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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.

Reflecting on Q’eros

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”

-Nelson Mandela

We came to N’acion Q’eros in a wooden truckbed bordered by blue walls. We sat on our big bags, talking, laughing, and sleeping as the truck bumped and winded along the road to Q’eros. Along the way, we admired the changing mountain-top views. Some were barren, the snow that once lay there having decided long ago to not come back. Some were green. Others were capped in white. After three hours of a nausea-inducing ride, we disembarked and our journey through Q’eros began.

Our first homestay was challenging. I was in a room with seven others, five Dragons and our hosts, a 15 year old girl and her 5 year old brother. None of us knew what to expect. We were sitting on blankets and wool, feet on the hay floor and backs on the stone walls. We smiled at our hosts, but could not communicate, our Quechua limited to a handful of useful and useless phrases. Eating the white potato soup was unfamiliar for us, as were the boiled potatoes that accompanied it. We laughed nervously, and relished in the awkwardness together. At 8:30, we went to bed, only to wake up after a rough night of sleep at 4:45 AM. A new day had began.

As we walked, I was struck by the beauty around me. Siwar and his son, Miguelinti, played the flauta, their beautiful music suspended in the air as an homage to los apus, the sacred mountains around us. The sun, Taita Inti, Padre Sol smiled down on us as we hiked, lungs desperate for oxygen at the high altitude we were at. The weather was swift and unpredictable. Soon, clouds rolled across the valley below and everything was shrouded in nublina, fog. Rocks, llamas, and streams disappeared into the mist. Walking alone, I marvelled at how beautiful la naturaleza was. With each step, something new would appear, slowly coming into focus as I came closer.

We arrived at our second community, Japu. Some of us played fútbol against the community members of Japu and nearby. The game was intense and we were vastly outnumbered, but we had fun nonetheless. After, we went to la boca de Pachamama. Under the guidance of Miguelinti and Siwar, we asked for the blessing of Pachamama with three ojas de Mama Coca and a textile-wrapped offering of colored candies, coca, and the other things that la Madre Tierra enjoys.

In the evening, we went off to our separate homestays. Some went with a companion, others alone. Our new family was older, a mother, a father, three kids, and a grandmother. We communicated with the little castellano we shared. The soup’s flavor was strong and unfamiliar. It tasted of a scent I began to know well, the scent of llama. Unaccustomed to this flavor of the Andes, we gave our leftovers to the hungry dogs outside and happily peeled a variety of boiled potatoes. We slept with the light on and woke in the early hours of the next morning.

Our third day was again filled with mist. As with every day, we began by honoring the apus. Siwar poured agua florida into our palms, and we clapped three times, brushed our faces, and raised our hands to the mountains. Our walk, subida, was challenging and we paused often to adjust our layers and catch our breath. Shivering, we peeled our potatoes for lunch. I was comforted by the warmth of a friend’s Tabasco sauce, a hint of familiarity in a world so unfamiliar. After eating, we paused at a lake, la laguna negra. The mist covered the water and I could not tell where one ended and the other began. Siwar explained the lake was sacred, and watching the water glow, I could see why. One by one, we rolled up our pants and kicked off our shoes. Barefoot, we walked through the icy water to where Siwar was standing. Siwar talked to Pachamama, la laguna, and los apus, asking the Earth to help watch over us and to help us leave behind that which we no longer wanted. He dipped a bundle of yellow flowers into the water and brushed our faces with it. We left the lake walking on the sand, not repeating the path by which we had come.

Arriving at our third community, we sat down amongst the round llama excrement and leaned against the mossy rocks. My homestay companions and I followed an elderly man in a colorful hat to a storage room. He explained we would be staying with his son, who was out with the llamas, and told us to settle in. We set up our pads and sleeping bags, and curiously examined the bags of potatoes and the llama fetus across from us. Exhausted, I fell asleep. Some hours later, our host dad arrived. He laughed and introduced himself as Sabino, inviting us across the way to his other casita, where his kitchen was.

We sipped on warming maca tea, its flavor earthy and comforting. As we drank tea and ate potatoes together, we learned more about his life. Sabino told us about the varieties of potatoes he grew and how they were of a high quality, grown without chemicals. He introduced his young son, and explained how hard it had been for his son when he and his wife had separated. He told us his dreams of moving to the city so that his son could attend school for the whole month instead of a week. And he told us how this would never be, because he lacked plata and employable skills. There was a sadness to his voice as he talked, a sadness he tried to conceal as he poured us more tea and served us more food.

In the morning, we awoke to a surprise. The green grass of the community had turned white; the straw roofs, rocks, and ponds were coated with fresh snow. I realized I had forgotten my hiking boots outside, and so I carefully made my way to breakfast in Teva’s. Sabino surprised us with rice and tomatoes to accompany the potatoes, which were among the best I’ve tried in my life. He smiled and talked with us, giving us more maca tea. After breakfast, I recovered my hiking boots, which the ardieros had rescued from the weather. Before leaving, I got a bracelet that Sabino had made, a small token to remember him by.

Our walk through the snow was surreal. I was amazed at how the landscape had changed overnight. All that was once green was white. We stopped at a clearing to learn the tinku, a traditional dance of Q’eros. The tinku is an encuentro, a time for young men and women of different communities to meet and fall in love. We danced with beautiful woven scarves, weaving through each other. We concluded by planting two plants into the frosty ground. Siwar told us that he met his wife through this dance, something that lingered on my mind as we walked away from the snow and toward our next community, which we found green and basking under the sun.

Some of us played soccer on top of a hill, others journaled on the rocks. Everyone delighted in the sunshine and the views. We paused to admire a condor, a sacred animal for the Q’eros people. After the game, we listened to Siwar as he told us about Q’eros. He told us how it has changed over the years, the beliefs of the people there, and why it is such a powerful and important place. I was reluctant to leave the sunshine, but I continued with two friends to our fourth homestay, situated a small walk below.

In my fourth homestay, we struggled to communicate. We stayed with a 52 year old father and his three sons. We felt uncomfortable as the man tried to sell us rope and buy our knives, but persisted in trying to form a connection and learn from each other. We fell asleep under the watchful gaze of the three children. In the morning, the children woke us up and brought us to the kitchen, a fireplace with a woodpile above. Their father had left early, at 2 in the morning to go work, and so the 11 year old boy and his younger siblings made us breakfast. The potatoes were hard and so we ate slowly. With the little Spanish he knew, the eldest boy ordered us, Come, come, come, come, come. Feeling our cultural differences, we ate what we could. After a long conversation with little understanding on either end, the boys left for school and the three of us hiked up to meet the others, unsure of how to process the events of the evening and the morning.

Taita Inti was out and sparkling. As we walked, I smiled at his warmth on my back and my face. We stopped for lunch on a misty mountainside, Pachamama reminding us of her presence with some friendly spikes on our hands and bags. I breathed in the beauty around me, grateful to be in such a wondrous place. We continued on, descending into the valley and arriving at our final community, Kiku Chicu. Kiku Chicu was a beautiful, idyllic place. Llamas grazed on the hillsides above, chickens roamed aboud, and blossoms dotted the land. The now-familiar grey stone houses were spread out on either side of a clear stream, each completed with a yellow straw roof. In the distance, the mountains formed a V shape, revealing the clouds that would roll in later in the day.

Siwar led us to a cave by a waterfall. We formed a circle inside, and listened attentively as he told us the story of his life. He told us of his childhood, of the loss of his parents and his life alone in the mountains. He reflected on his resourcefulness and of his terrifying encounter with a puma. He told us how he left to work in mines in the jungle, and how he did so for three years without pay, three years with. He explained how he saved his money to buy animals and move back to the mountains, how he met his wife, and how he became the president of Q’eros for six years. He told us about the miners that came to take the riqueza of the mountains and how he frightened them away with fire. He explained his decision to open Q’eros to the outside world, after years and years of isolation. He said he was proud of some actions and ashamed of others. He explained how the mining company had led to his banishment from his Kiku community, with the threat of death should he return. And finally, he told us how his community members had apologized and welcomed him back.

In the evening, we met our homestay families. My homestay mother and father were sweet, and we smiled and spoke to each other in our common language, castellano. We peeled potatoes for the soup and laughed together. Two kittens sat with their mother in the corner; our host sister did her homework. The soup was something new. It was dark, with carrots, onions, cilantro, and something unfamiliar but intriguing, ground chuño. We said goodnight, and woke up early next morning.

Our final full day in Q’eros was unforgettable. We took part in a Pachamanka ceremony, in which animals are sacrificed as an offering to Pachamama. Each of us carried an armful of wood uphill for the oven. Together, we gathered stones for the same purpose. We watched as the men of the community dug a hole and carefully lined it with piedritas, little stones. They expertly created a dome of stones on top of the pit, leaving a doorway for air and the addition of wood. We lit the fire early in the morning, allowing time for the rocks to heat up. From time to time, the men added wood or fanned the flame, tenderly caring for the oven.

In silence, we walked to a clearing where three sheep were laying. Their heads were covered, but we could see them breathing quickly. After taking three leaves of coca, blowing, and giving thanks to Pachamama, three men with knives approached the animals. They cut their throats and I was shocked at the redness of the blood that came out. For some time after, the men continued to prepare the sheep. They worked with expertise and the assistance of some in the crowd. Overwhelmed and unsure of my feelings, I walked over to help tend the oven.

When the rocks were hot and the meat was marinated, the community members layered the meat and the hot stones. They covered the dome with a wet textile, cardboard, straw, and a tarp. Finally, they coated the mound in dirt, trapping the steam inside. During the hour and a half the meat was cooking, some played soccer with the communities. I wrote in my journal on the sidelines.

When the meat was done, the entire community came together to share it. Visitors were served first, and everyone was given potatoes to accompany it. I was impressed by how the community used all of the animals, eating the meat in a way that honored the life that was lost to produce it. We ate together, some in silence, some talking and laughing.

After, we admired the textiles made by those in the community and then spent time reflecting on the ceremony. We gathered in the cave for a charla about our thoughts on the ceremony. Some knew their reactions, others were unsure.

In the evening, we returned to our families. I ate fried potatoes and more chuño soup. I fell asleep to the sound of Peruvian music coming from an old DVD player. In the night, I woke up to go to the bathroom. Walking outside, I was struck by the beauty of Madre Luna and the stars above. I stood still for a long while, marvelling at the sky. When I walked back inside, my mind was still lost in their beauty.

And then, our week in Q’eros was suddenly at an end. We hiked to the nearby community of Kiku Grande, and bid farewell to the arrieros who had walked with the horses and llamas that had carried our larger packs. Without fully realizing what was happening, I said goodbye to Q’eros with a final, Quechua thank-you: urpiyay soncuyay. We loaded back into the truck which had brought us, and took deep breaths as the bus winded its way back to Ocongate, the town in which our journey had began.

Now, sitting in an internet cafe, I write trying to understand what the last week has meant to me. If I am being honest, I still don’t know. I do know it has changed me in one way or another. In time, perhaps, I will figure out how.