Saturday, December 15, 2007

Day 459: Kiwicha

The mountain is still enormous and impressive. Yet, many things about life in this Andean village have become normalized: spouting Quechua phrases, boiling water for drinking, passing mixed herds of donkeys, sheep, cows and pigs. And despite the proximity of the campo lifestyle that my neighbors lead, I have remained isolated from some of the more alarming or exotic customs: the entire family sleeping together in one or two beds, wearing recycled rubber tire sandals, or the arduous task of preparing and planting a small field by hand. Andean agruculture is renowned for its beautiful patchwork mosaic atop and along steep hillsides. I have observed, in awe, the dedicated labor my neighbors invest in plowing, seeding, weeding aporcando (placing more soild around each crop), spreading fertilizers and insecticides, and harvesting. The costs (not even including the many weeks of hard labor) do not often exceed breaking even. But this has more to do with macroeconomic forces and market access than the ability of these farmers. My neighbors are some of the most skilled workers I have seen. The subtelties and tricks required to nurture a full, profitable harvest are still beyond reckoning after one year here. I have have had several humbling, failed experiences growing vegetables, one of which was a school garden where children later explained exactly where I went wroing. It´s true the skill and often strength of the kids far exceed my own in the fields. With all of this in consideration, I have maintained a year of relative seclusion from the chacra - a blissfully ignorant biologist cointinuing to admire the mystery of an exotic, ancient Inca culture.

That was until today. I agreed to help my host mother, Elvina, plant Kiwicha (amaranth). I have long been fascinated, like many North Americans, with the miracle grain, cousin of quinua. ¨Planting¨ sounded innocuous enough, perhaps placing seeds in the ground while Elvina tossed lumps of fertilizer alongside. In fact, Libby and I recently did this with the corn in our backyard. The major difference were the two very large toros (bulls) pulling the wooden llunta (plow) and our host dad, Abraham, guiding what could easily be a dangerous, awkward process. No, today there would be no Abraham, just me and my 57 year old, iron, Inca-descended host mom.

The first task - my first hint at what I had got myself into - was to haul a huge sack of chicken gauno over-the-shoulder to the field ten minutes away. I nearly fell into the irrigation canal and almost lost my hat, but managed to arrive intact and excited for the upcoming planting. Two hours later, I was still tearing away at the ground with my pickax removing roots of invasive weeds that would prohibit our glorious grain´s growth. Were it not for Spike the 13 year old donkey and his hearty lawn mower mouth the day prior, I can only imagine how long the job would have taken. At this point my hand is wrapped in my long sleeve shirt because three blisters have sprung up. Despite the sweat and heavy breathing at 10,000 feet, and the difficulty lifting my tool above my head, I was in good humor. For I had weeded in rows, thinking ahead to when we would plant. Alas, Elvina needed deeper rows dug and my naivete burst like a dirty blister. Several hours later we were laughing having settled into the grueling toil of moving mounds of earth with our arms. It actually came to my mind the question: ¨who thought up agriculture, anyway?¨ I spent some time imaging inventive sedentary bicycles with shovels attached for excavating small chacras heavy machines couldn´t access. We finally culminated and broke for lunch, where she served me a delicious hot drink made exclusively with toasted amaranth from last year´s harvest.

My body will soon forget the pain of Andean farming, but my mind will unlikely lose this memory of working alongside an uncannily strong, aging woman. She believes we only eat canned food in the United States. She had a hearty laught at lunch calling me her ¨toro gringo¨. Ironically, I suppose, is that now having participated in the vigourous lifestyle of my neighbors, I find it even that much more mysterious, alamring and exotic.