The right side of my mouth goes numb as coca leaves swish around my molars and cheek. Our local guide Angelito passes a plastic bag around the van so we can spit out the numbing remnants. 14,000 feet and it feels like I have a herd of alpacas sitting on my chest. My breathing is labored and anytime we make a pit stop, my walking pace feels like I’m going one step forward and two steps back. After landing in Arequipa and piling into a van with my fellow travelers, my body is slowly acclimatizing. My eyes are doing the same with the view. I can’t tell if I’m feeling dizzy because I’m flirting with hypoxia or if it’s because the landscape is so breathtaking.
As we barrel down open roads and passages filled with vicuñas, alpacas, and llamas, a vastness fills my window. We’re headed towards Chivay Valley for lunch before we continue to our homestay for the evening in Canocota.
We arrive in the afternoon to a small village tucked in the Andean mountains. Our hosts Señor Pedro and Señora Julia are awaiting our arrival to welcome us into their home. They’re in their sixties and are happy for the company – their kids have moved into the city and left them empty nesters. We’re escorted into a living room of sorts and greeted in the native Quechua language. Our hosts, dressed in their beautiful, colorful native garb, extend their welcome. They say they may not have a lot, but their house has a big heart. As I found out throughout our stay, this couldn’t be more true.
I settle into my room which feels like the perfect mountain hideaway. I mosey to the front gate with camera in hand where I see a group of kids trotting up the path. As they near, I greet them with “Hola!” and they quickly engage with me. While my Quechua leaves something to be desired, I am thankful I know enough Spanish to actively communicate and connect. I take a few pictures of them and they huddle around my camera as I show them the snaps. Here I am in the Andes, surrounded by a group of kids I didn’t know ten minutes ago, but by now I know all their names, the age of every one.
Once their mothers call for them, I head back into the house where Señora Julia asks myself and fellow traveler Michaela if we would be interested in borrowing traditional wear for our next activity that would have us tending the land. I jump at the opportunity as I’ve been admiring her dress and hat ever since I arrived. She has outfits laid out for the both of us and we take turns getting dressed with her aide. Being fully dressed in the local attire suddenly makes me feel closer to Señora Julia, closer to the land, and deeply connected to the culture. By fully embracing the external aesthetic, I was internally feeling grateful for the ability to connect.
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We set out for their farm and it’s Señor Pedro’s turn to show us a few things. In the field he hands us sickles and shows us his technique for clearing potato lines. I am in a dress, battling altitude sickness, sickle in hand, and suddenly I have a new appreciation for the work that is done here daily. My potato-clearing technique isn’t quite as good as Señor Pedro’s, so he kindly comes over and shows me some serious sickle skills. As my hands get dirty and I stand to survey the landscape, I realize that my feeling of connection to the land is just as real as the connection I was making with the locals. I feel so grounded while savoring the soil under my nails. It’s like I’m a part of Andean life. While we’re busy on the potatoes, Señor Pedro and Señora Julia gather fresh vegetables for dinner.
We finish work as the sun sets and it’s time to get to work in the kitchen. While Señora Julia prepares soup, she puts me to work on peeling fava beans. I spend a few minutes alone with her and we get to chatting. I ask her what she likes about living where she lives, and she’s quick to talk about how her life is simple and beautiful. She does not have very much, but that she has everything she needs. I’m reminded how far removed I am from my food. I go to the store to buy packaged products and Señora Julia has her own organic grocery store at her doorstep. They care for the land and the land provides for them. They are deeply connected to the earth and I find myself envious of their simplicity.
My fellow travelers join in and peel potatoes at a neighboring table. Here we are in a house that now feels like a home, preparing dinner like a family. Our appetites are huge, having put in some serious toil in the field, and we gather around a table to enjoy the fruits of our labor. I’m always amazed at how a meal around one table can create an unrivaled kind of intimacy. Yesterday I didn’t know these people and now we’re all sharing in conversation, stories, good food, and good company.
I go to bed with a full belly and we wake up the next morning with one last activity before we leave. Yesterday we cleared crops and today we’re planting them. We head into the field which we share with two large bulls. They’re the ones doing the real work as Señor Pedro guides them across the soil. I get in front of the bulls (trying to push the thought of getting gored from my mind) and let seeds fall from my hand as the earth devours them. I realize that I’ve seen the full circle in two days: planting, harvesting, and consumption.
As I disconnected from WIFI and cell service, I reconnected to very human feelings of togetherness. The following day, when we parted, I felt like I saying goodbye to old friends. Even though my bags and body only spent one night in the home of Señor Pedro and Señora Julia, the huge heart Señora Julia’s house had absolutely permeated mine.
Want to meet Señor Pedro and Señora Julia? We’ve included a homestay on our Peru Encompassed small group trip.
Words and images c/o Marianna Jamadi
Would love to try travel and experience like these
I spent two years in Colombia as a Peace Corps volunteer and then traveled through Ecuador and Peru. I returned to Bolivia for a two year stint as a contractor with USAID. While a short stay as a homestay participate is better than nothing, living and working a country … especially as a volunteer … is the best means to really experience another culture.
I did the Sacred Valley of the Incas trip several years ago and our homestay on Lake Titicaca was a highlight. We arrived after a very early start and went to work in the field pulling beans and removing dead stalks. Next we played volleyball against the home team on the beach. Richard our host was the referee using a leaf to produce a sound like a whistle. We peeled potatoes together for supper and tried to stay awake for an information session on the history of the area. My partner shared a beautiful thatched roof hut for our sleeping quarters. Our host and hostess could not have been more hospitable. When we left the next day and presented Flora with gifts of food and staples she became very emotional. We had become family in a little over twenty four hours.
Marianna, good article and wonderful experience. Don’t you just feel sorry for the 5-star hotel stayers and the culture they totally miss out on?? Still, it means more time for people like us to get to know our host’s culture. Best wishes, Alan