Farewell, Homeland

by Stephanie Robles (Peru)

Making a local connection Peru


Am I dreaming? Mere meters ahead, a middle-aged, short woman stood between two full-grown bulls that were poised for battle. With arms extended as if trying to break up the fight, and in tears, she shouted: “Stop! What will become of me?” “Maria move! They’ll trample you!” I screamed while her granddaughter, Lily, clung to me, wailing. We held our breath for what felt like an eternity until, just as suddenly as the commotion started, it ended: the bulls stopped huffing and stomped in opposite directions. It was only a matter of seconds. They’d been fighting for three days and even nights, when their bellows, topped with Maria’s worried sobs, would repeatedly interrupt our sleep. Squinting in the fiery sunlight, I think back on the reason why I’m here, off-the-grid in my country’s highlands. A week ago, I left the relative comfort of the capital and headed to Huancavelica, a rural province in the Peruvian Andes where 50% of inhabitants live in extreme poverty. It’s here, in the settlement of Chacoya, where my mother was born 58 years ago. I’d often longed to visit but had no connections left in the area. Then, out of sheer luck, I contacted Maria, a native kind enough to host me in her adobe home that sat hillside. Lily was keeping her company until school started in her city, 200 kilometers of mostly unpaved roads away. Our days were spent helping Maria out. We started at five, with the roosters’ crows for soundtrack. The view that greeted us, vast green pastures with huge mountains as a backdrop and the clearest, bluest skies, was enough to send our hearts soaring. Stepping outside was a different story, though. The icy, dry air that hit us, reminded me of our location: the austere Sierra. If those pastures were green, it wasn’t thanks to nature’s kindness but to Maria’s daily efforts. We then hurried ten minutes north towards the water well, carrying two buckets each—thrice per morning. Our hard work paid off in excess considering what awaited us back home: the most delicious spread of cheese, bread, jam, potatoes, and eggs. Maria maintained a barn next door, and she cultivated different grains and vegetables in its surroundings. She once told me how much this helped when rearing her four children, all of whom were now adults, and all gone–and she was so glad they left. I wondered why, given the peaceful existence one can lead here. With sadness in her eyes, she explained, “This is my family’s land, but I didn’t want my children to be farmers. It’s a tough life of hard work that, in the end, wears us away to nothing. I’ll never learn to read, I’ll never travel…” She made them all study and leave. Her one dream was to see them become professionals, and they did. Maria didn’t cry about the bulls fighting out of love. Although it was clear she had a bond with her animals, the bovines were her only cash-generating assets. While she took some of her cow’s milk and the hen’s eggs, it was all meant for personal consumption. Commerce was virtually impossible given the location. The bulls, however, helped with the plowing, and when that was done, they were rented out to neighboring landowners. Heading out to collect water might seem feasible, even novel, for a couple of days. Doing so daily to survive is exhausting. Lily will soon, like me, come back to find no relatives in Chacoya. Some will wonder why she left, why she let her grandmother’s state wither to nothing, why she let their ancestral language disappear. Many disprove of Andean natives migrating towards the already overpopulated big cities. But when faced with complete indifference from their governments and societies, Lily’s grandma–just like mine, just like tens of thousands like them did–already made her choices. Maybe Lily will become the great doctor, writer or politician that was trapped in those who came and went unseen, untaught before her. Outside, goats are bleating and Maria is feeding them while singing in quechua to the rhythm of a well-known huayno: Kawsaspaycha-kutimusaq,perlaschallay/ Wañuspayqa-manañacha If I live, I'll come back, little-pearl (my homeland)/ If I die, this is goodbye.