Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Stay in the Campo: Part 1

Wednesday June 23, 2010

Today I am leaving to spend four days in the campo (countryside) with my new weaver friend Santusa and her family.


I got a late start (not sure if I have ever gotten an early start), but only have an hour and a half to travel, and all on good roads. Before leaving I went to the market to buy a frozen chicken, sausage, and various groceries as an offering to my hosts. I also brought my own stash of food and water to keep with me, as I don’t really know what to expect.

From the brief time I have spent with Santusa, I know her to be incredibly kind. In almost any other situation I would feel awkward showing up at a near stranger’s house with my bags asking to stay. Not only are we strangers on a personal level, but culturally, we could not be more different. Right? I was excited about the opportunity, but couldn’t stop thinking; what will we talk about - how would we talk? What will I do all day, and more importantly, how will I avoid being an complete and utter annoyance?

Her village is fourth on a string of five along a stone road. The village consists of about 25 small houses scattered along the foothills and dry riverbed. There are no shops or restaurants, only a school, small church and the remnants of the old hacienda that use to own and manage all the land in the area.

Upon arrival, Santusa came out to greet me. She insisted that I park my bike inside their walled courtyard. I had to take off the panniers to squeeze in through the courtyard door but made it. I unpacked the bike and moved into my upstairs room. I would be staying in Edgar’s room, the son that was going to University in Sucre. I gave her the chicken, along with the frozen sausage, some canned fruit and a box of Fruit Loops. She seemed pleased. We had a lunch of vegetable soup and Coca Cola together in the salon and she showed me a couple of artifacts that they had recently found nearby on their property. (Her husband Damian was working in the fields, and here mother was up in the higher pastures with the cows and sheep.) After lunch, I got out a book on the local weaving style that I had purchased at the textile museum in Sucre. Several of Santusa’s pieces were in the book, and she knew everybody else’s work by sight, so she wrote their names down in the book for me (it irritated me that the publisher did not give credit to any of the artists, but she had now remedied that). We then looked over a couple of her recent weavings; the large matrimonial piece that she was working on the last time I was here, and a smaller calendar that she had done. Both were beautifully detailed and full of color.

I decided to take a walk and stretch my legs, and let her get back to her chores. I knew that she must have a lot to do and I did not want to interfere. I picked up a cow path near her house and followed it. I passed an adobe brick production site, and soon came across three young boys collecting firewood from the dried shrubs scattered about the dry landscape. They did not know what to think of this gringo walking around in their “neighborhood”, and took their time quietly sizing me up. I broke the ice with a couple of basic questions, which provoked them to laugh at my Spanish, which was followed by goofing on me in their native Quechua language. I acted angry and chased them around with a stick- my interpretation of the village idiot I guess. They laughed, and taunted me even more. We had fun. Before heading I back I learned a couple new Quechua words, and that “Don Julio” was slang for penis. I guess boys are the same everywhere.

Meanwhile back at “la casa”, a neighbor was firing up the outdoor adobe oven. I had seen these stand alone igloo-looking ovens throughout the campo, and I took to calling them “pizza ovens”. Eventually, the neighbor’s wife and daughter started bringing over discs of dough on wooden planks. I wanted to help, but also tried to stay out of their way. We filled several large baskets of hot bread, enough for both families for weeks. After all the bread was finished, Santusa’s son Carlos made a pizza out of the bread dough, some canned tomato sauce, and the sausages I had brought. “So it is a pizza oven.” By now the whole family was together and we sat on the floor eating pizza. (The bread did not have much flavor, but was dense and filling.)

The evening air was comfortable with nothing more than long-sleeves and with a moon two-days shy of being full. It was also the eve of the catholic holiday, Day of San Juan.

After dinner, Damian opened a beer and then poured a clear alcohol out of a five-gallon plastic jerry can and into a small empty water bottle. Along with a nephew, who was about 22-years old and back visiting from working the vineyards in Mendoza, we gathered some dried reeds and walked a bit until we got to an adobe stable of sorts. There, us men, started a fire and past around plastic dentist cups of the beer and “hooch”. Damian passed out coca leaves to pack in our cheeks as well. Before drinking, Damian would mumble a couple of words and then pour a couple of drops of the beer or alcohol onto the ground. I gathered that it was for Pachamama, and not for his “fallen homies back in the hood”. Pachamama is the Quechua name for Mother Earth, and is the cornerstone for their pagan-like beliefs. Tonight was a good example of how the Catholic practices forced upon the Incans by the invading Spanish have remained interwoven with their traditional beliefs. But at the time, I was not thinking of any of this, my immediate concern was whether I was expected to also poor some hooch out onto the ground? It was obvious that I was an outsider, so would I be mocking their beliefs by doing the same, or disrespecting the occasion by not following along? I compromised and didn’t pour, but later started giving an offering –which made no sense at all. I eventually asked, “es esto para pachamama?, and he replied yes. He did correct me once when I happened to have both the Dixie cup of beer in one hand and the herb-infused alcohol in the other. “It is bad mojo to have drink in both hands. It is a sign of abundance and hence bad etiquette” (I am paraphrasing).

Once our fire was out, we headed back to the house. On our way we found 86-year old grandma sitting by her adobe sheep shack with her own fire going. She is adorable, and takes on a Jabba the Hutt type appearance when she squats down to sit. Her black amilla dress takes on a shapeless form, her body somewhere beneath and her black leather montera, or Spanish helmet influenced hat completes the effect. As she sat in the glow her wrinkled face was always smiling, and she had Damian and the nephew cracking up with the stories she was telling in Quechua. Eventually some other neighbors ventured over, and I bowed out. I loved being witness to it all, but also felt like I was intruding a bit. I had several more days and didn’t want to wear out the welcome on the first night.


I had just gotten up and was writing in my journal when Santusa appeared with a bowl of baked squash for me. The squash was mildly sweet, like a spaghetti squash and cooked just right, not overdone and mushy. Soon after, she brought in an electric kettle, a bucket of water and some bread. My coffee dilemma had been answered, and I unpacked my jar of Nescafe. I ate in my room, but later came down the stairs to find all the adults huddled around Grandma’s wood burning “kitchen”: two adobe walls and a corrugated metal roof. Although, there is more modern kitchen, they prefer to be outside on the ground huddled around the fire. I also noticed a few dried out gourds in the pizza oven. Apparently, the night before a couple young neighbor girls brought over some of the vegetables and placed them whole in the oven to slowly bake over night. The firing of the stove had proved to be a very communal event and every bit of heat was used from the precious firewood.

After breakfast I decided to go for another walk through the village and explore in another direction. The morning was brisk and it felt good to get moving in rising sun. It wasn’t long before I was spotted by two older women in traditional dress. I blended in like a …., well, I didn’t blend in. If it would have been a lone woman by herself, she would have looked down and avoided all eye contact, but as a pair they were a bit more bold. As I approached, I gave a “buen dia” and smiled. Just as I had passed one called out to me. She wanted to know if I wanted to see her weavings. (I have experienced this in other villages, walking through the main street word gets around, and by the time of your second pass women or children invite you into their homes to see their textiles, hoping you will buy. It is a great opportunity to visit different homes, but also puts you in the position of rejecting their offer, although I have purchased several things this way.) As we sat on her concrete floor, she brought out only a few things, some of which were items of clothing obviously in use. I graciously declined.

From there I walked by the old Hacienda. It was the house and compound of the primary landowner of the area, where all the locals worked his fields and filled his coffers, before agrarian reform. The wife of the original owner was still living in the house, though the land has since been divided up.

Lunch was ready when I got back and Santusa had made a delicious picante de pollo, baked chicken in a red chile sauce over a bed of noodles. She is always busy, spending most days alone managing the household. We ate together and talked some. Afterwards, I went up the street to an area where she told I should look for fossils. Sitting in the dirt amongst a scattering of rocks I realized how much I was enjoying myself. I was a world away from my conventional life, and absolutely loving it. Not knowing it then, but this was what I use to sit in my office and daydream about; different cultures, new experiences, and a slow peaceful pace. I found a couple of rocks with some shell imprints, but mostly just sat in the sun. Content.