Monday, May 10

Paula: Another beautiful day in the Andes, more traditional foods, Inca ruins and welcoming Peruvians… Hilda again helped us experience the heart of life in Peru's highlands.

Bright blue skies provided wonderful 360 degree views of the Andes today, allowing us to see complete ranges and numerous glaciers. The rugged mountains serve as the backdrop for a beautiful patchwork of small farms. The fields alternate between shades of green and gold barley, wheat, potatoes and lima beans with an occasional field of lupine in soft lavender. We enjoyed the beauty of the countryside while making our way to Chinchero (population 2,000, elevation 3,763 meters). We have started noting the elevation of our destinations and Hilda has a watch which tells us our elevation wherever we are. Chinchero is actually one of the highest places we've been, explaining why we became very winded several times today (we hope that it's not simply because we are so out of shape…).

On our way to Chinchero, we noticed that people were especially busy in the fields. Whole families were gathered to harvest potatoes and barley. Many of the people in the Chinchero area were using animal-pulled plows (in addition to the lampa tools that we had seen being used last week), and Hilda explained that this was because the soil here is much more difficult to work due to the composition of the clay. We stopped to talk with some locals about the harvest but were quickly distracted by two bulls engaged in a long and fierce duel. As we looked on with several of the farmers, the bulls literally had their horns locked and were violently charging and trying to gore each other. The farmers explained that these were juvenile bulls and were fighting to establish authority among the herd. We watched the battle from a distance but at one point found ourselves having to run back to our van to stay out of their unpredictable path.

Further down the road, we stopped to visit with an extended family harvesting their potatoes. After meeting some of the family members, our offer to help was quickly accepted. Steve was given an opportunity to plow using two large bulls tied together by their horns. His job was to guide the plow along the row of potatoes. It sounded easy enough but he quickly discovered that this work requires a surprising amount of strength and stamina. After two short rows of struggling to control the bulls, he was sweating, huffing and puffing. He was a good sport when the local people laughed as he struggled to keep the blade of the plow down the middle of the rows.

As we had done last week with the family in Tastayoc, we all spent time here helping to gather the potatoes that had been unearthed into piles. David and Katie even heaved the loaded bundles on their backs and helped empty them into bags that would be used to transport the potatoes to market. Hilda told us that these potatoes would earn the family only about 12 cents per kilo.

As we worked in the field, we spoke with the family that included several teenage girls who are no longer in school because they have already started families. Hilda said that this is not uncommon in the countryside. In fact, in some of the smaller villages the schools only go through the sixth grade. After learning David's age, this family was quick to ask us if David would be interested in marrying one of the daughters - we laughed realizing that this is at least the second marriage proposal we have received on his behalf during our trip!

This family also had several small children and a baby that was tightly tied to the back of his mother as she tended a fire. We are always amazed at all the work that women do with babies on their backs. We have also noticed that the babies never seem to cry - they obviously love being on their mothers' backs.

The family had just begun their annual potato harvest and was preparing a special feast to "honor mother earth." Once again, we enjoyed watching the preparation for this ceremony. In addition to sharing chicha (fermented corn brew), the family had built a dirt oven during the morning and had been burning dried grass in order to order to bring the soil to the hot temperature needed to bake potatoes. About 100 potatoes had been selected for roasting and these were placed in the oven which was collapsed on top of them. The family planned to eat the roasted potatoes for lunch as part of a traditional harvest celebration. Although we didn't have time to accept their invitation to stay for the feast, the family insisted on offering us some of their chicha and Hilda told us that it was an honor to have been presented the first glass.











We arrived in Chinchero by late morning. This community is known for producing excellent textiles and we visited with a local group which is trying to preserve traditional weaving methods. Here we learned about how the wool is spun, died and then woven into a variety of textiles used by the local people. We often see women in the villages spinning by hand, carrying small looms with them to use while they are watching cattle or resting in the field. Children can learn to spin when they are six years old but aren't considered capable of the more difficult designs until they are much older.

The designs and colors of the ponchos, hats, and borders are all unique for each village. We were impressed by the intricate designs that these women were weaving, and learned that some of the larger articles can take one person up to three months to complete. We made a few small purchases and Katie received some samples of sheep, llama and alpaca fleece to try spinning on her own.

A special lunch was prepared for us by a family in the village and we had an opportunity to try several of the local specialties including a variety of vegetables and potato dishes. The centerpiece of the meal was roasted guinea pig and of course we all had to give it a try. It didn't "taste like chicken," but had more of a gamey taste and was actually quite good. We took several pictures of the roasted guinea pig (presented so beautifully on the plate!), and David insisted on taking its teeth home as a souvenir. Hilda told us that most visitors don't even taste the guinea pig, but with all the eating experiences we have had during our travels, this one didn't faze us at all.

In the afternoon we visited Moray, the site of Inca ruins from the early 15th century. Originally thought to be an amphitheater, more recent excavations suggest that the site was used for agricultural experiments. The impressive and deep terraces allowed the Incas to precisely change the microclimate at each level. We spoke with some of the INC staff currently involved in excavations and were able to see how they were slowly digging and exploring each layer.

The terraces were carefully designed by the Incas to promote drainage and efficient irrigation and contained distinct layers of gravel, sand, clay and finally topsoil. In addition to water channels, the terraces also have large rock steps called patapata that were used by the Incas to move from one terrace to another.

After leaving Moray, we drove through the community of Maras. As we entered this small village, we began seeing many children along its narrow streets. We stopped the van so that David and Katie could hand out their marbles, pens and combs to a small group of children. Word spread quickly in the streets and were quickly surrounded by a much larger group of kids all smiling and laughing as they waited for their small gifts. As we talked to the children, we discovered they were coming back to school to rehearse a dance they were going to perform in an upcoming harvest celebration. They invited us to watch their rehearsal, and we were especially impressed by their ability to remember the dance routine which was over 10 minutes long. We thanked them for their performance before continuing our trip back to Cusco.

Along the way we headed down a long narrow gravel road which leads into a deep valley. At the bottom of the valley is a huge salt mine containing hundreds of pools supplied by an underground spring (the only underground salt water spring in the Andes). The mine dates back to the Incas, and today the individual pools are owned by local people from Maras who harvest the salt and haul it on their backs up the steep valley.

Tomorrow we are looking forward to exploring Cusco, the historical capital of the Inca Empire. We will have three days in Cusco before we head southwest to Ica, our last destination in Peru.












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