Friday, July 17, 2015


July 15, 2015

            Today was one of the most amazing days of my life. We left the hotel at 4:00 and drove and drove…and drove. I must have dozed off, because when I woke up, the dark night was giving way to bits of daylight. We were getting ready to cross over the peak in the mountains. Sure enough, I looked around and snow-capped mountains were everywhere. Elevation was the highest I’ve ever been (and probably ever will be) at 14,160 feet above sea level.

Our guide was informing us of a ritual we were going to be performing included coca leaves. This is a ritual many indigenous people perform every time they go through this specific pass in the mountains. Before we could get to our ritual destination, our guides noticed a woman and two girls walking along the road. They recognized them and stopped. The mother was distraught; their family’s horses had been stolen in the night and the trio had been walking since 1:30 to get to school. We soon found out that since these girls lived so far away, they would be staying with the teacher for 3-4 nights instead of making the long trek back and forth. The girls’ names were Carmen and Angélica…and just like that, we met our first students from the Panticalle school!

We stopped some ways down the road and performed the ritual; each holding 3 coca leaves in a very specific way, breathing our souls into the mountains and asking for safe passage and then placing our leaves under a rock. Then, on we went! Not much longer and we were at the top of the mountain we were meant to climb down. We strapped on our backpacks, heavy with supplies for the students and teachers and began our hour and a half climb down the mountain. This was no easy feat at that altitude (even though we were a bit lower than the highest peak we had driven over) and we stopped often for some breathing breaks. Looking down the mountain, we could see the teeny tiny dot at the bottom which was the school. Slowly that tiny dot became bigger and formed a building. Another student from the school joined us on our hike. When I say he joined us, this was an understatement; he ran circles around us…up and down and all around grinning and teasing and always helping to carry lunch supplies. I called him my little mountain goat, even though I had no idea how to say that in Quechua.

Finally, we made it to the bottom and were greeted with big smiles and wet eyes by the teachers and students. Carmen and Angélica, once so quiet in the van due to knowing very little Spanish and being around strangers, lit up and began frolicking and chatting with their friends. At first the students were a bit shy; I learned later we were the school’s first visitors (other than TAREA and other workers) in 15 years. Curious eyes and smiles were constantly glanced our way as they got used to us being there.

We soon learned today was a special day. The students, teachers, a few parents and elders and the school yacha were all here. From what I gather, the ceremony was meant to bless the potatoes that would soon be planted. We observed the ceremony, which incorporated potatoes, coca leaves, chicha (a corn-based beverage) in shells, a certain flower and animal fat. The ritual was filmed by the school’s video camera to preserve the students’ heritage and to be used later in lessons.  The potatoes were blessed and a few were planted by the yacha and elders and the rest by the students. Afterward that the yacha spoke to the children about why the ceremony was important and the process by which the farmers planted potatoes.

Next, we went back into the school, which contained two classrooms and a separate small building that was used for cooking and eating food. Once in the classroom, I was amazed to see the excellent teaching practices and bilingual pedagogy utilized by the teacher. Students started by drawing what they learned and remembered from the ceremony and what the yacha had taught them. Most of the students’ families were potato farmers so I loved the authenticity of the content and ownership the students had over their learning. When finished with their drawings, students orally explained what they had drawn in their native language, Quechua. The teacher then began saying sentences in either Spanish or Quechua about the drawings and students had to repeat them and determine which language it was. The teacher began to put up Spanish vocabulary words (with illustrations) from today’s ceremony and lesson. All students then came up to the board and wrote one sentence about either potatoes or coca leaves in Spanish. Each student read his or her sentence to the class. The teacher then posted a text written in Quechua about the planting of potatoes. Students read the passage and then were asked to identify certain vowel sounds. Finally, students were given worksheets about how to plant potatoes. All within an hour or so, the teacher gave a real-life lesson about the student’s environment and culture, a bilingual lesson in Spanish and Quechua (spoken, written and read), and a science lesson about plants. Even though I couldn’t understand what was being said, I knew I was observing real learning taking place.

After lessons, we went out into the yard for a bit of fun while we waited for lunch to be ready. A rowdy game of tickle tag and big hugs was played until it started raining. We went in to enjoy a delicious meal of rice, potatoes, yucca and a pork chop. Our guides were surprised by the meat included in our meal; this is a rarity. The students didn’t have a pork chop and eagerly ate what would be their only full meal for the day. While eating, the rain and sometimes hail poured down on the metal roof. I was a bit nervous about our hike back up the mountain; it was difficult enough going down, I couldn’t imagine climbing back up in the pouring rain, with wet rock and mud underfoot. We quickly put our worries to the side because it was time to give the children and teachers our gifts of notebooks, pencils, colored pencils, erasers, candy and folders. The students were so excited and the teachers were near tears once again. The students immediately began investigating their goodies and drawing with the colored pencils-which were the fan favorite.

The rain thankfully eased up and all that was left was a group picture and lots of hugs. I couldn’t believe this day was ending. The rain continued to lightly fall as we carefully made our way back up the mountain. Every time I turned around, the school building was getting smaller and smaller as the ache in my heart grew bigger and bigger. When we first walked up to the school that takes most students 1-3 hours to get to, I kept thinking these people have nothing material; no running water, no electricity, long journeys to and from school or work and a hard, laborious life. The majority of people I live and work with will never know life such as this.  However, as I walked away I realized everything these people did have; an eagerness to learn, generosity of spirit and a deep-seeded love for their environment. I am humbled, in awe and full of love and respect for these people and their culture…their mountains…and their smiles.

--Erin Pille

1. Learning from the Yacha, documenting for the future

Ready to start the session: First step, a ceremony

Children gather together for the experience

Children and their families observe the start of the process of growing potatoes

Using the chaquitaclla to furrow

Potatoes on lliclla, chicha, and coca leaves fr the ceremony

Children at work/learning

Everybody participates

The Yacha showing the process

Hands-on learning

Children and comuunity

2. Reinforcing the learning in the classroom

"Tarpuy" or plant; "inti" or sun; "tuta" or night

3. The actors and their community

Children at lunch time

Melquiades ("Milquicha") waiting to play a scare on Ms. Nuss

The Yacha and the school children. Ms. Duque to the left, and Ms. Pille to the right

Having a good moment with one of the technology facilitators

Ms. Pille and schoolchildren

Ms. Pille and Milquicha

School girls wearing their traditional custome

School boy

Spinning using the k'anti

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