A Simpler Life

01 Mar 2011
A Simpler Life

On a recent holiday to South America, I, with my travel partner, Ben, had the privilege of staying overnight with a local family at Amantaní Island, on Lake Titicaca, Peru, on the world’s highest navigable lake (3811 metres), on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Arranged through a tour company, we were billeted with a family who open their house to tourists like us.

Amantaní has no cars, little electricity; water is from a communal tap outside the house and is used for cooking, washing clothes and dishes as well as hands, and a tin shed outside is the bathroom. The island has one small store only, one school and a clinic. There’s no police station, as there’s no need for the law; everyone has the same few belongings and respect each other. And overlooking the lake are two mountain peaks, Pachatata (Father Earth) and Pachamama (Mother Earth).

Lugging our heavy backpacks, Ben and I followed our tata (dad) to his house. The ascent left us breathless and we had to stop several times, Tata laughing at us.

The view was amazing, with terraced farming land zigzagging its way up the side of the snow-capped mountains of Bolivia on the other side of the lake. The beautiful blue lake itself took what breath we had left away!

We walked through the gate and met our host family. Tata’s youngest son, Jiska, was lying on the grass in the sun, stuffing his mouth with tiny potatoes. He lazily rolled over to glance at us, disinterested in what was just a couple more tourists. Beatrice, aged 19, was much more welcoming. She paused from rinsing quinoa in a bucket to shake our hands. Inside, in the kitchen, we met Mama, who was preparing our lunch with another son, Elio.Trudging onward and upward, we passed children playing, women with long, black plaits snaking down their backs and farm animals including sheep, pigs, alpacas and chickens. Life looked simple and carefree.

The kitchen is the most important room in the house: there was no granite bench, not even formica; no pantry, microwave or dishwasher, or oven. Rather, there was a decrepit wooden unit adorned with a few saucepans, a Coke bottle filled with water, a plastic bottle of cooking oil, a wooden chopping board and a bag of potatoes. Around it were pieces of wood for fuelling an open fire used for cooking.

Mama, wearing sandals over her very dirty feet, sat on a small, wooden stool in front of the fire. To our dismay, she removed the pot of boiling quinoa and vegetable soup from the flame using her bare hands, then shook them in pain. She then brought out a saucepan of rice and potatoes, which we ate gratefully but cautiously. We finished lunch with a cup of peppermint tea.

The house itself was adobe, which is natural clay, water, sand and sticks mixed together and dried by the sun. We soon realised the plastic sheets spread across the floor covered otherwise exposed earth. Our bedroom contained three single beds, the bases made from latticed bamboo and the mattresses heavy, alpaca wool blankets. A lonely incandescent bulb hung from the ceiling. While it lacked any amenities, we were cosier than I’d imagined.

To thank the family for their hospitality, we were advised to give food like rice, sugar and cooking oil. Despite this advice, and because we knew they would use it, I also brought tinned tuna, drinking chocolate and condensed milk for the children. Seeing Jiska and Elio’s eyes light up made it worth it. The items were placed on the pantry shelf like prized trophies, to be admired and only later for some special occasion consumed.

In the afternoon, we hiked up Pachatata, to watch the sunset. Just below the peak, women sat at stalls adorned with rows of colourful alpaca beanies, scarves and gloves, while other handicrafts were laid out along the stone wall lining the path. I felt a flush of guilt as I thought about my impatience commuting to work in a warm, comfortable vehicle, when these women had to climb these steep hills daily, then sit in the cold waiting to sell their wares.

Lessons from Amantaní

  • Pray to God: South Americans are extremely religious. They believe that everything they have—the land, the animals, their health and families—is from God. They don’t expect, rather they appreciate, the blessings they have. 
  • Involve everyone in preparing a meal: Give each family member a specific role. Rather than barking at children to do their homework and feeding them processed food, talk to them about their day while one peels vegies and another dices them. This way, children learn to appreciate where food comes from and how tasty and healthy nutritious food is. 
  • Eat meals as a family at a table: We’re so dominated by technology such as TV and the internet that we’ve lost time and conversation with the broader family. 
  • Eat fresh, natural food: It isn’t surprising the locals don’t have the health issues of the West due to poor diet choices. Children snack on potatoes, as opposed to candy, so their teeth remain in good condition. or a comforting hug. 
  • Exercise regularly: Whether they’re scrubbing clothes in a bucket, milling grain on a stone or walking a mountain pathway to work, these people are proof that exercise is a key to longevity. Exercise also improves the quality of sleep. So take a brisk walk during your lunch break, take the kids for a bike ride and join a gym. Engage in some activity every day.

We returned to our lodgings in the darkness, complete with our purchases, for the final adventure of the night. It was a folk dance, hosted by all of the families caring for guests. They dressed us in traditional costume—ponchos and hand-made beanies for the men, while the women were given three brightly coloured layered skirts, a white shirt, a coloured vest, a cape and a beanie. So attired, we walked to the town hall, where a band played traditional music on panpipes, drums and tiny guitars.

The folk dancing was something never to be forgotten. Beatrice paired with me while Mama danced with Ben. The dance consisted of facing your partner, holding hands and swinging them like a see-saw. The local families were having just as much fun as we tourists.

The people on Amantaní know what the developed world has, but they’re content with what they have and are happy as they are. They enjoy the simplicity of their lives. They don’t waste time agonising over what they don’t have; they don’t get swamped by guilt for not spending more time at home with their children and they don’t get high on sugar or overweight from fatty snacks. The feeling of living in a community devoid of police and where their children are safe to play is priceless.

In Amantaní, I learned lessons in how to live a simpler, humbler and happier life, and I’m sharing them with you.


Kathryn Page