samedi 24 décembre 2011

A year of wonders

It’s been a while, I realise, since I said goodbye to a year with such fond regret as I will to 2011 in a week’s time. It has truly been a year of wonders.

A year of new experiences: bears and tapestry and Peru and Spanish and Somalia and walking on fire (no, seriously!). And of happy returns to known pleasures: family and friendship and falling in love.

A year of consistently sleeping my fill for the first time in a decade, and during my waking hours of satisfying my every desire of food, drink, company, place and entertainment until I can want for nothing. Of feeling in tune with my body for the first time I can honestly remember, and my body responding by eating up the Inca Trail like it hadn’t been sitting in front of a computer since its teens. (Admittedly, since Cusco there’s been a lot more sitting around, drinking and eating and not getting regular exercise… But what are new years for if not good resolutions?!)

It’s been a year of revelling in places: returning to the remembered beauties of south-west France, swooning before the high wild glories of the Andes, dipping into the pleasing otherness of Quebec, drinking in the sweet salt winds of the Cornwall of my childhood and the budding woods and rolling meadows of a middle English spring. And of delighting in people: renewing old friendships, taking time with those who matter most but who wouldn’t normally know it from my irregular and fleeting contact, and meeting new friends, mentors and inspirations – relearning the truth that, wherever you go, you find people to love.

In the last month of the dying year, my family lost a dear friend for whom a progressive disease had inexorably been closing off access to all the pleasures I’ve been delighting in in 2011. There’s a Steve-shaped hole in the world for his passing. But everything around that hole is the dearer for his having loved and enjoyed it to the last drop.

My cup flows over. All I can do is keep my hand steady so as not to spill any of it in the passage to the new year. Happy 2012!

lundi 31 octobre 2011

On luggage

I should first of all say in my defence that it was the packing equivalent of Mission Impossible. I’d got pretty good at packing over the past four years in particular: micro-packing for baggage limits on humanitarian flights, speed packing when the flight was brought forward without notice, packing in the dark when there was a power cut. I’d reached the stage where I could pack for up to four weeks of work and play almost blindfold and in less than 13kg, leaving space in my luggage limit for the computer and whatever parcels and envelopes the local admin and logs teams would load me up with for colleagues on the other side of the country. In the Tetris of packing, I was at level five, easy.

But this was packing for five months, and for an itinerary encompassing an Italian summer and autumn in Canada; I was going to need clothes, shoes and kit suitable for cocktails in Manhattan and hiking in Peru. I was also going to have to adapt to the widely varying luggage limits of a range of airlines, from intra-European cattle transporters to trans-Atlantic carriers to domestic Peruvian airlines. This was Tetris level 27.

There are of course various strategies you can adopt at level 27. Over the past few months I’ve tried or witnessed quite a few of them.

There’s denial. You meticulously research the weight and size restrictions of every one of the eight airlines you’ll be flying with and reassure yourself, in the teeth of the evidence, that your compact and bijou case will be quite enough for half a year’s travel. All you have to do is wear all your bulky clothes to the airport, insisting to check-in staff that three coats and a fleece are absolutely essential to your in-flight comfort. Fill your coat pockets with any heavy items that won’t set off security alarms. And somehow squeeze your boots into the outer pocket of your hand luggage. Oh, and not buy anything while you’re away…

When denial finally breaks down, you buy a bigger case. In the best case, you do this early on, so you don’t spend half your holiday agonising over it. That also gives you time to get used to the new case; it loses the mental associations with double-decker buses and woolly mammoths and you eventually stop flinching involuntarily when you catch sight of it on a luggage carousel.

Then there’s precision packing. This is where you spend hours at each stage of your journey shoehorning your belongings back into every last square nanometre of space, until you need tweezers to extract them on arrival and your case acquires the density of iridium. If you don’t time the breakdown of the denial stage right, you can end up spending an inordinate amount of your holiday in this soul-destroying pursuit, only to give in and buy an extra bag right at the end. Unpleasant side-effects of precision packing include lumbago, excess weight charges and a strong desire for the whole lot to be irretrievably lost en route, enabling you to start afresh with nothing more than a toothbrush in a knotted handkerchief.

Borrowing is an excellent wheeze: it works especially well if your friends are of a similar size to you, but even if that's not the case, given that they live in the climates you’ll be visiting and are often given to the activities you’ll be indulging in, chances are they can lend you a large chunk of what you will need – making space savings in your luggage that can be filled with thank-you presents.

Parking is a less elegant but terribly convenient stratagem. It can require some long-range preparation, as it entails strategically locating close friends and family close to major airports, but once this is done you can plan your itinerary around them, depositing and retrieving plastic bags of hiking gear and swimwear according to what you’ll need on the next leg of your journey.

A secret cache of luggage space is a great stress reliever, if you can deny yourself the gratification of using it until the last possible moment. On a long trip, however luggage-phobic you are, inevitably your bags are going to fill up eventually. That means you need to keep some space in reserve for as long as you can: lie on your case to shut it, get someone else to sit on it with you, use a sharp implement to insert objects into the outer pockets – but don’t open up that expander zip until you have no other option. When every seam strains and the locks are ready to pop open at the slightest vibration, you release your secret weapon – and suddenly the tension is gone. Magic.

If all else fails, the postal service is your friend. Anything you’re not going to need between now and your final destination, assuming that’s somewhere with a functioning post office, can probably be sent on as a small parcel. (If you’re unreasonably lucky, you may even find someone willing to carry it back to your final destination for you – some kind soul who either has a larger luggage allowance than you or simply packs better.)

So in short, at Tetris level 27 – you cheat.
Trying to work out how to manage my luggage for this holiday actually kept me awake at night for a while at the beginning. (An excellent indicator of relaxation levels, given what used to keep me up at nights.) In a couple of days I’ll be checking in for my last flight of the journey with bags that now feel like home, equivalent to my full Air Canada luggage allowance, and still astonishingly full despite all of the above stratagems. I can't say I'll be sorry to set them down and return to my old 13kg formula. But they've neither multiplied, exploded in transit nor been traded in for a knotted kerchief on a stick - and I've only paid an excess fare once, so far...

mercredi 26 octobre 2011

Waiting for the vowels to land

I’m growing rather fond of Montreal.

I can’t claim to know it at all well: lacking an insider alongside to direct me, I’ve spent daylight hours during the past week mostly either meandering around it with my guidebook on one of the clunky but marvellously ubiquitous Bixi hire bikes, or seeking refuge from the cold in a variety of cafés in its (small) pretty bit. It’s not the most exciting place to visit at this time of year – better to come when the weather’s warmer and the Cirque du Soleil are performing – but it’s been a gentle place for a low-octane stay after the excitements of Peru, and you can tell it would probably be a good place to live.

For someone who, like me, came to French from the Old World, the accent’s obviously (and appropriately) outlandish; this must be what it would be like to find yourself in inner-city Glasgow after a lifetime listening to the BBC World Service. For this is French toutes voyelles dehors; its vowel sounds have an elastic quality, ready to ping off in unexpected directions at any moment, and are only loosely restrained by oddly toothy consonants. Ça becomes ceu, voilà voileu; nasal vowels, as in bon vin blanc, jump about like nervous cats, and the ‘-aire’ sound in faire or annuaire spirals so long in intersyllable space you wonder if it’s ever coming down.

It can make it hard to follow the line of a speech or story. I’ve had to give up on some of the Québécois conteurs in the storytelling festival that brought me here and has been my main occupation during the hours of darkness – given them up with regret, as it’s the spontaneous use of language that gives a tale much of its colour. (Luckily the Swiss, Venezuelan and Burkinabé storytellers have more than filled the gap; my favourite tale so far has to be a hilarious account of a US First Lady seduced by many-tentacled lesbians from outer space, by the Swiss Catherine Gaillard.)

But the Montrealers are just so damn likeable that you end up smiling even when you understand only a fraction of what’s being said (which isn’t generally for long: they kindly switch to a mid-Atlantic variant of French when they hear my own accent). There’s the default use of tu rather than vous, for starters – ditching the centuries-old ballast of buttoned-up French obsession with etiquette and status in one fell swoop, and irresistibly putting you on a friendlier and less formal footing with your interlocutor in the process. There’s the bilingualism that doesn’t seem to carry the resentment it does in Belgium, for instance, where it’s safer to speak English than to use French with a Flemish-speaking shopkeeper. There’s the polite driving culture, and the metro and railway staff who’ll go out of their way, even outside the rulebook, to help a confused tourist. And of course there’s the band of damply optimistic indignés on the Square Victoria:

But enough wittering: time to set about finding the venue for tonight’s storytelling. I’ve grown cautious since spending a fruitless lunchtime hunting for one venue at the weekend on the rue St-Jean, only to reread the programme and discover it was the rue St-Jean, Quebec city. So tonight the plan is to locate the place well in advance, set myself at a table with a good view of the stage, and order a bon vin blanc

mardi 18 octobre 2011

In the footsteps of giants

‘Why on earth,’ gasped Christie, digging her poles between two rough-hewn rocks 4,000 metres above sea level and hauling herself up a foot onto the next step, ‘if people 500 years ago were shorter than us, would they make steps this BIG?!’ As the giant stairway curved away before us at a depressingly steep angle, I could see her point.

This was day two of the Inca trail, the killer climb to the bracingly named Dead Woman’s Pass, and we were all feeling it. Arguing that the uneven steps we had been dragging ourselves up since the early morning were unreasonably deep and steep didn’t make the climb any easier, but it did offer a brief distraction from our shortness of breath and the length of the journey ahead. The few kilometres from our idyllic first night’s camp to the pass marked an elevation of 1,200m, and the river running beside the track was gaining in ebullience as our own energy levels sagged.

Yet it was impossible to be downcast, even as your lungs begged for mercy: the forest around us dripped with life, rain-starred orchids and fuchsias zinging out of the undergrowth or dangling from odd branches, bright rock flowers bursting up from the stones at our feet, crazy bromeliads rearing their outer-space heads at the sky. We passed cacti dusted with the powdery white presence of cochineal beetles, and Wilbert crushed one in his palm to reveal the blood that is still used as a powerful red dye for textiles; weaves we saw in the museums in Lima remained a vibrant pink centuries later. Birds of a luminous green, blue or orange flashed among the branches, chiding one another or warning of the heavy-footed intruders as we passed.

And above it all rose the mountains – preening in the word-of-god shafts of sunlight or brooding somewhere over the cloud line, achingly beautiful and wonderfully, constantly present. The snowy head of Mt Veronica would disappear for hours at a time, but there she’d be again once the sun came out; clouds would obscure the further peaks, but as we climbed into their pearled lower reaches the mists would tear apart and drift casually past into the valley below. Each night we crouched at the feet of the ancient stone gods and watched a silvery moon slip behind their backs and into the sky to gleam down on river, tent and rosebush. Each morning we woke in the cradle of the hills, and it wasn’t long before sun lifted the clouds and we could see the way we’d come, the way ahead, and the apus watching over our laboured progress.

And so on we panted, slithered and hopped – the latter mostly in the hour or so immediately after one of Grimaldo’s spectacular lunches, which he prepared in full chef’s regalia at one end of the tent and magicked onto a table improbably decked with a checked tablecloth on the other side of the makeshift tarpaulin divider. Any time we paused along the trail to congratulate ourselves on just how well we were doing, we’d be interrupted by a cry of ‘portador!’ from behind, and would paste ourselves against the cliff while the merry band of porters jogged by with dripping brow, sacks the size of small bungalows strapped to their backs and $2 car-tyre sandals on their wingéd feet, speeding on over the impossible terrain to build another tented oasis at the next campsite before we got there.

Porters aside (well, ahead mostly), there will have been about 495 other people on the trail with us each day, but for the most part Wilbert was able to keep us apart from the herd, choosing less-visited Inca ruins and timing our route to give us the space to savour our surroundings and explore terraces and temples in relative peace. As a result, we had the evocative, overgrown Intipata to ourselves on our last evening, hanging over the valley in its cloak of moss and wild flowers as the mists came down. And on the final morning, while the herd thundered towards the Sun Gate, Intipunku, we saw dawn come to the fascinating Huiñayhuayna (‘forever young’), wandering through this most complex of Inca complexes to admire the 17 ceremonial baths, gaze out on the sacred Urubamba river from its perfectly aligned gate, and imagine the sun of the solstice striking the royal quarters and the high-perched temple. The whole observed by a solitary inquisitive alpaca…

It was hard to pull ourselves away from Huiñayhuayna and head towards ‘civilisation’. Though the great Intipunku and Machu Picchu itself lay ahead, we knew that what came afterwards was the tourist trap of Aguas Calientes, and already we could hear the siren of the train that would carry us away to Ollantaytambo.

But first there were more steps! Hundreds of them, some on an almost vertical plane, others descending through the deep shadows of rock tunnels. Some in the group struggled most with the uphill climb, some with the downhill – but by this time all of us were struggling. We were now among the jungly vegetation of the rainforest: moss-draped tree trunks stood out at vertiginous angles from the steep slopes as if trying to maintain a sense of balance as their contours were sucked away by the gathering mist. The succulent tendrils of climbing plants wound their way across our path in search of the next support; we dug in our walking poles and empathised.

And finally we were there, at the gate of the sun, the gate to Machu Picchu. Wilbert’s imagining of the trail as a kind of trial by ordeal for those who would study in the royal city felt about right: when the cloud in which we sat finally lifted to show us our prize, we shared a moment of celebration at having overcome our own frailties to earn it. For me, there was satisfaction at having got fit enough since the desperately slow and painful climb of Nyiragongo in March to complete this more arduous trail with relative ease: I spared a mental ‘yah boo’ for those who had doubted I could do it, and a grateful thought for those who helped me get there.

…Yet no sooner were we there than we were gone again, it seemed. First a short time to savour Machu Picchu from the upper terraces again, and reflect on our time in Peru now coming to an end. And then we were onto the bus, then onto the train, and finally into the van, while the peaks we had so briefly moved among were whisked away, back into the clouds…

vendredi 7 octobre 2011

At the centre of the world

We stagger bleary-eyed off the bus: it was a grisly 4.30 wake-up call, and now after the hairpin bends I feel a bit like I’ve been blindfolded and spun in a circle.

Around us early-morning clouds are rising out of the Sacred Valley, and we find ourselves blinking in the sunlight as the mists clear over Huayna Picchu (the young mountain) to the north and Machu Picchu (the old mountain) to the south, and the peaks of mountains to east and west rear suddenly close. The blindfold lifts, and here we are at the centre of the Inca world.

The city built here some 500 years ago is tiny by comparison with other Inca ruins we’ve visited in recent days, but the beautiful precision of layout and stonework, the tailoring of terrace and temple to the lines of peak and sky, were wonderfully familiar. Wilbert, our shaman-guide, led our little group up to the upper terraces, from where we could gaze tranquilly on the little miracle below. He pointed out how the setting of the sacred city was aligned with both the mountains whose gods (apus) watched over it and the major constellations in the sky above. Taking three coca leaves, symbolising the trinity of the spirit world, humankind and the gods, he made a dedication to the apus and had each of us do the same. Then, tuning out the growing noise of the tourists arriving from Ollantaytambo, we sat listening to the suddenly full-throated birds and drinking in the peace and beauty of the place for a long while before heading down to tour the site proper.

I’d decided before we got there that I was less interested in the Inca civilisation than in the cultures of artists and craftspeople it conquered, some of whose artistry we were able to appreciate at the Amano and Larco Herrera museums in Lima. But there’s no way you can remain unmoved by Machu Picchu, and by its three-dimensional adoration of the magnificent mountains that surround it. If you must worship, a mountain seems to me a very natural object of devotion.

So: another wonderful experience. And it will be yet another to come back down to the city through the Gate of the Sun after walking the Inca’s royal highway over the next few days.

lundi 3 octobre 2011

Falling in love with Peru

Travelling from Arequipa to Cusco – 12 hours on the bus, illuminated by the glories passing by the window and made more comfortable by my almost limitless capacity for sleep in moving vehicles – I had time to start plotting how, exactly, I can move to Peru.

I mean, what’s not to like? The countryside is spectacular – the same high, wild, remote, intoxicating beauty that got me in the solar plexus in Nepal and Mongolia. The smaller towns remind me of those countries too: a nostalgia grips me as we pass through streets lined with hardware stores and roadside mechanics, shops selling cheap biscuits and paint-stripping moonshine on five rickety shelves, women in peanut-shaped hats making up bunches of flowers or hoisting babies into bright wraps on their backs, tuk-tuks stuttering their way around the bicycle-driven pushcarts, kids with red noses on doorsteps, political slogans painted on walls, and then on the outskirts the farming beginning again. In one field coming down from the altiplano towards Cusco we saw a young boy riding on an ox-drawn plough like a water-skier, pushing the blade deeper into the soil with his weight.

Some of the cities are spectacular, though: Arequipa, the white city, is a striking combination of colonial bastion and colonnaded showpiece, where the Plaza de Armas, the main square, gathers lovers, friends, musicians and street vendors under its flowering trees and arcades in the warm light of evening.

What’s more, the culture is rich and inspiring and occasionally overwhelming. Old women sit in doorways with their strap looms hitched to their lace-up shoes and whip up complex strips of tapestry in rich colours. Cusco has developed its own wild and wonderful school of visual arts, Máximo Laura's tapestries make the work of other tapesters look pedestrian, and street stalls overflow with knitwear and woven alpaca that you just want to roll around in.

And the people we have met have been wonderful: first and foremost the teachers we’ve been learning from, but also the hotel staff, shopkeepers, market vendors, waiters, random people in the street… While being aware that any impression formed in two weeks with ropey language skills is going to be hopelessly superficial, I still have a strong sense of a culture where individual ego and individual angst are just not that important, and instead people manage to work, live and laugh together in warmer, less competitive, more cohesive units than I can imagine occurring in the global North.

And of course, in comparison with my beloved Mongolia and Nepal, I have the wherewithal to communicate so much better with the people I meet. My Spanish remains threadbare and eccentric, almost entirely unsupported by any grammatical substructure and continually confused with French and with notions of Italian. But since all but a handful of the group have no Spanish at all, I have quite laughably become the default interpreter, which has given me a whole new vocabulary and the confidence to use it, while wincing internally at what my Spanish-speaking friends would think if they heard me! And I could get a lot better with just a few months’ practice…

Oh, and did I mention the food?? Seafood, lime, buttery avocados, chilli, corn, coriander, quinoa, tender lamb and a cult of the potato that outdoes even Ireland’s. Nuff said.

So: now all I need to do is write that bestseller, and find my ideal home in Arequipa…

dimanche 2 octobre 2011


From My First Tapestry to My Second Tapestry – something of a quantum leap!
The finished Fish Man – based on a Máximo Laura design – is one part dream to two parts sampler: there are many more techniques in there than the design really calls for, so that I could learn how to do them. It’s also probably only about 55% my own work, the rest being down to the patient and scarily speedy mastery of Jimmy, Richard and Máximo, all of whom took quite remarkable time and care over helping each of the five tapesters in the second week’s workshop to choose their colours and techniques and then understand and work them. Oh, and speeding through the ‘easy’ bits for us to save time as the Friday lunchtime deadline began to loom!

Inevitably, and very happily, I learned tons – much of it through repetition, trial and error, and much through unfailingly patient explanation and demonstration from our three teachers. The great Máximo Laura sat for half an hour just showing me how to work out which way to tie the knots to make a line go up or down, left or right. Jimmy gave me probably my third mini-masterclass in blending colours in sumac when there was just an hour to go till the deadline for finishing our tapestries – and you would have thought we had all the time in the world.

It wasn’t just that the three of them – each a master tapester who has been weaving since childhood, and one officially a ‘living national treasure’ – were kind enough to mask what you would have thought would be the almost physical pain of observing our laboured progress and correcting our recurrent mistakes over the course of four days. Instead they had the calm of people who were genuinely perfectly happy to explain all over again, and who delighted in our delight at every new piece of learning.
As the novice of the group, I was unable to complete my fish man by midday on Friday, so condemning los chicos to a further afternoon’s coaching. To let me take my time and reap as much learning from it as possible, they set me on course with each of the remaining blocks of weaving and then let me get on with it at my own pace, while they dismantled the workshop around me, stopping only to respond to the occasional distress call as my yarn failed to do what it was supposed to, and to natter about life, the universe and everything.

By the end, you’d swear they were as proud and pleased as I was with the result.

Our collective celebrations at the end of another week’s learning and laughing were fun, warm, colourful and musical – but we were all sad to say goodbye to our teachers, of all disciplines. A more talented, hard-working and likeable group of people you could scarcely wish to learn from, and more generous with their knowledge and time than we could have hoped for.

We did get to take one hostage, though: Anabél, whom we smuggled to Cusco with us the next day... J

mardi 27 septembre 2011

How are the sulky fallen

Humbled again.

Not by my inability to do well, at first try, what I've had only the tiniest practice at (tapestry) - that was only humiliating. No, by my teachers' reaction to that humiliation, which was basically to have the delicacy to ignore it, and just go on explaining and demonstrating until I had summoned enough maturity, commonsense, good taste - whatever - to start channelling my efforts into assimilating the techniques, rather than bemoaning my lack of mastery of them.

I'm back where I was this time last week with the hand embroidery. It seems to be a peculiarly Peruvian trait that ego has no place in the learning process: if you do well, your accomplishments will be recognised; if you try hard, your efforts will be encouraged. But if you seek to impose either your skill or your tragic lack of it on others, your bad taste will be quietly ignored until you've got over yourself.

By 5.15pm I'd calmed down sufficiently to do a pretty good wrapping stitch. I'll do better tomorrow, in attitude and output. In the meantime, most of my tapestry to date is the work of my teachers - and I could almost tell you how they did it!

And now for something completely different...

Hot springs, complete with Colca sour - the central Andes' answer to the inestimable pisco sour, with prickly pear fruit in the place of lemon. The same cacti used as barbed wire and cocktail accessory, and the orange flowers that the hummingbirds prefer. Alpaca in the back garden, a rolling waterfall in the front and the cliffs of the canyon all around. Walks in the awe-inspiring Andes, visits to mediaeval towns and the terraced fields that their inhabitants cut with axe and hoe into the mountainside at dizzying heights, and which are worked today. An early-morning rise to see the majestic condors lift off and swoop in search of the right thermals to carry them off on their search for food. A taste of frothy, creamy creamier creamiest milk straight from the cow, offered by the milker to the idiot tourists asking to take photos. A stop in the Altiplano at 4,900 metres to lay a stone in offering to the sacred mountains. Not to mention the soft duvets and snuggly pillows.

All in 60 hours. Colca Canyon: total delight.

dimanche 25 septembre 2011

We did it!!!

It was four days of fairly intense effort all around the beautiful Casa de Melgar hotel in Arequipa: the gourd engravers burned holes into their clothes making charcoal, the machine embroidery and tapestry students got acheing hips and sore eyes, and the hand embroiderers had stiff fingers and stitch (from laughing).

But at 5pm on Friday we were finally assembled around the fruits of our labour - including my own little embroidered bag, of which I'm inordinately proud, having never tried my hand at embroidery before.

There was a real sense of celebration as all the teachers and students gathered to view tapestries, gourds and embroidery: I think we were all very aware of just how much we owed to the skilled help and great patience of our teachers, but it seemed everyone had also achieved something they had not felt capable of before, and we all glowed!

jeudi 22 septembre 2011

A calf called Tony

‘So there we are, my husband Florencio and I, each hanging onto a foreleg, and we’re yelling to the cow “One, two, three – push!” And I swear she heard us: she pushed as we pulled, and out he came.’
A moment of distraction: ‘Your gusanitos are too fat: your flowers won’t be as delicate.’
‘So I like them fat.’
‘You like them fat?!’ (Guffaw of laughter.)
‘My gusanitos, I like them fat. They make nice fat flowers.’
‘Oh, only the gusanitos?!’  (More laughter.)
‘So what’s the cow called?’
‘Flor – flower.’
‘And the calf?’
Tony??! …Not even gusanito?’
‘He was named for his father. But okay, we’ll rename him gusanito; but you have to be the godmother.’
‘So you need to keep the tension up on those stitches: like this…’
'Okay, okay...!'

mardi 20 septembre 2011

Art with attitude

I've spent the entire day making French knots (bolitas) and bullion knots (gusanitos) and laughing. Now I'm exhausted!

The whip-cracking, side-splitting Elena and Anabél - mother and daughter - have put the three of us hand embroidery students in detention tomorrow for working too slowly, and it's a measure of what inspiring teachers they are that we all happily agreed to work the extra hour. The alternative is to risk not completing the little bags we're each embroidering, so intricate and difficult is the work. Andrea and Beck (Rebecca) are both deft hands with a needle already - Andrea's a dressmaker and costume historian and Beck's been an accomplished embroiderer for many years - but even they were daunted by the task of covering half of a small glasses case in such fine work in just four days; if we pull it off, we'll equal our two expert teachers in productivity, if not in quality. Definitely not in quality!

Our tour organiser and general guru, Sasha, recommended at the start of the day that we all do as Peruvian children do, and learn by observing our teachers rather than asking a million questions. It was good advice: at first I found it awe-inspiring simply to see how Elena could tie a 16-loop bullion knot to make a petal with just a few deft gestures; then I despaired as I had to keep calling on her to sort out the tangles I'd got mine into. By the afternoon I had assimilated how she fixed my tangles and was able to put them right myself, and somehow the twists of the thread were giving the right result. Her patience was contagious as well, and I almost stopped cursing my clumsiness - particularly since her and Anabél's wicked humour was always on hand to tease us for our mistakes or impatience! Art and attitude: it's a lot to teach in an eight-hour day, but somehow, with vast good humour, they manage it.

Of course Elena has been embroidering for over 40 years, so my expectations remain modest, but it's a joy to see my little garden of knotted flowers grow over the course of the day, and I look forward to giving them stems to stand on tomorrow.

lundi 19 septembre 2011

Too much to say

There's so much to take in, and to delight in, that it's really very hard to keep up any kind of an account of it all. And that's before the nightly pisco sour!

There was the visit to Maximo Laura's tapestry studio and private collection in Lima, which was an overload of the colour sensors and had me quietly thanking Maralyn Hepworth with all my heart for the introduction to the basics of tapestry and of colour blending that made me able to appreciate how technically impressive, as well as aesthetically beautiful, what I was seeing really was.

There was Mistura, the annual celebration of Peruvian food production and cuisine, which was an fun explosion of taste and colour and a chance to view something of the vast potato production which is Peru's answer to the Inuit ('You just have 50 names for snow: we actually grow 300 varieties of potato'). Not to mention the amazing meals we have had at a range of restaurants in Lima and now Arequipa, several of them owned or designed by Gaston Acuria. A delight.

And now we're in Arequipa, having visited some of its historical prettiness today and learned something of Juanita the ice maiden, the little girl of 12 or 13 presented as a human sacrifice to the mountain gods in an Inca ritual some 500 years ago and discovered preserved by the ice in the late 1990s. And tomorrow - oh giddiness - we start our textile workshops: in my case starting with four days of hand embroidery with the fantastically accomplished Elena and Anabél as teachers.

So a bag of loose ends blogwise, but the reality, happily, flows as smoothly as pisco...

vendredi 16 septembre 2011

Unbroken threads

Simon reached over and pulled open a long drawer under the display cabinet, and a collective sigh of yearning delight passed through the room. We were on the normally closed top floor of the Amano museum, gazing on the handiwork of weavers, tapesters and lace-makers who have been dead these past 900 years and more. Our group of textile fanatics could not but delight in the beauty and delicacy of their creations. And at the same time, disciples admiring the works of true masters, I'm sure each of us yearned ourselves to have the skill, eye and dedication that those works must have demanded.

The colours – often preserved for centuries in dry burial sites in the arid coastal region – were still bright: the reds and pinks of cochineal, the yellows and blues of Amazonian feathers, the remarkable range of undyed cotton shades from white to green to dark brown. In a couple of cases the craftswomen were literally showing off, with samplers of 60 or 70 designs demonstrating different colour combinations, patterns and techniques. Some of the pieces must have required literally hundreds of hours of painstaking work; some weaves were so fine you wondered how long the weaver had kept her eyesight. The museum curator, Doris, was living proof that those skills survive today, showing us how she had restored an ancient Chancay lace worked with a pattern of fish.

While our expert guides pointed out the differences between Huari, Chancay and Inca textiles, the recurring motifs of bird-feline-snake echoing the trinity of spirit world, earthly existence and underworld, and the particularities of various techniques, we passed among these bright beauties, marvelling and moved.

vendredi 2 septembre 2011

Flame of life

Somebody somewhere must have written a self-help book based on the model of the sequoia, surely.

These magnificent, majestic trees live to be thousands of years old (the oldest living one reportedly 3,200) and hundreds of feet high, with roughly the mass of a jumbo jet. They don’t tend to grow in separate stands, but thrive amidst other conifers and deciduous trees and a range of wild flowers.

Cyclical forest fires can kill them, but are also essential to their survival and health: they clear away dead wood, making room for new growth, and the heat releases from their cones the seeds of a new generation. And many trees survive the fire, though sometimes it hollows out a vast area at their base. As long as there is living tissue still connecting root to leaf, the sequoia not only lives on, but heals: its shaggy red trunk is often spotted with dark marks like a giant has been stubbing out cigarettes there, and which appear to be the healed scars of earlier fires.

There’s a moral in there somewhere…

mercredi 31 août 2011

Kemps vs Bears

There’s a great deal to see in California. (Though not the Golden Gate Bridge, permanently obscured by fog, whatever the postcards say!) A lot of it was amazing and beautiful, particularly in and around Sequoia National Park, on which probably more another time.

But while we went looking for bears, and were delighted to find them, the most amazing encounter for me – after an absence of 33 years – was with my Californian cousins. ‘Hi Kim, this is your cousin Ellie from the UK – I’m in San Francisco for about 48 hours.’ ‘How fantastic! Shall I drive into town now and we can go for a coffee?’

This, right off the bat, from somebody I have to assume hasn’t had much occasion to think about me since 1978, when she and her sister were our cool American cousins and I was an overawed eight-year-old… I begin to see where the Californians get their reputation for warmth and laid-back good nature.

In the end we met up the next day, together with cousin Karen and her shy-cheeky-smiley four-year-old Quinn in a diamante butterfly dress. I inevitably went to the wrong Starbucks – how can a town the size of a largeish parking lot possibly have two of them?? – and had to be rescued, but not before I had checked out every one of the Sunday-morning coffee-drinkers in turn. It’s interesting how very differently you look at strangers when you think they might in fact be family...

But it’s a bit like that moment in Arrivals when you’re waiting for a loved-one to come through the gate and everyone seems to have their haircut or coat or walk – and then the person him- or herself comes out, and you realise you couldn’t possibly have mistaken them for anyone else. Kim and Karen were of course everything the mangy Brit expects of Californians – tanned, slim, impeccably turned out and at ease with the vagaries of parking rules, three-way stops and the Starbucks menu – but they were also unmistakeably family. We talked a lot, filling every pause between sips of coffee and every wait at a red light on the way to visit their parents, and somehow managed to get past the stage of ‘Tell me everything about yourself over the past three decades starting NOW’ and on to things that mattered to us.

And one thing we found mattered to us was our own relationship: despite none of us having made the effort before now to establish contact as adults, we all felt that now the connection was made, it was important to maintain and nourish it. By the time we reached the nursing home, a free-ranging discussion of memories, history, interpretations and ideas about ourselves and our families had created a kind of complicity, so that while I had in a way to present myself anew to an aunt and uncle who’d not seen me themselves in decades, I did it flanked by cousins who in some sense did already know me.

So while the picture of the bear cub below is very cute, it’s mostly here for Quinn; the one that really makes me smile is the one of the Starbucks family reunion.

mercredi 17 août 2011

Pedaloing while London burned

We turned on the TV and saw gangs of young people torching homes and businesses and communities arming to defend life and property; violence creating an opportunity for wholesale looting and for a ratcheting-up of interracial tensions for political gain. We heard questions about whether the forces of law and order had the strength of numbers, equipment or stomach and ability to protect civilians, and speculation about how far known strongmen were orchestrating the violence. There were needless deaths, and heroes and villains in unlikely places, and politicians and pundits trying to sound tough and savvy and in control.

So far, so Congo.

But we were in Bude, Cornwall not Bukavu, South Kivu. The violence and looting was taking place in cities across middle England, an area synonymous with the ordinary: certainly by the standards of most of the rest of the world, a place of comfort, privilege and predictability.

The DRC-hardened humanitarian aid workers in our little group, accustomed if never inured to accounts of such horrors in our working lives, were as shocked and saddened as our friends to see the chaos so close to home. But in dark jokes about the Tottenham Mai Mai and the child soldiers of Peckham there was perhaps a hint of self-satisfaction, a sense that maybe next time there’s talk of villages burning and farmers looted in more far-off places, the proverbial man in the English street may take a little more notice.

My own bent to smugness was somewhat restrained by the knowledge that I’m not currently a useful member of society in any way. My own contribution to the common weal hasn’t risen lately beyond cooking dinner or doing the washing-up; but once the pedalo rides in Cornwall were done, my friends went back to trying to help people caught up in the violence in eastern Congo, where the fires have been burning for some 18 years now.

mercredi 3 août 2011

The power of Babel

Clara is Italian, but having met in Brussels we tend to speak French. Ada is Spanish and speaks excellent English, so she and I speak that. But Ada was keen to practise her Italian, I my Spanish and Clara her English. So when the original plan of going together to Portugal fell through, at one level I was relieved – it seemed to me that we had quite enough potential for linguistic confusion between us as it was!

But even being in Italy together we struggled at first to have genuinely three-way conversations. Either one of the three of us was simply listening in to a dialogue, or else the rate of platitudes per minute went through the roof as we took turns to prove the unyielding law whereby your capacity for thought becomes rapidly constrained by the words you have to express it.

Then Clara had the brainwave of the holiday. The Breakfast Pact, solemnly entered into over cappuccinos and croissants on the morning we left for Piemonte, stated that each of us would speak her own language and her own language only. A series of rapid beeps and sirens would meet any attempt to converse in one of the others’ languages.

Sheer genius! Not only did we each recover an adult capacity for thought and speech which enabled us to enjoy one another’s company vastly more, but we got to increase our knowledge of ‘real’ Italian, Spanish and English, rather than the clunky, simplified version spoken between non-natives. I have for instance added to my infinitesimal Italian vocabulary such words as dimenticare (to forget), rompicoglioni (pain in the bum), roba (stuff) and di cazzo (bloody, as in ‘another bloody church’) – all eminently useful things to know, it has to be said.

And if it was sometimes tiring having to listen so hard and being unable to multitask while concentrating on what Clara or Ada was saying, it was more than made up for by the fun of confusing the hell out of everyone we met…

mercredi 27 juillet 2011

Melodrama by torchlight

A woman I’ve never met should have been sitting in that seat: front row of the steps, with a friend on either side and a fabulous view of the Verona Arena’s magnificent stage, waiting for the final gong to sound the start of the night’s production of Verdi’s Aida. Her misfortune in being unable to make it was my immense good luck: thank you, Ana – it was amazing! 

Being no kind of opera buff, I had no idea of the plot before mugging up on it from the programme. It reads like a B-series soap opera: what a twisted bunch those Egyptians were! Not to mention the tricky Ethiopians! (A conversation with Giuseppe Verdi about Italian foreign and immigration policy would no doubt have been interesting…) Give or take a goddess or two and some unconventional headgear, you had the feeling the cast of Eastenders wouldn’t have felt too out of place in the whole set-up; the script writers might even want to consider burying the good guy alive as a possible plot line if inspiration flags, although the local pub may have to pass for the temple of Vulcan.

I didn’t know the score at all, either: the victory march in Act II was the only melody I was at all familiar with. (It’s great – a real ear worm, dislodged only by Ada humming ‘Torreador’ on the way home.) But the drama was certainly in the music rather than in the stage play for me, to be honest. The lead soprano and mezzo were built like battleships and swathed in the kinds of costume kids in my family used to put together out of the dressing-up box, while the burly male leads mostly resembled foil-wrapped poultry ready for the oven (with the exception of the high priest, who was a skinnymalink with a beautiful rich bass). These unfortunate physiques and the necessity of telegraphing emotions across a vast auditorium to an audience composed in large part of non-Italian-speaking tourists made the acting seem fairly unconvincing from where I was sitting. And that was before the cast came out of character after every aria to take a bow! But the choruses, the high priest and some of Aida’s singing sent shivers down my spine, and the orchestra were wonderful.

And what a great show! Personally I could have watched the conductor and the bows of the string section all night – harder to say which was leaping faster or with more verve. And when they moved the entire brass section of the orchestra up onto the stage for Act II (in full costume, naturally), everything else became rather secondary. Till they brought the horses onstage, that is… The stage set drew applause every time the lights went up – complete with burning brands ringing the action that must have had Verona fire department on red alert all evening, palm trees felled in the intermission to make way for vast pillars and deities, and twin sphinxes like bookends regarding the whole event inscrutably from either side of the magnificent stage. Yet even the sphinxes must have smiled at some of the high-energy choreography, not to mention the extremely cute slave children (don’t think about that one too hard).

And then the audience were practically worth coming to see in themselves. They absolutely loved it! The cheap seats at the top were cram-full two hours before the performance started – mostly, one suspects, with people like me who understood one word in a hundred of the original score. Somebody or other started clapping before the end of most arias, and a hard-core aficionado across from us screamed ‘bravissima!’ each time Aida or Amneris paused to draw breath. Opera purists might have been horrified, but it was rather endearing – and the cast understandably seemed taken by it.

I first went to Verona in 1988 with Carrie, and we yearned to go to see Aida at the pink Arena, where it was showing at the time, but eventually decided we couldn’t afford it from our limited Interrail funds. 23 years later, thanks to the unknown Ana and to Clara, I finally made it in on a free ticket. Talk about holding out for a bargain! And so very worth the wait.