Traveling Begonias

Bringing the world to you one artifact at a time


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.


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.

Turning a block of wood into a god

IndiaKate BegoniaComment

For our next adventure we took a 1 hour flight south from Bangalore to Thiruvananthapuram (aka, Trivandrum), the capital of the state of Kerala. Since June is monsoon season we were hit with a little rain (which I relished after the past week of sweating). It rains here as much as Portland yet people here have learned to drive in the rain.

In looking into interesting artisans to profile, we discovered that the government of Kerala regulates their handicrafts quite closely to ensure quality and authenticity. Knowing this, my friend sent a written request to the government agency weeks ago for us to view the process and meet the craftsmen but received a non-committal reply. He followed up with repeated phone calls which were met with equally non-committal responses. So we showed up at one of the government-run showrooms and asked to speak directly to the managing director since he alone could grant us permission. We waited about an hour and I guess they realized we were serious. After speaking to layer after layer of management we were finally presented to this very important man. He asked us a few questions, stared at us for what seemed like an eternity over the rim of his glasses until ultimately granting permission. I have no idea what we did or didn't say to convince him. Maybe he just wanted the sweaty American lady out of his office.

The "manufacturing unit" we visited houses woodcutters, brass workers, apprentice and master woodcarvers. The process begins with cutting the chosen wood down to the size needed. This unit works in white pine, rosewood, and sandalwood. In this case they are cutting a block of rosewood.

The workshops are busy and loud but each artisan pays close attention to detail. The facility we visited was carving Hindu gods out of rosewood. There are varying degrees of skill amongst these men, with the master craftsmen being able to actually sit in chairs at a workbench rather than the floor.


This artist is working on a Ganesh, the god of new beginnings, success, and wisdom. You may recognize him, his elephant form is quite popular.

The chalk outline helps guide them as they carve each piece freehand.


Seeing this master work on the intricacies of carving Krishna was a thrill. His dexterity and precision was very satisfying to watch.

Krishna is the god of compassion, tenderness, and love in Hinduism. I really think this artist is able to convey those qualities, simply through his expression.


One of his completed Krishnas, made from white pine is coming home with me.


The workmanship, patience, and skill impressed me. They spend days, sometimes weeks on a single piece and when you see the sheer amount of these carved gods in the marketplaces, it makes you understand why the government has regulated the handicraft industry so closely. This provides a steady income for the artists while also supporting the community through the tourism economy. 

I don't consider myself very religious but I do love the iconography. From my travels I have collected items from Catholicism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Romanian Orthodoxy, and more. I find the icons beautiful and comforting. Seeing the care these craftsmen put into creating them makes them even more special. If you are a lover of Hindu gods and would like me to find an interesting piece for you, please let me know.

In my own home, I have Ganesh featured prominently on my mantle because I'm just really taken with him and what he represents. He is the remover of obstacles and the god of wisdom. And he makes me smile.

Kate in Toyland

IndiaKate BegoniaComment

Today we headed to Channapatna, about 90 minutes from Bangalore. This village is known for the manufacture of wood crafts. Today they were working on toys; the types of toys any parent has seen a hundred times over. The wooden duck your kid pulled around when they were 2? Likely made here. That abacus you paid too much for at Pottery Barn? Quite possibly their product. Spinning tops, key chains, toy instruments...yep, yep, yep. Many of us don't realize when we see something stamped, "Made in India" that in all likelihood someone actually hand made it, they didn't just operate a big machine that spit out identical wooden objects, they actually put elbow grease and artistry into making it.

The site itself is pretty unassuming. In fact I wasn't sure anyone was there when we pulled up.


Inside, 8-10 men worked in relatively tight quarters on a variety of toys.


The wood they use is a type of white pine that grows in the area. The men source the wood and bring it to the workshop themselves.


They each have their own specialty and churn those out.

This man specializes in small boxes which he forms on the lathe and then hand carves detail into each one.

While he does work quickly, each embellishment is unique and precise.


The colors are added after carving. They use a type of crayon made from vegetable oil that they apply with the lathe which burnishes the color into the wood. This is the red "crayon:"


The finished products have a similar aesthetic but the details vary by artist.

The best part of today was the realization that our purchases supported these hardworking artists. I hope you guys like the toys and wooden handicrafts I bring back.