I don’t remember their names.
I still don’t know much about them. All I really know is that they were dirt poor, and they invited the group of us for dinner.
It was a busy day. We had started by going to Ollantaytambo to see the ruins at Temple Hill and learn about the Sacred Valley, then moved on to Moray to see and learn about the agricultural research station and how the Inca used that info to help build an empire.
Our next stop was the salt ponds at Moras.
We don’t know for certain when the salt ponds got started, but it goes back at least to the time of the Inca empire (1438-1533), and possibly before.
But how did there come to be salt ponds in the Peruvian highlands, far from the nearest ocean?
The source of the water springs from the side of a mountain. The Inca would have called it a gift from the gods. In the Inca mythology the gods lived in three realms: the hana pacha (world above), the ukhu pacha (world below), and the kay pacha (this world); so the salt stream would be a gift from the world below to this world.
A more prosaic explanation suggests that an ancient seabed was raised enough to evaporate, then thrust up by subduction from the Nazca plate along with rest of the Andes, and covered by volcanic activity. A subterranean stream runs over the top of or through the salt layer and runs out the mountain. No one knows how long the salt or stream will last.
The water is very salty, an 8% solution according to our guide. Dipping in a finger and tasting the residue confirms the saltiness.
The ponds are bordered by channels fed by the main stream. Each pond accesses a channel and can be blocked for evaporation or opened to add salt water.
Evaporation takes about 10 days. Our guide told us they’ll do an evaporation/fill cycle three times, with the bottom layer of salt having the most sediment and the top being the cleanest. The cleanest salt gets the best price and the dirtiest gets thrown out.
Anyone in the local community can harvest from a pond, but they need to coordinate with the local cooperative and be trained. New members get ponds in the lower levels and move up with seniority.
There’s not much money to be made harvesting salt. It does not contain iodine. We learned that despite taking far less effort the process of adding iodine more than doubles the price of the salt. Tourism for the salt ponds is now generating near as much income as harvesting does, and it’s likely to surpass it.
Salt of the Earth has more meaning than just the literal translation we’ve just explored. The dictionary describes it as a simple, good person; reliable, trustworthy, and straightforward. While I did not meet that many Peruvians, I had the sense that, especially for the people of the highlands, salt of the Earth is an apt description.
Most are poor, with limited education. But if you approach them with a smile, they are friendly in return.
I suspect our hosts for dinner back in Urubamba would fall into this category.
The tour company had arranged a dinner with a local family as an optional part of the package. We didn’t know what to expect, our guide filled us in.
Like the school visit, this was a case of the tour company helping out locals who were resource poor. This particular family had lost everything the year before; their home was on the flood plane next to the river and when historically high rains came through they lost the house and all their belongings. They were living with the in-laws and using the income from these tour group dinners to rebuild.
Dinner opened with soup, a nice broth with potato. We learned the potato had been dehydrated and purchased from the market looking like a small white mushroom, then rehydrated for the meal.
The entrée included stuffed pepper, potato, rice and pasta, corn, fried bread, chicken, and a sweet potato paste. For dessert, a peach in sauce.
The dinner conversation was a little awkward. Our hosts spoke no English, and we spoke little to no Spanish. Our guide translated, but mostly we smiled and said gracias. To fill the space, we learned more about our guide’s life.
He had tried several careers before settling on guiding, but what was surprising was how much training a fully certified guide required. He started with two years for the hospitality side, something like hotel management. Then he did three more years, with more focus on history, archeology, geology and the like. Guides are well regarded in Peru, for both their level of training and for helping bring money into the economy.
He too, like our other encounters that day, was a good representation for salt of the Earth.