Saturday, February 19, 2011

Still Life with Guinea Pig

For a month, Miguel conducted a steady teasing campaign to get me to try guinea pig, a delicacy in Peru.

“It is delicious,” he would exclaim any time el cuy came up, which it did regularly. “And it is so healthy, so nutritious. It is a very clean animal. It eats nothing but grasses and it never has any injections.”

The guinea pigs in Chachapoyas and the surrounding department of Amazonas do seem to live pretty happy lives, running freely around local kitchens in little flocks, eating the big bunches of fresh alfalfa people on the street carry home under their arms. Peruvian cuy do seem to be treated well--at least until it’s time for the stew pot. And cuy is comida típica, the kind of traditional local specialty I usually seek out when I travel. I’ve eaten moose and seal and caribou—why not cuy?

Well, because when I think of guinea pigs, I think of specific little critters who have been members of the family—Goldie, Herm, Bianca Castafiore. But slowly it dawned on me that Miguel wanted to share a piece of his own life. He was raised with guinea pigs in the kitchen, and he said several times that no one prepares them as well as his mother does. So when he invited me to go to the village where he grew up and find out for myself, I realized that what he was offering was actually an honor.

“Sí,” I said finally. “Gracias.”

“I think you will like it,” he said, smiling. “And you will leave Amazonas with the taste of cuy in your mouth.”

The trip got postponed a couple times, but finally, two days before I had to leave Chachapoyas, we were in a colectivo heading down the steep, switchbacked road toward the Rio Utcubamba. The road was paved on the Chachapoyas side of the river, but once we crossed the bridge it turned to gravel and climbed steeply up the green mountain on the other side. Agaves clung to the rocky slopes and the other vegetation was shrubby and low to the ground. After a half hour, we got out of the car at a side road that ran across the mountainside. From there, it was an hour and a half walk to Inguilpata.

We were up near the top of the ridge directly opposite Chachapoyas, the deep river valley between us and the town, white clouds hanging over the hilltops and drifting through the valleys. The road was level for long stretches and curved in and out as we worked our way along the mountainside. Not a single vehicle passed, just a man walking with a horse loaded with sacks of potatoes. The occasional adobe house sat silently on a nearby rise, and all we could hear was the calling of the birds.

This road was built about 15 years ago, Miguel said, and before that people used pathways for themselves and their horses. Ten years ago, Inguilpata got electricity and before that, they used kerosene lamps and candles and cooked with firewood. His mother still cooked that way. When he and his brothers were children, they had roamed these hills collecting wood and carrying it home on their backs.

Just before we reached Inguilpata, we stopped at a field that belongs to his father, a prettily situated deep green patch of beans and huacatoy, sloping down a slight hill, with a mare and foal at the boggy lower end. Then we climbed back to the road and up the hill, branching off onto a steepish and rocky path with the occasional adobe building alongside it. I stopped for breath and looked back the way we’d come, at the high hills rising around us, the red cut in the earth where there’d been a landslide and a man (drunk at the time, Miguel said) had lost his life years ago. The simple adobe structures seemed part and parcel of the tilled earth, literally made from it and eroding back into it once their time was past. With the steepsided hills around them and bits of cloud drifting past, they were beautiful.

We went a little further. Miguel opened a door in an adobe wall and we were in a hard clay courtyard onto which tile-roofed adobe rooms opened. Rough wood pillars held the roof beams, and from the pillars hung a line of laundry. His mother came out from a doorway at the far side, and we ducked under the clothesline to say hello. She had a warm, round face, crinkly eyes and black hair pulled back, and she was shorter and rounder than me, dressed in a pink t-shirt with a floral design, a knee-length skirt, thin white socks rolled down to her ankles and muddy flatsoled shoes. Silver earrings dangled from her ears.

She asked us to go into the sala. I wondered if I should take off my muddy boots, but the floor of the sala was also dried clay, so I decided muddy boots probably weren’t much of an issue. It was a large, simple room with wooden beams across the ceiling, thick adobe walls, and two deep windows on the wall that faced the courtyard. Inside, narrow wooden benches lined all the walls, which were covered with diplomas, family pictures, pictures cut from magazines, and black and white headshots of Mexican movie stars along with one of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. Around the tops of the walls, vinyl records hung at intervals. Miguel said his father had the first record player around here and this had been quite the party room in its day.

His mother came in, spread a cloth on the small table at one end of the room, and put out a snack for us--the rolls Miguel brought from town, a bowl of moté (boiled corn kernels), plates of a porous white cheese made there in Inguilpata, and tin mugs of sweet, thick, incredibly good coffee. Later I learned that Miguel’s family grew both the coffee and the sugarcane right there.

She didn’t sit at the table with us, but on one of the benches along the side of the room. Then she went back to the kitchen and after we finished, we went to find her.

She was peeling potatoes in front of the fire, thin sticks of wood blazing in an adobe enclosure that was open on one side. Over the fire was a grate and on it several black pots. There was a wonderful smell, onions, carrots, and herbs I couldn’t identify.

In the corner on the other side of the door from the stove were the guinea pigs, five or six of them in view, most a mix of gold and white. They had an adobe enclosure, like the stove open on one side, maybe four feet deep and five wide and it too was open in the front so they could come and go as they liked.

“Can I play with them?” I asked Miguel. “Do they bite?”

I crouched down and Miguel’s mother came over, smiling at me. She lifted the edge of one of the broken clay vessels that were lying there. Six or eight more cuy huddled there and they scattered immediately, making me laugh. Under another pot were more.

“How many are there?” I asked.

Neither Miguel nor his mother answered and I thought they didn’t hear me.

“How many guinea pigs do you have?” I asked.

His mom said something and Miguel explained.

“If you count them, they die,” he said.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” I said. “Please forget I asked that!”

Miguel took me out the back door, where there was a small porch with more laundry hanging and over to one side a rounded clay structure with a narrow door.

“A bread oven?” I asked. “¿Por pan?”

It was and he taught me the word, horno. We walked around the side of the house, where there was a cluster of banana trees and a small pig with a rope around its neck rooting in the mud, then through the sloping acre or two his father had planted behind the house. There were many more banana trees and a large stand of sugar cane, corn with bean plants twining up the stalks, the short bushy plant with corn-like leaves they grow to feed the guinea pigs. There were cabbages and sweet potatoes. There were coffee trees growing in the shade of taller trees. There were apple trees bound to the adobe wall that ran along one edge of the property. There was a horse-powered mill for grinding sugar cane and extracting the juice. The variety and abundance were beautiful, and it was all intensely green, orderly and well-cared-for.  

When we went back through the house, I asked about the woven bags hanging on the wall. Miguel’s mother showed me more of her handiwork, thick, intricately woven blankets, mats made from loosely looped wool hooked into burlap, cross-stitched samplers, one of them made by Miguel’s 14-year-old brother in school. She showed me where she sets up her loom by pushing tall thin pegs into holes in the clay floor along one interior wall of the courtyard.

Miguel and I went out again and walked further up the mud road, which still felt like countryside, the adobe houses at some distance from one another, some farmers and horses down on the broad green meadow where Miguel said they played futbol when he was a child. 

The houses stood closer together as we neared the plaza, but many still had sheep lounging near the doorways and chickens ran around the yards and along the road. But there were no people on the street, no sounds of children playing. Miguel had told me that most young people have left Inguilpata, but still it came as a surprise that it seemed so deserted. 

Near the plaza--the house where Miguel was born.
After a turn round the plaza, we walked down a muddy path, heading for the outlying field where his mother had told him his father was working. He waved to a woman in the back yard of a house.

“I know the people here,” he said. “We’ll go in and say hello.”

He opened the wooden door in the adobe wall and went into a hallway, whistling, then stopped before a doorway off the hall and spoke to someone in the room. I sensed I should hang back and did, and a minute or so later a woman came out, just beginning to pull a t-shirt over her naked breasts. This was Miguel’s tia—his mother’s sister. She obviously didn’t know I was there and I felt embarrassed for her when she saw me. But she’d clearly been comfortable chatting with her nephew while naked from the waist up.

We stayed just a moment and went on. And when we didn’t find his father in the potato field, we walked back to his parents’ house, where lunch was ready for us. I asked to use the bathroom first and there was an exchange in Spanish between Miguel and his mother, some consternation in their voices.
“Do you have to do the first one or the second one?” he asked me.

“The first one,” I said, grinning.

“Which one should she use?” he asked his mother and then he directed me around the back of the house to a small red outhouse. In it was the trip’s first squat toilet, a foot-shaped wooden board on either side.

When I came back, Miguel was waiting by the big rectangular cistern with a small white bucket of rainwater and a big blue bar of soap. He had me hold my hands over the concrete slab next to the cistern, poured water over them and passed me the soap. Then he poured more water over my hands so I could rinse them, and I repeated the ritual for him.

Again, his mother laid the table in the sala and again she retreated to the kitchen.

“Won’t she eat with us?” I asked Miguel and he went to talk with her.

“She’s waiting for my father,” he said when he came back.

She brought us a thick soup of potatoes and greens, and then tin plates of rice, potatoes and . . . there it was, the guinea pig, two small haunches all brown and delicious-smelling on top of the rice.

“It’s time,” I said, grinning at Miguel and holding up one piece to his mom. “Mi primero . . .”

It was good. It was very good—moist and tender and flavorful, tasting as healthy as Miguel had promised. And by then it was not too hard to see that the guinea pigs—like the hens and the sheep and the pigs and the bananas and the sugarcane and the coffee and the corn—were something tended to and grown with care, something a person could eat with gratitude and pleasure.

Soon after we ate, his father came in, wearing knee-high rubber boots, a woven shoulder bag and a ball cap, some kind of short-handled, wide-bladed hoe over his shoulder. He was small and wiry, very brown from the sun, with dark observant eyes and an air of humor and quiet charm. He looked at me curiously and when Miguel introduced us said warmly, “Thank you for visiting our home.”

He sat down next to Miguel’s mother and took her hand in his dark hand. They smiled at each other and he patted her knee, affection palpable between them. After eleven children and who knows how many years together, it was affecting to see. Then he went off and came back with two bunches of bananas he’d just cut from a tree, one for me, one for Miguel.

Miguel said we had to go, and I asked if I could take their picture first. His dad went off again.

“To get his hat,” said Miguel, “so he’ll look like a real farmer.”  

Then there were kisses all around and thanks and goodbyes and we were off, the bananas in my backpack, each of us with a stalk of sugar cane in hand. 

We walked for two hours down the steep mountainside to the Utcubamba, where Miguel said we could catch a colectivo headed for Chachapoyas. When we reached the river—full, rushing and brown—we  crossed the bridge and then sat in the shade in front of a locked tienda, waiting for a car to come along.

Miguel broke off pieces of sugar cane for each of us and we peeled off the outer layers with our teeth, chewed the sweet pulp and spat out the fiber. And so I left Amazonas with the taste in my mouth not only of cuy but of sugar cane and homegrown potatoes, and of coffee roasted and brewed on the same land where it was grown.



Segundo Miguel Arista Tejada said...

Great memories Kathleen. Today, I was reading almost everythings about your posts, and all of them are wonderfully beautiful.

Segundo Miguel Arista Tejada said...

Great memories dear Kathleen. I was appreciating, especially this post, and it is actually wonderful... I remenber as it was yesterday, when we were the gests at my parents´ home. When my mother was still alive. Beautiful times..

Kathleen Kearns said...

Lovely to hear from you, dear Miguel! Thank you for reading and for your very kind words. I remember this special day--and your mother--fondly. It doesn't seem like five years ago, does it?