In our time in Paru Paru, it was easy to forget that there was a world outside that misty, mountainous land.
For five days, we were welcomed into the lives of families in Parque de la Papa, the Potato Park, where neighbors are fighting a grassroots battle to keep tradition alive. In small daily acts of resistance, they tend livestock and fields, cook meals, play music, and celebrate their Quechuan identity in the face of an encroaching, globalizing world. Many of the adobe-brick and stone homes we stayed in are new, built in the last several years along the shores of the sacred lake Qimsaqocha as families were pushed ever higher into the hills in search of land to cultivate and spaces to claim for their community.
Rain and cloudy days kept the valley frequently wrapped in fog as life continued steadily. With their host families, students herded alpacas, sheep, and llamas to pasture, prepared meals, played games, practiced phrases in Quechua, and learned the rhythms of the household. Host parents dressed us in their clothing to offer a tactile experience of their arts and lifestyle. We all ate more forms of potato than I had ever imagined: fresh, dried, and freeze-dried; in soups, purees, slices, dices, quinoa dishes, baked blends, or whole and fist-sized, stacked high on our plates. We sampled alpaca from the fields and trout from the lake. No one suffered from lack of carbohydrates.
Santiago, host father of Alex (Alejandro) and James (Santiago, tambien), shared with us one of his resting potato fields above the lake, where we learned to prepare beds and plant potatoes using traditional tools and traditional fertilizer: abundant alpaca poop.
On a hike even higher into the mountains, Marco and Mario shared with us legends of the sacred Apus, mountain spirits that watch over, nurture, or perhaps discipline the people who live among them and work fields on their slopes. We hiked through cultivated fields of plants, many just beginning to flower, where 180 varieties of potatoes swell slowly under the soil. These living, edible vessels preserve the genetic diversity developed over centuries by Andean farmers to ensure food security in a region challenged by harsh microclimates and periodic agricultural disasters. In America, we would call these potatoes heirloom; here, they are inheritance.
Host mothers gathered one afternoon to teach the process of weaving, from alpaca (or llama or sheep) to poncho. Students experienced the entire process, including cooking dyes from wild plants, learning to weave, and braiding rope from animal fibers. The final products, viewed through appreciation of the many steps involved, are masterful works of art.
On our final morning, we celebrated with a Pachamanca, a community feast. While our sheep cooked in the hot-rock oven, we played a high-altitude game of futbol and gathered to dance. Marcellino played music as our families taught us the dances for Carnival. At last, we sat together for a final meal of mutton, chicken, corn, fava beans, and – you guessed it – potatoes! Replete, we shared gratitudes and hugs, then piled onto the bus for a misty-eyed departure.
In Cusco, ancient capital of the Inca who live on as the Quechua, we showered and dined and gathered to discuss our time in Paru Paru.
Potatoes, I think, will never be quite the same.