You really only have to be in Cusco for five minutes to realise what THE tourist game is for memories of your time in Cusco. Around the main tourist areas (the streets of San Blas and just behind the Cathedral on Plaza de Armas), you are met with women, young and older, in bright ‘traditional’ clothing accompanied by either a baby lamb, a cute white fluffy alpaca or a bit of a scruffy llama (pronounced Yama, which is not to confused with the Lord of Death in Tibetan Buddhism). I say ‘traditional’ clothing for the style is traditional however the colours are so garish from the brightly dyed cheap Chinese synthetic wool and sequins (forgive me if I make an incorrect assumption of origin of product). These women reportedly come in from the neighbouring villages with their animals solely for the purpose of having portrait sessions commissioned by tourists who always have a camera at the ready. The fee is considered to be a donation but in reality this is how they make their living. I read a blog by CuscoEats where the author, who is a Cusco local, asked another local what these women were called. Tikkipiccha was his reply as this is what they sound like.
As soon as I saw a photo of two of these chilotas in their beautiful clothing sitting with their little lambs that was taken by Val last year, I was hooked and wanted my own series of images. Clearly the cholitas have identified a very markable product. Who can resist them? As soon as the cholitas spot you, they have you lined up as a target. The approach is usually one of two ways; just a simple “take picture” as they make a point of showing you their gorgeous animals (less subtle than the way new mothers actively draw your eyes to their newborn – if you don’t believe me try it. Look the mum in their eyes and watch what they do next. Before you even realise it you are looking at their baby) and then suggest that you take a photo. The other approach they use is once you stop and look at their lamb, they hold it out to you and then suggest that you need a photo of you with them and the lamb. Both of these approaches have a reasonable success rate most likely with those who have just arrived in town.
As I mentioned earlier, the fee for a photo is a ‘donation’. Its hard to know what to ‘donate’. How do you ever know what is reasonable? One shop keeper told me when I was trying to get change to I could tikkipiccha was “One Sole.” This shop keeper was really quite emphatic in that was the fee and emphasised this with a firm gesture of a raised single index finger. “One Sole.” All very well and good to say that but try getting away with it. I had one occasion where there were two women, one with an alpaca and the other with a young child firmly latched on her left breast (I didn’t realise this at the time). I took the photo and gave them 4 sole as there were two of them. My response from the breast feeding mother was that pitiful whiny pathetic tone you get world wide when you have clearly insulted them with your lack generosity when you haven’t, “But the baby, more for the baby.” Some are far less aggressive and seem happy to accept whatever you offer them. From my experiences over the last few days I have found that cholitas who come in pairs or wear the really bright clothing with the round hats are more likely to try to get you to take a photo in the first place or try to extrapolate more sole from you. The older women with the plain clothing and gorgeous exaggerated bowler hats are more content with what they can get.
Its fun watching the whole thing play out. I was sitting in Plaza San Blas yesterday for some time waiting to the patron of saint of San Blas to begin his procession to the cathedral for Corpus Christie (more on that to follow in another post). San Blas is the main area for tourists. Its packed with great little cafes, hotels, hostels and commercial opportunities so it is a natural place for the cholitas to gather for their commercial opportunity. The women would position themselves on a corner or where they could see the tourists coming and make their approach. The tour groups are a big potential source of income but interestingly they offer a lower success rate. Once they realise their charms have failed and there will be no tikkipiccha they just sit and chat waiting for the next opporunity. That’s when the more ‘authentic’ images happen.
So was I immune to this process you might ask. Of course not. I have already indicated that I knew what I wanted. Some I have paid my donation, others not. Not everyone got the same donation as it depended on how much change I had in my pocket or perhaps what is worse if you subscribe to equanimity, how I felt about the person. In truth older women were more likely to score more as were those whom I noticed had not had much traffic.
While it is an income for them and a collection of images for me, I read another blog last night (can’t remember the blog and didn’t keep the details) where someone has questioned potential issues with the welfare of these animals. The author raised suggestions that some were not kept in the best conditions or baby alpacas taken away from their mothers causing stress to both animals. You also have to wonder how the alpacas and llamas tolerate walking around on the cobbles, sitting on the streets or being constantly patted by strangers (the white fluffy ones are best for that as they are soft and cute). What you do notice is that most old them are patient animals. I have not seen one misbehaving. The llamas in particular seem to have far away looks in their eyes or maybe they are just meditating on emptiness. In case you are wondering, they do get fed as the cholitas carry food for them in the local Peruvian version of a rucksack on their backs.
I now have to go out to get my balcony table for Corpus Christie. I wonder if I will once again succumbe to the charms of the cholitas and those gorgeous lambs in bonnets for the long lashes of an alpaca on my way to Plaza de Armas.