A Special Lunch


In Patabamba, the air is scented with eucalyptus and munia, a mountain mint. We are about 3000 feet above the valley floor, 13000 feet above sea level, and across the valley the clouds disclose white, crisp, and mineralized Andean peaks. Between clouds, the sky is blue like a promise. The hills around us are a brick red and striated with terraces for farming, almost Aztec step pyramids in their regularity and certainly beyond them in scale. Sometimes, driving these mountain roads, we get caught in drifts of sheep or worse, goats.

We are driving with Octavio, exchanging halting Spanish for English en route to three small communities a couple of hours out of Cusco to look into past Alma projects. In Patabamba, one woman we pass turns out to be Agita, the mother of Jose Luis, a star student in this village who, with Alma’s help, has made it to university in Lima, a very long way from here. We explain to her who we are, half in Spanish and half in Quechua, and I see her eyes shine with gratitude. We’ll stop by on our way back for lunch, she insists – I am keen, though Octavio seems nervous we won’t like the food. As it turns out, lunch is brilliant. Once she has chased out the chickens, we sit on sheepskin covered benches in her mud brick kitchen – there is a calendar from 1986 on the wall, a translucent corrugated plastic skylight, and the table, with a blanket she has pulled from a dresser overflowing with flowering coriander, is set for the three of us. In a large pot, she fries an egg into a potato, broccoli, okra, garlic, and other potato hash. This is heated on moulded mud over a wood fire she has been tending, and accompanied by simple rice, it tastes like smoke and cream and rich rich meadow. She explains that they are vegetarians, that it is better not to eat meat (I think this is what she was saying but there was definitely a lot of Quechua in there so I’m not sure), and that these potatoes had come out of the ground today. They are damn good potatoes.

Lunch finishes with herbal tea (I think munia) in chipped mugs, poured out of a blackened pewter kettle, followed by a surprisingly protracted and emotional goodbye. A great lunch.