Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On the fly in South America

by Betsy Power


I found myself in the midst of a desert oasis wondering how a country that produces copious amounts of produce for export consisted of so much dry dry dirt! I had just traveled approximately 250 km south of Lima (through desert and more desert) to arrive at a small valley, green from irrigation. My host Stefan Bederski picked me up in a tiny VW bug (which looked even more miniscule when his 6' plus frame folded into the driver's seat) and we took a tour of earthquake destroyed Chincha before we hit the desert. Even a year and half later, the town is still in tatters, yet the resourceful residents have managed to normalize even the most uncomfortable of conditions. Stefan and his father (with help from international donors) have been helping families to rebuild their homes in this resource-scarce town.


A dusty jaunt through more desert and over a ridge brought me to the lush organic farm of Topara, the Bederski family’s life’s work, and to the lush gardens behind their beautiful adobe home where dueling hummingbirds and brightly colored flowers vie for attention. While awaiting lunch, I had the opportunity to reflect on my whirlwind journey thus far.


My travels began in Argentina with a quick visit to Buenos Aires en route to my true destination - Mendoza. Loved it! The place is literally flooded with wine, and I promise you, I did my damnedest to help them get rid of it! Met some wonderful companies producing such things as: pumpkin in syrup, anchovy stuffed olives, dulce de leche, organic herbs (you have never seen oregano and sage like this!), and an unbelievable artichoke and apricot chutney.

Leaving Argentina behind via a hair-raising 7 hour bus ride - which gave me the opportunity to experience hairpin turns over 1000' drops from the front seat of the second floor of a double decker bus – brought me to Chile, and more whirlwind traveling.


I took a flight to Temuco in the south to visit Terrasol, a company that makes oil from the indigenous Chilean nut harvested wild by the Mapuche people. We drove to the ends of the earth (or so it seemed), hours and hours on dirt roads, to reach Sonia, an inspiring entrepreneur who has invented the machinery, along with her husband, to roast, crack, and toast the harvest of her neighbors from miles around. Without her, it would make no sense, financially, for these people to harvest their crop.


The next day, I joined Veronica from Origen and headed four hours south of Santiago (on more very long dirt roads) to reach the Boyurea salt fields and the community that has been harvesting these fields for generations. I have never seen sea salt being produced, and I can say with total conviction - WAY COOL! Unfortunately it is getting more difficult each year to survive from the production of this amazing product as bakeries and industry have change to industrially mined salt. Culinary Collective and Origen are joining forces to work with this community with the hopes of creating demand in the US for the salt and in turn helping to sustain this traditional way of life.


A brief stop in Lima – the home of amazing ceviches and not so shabby pisco sours – and off to the Topara oasis to get the full debriefing on how one grows organic pecans and peppers in the middle of a desert. The secret – years of patience and naturally flowing waters from the ever present towering Andes.


Yet, the desert heat and sun is not the best place for a northeasterner, and I headed happily off to the mountains, where I discovered breathtaking Cusco - a beautiful colonial city with cobblestone streets and strolling Quechua women pulling along the families' assets - the llamas.



I met with many companies producing such things as popped quinoa, sustainably harvested trout from Lake Titicaca, Sacha Inchi oil, and medicinal teas. I had the opportunity to drive 2 hours outside of Cusco (many more dirt roads) to a community of 60 indigenous women who had started Tombanutura, with the help of a local non-profit, to cultivate, harvest, and commercialize native herbs and teas - probably one of the most memorable site visits I have ever done. These proud women had once been relegated to the confines of their homes with no economic or decision making power. The men would often drink away the income, including the school fees for their children. Now their hard work is paying off. They are making their own money and supporting over 200 other women in the community. And their children are growing up knowing that mom and dad are truly equal. I was thoroughly moved by the experience. The community treated me as a foreign diplomat, to the point of even insisting that I meet the mayor of the town - who presented me with a beautiful scarf hand-woven by women of the community.


After such adventures, I decided I needed to relax (me? Relax?) by, you guessed it, embarking on a 4-day trek on the ancient Inca trail to Machu Picchu. I had invited my brother to join me for the adventure and he arrived with less then 24 hours to acclimatize to the 11,000 foot altitude before we hit the trail. I fed him coca leaves along the way to fend off altitude sickness, and hoped for the best. The trail was stunning, and the food was delicious (luxury camping is new to me but a welcome experience). I was beginning to feel a bit guilty at having such service on a backpacking trip, until the altitude or the utensils caught up with Matt on the night before we reached our destination. My "never-been-to-a-developing-country-before" brother spent a good part of the night leaning over me, out the tent door, losing his cookies so to speak. We were both a bit groggy the next day and stumbled our way through the impressive ruins of Machu Picchu. Those old Incas were a very detail-oriented people, ensuring that every stone lined up with the next without the need for mortar. It was rainy and foggy and we didn't get the picture perfect views. But it was absolutely gorgeous and I would highly recommend traveling by foot to this wondrous land.

All in all, it was too short and too fast and I look forward to returning to this magical land.