By: Felicita Invrea
Today I am going to talk about another aspect of Argentine culture, and more in general about Latin American culture, that I was able to meet during the months of January and February. Argentina is characterized by understanding several different cultures in themselves, whether indigenous or imported, from the Mapuches of Patagonia to the Guaranis of the northwest. During my vacations, I made a trip that allowed me to get to know one of the oldest populations and the inhabitants of one of the most extensive regions of all Latin America: the Andean culture. The Andes Mountain Range extends from Chile, passing through the Northwest of Argentina and reaching Ecuador. A time there reigned the empire of the Incas, who founded many legendary cities, among which Machu Picchu. Today the Andean population still lives in a more traditional way compared to the population of the Argentine coast, sustaining itself thanks to the cultivation of quinoa, the breeding of llamas or alpacas and the exploitation of mines.
Another very important form of support for this population is tourism: always more visitors from Europe or other countries of Latin America want to discover those particular and magical areas. Here the women have long black braids, wear red skirts and ponchos and wear a wide hat to protect themselves from the sun. On the back they carry their children or their goods in a large pink and green band. They sell their crafts in the squares, sitting on the floor, or in the markets, offering baskets of avocado or cheese for a few coins. In this area the landscape is no longer that of the gaucho pampas that I saw in the surroundings of Buenos Aires, but that of the puna, the Andean plateau, where it is always very cold or very hot, where the height can give pain of heads and soroches, and the white skin of European tourists becomes so dry that it begins to break. To combat altitude sickness, local people – and very soon also tourists learn to do it – consume coca leaves, which are totally legal in that area. The correct consumption is to chew the leaves until creating a ball in the cheek, producing a juice that can be swallowed. Some, since that juice does not have much flavor, add to the leaves a piece of a dough made of mint and stevia, with a very intense flavor that burns your mouth.
The Andeans venerate the Pachamama, an entity that represents Mother Earth, and that allows life thanks to the cultivation of it. The Andean people inherited from their ancestors the Incas the custom of, before starting to plant a piece of land, to thank Mother Earth and to ask permission to the mountain (another sacred element), offering her some products. A time was used to offer llamas or in some extreme cases even children (in cases of severe droughts, for example), nowadays only part of the crop is offered. In Bolivia, I did a tour with a jeep driven by a Bolivian guide and I noticed that every time he started the car, he dropped some coca leaves on the ground, muttering some words to each other. Presumably it was a way of asking the Pachamama that the trip was safe and that everything went well for us. I found it interesting that this cult of the elements of nature (earth, water, mountain) derived from the Inca culture mixed with the cult of the Catholic Church, to form a rare mixture of “paganism” and Christianity. The Incas, as explained to us by the guide who took us to know Machu Picchu, did not have a religion, but something called “cosmogony”, which tried to explain the origin of the world: they believed that the earth represented the feminine and the water the masculine and from the union of these two elements, life was born. Of course, that belief is still alive among Andeans, as evidenced by the fact that the Pachamama is still celebrated during the month of August.
The Andeans venerate the Andean people, in general, they are pretty or in some cases very poor people, they live with very little budget, in some small towns their houses are made of adobe with thatched roofs and the jobs they do are very humble. Many sell on the street, especially women from what I could see. Based on the conditions in which they sell, you can understand the degree of poverty of a seller: there are those who have small stores or a place in the local market, which are the best, there are those who have a banquet or cart and walk around for the people shouting the name of the merchandise sold, and there are those who are simply sitting on the floor with a blanket in front of them where they put the few products sold. These last ones I think are the ones that are worse, their only tickets are the ones they earn in a day of sale, thanks to tourists or locals.
What most attracts attention when you arrive in an Andean town are undoubtedly the colors. The crafts, the clothes that the women wear, the hills and the gorges, the food, everything is full of colors, those warm and earthy colors, which taste like mountains. When you walk around, it seems to be in another time, or in a movie, or in a carnival. Sometimes I tried to imagine if there were people dressed like that or with those long braids or with those blankets on the floor selling avocados in cities like Rome or even in Buenos Aires itself. It would look very strange, almost ridiculous or even ugly. But there everything acquires another meaning, all that chaos of colors and people seems perfectly appropriate to the context.
Finally, I mention the local language: Quechua. There are different types of Quechua based on the country (there is a North American, a Bolivian, a Peruvian Quechua). Quechua is still quite spoken, but a Peruvian guide explained to me that 20 or 30 years ago those who spoke Quechua were stigmatized, treated as “cholos” (which is a type of dog, but the word became an insult in the current vocabulary). ), therefore many stopped talking about it. Today they reintroduced it into the schools and more attention is being paid to preserving the traditions and customs of the original culture.