We tried cuy (guinea pig) on a farm in Yanamarca, a small village 20 minutes outside the city of Cajamarca. If there is a way to try something new and slightly scary, this has got to be best way to do it.
Step 1: Visit the guinea pig pen
Step 2: Choose your fat guinea pig
Step 3: Witness the moment of truth with a sharp knife
Step 4: De-furring with a pot of hot water
Step 5 Let the Experts Cook it….Deliciousness
We didn’t think we could stomach it, but everyone around us acted so normal (include the 2 year old daughter of the owner) that it made it actually okay. Ty witnessed the process too and I’m glad he got to see it at such a young age, even though in the end he wouldn’t eat it because he said he wouldn’t eat such a “weird looking animal.”
The rest of us finished the cuy. Yes, it was good. The skin was fried to a crisp and not very fatty. The meat was very tender and flavorful. Not like a chicken, more like a duck or the dark meat of a tender pig. But there is not much of it.
It is weird to think that the act of killing your own food is such a big deal to most of us. Meat packaged in cellophane is totally fine but give us some eyes, bones and blood and all of a sudden it is a horrible thing. Simon and I are no exception to being squeamish. We had only killed our own food once in our past. We kept a few quails for quail eggs before our trip and when we left, we gave away most and used one that was made into a soup. Simon still has vivid memories of swinging the bird to break its neck with a stronger force than was needed for a one-pound animal. The body separated from the head he was holding and landed on the far side of the yard. He couldn’t eat more than one bite of the soup.
At some point we will get a stronger stomach for what people call “processing” our own meat. We have dreams of owning our own chickens, pigs, and maybe even lamb and goat, for meat. We care about consuming healthy food and it doesn’t get healthier than knowing exactly what goes into our animals. We also care about the treatment of animals whose lives are given up for our stomachs. I wouldn’t call it ethical because I don’t really understand that word. We haven’t made the decision to not eat meat. And even a vegan diet costs lives. But as long as animals die for our taste buds, we would like for them to at least live a happy life.
A family friend who once visited a chicken farm in Asia that supplied to KFC quit eating chicken forever after what he saw. He told us of “chickens” that did not look like chickens, but in his words, like some new species, with no feathers, no necks and huge breasts on two chicken feet. In the States, we know chicken farms exist but we are removed enough to be sheltered emotionally from the truth. In Peru, we have had the fortune of driving by numerous chicken farms. Some actually were not enclosed so the chickens had a great view of the outside, except they were packed literally like sardines in metal cages. Somebody termed the phrase “conscious ignorance”. If you would allow yourselves to look into the truth of what makes meat, not just chicken, so affordable in the clean and safe supermarkets, then you would discover the life-long suffering of animals in the industrialized food system. And then maybe you would make different choices too. Anyway, when this trip is over, having that family farm that we dream about will be our next adventure.
Back to the farm in Yanamarca. Besides the cuy, we also bought pounds of pork from a pig that they had just processed a few days before. It was absolutely the best pork we ever tasted. Firm and tender at the same time with strong meat flavor but not gamey at all. There were two other pigs there about six months old that will need a few more months before they are ready for slaughtering. On this trip Ty became used to seeing and playing with animals that will become food. He will ask us, is this a pet or is it for food? And he is totally okay playing with either.
The farm also had sheep. While we were there one baby sheep was born and we got to hold it at a day old. This particular baby sheep is a male, which means it will be on the table in about three months. Because it can not breed with its family and therefore a male sheep doesn’t have much other value on a farm. But for now, it is super cute.
And of course the farm has chickens. We really wanted to buy a chicken from them but they were too young. Only six months and not big enough for meat for another couple months. In contrast, chicken for supermarkets are ready for slaughtering at less than two months! Ty, Jamie and Luna had so much fun playing with the chickens every day. These chickens are very used to human handling and very docile. Every morning we brought them a pail of food scraps from the day before. And once they saw us coming down the path, they would run out to greet us.
Ty and Jamie both learned of the concept of roping animals, from the leather rope that Simon bought in Colombia and recently greased. So they spent some time practicing how to lasso a chicken, a duck, a turkey, or Luna. They could spend all day playing down by the barn if we let them.
There is something so fundamental about the relationship between children and animals. In the States, Ty was first exposed to farm animals where everything was very organized and sanitized. Jamie, on the other hand, only knows about up-close-and-personal. The way he squeals with joy free from fear, and the tenderness he lavishes upon them, is so pure and a joy to watch.
In the afternoons we would head out to the city. Sometimes we went to the equivalent of Home Depot and Target to satisfy our illogical need to give away hard earned cash. But most of the time our routine was a cheap lunch in town followed by hanging out with ice-cream in the main plaza of Cajamarca. One day we met a Colombian woman traveling alone who happened to hand-make leather accessories. She wasn’t selling at the time but by chance we just started talking. We walked back to her hostel to see her unique work and I came away with one of my favorite possessions ever. Ty, as always, was enamored.
The indigenous people throughout North Peru wear these amazingly large and tall straw hats. All the shots I could get were from the back. After ten months I am still getting over being camera shy photographing the indigenous people. The few times that I did ask for permission back in Central America were flatly rejected. And a couple times I was caught sneaking a shot and they responded by shielding their faces. One time a little Ecuadorean boy hid his face the whole time as he was riding a donkey towards our direction and I felt terrible. The traditional dress of the indigenous are so vivid and intriguing. Every region has something that stands out. In this region, it has got to be the hats.
The place we stayed at is called Hacienda Yanamarca. We stayed in our vehicles but paid for a room for the bathrooms and had access to the common areas. The owners and their three children were lovely and made it hard to leave after one week. They pointed to the mountains surrounding them and told us each was once gifted with a lake filled with trout, before the gold mines started in Cajamarca. Pieces of information throughout northern Peru started to fit together. From the sweet village of Dos De Mayo up north, to the mural in Celendín to the stories in Cajamarca, the damage from the world’s second largest gold mine is felt throughout the region.
Curiously I researched about Cajamarca’s Yanacocha gold mine and read stories of deathly toxins leaking into the water supply, poisoning entire villages and killing livestock, of villagers protesting strongly against a second gold mine called Conga and how five were killed by police during a protest three years ago. The mines are providing some jobs but have taken away complete livelihoods for some by degrading the land and water for agriculture. After twenty years of mining the province is still the poorest in all of Peru. I think people generally know about blood diamond but I had no idea about dirty gold. Did you know that a popular method of gold mining involves blasting apart mountain tops and dousing the rocks with mercury or cyanide to which gold bonds to? That is the contamination that the people from Dos de Mayo escaped from when they started a new community up north.