MOQUEGUA + SAN CRISTÓBAL
Moquegua is a city south of Puno, whose pueblos run through an awe-inspiring valley. We traveled to: Calacoa, Saylapa, Cambrune, Cuchumbaya and San Cristóbal during our second expedition to Peru (but not our last! Help us get to Cajamarca and the Northern Andes this fall by donating to our fundraising campaign here!). This is a story of our time there, told from the perspective of one of our crewmembers.
MOQUEGUA AND THE VALLEY
The sight of Moquegua is a welcomed green, nested among the Andes like an oasis. It is surrounded for miles in every direction by a bare, yellow-brown landscape with dark veins. The rolling hills are spotted with golden tufts that spring up like flames (Stipa ichu, Peruvian feather grass) and a scattering of neon-green mossy bulbs called yareta, a species that only grows 1mm a year. Occasionally we catch sight of grazing alpacas, ignoring the mini van that zooms by, blasting cumbia through its open windows.
In the market of Moquegua we drain juice under a blue tarp. The filtered light gives the impression of being inside an aquarium. It truly feels like an oasis, and we have the best of hosts, so it is an easy return to urbanity. National flags are everywhere in preparation for Fiestas Patrias, a national celebration, and every house must have its own. Clothes hang out to dry on the rooftops, unmoving in the breezeless air.
Today we are headed to the Chen Chen petroglyphs, a carved hillside depicting alpacas or vicuñas in the style of an oversized cave painting. The taxi driver has never heard about the petroglyphs, but we manage to follow road signs until we get dropped off on the side of the road. The location is unmarked besides a sign that claims its archeological relevance. There is no established vista, no path, and we have to cross the chacra (garden) of an old farmer to reach it. We are hoping to see the corralling and celebratory shearing of vicuñas in later expeditions, so we decide to film these ones in the meantime; which have been rendered immortal by early inhabitants. Afterwards, we hitch a ride on the back of a pick-up truck, holding on to our equipment amongst the dusty gusts of wind and workers who are making their way back to town. The sun is setting over Cerro Baúl, a large plateau that was once home to the Wari culture for generations before the Incan invasion.
Departing for the chain of mountain pueblos, we brace ourselves up serpentine roads in the hopes of capturing yet another montera. It is early morning when we arrive at the plaza of Calacoa with a brass band from Moquegua- their drums strapped to the roof of the mini van. All the boys have pointy, white polished shoes and ruffled black hair from the journey. They apply sunblock heavily and joke around. A few women are sitting down on the sidewalk next to the church, glistening in their reflective pollera skirts and flower-adorned hats. They wear these sparkling items daily, but today everyone is impeccably dressed, even for their own standards. Today there is a wedding.
A sizeable crowd is now gathered around the open doors of the church in a dazzling array of colors. The bride and groom emerge wearing the classic white dress and black suit, to a shower of rice. They soon change into traditional clothes while a band sings traditional songs. The lyrics go: “somos como dos palomas, formando un nido para siempre” (we are like two doves, making a nest for ever). Now the wedding is being officiated in the municipality, and many of the spectators await the couple outside, licking ice cream and chatting. Two women come down the road carrying enormous fern bundles; which are loaded into the newlyweds’ arms. The couple becomes engulfed by the overwhelming foliage, walking blindly around the plaza in a boisterous procession accompanied by the marching band.
A livestock truck lowers its ramp and people pile in, their flowery hats sticking out the top. They are headed to Saylapa, the next village over, where the party will be held for the following three days. In this region local festivities are funded by a different family each year. In this case, the wedding celebration is merged with the annual acequia cleaning. A woman carrying beer and a plastic cup moves around the crowd that gathers on the perimeter. She fills the cup for each guest, who in turn offers a sip to the earth, and drains it. Food is served in plastic trays, no silverware needed. There is a communal table without chairs where a bucket of chicha (a sacred fermented corn drink) is constantly being refilled and downed like punch by hundreds of guests. A single flimsy cup is the only vessel present, so both young and old must wait their turn to plunge it into the milky tub before returning to the dance floor. A second brass band appears, alternating songs to keep the music going. Dance moves are modest circles, just enough to make the layered skirts swirl and reveal the bottom ones. Seen from afar, the dancers glimmer and pulse.
On the other side of the valley lies Cambrune. A dead-end clue about a hat maker drew us there, but we ignore our misfortune since the walk from one community to the other is beautiful. The path meanders through trees following the acequia, across a river and up towards another hillside pueblo. Walking is steep and uneasy among loose stones and big jumps across the acequia. Winded, we ask Leo Dan, a local man who walks with us, how old people manage this terrain. He says everyone is accustomed to trekking up and down these paths, the elderly are no exception. We head back to the wedding party, where there is a sculpture of a charango and two young guys enjoying the view, and decide to leave them to their celebration and continue further into the canyon.
In San Cristóbal, we talk to a woman called Sabina Flores Hurtado, whom we extricate from a roasting chicken in the plaza. She wipes her hands on her yellow skirt as she shows us to her little workshop. One of the outer adobe walls crumbled after the last big rain. She talks about her love for weaving ever since she was a girl, about getting caught in the perfectionism, working to best herself, and improving her own designs. She weaves the bands or trencillas that they use to decorate the hats and hold up the bouquets of flowers that perch atop the crown. There is no workbench in the room, only a rope hanging from wall to wall, strewn with clothes, and a narrow bed. She folds her legs and sits on her feet, with a string and a stick around her waist to stretch the weavings out in front of her. There are many threads in several layers, dizzying in its small-scale complexity. Her fingers find their way, sorting them out as she tightens each line by pulling it towards her belly in a hard motion.
In Calacoa we visit Ismael Taco Choque, whom we are told sews monteras. Above his door a coat of arms announces his post as the local juez de paz (Justice of the Peace), a labor he combines with his other crafts. He is washing pants when we arrive, and they hang sequentially in his courtyard. He shows us “half-finished” monteras, which are actually how monteras used to look like before the glittery stuff arrived half a century ago. The black fabric is embroidered with minimal geometric designs in solid colors, somewhat reminiscent of a Miró painting. In more advanced stages, he will sew over it with silvery thread until it becomes today’s fashion- a heavily decorated version of a Spanish conquistador’s helmet with two flat panels coming down from a ridge to either side of the head. Small pompoms are strung from the base, making a curtain that brushes the shoulders. A profusion of flowers are wedged into the crest.
Here transportation is more than a matter of time: It is a matter of passengers. Mini vans only go when they are full; otherwise the ride is not worth it for the driver. It is common to stop along the way to pick up packages (encomiendas) or additional passengers. It is also usual for people in the back to shout fruitlessly at the driver to play a different song. As we wait for the van to depart, we take advantage of a police station to use the ladies’ room. There we spot two small rooms, cells, ironically labeled “meditation rooms”. The van honks outside. Must be time to go.
Returning from the heights we head straight to a modest neighborhood in Moquegua, following obscure directions that Sofia Lis Mamani gave us in Cuchumbaya. She was very proud of her montera collection and to be the niece of the sole hat maker for all the mountain pueblos. We are now in search of this legendary gentleman. We came all the way to Cuchumbaya expecting the artisan to be in the place where his creations are worn, but he relocated. And so to the city we return, excited to meet the maker. We ask around his neighborhood bodegas until we find the house. He is there, perched on a high rooftop. We hardly believe our luck. We jump out from the taxi and engage in an awkward conversation- him above, us below on the street. Hard of hearing, he says he doesn’t have time to talk because he is heading to the chacra. But it is the wrong time of day to be doing so and we are amidst buildings without a chacra for miles. We shout up to him that we came all the way from his home village to meet him and his monteras. He replies with a detailed description of how they are made. We shout back, asking if he would be so kind as to invite us up. The taxi driver tries to help, rephrasing our sentences in a more local way. It appears as though age has addled his memory. We shout thank you and get back into the car disheartened, wondering what his work is like and who will carry on the tradition. Surely he is at his best sitting before a sewing machine.
We have visited many workshops during our filming adventures, and had the privilege of watching many people shaping, weaving, embroidering, and crafting different kinds of hats. In some cases the business passes over to a daughter or a nephew who will continue the practice and update it. In other cases it is not clear who will carry on the work. Who will make the future monteras for the Moquegua heights?