Our group of five tired womendecided to rest awhile along the trail we were following in the Peruvian Andes. At 15,000 feet elevation, we stopped often for water and snacks. We chewed coca, too, to alleviate altitude sickness and gain more strength.
Nearby, we noticed a Quechua grandmother in traditional dress: layered skirts, wool sweater, a woven manta or shawl around her shoulders, in the intricate and colorful design of the region. Her grandchildren played nearby while the woman wove on her back strap loom and watched her llamas on the hillsides. She smiled when we approached.
Greeting her in Spanish, she greeted us in Quechua and reached into her bag, pulling out five small cooked potatoes. She gave us each one. It suddenly dawned on us that this was probably her lunch, and she had just generously offered it to us, in the way of “ayni” or reciprocity which is fundamental to Andean rural culture. The principle of Ayni is woven into every interaction among these dwellers of the high mountains: “Today for me, tomorrow for you,” the farmers say. The village men will all help one farmer plow his field today; tomorrow, the men will together plow someone else’s field. Cooperative and harmonious relationships are the basis of survival in this remote, austere land, and extend to the mountain deities (Apus) as well. Ceremonies of reciprocity are performed in order to insure that the crops grow, the animals are fertile and the people are healthy.
The children came running, grabbed the pencils and candies, and dashed giggling off to the hillside to consume the assortment of chocolates. The grandmother was clearly grateful for the coins, and somehow we understood that money was rarely seen in her village. No doubt she would share what we had given her, in the spirit of Ayni.
The amazing thing about Peru is that nothing here can really be learned intellectually. The ways of the people, the spiritual principles and practices, all must be felt and experienced. The land itself is so vibrant with energies that learnings seem to come intuitively simply by walking and sitting on the earth. “The stones speak” said one of our Paqo (shaman) teachers. When the Spanish first came here 500 years ago, people say the Conquistadors were terrorized because even theycould hear the voices of the rocks and boulders. It drove them to destroy the Inca temples and sacred sites in order to silence the speaking stones.
As we continued our trek down the trail to a lower elevation and ultimately a road where we could be picked up by a van, we contemplated the wonders we had experienced. The sound of glaciers cracking in the cold dawn, the icey baptisms our Paqos had performed with us in the high lakes, the sweetness of the llamas and alpacas who seemed like magical beings dwelling on these high grassy slopes.
Our encounters with the local people had been consistently warm, without the hint of aggression or mistrust so common in our own countries. Our hearts were beginning to open as we soaked up the ways and energiesof the Quechua people.
Carol Parker, Ph.D.
Director, Eco Psychology program