Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Three Plants for Tea

Over a year ago, I was in Peru, struck by the beauty of many parts of the country and the closeness of non-city dwellers to the land. As my traveling companion and I hiked deep into Colca Canyon, we walked through small villages that were inaccessible by automobile. By necessity, the people there had know-how; there was no pizza delivery-like instant gratification available. The most memorable part of the trip for me was an all-too-short stay with the Quispe family on the Capachica Peninsula, in the small village of Paramis.

Traveling is always an experience in vulnerability. I don’t always acknowledge it, but I’m completely at the mercy of others. There is no home to retreat to. I know no one and sometimes do not speak the language. I often don't know how the "justice system" works, if there is one. In exchange for some money (usually), I am whisked away here and there, and in the case of Paramis, out to a remote place indeed. A remote place, of course, is exactly where I wanted to be, and where my soul often yearns to be. It’s a good thing that people are generally good and honest! I’ve been humbled by the incredible hospitality I’ve received on every one of my trips abroad.

Paramis and beyond from partway up the hill

After taking a rough ride down a rocky, dusty road, we were met with an absolutely stunning view. The setting was bucolic, the mountains of Bolivia were across the massive Lake Titicaca, and a sense of peace was in the atmosphere. I’ll never forget the full moon over the lake, casting a bright shimmering beam across the water. Our hosts showed us to our room - a small hut with a straw-dirt floor and no electricity. No electricity, despite the power lines that ran to the 25 or so homes in the village. The families typically purchased electricity from the power company as a cooperative, with each family paying a share. One family was not willing or able to pay, so the electricity had been out for a couple of weeks. Our host told us that it did not bother him in the slightest, gave us a candle for our room, and urged us to use caution given the abundant dry tinder that was our floor.

I instantly admired his nonchalant attitude of being totally fine without electricity in his home. It’s a comfort zone that I hope to get to eventually. Electricity makes life easier, and I've developed certain associations with it, but it is not necessary. Humans lived for all but the smallest sliver of their existence without it. Here, in Paramis, I saw living proof that people can be happy and go about their daily lives without it!

I wasn’t sure whether the two brothers and sister lived their lives as they did out of necessity or by choice. I know that they did live in the city for a time and that they eventually came back to the land where they grew up. Regardless of how they came to be where they were, they were very humble and incredibly proud of their lives. They shared stories of how they lived and of their heritage. Dinner and lunch were full of fresh, home grown/cooked ingredients and stories. We also walked and talked. As we trekked up the hill behind the house, we were treated to wonderful views, and, to my delight, a description of the uses of many plants on the land. We picked the three plants that had been at the table for tea with every meal. I can’t remember all of them, but one of the plants had an anise-like flavor. I thought this tea blend was so cool, as I had only previously made tea from a packet with a string already attached to it. This was quite a different experience, bringing the plants from the "back yard" to the table.

Our host showing us plants and talking about their uses

As we continued to walk, we stopped at an aloe-like plant. Our host used this plant as a detergent to clean clothes. In Spanish, he said, “In the city, people use chemical detergent and it causes pollution. Here, we use this plant and we return it to the earth. We can pour the used water anywhere because it came from here.” I noticed the ease with which he walked up the rocks, in sandals, his footsteps soft and deliberate, while we made lots of noise with our heavy steps and hiking shoes. Every once in awhile, we would pass a structure that reverberated with the sound of rushing water. Our host described that their water came from the top of the hill, down the aqueduct. Very cool. Water from the land, without high tech treatment. Like it should be.

I often think of the Quispes. They are role models, even heroes to me. They are the truest "environmentalists" I have met, without the title, walking the walk without the slightest air of trying to be cool. I thought of them in particular a couple weekends ago. I’ve started a small group in and around Washington, D.C. that meets to share and expand our knowledge of the land. We are focusing on our own surrounding ecosystem, establishing a relationship with the other beings here. During our walk last weekend, the thought of three plants for tea came to mind: spicebush (Lindera benzoin), creeping charlie (Glechoma hederacea), and Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii).

Barberry (left), creeping charlie (upper right), spicebush (lower right)

I nearly left the park without them, but I felt determined to try to make something, even though I wasn’t aware of what the right ratios would be and what the method of preparation was. I do say, I was pleased with the flavor. A bit overpowered by mint, perhaps, so I can tweak the ratios a bit next time. All three plants are available in abundance, so there is tea around any time I want to make it! In these moments, I feel the most connected and centered, that life is good and that the path to making it better is clear. When I connect to my ecosystem, rather than walk through it as one does through a museum, I create a better life for myself and do less harm to others. I have a lot to learn, and I look forward to sharing with others who are interested as I learn!