Footprints in Peru, Day 10: collective breaths

Our bridge is only a few hundred hauled-stones away from completion when I wander up the hill following a rumor that the men of the Quelqanqa are constructing a traditional “earth oven” or pachamanca in which the feast, celebrating the completion of our mission, will be cooked.

Indeed, on a hill overlooking the soccer field, I find a few dozen men squatting, squinting and otherwise overseeing the construction of the last of three pachamancas. The process of stacking the stones is quite similar to a game of reverse-jenga; it’s a delicate equation in which the placement of every stone is crucial to the whole of the balancing act and yet a single weak or teetering point can send the whole thing tumbling down.

And tumble down is exactly what I watch the aspiring pachamancha do twice before I add my own two hands to the twelve already collaborating. Our strategy is to slowly build up, and then hold down, the vertical walls, while making a bridge of locking vertebrae stones that will function as the skeleton of the pachamancha.

After ten minutes of careful construction, we reach the roof of the dome and, with a collective held breath, finally connect one side to another. At the same time, we each quickly reach for smaller stones to stuff and support the cracks. But we pay dearly for this lapse in concentration as the entire pachamancha crumbles, in a mere fraction of the time it took to construct, to a clumsy pile of rubble on the ground. All the men lean back on their squatting haunches and exhale the long breath of tested patience. And I do what I always do in most situations of emergency, exhaust or fury: I laugh. In response, one of the men tosses out a comment in Quechua to which all the rest fall in fits of laugher and then he turns to me and says, “Every time, you laugh!”

He says it with a sincere smile, but I suddenly take into account, for the first time, that I am the only woman represented at this party. I begin to fear if perhaps I have crossed inappropriate cultural boundaries, or even worse, will be blamed for cursing the work! I’m horrified at these prospects but shake the new fear from my hands and follow quick suit as the men all lean forward to begin construction again.

I work on a small front wall and begin to pride myself on how sturdy my interlocking rocks are proving themselves. When the stones on the top of the dome finally begin to reach across and link solidly together, this time, without lapsing our concentration or held breath, we manage to swiftly snap into piece all the smaller supporting stones until every hesitant hand has slowly released its grip and we tumble back in a simultaneous gasp of satisfaction.

I am particularly happy that I have proven myself not to be a curse and, unable to hold back my laugh any longer, am delighted when everyone joins me in sounding our shared joy and relief.


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