Peeling Potatoes in Peru

Story and photos by Crooked Trails traveler Kris Parfitt

“Quen quiere choncho?” Who wants some pig? The man shouts out the window as he pulls up behind us in a Subaru wagon.

Without hesitation, Tammy, one of the founders of Crooked Trails, and I eagerly approach and are given hand-pulled sections of succulent pork. Tammy and the man speak fluently in Spanish and when they both laugh she explains to me that it took longer than normal to cook the pigs for the feast and they had hurried back to the villa hoping they didn’t miss the chicha, the corn-based fermented alcohol the Peruvians love to drink.

We help pull on the tarps under the charred bodies of four fat pigs and lower them to the ground, they are then dragged into the house kitchen for pulling and chopping. Entering the open-air courtyard behind the kitchen I am surrounded by smells, sights and activities like none I’ve witnessed before.  In the fifty–by-fifty foot dirt square there were huge five and 10-gallon pots sitting on fires warming water and broth for soups and stews; brightly colored 50-gallon plastic trash cans lining the back wall filled to the brim with chicha, and a circle of maybe twenty Quechua women sitting and peeling a variety of colorful and different sized potatoes.

Full of about 40 Quechuans and 10 gringos, the courtyard smells of humanity – sweat, broth, blood and smoke. I love it!  Looking around to see where I can be useful I watch two women twist the brightly feathered necks of roosters. These birds are being killed and plucked for the stew that will feed over 300 people during the All Saints Festival in Chinchero, Peru over the next few days.  I have never watched a slaughter and find myself simultaneously intrigued, curious and disgusted.  The dusty color of the dirt, their brightly colored hand-woven skirts, the cock’s vibrantly orange feathers and scarlet blood are intoxicatingly beautiful and brilliant. I watch and take a few pictures as the women wrestle and twist with ease, familiarity and confidence.

Several of my friends help stir the chicha and I learn that the process is long but the results worth the wait. Starting with corn, the cob is stripped and the kernels smashed. They are added to large gallon containers of water to sit for a period of time to ferment. The result is a foamy sweet nectar that goes down easy. Too easy! It’s the perfect drink for a festival!

The Quechua men, in soccer slogan t-shirts, cotton pants, cooking aprons and bare feet stoke the fires under the huge pots and stir the liquids they contain. I don’t speak Quechua and my Spanish is confusing to both me and them! So I ask my host, Vilma, what they are preparing and she said that the big pots of broth are for the roosters, potatoes and goat. Goat? I had not seen the goat. Before Vilma is pulled away to answer other questions she nods her head to the other side of the courtyard where several plastic tubs are sitting in the sun.

I walk over to discover that each one is full with goat guts; stomachs, livers, intestines and blood being warmed in the sun for preparation. While disturbing to see, it was obviously an important dish for the festival. I made a mental note to seek it out later to taste. I never pass up an opportunity to try new foods and dishes when I travel, I find it’s a wonderful way to connect with the people and learn of their culture and history. It’s easier however when you don’t know what is in it before you swallow, but I’m of the curious sort and I look forward to examining the taste and texture of this indigenous feast.

I see my friend Angela sitting with the Quechua women peeling potatoes and I pantomime peeling to the elder woman. She nods, granting me permission to sit and join the group. Angela and I are the only white women in the circle. She speaks some Spanish, but many of these older Quechua women only speak their native tongue.  I am given a hand-forged knife with a hand carved handle and a large yellow potato. I’ve peeled potatoes before so I get right to work, but the blade is dull. I am barely getting the first strip off when I notice the woman sitting next to me finishing hers and picking up another. I’m amazed at how quickly she skinned that tuber. I had barely peeled a second slice when some of the other women are done with theirs and pick up more!

Angela and I smile at each other. She made more headway and I notice her blade, which looks like mine, is sharper. We both laugh at each other – in the three minutes it takes her to peel one potato, the women in the circle have each peeled five.  We noticed that the women are now laughing and pointing at us. It IS funny and we laugh too.

The women laugh harder as I try to quicken my pace and instead fumble the potato which makes us all laugh harder. They are pointing at my hands and saying something through their laughter and I have no idea what they are saying. Many of them now have their hands on their knees and are laughing through tears because of the funny misunderstanding. I’m laughing too because I don’t know what they are trying to tell me nor can I master the simple art of removing another slice of skin.

The elder woman who invited me into the circle stands up, gracefully and swiftly skirts between the many bowls and piles of potatoes and reaches for my hand. In a playfully scolding way she turns my knife “upside down” and laughs with the other women as she returns to her seat across the circle.  Angela and I are in stitches now – I had the knife upside down while attempting to peel the tuber with the dull side.  No wonder!

I grin proudly as I easily removed more slices and the women cheer loudly for both me and Angela. Even while they laughed and cheered us throughout this hilarious moment, the women continued to peel and by the time I finish my first and Angela finishes her second, the group of women have peeled over fifty!

This is my first time connecting with the women of the village and I’m so grateful for the memory. I took pictures that day in the courtyard and my two favorite are of that circle. The first is of Angela smiling and peeling next to a beautiful and weathered Quechua mama (pictured here), the other is now one of my screensaver photos and is of the elder who kindly scolded my knife techniques, surrounded by her women friends. I love these two photos for the memory and especially the participation it took to connect in such a funny and intimate way with these beautiful and vibrant women.

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