/clove-smelling liquid – whether the instantaneous sense of well-being was real or imagined, I know not. In any case, we all wanted to get some for ourselves, and as Dan had promised, we found Agua de Florida in a variety of sizes at this market and happily stocked up. I later read that Agua de Florida is used by shamans for ‘healing, cleansing, ritual feeding and flowering’ – I have no idea what ritual feeding and flowering are…could flowering be a reversal of deflowering?!

Supplies were loaded into the car, and we were off. It was another serpentine drive into the mountains. The road was new – part of the effort to attract tourist coaches and cars to this part of Peru. The area we drove through is famous for its hot springs, and several resorts have sprung up amongst these springs. It was very pretty, with alpaca at every other corner.

The House That Bernardniño Built

We finally got to where we needed to be. Getting out of the car, I remember thinking how very different this was from Lima – the clear blue skies, an occassional puff of white clouds, the magnificent mountain range framing the scene, the clean mountain air…grey Lima seemed a world away.

The view from Bernardnino’s front yard

As we walked towards the house, ducking under low roofs (which Marius apparently had made much contact with during his time here), Dan pointed out a white building that was just beyond the house, up a little slope. Bernardniño, whose home we were visiting today, was building a hotel – all by himself – just so visitors could spend some time in the mountains, and not be limited to day trips!

The hotel that Bernardnino is building

It was a warm welcome from Bernardniño and his wife, Rocio, to their home – also built by Bernardniño. Before we arrived, Dan was telling us about their youngest son, Abel (age two and a half) – we were warned that when confronted with strangers, Abel would almost definitely cry, but would soon stop and be fine. True to form, Abel ran to Dan, stopped short when he saw us and burst into tears. The bag of marbles seemed to do the trick, however, and we were soon his new best friends.

Lunch was being prepared by Bernardniño, assisted by Rocio – it was refreshing to see and hear that in this family, it was mainly Bernardniño who did the cooking.

While the kitchen activity was going on, Dan told us the story of how he’d gotten to know Bernardniño and his family. They had met at a street protest in Lima – much like the one we had seen. The Quechua people from the Pampallacta region had gone all the way to Lima to petition the government – the region was badly in need of funding for schools and other basic amenities. Bernardniño and one of his sons, Cleber, were there with their Quechua people, all dressed in their traditional best. Dan just happened to see them, and had stopped to ask why they were there. They struck up a conversation and Bernardniño said Dan should go visit them and see the region for himself. Dan said he would.

Bernardniño gets lunch ready

Some months later, with the help of a local guide from the region, true to his word, Dan did go to Pampallacta – and despite knowing only vaguely where Bernardniño and his family lived, managed to find them. Bernardniño was gobsmacked, and that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Before lunch, led by Rocio who had swung Abel onto her back where he sat snug and comfortable in the aguayo, we walked to the school where the rest of the children were. I was amazed at how easily she wrapped Abel in the rectangular cloth (he lay quite still, obviously knowing a walk was coming soon) and then swung him over, holding the ends of the cloth. I wondered too what kept him from sliding out from the bottom as she didn’t seem to tie any knots there.

Step 1
The swing over
Snug and safe

It was a beautiful walk down a mountain path. While I watched where I stepped, and tread carefully, especially on the pebbly downhill paths, Rocio wove while she walked (quite briskly), Abel on her back – at one point even helping us down a steep area.

The walk to school
One of the school buildings

It was recess time when we got to the school and the children were all lining up for their food. Those who had finished were washing their utensils (we should implement this in Singapore schools) before either heading back to class or to the playing field. Soccer is a big favourite here – signs of soccer-mad Peru are everywhere. When we arrived in Lima, there was a mass of people at the arrival hall – apparently a Peruvian national soccer player was on our flight. The qualifying rounds of the Copa Americana started while we were in Lima, and most of the restaurants we visited had at least 2 TV screens, each showing different matches. On match days, the streets were quite empty, and the few people we saw were wearing Peru soccer jerseys.

So it was no surprise, that the children were playing soccer on their break – only the boys though. The girls were using the goal posts as monkey bars or were at the playground on slides and swings. The school buildings looked quite bright and cheerful – the picketing for government funds had worked.

The younger girls entertain themselves
The younger boys do the same
And the older ones – a pitch with a view…I wonder how many soccer balls have been lost
While the older girls find their corner in the sun

The children were lovely, shyly accepting the chocolates we’d brought. The classrooms were quite large and airy – they weren’t as nice before the government funding came in apparently. While many of the children wore traditional Quechua clothes, which I thought looked smart, we were told that this can also be the source of some angst, especially when they visit the nearby towns – the traditionally-attired ‘mountain children’ are looked down upon by the townspeople. Some children resort to dressing like the ‘townspeople’ to avoid being teased or bullied.

Their syllabus, however, sounded much more well-rounded than that taught in the towns – in the towns, only the ‘government syllabus’ and Spanish is taught, while in these mountain schools, the children are taught not just the government syllabus and Spanish, but also the Quechua language as well as about the mountain flora and their uses. A far superior education from the sound of it.

Bruce and Dan had brought the car down to the school (so we didn’t have to walk back to the house…we were all grateful for this, as the walk would’ve been uphill) – we all piled in, Rocio and Abel too, and we were back at the house in no time.

Lunch was truly the best meal I’ve had this entire trip so far. Mindful eating was very quickly forgotten. There was the most delicious quinoa soup with garlic bread (the bread we’d bought from the market earlier today) and crispy corn, cerviche, grilled trout with vegetables and home-baked cake for dessert.

The three other boys and their sister got back from school just after we had finished lunch. These were some of the loveliest children I’ve met. As they came in, they asked us our names, and we each were greeted by name, and with a hug. When their eldest sister, the 13-year old Yessica returned from school, one of her brothers, 8-year old Jacob, took her school bag for her and carried it upstairs! When he came back downstairs, he went over and whispered something to his dad, who smiled and nodded…Jacob had asked if he could do his homework later…some things are the same the world over.

The marbles were a big hit. There was some worry by one of us that they would prove a ‘choking hazard’ for Abel, but as Dan assured us – we needn’t have worried. Abel knew exactly what to do with the marbles and he and his brothers got into a game almost immediately. As in Turkana, thoughts about what is ‘developed’ and what isn’t, what is ‘advanced’ and what isn’t, swirled in my mind…I do think we sometimes protect our children a bit too much…but perhaps this is something that will be a tad difficult to reverse.

The afternoon was spent on portraiture with the Quispe-Milo family as willing subjects – Bernardniño, Rocio, and their five children – Yessica (13), Cleber (11 – and quite clever; it was obvious that his younger brothers looked up to him), Jacob (8), the cheeky Javi (6) and the favourite of the family, Abel. The boys also sang some Quechua songs for us, their parents looking on with much pride.

Bernardniño & Rocio
A game of marbles trumps homework

Before we left, Bernardniño in thanking us, also said that he hoped we would tell the world about the Quechua people. It was rather sad to think that while the word ‘Quechua’ is increasingly well known, it is on account of its being a Decathlon brand, rather than in association with these wonderful Andean people. [Afternote: when I returned to Singapore, I asked a few friends if they’d heard of the ‘Quechua’ – they all responded, “The Decathlon brand?”]

Soon, goodbyes had to be said and we were walked to the car by the boys, who waved goodbye as we drove off – continuing to wave till we couldn’t see them anymore.

Cusco – back to the high life

It was a smooth drive back to Cusco and our hotel in the old quarter – another Tierra Viva. I once again felt the altitude; I think we all did.

After checking in and a very brief rest, it was time for dinner. The old quarter of Cusco is really beautiful at night – especially the narrow cobblestoned lanes, which allow two-way traffic and which meant we had to walk single-file on the narrow sidewalks, or hop on the sidewalks each time a vehicle went by. The only downside was the stairs…and there were many of them; we had many breaks to catch our breaths before we reached our restaurant – which had a magnificent view of the city and the surrounding mountains, all lit up with street lamps, and lights from homes.

More stairs…

Thankfully, Dan got us a couple of cabs for our return trip after dinner – and we didn’t have to negotiate anymore stairs. With some luck and Diamox, this altitude thing will get better…we still have another day and a bit here in Cusco…

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