Peru, where the sky is a river

Peruvian alpacas like this one become friends to their caretakers. Photograph courtesy Marta Basso.

Written by Marta Basso

(Editor’s note: Marta Basso joins us this month as our woman in Europe, reporting on the scene there at a crucial moment in the continent’s history. But for her first column, written in a manner reminiscent of a Thornton Wilder novel, her thoughts turn to her father’s company in Peru, which manufactures alpaca products, and the love of the earth, a world away….)

The sun was already burning.

Judging from its position in the sky, showing up right above the two-story building where the school was, it was not later than 7 in the morning. Summer had definitely made its appearance. With this thought in mind, Sariri wore the alpaca beanie to protect his head from the bold sunlight and took his path again. His daily routine had always been the same — a couple of pieces of yucca, tea and a stroll through the streets of his small town. A waving hand for the teacher, one for the grocer and, obviously, one for each one of his colleagues. When he was done, he proceeded east to the mountains, to the steep slopes where, since the beginning of time, his best friends were living.

There was Wayra, so-called because he was always the first one to sneak out and the last one to get caught. With him was Chikan, his red fur shining under the first shadow at dawn. Even Killari was not missing. There were many others just like them, each one with a history, in their names and in their eyes. Sariri knew them perfectly. He did not miss a single birth, a single first shearing, a single death.

It can be said that in the district of Paucará — in the region of Huancavelica and the province of Acobamba, Peru, at more than 11,600 feet above sea level — alpacas were considered exactly like human beings: They had a roof as shelter, food to survive and fields to discover. In Sariri’s worst dreams, these animals went missing overnight, together with the shining decorations inside the school, the alpaca votive drapes for the festivals, fruit and even, sometimes, a couple of young virgins. 

Sariri, in his nightmares, was usually suddenly awakened by a man who dressed in sad colors, with a moustache that covered his smile, if any. This man was intimating something, threatening him with a sharp tool and he was doing it in a weird language, in which Sariri understood only one single word — “alpaca.” Luckily, that was just a nightmare and Sariri, having dried the sweat away with a pima cotton cloth, could go back to sleep. At least until the next dawn.

Today, Sariri’s name is Dionicio and, compared with a couple of centuries ago, he just has more white hair and a little less teeth. He does not give up on his morning stroll before kicking off to work. His friends are still on the same steep slopes, with their frisky locks almost as if it were still the 1980s. And although they have different names now, they are the same color, have the same soft fur and the same smiles as their ancestors. Dionicio pets them like he has always done, calms them down and makes them feel like part of that family called Paucará. 

Then the shearers come and Dionicio goes back to work. He steps in, like every morning, in that small room in his house that is almost a lab and sits on a small stool. After having tied and laced the belt of the loom around his waist, he starts pulling the yarns. Up and down, up and down. His sons and grandsons do the same. From that moment on, Paucará is nothing more than a never-ending up and down of yarns, only seldom broken by a rare pounding of a summer storm, or some distant bleating.

Today, Sariri’s name is Dionicio. But he has not given up on the passion for his job, the “calling,” as he dubs it, almost as if he was referring to a god whose name he no longer knows. The district of Paucará, under his direction, is an artistic lab en plein air, where the most distant things blend together — the unforgotten tradition and the innate inspiration in the designs, the small stone buildings that are called home and the blue sky that looks almost like a suspended river in the air, the peaks of the Andes and the sincere smiles in each and every inhabitant’s face.

It can be said that in the district of Paucará — in the region of Huancavelica and the province of Acobamba, at more than 11,600 feet above sea level — maybe it is hard to breathe, so, so high. 

But it is impossible not to feel the respect for nature and the love for our Earth. At least until the next dawn.

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