back to LifeWeb | rat haus

( ASCII text )

a traditional Qeshua Community

by Elisabet Sahtouris

Four of us--Juan, my Qeshua (in Spanish: Quechua) musician/artisan friend, Kike (pronounced Kee'kay), who is also a musician, as is Diana, a lithe blond from England who lives in Cusco, and I--are sitting on the earthen bank at the edge of a street just beyond the National University in the grayish halflight of a rainy season Andean dawn, waiting for the bus to Urcos, an hour away. Our backpacks and various bags are piled around us; much of our baggage gifts for the community we are setting out to visit--oatmeal, salt, matches, raw sugar balls called chankakas wrapped in tubes of reeds, natural tobacco cigarettes, lemons, offerings for the Earth and the Apus, and "un monton de coca"--a veritable mountain of coca leaves. We are bundled in warm clothes against the early morning chill, all of us wearing "sombreros," as all brimmed hats are called, over the traditional woolen caps with earflaps called "chulyos." It's been a short night of little sleep, and we are grateful for seats on the ancient Urcos bus when it lumbers up to our corner, Juan and Diana in the seat behind Kike and me. Kike's Spanish is easy for me to follow, so we have a long conversation on this first lap of our journey to Hapu--an isolated, traditional Qeshua community, a few of whose men have ventured out as far as Cusco in a trek of days on foot, but which has never been visited by outsiders, not even anthropologists. Only a schoolteacher, a mountain village girl herself, comes in on horseback, and a priest visits once a year to baptize new babies among the hundred or so families belonging to the "ayllu" (an Inca designation for a communal association of families) called Hapu.

I met the few men of Hapu who came to Cusco through Juan and Kike, with whose traditional music group they sat on stage or played their reed flutes at my favorite club, Ukukus. One day Juan wanted to show them the Kogi video, made by my BBC filmmaker friend Alan Ereira, and were searching for a VHR. I called Pepe Altamirano, who quickly agreed to showing it in his home, so nine of us--Juan, Kike, Jorje who plays in their group, four Hapus, a small hunchbacked man blind in one eye who lived along the road from Hapu to Cusco and had fallen in with them, and I--piled into two taxis and then into Pepe's living room. The Hapus were very tired that night and mostly fell asleep while watching the video, though one opened his eyes long enough to comment that the Kogi language had a lot of Qeshua in it. I myself was very aware of Alan saying in his film that the Kogi were the last Indians of the Andes that still lived as they had before the Spanish arrived. I seemed to be in a roomful of Andean Indians who were doing the same, and who could only relate to this soft city furniture by falling asleep in it, in their handwoven ponchos and knitted chulyos, legs and feet bare but for rubbertire sandals. I did not know then that I myself would soon be sleeping in their chairless stone houses, on earthen floors.

As the bus pulled into Urcos, around 7:00 A.M., we were informed there were no trucks to Colini as the road was closed due to heavy rains and washouts. Juan said he had dreamed we were unable to travel this road, almost seeming pleased with the correctness of his premonition. But there was an alternate road we could try, by backtracking to a crossroads point we had passed some kilometers outside of Urcos. I suggested to Juan that his dream had been fulfilled by our inability to take the road from Urcos; that now our luck was free to change. When we arrived there, a number of people, including a family that had set up cooking equipment on the roadbank and were eating full dinners at 7:30 A.M. waited with us. Around us were fields, no buildings in sight, though a perplexing sign announced the presence of a hotel with windsurfing!

If a truck came, we would be taking this road across the remaining Andes, from which it would continue on without us to Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian Amazon, the route used by those who transported and sold goods to and from the rainforest. Only trucks use this road as cars and buses cannot negotiate it. Our part of the trip, to the town of Colini, would take about ten hours, so we hoped to be there by nightfall or soon after. Diana had radioed a message to Colini some days ago, to be relayed by word of mouth to Hapu so that someone from the community could meet us with horses tomorrow morning. We were told there were beds in Colini and looked forward to a night's sleep before trekking on by horseback.

I bought some capulli--Andean cherries with a wild smoky flavor--from one of the women as we waited for an hour or so till a heavy transport truck bound indeed for Puerto Maldonado pulled up with a great hiss of its brakes. Immediately everyone scrambled up the foothold steps and over the railing into the high truck bed, flinging up bags and baggage to each other from below.

There were a dozen of us, with various bags, baggage and blankets plus two enormous baskets of bread, scattered about the cold metal truckbed, a long mastlike treetrunk over head down its length, to hold up a great saillike sheet of canvas permeated with resin when the inevitable rains would come. For now we were open to the winds and the view as we began our lumbering climb up impossibly rutted roads higher into the Andes. There was little cargo for the size of the truck, whose bed was about three by six meters. I leaned against bales of noodles, in preference to the harder lumpier sacks of potatoes. Later, the following sleepless night, still on this truck, I would think gratefully about noodles, about how I had learned that they are softer than potatoes. And I would worry a bit about the recipients of what were surely fragments of their former selves--fideo en polvo?--when these noodles would arrive in Puerto Maldonado more days and nights later.

The road was often precipitous, and as we climbed higher, bouncing hard in the ruts, I dared to look less down the steep embankments from which the valleys fell. We passed beautiful valleys of green and gold, occasional streaks of sun between the clouds lighting them exquisitely, making shiny silver ribbons of the rivers in their depths. Flowers of blue, yellow, red, purple and white would appear in surprising clumps. I had never imagined the high Andes to be so green and lush, with fertile unspoiled black soil and water, water, water flowing everywhere in rivulets and rivers. As we reached the more rolling hills at the higher level, the houses, the farms, looked prosperous, almost at times like the Italian countryside between Rome and Florence, except for the herds of llamas and alpacas intermingled with the sheep. Adobe was the building material here, with curved red tiles for roofing; the fields were rich with potatoes, quinoa and beans, too high for the giant Inca corn--the choclo--that fills the lower valleys at this time of year.

Gradually we worked our way higher yet to where the vegetation became low and scrubby with few farms. "Tundra" was the word that came to mind--vast windswept stretches with snow-covered peaks visible occasionally through the low clouds. We were frankly cold now. Juan, Kike and Diana pulled out their instruments--Kike and Diana charangos, Juan a quena, and began playing and singing. When Kike sang slightly ribald Qeshua songs our fellow passengers showed their delight with giggles and snaggletoothed grins, Andean dentistry far from able to keep up with the universal rot assailing teeth here. I was fighting the bouncy road to sew a case for my quena, which I don't play well enough to have dared join in, but I did get admiring looks from the women for my sewing.

At last we began to descend again, suddenly finding ourselves on a long downgrade where we could see ahead that the road was blocked by three or four trucks facing us from the other direction, sitting ominously still behind one that was clearly mired hopelessly in muck with a rear wheel at the edge of a precipice. Several men descended to investigate and reported that the first truck had been stuck since 4:00 A.M., the others gradually piling up behind it. We were the first to arrive from the other direction. It was now 2:00 P.M. After much discussion by the men of the various trucks, it was apparently decided that we should try to pull the stuck vehicle from its mud bed, and we all descended to watch the lengthy operation. It was here I first envied Diana her knee-high rubber boots, as I was to do endlessly as our trip progressed. Some of us watched from the grassy hill on one side of the muddy road, a few from the banks of a bubbling stream, from which I ate the profuse watercress, on the other. With cables at last attached, our truck succeeded in backing up the hill as the mired hulk freed itself and everyone applauded.

Not long after we were able to move on, we entered a town down its long and rutted main street, flanked on both sides by adobe walls. In the truckbed we were high enough to look over roofs and see the whole of a village fairground in its brilliant colors of dress and merchandise. Here the two great baskets of bread one of our passengers had boarded were lowered as the villagers descended on them like flies around honey, relieving me of my worry about that bread's condition by the time it arrived where I thought it was headed--Puerto Maldonado, as the truck would not arrive there for several days and nights more. I dismounted and braved the mud of the fairground to drink a chicha de quinoa--my favorite non-fermented version of corn chicha, made with quinoa, beans, cinnamon and herbs. After I climbed back into the truck, we leaned over and bought choclos con queso--the giant boiled corn on the cob with fresh cheese--for our lunch.

A whole flock of new passengers joined us in this village, filling the truckbed with what seemed to be entire households of equipment and bedding in addition to rainforest-bound wares to sell. We were now about 25 people, by my head count, though I'm sure I missed a few of the children and babies, all jammed together tightly. I admired one woman who somehow managed to make herself a comfortable-looking bed of numerous blankets, though she later had to give it up when yet more passengers squeezed in at another stop. Not very long after we set out again the driver decided to eat his lunch in another village. It was a challenge to get to the rear of the truck (we were at the front end) without stepping on babies or adult legs in the tangle of blankets and bags.

We visited the outhouse near the restaurant in turn, the last we were to see of any kind of "sanitary facilities" for the rest of this trip. Kike began to play flirtatiously with three girls working in the kitchen, which had an open door separate from the restaurant entrance. In Qeshua, he teased them, saying he was looking for a wife and would like to marry one of them. All three blushed and giggled, contested that surely he already had a wife, and pushed each other forward when he denied it vehemently. They were having a wonderful time when their boss stomped up, scolded them, shooed them back to work and firmly locked the door to the kitchen. No doubt they giggled on and talked about this pleasant diversion for days.

As we moved on it began raining more seriously than the preceding drizzles and the tarp was pulled along the great mast to cover us all. I could only push it up to peek out occasionally now, when the sound of rushing waters lured me to do so. At one point I noticed that a very near river flowed exactly in the opposite direction it had flowed shortly before--a puzzle I could not resolve. Juan and Kike distributed coca leaves to happy fellow passengers, men and women alike chewing wads of leaves for their vitamins and minerals, in addition to the tolerance of altitude coca provides, giving stamina. Outlawing coca--which is to cocaine as bread is to rye whiskey--is a tragedy for people who depend on it for basic nutrition.

It was nightfall when we reached Ocongati--the nearest point to my sacred mountain Ausungati, a good view of which I would have only on the return trip. We had now been in the truck for ten hours, and were still far from our destination. I consoled myself by pitying the people who were bound for the Amazon and would thus be living this truck way of life for days and nights more. I regretted not being able to see further scenery, having to guess from the various sound levels of rushing water how close we were to the rivers. Only on the way back, by daylight, was I to realize how hair-raising a trip it was from here on, winding our way in and out, or rather up and down, a series of valleys in the mountains, usually along terrifyingly precipitous banks. I should have been grateful my view was blocked.

Life inside the truckbed was now a mass effort at sleep under near impossible conditions. I was wedged firmly between Juan and a man who farted profusely through the following night. There wasn't a prayer of stretching out, but again I was grateful for the noodles at my back. My legs were somehow tangled into Diana's and Juan's and a sack of potatoes. I learned that night to suffer discomfort without being able to relieve it by shifting positions. Instead I counted my blessings, the best of which was Juan's sleeping bag, with which he covered us both against the severe cold. At 9:00 P.M. by my glow-in-the-dark souvenir-of-Rio-92 Swatch, the driver decided to stop and sleep for what turned out to be five hours. Our disappointment at the further delay was mitigated only by our relief that a tired driver had the sense to sleep rather than press on under such awful and dangerous road conditions. At 2:00 A.M. we lumbered back into motion, and at 4:30 A.M. the truck stopped again. We were in Colini--just 20 hours after boarding the truck outside Urcos!

I lowered my tired, aching bones down the side of the truck once more, with backpack and bag, and stood in the middle of a wet road trying to imagine what this town was like in the pitch black chill darkness. We were obviously still high in the mountains. A few dogs began barking; only one dim light was visible. Juan and Kike went off to scout; the light turned out to belong to a man spending the night drinking chicha, looking for company. We decided to turn down his invitation to join him and the men went on looking for the people we'd been told to stay with. Finally they returned and beckoned us to follow them up the road. It took the sleepy man they'd found a while to open his door again; when he did we entered a small dark room. Our host sleepily lit a candle and wedged it into a crack at the edge of a long narrow table, revealing natural stone walls, some shelves with a few supplies, a bench and various piles of boxes, cloths and other unrecognizable objects piled on the dirt floor. At one end of the room ragged curtains hid what served, apparently, as his bedroom. We dropped our baggage and squeezed onto the bench. Apparently someone from Hapu had been down the day before saying he was expecting us. Our host thought he might show up again today. "With horses?" we asked. Could be.

Slowly it began getting light. We wandered outside to pee in the fields--not the sort of town in which you'd even ask for an outhouse, much less indoor plumbing--and could now see fog rolling about, steep mountains on one side of the road, thinly lined with houses, a high bank on the other, with a quebrada, or ravine, running as high uphill as the eye could see. As it got lighter the scene grew more beautiful, a foaming river pouring down the ravine, bright green banks on either side.

Back inside, the man's wife emerged from behind the torn curtain. She went out and a while later a baby began crying. I walked over to see behind the curtain and found jet-black eyes, such as are called in Qeshua "Capuli Nyawi," after the dark cherries, peering anxiously and tearfully up at me from a haphazard nest of very old, long unwashed and ragged blankets in what was obviously the family bed. The baby, six or seven months old, reached out and clutched my finger very tightly and stopped crying to stare. It held on for dear life until its five or six year old brother appeared and climbed into the nest of blankets with it.

We asked if it were possible to get some coffee and were pointed to the adjoining house, which proved to be a restaurant. It was now after 6:00 A.M. and we breakfasted on coffee and mutton stew at one of the oilcloth covered tables near the kitchen, commenting on the various posters, almost all of Jesus or naked women, on the walls, and the ostentatious mod Japanese clock that played music and chimed on the hour.

At 7:30 we decided to start walking up the ravine toward Hapu, our host drawing a simple map of the few choice-points we'd encounter beyond the obvious ravine pointing straight up into the mountains. Diana and I prayed the horses would meet us soon, as neither of us felt capable of climbing far uphill with our backpacks at this extra altitude--we were at about 4,000 meters and heading higher. One short and relatively sleepless night followed by the rather grueling 20-hour truck ride through another night had already exhausted us. We'd been told it was a four hour walk to Hapu on a path the Hapus describe as "pampita, nomas," which translates as "a little flat pampa, nothing more." It was already obvious that this was no pampa, and just as well that we could not suspect the trek would take us ten hours.

We had to stop often, resting on rocks, chewing coca leaves to counteract altitude, enjoying the beauty of wildflowers--tiny red ones, perfect brilliant blue stars, white daisy-like blossoms tight on the ground, making me think of Swiss edelweiss, odd white shreds like a cross between fungus and flower we later learned were good for sore throats, fire-orange tufts on pinelike bushes. Occasionally there were potato patches in neat geometric designs on the opposite bank of the river rushing down the ravine. Always there was water underfoot in the grassy or mossy ground, apparently flowing freely from the snowy peaks above, collecting into rivulets, streams we often had to jump, and finally into the river, or rivers as it turned out. Diana and both were reminded of the Scottish highlands.

We passed a few stone houses with grass roofs, children peering out and animals grazing near, mostly sheep and llamas, a few horses. We vainly asked one man if we could rent his horses and then slogged on. There were no further houses. Three and a half hours into our climb, at about 11:00, we saw a man coming down the mountain toward us--one man, no horses. Diana and I groaned in disappointment. Little did we know what we would learn on the return journey: that riding horses here was very nearly as stressful as walking. The man was indeed our welcome committee from Hapu; his name was Nikanor. He wore rubber tire sandals, a greybrown poncho and a very finely-knitted chulyo, with intricate colorful patterns, ear flaps and tassles. We later learned he was 25, had a wife and three children and that he had knitted his chulyo himself, on very fine needles, as this was a men's art in Hapu, just as I'd found on Taquile Island in Lake Titicaca. Nikanor piled Diana's, Kike's and my backpacks all into his huge manta (carrying cloth) and slung it onto his back with a shy smile. He was a beautiful man with almond-shaped black eyes, a classic curved nose and an air of nobility, shy yet proud, radiating the loving energy of those who give. Though he was about my height, he seemed somehow much taller.

Juan had offered to carry his own bag. The lightened three of us climbed on with renewed energy. Though we had already walked almost all the time we'd been told it would take, we had actually come only a small fraction of the way. As we got higher we could see more of the snow-covered mountains around us and noted the changes in vegetation. Nikanor pointed out many medicinal plants along the way. There were wonderful patches of pale silvery and fuzzy white plants whose stems leaves and flowers all seemed to be made of a glistening felt. Phunia it is called and pieces of it were later stuck into out hatbands as decorations by the people of Hapu, who had also put cut Phunia onto every village roof for their festival days.

Finally, in a drizzle of cold rain, we came to a lake with a few large heron-like birds foraging in the water near the bank. I thought of the plastic poncho in my pack; then I thought of Juan's lecture at our last Ecological Encounter Day in Cusco, when he'd rightly railed against plastic (bags and bottles of which begin to fill the Andean rivers near towns and cities) while extolling the virtues of woolen ponchos. I decided better wet than in plastic.

Just after we passed the lake, Nikanor pointed ahead and told our exhausted crew we had only one more hill to climb. It looked very steep. We stopped once more to rest up for it, sucking lemons for our growing altitude headaches. Diana and I confessed to each other that we were such a bundle of exhausted muscles and nerves we were ready to burst into tears. To avoid the embarrassment of doing that, we began to joke almost hysterically about the humor of this whole situation. Then we steeled ourselves and pressed on up the steep slope a few panting steps at a time, pushed by the belief that it was truly the last. But Nikanor's idea of what was one hill had nothing to do with the one that reached as far as our eyes could see. Rather it included that slope, the one that appeared when we reached the top of that one, and the one beyond the top of that one! We were climbing pure rocky sandy inclines, ever steeper and with more treacherous footing, up to a snowcovered mountain pass, our hearts pounding, our limits extended each time it seemed utterly impossible to take even one more step. Diana and I continued to laugh and joke at the edge of breakdown. Nikanor stood patiently beneath his mammoth load for every one of our frequent, panting stops, clearly not wishing to leave us behind, however much faster and easier it would have been for him to move more quickly under his huge load.

Somehow we got there, to the top, to the snowy pass marked by stone towers built by those who had come before--the few people of Hapu, mostly men, who had come out into the world beyond their valley, or perhaps the priest who came once a year, or the schoolteacher brought in by horseback. Here we were, the very first visitors to come in from the outside world. The stone towers made me feel I was in Tibet, in a flash of recognition like those I sometimes have of sitting as one of many monks on cold stone floors, chanting, seeing snow-covered mountains through unglazed windows in the stone walls.

We were sure we were nearly there now--2:00 P.M., six and a half hours after we had set out. But the downhill trek went on, and on, and on. Slowly the vegetation returned. Rivulets of water were again everywhere I stepped in envy of Diana's boots, the rocky, sandy downhill slopes sometimes so steep I slipped and slid down them. I gave up even trying to keep my feet dry in the endless crossing of rushing streams and soggy mossy terrain, stumbling onward and laughing to keep from crying as we pushed ourselves on. Every valley we came to we hunted for some sign of a village but not a single house appeared. At last Nikanor announced we had only a half hour to go, maybe only twenty minutes. We still did not suspect how woefully unreal his sense of time was and so we looked even harder for signs of habitation.

The levels of valley we now traversed were ever more beautiful and even our total exhaustion could not prevent our appreciation of this exquisite Shangri-La we were entering. Such a profusion of greens and golds, of rushing rivers, surprising flowers, a protected, utterly unspoiled paradise hung with ground-hugging clouds that lent an air of mystery, crowned by peaks of snow. We had entered the magical domain of the Hapus by the only path possible and we were the first. How incredibly special an experience.

Finally we saw it--a stone house with the traditional grass roof far below us. Surely that was the beginning of Hapu! As it was. But Hapu is an ayllu, a community of about a hundred families who live very widely scattered about their paradise, and one house is not necessarily in sight of the next. Three levels of valley past that first house (was it possible?) we were greeted by a few more young men and saw increasing numbers of llamas and alpacas, occasional houses and suddenly lots of wiscachas--a kind of giant rabbit-sized squirrel with long ears and a spiraling tail that sits up tall and very still on the rocks. I was particularly excited about them as I'd recently had a dream in which a squirrel played a highly symbolic role and a friend suggested my squirrel could be an Andean wiscacha, a symbol of wisdom and the food of Pumas (I'd liked the idea of providing nourishment for my adopted Puma). Until now I had not seen one. They are truly elegant creatures,with noble bearing.

At last, three and a half hours downhill from the pass, we came to a small corral where a dozen or so people were just finishing the ceremony of pouring the fermented corn chicha down the llamas' throats in recognition of their service in carrying the corn from which it was made, up--yes up!--to this level from the cornfields which were still much farther below, at the highest level of the Amazon on the Eastern side of the Andes--for the Hapus a two-day walk, for us probably a good week.

It was 5:30. We had climbed up and stumbled down for ten hours, from sunup to sundown without eating, drinking only water from the streams. There were no houses near this corral, much as we wanted to drop our weary bodies wherever we would stay that night. Sebastian, the village elder whom we had met in Cusco, offered us chicha, clearly in his cups on it himself, as elder women and children stared at us in wonder and with shy giggles, their feet deep in the rich black muck of the corral. The llamas were released and we stayed a while as one of the men piped a shrill reed flute and we passed the pitcher of chicha. Well below us we could just make out a group of thatched stone houses in the fork between two joining rivers of foaming white waters that virtually glowed in the deepening dusk. At last we were headed for them, once again close to tears at this further descent demanded of our bodies, yet hopeful of rest as we stumbled blindly on down the steep muddy path.

At the bottom of the path we crossed a river on a bridge of branches and dirt over logs, then managed somehow to climb one last hill--this time truly the last--to the group of houses near the school that are actually occupied only for times of festival. We stooped to enter our designated house through its very low doorway, and sank gratefully down onto its straw-covered earthen floor where a few ancient looking sheepskins were laid out for us. It was very dark, only the small fire in one corner and a single candle-sized kerosene flame high on a wall shelf lighting the entire house, which I estimated to be about four and a half by six meters large inside, exactly the size of my village house in Greece. The walls were of stones, chinked with earth, the steeply pitched roof made of treetrunks about four inches in diameter and thatched with thick grass. Just as the ancient houses of Macchu Picchu. There were no windows, to conserve warmth.

Several women we would get to know only the following morning,with a few children, sat around the fire cooking, smiling at us shyly. The only furnishings were the rack of firewood over the fire, whose smoke simply passed through the roof thatch, a low clay stove over the fire to hold a pot and a kettle, and a shelf of trunks and branches over our heads where food and blankets were stored. Hapu home life is conducted on the floor. We were soon handed bowls of steaming potato soup to drink, followed by mate, an herbal tea. I gratefully handed my shoes over to be dried at the fire.

Occasionally we could hear the squeals of coys, which sound just like their name: cooey, cooey, the indigenous guinea pigs kept as a food supply even in many city homes, and now and then I would see one peering at me from behind a sack of potatoes. By the time we had eaten everyone settled down to sleep, for this is a world in which people rise and settle with the sun. As we bedded down, Diana pointed out the head of a llama, upside down on a shelf above us, its shiny black eyes visible in the gloom. Other parts of it hung against the wall or lay on the shelf overhead, making the smoky air extra pungent. The four of us huddled together in our blankets and sleeping bags for warmth, as did our host family in another corner. It was far too dark to tell how many of them there were. I pulled my blanket over my nose, not being accustomed to the smell of the raw meat by my bed, but grateful I wasn't a vegetarian who might have suffered far more.

As I take a break from writing this account, I fold my poncho, which I'd hung up to air out after this trip, assuming it smelled like a barn and would have to be washed. But I find all it smells of is a rather sweet woodfire smoke, a pleasant reminder of Hapu's cooking fires.

Next morning we woke later than our hosts, who handed us a big plate of potatoes boiled in their skins to share, followed by more potato soup. The flavor, texture and shapes of the potatoes were rich and varied. Without salt or the hot pepper ahi sauce so regularly served in Peru, one pays much closer attention to each unique potato. Some are grown in fields belonging to the community, the rest private, near each of the scattered homes. After one year of growth, the fields are allowed to recuperate for six years, as there is plenty of space covered in rich black earth and good understanding of caring for the nature that provides. Corn and beans are grown at the high edge of the rainforest, a two-day trek lower down. Many of the villagers go to plant them and stay long enough to enjoy eating bananas, mandarins and other fruits while there, though they do not carry them back. The corn is grown to make chicha, the beans supplement the primarily potato diet. Two kinds of potatoes are freeze-dried: chunyos are left on the ground after harvesting to freeze by night and thaw by day repeatedly until they are shrunken, rubbery purplish balls from which most of the liquid has gone. They have a rich musky flavor. Morayas are taken one step further: as they thaw each morning, the liquid is pressed from them by walking on them. Eventually they are completely dry, whitish and milder in flavor than the chunyos. Ground into flour they become a creamy soup base. Chunyos can also be milled with a rocking stone on a flat stone to produce a mixture of flour and pieces, having more moisture.

This morning we learned our hostesses names, Rita the elder and her daughter Louisa, mother of four children, who set up her loom near the doorway for light and crouched over it weaving a colorful poncho as we talked. Sometimes the baby, about a year old would lie on the loom. In all our days in Hapu I never saw a child scolded or pushed away. Almost every young woman from the age of fourteen or fifteen had a baby at her breast or wrapped in a manta on her back. Couples choose each other; when they want to get married, the girl's father visits the boy's parents, accusing the boy of being a lazy no-good match for his daughter. The boy's parents then defend him by listing his virtues and so the negotiations go on until agreement is reached, at which point the couple can begin living together for a trial year, after which they can separate again if desired, which seems to be rarely the case. Babies are baptized when the priest comes annually, and all are given Spanish names. Then they must be registered by the father with certificates in the nearest town, often the first or only time a man sees the outside world.

The carnival for which we had come began this day, with people from the scattered parts of the community and from neighboring communities as far away as Q'eros arriving during the afternoon, mostly on foot, a few on horseback, each party coming down the path singing, greeted by a group of dancing villagers on a high flat rock over the river valley floor. The women were all in layers of woven black skirts bordered in red, with bright closely-fitted jackets decorated in many buttons on the sleeves and flat round hats edged in or covered with silver cloth and bedecked in ribbons and small balloons. The men were mostly in obviously new ponchos of bright colors, distinct from their everyday ones of greybrown with occasional narrow red stripes. On their heads chulyas, many elaborately embroidered in buttons or tiny white beads following the knitted patterns. Everyone wears rubber tire sandals or is barefoot, a few of the older men wearing ankle-high rubber shoes.

The carnival lasts three days and three nights. Each of the four elder governing "varayocs" or leaders of Hapu community had been assigned one of the houses such as that we slept in. They are built close together and the pattern of this festival begins when everyone crowds into one of the houses to play music, dance, sing, eat and drink for a while, led by the carriers of the official staffs or "barras" which are laid on an altar of three crosses decked in Phunia (the silvery plant), representing the three Apus, or mountain gods, that guard this community. This is a typical example of how the ancient traditions are preserved within the official catholicism forced on the Andean peoples by the Spanish. The leaders then alternately blow conch shells called "patutus" in a pattern of sound that goes ptuuuuu-tu-tu-tu-tu, answered by the same rhythm from another conch again and again. Men begin playing the high-pitched reed flutes as they dance, while the women stand in a row singing an endless series of verses that praise the flowers, plants, animals, mountains of their world and speak of the circumstances of their lives. The melody is based on a four-tone chord, such that each note harmonizes with all others and the song can be entered like a canon by the various women at various times. So, though it is formal on the one hand, there is much creativity as individuals add their own verses in their own timing. The hours and days and nights of repetition, together with the endless flow of chicha, keeps people going in a trancelike state as they sing, play and dance. Juan points out that festival songs in other places are usually about love and other personal feelings, that this veneration of nature in song is far more ancient a ritual.

Suddenly the exodus from this house begins and all troop to another house for another round of the same, then on to the next and so on throughout the nights and days. The black trampled earth between the houses becomes an ever deeper richer muck as rains come frequently and chicha flows through the men's bodies and into the mud, women generally squatting a little bit further from the common path. I found this trekking from house to house the most difficult of my endurances within the village, in my endless losing struggle to keep my feet dry. I would try desperately to stay on the few stones scattered throughout the muck, seeking them out with my small flashlight by night, but sooner or later I'd slip off them with an unpleasant squish. The straw-covered indoor floors soon became wet and blackened; we were grateful to be assigned the schoolhouse floor for sleeping should we not have carnival endurance to stay up for three nights.

The schoolhouse was an eyesore in the village from our perspective. One of the past teachers had apparently insisted on a plastered and painted building with glazed windows, a wooden plank floor and a corrugated tin roof. The plaster, paint, roofing and planks had dutifully been carried to the village on human and horse backs, the task of building it carried out, the tin roof erected. All over the Andes, these thin tin roofs that produce intense heat in the day and a terrible cold at night are replacing the thickly thatched native roofs that provide an even warmth day and night--all in the name of modernity and progress. Indigenous science--architectural, agricultural, astronomical, medicinal, ecological, social--is disrespected and discredited as primitive in Peru as elsewhere, except in the rare cases, such as the present scramble for indigenous medicinal knowledge and technology of plants, when it is discovered to be lucrative on the international market.

Rough hewn old-fashioned school benches were piled up along one wall inside the schoolhouse as this was summer vacation time; we made our communal bed in one corner on the floor. Each morning in Hapu I was grateful that I'd survived another night on the floor in greater comfort than I'd expected, that my flesh and bones were not too sore, though some nights the cold was more difficult than the lack of padding. Day and night we remained encased in our layers of sweaters and jackets and ponchos. Most nights it rained--a gentle barely-audible sound when we slept in the thatched houses, a rude clatter on the tin schoolhouse roof.

On the second morning the sun came out brightly enough to risk the snowmelt stream water for a shampoo. I was pleasantly surprised that the water of the small stream flowing through the schoolyard was sunwarmed enough despite its rapid flow to be easily tolerated, though after this I gave up on bathing and changing clothes altogether, mostly because there was never any privacy and otherwise because no one else seemed to do so. Imagine the pleasure of coming home eight days later and heating a bucket of water for a hot standup shampoo and bath! (Water is available only mornings where I live, but I'd stashed a bucket of it for this purpose.)

At one end of the schoolhouse was a locked room where the schoolteacher slept while here, at the other end was a small thatched stone kitchen where she cooked. We were brought sacks of raw potatoes or plates mounded with cooked ones frequently and supplemented our diet by eating them with salt and with the lovely oatmeal we'd brought as gifts, cooked thin with chankaka sugar and a bit of milk powder over an open fire in the corner of the little stone kitchen. Nikanor visited often, as did some of the elders and children, sharing happily in our meals during the festival. Whenever we joined in the festival itself, we were served endless bowls of broth with potatoes and gristly bits of meat, as well as endless cups of chicha. On the second or third festival day, we were brought a very large and purely lean chunk of fresh llama meat, from which I promptly made a rich and tasty stew with the inevitable potatoes, nicely salted and with onion and fresh lemon juice for extra flavor, to the delight of everyone who shared it.

We climbed one afternoon to Nikanor's house to meet his family via a beautiful natural bridge over the foaming river in an exquisite place of fern-draped caves, wild sage and flowers, tiny glens in which nature spirits surely dance (if only I could see them!). Then up a steep bank with a winding path till we could see the festival houses below us and the valley we'd descended on the opposite side. Up a few grassy slopes at the top of this hill we found Felicidad, his wife, and three children huddled in the cooking corner of the house he had proudly built at his marriage. A blanket was spread for us on the straw-covered floor and we enjoyed playing with children, a furry roly-poly puppy and a tiger-striped cat Felicidad pulled out of its hiding hole behind the fire. Diana took photos, my favorite of the whole family posed formally with two of the children holding the puppy and the cat under their forelegs so their bodies dangled bellies forward in front of the family.

In one of our long talks around the schoolhouse kitchen fire, Nikanor professed to be a Maranata, an evangelical sect he had encountered--or that had sought him out--in some village to which he'd walked, probably to register his children's births. He liked their emphasis on morality, being a man who stays apart when the men of Hapu get into chicha and alcohol--the dangerously pure kind that sells cheap in Andean villages and causes sometimes nasty drunkenness visible in the occasional blackeyes of women, even in Hapu. We talked about our own preference for the ancient beliefs and practices of the Andes, which all incoming religions have denigrated as pagan and barbarian. Nikanor was surprised at our respect for the old ways and listened intently as we spoke of the present day importance of Andean respect for the sacredness of the Earth, for its traditions of ecology and sciences such as medicine and agriculture to all the world, so deep in crisis. In the end, he said of his Maranata affiliation, as best I can translate: "Well, it is new, and I could get me out."

One morning the elders came to sit with us in a circle on the grass of the schoolyard, to discuss formally Diana's proposal that she have postcards made from her photos of Hapu, to sell as a project benefiting the community. The chief elder had a large woman's pocketbook as his briefcase; Kike presented him with a new notebook in which to record things of official community interest and I gave him a pen when the chief failed to turn one up in his bag. Hapus have learned basic reading and writing in their school, which they attend as children for four to six years. The elders were clearly pleased at this offer and agreed to discuss it at the next community meeting, which was held before we left, all approving. As we spoke with these elders, two magnificent eagles circled over us, often hovering in the air currents for very long times, poised perfectly still in midair.

We participated in the festival as long as our stamina held, which was most of the time late into the nights for Juan and Kike, both of whom learned to play the shrill flutes, much more difficult than the quenas on which they were proficient. I learned to sing along with the women, fudging words I could not understand, as it clearly pleased them. Diana did enough recording so we could work the words out later: "Sara llallantay, maska munchis, pfalchay suyuy k'iu challay," and so on in praise of corn (sara), flowers, etc. I stumbled stoically through the muck by night as we moved from house to house in the endlessly circular ritual, faked drinking alcohol from jugs and bottles, swilled chicha as much as I could and gratefully drank soup for relief. In each house the scene was repeated, shoulder to shoulder crowds filling the dimly-lit space, men shuffling their dance on the muck-blackened straw-spread floor, ptutus calling to each other, flutes wailing, the women repeating their sacred songs endlessly, yet with ever creative variations. We were asked hundreds of times how we were enjoying the Hapu customs, and each time we beamed our approval and enjoyment.

On the second festival day, three men had appeared in special costumes, doing special dances. On their heads they wore the flying-saucer-shaped hats of the women, decked in silver, ribbons and balloons. This women's garb on men was explained as symbolic of community balance. On their backs were shoulder to knee-length capes made from very thick shaggy tiers of brightly colored wool yarn: crimson, red, pink and black. These seemed related to the longer shaggy tiered outfits of the sacred bear clowns called Ukukus, who dance at the Coylloriti festival near Ausungati mountain that I hope to attend in May, with my Puma, who has danced as an Ukukus from the age of three.

Diana's photos testify to groups of women and children arranged artistically on rocks, spinning, laughing, talking with us curiously, to the beautiful ground-hugging clouds of this valley almost always in the backgrounds, to the stone houses that look so tiny from outside and so grand within, the circle of elders, the herd of llamas, the woolly dancers in colorful costumes. When I returned I got to see thirty-year-old photos of Q'eros, the famous traditional Quechua community a few days' walk from Hapu, discovered back then by adoring anthropologists and spoiled by droves of them and other visitors over time. Diana's black and whites of Hapu today are indistinguishable from those of Q'eros when it was found by the outside world three or four decades ago.

Hapu has suffered certain effects of the outside world as well, though not those of anthropologists and the habits and goods they bring in. The major effect was that of the years in which all Qeshuas were enslaved to latifundistas, the Spanish landholders for whom they were forced to work without pay and under cruel condition, taking turns in the fields and as house slaves. It was in these times, lasting to a few decades ago, that they were Christianized as well, forced to abandon even their own names.

When the festival ended, local Hapus once more ascended to the spot from which they had greeted their guests and bade them farewell as they wended their ways home on foot and on horseback. The following day we, too, planned to leave, but heavy rains in the night indicated the pass would be so deep in snow we could not get over it. Juan, Kike and I decided to climb the nearest Apu mountain with one of the young Hapus as guide, once again pushing my limits as we got higher and higher on the ever steeper slopes, though the sun came out brightly and made it well worth my while. Much of the way up we ate blueberries--making me laugh in delight as I'd written to a friend that every fruit I knew of could be found in Peru except for blueberries! Near the top we watched two eagles fly from their nests into the blue, perhaps the same ones that had flown above the elders. The men began walking a loop path away from the peak; I decided to go to it directly. On the way I entered the low door of a cave, inside which was a delightful mossy floor of emerald green with tiny tree-like plants and miniature flowers springing from it in yet another fairyland vision of beauty. As I was alone, I sang a song to this place inside the earth--a current favorite of mine that Mazatl sings: "Yo quiero que a mi me entieren, como a mis antepasados, en el vientre oscuro y fresco de una vasija de barro. De ti naci y a ti vuelvo, arcilla, vaso de barro; con mi muerte yazgo en ti, de tu polvo enamorado." (I want to be buried, as were my forefathers, in the cool dark belly of a great clay urn. From you I was born and to you I return, clay, jar of mud, with my death I rest in you, in love with your dust.)

When I reached the peak, I took off my shoes and socks in respect for the Apu and to make direct contact with the earth, gorged my eyes on two brilliant white glaciers in the mountains across the valley, on the full length of the valley toward the Amazon just beginning to fill with its afternoon cloud and on the village far below, bordered by its shining river ribbons. Then I flopped on the grassy ground in the hot sun and fell promptly asleep. When I awakened the three men had come and already gone; I soon found them near a shallow sun-warmed lake in which they had bathed. As we sat near its banks, wiscachas appeared sitting tall on each rock along the horizon and I played with them by making squeaky calls that caused them to cock their heads and switch their lovely spiraling tails.

We had left before lunch and returned as it was getting dark. Diana, who had not felt well enough to join us, confessed her fantasy that we'd fallen off some precipitous ledge and that she had to search for our bodies--death on her mind as she'd watched the women carving up the head of a sheep, making it into soup and serving it to her, all during our absence.

The next morning the weather was much clearer; it had barely rained all night and the pass was deemed passable, so we concentrated on hoping for horses. Within a few hours after our early breakfast of sheepshead soup and the now familiar boiled potatoes eaten three times a day, the Hapus came up with two horses,and eventually two blankets to tie to their backs. After lengthy goodbyes, Diana and I mounted the steeds in great relief at not having to walk the six or so kilometers up to the pass, while Kike and Juan set off on foot. A Hapu boy led my horse for a while, but as my horse did not appreciate being led, he soon took off its neck rope and let it negotiate its own way, which was definitely not along the path, but rather at the edge of every possible cliff it could find, or downside of the path with sudden lurches back up onto it or in and out of streams. It was all I could do to hang onto its mane, severely discomfitted by its prominent backbone, bowlegged around its belly without the relief of stirrups. I remember it every time I pick more of its white and rust hairs from my sweater or jacket or pants here in Cusco.

Now and then I got off to walk a while for relief, when the going was not too steep. It took four hours to reach the snowy pass where we bid our horses and the Hapu lad goodbye and proceeded downhill on foot, laden with our backpacks. Happily we were overtaken by two men leading horses carrying sacks of potatoes down to Colini. They graciously tied Diana's and my packs onto the sacks, leaving us almost cheerful as we worked the kinks out of our horse-sore butts and legs on the long downhill trek. Near the end Diana and I were somehow first, walking, almost stumbling, faster and faster, inertia and the lure of food and rest carrying us along. Finally back in Colini we found padded chairs for our sore bottoms in a restaurant where we and our newfound friends who'd carted our packs greedily ate a wonderful vegetable noodle soup, eggs, and--what a novelty--our potatoes french fried.

It was 4:00 P.M. and we hoped for a truck back to Urcos before dark, but none appeared. At about 8:00, long after dark, by the light of a Coleman lantern, we had tea and cookies, and Juan read coca leaves for me. Still no truck appeared, and in the end, we slept on the cement floor of the restaurant, our hostess providing a few sheepskins, our well-bundled bodies huddled together in now familiar fashion to keep warm. Morning came after a night of listening to another fancy battery-driven Japanese clock, this one not only playing a different electronic tune each hour, but explaining the time verbally in Spanish! I lay there imagining the salesman who had braved his way here and enthralled the populace with his magical wares.

In the morning a number of trucks passed in the wrong direction--apparently there was trouble further down, perhaps a washed-out bridge. It was about 11:00 A.M. when a truck appeared in the right direction at last and we gratefully clambered aboard. This time we were at the very rear of the truckbed where the painful bouncing was maximized. I will not dwell on the following ten hours to Urcos, except to say Diana was sure I'd go flying straight over the side and out of the truck on many occasions, that a huge upright truck tire behind me threatened to smash me, and that a crate of bananas beneath me had to be jettisoned along the way as it broke to bits, mashing the bananas beyond recognition. A wild and bone-busting ride to say the least, along cliff edges I'd rather not have seen. The one happy memory for me a long and spectacular view of Ausungati quite close, in all its shining, snowy splendor.

We made it at last to Urcos, seeing the alluring lights of Cusco off in the far distance below for a long time, by 8:00 P.M. and managed barely to squeeze into a van headed for Cusco with twice as many people as it could hold because it was the last. Wedged into its back seat we blessed its softness, as I did that of my bed that night after the hot bucket-shower I'd dreamed of for a week.

As I finish writing this account, another week later, I'm also planning on cooking dinner tomorrow for four Hapu men who walked--unbelievable as it seems--from Hapu to Urcos, where they took the fifty-cent van the rest of the way--in only two days! Of course they do not take the tortuously winding road that triples the distance in a truck; sensibly they move as nearly as possible on foot the way the eagles and condors fly above.

A: (Michele Lord)
TEMA:  Journey to Hapu
FECHA:  16 March 95

back to LifeWeb | rat haus | Index | Search | tree