It’s taking time, as it always does, to fall in love with this new life I’m leading in Cusco, but it’s taken no time at all to fall in love with the work of Q’ente. The traditional weavers here are ingenious artists, and I consider myself a very lucky girl to have the great joy and honor of working with them. I came to Peru to do just that, not knowing how I would. I wanted to work with weavers, to preserve their tradition and learn their knowledge, and when I found out by word of mouth about Q’ente during my first few weeks in Peru I couldn’t believe that such an opportunity existed! I have been learning about the organization, traveling to communities, and documenting this labor for the past month. Some of the communities are miles from the last road, settled when the conquest of Spain sent them fleeing Incan urban centers to remote mountain islands of escape. This means that I get to do quite a bit of hiking for work, and these treks often involve my Quechua interpreters (various Mosqoy students) telling me stories of the Incas, describing rural life, and teaching me songs in Quechua. The people of the Andes have been incredibly warm and hospitable in every community that I’ve visited, and I am continually grateful to be interacting with them on a level far deeper than as a tourist.
The textile tradition of the Andes is a remarkable thing, and even more so to see it in context. The people who weave these masterworks live lives of the utmost simplicity, in earthen adobe homes, cooking over open fires, eating only from their fields, roaming the steep slopes after herds of llamas, alpacas, and sheep. It bears mentioning that this life takes place at altitudes of 12,000 ft (3,600 m) and up! The sun is brutal in the day and the nights are bitterly cold, yet the people here are resilient and resourceful. They live in intimacy with the elements and the earth, and from this knowledge comes a reverence that finds expression in their remarkable textiles.
What has amazed me most in coming to know these people is the incredible breadth of utility that Peruvians derive from their native flora. They know and assign utility to it seems nearly every plant in the Andes, either as medicine, food, or dyestuff. Sometimes it is the most unsuspecting plant that produces the most vibrant color, as in a modest stem (chapi) that makes shades of orange and pink, a little silver bug (cochineal) that can produce a huge range of pinks, reds, and purples, or a pale rock moss (qaqa sunka, or “rock beard”) that makes sky blue and rich orange. I once took a walk with a nine-year-old resident of Parobamba to recover her sheep, and along the way we nibbled berries from four different plants, gathered a dozen more for various matés that heal a variety of ailments, picked a bouquet of flowers including one that prevents pregnancy, and took a tour of a the innumerable dye plants. On one hillside. From a very young age children here learn the ways of their Inca ancestors, and they come to know intimately their landscape and their cultural heritage. Girls begin spinning wool when they are hardly more than toddlers, and boys as young as 5 and 6 roam miles from home charged with the care of hundreds of alpacas. From a land of pure greens and browns, the people of the Andes decorate themselves with the most vivid and celebratory colors; they have learned to speak the secret language of the rainbows that flicker just beneath the surface of their landscape.