Sunday, April 27, 2008

On the Artisan Trail

When you spend your whole life being a traveling artisan like Ata, you get to know the people and places where you vend pretty well. There are good times to be in various cities, depending on the time of year. For instance, Mancora slows down in March when the academic year starts in South America and vacationers go home. Cuzco, the jumping off point for Machu Picchu, heats up in April/May when the rainy season ends and more tourists come.

After Mancora we headed through Lima and to Huacachina. Huacachina is a tiny desert oasis in the middle of massive sand dunes. It's surreal, and also a popular tourist spot. Every city we go to, Ata knows people- his mobile community. Because he's been going to these places so long, he gets discounts on lodging and food. In Huacachina there's a place he can camp for free, and when foreigners paid 8 sols for a meal, we paid 4.

He also knows his clientele, and is amazing at telling where people are from. He'll nod toward someone strolling in the distance, "Canadian" or "Israeli" or "French". How do you know?! He knows greetings and funny phrases in Hebrew, French, Dutch, English, Japanese, Italian, and Quechua.

It was here in Huacachina that I met volunteers who are helping to reconstruct damaged buildings from last August's earthquake. They are international volunteers, based in Pisco with Burners Without Borders, an organization formed by American Burning Man folks. Pisco was hit the worst, but even in neighboring cities, I was shocked by how in ruins the cities still were. You'd think the earthquake happened last week. International reports put the quake around an 8.4, but official reports from the government said it was a 7.9. Oddly enough, it's only considered a national emergency in Peru with the govt required to help the people when it's an 8 or more.

It was also here that I celebrated Earth Day, or Dia de La Pachamama. Here they had a big garbage clean-up, something desperately needed in most Latin American cities. You fill up a garbage bag of trash and bring it to a collection site, and they give you one ticket per bag. Then after 6pm, local participating businesses give a free prize for your ticket. There was personal pizza at a pizzeria, free drinks at bars, chocolate candies, bottled water, soda, real coffee. Pretty good incentives for one bag of trash.

After Huacachina we continued south, to Nasca, then to Arequipa, where I got a great haircut for 2.5 sols, less than a dollar. From Puno we crossed to Copacabana, Bolivia together. It is a sweet little city on the shores of Lake Titicaca. There were a lot of Argentinian artisans, so many it was almost hard to find a place to put the parche. There are a lot of unspoken rules about where it's okay to vend- not in front of a business, a doorway, or in a spot where someone more established and longer-residing always sets up. From here you can catch a boat to the Isla del Sol, the birthplace of the Incan sun god. There are a lot of sacred ruins, mostly pre-Inca, and a beautiful trail to walk across the island.

Little did we know we had arrived just in time for a huge festival weekend, the Festival Del Señor de La Cruz. Unfortunately it meant that prices skyrocket- on Thursday we paid 15 Bolivianos each for our hotel, and Friday night it was 40. On Friday morning a parade started with several marching bands, folk dancers, and traditional costumes... and didn't stop until Sunday afternoon. Sometimes the performances were precise and tight, or sometimes in the middle of the parade, an overheated dancer would take off his headdress and stand and drink a beer. By the evening, most people were drunk as skunks, and it's a religious festival! The indigenous women stumbled around the street in bright colorful dresses with gold embroidery, some in plastic but fancy almost space-age looking outfits. Ata and I would weave past them to get to the market, for our evening cup of coca tea or api, a sweet hot drink made from corn, lime, and cinnamon.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Seemingly Harmless Hammock

I was playing with a cute little 5 year old girl, and swinging in a hammock. These should be particularly safe activities. But the hammock threads were grinding against a fence, and suddenly broke, sending me to the ground. I cut my hand and assumed it was on a rock. Luckily my boyfriend Atahualpa was right there, and we started walking across the street to the pharmacy, even though I felt nauseous from the injury. It was a nasty gash in the upper corner of my palm, but all I could think of was getting it clean. I made it to the pharmacy and the next thing I knew I was having an out of body experience. Do you remember the photo montage in the last 10 minutes of Requiem for a Dream? It was like that, an incomprehensible compilation of images and feelings that I was dead or on another planet. I had fainted in Ata arms, and woke up smelling rubbing alcohol and feeling much better. After it was clean, we went back to the hammock and looked underneath. There was the huge piece of glass that I had fallen on, a broken beer bottle. People who break bottles when they are drunk piss me off. Seriously, someone should do a public ad campaign with pictures of all the injuries people incur from broken bottles.

Later we went to a medical center to see if I needed stitches. Beforehand, I had to look up new vocab in my dictionary: stitches, antibiotics, gauze, bandage. I ended up getting 7 stitches, or puntos. And turns out that here in Peru, you can bargain not only in the market, but over medical bills too! It was going to cost me 40 sols, but Ata talked to the doctor and got it lowered to 30. So that was right around 10 dollars to have my hand cleaned, stitched, bandaged, and then later have a mid week check-in, and 7 days later get the stitches removed. Absolutely no paperwork either, my favorite part.

The last week has been a pretty low point of my trip though. The cut is deep, and I couldn't do ANTHING for 3 or 4 days. "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got til it's gone..." Man, hands are useful and I am going to be so much more thankful for mine from now on. Even raising my arm over my head to get dressed would send shooting pains. Good thing Ata was there. He cut up my food, helped me get dressed, put sunscreen on my left arm, and one day washed all my laundry by hand. It was even worse, since I was just getting into making jewelry. Now I can't work at all. And the only thing worse than not being able to work is not being able to play. With the healing and the antibiotics, I couldn't drink. Plus no running, swimming, yoga, writing, nothing. What kind of vacation is this? I tried to still be an artisan student by taking notes on names of stones and seeds with my left hand. But I also kind of moped around and took a lot of naps.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Uh Oh... It was bound to happen...

...I've fallen in love with a Peruvian artisan boy and we are selling jewelry on the street and I am never coming home.

Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. I am not quite in love, but I like him a lot. And I will still probably come home as scheduled, by this summer. But for now, I have found a great boyfriend, travel buddy, business partner, teacher, and friend. His Quechua name is Atahualpa, after an Incan prince. And how did we meet? Same way I meet all my latino loves: talking about indigenous cultures of course! I was in Mancora in northern Peru over a month ago, and was looking at his jewelry. He was telling me about a shell that was used by the Inca as a form of currency. He said, "It's the same as the way the Maya used-" and I finished the sentence, "cacao beans." The rest is history. We spent a day and a half together, but I was with Serena amd Erin and had to keep moving. We planned to meet up 3 weeks later in Lima to see what happened.

So we met up a couple weeks ago, literally an earth-moving experience. That first night there were 2 earthquakes in Lima, 4.7 and 5.3.

Since then we've settled into a pleasant rhythm in Mancora, the small touristy beach town where we met. On a typical day, I go running on the beach first thing, when it's still pretty cool in the 70's. Then Ata and I go to the market for breakfast, always ceviche and fresh fruit smoothies. I love eating fish in the morning. We buy fresh bread and avocados for later. Then we head to the vendor's row and set up the booth or stall of jewelry, called el parche, or "patch". All the artisans greet each other with "hola, wayky" or "brother" in Quechua. We chat with passersby and he slowly teaches me things about artisanal jewelry making, such as what the stones are or how to make metal chains or clasps by hand, or how to do a wire wrap around a stone. It is really empowering to learn how to make these things, sort of a dream come true. For lunch we always eat at a little stand with an old man Ata calls el papacho, or big father. He gets up at 5 to start cooking and bring all the food in on his cart. It's usually rice, seasoned noodles, a little potato, a slice of sweet potato (sounding like a low carb nightmare so far), chilean beans, pickled onion, and either fritata, chicken, or fried fish for the entree. All this plus a cebada, or homemade barley drink, for 3 sols, or right around a dollar. By then I need a little nap in the hammock, which we hang nearby. Or we ask an artisan friend to watch the parche and we go swimming in the ocean. Did I mention it's like 90 degrees? Top priority is staying in the shade and drinking cold things. By afternoon some one is selling bolas, or homemade fruit popsicles in a little baggie, for 20 centimos, or about 8 cents. I always get coconut. Later I try to finish whatever project I started earlier, maybe a necklace or bracelet. We stay at the parche for as long as there is light or people, which ever comes last.

In the evenings we'll get dinner, use the internet, go for a walk, and hang out with our Argentinian neighbor friends. They are a couple renting the room next to ours. I still don't even know their names, Ata just calls them the Che's since they're from Argentina. I have a really hard time understanding their accent. In the beginning they would talk about going to the plasha, and I was wondering for DAYS why they spent so much time in the plaza. I finally realized they were saying playa, or beach. Despite our communication breakdown, the did teach me how to pour a proper cup of mate. I thought I already knew how, but there is even more to it than I was aware of.

The only break from this lovely routine is when someone convinces Ata to go to the chicha. Chicha is a prehispanic corn drink, or Incan beer. It is only homemade, not sold commercially. The houses that sell it will hang a white flag outside their door. It only ferments for about 3 days, has a really low alcohol content, and tastes like milky kombucha. But it's cheap and an important social ritual. You go in and buy it by the bucket, and they also give you a pitcher for pouring and one bowl to drink out of. One person drinks at a time and then passes the bowl to the next person. When you patron a local place, it is customary for them to give you free food with your purchase, usually a pretty substantial plate of ceviche. Or you can bring your own food- we brough fish, limes, yucca, and sweet potato- and the señora cooks it up for free.