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Between Monks and Monkeys

Peru, part 2. Artisans and history in the Andes

PERU | Thursday, 20 June 2013 | Views [5855] | Comments [1]

After our coffee adventures, the Trade Aid group embarked on the second part of our trip. This was organised by Minka, Peru’s fair trade organisation which supports artisans in the area around Cusco and on the altiplano.

We were all a bit nervous about flying from sea-level Lima directly to Cusco at 3400 metres. However almost all of us took half a tab daily of acetazolamide (Diamox) which has few side effects (mainly some tingling in hands and feet) and seems to do the trick. We also drank lots of coca tea and took it easy for a day after arrival. The most problematic reaction was occasional breathlessness if we went up stairs too fast, or hurried uphill.

We were lucky on our free day in Cusco to catch the huge Corpus Christi procession that wound around the Plaza de Armas for most of the day. It was a great experience in terms of the colour, the music, the huge effigies of the saints being carried by twenty or more men staggering under the weight, the costumes worn by people both in the procession and in the crowd, the street stalls that had sprung up everywhere, even the hordes of cleaning ladies in their neat blue uniforms waiting to clean up the square after the parade. (The cleanliness of squares and streets – at least in the main public areas - is a noticeable feature of Peru’s cities.) We also visited a good artisans’ market and the sprawling San Pedro market where the locals shop.

Over the next two weeks we visited various groups of artisans in the Cusco/Pisac area. It was fascinating to make personal contact with the people who make the wonderful crafts that we sell – ocarinas, jewellery and beautifully crafted and colourful woven goods.  All were master craftsmen and women, carrying on traditional crafts and making it look so easy! We had a go at making ocarinas in Cuyo Grande, with limited success… The scenery in these areas was spectacular – looming hills, sweeping valleys, picturesque villages of adobe houses, often decorated with relief decorations made of adobe, or cleverly placed clay pots.  Life is simple, but the local people have a great sense of style which runs through their lives and their crafts.

We also visited two important Inca sites, Pisac and Machu Picchu.  MP is of course world famous, so all I’m going to say is that it well and truly lives up to the hype, and is a very special place in a spectacular setting.  

Pisac is a little difficult to reach from Cusco just now as they are repairing the bridge to the modern town, and you have to take around an hour’s detour. It’s worth it, though. The historic fortress settlement of Pisac is perched on a ridge overlooking  a massive series of complicated irrigation terraces and with a huge view  out over a wide valley toward more spectacular mountains. I could imagine the Chasqui (Inca messenger) puffing his way up the hill with an urgent message from Cusco, and cursing the fact that the settlement was built on such a high position, but strategically it was a master stroke. The houses – most in pretty good repair (or reconstruction) cascade down the hill, and made me think very strongly of the fortress of Rohan in Lord of the Rings. I almost expected to glimpse Peter Jackson appearing over the ridge with a film crew..

On the plane again at Cusco, and off to Juliaca (a dump – you should get out of there asap and stay in Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.) Next stop was Taquile Island which we reached after a 3 hour boat ride. En route we visited the amazing floating Uros Islands, made of reeds or totoras. (Fascinating, and be prepared to spend up large – they make some lovely jewellery and fabric crafts.)

Taquile Island is very special. The people have a distinctive form of dress - for example the men wear a sort of red and white knitted hat like a nightcap when single, then a red one once they get married. Knitting is basically what the men do a lot of the time - they walk around knitting away with the wool slung around their necks, concocting very elaborate patterns in an almost absent-minded way. As a very bad knitter I was in awe of them! There's also no transport on the island - not even donkeys, so everything is carried on ones back. It's quite a magic place - very beautiful with an almost Mediterranean feel. We also had the best meal of the trip there - fresh caught trout from the lake for our lunch when we arrived.  

We were parcelled out to various families to stay the night - the islanders have things very well organised for tourism, which is what they rely on for extra income on top of farming. My room mate and I were taken in the dark to a little hut with basic but comfortable beds - in the morning we were visited by a gorgeous little four year old called Yaquelin who came in to see us giggling madly and clutching an enormous chicken! I left my head torch with Yaquelin's grandfather, a lovely old man called Sebastiano (continuously knitting away) who gave me a very nice knitted headband in return.

Our last stop was a community at Cochaquinray ,south of Juliaca on the altiplano.  Amazing scenery by a lake in which was a flock of flamingoes. In fact it was a bird watcher's paradise. The people there spin and knit goods out of alpaca fibre, and we had the chance to try out those skills - I failed dismally!

 Once again the hospitality - from people without a lot in the way of material good themselves - was really touching. (They were being paid for our visit, but even so they really outdid themselves in terms of welcome and effort). We stayed in a very basic two roomed adobe hall, and as we went to sleep that night we could hear the ladies chatting and laughing together next door - when we woke the next morning they were still at it! They seemed to be having a great time, and we did too. There were two eight year old cousins there, Imdira and Josue, who we become good friends with - we had a lot of fun dancing with them at night ( a good way to keep out the cold, which was pretty severe).  Lovely kids.

 Back in Lima we visited Minka, the Peruvian fair trade group that deals with the artisans we had visited, and had a great welcome with dancing, delicious food and Pisco sours - very yummy!

Our last visit was to an instrument maker which entailed a 90 minute drive through some of Lima's meaner streets - it is a huge city of 9 million people, many of whom live in very basic situations. As always it was great to see a master craftsman at work making pan pipes, flutes, drums etc, mostly from bamboo. We also had a chance to look around the centre of Lima which is very impressive.

Then it was almost time to leave Peru. We said a fond farewell to our lovely Minka guide and interpreter Maria, who had done a fantastic job.  Once again we were off to the airport. After a lengthy delay in Santiago, one of the world’s less interesting airports between 1 and  4am  – it was back home to faraway New Zealand after a truly memorable trip - for all the right reasons.

If you want to know moare about Trade Aid, New Zealand's foremost fair trade organisation, check out www.tradeaid.org.nz

NB Ours was a very focussed trip in that we went to visit specific communities of craftspeople that Trade Aid deals with. However if you go on a guided tour in Peru you'll probably end up visiting very similar artisan villages.


Tags: alpaca, ceramics, crafts, cusco, machu picchu, ocarina, pisac, puno, taquile, uros




Great recount and personal memories Gill. I can relive it thru your words which are more descriptive and elegant than mine.
Keep up the posts, they are good to read.

  Leanne Aug 19, 2013 10:48 PM

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