25 March 2012

Cusco's Monastery of Saint Catherine of Siena

In Inca times the site of this monastery was occupied by a compound called the Aqllawasi, which in Quechua means “house of the chosen maidens”. It was inhabited by Aqllas, women of noble families chosen from all over the empire for their beauty and high lineage. They entered the Aqllawasi while young and stayed within its walls for the rest of their lives. They were strictly forbidden to have any contact with men and were obliged to remain virgins until their death. The Aqllas were seen as being wedded to the sun and the other deities venerated in Cusco. Their main occupations were the production of fine textiles for the court of the Inca and the preparation of ceremonial beverages, and these two activities were considered sacred. The first Europeans who arrived in Peru called the Aqllas “nuns”.

A beautiful planter in the Monastery courtyard

Saint Catherine of Siena

The Monastery of Saint Catherine was founded in 1601 in the city of Arequipa but, in February 1605, the first 25 professional nuns moved to Cusco after a series of destructive natural disasters occurred in Arequipa. After changing locations several times within the town, the monastery was established on the site of the ancient Aqllawasi. It is likely that its former function was taken into account when the site was chosen. In 1650 the new monastery, as well as many other recent buildings in Cusco, was destroyed by a devastating earthquake. Reconstruction work began the following year, with the foundation of the new church, which has been preserved to this day.

Today thirteen professed contemplative nuns live in the Monastery of Saint Catherine of Cusco. They are followers of the first nuns of the Order of Preachers (Dominican Order) of the Monastery of Prulla, founded in 1207 by Saint Dominic of Guzman. The rules of the Order prescribe for them a strictly cloistered life, although this restriction has been softened in recent decades. Their cells are located in the two interior cloisters behind the temple. Since the colonial period the nuns of the Monastery of Saint Catherine have become famous for their sophisticated embroideries of liturgical vestments and saints’ robes, and for their delicious pastry.

The workroom

The novitiate

The part of the monastery open to the public today contains incredibly beautiful frescoes in the chapter house and a valuable collection of colonial paintings (which you are not allowed to photograph), tapestries, furniture, liturgical vestments and other objects of applied arts from the colonial and republic periods. As well as the chapter house, the public rooms include a study, the former workroom, the novitiate and the refectory. The entire monastery has a peaceful atmosphere and it was a very beautiful place to visit.

Old stoneware in the refectory

In the foundress's cell
 (Acknowledgement: Much of this text was taken from the monastery’s brochure.)

09 March 2012

What’s behind the blue door?

Actually, you will be surprised to find out what’s behind such a plain-looking door in a side lane in Oropesa, Peru.

We’ve been thinking about getting some guinea pigs to raise at school, partly to breed them to make some money and partly to teach the children how to care for other living creatures. Each day at Eufemia’s, the little cafe where we have lunch, we always exchange pleasantries with an old gentleman who lunches at the same time as us.

Today, when we were asking Eufemia questions about raising guinea pigs – she has recently acquired about 40 herself, the old gentleman was also providing us with answers and extra information, and we found out he also raises guinea pigs. He invited us to visit his house so, after we’d finished eating, we went to see him.

Lovely, heavily pregnant lady
Pens of little piglets

His is the blue door. And behind that door, as well as his house, he has a room full of around 200 guinea pigs of all shapes and sizes – a couple of bigger male studs in with the females they are busy servicing, separate small cages for heavily pregnant females who are about to give birth, pens for litters of around the same age, and a whole of heap of babies (they call them cria) scurrying around on the floor.

I love the rich chestnut brown colour of domesticated guinea pigs, and their fur is very soft, but it’s actually quite difficult to get near any of them. Unlike the guinea pigs kept as pets in the West, these little critters are extremely skittish and run around excitedly at the slightest movement near their pens. One thing that struck me was the noise – they squeak constantly, or wheek as some people call it. If you’ve never heard a guinea pig wheek, I found this short YouTube clip that will give you a good idea.

After visiting the guinea pigs, we were all set to leave when our elderly friend asked if we’d like to see his flowers. A few plants behind the house, I thought – how wrong I was! There were huge hot houses full of plants of all descriptions – and, interestingly, many of the plant names are exactly the same in Spanish, just pronounced differently.

We were amazed and a little stunned and totally delighted as the man proudly showed us around. And he looks 
after all these plants himself, propagating from seed and stem and leaf cutting, and eventually selling them to retailers as far away as Puno and Lima. He is a retired teacher, but now spends his days happily pottering in his wonderful garden. Who would have thought this little bit of paradise was lurking behind that bland looking front door!

05 March 2012

Guinea pig for lunch anyone?

Eating guinea pig is not for me, but it’s certainly very popular here in Peru. In fact, it’s a delicacy and very much savoured on special occasions, like birthdays, weddings, feast days … and, for the staff at our Picaflor House Community Project, it was the perfect food to celebrate the contribution made by our manager Nelida on her final day of work.

Our celebration lunch
Partly roasted

We lunched at a restaurant in Tipon, a small town southeast of Cusco famous for guinea pig, or cuy as it’s called here. The menu has a choice of roasted or fried guinea pig – I’m told roasted is best, as fried can be a little greasy. Whichever cooking method you choose, you don’t actually get much meat to eat, even though guinea pigs are fattened for the pot with a daily serving of tasty barley and look quite chubby with their fur on. These little pigs are actually quite lean inside and you have to work hard to get a decent meal off them, crunching and sucking on the bones for every last tasty morsel. The roasted version is usually served whole – head and feet still attached – the brain is, in fact, meant to be one of the tastiest portions!

I think it’s partly the sight of the whole roasted guinea pig that puts many people off – that, and the fact that, in the Western world, we usually think of guinea pigs as soft cuddly pets. In fact, according to a news article I read today on the National Geographic website, it’s now believed that guinea pigs were widespread as pets in Europe as early as the 16th and 17th centuries, having been brought back from their native South America by Spanish conquistadors. There is even a 1615 painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder that depicts multi-coloured guinea pigs – the multi-coloured hair is, apparently, an indicator of their domestication. The poor creatures were also widely used for biological experimentation in the 19th and 20th centuries, which resulted in the epithet ‘guinea pig’ being used for any test subject.

The guinea pig is, of course, not related to the pig, nor does it come from Guinea. It is a rodent and is native to the Andes. Here in Cusco, as well as the live – and roasted – animals, you can also get cuddly toy guinea pigs and stone guinea pigs – all designed with the tourist dollar in mind.