I am lucky enough to live in magical land with deep roots to the past: Peru. Here, like in many other so-called “third world” countries, much of daily life involves traditional ways of subsistence that have long ago died out or become “hobbies” in the developed world. Hanging out with the locals in Peru means touching the distant past in the present moment, and also offers a glimpse of what a sustainable future for all may look like.
The Sacred Valley around the city of Cusco, where I live and run a World Schooling Project with my 15 year old son Miro, is home to dozens of indigenous villages that still produce their own food and clothing in ways that have remained relatively unchanged since before the arrival of Europeans on this soil. Although traditional Peruvian food is excellent – Peru actually just won the “Best Culinary Destination” award for the second year in a row – it is the abundance of intricately patterned alpaca and wool clothing and textiles that really wow you when you visit Cusco. Truly, if someone you know vacations here and does not bring you back a hand-made scarf or hat you should definitely take it personally.
After months of buying these beautiful items for ourselves and showing visiting friends and family members around the many markets that specialize in them, Miro and I were invited to visit one of the local places where weaving is a way of life. Chinchero, which sits several hundred meters higher up than Cusco on the chilly wind-swept plains above the Sacred Valley, is a Quechua speaking village of about 20,000 where the ancient art of textile making is central feature of daily life. In fact, many of the most elaborate and colorful woven items in the markets of Cusco are made in Chinchero, and the village’s work makes up a high percentage of the displays at Cusco’s Center of Traditional Textiles.
Miro and I spent the day with a Chinchero family, sitting on the ground and joining them in their daily ritual of weaving on traditional looms and spinning the natural raw wool into thread. Weaving in Chinchero is primarily women’s work, and the art of creating the complex patterns that typify Chinchero craftwork is passed down from mother to daughter in chains that stretch back into misty times without historical record. Sitting there with them, learning from them, mother and son, I felt honored to be included in something so basic and beautiful, yet so rare in the modern world.
Miro picked up the art faster than I did, and you can read more about our day here on our blog Raising Miro on the Road of Life, as weaving is done by men as well as women in Chinchero. In fact, the money made by these families off of their weaving (usually less than $10 a day) is what is helping to keep their traditional lifestyle alive. Our Chinchero family was mostly self-sufficient, besides raising the sheep which provide the wool, they also grow potatoes which provide sustenance and an additional source of income in the local food markets if need be.
Traditional family farming survives in Chinchero, which grows quinoa and barley as well as potatoes, because of the tourist market for handmade textiles. And the family farming allows Chinchero to devote their time to their craft – the two weave together to mutually support a lifestyle that is at once sustainable and deeply traditional. The prevalence of family farming in turn means that the Cusco area, and most of Peru for that matter, is awash with an incredibly diverse array of fresh produce, which is why the food is so good here. Its also dirt cheap, as you are buying directly from the farmer – seriously, check out what $20 US gets you in the Cusco Market.
I understand that Withlocals runs similar programs in Asia, including an opportunity to learn traditional seasonal farming with hill tribes in Thailand and the opportunity to live like a local in Nepal. These experiences are incredibly valuable, as in most cases there is much more than just a cultural exchange going on, you are actually experiencing what a time-honored and sustainable culture feels like – and it usually feels much happier than ours.