Life ain’t always sweet: a first cup of coffee in Peru
After being on a plane for the bulk of the past day or so, there was definitely an eagerness to do something to get myself moving. We flew from Washington, to El Salvador, to Cusco Peru, where we were met with hospitality. The group had gone to a local restaurant called “Organic Green” where we had a mind ful lunch filled with local and fresh ingredients so that we could touch base with our goals.
The daylight showed a busy Cusco, with plenty of people going about their lives, children playing soccer, and the hustle of the street vendors. However, the night life revealed something different.
I went running around town that night and it became clear to me rather quickly that this was an entirely different fish tank than any other I had swam in, before. My eyes were met with things that made me realize that perhaps this experience was not going to be a colorful bead to add to a bracelet.
Traveling can provide an opportunity to see things with a fresh perspective. And although Peru is captivating with vast, colorful, and mountainous landscapes, its life struggles are still very real. Among these struggles include poverty, that we often turn a blind eye to in our modern and “civilized” world. Reading about it is one thing, seeing it and feeling it is something else entirely.
In the Sacred Valley outside Cusco, 14 Quechuan women of the town of Chinchero run El Balcón del Inka, an association of textile artisans that have formed a partnership with local tour guides. They demonstrate traditional processes of creating woven textiles, including spinning and naturally dying both alpaca and sheep yarn.
The women of Balcón del Inka come from 13 different families within the community. They formed the association seven years ago when they recognized the increased tourism to Cusco and the Sacred Valley as a business opportunity. Each of the women sells their products individually within the on-site group market.
The philosophy of working together comes from the age old belief in ayni, or “I will help you now because you will help me later.”
Upon arriving on site, the class took some time to admire the Inca ruins of the palace of Tupac Yupanqui, Inca ruler and son of the famed Pachacuteq. From there, we went up a slope to the welcoming sound of the women singing a traditional Quechuan song.
The demonstration of the process of weaving was detailed, educational, and funny. The class sat in amazement as white, handspun thread was dyed using plants and bugs from the surrounding area. Cochinilla, a small bug found on prickly pear leaves, can be used to make 24 different colors, including red, pink, orange, and purple.
The patterns used on their products include universal weaving patterns as well as patterns from their community. They also add woven borders to many products, which is a technique not found in other communities.
The women started learning to weave around the age of 7 by making belts and bracelets. By the age of 15 or 16, they can make table runners and other more advanced products. In their community, women are the ones that weave, but in other communities, both men and women participate in the weaving.
The same system of teaching is used today with children that wish to learn, but as a result of increase global influences and the resulting rapid modernization, many children do not wish to learn.
Unfortunately, disinterest amongst the younger generation is not the only threat to the cultural traditions of the women of Chinchero. Over the next seven years, an international airport will be constructed in the town that will likely lead to further industrial development, disruptive air traffic, and sound pollution.
We asked the women about their feelings surrounding the construction of the airport. The women’s responses expressed concern about negative environmental impacts that could affect their connection to the land, their families’ farms, and their sources of material for dying.
The threats facing El Balcón del Inka mirror those facing native communities throughout Peru and the larger Andean region. Pressures of a globalizing economy often demand a lifestyle incompatible with traditional cultures and livelihoods, which forces many people to adapt in order to survive.
Seeing the traditional weaving techniques showed us how strong, creative, and resilient the people are in native communities. Given the current and coming threats to their lifestyle, we find ourselves concerned about their fate and agitated at the way Western ideas of modernization and development are often imposed on communities like Chinchero.
As a tourist, one of the things you always keep in mind is buying souvenirs for your loved ones. I am not an exception to that.
While at one of the tourist attractions, El Cristo Blanco, I couldn’t resist to take a look at some of the merchandise found at the site. A group of street vendors were sitting next to the site, offering their beautifully crafted souvenirs to the tourists. I settled for one of the vendors, an old but friendly lady.
This wasn’t the first time I have seen vendors of this nature taking to the streets to sell their merchandise. Since our arrival at Cusco, I have noticed a great number of vendors casually sitting on the street, selling their products to hungry tourists; a sight that is equally beautiful and depressing.
I was curious to know where the merchandise originated. I asked the lady, and her response was quite surprising to me. As it turns out, most the merchandise sold by these street vendors is made by the vendors themselves. This includes bracelets, wooden flutes, and knitted goods, among many others.
However, I noticed that among these items, you can also find very detailed replicas of statues that represent the culture and religion of Cusco. I asked the lady if she or her family had sculptured these items, but her answer was no.
It so happens that these replicas are factory made, and the vendors buy them to resell them. The lady added that most of these factories are owned by either family members or friends of the family, rather than a multi-national corporation.
Learning the source of these items made me feel more at ease with the idea of buying souvenirs from street vendors—and being a tourist.
That equation probably looks as confusing as some of us feel from jetlag and altitude sickness. Have you ever felt like altitude entered your soul like lead? Maybe it’s just me!
We drink a lot of water and Mate Coca. The Coca leaves (the tea helps relieve altitude sickness) float in the tea cup and we have some time to reflect. Cusco is shockingly comfortable to me. I’m not sure why. It is a city built into the hills. There are lots of brick buildings and this reminds me of my house, but not of a city. So what exactly is it? We certainly do not have the traditional Incan rock walls lining streets back home, which are wicked cool by the way.
But for now, the equation consists of the numbers of our flights and after much travel, Spanish chatting, throwing up, and temporarily misplaced luggage we finally reach our equal sign: we are in Peru.
My first impressions of this trip were really formed while sitting in the airport in San Salvador, feeling the sun on my face for the first time in months and trying to wrap my mind around the fact that I was in a different country. I’ve been on so many planes in my life, but there was something mesmerizing about flying into another country for the first time. Everything was so surreally picturesque through the tiny airplane window. The clouds were perfectly fluffy on top, flat on the bottom, levitating over the landscape like a Dali painting. I couldn’t help feeling like an alien.
The feeling intensified upon entering Lima – I saw familiar things, but they were just different enough to disorient and overwhelm me. It was only once we had arrived in Cusco that I felt my sense of adventure begin to awaken, and I felt less like an alien wandering the winding cobblestone streets.
The excitement for what was to come overshadowed the grueling experience of a long day of traveling. It first began to feel like reality as we flew from Lima to Cusco, over the majestic and diverse Andes mountains. The landscape was unlike anything that could be seen in the States. Nestled in the heart of the beautiful Andes mountains among the steep cliffs, exposed rock and scattered vegetation, the city looked just how I wanted it to.
It was a pleasant mix of more old than new; Spanish colonial architecture on top of massive stone Inca ruins. Among the crumbling infrastructure and poor neighborhoods, the narrow cobblestone alleyways and unexpected wide expanses of mountain landscapes above the shallow city skyline were awe-worthy and inviting. Everywhere we looked, there was an image worth capturing. I felt that I was in the perfect place as the sun soothed my exhausted body and the cool breeze made me feel more awake than I have felt in ages, even after only an hour of sleep the night before.