As a child my mother often scared me into sticking by her side at shopping malls by telling me someone might kidnap me. While this may seem unnecessarily cruel, it is a tactic used by mothers around the globe to ensure the safety of their children. On a recent trip to Machu Picchu, Peru, our Quechua tour guide, Raul, relayed his mother's safety strategy.
Raul was brought up in poor farming family, or campasino. Children worked along side their parents as soon as they were able. Raul's parents and two older sisters left early every morning to work in the sugar cane fields, leaving 3-year-old Raul alone in their small adobe home. To us in the “civilized” world this seems unthinkable, but there were no neighborhood daycares to look after children and home was the safest place for him to be.
To see to it that he did not wander off Raul's mother showed him a picture of a child being carried away in the talons of a huge bird and admonished him, “Do not leave the house or the condor will get you!”
The condor was revered by the Quechua people as a symbol of the upper world, the Hanaq Pacha, for centuries, since before the invasion of the area by the Spaniards in the 16th century. But to a small boy it was still just a big scary bird.
“I would sit by the window all day watching my friends play with sticks in the mud, fearful that the condor would swoop down and snatch them away,” he said, his dark eyes growing large on his broad chestnut colored face and his arms flapping at his side.
Soon darkness set in and Raul's playmates—miraculously safe from the condor—went home. It was dinner time and his stomach growled.
Even in a small adobe there is room for mischief. Raul developed his mountain climbing skills at a young age. After searching the empty cupboards at ground level, he was able to scramble his way up to a high shelf finding a small bag of white sugar. Except for in Lima and other large urban centers, refined white sugar was a luxury in Peru, and this bag was reserved for special celebrations. However, Raul considered an entire day of avoiding the condor a reason to celebrate. His family came home to find him sitting in the middle of the floor shoveling fistfuls of granular goodness from the bag into his mouth.
“That was a day I wished the condor had taken me,” he said.
Read more on food in the 12th issue (November-December 2011) of language/place blog carnival hosted by Linda Hofke here.