Guinea Pigs squeak and dart in old style Cuzco kitchens while in more contemporary homes they have a pen nearby. These cuddly little animals not only live intimately since well before the Incas with Cuzco’s inhabitants, they also give the meat for birthdays and main holidays. Eating cuyes, as they are called in Quechua-based Spanish is core to life’s round in this ancient city and region.
But the guinea pigs do not live on air and love alone. They need greenery to eat. This means that the people of Cuzco not only eat the guinea pigs on festive occasions, but that they must find and bring them forage for them to live and procreate in the nooks and crannies of Cuzco kitchens or external pens.
When I was a child my mother would send me to go buy food for the cuyes we had in our home. I would go by myself, money in hand, to a chichería near my house. The lady there became my casera. I called her that because I would always buy from her and she would treat me special. She would always give me a little extra grass or would mix in some alfalfa just to be nice. That way my mother would be happy when I came home with the green forage on my back in a queperina, a woven carrying cloth.
You can imagine me as a boy carrying a bundle of grass that looked huge on my little back but was not to heavy. A lot of us from Cuzco have grown up carrying bundles of grass on our backs for a sew blocks just to feed our guinea pigs.
People who raise guinea pigs in the country side also have their fields of wheat, alfalfa, and barley. Besides other purposes, they will grow these to feed their guinea pigs and they plant more to harvest and sell as greenery in the city of Cuzco for all of us who live their and do not have fields by the sides of our homes.
They will send the greenery every day into the city so it can be distributed to various stores and other businesses where people, including kids, can come and buy to feed their own guinea pigs.
The farmers cut the alfalfa, barley, and wheat when it is still green because in that form it has more properties to give energy and nourishment to the cuyes. They tie it into big bundles and carry it to where it can be sold to individual customers who then buy it in piles.
Just as you go to the market daily to buy what you need to make meals and feed your family, thanks to all the farmers who send the food for us to buy, you also have to get food for the animals that live in your home with you.
The people who sell greenery for guinea pigs, like most other market vendors, are distinguishable because of their dress. They were pleated skirts, called polleras, white blouses, a hat (generally a white hat), an apron, and they also have the implements to weave. While seated there throughout the day waiting between customers so they can sell their greenery, the weave by hand beautiful things for their family and also to sell.
They generally sell the grass in mounds. They come in all kinds of prices depending on their size and what the vendors think they can get and what the customers will accept. Today they often cost fifty cents of a sol, our money. Sometimes they bring the forage in wheelbarrows or carts because of the size of the bundle they have. Others bring them in station wagons or pickup trucks. Then they break it down into the mounds about the right size to put in a queperina, carrying cloth, and take the grass home.
The women sell forage every day early in the morning till around nine am and then again at night until around eight pm. They say that there is a huge demand for this forage in Cuzco and that they sell out almost every day because raising cuyes is so central to Cuzco’s life.
You can imagine all the happy chirps and movement from our guinea pigs when they see the greenery come and they get to eat it. They are an important part of our life in Cuzco and it is good to keep them happy.