Sunday, November 25, 2012

17 Sheep

Seventeen sheep is what Celso needs to complete the forty-five required to marry Juana.  Taquile has complicated and beautiful traditions that are adhered to by the almost 2,000 inhabitants on this remote island in Lake Titicaca.  In 2005, the island was declared a world treasure by UNESCO for the beautiful textiles produced by both the men and women.  Men knit and women weave.  Both learn their trades as young children and much of their worth is determined by the detail and quality of the images they weave into caps, belts, shawls, and purses (worn only by the men).   The textiles tell stories of their own lives and their cultures.

Juana began weaving Celso a wedding belt when he came to live with her and her parents when he was 20

and she 19.  Each couple must live in each other's home for a year before the local elected headman might approve their marriage to be held in May.  The parents carefully watch for qualities in the possible couple that will suggest they will have a successful marriage.  There is no divorce so this is an important period of trial and testing.  Throughout it, the bride to be expresses her thoughts of her possible groom in her weavings of his belt.  He is also busy knitting a red hat (he must wear white if single) and a purse to hold the coca leaves married men exchange in greeting rather than handshakes or hugs. 

Despite an obvious successful match, a house, and a 6 year old, Juana and Celso remain unmarried, wearing clothing traditional to singles in their society.  They lack the 45 sheep this almost completely vegetarian society will feast on in May for a five day celebration.  Normally, the parents of both the bride and the groom provide the sheep; however, Celso is the 5th of 6 children and the sheep of his parents are gone.  He must
work in a society with little material wealth to earn the soles (Peruvian currency) for each sheep.  Without marriage, neither Celso's nor Juana's voices may be heard during the weekly communal assemblies and decisions of their island.

He had 28 and needed 17 sheep as our home stay with three other travelers from Ireland, Scotland, and  Czechoslovakia began.    We pooled our groups resources, bought weavings and knitted products, and donated money.  By the time we left, the family was three sheep nearer to a May wedding....

Pictures are from Taquile, Peru of Jess and Celso, Juana showing the wedding belt as Celso knits, and of Wilfredo, their 6 year old son.    Posted in La Paz, Bolivia

Monday, November 19, 2012


It seemed like an easy task. The Secretary at the Bolivian Consulate in Puno, Peru, asked us to take our dollars to a bank, deposit them in the Bolivian Consulate account, and return with a voucher from the bank, so that we could finish our process for a visa.  The task perfectly illustrated a challenge faced by much of Latin America… reliable infrastructure.

Each day is a mystery.  We may or may not have water, electricity or internet.  Busses may or may not arrive on schedule and if they do, they may not have the mechanical ability to make it to their destinations.  While any of these things could, on occasion, or in times of natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, be absent in the U.S., most days one can rely on their presence.  

We are even more thoughtful than when we left the U.S. about the local, state, and national taxes we pay that assure us of infrastructure reliability.  While we complained about high utility and internet bills, we increasingly understand that much of what we purchased was the ability to count on the product being available if we flipped a switch.

In Costa Rica, the infrastructure was significantly better, litter was virtually absent, and water was drinkable from the tap throughout the majority of the country.  Peru has been a very different story.  The litter, sewage, and lack of dependable water, electricity and internet are a part of the daily lives of the people.  Places such as Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, may illustrate this well as the influx of tourism and the bounties of the water have brought too many Peruvians and tourists to the site too fast.  The town is overwhelmed and the stench is undeniable.  Services simply cannot keep up with the demand.

So in Puno, when one goes to the bank to make a deposit, the bank may not be able to take it that day.  The computers may be paralyzed, and innovation and the can-do attitude so much a part of our daily lives in the U.S. are not prioritized.  It may take hours or even days to make the deposit.

We all know intuitively that we take so much for granted.  Each day, life is a teacher providing us with lessons in Latin America.  The most important lesson is a perfect one for Thanksgiving week.  We are so thankful for all we have had and all that we do have.

Pictures include a women riding on a bike transport in Puno, a family foraging through the trash on the shores of Lake Titicaca,and an example of missing infrastructure from a house across the main square in Puno. Posted in Puno, Peru

Monday, November 12, 2012

Master Architects

Dark hands creased with time unconsciously cradle the drop spindles that transform wool from llamas and alpacas into multicolored cloth. The resulting beautiful weavings are a source of rainbow-hued pride, outlining the native population against green-terraced mountainsides and grey-block cities.  The alpacas and llamas are the threads of life in the Andes, and they are present everywhere, leaving their droppings even on the modern cobblestone streets of Cusco.  They are the first, rich, organic smell sensed as one steps out onto the incredibly engineered terraces of Machu Picchu where the gentle animals keep the forest at bay as they graze on grass covered platforms among gaping tourists.  

The Incas were a pinnacle of a maturing civilization stretching from Central America to deep in South America over 500 years ago.  They, like their contemporaries in 4 other great civilizations around the world, were acquiring advanced astronomical knowledge, developing engineering skills, and perfecting the science of artificial selection in ways that are still unfathomable.  Unlike the other ancient cultures of the Mayans, Aztecs, or Anasazis (whose sites we have wandered), the Incas were massive transformationists of the abiotic and biotic environment.  Signs of their civilization are present everywhere in the many varieties of potatoes and corn, in the quality and quantity of wool-producing alpacas, in the smoothly engineered massive grey blocks which are the current foundations of Andean cities and villages, and in the richly unmistakable faces of their descendants.  These are a people who dared to rebuild mountains soaring above deep, mysterious valleys by constructing terraces reaching toward the heavens.  They are a proud civilization in which today, local people share jokes and understanding in Quechua rather than choosing to speak with each other the Spanish of their long ago conquerors.   As their oral knowledge is increasingly coupled with educated scholars of their own race, a nuanced understanding of the Inca civilization emerges and old myths and misinterpretations provided in the past by the Spaniards are being struck down.  Many campesinos, or highland natives, are learning English as they seek new sources of wealth from visitors (tourists and trekkers) to the sites of their Incan heritage.  

As we reclined on terraces high above Machu Picchu, we wondered what life in South America, and in fact all of the Americas, would have been like if the Spanish Conquistadors had failed in their bid for land and wealth across the ocean.  There was a sophistication of the Incas that was centuries before their time.  Like other cultures, the diseases of the invaders were terrible, leading to dark ages where 60-90% of the population died in one generation and knowledge was irretrievably lost.  Their current issues associated with poverty are significant, but recent elections suggest an opportunity for change for the average citizen in a society long dominated by those with great wealth.  The hands that weave colorful patterns of culture and symbolism into stunning llicllas supporting new generations on the backs of women are capable of weaving a new society with greater equality and opportunity.  The people in the Andes have the feel of a recovering society sitting on the edge of greatness.
Images of Machu Picchu, a Chincherra woman working alpaca wool, and Renato, our guide extraorinaire from Cusco Native.  Posted from Cusco, Peru.