Saturday, November 23, 2013

Golden Yarn

THE NEXT MORNING I BOARD a bus for an hour-long northwest to Chinchero, an Inca settlement famous for its textiles, where I am to ask for Nilda Callanaupa Alvarez, the Textile Center’s founder. Today she is at the Center’s Chinchero weaving cooperative (the center now works in nine communities. She will know where I can find vicuna weavings. The bus winds past fields where farmers still slice the earth with wooden plows pulled by oxen. It’s potato planting season, and the fields are brown with furrows. A woman seated across from me clutches a bag of small, lilac-colored potatoes that are almost as wrinkled as her hands. I ask her what kind they are. I know that potatoes were first cultivated in the Andes some 8,000 years ago-and that the region grows a mind-numbing 5,000 varieties. But I have almost no ability to distinguish between them.

“Chunos,” she says smiling, revealing two gold-capped upper teeth. “For soup.” Chunos are potatoes that have been left outside to freeze repeatedly, then are dried under the sun. freeze-drying, in fact, was likely invented in the Andes. The woman hands me a three-inch-long chuno. It’s as light a piece of Styrofoam.

A half hour later we pull into Chinchero, Old Inca walls punctuated with trapezoidal alcoves line the colonial town center, which is framed by whitewashed building and tiled roofs. I make my through a portal to the open-air market, where women in colorful skirts, shawls, and broad-rimmed hats have set out their weavings and wares. They sit patiently beside their offerings, ready to bargain. Visitors mill about, some haggling, others walking off with brightly embroidered bags or square weaving called llicllas in Quechua.

A few blocks away, down a narrow road, I spot a sign by a double door announcing the cooperative. Inside I find Callanaupa giving a weaving demonstration to a large group of foreign weavers. In the distance, the Urubamba mountain range-some of its jagged peaks capped by ice-rises from the Sacred Valley of the Inca, which is watered by a river the Inca considered holy.

Twilight brings crowds to the Plaza de Armas-and its neoclassical cathedral-in Arequipa, a center for Andean textiles.

“You can create a dye in any quantity you like,” Callanaupa, who is Quechua and was born in Chinchero, is telling her audience in Spanish-accented English. “But be certain to use the same proportions. Once the dye is heated, it’s ready.”

I watch her place bundles of spun white alpaca wool into a metal vat now bubbling with hot black dye made from a fungus. The guest weavers take notes or use their video recorders to film the scene. As Callanaupa stirs the vat, she tells the story of how she rescued the knowledge of this black dye from a remote community she visited in the Andes

“There was only one elderly man who remembered how this dye was made,” she narrates, churning the black brew with a long wooden stake. “He took me into the jungle and showed me a plant. I noticed it had a black fungus growing on it. They had not used that fungus for dye in years.”

A spry Canadian attendee named Judith Crosbie notices that I’m thinking notes and nudges me. In a low voice she says, “Nilda really has rescued ancient Andes weaving techniques. She saved these old methods. Every weaving on sale here is handmade from natural materials. And designed with traditional patterns.”

Out in the courtyard, the women from the cooperative begin serving lunch. One, wearing a red-and-black outfit typical of Chinchero, hands me a plate of reasted guinea pig with a side of small, freeze-dried chuno potatoes; guinea pigs and chuno are to Andean Peru what cheeseburgers and fries are to the United States.

“Would you like a mate de coca?” she asks. I nod, and she returns with a steaming cup and a big smile. The feeling here is of a large family reunion, the colorbully attired local women milling around drably dressed gringos like me.

The guinea pig is tasty but full of small bones. As I pick through them, Tim Wells, a lean American artist from California, takes a seat next to me.

“I began coming here in the late 1990s,” he shares. “Back then, younger weavers were producing synthetic weavings because the tourist mostly couldn’t tell the difference. Those weavers were able to turn out in a few days something a traditional weaver might spend a month on. Then Nilda showed up.” 

Working carefully on his guinea pig, he fill me in on Callanaupa.

“When Nilda was younger she met an American anthropologist and his wife who were living here, and agreed to teach them how to weave. She would later be the first woman from Chinchero to finish university. I met her at a workshop she was attending in San Fransico.”

He puts his fork down

“She ‘s a powerhouse. She has founded cooperatives in a number of communities and they have more business than they know what to do with.”

Eager to see more, I wander through the cooperative’s store, marveling at the textile patterns and rich, natural dyes, the interlaced warps and woofs of painstakingly woven threads. I purchase a large piece that was made in the community of Accha Alta. It’s a tightly woven lliclla of matching geometrical patterns in reds, pinks, burnt ambers, and leaf-colored greens. I know just where in my house I’ll display it. But as fine as the weaving is, I still covet the sort of weaving that was made for Inca emperors. A weaving made with vicuna wool.

I locate Callanaupa and blurt out my question.

“What about vicuna wool-are any of your weavers using it?”

“I wish we did, but it’s too expensive,” she says. “you will have to go where the vicunas are. You will have to join a chaccu.” Travel to Peru-and meet weaver and NG grantee Nilda CAllanaupa-with National Geographic Expeditons.

THAT IS HOW, A WEEK LATER, I find myself rounding up vicunas in the Andes near the remote southern Peru village of Picotani. Within an hour of plugging the wall in our human circle, I watch as the vicunas press together like cattle and turn surprisingly calm. They are herded easily into corrals arranged farther down the valley.

The following morning I rise early to see the shearing of the vicunas for their soft wool. Men in woven ponchos and sandals soled with tire rubber capture the vicunas one by one and lead then into an enclosure; most of the men sport a bulge of coca leaf in their cheeks, a sort of mild pick-me-up. I approach Juan Jose Vega Quispe, th e gregarious regional director of agriculture, who is shaking hands with everyone. As the men trim the two-inch-thick fleece from each of the animals with electric shears, pulling the wool away as if stripping insulation from a wall, Vega shares some vicuna facts.

“It is estimated that around two million vicunas lived in the Andes at the time of the Inca Empire; they were protected. Then the Spaniards arrived and started to hunt them down for their meat.”

Vega steps forward suddenly to help two men bring a vicuna to the ground and hold it still. Over his shoulder he continues, “By the 1960s, perhaps 6,000 vicunas were left in these high mountains.”

Since that time, strict laws against hunting, the creation of a large reserve, and a ban on exporting vicuna wool have allowed vicunas to stage a dramatic comeback.

“By 1981, Peru had 75,000 vicunas," Vega says. “Today, we have nearly 190,000. It’s a miracle,” he exclaims, helping lift the newly shorn vicuna back to its feet.

The vicunas rebounded so much, Vega tell me, that in 2003 Peru declared a national chaccu week to be held every june. As a result, nearly 200 chaccus are carried out each year.

Vega and I walk around the side of the shearing house as men working in pairs bring out shorn vicunas that look almost naked without their fleece. The animals are let go one by one and bound directly for the brown hills, free again.

Back inside the enclosure I watch as a vicuna fleece is rolled up, placed in a plastic bag, labeled, and carefully weighed. I pick up another bag. It feels as light as gossamer; an entire vicuna fleece will weigh barely seven ounces.

“What do they do with it now?” I ask.

“These people are herders, not weavers,” Vega remind me. “The community sells the fleece, but the price is so high that local weavers can’t afford it.” Only a few places, Vega adds, have mastered the process of  weaving vicuna wool on machines.

“If you want to find clothes made with vicuna wool, you should visit Arequipa. That’s where a lot of it ends up.”

A few days later, following his advice, I arrive in Arequipa, a colonial city in Peru’s southern Andes. Ringed by active volcanoes, Arequipa is constructed almost entirely of white volcanic stone.

Near the main square, Plaza de Armas, I spot Kuna, an upscale store that sells high quality alpaca clothing and, I’ve been told, clothing crafted with vicuna wool. Amid stacks of shawls and sweaters woven with alpaca wool I discover an alcove displaying what I’ve traveled thousands of miles to see: garments made with premium cinnamon colored vicuna wool.

I eye vicuna-wool capes that are going for nearly US$7,000, shawls going for US$1,000, and scarves going for US$600. These prices are a third of what I would pay outside Peru.

I finger one garment; it feels like feather down. Irresistible. I choose a scar displayed in a wooden box. With it comes a card that confirms the wool’s provenance and charts the recent resurgence of the vicuna.

That might, I dine in a rustic restaurant called Sonccollay-a Cuechua word loosely meaning “from the heart”-which looks out on Arequipa’s 17th-century white stone cathedral and the landscaped Plaza de Armas. The restaurant bills itself as serving Inca and pre-Inca dishes. Its owner and chef, Walter Bustamante Cano, reminds me of the Spanish actor Javier Bardem.

“Everything we serve here is prepared the Inca way,” says Bustamante, who clearly enjoys mingling with his customers. “We cook meat on lava stones using local herbs and spices.” When I ask him how he learned these Inca cooking traditions, he fixes his dark-eyed gaze on me. “By studying Inca methods that are described in the countryside.”

I have my doubts about what meat cooked on lava stones will taste like, but on digging into an entrada of native pepper stuffed with corn compote, followed by a slab of alpaca meat served up with a side of roasted potatoes and squash, I realize that the Inca-at least the elite class-may have eaten quite well. The food is absolutely delicious.

Gazing out over the Plaza de Armas from my table, I open the wooden box that contains my new vicuna scarf- a scarf that any Inca emperor surely would have admired. And I cannot help but be thankful that the transformation of vicuna wool into textiles, along with other vanishing Andean traditions, has been so patiently rescued from the past. The world, I have no doubt, is richer for them.

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