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Pain and perseverance in Peru’s ‘Sacred Valley’

El Valle Sagrado of the Incas begins about fifteen kilometers north of Cuzco and stretches across the mountainous landscape cut-through by the Urubamba River. When one enters the town of Urubamba, the hub of the Sacred Valley, you almost forget the history and present conditions surrounding you.

Urubamba’s main street

Filled with modern luxuries, such as internet cafes and nightclubs, one can wander the streets of Urubamba and find most anything to fulfill their modern desires. With a population of 17,000 people, you can stroll through the outdoor market to find whatever you are looking for and if you want to contact someone outside of Urubamba, you can simply send an email or pop in to the local post office; provided you catch it on the off-chance it is open.

However, as you seep deeper into the culture of the town, you begin to discover certain simplicities that remind you of where you are. For example, wealth can be measured by whether or not you have refrigeration; only the wealthiest families have some sort of refrigeration. There is one large communal oven near the central plaza, which anyone from the community can use, perchance it is a special occasion and they have cuy (guinea pig) to prepare. Although, you want to be sure to get in line early if it is a big festival day!

Most families in town have electricity and running water; however, there might only be water during the first part of the day, so if you come home late, don’t expect a shower, and no matter what time of day, don’t ever expect that shower to be warm. If you decide it has been too long since you not only washed yourself, but your clothes, there are several options; the wealthiest families and tourists might pay a visit to a local Laundromat, which will hand-wash and line-dry your clothes for you for a negotiated price, or you can wash them by hand at home. Many local families simply walk to the stream at the top of town, and spend the afternoon washing their clothes in the flowing water.

If you have a few extra hours to wheedle away during the day, you can either walk down to the local soccer field and watch the children play or join a pick-up game, or for the slightly more adventurous, if you continue your journey past the stream to wash clothes, you can walk up the mountain for a couple of kilometers until you reach two giant white crosses and enjoy the view of the valley. Leaning against one of the crosses and looking down at the local church in the central plaza, you can all too easily forget that there was ever a culture that existed here prior to the Spanish Conquest.


However, if you merely look across the valley at the homes and campesinos dotted across the mountainside, you will realize that not only was there a strong indigenous culture here before the Spanish arrival, but that Quechuan culture is alive as ever and thriving today.

Taking the windy road out of Urubamba and into the mountains, within minutes you are transported back to a time where life was much more simple and slower-paced. However, it is not only the past you are walking into, but also these people’s present life.

Wandering into a Quechuan community today, you will find people that have managed to merge their indigenous lifestyle with modern times. Living in homes made of adobe bricks, you might find a ceramic cup hanging on the wall next to an advertisement for jeans or an empty bottle of Inca Kola in a pile of maize.

Chichibamba kids

Upon first entering into a Quechuan homestead, you are typically greeted either by some pigs, cows, or horses, and always at least several dogs. Tramping through the animal feces and scattered hay, you can then enter into the kitchen through a small doorway, which is the only opening to the room. There might be some stumps or makeshift chairs draped in vibrant-colored woven cloths to sit on. Once you take a seat, you have to watch out for your feet on the dirt-floor because a few cuy (guinea pigs) will be scurrying past. Because all of the cooking is done over an adobe and mud stove built on the ground and generally without a chimney or any sort of ventilation, you probably won’t want to stay in the kitchen too long because your lungs begin to feel the way the walls and roof look – covered in black soot.

Sometimes there is a small bed to rest on in the kitchen, but generally the living quarters are built separate from the kitchen. As for sanitation facilities, well, that’s what the great outdoors are there for!

There is typically a communal water source which everyone uses, or if a family is lucky, they might have their own water tap to use for cooking and bathing. The people sustain themselves with a diet that consists mostly of a mixture of maize (corn) and a type of lima bean, potatoes, yucca, quinoa, cuy (on special occasions), and chicha. Chicha is a fermented corn drink that people drink throughout the day and some families sell to earn an extra income. If a family decides to sell chicha, they simply place a stick coming out of the entrance of their house with a colored (usually orange or red) flag at the end to indicate to passers-by that chicha is sold there.

Quechuan schoolchildren

All members of the family have days filled with long and hard work. While the men spend their days farming maize and potatoes, the women stay at home cooking, collecting firewood, sifting through the maize, spinning wool into yarn, weaving beautiful tapestries and clothing, and all the while toting around babies wrapped in woven cloths on their backs. And of course there are the other children to care for.

Some of the children attend school, where once they are six, they begin to learn Spanish for the first time. The luckiest ones may continue past primary school, but most are finished with school by the time they are twelve. Many children never go to school, and instead work with their parents during the day; these children will most likely never speak Spanish and maintain their indigenous language, Quechuan. Most marry and start having children at a young age; if you are eighteen and single you might be considered an old maid!

Two of the biggest health concerns facing Quechuans today are asthma and anemia. Because of the lack of ventilation in the kitchen and the amount of smoke circulating in a closed space, many women and children suffer from asthma. However, cleaner burning stoves are now being built in some homes, which have a chimney so the smoke leaves the area and burn less wood, so it also helps conserve the depleted forests. Due to the lack of protein in their diet, many people also suffer from anemia.

The most widely used plant is coca, whose leaves are chewed for medicinal purposes, energy, and camaraderie.  This last reason, comradeship, is one of the greatest factors holding a Quechuan community together.

When a family needs a home, the entire community will gather together to build adobe bricks and make the home. The men help each other with their crops and farming and the women weave and visit with each other while their children play.
It is this sense of community and unity that helps them maintain what is quite possibly the most democratic and fair system of communal governing. For example, there was recently a vote in a Quechuan community outside of Urubamba to determine which three families would be the first ones to receive a cleaner burning stove. All of the women gathered together, and the woman elected to be in charge put a bunch of little folded up pieces of paper in a hat; three of the pieces of paper had an “x” marked on them. Each woman drew a piece of paper out of the hat and the three who drew the ones with the “x” were the first ones who would receive the cleaner burning stove.

Quechuan mothers

Once it was determined who would receive the new stoves, work began at one of the houses, and even then, the communal effort did not end. Many members of the community gathered around to watch how the stove was built so they could perhaps help build them for each other and learn how to maintain them so they could sustain themselves without outside forces. They also discussed possibilities of other communities receiving stoves, and even though it would have no impact on them, they went around, with each person having an equal say in what they thought might work in getting the stoves out there to other people.

Despite all the hard labor being done during the day, these people still have the same need for entertainment and take every opportunity to celebrate, have a fiesta, or simply gather together. It is not uncommon that you will happen across a group gathered together around a transistor radio, singing along. At night, after families have assisted each other with their agriculture, they will gather together, chew tobacco leaves, play quenas and zamponas (traditional Peruvian wind instruments), drums made from hollowed-out tree trunks and stretched goatskin, and charangos (ten-stringed guitar), and laugh the night away. Quechuans are a joyful group of people and don’t need an excuse to have a fiesta!

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