Caitlin Doughty in Perú, Part 2

My days quickly molded to the local culture. I subsisted off of potatoes and coca tea and woke up and went to bed with the rise and fall of the sun (this meant 12 hours of me huddling under spider eggs and reading Game of Thrones; sleep often eluded me). People start each meal with steamed potatoes which they peel and eat plain. They are small and there are various kinds — the most variety is offered at lunch when you’re working on the chacra (farm/garden) because they cook the ones you’ve just harvested. Some are sweet, others more earthy. I liked them all. For breakfast and dinner, this was accompanied by a soup that included potatoes, sometimes quinoa, salt, and some leaves of a plant I can’t name. It’s not much and it’s the same everyday, but every time it was served I wolfed it down.

I was hiking for multiple hours every day to visit various families and conduct interviews (oftentimes we didn’t eat lunch as we were in transit to another home off in a distant valley). It was hot hiking up hill at the high altitude 14,000 feet and more, and freezing the moment we stopped. It drizzled every afternoon despite the fact that it is the dry season and to my chagrin, the clouds never cleared for me to take photos of the breathtaking but rapidly disappearing glaciers.

Because it is potato harvesting season, my interviews revolved around this schedule. After hiking for several hours we would arrive at a family’s chacra. Everyone would be working, and so we (my guide Isidro and I) would go to work as well. Isidro is the current President of Abra Malaga and families always welcomed him amiably (and me with stares). The first day I got there, we went up to visit Isidro’s chacra. They only grow potatoes but this one hectare plot (or so) contained 100 varieties. All of the potatoes are for consumption. They rotate them every year and normally have six different places that they use in rotation. The plots are anything but flat; instead, they are rolling hills, filled with rocks and boulders. When we arrived at the chacra, the family took a break to chew coca leaves. When they started working, I just went along with them. They thought this was hilarious. The laughter brought me back to my undergraduate research in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

I remember setting up my tent as an entire Huaorani community watched me, laughed, and talked in the local language I did not understand. I remember struggling with this and anthropological research in general. What right did I have to disrupt these people’s lives for research that would certainly enlighten me and in some ways improve my life but would unlikely improve their lives? Could I truly observe what was occurring in these peoples’ lives when mine was so utterly different? What did I have to offer? Along with struggling with these questions, I was challenged by being laughed at and watched. I am an introvert and I was out of my comfort zone.

The laughter at the chacra brought all of those feelings rushing back. What was my purpose? Will my research change and improve the conservation project? How will it impact their lives? Am I learning lessons and skills that I will be able to apply in my future work as a development professional? The questions remain unanswered. The laughter made me shudder, but I had no reason to be bothered. It was a funny site: a gringa trying to cultivate potatoes. One of the hypotheses for laughter is that it is a reaction to something unexpected and no doubt, my actions were just that. I made the conscious decision to smile along. Eventually, someone gave me a crude pick (I’d been using my hands) and tried to give me some pointers. It is back breaking work but rewarding at the same time. I always got excited to discover the 10+ colorful small potatoes underneath a dead plant and rich soil. Being tall wasn’t to my advantage and I was grateful when we took a break for lunch. I tried to pet one of the dogs (which ran away from me). This was also met with laughter. They’re not big on petting dogs. We fed the dog our potato scraps and I came to the conclusion that all of the people and animals in this community live off of potatoes.

I was laughed at much more during the trip. At some points I was treated as a child and at other times was studied silently. Most often, people could not bring themselves to look directly at me. They would steal glances. This was the case for over half of my interviews. I was the unknown and intimidating. The people were very shy and unsure in my presence. Inevitably, this affected my interviews. They did not go well. In addition to their shyness, there was a language barrier. I do not speak Quechua and Isidro’s Spanish is barely passable. It would take me months, at least, to build the relationship I would need to get the in-depth conversations I was craving. Most of the time, my guide prompted their responses which means all of my interviews look the same. He also introduced me as an employee of ECOAN (the conservation organization whose project I am attempting to evaluate), which meant I only got positive responses. My attempts to rectify this did not succeed. Despite these challenges, I am not disheartened. It gives me the opportunity to grow and my research continues to evolve.

My participant observation allowed me to see how they interact with ECOAN staff and with their environment (including things like solar panels and greenhouses provided by ECOAN). The simple contrast between how they interacted with me and how they interacted with ECOAN staff was telling. They readily talked with staff members in Quechua (all staff members understand Quechua and most can speak it as well). ECOAN has spent time building a relationship with the community and did so before starting the conservation project itself. The lives of the community members have obviously been changed as a result. They no longer depend upon the native Polylepis forest for firewood. Instead, firewood is delivered to them every 4-5 months. Many people complained that they need more firewood. The solar panels provide electricity for radios that drown-out the sound of the cuy squeaks and lights for otherwise dark homes. ECOAN has also clearly made strides in their conservation goals. I was able to visit the Private Conservation Area of the community. It was amazing. One moment I was walking through a rocky, barren landscape and then suddenly, I was in a forest. Despite the fact that it was a short, scraggly forest, it was a striking contrast. The air was sweet and moist and bird song filled my ears (though I couldn’t spot a single one). When you walk up the valley to see it, you can see the stark contrast between the left side where grazing animals are allowed and the right where they are not. Isidro proudly pointed out where the community had helped plant trees.

My analysis has only just begun and I have more communities to visit. I recently met the guide for my next community visit. He is also the current President of the community. He is my age, fluent in Spanish, has a smart phone and has regularly had foreign tourists stay in his home. Needless to say, he is sure to provide a very different perspective than that of Isidro. In addition to visiting communities, I will be attending meetings between ECOAN, the communities, and the municipality of Ollantaytambo to discuss the management of the three Private Conservation Areas in the region as well as meetings between ECOAN and their donors.  There is so much information to absorb that at times it is overwhelming yet I feel extremely privileged that I get to spend my summer observing, thinking and growing.

Caitlin Doughty

Caitlin Doughty is a Master of Environmental Science candidate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, focusing on climate adaptation and sustainable development. She can be reached at

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  2. Tess Croner says:

    Great, thought-provoking post, Caitlin! Thanks for sharing.

  3. I really enjoyed your post, Caitlin–I could relate to many of the challenges and rewards you experienced during your interviews. I also appreciated your reflectiveness, including questioning the value of your work and what it all means. Looking forward to hearing more about your adventures when we meet in New Haven. Safe travels and enjoy the remainder of your time in Peru!

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