There are many reasons people travel. If you had asked me 5 years ago why I travel, I would have said to `see` the world. I wanted to snorkel the oceans, hike to scenic vistas and explore caves and canyons.
I am still a newbie traveller, but my travelling purpose is evolving. `The Guinea Pig Lady` is one of the first people who affected my evolution. She showed me that the real treasures of travelling are the people we encounter.
It was a mother-daughter trip to Peru. My daughter had an urge to return to the small impoverished Peruvian town in the Andes, where her school participated in a cultural exchange program. I was willing to trek along to this rural town, a nine-hour bus north of Lima. It was a great arrangement; I would accompany her on the trip up north to reunite with her host family (we would only stay for a few days) and then she would tag along to Machu Picchu and an Eco-lodge in the Amazon jungle. I was so excited, Machu Picchu !!!
That was five years ago and I have great photos and memories of the Amazon and the Inca fortress, but the best memories, the ones that hold a special place in my heart, are the ones from Mato, the tiny town, high in the Andes. More specifically, the people we encountered. One of those special people was the Guinea Pig Lady.
Before I get to her, however, I want to tell you about the village in the Andes. Mato only has a few hundred residents. It has electricity in some, but not all of the houses. Indoor plumbing is also a luxury reserved for the wealthier residents, like the teachers or store owners. The town has an irrigation system, where the water is turned off every evening from 6pm until morning. The bulk of the villagers live off the land. Livestock is paraded out to pasture early in the morning and returned in the evening.
The family that hosted my daughter the previous year owns a local store and a rooming house. They rent rooms to guests that work in the area, for example Peace Corps workers or medical workers from larger cities coming to help in town for a few days. Although scenic, this is not a town where tourists would go.
We were overwhelmed by the hospitality we received in Mato. We were greeted by everyone. People stopped by at Jose’s house to visit with us. We were invited to the school principal’s house for a Coke. When we visited the preschool, they called a recess time so we could meet and interact with the children. Jose, our host, was generous with his time, food and house. He even asked us to stay longer and arranged for our transportation to the bus station a 25 minute drive away. We were made to feel like it was our home. We helped Susan work at the store, played ball in the streets, and laughed into the night with Jose. It was just such a comfortable feeling. At dinner time, we all pitched in to set the table.
There was a women in town who always struck up a conversation with us when our paths crossed. Conversation is probably a bit of an overstatement here, since our Spanish is pretty limited and nobody in town speaks English. With Jose, it was not too bad, he spoke slowly and we used a lot of gestures. Language barriers aside, we did manage to gather that this lady was keen on us coming to visit her, in her home. Low and behold, one day, Jose announced that we would be going to her house for lunch. And by “we’ he meant, just my daughter and I. He told us how to find the house and sent us on our way. I am not going to lie, I was a little apprehensive. I was really not sure our Spanish ability could sustain us for an entire meal. I was also nervous about eating in a new home that may serve us water or food that could make our feeble North American digestive systems unhappy. In any case, we were on our way, after all, she had always been super nice when we bumped into her on the road.
We arrived and within minutes the initial nervousness was settled. It was surprising that the Spanish-English issue was not that much of an issue at all. The great thing about my daughter and I is that she was stronger at understanding Spanish and I was stronger at expressing myself. So she listened, translated what I didn’t catch and I answered. Of course, we often had to ask them to repeat things three times in different ways and gestures until we grasped the gist of the story.
And what a story it was. This woman had raised 4 children, if I remember correctly, and had a grand child she was raising too. She had suffered battery most of her married life, until finally, she kicked the bastard out. But that left her to feed and clothe the family by herself. The way that she supports the family by raising guinea pigs. (Hence the title of the post)
This small batch of guinea pigs is her livelihood. There were not really many there, maybe 50 or 60. They make the cutest little noises. She explained that when she needed anything for the house, flour, sugar or light bulbs, she took guinea pigs to market. In Peru, guinea pigs (or cuy) are a source of food. So she would toss 4 or 5 guinea pigs into an over-sized purse, catch a collectivo (shared taxi) to market day in Caraz and sell or trade the rodents for the supplies she needed.
We sat on her sofa and had a lovely chicken dinner and salad. It was such a foreign world though, I knew that with very little refrigeration in this town, she had killed that chicken just for us. We were honoured and wondered how many guinea pigs she had to trade to get the chicken. When she offered us drinks, she did it just as we would in Canada, “what would you like to drink? Coke, Sprite, water?”, except her daughter had to run to the corner store to buy the beverages we wanted and they didn`t get any for themselves. I was annoyed at myself for not thinking fast enough, or I would have said, that we were fine with nothing to drink.
After dinner she continued to tell us about her kids, one had moved to Lima and her grand-daughter showed us her school work. It was surprisingly advanced for preschool. It seemed like such normal after-dinner conversation.
It was a strange feeling. This lady lived a life we could never really understand, she was a battered wife, who financially barely held it together by bartering guinea pigs. But I didn’t leave her house thinking “poor her”, or “wow, am I ever lucky to be me”. There was no pity, I just thought that I had met a kind, strong, wonderful mother.
It was then that I realized that relationships and people are what make travel special. This vast earth houses many people who are in different situations and there should never be judgments of who is more fortunate or lucky. I am not saying that we shouldn`t help each other, but do it in the same spirit as holding a door open for someone, it is a courtesy issue, not a sympathy issue. In that same vein, when you converse with people of the world, learn about their life, their families, their hopes and dreams.
I am honoured and privileged to have dined with the guinea pig lady. I am grateful that she taught me that travel is about so much more than natural wonders and landmarks.
What about you? Have you ever met someone on your travels who left a lasting impression?