Our Condor Travel Guide, Juan Jose, arrived to begin the day early for the ascent to Parque de la Papa. Our narrow bus pulled away from the curb and began traveling the windy roads commonly found in the Andes. Steep slopes require roads to be in a Z formation, and on top of this, the roads are incredibly narrow. There were times when I peered out the window, and just a few inches of dirt kept the wheel of the bus from falling off the edge. Upon arrival, we exited the bus and climbed up another slope, passing animals and homes to greet the natives of Parque de la Papa.
A beautiful, elderly woman adorned in traditional clothes greeted us. She wore deep colors; a maroon cardigan laced with green and pink trim, accompanied by a beautiful black skirt which expressed many traditional patterns made with brightly colored threads. She smiled as she blessed us with white flower petals, acknowledging us as her brothers and sisters. Migrating over to a small model of the Park, our tour guide translated the messages being portrayed. There are five sections of land which were presently being used, as the sixth section was punished due to greed. Parque de la Papa produces 3,600 varieties of edible potatoes, which hold a significant place in these communities. For example, there is a potato that has a tremendous impact on young women’s lives. The name roughly translates to “That which makes the daughter-in-law cry”; this knobbed potato is given to potential brides to determine if they are ready for marriage. If they successfully peel the potato with little damage to the flesh, then they have proven themselves ready to be wed. Because potatoes have such a high success rate in the highlands, this crop has had an incredibly significant impact on the culture here. This tradition is just one example of how nature and culture intersect in the Andean communities.
I was incredibly lucky to spend my birthday here and experience a special aspect of their culture. After sampling native dishes, many of which were potato based, I was surprised with a potato cake and a rendition of Feliz Cumpleanos from the women working in the restaurant. These women blessed me one by one as they dusted my hair with orange flower petals and planted a kiss on my cheek, smiling all the while. These actions open their culture even more, and demonstrate how the natural environment influences this. Their welcoming nature may stem from their close knit communities, and this occurs because of the natural environment. The communities all rely heavily upon each other for goods, as differences in altitude translates to different goods being produced. For example, the highest altitudes may produce potatoes and lower levels of the highlands may produce cereal grains. The exchange of goods creates the relationship between former strangers, much like the exchange I experienced here.
This interaction at Parque de la Papa intrigued me; why are we not this welcoming as a whole in the United States? Of course you can have Happy Birthday sung to you at a restaurant, but it is done half heartedly at most. These women embraced me and referred to me as their sister; it is hard to come by people so welcoming. The warm exchange here has made me want to extend this type of interaction to individuals back in the states. Perhaps this idea can become similar to the Random Acts of Kindness trend occurring now, and can create positive days through positive greetings and positive contact.