Waking up, my stomach was no longer twisted inside-out. Thank goodness the medicine worked, because although our destination was in an area called the “Sacred Valley,” we were climbing another few thousand feet above Cusco to visit a small mountain community of indigenous people.
We caught a cab at 6:15 AM, for the two hour drive to Ollantaytambo. We drove through rolling hills, red-brown during the dry season, dotted with desert plants like prickly pear cactus. Rare green patches indicated where a farmer was irrigating his or her crops. Steep slopes with trees clinging to the sides ringed the valley. Snow-covered peaks loomed over all of it. The taxi struggled with some of the steepest roads, especially when we drove directly into a cloud. The fog was so thick that the defroster had no effect and our driver slowed to nearly a crawl. We were the subject of a number of angry honks.
Arriving, we found out that our guide was sick, so the co-founder of Awamaki, the non-profit that organized the trip, was leading it instead. She wasn’t there yet, so we had time for a pleasant warm-up with hot drinks. One of the nice things about Peru is that even the cheap little cafes have excellent hot chocolate. However, there’s very little coffee made in the American style. Much of it was Americano, which is watered-down espresso like you’d find in Italy.
While waiting, we met the other couple on our tour, who were in the country for three weeks. Judging from their conversation, they seemed somewhat younger than my parents. The wife was on a fellowship from the community college where she taught art history so that she could study ancient Incan culture and art for two weeks. Soon after, we met our new guide, Kennedy, who I was surprised to see wasn’t much older than us. As we drove to the community, I learned that she had visited Peru in high school and became connected with a local weaving development project. After returning during college, she took over their project when the former organization basically fell apart. Loving the work terribly, she attended graduate school for a masters in non-profit management, and after only a few years, she and the other co-founder grew the organization to 10 paid staff members. As someone with experience in non-profits, I was very impressed. I also liked that she seemed very committed to truly listening to what the community wanted and needed, rather than imposing American values on them.
The van followed the dirt road switchbacking through the mountains. Incan terracing lined the slopes, elaborate public works projects that allowed them to grow four times as much food as today’s industrial agriculture while avoiding significant soil depletion. At one point, we had to stop and wait because a construction crew was adding more dirt and stones to the road. The road we were on was probably wider but not fundamentally different from the one that the Incan runners used to carry messages and goods to the kings.
Reaching our mountain village destination, we met the women who make up the weaving cooperative. While they would weave for themselves and their families anyway, the cooperative helps them gain a little additional income by expanding their market. While many of the men make money as Inca trail porters, the women and children stay back in the villages with few options for making money.
They grow some of their own food, but the altitude limits most of the agriculture to potatoes. Even raising those requires walking for hours to their fields and back when it’s time to harvest, unless they choose to sleep out overnight in little stone huts near the fields. Once the potatoes are harvested, the women bring them up to the high mountain streams, where the water melts off of the glaciers. After leaving them for two weeks, they lay the potatoes out in the sun to freeze-dry them. It’s a very labor-intensive process, but the potatoes last for about a year without attracting pests. The women also raise alpacas and sheep, but they’re much more valuable as a source of wool than food. Everyone seems to feed a few guinea pigs on kitchen scraps, but they produce so little meat that they’re really only for special occasions.
Selling their additional weaving allows the women to purchase a slightly wider variety of food, have a bit more access to health care, and generally improve their living situation. As helping women increase control over their lives is a huge part of long-term economic and social development, Kennedy was particularly keen on working directly with the younger women.
In addition to growing the market for their goods, Awamaki is working to help the women improve their skills. Weaving is a traditional highland craft, but much of it has been lost as they’ve had more contact with the cities. The women still know how to spin and weave, but some of the details, especially the natural dyes, aren’t as widely known.
After looking around a mini-museum about the weaving process, we met some of the women and girls who participate in the cooperative. Most of them were dressed in the traditional female Peruvian outfit of a woolen skirt, wool leg-warmers, a light shirt with a sweater, and an elaborate hat, although some of the little girls had bare legs and no hats. They proudly displayed their wares in front of them – scarfs, shawls, and belts in elaborate patterns and colors. Many of the patterns featured animal representations, including birds and snakes, while others were more abstract, with zig-zag lines and spirals. As they chatted, many of them spun thread with a traditional drop spindle, where a woman wraps a bit of wool around a long top-like tool, then spins it until the wool begins separating from itself. The woman has to do this several times for each skein of yarn to get it to the right thickness and fineness. Either before or after spinning the yarn, depending on the animal, they then dye it. Each woman uses her own pot to boil the dye source, such as a plant, and then dip the yarn or wool in the pot once the solution is ready.
Amawaki is working with a weaver from an even more rural area who’s still familiar with all of the old dyes to teach the weaving cooperative about them. What’s particularly neat is that the trainer not only has a traditional understanding of the techniques, but also scientific knowledge. By measuring the pH, temperature, and salinity of the solutions, he’s able to make a huge spectrum of colors. Although most of the women don’t have the educational background to reach that level of detail, Kennedy said that she hopes some of the girls in high school will be able to soon. In addition to the standard Peruvian curriculum, the local high school teaches the students personally relevant skills like agricultural management and small business development for an extra two hours a day. They’re hoping as more students graduate, they’ll be able to maintain rural traditions while improving their overall standard of living.
Right now, the trainer is working with the organization’s weaving expert, who is also an ethnobiologist, to find alternatives to the Cochineal beetle. Weavers have traditionally collected the beetle, a pest of the prickly pear, to make a brilliant red dye. However, with America outlawing certain chemical dyes and other companies using it as a natural alternative like Starbucks, the demand for this natural resource has skyrocketed. As gathering the beetles is extremely time and labor intensive, the women have to buy them, which is getting increasingly difficult. Most of the other dyes are made from locally-available plants, so they’re trying to find one that will give them that same red color.
Once the women have dyed the yarn, they weave it using a back-strap loom. Unlike the large European looms, the back-strap loom attaches to a stake in the ground on one end and the woman herself on the other. The weaver is then able to tighten the piece she’s working on by leaning backwards. It also allows her to bring the loom everywhere she goes, like the house or fields.
Observing the beautiful patterns, I finally decided to buy two scarfs, one for myself and one as a souvenir for my mom. After paying, I tried to tell one girl that I liked her skirt, which included some neon yellow patches, but she just giggled. The girls were all adorable, a bit shy, and thought everything was very funny.
Leaving the weaving center, Kennedy gave us a tour of a traditional house. Outside of the house was a huge spread of potatoes, as well as animal manure they were drying for fuel. There was also a eucalyptus tree, a species that’s been both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the tree’s tall, straight trunk grows quickly, making it excellent for lumber in a place that has few trees. In some places, the roots hold the soil more than other plants, reducing the impact of landslides. On the other hand, it’s a thirsty invasive species that draws water away from native plants and agriculture. It’s even been growing where the Incas terraced the land for farming, with its roots snaking into the stonework. It’s a tough ecological and social balance.
This house had a thatched roof, but many of the others had corrugated tin roofs. The traditional option, the insulates the houses much better than tin, which gets extremely hot during the day and cold at night. Unfortunately, many people are switching to the metal because it’s much easier to maintain – the thatch has to be redone every few years – and the feeling of being modern. They’re also having issues getting enough of the reeds used for thatch, as they’re also used to make adobo bricks.
Houses in this region are separated into different areas with separate doors, so we just saw the kitchen. It was a long room – bigger than ours – with a wood stove and a small little-used gas stove at one end and a prep area at the other. Drying vegetables rested on a shelf. Four or five guinea pigs lived underneath the counter, content to eat food scraps and roll around in the straw. The wood stove, donated by an NGO, was specifically designed to be ultra-efficient, both to reduce the amount of fuel it uses and its emissions. Between the stress of the altitude and the smoke from the wood burning stoves, respiratory diseases are common and a number of the health NGOs are trying to prevent that issue.
On our way out of the village, we watched the men make adobo bricks. There’s a strong tradition of communal labor here, where everyone chips in to build a needed structure, even if it’s just for one family. To make the bricks, they took clay, combined it with water and thatch, and then added some cactus juice to increase its stickiness. Mashing up this combination, they pressed it into a mold to form a brick, removed the mold and then allowed the brick to dry in the bright sun. While the stonework of the Incas was beautiful and sturdy, this is a method that requires far less labor and can be used to construct buildings with little wood.
Back in town, we had a few hours to spend before the cooking class we had also booked through Amawaki. We ate lunch first, with me getting a hearty quinoa and vegetable soup (something I might try making at home) and Chris getting an excellent fajita where the meat and vegetables were stewed together rather than just sauteed. The main attraction outside of Ollyantytambo is a substantial Inca fortress that managed to repel the Spanish. Unfortunately, it also repelled us because it involved a 200 step climb and I wasn’t ready to risk invoking the specter of altitude sickness again. We planned on going to the city’s museum, but it appeared to be closed for construction. Instead we wandered around the beautifully crafted stone alleys, dodged the three-wheeled motortaxis that zipped down the road, and got hot drinks at a cafe where all of the NGO people appeared to hang out. Interestingly, the motortaxis often reflected their owners’ personalities – among other logos decorating their covers, I saw the Nike and Batman symbols!
Our cooking class was led by a chef that headed a kitchen in a local restaurant, Pachamama Pizzeria, which sold both pizza and traditional Peruvian cuisine. The volunteer who was supposed to be our guide that morning, Sam, served as our translator. Coincidentally, the owners of the restaurant were also his homestay family. We started by visiting the market, where the chef bought hot peppers, potatoes, carrots, and peas. I was rather glad that he didn’t purchase any meat, not because cuy didn’t sound interesting, but because of the abundance of flies. Back at the restaurant, we had the kitchen to ourselves because the main dining room was closed. Sam said that they had a huge catering job over the weekend, so they had understandably decided to take the day off.
The chef started by tossing the potatoes in boiling water, then proceeded to cut the peppers for stuffing. Ironically, Chris botched things up as he wasn’t watching carefully, and sliced the pepper almost entirely in half, making it impossible to stuff. The chef then put the cut peppers in boiling water, which surprised me. I always saute peppers and assumed boiling would remove the flavor. However, since they were hot peppers, boiling worked to tamp down their heat. In fact, we could practically feel some of the “flavor” leaving the peppers – the steam kept tickling the back of my throat!
We also chopped up carrots and onion, and the chef was quite impressed with Chris’s knife skills. Chris had made me promise not to tell anyone he cooks professionally because he didn’t want the Peruvian chef to think he was judging him. Although he’ll have opinions about restaurants, he’s very non-judgmental when it comes to individuals’ cooking. It was hard not to mention it though – there were so many times when I wanted to say to him, “Like what you do in your restaurant,” and caught myself.
After chopping the vegetables, the chef mixed them with pureed tomato, raisins, nuts, and chopped beef, then tossed it all in hot oil. To the mix, he added curry (different from Indian curry), black pepper, cilantro, and a few other spices. He then dipped the peppers in a milk-flour-egg mixture and fried them whole.
To finish, the arranged the peppers and potatoes enough for each of us to have three peppers. The chef was cleaning in the back, so he wasn’t at the table, but I at least offered Sam one pepper. Although his refusal made for a bit of awkwardness, we had a good conversation anyway, with him telling us about his volunteer experience.
In the end, the peppers were quite good, although the potatoes were pretty bland. Notably, the chef didn’t add salt to either the filling or potatoes. From a cultural point of view, Chris thought the potato preparation was the most interesting – just plain, boiled potatoes. While French cooking manipulates potatoes in all sorts of ways, they would never think to just let the vegetables completely speak for themselves unadorned. It takes a certain level of simplicity and an accompanying set of diner expectations to serve them that way.
Finished with our day in the Sacred Valley, we still had to get back to Cusco. The taxi to Ollyantytambo was very expensive, we took the advice of both the volunteers and took the combi, the shared vans that serve as the region’s public transportation system. According to our guide later on, this choice is quite unusual for tourists, but then most Americans are a little scared of taking the bus in America, much less Peru. We confusedly stood around near the buses for a while until we found one going to Urabamba, the transfer point between the Sacred Valley and Cusco. The van was in pretty good shape, although unsurprisingly lacking seatbelts. We both had seats though, which was more than some of the people who eventually piled in. The ride was refreshingly non-dodgy considering the stories I had heard about South American transit – the driver didn’t go that fast and I never felt in danger. (Honestly, I think the bus ride in Ireland was scarier.) The only slightly bizarre thing is that the driver would honk / yell at people walking along the road to let them know that the bus was coming. They’d then wave him down if they wanted to get on. As the official stops appeared to be miles apart, I’m guessing this is the most convenient system for passengers. In fact, the only problem we had was that the bus dropped everyone off at the edge of Cusco, quite far from our hotel. As we weren’t going to walk for miles without a decent map, we hailed a cab. We were totally overcharged us for a 15 minute ride, which was annoying, but far from the worst danger of being obviously American.
Although the fireworks were over, the party continued from the night before with a band playing in the square. Thankfully, we were both so exhausted that the music helped us drift to sleep rather than keep us awake.