Last December I met Justina Huamán. She and her family live in the Patacancha Peasant Community at 3810 meters above sea level. Justina and three of her neighbors go to the Urubamba farmers’ market every Wednesday to sell the medicinal herbs they collect, very close to their homes. They are joined by five other women from the Huilloc community, located about fifteen minutes before reaching Patacancha. Justina is a Quechua speaker, she understands very little Spanish, but it is not difficult to understand her as the language of the traditional medicinal plants is almost the same. Although there may be some variation in the common names from one community to another, their benefits are the same.
Its Monday, the first day of August and I woke up early to arrive at 8:00 a.m. at the community where Justina and Mateo, her son-in-law, were waiting for me. It coincides with a very important day for the Andean man, the day where they celebrate the Pachamama (Mother Earth). During this dry and frosty season, mother earth that has already given us everything throughout the year and now remains thirsty and strengthless, receives from us, her children, protection and nourishment through our payments.
I started to climb from Ollantaytambo to Patacancha and on the way I met Mrs. Francisca Quispe who was carrying 3 sacs of wheat that she planned to exchange for beans within the peasant communities of Patacancha and Huilloc. This is known as ¨trueque¨, and it is an exchange between products from different ecosystems without the use of money, which has been practices since pre-Inca times.
The route ascends, a very clear creek borders the route, on the other side some small platforms where capulis (Prunus serotina Ehrhart), chachacomas (Escallonia resinosa R. & P.) and molles (Schinus molle L.) grow, welcome us. We continue climbing a little higher and encounter many mutuy plants (Senna birostris (Dombey ex Vogel) H.S. Irwin & Barneby), which also usually grow in Moray. We use the flowers from these shrubs in the MIL bar, dehydrate them and use them for a floral drink in combination with other medicinal flowers from the surrounding area. Here, they traditionally use it for a soup called lisas uchu. We continue walking and I also see tin tin tin fruits (Passiflora pinnatistipula) some have been eaten by a bird called chiwaco, a small dark brown bird with a yellow beak. The tin tin tin entangles its thin, flexible stems in the q’euñas (Polylepis incana H. & B.), as if it were embracing them and thanking them for protecting it.
After an hour we arrive at Patacancha, Mateo is waiting for me right on the bridge as we had arranged. We walk a little further to Justina’s house, I help him carry some products that he had exchanged and ordered from Ollantaytambo. While we walk, he tells me that he will cook a pachamanca for some people who will visit him today. We arrive at Justina’s house and at the entrance there is an arch with some branches of aromatic plants, like a barrier for bad energy. We enter and I find Justina cleaning the roots she has collected the day before, the same roots she will take to the market to sell on Wednesday. I recognize some of these roots that are part of Mil Centro’s bevereges.
Nicolasa, Justina’s daughter, brings us some boiled eggs and potatoes of the beriendos variety, she tells me that they only grow it here. The potatoes are grown with compost that they prepare themselves, a technique that uses all the manure from their own animals (guinea pigs, sheep and alpacas). Some parboiled potatoes contain papa curu (Premnotrypes vorax H.), a worm that infests organic potatoes, and which they traditionally use to treat anemia and bronchi by roasting them in qanalla. I had once eaten it in another community, it adds flavor and fat to the potato. Mateo mentions that they roast it and eat it as a snack.
While he takes some hot water from the kitchen, we all take some ceramic glasses. In front of us, there is a table with different herbs; I take out the coca and the chuta bread that I brought to share. I take some qunuja (Satureja boliviana (Bentham) Briquet), as it is called here, (in Moray kunuca by the rural communities of Mullakas Misminay and K’acllaraccay and in the sacred valley cjuñuca), it is an aromatic herb that grows between 3800 – 4100 masl. This plant is also used in the pairing of Mil Centro, to accompany the moment of extreme altitude.
Justina has six daughters and her daughter Nicolasa has five. For Justina it is a blessing to have daughters and granddaughters. She is a midwife, bearer of a millenary sapiensal wealth and skill, which provides care to women during pregnancy and childbirth. This knowledge has been lost over the years, and she is happy because she was able to help most of the women in her family and daughters, applying the medicinal plants she collects herself. Justina acquired this knowledge from her mother-in-law when she was a little girl. Today at dawn, she went down to support a pregnant woman in Ollantaytambo, people recognize her great work. Nicolasa, her daughter, follows the same path and at the same time she spins and dyes with plants that her mother collects. The wool is obtained from their own alpacas and sheep. Jhoselyn, Nicolasa’s daughter, is in charge of herding her flocks around the community, she also accompanies her grandmother to the market in Urubamba and helps her with the translation from Quechua to Spanish.
Mateo, Nicolasa’s husband, is the person in charge of making the pachamanca (traditional ground cooking) at home. Her oldest daughter, Bertha, 15 years old, is making roses with colored paper, she is also responsible for the drawings on the adobe walls of her house that she made using different colored clay. In one corner, there is a man with a chakitaqlla (foot plow), in the center a kantu flower, and at the end a woman weaving, she is the artist of the house.
Nicolasa takes out her loom that she has been weaving for many days and begins to weave. Next to her is a bag with coca leaves,she takes some to her mouthwhile her hands intertwine the thin threads.
Mateo still makes exchanges with people from the lower part of Ollantaytambo, exchanging chuño for corn to cook mote or lawa (cream). The lawa is made by toasting the corn in a qanalla (clay pot), grinding it in a stone pan and accompanying it with charqui (alpaca jerky) that they make themselves, and for flavoring they use the dehydrated qunuja that Justina collects. The exchange is one sac of chuño for sac arroba of corn. This family grows potatoes, mullet, añu, oca, chocho, and beans. Bertha observes the sun and tells us that there is a rainbow around and it is a bad sign. ¨A disease is coming for the people here,” she says, but when this happens with the moon, it is a sign of disease for the animals. Bertha is very curious and talks with the elders of the community when she goes out to graze her herd.
H’ampi, medicine in Quechua.
The qunuja that Justina collects is used to elaborate the Q’aqe at MIL. A compound of 28 botanical species collected in the Andean mountain range and in the surroundings of the restaurant together with the peasant communities. Hampi, a Quechua word that I heard many times here, is used to mention all the plants of medicinal use. Justina teaches us the use she gives to the collected plants, for example, the qunuja used for stomach ache and gastritis. The chachacoma (Escallonia resinosa R. & P.) piqchado to treat tooth pain, qhana (Sonchus oleraceus) for cholerin, Yawar ch’onqa (Oenothera rosea) for kidney, all these plants used in the healing process. All this knowledge, applications and ancestral knowledge are still preserved verbally. Having as respect and place to the earth, apus (hills), the cochas (lagoons) and the Andean forest. Most of the plants we see here are used for gastronomic, medicinal, dyes, vegetable fibers, biocides, and rituals.