I was at my towns alpaca farm for a community work day to shear about 100 alpacas. Twice a year they shear the herd, one half at a time. I’ve never helped at or even seen a herd of anything get sheared, and I was in for quite the adventure.
The day started off with a 6:15 breakfast of instant coffee mixed with Matchka, a delicious powdery mix of different grains that they eat in the mountains when there isn’t any bread. The quick breakfast allowed me to have a few more minutes of sleep before getting in the truck for a 2 hours climb up poor mountain roads to 4,600 meters above sea level and our 600 alpacas. When we arrived, there was still snow on the ground from the night before, although it always melts once the sun gets high enough. We then eat a breakfast of Mote, which is a hearty soup made from corn, onion, parsley, and alpaca meat.
After breakfast, there was a short discussion/meeting about what to do with the alpaca wool, to hold it or sell it now, because the market price for alpaca is about 1/3 of the price from a year ago. I’m still not sure what decision was made. After the discussion I watch as everyone starts getting ready for work. This entails chewing coca leaves (yes, the same leaves used to make cocaine, but this form is the legal form and only a mild stimulant (again, I only watch, not participate in this)), smoking cigarettes, and drinking caña, a disgusting hard liquor. This preparation takes about one hour, but I’m used to it by now because every community work event starts in the same manner.
After everyone is ready, then bring the alpacas into the shed were the shearing will take place. The alpacas resist this, and it is pretty funny to watch as a group of men are literally hitting and carrying alpacas through the gate. Once inside, a group of boys bring the alpacas to groups of 3 men with large scissors, who tie down the alpaca and in little more than 5 minutes what came in looking like a large alpaca will look like a weak, naked little animal. The alpacas scream throughout this whole process, even though shearing doesn’t hurt them. With about 10 shearing stations and 200 alpacas in the shed, it is quite a madhouse of commotion.
My job throughout all this was to paint a big red mark on the back of each alpaca after they had been sheared to mark that they got sheared in April, since only half the herd is sheared then. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, as I was always on the lookout for the next alpaca to be released, because if I waited too long I had to chase the alpaca into the herd and mark it before it got too far away. The shearers would yell, “pintura!, pintura!” and that meant I had about 10 seconds to mark the alpacas before it was released. It was an exciting job.
After we finished with the shearing and a lunch that was prepared for us, we followed the annual tradition and had a small 6 on 6 soccer tournament. This is a great idea, although it turns out that playing soccer at an elevation over 14,500 feet is a little more difficult than normal. We played for a few hours then got back in the truck for the 1 hour 40 minute descent back to Tomas.
While playing soccer, I looked around and realized my surroundings. There were mountains, alpacas, and a group of Peruvians that though nothing of it that I was playing soccer with them. That was when I realized that this is my Peace Corps experience. These people, none of whom look like me, all thought it normal that I would participate. They treat me like a community member, they don’t call me gringo, but rather by my name, and they know me on a personal level. It was a great realization that doesn’t just happen to everyone. It’s the moments like that that make this job amazing.
Aplacas before being herded into the shed.
An alpaca being sheared.
This shows how thick the wool is, and how tiny the body is.
Rolling up the wool from one alpaca.
This shows the big red spot I marked on every newly sheared alpaca.