Cusco, Peru – once capital of the Inca Empire, the longest continuously inhabited city of South America, and also the city where I have spent the last five weeks.
The phrase, “We’re not in Kansas anymore” is one that I (being from Kansas) cannot escape, even here in Peru. However, for once in my life it could not apply more. I recall reading that life moves at a slower pace in South America. In some ways this has proven true, but in other ways I feel it could not be farther from the truth. Everyday as I walk to and from class I am surrounded by a flurry of activity as people commute to and from work, buy and sell meat, vegetables, and fruits, and do what people do here to scratch out a living.
I have been fortunate to be able to visit the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and Lake Titicaca, but on a daily basis I probably consider the food here to be almost as incredible as these experiences. Granted, it all must be carefully washed, but seldom in the U.S. can one go on a 20 minute walk and pass anywhere between 10 and 20 fruit stores, bakeries, and other specialty grocers, teaming with activity and offering inexpensive, fresh produce on a daily basis. I am fortunate that my daily commute takes me down the street Tres Cruces de Oro, where I can experience this nitty-gritty of Peruvian Culture.
Every day my host mother and her maid prepare amazing meals for my housemates and I. I am sure that our experience is probably not that of most Peruvians (Mama Julia, as she prefers to be called, used to own a restaurant), but our food comes from the same markets where many Cusqueñans shop. Yes, it is common to have both potatoes AND rice in the same meal, but sugar and processed foods are consumed considerably less than in the U.S. It is also not terribly difficult to have a plethora of fruits and vegetables on the table, and almost all of the staple foods here in Cusco are grown fairly locally.
Having grown up on a farm and having spent much of my life eating from my parents’ garden, the food aspect of my experience has obviously intrigued me. Most people from the U.S. would probably consider Peru a third world country that our agriculture is supposed to be “feeding” – yet I come here and see cheaper, healthier food than I can get within an hour’s drive of my home in the states – and did I mention that it’s winter here in Peru? Around 50% of the people who live in Peru are under the poverty line, yet these people do not have the same difficulties obtaining healthy food as in the U.S., where unhealthy processed foods are the cheapest – here it’s the opposite. I find this disparity both fascinating and strange, worthy of more research – but in the mean time, I’m simply going to look forward to my next meal.