We intended to finish this blog entry months ago, but as some readers may understand, life happens. We can sum it up by saying that we went to Peru to conduct fieldwork for Milo’s thesis about quinoa farmers and the impact of the growing global demand for quinoa on their lives. Milo is just days away from defending their 98 page thesis.
Most of our time was spent traveling around a pretty small and specific area of southeast Peru called the Altiplano, or high plains. This is where the majority of the world’s quinoa is grown. We were fortunate to sometimes find guides who could take us to specific farming communities so we could speak to the farmers at home and see how they live day to day. On this occasion, our guide and translator was a woman we met while she was selling knitted goods, such as the omnipresent llama sweaters many of the people in our photos are wearing.
We went to a village called Atunkolla to visit with farmers and were invited to lunch. We knew that going to rural farmland in Peru meant we would be eating what they ate, which made us nervous, being strict vegetarians. We were very concerned about the prospect of coming off as rude and therefore making it harder for us to gain access to more communities. We resigned ourselves to the fact that if we were served fish, we would thank our host kindly and try not to vomit. Most of the time, farmers didn’t stray from their normal lunches when we visited and they almost never consisted of meat. This day, however, we were not so lucky. We were served boiled fish staring up at us from a plate of rice, accompanied by a bowl of the water the fish was boiled in. The smell, as you can imagine, was overpowering.
Luckily, in this situation, they saw the desperate need for us to eat our lunch in the shade, as our skin was getting burnt after a morning of walking from farm to farm talking to the town’s people. The small amount of shade the housing provided was only big enough for Milo and I, so the farmers ate their lunch just around the corner and out of sight. We seized this window of opportunity to, without notice, feed our fish to the skinny dogs and cats on the farm. All parties involved ended up happy.
Working on a strict budget provided by the Meltzer Foundation, we often could not afford the assistance of a guide. Even with this setback, we were given some helpful tips by local quinoa gurus such as the amazing Professor Alipio Canahua Murillo, who teaches at the University of Puno and used to work for the FAO is undoubtedly one of the leading experts in quinoa growth and consumption in Peru. Alipio suggested that we go to towns on market days and talk to farmers who were going to sell their quinoa to the intermediary quinoa buyers. So, bright and early, four days a week, we headed out to the surrounding towns and villages to hit up the local markets.
Buses never leave from terminals unless every seat is sold, resulting in an unpredictable schedule. Often, only minutes pass between each departing bus, but in the slow hours of the day, our longest wait was about 30 minutes. You can just let the driver know where you want to get out and they will stop anywhere on route for you. Similarly, you can grab a bus from the side of the road, but you could be waiting a while as passing buses are often full. We never had to wait for longer than 45 minutes. It wasn’t just buses that stopped to take passengers, though. Sometimes people with spare room in their car picked up “hitchers” for a little pocket change.
The landscape in the altiplano during this time of year is very dry and dead. The most colorful and interesting things to look at while whizzing by in a van are the political ads painted on the sides of houses and walls.
The most common political campaign ads we saw were the above three. The ad that spoke to us was, of course, the one in the middle with the fist holding a stalk of quinoa with the words “Poder Andino” (Andean Pride) written underneath. We saw the slogan on the left often but didn’t ever figure out how it pertained to the people. The slogan on the right accompanied with a sandal says “confia” meaning, “trust.”
When we saw these sandals in the markets and on the feet of our informants, we understood why the politicians were using such a trusted product in their campaign.
The first time we went to a market looking for quinoa buyers or sellers, we were a little worried about how we would find the best location to approach people. It wasn’t until we saw the bags almost as tall as the locals lining the streets that we had found the quinoa section.
Once Kelly worked up the courage to ask a farmer who had just sold their quinoa to an intermediary if we could interview them, a crowd of people would gather around, listen in until their interest was satisfied and leave before we could fill out more surveys for their families’ information. This large group crowded around Kelly appears to be participating in the study, but each questionnaire took too much time to keep a crowd interested so we only got 2 questionnaires from this group.
Our hostel didn’t have wifi so most of our downtime was spent in coffee shops recording the information we had gathered during the day, reading for pleasure and surfing the web on the tablet.
Alipio Murillo arranged for us to stay with a fellow quinoa advocate, the president of the only certified organic quinoa community we encountered. The village, Caritamaya, is located between Puno and Juli and has one store which supplies the small town with about twenty essential products, sold from someone’s living room. The president and his family were incredibly generous, literally, moving their only bed downstairs so we could be more comfortable during our visit.
This was the coldest night that we spent in Peru. We shared a broken window with the chicken coop, adjacent to the sheep corral, so not only was it cold but we were woken up starting from 3 AM by the rooster who announced the coming day. When we got up, we were tired but thankful for the sun’s warmth.
Kelly holding a baby while her mother eats a quinoa flour soup. She informed us that pregnant and nursing mothers have started to eat quinoa every day as it is said to help produce more breast milk. The legitimacy of this belief is to be determined, but nevertheless, Kelly enjoyed her time holding the baby.
Meals on a farm take a lot more time and thought to prepare than in a city kitchen. We were given the task to peal potatoes, but without a peeler. They showed us how easy it was to remove the skin using the sheer force of our finger tips, but we went at a snail’s pace and only peeled a few dozen potatoes by the time the others were finished with all the other meal prep.
Seeing our ineptitude, they gave us slightly easier tasks as well. For example, tending to the sheep. Kelly couldn’t help but take the job too seriously.
There was a wild pack of family dogs who were roaming from one farm to another trying to get a sheep snack. While the family went to town to run errands, we were on alert, rocks in hand, just in case some dogs targeted one of the sheep in our care.
We didn’t lose any sheep that day, but the neighbor did. 😦
After spending a little over a day on this farm, we had all the farm living we could handle. Quinoa for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a side of potatoes for dessert was too much (or too little) for us to take, so we retreated to the comfort of the city.
During our summer in Peru, Milo had their 27th birthday. We decided to celebrate by taking a tour of a few of the islands located in Lake Titikaka. We had two goals for this excursion: to celebrate Milo’s life and to talk to a few more quinoa farmers on the islands. First things, first, to celebrate Milo’s life, we visited the Floating Islands of the Uros people.
The Uros people have existed since before the Inca. Their claim to fame and means of existence is their construction of floating islands from the reeds that grow in the shallows of the lake. They used this clever defense mechanism to ward off unwanted visitors in times of war and bloodshed. When Pizarro and his fellow conquistadores came into this region of Peru, they brought with them an iron fist and a determination for world domination. Very close by are the infamous and bloody silver mines of Potosí, Bolivia. The Uros people soon realized what their fate would be if captured by the Spaniards: to become slaves for a few years before succumbing to the horrific symptoms that come along with the unsafe extraction of minerals such as silver. They resorted to hiding amongst the same grasses they used to build their islands whilst the Spaniards explored the true islands in the lake. The thick grass-like stalks are hollow and provide for the perfect foundation for floating islands as well as perfect camouflage against the ruthless invaders.
We watched a demonstration about how these islands are constructed and maintained. Today, there are 42 islands and counting and they last anywhere between 15-30 years. The lifespans of the people who live on these islands are significantly lower than those of the people who live on land and we postulate this is because of their lack of dietary diversity.
Anywhere you go on these islands, your feet sink in.
The tourism that has helped this area thrive for decades is still a growing industry. Since the last time Kelly was on the Uros islands with her sister, Caitlin, she sees a few living conditions that are different. The solar panel in the picture above is an example of such advances. We learned that it is almost impossible for a singular family to buy a solar panel, as payment plans are not offered. Usually, an entire community will save together, using it communally and add to their collection of solar panels as quickly as the tourism money rolls in.
Some “advances” as outsiders may see them have not been implemented to the Uros people’s daily routine. This is the technology they use to cook their food. It has worked for centuries, and hopefully we will see a wide variety of cultural cooking differences for centuries to come.
Tourism is a huge part of these people’s livelihood. We did buy souvenirs, but usually purchased them from women who could potentially become guides into farming communities.
After a brief stop on a few Uros Islands, we were then ferried to Amantani Island. This island works as a co-op, splitting the tourism business evenly. All the tourists in our boat were divided between host families waiting at the dock to take us to our digs for the evening.
Our host “father” was inviting, but probably has dealt with so many tourists not speaking a lick of Spanish, that he wasn’t the most talkative individual. At dinner, when he learned that Kelly’s Spanish was actually close to fluent, he opened up and provided us with more valuable information for Milo’s thesis.
After being shown our room, we set out to explore. A sunset hike was planned a few hours after arrival and we were excited to see what was beyond our guided tour.
There were two ancient and sacred sites on this island. We only had time to hike to one before the sun went down. Along the way were so many signs of the unique culture of this particular island.
Right before sunset, we found a perfect place to sit and enjoy the changing colors.
It was a most romantic way of celebrating Milo’s birthday.
We are so thankful that we had a little extra financial room to make this excursion part of our Peruvian experience. Later that evening, came the part of the tour that Milo and I were amused with, but not very excited about. A traditional dance party!
At first, our host “mother” gave us two skirts and blouses to wear. We had to explain to them for a good quarter of an hour that we don’t want to wear the “women’s clothes” but would be happy and more comfortable putting on the less constrictive and intense “men’s” apparel option: panchos.
Traditional Music played as we danced around the great hall. Drinks including beer were available for purchase.
We found it hilarious that the Peruvians in charge of the drinks were about 4 years old. We decided tonight wouldn’t be the night that we start buying beer from a baby.
Though we did find that the ponchos made us feel pretty rad, we went to bed relatively early for a few reasons: we were tired, it was very cold, and we were using the last of their power reserves with the light on in our room. We had an early start making our way to the final island of our Lake Titikaka tour.
This Island was by far the most visited by tourists. Often in places such as these, we see hotels like Hilton or the Sheraton for the unadventurous foreigners who opt for the expensive home comforts rather than supporting the local people while learning about cultural norms. The people of the island decided long ago to deny access to any foreign companies or potential foreign land owners and therefore ensuring that all tourism profit went directly back into the community. It’s easy to see how beneficial this decision was as this is the only island in Lake Titikaka with 24 hour electricity, clean and running water, free k-12 education and larger food diversity in their diets.
The center of town was as Kelly remembered it on her first trip to Island Tequile with her sister 6 years ago. Kelly was so happy to return and share such a place with Milo. When the group had lunch, we continued to explore. We were not in the mood for yet another quinoa omelet. Luckily, we anticipated our lack of lunch options and packed enough food to make it through. We made it back to Puno around sunset. We had dinner and went to sleep because we still had a few more local markets to make our way to.
Some of the markets we visited were small, while others were relatively big, like the one in Juliaca where the vendors were especially friendly. This bustling local market is unfrequented by tourists, so we were greeted with looks of curiosity with an invitational twinkle in the vendors’ eyes. On average, we spoke to three to five quinoa sellers per visit, but in Juliaca, we spoke to well over half a dozen. Sometimes, we were able to speak directly to the middle men who did not produce quinoa, but only buy it from farmers and then transport it to bigger cities to sell it for more money. Sometimes we found that the middle men were also farmers.
Bags of grains lined each street. Kelly, who was doing most of the talking (as Milo doesn’t speak Spanish, yet), was very task oriented, asking questions and writing down the answers without thinking about their significance. Milo, on the other hand, who knew the questions so well, and could mostly understand the answers the farmers were providing, was able to compare and contrast these people’s lives with our own.
The women we spoke to who were our age often had at least one if not multiple children. At first, it was hard for us to gauge people’s ages, as their skin and hands were worked and weathered.
Some markets had every type of animal that could be found in the region, dead, on display, and ready to sell for a variety of purposes mostly unknown to us.
We loved passing by stalls that had a huge variety of local herbs, plants, and grains. The burst of pungent smells and earthy colors, usually with a backdrop of items made in China, reminded us of being in China. Can you tell the difference between the above photo and one from one of our China market entries?
A very common breakfast on the go is a liquid grain drink with fry bread. A mixture of hot water, quinoa flour, maca powder and corn meal doesn’t sound so appealing to us, but it sure filled us up on the occasions where this was the only thing we had access to eat.
Eventually, we bought our own mixture of powdered grains for emergency meals and to supplement our breakfasts. It wasn’t our favorite, but we enjoyed eating like Peruvians.
Every day was filled with new experiences. New towns, new farms, new farmers, new foods, etc. The woman on the far left was our guide for this day and town. She came to the city of Puno during the week, while her children were in school, to sell handmade crafts. On the weekend, she and her family went home to help their families tend to the farm. We ended up buying many souvenirs from her and gave a lot of gifts to the families that she introduced us to. We wanted to provide essentials as gifts, so we always brought along salt, sugar, and oil.
Quinoa drying in the rafter of a farm house.
A guinea pig cage with multiple cubbies for sleeping. The guinea pig house was a replica of a traditional Aymara house.
This particular farmer was very knowledgeable about the crops he grows. He also spoke a bit of English, so he and Kelly taught each other a few new words.
This farmer also showed us how they make their grain into flour.
Kelly did well and made sure that we spoke to as many people as possible. Kelly gave every new person we spoke to a run down on who we are, what we were doing, and why we were there. People often had many follow up questions and a few asked if we were here collecting information for the Peruvian government.
Even when we assured farmers that we were only students, some farmers like the old man in the picture above scrutinized our identification, had us sign statements swearing to be students, and took a copy of our questionnaire.
Alpacas are everywhere and have really cute eyelashes. These alpacas really didn’t like people, as Kelly soon discovered when trying to get close enough for a picture.
After more than a month in the Southwest part of Peru, we were ready to move on.
We found ourselves happiest when we were closer to Cusco, in the Sacred Valley, more specifically in the little town of Pisaq. With a difference of only a few hundred miles and just a few hundred meters in altitude, Peru’s Sacred Valley is culturally different from the pampas, the flat high desert around Puno. Quechua is the indigenous language most widely spoken in the Sacred Valley and was the native tongue of the Ancient Incas. Many words such as quinoa and chia are actually Quechua words that the Spanish Conquistadors appropriated. Aymara is the language spoken by the indigenous people in the towns near Lake Titikaka. We found that Quechua people tend to be friendlier and more welcoming where the Aymara people are more weary of outsiders as they have been exploited to a higher degree. After nearly a month of collecting meaningful information from the Aymara people, we decided to return to where we found ourselves able to talk to the local farmers more easily.
Every morning we went to the local market in Pisaq for some fresh juice. Our “juice lady” always had some local “superfood” staples that we include in our juices and smoothies at home like maca, chia, aloe vera, and honey but we still always were able to throw her off a bit when asking for what they thought were somewhat odd juicing ingredients like turmeric and ginger root, spinach, cilantro and more.
Thankfully, farmers in the Sacred Valley are returning to their cultivating roots and growing more of the traditional seed we set out to learn about. They have always grown crops such as quinoa, but now they grow it in larger quantities. The main reason they grow more is because the value of quinoa has dramatically increased, giving them more economic stability. Additionally, there are campaigns to educate people on the nutritional wonders of quinoa. People used to give quinoa to the animals as feed. Now they are eating more and more of it themselves.
For the last couple weeks of our Peruvian experience, we were able to mix business with pleasure. We went to the ParuParu community where we visited sacred Inca sites and old yet essential reservoirs designed to reach to the farthest crops that surrounded the town.
Coca leaf is another traditional crop grown in the same regions of Peru that Quinoa is grown. Contrary to popular belief, allowing production of coca leaves for personal consumption has actually reduced the rate of monocroping of coca leaf. The type of personal consumption that we refer to is very different than the depiction shown in pop culture. Coca leaves have been used over a millennia for ritualistic and medicinal purposes. It can ward off common illnesses such as altitude sickness and nausea.
Our friend and guide, Hiliaria taught us a common and important ritual for visiting new and sacred grounds. We are choosing the best coca leaves, making stacks of 3 and placing the 21 stacks we created in a circle. This is to thank the gods for another beautiful day, asking for protection for the people and place we are at and for more beautiful days to follow.
We had an amazing day and an amazing journey and we are happy to have taken part in such offerings.
Hilliria took us on our last outing to get the 10 remaining questionnaires we hoped to complete before leaving. Without her, we would have had to work a lot harder. We will forever be in her debt. Thank you, Hillaria!
Finally, we gathered all the information we needed! We celebrated by going to some Inca ruins off the beaten path. We walked for a couple of hours from town to town, through the mountains on paths no wider than your foot, visiting ruins.
Being in the middle of the Peruvian countryside with nothing but vast mountain landscapes, the sound of birds, and the wind bringing scents of foreign flowers to our noses, we felt like true explorers.
Not even locals were at these ruins. The people who live here have these extremely sought after Inca ruins in their back yards and even use some of the terraces first created by their ancient Inca ancestors to grow their own food. There are so many Inca sites, the Peruvian government cannot protect them all. We were very respectful of the history surrounding us but very excited to be unhindered by security or other tourists.
Tiny arches lead the way to the ruins always situated at the tip of mountains.
Hiliaria, being in her mid-60s, found it very funny that Milo and I could never keep up with her. Like many people we have encountered in the world, she said that Germans are usually the best hikers, while keeping quiet about which nationality of hikers usually were the slowest.
The last few days in Peru were filled with local exploration and relaxation.
We ordered our last fresh juice from the woman in the middle with the white hat, who we went to almost every day, though all the ladies were very kind and make amazing juice.
We spent one more leisurely morning in Pisaq before heading to Cusco for a 24 hour bus ride to Lima.
Once we got to Lima, we were exhausted. We didn’t make reservations anywhere, knowing it would be cheaper to find a place once we got in town. We found an amazing hotel with a private bathroom and breakfast only a few blocks from the “lovers” beach in the district Miraflores.
After being in the countryside for a couple months, with only access to macro style foods, grains, fruit and some vegetables, which weren’t so tasty, it was a treat to have the familiar junk food that is found in the cities. Since we had to break our veganism in Peru by eating cheese, we decided to end our trip with a bang with churros and a cup of hot chocolate fudge.
This concludes our travels in Peru. Stay tuned for our next entries, as we are going to be starting in a new direction. A new adventure, unlike any other we have had thus far! The excitement that we feel just hinting at our future blog entries makes our stomachs full of butterflies!
Ciao bello, churro!