By Ellen Simmons
When Mary Lou Harris and I traveled to Peru and Ecuador, we knew we would visit both Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands. What we did not know was we would get to meet some native Peruvians and get up close and personal with some of their farming methods.
Peru is the third largest country in South America and its’ three most important industries are mining for gold, silver and copper, fishing and the service industry. Many of its citizens, however, are farmers and many are doing so with methods that have been in use for thousands of years.
When we arrived in Peru, we were told potatoes are one of the main crops and that the country produces over 3,000 varieties. (Some sources say over 4,000.) As we ate our way through many meals in the country, potatoes showed up on our plates in many shapes, forms and colors from the familiar baked and mashed to forms we had no English words for, but we recognized definitely as potatoes.
Another crop we ate often was quinoa, a grain that is growing fast in popularity in the US because of its nutrition and flavor. Peru provides half the world’s supply of this grain. Corn and rice were two other crops we ate often.
One day we were bussed to a small settlement of Andean people, who welcomed us dressed in their native clothing. The men wore white shirts, brown and grey vests and pants and colorful wool hats, and the women wore white blouses with bright red skirts and straw hats. They all wore sandals on their feet. (see pictures on page 24)
When we got off the bus, several of the men were playing flutes to welcome us and everyone shook our hands in friendship. We were served a traditional meal of home grown “farm-to-table” crops such as potatoes, fava beans and quinoa soup, and following the meal we were invited to participate in a ceremony thanking Mother Earth for her bounty.
Several men removed their hats and placed a cloth on the ground covered with gifts from the earth such as grain, seashells and pottery. One of the men spoke words in his native language and carefully sprinkled a brewed liquid over the items. We were then invited to help with the ceremony, some more words were spoken and the ceremony ended.
Some of the men demonstrated the use of a traditional tool used to turn the ground before planting. It was around five or six feet long and made of wood except for the end, which was metal of some sort. A piece of rope served as a stirrup-like device to hold the farmer’s foot to give him leverage.
The metal end was then thrust into the ground, rather like we would use a shovel, and it was forced upward, which turned over a piece of earth. In the demonstration we were shown, two men worked side by side with a third man in front of them, helping to break the clods of dirt.
For those of us used to seeing huge machines plowing large fields, it was a step back in time to see how these people had tilled the land for centuries. By the way, during our travels, we saw people working fields with these, which told us what we had been shown was still common today.
While we were eating, four mules driven by a walker were trampling a large pile of what looked to us like soybean stalks ready for harvest (see left). By the time we were ready to leave and the stalks and hulls were raked away, we saw a pile of fava beans, one of the foods we had been served. This ancient method of threshing was a little dusty, but certainly effective.
Meat is also very important to the local diet and we saw cows, pigs, chickens and sheep during our travels. Although we were not close to the ocean most of the time, some type of fish, usually seabass, was almost always one of the choices we were given for a meal.
That evening at the hotel we enjoyed a pachamanca meal prepared in the traditional manner. Pacha means “earth” and manca means “pot,” and this is a very appropriate translation because the earth is literally used as the pot to cook meat for a feast similar to a Hawaiian luau.
Preparations started early in the day when stones were placed in the ground and heated with a fire above them. (We were told the stones had been well washed with salt water before heating. See right.)
Once we arrived, meat, including lamb, pork, chicken, beef and fish, was placed on top of the stones, along with spices. Everything was then covered with wet thick paper and on top of that they shoveled the dirt that had been dug out to make the hole. They told us this created a sort of pressure pot that cooked the meat in about 30 minutes.
We were each able to sample the varieties of meats for our dinner, which made this feast one of the most memorable parts of our trip.
We had been told that guinea pig is a traditional meat of the natives and we were able to sample it at one of our stops. Some of our group declined, but we both tried it and found it to be tasty, but greasy. It was never offered to us as a choice of a meal.
According to the statistics, Peru produces many crops besides those we saw and tasted, including asparagus, grapes, coffee, tomatoes, cotton and many grains and nuts. We were told the country is divided into three geographic regions-the coast, the Andes and the rainforest. We spent most of our time in the Andean region, so the experiences I have shared with you reflect that area only.
Our stay on the Ecuador was primarily in the Galapagos, an archipelago located 600 miles off the mainland in the Pacific Ocean. Except for a couple of islands they are completely uninhabited, so we saw no farming. We did see plenty of sea lions, marine iguanas, huge tortoises, crabs, lizards and many varieties of seabirds, including frigates albatrosses, petrels, gulls, cormorants and boobies.
Much to our surprise, we also ran across flamingos wading in a saltwater lagoon. To us they looked like pink flamingos, but our naturalist guide insisted they are not pink-he was not sure how to describe their color, but he was sure they were definitely not pink. They still looked pink to us, and they were one of the last sights of our trip and brought a colorful ending to a “once in a lifetime” dining and sightseeing adventure.