Predestination in Peru
In the general sense of the word, I’m not a big believer in predestination. I tend to hone my personal philosophy on the whetstone of science. But, there are intersections. For instance, say I gently toss my cat into the air in front of me; in that initial airborne moment, she is predestined to land on the ground. And, fortunately for her, she will most likely land on her feet. Or, similarly if I tossed a large Newfoundland puppy, or a squid, or a honey badger into the air, they would also be predestined to land on the ground; though not, necessarily, on their feet. (but I’d put money on the honey badger).
So, when physics (if not biomechanics) overlap with something that might appear predestined, it’s possible to see both validated. The animal will land on the ground. Somehow. Predestination entwined with the law of gravity.
Now, what if some other law was at work. A law we haven’t uncovered yet as scientists. And events that seem ‘destined’ are actually following some law of physics that a poor doctoral student is slaving away at describing this very moment. We just don’t know everything, and so, just maybe, that feeling that you were ‘meant’ to take that job, or ‘meant’ to miss that bus, is tuning into some law that we’ll learn about later. So don’t knock all the crystal gazers. Some of them might be onto something, perhaps without really realizing it.
So, well, now, this is actually all a very long lead up to a story I want to tell you about a potato.
Or several potatoes.
Alright, there are, at least, potatoes in the story.
When I travel I don’t like to feel like I’ve got Lonely Planet blinders on. Guidance is wonderful, and appreciated, but once I’ve got my feet on the ground I’d rather take the bit in my mouth and move a ways off the trail. See what else there is to see.
In this instance I was more than half way through a four-week, rather scripted trip to Peru. My friend Molly and I had spent a week in a homestay in Cusco as part of a Spanish language school, had hiked the Inca Trail with another group of Midwesterners, and now were in a small van, bumping along the 3S towards Tinqui. It was about a three hour drive, and part way through I realized that my strategic decision not to drink much water that morning, combined with the bottle of wine we consumed the night before, at altitude, was not a good equation. We were on our way to start a five-day trek around Ausangate mountain (6384m). Maybe I shouldn’t go.
Earlier that morning as I’d struggled into a particularly confining sports bra I pulled that muscle that’s right between one’s shoulder blades. Five days with a heavy pack on? Maybe I shouldn’t go. (Turned out that a traveling companion of ours happened to be a trained massage therapist. She fixed me.)
Ten minutes into the hike from Tinqui (which at 3,800m is 400m higher than Cusco) I nearly blacked out, and ended up half collapsing on the trail. I’d been at 4,215m for the Inca trail with no problem, but this particular morning, I was significantly dehydrated. Maybe I shouldn’t go. I talked to our guide, Jose, about staying behind in Tinqui and he laughed, said I could teach the locals some Spanish (they mostly speak Quechua, the second official language of Peru). I thought that sounded rather fun, but plodded onwards, and was eventually offered a very bony horse to ride.
We made camp that night. Our guide had been hacking all throughout the day and we learned that he had bronchitis. He’d seemed a little lost on the way to that first campsite.
I had no faith in this guide to get two of us off a mountain if we were sick.
The Next Day
“Juan will take you back to Tinqui”
“He has his own horse, right?”
“Yes, he has his own horse”
Juan did not have his own horse. Or rather, he had six horses. But would only be using one for this journey. The one I was riding. He walked slowly ahead, leading my “caballo taxi”. It took three hours to get back to Tinqui. Then Juan had me “descansas? Esperas?” Rest. Wait. While he jogged off to find me a place to stay because the first hostel we reached hadn’t been open for business.
I perched against a stone wall with our backpacks.
To my right a woman sat outside her store. Her house? Selling the typical cookies, water, etc. I smiled. She smiled. I sat down. Wasn’t a customer. Later when I needed water she wasn’t open. It wasn’t market day anymore.
A wrinkled woman worked in her house across the way. A kitten was playing in the yard. The woman walked outside and knelt down, tending to something. She looked up at me, took my measure, and nodded.
Next door a man led a horse up to his door, and dropped the lead. He walked inside. The horse wandered a few paces. The man came back outside, started adjusting the saddle on the horse. The end of a journey. He walked back inside. The horse wandered a few more paces away, towards the road, toward me. The man came back outside and grabbed the lead, pulled the horse back, dropped the lead, went back inside. Don’t they have a better system? The horse began to wander away again. I stood up and waved a hand to shoo it back to the house. It worked. Startled, the horse stopped and turned back to the house. White girl wavin’ her arms on the streets of Tinqui. Who does she think she is. I’m just trying to be helpful.
Juan came jogging back, silver glinting around one of his bright white teeth. He found a place. Follow him. I followed.
Earlier that day I had woken up in a tent outside of Upis. I was sick. Altitude? Food-borne illness? Who knew. But I was weak. And we were supposed to climb our first mountain pass that day. Jose was bent over in a fit of coughing. He recovered and looked at me. “Eat, eat. You need strength for today”. It was a pancake. I couldn’t eat. “I can’t”. He looked at me, uncertain of what to do. Molly looked concerned. “Today is going to be harder than the second day of the Inca Trail”. Jose: “You hiked the Inca Trail?” “Yes. With a pretty heavy pack. It was fine.” No comment. He coughed. I made a decision. “Can you find me a horse to take me back to Tinqui?” “You want to go back to Tinqui?” “Yes. I don’t think I can climb.” Silence. “Okay. Yes we can find you a horse.” “Two horses.”
Juan had an open face. Open smile. No guile. None. He’d met our van yesterday when we got to Tinqui. He was the head horseman for this trek. A local of the area. About 20 years old. He had an impressive leather hat with silver metallic and colored beads wrapped around as a band. The silver in the band matched the silver that rimmed his front tooth.
As he led me along I tried to make conversation. Tried to feel less like an invalid, less like some imperialistic princess on the pony. The horse’s name was “Pocoponcho”. I found out that meant “bay” or more literally “little red”. Every other horse of that color had the same name. All white horses were called “blanco”. I began to get the drift. Horses in Peru were all working animals. They had very different relationships with humans than the horses in the US. Each one I approached, just for a pat on the neck, would turn away. Not interested. ‘You’re gonna make me work’. The arrieros would humor gringos with names for their beasts of burden, but there seemed to be little affection. But Juan cared. He was a considerate horseman. He cared about footing. Cared about his animals. I respected him for that. And wish him well.
My Spanish wasn’t really capable of a conversation with Juan. He didn’t speak slowly, or use small words. Once I started nodding amiably he rattled off about different topics that I barely caught the subject of. I smiled. “Si, si.” Later, he told Jose that my Spanish was “quite good.” Fooled him.
The hostel he found for me was called “Hostal Tinqui”. Straightforward. Much like the town. He told me wait again while he ran off to find an arriero to bring me to meet the group in Pachanta in two days. He returned about 20 minutes later. Gregorio would take me to Pachanta. “do you have your own horse?” “si” “Dos caballos?” “Si” “Bueno”. We’ll see about that.
The next day I met Teo (pronounced, interestingly, Tio). And later Basilia, who was the wrinkled woman who nodded. She had indeed taken my measure. That I passed was one of the greatest successes of my trip.
Once set up in Hostal Tinqui I collapsed on the very hard bed. I still did not feel well. The shared bathroom plumbing was questionable, a bare light bulb hung over the bed, and they were raising guinea pigs downstairs to eat. But I had a room to myself, with a key and everything. Heaven. Of course I had to pay additionally for this room, and I was directed to take all of my meals at one particular restaurant that the hotelier had paid for. But, I didn’t have options.
I slept the rest of that first day and started to eat a little that night. The following day was much better and I resolved to wander through the town and see if I could have a non-tour-book experience. It was market day.
I stopped at a store and bought some bottled water (a necessity) and some blank notebooks. The market didn’t have much to offer and most folks just looked at the stranded gringa with little empathy or interest. I moved on. After sitting on a step for a while and starting to write, two men wandered over. After the initial pleasantries I explained my predicament in halting Spanish and asked if there were any very short hikes near town. They told me about some lakes nearby. When they inquired where I was staying, and I told them “Hostal Tinqui”, they moved off. I think my guinea-pig rearing host held a certain position of esteem (or control?) in the village.
I decided I would have to find the lakes on my own. I stopped at ‘home’ to drop off the extra water, and then dropped into the same store as earlier. I asked the shopkeeper if she knew where the lakes were. I learned that aside from knowing enough Spanish to say the names of things and their prices, she mostly spoke only Quechua. She gave me a helpless, if friendly, look. I left.
Two steps outside the door I was stopped by a sprightly man who I estimated to be about 55. He immediately engaged me in conversation, told me he was an arriero named Teo, and regularly took people on guided tours of the area. I explained that I didn’t need a full-fledged arriero because I had just left a trek. I was interested in a day trip to some nearby lakes, but that was it. He couldn’t help me with the lakes, but suggested that I walk the 40-minutes with him back to his house and then I could take a taxi back to town.
Now, in the history of sketchy proposals, this one ranks up there. I’m in a strange country, speaking a language I barely have a grasp of, in a slightly weakened state, the only person who knows where I am is on some mountain pass for the next few days, and a strange man just offered to let me follow him home. Sure, no problem. Great idea.
And then the shopkeeper came out, gestured to Teo and said something along the lines of ‘he’s okay’. Of course, I don’t speak her language either, but body language and facial expressions count for a lot. As does gut feeling. And I didn’t have anything else to do for the next four (okay, eight) hours. He seemed a good sort. So I said, “okay.”
As we made our way through town he greeted almost everyone we passed and they called out a hearty hello (or hola, or the Quechua equivalent) back. At least everyone else knew who this guy was. We climbed up out of the village and stopped to help a man with his leg in a cast move the stake his pig was tied to. So this Teo helps out his neighbors. He kept up a lively stream of conversation and was aiming to secure later business (there had to be an angle). I made half-believed promises and plans to return the following year to do a trek around Sibinacocha Lake.
We kept climbing and he asked what I’d been doing in Peru up until then. I said ‘language school’ and he said he had a friend named John who had a language school in Cusco.
“Wait a minute, John runs the school I attend!”
“European guy? Peruvian wife? Two kids?”
“Let’s call him!” Teo exclaims, and whips out his trusty cell phone. We’re on a narrow dirt trail in a remote-ish area of Peru where electricity is still reaching some of the villages (and plumbing is simply a future dream) but by golly you can get a cell phone signal.
We stopped at a little stone-walled corral (his) where the cell service was good and chatted with John for a few minutes (who was a little baffled to hear from me). Teo had served as a guide for John and his wife the previous year; John said that Teo brings him cheese each time he comes into Cusco. Small country.
Teo spent a few more minutes trying to reach his daughter on the phone because apparently this was the only place he could get good reception. When he gave up we continued onwards.
The trail ran along the side of a river valley. The sun was out and we had perfect weather. Small mud brick houses dotted the fields where alpacas grazed and I began to recognize this as the experience I’d been hoping for.
The countryside kept getting more and more picturesque and eventually we arrived at a gently sloping estate with simple mud/stone buildings. When we reached the gate a dog came bounding up to meet us, tongue hanging out, tail wagging.
“Please come around back and meet my wife.”
Any man who’s dog is that happy to see him must be a good sort, and my last strand of caution disappeared.
“I’d love to”
I had intentionally left my camera in my room that morning in an effort to not appear like such a tourist (not that my skin and clothing didn’t already betray me). I have no photos to remember this day by, but wish I’d gotten a photo of Teo and his wife at his homestead.
We walked to the back and his wife came up to meet me. She was in traditional dress and only spoke Quechua; her name was Navidad. She motioned for me to follow her over to where her loom was (her LOOM!) and they spread out a blanket for me to sit down and chat for a while. Her loom was a modest construction, sitting on the ground. She had to sit on the ground on a blanket in front of it. She proceeded to weave as we tried to carry on a conversation with Teo translating between my limited Spanish and her Quechua.
I learned that Teo was 40 years old, not 55, but that he and Navidad had 5 children. We talked about the importance of education. The daughter Teo had tried to reach on the cell phone was in college. So this arriero’s family wasn’t doing too badly. I explained that I had one brother, but no husband or children. This fact had the usual effect. “You’re how old and you’re not married and don’t have kids?! (they regain composure) Don’t worry (pat pat pat), you will.”
Teo disappeared into the house and reappeared with a spool of pink yarn and proceeded to spin. He looked at me and said with a grin that this was his other job. Navidad was making a manta, which the local women use to carry things, including children, on their backs. It takes her 30 days to make one manta. (for those who’ve been to my house, I have a manta hanging on my wall).
After a short while Teo motions for me to follow him and he wanders further back in the pasture. He comes to a little grayblack patch on the ground and begins digging out the potatoes that have been roasting there since the morning. (See!?! Potatoes!) He proudly tells me that Navidad started them roasting in the morning so they would be ready in time for lunch. Then Navidad comes up with the same blanket and spreads it out and motions for me to sit. Teo goes back to the house and reemerges with fresh cheese from their cows.
It gets better.
He has two bowls and two spoons and two rounds of cheese, so he carefully cuts one of the blocks of cheese into 1/3 and 2/3 and gives me the 2/3 in my own bowl with spoon while he and Navidad share the other 1 & 1/3 cheese in the same bowl. As they pass the bowl back and forth there is an easiness, and warmth. This couple is devoted to one another.*
Pretty soon the dog starts barking and we see two people walking along the outside of the fence. They are relatives who live in town and own the alpaca in the adjacent field. Teo and Navidad motion them over and they join us for almuerzo (lunch). The couple, Basilia and Ipifanio, said they spoke no Spanish, but Basilia was fibbing. If Teo was actually 40, Basilia was probably around 60, her tiny feet in little black loafers. And she was no fool. She was the woman who nodded to me the day before.
So they chatted and we all ate in the sunshine and I was just soaking up this incredibly bucolic scene. After lunch Teo indicated that Basilia and Ipifanio were returning to Tinqui so I could go with them. They had a motor bike which Ipifanio rode, but Basilia insisted on walking with me all the way to the main road before I could convince her that I was happy walking on my own and she should catch her ride with Ipifanio, who kept waiting for her…at the end of the driveway, part way down the hill, on the other side of the bridge and finally at the road. As I left I had tried to indicate to Teo that I wanted to give him something for his hospitality, but forgot the verb for “give”. He just shook my hand and said it was nice meeting me.
The next day I was on a quest to visit an artist’s studio I’d been told about. I ran into both Basilia and Ipifanio each in different parts of town. Both were very friendly and I had the feeling of settling in a bit, to be able to run into people I knew already in this strange town.
And so, this is the day that I somehow feel I was destined to have. But when I think back to the number of incidents that I tried to push through to continue on with the trek, the number of ‘signals’ telling me I needed to stay back in Tinqui, they were all generated from within. I’m the one who drank the wine to get dehydrated. I was susceptible to altitude or a passing bug (granted, sometimes that can’t be helped at all). But I wonder if deep down I’d decided I just needed a break. Or whether there was something else I was heeding. Regardless, I had the day I was looking for, thanks to Teo, Navidad, Basilia and Ipifanio. And if anyone wants to do a 10-day trek in the Ausangate region sometime around June of any year, let me know. I know an arriero.
*The reason the affection between Teo and Navidad was so touching was that it was contrary to most of the experiences I’d had in the country until then. The school where I studied employed single mothers, and my homestay was with a single mom. In Peru there is a stigma about divorce and women can rarely find work after they’ve been divorced. If they have children to support this puts them in a very bad spot. There seems to be a large number of divorced (or never married) single moms, which is why my language school exclusively employs them. I heard a lot of stories of bad relationships, culminating in women dismissing the entire country’s worth of males. It was sad. But then heartening to meet Teo and Navidad, and Basilia and Ipifanio. Things maybe are different in the country.