Through my eyes

living my life without regrets

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Community of Colquecachi on Lake Titicaca

After the Uros visit we took a 3 hour boat ride and our destination was the community of Colquecachi on the Island of Amantani. Remote from the activities of modern life, 4 hours from Puno, this community lives in a time bubble. What we take for granted or understand almost instinctively is not part of this community’s life. The language spoken here is Quechuan, the language of the Inca. In fact, the people living on this Island are Quechuan. The term Inca is a misnomer, like calling all British people Victorians because there once was a Queen Victoria. Inca is the title of the King of the Quechuans. The folk themselves are the Quechuans, not the Incas. Spanish is their 2nd language and they are taught Spanish in school but among themselves speak the old native tongue, Quechuan.
We spent one night and 2 days living with an Island Family in the community of Colquecachi. After arriving at the Island our group stepped off the boat and we were greeted by about a dozen Island women in traditional dress. From a list prepared by the travel agency we were divvied up so that each Island woman would take people to her house. Carol and I were given to Rosalia, a woman about 35 with a healthy and stout figure. Used to walking on her Island she led the way quickly through agricultural fields along a dirt path and up a steep hill towards her house. Constantly climbing and already being at 3800 meters, Carol and I gasped for air. We felt old and physically unfit. We had to stop here and there just to catch our breath. I felt a little better when I saw some of the other people in our group, mostly young people in their 20s, stop and rest a bit, too.
We finally managed to get to Rosalia’s house to meet Bautista, her husband and her son Wilder, a 12 year old. We were shown our room to stay in and were pleasantly surprised to see it had a light bulb, albeit no heat. A chamber pot was stuck under the bed.
Yet, as we learned later, there was a flushing toilet with running cold water just down the steep steps, on the ground floor. I felt a bit awkward invading someone’s home this way yet it was part of the education I received here. We were made to understand that lunch will be ready in about 30 minutes and then Carol and I were left sitting in our room, looking out the window at the pastoral setting all around us. We were living with the Quechuans now, the Incas.
The surrounding area was breathtaking, literally, too. Sitting on the side of an ever climbing hillside were terraced plots of mostly potatoes, corn of different types and plantings I don’t know about. We were in farmland. Downhill was a view of the edge of the land and Lake Titicaca, which is the biggest and highest navigatable lake in the world. The feeling of strangeness is palatable. We did not bring much for the 2 days so unpacking was unnecessary. Carol thought of bringing some gift for the family but what do you bring? We didn’t know what was appropriate but asking around on land we were told to bring a small bag of rice.
So the 30 minutes elapsed and we eased ourselves down the rickety stairway and we found the kitchen. No, this was not a kitchen you have seen before except maybe in the movies or in museums about primitive cultures. On one wall was an earthen clay contraption with an open flame below, clay pots sat above the flames in an opening made specifically for each pot. The whole ‘fireplace’ is full of sod but it felt homey and cozy. The source for the fire was wood which was used sparingly and was handfed into the flames a little bit at a time as needed. A long table sat opposite the cooking wall along with 4 assorted chairs; the table had a brightly colored table cloth. All utensils and plates and cups and supplies for the kitchen sat on an open shelf with a curtain in front, yet the sides were open. It was plain to see there was not much there. Rosalia had the table set with 2 spoons and a paper napkin and she squatted in front of her fireplace ladling a steaming hot soup into our bowls.
Carol and I sat down and since her son, Wilder, was present I made small talk about what grade he attended in school, whether he liked soccer, how old he was, etc. We ate. Rosalia and Wilder watched us. Smiling all the time I can see they were as curious about us as we were about them. Since it was close to 4 PM and we had group meeting at the football field in 10 minutes just up the hill, we excused ourselves after thanking Rosalia for her indeed delicious lunch. I asked her in Spanish not to cook too much for dinner and that a soup again would be just fine with me and she understood. Communication was ok, actually. I used a piece of paper and with a pen and some funny signs and writing words we could ‘talk’ fairly well. We started to establish a rapport.
The meeting at 4 on the football field turned out to be the start of a long hike to the very top of the mountain of this Island to have a bird’s eye view. Carol and I declined. We sat at the side line of the football field, the only communal meeting place of the village and watched the little activities that made daily life for Colquecachi. To our right were 3 strapping young fellows watching the young children play soccer with a rubber ball. Amazingly, the 12 year olds accepted the 6 year old boys into their game. They really enjoyed the soccer and observed all the rules. No fighting but lots of smiles and having fun. I bought each or the strapping men a bottle of beer from the local bodega and made instant friends. To our left were about 8 women and girls in traditional dress, talking and knitting and congregating like they did every day. The football field was the center of town, Carol and I just sat and watched. It seemed very peaceful and tranquil. When a girl left the women’s group she made sure to pass the strapping guys close enough to be noticed by them.
After some time we got up and meandered some distance to the right. Nobody paid that much attention to us. Each one of the locals had chores to do and did them. An “Ola” was given with a smile. Woman carried their loads strapped in a blanket tied to their backs up and down the mountain we now lived on. Men, young and old, worked in the fields. When we saw them use the path leading up or down the mountain we were amazed at their swift, secure way of using their feet and legs. It seemed they climbed without effort. While Carol and I strained and huffed and puffed along, with frequent stops to catch our breath and to take a rest, the locals passed us. We were visitors, yes, but also made welcome among them. At no time did I feel not wanted. We were free to observe and while I am sure we were observed too, it was not obvious.
We made arrangements with Rosalia that 7 PM would be dinner. Close to this time we went back, thankfully downhill, and again we met in the kitchen. We noticed another, elderly looking woman squatting in a corner near the cooking fire and were introduced to Rosalia’s mom, who only speaks Quechuan. We said hello to this woman in Spanish but I could tell that nothing was communicated. She was a Quechuan, and Inca woman. Before we attended this dinner, I decided on some additional gifts, a small pocket knife for Wilder, the son and in addition to the rice for Rosalia, 30 Soles for Bautista, and her husband. Now, entering the kitchen, meeting Rosalia’s mom we had a dilemma, having no gift for her. Quick thinking on my part reduced Bautista’s gift to 20 Soles and 10 went to Rosalia’s mom. The gift giving was over and the pocket knife, small as it was, with scissors, toothpick and tweezers built in was a true hit. Bautista almost wanted it more but relinquished it to his son never-the-less. We ate our soups; the son asked for a second serving but was told that there was no more. Rosalia only ate half a bowl full, giving the other half to her mom; everybody examined the pocket knife.
I cannot recall exactly how, but somehow I made them understand I could not hear well and showed them one of my hearing aids. Well, what a surprise, they had never seen one. First they did not understand what it was but after I pantomimed its use, the questions came by the truck load. What else was in this far away land called Canada we know nothing about? What could we bring to our Island to make it better? The questions came fast and I had to really listen fast and answer slowly. The life the people lead here in this community of Colquecachi is unique and to tell them too much would not do them any good.
I explained to them that TV is not that great and that you can add more solar power panel to the one panel they have and store the power in a battery. They liked that. I told them that a computer for the community would be a good thing, that they could communicate via computer and also use it to teach their children things they would need to know in the future. I told them to learn English in addition to the Spanish they struggle with, because it seems to be the most used language besides the daily Spanish spoken on the main land. But otherwise I just let them talk and ask. When Bautista asked about prices I told them what I know to be true, knowing that the numbers were astronomical for them. We had a good exchange, a good talk, a mutual get together of the minds. It was an experience neither Carol nor I will ever forget, it was great.
The community of Colquecachi, in our honor, had arranged for a small get together after supper and we all had to dress in traditional Peruvian, Inca (Quechuan) regalia. I did not really want to do it but with a lot of pleading I gave in. Carol was helped in getting dressed by Rosalia. Wilder, being small, jumped up unsuccessfully to get the poncho over my head and the giggles and laughter about it all was heartwarming.
After another climb back up to the communal meeting hall, we had a dance with music provided by a local band playing Andean music. Again, there was the separation of sexes among the locals but the foreigners, not being so inhibited mixed, danced, line danced, took pictures, laughed and had a ball.
I danced traditional local dances with Rosalia, Bautista danced with Carol. The dances contained a lot of twirling around so that the petticoats of the girls swirl. Up to 7 layers of skirts are worn traditionally. The sash worn indicates weather a woman is married, engaged or otherwise, the way the men wear their caps, the colors of the ear-flopped caps all have a meaning only the initiated is fully aware of.
After about an hour of dancing, no drinking or eating, we walked back downhill and dropped like dead into our beds. Since it gets cold at night and the rooms do not have any heat the bed covers are very heavy wool blankets. In fact, I had 2 of them and both laying on me felt heavy so I had to find a way to make them not touch my body by building a kind of tunnel to sleep in. The weight of the blankets was such that I felt someone was pressing on my chest. I guess one gets used to it but it felt heavy to me. I was not cold and slept well. The room, the world outside turned very black and dark after I turned off the one light bulb. I was out like a light until I woke up to use the bathroom. Well, there is a bathroom, of course, but it’s outside in the cold, mountain air, down a steep, creaky set of stairs, that, should I use the stairs, would wake everybody up. I remembered the handled chamber pot under my bed and then I slept soundly until morning.
Breakfast was one pancake covered lightly with jam at 7 AM the next day. A hot tea of matte de coca was our drink and we had to say good bye because our boat left at 8 AM. I felt the sadness creep in. We had made new friends but were forced to leave each other. They asked me once more to show my hearing aid and shook their heads. We shook each other’s hands and then Carol and I marched downhill, guided by Bautista to the dock. For a while Bautista excused himself but we found our way along, following a path along a river that ended at the Lake. It was pastoral, it was wholesome. The whole Island felt right. It was a unique experience Carol and I had and I am so glad we took the time and the chance to learn something new about this culture. I lived among the Inca, the Quechuan; I lived and experienced life close to the way life was before the Spanish conquered. It was wonderful!

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