Traditional Weaving and Community with Balcon del Inka

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Lucy Benson (second from the left) and Danielle Fatzinger (second from the right) with two women from Balcon del Inka. Photo by Jason Scullion.

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.

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Photo by Lucy Benson.

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.

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Photo by Elizabeth Mann.
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Photo by Elizabeth Mann.

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.

Eat Food, Be Merry

By Sami

I wasn’t sure what to expect when we flew into Cusco this morning at 10:15. My roommate Lucy and I woke up at 5:28 to prepare our bags and get ready to fly out from Lima; we schlepped out of our room and across the bridge to the airport, meeting up with the rest of the Forest Online team. We checked our bags and headed over to the cafeteria before we headed to go through security and board our flight at 8:00.

I hit up the Dunkin Donuts for coffee, Boston crème pie donuts, and double chocolate donuts with Jason while Lucy and the others opted for Starbucks, Subway, McDonalds, or a panería for breakfast. The cafeteria was fascinating, as none of us expected to see so many American food chains occupying the Peruvian airport. I personally felt that the airport—granted, as an international airport there is an obligation to cater to the communication needs of the international travelers—was overwhelmed by American consumerism. So when we arrived in Cusco, I wasn’t sure whether to look forward to traditional Peruvian landscapes or an inundation of American culture into Peruvian culture.

After landing and hunting our luggage down, the Forest Online and our tour guide, Giovanna, shimmied over to Hotel San Juan de Dios, and set off to fill our yearning bellies. We went to Greens, an organic and fresh food based restaurant that has been in existence for the past nine years in Plaza de Armas. There, in a refreshingly calm, yet bustling room, we feasted.

After ordering a variety of beverages, such as mango passionfruit lemongrass smoothies, bottled water, and coca tea, we received an appetizer of carrot sticks an hummus. The carrots were crunchily sweet goodness that paired well with the smooth, slightly spicy hummus. The hummus was particularly interesting, because it was spiced with flavor, but it was not a burning heat in your mouth.

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There was a selection of three different side dishes, which were provided to us prior to the main dish. The crema del día was a lovely pumpkin puree, with bits of greens blended in—I ordered and devoured this. There was a quinoa soup, sopa de quinua orgánica, mixed in with seasonal vegetables. The final option was an absolutely gorgeous ensalada greens: avocado, mango, mixed greens, cucumber, and oranges beautifully married together in a mandarine vinaigrette.

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As a main dish, my famished belly led my brain to believe that I needed to take the opportunity to try alpaca for the first time in my life. This was not a choice that I regret. The alpaca marinada en ají panca a la plancha was wonderfully tender. The ratatouille which the grilled tenderloin rested upon was easy on the sauce, but bold in spices. Even after discussing the texture with the others who tried the dish, there is no simple way to describe the texture. It was like a tender mixture of bison and pork, with a richly pungent smell that permeated and enhanced the rest of the dish.

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The other entrees were equally as impressive. The vegetarian spaghetti con verduras grilladas smelled wonderfully well-seasoned and the noodles were very good. Pollo tikka was a grilled chicken breast served over brown rice and vegetables, which was quite popular on the table. The last entrée offered as a choice was trucha del valle sagrado a la plancha, a grilled sacred valley trout, served with a quinoa taboulé. When I sampled, the trout seemed to be seasoned with a lemon pepper seasoning, but one can never be too sure.

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