Trip to Gamarra in search of materials
Eliza Squibb : Shipibo textiles
I needed to find materials for the needle felting workshop I had planned with the artisans of Cantagallo, and in Lima, there’s one place to go to get textile materials: Gamarra. A large area of pedestrian-only blocks dedicated to clothes, fabrics, materials, and a whole lot of other stuff, Gamarra is located in La Victoria district, a dangerous part of Lima’s risky downtown area. I asked a contact for advice and she gave me very specific directions for navigating this neighborhood:
“It’s best to go in the morning when there are less people. Wear workout clothes, sneakers, nothing that would attract attention like a watch, expensive earrings or cell phone. Hold your money in a secure location, and wear an empty backpack to carry what you buy. Walk only on the well-transited streets and never go into a place that is more removed from the action. There are a lot of “jaladores”, people who will ask you if you need anything, ignore them, because they will take you to another place or drive you crazy. It’s better to ask where to find things inside of a shop. Good luck!”
I followed these directions to the letter. From my neighborhood, I took the electric train for the first time: For a full five minutes, I enjoyed a peaceful, fast, efficient means of transportation that took me straight from San Borja to Gamarra, traveling at about roof-top level over the packed and confusing highways. It was such a strange feeling not to be stuck in traffic, not to hear car horns blaring, I wouldn’t have minded riding around to enjoy it longer, but it was already time to descend back into the crowded streets and start my Gamarra adventure.
As with so many places that I’ve been on this trip, I was dying to take pictures the whole time, but I’ve definitely given up on carrying my camera around with me. I would miss it too much if it got stolen, and I’ve gotten used to leaving the house with only a small amount of money and my cheap cell phone in my front pockets only. So, I stole some pictures off the internet to provide a visual.
The sights and smells were both overwhelming and tantalizing. Each step brought a new smell of food or, sometimes, garbage. The first thing I bought was some kind of cookie made entirely of slivered coconut. To wash that down, I bought was a cup of warm “maca”, kind of like diluted peanut butter, and according to the sign it was good for my brain, my stress, my anemia, my lungs, my tuberculosis, the malnutrition of my children, the decalcification of my bones, my menopause, my infertility, my sexual impotence, my hormones, and my rickets….(The internet is telling me that this powdered Andean root is what helped the Inca’s carry rocks up to Machu Picchu). My cup of maca came topped with a sprinkle of bee pollen and molasses, and while I drank it, I could observe what was going on in the rest of the shop, where powdered maca was sold as well as fruit smoothies made with quinoa. I watched a man methodically take live frogs out of an aquarium, peel their skin off, and place them in a glass measuring pitcher where they continued squirming in a transparent pile. Would they also be ingredients in a smoothie? I left to continue my mission before I could even begin to contemplate the medicinal benefits of that…
After asking where to find wool in a few shops, I found myself on the block of medicinal plants. Piles of cactus, fruits, herbs, and stacks of mysterious bottles lined both sides of the side walk. A few tables sold what looked like very recently killed snakes. I swear I saw a bottle labeled “Dolphin Love Milk” or maybe it was “Milk of Dolphin Love”. Some objects were so mysterious, I had no idea if I was supposed to eat them, wear them, burn them, or hang them up in my house to ward off evil spirits. Foods included every kind of fried/grilled fishes, meats, potatoes, corn, plantains, clams. Vendors had boxes strapped to their chest selling hard boiled quail eggs on toothpicks. There were enormous slices of papaya, pineapple and watermelon, and also, people walked around selling slices of cake off of huge platters, as well as ice cream cones that never seemed to melt (it looks like it’s whipped cream, not frozen?). I saw a few women on street corners selling small green parrots. If I started to feel my energy flagging, I was quick to treat myself to a fresh fruit juice and continue my search.
The next block over was filled with shops of traditional costumes, masks made of mesh, wool, and leather with glass eyes, props, and everything needed for traditional dance outfits: sequins, braids, beads, bells, feathers, buttons, and powdered dye. There were ikat scarves from Cajamarca for the marinera dance, ponchos, and woven blankets from Cusco at a fraction of the price that they are sold for in the Miraflores artisan markets. Some costume skirts were so packed with embroidery that they were more solid than cardboard and cost 500 soles.
I felt sure that in this textile heaven I would find what I was looking for, but after asking in several yarn shops, a stop owner explained to me that raw or dyed wool roving could not be found in Lima. I would have to go to Arequipa, an eight hour bus ride away, if I wanted to find unprocessed materials. Here in Lima, I was told, everyone wants brightly colored synthetics, no alpaca or sheep’s wool or anything natural looking. Those products look too much like traditional stuff from the mountains, “we have a complex, we don’t like anything that looks serrano”, the shop keeper explained. I guess what foreigners consider one of Peru’s finest exports, high quality Alpaca wool, looks too “rural” for most city-dwellers.
So, I made my way back to my favorite of the costume shops where I had seen something like a feather boa that was made of colorful bunches of alpaca wool. It is also a prop for some kind of dance, and it’s definitely too bad to buy something only to take it apart just for the materials…. but no wool, no workshop…
When I proposed the idea of the needle-felting workshop to Las Madres de Ashé in Cantagallo, they were very excited about the idea of leaning a new method for making their traditional patterns. With a new technique that bears similarities to embroidery and painting, they could expand their range of products to possibly include wool and silk scarves, shawls, or even blankets that might sell well in Lima’s winter climate. I wanted to be able to teach them a technique that they could continue to develop, and it was important to me to find an accessible, cheap source of materials, so that they could keep experimenting with the tools. Although the trip to Gamarra wasn’t a hundred percent success, at least I found materials to hold the initial workshop. In reality, the Shipibo artisan community moves around an impressive amount, traveling throughout Peru for craft fairs in different cities. If they like the technique enough, then they could possibly invest in wool when they travel to a city in the mountains.
I rarely expect a hundred percent success these days, and with this mind set, everything qualifies as an invaluable learning experience! I guess I could also try smearing myself with snake oil or drinking a bottle of dolphin love milk to see if that brings me success!