Visit to Qeros
The most special guest that Willka T’ika has ever hosted is without doubt Don Benito. Don Benito is a Qero pakko, or healer. He is among the last in a line of Andean elders who still teach traditional Quechua spiritual traditions as they were practiced during Incan times. Since she first went to visit him in his small mountain community near Qeros twenty years ago, my mother Carol has had a close relationship with Don Benito. Each month, she would invite him to travel from the mountains to join her groups at Willka T’ika and conduct despachos, or offerings to Pachamama. To honor him, she even built him a small adobe hut where he and his family could sleep whenever they visited. The door had his name inscribed in red iron letters and only he had the key to its lock.
On the first of August, Don Benito came to conduct his annual ritual blessing to honor the Día de Pachamama. This special despacho was dedicated to both Mother Earth and the Quechua staff of Willka T’ika. That morning, after the guests left to go sightseeing, my mother and I assembled the staff together by the Lucuma tree, with Don Benito greeting each person affectionately in Quechua. He handed out coca leaves so that we could each add our own coca leaf blessing or k’intu to his despacho. While we all gathered in a circle around him, he recited ancient prayers to the mountain and lakes deities, After everyone had had a chance to make a wish, Don Benito poured a few drops of chicha on the ground for Pachamama. He then passed me the bottle to take the first sip.
As we walked towards the fire pit to burn the sacred offering, I asked him if I could come and visit him in Qeros. Since Benito has been to Willka T’ika hundreds of times I figured it was probably time for me to go and see his home. And at the rate that his culture was becoming assimilated with the rest of Peru, it might not be long until his way of life disappeared.
“Octubre,” he responded matter-of-factly. I didn’t realize his schedule was so mapped out but it made sense that Don Benito would not have time for a visit to Qeros during the tourist season, which ended in October. Only then he would spend the rainy season in the high Andes, planting his high altitude potatoes and cultivating his herd of alpaca.
“October it is,” I committed to myself. Each month when I’d see him, I’d double check if he still wanted me to come and visit Qeros and he’d nod his head. “Octubre waiki!”
By the second week of October, Benito returned to Willka T’ika to conduct a despacho ceremony for one of our regular returning group leaders. The timing was perfect since I could accompany him on his return journey back to Qeros. I would need someone to translate from Quechua to Spanish. Neither Benito nor his family spoke more than a few words of Spanish.
I asked around the staff to see if anyone would like to join me on a true Andean adventure. Fabian, the quietest of all the staff, volunteered. Fabian was my mother’s first employee and had been working at Willka T’ika since 1995. He had literally built our buildings, fixtures, and even helped design the gardens that made up our retreat center. Like all of the staff, Fabian spoke Quechua at home and had a deep respect for elders like Don Benito who represented the Andean spirituality that Fabian had grown up with, long before he stepped into a Catholic church. Also, like most of the staff, Fabian had not traveled much in the Andes and had never even taken a walk in the snow, never mind a visit to Qeros.
Early Wednesday morning, Fabian, Benito and I went to the Mercado de Produtores to buy supplies for our journey. Benito purchased a hug sack of quinoa for his community and a bag of corn kernels to make chichi (corn beer) for an upcoming celebration. Fabian and I bought a few bags of fruit to share with the Qero and wrapped up some cabbage from our garden. The Qero diet was limited to potatoes and whatever else they could source. Fruit and vegetables were hard to find in the frigid altiplano and they relied on such a visit to Qeros for such delicacies.
My mother had always told me that it took Benito 3 days to make the journey from Qeros to Willka T’ika. However, things had changed since my mother’s last visit to Qeros many years ago. Now there was a dirt road that climbed up from the town of Paucartambo Southeast towards Q’eros. Still, it took us all morning to get from Urubamba to Paucartambo on public transportation. We arrived in time for a late lunch and then Benito arranged for his local taxi driver to take us the last 3 hours up the dirt road over the Minasccasa Pass (4227 m.) to where the road ended. Benito’s house was not far from that road. We arrived as the sun was setting and the small surrounding streams were beginning to freeze over for the night.
Benito’s driver’s name was Demesio and I asked him if we could hire him to drive us back. I knew there was no cell phone reception anywhere near Qeros so I strongly suggested we agree upon a plan now for him to pick us up. He offered to come Friday morning. He would need to leave at sunrise from Paucartambo and should arrive by 10AM, weather depending.
I was happy to pay Demesio an “adelantado” as I wanted to be sure that he would come. If he didn’t, it might be another week before we could find someone to drive us down the long windy road. Back in the days before the road, it had taken Don Benito two days to walk to Paucartambo. It would probably take me twice that, assuming I survived the cold. Demesio happily took the S/ 75 deposit and promised me he’d be back in two days, rain or shine. Although Don Benito had vouched for him, I was still a little nervous. Anything could happen between now and Friday.
The next two days of our visit to Qeros were the coldest in my, and apparently Fabian’s life. Benito guided us to a shed that he used to store chuño and moriah, high altitude starchy potatoes that served as the mainstay sustenance for his community. On the cold dirt floor, he lay down several alpaca hides and four wool blankets which Fabian and I crawled into for warmth. Each blanket weighed about 10 pounds but the density of the alpaca wool did not immediately translate to warmth. They only managed to keep the chill away temporarily until any slight movement would allow the frigid air to find its way back inside our makeshift beds.
Jamming a stick between two stones on either side of the doorway, I managed to get the wooden door to shut. This would at least slow the leaking in of the frigid Andean air. Unpacking our small backpacks, we put on every article of clothing that we had brought, including our ponchos and rain jackets. It took about an hour to heat up our beds enough to fall asleep.
Around 6AM the next morning, I heard a soft knock on the wooden door. Fabian and I had both been awake for at least an hour but it was too cold to get up from our beds. Through the door, I could make out the voice of a young girl, Irene. Since most of Benito’s six children were in their forties, I had assumed that she was one of his many grandchildren.
I pushed aside the two small stones that were keeping the door from opening completely and a smiling face fully emerged, messy hair falling to one side.
“Hay desayuno,” she chirped. Breakfast was ready.
“Gracias, Irene.” I tried to stand up in the short hut. I pushed the hobbit-sized door the rest of the way open, allowing the morning mist to mix with the thick air inside. Behind Irene, the entire landscape was covered in white powder. Even the llamas had a foot of snow on their backs.
“Don Benito es tu abuelo?” I asked her after she poked her head inside the hut, speaking slowly to make sure she understood Spanish. The 40 families in this isolated village spoke only Quechua at home but some of the younger generation learned rudimentary Spanish in school.
“No, es mi papá,” she giggled sweetly.
I smiled back at her blithely, considering that perhaps Benito had fathered another child in his sixties. Nobody knew exactly how old Benito was, including Benito himself. Seventy seemed an appropriate age considering his venerable status in the Qero community. Maybe Irene was his daughter?
The sound of breakfast was enough to get Fabian’s attention. He grunted and rolled over from his side of the storage hut. He was a sturdy Quechua farmer who lived at 9500 feet elevation in Peru’s Sacred Valley. But we were now over 13,000 feet and he was just as stunned by the frigid Andean night as I. He hadn’t managed to sleep much in our hut which made me feel lucky that I’d only woken up a few times, whenever some icy air would sneak between my blankets.
While I began putting on my boots, Irene scurried back to Benito’s house, where three other children were huddled around a small, smoky stove.
After taking a couple snapshots of the stunning alpine scenery, I joined Benito’s family in his stone hut. A few fiberglass ceiling windows brought in sun light and a small hole in the wall allowed some smoke to exit. But the rest of the smoke from the stove lingered. Benito’s wife coughed constantly as she stoked the fire with small scraps of wood mixed with pellets of alpaca dung.
Benito and his wife and probably the children had slept in the one large bed, elevated on a wooden platform for warmth. The soiled mattress was covered with a variety of blankets and clothing. A couple pairs of old shoes dangled off the corners of the platform. Next to the bed was a stone bench, where some blankets allowed for a comfortable sitting area. Fabian and I were motioned towards the “guest bench” and we sat down gratefully.
“Buenos días, Señora,” I greeted Benito’s wife. She smiled back and added more dung to the fire.
Benito looked up with a wide smile, “Buenooooos días, waiki!” and handed me a cup of maté. I expected the infusion to have wild muña, kuñuka, or coca leaves but it consisted simply of hot water with some sugar. We waited for Fabian to join us and then, sitting on the wooden edge of Benito’s bed, we sipped our simple breakfast of potato broth or caldo.
After breakfast, we took a walk around the community and Benito showed us the school that had been partly funded by our Willka T’ika Children’s Fund. I took photos and measurements of the playground. Benito had asked us to help provide fencing materials so we could keep the alpacas and llamas from entering the schoolground. He guided us around the small village, popping into a few family member’s homes. Everyone seemed to be related to Benito in some way. I recognized one person, his son Roberto who greeted with a big hug and only a few words of recognizable Spanish.
“Mi oreja,” Roberto pointed to his ear. I wasn’t sure why he was showing me his ear until I noticed a grotesque bubble of pus seeping out of his right ear.
“Caramba! Tienes una infección!” I exclaimed, stating the obvious.
“Medicina?” He nodded his head, hoping that I had something to help him. I briefly considered giving him some saline drops or even some antibiotics that I carried in my small first-aid kit but I decided against it. This could be serious.
“Necesitas ir al médico,” I insisted, adding that we could drive him to the doctor on Friday.
He nodded again, unconvincingly. Fabian explained that Roberto had probably never been to a doctor in his life. I thought about Benito’s wife and her hacking cough. These were people who relied on herbal remedies to cure almost all ailments.
Fabian, Benito, and I continued our walk through the snow and up a slight hill. When we got to top of the hill, Benito pulled out his chuspa, a small bag used to store coca leaves, and passed us each a bunch of dry leaves. I took 3 of the least crushed, and made my own k’intu, placing the offering beneath a small stone so it wouldn’t blow away. Benito masticated on his wad with gusto, his lips blackened from decades of daily chewing. We sat there until the snow covered our ponchos.
We walked down the hill to Benito’s house and the chill began to set in. Unless we were able to keep moving, it was going to be impossible to stay warm. I joined Benito’s wife inside by her small cooking fire until the smoke became unbearable. I tried pacing outside but I couldn’t chase away the cold. As soon as the sun had set, Fabian and I went back to our shed and prepared for another uncomfortable night.
The next morning it was Benito who woke us up with an enthusiastic “Buenos días compadre!” He had been up late drinking chichi with his community and was still in celebration mode. They were commemorating the opening of the new school.
We followed Benito to his house and Irene greeted us with steaming bowl of caldo de chuño. This time the plain broth had a few leaves of green from the cabbage that we had brought with us. Benito then passed each of us a cup of maté. I tossed a few coca leaves from my chuspa to give the maté some flavor.
While we sipped our warm beverages, Benito and his wife discussed the snow fall. During days like this, which weren’t infrequent during the Spring, they would stay close to their hut, stepping out only to check on their animals, fetch potatoes from the storage hut (our bedroom), and visit with nearby friends and family. Over the course of the morning, several relatives, neighbors, and children would pop their heads into the hut, hoping for a bowl of caldo. Don Benito was always happy to see people from his community and made everyone feel welcome.
Fabian and I were getting worried about the snow. Would our taxi be able to reach this mountain town in this weather? It had started snowing around midnight last night so it was quite possible that Demesio had called off the trip once he knew the mountain roads would be covered in ice. I took a walk outside to gauge the condition of the road, praying that our taxi would be able to arrive. Three days was enough time for me to be sitting in a freezing hut. I didn’t have anything to read or do and I could barely communicate with my gracious hosts whose knowledge of Spanish was only slightly better than my knowledge of Quechua. I could handle the diet of potatoes but the biting cold made it hard to sit still never mind enjoy the company of Don Benito’s loving family.
Fabian managed to keep himself warm by working on Benito’s new hut, installing a door between two stone pillars. The door has been resting on the damp dirt floor for months and the wood had warped to the point where Fabian would need to completely reshape it. Don Benito was overjoyed that someone with Fabian’s construction experience was willing to spend hours helping him saw, shape, sand, and insert the door. I had tried to help, using the leveler to guide Fabian’s measurements. But after a while I grew too cold and went back to the hut to collect my small backpack. It was practically empty since I was wearing every article of clothing I had brought.
As I returned, I saw three men approach the hut. Two men had black beards and the combination of their dark clothes, facial hair, and backpacks seemed to cast a pall over them. I had seen so many young, bearded travelers in the Sacred Valley and they all looked similar. Rather than the typical “mochileros” who traveled around like Israeli backpackers, these were the more permanently dislocated type of expatriates. Over the last ten years, the Sacred Valley had attracted a variety of foreigners, Chileans, Argentinians, Brazilians, Venezuelans, and even Limeños from the Peruvian capital.
When I entered Don Benito’s hut and found the three strange men sitting in our guest seating area, I already had my back up against the stone wall. I made eye contact first and the two bearded men did not return it. The third man, a local whom I
assumed was their guide, greeted me warmly. It was our taxi driver. My prayers had been answered!
“Demesio!” I gave him a big hug. I thanked him profusely for braving the snowstorm and he explained that he was able to get within three kilometers of Q’eros and then walked the last bit in the snow.
“Bien hecho,” I congratulated him. I was more than happy to walk up the mountain to wherever the car was safely parked on top of the pass. Our visit to Qeros had come to cold but loving conclusion.