After a week living and working with the Patacancha nurses (see post) I returned to Ollantaytambo for a few days before embarking on my time in Kelccanka. I went out to Kelccanka with others SVH volunteers and the team from Broadstreet Maps. We divided into three groups and collected most of the Kelccanka points for the GPS project in one day (see post). Then I was left on my own with a GPS and the mission of visiting the most remote households. As someone who has done little exercise in recent months, this was a daunting prospect. These visits could mean many hours of walking. Kelccanka community members are used to walking long distances. It takes six hours on foot to reach the nearest posta, and they move at a pace that I find incredible given the altitudes of up to 4,500m (14,600ft).
I stayed with one of the two Kelccanka promotoras, Ana Cecilia, and her husband. While cooking over an open fire, we discussed the plan for the following day. I was told that the remaining households were lejos, or far, which in Kelccanka could mean anything. The next morning we got up early, ate a hearty breakfast, and set off by just after 8 o’clock. I had no idea how far we were going to walk. The first forty minutes were mostly downhill, and I realized that this would be a tough climb on our return. After two and a half hours, we saw our first house of the day. Further up the valley, we found three more households. We plotted all four on the GPS and then ambled back down the beautiful valley with a sting in the tail — the steep uphill at the end. After six hours, we arrived back and set to cooking another well-earned hearty meal.
The next morning, we were up and out promptly again. This time we hiked straight up the side of the glacial valley, gaining 500m (1,500 ft) in elevation in just one kilometer (2/3 mile) of walking. I needed to pause frequently to catch my breath, but Ana Cecilia was able to chat with a friend and spin while she climbed. At least it was a shorter distance than we had walked the previous day. As we continued up the valley, the clouds and rain came in and I couldn’t see far enough ahead to spot the houses we were aiming for. After we crossed a number of ridges, a house loomed in the fog and we rested there and traded biscuits and oranges for potatoes with a woman who had been sitting out in the rain, tending her flock of sheep.
It wasn’t far to the next house and then we returned to the village via a different route in order to record our fifth and final house of the day. The weather got steadily more miserable and the path more treacherous. I was surprised to make it back to Ana Cecilia’s house without falling in the mud, as nearly happened a number of times. We changed out of our wet clothes to avoid hypothermia, as Ana Cecilia had been taught in her training. This was especially important as she had done the five and half hour hike with no rainproof clothing and barefoot in her rubber sandals.
After a very cold night, the next day dawned clear and sunny. We had a more leisurely start as it was a shorter day and we enjoyed some sun before setting out. I was glad to let my breakfast settle before starting the steep pull out of the valley. Once we had climbed up to the side valley, we had a relatively easy hike along the valley floor to the final five houses of the week. The return trip took us half the time since it was all downhill. Even though we had a shorter hike, walking seven kilometers at this altitude had been a challenge. It remained a glorious day and I helped Ana Cecilia harvest potatoes in order to make up for the amount of time she had dedicated to SVH work. Finally, I was able to enjoy the beauty of the place without being out of breath!
— Written by Gil Bell