As I walked up the steep road leading to Chillcapata, a rural community outside Puno, Peru something told me I was going to fall madly in love with the place. First clue: there was a gigantic, beautifully bedecked flower arch to greet me. A cheery welcoming committee was assigned to shower me in flower petals and love-bomb me with hugs. And of course, I got my very own Peruvian garland.
As we headed up the hill to the pretty green house of Maria & Primo Mamami to see Heifer’s FEED program in action, I could easily see why Chillcapata is known as the Garden of Puno; flowers were growing everywhere, while in the distance indigo-blue Lake Titicaca twinkled in the sunlight and llamas pranced in the grass.
Inside her cheerful bright kitchen, Maria proudly showed us her new Ecological Refrigerator (cooled only by a bowl of water), her tidy pantry, her energy stove (uses half the fuel and is vented), and told us about the changes she’d learned to make in her home, and how that had changed her life.
Sounds a bit trite, doesn’t it? Some new shelves, a place to keep things cool and to store utensils and pots, a new roof with translucent panels to bring in light, and an energy stove. But here’s the thing: it makes all the difference in the world to the health, nutrition, and dignity of your family to have a place to cook that is safe and healthy, and a regimen to keep your household clean, hygienic and neat. In fact, I’d argue a tidy house is the first step in gaining control of your life, and feeling competent and valuable. (However, I am a total Type A, or as Lulu calls me, Little Miss OCD.)
But take a look at the “before” kitchen photo, where the smoke from cooking brought Maria to tears every meal. The family suffered from lung problems and often ate on the floor, where guinea pigs also lived, scratched and ran (they need to be inside and warm to survive). And the rest of the house was just as disorganized and overwhelmed.
Through FEED, Heifer brought the women of Chillcapata a list of simple ideas to improve their lives (no animals in the house/a bed for every child/a biogarden to improve nutrition), offered training workshops, then sent a few emissaries like Maria to other communities to see the ideas in action.
The women came back motivated true believers, and set to work to transform their own homes, and pass their learning on to others. Luckily, these are can-do people who are incredibly clever at building things, working cooperatively, and getting ‘er done.
The Incan ancient tradition of ayni, like an Amish barn-raising where everyone pitches in to cooperatively help each other, is still very much part of Chillcapata culture. Maria’s kitchen was one of the first finished, and quickly, other women signed on to improve their homes.
Julia and Celso Apaza got the materials they needed from Heifer to start kitchen construction, and the couple worked day and night to change every room in the house. “It was like a dream for us,” she told me, “because before I felt ashamed of my house. It was a mess, and I never wanted to welcome visitors. But now my doors are wide open and I even have a bench for my visitors to sit on.”
For two years when they were really struggling, Julia, her husband, their guinea pigs, and four sons lived in one small room and clearly, the memory still haunts her. Like many children of the Highlands, her four sons were sent to Lima to try to make a living at age 12. Three of those boys died of malnutrition and lung disease after working in a wood factory.
Now Julia is a promoter of the Healthy Homes program (which is also supported by Walmart’s Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative) and she proudly keeps the poster on her wall to work her way religiously through every step of the program…and believe me, I’m quite sure she will make it.
Driving back to Puno in the long, beautiful light of late afternoon, I thought about these people’s ultimate dream: to make Chillcapata the next New Thing in authentic adventure travel and share with tourists the stunning beauty of their little town. Passing on the gift …It’s contagious!