Beck Williamsan honors political science major who participated in the January 2020 Honors Passport study abroad intersession course to Peru, found himself in an unexpected dilemma when the class took him to the top of a hill on the island of Taquile in Lake Titicaca: to trade his umbrella for a hat in the middle of Peru’s rainy season, or to hold onto the item, which had been a gift from his sister. This trade, and his decision, revealed much about indigenous trade culture, and Beck learned a lot about his own cultural lens from the incident. What follows is an excerpt — to read Beck’s post in its entirety, visit the class’ own blog, Indigenous Ways in Peru: Postcards from Students. On their blog, you can also read posts written by the other students in the class, on topics from the making of Machu Picchu to the ancient cultural practice of skull deformation. 

I need to begin by saying: I do not like rain. I never have. The horrid slosh of wet shoes and socks, the heaviness of soaked clothing, the blurred vision from fogged-up glasses, and of course the irksome thought of how long it will take to completely dry off—rain is truly not for me. This is why, whenever there is any chance of rain whatsoever, my umbrella is always with me. It may seem dramatic, but an umbrella—specifically, my umbrella—is one of my most important possessions. My umbrella is the perfect size. It compresses down to fit into the outside pocket of my backpack, and it conveniently unfolds into a large enough area to keep me completely dry. On top of this, ever since I received it from my sister on Christmas Day a couple of years ago, it has not shown any signs of damage or wear. It is, without exaggeration, the perfect umbrella.

What I did not realize was that this umbrella would actually lead me to my favorite experience of my entire time in Peru, and would teach me what was possibly the single greatest lesson I learned over the two-week program.

Our program was largely focused on understanding the relationship between the indigenous culture of the Andean people and the modern Peruvian culture. It involved visits to important cultural, historical and religious sites across the Andes, which typically inspired thoughts and discussions comparing aspects of Andean cultures with those of our own. My only previous experiences abroad had been in Europe, where the languages may have been foreign to me, but the major aspects of culture still remained the same. I had never experienced anything quite like arriving on one of the Uros Floating Islands in Lake Titicaca, where around 25 people lived on one self-made island that was approximately 150 square feet in area. I needed to be aware that my own cultural lens could impair my observation of Peruvian Indigenous culture, and that to get the most out of these experiences, I needed to shed any cultural judgements in exchange for an eagerness to embrace the culture.

This all became immensely important during our journeys in Lake Titicaca. Led by our local guide Lut, a man who identified as and fluently spoke Quechua, we encountered experiences that opened our eyes to the local culture in fascinating ways. One of the most unique cultural aspects of not only the islands of Lake Titicaca but also of all of the Andes is the way trade traditionally functions. Even dating back to before the Inca, trade in the Andes was never the same “value for value” trade we so commonly focus on in current United States culture. Instead, it was based on the formation of trade relationships between communities. Since certain altitudes and geographic zones of the mountains were better suited for producing certain crops and materials, Andean communities of different geographic zones would form trade relationships where they supplied each other with the crops and materials from their own zones. The value of the trade existed not within the tangible items being exchanged but instead in the connection being forged. This aspect of trade was so important that it even extends to Peruvian culture today. Monetary, value-based trade of course exists in big cities and tourist areas such as Lima and Cusco, but the trade-relationship style still exists in regions and areas with significant indigenous lineage. In fact, I was able to encounter it on the island of Taquile.

A landscape view from the island of Taquile…after the rain.

When we arrived at the island, it was pouring rain. We were set to meet a family who lived at the top of the mountain, and to get there, we would have to hike through the rain. I immediately had my umbrella open and ready to go. When we finally reached the top, it was no longer pouring. There was one island resident sitting alone in the courtyard. He looked to be quite old, but still got around well and was peacefully enjoying the morning in the courtyard. On his head he wore a chullo, a typical Andean hat similar to a beanie with ear flaps. He stood up to welcome us, talking to Lut in Quechua. He turned to us, looked us over, then immediately turned back to Lut and began excitedly talking while pointing at me.  Lut, also very excited, told me that the man wanted to trade for my umbrella. I asked Lut exactly what the man wanted to trade in return, and the man reached into the bag he was carrying and pulled out a blue and yellow alpaca-wool chullo. He said he had made it himself.

I was taken aback. This was not a trade I wanted to make. But by measuring only the tangible value of the proposed items for trade, I was ignoring an opportunity to embrace Andean culture. I began to understand that there was more value in this trade than just the items’ tangible value. In my quick assessment, I was acknowledging the trade as a value-based exchange. But by trading the man my umbrella for his hand-made chullo, we would be engaging in a special kind of trade relation. This is what made a simple trade by my standards into a special and genuine opportunity which I would be naïve to pass up.

I quickly hiked over to the man’s house, where he was still outside in his garden. We exchanged no words, but instead I just pointed at my umbrella and made various motions with my hands to convey a trade. His face lit up, and he warmly grabbed my hand and led me back to the courtyard, where he pulled out the same yellow and blue chullo. It, of course, fit perfectly. When I had Lut ask the man for a photo, he gladly accepted, I presume because he knew that it would help me to preserve and remember the trade relationship we formed. Despite a language barrier and our difference in culture, the two of us were able to form a genuine connection, and it truly gave me a glimpse into the beauty of Andean trading culture and the community of Taquile Island.

Traditional chullo caps are sold to tourists throughout Peru. Photo: Russell Cothren. 

That trade, simple as it may have been, was my favorite moment of the trip. Now that I have returned to the States, it is constantly on my mind. Just a couple of days ago, I was walking home from class on what I had assumed would be a clear day, when a sudden and heavy downpour struck. Out of habit, I reached for an umbrella in my backpack which was no longer there. Instead, I had to finish my walk home without it. As I continued walking through the pouring rain with wet socks, mud around the bottom of my jeans and soaked clothes stuck to my skin, I could not help but smile and think about my trading partner on Taquile Island with his new umbrella.