One brisk morning, we hiked up to Pumacocha, a sparkling dark blue lake nestled between the peaks of Andean mountains. We were led by Mario, the oldest son of the campesino family we were staying with. This particular campesino community consisted of high-elevation potato farmers, intent on preserving ancestral practices and a remarkable potato variety. Along the trail, Mario pointed out plots of land that he had prepared for sowing, and explained to us his seven year rotation system to allow the soil time to heal.
As a city girl, born and raised, Mario’s proximity to nature and knowledge of its inner workings astounded me. He taught us that a thin, white petal strewn across the grounds near Pumacocha would soothe throat inflammation if chewed, and that the stones riddled with holes and chambers along the path were volcanic rocks from long ago.
When Mario tells his stories, he seems to conjure them out of thin air. There appears a boundless, everlasting quality to his words, and to his ability to remember them. I realize that oral accounts based on memory fueled storytelling for most of human history, but I somehow cannot trust my own mind’s ability to recall. Instead, I write, stringing words together, crafting a rhythm I will recognize later.
“I can’t believe I’m here, but I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
Paru Paru is a community located about 3,800 meters above sea level. Paru Paru has a cold climate, surrounded by beautiful mountains and lakes used for planting and fishing. It is located inside the national potato park, and most of the citizens work in sustainably cultivating the land using ancestral knowledge and traditions passed down from the Incas. This past weekend, we stayed with the family of two brothers, Mario and Celestino. We were instantly welcomed as a part of their family, following their routines and experiencing all the different aspects of their lives.
“I feel like here I have experienced so much life.”
I reconnected with a sense of childhood.
“Today I was running around freely without feeling like it’s work, just experiencing and indulging in that urge. I was chasing Nica, both of us laughing the entire time. Usually I hate running, but today I couldn’t stop.”
I was a playmate.
“I love hanging out with the kids. I love seeing how Dabi laughs when we are sitting outside tossing bottle caps to each other, pushing Romario in his toy car, having Andrea braid my hair because she loves to (and is really good at it), asking Norma questions about her day, picking Diego up when he falls in the water and cries, and having Gabriel come sit on my chair and talk.”
I experienced fishing.
“Today we went fishing using cans, wire, metal hooks, and live worms. Veena caught a big one! I was so close to catching a little fish but then it passed me by. For lunch later that day the family prepared Veena’s fish into a ceviche dish for us to try. It was amazing to be eating such fresh and delicious food, where we knew every location that fish had ever been. That’s not something I am used to in the United States.”
I was a hiker.
“We went on a beautiful hike through the mountains and arrived at a lake. It was so hard, informative, and lovely. Along the way, when the incline was too intense for our wheezing lungs, Mario would tell us stories about the land and medicinal plants. They wait seven years before reusing any plot of soil, and in that time they ensure that animals walk through the land in order to re-fertilize it. In the end, we went for a cold dive in the lake. Our systems were shocked, our limbs frozen and tense, but we could not stop smiling.”
I experienced farming.
“Potato farming was very cool. We learned that there are over 100 types of potatoes here, all different sizes, colors, flavors, and textures. Before every planting, the community honors Pachamama (Mother Earth) with coca leaves, placing them under rocks. We tried cultivating the soil, which looked easy but required coordination and power that some of us (including me) unfortunately did not have.”
I was a traveler.
“I love trying new foods. Almost every meal we had a soup appetizer, with different types of beans, squash, and potato mixed in every time. Waking up to a view of mountains and water I have never seen before, and being exposed to a new climate, has been so thrilling.”
I was a friend.
“Here it is SO COLD, at night especially because the heat from the sun is stolen. I am in the room with four other cohort members, and last night we all pushed our beds together to create what we call the ‘mega-bed’. This way we are all a little warmer, or at least a little more connected.”
So, in conclusion:
“The trip here has been so amazing, so short, so tiring, so long. I don’t want to leave. I don’t want this to be my last encounter with this family I already feel so a part of. The mountains and water are so beautiful. The people are so beautiful. Even the cold is so beautiful. Even though this was an excursion, not an organization visit or class, I’ve learned so much.”
I am so grateful for Paru Paru, and to all of Mario and Celestino’s family. I hope to you see you all again 🙂
As we drove up the rocky converted terraces, I wasn’t sure what to expect about our visit. In fact, all that was really assured to us was that we’d finally get to see Incan ruins—so I’m sure my sentiment was shared with the rest of the cohort. I’d never even heard of the name Ollantaytambo—or as Tziavi called it, Oi Oi Taytambo—until the week before. Yet as more buildings started getting closer together and the roads started narrowing to what felt like the size of a one-way road, I knew we had arrived.
Once we reached the plaza, the town’s tourist population actively increased as each of us hopped out of the van. I looked around to get a scope of the options and one word stood out most of all—pizza. It seemed like every restaurant and cafe had those five letters posted on their front signs, each in different fonts to make theirs stand out most. There was a solid agreement amongst most of us to try some later for lunch, but “not the ones with english menus” as those would definitely be more expensive. We continued our individual scouting for possible meal options for a few more minutes until it was time to head toward our organization for the day, Ayni Wasi (head over to Emma’s Yak to learn more about it ;)).
Imagine that you are pregnant, very close to giving birth to your child. You live in a remote region– an 18 hour walk away from the nearest medical center. The medical center may not even have staff willing to speak your language, Quechua, the indigenous language. In Peru, it is mandatory to give birth in a health center, and if you do not, you must pay a fine to have the child legally registered, which is something you cannot afford. If you needed a C-section, or any surgery, you would need to travel another two hours by car to Cusco.
Sacred Valley Health, or Ayni Wasi, is a community-based, public health non-profit devoted to providing access to healthcare in remote areas. They currently work with 14 campesino (agricultural) communities, each an average of four hours walking distance to the nearest town, Ollantaytambo. This organization trains volunteers from the campesino communities to be promotoras, who provide health education and basic medical care such as house visits. The program to train these promotoras lasts two years and ensures that volunteers are well prepared for a variety of situations, including domestic violence, applying tourniquets, anemia, and diarrhea. They also are trained in preventative health, helping others with hygiene and safe water/ cooking practices. The programs are crafted for the communities they are serving and for the volunteers’ learning– the evaluations and course manuals are all mainly photos because many of the potential promotoras cannot read or write. Three out of the seven staff are from local areas, and they must approve each step of the program-creating process. Ayni Wasi surveys community members to see what they believe should be included in the programs. There are currently 57 total promotoras throughout the 14 communities.
After almost three weeks in the Sacred Valley, it’s become clear that there are hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have planted their roots in these communities, aiming to positively impact lives. Each of these organizations has a distinct mission with very different backgrounds, goals, and staff. We won’t have the opportunity to learn about or interact with the majority of these NGOs, but through the Civic Semester, we will be able to immerse ourselves in two each week.
Of the organizations that we’ve visited so far, two of the three have been international—meaning that the founders, funding, and majority of the staff aren’t from Peru, or even from South America. We’ve done a lot of reflecting on what this means for the organization, and for the impact. We carefully noted whether or not local people are hired on decision-making teams and questioned how this step might change an NGO’s impact.
What is sustainable farming? What does permaculture mean? Why is biodiversity important? And how do you achieve food sovereignty?
Last week, our cohort visited two local organizations dedicated to organic and sustainable farming in the Andes. One Monday, after a 45-minute walk uphill through unfamiliar streets, we were greeted by Liz, Magda, and Lucía from Canastas Verdes. Canastas Verdes is a small, women-led farming co-op in Urubamba that grows organic vegetables on their own land. Each woman wore a turquoise and gray sweat suit, a matching bucket hat, and a huge smile across their face. The women spoke Quechua to each other and Spanish to us, so Elaine, a student in our cohort, translated throughout the day. At Canastas Verdes, four to eight women work on any given day but there are only three main members who grow crops on the land adjacent to their homes. Liz took us on a tour of her parcel, the first and largest of the three that we would visit. She grew varieties of lettuce, kale, cauliflower, carrots, and other vegetables all within close proximity. Shade was provided by a dozen fruit trees surrounding the perimeter, and Liz gave us a few lemons and lúcumas (a native Peruvian fruit) to try. We passed around the lemon, taking turns biting into the peel and flesh. It was sour and delicious. The lúcuma was in lesser demand, as it had a dry texture like a sweet potato and a very subdued flavor.
Our first activity at Canastas Verdes was learning how to make organic fertilizer. We took turns chopping alfalfa and barley with a machete, mixing the yeast, water, and sugar in a 5-gallon bucket, and cementing our creation together like a cake. The layers alternated between the grassy mixture, dry leaves, cuy (guinea pig) manure, the water-yeast mixture, and a crushed concoction of eggshells, ash, and dried bird poop. When our stack was up to our knees, we flipped the “cake” over with a pitchfork in order for the ingredients to properly mix. Magda told us that the fertilizer would need to ferment for about three months before it could be used on the farm.