I have been wanting to write about Peru since I touched down in Mexico City a few months ago, but every time I sat down and placed fingertips to keypad, my mind would start to whirl into a mad frenzy. All the sights, sounds, smells and experiences would spin in front of me just out of arms reach – and I found it impossible to pin down my thoughts and form them into anything meaningful.
More than a month has gone by, and I think I have more or less been able to process and digest all the information – both metaphorically and literally speaking. I can attest to the fact, that two weeks of constant eating and sampling new dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner has played havoc with my waistline!
Other than my growing waist line, Peru was incredible! Going there for a holiday would have been amazing on its own, but going there with ‘C’ and meeting his family, his friends and seeing ‘his’ Peru, and where he grew up is something that I will remember forever. There were times where I had to stop, and take stock of where I was, and what I was doing – I felt as though I had just stepped out of a page from Isabela Allende’s famous novel, The House of Spirits.
From the moment we touched down on Peruvian soil to the moment we took off – everyday was a flurry of activities, things to see and people to meet. The weekends were spent in Lima with friends and family, and during the week ‘C’ organised a couple of excursion for me to see different parts of Peru. One trip was to the coastal town of Paracas in the south, the town itself was not very much to see, but take a 20 minute speed boat ride out to the Isla Bellestas and you are surrounded by the most spectacular bio diversity you have ever seen.
The islands are home to thousands upon thousands of sea lions, Humboldt Penguins and a countless variety of seabirds. It truly was a spectacular sight, as at times the shore line or the cliffs were just an ocean of shadow due to the sheer quantity of animals populating the islands surface. Although you are unable to leave the boat, you are however, taken very close to the islands and are able to see the animals frolic in their natural habitat undisturbed. Quite frankly, I was happy in my little boat and wouldn’t have wanted to get any closer than we did – those sea lions are huge and are not to be played with! Not to mention the stench of bird poo that assaults your nostril like a sulphur punch to the face – the boat was just fine for me!
The second trip that ‘C’ took me on was amazing, and it’s this that I really want to write about. It was an experience that most people would only dream of doing, but would very rarely get the chance. We travelled far up into the Andes and stayed with a family in a remote village, a village which only just got electricity six month ago, a village with no running water and whose way of life has not altered significantly over the last 100 years or so. The type of village you would only get to see on a National Geographic episode, or if you were Anthony Bourdain.
However, before I go into detail, I need to give you a bit of background as to how we managed to do this – and to introduce you to the person that made it all happen. Magna. Magna was ‘C’s old nanny, who started working for his family a couple of months after ‘C’ was born. Thirtythree years later she and her family are still living with his family in Lima. I must admit that I was just as nervous to meet Magna as I was to meet ‘C’s mum! But after stammering at her in my pathetic Spanish, and eating absolutely everything and anything she put in front of me – I won her approval and she was clucking about me like a mother hen the whole two weeks we were there.
Magna originates from this village, and in fact it was her sister we went to visit. Magna has taken ‘C’ to visit her home regularly when he was a little boy, and ‘C’ has continued to visit, bringing with him gifts and donations. This time, along with gifts and donations he brought me – and what an experience! High up in the mountains with views that rival those of the Swiss Alps, I was thrust into a world that is so exceptionally different from the one I know – but was immediately welcomed into their heart and home with absolutely no reservations.
‘C’, Magna and I took the overnight bus from Lima to Huanuco – a rather unimpressive mountain town up in the Andes. The bus journey is an adventure in itself, as the minute you leave Lima there is not one single stretch of straight road for the entire nine hour journey! I felt as though I was on a boat stuck in a storm, rolling from side to side and every so often almost thrown from my seat as the bus lurched around another corner.
After a long and very uncomfortable night, we finally reached Huanuco at dawn, and were picked up by Magna’s nephew who was going to drive us for another three hours, up the dirt paths which leads to the village. Now for better or worse, the minute I get into any moving vehicle I tend to pass out – a trait that ‘C’ finds rather irritating as it means I make an absolutely rubbish co-pilot! So, true to form I was out cold for the majority of the journey up the mountain – until ‘C’ decides to wake me up, as he feels as though I am missing all that beautiful scenery. Now, I do agree the scenery was breath taking – but did I really need to witness our old minivan attempting to drive up dirt tracks that should only be undertaken by an Off- Roading SUV? The road was as broad as the minivan itself and the sheer drop to the valley was terrifying.
Finally we arrived at the village – and made our way to where we were staying, a little blue house high on the hill side. We were greeted enthusiasticaly by Magna’s family and sister, who I immediately warmed to. Unlike Magna she was dressed in traditional Andean clothes: bola hat, two long braids down her back, white blouse and the full bodied skirt that is so synonymous with the pictures we have all seen in National Geographic! ‘C’ was welcomed as a long lost relative, with a lot of excitement and love, and I got my fair share of hugs and kisses too. Magna, who was impressed with my appetite and my apparent steel stomach (I was one of the few people who did not vomit on our trip up from Lima) introduced me to everyone we met with the phrase: Esta Alex, ella comer todo! (this is Alex, she eats everything.)
After the initial excitement of our arrival, and once we had settled in, Magna distributed all the gifts and donations that we had brought with us from Mexico. ‘C’s colleagues here were incredibly generous and donated lots of clothes and children’s toys (some of which brand new!). It was amazing to see them all go to such good use, and how sincerely appreciative Magna’s family were to receive them. I too have often given my old clothes to different charities over the years, but to be perfectly honest it was more out of convenience, rather than truly being charitable. However, to see first-hand where these clothes went, and to whom, was really touching.
After ‘C’ and I had explored the surroundings, and absorbing the absolute beauty of the area, we all gathered in the kitchen – the heart and soul of the little blue house. Like the rest of the house, the kitchen was incredibly basic, it was a large windowless room with a hard mud packed floor, a mud oven which had a constant wood fire burning, and of course not forgetting the 15 or so guinea pigs inhabiting the kitchen and hiding in the corners! So it is true – people really do have guinea pigs in their kitchens in Peru?…and YES I did eat one and they were delicious :)
I was actually very curious as to what Guinea Pig (or Cuy as it is called in Peru), was going to taste like. I really enjoy rabbit, and I like hare..so why not guinea pig? And I have to admit that it was one of my favourite meals while I was in Peru. Fried cuy, served with rice and a red pepper and onion sauce – it really was delicious. The cuy tasted a bit like duck, with very crispy skin..the only time I really thought about what I was eating was when I was done gnawing the bone and saw the little claws at the end…. (which I must admit I found slightly disturbing and came back to haunt me a few times during that trip!)
Everyone who has heard this story has asked me – how could I eat it? Weren’t they too cute to eat? Wasn’t it cruel? And I have said the same argument every time: they treat their animals with far more respect and far more humanity than we do in the ‘developed’ world. This trip, really made me think of where my food came from back home, how I have no true idea of how these animals have been treated and what exactly I am putting into my body. In the future, I would really love to be able to eat like this, truly free range happy animals.
In addition to the cui, Magna’s family also owned a variety of other animals. Pigs, hens and ducks, all leading a very happy life, free to wander around the house and yard as they pleased and were properly fed and cared for. Then, when the time was up for one of them, it all happened in a couple of seconds and they never saw it coming. Which I can say, is definetly not the case in ranches, farms and chicken coops that are supplying our supermarkets. I have said it in a previous post, but I think it is such a shame that many of us do not know anything about our food or where it comes from. It just magically appears pre-wrapped on the market shelves.
One of my favourite memories during that trip was in the evening, when we were all gathered in the kitchen. The temperature drops quite dramatically at night, and in a place with no heating or television for entertainment, the kitchen becomes the natural meeting point. Magna and her sisters were pottering around the stove preparing the evening meal, in fact Magna sat over a huge bucket of boiled potatoes, which she was diligently peeling and handing them to ‘C’ and I which we ate like apples. Once I finished one, there was another one, and when I finished that one another one appeared…is it too late to tell her, that I’m not really a ‘potato’ person? As the evening wore on, the rest of Magna’s family dropped in for dinner after a long day working the fields. Slowly the kitchen filled up with brothers, and sisters, husbands and wives, nephews and nieces..even the cat and the dog had snuck in for a bit of warmth and the hope to get some table scraps.
It was an evening I will remember for a long time to come. Here I was sitting up in a mountain somewhere in the Andes, huddled around the oven with a dozen people I have never met before – yet all of whom had opened up their home to me and made me feel so welcomed. It is when you are in a situation like this, that it truly hits home how amazing the world is, and how many wonderful people are out there. I am so truly grateful to ‘C’ for sharing this experience with me, for opening up a door into a life that is so remote from the one we lead, yet one we will always be welcomed back to.
We didn’t stay in the village for long, unfortunately we had other appointments to keep and people to meet in Lima, however, we promised to visit the next time we were in Peru, and this time to stay slightly longer. I would love to go back, when I have a bit more Spanish under my belt, so that I can really talk to everyone. I had so many questions and wanted to know so much about their lives and their culture (the Anthropologist in me) but it was difficult to get ‘C’ to translate everything and have a smooth conversation.
I would go back to Peru in a heartbeat, and am already looking forward to our next trip whenever that may be. This is a country which has so much to offer, incredible people, amazing scenery, not to mention the absolutely fantastic food! However, I will have to cover the food and the cuisine in another post, as otherwise this would be never ending. But I can tell you now, it is phenomenal and you guys are in for a treat!