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Photo by Tom Pablo, South America Semester.

Q’eros Reflection

Heads tucked low, we pressed forward with wind, snow and a mysterious fog swirling around us amidst unrelenting mountains. Legs quaking from an endless decent; faces pressed tight into our collars, softly rubbing against the cool, condensed moisture of our warm breaths; dull aches passing through our shoulders; the gentle notes of Siwar Kenti’s flute drifting back over our heads- energized, joyous and kindly distracting us from the tendrils of ice passing through our veins.

Welcome to the first pass of our Q’eros immersion.

Q’eros was an experience I feel we were all excited to undergo; the promised challenges of potato soup for every meal, rigorous daily hikes, and an intense language barrier (Quechua being the primary language of the Q’eros Nation) were both nerve wracking and thrilling. After a 2.5 hour bus ride in the back of a sheep truck and scarfing down our lunch, huddled close together in the bed against the forceful gusts of snow, we were off into the wilderness. We stopped along the path at a small little shack to partake in a quick Coca ceremony with Siwar to thank Pachamama (Mother Nature) and ask the natural powers for safe passage.

During our time in Q’eros we each did 4 homestays, 2 for one night and 2 for two nights. Homes made of mud bricks and straw roofs, sometimes with a single, solar powered light bulb or lantern. The rough walls did little to keep the chill out but the cook fire sent warm breaths through the small rooms and the shrieks of energized children racing about kept our blood pumping. My first night in Q’eros I shared a homestay with Reilly and Bri in the town of Japu, the first hour or two spent in silence and polite smiles as our host mother spoke only Quechua. We had two brothers and a sister, whom stared at us between bouts of racing around the room, knocking each other over and giggling away from the sharp nips of our family’s puppy. Conversation lifted slightly when our host father came home, as he had learned Spanish during his excursions into Ocongate and Cuzco. This home was by far the nicest I would see in Q’eros, the first floor consisting of a small open space and separate room with a fire space as the kitchen. The family slept upstairs, leaving us three girls downstairs to our own devices. That first night was freezing. I spent most of the night curled towards the warmth of Reilly, the small pupper curled up against my head. You’ll never guess what we had for dinner and breakfast! Potato soup!

We had a tough hike the next day, lasting about 6 hours chalk full of beautiful views and even a little bit of sunshine! We learned quickly that the weather in Q’eros was ever changing, cold fronts and fog rolling in one minute followed 15 minutes later by the sweltering sun. That night I shared a homestay with sweet ‘ole Mollie. We had a pretty sweet set-up here, our family had a separate little shed, where their older son usually stayed, that we got to share and it was very cozy! Even when the roof leaked all night on my face from the torrential rain storm raging by outside… This was one of the pueblos we were staying in for two nights and a full day, so we brought some edible goods as gifts for the community. SO, lucky us, we got pasta noodles in our potato soup for two nights in a row! In Cochamarka we were also fortunate enough to get to partake in a sacrificial ceremony and feast. We prepared a large oven of sorts and blessed both sheep before slitting their throats. Lucy and I assisted in the harvesting of the animals, putting every thing to use, from the fresh red blood to the feces filled intestines. after the meat was prepared and marinated we placed it in the stone build oven, collapsed the stones, buried everything in dirt and let it cook for about an hour. Then the community, including the kids from school, shared in the feast, some of our group trying intestine soup for the first time! Some of us were aware of I steatite soup and wise enough to avoid it ;). We spent the rest of our time in Cochamarka playing fútbol with the community, working on self reflections, and spending time with our host families.

The next morning, refreshed and ready to see some more of the breathtaking views, we set out on our 8 hour day towards the village of Llankapata. During our hike on the fourth day we passed the ‘Head of the Puma’, named such as the rock formation looks like a Puma’s head laying with it’s mouth passed to the lake for a refreshing drink. At this absolutely stunning lake we were asked by Siwar to set down all our things, receive a blessing for safe passage and permission to pass from his wife Pacha in the lake, and only then proceed, not permitted to turn back. Oh boy was that water chilly running down my head and chest! This day of hiking was a challenge, due to the sheer length and terrain variability, but it was incredibly gorgeous and the weather was quite nice. Of course it’s Q’eros, so I went from sweating bullets to wearing every layer I owned and still shivering, all within about an hour. We arrive to Llankapata about an hour and a half earlier than expected so we had time to enjoy a small break, relax and catch up on some reading. For this homestay I was paired off with Lucy and before we trailed off after our homestay father we were warned that our homestay mother was mute. Upon arrival to their small home we were overwhelmed by the animation and warm generosity of our host mother. Though Lucy and I struggled to always comprehend the messages she was trying to portray to us, it was clear her husband understood her perfectly, having developed their own form of communication, showing affection for one another most people can’t manage even with the use of words. The couple had the vaca (cow) they had just killed three days prior hung in the low sitting rafters all along the room, knocking Lucy and I in the head at it’s leisure. The couple kindly told us to lay in the bed (the first bed I had personally seen in Q’eros, just a frame with blankets), and they prepared their own sleeping arrangements on the floor. That night I woke up to the nice drip drop of congealing cow blood onto my sleeping bag (sorry mom!) and the solar powered light bulb’s bright fluorescent light burning my eyes, as it remained on all night. The morning was filled with hugs, cheek pinches, and pats on the back as we said our fair wells to our mom and dad.

Headed to the final town of our Q’eros trek, Yanaruma, we were bright eyed for another great experience, but the fatigue and wonky stomach aches of a potato soup only diet as well as restless nights were certainly beginning to wear on our group. Exhaustion made today’s trek difficult but the terrain was kinder and the distance much shorter, our group remained encouraging and supportive of one another. Once again we arrived a couple hours early, as most of our families do not return from their work day until 5pm, so we huddled up in the empty, rounded church building to hide from the freezing winds and steady sheet of rainfall. We passed our time reading, playing charades and enjoying our lunches at a leisurely pace. Per usual, upon arrival of our families, we were broken into groups based on the number of available houses, and I headed off with my family, Lucy and Hank. Our family in Yanaruma had 4 kids and a constant flow of family coming and going- it took me about 24 hours to figure out who our father actually was amongst all the uncles, brothers and friends. We had a nice first night with our family, in the most spacious mud hut we’d seen, enjoying a good section of the room for ourselves. Hank is convinced our dad gave the kids coffee, as they were sprinting back in forth across the room and leaping off beds like a tornado of energy for about 2.5 hours. The next morning we spent some time with our family and then headed out to visit Mollie, Bri and Reilly’s family to learn some traditional weaving techniques. Lucy had been feeling rather under the weather so she hung back for the day to catch up on sleep and let her body relax- our host mom was sick as well so our house was full of nappers.

To wrap up our time in Yanaruma and Q’eros we had a closing ceremony with Siwar, in which we thanked Pacha Mama for our time in Q’eros, reflects on our time and nature, and learned from Siwar more about the nation of Q’eros and how the developing world surrounding it has effected them. The community is currently struggling with their natural resources, weather has become more irregular, the straw used for their thatched roofs grows thinner and weaker (unable to keep rain out any longer), crops grow smaller and with more difficulty, and the terrain has overall become less welcoming and more barren. Siwar expressed frustration in these changing conditions, which the Q’eros nation believes is due to the influences of global warming, caused by an outside world in which they hardly partake. Due to these changing conditions the nation has begun to branch out more into the world outside of Q’eros, recognizing they cannot go on as they have with their changing environment. Many families send their kids to Ocongate for school as they get older, hoping they can bring their education back to help the community they come from. They have also begun to bring in outside resources, such as singular solar powered lights and tin roofs. Towns closer to the two access roads also show a greater proportion of litter and ‘junk’ food that has become so prevalent in other areas of South America.

Throughout this trek, those missing from our group- Tom, Olivia and Jack- were missed greatly and we were all sending good vibes their way for speedy recoveries and good health. We are glad to be reunited with them and to have been able to share our experiences!

Peace and Love,

Amy James

*Siwar is 51 years old, he grew up in Q’eros- orphaned at the age of 8/9- and was the president of the nation a few years back. He loves to work with groups willing to learn about his culture, the struggles they now face, with hopes that someone may someday be able to help his people and that they will walk away with a greater understanding of nature, unity and spirituality.*