High in the Andes: Adventure in Peru

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High in the clouds in Peru. Photo by Carol Bowman
High in the clouds in Peru. Photo by Carol Bowman

A Traveling ‘Chicha Distributor’

With a mixture of fear and excitement, Eber ventured further into unknown territory. After a few kilometers, two figures emerged from the dust−a lad walking his burro. A colorful woven Inca blanket provided a cushion for a double basket filled with bulging skins flung over the mule’s back. Walter jumped from the van. This young stranger, deprived of human interaction on his lonely route, soaked up every syllable as Walter spoke to him in Quechua and handed the muchacho a handful of Peruvian soles. The teen unlaced one tied-up goat skin and ladled a frothy liquid into a leather sack.

Walter encouraged us to stretch our legs and meet Manco, a traveling ‘chicha distributor’. Andean highlanders have few sources of potable water, so many families, including the children, drink this 2% alcohol-fermented corn mash as their only fluid intake.

Two figures emerged from the dust: A chicha distributor, Manco, and his burro. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
Two figures emerged from the dust: A chicha distributor, Manco, and his burro. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Manco had wandered these desolate highlands, offering relief to thirsty farmers, their parched families and now, American travelers already sated with coca. Walter poured generous portions of this sour, amber colored, yeasty smelling beer into plastic cups he obtained from the van.

At 12,000 feet this corn mash can pack a 10-15% alcohol wallop to anyone not accustomed to this altitude. We downed several cups of the bubbly libation while visiting with ‘the chicha kid.’ His sparkling eyes and broad smile suggested that he didn’t want this lively interaction to end.

With daylight waning, we had to leave. While Eber got directions to the main road, the ‘gang of five’ zigzagged back to the van. Now, the higher we went, the higher we got. In my corn mash and mate de coca stupor, I reflected on the day in the life of an Andean beer peddler. As we pulled away, I felt like we were abandoning man and beast, leaving them stranded in isolation. For Manco, ‘es la vida.’

Cuzco Travel

After many days, we reached our peak in both mental derangement and elevation at Lake Titicaca’s 14,000 feet. Relief beckoned as the van turned southward, downward toward Cuzco, which would feel like sea level after two weeks in the clouds. A ‘Walter’ surprise waited for us at the largest indigenous market in Cuzco, Central Mercado de San Pedro. 

Weaving through the crowded aisles, we brushed past rows of severed horse, donkey and cow heads complete with remaining teeth. Piles of round, frisbee-like loaves of freshly baked bread rose precariously toward the ceiling.

Vendors shouted greetings to Walter as he rushed toward two women stirring steaming caldrons of green tinted soup. His mother and older sister have had this same stall in the market for twenty years.

“I grew up here. I played here, while my mother worked,” Walter said with tender affection. Mom scooped bowls of her special soup for her son’s flock. I felt honored to observe a day in the life of a market vendor who was also Walter’s mama.

We passed a stand selling coca leaves and boxes of prepared mate de coca teabags. Walter advised that US citizens could not buy the teabags to take home. Coca leaves became illegal outside of South America after recognition of cocaine addiction in 1859.

Local girls in Peru. Photo by Carol Bowman
Local girls in Peru. Photo by Carol Bowman

At the 1961 UN Single Convention, no distinctions between the coca leaf and cocaine were made, so worldwide eradication of coca leaf chewing or drinking mate de coca was ordered. The United States classified the coca leaf as a Schedule II, banned narcotic drug. Realizing the benefit to the well-being of their people, the governments of High Andean countries later legalized its use.

But wait, I reside in Mexico and my adopted country couldn’t have such a silly law. I developed a fondness for my daily pick-me-up and I live at 5600 feet and need it, right? So, I bought 100 tea bags. On the overnight flight home from Lima to Mexico City, the announcement interrupted my fitful sleep: “All baggage on flights originating in South America is subject to canine inspection.”

OMG. Would drug sniffing doggies detect my coveted tea bags? I packed them in my husband’s luggage. Should I tell him or wait until the federales drag him away to a Mexico City carcel? 

With a 6AM pallor, we waited at the baggage carousel. Suitcases that had successfully passed by sensitive snouts dribbled onto the circular path. My duffel showed-up alone.

After a half hour, we were the only two desperate looking passengers left. I started composing ‘Confessions of a 65-Year Old Tea Smuggler’ in my mind. The mouth of the baggage flap opened and spit out the last piece. My husband’s yellow and black bumblebee duffel looked like it had barely survived a scrappy encounter with an unhappy German shepherd.

The Aymara women tended an underground oven, where plump rounded potatoes sizzled for our lunch. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
The Aymara women tended an underground oven, where plump rounded potatoes sizzled for our lunch. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

We grabbed it and headed for the final obstacle, the customs official and that dreaded Mexican baggage search game, ‘Red Light, Green Light’. Red, we’re dead, Green, me and my tea would be home free. I closed my eyes, said a prayer and with my anxiety drenched palm, pushed the button.

Author’s Bio: After a life-long profession of treating the mentally ill at a PA psychiatric hospital for 33 years and also serving as its Director of Admissions, Carol retired to Lake Chapala, Mexico in 2006 with her husband, to pursue more positive passions. Her family thought that she, too, had ‘gone mad.’ She’s been teaching English to Mexican adults for ten years, in a program operated by volunteer expatriates and writing for local on-line and print publications. Using her adventures experienced during visits to over 80 countries to capture a niche in travel writing, Carol also dabbles in ‘memoir.’  A frequent contributor to Lake Chapala English magazine, “El Ojo del Lago,” she’s won several literary awards from that publication, including Best Feature in 2010 and Best Fiction in 2014. She also netted a story regarding her psychiatric field work in the published anthology, “Tales from the Couch.”