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INDONESIA – Bali

1 May

Bali is a mountainous island of volcanic origin. Flying in, it felt like our airplane was hovering extremely low over beautiful, turquoise waters with no land in sight. But then suddenly, we landed and had arrived on a slice of paradise.

Bali – ISLAND OF THE GODS

We instantly felt the “spirit” and “energy” of this heavenly place. Profoundly bound to tradition, the Balinese population is devoutly religious. Approximately 93% of the Balinese are Hindus, and there are still strong traces of what must have been the oldest and most primitive form of religion in Bali – animism, which is based on the respect for all things and all creatures.

In the name of religion, walking the streets of Bali required some attention. The sidewalks are lined with these colourful, shallow woven baskets containing rice, fruit and flowers. Three times a day, they are faithfully placed around family homes, in temples and on the pavements, outside of every business establishment. A truly beautiful sight!

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Canang sari or small offering baskets made out of coconut leaves

These small baskets or canang sari are offerings the Balinese make to their Gods (Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu). Offerings are a very important part of daily life in Bali and these little baskets are seen as a way of giving back what has been given to you, bringing prosperity and good health to the family and maintaining a good relationship between people and spirits.

We also saw larger baskets full of rice in boats…I assume it was an offering for a healthy catch of fish!

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Daily offerings at village & family temples, home or business entrances, or any spot that the Balinese hold sacred (special tree, statue, etc.) 

And talking about boats, the traditional fishing boats that we saw in Jimbaran Bay, known as jukung, are graceful vessels that only use on main cloth sail. These boats venture out into the coastal waters in the evening with their catch before sunrise to sell at local seafood markets. Although we were not so impressed with the seafood at Jimbaran Bay, we did have some delicious fish in Bali.

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Bali – ISLAND OF TEMPLES

But I prefer to talk about the temples, as they don’t call Bali the Island of a Thousand Temples for nothing. We hired a driver and went exploring…..Temples can be found everywhere in Bali, but we quickly learned that most of them are private property! Each Hindu family has its own sacred temple (usually taking up much of their personal yard or terrace space). It’s called a Sanggah or Pamerajan.

The first sacred temple, we visited was The Royal Temple of Mengwi (Pura Taman Ayun). This temple is one of the most important ones in Bali. Built by a King of the Mengwi Dynasty, this impressive complex stands on an island in a river. Its inner temple is surrounded by a moat. Pura Taman Ayun literally means “Garden Temple in the Water” in Balinese.

To protect Bali from evil spirits, this temple was built as a series of garden terraces with courtyards on different levels. An eleven-tiered meru is dedicated to the rice goddess Dewi Sri. We just made a quick tour around this beautiful complex as we were there in the morning at a lovely 40 degrees Celsius or so!

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The Royal Temple of Mengwi (Pura Taman Ayun) – with its 11 tiered meru

But my favorite Balinese temple, without a doubt, was Pura Ulun Dan Bratan. This water temple complex is located in the mountains, on the shores of this gorgeous lake called Lake Bratan. We arrived there at around 5 pm, and could take a breezy, leisurely stroll observing the amazing sights.

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At the Pura Ulun Dan Bratan Temple on Lake Bratan

We learned that, built in 1663, this temple is used for offering ceremonies to the Balinese water, lake and river goddess, Dewi Danu, due to the importance of Lake Bratan as a main source of irrigation in central Bali. This lake, located 1200 m above sea level, is known as the Lake of Holy Mountain due to the fertility of the area.

Pura Bratan, with Lake Bratan and the mountains as a backdrop, was a scene that walked away out of a photography magazine. Just unreal! Anthony and I really enjoyed walking around the complex but more so, discovering what was beyond its gates.

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A row of fishermen was sitting along the shoreline (young and old combined) catching tiny, silver fish. A sort of misty glow that came from the lake surrounded them.

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Locals fishing at Lake Bratan or the Lake of the Holy Mountain

Just beyond their location was a local man burning something by a small temple, his wife making offerings. He was proud for us to take his picture…but then quickly sent us on our way, as I think this was a paradise type scene; only privy to locals perhaps?

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Other nature scenes that take your breath away in Bali are the rice terraces. Vegetation is thick and luxurious and the landscape extremely green.

Agriculture is still very traditionally based. The most important product is of course, rice which has been cultivated in Bali for over a millennium. It is considered a gift from the gods and has inspired many legends and mythological tales.

Vast rice fields occupy the southern planes and the carved sides of hills and mountains, creating these characteristic rice terraces. We visited the Jatiluwih rice terraces (UNESCO World Heritage Site), with Mount Batukara as a backdrop. They have breathtaking panoramas and are so exotic looking. We even got to take a scroll in the high grass (and bought a painting to etch this beautiful scenery in our minds for eternity)!

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At the Jatiluwih Rice Terraces (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

The finale of our day was a stop at Bali’s Twin Lakes. These two lakes – Lake Buyan and Lake Tamblingan are the result of Balinese volcano activity. From a viewpoint, along the road, we took a moment to connect, and observe the magnificent, lush rainforest landscape and peaceful water scene.

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At Twin Lakes – Lake Buyan and Lake Tamblingan

The other days on the island, we enjoyed the small beach town of Sanur, biking along the beach, and indulging in early morning or late night swims. Our gorgeous Ellora villa had 2 sweet breakfast chefs & a private pool – what a treat! (http://www.elloravillasbali.com).

Well, this is Bali for you….but there are other sides too. Such as the yogi, artsy and picturesque town of Ubud. We visited this magnificent little town in the centre of Bali for two reasons. We wanted to get a glimpse of the very avant-garde and greenest school on earth, called the Green School Bali (http://www.greenschool.org), and catch up with some wonderful travelling friends. Aaron Eeden, recently hired by this innovative institution gave us an insightful tour of this wonderful bamboo, open-air school structure with its forward-thinking, sustainable surroundings.

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Green School Bali

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With forward-thinking education specialist Aaron Eeden at the Green School

Then we met up again with Brie & Bjorn & family (our 3rd. world encounter after Peru and Thailand!) for a raw food lunch. Yes, that’s what you do when you are in Ubud and it was surprisingly delicious…even the desserts!

We then proceeded to take in the rural countryside of Ubud with a walk along the top of a ridge, with stunning scenery on either side called the Campuhan Ridge Walk. What a pleasant way to spend hiking for a couple of hours with these wonderful people, surrounded by stunning nature…and incredible art work!

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On the Campuhan Ridge Walk, Ubud with Brie, Björn, Luka & Zora

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So that was Bali, stunning nature scenes, beautiful temples… I almost forgot the scrumptious food (that Nasi & Bami Goreng and those satés from the local night market in Sanur are hard to forget!)….. and the SERENITY….. the SERENITY!!!

There is something truly special about this place…It’s hard to describe, a special feeling. I guess you got to GO to experience it!

We certainly will be back, but for now we say farewell to this spiritual, beautiful place with its wonderful kind and smiley people!

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INDONESIA – Wayang Museum Jakarta

23 Apr

INDONESIA – WAYANG MUSEUM JAKARTA

Growing up a Dutchie, I loved eating Saté Ayam, Nasi Goreng, Babi Pangang, Krupuk (Kroepoek) etc. and enjoyed listening to history tales of the V.O.C. For this reason, I was quite excited to visit the former Dutch colony of Indonesia. Our first stop was Jakarta, formerly known as Batavia and the capital of the Dutch East Indies.

With one available day of sightseeing, I opted for Fatahillah Square. This square used to be the centerpiece of Batavia, the town built by Dutch colonizers in the image of their cities back in the Netherlands. The square still houses graceful townhouses, several colonial looking museums and even a canal with a drawbridge. The area is really bustling, especially at night!

In the late hours of the day, street performers, food stalls and live music acts (being enjoyed by youngsters sitting on large plastic mats), give the square a real special vibe. We observed this scene, while sipping a delicious “White Koffie” at Café Batavia (http://www.cafebatavia.com). This gorgeous, 19th century café is a real step back into the colonial era. Such grandeur! The many pictures on the wall (including those of Indonesian and Dutch royalty), tell its tales.

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Café Batavia & Fatahillah Square, Jakarta at night

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During the day, I was drawn to visit the square’s intriguing Wayang Museum.

This museum, dedicated to Javanese puppetry, keeps collections of Wayang and dolls from various territories in Indonesia and countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Suriname, China, Vietnam, France, India and Cambodia.

The building that houses this collection was constructed at “De Oude Hollandsche Kerk”, a former, old, Dutch church location.

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The Wayang Museum, housed in a former Dutch Church

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A couple of giant puppets at the entrance of the Wayang Museum

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Wayang (or “shadow” in Javanese) refers to traditional theatre in Indonesia. To be more precise, Wayang is nowadays most often associated with the puppet theatre performance or the puppet itself.

In 2003, UNESCO designated the Indonesian shadow puppet theatre; Wayang Kulit, as a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage to Humanity”. In return for the acknowledgment, UNESCO required Indonesians to preserve their heritage.

There is no evidence that Wayang existed before Hinduism and Buddishm were brought to Southeast Asia. This leads to the belief that the art was imported from either India or China, both of which have a long tradition of shadow puppetry and theatre in general. However today, Wayang is both the most ancient and most popular form of puppet theatre in the world.

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After guiding me through the Wayang Museum, my capable guide Aldy took me to his humble, private workshop. Here, he told me that his Dad was a skilled and well-known puppet maker in the region. When I asked him if his he had passed on his shadow-puppet making skills, he honestly admitted, that he had tried….but failed. Aldy did not have it in him, and his father did not want to go bankrupt!

Such an art. Wayan Kulit or shadow puppets are carefully chiseled with very fine tools from dried buffalo leather, and mounted onto bamboo sticks or supported by carefully shaped buffalo horn handles.

Master models, typically on paper, are traced onto the buffalo skin or parchment, providing the figures with an outline and with indications of any holes that will need to be carefully cut (such as the mouth or eyes).

One small Wayang puppet could take up to a month to make and requires the finest precision. One tiniest mistake and the puppet maker would start all over again. The detail of these puppets is truly incredible!

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Shadow puppets, carefully chiseled with very fine tools from dried buffalo leather

Instead of passing on the art of making Wayang, Aldy’s father taught him the performance skill, at which he became very good (pictures of him presenting to international dignitaries graced his walls). I was fortunate to receive a private shadow puppet performance from this well-known dalang (the genius behind the screen who narrates the story). Usually these theatre acts take about 8-9 hours, but I was already pleased with the shorter 10-minute version.

The plays are typically based on romantic tales (the story of Ramayana – an epic tale from India which is more then 2000 years old), or local stories/happenings. It’s the dalan or master puppeteer that decides the direction of the play.

Wayang kulit is a form of theatre that employs light and shadow. Historically, the performance consisted of shadows cast on a cotton screen and an oil lamp. Today, the source of light used in Wayang performances is most often a halogen electric light.

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Wayang Kulit – shadow puppet performance

The Gunungan (or Tree of Life) is the most important in Wayang theatre. It is used to signal the beginning and the end of a performance, or to evoke strong emotions, scene changes and the elements of fire, earth, air and water.

The Kayon is decorated with a Tree of Life on one side and the face of the demon Kala (time) on the other. The Tree of Life (see below) represents the Universe and all of the creatures that inhabit it, from the demon giants located at the base of the tree to the birds that perch on its peak, the latter symbolizing the human soul.

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The Gunungan or Kayon – the “Tree of Life”

The demon Kala (below) is surrounded by a halo of flames. His presence represents the evil forces that exist in the universe.

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The enflamed demon Kala, who is believed to send evil spirits away

Because of the intricate artwork and the blessing it provides to the seller’s family, it’s near to impossible not to pick up one of these pieces of theatre art. And so with 2 puppets, a Tree of Life to bring me good fortunate, and some wonderful memories, I said goodbye to dalang Aldy and the Indonesian Wayang.

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For a shadow puppet show, workshop or to buy Wayang, visit:

Note: Twenty percent of all sales from this studio go to support the training of young, Indonesian, Wayang makers. In order to keep this traditional form of Indonesian art alive (which unfortunately is slowly diminishing), Aldy’s dad regularly teaches youngsters his craft.

Ki Edan Aldy Sanjoyo (aka Aldy) @ The Puppet Studio

(around the corner from the Wayang Museum)

Kalivesar Timur No. 3, Kota Tue – Jakarta Barat

Tel. 081-8922489

Email: Aldy_lio99@yahoo.com, FB: aldysanjaya

 

 

 

 

ECUADOR: Quito, Canoa Beach and Guaquil (via Montecristo)

4 Jul

El República del Ecuador – a Spanish speaking country in northwestern South America that has a great deal of nature to offer: the Andes Mountains, the Amazon Jungle, the Atlantic Coast and certainly the world-famous Galapagos Islands.  The country is home to such a great variety of species, that it is considered to be one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world.  Needless to say, a perfect destination for us!

 

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We flew from Peru into the beautiful capital of Ecuador; a city situated in a picturesque valley with surrounding, towering mountains. Last year, National Geographic voted Quito (declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1978 because of its largest, least-altered and best preserved historic centre), as one of the top 20 destinations in the world to be visited. However, exploring this photogenic town with its 17th century churches and mansions, was not in the cards for us. Our 9 days in the city can be summed up with one word: CHICKENPOX.

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The Historical Capital of Ecuador: Quito

 

CANOA

A little disappointed that we had to skip our week in Banos; the adventure capital of Ecuador (rock-climbing, zip-lining and hot springs. were out), but with natural immunity for life in our back pockets, we were off to sunny Canoa – a small beach town on the west coast of Ecuador. We were pleased that the roads leading to this small community were surprisingly good, and that our hotel for the next month was indeed the beautiful beach property it promised to be.

Instantly, we marveled at the under-developed nature of this beach area (some investment opportunities perhaps?). We were but a 15-minute beach stroll from Canoa town, and encountered only a few properties along the way. Long stretches of pristine beach with few people on it, surrounded us both left and right….And of course, the stunning, rolling waves and sunny skies threw out their welcome mats. Canoa is a popular hang out place for surfers due to its consistent surf and so we quickly turned Emile and Filou into little surf dudes… signing them up for surf lessons (thanks YiaYia!).

Guided by surf teacher Walker, the kids quickly found their groove and were up on their boards. They couldn’t get enough of it, and especially liked for us to film their progress – Anthony was eager to oblige with his new Go-Pro camera and I happily jumped some huge waves as not to get my Iphone wet, while taking action shots!

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Canoa, Ecuador

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With surfing teacher Walker

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Emile riding the waves

While the kids conquered the ocean, Anthony and I took 10 classes of beach Yoga with Leanne Holder, a wonderful US expat (https://www.facebook.com/CocoCottages).  Downward dogs and balancing tree poses (“be any tree you want to be”) are quite hard when you are starting out, but having your feet solidly planted into beach sand certainly makes it a little easier (and the “whatever you have available” line of encouragement helped a lot too)!

Guided by Leanne’s wide range of yoga moves and soothing voice (which was amplified by the wonderful sounds of crashing waves in the background), we learned to find some inner peace, balance and ability to stretch. I think Anthony and I are both hooked now and just need to create a big sandpit in a yoga studio in Bangkok somewhere!

Thanks Leanne for the fabulous t-shirt…the saying on it says it all!

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Wonderful Beach Yoga with Leanne and Don

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“Explore your Bliss – Ecuador”. Perfect trip t-shirt!

As equally nice as Leanne was, were her mom Cynthia and her partner Ron – who regularly joined us in yoga. We had the pleasure of attending Cynthia’s local art show that displayed many beautiful acrylics and watercolours (was thinking of you mom!). Inspiration is probably not hard to find in this town as it is surrounded by magnificent nature – and Cynthia’s leaf and flower scenes were full of lovely detail and vibrant colours.

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Cynthia at her art-show, with some of her inspired art pieces (first column)

One day, Cynthia, Ron and Leanne took the kids to the local caves where our fearless yoga instructor saved Filou from what she described as a “near-death experience” when he was taken by some huge waves that would have smashed him into the rocks had she not scooped him up quickly. Good thing, too, because he’s kinda precious to us!  Of course, to this day he himself is absolutely oblivious about this incident – and describes his day with them as “the very best day in Canoa”. 

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Canoa cliffs full of blue-footed boobies and other birds

These wonderful 3 people also invited us for a bonfire to celebrate my 45th birthday! Great memories; connecting with new friends, lovely music, hot-dogs and jumping contests with Annie – an energetic and fun 30-yr old, who has her eyes set on Emile in 10 years. She named herself the kids’ “teacher of fun”, a role that described her joyful nature perfectly!

And talking about joyful….when picturing high altitudes this is NOT a word that comes to mind for me. Not even close…I’m DEATHLY afraid of heights; don’t do anything at high altitude! But Canoa is a key destination for paragliding and the boys had been eyeing the colourful parachutes in the sky.

Could I overcome my fear and let Emile and Filou do something cool that they would remember for years?  There was only one way for our family to find out; locate the safest operation in town!  This part was easy: everyone knows in Canoa that you have to be with Alicia Harmon of Alas Y Olas (http://www.alasyolasecuador.com).

She is a strong, little dynamo who is all about safety and creating the right conditions for an enjoyable flight (we know, as it took us a couple of times of checking out wind conditions before we actually took of).

When the day was finally there, we got our instructions and were buckled into a tandem harness (Watanabe family member in front, Alicia behind)… and were suspended below a lightweight, large wing – looking like a long rectangular parachute; we used a nice bright yellow one.  Filou was giving it a try first, with Emile and Anthony shortly following him. They all had a lovely flight (no fear whatsoever) and were making their excitement known from high in the sky….

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Alica strapping Filou in and doing the final checks

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Emile making a smooth landing

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Thumbs up for a great flight

It was terrifying enough seeing the kids and Anthony held up in the sky by some ropes and fabric, but now it was my turn. Was I really going to risk my life and run off a 200-metre cliff into the abyss? For some reason, at that moment I was really compelled to do it (although with racing heart and very shaky legs)…and there I jumped and flew like a bird. It was AMAZING; so much more peaceful then I imagined it to me.  And of course, the views were magnificent!

The reason for doing this became quickly clear to me – of course, it was important to overcome one of my own fears but more importantly it was a lesson for the boys that if you put your mind to things, you can grow and overcome. In Paris, I had been too afraid to climb the Eiffel Tower as it was so high, and now I was paragliding – a sport many people would never dream of doing. I think I made a little progress – thank you World Tour (and Alicia and Bret for your help)!

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At take-off; smiling but with racing heart and shaking knees

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Spectacular views while paragliding over Canoa

And so Canoa will be remembered for many great things: adventure sports (and yoga), World Cup Soccer & the wonderful beach community.  We cheered along with our new Ecuadorian, US and Swiss friends – but mostly we were there in orange to scream for our Dutchies.  There were the easy wins: 5-1 against Spain (Holland certainly had something to prove after last World Cup’s defeat against them…and they brought it big time), and then there were the nail-biter games such as 2-1 against Mexico (where the Dutch scored two goals in the last 10 minutes).

It was almost more fun to watch Emile than the screen, as he was so into each and every game. What a soccer fan; he knew all the stats, teams and especially the strategies for the Dutch….and that for only a half-Dutchie (mom trained him well!).  While we sat by ourselves dressed in orange for the first game, the fifth time around, we had all of our friends “converted”, and sporting beautiful naranja. What a great group of assistant fans like Gerry and fellow supporters!  HUP HOLLAND!

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JOY and HUP HOLLAND after the 2nd. goal for the Dutch against Mexico; a real nail biter of a game! (2 goals in the last 10 minutes!)

As we are nearing the end of our world tour, it is certainly wonderful to receive, many lovely comments in regards to our boys. Many of the people in Canoa were sharing with us that they are inspired by what we have done this past year: travelling, learning and sharing as a family. And as nice as it is to get this kind of feedback – we are equally inspired by the travellers and expats that we’ve met around the world – such as some of the couples in Canoa.

For example, Ron told Cynthia: “I’m going to sail around the world, are you in?” It didn’t take long for Cynthia to leave her corner office and quit her very successful job to literally sail away with Ron. That first trip lasted 3.5 years. Ever since then, the two of them have been co-pilots, travelling to and living in many places. They are now settled in an idyllic beach-front property in Canoa. Cynthia paints, Ron does boogie boarding and together they are enjoying life- what a lovely couple!

And then there was Gerry and Ursula – a dynamic expat couple from the US who were well connected to a host of locals. They travelled the world, partly working for the Peace Corps and had the best travel stories ever (you could just listen to them for hours!). Gerry, a successful, semi-retired businessman, had a dream of buying cattle in Ecuador. And so the couple settled in Canoa, had bought 60+ cattle and were working with great enthusiasm – and a local partner – to bring their vision to life. It’s called Hacienda Rio Canoa. We had the pleasure of visiting their ranch in Gerry’s new, “photogenic” truck).

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Some of the calves at Gerry and Ursula’s cattle ranch

We love meeting people like this who have an incredible outlook on life, and in return, life has treated them well. They are following their dreams and sharing a bit of the journey with us along the way. And Canoa was chock full of people like this, both long-term residents and passersby.

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Inspirational people; Gerry and Ursula. In their early 70s, he still calls her “cutie” and they laugh together all the time!  

We are in all in agreement that our time in this laid-back Ecuadorian town is going to be on the top of our list of enjoyable travel spots. Main reasons: the incredible community, the beautiful, pristine beach offering a host of activities and of course, the wonderful seafood! (Check out Korayma and find Charlie on the beach for some great local dishes such as my personal favorite: Pescado Encocada – fish in a light coconut curry sauce). Thank you Don – for all your wonderful tips on the town and surrounding areas. You are an ambassador for Canoa and we are grateful…and Gerry, Ursula, Cynthia, Ron, Leanne, Annie, Tom, Willemijn, Alicia, Brian, Josh, Patience and Michael. We appreciated our connection with each of you and you all made for a very fun stay!

And so after a last cook-out (American version of a potluck!) and a delightful Canoa sunset, we moved onto Guayaquil.

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Canoa Sunset

 

GUAYAQUIL  – VIA MONTECRISTI

We left Canoa, took a taxi to Manta and then a bus to Guayaquil – but with an important stop in Montecristi; the town known for the production of the finest straw hat in the world, the Panama Hat. Yes. That’s right, those cool hats do not come from Panama City; they come from Montecristi, Ecuador.

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Montecristi Panama Hats

The hats are made from Toquilla straw, hand-split into strands not much thicker than thread and woven so finely, that the Montecristi Panama Hat appears to be made from linen. Depending on quality, one cost anywhere from $20.00 to over $25,000!! (the best and superfine ones are called Montecristis). And although the Panama Hat continues to provide a livelihood for thousands of Ecuadorians, fewer than a dozen weavers are capable of making these finest “Montecristi superfinos”.

So we were excited to visit a small shop and workshop place (www.montecristifactoryhats.com) where two young guys had lots of hat samples on display. In the shop, a lady was demonstrating the weaving process; she was leaning over a block of wood while carefully moving superfine strands of straw over one another.

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Ecuadorian Toquilla or Panama Hat weaver

The art of weaving these traditional Ecuadorian Toquilla or Panama Hats is so unique that the process was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural List in 2012.  It was really cool, we got to see this up close…and of course indulge in buying an example as a great memory and stylish fashion accessory!

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With our new Panama Hats – pretty cool eh?

And after a restful night and a great swim at the Nucapacha Hostel (http://www.nucapacha.com) in Guayaquil, we were ready for our final stop.

Really hard to believe, but we are off to our LAST travel destination. Galapagos Islands, here we come….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PERU: From OLLANTAYTAMBO to MACHU PICCHU

16 Apr

No trip to Peru is quite complete without a visit to the magical, world-famous Inca site of Machu Picchu. From Cusco it’s still a bit of a trek to get there so we decided to break up our journey and explore the beautiful, historical town of Ollantaytambo (also locally referred to as Ollanta, probably as the city’s name is a real mouthful!).

We arrived in Ollanta by colectivo; these are comfortable mini-vans that regularly shuttle between towns and where for S/10 you get a seat on the bus that leaves when full. Go to Calle Pavitos and you’ll know you’re in the right place as everyone yells to get you on their vehicle!

Ollanta, a very small but utterly charming town in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, dates back to the late 15th century.  The locals retreated to this town after the Spanish conquered Cusco and right away we could feel the town’s rich history. The entrance of Ollanta is the Plaza de Armes, which is surrounded by colonial buildings…It was here that we got our bearings, enjoyed a delicious coffee and saw a cool, vintage police car!

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Vintage police car in Plaza de Armes, Ollantaytambo

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Houses and doorways dating back to Inca time

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We first headed to the Awamaki office (www.awamaki.org) to get details about our homestay for the night.  They directed us to the house of Petronilla Gonzales-Orue, her daughter Rene and adorable granddaughter Cynthia.

After warm bienvenidos & hugs from Petronilla and an excited hello from the four-legged friend of the house (the boys were crazy about this jumpy, white, fluffy dog), we left our overnight bags and headed for the hills.  Instead of visiting the very touristy Ollanta Ruins, we opted for the Pinkullyana hike. Walking the very steep and somewhat harrowing path that leads to thegorgeous Incan Storehouses and overlooks the town and main ruins was a real treat (and free!). From the top, we enjoyed spectacular views of the Urubamba Valley.

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Pinkuyllyana Inca storehouses built out of fieldstones on the hills. Their location at high altitudes, where there is more wind and lower temperatures, defended their contents against decay

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Enjoying the view of the Urubamba Valley and Ollanta Ruins

Refreshed, we returned to Petronella’s house, a dwelling located close to the town’s artisanal market where she sells water to tourists by day and hosts Awamaki volunteers and host families by night. During our lovely chat over dinner, we learned that her daughter Rene works with children in Chilka, a small community nearby. Being a teacher, she spoke slowly and articulated clearly which greatly enhanced our conversation with her in Spanish.

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Petronella, our host mom in Ollanta, together with Awamaki  volunteer Francesca

The next morning, we were all a bit off our game as we didn’t sleep too well but nevertheless, we met Deeba of Awamaki (www.awamaki.org), in town for our Quechua community visit. We drove for about an hour, high up into the mountains to the rural community of Atacancha (the drive up through the breath-taking mountainous region was truly stunning!). Once there, we were greeted by a most colourfully dressed group of women (all sitting in a circle, some with young children peacefully sitting next to them or attached on their backs), in the process of spinning, weaving and/or colouring yarn. It was such a lovely sight!

We learned that Awamaki (www.amawaki.org) is a nonprofit social enterprise that works with these rural Andean women and their communities to create economic opportunities and improve social well-being. They do so by empowering these weavers with skills and training and assisting them to sell their products to international retailers of ethically-sourced handmade goods.

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Office of social enterprise Awamaki

Also, Awamaki helps to connect global volunteers and tourists like us with these communities so that they can learn about the local culture and traditions. We love these kinds of interactions and information gathering and learned so many interesting facts…such as knowledge about the traditional dress of this indigenous, ethnic group of people.

The traditional dress worn by Quechua women today is a mixture of styles from pre-Spanish days and Spanish colonial peasant dress (lots of red colours!). They wear up to about 7 layers of skirt (it gets freezing cold in the mountains!) but traditionally with no socks or stockings underneath. Their standard footwear are ajotas; open sandals that are made out of recycled tires, which makes them cheap and durable. Over their many layers of sweaters, they wear a sleeveless chaleco, which is richly decorated with buttons.

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Traditional dress of Quechua woman, complete with bowler-style hat, layers of skirt and chaleco

And the more their bowler-style headpiece is worn to the side, the more interested they are in finding a life partner (if they add flowers to the headpiece they are even more open to “romance”). The straps that hold up their headpieces are all intricately and uniquely knitted with beats – to portray individuality. All in all, such a unique and interesting style of dressing! I loved being surrounded by the abundance of colours and sweet, shy smiles of these Quechua women.

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Amidst a group of spinning and weaving Quechua women

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I was also very interested to learn about the tradition of weaving. This traditional handicraft is a crucial aspect of Peruvian culture and it sits at the very core of Quechua culture, shaping personal and regional identities and acting as a form of inter-regional communication (they vest their entire sense of personal identity in their occupation as a weaver!). This skill of weaving has been handed down from Inca times or earlier. The women use cotton or wool (from sheep, llamas, alpacas etc.), and create a multitude of natural dyes (from locally available plants, minerals and insects such as crushed beetles) to produce a myriad of colours and shades.

They naturally spin their fibers into a fine yarn using a drop-spindle. This very old tool consists of a wooden stick with a weight on one end. Weavers clasp the stick in their hands and give it a spin, letting it hang freely at is spins. The energy from the spinning motion of the spindle travels into the fiber, twisting the fibers together to form yarn. It was very cool to watch!

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Spinning fibres with a drop-spindle

With the yarn, the women then weave and incorporate numerous patterns or pallay into their designs (they are used to tell a story and are woven in stripes centered in the cloth). These weavings that are hand dyed, hand spun and hand woven can only turn into little masterpieces. Upon leaving, we were happy to buy a few in support of these hardworking women and their communities.

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Filou learning first hand the technique of back strap loom weaving, while making his own woven bracelet

After our return to Ollantaytambo and thank you’s to Deeba, we took the VistaDome of Peru Rail (www.perurail.com) to Aguas Calientes (incredible ride through the mountains and parts of the famous Inka Trail).From many we heard that this town was not the most attractive or interesting place to be in, but at this point all we wanted was some chicken soup and a good bed to sleep in. To our surprise, Condor Palace Hostel (www.condorpalacehostel.com) provided just that – the best shower and bed we’ve encountered in Peru so far! So after a really good rest, we were all feeling better and ready to spend our long-awaited day at Machu Picchu.

As Machu Picchu was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, it is technically protected by the United Nations. Peru’s government has also officially safeguarded Machu Picchu since 1981 under the organizations’ “Union de Gestion de Machu Picchu” (UGM), the “Instituto Nacional de Cultura” (INC), and “Instituto Nacional de Recursos Nacionales” (INRENA). It is believed though that at times these organizations do more harm then good to the protection of the site. As Paolo Greer, a well-known US historian and explorer of Machu Picchu told us first-hand during a lecture at the South-American Club; Machu Picchu in Peru is all about money and politics.

He might have a point as new rules announced, but yet to be put in place, are meant to address the issue of overcrowding at the site. “All foreign visitors to Machu Picchu will soon have to hire an official guide to enter the Inca Citadel and follow one of three predetermined routes through the complex and face time limits (2 hours) to keep the traffic going”, under the new rules by the Ministry of Culture in Cusco. Would these new rules actually protect the site, or allow more tourists and money to flow in? The debate is still ongoing but we wanted to play it safe and get in before these took effect! So the week before Easter (the beginning of high season), it was.

At 8:30 am, we were on the bus that took us from Aguas Calientes high up into the mountains to the famous Inca site. The suspense was building, as we rode higher and higher into the mountains and increasingly dense morning mist. Where was this magical city and how did explorers ever find it here?

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What makes Machu Picchu so unique in my opinion is that is embedded within a dramatic landscape between the Peruvian Andes and the Amazon Basin (truly a HIDDEN treasure of a city, located so deeply within nature!).

Once we entered the site and saw the spectacular monument of “La Ciudadela” (the Citadel), we understood what all the hype was about and why Machu Picchu has been named one of the NEW 7 wonders of the world. What a magical archaeological complex, this most significant tangible legacy of the Inca civilization is!

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“La Ciudadela” – the Citadel at Machu Picchu

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The refined architecture of Machu Picchu, with is many beautiful structures and stone terraces, seemed to blend so perfectly with its stunning natural environment. We felt very privileged and blessed to take 4 hours to stroll, sit & ponder and take in this most sacred and truly spectacular setting on earth; one that is absolutely deserving of protection (and where people should not run around naked, but that’s a whole other story!).