We pulled to the side of the road in complete darkness, the rapids of the Vilcanote River rushed through the Sacred Valley of the Incas and drowned out any other sounds. Alfredito and Zulma, got out of the car and started yelling across the river, “Alfredo! Alfredo!” My daughter turned to me in the back seat and asked, “What are we doing here?” “We are on our way to the Chavez’ farm but I don’t know why we’ve stopped here,” I responded. After a pause, I said, “It’s an adventure,” which was my way of telling her to not worry and enjoy the uncertainty.
We had not been in Cusco for more than two weeks when our host family suggested that we come out to their chacra (farm) to help with the corn harvest. My daughter and I were staying with them for six weeks while my wife and son were still in California tying up loose ends before joining us. The chakra has been in the Chavez family for a few generations and is ideally located in the Sacred Valley on a bend in the river between Pisac and the town of San Salvador. Our hosts got back in the car, turned it around and we started to go back the same way we came. My Spanish was still rusty and my daughter was just beginning to learn, so we didn’t have a clear idea about why we had stopped, yelled across a river and started back the way we came. After 20 minutes we entered the main plaza of San Salvador and there we saw Alfredo. We got out of our car and got into his 4-wheel drive SUV and started out along an extremely rocky dirt road. From these developments and few clues from Alfredito’s conversation, I surmised that access to the farm was only by 4-wheel drive and cell phone reception was nonexistent in this part of the Sacred Valley. Indeed, the only way to get to the farm was to drive past the town to the point across the river from the farm and yell for a pickup in San Salvador. After a very bumpy 20 minute ride, we pulled up at the farm and saw kids watching an old black and white television outside, while the adults drank Cusqueña beer and prepared for sleep in their tents. After sharing a beer with the family, my daughter and I went to sleep in our guest room.
At 4:00 a.m. we were awaken by extremely loud Peruvian music from a radio just outside our bedroom window. The laborers were getting up for a long day of harvesting. After 20 minutes of hoping they would turn it off, I rifled through my bag looking for earplugs. I found them and my daughter and I eased back to sleep. At around 7:00 a.m. we got up and roamed around the cornfields watching the 70 or so laborers at work. The high mountains of the Sacred Valley dwarfed the flat river plain in an impossibly beautiful setting. Zulma mentioned that they have received offers for their 40 acre lot, mostly from hotels and upscale bed and breakfast developers. While the offers are tempting, Alfredo, who is a dentist by profession, loves getting to the farm on weekends, driving the tractor and enjoying what he calls terapia (therapy).
Women in colorful blouses, long alpaca skirts, felt hats with their hair in long braids separated the choclos (cob) from the husks and placed them in sacks, to be collected by teenage boys who then carried them to the tractor. Younger women carried babies in multicolor slings on their backs while they worked the field. At the mid-morning break, Zulma brought out oranges for a quick snack. The younger kids munched on the dried corn stalks and offered some to us. My daughter and I tried some; they tasted like sugar cane, only less sweet.
While I helped the boys move the sacks of choclos to the tractor, Zulma put my daughter in charges of quality control. The corn would be dried for a few weeks and then sold at auction to the highest Japanese bidder, to be turned into dried corn snacks. Zulma explained that the Japanese were very particular and only wanted pure white corn. My daughter’s job was to find all the purple, orange, pink and red choclos and remove them from the 75 by 40 foot rectangle of dried corn that was laid out on the ground in front of the house.
After the long day, we sat on the front porch with the foreman and drank some warm beer, congratulating ourselves on a productive day. We all shared the same small glass, even though I knew there were plenty more in the kitchen. It was a sign of camaraderie and brotherhood to drink from the same glass and after every turn, we’d leave a bit in the glass and deliberately pour it on the ground, an offering to the Pachamama (“Mother Earth”), the Andean fertility goddess who is responsible for planting and harvesting. It was the least we could do for another successful day at the corn harvest.