How do you even begin to say goodbye to Peru?

I know, it’s cliche, but it seems like it was just yesterday that I showed up at the Cusco airport. I was tired, unsure of what to expect, and desperately inhaling the thin air into my lungs. So much has happened — so much has changed — since those first days and now the time has come to say goodbye; goodbye to this place, goodbye to its people, and goodbye to my friends and comrades at Threads of Peru.

I’m not sure I have the words to do my experience justice, to really sum up these last five months. When I try to think back on my time, it’s the big things that come back easiest. I remember the first time I saw Cusco’s plazas and churches with belfries towering over the colonial skyline. I can never forget the overwhelming immensity of the glaciers that dominate the Sacred Valley or the dizzying drops off the sides of the roads here.

But when I think harder, more personal memories begin to emerge: Conversations passing from English to Spanish to Quechua and back. Eating humble meals in darkened houses, protected from the bitter cold of night outside. And laying in warm grass watching young shepherds herd llamas across a hill.

It is these memories that are the most closely tied to my time with Threads of Peru. Working with Threads gave me the opportunity to slow down, to grow closer to the people of the Andes and understand their way of life. Without that, I would have been just another guy in a North Face jacket on my way to Machu Picchu.

I was tremendously blessed with the opportunity to work with Threads of Peru through a full season and to see our products go from raw materials to finished goods. My first trip to the communities brought me face to face with the traditional dyeing techniques that give our garments such rich colors. It was here I met our master weaver Daniel Sonqo and our interpreter Urbano Huayna Arredondo.

On that first trip, I respected both men as guides but by the end of my second trip I called them friends. It was this second trip that gave me the deepest immersion in Andean life. This was my first visit to the remote community of Chaullacocha and the first time I was invited to eat and sleep with the people. Even though I was protected by modern clothing and had many comforts the people in the village did not, I began to understand the harsh realities of life at 4,000 meters and develop a respect for the people who lived here. While I collapsed to my knees after carrying a pack for a few hours, these people — many of them dozens of years my senior — kept a steady pace with huge burdens thrown over their shoulders.

I was doubly impressed on my third trip to the communities when I went with our project manager to pick up many of the beautiful products we sell. Not only do our weavers manage to scrape out a living on the barren slopes of the highlands but they also create beautiful textiles using natural materials.

The amazing people I met working with Threads of Peru weren’t limited to the weavers and guides. I also got to know an extraordinary group of people who handle logistics, manage inventories, and even model — all to keep Threads running smoothly.

I’m not good at goodbyes. The last time I left the communities and the last time I walked out of the Threads of Peru office, I wasn’t sure what to say. I’m having the same problem here. As I sign off from this blog a final time words fail me. So I guess I’ll end by saying thank you. Thank you to Threads of Peru for giving me this opportunity to live and work in an amazing place with amazing people. Thank you to my fellow volunteers for working with me. And thank you to you, the reader, for following along on this amazing journey and helping us to further our goal of empowering these truly talented artisans.

Even though I’m saying goodbye, you can look forward to many more great blogs from Threads of Peru. They’re just getting started with their fall product line and there are still many stories to tell about textiles in the Andes.

Here’s to the future. Here’s to our weavers. And here’s to Peru. Salud!

P.S. Are you a creative professional with social media, photography, and writing skills? Want my job? Then get in touch with Threads of Peru and maybe you could be the next one to help bring their stories to life. 

Advertisements

New products coming soon to the store

Great news, we have tons of new products coming to the Threads of Peru store. Last week we had two solid days of photography that wouldn’t have been possible without our great team of volunteers who did everything from modeling to getting the textiles ready for their close-ups. We owe a huge thank you to all of our great team. Thank you so much! If you would like to see how these photographs were made, check out this behind the scenes video.

We will have more details on each of the individual products as they go live on our store. For now you can check out our current stock on Ebay. 

¡Hola desde Cusco!

Looking down on Cusco from one of the many nearby hills.

First, a very big hello to all the fans, customers, supporters, family, and friends who follow this blog and love Threads of Peru. My name is Isaiah Brookshire. For the next few months you will be hearing a lot from me as I explore the area around Cusco and learn more about the incredible weaving culture Threads of Peru supports. All the stories that come out of those adventures will end up right here, on this blog.

I’ll also be manning Threads’ Facebook and Twitter pages where you will find plenty of updates and interesting facts about the organization. Watch for compelling photos, stories of Peruvian culture, and of course a look at the amazing weavers who make our products. But before I start digging into the wonder of the Andes, I want to tell you a little bit about myself.

An introduction

Yep, that's me, eating a plate of what may be "cuy" (aka guinea pig) in Cusco's Plaza de San Francisco.

My wife and I arrived in Cusco just over a week ago and we are still getting adjusted to Peruvian life, not to mention the altitude here at 11,000 feet above sea level. For someone who has called California’s Central Coast home for most of his life, the change was — quite literally — breathtaking.

I am by training a political scientist, by trade a journalist, and by hobby a visual arts geek. On my business cards I call myself a “Globally Focused Multimedia Storyteller,” a title purposely vague enough to allow me the freedom to pursue all my professional interests including photography, writing, video, and design. Even though my methods and media vary, I always strive to tell good and meaningful stories.

I firmly believe that storytelling is one of the most fundamental parts of our humanity. I can think of few ways to better create understanding and bring people together than the mutual sharing of stories.

I’m also a chronic sufferer of that not-unhappy malady commonly know as the “travel bug.” I grew up traveling the Western United States and Canada on weeks-long road trips with my family. When I was 17, I took my first big international trip to Africa where I documented the efforts of a water well drilling team in Zambia. My travels have taken me through most of Western Europe, Costa Rica, Cambodia, Thailand, and now to Peru.

I plan to spend several months here in Cusco working with Threads of Peru and telling the stories behind the cloth. While learning all I can about Peruvian culture, I also plan to spend much of my time studying Spanish and working towards fluency.

I’m sure there’s a lot more to tell but I won’t bore you with the details. If you would like to find out more about me, you can visit my website: www.isaiahbrookshire.com.

Why I’m working with Threads of Peru

I want to close by telling you why I chose to volunteer with Threads of Peru. I made this decision because at a very deep level, I believe in how Threads works. When it comes to addressing issues like poverty, I don’t think throwing money at people is the solution. What Threads is doing, giving people an opportunity to support themselves through weaving and teaching people how better their craft, is the right way to move forward.

Sustainable development — development that engages the people you want to help — is really the only way the cycle of poverty can be broken. From what little I’ve learned of the Andean people, their hardy resilience to a harsh climate, their vibrant and musical culture, and their love of the stunning land they call home, I’m optimistic that the economic tools we share with them won’t go to waste and as their beautiful products leave the high mountains of Peru and travel to you, I’m confident we will all benefit.

A (slightly belated!) 2012 New Years Message

Thoughts at the beginning of 2012 “How did I end up writing the New Year message?” I wonder, as I ponder whether a New Year’s message is about the past or the future… and whether its even a New Years message, when you are writing it more than 30 days into the New Year.

Regardless, I forge on deciding a New Years Message can be about both the past and the future.

2011 was a big year for us, as we employed a fantastic Cusco based Project Manager, Amanda Zenick, and were blessed with the talents of two great volunteers, Fani Karaivanova, Textile Project Assistant & Community Liaison and Frankie Ginnett Assistant Volunteer Coordinator & Project Assistant who have all contributed to advancing the project considerably.

Here you can see Amanda Zenick and Fani Karaivanova working hard to measure everything at the entrega

The idea of having more people “hands on deck” is to relieve the pressure and hours worked on the founders, who are still completely voluntary. What actually happened is that the Founders moved onto new projects, including spreading the marketing of the project further!

This year our Ebay store was absolutely beautiful, thanks to the design talents of Angie Hodder and Adam Foster Collins, and of a number of photographers in Cusco, including volunteer Lynn Dao. In 2012 we will be expanding into an Ethical Community store and hope in the not too distant future to have our own store on our website!

We also should make special note of our patient Master weaver, Daniel Sonqo who put in a sensational year’s work, enduring our requests for different styles and dimensions, and then transforming these requirements into beautiful weavings with the women of our different weaving groups.

Here you can see Daniel giving a talk to the women in Chaullacocha at the pedido, he is asking them what they would like to weave. Due to the heavy rain this talk takes place inside the greenhouse!

As I look back over the year, there are many small and large successes, but in short – we have achieved a lot and have a lot of people to thank, not the least everyone who “put their money where their mouth is” and supported us by buying a fair trade weaving.

Each year the Project takes a weather directed hiatus for several months (January and February) as it’s difficult, if not impossible, to access the communities where we work. So currently we are busy planning, budgeting and dreaming about what we can create for the project in 2012. In general terms – we would like our women to continue improving their weavings, and for us to sell more of their weavings, which will in turn bring a better quality of life to their remote communities.

An example of one of the beautiful ponchos made this year by the women we work with.

Happy New Year everyone!

Ariana Svenson, Co- Founder

Interview with Adam Foster Collins – a founder of Threads of Peru

1) What has been your most culture shocking moment whilst in the communities?

The most culture-shocking moment for me was when we were received in Rumira Sondormayo in the cold rain with a welcome dinner which consisted of a plastic laundry basket filled with about 20 types of potato; boiled and whole, accompanied with one hard-boiled egg; warm and still in the shell. As a special treat, we were also offered a dish of salt to add to the food. So there we all were, cold and wet. Eleven of us sat huddled in the darkened interior of a mud brick hut munching on the potatoes and eggs. And honestly, I have to admit, it was one of the greatest tasting and most memorable meals of my life.

A picture of Adam at Machu Picchu


2) What inspires you to work for Threads of Peru?

As a designer, I’m inspired by the idea that design thinking can be applied to any set of problems to the benefit of the situation – not only that, it MUST be applied. Even if the people involved are not “designers” as a profession. Design is the key to human beings figuring out how to move from a situation that they’re not satisfied with, to one that does satisfy them. Threads of Peru requires that we think about everything from human dynamics, to business management, to marketing and graphic design. The range of issues and the challenges they present – all aimed at the preservation and promotion of indigenous culture in Peru – is what I find so interesting.

3) What’s your favourite Peruvian food?

I really enjoy the fresh salsa that often accompanies meals in Peru. I also really love coca tea with mint.

4) And your least favourite Peruvian food (and why?)


Not so much a food, but a drink – coffee. It’s very difficult to find coffee prepared the way I am accustomed to (and addicted to) at home.

5) In your opinion where is the best spot in Cusco for visiting?


The restaurants and Churches surrounding the Plaza de Armas (Central Square) in Cusco are nice to visit, and I love the square at night; the way the city lights of the residential area are visible on the mountainsides above – like stars. Also the San Blas area, which is within walking distance of the Plaza, is full of interesting shops and local art and crafts.

The Plaza at night, lit up with the Christmas decorations!

6) Describe the happiest/most touching moment you have experienced in the communities?

For me, it was the first time we went to the communities, which the culmination of a design class project in Canada. Eleven students made the journey, and to finally find ourselves there with the weavers in the mountains for the first time was an experience I’ll never forget. It was snowing heavily for a while, and it was beautiful.

7) Your strangest/funniest moment from living in Peru?


Trying really hard to communicate in Spanish to an elderly woman at the market about spices I was looking for, and having her suddenly get exasperated with me and huff, “No Ingles! No entiendo!” (Until then, I thought I was doing pretty well…)

8) Biggest achievement so far?


For me, it has been to see the whole structure set up; from weaving workshops and buying in the communities, to the online store and the vast internet information site,  shipping and positive customer feedback from all over the world. It has required an incredible amount of work and creative energy to set up all of this infrastructure, and to see the structure finally functioning end-to-end is a great achievement for so few people to have built.

9) Finally, whats the main thing you wish to achieve in the next five years?

To be a fully self-sustaining organisation. To see the women’s sewing skills improve so that we can introduce more contemporary product design to our inventory, which will require more complex sewing.

Adam is a Graphic and Communication Designer, living and working in Halifax, Canada. Besides working as a professional Designer, he has been a teacher of Design for almost ten years. His interest in bringing Design thinking to bear on socioeconomic issues led to the creation of Project Peru, and to the collaborative development of Threads of Peru.

10 Questions for Ariana S, one of the founders of Threads of Peru, on Cuzco, learning Spanish and working in the communities!

1)      What has been your most culture shocking moment whilst in the communities?

I am used to the communities now, I don’t feel culture shocked too often. I feel instead that I am returning somewhere familiar.  However, I remember one of my first visits sitting in one of the stone houses, and the smoke filling up the room.  It was freezing cold and I was hungry, tired and alone.  The smoke was choking me so badly that I had to run outside and took deep breaths until the cold forced me back into the smoke.  The other shocking moment that comes to mind was doing a nits (head lice) check and pulling off the chullo (beanie) of a small girl and her head literally seething with lice.

Maria Quispe carries Molly on her back. (July 2010)

2) What inspires you to work for Threads of Peru?

I started this project when I was about to finish my Masters of Arts degree in Development studies, with a specalisation in Third World nations.  At first, I was inspired by putting my studies into practice, and the women and their remote circumstances.  The women, their environment and their weavings are very inspiring.

Now, I have not progressed any further with the Masters and don’t seem likely to in the next few years…because there is just simply too much to do with Threads of Peru! So now I am inspired by what we have achieved so far, and the things that we might be able to achieve in the future!

3) Favourite Peruvian food?

Anticuchos! I was non-flesh eating vegetarian for 8 years and lived happily for a year in Cusco before the mouth watering aromas of anticuchos on street corners at night finally got the better of me!  (I had sincerely not ever wanted to eat meat for such a long time, until the smell of anticuchos lured me!)   My second favourite is ceviche… also a strange choice for an ex vego.  Oh, and Chicharon!  (Deep fried pork)

The women take care of Molly in Rumira Sondormayo

It’s still one of my favourite things about Cusco, huddling with others around an anticucho seller and her hot coals, on a crisp winter night!

4) Least favourite Peruvian food (and why?)

Chuño.   I think it must be an acquired taste.

5) Best spot in Cuzco for visiting?

San Pedro market.  While the main market is OK, you need to get off into the back streets to feel the true market vibe.  San Pedro used to be crazy, with stall holders illegally squatted on the sidewalks, rubbish, litter and pick pockets.  I cried when the Municipality rounded them up and pushed all those vendors without permits onto cattle trucks.

6) Happiest/most touching moment in the communities?

Watching the women’s delight in playing with my baby.   I had never realized that while we, as foreigners are curious and interested in them, they are also fascinated by us.  As soon as we arrive in the communities the women take Molly from me, and play with her, inspect her, look at her skin and hands, discuss her clothe s and do all the things that I think that they would like to do with us!  (as adults).

7) Strangest/funniest moment from living in Peru?

I guess the longer I stay in Cusco the more it feels part of me…   it’s certainly a second home.  So as I go about my day to day business, I forget that to the Cusqueños I am just another gringa face, one of the thousands that fly in and fly out of Cusco every day.

I was recently in the market with my 8 year old god-daughter, who I have known since she was a babe in arms and shared much of her childhood.   We were shopping, asking prices, and trying to get an idea of some things that we wanted to buy.  We got a few extremely high “gringo” prices in a row and she turned to me solemnly and said, “Aunty, I think it’s time that I started to ask for the prices.”  Perhaps it was a little girl growing up, but it was also her recognizing the gringa in me.

Ariana visiting the communities & feeding Molly while she was a tiny baby.

8) Most embarrassing faux-pas when communicating in Spanish?

I used to teach English in exchange for Spanish lessons, at a local English institute.  I asked my class if they were excited about the class we were going to have.  They all looked at me blankly, so I asked them at the top of my voice: “Estan excitados?”  (Excitement in Spanish has a very strong sexual connotation…) I was literally asking them if they were turned on!

There are also lots of easy to make mistakes in Quechua, my most common being asking the taxi drivers to take me to Koo-che- punku (door of the pig) instead of the correct pronunciation, Koo-i-che- punku (door of the rainbow). That often makes them laugh.

9) Biggest achievement so far?

Everything we have done in Threads of Peru is a big achievement.  Taking indigenous women and getting them to weave items to specification has been very challenging… but then the marketing and sales aspects of the project have been big too. It’s an achievement not only because of how much has been done, but also because we’ve done it with a skeleton budget.   Every step of the way has been a massive learning curve.

Ariana and Molly in Palqaq

10) Main thing you wish to achieve in the next five years?

I’d like to see the project fully sustainable.

The first phase of the sustainability would be to have the project not rely on volunteer hours. The founders currently put in excess of 2000 volunteer hours a year, combined.  That’s a crazy amount of work!

The second phase would be to have the women taking control of the orders, quality control and delivery so that we can focus on the sales.   (and indeed have some of the women involved in sales and marketing as well.)

To watch a short interview with Ariana created by the LATA foundation please click here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbcXLVlEgpE

Insiders first look at a Threads of Peru Pedido

I had been in Peru two weeks when I had the opportunity to visit the communities that I will be working with over the next few months, the highland communities of Chaullacocha and Rumira Sondormayo. The first hurdle was pronouncing the names correctly!

I am going to make the trip, which will last three days with one night spent in each community, with Fani our Textiles Project Manager, her husband Saul and Daniel Sonqo our Masterweaver. Daniel speaks fluent Quechua so he is also our interpreter for the trip.

We set off around 6am for the three hour car journey to Chaullacocha, my fitness level is not exactly up to hiking standards (especially with three experienced hikers to keep up with) so I am hugely relieved when we stop off in Rumira Sondormayo and are told that a bridge has been built connecting Chaullacocha to the road so we can drive all the way there, avoiding a three hour uphill hike.

The boys help us take in the food supplies.

We are in Rumira to drop off the food supplements for the school which are bought on behalf of another NGO, the women run up to greet us all smiling and eager to shake hands. They are dressed in beautiful bright colours, all wearing a black skirt with a pattern around the bottom, several layers of jumpers, a intricately woven wrap around their shoulders and a red hat with a white band circling their faces to hold it in place. Their legs are bare and they wear sandals, I can’t imagine how they can stand the cold as I am wearing two layers of thermals and still shivering!

We drive on to Chaullacocha, the road is made of pressed earth and there is no barrier against the steep drop, as it begins to rain our car drives slower and slower. When we reach Chaullacocha my first impression is that the people here make a stark contrast to their environment. The hills are a dull green with sparse vegetation, apart from that there are several small grey houses and a few earth patches, however when the boys run out from the school to greet us they are all spots of vivid colour, dressed in bright orange ponchos and straw hats with red tassels, the girls are miniature versions of their mothers with their bright skirts and jumpers.

After spending around an hour at the school , and eating lunch (my first taste of llama!) we make our way to the first pedido, it has begun to hail so we all gather in the greenhouse, the women and children climbing up the hills nimbly whilst I lumber along afterwards, still unacclimatised to the altitude and terrain.

The women sit in the greenhouse with their babies slung over their backs.

The greenhouse is crowded with all the craftswomen, all their children, and all of us. The children are some of the happiest I have met in a long time, happy playing with each other or simply sitting next to their mothers. When I think of some of the children in England, shouting and screaming at their mothers in the toy shop until they get the new expensive toy…

Daniel and Fani explain what we would like to order and the women all choose what they would like to make, afterwards we head outside and the women work in pairs using wooden poles to measure the right length of thread for the items they will be making. Although it’s my first time seeing this process I can tell that the women are confident in what they are doing and are comfortably chatting amongst themselves as they work.

By six p.m. it has gotten very dark, one of the darkest darks I have ever experienced as there

Whilst the women are listening to Daniel, the Masterweaver, their children play in the greenhouse

are no street lamps and no kind of electricity around. We head to one of the women’s houses where we are going to spend the night. Inside her house the women and her daughter both wear head lamps to see by, we borrow these to prepare our dinner over the fire. This house does not yet have a chimney so although its freezing outside we have to leave the door open to allow the smoke to leave. Once again I feel very humbled when I think of my own home with central heating, lights and hot water and how easy my life in England is when compared to this. Yet it needs to be said that although it would be a Western reaction to feel pity for the people living in these communities, everyone I have met has been so content and genuinely happy with their lives and work, a lot happier then many people with a lot more money and privileges.

The next day, after a very deep and very cold sleep we have the second weaving session outside the school and by midday we say goodbye to the village. We will be back in three weeks for the entrega to pick up the orders.

 

We begin our hike back to Rumira and as suspected I am the weak link in the hiking chain, however with help from Daniel and Fani I manage to trudge to Rumira. The scenery is absolutely stunning and I fall further behind as I am constantly taking photos, however it begins to hail again so we all put our heads down and cover up.

Rumira Sondormayo, I am relieved to learn, has electricity. Once again one of the women has offered to prepare us dinner, there is always a very communal feeling around meal times, everyone cooks for each other and shares what food they have. I spot some guinea pigs under the bed and realise that they are destined to be eaten in the future as the Peruvian delicacy ‘cuy’. Apart from this the main staple of every meal has been potatoes as they are one of the few things that grow well at this altitude. I quickly learned that if I brought out any food from my backpack it was expected that it would be shared amongst everyone!

The next day we hold the final pedido with all the women from the village, again I see that communal ethic as the women work together to sweep up the clearing we are going to use and then carry out the dirt in pairs using pink wrappers.

The weaving cooperative of Rumira gathers in the clearing.

The thread measurement is able to get well underway this time as the weather is dry and sunny, the women are all happily talking in Quechua as they work, sometimes a husband will come and sit next to his wife. I have read a lot about macho attitudes prevailing in Peru, especially in the communities but if anything the husbands here seem to be in awe of their wives and watch quietly as they work.

 

 

The children in Rumira Sondormayo clamber all over the village

After an hour or so I take a walk around the village and meet some more of the children, they have free run of the village whilst their parents are working and are making the most of it, running up and down the hillside, shouting to each other and all playing games together, the elder children taking care of the younger. They are obviously having such a good time I wish I was a kid again so I could join in.

When it is time to leave I feel relief that I will be able to shower again but also a kind of envy. These people all belong to their community and all belong to each other, they all know each other by name and all look after each other. That kind of altruistic community environment is practically extinct in my culture and I can now understand why it’s so important to help maintain it.

by Frankie