Peruvian Textiles and Tourism

About a year ago I was casually scrolling through my Facebook feed, when a post from TAFA List made me pause. The post advertised textile tours to Peru, and featured a beautiful picture of amazing textiles in vivid, bright colors. I clicked on it and started drooling.

For a while I considered taking one of the tours, but the dates didn’t work out for me, and I also didn’t want to leave my family for too long. Hence was born the idea of dragging my kids, yet again, to South America.

Luckily for me, everyone enjoyed our Ecuador trip so much, that they were eager to explore the region further. And so, this past December, my family and I found ourselves in the Cusco province of Peru, the Mecca of textiles.

After we arrived, my kids got one day to rest and acclimatize in Cusco city. The very next morning a bus belonging to the tour company Apus Peru came by to take us down to the Sacred Valley and some weaving communities.

Apus Peru is a relatively small tour company specializing in cultural tours. This was the company that operated the textile tours I saw on Facebook. They employ knowledgeable, English-speaking guides, and engage in culturally-responsible tourism. Apus Peru actively give back to the communities they take tourists to, not only through financial support, but also by providing training and education to local groups.

Our original plan was to go to Pizaq Market and ruins, and then up the Andes to the weaving community of Chayhautire. The trip down to the valley took about an hour, however, and involved some windy roads. My daughter started suffering from motion-sickness, and I myself felt the unpleasant effects of elevation. The thought of an hour or more of driving up a narrow, windy dirt road suddenly didn’t seem that appealing, even if it was leading to a remote weaving community…

So we changed plans. We went to the ruins first and the market later (Pizaq Market, supposedly the Otavalo of Peru, turned out to be a little disappointing). Then, instead of up to Chayhautire, we drove on a relatively straight road to Chinchero, another weaving community.

This change of plans turned out to be a lucky stroke, as on the way we came across a local procession in honor of the Conception Virgin. This involved costumes, music and dance, and turned out to be very interesting:

Chinchero is a small town with several weaving centers. Our guide took us to Balcon Del Inka Centro Artesanal, which, he claimed, was the best one.

Being at the top of the hill overlooking the town, it certainly had the best view!

Women form several local families run the Artisan Center. The Center has two areas designed to show tourists how wool is prepared. It also has a small outside market. Women don’t actually weave on the premises. Everything is nicely set, however, and the English explanations are clear.

The Making of a Peruvian Tapestry:

Women gather wool from the desired animal. This could be a sheep, or one of the four camelid animals of Peru: ilama, alpaca, guanaco or vicuñaa. Ilama wool is rather course. Alpaca is softer, and baby alpaca is even softer than that. But the softest wool of them all comes for the undomesticated vicuña. This wool is hard to gather, and is therefore the most expensive on the planet.

When sheered, any wool is rather dirty:

To clean it, the local women grind a jabonera plant root that, with water, froths like soap. Local nickname it “Andean Soap.”

Women then wash and scrub the wool:

Once washed, the wool is clean and ready to work with:

Women spin the wool into thread. During our stay in Peru, we’ve seen women walking and spinning, working and spinning, cooking and spinning, caring for children and spinning. Women, in fact, seem to always multitask…

After it is spinned, the wool is ready for dyeing. Many women in Chichero and the vicinity still use natural dyes, made from local plants. In the picture below, you can see the different colors and the plants that make them. I especially loved the purple wool, dyed with purple corn:

The biggest magic, though, involves the color red. Red is made from cochineal,  a parasite that dines on one of the more common cactus species in the area:

When collected, this parasite appears white, as it is cocooned in a web-like fluffy substance:

But here is where the fun begins, and our hostess delighted in showing us some magic: when squished, you see, a vivid, blood-like red fluid appears:

Mixed with a bit of lime, this fluid gets an orange tint:

Mixed with salt, it becomes more purple:

Playing around with these various shades, the weavers can tweak the colors to whatever shade they like. The number of times a piece of wool is dipped in the dyeing pot, and the length of time it stays there, determine the final color:

The result is beautiful, vividly-colored wool:

Women then pull the wool onto looms. Looms are easily portable, allowing women to weave in their homes or outside in the fields.

Here are some finished pieces, at the market part of the Center:

Of course, we couldn’t leave without buying something. This is our new table runner, with the artist who claimed to make it:

How Tourism Complicates Things

Textiles are historically an integral part of the Peruvian culture. However, after a few days in the country, I realized that the locals don’t actually wear traditional textiles, nor do they use them. In fact, tourists are the only ones walking around with vividly-woven fabrics. The locals wear jeans, t-shirts and the like, like the rest of us.

The few women and kids who roam about the old city of Cusco dressed in traditional clothes, often carry sheep or alpacas, and are there to take photos with tourists for money. Even in the more remote areas, the people wearing traditional clothes are mostly doing so for tourists (and wear synthetics). People told me that in really remote villages people still dress like that for real, but I haven’t been to any of those. The few houses I visited in different parts of the region didn’t have traditional textiles as home decor. If they had any textiles at all, they had the cheaper, industrial/synthetic kind, most likely imported from China.

The beautiful, traditional textiles, it seems, are made for tourists these days. They are also sold at tourist prices. These textiles are not cheap, even in American standards. Tourists have to splurge on them. The locals can’t afford them at all.

In fact, it seems that the art of weaving in Peru, like many traditional arts around the world, began to disappear. Even natural dyeing almost gave way to the easier, industrial kind. That is why several local and international organizations, The Center for Traditional Textile of Cusco and Apus Peru being some of them, intervened in an effort to save the craft.

Weaving is a very time-consuming task. Even when selling their work at tourist prices, weavers still make little per hour. It is not surprising, therefore, that many try to cut corners, by using cheaper, synthetic fibers, for example, or by selling sub-standard products. Many tourists can’t tell the difference anyway. The money that textiles bring, therefore, leads to all kinds of gray areas and dishonesty. Read this post to get an idea about some of those problematic issues.

So, as much as I enjoyed learning about textiles in the Centro Artesanal, I couldn’t but also realize that the entire place was a nicely-set illusion. The ancient craft shown was artificially kept alive. The entire display was a myth that tourist companies and the fashion industry spread, and which tourists, myself included, really want to buy into. The  tourist industry in a way re-invented the old traditions. This includes the descriptions given to explain the different designs, that often have very little connection to the actual historical origin of those designs.

In fact, in order to appeal to tourists, even the traditional patterns have been changing. Many of the fancy boutiques sell items with patterns and colors that appeal to Westerners, as do fashion houses selling Peruvian clothes in the West. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, and the textiles are still beautiful. I just found it interesting how the economy surrounding tourism preserves old traditions while, at the same time, profoundly changes them.

Visiting Cusco, Peru? What to Pack and Things to Notice

My family and I just returned from an amazing vacation to Cusco, Peru, the capital of the Inca empire. Cusco is a great place to visit, and is also a comfortable base for traveling to other, nearby attractions.

A rather large city, Cusco has many shops with pretty much anything you could need. But there are some things you might like to bring from home, just in case.

What to Pack

Medicines

Cusco’s elevation is 3,400 meters above sea level (11,200 ft). Anyone coming from lower altitudes will feel the effects of this high elevation. Every hotel in the Cusco region offers free coca-leaf tea for guests. Peruvians believe that coca leaves reduce elevation sickness. Many chew on the leaves directly.

Numerous stores offer an array of other coca products as well, to the same end:

However, you might find that drinking coca tea or sucking on coca candy isn’t enough to make you feel better. Before coming, therefore, you might want to consult with your doctor and consider bringing pills to relieve altitude-sickness symptoms (we brought and took Acetazolamide).

Note: if you are vegan or vegetarian, these pills might not be enough. As I learned the hard way, your diet might not have enough iron to allow your body to create the additional red blood cells that high elevation requires. Bring iron and vitamin B12 pills, and take one of each every morning. This will speed up your acclimatization.

Your body is probably not used to the germs in Peru. It is possible, therefore, that you will suffer from an upset stomach even if you take all the necessary precautions (such as frequent hand-washing and avoiding uncooked foods). Make sure to bring some medications for upset stomach, or even some antibiotics.

There are pharmacies all over the city, but it’s always safer to bring whatever medicines you take regularly, or those you think you might need. If you are taking dietary supplements, bring those as well. We traveled with a portable pharmacy of our own, and ended up using much of it…

Clothes

December is summer in Peru, but because of the high elevation weather in Cusco can be very unpredictable. Locals joke that one can experience four season in one day in this city, and they do not exaggerate! Prepare for layering, with clothes for all possible weather conditions! Rain gear is a must, although you can buy rain ponchos everywhere, for as low as 5 soles a pop (around $1.5).

If you plan to visit Cusco in winter, realize that temperatures will be frigid . Some (but not all) hotels have heaters, but no central heating. Hotels provide warm blankets, but the rooms can still be cold. Long underwear and warm pajamas will keep you happy.

Streets in the old city of Cusco are cobbled, and sidewalks can be very narrow. Nearby sites have a rugged terrain. Good shoes, preferably hiking boots, will serve you well.

If you are planning to do some hiking (even if only to the nearby fortress of Saksaywaman), walking sticks will make your life easier.

Other Items

You need to keep hydrated at high elevation, and therefore need to drink a lot. Unless you want to keep buying bottled water (thus contributing to world pollution), bring your own refillable water bottle. We filled ours every morning with water we boiled at least three times (tap water is undrinkable). We still ended up buying bottled water, but a lot less than we would have had we didn’t have our own.

Remember: Use boiled (or bottled) water for teeth brushing as well!

Due to the altitude, you might get sun burnt even on overcast days. Bring sunscreen and put it on daily before you leave your hotel. If you peel layers after applying sunscreen, make sure to cover the newly-exposed areas as well. We’ve seen plenty of very pink tourists (and got a bit toasted ourselves as well…).

Not all public bathrooms have paper. Always carry your own toilet paper just in case. And remember not to flush any paper down the drain. The sewage system cannot handle it, and you don’t want to be responsible for a flood (or worse: get caught it it’s path!).

Advice on Luggage

Everyone has their own travel style, and every trip requires its own kind of luggage. While we usually carry suitcases, we chose to bring backpacks to Cusco. For one, as I mentioned earlier, the streets of old Cusco are cobbled and narrow, and not so suitable for dragging wheeled suitcases. Also, you will most likely need to carry your luggage up and down stairs. In addition, many people use Cusco as a base to explore other parts of Peru. You might find yourself changing hotels frequently, and lugging your stuff into trains, buses or boats. Light, small and carry-able luggage will therefore work best.

The last time I backpacked, some quarter of a century ago, I carried a regular backpack. I still remember how hard it was to find things or reach the very bottom. This time, at the advice of our frequent-travelling friend (thanks, Arturo!), we took eBags and loved them. The fact that we could expand the bags turned out to be a great plus, as we didn’t quite expect the amount of loot we ended up purchasing…

Finally, Some Interesting Things I Noticed

Last year, when we first arrived in Quito, Ecuador, I was struck by the abundance of graffiti. The thing that stood out to me in Cusco was the cleanliness of the streets. We hardly saw any graffiti, and hardly any littler.

The second thing that stood out was the abundance of dogs. Canines were everywhere, in front of every door and every house. Big dogs, small dogs, shaggy dogs and short-haired dogs. Dogs of every shape and color.

At first I mistook them to be feral dogs and found them intimidating. Soon, though, I realized they were all pets. Almost every household in Cusco and beyond owns one or more pets. People keep cats indoors, but let the dogs roam outside. The dogs in Cusco were the most mellow, well-behaved creatures I have ever encountered. They all minded their own business, and hardly ever glanced at passersby.

If you lift your eyes up to the rooftops, you will see that almost every house in Cusco has a pair of bulls on the roof. Sometimes there are just bulls. Sometimes there is a cross between the bulls, or some other decoration:

These are guardian bulls. They are protecting the house and the family within it, and also symbolize fertility. One of our tour guides told us that in pre-Spanish times, houses had lamas on the roofs. After the Spanish brought bulls to South America, their image pushed lamas aside. For a while I wondered why two (obviously male) bulls would symbolize fertility. I later realized that the fertility people were hoping for was the fertility of the fields, which bulls help plow.

Finally, when in Cusco you will notice the rainbow flag flying from poles and balconies.

You might think you know what it means, but you will most likely be wrong. “We are not gays,” all of our tour guides insisted. They explained that the gay-pride flag has six colors, whereas the Cusco flag has seven. Also, the colors on both flags are in the opposite order. Locals believe that the Cusco rainbow flag was the old flag of the Inca Empire, symbolizing its seven parts. Whether true or not, people take great pride in it.

Taiwanese Arts and Crafts: A Mix of Traditional and Modern

My family’s summer trip to Taiwan was rather short, so we tried to squeeze in as much as possible. We visited tourist sites, of course, as I mentioned last week. But I also took advantage of every opportunity to drag my reluctant kids to see some of the local Taiwanese arts-and-crafts-related shops and markets. They didn’t always like it, but that’s what happens when your mom is a textile artist and believes the arts to be an expression of local history and culture… Perhaps they will appreciate it one day (or not!).

There is an interesting, exciting, vibrant mix of traditional and modern arts and crafts in Taiwan. We got to see but a small sample of it. I am sure there are many other interesting things we didn’t get to. If you know of any, please feel free to add them in the comments!

Traditional Crafts

Traditional Chinese arts are very much alive in Formosa, and are evident everywhere. In museums, temples, shops, markets and more. I will not discuss the exquisite displays in museums, or the more common ones in temples or architecture. Instead, I’ll talk a little about the workshops, shops and markets we encountered.

While walking down Dihua St. in Taipei, for example, we came across a small traditional paper lantern store. The Lao Mian Cheng Lantern Shop has been operating since 1915!

We saw many small carving stores, where you could have your name carved on a chop, for example. But the most impressive display of carvings we encountered was at the pricey, upscale jade carving store on top of Taipei 101. Every visitor to the building has to exit through this lavish tourist trap:

In Tainan, the center for traditional crafts, we accidentally found a wood-carving workshop while walking around town. I believe it produces furniture for temples:

We also hiked a really long time in blazing heat in search of a Chinese embroidery store I read about in a guidebook. The Kuang Tsai Embroidery Shop is owned by Mr. Lin, one of the last remaining silk embroidery masters in Tainan. It ended up being so unremarkable from the outside, that we nearly missed it!

The owner was very nice, though, and let me observe his employees at work and also photograph them:

This is some of their finished work:

Luckily, there was a boutique coffee shop right next door, with air conditioning, ice-cream treats and an English-speaking owner to compensate my kids for the hike 🙂

Modern Crafts

After visiting the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, we stumbled upon the nearby National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute. This interesting round building is part artist studios, part craft museum, and part gift store. When we visited, the second floor featured an exhibition of modern bamboo art called “Bamboo Traces”, which was quite impressive:

The store on the first floor includes both traditional and modern items at a wide range of prices, and is therefore a great place to look for gifts. Another good place to check out is Taiwan Handicraft promotion Center.

There is also a vibrant and growing community of modern artists and crafts people in Taiwan. In Taipei, many rundown old neighborhoods are gentrifying, filling up with new boutiques and crafts markets. We visited a few of them, but unfortunately couldn’t see all. Some of the places we did visit include Dihua St., which has a few interesting shops; an artisan market right across the street from the Flower Market (that for some reason doesn’t appear in any guidebook); Red House in Ximending; and Songshan Culture and Creative park. In Tainan, the 1930’s Japanese-built Hayashi Department Store now features a host of contemporary artisan boutiques.

Taiwanese Aboriginal Crafts

One thing that surprised me on this trip was the widespread display of Taiwanese aboriginal culture. When I lived in Taiwan nearly a quarter-century ago, the majority of Han Chinese hardly ever mentioned the native aboriginals. In the rare times they did discuss them, it was with much disesteem. Taiwanese aboriginals were considered backwards, uncivilized. Now, however, aboriginal culture is celebrated everywhere in Taiwan. When we went to get breakfast at the famous breakfast resturant Fu Hang Soymilk, for example, we stumbled upon a stall selling aboriginal crafts at the small, run-down and smelly Huashan Market on the bottom floor of the building. When we went into the National Museum of History right near the above-mentioned National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute, we discovered an entire floor with a beautiful display of aboriginal artifacts, including many gorgeous textiles:

Then there is the new  Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines across the street from the famed National Palace Museum. This small-yet-pleasant museum has illuminating, educational signs:

Displays of raw materials and tools:

Outfits the way they were worn:

As well as many amazing textiles:

There were even examples of aboriginal bags!

Taroko Gorge has a little museum dedicated to local aboriginals, which includes displays of houses and costumes, among other things:

There are even Taiwanese aboriginal theme parks (which we didn’t visit), as well as tourist traps selling aboriginal crafts in villages around Sun Moon Lake (where many aboriginal tribes still live).

I enjoyed learning about the aboriginal culture, and seeing it being, finally, integrated into the general story of Taiwan (even if, at times, in a commercialized way). And I was most impressed with the detail and beauty of the aboriginal textiles!

Our Thanksgiving Tradition: Visualizing Gratitude

There are many things to be grateful for, and many ways to express gratitude. And while we should all be continuously thankful for the little miracles of everyday life, it is truly wonderful that Thanksgiving comes once a year, to remind us to really stop, think, and be consciously appreciative.

Every family has its own Thanksgiving traditions. Some are decades old, others relatively new. Ours falls into the later category, and reflects our family’s evolution and growth. We started our tradition about a decade ago, when my kids were still little but could already draw.

Our tradition calls for the making of a “Thank You” poster a few weeks before Thanksgiving. In the weeks leading to the holiday, anyone who comes to our house has to write what they are grateful for on a note, and paste it onto the poster. This is our way to nudge everyone to think more deeply about the things we normally take for granted.

From the very beginning, the kids have been responsible for coming up with a poster theme. I wish I could say that the process has always been cooperative, friendly and peaceful. Sadly, this would be somewhat of an exaggeration. But always, after some arguing, fighting and the occasional shout, they have been able to come to an agreement. Over the years we’ve had Thank You trees, scenes involving native Americans and pioneers, pumpkins and corn, and last year–The Speedwell. This year the kids chose to paint a Thanksgiving turkey.

Our Thanksgiving Tradition: My kids' finished gratitude poster

Once the kids decide on a topic, they cooperate on planning the composition and on the actual painting. Each person gets to do what they are good at and capable of. Some draw, others paint, or cut, or paste. Every year they choose to use different materials. Some years they use crayons, on other years acrylic, or something else. The resulting work of art reflects their collaborative efforts.

Starting to work on our gratitude poster

Painting our Thanksgiving poster detail

Painting our Thanksgiving poster

Once the poster is finished we hang it on the wall in our dining room, right above the Thanksgiving table.

The kids then cut little pieces of paper in shapes matching the theme of the painting (leaves, corn kernels, sails and such), and put them in a small pile near the poster, together with a pen and tape.

Feathers and tape ready to use

Then people get to write what they are thankful for, and paste it onto the painting.

Starting to post gratitude feathers on our turkey

Thanksgiving poster detail

We leave the painting hanging even after the holiday is over, and make all our guest write on it. Appreciating life, after all, should be ongoing. We later keep the posters, which become time-capsules of sorts, and which reflect our lives at any given year.