So much in Cuzco is just like anywhere else. Still, there are things that are different, even if hard to describe sometimes. They may be things that even the people from Cuzco are not aware of, but they are real.
Someone wrote about contemporary life that “the full emancipation of the individual is reagarded as the apex of modernity”. This means giving individuals full freedom to make choices about themselves, by cutting back the importance of other people and the ties that bind the individual to them.
One example of this emancipation is the freedom to eat whatever you want, whenever you want. If you do not want crab cakes, you do not have to have fresh crab cakes, even if everyone else all around you is forking them apart and lifting their delicacy to their mouths. You can have a corn dog, or what ever makes you happy.
Restaurants with their individual items and range of offerings seem perfect for such an arrangement. Everyone can choose something different and yet still share a meal. But as everyone in the developed world has experienced, it can be very hard to agree on a single place when many different individuals are involved. No where seems to have enough offerings to accommodate everyone.
As a consequence people often eat alone. The aloneness of food intake is like a measure of personal style and taste. It proves ones separate existence and individuality.
Normal life in Cuzco just is not this way. The menus of restaurants may have a variety of offerings, especially in the more expensive ones mostly oriented towards tourists, but the more popular places are more limited.
You enter a place and find one or two main courses as offered in the menu, the set meal. Everyone has the same soup and then may choose one of the two main courses. But the commonality of eating something the same or similar joins people in a common event.
When people go out to eat and different persons get different dishes, it is common for everyone at the table to take their fork and taste some of each dish. Or the person whose dish it is might serve portions of their food to everyone else, who then does the same.
If you are with your family, the unity is even stronger. In Cuzco, serving bowls heaped with food are not brought to the table. They do not get to serve themselves just what they want to eat nor the quantity which will appear on their plate.
Instead, even if people eat individually, the food is served from a common pot and everyone gets more or less the same serving, beginning with the soup and ending with the desert, if there is such.
People sit at a table and tend to eat the same food at the same time. Sharing food is a major value among the city’s people, even if not everyone follows it all the time.
Togetherness and sharing, ayni, are marked in food. This is not the ayni of “today for me, tomorrow for you”, but it is the ayni of being part of other people and letting them be part of you.
OK. With everyone working, sometimes people eat alone. They even will make their own food at home, instead of sharing from a common pot. The basic isolation of individualism is finding a way in through the necessity of living modern lives.
But sharing is still a strong preference, especially when in public or with other people.
This goes with more than food. When people in the US get sick, most of them just want to be alone, I suspect. Certainly friends in Cuzco tell of Americans living there who get sick and shut everyone out to be alone.
If you are sick in Cuzco, people want to be with you. They do not want you to be alone. They work to heal you by being with you and taking care of you. The sharing of space and being goes beyond food to speak of a social reality.
When people are close to you, they often touch you, drape their arms around you, sit cheek by jowl, poke you, prod you, hold your hand, tease you, and borrow your clothes and toys. I am taller than the vast majority of people in Cuzco, and yet my jackets–though they seem to overwhelm people, have been worn bay all my people, my kuyaqkuna, at one time or another.
The word “kuyaqkuna” was used in anthropology to talk about what in English we call kin, that is those we “love”. Nevertheless, the English and the Quechua can seem like ships passing in the dark. Kin emphasizes biology, blood as anthropologist David Schneider would have it, while the kuyay here is about the solidarity, the sharing, the day in and day out touching, laughing, playing, sleeping, giving of gifts and favors, and especially eating together.
We should eat all together, as people will insist when tensions and individualisms may arise.
There is another saying, a very profound one. “‘Awqakunataqa kuyaywanmi atipanchik.’ninkutaq. They say: ‘You defeat enemies with love.‘”
This love is sharing coca leaves, or simple snacks, as well as meals. It is the development of trust and confidence over much time of togetherness.
The people of Cuzco receive foreigners with love, sharing, as they work to transform them from unknown people to kuyaqkuna, people who love one another.
For a related and much more extensive take on all this in a Bolivian context you might wish to read Krista Van Vleet’s excellent Performing Kinship: Narratives, Gender and the Intimacies of Power in the Andes (University of Texas Press, 2008).