Kyoto Textile-Lover’s Tour

During our family trip to Japan I managed to carve out one day for a solo Kyoto Textile-Lover’s Tour. I combed through our guidebooks and the internet, and came up with an itinerary that seemed promising. Then I ditched my family and went exploring. As it turned out, some of my destinations ended up being great fun, while others … less so.

The Kyoto Shibori Museum

My first stop was the Shibori Museum, which happened to be within walking distance from my hotel. This small but pleasant museum has two floors. The bottom floor has a small shop selling books about shibori as well as hand-dyed fabrics and finished artwork. It also has space dedicated to classes.

The second floor features a detailed exhibition explaining different dyeing techniques, mostly from Japan but also from other countries. There is an English brochure, and the display has English signs making the dyeing process clear.

When I visited the museum, I was the only guest there. The staff was very helpful, and I got to have a private, English-speaking tour guide who took me through the exhibition and answered all my questions. Then I had my own, private shibori lesson, resulting in a beautiful silk scarf (that the director of the museum himself helped me unravel!):

Needless to say, I greatly enjoyed my visit and highly recommend this museum! To learn more check the museum’s website.

The Nishijin Textile Center

After I finished my scarf, I headed over to the Nishijin Textile Center. Nishijin was Kyoto’s traditional weaving district. When I learned it had a Textile Center, I couldn’t be more excited! My excitement died down when I got there, however. Although informative, the Center felt like a big tourist trap. Tourists arrived by the bus-loads, and were swarming throughout the displays and shop. Coming from the amazing-yet-deserted Shibori Museum, I was very surprised to see so many people at a textile center…

The ground floor of the Center had an old-fashioned display, with fading posters explaining the Nishijin weaving process. 

The second floor was mostly a huge shop. It had beautiful fabrics for sale, as well as traditional Japanese clothes.

There was a weaving demonstration:

A wall display explaining the different kinds of fabrics:

And some other small displays:

The Center also offered an array of classes in different textile arts (such as weaving, or making your own hat or purse). Had I not just taken a class at the shibori museum, I would have surly done so here. 

The Center also featured a fashion show, showcasing different styles of kimonos:

To plan your trip to the Center (and maybe take a class there), check out their website.

Aizenkobo Workshop

From the Textile Center I walked a few blocks to the Aizenkobo workshop.This family workshop (or atelier), is located in a traditional wooden house on a small alley. It specializes in indigo dyeing, and the making of Japanese and Western-style clothing. The front room of the house is a shop selling functional (but rather old fashioned) pieces. 

When I got there, the place was very quiet and I was the only visitor. Eventually an elderly man came out to greet me. He showed me to the work area at the back of the house. In very broken English he explained that his son, the artist, wasn’t there. I understood that the family wasn’t making the indigo dye themselves, but rather bought it from other parts of Japan. Their expertise was the dyeing itself. The language barrier made it difficult for me to understand much, and my host didn’t want me to take any pictures. Sadly, the visit ended up feeling rather awkward. 

If you wish to visit the workshop but can’t speak Japanese, I suggest coming with an interpreter (or possibly the artist himself speaks some English?). You can also check their website for more information.

Orinasu-kan

A rather long walk in scorching heat then lead me to Orinasu-kan. Established in 1989, this small museum is dedicated to preserving Kyoto’s traditional dyeing and weaving culture. It is housed in a beautiful (but dark) old building that was once an obi (kimono belt) shop.

When I entered the museum, I realized that, once again, I was the only patron. A grumpy receptionist who spoke no English reluctantly greeted me. He then got really upset with me when I didn’t understand where he wanted me to put my shoe-less feet…

The ground-floor display was interesting, but with sparse English explanations. It had some beautiful Noh costumes, as well as fabric-pattern books.

The small upstairs gallery had some coarser woven fabrics:

The receptionist asked me something about a tour, and I said yes. He then showed me into a darkish side room, gave me some tea, and left me there alone for half an hour. I must admit that I was a bit nervous at that point, not sure what was going on. I regretted not bringing my family along (though I knew my kids would not have enjoyed any of it).

Eventually, the receptionist told me to go back up to the second-floor gallery. Once there, a door I haven’t even noticed opened in the far wall. A man came out and motioned for me to follow. I did, although I wasn’t at all sure if that was the right (or safe) thing to do. The man told me not to take any pictures. Then he showed me into a room-full of weaving looms. The room was very hot, humid and crowded with looms. There were only two weavers present, however, each working on a different type of fabric. Seeing how they wove the intricate designs was interesting.

If you want to visit this museum, I suggest to take someone along, to make it less awkward. I couldn’t find a website for the museum, but you can read more about it here. And do expect to be yelled at as you attempt to take your shoes off…

Nomura Tailor House

By the time I was done with the Orinasu-kan Museum I was rather exhausted, but there was still one destination on my list: the Nomura Tailor House, a large fabric store. I took a bus and then walked some more. When I got there, melting and thirsty, I found this:

I almost burst into tears. Luckily, the second branch in this chain was only a couple of blocks away, and I made it there safely.

My family joined me as I was shopping, and we all went to a cafe. There, I cooled down with a well-earned iced matcha latte.

 

Doll-maker Aya Furuta and a Missed Craft Show in Matsumoto, Japan

On the second day of our family trip to Japan, we toured Matsumoto. We spent a fun day exploring the famous castle and the nearby Matsumoto City Museum

In the afternoon we strolled down the alleys of the old part of town, looking for a restaurant. We passed by a big building with open doors.

I kept walking, but my husband, to my great horror, went in to explore. Soon, he chased me down the road and told me I must go in. It felt a bit awkward, but I did. Inside I found people packing what turned out to be the exact kind of textile craft show I was hoping to see in Japan.

It turned out that the show was a once-a-year event showcasing local textile artists. It was open for two days, and just closed shortly before we arrived. The artists were in the midst of packing the artwork, but they were kind enough to let me walk around and drool over everything that remained visible.

I saw gorgeous dyed and printed fabrics for doors, windows or for the wall, as well as some interesting woven art involving twigs:

 There were beautiful room dividers and impressive textile fish:

I caught a glimpse of some table cloths and cushions:

And possibly some scarves, that the artists were putting away…

And then I saw some of the most beautiful dolls I’ve ever seen:

The artist who made them was there, too. 

In the 1970’s, Aya Furuta traveled extensively in South East Asia. At that time, Japan experienced an economic boom that quickened the pace of life. The life in the countries Aya visited, on the other hand, remained slower and more sane. Aya felt drawn to to that slower pace. During her travels, she collected a vast assortment of antique, traditional handmade textiles. She appreciated the great care that went into weaving and embroidering them. Later, she started making dolls using these textiles. She has been a doll maker for over thirty years.

Dressing her dolls with her collected South-Asian textiles fills Aya Furuta with pleasure. She feels that the textiles connect her to the prayers and joys of the people who created them. The dolls are her way to preserve the spirit of a different kind of life, to point to a slower way of living that modern people have forgotten.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to purchase one of Aya Furuta’s dolls, but I gladly bought her inspiring doll catalog.

I was hoping (expecting?) to find other, similar textile craft shows in other places in Japan, but to my great disappointment this never happened. Despite my lingering sense of missed opportunity, I feel very fortunate to have meet Aya Futura and her dolls!

 

What to Do if You Have One Day in Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Southeast Asia has been on my to-go wish list for decades. Last winter break I finally got there. My family booked a trip to Thailand. Before it started, we managed to squeeze in a day and a half in Cambodia. We went to see Angkor Wat, the famous UNESCO world heritage site.

Once there, I really wished we had more time to explore the area. Although Angkor Wat is the most famous temple, there are actually over a thousand other temples all around. Angkor, after all, was the capital of the Khmer Empire for nearly six hundred years (from the 9th to the 15th centuries), and was, at the time, a magnificent mega-city.  

What to do if, like me, you have only one day?

Arrive the day before. Since you really want to start your tour early (see below), you should plan to arrive in Siem Reap the day before. If you really have only 24 hours, plan to arrive in the late afternoon and leave the following day around the same time. If you can afford a few more hours, arrive earlier so that you have time to explore Siem Reap as well.

Visit Angkor National Museum. If possible, do this the day before you visit the temples. Angkor National Museum has nice displays portraying the history of the city, the Khmer Empire, as well as a 3-D model of Angkor Wat. You will understand the history, mythology and structure of what you see a lot better if you visit the museum first.

Book a Private Guide. You can try to plan your visit on your own, but booking a private tour guide in advance is so much simpler! There are many tour operators and English speaking guides. They will come pick you up from your hotel, help you buy tickets, take you around and explain what you see. If you hire your own guide, you won’t have to wait around for other people.

Get Up Early. Most tour guides try to be get to Angkor Wat when the site opens at 5:30 am. The official reason is to see the sunrise (though I wasn’t that impressed with it). HOWEVER, the early morning hours also tend to be the most pleasant temperature-wise. It gets very hot and humid later in the day… Getting to Angkor Wat as early as possible will give you more time to explore other temples later on.

Even if you get up at 4:30 am and feel that you traveled to the end of the world, though, don’t expect to be the only tourist there. Angkor Wat is quite crowded, even at dawn. Thousands of people from all over the world try to take pictures of the sunrise!

Once there, don’t get close to the monkeys! You might be as excited as we were to see monkeys in the wild, but they can get aggressive and even bite…

Enjoy the amazing architecture and beautiful reliefs. Although I learned art history in both high school and college, I don’t really know much about Khmer art. The architecture and reliefs in Angkor Wat are different than the art I’m used to, and are truly breath taking! You will enjoy them even more if you understand the Hindu mythology they depict (I didn’t).

Visit other temples. Angkor Wat is the most famous temple, but other temples and ruins in the area are just as beautiful. We visited two additional temples. The last place we went to was Ta Prohm, mostly known because of the film Lara Croft Tomb Rider. I really liked it, mostly because it isn’t as well-kept as Angkor Wat. The raw ruins and grown-in vegetation give it a wild, Indiana-Jones feel!

Wear a hat and stay hydrated! The days are very hot, and you will dehydrate quickly. I could barely walk in the second temple we visited.

Finally, be prepared for rain. Cambodia is in the tropics, and it can rain. Carry a rain poncho, just in case.

 

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Boro: The Japanese Art of Mending That is Hard to Find in Japan

On my recent trip to Japan, I found art where I didn’t expect it, yet didn’t find the art I expected to see everywhere.

Boro, the Japanese art of mending, and its twin art of Sashiko (decorative stitching), are very popular among textile artists in the West. Many non-Japanese artists throughout the world, myself included, now incorporate the art of patching and restorative hand-stitching into their work.

I made this journal cover, for example, using some simple Boro-style patching and stitching:

Nowadays, clothing using some elements of Boro and Sashiko are making a comeback into the world of high-end fashion. Boro-style items are selling for hundreds of dollars. Original antique Japanese pieces of patched cloth can go for thousands of dollars.

It was only natural, therefore, that, before going to Japan, I assumed I will see Boro everywhere. That did not turn out to be the case.

When we arrived in Japan, we had only one day in Tokyo before heading out to other destinations. I vaguely knew there was a museum dedicated to Boro in Tokyo, but assumed there would be many such museums in other parts of the country, too. We therefore used the few hours we had in the capital to visit other sites. I later realized, that one of them was painfully close to the museum…

Sadly, for the duration of our subsequent nearly month-long trip, I did not come across any other Boro museums, nor could I find any on the internet. Not only that, but I haven’t seen Boro anywhere. I didn’t see it in any of the numerous big and small museums we visited, including several crafts museums. Nor in gallerias, tourist shops or artisan villages. Certainly not on the streets, on any of the thousands of well-dressed Japanese we encountered.

Only in our very last stop, in the tourist-oriented part of the old capital of Nara, did I see a hint of Boro. It appeared on the outfits of two delightful Oni (=demons) that decorated (or maybe guarded?) a high-end clothing boutique:

(Despite what the sign says, I did ask–and received–explicit permission to take pictures of these dolls :-))

On the same street, by the way, I also found the only artist atelier that sold patterns and clothing using Sashiko:

So, why isn’t Boro more prominent in Japan, it’s birth place, despite being so popular in the West?

I believe the answer is that Boro was the child of poverty, and as such is still associated with destitution in Japan.

The imperial family and the upper classes never wore patched clothing. They cloaked themselves in expensive silks and exquisite textiles. The lower classes, on the other hand, not only could not afford silk, but, in the Edo Period (1600-1868) were actually banned from wearing it.

The poor could barely afford even the cheaper fabrics, which were still expensive. They had to make the rare garments they had last long. When clothes or blankets started wearing thin, they had no choice but to mend them with any bits and pieces they could put their hands on. Winters in Japan are cold. Poor families had to make do with what they had, passing valuable patched garments from one member of the family to another, sometimes from one generation to the next.

The people who created Boro didn’t use silks and high-end textiles. They used the cheaper hemp, linens and, later, cottons that were available to the working class and the poor. Most of the fabrics they had came in shades of indigo. This is why we now associate Boro with that color.

The word “Boro” itself means “tattered” or “ragged.” Wearing Boro-ed clothes wasn’t the result of aesthetics. It was a necessity. And as such it marked the wearer as a member of the lower, poor classes.

Japanese today don’t wear Boro (unless they can afford some of its high-end, modern-day manifestations). Museums don’t show it because it’s not a traditional art form that the culture is proud of. Modern artisans are more likely to practice Sashiko or Shibori (textile dyeing), which they see as more “artistic.” And so, although Boro is all the hype among textile artists and consumers in the West, it is mostly absent in its homeland.

Which doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t appreciate it. The authentic, old Boro clothing were made over a long period of time, and were often a collaborative effort. People added patches and stitches whenever they needed to fix something. Sometimes a garment passed through several hands and even several generations, with many people adding to it. And even the poor did their best to mend beautifully, resulting in artistic stitching. Many of these old garments are, indeed, works of art, even if their makers didn’t see them as such.

This jacket, which I found on pinterest, is but one example:

If you’re interested in Boro and are planning to visit Japan, do go to the only Boro museum in the country. If the rumors I heard are correct, you should hurry, as the museum might be shutting down soon… I now know that you can also find Boro in flee markets throughout the country. Regrettably, I didn’t get to visit any, but perhaps you will have better luck!

Graffiti Heaven in Florentin Neighborhood, Tel Aviv, Israel

I love seeing art when I travel. Fine art exhibited in museums, of course, but also grass-roots arts, such as the arts seen at craft markets or on city walls. Yep. Graffiti can be viewed by some as vulgar vandalism, but it is also the artistic expression of certain segments of society.

In Tel Aviv, Israel, there is an entire neighborhood that celebrates graffiti: Florentin, in the southern part of the city. There, colorful murals completely cover  several city blocks. On my latest visit to the Holy Land several months ago, I went to check it out. I enjoyed looking at all the different works created by different people. The paintings were a collection of many styles, ideas, and political orientations.

Here is a little taste of what this neighborhood has to offer:

After walking around a bit, I noticed works that seemed similar. The style seemed consistent, as if drawn by the same hand. I started actively looking for works by this artist, an activity that became a kind of a game for me and my kids. It reminded me of our trip to London a couple of years ago, and of how we enjoyed doing the same there.

I later found a signed work by the artist in a different neighborhood. That’s how I learned of Sara Erenthal and her work.

As I was about to leave the neighborhood, I saw a big sign on top of a building. Only then did I realize why the municipality allowed all that graffiti. The entire neighborhood, it turns out, is deemed for demolition. Soon brand-new sky-scrapers will replace the old, paint-covered buildings.

So, if you find yourself in Israel soon, go check Florentin out before it disappears. There are special graffiti tours you can take, and even graffiti workshops!

An Unexpected Discovery In Ma’ale Gamla, Israel

Did you ever make a small discovery that brightened up your day? It doesn’t have to be a gold-filled-chest kind of a discovery. Just a little, surprising encounter that made you happy? If so, then you must know how I felt when I found a yard full of art at a most unexpected place!

On my latest trip to Israel several months ago, my family and I were staying at a Zimmer in Ma’ale Gamla in the Golan Heights (a “zimmer” is how Israelis call cabins for rent). Ma’ale Gamla is a tiny residential town overlooking the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Its population consists of about one hundred families, and the only store in existence is a little grocery. Tourists mostly use it as a base for exploring the surroundings.

Early one morning during our short stay in the town, my husband and I decided to go on a little morning walk. My husband, a veteran Pokemon hunter, already explored the place the day before. As we walked, he slowly stirred me towards a side street he thought I might find interesting.

Neat houses and greenery lined the narrow, unassuming street on both sides. It was very quiet in that early hour. Suddenly, I noticed a life-size sculpture at the entrance to a driveway.

Turned out this was a Poke Stop called “Peres in a Bathing Suit,” and that this was how my husband found the statue in the first place.

On the other side of the driveway, still along the main road, I saw yet another life-size sculpture, this one of a dancing girl:

A more careful inspection revealed a small cat-sculpture in the corner:

As we walked on, we realized that the entire front yard was packed-full of art: sculptures big and small made out of plaster, metal mesh, clay and even fabric; reliefs; paintings. We stopped to admire them.

As we were standing there, the front door opened, and a man came out to collect his morning paper.

We felt a bit embarrassed, to be caught gawking like that. But the man turned out to be very friendly. When I told him how impressed I was with all that art, he explained that  the artist was his wife. He then invited us over to see the back yard.

The back, too, was full of life-size sculptures:

It also had some small ones, like those two metal ants I found charming:

And, there was an entire collection of oven-glazed clay figurines:

Even the plant pots had faces!

We learned that this artist occasionally exhibited her works in local galleries. After we left, I realized I never asked for her name. Unfortunately, I was unable to find out more about her afterwards.

Seeing her fun work, however, really made my day. Her creativity shaped the space around her house, dotting it with cheerfulness and joy. Looking at everything she made was truly inspiring!

Next time you stay at a guest house, make sure to take a little walk around the neighborhood. You never know what you might find!

Sure, You Can Probably Do the Inca Trail, But Should You?

I wrote extensively about our December trip to Peru, because … well, there was a lot to write about! I absolutely MUST write this one last Peru post, though, because trekking the Inca Trail was an experience of a lifetime.

Why I’m Sure You Can Do It, Too, Unless You Have a Serious Health Issue:

I first read about the Inca Trail a few decades ago, as I was procrastinating instead of writing my dissertation. It looked thrilling and fun, but seemed like one of those faraway things one can only dream about. Except that last December we did end up going to Peru…

We HAD to sign up for the trek, of course. But to tell you I wasn’t worried would be a lie. For one, I was a lot older than I was when I first read about it. A lot more out of shape, too. AND I was recovering from a second bout of debilitating back pain, the kind that rendered me nearly immobile for several weeks… I was terrified to hurt my back again, two-days into the trail, with no way out but a helicopter airlift… I went back and forth, trying to decide whether I should go or not. Then, at the last minute, I decided to go for it.

Now, my kids are in much better shape than I am. Several hours before leaving for the trek, however, we needed to take two out of the three to a clinic. One had an ear infection. The other–a bad stomach virus that involved sever vomiting and diarrhea. They went on the trek sick, each with their own antibiotics, and a small arsenal of additional medications.

So, folks, if we could do the Inca Trail, you could, too!

What to Expect

The classic Inca Trail is a four-day, 25-kilometer trek. It leaves from km 82 of the railroad, heads north towards the Amazon, and ends in the famous city of Machu Picchu.

The Trail

This is what all the guide books tell you: The first day is an easy warm-up. The second day, which takes you up to an elevation of more then 4,200 meters, is brutal. The third day is all downhill, and the fourth day is easy, with a short hike from the park entrance, up to the Sun Gate and down to Machu Picchu.

The reality: The first day is an “Inca Flat.” “Inca Flat” means lots of ups and downs. It might be easy if you’re in great shape. Otherwise … not so much. During this day you will walk through some pretty wilderness:

But also through many little villages that offer drinks and snacks for sale, as well as bathroom-use for a small fee.

You will also see your first Inca ruins, and realize, to your amazement, that there’s a ruin on almost every hill!

The second day is, indeed, brutal. Because if “Inca Flat” can be steep, just imagine what “Inca Steep” is like… Think an entire day of these:

And how grueling it can be to actually climb them…

My legs got so wobbly, that I needed to use walking sticks (those are life-savers!):

Don’t believe all the smiling Dead Woman’s Pass blog-post pictures you see everywhere. This is what it REALLY feels like to climb up to the highest part of the trail:

And yes, I, too, have a smiling picture from the Pass. But not because I felt great. I was smiling because, against all expectations, I made it there ALIVE!

That night I barely managed to crawl out of my tent to eat dinner…

The third day, I thought, would be super easy. What can be easier than going downhill, right? Uhmm … WRONG! Because this wasn’t down, it was “Inca Down.” That means starting the day with a twenty-minute upward climb. Then going down Inca steps, which  are STEEP. Some are knee-high. It rained. And everything was slippery. Going down those stairs was almost worse than climbing them!

The “leisurely” fourth day started with a 3:00 am wake-up call. We had to pack in the dark. Then we sat for two hours, in the dark and cold, along with five hundred other people, all waiting for the gate to the national park to open.

The minute the gate opened, at 5:30 am, the Great Race began. People were running, overtaking, almost pushing, only to get to the Sun Gate first. My family disappeared with the first rush. I walked as fast as I could, which wasn’t very fast. The view was beautiful, but I had no time to enjoy it.

Then, right before the Sun Gate, another set of stairs, which the guides jokingly call “The Death Stairs.” Some people literally crawl up…

From the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu was actually rather easy, though quite packed with tourists even early in the morning.

The Weather

Because of the high elevation and the fact that the trail goes through several climate zones, weather on the Inca trail can be very unpredictable no matter when you go. We went in December, which is the dry season. It didn’t rain on our first day, but, as you can see from the pictures above, it drizzled, rained, poured and hailed on the second and third days. It got quite windy sometimes, too.

And it was mostly foggy for two entire days. We were told there are breath-taking views beyond the trail, but this is all we could see:

Early mornings, evenings and nights were all cold, requiring coats, warm hats and gloves.

The Ruins

The Inca Tail passes near several small Inca settlement. Seeing those up-close and walking around them was one of the highlights of the experience:

Once, we even saw a black lama, which are quite rare!

Your Fellow Trekkers

The Peruvian government allows only 500 people a day on the trail. That number includes 200 tourists and 300 porters. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but since all these people walk at about the same pace, the trail feels rather crowded most of the time.

People overtake you constantly. Rows of porters go by, carrying ginormous, heavy loads. Each company has a different uniform for its porters, and the guides jokingly call the porter-rows “caterpillars.” During the day you see “Red Caterpillars,” “Green Caterpillars,” “Blue Caterpillars,” “Orange Caterpillars” and so on.

You meet other tourist groups at lunch stops, and several groups share a night camp.

The Food

Every group travels with a chef. Porters carry portable kitchens and all the ingredients. Meals are cooked on the spot. Despite the minimal facilities, the food was incredible! It not only tasted good, but was also presented beautifully, like at a high-end restaurant. I am vegetarian, and got some vegetarian dishes cooked just for me.

There is even a waiter, who serves everything restaurant-style:

On the last day, we actually got a freshly-baked cake!

The Bathrooms

Bathrooms on the Inca Trail are far between and far from perfect. On the first day, there are bathrooms you can use in the villages you pass. You need to pay a small fee. Those are very simple and not super clean. For the rest of the trip, there are few public bathrooms along the tail, and heavily-used-but-rarely-cleaned bathrooms in every night camp. I’ve seen worse in China a few decades ago. My kids were appalled.

When no bathrooms are available, you are allowed to use “Pacha Mama (=Mother Earth) Bathrooms.”  The problem is, that finding a private place is hard. The trail, as I mentioned, is crowded, with people passing you all the time. Even if you find a secluded spot, you never know when someone will appear from around the bend… As usual, things are easier for men than for women.

Some porter companies take portable potties along. I think that making porters carry heavy potties (not to mention cleaning them!) is unnecessary and inhumane. We chose a company that didn’t do that.

Why I’m Not Sure You Should…

I’ve been dreaming of doing the Inca Trail for decades, and although it was hard, I’m really glad I did. The trail was physically challenging, but pushing myself through it felt rewarding. Seeing the different landscapes of Peru up-close was interesting, even in the fog. Walking is the only way to see the many Inca ruins along the way. And Machu Picchu was everything I hoped it would be!

However…

It IS hard!

Even fit people find parts of the trail challenging. If you’re the kind of person who suffers greatly while hiking, this isn’t an experience for you!

There is no helicopter

It turns out that the rumors about a helicopter airlift are a myth. There is no good place for helicopters to land along the trek. If something happens on the first day, while you are close to villages, you can hire a horse or donkey and ride out. After that, you need to walk out, no matter what.

The bathrooms suck

You might be grossed out if you’re not used to it…

You might feel guilty about the porters

I know I did! It’s true that the Inca Trail trek provides many jobs to people who might otherwise not have them. It’s also true that these jobs pay better than some others. However, being a porter is really hard work! Porters carry huge backspaces and heavy loads. Once, there were no regulations and they were made to carry whatever tourists wanted them to. Now, the weight is limited to 20 kg, but it is still a lot.

The porters who pass you are constantly sweating. They chew coca leaves to keep themselves going. The porters have to get to camp before you, and set everything up so it’s ready when you arrive. They have to take everything down once you leave, and then rush to catch up and overpass you, so they can be there to set up the next stop…

Some porter companies don’t provide their workers even with basic equipment. We’ve seen porters wearing flip flops. And some companies make them carry portapotties…

The porters all sleep together in the dining tent once you are done eating. The food they eat is not nearly as sophisticated as what they make for you.

You don’t sleep a lot

On the first day, the guide comes to pick you up from your hotel at 4:00 am. On the second day, since you need to climb up quite a bit, wake-up is at 5:00 am, with a 5:30 departure. The third day isn’t so bad, with a 6:00 am wake-up call. But on the last day you need to get up before 3:00 am. That’s because the porters need to catch a 7:00 am train back to Cusco, and need to be able to pack camp and hike all the way down to make it to the train in time.

And so…

When you finally arrive in Machu Picchu, you’re exhausted!

Machu Pichhu was a city, and it is much larger than all the ruins you see along the way. So although by the end of the trek you think you’ve seen a lot of ruins, you are STILL awed when you get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu! I, personally, felt elated once I actually made it there!

Even early in the morning, Machu Picchu is swarming with tourists. You can immediately tell who hiked there, though. The Inca-Trail veterans have an air of superiority to them. They feel a bit … hardier than everyone else (“The Lazies,” as our guide called them). They also have black circles around their eyes. And they certainly smell more … fragrant. Wearing, hiking and sleeping in the same outfit for several days feels OK on the trail, where you are surrounded by people who do the same. But once you come in contact with civilization again, you become a little self-conscious…

Then there are a few additional hours of touring the place. Our guide had a lot to explain, but I found it hard to listen. I just wanted to sleep. I was wondering if getting there on an early train, after a nice breakfast and a shower, wouldn’t have been just as good…

Taquile Island, Peru: A Place Where Knitting is Men’s Work

For the last few weeks a video has been circulating on Facebook. It keeps showing up in my feed, shared by different people and to different groups. The video depicts a tough-looking guy knitting on the subway. The sight of a man knitting, apparently, is so unusual in our society, that a grainy video about it goes viral.

But who said knitting was a womanly craft? Apparently, for a long stretch of history, men dominated the knitting world. In the Middle Ages, for example, men-only knitting guilds prohibited women from joining. At that time, a teenage boy needed to train for over six years before he could join a guild. Knitted goods were mostly reserved for the upper classes. During WWII, which was not that long ago, boys in the USA and England learned to knit at school, and made woolly goods for the troops on the front. Wounded soldiers, too, were taught knitting, to keep themselves busy.

After my family and I stayed on Amantani Island on Lake Titicaca in Peru, we went to visit a tiny island nearby. On the beautiful Taquile Island, women weave and men knit. That’s just the way things are.

Boys learn knitting when they turn eight. They knit their entire lives, making mostly hats for men. When a young man wants to get married, he is expected to pass a knitting test of sorts: he has to knit the finest hat he can, and present it to his potential father-in-law. He needs to knit the hat so tightly, that water does not seep through it. If the father-in-law approves of his work, the young man can then go ahead and marry his chosen bride.

Men’s hats come in different patterns, which depict a person’s age and status. Baby hats have ruffles:

Single men wear mostly white hats:

Married men wear red hats:

Only community leaders wear the colorful hats (mostly with ear-coverings) that we associate with Peru (the knitter above is a leader):

The knitters are very proud of their work, and aim for small, even stitches:

It often takes a man two months to knit one hat.

When wearing a hat, a man signals his mood by flipping it to one direction. A hat flipped to the left = happy. To the right = sad. This guy, for example, must have had a rough morning:

Nowadays, the Island inhabitants rely on tourism for a living. The hats men knit for tourists don’t follow the traditional rules. Tourists get all kinds of colorful hats, and also gloves. The islanders sell their knitted goods, along with the women’s weaving, at a store on the Island’s main square:

Apparently, the Spanish Conquistadors were the ones who introduced knitting to Peru in the 16th century. The craft spread to different parts of the country, and is still practiced by men even outside the Lake Titicaca region.

There are many articles about the soothing, health-benefiting effects of knitting. The craft is slowly making a comeback, sweeping men as well as women. With time, perhaps, even in Western countries we won’t  have to get excited about seeing a guy knit in a public place…