Day 22 – Wisdom of the llamas and a 6-week walk to Chile.

Day 22 – Wisdom of the llamas and a 6-week walk to Chile.

Today I was invited to attend the 1st National Congress of Ancestral Knowledge in Camelids. Camelids include llamas, alpaca and camels plus vicuna and guanaco.  All except the camel, live in Bolivia and South America.  The llamas live in the quinoa region and play an important role in quinoa production through their production of manure which is the primary source of nutrients for the delicate soils of the quinoa lands.  Llamas always go the bathroom in the same place making it easy for farmers to gather up mounds of manure to bring to their quinoa fields.  Traditionally families managed herds of 30 to 40 llamas and planted 3 to 4  hectacres of quinoa.  There was a balance between the land and the llama – 10 llamas for every hectacre of land.  Now this work has been divided.

In today’s quinoa lands, a few families manage large llama herds of mixed ownership.  They are often contracted by other families in the community to watch the family’s llamas a bit away from the quinoa fields – while the contracting family lives mostly in the city.  The families who are not watching the llamas, farm large tracks of quinoa land often 6-8 hectacres.  The llama herders earn income from their contracts which are sometimes paid partially in money and partially in quinoa, water and other goods.  They also earn from the sale of llama meat, llama manure, and llama fiber products such as ropes and handicrafts.  There is a huge market for llama manure in the quinoa region.  A large dumptruck load of llama manure sells for 3,000Bs and at least 2 are needed for each hectacre of quinoa production – a $857 investment in the hopes of producing at least 20 qintales of quinoa – which have a current market value of $1,428 (based on a 500Bs per quintal value and a 7Bs to 1US$ exchange rate).  For quinoa growers, 40% of their potential annual earnings are spent solely on fertilizer for their fields. Llama herders can provide many dumptruck loads of manure to farmers earning thousands of dollars each year through manure sales.  Other than a few sheep, no other grazing animals that can provide manure for the fields live in the quinoa lands.  So llamas matter in the quinoa lands.  That is why I attended the 2-day Llama Assembly held in the llama capital of Curahuara de Carangas in Oruro. Here I learned that llamas don’t just matter in the quinoa lands of the salt flat region, but they matter in non-quinoa growing regions further from the salt flats, extending from high in the mountains of Oruro and La Paz down to the shores of Lake Titicaca.  Llamas matter in Bolivia!

The Assembly was held in order to select the best 30 presenters out of a list of 100 to represent Bolivia in an upcoming First World Congress on Indigenous Camelid Care to be hosted by the Bolivian government and held in Oruro in November.  Hundreds of rural llama herders flocked to this event hosted by the town mayor and local development organizations.  Three local communities were present wearing natural colored hand woven llama, sheep and alpaca clothing.  They played handmade traditional instruments – drums, zamponas, tarkas and flutes and danced in circles – women opposite men in traditional style.  A man dressed as a condor – the magical spirit bird of the Andes was there as was one dressed as a silly old man.  They were part of the stories and folklore of the llama herders.

Presenters too had to be dressed in traditional garb donning hand woven natural fiber ponchos and shawls (aguayos) made by family and neighbors from their own communities.  Their shirts, pants, skirts and suits were made from “quaytu” a hand woven woolen broadcloth in solid natural colors of dark brown, grey and crème.  The quaytu was fashioned by local tailors into button down collared shirts, and well-tailored suits and pants for the men.  Women largely sewed their own large, robust pollera skirts.

Presentations were done with Powerpoint and were timed at 20 minutes with 5 minutes for questions.  A panel of 4 judges, 2 men and 2 women, would rate each presentation.  Later it would be determined which presenters would be selected for the international conference.  The presentations were offered in three different rooms and a full schedule of each presenter, theme, time and location was shared on paper and electronically on whatsap when people arrived to check in for the event.  The cost to attend was 30Bs and included a llama themed lunch and breakfast and tea for both days.  The mayor and local organizations provided free housing in the small town of about 1,000 families.

It was a well-planned, well organized, and well attended event.  Each room had at least 30 – 50 people in the audience and presenters ranged from the most remote herders to university students to Peruvian tour guides.  Many of the presentations were in Aymara, the native language of the llama herders, and Spanish mixed.  Though the powerpoint slides were largely in Spanish and Spanish was understood by all.  I saw some of my fellow quinoa growers there and recognized others presenting from the quinoa growing regions I had visited.

A group of women from Colque-K, an area featured in my previous quinoa research which had wind turbines pumping water to community gardens and ancient Inca ruins.  They presented the handicraft work they were doing with hand spun llama yarn, sweaters, shawls, and felted llama wool fashioned into hats.  They later hosted a llama clothing fashion show held that evening.

Later a man showed how a local plant, garetta, could be boiled with corn to make “Chicha de llama” a fermented beverage for llamas to drink in times of stress, drought or illness.   Another man shared his recipe for curing worms in llamas by feeding the affected animal mixture of garlic, hot pepper and onion in water.  We learned about rotations and maintenance of llama herding fields and how 300 hectacres of llama lands can be used in three rotations a year for 180 llamas.  And we learned that 45 grams of fresh llama meat would yield 9 grams of dried meat (charque).

The women talked of recipes made with llama such as blood sausages, dried meat, a breakfast dish made of cooked llama blood, tripe and spices, hahanka’ taquo – a soup made with llama blood and cornmeal mixed together with tripe and meat, and fried dough made with llama blood.  We had the chance to taste the recipes too. My favorite was the llama blood sausage!

Jesus Gomez from the Aroma community in Salinas, the heart of the heart of the quinoa lands, gave a lively presentation on his life living with llamas sharing stories and methods of how he and his father would walk for 10 weeks to Santiago, Chile and back (about 3,300 miles round trip) with large llama trains of 20 to 30 llamas trading goods and exploring the local countryside bringing quinoa and salt to trade for corn and wheat.  The lead llama was covered with decorations so the other llamas knew who to follow, Gomez explained.  He spoke of the traditional quinoa grain bags made of tightly woven llama hair in beautiful striped of browns and tans.  Each carrying about 40 pounds of quinoa.  The natural fibers keeping the quinoa well aerated while preserving its flavor.

“Quinoa from the llama bags always smells and tastes delicious,” proclaimed Gomez. I was familiar with the bags, having seen my mother in law use them at times.  Most have been replaced by woven plastic sacks instead that hold 50 pounds of quinoa are transported by SUV and truck to local markets.

It was not easy moving a llama train across different climate zones and grazing lands for 10 weeks.  There was a lot of llamas to adjust to with a change in climate, altitude and food.  Certain grasses would make the llamas sick or the altitude would affect their digestion.  The sick llamas needed to be cared for.  Gomez and his father were on constant vigil for the herd, making all were well and none strayed far.  “We went for 2 months without sleeping!” he proclaimed, getting a room full of laughter as he spun around in a lively way to emphasize his point, his poncho flaring in all directions.  They also spent 2 months and 2 weeks living on the “fast food” of llama charque – dried llama meat eaten like hardtack.

The Chilean wheat and corn were brought back to the village and covered with a rock he explained.  This was a very important part of the process.  By covering the newly traded goods with a rock, one ensured they would last the year until the llama train moved out again in its annual trade.  The wheat and corn would be blessed, a llama sacrificed to further ensure it would last, blood shared with the earth mother, Pachamama, smoke share with the mountains and ancestors, alcohol shared with all – and blessings shared again, along with a llama bar-BQ.

Gomez also spoke of the natural dyes used with the llama fiber with light green shades coming from tolla plants and deeper green/greys coming from the eucalyptus.  He noted that when washing llama yarn in water left over from the first washing of quinoa seeds, the soapy water that is thick with saponin from the quinoa seed casings, the yarn becomes thicker and takes on a clearer color.  It is also believed, he said, that washing woolens and alpaca fiber sacks in the saponin rich quinoa water helps to protect them from moths.  All present nodded in agreement.