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We’re above 12,000 feet and a stout village woman is carrying my baby on her back.

Slung between the woman’s waist-length braids in a flamboyant blanket, tiny Ingrid is the cooing darling of the ancient marketplace. The air is thin and crisp here in Chinchero, but the sun is strong. In any direction, we are eye-to-eye with the peaks of the Andes and in the shadow of Incan ruins. Suffused in a chuckling crowd of market women in full black skirts, we watch giddily as Ingrid models traditional Quechua baby gear.

“This,” I think, “is why we brought the kids.”

No stroller? No problem. Ingrid helps a local woman model a traditional Quechua sling in the high-Andes village of Chinchero.

Months before, when my husband and I announced that we were planning a trip to Peru’s Sacred Valley, we invariably got two questions. First, “Who’s watching the kids?” Nobody, we answered. We’re bringing them. Cue second question: “Are you crazy?”

While bringing an eight-month-old baby and an almost three-year-old to a place like Peru is a bit different from taking them on vacation in the Poconos, there is nothing so insurmountably challenging about it that it can’t (or shouldn’t) be done.

Challenge number one for bringing small kids to this part of the world is the terrain. The Incas may have been master engineers (their temple complexes would make Escher blush), but their creations are far from stroller friendly.

Now populated by the Inca’s descendants, known as the Quechuas, villages remain paved in ancient cobblestones —where they’re paved at all. Steep terrain, haphazard steps, and open channels make even a stroll to the village square seems like an occasion for hiking boots.

Forget the fish and the bicycle, the old saying could easily go “like a Quechua needs a baby stroller”.

Since wheels are out of the question, we carried our children in backpacks. Beginning our trip in the hamlet of Ollantaytambo, we set out through the morning’s wood smoke and bleating sheep to explore some of the Incan ruins tacked high on a dizzying slope above the village. This strenuous morning hike with our kids in the Andes’ rarefied air made us feel like super parents.

Until we saw what the locals were carrying.

Back in the village, we passed an elderly woman toting enough sticks to shame the guy on the Led Zeppelin album cover. Barefoot schoolgirls flitted about with bundles of alfalfa twice their height. An old man strolled along a lane with an entire tree trunk tilted on his shoulder. The feats —and the scenery —were so unbelievable that we had to get some pictures.

Quechua people carry everything. And never complain about it.

While we were busy photographing the Quechuas and their bundles, the wee people riding on our own backs were turning us into a village curiosity. The locals may have grown accustomed to seeing pale-skinned adult tourists, but our blue-eyed babies were clearly a novelty.

We knew it was time to brace ourselves for an onslaught of affection.

Before we had kids, we’d travel through foreign cities like ghosts, invisible to everyone but the hawkers. Now, with babies in our arms, people are drawn to us.

My Spanish vocabulary, once comprised of the basic phrases necessary to order a meal, can now hold up my end of conversations that include, How old are they?, Your children are beautiful, and, For shame, your baby’s head is cold! (I have also learned that it is the universal prerogative of grandmothers across the globe to be aghast that your baby is not wearing a hat.)

Our kids turn heads and make friends in Ollantaytambo.

When we travel with our kids, we connect with people not as tourists, but as fellow parents. We get to talk to them about things that don’t involve the purchase of goods and services. People are actually happy to see us.

We trade the label of “tourist” for “family”.

Which brings us back to that high-Andean marketplace.

Near the end of our trip, we were were strolling through Chincero’s main square, my baby snuggled against me in a high-tech baby carrier as my husband and older daughter looked for souvenir ceramic bulls. A woman caught my eye, cocked an eyebrow, and held aloft a technicolor blanket. This was just the invitation I was hoping for.

For our entire trip, I’d been marveling at the tidy, origami-like folds of cloth that the local women used to carry their kids. Curious to try, but too shy to ask, I now leaped at the chance to test out a traditional Quechua baby sling.

With a few deft movements, they had Ingrid swaddled and on my back. I was pleased with the result, but sensed from the assembling crowd that I was somehow doing it wrong. With skeptical hands on chins and a few slow head sways of disapproval, Ingrid was plucked from my back. As I waited to feel the readjusted burden returned to my shoulders, I realized that she was already refolded and wrapped across the blanket seller’s back.

Suiting up with a traditional Quechua sling. Apparently, I was doing it wrong.

The woman’s friends erupted in giggles as she led my baby through the paths of the market. Ingrid snuggled against the woman blissfully, cooing and smiling amid the ageless Incan stonework.

Without language and across cultures, we found common ground in one universal truth: everybody loves babies.

These sorts of things just don’t happen to adults traveling alone. And they don’t happen to kids left behind at grandma’s house either.

From the cradle, we are teaching our daughters that this planet is theirs to explore. That their culture is but one of many wonderful ways that the people of the world live their lives. That there is so much that is beautiful and intriguing and delicious and wondrous and exhilarating to see and eat and do in this world if you’re only willing to make the journey.

And for that, I’d carry them anywhere.


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We Took Our Two to Peru. (And You Can, Too.) by Jody Pratt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at globetoddling.com.
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