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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.

Los Apus de Nacion Queros

At any moment we would be thrusted at jolting speed to either end of the open rectangular box we were jammed into. Inside which the only way of telling the scenery apart was through the jagged peaks that shifted before us right above the blue wooden panels of the truck we were inside.

We were headed to Nacion Queros, one of the most remote places in the Peruvian Andes. So remote in fact, the Spanish Conquistadors never actually set foot in the place making the people of the Queros possible descendents of the Incas themselves. According to Q’ero mythology, the Queros ancestors defended themselves from invading Spanish conquistadores with the aid of local mountain deities (apus) that devastated the Spanish Army near Wiraqucha Pampa by creating an earthquake and subsequent rockslide that buried the Spanish invaders. Whether true or not, it is evident the defining features of their environment are the rugged mountains and crags that encompass their villages. A unique region to say the least.

When we arrived to our first village homestay, barely able to see more than a few house lengths in front of us due to the thick fog, I met my homesay father named Santos. He explained to me, when I asked him what he did for work, that he farmed potatoes, The Chakra to be specific: a midsized, usually dark in color, a common potato used mostly for soups or with rice. He responded in an oddly apathetic manner. As if slightly confused of my reason for asking. I soon realized in the coming days that work here had a different definition. They made little actual money, instead most of their labour is solely for the purpose of nourishing their families. They worked in order to sustain their basic needs of life. Often though, it is the wife who spends her time weaving textiles, bags, and bracelets for selling purposes. They live in homes made of mud or stone with a thatched roof of straw. I always grateful for the warmth of a small cooking fire as we as we sit in close company peeling potatoes for the soup once the water begins to boil. At night I sleep under an animal skin, usually llama or alpaca: the most common animals of the Andes. Our conversations, usually had around the pot of soup, are limited at times as Quechua is the main language spoken here, but I have never seen anyone someone respond so passionately about a something so elementary as their favorite kind of  “Papa” (potato), or seen so much devotion in describing the animals of their surrounding land when we did not know their names in Quechua.

However simple their lives seemed to me at first, in my third homestay I first felt the unforgiving beauty of this far removed part of the world. After a poor night’s sleep through a hail storm, I awoke to snow covered landscape. Slivers of black rock shone through the wintered valley. I crouched as I left the small threshold meant for a Quero rather than anyone of my size as I set my boots into the snow. Baffled by the new environment, just yesterday the mountains were green, I ventured down to the large lake which reflected the great ridge just above it. I took out my camera and started to shoot the reflection in the water. Only a few moments later a cloud touched the far rim of the lake and swept itself towards me. Soon I lost sight of the far shoreline altogether, then the mountains, then I turned my shoulder and could no longer see the houses atop the long hill, or even the way that I had came. As I stood there, blanketed in a thick cloud, two shifting figures pierced the white sheet of my vision advancing towards me. In an almost gallop, holding hands as they skipped over the water on the patches of earth that surrounded them, I recognized my host brother and his sister. They were on their way home. As we saw each other we waved many times walking towards each other saying “Hola, Hola! Como estas. (how are you)!” Their faces both lit up as we met and walked together. Their way of walking seemed without a destination, though they obviously knew were they were going. They skipped if they pleased, or turned around to make a silly face at one another in amusement. I adopted a whimsical and receptive manner as I began to have a conversation with them. I had not attempted this the night before in fear they wouldn’t understand me as they mainly spoke quechua: the indigenous language of Queros. Though they would occasionally let out a few words of Quechua, It was the most memorable and lasting interaction I had had with any of the young children of Nacion Queros. I was in such awe of the fierce conditions in which the children appeared to stroll around like it was a playground for them.

I see now why it was such a particularly unique morning, the landscape had a remarkable effect on us. Engulfed, almost blinded, by fog in the middle of the valley, I was no longer a visiter of their home.  I was experiencing, if only for a moment, the barrenness of their surroundings as they did each day. This shifted the narrative from my foreignness hindering our ability to interact, to the confinement the natural conditions of their land imposed on us forcing our experiences together into one memory I now cherish. The same desolation that hid Queros region from the Spanish, seems to be the primary factor from which the Queros have derived their energy, spirituality, and hope throughout the years of their cultures tradition.