As the rainy season comes to an end in Ollantaytambo, mountain roads are drying out and becoming passable for the first time in months. For Sacred Valley Health, this means that we are finally able to visit some of our more isolated communities that have been inaccessible since December. Community Coordinator Lucy and I recently made an overnight visit to Kelccanka, one of our highest, most remote communities, to spend some time with promotoras Ana Cecilia and Beatriz.
The only regular means of transportation to Kelccanka is a cattle truck – called the fruit truck – that makes the three-hour trip every Saturday. So at 6:30 one Saturday morning, Lucy and I boarded the fruit truck in the Ollantaytambo plaza. There aren’t words or photos that could capture the sights and sounds and smells and feelings and wonderful chaos of that ride. I counted 46 people in the back of the truck, and there were three times as many bags and buckets full of clothing, vegetables, chicha (homemade corn beer), corn, potatoes, and other things to be sold at the market. Once everyone had staked a claim to his or her spot on the truck, friendly Quechua banter filled the air as we jostled our way up through the mountains. There was literally not an inch of space to readjust into, but I was glad for the closeness because it kept me warm as we headed higher into the cold mountain air. After three hours of food, laughter, and some very precarious stretches of road, we arrived in Kelccanka.
After visiting with Beatriz for a bit at the market, Lucy and I made our way down through a soccer field full of alpaca to Ana Cecilia’s house. Ana Cecilia is one of two promotoras for Kelccanka, but the only one who speaks Spanish, so we stayed at her house. She is 23 and one of the sweetest women I’ve ever met. She, her husband (who was away working on the Inca Trail), and their two children, Alex and Nancy, live in a small, one-room house with dirt floors and stone walls. In the house there is a stone sink, a gas burner that sits on the floor, a fire pit with no chimney, a cuy (guinea pig) cage, a cuy that was only sometimes in his cage, a few shelves, and one double bed. Hanging from the ceiling was one bare light bulb, part of an unknown dead animal, a piece of yarn, a bucket, and a machete. There were hats with hand-beaded chin-straps, woven mantas and ponchos, and miscellaneous clumps of sheep wool here and there. Ana Cecilia was sitting outside weaving a skirt when we arrived, and she greeted us with a warm smile and a hug.
That evening, as the sun set and the temperature dropped, Ana Cecilia made dinner. It consisted of a drink called quacker, which is a humorous mispronunciation of Quaker as the drink is made from oatmeal and sweet, warm milk. With the cold creeping in it really hit the spot. We also had steaming hot potato-carrot soup. That night, Ana Cecilia, Alex, and Nancy slept at her in-laws’ house, and Lucy and I shared Ana Cecilia’s bed. There was no mattress, just wooden slats with a couple of sheepskins and blankets. Lucy and I pulled out our sleeping bags and snuggled down into them. Kelccanka is cold at night, like wearing-long-johns-and-ski-socks-and-a-wool-sweater-in-a-down-sleeping-bag-under-another-wool-blanket-and-you’re-still-cold cold.
The next morning began early with another bowl of steaming potato soup. As Lucy was packing and getting ready to go back to Ollanta, Ana Cecilia and I made some home visits in the community. Lucy left and I spent another day and night in Kelccanka with Ana Cecilia so that I could attend the community’s General Assembly the next day where Ana Cecilia was giving a presentation on alcoholism. We spent the day helping with a community building project and sharing a manta (blanket) full of potatoes with other community members. That afternoon, Ana Cecilia finished the skirt she was weaving and asked if I would try it on. She got so excited when I put it on that she ran inside to bring out the rest of the ensemble – shoulder manta and wool hat with a beaded chin-strap. Ana Cecilia was so proud – she told me I should wear it for the rest of the night, and so I spent my last evening in Kelccanka peeling potatoes, eating soup, and reviewing with Ana Cecilia the medical and social effects of alcoholism, dressed as a native Quechua woman. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The next morning, Ana Cecilia gave her presentation at Kelccanka’s General Assembly, teaching about the negative effects of alcoholism. Community members at paid close attention, and the presentation was followed by a discussion about things the community could do to help those suffering from alcoholism. When the assembly was over, I gave Ana Cecilia and her beautiful kids a big hug and headed back down the mountain.
The next week at our training, I was talking with Ana Cecilia and trying to plan my next visit to Kelccanka. We settled on a date and I told her that, depending on transportation, I may have to spend the night again, but I explained that I could bring a tent so she didn’t have to give up her bed again. “No, of course not! You can stay at my house!” I told her I would love to, only if she didn’t mind. “Not at all,” she answered. “We lived very happily that weekend, didn’t we?” “We did,” I answered with a smile. And it was purely and completely true.
– Written by Jenny Jordan