Group Update from Peru
Marking the halfway point of our program in Urubamba, Peru, we have decided to theme our second group Update from the Field on the complete sensory experience of living in the Sacred Valley. We hope our reflections on smell, taste, touch, sound, sight, and the sixth sense can provide a window into our daily lives and some of the encounters which define our time abroad.
Delaney Thull - Smell
A few weeks ago, I visited with my younger sister at home. She and her IB English class were discussing the following observation from Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. “The air is just blank in America...You can't ever smell what's around you, unless you stick your nose right down into something.” My sister asked if this was true. For me, home in the States does have a few distinct smells, but the difference is that Peru has a constant inundation. A frequent clichéd recommendation is to stop and smell the roses as you go through life. Here in Urubamba, there is no choice. In the past four months, my sense of smell has awakened. I am learning to appreciate what fills the air around me so much more than I did before.
Just a walk through the streets is an unmatchable experience. Not all smells here are good, but not all are bad either. They are all generally inescapable. When I leave my house in the morning, I head along the main highway through the valley into town. I am clouded with the unfiltered, polluting exhaust of the combies, mototaxis, and transport trucks clattering along the dusty pavement. I pass a small plaza where every morning a woman sets up a breakfast cart catering to workmen. Her soups and rice fill the air with starchy heat. I walk within the early rush of children going to school and adults going to work. Most just smell like people, but some have the distinct fresh soapiness from a bath. As I pass the ‘Delicias del Valle Sagrado’ pasteleria, a warm rush of sugary sweet billows out the door to envelope me.
I realize I have come to know Urubamba because these sensory details are now a consistent part of my early mornings. When I first arrived, my morning walk sometimes felt like being knocked in the face over and over again. The traffic emissions were overwhelming, the streets lined with stray dog excrement were oppressive, and the amount of people who seemed like they could use a bath was saddening. However, the unpleasant no longer threatens to engulf me at every corner, and has instead faded in magnitude. Now the smells that rise to my notice are the pleasant ones-a newly washed baby, the lavanderias releasing the satisfying vapors of ironed detergent, an old woman walking bent double under the bundle of fragrant grasses on her back. Each feels like a small gift from the morning world, little smiles of joyfulness, reminders to greet the day with a grateful heart and expectant mind. No longer surprising, I have come to expect and look forward to these intense but fleeting experiences that quite literally seem to appear from thin air.
At home, I encountered some of my favorite smells outside. I love and miss the brackish tang of the waters in Mobile Bay and the quiet loaminess of the garden surrounding my grandmother's front porch. Here as well, the smells that slow my thoughts to peaceful levels are those of nature.
On Christmas Day, John and I went to visit the family chacra, or field, with our large extended host family. We are homestay cousins. All of us rode in the back of my uncle's open bed plaster truck along dirt roads, naturally bringing with us wine, Coke, and crackers. In the field, maiz was at a height of about nine feet, lettuce rows were enthusiastically sprouting, and the fruit trees were all laden with growing globes. We arrived after a morning rain, so the air was steamy and all the plants were making vibrant efforts to surpass their usual lively colors. The normally quiet and peaceful chacra filled with the sounds of our laughing, shouting cousins who were excitedly climbing trees to reach the dark purple, jewel-like capuli berries.
I followed my aunt through the rows of corn as she proudly pointed out all of her growing produce. We stopped to pull the weeds from around the slim trunk of her new baby avocado tree. As I knelt beside her, the fresh, mineral essence of damp earth filled my head, and I was mentally transported home for an instant. I have been similarly kneeling beside my mother and grandmother since childhood, sharing moments of nature-nurturing, while learning to connect the names of plants with their properties. On my first Christmas Day away from my family, I was amazed by how a scent was able to momentarily carry me through time and space. I was further struck that the powerful smell was that of fertile, yielding dirt. It now seems appropriate to me that at such a time of my own personal growth, the transporting detail was a fragrance that is filled with such vitality and life.
The scents of Peru are proving to be an integral part of my experience. I now rely on my sense of smell to provide details about each day, but I am also learning that it has the ability to transport me via memories. As I approach this New Year and our next five months here in Peru, I hope that my life becomes a reflection of nature's joyful exuberance which I sensed in that one moment kneeling on the wet ground.
John Van Orden - Taste
It seems that there is about a fifty-fifty chance that the little, red berry plucked from the tree will be sweet and delicious. Recently, the local food market has become full of the small berry called capuli, which hangs in small clusters from trees throughout the valley. Many times I have been out walking with my host family, spotted a tree, and stopped to pick the fruit. But like many things with my rather spontaneous host family, you never know what you are going to get. A good berry is sweet and tangy, but it is all too common to pop a berry in your month and be greeted with a bitter wave of juice.
This uncertainty and lack of plan is something that I have become very familiar with while in Peru. Some days I just hop in the back of my host dad’s old work truck and drive from place to place. Be it a friend’s house, pool, church, or the family farm field, I never know where I may end up. Although it was at first unnerving, the spontaneity adds to the sense that every day can be an adventure. As someone fresh out of High School, it is refreshing to be able to see, do, and eat whatever interests me without any recognizable plan at all.
For me, I have begun to associate the little capuli berry with this feeling of exploration and spontaneity. But it is not the only case that I associate certain foods with certain situations. Now, choclo (large kernel corn) with cheese always makes me think of the communities where we often receive choclo as a snack from families where we work. Anticucho , or cow heart served on a stick, reminds me of my Spanish teacher, who introduced me to it. And the sweet Peruvian bread called Paneton will always bring back thoughts of Christmas Eve, when I spent hours sitting with my entire extended family at my host grandmother’s house eating Paneton and drinking hot chocolate.
Many people talk of the “taste of victory” or the “taste of revenge,” but I would like to propose a new kind of taste: the taste of adventure. Both literally and metaphorically, I have begun to see my experience in Peru as a giant mixture of flavors that I must actively seek out and enjoy. Of course, some days are bitter or salty, like when it rains and ruins three hours of work on a concrete patio. But most days are not. I know I can always find a new pastry at the bakery or dive into an interesting new soup made from pears. Indeed, most days are sweet with new experiences and new dishes to try.
Be it fried churros with a delicious apple filling, the spicy pepper Peruvian aji sauce, or the powerful flavor of raw fish cooked in lime juice called ceviche, I am always impressed by the great number of incredibly different and varied meals I can find in Urubamba. And I know that with just a little bit of exploring, I can make certain that no two days taste the same.
Lydia Watt - Touch
The warm kiss of greeting against my cheek. The hot streak of pain along my calf as a cactus tears into my skin. The wet weight of mud on my palm, and its cold spatter on my nose a second later. The burning of my sun-heated scalp with the stroke of cool rain against my face. The touch of my new home.
As the uncle I have only just met kisses my cheek in greeting, I have to curb the sudden warmth of appreciation that someone has welcomed me so immediately, and remind myself that this is an ordinary hello, the equivalent of a handshake. Coming from a culture where hugs are reserved for family and close friends after long separations and an informal “hey” is a perfectly acceptable salutation for a large group, I still have difficulty with the idea of casual physical contact with others. I often forget the personal greetings, still waving to the room full of my host family before slipping into my seat. As my aunt scolds my five-year-old cousin for not greeting me properly, I blush to remember the times I’ve simply smiled my hellos, evading the unfamiliar custom, out of touch.
We’re scrambling up a mountain, dry earth crumbling underfoot, pushing branches out of the way, when I feel a tickle of blood on my leg. The bite of pain sets in a second later. I glance down to see the penstroke-thin line, with its perpendicular trail of blood, about halfway up my calf. I look back up, to where John presses ahead, and continue my battle with the thorns and the ever-thinning path. We fight our way up, often backtracking, often stopping for water when the mountain swoops upward into a near-scramble of a climb, often clinging to flimsy shrubs as the ground drops steeply away. At last we reach the open ridge, and I stop to wash off the blood on my leg with a few drops of my precious water. I run my fingers along the fierce red mark – the mountain’s touch.
Pebbles scrape my fingers as I bury my hands in the heap of mud on the kitchen floor. I pick out the largest ones, toss them aside, and climb up onto the platform where the new stove we’ve just built sits, muck oozing from between its bricks. Soot crumbles over my hand as I brace myself against the wall, dusting my muddy skin with black powder. I heft the wet glob in my palm, pull back my elbow, and launch the mess at the wall just above the last chimney tube. It lands with a satisfying splat and specks of mud spatter my face, hair, and t-shirt, joining broader streaks from earlier that day. By the time I get home, the probability that I will have both the time before Spanish class and the water with which to shower is low. So I’ve grown used to the layer of barro under my fingernails that stubbornly remains. It’s a reminder of the people who’ll use the stoves I build: ladies in multiple layers of skirts and stovepipe hats who call me “lindita” (cutie), ask me where I’m from and what I’m studying in school, or offer all of us, a group of complete strangers, Inca Cola and choclo con queso (large boiled corn kernels with cheese) and men who turn up their radios on rainy days and invite us to dance in their kitchens. The mud on my hands is the touch of my life against theirs.
My fingers cramp around the plastic bag of candles my host cousin has shoved into my hands, my host sister’s camera (“Por favor, Lydia, toma fotos.”) bounces heavily against my sternum, and sweat runs down my neck under the black scarf I’ve borrowed for this funeral. It is Wednesday, the fourth of December, and I am following the body of my host grandmother, borne by my uncles and followed by an overwhelming crowd, up the main street to the town cemetery. Shoulders push me back from the coffin as we squeeze into the cemetery. A trail of red, white, yellow, and purple flowers petals, thrown by friends over the coffin, follows us; we’ve crushed them underfoot. My hair burns my scalp with the heat of the fierce mountain sun, even as raindrops streak my face. My ears ringing as the wails of the sons and daughters, grandchildren and in-laws drown out the priest’s final words, a lump of helplessness rises in my throat as friends support them away from the grave. They sit on a bench as of the crowd files out (across the street to the beer, wine, and frutillada – fruit-flavored chicha, or corn beer) and stroke hair, hold hands, wipe eyes, or simply hold the bereaved, murmuring “Tranquilate, tranquilate, tranquilate.” I’ve only been a part of this family for three months, but something still pushes me forward to touch my sister’s trembling shoulder, trying to say, by simple contact, that she isn’t alone.
Physical contact is constant in Peru, from the press of thighs and shoulders in combis (tiny vans that run from town to town, packed with people, baggage, and animals) to the daily greeting kisses. But as my fifth month here begins, I only now begin to realize in how many ways I’ve been touched by my new home. I wear the scars from my conquered mountains with pride. I plunge my hands up to the elbows in mud without a second thought. When midnight strikes on Christmas, I jump up to join in the family hugs and toast the memory of their loss. And when I make a new acquaintance and kiss his or her cheek, my appreciation runs far deeper than before. The simple act of greeting means I am part of this community. I’m starting to find my place in this new home, to touch Peru as it has touched me.
Max Grear - Sound
Wednesday night is not my favorite time of the week. This is because Tequila Club, a discoteca a few doors down and across the street from my window, blasts a variety of Latin and Western pop from 9 or 10 at night until the morning. And unless I’m in the club myself, which is rare given the unpleasant ordeal of going to work at 8 after a night at the disco, I could do without the noise. At this point, I have mostly grown accustomed to the various sounds that drift (and sometimes barrel) through my window at all hours of the day–parties, honking mototaxis, barking dogs, yelling children, the garbage truck playing huayno (more on that later) full volume at 5 am, the bank alarm across the street during power outages. I realized early on that people in town live their lives with little regard for decibel level, and I usually don’t mind. There are certain times when I enjoy the sounds of Urubamba, like sunny afternoons walking through the Plaza de Armas as Cuban music plays on the steps of the cathedral or national soccer games when people crowd at the doors of restaurants and the whole town seems to cheer in unison. In moments such as these the sound of Urubamba reflects the communal nature of life here. But I also enjoy the times when I can get away from the noisy bustle on hikes and workdays in surrounding communities.
That’s not to say that the Andean communities where we work are always quiet. But unlike Urubamba, the noise in the communities is usually limited to one or two sounds–huayno on the radio and the occasional donkey’s shriek of existential agony (or so I imagine). In many houses, the only electrical appliances that one can find are a light bulb and a radio. I am reminded of a relative of mine who used to travel through the Kentucky Appalachians selling Carter Family records and found that even the poorest families would buy a record. Besides the occasional non-sequitur like “Gangnam Style,” which can be disorienting to hear as one works in an adobe house isolated on a mountainside, the radio plays huayno most of the day. It may wear on me sometimes, but it’s not bad music. Typically, a huanyo song starts with an instrumental intro with guitars, quena (a high-pitched Andean string instrument), bass and oftentimes zampoya (panpipes). Then the singer(s), and maybe some kind of percussion, come in. Huayno singing has a certain plaintive, pleading quality to it, which could be because nearly every huanyo song’s lyrics beg a lover not to break the singer’s heart. In the huayno universe, love is a simple but serious affair that inevitably leads to the kind of pain calling for a “vaso de cerveza.” In other words, huanyo is pop music. Like Inca Kola, Peru’s super-sweet soda, huayno has grown on me as evocative of the place and culture where I am living. Huayno, in its simple, persistent two-step rhythm and aching vocals, also reflects what I think of as the Andean outlook on life: celebratory but resigned, stoic but perseverant. After the fiesta, the huayno singer presumably goes back to work the next day, a little foggy from the cerveza but awaiting the night that he can dance again with his beloved.
Silence, however, is something that I can only find in the uninhabited mountainsides and valleys of the Andes. I enjoy the moments on hikes when the sound of traffic fades away like the heavy Urubamba air of smoke and street food. One can hear the long diminuendo of Urubamba’s orchestra by traversing its main road. At its beginning, where it breaks off of the highway, there is a gas station and bus stop. Cars, combis (public transportation vans), trucks, mototaxis and buses barrel along the highway and people gather to wait for a ride to any community between Urubamba and Cusco. Walk up the road a ways, away from the highway, and you pass through the prime restaurant area. You can hear conversations, the clatter of dishes and loud Latin game shows through the doors of pollerias. Continue past the restaurants and you run into children playing and dogs staking out their territory, and there is still a fair amount of traffic. Eventually, the road leads into the community of Chicon, where traffic is sparse and you will hear little more than huayno drifting through front doors from patios. You could keep walking on this road until it leads you to a valley overlooked by Chicon’s glacier–but I like to turn left by a horse stall and hike up a small mountain overlooking Urubamba. If you’ve spent time in Urubamba, the silence comes with its own presence, as if something was added instead of taken away. Once at the top, a small, flat area with a large wooden cross, you sit and survey the town, detached from the noisy, dense streets. The silence hangs on the peaks, clear and ethereal, and stays with you after you return to the comforting human din of Urubamba.
Alex Aparicio - Sight
All afternoon, the clouds have sat low in the sky. They are not threatening to rain- the clouds in Cusco never threaten. They simply wait, bloated gray forms carrying with them the easy confidence of that which has long ago established dominance. December rain is inevitable, even today, on Christmas Eve. And so there is no need to threaten.
I am far from any recognizable landmark. We are at the city’s edge, Las Joyas, where paved roads yield to smaller dirt tracks and the houses are simple one-room constructions, tin roofs and adobe bricks. Condensation is creeping up the windshield in front of me, blurring the form of the taxista as he examines the engine one last time before reaching up to close the hood of the car. In the backseat, my host mother exhales slowly, and my brother lets out a short, high exclamation. With luck, we will be back in time to have a cup of hot chocolate before dinner.
Our driver slips back into the taxi, a few early drops of rain shining in his hair and on his shoulders. He turns the key, and the engine strains to start. It gives out just as the rain begins. And, just like that, we cannot see anything.
The thesaurus records our culture’s fixation with sight, our tendency to ultimately associate seeing with understanding. Synonyms listed for the verb “to see” include “to perceive”, “to comprehend”, “to realize”, and “to recognize”. Like the clouds over Cusco, sight has assumed a place of dominance in our society, and it is easy to let this sense crowd out all others, and in doing so it is easy to divorce a landscape from its history, a people from their culture. Slowly now, I am gaining an understanding of Peru that is not mere identification, complete with experiences that run deeper than the superficial realities so easily captured by a tourist’s camera.
Just two weeks before our taxi’s engine expired in Las Joyas, I stood under another of Peru’s dark skies, trying to memorize each smooth stone of Machu Picchu’s towering Sun Temple. In slow, deliberate Spanish, our guide explains the calculated construction of the temple’s windows. “Cada año,” he said, “durante los solsticios, la luz del sol brilla directamente a través de una pequeña ventana.” Each year on the solstices, the light of the sun shines directly through a small window.
I sneak a dubious look at the clouds sprawling above our tour group. No trace of the sun. I cannot imagine that the winds will make any special accommodations on December 21st; even when the stark mountain before us supported a thriving city, there must have been years, maybe many years, in which the clouds covered up the sun entirely, in which no light shined through the window and in which the high priests waited without appeasement. They could not see anything.
Long before I was ever caught in one of Cusco’s sudden rains, this land belonged to those who understood what it was to live without sight. They trusted the earth to feed their families, trusted that the sun would return every year, trusted in an uncertain future. A blind faith, but a strong faith. A faith that can still be felt today, but cannot be seen. A faith in human capacity that I have often needed to draw on in these past few months.
On Christmas Eve in Las Joyas, a soaking-wet taxi driver turns desperately to me and asks if I know how to drive. I barely have time to hesitate before my host mother shouts out a loud “Yes!” from the backseat. And just like that, I am in the driver’s seat, the wheel in a death grip, fretting over the unfamiliar manual gears beside me and the groaning noises the engine is making in front of me. Behind us, the taxista is pushing with all his might, shouting instructions that I can barely hear over the pounding rain.
“Estamos en tus manos,” says my host mother from the backseat. We are in your hands.
I cannot see the road before me. I cannot see anything at all. But I am steering the car. And thirty minutes later, we will be safely at home, drinking hot chocolate, telling our story as the gray sky rumbles above us.
Kyle Berlin – The Sixth Sense
My host brother Mauricio—an eight-year-old who acts exactly his age—is a veritable master of whine. A very good kid at heart, he has nonetheless mastered the art of getting what he wants. I am continually impressed by his seemingly endless arsenal of pouty looks and vocal variation (how do his vocal chords reach that high?!).
And in an odd sort of way, it’s Mauricio’s whining that makes me realize how incredibly similar we humans really are. It’s as if there is some whining gene inherent to eight-year-old DNA, and—without any training—my eight-year-old cousin in the U.S. whines with the same mannerisms, the same tones, the same objectives as my Peruvian brother thousands of miles away. And it extends beyond whining; I am continually struck that people of all ages of different tongues and different lands and different cultures and different blood—people who will never meet, isolated people—can be so incredibly similar in the way that they are.
At the beginning of December, my host grandmother, an unusually kind and graceful lady who lived on the patio with us, suddenly and tragically passed away. The extended Peruvian (Catholic) grieving process began, and a profound sense of loss permeated the household. As much as you can start to feel like a member of the family, it’s moments like this one when you are reminded that you are not. You are still, at heart, an outsider. But you are also still, at heart, a human.
And my host family asked me to come to the wake and the funeral Mass, and I did. And the church was overflowing for this town matriarch, and tears were shed and eulogies were given and a march to the cemetery ensued, and amid it all, I realized again, in a much more heart-breaking way, how universal the basic tenants of our humanity are, how grief knows no language.
One of the best things about my stay in Urubamba is the freedom and time I have to think in a way and with a focus I never have before. The other day, I was struck reading an idea posited by the writer David Foster Wallace: “There is actually no such thing as atheism.” It first seemed to me phony, but after the Mass marking a month since the death of my host grandmother—after I witnessed yet again the comfort the service provided to the grieving churchgoers—I realized that perhaps it’s impossible not to worship something. I’m no newly minted Catholic, but another universal similarity occurred to me: Humans need something more. We have our five senses, yes, that deliver to us the joys and beauties and tragedies of this world and this life. But that just isn’t enough; it seems to me that there is some sort of sixth sense that allows us to see and sense more than is actually there. This sixth sense (which, to be clear, isn’t seeing dead people) takes what the other five senses have to offer, and occasionally, when necessary or possible, interprets and projects a greater meaning into them. It’s what allows, for some, the repetition of prayers and hymns—basic sounds, really—to provide comfort and solace in the face of great loss. It’s what, for others, transforms Machu Picchu—nothing more than the sight of arranged rocks—into a testament to the human spirit, a spiritual experience. It’s what makes a smiling (whining?) child into a veritable miracle, a giver of meaning.
Our sixth sense won’t let us wander through the world without searching for and giving meaning to that which was previously nothing but stimuli; it assures that, even if you believe in no god, you believe in something that isn’t immediately present; it assures that there is no such thing as atheism. And the thing is, despite our overwhelming similarities, the sixth sense is different for everybody; while the five senses are common, the sixth sense is unique, making some things holy to some people, and others not.
For me, my sixth sense transforms howling trees on hallowed mountaintops into a kind of a baptism. Rain falling to the hard ground in the spangled dark—it becomes a sort of a churchgoing. In the pulpy innards of an orange I see my god, and all around me in all matter of places, people transform the ordinary into theirs.