Peru 2008: Pottery and chicha

June 27, 2008 (Continuation of journal)

We then walked to the Plaza de Armas (main square), where our bus was waiting, through the narrow cobblestone streets. Two plumbing supplies shops caught my attention, because outside these small dark establishments were pegboards attached to the wall. Hanging on the pegboards were various shapes and sizes of pipes. I assumed this was to show prospective customers what parts they had in stock, or were featuring at the moment. Being on pegboards, the parts could be changed at any time, reflecting what was available at the time. This eliminates the need for printed signs and there is a graphic display for immediate recognition. (I’m all for visuals!)

In the center of Plaza de Armas is a statue of the Inca king Pachacutec, considered the greatest Inca ruler. He was responsible for building both Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu, and their multiple functions and sections is representative of the larger and more elaborate Inca communities.

After climbing up and down 263 steps, I had begun to understand the value of a walking stick, and took advantage of the fact that a vendor was selling carved wooden walking sticks in the plaza to purchase one. It had a brightly colored handle cover over the top, and a rubber tip on the bottom, important to minimize impact on stone steps and paths. It was to come in handy for the rest of the trip. On our last day in Puno, I gave it to our Puno guide, Edith, so I wouldn’t have to carry it back to the U.S. where I would likely never use it again.

Our next stop was El Portal del Valle, a tavern on the road between Ollantaytambo and Urubamba. The proprietor is a widow who has owned this tavern, together with her husband and now alone, for over 30 years. It is one of the most famous chicha bars in the region. We were shown into a dark back room where the chicha is prepared and fermented. We sat on wooden benches along the walls. I was so relieved to be sitting in a dark room that I missed some of what was explained about the process of making chicha because I couldn’t help dozing off! However, we were shown the corn used to make chicha. On the table in front of me was a large basket containing many kinds of corn grown in Peru, including white, yellow, black, mottled black and white, and purple. Alcoholic chicha is made with yellow corn with large kernels. The alcohol content in chicha is actually quite low, but if it’s consumed in large quantities, as it often is at parties and celebrations, people do get drunk from it!

Learning how chicha is made! A glass of regular chicha and a glass of frutilla (with strawberry) are on the table - Jayme & I drank them!
Learning how chicha is made! A glass of regular chicha and a glass of frutilla (with strawberry) are on the table – Jayme & I drank them!
Owner of tavern El Portal del Valle describes how chicha is extracted from corn and fermented.
Owner of tavern El Portal del Valle describes how chicha is extracted from corn and fermented.

The chicha brew is left to ferment in huge pots covered with cloth. When it’s ready, it can either be served as it is, or made into “frutilla”, which is pink from the addition of strawberry and is sweeter. The proprietor poured a small sample into tiny plastic cups for each of us to try the classic chicha. I didn’t expect to like it – I don’t like beer, but found it palatable. It was a bit sour, with a tangy aftertaste. Afterward, she gestured to two large glasses on the table and offered them to us for one sol each. No one took her up on her offer except Jayme and me. Jayme drank the regular chicha and I drank the frutilla – quite refreshing and sweet. Excellent!

Later I was to regret having drunk that entire glass of frutilla, along with forgetting my hat. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly made me sick after so many activities in one day.

I hoped we were done for the day until the home-hosted dinner, and that we would now go back to the hotel to rest. But there was still more to do!

The bus drove us into Urubamba, to the home and studio of Pablo Seminario, a potter who has become a millionaire due to his famous designs. He and his wife were hippies in the 1960s and lived on the verge of poverty, living off the land and making pottery, for many years. They didn’t mind because they were doing what they loved. But eventually Pablo’s beautiful pots and fanciful designs based on indigenous motifs earned him fame and fortune. He has sold his work internationally and lately has been doing some work for the United Nations. Most recently the Field Museum in Chicago bought 40 of his pieces. Later they contacted him again and said they wanted more. The museum will put his work on display later this year, and he hopes to travel to Chicago for the opening.

I didn’t know this when we arrived at his home and studio complex. His son came and told us of his parents’ background, and we were shown around the place by a young woman who was one of many people who work there. Artisans use stencils of his designs to hand paint them on plates, cups and other terra cotta pieces. A white board posted in one of the workshop areas contains many of his original designs, depicting birds, native animals, flowers and plants, the sun and the moon. I recognized a few as having definite Nazca influence.

Outside there is a pen for llamas and alpacas, and a beautiful courtyard with an Andean cross shaped fountain in the middle, surrounded by large pots. Freshly painted pieces are put on tables to dry, reproduced en masse. Even so, they are not tacky or cheap looking. It’s all very fine work.

We weren’t going to actually meet the artist at all, but Jayme inquired about meeting him. I think it was just a question asked out of curiosity on his part, not a burning desire to meet him – Jayme is really not into pottery particularly. Still, his request was taken seriously and he was invited to accompany our guide upstairs to talk to him. Jayme declined, embarrassed, but she left to inquire whether he would come down to see us. When she returned, she told us he was busy and couldn’t come down to meet us.

However, a few minutes later, Pablo left his work to come down and meet us in person, particularly the young man who had asked to meet him! He is a middle aged man with graying wavy hair down to his shoulders. He was very gracious and took his time speaking to us. It was at this time that I learned of his dealings with the Field Museum. I told him we were from Chicago and that I was going to try to find out when the opening of his show would be, so we could be there to see him again.

In my anxiety to buy something that was not too expensive and was easy to pack, I spent a long time searching through the T-shirts to find something for my young nephews (I always buy them T-shirts on my travels), but could find nothing suitable for a decent price. I did, however, buy T-shirts for myself, Dale and Mary. The sizes of each design were limited. By the time I took my time to go through and admire the pieces in the other rooms, it was time to go. Dale, however, did buy two terra cotta mugs, which I was very glad of. They were not too large and were very reasonably priced. I knew I was going to enjoy using them for my morning coffee.

Finally we were on our way back to the hotel! I was so exhausted I could hardly imagine how I was going to get through the home-hosted dinner. However, before that, we were going to meet in the bar in the upstairs of the hotel to have a Pisco Sour. We had about 45 minutes to rest before that.

Next: Home-hosted dinner

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