Weathered skin, crow’s feet, sags and wrinkles – I look with alarm at myself in the mirror as years go by. But on someone else, some ancient crone in some faraway place, these same qualities draw me in. Time’s tracks, on someone else, imply wisdom and endurance. They tell stories.
And so it is that I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the past couple of years with my photographer sidekick, Joe Coca, collecting material for a book on the weaving elders of the Peruvian highlands. The idea was for our friend Nilda Callañaupa of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco to go with us into farflung communities of the Cusco region and interview weavers of the older generation in their native Quechua language while Joe did portrait photography. What a trip.
We went to nine villages in all. Santo Tomas was a good eight hours away from Cusco on mostly dirt roads that switched back and up to passes at altitudes of 16,000 feet or more. Accha Alta was on a road under construction (so we had to travel before dawn, before they closed the road for the day); it wound past ancient long-abandoned pre-Inca ruins. At Patabamba, we were led up the mountain from the village to a high lake where llama pasturing and potato harvest were the order of business. Every day was a surprise and an education.
Many of the men and women we met had never had their picture made, maybe never even looked in a mirror. When we showed them their images on the computer screen, some laughed, some were appalled. “I didn’t know I was so old!” was a common reaction. Joe would say, “Asirikuy” or something like that, the only Quechua we knew except for thank you. “Smile?” they would say. “Why should we smile?”
The stories they told ranged from sad to poignant to stalwart to brave. Most of the women in some villages were widowed, some at an early age. Many had raised children on their scant earnings from their weaving. Many had endured the loss of children, the hardships of working under the bygone hacienda system of land ownership, the rigors of living out their lives in small, unheated, unlit mud houses with open cooking fires fueled with llama dung.
But it wasn’t all grim, not by any means. They recalled years of good harvests, festivals with dancing and chicha and plenty of potatoes. They spoke lovingly of their sheep, their alpacas, their crops in good years, their treasured textiles.
Chris Franquemont, who lived for many years in the Cusco region, is working with Nilda on the text. The book will be out in November, in time for Tinkuy de Tejedores in Cusco. You’ll be hearing more about it. Meanwhile, I’ll be off to Guatemala in a few days to track down more of those gorgeous old weavers with stories to tell.