Quilting Bee In The Andes

Weaving Contest at CTTC in Chinchero (note the man in the background dipping into a tub of chicha)
When I’d learned that my non-profit weaving cooperative was planning to host a weaving contest the first image in my mind was a bunch of ladies speed-weaving with backstrap looms, rushing to see who could weave a quality piece the fastest. I later learned that the contest wasn’t about speed; it was about quality and village involvement. Each of the villages we support had a few months to weave a manta (Andean blanket) and many, if not all, of the members of the community were to participate. Basically, we’re talking about an Andean quilting bee.

The contest was in Chinchero and hosted by the Centro De Textiles Traditionales de Cusco (CTTC). My wife, kids, sister-in-law and I walked into the compound to see Andean ladies and gentlemen decked out in their best traditional attire with gorgeous mantas draped all around. Almost all of the mantas were stitched-together squares, a sign that villagers had worked separately on their pieces and had sewn them together at the end. When the director saw me she motioned me over and asked the village ladies to make some room on the front row bench for me while my family watched from the back. A cup of chicha was brought over to me and we watched presentations from each village on what their manta represents and how it was made. Besides the host village of Chinchero, the CTTC supports the villages of Chahuaytire, Pitumarca, Patabamba, Accha Alta, Santa Cruz de Sallac, Mahuaypampa, Santo Tomas and Acopia and each of them had mantas on display.

Each presentation was done in Quechua dialect so I had some trouble deciphering what the ladies were saying. I was impressed with the fact that in addition to supporting these villages with aid, health care and providing a market for their textiles, CTTC was also grooming leaders who could speak up and address a crowd and be an advocate for their village.

After a few more speeches, the director got up and delivered the results, with various categories to ensure that each village won some kind of award. As each village picked up their award, pride was evident on their faces. Nilda the director spoke in Quechhua and Spanish and was a commanding presence on the makeshift podium. She is from the village of Chinchero herself and has been successful at drawing foreign financial aid and volunteers to keep the CTTC going. Perhaps one of the ladies presenting that day will be her successor.


The Pisac Piper

The Pisac Piper (note the stone steps in the wall)
We began our walk down through the terraced fortress ruins of Pisac and I thought I kept hearing the sounds of pipe music. The ruins are from the time of the Incas and are perched on the top of a mountain above the Urubamba River and the Sacred Valley. The ruin’s most striking feature is the system of steep agricultural terraces that descend and wrap around the mountain, almost all the way to the Urubamba River. The Pisac ruins were built by the Incas for military, religious and agricultural reasons and the terraces were the result of hauling topsoil up from the valley floor. From the height of the ruins to the valley floor is approximately 4,000 feet and it takes 3-4 hours to walk down.

We walked past the baths and temple complex and the pipe music got louder. It was late afternoon and the sun was starting to go down and we were some of the last people walking down the mountain. We took a break and admired the stone work of the terraced retaining walls and the protruding stone steps (see photo above) that enabled moving from one level to the other without undermining structural integrity. Just then the piper appeared to our side. He stood above a stone retaining wall, wore a dirty chullo and poncho and sandals and concentrated on his music. He played a single-cylinder flute and not the pan pipes that are so common in the Andes. His music floated out and seemed to descend to the valley floor.

Pisac is visited by many tourists so despite the beauty of his music, I felt that at some point he would approach us, chullo in hand, looking for money, but he never came near us, nor acknowledged our presence. The Pisac Piper seemed content to simply share his beautiful music.


Moray: The Sacred Laboratory Of The Incas

Moray Ruins in Peru
Not far from the salt pans of Salinas (see The Salt Pans of Salinas, Peru) are a complex of three large, circular, terraced craters known as Moray, an unusual Incan archaeological site just off the dusty Peruvian plateau. The amphitheatre-like depressions are about 50 kilometers northwest of Cusco, just down the road from the small town of Maras and 600 meters above Urubamba and the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The consensus on the site is that it was some kind of experimental area for improving crop yield. You could call it the Sacred Laboratory of the Incas.

Arriving at the Moray site is quite an experience. We walked to the edge of the plateau and looked down to the lowest, innermost, concentric circle in the largest depression – a distance of about 100 meters. We walked down the crude, stone steps carefully, as the height of each terrace was about six feet. (see short video below) From the top of the plateau to the bottom of the largest depression took us about 30 minutes of walking.

Like the Romans, the Incas conquered and assimilated a great many tribes in their sphere of influence. Much of this was aided by the Inca road network, which helped communication, trade and political administration. In addition to subduing conquered tribes and plundering, it appears that the Incas were interested in science as well.
The site was apparently designed by the Incas to take advantage of the natural depressions below the level plain and duplicate Andean, jungle and semi-tropical environments for the growth of various plant species. Pollen studies indicate that soils from each of these regions was imported by the Incas to each of the large circular basins. In the largest crater, there is a network of water channels that reach the bottom that were used to irrigate the experimental crops. The depth and orientation of the craters with respect to wind and sun creates a temperature difference of as much as 15 °C (27 °F) between the top and bottom. The theory is that the large temperature difference was possibly used by the Incas to study the effects of different climatic conditions on crops. It is believed that the Incas could grow over 250 plant species at Moray.

We climbed out of the main crater and huffed and puffed our way back to the top. We looked back down and in my mind I superimposed vegetation over the terraces and Inca scientists taking measurements and recording observations. The Incas were around for less than 100 years prior to Spanish conquest but they accomplished a lot during that time. Watching tourists climb in and out of the Sacred Laboratory of the Incas, I wondered what Peru might be like today if the Incas had not run into the guns, germs and steel of the Spanish.


The Salt Pans Of Salinas, Peru

Salinas Salt Pans (Sacred Valley in the background)
We drove along a dusty road high above the Sacred Valley, on our way to visit Salinas, the intricately-terraced, salt pans which have produced hundreds of pounds of salt every month since before the time of the Incas. We slowly bumped along a dusty road lined with large cacti and admired the snow-capped Andes. I’d seen photos of the brilliant-white salt pans but at this moment nothing in this landscape dominated by glaciers, dust and cacti looked remotely like the image in my mind.

We took a left turn and started to descend into a small narrow valley feeding directly into the Vilcanote River and the Sacred Valley of the Incas. With each hairpin turn we lowered into the valley until the salt pans came into view: a couple-thousand, large and bright-white salt pools, cascading and melting down the side of an otherwise brown valley. From the distance, it was as if someone slathered white icing on the sides of the valley with an overloaded cake spatula. We finally arrived and parked near the entrance to the site.

Up close, we could appreciate the engineering details of the centuries-old salt extraction technique. The pools are fed by salty, subterranean water from deep within the mountain plateau. Intricate canals direct the water from pool to pool, allowing the sun to evaporate the water (is it any wonder the Incas worshipped the sun?) and leave thick layers of salt to be extracted by humans. The entire process from filling a pool to extracting salt takes about a month.

We hiked along a path in the middle of the terraces, stopping to admire the pools and allowing our kids to give the salty water a taste. We watched workers with large plastic pans scoop the salt from the dry pools in the hot sun. The pools are on average 250 square-feet in size and each one is a slightly different color depending on where it is in the evaporation process: from muddy brown to beige to off white to a brilliant, eye-popping white.

We spent about an hour walking around the site and climbed back up the narrow valley until we were back on the dusty plateau and on our way to Cusco. For me, the appeal of Salinas is the stark contrast between the salt pans and the surrounding landscape. The blinding white image of sun-dried salt set amongst an arid, dusty terrain is an image that will stay with me.


Volleyball In The Sacred Valley

When I started my volunteer job in Cusco, Peru I was a bit tentative around the office. My Spanish was fairly good and I had the daily greetings down, but it wasn’t good enough to walk up to someone and “shoot the breeze” for any length of time. In other words, in Spanish I could say “Good morning,” “How are you?” and “How was your weekend?” but if the conversation got beyond that, I ran into trouble. As a result, I tended to keep my head down and do my work and only talk to someone when they talked to me. Over time this improved greatly but early on, it was a challenge. The biggest help in the first couple weeks was an office outing to play volleyball.

At the Centro de Textiles Traditionales de Cusco (CTTC), my role was basically as a pro bono consultant and I worked on projects with the three senior-most people in the office. There were about 20 people in the office, most of them one-person departments working on things like answering the phone (really!), researching natural dyes, accounting, computer technology, shipping & receiving and repairing textiles with the 1950's-era Singer sewing machine.

We combined our teambuilding/volleyball outing with a visit to the El Senor de Huanca shrine to bless the center’s new SUV and an office picnic. The twenty of us, including my daughter, rolled out of Cusco in two minivans and towards the Sacred Valley. After the blessing ceremony and the picnic, we went to Laguna Huacarpay and drove around looking for a flat spot to set up the volleyball net. We drove by indigenous farmers threshing grain on the newly paved road. They didn’t seem to mind us driving right over the grain and perhaps we were unwitting participants in the process.

We found a nice flat spot next to Laguna Huacarpay, with a flat meadow bordered by reeds from the lake. The Andes loomed large behind us, just like the bleachers at a sporting event. In the lake, fisherman in ancient reed boats competed with pintails, coots, gulls and blackbirds for fish. A herd of sheep and goats grazed near our makeshift court.

While we played a half-dozen games in that beautiful setting, the personalities of my office mates began to emerge. The self-assured office manager was a complete klutz, the two men who worked in shipping & receiving wore soccer jerseys and were good athletes and very competitive. The taciturn accountant -- once she was outside the office -- was talkative, positive (“good shot”) and smiled a lot while playing. The camaraderie was fun and “high-fives” were exchanged after every shot.

On Monday in the office, I lingered about the workspace of the soccer players, asking them if they still play soccer and whether they were good enough to make the local professional team. I complimented the accountant on her game, joking that her vocal support on the court warranted MVP consideration. I teased the office manager that she was clearly the worst volleyball player I had ever seen. From then on, I began to know my office mates a little better and could always drop a volleyball anecdote into our conversation when my Spanish faltered.


Top 10 Travel Tools

Space is a scarce commodity in your backpack if you are traveling for an extended period of time. That means that everything must have a good reason to be there – or, better yet, multiple reasons to be there. Here’s our family’s top 10 list for travel tools.

#1: IPod Touch or IPhone: You don’t need an introduction to this item unless you’ve been a troglodyte for the past 5 years. We don’t carry a phone while traveling, but we do take the IPod Touch. It has all your music in one place, movies to watch on long bus trips, thousands of game apps to keep the kids entertained (Thank you Angry Birds, Pocket God, Cube Runner and Doodle Jump), and a browser to surf the web and email if you find a hotspot. You can even make phone calls using the Skype app. (For more on Skype, read “Skype: Indispensible Travel Tool”)

#2: Swiss Army Knife: Some of the things you’ll find on my favorite 21-function knife are scissors, corkscrew, magnifying glass, pliers, toothpick, flashlight, tweezers, can opener, bottle opener and a knife: all have been used multiple times on our travels.

#3: Bandana: It’s your sweatband for long treks, your tourniquet if case you have a serious laceration, your blindfold if you need to sleep in a well-lit place, your washcloth if your face is dirty and your facemask on long dusty rides in the back of a pick-up truck.

#4: Dental Floss: Not only can you floss your teeth, you can use it as an emergency shoelace, sew a torn article of clothing for a quick fix or dry your clothes on your makeshift clothesline.

#5: Miner’s flashlight: Do you want to read but the overhead light in your budget hotel room is less than 10 watts? Are you sharing a room with others and they all want to go to sleep but you want to read or write? Are you carrying bags in both hands and walking somewhere in the dark? The miner’s flashlight with headband is your answer.

#6: Zip-loc bags: You can keep things organized, clean and separate. They are hard to find in the developing world and if you are self-catering and carrying some food with you, there is no substitute.

#7: Tevas: You can wear your Velcro-strapped sandals in the rain or on the trail. They are lightweight, wash easily and are super comfortable. You can wear them in the shower if it looks like there may be diseases lurking on the bathroom floor.

#8: Earplugs: Is your hotel room on a busy street or next to a mosque? Are you sleeping in a dorm room of a hostel? Have you realized too late that you are sitting directly under the speaker of an overnight bus that plays loud music all night? Are the rest of your family members not tired enough to go to sleep yet? Bring your earplugs and all these troubles melt away.

#9: Immersion Heater: Sometimes nothing will make you feel more civilized than a hot cup of tea. With an immersion heater, you can have boiling water in one minute in a bus station, a hotel room, even on a train. For more on immersion heaters read “Civilization in a Cup.”

#10: Travel cable lock: Are you in a bus station and need to buy snacks for the ride, without worrying about someone snatching your bag? Are you afraid someone might pinch your backpack from the overhead bin on your all-night bus ride when you go to sleep? Do you want to make sure that no one from your dodgy hotel steals your bag while you’re out of your room? Whip out your cable lock and attach your bag(s) to something permanently fastened and get about your business.

What are your favorite travel tools?