Central & South America Culture

Brother, can you spare some rice?

This piece by George Bradt first appeared in the 1980 edition of the Peru guide.

I went to Cajamarca for a vacation, Hilary went to do some hiking. I slumped around eating and sleeping while Hilary scurried about organising a trek.

Cajamarca in Peru © Burkhard Mücke, Wikimedia Commons

After two days of frantic activity, Hilary broke the bad news. ‘George, you won’t believe the wonderful hike I’ve plotted out for us. Out of bed, lace up your boots, put on your backpack and let’s go.’

‘Isn’t it too late to start walking this afternoon?’ I suggested hopefully.

‘Isn’t it too late still to be in bed?’ she countered.

‘OK. Where are we going, and how long is this gem of a walk?’

‘Well, I asked a nice man if we could walk from Cumbe Mayo to San Pablo and he said it would only take a few hours.’

We reached the outskirts of town and I admired Hilary’s new hiking style: she was walking on her heels like a penguin.

‘What’s this, the new Bradt Ergonomic Propulsion Technique?’

‘No, it’s athlete’s foot, and I don’t want to hear any jokes about it.’

Before we could pursue the subject further we heard the welcome sound of a vehicle climbing the hill behind us. A lift to Cumbe Mayo! We had plenty of time to look around the site with the archaeologist driver before finding a camping place and eating a lavish supper. I asked about food for the rest of the trip.

‘No problem. There’s quite a big village on the way so we can stock up with more food there.’

The next day in the village of Chetilla we met the mayor sitting outside a house. When he saw us he bustled over and asked our business: were we missionaries perhaps? Or selling veterinary supplies? We told him about our walk and asked if we’d reach San Pablo that evening. He wasn’t at all encouraging.

Hilary looked nervous and asked directions to the village shops.

‘There is only one, and it’s closed.’ As we continued through the village Hilary kept nipping off down side streets and asking for eggs or bread. No one had any, and this was the only village along our route. We ate our lunch in some fields. I was just reaching for a third roll when Hilary said ‘George, two are plenty, why not save the rest for tomorrow?’

‘OK, just fill me in on your supper plans then; you know, kind of give me something to look forward to.’ Just as I was beginning to suspect, there would be no supper. In icy silence we walked down to the river valley. On the way,

Hilary’s search for local food became more vigorous. Braving the hysterically barking dogs, she asked at every hut we passed. No one admitted to having any spare food.

We crossed the river at the bottom of the valley and had started up the other side when we met a man milking cows. We asked to buy a litre, and to our relief he agreed readily. After he had filled our water bottle with warm frothy milk he refused to accept payment. We continued in better spirits, but lunch was beginning to wear off, and after four hours of climbing our legs felt like jelly.

We climbed, slower and slower, until just before sunset. ‘After all, there’s nothing to cook, so there’s no point in stopping early,’ said Hilary philosphically. Finally we found a good campsite, set up the tent, and tucked into ‘supper’. Hilary swapped four peanuts for my share of the milk.

‘If you’re still hungry, George, you could walk over that rise and see if there’s a village. I think I saw a soccer field up there from across the valley.’

‘Me? Hungry? After hogging an entire roll and four peanuts? I’m full to bursting!’

‘I’d go myself, but I don’t think I can walk.’ She’d taken off her boots and socks to reveal ten swollen, oozing toes with great raw areas where the skin had come off.

Thinking that we were lucky to have survived this far, I sped up the hill, hoping to see a road. But there was no village at the top of the ridge, not even a house.

It was rather depressing to wake up to no breakfast, and even more depressing to climb uphill all morning and find how quickly we were drained of the energy we had accumulated overnight. Our food-finding efforts continued unsuccessfully.

By this time Hilary was hobbling along like an old crone, her feet wrapped in an assortment of colourful rags. Eventually we came across a woman weaving, with lots of hens scratching about in the dust.

‘Have you any eggs?’ we asked as we casually waved a large bank note.

‘Yes, I’ve got two’, she said. Bliss, our salvation was at hand. She began weaving all the harder. Better check. Yes, we’d heard correctly, but she wasn’t interested in getting them.

‘You know, we’re very hungry.’ More weaving. ‘We haven’t eaten anything for three days.’ Completely unmoved, even with my exaggeration. A day or two without food means nothing to these people. Then she saw someone hurrying towards us, and unhitched her backstrap loom immediately. She lifted a sitting hen, gave us the eggs, and took the money. The youth running towards us stopped and motioned us towards him. ‘Why don’t I cook those for you, and give you some rice as well?’ We couldn’t think of any particular reason why not, so followed him to a nearby hut. Very soon we were ploughing through two bowls of rice topped with a fried egg.

After watching us satisfy our initial hunger, he asked where we’d come from and where we were going. Then he asked the obvious question: ‘But why didn’t you bring any food with you?’ We told him and he laughed long and loud. He kindly suggested we take extra rice with us in case we didn’t reach San Pablo until the next day. But he assured us that even walking slowly, ‘like fat ladies’, we’d reach the town before sundown.

We’d stuffed ourselves so full of rice we could hardly get up, let alone carry our backpacks. But we liked the stuffed feeling better than the empty feeling. And we liked our arrival in San Pablo better than the journey.

More information

There’s lots more Peru to discover in our guides: