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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.

Reflections on Q´eros

I had no idea what to expect from Q´eros as we were herded into the back of a large truck. For three hours we bumped over dirt roads, our only knowledge of our whereabouts based on the ever-darkening clouds above our heads. What was this place we were headed to? Beyond the knowledge that the we were going to be incredibly remote, I had little idea what to expect.

My first impression of Qéros was as if I had gone back in time. A few stone houses rose from the mist, their thatched roofs visible between rolling hills. Each day we were ushered into one of these houses; stooping to fit through the doorway with my backpack, it took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the scene within. The dirt floor covered in a thick layer of straw, the small fire overwhich my host mom cooked, the pile of blankets in the corner that substituted for a mattress; all of these evoked memories from novels and movies set in eras long ago.

This fall I read Halldór Laxness´ Independent People. For those unfamiliar, the 1955 Nobel-Prize winning novel is based around an Icelandic sheep farmer who wants nothing more than to be independent from the subjugation of others. Equal parts tragic and comedic, the main character, Bjartur of Summerhouses, goes to extreme lengths to remain outside of the existing system.

Coming into Q´eros, I half-expected the people I´d meet to be like Bjartur; stubbornly independent, often at the cost of the values that our society puts foremost (good education, health). With the Andes forming a shield around each community, llamas and alpacas roaming freely over the landscape, children running about barefoot, I found myself quite frequently romanticizing this ideal Q´eros. Our third evening there, I asked my host father if he was happy, expecting to hear that despite the hardships of living so isolated, he far preferred this life to any he might have elsewhere. Instead he replied that he had tried to move to Cusco, but found that he had no employable skills to remain there. For a moment he sat staring at his son, his face in shadow. He explained that he wants to give his five year old son more opportunities than he can provide in Q´eros, but he has no foreseeable way of leaving. Q´eros operates on a trade based economy; even if one does have the skills to leave, they often find that they do not have sufficient cash with which to move elsewhere.

At dinner last night a few of us had an interesting conversation about the cost and benefits of preserving cultures such as Q´eros. Q´eros has remained essentially unchanged for 500 years, the traditions and sense of culture stronger than anywhere else I have seen. It was incredible to be able to be able to live in these communities and take part in their ancient rituals, and yet do the people of Q´eros have an obligation to maintain that culture? Many of the children in the communities we passed through speak better Spanish that Quechua, the schools now teaching exclusively in Spanish. If they continue with this trend, Quechua, one of the oldest indigenous languages in Peru, will be completely lost. But does these loss of culture mean that people shouldn’t be given the opportunity to leave Q´eros of they wish to?