17 June 2012

When the saints go marching in …

We have just enjoyed the amazingly colourful spectacle of Corpus Christi here in Cusco, so I just had to use that title – because it’s true. The saints get marched out from their home churches and processed to the cathedral, where they remain for a week. Then, on the “octave”, the eight day, they get marched back to their home parishes again.

The Corpus Christi celebrations in Cusco are an unusual and complex blend of Catholic ceremony and Inca tradition. The timing of the Catholic festival, celebrated 60 days after the resurrection of Easter Sunday so falling between May and June, coincides with the high point of the Inca ceremonial calendar, when crops are being harvested and ceremonies are held to honour the Sun gods and Inca ancestors for their bounty. In fact, in Cusco the tradition of parading special beings dates back to the Inca festival of Q’ochakuy, when the mummified bodies of the ancestors were taken out and paraded through the streets. The Spaniards assimilated this Inca ceremony into their Catholic Corpus Christi ceremony and thus Cusco’s peculiar version of the celebration was born.

Fifteen saints and virgins from various parishes in and around the city are included in the processions: Saint Anthony from the San Cristobal parish; Saint Jerome from the suburb of San Jeronimo; Saint Christopher from the San Cristobal parish; Saint Barbara from the village of Poroy; Saint Anne from Santa Ana parish; Saint James the Greater from Santiago parish; Saint Blaise from the suburb of San Blas; Saint Peter from the parish of San Pedro; Saint Joseph from the parish of Belen; the Nativity Virgin from Almudena parish; the Remedies Virgin from the Santa Catalina monastery; the Purified Virgin from the parish of San Pedro; the Bethlehem Virgin from Belen; and the cathedral’s Immaculate Conception Virgin.

The religious of each parish honour their particular saint or virgin by adorning them with beautifully embroidered robes, and gold and silver jewellery, and each year one believer takes on the much-envied position of mayordomo, the person who organises the festival and cover the expenses it involves. The celebrations begin the day before Corpus Christi, when the various saints and virgins, some obviously extremely heavy, are carried from their parish churches sometimes many miles into central Cusco.

On Thursday, thousands of people flock to the Plaza de Armas to watch the main procession. From around 11am, a full Mass is celebrated outside the cathedral by Cusco’s archbishop and the various parish priests, then the procession begins. Leading the way is an impressive silver carriage carrying the monstrance from the cathedral, its golden sun representing the Holy Sacrament. Apparently, the original silver tower was built in 1733, of beaten silver over a cedar frame. These days it seems very incongruous to see this sacred object transported around the Plaza de Armas atop a motorised float, accompanied by the archbishop, his priests and various city and municipal authorities.

Next follow the fifteen saints and virgins, each carried by their faithful believers and accompanied by the mayordomo and the faithful of the parish, as well as musicians and dancers. It is a long, noisy and extremely colourful procession, combining the sacred traditions of Catholicism with the more lively celebrations of the Incas. At the end, the saints and virgins are returned to the cathedral, while the celebrants drift off to local plazas to feast on the traditional food of this time, chiriuchu (cold cuts of guinea pig, chicken, a kind of beef jerky and sausage on top of a bed of corn, with cheese from the Puno region, an omelette, and sea weed and fish eggs from the Pacific coast), and drink copious amounts of the local home brew, chicha.

Eight days later, on the "octave", the fifteen saints and virgins are marched back to their original parishes, amidst more music and dancing, and followed by plenty more feasting and drinking. And you’d think that would be it for another year … but, no! Each parish has its own special feast and celebration days during the year and, in Cusco, the festivities continue as, in just eight days, it will be Inti Raymi, the re-enactment of the Inca mid-winter solstice celebrations. More on that as it happens.


14 June 2012

The Giving Lens comes to Cusco

Photography is one of my passions, and a week or so ago I was privileged and delighted to meet some of my heroes from the photography world. On behalf of Picaflor House, the project I manage here in Peru, I hosted a visit from a team of world-class photographers from The Giving Lens organisation. Founded by internationally renowned photographer/photo instructor, author and humanitarian Colby Brown, The Giving Lens focuses on blending photography education with giving back to local communities.

The Giving Lens offers photography workshops in various locations around the globe, where they work alongside local non-profit organisations that are doing exceptional work. These workshops are designed and led by Colby, who offers a unique and creative learning environment that not only showcases the latest in digital photography techniques but also emphasizes the importance of lending a helping hand to help make the world a better place for all life on this planet. What better combination!

After arriving in Cusco on Tuesday 29 May, Colby and his team of Mike Chambers, Joe Azure, Vincent McMillen, Alexis Coram, Christopher Cox and Michael Bonocore spent their first afternoon recovering from their long journeys from various international locations and getting acclimatised to the altitude. Next morning I led the group on a photowalk around Cusco, visiting local markets and the major tourist attractions and finding the best spots for views over this picturesque city. They were a fun group, happily posing for my camera and enthusiastic about the sights of Cusco.

Thursday morning saw an early start as our group headed out of the city to the ancient Inca ruins at Tipon, a small village south-east of Cusco. As roadworks were underway on the access road, we had to hike 300 metres up part of the original Inca trail to reach the ruins, no mean feat for a couple of the guys who were carrying 50lb backpacks of camera equipment. But the effort was worth it, as the team shot some amazing photos of the impressive ruins and surrounding landscapes. 

Back down in the village for lunch, the more adventurous photographers got to sample the local delicacy, guinea pig – not me though, I had trout! 

After lunch we headed down the road to Picaflor House, where we were treated to a traditional Peruvian dance performance by our kids – they performed so beautifully! – and then spent a couple of hours photographing and playing with the children. Both the photographers and the kids had a blast!

The Giving Lens team spent the next three days at Machu Picchu, capturing the delights of that magical ancient city of the Incas, before returning to Cusco on Sunday 3 June. The next day I took them exploring again, this time to the little town of Pisac in the Sacred Valley, where they photographed the ruins and the impressive mountain landscapes, did a little souvenir shopping in the local market and enjoyed more delicious local food, before heading out for another afternoon with our kids at Picaflor.

This time we enjoyed a performance of Goldilocks and the 3 bears, by one of our English classes, then joined the volunteers making owls in art class. It was a lot of fun and Colby even put aside his camera for a while to make an owl to take back to his 9-month-old son!

With this scouting workshop having been such a huge success, Colby has already committed to a return trip to Cusco and Picaflor House for a longer period and with a bigger team in 2013. Not only will they photograph the kids, they will also bring donated cameras and run workshops to introduce our kids to the basics of photography. As Alexis Coram, one of the team, wrote on her return to the USA, this will ‘let them freely document life through their eyes.... I’m sure these kids are in for a real treat next year and that their involvement with The Giving Lens will only boost their personal and social growth. I predict that some of them will become photographers themselves ... they seem to be naturals.’

I am thrilled with how the trip worked out. Not only will this partnership provide much-needed funding for Picaflor, it will also benefit the kids in other ways. Our kids are very creative and really love our arts and crafts classes. They love being photographed and then immediately race to the photographer to check out their photo. They also love borrowing my camera and those of our volunteers to try taking photos themselves.

I contacted Colby because I knew our kids would be very keen to learn more about photography and, if they show some talent, this might also lead to career possibilities for them. Cusco’s economy is dependent on tourism, yet the quality of photographs on postcards and in tourist brochures is generally quite poor. We really could do with some good home-grown photographers!

09 June 2012

Trekking the high country

This was what the tour company website said about the trek Marianne and I did on her last full day in Cusco:


This is a beautiful walk in which we make a circuit Cusco – Maras – Moray – Salineras – Cusco and visit unique (even for Incas) circle agriculture terraces. We will also visit still used Inca salt mines.
Duration: 1 day
Distance: 18kms
Altitude: 2800msnm – 32msnm
Level: easy
Total hiking time: approximately 7-8 hours.

ITINERARY: We will pick you up from your hotel at about 7am and we will take a transport to the little town of Maras, where we start our walking. Maras has nice colonial doors in its main street. In nearby Moray we will find circle terraces which used to be ”the agriculture Inca laboratory”. The circles were used for the development of different strains of crops. Between the highest and lowest terraces there is a difference of up to 15 degrees. Although the difference between neighboring terraces is very small, it creates distinct microclimates that change growing conditions and allow the propagation of a huge variety of plants each with slightly different growth requirements.

From Moray we walk down for 5 hours through various plantations with a nice mountain views to the salt pans of Salineras. Here more than 5000 terraces are still in production and many families of Maras bring their salt to the market of Urubamba on mules. A short but rather steep walk brings us to Tarabamba in the Sacred Valley from where we will take transport back to Cusco.

That’s not quite how it turned out though. We didn’t meet the guide till 8.30, then had to wait around for over half hour while he picked up supplies. Next, he took us to the wrong place for the local bus. And, as we were then running very late, we didn’t actually walk from Moray, just from Maras to Salineras and then down to Tarabamba.

In spite of all that and mostly because of the stunning landscapes and the most excellent company, it was an amazing day. It's BIG country with the bluest skies, huge fluffy white clouds, the golden colours of ripe wheat and barley in the fields, rich red earth, very few people but many donkeys, a deafening silence except for the birds ...

But enough from me – I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

07 June 2012

Machu Picchu, at last

As I’ve lived in Peru for over a year now, most people assume I’ve been to Machu Picchu several times … but, no. It’s an expensive outing when you only earn a local wage, so I had been saving my journey till a friend came to visit me. That finally happened when my lovely friend Marianne came to Peru a couple of weeks ago so I have at last seen the amazing ancient city of the Incas.

It is difficult to find adequate words to describe this magical site – it really is one of those places you must see and experience for yourself. So, I’m going to let my photos do most of the talking for me.

The setting is spectacular – it’s one hellova place to build a city.

Despite the huge numbers of visitors, it is still possible to find a quiet place to sit and contemplate your amazing surroundings.

The steep steps can be difficult for someone who broke their ankle a couple of years ago and now has a bit of a phobia about falling down stairs – no handrails here!

The sky was the bluest of blues and the air so very clean and fresh.

We even came across some of the local wildlife, a cute little lizard and two vizcachas, basking in the sun’s heat on a pile of stones.