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Life in an Andean Village

The daily life of an Andean village, as seen by an American visitor.

March 1990
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297 pages | 6 x 9 | illus. |

Perhaps the best way to sharpen one's power's of observation is to be a stranger in a strange land. Julia Meyerson was one such stranger during a year in the village of 'Tambo, Peru, where her husband was conducting anthropological fieldwork. Though sometimes overwhelmed by the differences between Quechua and North American culture, she still sought eagerly to understand the lifeways of 'Tambo and to find her place in the village. Her vivid observations, recorded in this field journal, admirably follow Henry James's advice: "Try to be one of the people upon whom nothing is lost."

With an artist's eye, Meyerson records the daily life of 'Tambo—the cycles of planting and harvest, the round of religious and cultural festivals, her tentative beginnings of friendship and understanding with the Tambinos. The journal charts her progress from tolerated outsider to accepted friend as she and her husband learn and earn, the roles of daughter and son in their adopted family.

With its wealth of ethnographic detail, especially concerning the lives of Andean women, 'Tambo will have great value for students of Latin American anthropology. In addition, scholars preparing to do fieldwork anywhere will find it a realistic account of both the hardships and the rewards of such study.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. The beginning
  • 2. Natividad
  • 3. Corn planting
  • 4. San Miguel and the anniversary of the district
  • 5. Todos Santos
  • 6. Corn planting
  • 7. My birthday
  • 8. San Andrés, barley planting
  • 9. Virgen Concebidayoq
  • Interlude
  • 10. Return to 'Tambo
  • 11. Cleaning the wheat field
  • 12. Carnaval
  • 13. Puna yapuy
  • 14. Teresa comes to Cusco
  • 15. Easter
  • 16. Harvesting early potatoes
  • 17. Cruz Velakuy
  • 18. Potato and barley harvests
  • 19. Cornharvest
  • 20. Weaving
  • 21. San Juan, threshing
  • 22. San Pedro, weaving
  • 23. Gary's birthday, the Fiestas Patrias, Hugo's house
  • 24. Mamacha Asunta
  • 25. The brewery
  • 26. Sonqo
  • 27. Natividad again
  • Epilogue: 1988
  • Glossary

Julia Meyerson is an artist who lives in Earlville, New York.


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The photographs were wonderful. In one, an unpaved lane, narrow and steep, descended away from the camera, between adobe buildings roofed with fine, shaggy, gray-brown thatch and corrugated steel and red clay tiles, to end in—nothing, an emptiness bounded far off by mountains, hazy in the unfocused distance. In another, two dancers in long, fringed tunics, their faces and hair completely hidden by knitted masks, circled each other warily, with whips in their hands, in a small yard between adobe houses. In others, children: a couple of kids in a tree, taken close up; a trio of boys of graduated sizes sitting against a white-washed wall—all of whom, judging by impish grins, unabashedly enjoyed the exotic attention of having their pictures taken. These were my first glimpses of 'Tambo. My husband, Gary, an anthropologist, had spent a month in Peru, in this village, gleaning material on which to base a proposal to do fieldwork there. Armed with the notes he had taken in a slender, hardbound fieldbook, he wrote the proposal and submitted it to the National Science Foundation. In April of the next year, 1981, we were notified that the proposal would be funded. In May we left for Peru.

I am an artist, not an anthropologist, though after I had spent a month in Peru with Gary several years earlier while he was doing his doctoral research I was enough fascinated by Peru and by the idea of ethnographic fieldwork that I entered graduate school in anthropology. I abandoned the idea of a doctoral degree when I realized, after one semester of study, that I would have to give up my art for years in order to accomplish that. But now, in 1981, I would nevertheless have my chance to do fieldwork: in August, after a couple of months of travel on the coast of Peru, I found myself high in the Andes, in Cusco, preparing to live for a year in a Quechua village and finding it extraordinarily difficult to "prepare" for something of which I could scarcely conceive. (Since then, I have learned that you can seldom really prepare yourself for fieldwork anyway, no matter how intimately you know the place or the people, no matter how many times you have done it before.)

This, then, is the story of that year: our lives, the lives of the family who virtually adopted us, the life of the village. I set out to keep a journal, knowing that I would need some creative substitute for my art: my drawings are small and detailed, though abstract, and require a small amount of very clean space and a good deal of very good light, both of which I knew would be scarce in the village, as indeed they were; I completed only two drawings that year, working during brief intervals we spent in Cusco. The journal that I kept recorded a sort of descriptive narrative which ran almost constantly in my mind, by which I sought to capture the details, as if photographically, of everything I saw and which happened around me. That journal has become this book.

As a journal, written from day to day throughout the year that we lived there, it also reflected the workings of a subtle and gradual transformation which I underwent. When we arrived in 'Tambo, I knew virtually nothing useful to living a Quechua life in a Qucchua village. I knew how the Quechua dress, the kind of houses they live in, the kind of food they eat. I knew a few dubious generalities of Qucchua character. Of the language, I spoke only a few phrases, common ones necessary to being considered at least marginally polite, which I had learned when I had visited Gary: how to say hello and goodbye, some words of thanks, and the important words manan intendinichu ("I don't understand"). As we lived there, I gradually learned how to be a proper Quechua human being—learned the hard way, without benefit of a Quechua childhood. I learned to speak a little Qucchua, a difficult language to learn without formal instruction, gauging my progress against that of the youngest grandchild of the family, Orlando, who was two and a half when we arrived in the village: at first, with my dictionary and grammar books, I had a slight and tenuous advantage over him; but by the time we left and he was three and a half, Orlando, with the natural facility and aptitude for language of a child of his age, had learned to talk circles around me and knew it. Nevertheless, I could, by the time we left 'Tambo, at least understand the general outlines and import of a conversation, even if I did not understand every word or speak well enough to participate in it. And I learned how to do the work that a young Quechua woman must do and how to behave correctly. And as I learned and our friendships grew deeper, I was draw more deeply into the life we were living there and found myself making greater and greater intellectual and emotional investments in it. By the time we left, the perspective of an observer, from which I had begun to write my journal, had become, I felt, all but inaccessible to me.

Gary's chosen method of fieldwork is one normally called "participant observation," which means that we set out to learn Quechua life by living it ourselves alongside the people of the village. Life in a Quechua village is simple and hard, based on subsistence agriculture, so that the activities of every member of each family are determined throughout the year and indeed, for most, throughout their lives by the needs of the crops. We arrived in 'Tambo in August, as the agricultural cycle was just beginning, and found a place to live with a family in which we quickly assumed the roles of a son and daughter: every hand in a household is an invaluable source of labor, and so, because we wanted to work, these roles fell to us easily, naturally.

The agricultural year begins in 'Tambo in August and September, when the dry season—the Andean winter, a succession of warm cloudless days and stunningly clear and frigid nights—begins to draw to a close. The crops are planted in a more or less regular succession—depending on the climatic characteristics of the ecological zone in which they are planted and the length of time each crop requires to mature—during the months of late winter and early spring, in August, September, October, and November. 'Tambo lies in a middle zone of the vertical Andean ecological system and so has its corn fields below it on the mountainsides, legumes and some grains generally level with the village (at 11,500 feet in altitude) and slightly above it, most grains planted in fields above the level of the village, and potatoes in the high puna (about 13,500 feet), two or three hours walk away. The crops are planted generally from low altitude to high altitude, beginning with the planting of corn in August and September and ending with the sowing of potatoes in October and November. The crops mature during the months of the Andean summer and early fall, watched over by tall crosses planted on hilltops to guard them against the hail and frosts of the transitional seasons.

Summer, the growing season, is the rainy season, when clouds hang close about the mountaintops, one seldom sees the sun, and it rains, in a good year, every day. The rough-cobbled streets of the village are slippery and treacherous, and unpaved paths are awash with torrents of rainwater and ankle-deep mud; roads through the countryside become difficult to travel and often impassable, closed by mud- and rockslides or washed away by seasonal rivers and streams. During these months, the fields are hoed and weeded, and the earth of fallowed fields is turned in preparation for the coming year's crops. In May, when the rains have ended, the potatoes are harvested. The grains and beans are cut and allowed to dry for threshing; the corn is harvested in June. After the grains are threshed, the final act of the agricultural cycle, people turn to the dry-season activities of weaving and building and repairing the damage done by the rains and to the wholehearted celebration of the numerous religious festivals that fall during those months.

And so, Gary spent most of his days during that year working with the men of our adoptive family in the fields, plowing or planting or weeding the crops, learning to use the traditional tools, the short, crook-handled hoes and the footplow, and his own back and legs and arms in unfamiliar ways. And he learned all of the other myriad tasks required by that life—cutting or gathering firewood or making adobes and building walls, constructing altars for festival celebrations or participating in those celebrations. I worked with the women of the family, doing women's work, mostly cooking and serving food but also tending the house, children, and animals. Our roles almost never ceased to fit us awkwardly, for although we were adults, the smallest details of the tasks we performed, from the efficient use of a footplow to the way to hold a knife when peeling potatoes, were achieved only with great and unendingly diligent and often erring effort, like that of a child. And yet, only we, in our desire not to embarrass or be embarrassed, seemed to feel that awkwardness, for our need to learn everything from the beginning, our clumsy inexperience, and our innocent not-knowing, which cast us as overgrown children in this world we were living in, afforded us our roles as son and daughter and allowed Baltazar and Teresa, the couple with whose family we lived, to become our "parents" and mentors, a relationship which was comfortable and natural in the context of the village and its traditional life and which proved to be warm and rewarding for all of us.

The family upon whose household we descended that August and with whom we lived for a little more than a year, Don Baltazar Quispe Herrera and his wife, Teresa Sullca Llamaqchima, and their children Hugo, Daniel, and Leonarda, are truly remarkable and brave people, who accepted the long-term disruption of their lives which our presence in their home meant and also the challenge, monumental and trying, of teaching us how to be Quechua. Their understanding and their willingness and capacity to adapt were extraordinary, and they were, with few lapses, exceedingly patient and kind. Without their reliable friendship and care, our experience in 'Tambo, both intellectually and emotionally, would have been far less rich. We are deeply grateful to them and hope to repay them, if it is possible, with a generosity as abundant as theirs for sharing their home and their lives with us. We are indebted too to their married daughter Juana and her husband, Ricardo Achawi Palomino; to the community of 'Tambo and its officials—especially the governor of the district, Don Carlos Araujo; the district judge, David Araujo; the president of the village, Julio Wallpa; and the mayor, Nicasio Sullca—for the tolerance which became genuine acceptance and which allowed us to live there, and to many other individuals who honored us as guests in their homes and as friends. They will always be remembered.


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