A small crowd of children milled around me, excitedly spurting questions as I left the elementary school. I could tell that they were repeating a particular combination of words, but because my Spanish was so limited I could not find meaning in the beautiful sounds. I had studied some Spanish in school, but I was quickly learning that listening to a flawless audio recording in a silent room was shamefully easy compared to the struggle of interpreting several children’s overlapping voices as they giggled and chewed potato bread.
I paused before answering, not because the adorable, incessant chatter annoyed me, but because I was short of breath from walking uphill at 9,000 feet. I also still needed to figure out what the question was, so I asked one of the older girls to help me out. She was probably twelve years old, but because of malnutrition all the children look much younger than they are. After a few gestures, she was finally able to help me understand that everyone wanted to know where I was going. Voy a mi casa para almorzar. I’m going to my house for lunch, I replied proudly.
There I was, walking through the narrow, stone covered streets of Ollantaytambo, Peru, a small town in the Andes I had come to love so much in just a few weeks. Ollantaytambo (visit http://www.ollantaytambo.org/en/ for information, but know that some of the translations are off) is a fascinating place. Globalization’s abrupt changes have led to a confusing and occasionally comical blend of traditional and western influences.
If you stand in the town square and look up, you can see an Inca grain storehouse and giant Inca terraces. However, if you look down, you’ll see plastic water bottles and Nestle-brand candy wrappers in the street. Teenagers wear t-shirts printed with incoherent English phrases while they speak Quechua, the indigenous language, to their grandparents. Nearly everyone dresses modestly, but loves to watch and discuss Bailando con SueÃ±os, a television show in which young men and women in revealing costumes dance provocatively to American music. I once saw a door sporting a “Kung-Fu Panda Movie” poster in a doorway that still held many of its original Inca stones.
Obviously, many of these contrasting images are funny and quirky, but some are creating huge problems. For example, the arrival of Western goods and tourism brought excessive packaging, something that Ollantaytambo had never encountered before. As a result, they did not have waste management systems in place to deal with inorganic waste, so most of the trash ended up in the streets and the river. I had the opportunity to visit Peru on a service-learning trip with my school. While we were there, we worked with a few locals to help install a recycling system in the elementary school.
My time in Ollantaytambo was absolutely amazing. I had a meaningful conversation about pro-choice ideals with my Catholic host family, talked to kids in the local high school about the impact of the Internet, and took part in a Quechua ritual. I learned how to take certain bones out of cuy, roasted guinea pig, and fit them together to form an eagle shape. Ollantaytambo and its people surprised me, delighted me, and made me think about my own culture and values. I will always remember the playful, uninhibited children who fearlessly run through the streets of their beloved town, questioning everything.