Sunday, December 9, 2018

A Solar Project with Heart

By Tamie Meck, Published in the Delta County Independent, Wednesday, November 28, 2018, the Back Page. This article followed a delightful interview with Tamie in our home, and we are grateful for her kind and thoughtful story. I have made a slight factual corrections, in particular about the history of solar in Southern Peru.

A solar project with heart

When Paonia potters Sam Brown and Tara Miller married in the mid-1980s, they imagined selling their handmade pottery and living a simple life. She was educated in literature, he had a background in zoology, natural resources and recreation, and they shared a desire to visit the world's great mountain regions. "We live in Colorado," said Sam. "We love mountains."

In 1986 they took their first trip, to Peru and the Andes Mountains. The trip changed the course of their lives, and in turn, changed the lives of others.
Solar panels provides power for homes on Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru. Paonia potters Sam Brown and Tara Miller first visited more than 30 years ago, and over the years have helped bring solar power to the remote island while helping to market the beautiful textiles.

In the 1970s, Tara enrolled in an evening pottery class while teaching high school English in Coos Bay, Ore. Soon after, she took a year off and focused on her pottery skills. In the early 1980s she moved to Aspen to make picture frames for her photographer sister, and in 1982, began working solely in the pottery studio, studying under some of the biggest names in the field.

Her specialty was heavy ceramic mugs decorated with aspen leaves applied through a resist technique. They sold quite well in the local shops. In 1983, Tara met Sam, a National Parks Service back-country ranger stationed at Rocky Mountain National Park. Shortly after, he took off on a year-long assignment to Alaska, returned to Aspen, and joined Tara in the clay studio.

Sam added Rocky Mountain themes like elk, native birds, aspen trees, fishermen and skiers to Tara's motifs. Themes they continue to use today. "Our pottery sells well as long as we stay within the Rocky Mountain theme," said Sam.

Their trip to Peru took them to Lake Titicaca, located at almost 12,500 feet at the base of the Andes Mountains. A two-hour boat ride from the city of Puno took them to Taquile Island.

A terraced island of just over two square miles, Taquile's economy is based on agriculture and tourism. It has largely avoided outside influences for centuries. As a result, said Sam, there are no cars, bicycles, dogs or guns on the island. As they have been for centuries, major decisions are made collectively. Recently the residents thwarted efforts to commercialize and build hotels.

"It's a real peaceful society," said Sam. "You walk everywhere."

Taquile is known worldwide for its fine textiles, made using centuries-old knitting and weaving techniques, and from which their colorful and traditional clothing is made. In 2005, Taquile's textile arts were proclaimed "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO.

Most tourists stay a couple of hours, take photos and buy textiles before heading back to Puno. Sam and Tara planned to stay two nights and were assigned a host family.

One modern technology only beginning to be introduced in the region was solar power, but it was unknown on Taquile Island. What little power they had came from lead-acid batteries. Charging them meant a three-day round trip to Puno. Tara and Sam knew about solar power both through association with the Rocky Mountain Institute and through a new renewable energy program at Colorado Mountain College in Aspen, which in 1991 would morph into Solar Energy International. The environmental risks of the lead-acid batteries were a big concern, they said.

Their host couple were weavers. They showed Sam and Tara their beautiful textiles and shared their dream of going to America to sell their goods and teach their craft.

"Being craftspeople ourselves, we bought into the dream," said Tara. Their two-night stay turned into a week. In 1988, they returned, smuggling in a 9-watt solar panel. They wired the panel to a radio and played music. To the residents, "It was like magic," said Sam.

Everyone wanted a panel, they said. They traded the panel for textiles, which they sold back home at local craft fairs, and re-invested the money in more solar panels to take with them on their next trip.

Taquile's inhabitants gained more than solar power, they gained a family. On Taquile, says Tara, "We're 'Madrina and Padrino,'" Godmother and Godfather.

Tara and Sam moved to Paonia in the early 1990s and set up their clay studio. It hasn't made them rich, but that was never the plan, they said. Tara began ceramic mugs, platters, bowls, planters, and other objects, and Sam made clay coil stoneware fruit/bread baskets. They were busy with family life, and in winters sold Christmas trees in California for Sam's family's business.

In the mid-1990s they returned to their Taquile family, and have returned almost every year, always packing solar equipment for trade. Back home, they sold textiles alongside their pottery. "We figure that was their currency because it's good stuff," said Sam. Since they only need to make enough to buy more solar equipment, the markup is small. Items sell well, and people who know weaving recognize the fine detail of the weaving and understand the skills required to make it.

Through the years Sam and Tara have also brought Taquile residents to America. One year the Smithsonian Institution hosted a group of Taquile residents. The Smithsonian paid their expenses, but when offered money, "They wanted solar panels," said Sam. "The Smithsonian had to run around and buy solar panels to pay them."

SEI moved from Carbondale to Paonia in 2002. When they offered a class on solar energy in the developing world, Tara and Sam gave a lecture on Taquile. Most lectures were filled with technical speak, they said. They spoke about smuggling solar panels into Peru, trading panels for textiles, and how much they loved the people. "We were the project with heart," said Tara.
Sam shares a happy moment with three young sisters on Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru, where he and wife Tara are known as ‘Madrina and Padrino,’ Godmother and Godfather.

Tara and Sam are still living simply and making pottery in the home studio. At the height of their career, they did as many as 12 craft shows a year. They could have had more lucrative careers, but instead made a conscious choice to maintain control of their lives. They wanted the flexibility that allows them to hike or travel and work in their studio. "We knew we were choosing the lower money route, but we were choosing a quality of life, other than a 9-to-5 job," said Sam.

After more than 30 years, they're cutting back on craft fairs and slowing production. They plan to create more local venues and set up shop online. The demand is still there, said Tara. She recently enlisted the help of an assistant to work in the studio.

They also plan to continue visiting their Taquile family. They recently established a program to provide school supplies to the local children. Two years ago, Brad Burritt and Danielle Carre with Empowered Energy Systems in Hotchkiss traveled to Taquile to install two small solar systems. Through a YouCaring campaign, they raised money and returned last year with son Asa, a solar installer who speaks Spanish, to teach a solar installation class. Four Taquile residents earned their diplomas and now have textbooks to refer to.
Paonia Artists Sam Brown and Tara Miller wear traditional clothing for the annual Carnival celebration on Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru. In 2005, UNESCO proclaimed Taquile Island’s centuries-old tradition of textile weaving and knitting as “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

Their positive influence on the island continues. Recently their godson was re-elected to town council. When a diesel fired water-pumping project was proposed, which would belch diesel smoke and not bode well with the tourists, he lobbied for solar, and won. Thanks to the resulting project, the island now has three water pumping systems, virtually eliminating the need to haul water.

Hauling water, said Sam, is considered one of the biggest jobs in the developing world. On one trip to Taquile they had to haul water, and almost cried when they got home and turned on the faucet. "It's so amazing that we have running water, both temperatures, and it's clean," said Tara.

On their most recent trip, they brought home dozens of textiles -- hats, gloves, scarves, belts and purses. Some pieces are tagged with the artist's name, type of wool used, and a short story. As they have for many years, this Friday and Saturday they will have a booth at the annual Holiday Art Fair at the Blue Sage Center for the Arts in Paonia.

Their years of work and visits to Taquile Island are documented in words and photographs at


Thursday, November 1, 2018

Holiday Fairs 2018

November 3, one day, from 8am to 3pm
We will focus on textiles, with a small sampling of our pottery.
Location is 786 26 1/2 Road, Grand Junction
Our booth will be outside between the Gym and the Middle School Building. We like the outside space if it's not raining. It's a good place to try on an alpaca hat!
Gloves: warm, soft, and alpaca!

Book bags, phone bags, dancing purse

Alpaca hats, warm and cozy

Finely woven and knitted scarves

Paonia Holiday Art Fair
Just a heads up: November 30 and December 1 at the Blue Sage Center. We will have more pottery at this show than in Grand Junction.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

School supplies of all sorts

We've been buying school supplies for years
This is one of our primary services to several families, to help their kids do well in school.
Teachers give students their "lists," the very specific notebooks required for each subject:
Red for Math, Green for Science (correct me on this, kids!), plus the art supplies and pens and even a cushion and toothbrush, plus a few books such as the dictionary.

We met Erica, Breta, and Yaquelin with their grandmother at the big school supply fair at the stadium and found most of what they needed.
Happy to get the rest of their school supplies
The elementary school requested cushions--I guess to pad the seats! Maybe they shouldn't be sitting so much as to need cushions.

Erica is happy choosing cuadernos
We bought school supplies for 12 students in elementary and secondary school at about $30 each.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ivan starts college, majoring in auto/boat mechanics.
Ivan's summer jobs the last couple of summers has been driving the boats back and forth from Puno to Taquile. He saw that mechanics would always be in demand, and also that it would be advantageous to have a mechanic in the family. Three boats are owned among his uncles. So he told his parents that he wanted to continue his education. He chose a respected institution, SENATI. His coursework includes not only auto mechanics, but math, physics, chemistry, British English, communications, personal development and technical drawing, as well as a special course in cell-phone repair!. It will be a three-year program. We have committed to paying tuition of $100 per month plus an occasional extra.

Silvano brought us on an excursion to check out the facilities.
Ivan is living in the family's apartment in the Taquile Albergue is on an upper floor, with natural light through a good window, plus a solar panel and electricity. Silvano chose it long ago with his dream to someday educate his children in Puno. It's small, but adequate for a college student to be able to study. The school requires that each student has a computer, so we bought one.  

Modern day college students everywhere use computers.
On top of the world:
Standing on top of the roof of the Albergue in his new uniform.
Ivan is doing very well in his coursework and beginning to experience hands-on mechanic work as well. All year, I have been in touch with his father through the internet. Silvano stays in Puno a lot to keep an eye on the young man, but he is living up to the challenge of advance education,. He keeps up with his studies.
* * * * * * * * *
Kusi starts college
Kusi graduated from high school top of her class, and showed great promise to further her education. Her dream as always been to be in a profession that would help people, nutritionist, nurse. However those professions required a 6 year commitment and probably a move to Lima. She is only 17 as she starts her education, and settled on a study of languages for the tourist guide profession. Credits will be transferable from this school when or if she is ready to go for a bigger degree.
We got her all enrolled into a three-year program right in Puno. We are greatly assisted in the financing of Kusi's education by her godfather from Gunnison, Colorado, Luke Danielson. Thanks, Lucas!
A visit to the English classroom
The family is happy to get her started.

The family's  small room in the Taquile Albergue is dark and unsatisfactory for her to live in Puno, so the family want on a search for adequate housing where either her mother, Asunta, or her grandmother, Celbia, would stay with her most of the time. She would therefore need a desk and bed and other furniture. So school supplies take on a whole new meaning:
Table, desk, chair, tea kettle and pressure cooker

Armando loads up the new mattress. Big enough to share with grandma.
At last Kusi is established in her new apartment. She looks so confident at her new desk, with her new cell phone (required by the school to receive assignments).

She transferred to a different school after two months. San Luis kept imposing new fees and unreasonably expensive excursions. For example, a student training tour of the Uros Islands required payment of the same that would be charged to tourists! She transferred to a facility in Capachica where she entered a program wherein she could study on her own and then report for instruction and testing every two weeks. During that time, she worked with Eufrasia in the store on Taquile while Delfin was recovering from an illness. We are not sure of her current academic status, but this week she was carrying and studying a book to learn English. She seems to have fallen in love; her boyfriend's family has a restaurant on Taquile. She is now age 18 and a legal adult.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018


Excursion around Sicuani 
Sicuani has hot springs in one direction, the Raqchi archeological site and healing waters in the other direction. The city itself harbors few tourists. We brought three Taquile young Taquile friends with us. Juana is our goddaughter and hasn't been on an excursion since she was a child. Delfin also hadn't been on any of our excursions except many years ago to Silustani. Kusi had been to Sicuani with her family and us two years ago, but since she is starting college next month; a vacation seemed like a good start.
Juana got some free postcards at the museum.
The central plaza even has palm trees.
Sicuani has a pleasant central plaza with lots of plants
Sam and Delfin relax in front of a Palm Tree
The city has painted murals

We visited the Incan archeological site of Raqchi, a sacred place for Viracocha. 

We hired the same Local Guide, Denis, as two years ago.

Stone steps built into the wall of a terrace

We climbed to the mirador-viewpoint high above the ruins for an overview.

On part of the trail was like a bower, a tunnel of lush plant growth.
Girlfriends in the bower
It even had purple mushrooms!
The long corridor is oriented to correspond with the December (summer) Solstice:

Juana and Kusi wash at the Inca fountain for women
The Town of Raqchi is a town of potters. Denis's father is a skilled potter and was working on some commissions for various museums in Cusco. His pots are beautifully finished and all hand-built without a potter' wheel.
Church in the town central of Raqchi

The San Pedro natural cleansing waters are for drinking and diarrhea. It is rather like that medicine one takes before a colonoscopy. The Taquileños place quite a bit of credit to the healing powers of this process, so Delfin, Kusi and I decided to go for the experience. Delfin was an old pro, having come here a couple of times, but Kusi and I struggled. The grounds are quite lovely with fountains and beautiful gardens.

For the chemists, the following is the analysis of this water, of which we drank about 20 cups, until our diarrhea came out clear.

San Pedro Eye Bathing is a different set of water where one places open eyes in the water to bathe them. Sam compared it to his antihistamine eye drops. It stings quite a bit so you only leave your eyes in the water for a moment. Afterward, my eyes felt quite relaxed.

The Town of San Pedro was lovely, with this statue in the main square
Tupac Amaru Museum

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Harvest and School and Life

Harvest has begun on Taquile
We approach the Autumnal Equinox in the Southern Hemisphere and crops are beginning to mature.The major crops on Taquile are Potatoes, Quinoa, Oca, and Corn. Oca is a tuber in the oxalis family with pretty yellow flowers. Quite sweet if placed in the sun for an couple of hours before cooking.

Here we see the beautiful quinoa, tall stalks. Many people are now putting plastic or scarecrows around their quinoa to save it from the birds.
In the foreground is oca in bloom with yellow flowers.
Gonzalo and Pelajia have begun harvesting their quinoa. Here it is drying in the sun just after harvest:
The potato fields are all in bloom. We have been enjoying new potatoes since Carnaval. Up to now, most have been from "volunteer" potatoes among other crops, but some further harvest is beginning. We have some problems with a "guzano," a grub sort of worm in the potatoes, so sometime I hear the joke that our harvest is in competition with the guzanos. Most have looked very healthy this year so far.
A few fields were planted very late, these potatoes may be quite small and will probably be used to make chuño, or freeze dried potatoes. Sam and I helped Celbia cultivate this small field of late planted potatoes:
School Starts
Just as autumn signals harvest, it also brings the first day of school. This is a day of pomp, with gifts of pens for the students, speeches from teachers and the mayor, and the school student body president. And, naturally, confetti.

The grade school children get gifts of pencils, balloons and lolipops.
Fun and Play
We celebrated Eufrasia's birthday with pineapple and mangos in the afternoon, and then Sam and I cooked supper. Coconut cream in Asian style vegetables with quinoa on the side instead of rice. And no, I didn't take of picture of the meal. Darn!
Of course, playing with children is the most fun. Lisbet can be quite organized with flower blossoms:
Here she poses for us before a large cantuta bush (almost a tree) in full bloom:
Community Radio
I am a volunteer for KVNF, Mountain Grown Community Radio in Paonia, Colorado, so naturally, I am interested in this little community radio station on Taquile. Besides, I had a couple of announcements to place on the radio and a visit to the station was the best way.
This DJ uses his video pad and a cell phone to play the music. The other DJ I visited runs the music from his two phones. Checks the levels with a radio in the window. It works!