I was traveling over the Altiplano on a gravel road that snakes around Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. The Indians there are extremely poor and the environment absurdly harsh (13,000 feet elevation and freezing). There are no tourist facilities so I spent the night in an Aymara Indian family’s mud brick hut. I was hungry. They invited me to dine with them.
They were eating what they ate every day of the year—chuños, tiny freeze-dried potatoes in weird mottled colors of purple, green, and red. The potato originated in South America and there are more varieties in Bolivia and Peru than any other part of the world. The dehydrated ones we were eating had been reconstituted with murky boiling water. No salt. No flavor. My hosts savored them. These puny potatoes were a main part of their existence. When they weren’t eating them, they were cultivating them.
“How are they harvested?” I asked to spark conversation among this very reticent and superstitious family. The mother, whose mahogany face was cracked and polished from exposure to extreme weather, told me, “We dig them up when they are ready and leave them on the hard ground to freeze. Then we go through the field in our bare feet and roll each one under our feet to remove the skin. We store them in baskets and they last a year.”
“Oh,” was my only comment.
I looked down at her feet. They were blackened and cracked and had calluses as thick as history books.
Maybe I did detect some flavor in my meal after all… .
This story has been published in BATW Tastes of Travel and Exotic Life: Travel Tales of an Adventurous Woman.