Salt of the Earth

Hello Friends,
Things have accelerated here for me (as if that were possible.)
A week ago Friday our institute had its last formal session. Our speaker cancelled but the group was so cooperative and congenial that six of us took turns presenting the readings that she was supposed to present and we had a great time. That evening a bunch of us went out dancing – men and women ages 32 – 65+….line dances, circle dances, crazy dances, at a couple of techno and salsa clubs in Miraflores, Lima. The next day there were many hugs and tears…

Sunday I flew back to Cusco to work with a fledgling group of new friends and iron out details of some linguistic research we are undertaking together. This is a group of indigenous people trying to recuperate a place for themselves, their language and culture in their own land. As you may have gathered from previous posts, the high Andes are a tough place to survive, but even tougher since the Spanish conquest and the arrival of industry and globalization.

I had the great honor to have been taken under the wing of a warm and amazing family, the family of Hipolito Peralta Ccama and his wife Alejandra, who each grew up farming in the countryside and later became rural schoolteachers and teacher educators. On their day off they took me to visit Alejadra`s mother Dolores` farm; she is a 78-year-old widow who lives and works alone in an adobe home on one of many, many acres she has farmed all her life with the help of extended family and neighbors.

We took several buses and arrived near dusk to find her threshing wheat with a pitchfork and accompanied by her 6 year old granddaughter. Everyone pitched in immediately to help thresh; the method was to toss the wheat into the air and let the wind separate chaff from grain. Alejandra quickly took off her shoes and worked barefoot – I asked if she was cold but she said she wanted contact with Mother Earth. Nothing New Age implied here…this family is deeply in touch with its Andean spirituality. No matter that frost fell that night. – Then we scooped up the grain into a couple of bags which Hipolito sewed with needle and thick thread, he and Alejandra hoisted the heavy, heavy pack onto their donkey Pancho (who comes when called) and we all followed Pancho up to Dolores` home.

You enter the home by passing through the sheep`s pen (full of nearly forty sheep including newborns.) This was one of the more prosperous farms I`ve seen in the Andes – most rural Andean houses are one-room houses, but this one had several sections for storage and other sleeping quarters. There were guinea pigs running around the floor (a favorite food) and weavings, tools and bags/piles of food everywhere, all home-grown or traded. The ceiling was high; there was a dim electric light (they´ve had electricity for about 20 years) and a small clay stove near the floor in a corner against the wall, with a hole in the roof for smoke to escape and a place to cure meat on the wall.

Dolores, who speaks only Quechua, has a deep voice and an incredibly spritely energy and moved from one task to another the entire time we were there; every adult and many of the children worked non-stop, carrying heavy burdens, harvesting, cooking, tending to animals, mending. The two boys (a son and nephew) we brought along spent a lot of time cuddling some newborn puppies in the yard. After a dinner of toasted corn, potatoes, coca tea and other good stuff we went out to look at the Milky Way (see July 18 post.) This was very different from reading about the Milky Way or hearing a lecture about it. We pulled blankets around ourselves and went out to gaze at the cold sky surrounded by high mountains in all directions.

No special place for a bathroom – everyone found their own place to squat in the dark. The next day I did make use of Alejandra`s brother`s outhouse, what a luxury!! Flushed with a bucket, guided and helped by a group of Dolores` grandkids.

We slept on beds and platforms under heavy blankets. I woke up a lot of times to the sounds of sheep in heat and animals chewing on the other side of the door.

We got up at dawn and started cooking and farming right away, picking up leftover corn, husking it and putting it in bags for the animals, and carrying the stalks to a giant pile to dry. Soon Alejandra`s brother Julio came over from his neighboring land to say hello and discuss irrigation. He is a community leader and very kindly agreed to be interviewed on video to talk about water distribution. The Incas were master irrigators and this community of about 20 farms gets its water cooperatively from a duct that runs down a nearby mountain and up their mountain, then into a series of clay holding tanks, which they take turns irrigating all the land with.

Someone got the water started and we all pitched in to clear the irrigation ditch to Dolores`farm; it came running down to all her fields. Then Hipolito and Dolores and I hiked up to the holding tanks with a pick axe and they hacked away some clay to plug up the tank. Dolores got in the tank barefoot and placed the clay over the opening so it would fill up again; we did this with two tanks and she explained that if the water got too low, it would not run fast down the ditch and would instead filter down and not get to her fields. Always fiesty, she refused to be helped back up out of the tank and climbed out by herself.

In the early afternoon everyone was excited to show me how to make a watia, or cylindrical clay oven outside, which they got red hot for at least an hour before putting in potatoes and freshly killed guinea pig to roast, and collapsing the hot oven on top of the food. The watia is another spiritual experience symbolizing the fertility of Mother Earth and her providence.

It was also time for Julio and his son to yoke three pairs of oxen who had been at rest for a while and get them to agree to pull huge wooden plows through the ground. I have some interesting videos of this and made sure to run away everytime the oxen ran in my direction (several of them bellowed a lot and did NOT want to be yoked)

What is missing from this description? Many, many details, but most importantly the warmth and openness with which this extended family shared their lives with me. They were full of jokes, philosophical and spiritual musings, tears, songs, questions about farming and life in Massachusetts. They were patient with my limited Quechua, and translated for me and explained to me tirelessly.

But most of all I was touched by each of these people`s gratitude – toward each other, and toward the spirits they perceived everywhere. They expressed this gratitude frequently, thanking each other and the Earth spontaneously in ways that surprised me.

After our stay in the country we headed back to the city for another packed night and day of work together, setting up a database and blog, figuring out how to transfer audio and video recordings of children speaking Quechua onto people`s computers, singing and eating together…

Would it be trite to say that today at dawn when it was time to get up and leave Cusco, I found myself crying?

1 thought on “Salt of the Earth

  1. Tania Erlij

    Claro, que muchos abrazos para Don Hipolito y su familia: sigo caminando para alistarme a acompañarlo en una de sus caminatas!


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