Our search for a compass started in Huaraz, Peru as we were preparing to do the Santa Cruz trek, a ~5 day hike through the Cordillera Blanca in the center of the country. We didn’t end up getting a compass at this point, and didn’t need one, after all, to do this hike over a 15,000 ft pass and around turquoise lakes and verdant Andean mountains…
The other day we went into the mountains a short ride from Pisaq. We’d chosen to have a San Pedro (a sacred medicine cactus long used for healing in this region) ceremony with a guide and a few other people, hiking through these sacred mountains, apus as they are called, and lakes, one of which is so high and clean we were promised we could drink straight from it.
The hike started brilliantly; it was windy and sheerly beautiful. The people of the land flow like water in their region, creating trails like streams do. We walked along these in awe of the sparse and harsh beauty of the region.
The people of this land are amazing and I am humbled by them- so sure of footstep, sturdy and strong in body to withstand each day’s earthen workload, tending sheep or llama, planting potatoes or other grains, weaving, cooking, transporting goods… They are hearty and healthy and pure, and able to endure surprising and demanding elements.
The lakes amazed me that day as I sipped from the final one directly with my mouth, like a primitive one or an animal. It was the only waters I recollect feeling safe to drink straight from, and this thought made me both thankful and sad. Why are all of our waters polluted? How sad that as creatures of the earth, the waters of the earth, ~70+% of our bodies, are not fit for us to drink straight from…
Yet the way the waves looked on the water that day, the wonder in their ripple and sheen from the slight sun rays, returned me to awe again and again.
As we returned to the house we started from with the promise of hearth and hot food, I realized how much I am not made for a climate like this. And how much I desire home and security, a place to root and cook and garden; a place to rest my head and stay warm. For the sun had hardly shone on us that day, throughout our ceremonies and on our camino. In fact, it had gotten gustier and a foggy rain had taken over the mountainous valleys.
When we returned to the house, we were greeted with the warm smiles of some of the people indigenous to the place, people generations deep in their relationship with this land. We were also greeted with potatoes, a rich soup and an amazing green sauce to sprinkle atop the potatoes (this we all fawned over, yet it was a secret recipe). Soon we were feeling warm again and more grounded. One of the campesinos (local farmer) started to interpret for us some of their facts about potatoes and other foods they grow.
And this is when I became so humbled. This man, Mario, set 12 different potatoes in front of us on a wooden table in this small adobe-walled room, and began to tell us that his father and his father’s father and his father’s father’s father… had also lived in this town and cultivated potatoes. They had a potato for every climate and storage need and altitude… some for when it didn’t rain and also for when it poured. And this man spoke so humbly and yet proudly about his papas.
Next he brought out 7 bowls of grain: barley, wheat, tarwi, favas, 2 types of corn, and quinoa. All of these were grown in their community as well, in the same way they had been for generations. I was so humbled. Here in the west, in the United States, there is huge talk of being sustainable, of growing more and more of our own food. I talk of this desire a lot too and of the necessity of it- and here are these humble mountain folk who have been growing a variety of grains to sustain themselves for GENERATIONS, without chemicals, on 7 year crop rotations and only with their hands.
At this point I am so touched and humbed, tears started to pour from a source within me beyond my control. Why did I not have this very basic of human rights?! Why do most humans from where I hail also not prioritize seed security and community food sustainability at this most basic of levels? I distinctly feel my loss in this way and tears continue to cleanse me. Mario is worried at my tears and I tell him not to worry. I am just so touched by your story, I say. This is what I dream of, and here you all are doing it! You have been doing it for generations. I am just so humbled and thankful to witness this; to be in your presence.
After the potato and grains presentation comes to an end, Ini and I ask him where we can get some seeds and he says, Here let me share with you. He gives us some tarwi because we are so excited about this Andean Lupine and starts to select 4 different high altitude potatoes which we insist we cannot grow.
Which is when he reaches for a small round one and says, This one can grow everywhere. It is called Compass. Here, let me get you one.
Scarcely able to believe my ears, I stammer out, Compass…?
Si, compass, Mario confirms.
Incredulous, I glance at Ini with incredible wonder in my heart. This, a potato, is our compass. This, a potato, will lead us on our way home.