Traveling Begonias

Bringing the world to you one artifact at a time

Peru

Discovering San Blas

PeruKate BegoniaComment

After leaving Pisac I felt a bit overwhelmed by Cusco. It’s a sizeable city with a population of over 400,000 so you really have to shift gears after being in a village like Pisac (which has less than 10,000 people). As my taxi zipped through the Cusco streets I was already feeling a sense of loss for not having spent more time in Pisac.

The San Blas district has steep, winding, cobblestone paths that function as one lane roads; it’s comical to watch cars back down the street to let oncoming traffic pass. A number of friends advised me to stay in San Blas because that’s where many artists live and work. It’s quite charming.

Yes, cars drive on these roads.

Yes, cars drive on these roads.

On my first day I trekked down the hill (because of course I stayed near the top of the hill - under the welcoming arms of Cristo Blanco) and made my way to Plaza de Armas and got a feel for the town, and of course I did some churchy stuff.

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The weather was perfect and I had a nice walk but didn’t see many artists, just the same sorts of touristy shops you can find anywhere. So I was kind of bummed but kept walking and took myself to a delicious lunch at vegan restaurant, Green Point. I took my time with lunch since I had nowhere to be and emerged around 3pm quite full and dreading the climb back to the hotel. And then it happened. All these doors began opening with artists at work in their studios. Some had shops, others didn’t. The ones I found most interesting were the ones where people were simply working, not necessarily welcoming visitors into their space, but not turning them away either. From the smell of cedar wafting out of a humble workspace I came across a father+son team of woodworkers. Domingo Alvarez is a master woodworker who has been carving for over 40 years and his son, Blas has been apprenticing with him for about 10.

Their workshop was dark when I poked my head in and asked Blas if I could watch him work. He kindly let me in and his father joined us to show off some of their creations. They do very intricate altars and pulpits for churches as well as ornate frames that they typically gild. Blas is also a painter, primarily in oils.

Blas told me they’re on Facebook but I haven’t been able to find them. I did find a local interview with Domingo from 6 years ago on YouTube. You can learn more about him from this footage.

While the ornate work was beautiful, my eye landed on a few pieces high on a shelf that had simple, clean lines. I pointed at them and the formerly stone-faced Blas lit up with delight. Apparently it was his more experimental work and he was eager to show them off. I brought back two of these beautiful cedar vases.

It was a real pleasure seeing these two men work together and clearly Domingo is nearly ready to pass the torch to Blas. Though we could hardly understand each other I spent a pleasant hour with them and was really happy with my purchases. I hope to find them good homes where they will be appreciated for their workmanship as well as the pride it gave Blas to have someone admire his own designs.

Coziness in the Sacred Valley

PeruKate BegoniaComment

I had been in Pisac for two days and felt like I’d seen it all. The market, the church, the ruins…what else was there? It’s a small village and you really can get to know the topography in a few days. But just like that, it changed. The village I met on Friday was completely transformed into a substantial marketplace on Sunday. There were shops where inconspicuous doors had been before. The open market expanded from 6 (ish) square blocks to 16+. There wasn’t enough time to see it all in one day. My plans to see Chinchero evaporated as I explored this new version of Pisac.

One little storefront I came across appeared to be a typical souvenir shop at first. From a casual glance outside Taller de Artesanias / Munay Millma appeared like many of the tourist shops - with some notable exceptions. In addition to the usual key chains, stuffed alapacas, and shot glasses there were flavored piscos, salts, honey, coffee, and chocolates. And then there were the slippers.

The slippers gave me pause. I love a good pair of wool slippers and these felted wool and alpaca slippers were like nothing I had seen in Pisac. They’re soft and pretty and they have leather bottoms and feel quite durable. So I stopped. And I stayed in that store for over an hour.

My Spanish is very, very poor on a good day and the shop owner’s English is non-existent so we spent a lot of time trying to communicate. But he was a good sport and we had fun talking about how the slippers are made, the therapeutic uses for salt, the differences in the piscos he carries, and a multitude of other sidebar conversations. He showed me a little of the technique they use in creating the slippers.

They breed their own sheep and alpaca and use the freshly shorn wool from the animals for their creations. They start by laying down the decorative pieces on their pattern and then essentially follow a typical felting process: they lay down hand-plucked pieces of fiber onto each layer, with each level crossing over the last. Then they add soapy water to soak the layers. This is done over and over again. After they have the right thickness they knead the piece and roll it to squeeze the soap out. Then an incision is made into the middle of one side and the pattern is pulled out. Then the slipper is molded around a foot form.

After that initial shaping is done they remove the foot form and continue to knead and roll the slippers again and again. They intermittently insert the foot form to keep the shape of the slipper as they continue to expel the soapy water. Once that is completed they let the slipper air dry and then hand-stitch leather soles onto the bottoms.

Believe me when I tell you I’m over-simplifying the process. It takes hours to make a pair of slippers and at times the repetition seems tedious to me. But you can’t argue with the results.

The have cute baby booties, designs for women and men, and they even have handbags. The varieties are only limited by the artist’s imagination. They are also starting to do some Ugg-like boots with manufactured soles now.

I brought back a few pairs that will be at the showcase. In the meantime, here are more photos for you to enjoy.

A weekend in Pisac

PeruKate BegoniaComment

Nestled at the bottom of Incan ruins, the village of Pisac is a perfect place to experience much of what Peru has to offer. Coca tea helps visitors acclimate. The ruins are not quite as grand as Machu Picchu but they are quite breathtaking (especially if you hike all the way through them!) The village itself is anchored by a beautiful Catholic church where mass is said every Sunday in Quechua, the language of the local indigenous people. The opportunities for experiencing authentic ayahuasca rituals abound. I had a blast…yet only did a few of these things.

Much has been written about the villages in the Sacred Valley and I wish I could have seen more. The few days I spent in Pisac really charmed me and I would definitely go back. The hosts of the b&b I stayed in were so gracious and lovely that I’d return just to spend more time with them! The breakfasts they made were top notch; seriously delicious. And the inn is simple, clean, and welcoming. The family that runs Pisac Inca Guest House knows hospitality.

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I arrived on Friday and kept plenty busy, but it wasn’t until Sunday, when the procession from the mountain comes down to hear mass, did the village truly come alive. One of my favorite things to do in new countries is to hear mass, and I was lucky enough to be in Pisac on a Sunday.

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Listening to mass in another language is kind of magical for me. There are all the rituals I’m used to, and I know all the parts of the mass, yet I can’t quite follow along. It’s a familiar mystery. I absolutely love it.

Bootleg footage: Quechuan Mass on 10/14/18

After mass, the Quechuan exit through the marketplace. There weren’t many in attendance that Sunday but everyone stood aside as the group processed out of the church.

Pisac is full of charming little shops. The overnight transformation from small, sleepy, weekday market to a bustling center of commerce on Sundays is kind of crazy to witness. Literally every door facing the square opened up to reveal a store you didn’t realize existed the day before. I loved wandering in and out of storefronts, over to the open market, and back again. The beautiful textiles, the penises protruding from sculptures unexpectedly (I’m not kidding), and the creepy masks were all intriguing. And really fun.

I found some beautiful, unique things in Pisac (sorry, penises are sold out) and can’t wait to share them at the showcase on December 9th. I’ll be writing more about some of these finds in blog posts in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Lots of pain, more gain

PeruKate Begonia1 Comment

Much has been written about hiking the ruins of Peru’s Sacred Valley. But my perspective may be a bit different. This is the perspective of a middle-aged woman who hasn’t really exercised in nearly a year, who is about 100 lbs overweight, has a stupid autoimmune disease, has hot flashes whenever it’s inconvenient, and who doesn’t like to go up in order to go down.

While planning my somewhat last minute trip to Peru I was really torn about whether to visit the Cusco region because I knew I wouldn’t have time to trek Machu Picchu - and who goes to the Sacred Valley and doesn’t hike the big MP? I spoke to enough people who convinced me it was ok not to do it this time (thanks, friends), and was also advised that in Pisac there were ruins just as old and significant as Machu Picchu, if not quite on the same scale.

So off I went. I almost missed 3 of my flights because I had to take my bags from baggage claim, leave the terminal, go back inside to check in again, then go through security again. FOR EVERY. SINGLE. STUPID. FLIGHT. So by the time I got to Pisac, about 17 hours later, I was completely wiped out.

The altitude here is no joke and it’s part of the reason I came to Pisac for my first few days rather than stay in Cusco (which is where I landed). Cusco is about 500 meters higher and I wanted some time to acclimate. To combat the onset of altitude sickness my hosts recommended coca tea…yes, the kind that comes from the coca tree…yes the leaf they make cocaine from. No, it didn’t jack me up, in fact I napped very soundly after each cup of tea.

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My first day I took it easy and just walked around town. The second day I decided to brave the ruins of Inca Pisac. I was dressed in good walking shoes, workout pants, and long sleeves with a long-sleeved cotton jacket on top. Looking at the weather atop the mountain my host convinced me to not only bring my heavy sweater but also a rain poncho. I wish I would have listened to my gut; I’m from Alaska. I now live in Oregon. 50 degrees and drizzly does not require cold-weather wear or rain gear. And by the way, those inconvenient hot flashes? Well of course I’d get them while hiking. OF COURSE. Yet I was still convinced to bring along the extra layers, which only proved to piss me off throughout the day.

My host also recommended taking a taxi to the top of Inca Pisac and hiking to the lower parking lot, which takes about 1 hour. This plan seemed solid and I had every intention of following it but my sense of direction and ability to read a map are severely impaired on a good day, much less at an elevation of 3 kilometers. Dutifully I started at the parking area, as instructed.

The view as you round the bend from the parking lot.

The view as you round the bend from the parking lot.

I checked out the citadel and the cemetery. The cemetery is built into the side of a cliff, which is now off limits because the graves have been plundered of all the Incan spoils.

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If you look closely you will see holes in the side of the mountain which is where the bodies were buried, many with wealth they had acquired in their lifetime. Grave robbers have been scouring these hills for years looking for treasure so most of these graves are now empty.

If you look closely you will see holes in the side of the mountain which is where the bodies were buried, many with wealth they had acquired in their lifetime. Grave robbers have been scouring these hills for years looking for treasure so most of these graves are now empty.

It’s a really majestic view and it looked like a beautiful walk down through the terraces.

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I began my stroll down the well-manicured path, stopping here and there to take photos of the incredible scene.

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I kept walking and consulting the map, and though there were no signs indicating where I was headed there were landmarks and I really thought I was on track.

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All things being equal, I was bound to miss the turn to the lower lot. Seriously - I’ve lived in Portland for 16 years and I still get lost and have to call my husband to help me get places (yes, even with GPS). So I’m not sure why I was so cocky about hiking a mountain in a foreign country where I know no one. As I made my way down a rocky staircase I came across a woman with a guide heading towards me and I asked if I was on the correct route for the lower lot. They said no and pointed me back the way I came.

There are more stairs around the bend.

There are more stairs around the bend.

Mother fucker.

The guide told me that I was on the route to Pisac and it would take about 1.5 hours. So in my genius brain I thought, well that’s only 30 minutes more than my original plan and I don’t want to go all the way back up, just to then head down to the parking lot.

Mother fucker.

So I keep going and the well-manicured trail slowly becomes a foot path with the mountain on one side and a brush-filled cliffside on the other. Those Incans really did not want unannounced visitors.

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As I’m walking (very carefully), I get passed by a group of Germans who are moving at a pace just short of running. Whatever. I’m taking my time and enjoying the things you clearly can’t see when you’re sprinting. Like desert blooms and shells along the trail. Beautiful and unexpected.

When there was “assistance” provided in the form of a handrail, the prospect of a handful of splinters kept me from using them.

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There were little spots along the way that it appears things happened but there aren’t signs so I don’t know what these structures were for. But they’re cool and obviously very old.

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About an hour into my wrong turn the terraces start to loom in my periphery and I start feeling a little vertigo coming on. I can’t quite explain it and I definitely didn’t stop to take photos because I’m not going to be one of those people who die taking a selfie. I won’t sugar coat it, the dizziness was scary. I had to coach myself into gingerly making my way down because I’m also not going to be one of those tourists who has to get a life flight because I wasn’t careful. My solution was to create my own blinder: holding my hand up beside the eye exposed to the terraces so they wouldn’t flicker in my peripheral vision. I also stopped a lot and sipped water. I inhaled the Breathe essential oil blend in my bag. And I talked to myself because the sound of a voice (any voice) was distraction from my predicament. After a short while the vertigo-ishness abated and I was able to walk without trying to hide from the terraces.

After the Germans left me in the dust I didn’t encounter another person for the rest of the trek. When the dizziness came on, being so alone was scary. When the dizziness was gone it was magical.

Shouldn’t the village be closer by now?

Shouldn’t the village be closer by now?

As I made my way down while cursing my own lack of judgment, a few things occurred to me that made me wonder if my wrong turn was really a right turn. I realized I was doing something completely on my own for no one else but me. Yes, I made some mistakes but I powered through all by myself. I felt brave. I knew the hike wouldn’t have been so hard if I was in better shape and this issue has kept me from trying many things over the years. But this time I didn’t let my shame keep me from trying something I knew would be incredible. I felt proud. I also realized my knees don’t bend like they used to. I felt old.

The hike never got easier. Even once I was off the mountain, the long path down to the village was “paved” with terraced cobblestones that really wanted to break me. But I stayed focused and didn’t stumble, which is rare for me - physically and emotionally. When I got to the street I turned to look at the sign and realized I was just a few blocks from my hotel. At least I saved on cab fare.

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I’ve heard people speak of how life-changing hiking Machu Picchu can be. I’m not sure if Inca Pisac changed my life but I never cried, I kept going, and have a good story to tell. I won’t claim I enjoyed the journey but I accepted it, in the moment. Not an instant life change, but a step. One step at a time.