Written by Fidgit
The joy in this walk began to flicker somewhere around middle Bolivia. Extended illness combined with exposure to pervasive poverty and all that goes with it: hopelessness, polio, people dying of diarrhea, cruelty, the list is long. People stare unabashedly, even a greeting in their native tongues would elicit no response. Laughter was harsh and the sense of “otherness” hung like a lead curtain between us and the locals. This, more than most things, weighed heavy for me.
Entering the Cusco District which thrives primarily off of tourism, we were largely regarded as a cash cow. I watched a shop owner smile at my face as she wiped the price off a bag of cereal and quoted me a higher price. When I could initiate conversation, within 3 questions they asked how much money we made and commented on American wealth. It was tiring to confront that perception repeatedly. It was frustrating to be lumped into the category of “tourists” or being “on holiday” when weary from walking.
Then came the behemoths. A section of Andes south and west of Machu Picchu which meant climbing in jungle climates straight up and down dozens upon dozens of switchbacks and thousands of feet at a go. It was more than we had reckoned for and fatigue meant we wore out quickly.
Half way up one climb Neon waited for me for lunch as we usually eat together and then check in for the day. During check in she stated that she was “tired of our negative interactions” and that as of the next town, she was done. I felt like I was being dumped at my lowest point. That I had been measured and found wanting. We walked on a few more hours and I gutted up, told her I wasn’t interested in walking with someone who didn’t want to walk with me and I would rather not wait until a convenient point to separate, I’d rather just do it now.
We divvied up gear, and I walked hard. I walked through electric storms late into the night. I walked int the belly of a gorge, scarred by a roaring river. I walked until the full moon re-emerged and hummed calmingly, peacefully, assuring me she would never leave me and that I am enough.
Emerging from the gorge the next morning and walking across the flats outside of Cachora, I was in rough shape. Physically, my feet would only shuffle, calves actively seizing, head throbbing where I’d been struck by a rock falling from a herd of cattle uphill on the last climb. When I stopped walking, I staggered as if drunk. Mentally, I was raging and feeling bad for myself.
Coming into the crop fields which surround the town, the community were out and working, harvesting potatoes. The women gathering them into their aprons, the men loading them into sacks. “I could probably pass out cold and no one would do anything,” I thought morosely, watching them from within a cloud of negativity.
Everyone was working the field together, as they do down here. No one is left to gather their crop alone. They take turns, working each field in a day, then splitting the returns. That evening, at the home of the field owner, they discuss whose land will be worked the next day.
First I passed a circle of little girls as the leader (maybe 8 years old) instructed the group to make room for the smallest. “If she wants to play with us, let her and if she wants to sit in the shade, make room,” she commanded. Amusement played at the corner of my lips.
Then I passed the adults, loading massive burlap sacks full of potatoes into the back of a small white truck.
“Do you want some chicha?” a woman said.
She wouldn’t be talking to me. I kept moving.
“Mamicita,” several voices chimed, “you look thirsty, we have chica morada.” I had run out of water some 5km back. I turned and they were all looking at me. I was caught off guard, blinking dumbly.
The dirty white tin cup everyone shared was filled from the Jerrycan tucked in the shade of the stone wall which lined the track. It was pressed into my hands. The drink was tart, gritty, and unsweetened. The lip of the cup crusted with the resin of the corn which is ground and then fermented for a day or two. I stood aside, sipping and watched as they continued the loading process.
“What kind of potatoes grow here?” I asked one woman. The story of potatoes in this country is a fascinating tale unto itself. In fact, potatoes have been a point of interest ever since the island of Chiloé in Chile, where we heard of a group of women who protected heirloom lines of potatoes passed down from their mothers. Yet, even that pales in comparison to the 3,000 varieties found in Peru.
“Let me show you.” She gathered her skirts and hustled out into the field before I could tell her not to bother. That I was not worth the effort. She came back with 3 different kind: Canchán, serranita, cika and explained that different potatoes grow at different elevations.
“You must take some,” the man overseeing the loading of the truck shouted, “give the girl some potatoes.”
Skirts were gathered, and she again moved away before I could protest. I was in a daze. She came back with five pounds of potatoes, polishing them with her apron. I was delighted and dismayed. A five pound sack of potatoes is a rather cruel gift to a weary hiker. But this was one of those situations where I could not say no. Still, I worried I would be quoted a last minute price or expectations would be leveled, and I had little money.
“Can I help in the field?” I offered.
“No, you are tired, we can see you are very tired,” the lead man said, “and anyway, we have to take these into town.” He patted the bags as the men piled on top of the stacks of potato sacks; he swung into the front seat and they drove away.
I thanked Skirts and protested, “but I can’t eat five pounds of potatoes.”
For the first time, her brow furrowed. “You must share,” she looked straight into me, “you must always share.”
“Gracias,” was all I could muster, chagrined. She smiled kindly, gathered her skirts again and walked into the field, blending in among her sisters and neighbors.
I stood alone, on the dusty little back road, swill in the bottom of the tin cup, sack of potatoes at my feet. Eventually I rinsed the cup, hefted the bag over my shoulder, and trudged into town to find a place to sleep. I gave the cook at the hostel a few of the potatoes. She carefully selected four.
The next day I became the Johnny Appleseed of potatoes. As I walked around resupplying, I also carried the potatoes, offering a few to each person I passed. Neon and I convened and built toward an accord.
An ancient woman sat on a stoop. I had only a few potatoes left.
“Would you like some potatoes?” I offered.
She scowled and did not look up. “No.”
I opened the bag and held it out to her anyway. She appraised the contents, “how much?” She asked.
“Nothing,” I said. She squinted suspiciously. “People were kind to me,” I shrugged. She smacked her gums and bobbed her head. Her ancient fingers wrapped around the spuds like tree roots grown around a stone.
My sack was empty and my heart was light. The hope the woman in the field gave me was brought to life by paying it forward and that gave me the will to push on to the end of this second year of walking.