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Crossing the river before summiting 17,500 Pico Austria. Photo by Ella Williams (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest, 2nd Place), South America Semester.

Nación Q’eros: Question and Reflections

The llama that carried my backpack tipped over twice in the span of five minutes, unable to bear the weight of my belongings. I packed for a five day trek, not paying much attention to the weight of my pack because I wasn’t the one carrying it. I knew we’d be hiking with llamas or alpacas, and I figured it didn’t matter. As I watched the llama struggling to get to its feet, though, under the weight of my things, I couldn’t help but feel responsible. It was hit repeatedly by the guides, who meanwhile, pulled at a rope, dragging it to its feet. I wondered if “it” had a name. I tried to slow my heart beat and ease my conscience by reminding myself that it was fine because “it” was meant to carry things, being a llama and all. After registering the thought that had just gone through my mind, I practically doubled over, nauseated by how quickly I reverted to my Western mindset as a means of justification or an excuse. Llamas, like every other pack animal, are meant to run free, to be wild. I couldn’t believe that I thought, or rather believed, even for a second, that llamas were meant to carry someone’s bag, let alone mine. This sent me into a tailspin of questioning anything and everything that I’ve come to accept as a fact, starting with questioning how in the world I could go about breaking down the western bias that exists inside myself and inhibits my ability to truly understand anything if I continue to live in the “western world.” What even is the “western world,” I questioned. The term, “western world,” has this negative connotation to it, an overwhelming sense of conceit, I think. It is almost as if I, representing the western world, am better than you, representing everyone else, because I live in the western world and you do not. But in reality, isn’t South America technically in the Western World too? And if you shift your perspective a bit, isn’t Africa as well? What even is the Western World? Who coined this term to begin with and who decided that it’s superior? (I could easily google this, but frankly I don’t care. Rather, I care about why we still believe it.) It’s the same thing with developed vs. undeveloped countries. I personally think that the culture of Perú, a “developing country,” is stronger than that in the US, a “developed country.” I think that the familial connection, belief systems, traditions, etc. are incredibly strong in Perú, stronger than I’ve seen anywhere, and as far as I know, don’t even begin to compare to those in the states. But I digress. This mindset, of being from the western/developed world impacted my experience in Q’eros from the start. When I first arrived in Yanaruma, the first village of four that we stayed in, I immediately started comparing my life to theirs. I looked around at the llama and alpaca poop that covered upwards of 95% of the ground, the houses made of rock and straw, the barefoot children running around in the mud, and the trash everywhere. I thought about how clean my life is and realized I had taken that for granted. I actually had the audacity to challenge whether or not it was safe for us to live the way the people of Nación Q’eros do every day for five nights, putting myself and the other members of our group in an entirely different category of humanity and forgetting, for a moment, that we are all human and neither is better nor superior than the other. I still feel sick remembering the moment that thought crossed my mind and hate myself for going there even just for a minute. That night, Molly, Becca, and I walked into our host family’s home and I thought for a second, I might burst. At the beginning of the course, we talked about the zones: comfort zone, learning zone, and panic zone. The instructors told us right off the bat that they didn’t want us to be in our panic zone, and if we ever were, we should work actively to move towards our learning zone. Upon walking through the front door, I was as far into my panic zone as I had ever been and I’m not entirely sure why. Their home was a rectangle, about 15 ft x 5 ft. At the entrance, was a puddle of mud that the kids ran through barefoot upon entering and leaving the house. The kitchen was on one end, where a single pot for soup and a kettle for tea sat above an open fire. The fire, fueled by straw that covered the entire floor of the home, blazed wildly. The thought of how easily the house could become engulfed in flames crossed my mind for a second, but I reminded myself that they’ve been using this technique to cook for centuries and it seemed to have worked thus far. I glanced around and saw four or five guinea pigs, or guys rather, running around. To this day, I still don’t know if they were pets or a future meal. While I hope its the first, I’m almost certain it was the latter. On the other side of their home was a pile of blankets – the bed. After a few minutes of sitting and constantly glancing around, watching a chicken roam in and out of the house freely, we hear muffled wails coming from the direction of the pile of blankets. Quickly after, a second set of wails emerged. Rosalina, a six year old girl with rosy cheeks and a red shirt, ran inside to uncover the one month old baby and picked him up. Yea, you heard that right – a six year old taking care of a one month old baby. She nudged her four year old brother with her leg as if to say, “no one’s going to pick you up or pat you on the back, so you better stop crying now,” and continued to try to settle her baby brother down, bouncing him on her knee and patting his back. I watched with equal amounts of amazement and horror, wondering how anyone could live like this. Maybe it was my “western mindset,” or maybe it wasn’t, but I wondered how any of this was possible. When we got to Yanaruma, we were told that a newborn baby has a 50% chance of living. My host mom, the one with the one month old baby, had a tooth ache that was so bad it hurt her to speak. She waited until we arrived and then asked our instructors if they had any medicine to help her with the pain. In this day and age, when it’s possible to identify a broken bone just by taking a picture and cure a disease with a pill and do surgery on someone’s brain or heart and have it still be considered “safe,”how is it possible that a woman with a toothache has to wait for a group of thirteen white Americans (and one Canadian – not forgetting about you, Hugh – don’t worry) to waltz into her village in order to get some ibuprofen or an antibiotic. And how is it that there’s such a low likelihood that a newborn will survive after birth? How is that possible and how is that fair? Again, I started questioning my privilege and the unfairness of everything. What did I do to deserve essentially unlimited access to advil and a toothbrush and purified water and vitamins from fruits and veggies and a running toilet and a doctor’s appointment if I’m sick? Why do I get to show up to Q’eros with my fancy sleeping bag that insulates to 50-60 degrees and my sleeping pad that makes sleeping on anything comfortable. I walked into Yanaruma on the first day with my hiking boots and wool socks, bundled up in my down jacket and raincoat, while kids ran around in sandals and nothing more than a sweater. I brought apples, granola bars, nuts, and more to supplement the diet of solely potatoes, but the families living there don’t get any of that. I was only there for five days and I couldn’t even bring myself to live exactly the way they live for one. None of it made sense, and I still think it doesn’t. Hugh reminded me one day that this is the way they live and they like it. I can confirm that what he said is true. Every opportunity I had, in Yanaruma, Lequepata, Cochamarca, y Japo, I asked everyone I could if they enjoyed living there, and everyone said yes. I asked if they ever got sick of potatoes and everyone said no. I asked if it ever got too cold or too rainy and they said no. But it still didn’t make sense. The thing I didn’t realize until the very end of our stay, that put it all into perspective, was the strength of their belief system. Their devotion to pachamama, mamacoca, los apus, las lagunas, y más was beautifully strong. How could it not be? On our way to Japo, as we walked through the outstanding landscapes, I couldn’t help but feel a spiritual presence. I stood in la laguna sagrada, water up to my knees, during the water purification ceremony, listening to Pacha speak to pachamama, and it all started to make sense. In the midst of the jagged mountains that erupted from the ground in every direction that seemed unforgivable, sat a beautiful and calm body of water. The lagoon was a brilliant blue and the water was impressively clear, a stark contrast against the charcoal colored mountains surrounding it. Afterwards, while walking away, I caught another glimpse of the lagoon and the mountains and practically stopped in my tracks. I turned to Brian and shouted from one mountain peak to another, “It all makes so much sense!!” I never understood the popular religions that surrounded my life at home – Christianity and Judaism. Maybe I never took the time to properly understand them or maybe I did. I could never relate, though. I could never convince myself to believe in a higher being or a creator of all things because it never made sense to me and because there was never a reason to, I think. Religion seemed like such a foreign and distant concept. Standing on that peak, though, looking at the turquoise water, things started lining up. Mountains can be unforgiving. Water can be unforgiving. Agriculture can be unforgiving. Storms can be unforgiving. When you live in a place like Nación Q’eros, and you rely on the sun to rise every day in order to warm the earth and help your crops grow, and you pray that a storm doesn’t bring damage to your home or your animals, and you expect rivers to bring you fish and lakes to bring you peace, believing in the natural landscapes around you is all you can do. Sacrificing an animal because there was a huge storm the night before and you believe that pachamama is upset, seems all kinds of right in ways that previously felt all kinds of wrong. Thanking the mountains, the water, the sun, etc. for what they’ve done every morning and asking pachamama for protection during the day’s trek through the potentially unforgiving landscapes makes sense. It all makes sense. The strength of the belief system in Q’eros was so refreshing and inspiring that I found myself standing and staring frequently at the water and the mountains, saying “thank you” under my breath. Thank you for what? I’m not sure. Thank you for keeping me safe, keeping me healthy, teaching me, inspiring me, existing? I don’t know what I was thankful for, I just knew I was eternally grateful – a feeling I had yet to experience in my lifetime. Leaving Q’eros, I wasn’t sure about a lot of things – most things, actually, but I was sure that I developed a newfound respect and appreciation for the natural landscapes I had previously taken advantage of. They mean something bigger now. Everything does, I think.