Rising from the Ruins
I loved Peru—the terrain, the cuisine, the artistry, and the people. I lived there for two years in my early twenties. The country captured my mind, body, and soul in 1965. And then there was Antonio, the university student who claimed my heart. Love and life in my Shangri-La was magical. Why would I ever leave?
The Andes mountains won me before Antonio ever did. Between my Peace Corps home in Abancay and the Incan capital of Cusco stood a string of 17,000-foot snow-capped peaks. Their white tops sparkled, too eye-watering to look at for long in the bright high-altitude sunshine. In the moonlight, the peaks gave off a mysterious, fascinating glow. Thoroughfares twisted through valleys that skirted the base of expansive mountains and continued between towns for 125 miles. My stomach fluttered each time I crossed the Apurimac River that flowed 3,000 feet below. The enormity and beauty of these soaring and plummeting natural forms made my body tingle, especially when I traveled the winding dirt roads with my dark-haired novio.
Scenery nourished my soul while Peruvian food filled my stomach. Peruvians flavored their food with just the right amount of cumin, garlic, hot pepper, and other condiments, to make any food delicious. The spicy smells of the exotic, traditional dishes of anticuchos (beef heart), and cuy (guinea pig), roasting over hot coals on Cusco’s street corners and in its high-class restaurants, made my mouth water. I ate with gusto any dish made with one of the region’s 3,000 types of potatoes. Papas a la huancayina, potatoes smothered in a velvety cheese sauce, counted as both an appetizer and a main dish. I ordered the simpler, lomo saltado, beef strips with potatoes and tomatoes, whenever available. The black, yellow, and red shades of the dish were as mouth-watering as the colors woven into the crafts I bought.
Intriguing Inca-design fabrics in sunflower yellow with sea-wave turquoise or tomato reds that faded into rosy pinks lured me into Lima’s fabric stores the few times I visited the capital. A meter of the pink cotton material would make a size-ten sleeveless dress for me to wear in Abancay’s warm summers. The muted color brought out my blue-gray eyes. The turquoise and yellow went into my Peace Corps trunk for a future use. Blankets, sweaters, hats, and slippers made from alpaca wool exchanged trunk space with the dresses I’d sewn in California and brought to Peru in the fall of 1964. Local women asked to buy my homemade dresses when I departed Abancay for the States twenty months later. To the four trunks destined for California, I added a fluffy white stuffed alpaca and a baby-sized poncho, hat, and pair of socks. I wished I’d had room for more of the women’s hats that I’d seen in the Cusco area. The varying types of headwear defined which village a woman came from. Unfortunately, I had room for only the montera style I liked best.
Ollantaytambo women wore bowler hats. In Chinchero women sported bright red and indigo blue flat monteras. Maras ladies wore tall, white stovepipe hats perched above thick, black braids that twisted down their backs. Bright multicolored outfits clothed the women, but not the men. They dressed in drab gray and brown knicker-type pants and regular shirts. Only their hand-woven alpaca ponchos displayed color. Stripes that ranged from orange to red brightened these cape-type coverings that protected them from sudden downpours. Our neighbor in Abancay wove the blanket-sized wraps across upright sticks in our shared side yard.
The residents of Abancay and its outlying areas treated my roommate Marie and me like one of their own. Local ranchers and a friendly clergyman performed magic tricks for our entertainment. Physicians at the local hospital taught us basic medical procedures to provide first aid for residents in the isolated countryside we hoped to serve. Zoila and Zulma, unmarried sisters, made certain we had what we needed for our tiny storeroom house—a pot for cooking, a sewing machine, or an iron. They helped us fit into our adopted town with invitations to movies and festival dances. Members of our girls’ clubs taught us how to cook quinoa. And thanks were offered at every turn.
Our P.E. students expressed gratitude for helping them compete in Abancay’s annual gymnastics drill competition. The local agricultural agency showered us with praise when our 4-H club president won the regional competition by demonstrating how to make potato pancakes with the secret ingredient of beer. Life in Peru had been good.
Much as I loved my Peruvian world, I couldn’t live in the Andes forever. Antonio had asked me if I would, several times during the sixteen months we were falling in love. I always said “no.” One reason—he had no plans for supporting a family.
Antonio was in his third year studying economics at the university. At the last minute, as I prepared to leave his glorious country, I agreed to marriage because I didn’t want to leave him—and I was pregnant with his child. I couldn’t see our future in Peru whenever I looked at the practical side of life and love. I suggested an alternate path—come with me to the U.S.
The same qualities I loved about the Andes made living there for the rest of my life impossible. Cusco’s 12,000 ft. altitude hampered my digestion and breathing. Cold winters in the thin air felt even colder than the frigid seasons I’d survived as a child in Montana. The different holidays and the spicy food made me homesick for the traditions and dishes of my country. I’d been away from California for two years and missed the climate and my family—especially now that I would soon have a baby to consider.
Life in the States would give my new husband and me a more secure future. Work and educational opportunities existed in greater abundance there. Though I hated to rob Peru of one of its intelligent youths, I believed we could have a better life together only if Antonio exchanged his country for mine.
All he knew of the US was from American movies and me. He spoke no English. He had little work experience. He had to finish college. My country demanded hard work, fluency in English, and an employable skill in order to earn a livable income. Nevertheless, he’d chosen to leave his home country for me. But love couldn’t guarantee the life of security, excitement, and learning I wanted. I approached our future with trepidation. Could our love survive the pressures and faster pace in the US? Would I wonder if we should have remained in the land of the Incas where there had been adventure, passion, and love?