Last week I finally got a chance to get into a high Andean village. On Wednesday I traveled with a team from the NGO Threads of Peru to document a dye workshop in the community of Rumira, which is about an hour’s drive outside of Ollantaytambo on the eastern edge of the Sacred Valley. Roadwork meant walking about 20 minutes uphill out of Ollantaytambo to catch a bus that would take us the rest of the way up dirt road to Rumira.
If I hadn’t spent my childhood bouncing along mountain roads in my dad’s old Baja Bug, the ride might have been a little frightening, but as it was I just took in the scenery; the mountain streams, scraggly wildflowers, and ancient terraces build by Incan hands. The only real adventure we had on our way up was pulling another van out of a rut.
The van was on it’s way down the road when it hit a muddy patch and got wedged against the side of the mountain. All in all, I’d say getting stuck against the mountain was better than falling the hundred or so feet off the opposite side of the road. The rest of the ride was almost uneventful. In one spot we had to wait for some sheep to move off the road and in another we spun our tires a bit getting up a hill. Oh, and we also ran over a cat — our driver thought it was rather funny.
I was warned that the women in Rumira might be camera shy so I began slowly. I did a lot of listening and observing of the dyeing process, which at the time I arrived mostly consisted of lighting fires to boil water over. The photography I did do was mostly through my long lens (70-200mm). Once the fires got going and the water was hot, the real work got underway.
The woman used several different natural dyes to create a number of colors from yellow to purple. Some of the dyes included crushed insects and various minerals. If you’re interested you can read more about the dyeing process on Threads of Peru’s website and you can also check out the three-part series I’m writing for Threads’ blog (see links below).
At one point I asked our guide, Urbano, to introduce me to each woman so I could shoot a posed portrait and have names to go with the faces. When we did this, the women’s shyness was apparent — Rumira is close to major tourists attractions but it is also fairly traditional and not often visited. I got a few decent shots but mostly a lot of hiding.
I took a ton of photos during the day — close to 650 — and filled up 8GB of memory cards. It didn’t take very long for the women to start ignoring me and allowing me to work closer. I’ve fallen in love again with my 50mm f1.4 and I used that for most of the day.
In some places (my mind goes to northern Zambia) you can get really great posed portraits, but in others shooting candids is the best bet; the villages around Cusco fall into the latter category. Of course shooting candid photos can yield some great results.
Being foreign and male, my interaction with the women was somewhat limited but I did get to spend some time learning about the dyeing techniques from Daniel Sonqo, Threads’ master weaver. The results he and the women were able to achieve using only natural ingredients were impressive.
I did a little exploring in Rumira, which is actually two villages divided by stream, and got to know some of the kids. Most of them wore bright orange and red ponchos, and were either camera-shy or complete hams. One kid seemed to have a sixth-sense and would instantly strike a pose when he felt my camera pointed at him — even if I was shooting from 20 feet away.
The skies were overcast all day and rain fell a couple of times. Standing outside by the dyeing fires was cold, smoky, and often damp, but I loved it. There is something powerful in these mountains; watching damp clouds slowly wash over rocky heights and seeing sheep graze in alpine meadows that slope steeply down.
We stayed in the community from about ten in the morning to three in the afternoon. It was a quick visit but enjoyable and productive all the same. I had the pleasure of shaking the hand of one of the older weavers before we left. We both exchanged goodbyes in our second langue; Spanish (many people outside Cusco learn Quechua as their first, and sometimes only, language).
On the way home I sat facing backwards on a bench behind the van’s driver. We left Rumira the same way we entered, but the landscape was still new and exciting. I remember passing through a striking valley with grey walls that crumbled into grey boulders along the road. Along the valley’s floor grew a scrubby bush with small yellow flowers and near the bushes flowed the same river we worked by in Rumira. The unsaturated tones of the rock made the hues of the flowers even more brilliant.
We arrived in Ollantaytambo a little before four in the afternoon and caught a taxi back to Cusco. The drive between the two cities takes a little more than an hour and passes through some of the Sacred Valley’s most spectacular vistas, made all the more brilliant by the setting winter sun.
Cusco is an interesting city; full of history, colonial architecture, and compelling traditions. But after spending the day in the Sacred Valley, it’s hard not to notice the dust, the noise, and the smell of urban life. I’m grateful that I get to live here and I’m even more grateful for the chance to get out.
(My work in Rumira will be posted as a three-part blog on Threads of Peru’s website. As the stories post, I’ll link to them here:)