South America 2015, Part 2.

Cusco! It’s 11,000 above sea level! It was bizarre. I felt fine as long as I walked on flat ground. Then I would step up one step and I would be winded and have to lie down because the blackness would fill my eyes. It took me a long long time to acclimate, even a little. I suffer from sleep apnea here on ground level and the apnea was far worse at high elevations. I think my body thought I wasn’t breathing so I woke up violently every 30 minutes or so. I would be sleeping peacefully, then “NKAH!!!” and I would sit up straight in bed. But not everything is ever all bad. It was so dry and crisp at that height I didn’t have any allergies and my skin stayed really clear. Silver linings, y’all.

First, a few unrelated-to-Cusco pictures. This is the Chakana, the Inca Cross. It is going to be referenced over and over. You can see the condor, puma, snake thing I mentioned in the previous blog entry.


Something you need to be prepared for in South America – you can’t flush your toilet paper in the toilet. You put it in the wastepaper basket off to the side. It takes some getting used to.

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Okay, so, Cusco. This was the photo I took from the bus as soon as I landed. I think it’s pretty evocative. Love the hat seller. Hats are big there being that you’re six inches from the sun.


Another fun thing was Drea’s bag of Doritos that she brought from the U.S. It did not care for the altitude, no it did not.


Cusco had my dream setup. Don’t like the church on the left? We conveniently have the church on the right. Right next to the super-old little church there all the way on the far right.

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There was also those Spanish-style wooden balconies all along the main square.


But our guide Henry didn’t want us staying in Cusco our first night. We went down into the Sacred Valley which was only 9,000 feet up so we didn’t all die immediately. It also gave us a chance to appreciate the stark beauty of the Andes.

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The Incas and pre-Incas built storehouses all over the countryside. Their society never experienced a famine because they had mountain facilities filled with corn and potatoes and seeds and cured meat and because it’s so dry and the winds blew through the windows nothing would rot. We drove past tons of these storehouses.


We stopped at a roadside truck stop to take a bathroom break where I saw a kid playing with a kite made of garbage. The mountains are very windy so kite-flying is a natural activity. With the mountains in the background, it was a stunning photo.


Since this is a common truck stop there were people there selling Peruvian goods. That’s where I ended up buying the hat that I insist on wearing much to my mother’s chagrin. Sorry Moomins, it’s an awesome hat and you must accept that. Our guide Henry informed us that the reason the woman is wearing that particular chapeau with the very tall head-space is to mimic the skull elongation we saw in the museum skulls. I thought that was a really cool fact.


After this brief, extremely scenic tinkle-break we went to a women’s collective that uses the old ways of spinning, weaving and dying wool and camelid fiber. Clarification time – wool comes from goaties and sheepies and some really fluffy bunnies. The camelids (the two domestic breeds, the llama and the alpaca, and the two wild breeds, the vicuña and the guanaco) are considered to have hair, not fur or wool. Therefore their stuff is called fiber. People get real cranky-like if you call it wool; I learned that the hard way at the Rhinebeck Sheep and Wool Festival. FIBER. Get it right or get rebuked.

Anyway these women saw an opportunity to keep their original techniques alive while supporting themselves so they have this place where visitors can go and see the whole process. I found it fascinating. First they take the fiber and spin it using a spindle and gravity (a good system, it’s slow but it never breaks and if gravity fails and then we have bigger problems than wool-spinning).


Then they dye the yarn if they want to be exciting jaunty colors. If they don’t dye the camelid fibers they have lots of grays and browns to work with. This is an undyed finished piece.


If they do dye the yarn they use all kinds of natural stuff. Peru has all these herbs and plants and stones and metals which they grind up and mix with each other and then brew and then dunk this yarn in, sometimes for minutes, sometimes for hours, to get the colors they want.

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My favorite color was the red, not because of the red itself but because of how it’s made. It’s made from powdered beetle. Yep. See that cactus? See that white stuff on it? Those are dried beetle corpses. They scrape those off and pulverize it and it makes a terrific red dye called cochineal. It’s really common for it to be in many of our red foods. You’ve eaten this beetle.

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The yarn on the right is plain cochineal dye. The yarn on the left is cochineal dye mixed with a scoop of copper sulfate. Someone figured out that if you do that the yarn turns more orange and less bordeaux. I thought that was cool as hell.


The next steps is to dry the yarn in the sun and then roll it up in a ball. It needs to be in a ball because it needs to be thrown. Two posts are driven into the ground about 12 feet apart and a person sits at each end, wrapping the yarn around the pole and then throwing the yarn ball to the opposite pole. This is done until the pole is laden with yarn to the top.

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Honestly, I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know if they take it off the posts and clip it together somehow or transfer it to a loom with hooks on it, something happens now that this becomes the warp. The weft (the threads going in the opposite direction of the warp, thereby making it fabric) is woven in by hand using wooden sticks with pointy ends to drive the yarn apart and allow the warp threads to pass through. Back and forth and back and forth. That’s it. That’s how you make fabric. There are, of course, a million and one variations on that simple theme. For example this woman was making a belt. She had driven a small peg into the ground and was using her waist as resistance to keep the tension tight. You can clearly see the wooden pointy-ended sticks she uses to separate the warp and allow the weft to pass through.

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The other interesting demonstration we saw was how they cleaned the wool. Sheep wool is notoriously dirty because of the lanolin which is the natural oil the sheep makes that causes dirt to really hang out and settle in. The woman in charge scraped some yucca into a bowl with some water and swirled a piece of wool around in it. Yucca is a natural detergent. It even froths up a little bit. About thirty seconds later she pulled the wool out and it was white! And clean! From some yucca shavings and water! How cool is that? Look, look at that awesomeness.


After we had explored the weaving collective we went to our hotel. Our hotels were all family-owned as well as all the restaurants we went to. The company we used is extremely adamant on using local people for everything, supporting the communities that we visited. I loved it. Yeah, it wasn’t five-star fanciness but check out where we stayed in the Sacred Valley.

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See? Yeah. Fantastic. Who needs five stars when you sit on a lawn chair and look at this? Gorgeous.

Next post: Ollantaytambo, my first climbing experience.

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