Life and Death in Peru

Map of PeruToday is the big day at Emilio’s and Lucrecia’s hacienda, a cotton farm in the coastal desert strip of Peru, five hours by car south of Lima. Soon, my Peruvian in-laws will get ready to butcher a goat and a lamb to honor our annual arrival from the U.S. We’ll have a feast.

It is Christmas 1976, and the summer heat in the sun is extreme. The white concrete dwelling, at the heart of the estate, is open and welcoming in the shade of a royal poinciana tree—the blazing splendor of its blossoms showers the ground like a crimson carpet. Cumbias, waltzes, huaynos, and boleros blast from a radio wrapped in plastic to protect it from the mortifying sandy breezes.

Lush masses of purple bougainvilleas drape the adjacent patio where my husband, children, and I are cooling off after the morning Cessna flight over the nearby Nazca Lines—the mysterious desert geoglyphs, two thousand years old, seen only from the air. Surrounded by our solicitous native relatives, among them my quiet mother-in-law, Señora Baldomera, we sip maracuyá juice, passion fruit nectar, chatting in the oasis of a peach orchard.

“Maria Reiche,” says my brother–in-law, Emilio, “is a German lady who has walked the desert alone, every day for the last thirty-five years.” Lively, striking in his impeccably starched white guayabera shirt against his olive complexion and his thick black hair and whiskers, Emilio runs and brings us a book of primitive Nazca drawings. “The local people thought she was crazy, but no,” he says. “She has dedicated her life to preserve and study dozens of these etched animal figures and thousands of lines, both inexplicable, on the arid Red Plain just north of here.” He concludes, “Miss Reiche is our national treasure, residing in our best hotel.”

Aerial view of a Nazca drawing

We listen in awe. What could have happened here? Maybe aliens used the lines to land? Maybe Inti, the Inca sun god, had given his people orders from above? The raw, primeval essence of these ancient civilizations—dwelling fearlessly on earthquake-ridden Ring of Fire faults, trapped between the ocean and the longest continental mountain range in the world, and surrounded by nothing but sand and more sand—so mystifying. Yet they knew the movements of constellations and planets, mastered math rules, and performed skull trepanations, as found in their mummies.

Yesterday, we drove to buy the dinner animals from Jesus, an Indian who lives with his family in the corridor of a waterless riverbed. The ample desert scenery: sand, stones, and whirlwinds, with no vegetation as far as the eye could reach, had accompanied us all the way. The sharp gray contour of the Andes Mountains beautifully framed the left horizon, as seen from the Panamericana coastal highway heading south.

The Andes mountains

We walked the last portion to the riverbank and down to the parched pebbled bottom, where thorny bushes surrounded remnants of a cane fence and a roofless adobe shack—slapped mud and straw. As if it had grown out of the desert, the shack blended seamlessly with the surroundings, sheltered by a tamarind tree covered by dust.

When we came close, seven or eight small children, shoeless and in underwear, appeared in the dwelling’s openings, followed by Jesus. A dozen or so startled goats and sheep swept a cloud of dirt as they sprang away in panic. Chickens pecked, ducks quacked, and a leashed mutt convulsed and barked in a frenzy. A mixture of animal odors filled the quaking hot air.

Jesus approached us. “Señores have a wish in mind? I’m here to serve you,” he said. His bronze skin, stretched over his facial bones as tightly as cowhide on a drum, revealed a lifetime of arduous work in the local riches, the sun-baked cotton fields.

“Two young ones, this time,” said Emilio, patting Jesus on the shoulder.

“Maybe the nice Americana lady would want a pair of our children?” Jesus’ pregnant woman said to me. “They can cook and clean for you, for life. We have fifteen to feed. Too many.” She rubbed her stomach. “Take the ones you like, Señora, please.” She stood in the tamarind’s shade, flashing her pearly teeth, her body so young and wilting, carrying an alarmingly pale infant on her back in a colorful textile wrap tied to her neck.

“No, gracias,” I said, shocked, mortified. “I already have many of my own.”

Emilio asked our two children, carelessly hopping and laughing among the animals, to choose a lamb and a goat. We paid Jesus, and the men carried the sacrificial animals in their arms, stepping up between endless dunes to the car parked on the side of the main road.

Today at noon, after we ate the sumptuous Nazca tamales, our seven-year-old daughter, Teresita, screams, “Oh, no! They’re going to kill them now! Very soon!” Her Spanish is seasoned with a heavy American accent. “Why do they have to kill them?” She jumps and crosses her legs in desperate need of a bathroom, but afraid to miss the excitement, insists on staying next to me. Our son, Francisco, eight, waits motionless and tongue-tied. Even my husband, Pancho, an abdominal surgeon, stays back among the guests, perplexed. The tantalizing silence is deafening, as if we’re waiting for a bloodshed ceremony to appease an insatiable Inca god.

Drawing of an Incan god

In the freshness of a grapevine arbor, profuse with green fruit, I stand, camera in hand, and observe Emilio, for the first time, as he gets ready to slaughter. Two men hold each tied animal still, while his expert right hand shines a blade and with swift movements slices the two white throats. Four jugulars burst with blood the helpers immediately channel into metal buckets. Surrounding the sacrificial site, twenty-five pairs of human eyes pop in anticipation of a hearty dinner.

“Mama, I won’t eat them. Never, ever,” says Teresita, who’s been hiding her head in the folds of my skirt. She peeks left and right and runs off into the cotton field chased by her Peruvian cousins and her brother.

It is mid afternoon and the skinned and quartered animals are ready to cook.

The word has spread in town about our arrival from the U.S. and more guests turn up. All the men gather in the patio’s shade, sitting in a circle, animated, holding lowball glasses filled to the brim. Before I have a chance to rush inside the house with my camera, a note pad, and a pen to shadow the cooks, an irresistibly appetizing concoction of smells of the indigenous cooking has permeated the walls of the residence. Forgetting the carnage, I want to sing.

In a kitchen where an angel blue sky is the roof, a flock of women, under the baton of Señora Baldomera, gather around two gas stoves. They brown chunks of lamb in gigantic pots while turning and sprinkling them with turmeric, salt, pepper, and cumin. They slice onions and hot peppers, and crush garlic between two smooth stones. They throw carrots, cilantro, celery, and lemon grass into a blender, grind them, and add all the ingredients into the pots with the lamb meat. On a side table, a raw mixed-seafood ceviche marinates with the juice of a dozen limes. A mound of rice, the manna of the Latin American people, is cooking on a separate burner. It’s a must.

A bowl of ceviche

The peels and unused chunks of vegetables, fruit, and meat cook in an enormous pan filled with boiling water. It too, emanates a delectable whiff. “It can’t be soup. No?” I ask. “No, no. Food for dogs,” one of the women answers with a chuckle. Nothing is wasted.

The goat bakes in the oven, creating more irresistible aromas that burn a hole in my stomach and awaken my carnivorous primate’s instinct. My sister-in-law, Lucrecia, all welcoming smiles and deep charcoal eyes, guesses my thoughts and offers me a steaming plate of a stringy greenish vegetable that I devour with delight.

“This is superb. What is it?” I ask, ready to take more notes.

“Cochayuyo, seaweed garnished and sautéed with freshly clotted blood,” she says. “A delicacy here, in our coastal Peru.”

It’s too late to reverse my gluttonous action. Besides, what’s wrong with eating blood? One day my flesh and my blood—an infinitesimal link in nature’s food chain—will enrich the Earth’s soil and complete the cycle.

Evening arrives and dinner is ready. Now the desert temperature is just right. We sit in a breezeway at a table for thirty celebrating life and death. Although tough, the goat and lamb meat taste to perfection. The men are merry and smell of pisco, beer, and our smooth J. B. American bourbon (the latter a commodity they’ve been waiting for since last Christmas); they dance to the blaring Latin music rhythms without leaving their chairs—their machismo so elegantly concealed by their enticing charisma and sweet compliments . . . Their poverty, political unrests, and Shining Path’s terror campaign forgotten for a few hours. General cheer and increasingly colorful jokes soar into the air. Homemade mango ice cream, desert’s miracle, churned by Lucrecia only for very special occasions and very special guests, completes the feast.

As if bloodstained, a Pacific sunset paints distant Andean summits with a pink hue . . . .

A colorful sunset

You can visit Peru with Michael Hayes this semester by signing up for his class: Peru: Much More than Machu Picchu.  Like Junia, Michael has family in Peru and will show you aspects of the country tourists never see. — Editor

Eduvigia (Junia) Ancaya is a nonfiction writer who has taken creative writing courses at USF and numerous courses at OLLI. She has recently published two nonfiction books honoring her parents’ saga during WW II :  Struggle for Freedom: Marta’s Courage—A Memoir  and Stefan’s Journey on the Road of Sorrows.

A native of Poland, who escaped Communist tyranny in 1946, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1963. She is a retired physician.

Mother and daughter
Junia and Teresita, 2019


16 Replies to “Life and Death in Peru”

  1. This a a terrific piece–so rich and colorful and vivid. And I love how you evoke the mysterious and powerful presence of centuries past. Wonderful photos too. Congrats!

    1. Thanks Bob for your encouraging comment in my old age. Coming from a wonderful writer like you, it’s heaven to me.
      The beautiful photos and artwork is “all Al,” except the sunset and the one of Teresita and my bony self.
      The story was conceived during Professor Ciresi’s course. The assignment was: “Write about food,” so very long ago.

    1. Thank you Linda. It’s the Peruvian desert people carrying water daily on their shoulders from far away wells that fascinated me. Such a strong and determined race!

  2. Junia, what a gift you have given to us all. The intimacy of your writing drew me in. I feel as if I know your family and know a deeper part of you. Excellent writing. Both the close up personal moments and the mystical moments were so vivid. Thank you

    1. Sara, just as I thought I had expressed something wrong–maybe the way I had visualized Peru and the Peruvians–you’ve written such a lovely comment. Thanks. Fifty-seven years ago, I fell in love with a Peruvian and later with Peru and the desert people’s love for life in spite of extreme circumstances.

  3. Junia: The story is a vivid picture of the life in Peru. Many noticeable contrasts are brought up : the immensity of the surrounding arid mountains, and the oasis of the farm with trees and flowers and the presence, not too far away, of the remains of the ancient cultures that inhabited the area. The poverty of many and the lack of population control that aggravates the problem. The celebrations of the family and the menu details . I, just like Teresita your daughter, would not have enjoyed the meal after observing the sacrifice of the animals that happened before.
    thank you for sharing those memories with us.

    1. Dear Sonia, thanks for your lovely comment. You are my dear Latin friend of half a century. We met in 1964-65, when we had just arrived to the US, foreigners, trying to open our way in this great country. I have very fond memories of our exploring of Philly and surroundings. I wished you lived closer to Florida!

  4. Junia — what a beautiful piece evoking the beauty of the land, the smells and tastes of great food and the love of family. I’m thrilled to see the picture of you and your beautiful daughter! Thank you for sharing this wonderful memory with us.

    1. Thank you Anne. You are always so supportive of my writing and such a warm friend. Slowly, I’m being surrounded by such an intellectual, enchanting group of people in my poetry and other literature classes. Such an honor!

  5. Thanks – I enjoyed your story that brought back memories of my flight over the Peruvian Andes into the Amazonas. It was a small adventure in a twin engine Navajo … I remember the goat stew dishes and wish there were more photos

    1. Very pleased, Neil. How brave of you to fly in such circumstances! I immigrated to America in a 4-motor Panam, flying BETWEEN the Andean peaks. Youth, divine treasure . . .

  6. My dear mamusia,

    As always, your stories evolve into a magical landscape. You are my inspiration! You capture the essence of the experience I had while visiting Peru. I enjoyed reading the comments and I look forward to learning more with and through you. The pictures look terrific!

    1. My sweet Teresita, my “editor-in-chief,” my American English teacher, and as of lately, my “mom.” Thanks for the many gentle memories we have together and for your daily support and sunrise love. mama.

  7. Dear Junia,
    I enjoyed your story very much. I felt like I was right there experiencing with you what was happening. Your descriptions were so vivid, I have them in my mind’s eye. You are a gifted writer and I hope to read many more of your stories!

    1. My dear lifetime friend from Lake Wales. You know my life and my long association with the Peruvians and their unique culture–I’ve given them two sons and a daughter, or maybe the other way around? 🙂
      Thanks for your constructive comments. I miss you!

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