The combination of the early morning start, long hikes and beer before bedtime made for a very restful sleep that night in Amantani in a strange family’s home. One of the things that people who travel around the world might tell you is that the experiences don’t necessarily change your points of view but they do tend to build onto your pre-existing perspectives. As beautiful an experience as it was taking in the scenery of Lake Titicaca, I couldn’t turn a blind eye to the realities of life for people who weren’t fortunate enough to be in a position in life where they could travel around the world without worry.
Our local family
As an enthusiastic tourist itching to see, do, eat and smell everything there is to experience in a foreign land with a limited amount of time, the idea of spending a night with a local family and having a traditional experience where you do as the locals do seems like a novel and unique cultural pursuit. I also have this weird obsession with rustic living conditions and manual labor, so I had this image in my head that they would put me to work harvesting vegetables or feeding chickens all while practicing Spanish. Of course, my dreams never come true and the real life situation was far from the imagined scenario.
The lady of the family, Maria, who met us at the boating dock to walk us back to the house was sweet and pleasant, but soon after we arrived at the house, I got the feeling that she wasn’t really interested in a cultural exchange of sorts. It was all business with her as she led me and my new roommate, Jane, up to our rooms and just as quickly left to begin preparing lunch. We were left to wander about the property and met her father and mother and the children of the house. There was her younger brother, Ray Alex and cousin, Ana. The adults made their introductions, we all exchanged pleasantries and then everyone went back to their lives. No harvesting or chicken feeding for me. Instead, we were left to entertain the children as a way of passing time until lunch.
Ray Alex was a nutty and almost borderline annoying tot of about 4 years old and his cousin Ana was a sweet and calm 11 year old. She had one of the traditional color sacs wrapped around her shoulders and I simply assumed she was carrying around the things that 11 year olds tote around, stuffed animals, school books, dead animals and the like. But when I peered into the top part, I exclaimed first in English, “Oh my God! There’s a baby in that sac!” She laughed and then proceeded to whip the sac around and show me Maria’s 4 month old baby named Sarita. When I saw her haphazardly try to hand Sarita over to Ray Alex who was standing on an uneven surface, I felt it was time to use my maternal instincts for something and intervened to take the baby from both of them. I figured they probably did this all the time and knew what they were doing, but still, I wasn’t prepared to bear witness to a 4 month old take a tumble down an embankment. I decided I would be the keeper of the child until a more appropriate adult came by.
One of the moments where I really felt like a completely useless tool of a human being was when I was sitting with Jane in the kitchen waiting for lunch. The children of the house were hanging out with us and I was still holding Sarita. Her mother was diligently preparing lunch for her guests and Sarita started whimpering and puckering her lips. I attempted to mention this to her mother and offered to help with the cooking, but she went on dutifully preparing the lunch and said she would feed the child after she was finished. I felt truly awful at the thought that my nourishment was a higher priority than that of her newborn, but unless my own breasts started miraculously producing milk, there was nothing else I could legitimately do to rectify this awkward situation. It seemed like an eternity, but I was so relieved when she finally finished preparing our lunch and sat down to feed her own child.
On the lighter side of things though, I have to say one thing: Peruvian kids are pretty tough. I used to think that Dutch children were fairly badass, but after seeing the kids of this house in action, I have a newfound respect. Not only did Ana, the older cousin walk around with Sarita for most of the day, but she knew exactly how to pack her up in the seemingly not secure sac. Jane and I watched in amazement as she meticulous wrapped the child up in three or four blankets before swinging the sac around her shoulders and tying it back up. I thought to myself, now that is a child to proud of. I sometimes roll my eyes when I hear parents say they’re proud of their small children for doing something fairly unimpressive like go to their first day of state mandated schooling, but if Ana was my kid, I think an “I’m proud” statement would definitely be warranted.
Not Another Potato!
As I alluded to previously, traveling builds upon your perspectives. The family that hosted us in Amantani, while sweet, was definitely not as interested in the cultural exchange aspects of this “local family stay” experience as we, the visitors, were. For them, this arrangement was solely a business transaction, one on which their livelihood was dependent. According to the tour operator, they get 30 soles ($11.50) per visitor for each stay. Based on some conflicting accounts of how many days per week they spend hosting tourists, I decided on a weekly average of four nights with visitors and doing some quick math, that translates to an income of $10-15 per day. From my last fact check, I think that roughly 80% of the world’s population lived off less than $10 per day. It’s hard to mentally adjust for cost of living situations and put that in qualitative terms, but try to imagine what $10 per day would be for you. They’re not on the extremely low end of poverty, but they’re not exactly rolling in the dough either. In this light, I could understand their being less enthusiastic about having visitors than the visitors were to see them.
I imagined they were probably emotionally and mentally drained with “Another Bloody Tourist” syndrome so I tried extra hard not to make the same worn out tourist statements and I also reminded myself not to be snobby about the food, which was actually fairly good. It’s just the second meal with the family, I was having, “Not Another Bloody Potato” syndrome. There are several varieties of potatoes in Perú and since they can be grown quite easily, are a staple in the diet. I just really wished I was a bigger fan of potatoes at this moment in time.
One of the highlights of eating with the family was the introduction of muña tea. Muña is a type of mint found in the altiplano regions of the Andes. It has a less sweet taste than the mint I’m used to eating in the U.S. and Europe, but I think I may have found an extremely effective use for the herb – it prevents menstrual cramps! At least I think it was the muña tea that did it. It occurred to me when I was drinking the muña tea at breakfast right before we left the house in the morning. I should have been in a world of discomfort and agitation that Saturday, but I had not one single cramp nor did I make one uncalled for passive-aggressive remark. I can’t be entirely sure it was the muña tea, but I’m definitely testing this theory out next month because I think that would be some pretty sweet advice to share for all mankind’s sake!
Another Bloody Island
Taquile was the last island on our itinerary and towards the middle of our visit here, I was starting to feel the “enough is enough” sentiment with regards to visiting the islands. The issue here was that with the tour I was on, the main purpose of this visit was to hike up another big hill to the main plaza to eat at a restaurant nobody wanted to eat at because it was expensive and not included, and then hike back down to the boat. Another tour group that was in sync with us got to continue on to see some ruins and go to the textile market, and I felt like an underprivileged child asking Daddy why we couldn’t do all the cool things The Smiths were doing. After another hike to the restaurant, it was another afternoon of views and vistas before hunkering down on the boat for our three hour trip back to Puno. The extremely cool part about the trip back though was that this was our driver for about 40% of the time: