Sunday, June 28, 2009

And The Darker Side

Last Thursday in Ayacucho was a day of rather intense conversation, culminating in me contracting another annoying stomach upset, potentially from any number of sources, which flattened any plans I might have had for Friday.

In the early afternoon I visited the Museo de la Memoria, or ANFASEP as it is more commonly known, which is dedicated to the victims of the conflict of the 1980s and 1990s. None of the reported titles of the parent organisation quite match with the acronym: it is at least the Asociación Nacional de Familiares, but the most common spelling-out mentions Secuestrados, Detenidos y Desaparecidos (kidnapped, arrested and disappeared) adding at least two missing 'd's, while the acronym appears to be stuck with a redundant 'p'.

Quibbling aside, ANFASEP can best be summed up as the Peruvian equivalent of the Argentinian Mothers of the Disappeared. It was first formed in the early 1980s by a group of brave mothers determined to get answers about the whereabouts of their family members who had been snatched from their homes or workplaces, as the state made a scorched-earth response to the Sendero Luminoso uprising. ANFASEP has grown and strengthened steadily through the years, playing a role in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the recent uncovering of the remains of torture victims at the military base of Los Cabitos, about 40km from Ayacucho.

As I was the only visitor apart from a young anthropology student from UF Gainesville who was doing a project on the museum, I was fortunate to be able to have an extended talk with the acting curator, the señora Maribel.

Later, I had a long chat with the señora Ana, who runs a cafeteria in Ayacucho's (to date) only Arequipan-style colonial patio dedicated to commerce and dining. After that, I finally got to meet Ana's mother Celina, who is an anthropologist and has spent years working in development projects with NGOs and government institutions in rural Ayacucho (many thanks to Yalivi in Brisbane for the contacts).

Past Reminders

Tuesday's tourist trip was so pleasant I was starting to create an excessively warm and fuzzy image of the region. Casual conversation with smiling, excessively polite guide Leo on the way back to the city corrected some of that impression. While the city and its surrounds at least have made a remarkable recovery in only a few years, the legacy of its dark past has not disappeared.

Leo said he came from a small village in the south of the department and was about 8 or 9 years old during the worst part of the conflict. At the time, there was basically no middle way between the Senderistas and the military. Any one who was suspected of cooperating with either group ended up dead. There was also the forced recruitment by Sendero Luminoso of children as young as ten or eleven years. The only alternative was to migrate. For Leo, that meant moving to the capital city of Humanga. Thousands of his compatriots travelled further: to this day, several bus services in Ayacucho run direct to the Lima barrios of San Juan de Miraflores and Ate Vitarte, linking with the large immigrant ayacuchana communities there. Leo's seven brothers and sisters are now spread out across various different departments of Peru.

According to Leo, people in the Ayacucho region continue to have considerable sympathy for currently imprisioned former president Fujimori. They see him as having played an important part in ending the terrorist uprising, as well as having personally visited the region and being "the one president to deliver what he promised". Certainly, the one of the most prominent of the many slogans painted on roadside and walls in the region is "Keiko 2011", referring to Fujimori's daughter's likely run for the presidency at the next elections.

Alan Garcia, on the other hand, is close to being in the unpardonable category. During his first term as president, as the Sendero Luminoso uprising was worsening, he is supposed to have said something like: "Ayacucho is full of terrorists; we should just bomb the whole place". I'll write more in another post, but this is the same demagogic, authoritarian streak which many see as ultimately responsible for the recent fiasco, and tragic loss of life, in the northern jungle.

The Musuem of Memory

The ANFASEP museum was on a street corner, in a basic, dimly lit adobe building marked only by the murals painted across its walls. On the first level was a small meeting room lined with school assembly-style benches, while above was a small gallery containing photos, descriptions, and contemporary retablos depicting incidents from the years of conflict. The slogan for the musuem was "so it never happens again". It was by turns sad, poignant, and horrifying.

Although the musuem commemorates victims of both the Senderistas and the military, it has an unashamed focus on those who were detained, kidnapped and disppeared, which were almost exclusively tactics used by the armed forces.

The señora Maribel introduced the displays to me by trying to put into context what happened when the army was called in to respond the the Senderista uprising. For her, the key was language. Unlike in the countryside of Arequipa or Huancavelica where the majority of the population are competent in Spanish, in rural Ayacucho, most people could only speak Quechua. They were thus unable to commuinicate with the army units that were sent to the region, who in turn suspected that the local populations were plotting against them or deliberately speaking in code.

She tried to put herself in the shoes of the young soldiers who were posted into the region during the conflict. "For them, it was like an adventure. But the kind of adventure that could go very wrong".

Maribel had been in the city of Humanga for the entire duration of the conflict. For those who, like me, only have a vague knowledge of the war, it's worth noting that the capital was never actually held by the Sendero Luminoso. However, the descriptions of life during the conflict make it sound rather Baghdad-like: curfews, rationed electricity, explosions in the night, constant fear.

Señora Maribel spoke of hearing an explosion as she was walking down the street one morning and seeing what looked like a "rag doll" fly through the air. It was an eleven-year old boy, recruited by Sendero Luminoso from one of the poor rural communities, who had presumably been on the way to depositing a bomb in some state agency. Trembling with nerves, he would have clutched the device too closely to his stomach, setting it off.

Our conversation diverged on to many other topics, including literature and politics. The señora Maribel was unimpressed with Mario Vargas Llosa, who she said had was "completely limeño" and had a hostile attitude towards Ayacucho, which he had apparently never visited when he was writing his novel Death in the Andes. The novel is set in Ayachucho during the civil war, but is best summed up as an elaborate evocation of costeño paranoia toward the sierra.

She also groaned at my comments of people retaining sympathy for Fujmori. Her account corresponded with my background reading: the defeat of the terrorists had little to do with the government's military response, and was largely owing to a small group of Lima-based police intelligence who had tracked down and arrested leader Abimael Guzman, around whom a cult-like following had developed.

She reiterated the paradox of the Shining Path: its radical Maoist ideology supposedly held that no one was indispensable, yet, after the arrest of Guzman, the whole organisation collapsed "like a pack of cards". She described how Fujimori and Montesinos had ignored and failed to provide support for the police intelligence efforts to track Guzman, but then rapidly tried to take the credit when they were successful.

The señora Maribel poured a little cold water on my comments that the city and its surrounds, at least, appeared to have made a remarkable recovery. "It's mostly on the surface", she said. One of things most lacking for ordinary people was decent health care. Señora Maribel explained that the much-vaunted Seguro Integral de Salud offered only the bare minimum and did not cover many medications or even such acute care as cancer surgery. She described a case of a campesina woman with thryoid cancer who had been unable to acess or afford appropriate medical care, and as a result this eminently curable disease (with generally at least a 95% 5-year relative survival rate) had turned metastatic and was now in its terminal phase. Needless to say, morphine and decent palliative care were not covered either.

Realities of Ayacucho

After the musuem, I stopped by Niñachay, the cafe run by the señora Ana. She met her Ukrainian husband (a quailifed teacher who speaks four languages) working on cruise ships in the Caribbean, and they had narrowly decided not to migrate to Adelaide in favour of staying in Ayacucho until their three year-old son got a little older.

Ana was a lot more at ease in Ayacucho than her husband, but assured me that there was "nothing here" for older kids and adolescents.

She also pre-empted my question about the economy by assuring me that there was "no industry" to compare with Arequipa and that the flashes of wealth around the city were in large part distilled from the compounds of the coca leaf. "Why do you think there are so many banks?", she asked, lowering her voice. She said that a few months previously there had been a group of American soldiers posted in Ayacucho, who had undertaken what she thought was a surveillance mission into the VRAE region. They had come and eaten at her cafe, because she spoke English.

After I ate lunch, Ana kindly gave me directions to her mother's house and called to say I was coming.

The señora Celina was now retired from full-time work had was working on a consultative basis for NGOs and other institutions. She had arrived back from a trip that morning, eight hours away to the south of the department. I sympathised with the journey across rough roads (six hours to or from Cabanaconde wipes me out) and asked if she had travelled by 4WD. A slow smile spread over her face and I corrected myself: "ah, no, by kombi". Working in development has a romantic ring to it, but it takes just one long, bone-jolting journey on Andean roads in public transport to appreciate the real commitment it must take to work for the sparsely-funded organisations to which the señora Celina had dedicated so many years.

Celina gave me a brief overview of the issues affecting the region. The reality for much of Ayacucho, especially the south, is of land without much water, where agriculture remains stuck at subsistence level, plots of land are tiny and scattered, and migration to the city is often the only way to get ahead. As with my previous interlocutors, Celina shook her head about the alluring flow of dollars from the illegal coca economy, with their ugly collateral of entrapment and violence.

I quizzed her on what policies could help the region move forward. The first thing that she mentioned was improved roads into the VRAE region, which would help develop the potential of alternative crops like coffee and cacao, and move the emphasis away from coca.

She also said that she had been working on a project plan for developing leadership among rural women, one of the areas that she saw as very important but that struggled to compete for a budget against more high-profile "ribbon-cutting" projects such as roads and bridges. Another area that could do with more support was reproductive information, which was in demand by campesina women. She said that there had been a big push for reproductive education and family planning in the past (under Fujimori, some of this had its own very dark side), but this had lost emphasis and resources.

She was skeptical of the government's Sierra Exportadora programme, which seems to have fizzled out, and was in any case, ironically directed mainly at crops that grow best on the coast. Instead, she gave props to the Sierra Emprendedora (entrepreneurial sierra) movement, a loose association of local groups aiming to promote the development and marketing of local products, rediscovering and enhancing traditional methods of production

For the development studies students, it's worth noting that you tend to get pretty similar answers when you ask these questions. Basic infrastructure, health and education services, development of skills and leadership -- especially for women -- and assistance for the kind of economic opportunities and market access defined by local people themselves in terms of what they feel they do best.

Even the leaders of the supposedly "radical" groups involved in the protests in the jungle were at pains to state that " we don't oppose investment as such". For all the tortuous philosophical debate about "post development" we engage in in universities, I'm not sure there's massive cultural differences in the things people want from the modern world. It's the human interactions required to achieve these objectives, and particularly the concession of power and resources, that seem to make the process so fraught.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Charms of Ayacucho

Walking around the city of Ayacucho, or Humanga as it is traditionally known by its inhabitants, you would hardly imagine it as the centre of the region that originated, and most suffered from, the terrorism of the Sendero Luminoso and the brutal military response in the 1980s and 1990s.

First impressions are of people going busily about their daily affairs, while cheeky, smiling children are everywhere. The city and its surroundings are picturesque -- it has a typical Spanish colonial layout, flower-fringed plazoletas, and cobblestone streets. At face value at least, Catholicism is a dominant presence. As everyone will tell you, there are no less than 33 churches in Ayacucho, in a city with a population of at most 200,000. The Semana Santa (Easter) celebrations are renowned as being the most impressive in Latin America.

With its proximity to the jungle and its cosy location nestled in a shallow valley, the climate is warmer than Cuzco or Arequipa, the air softer and less bone dry The countryside is greener; although it is now starting to dry up, I understand the rains return in December with more regularity and plentitude than further south. The tap water is clean and sweet.

Ayacucho also seems to be overflowing with educational instutions -- schools, technical institutes, academies and universities. This means that the place is still full of young people, and thus doesn't have the abandoned feel of some smaller towns in Peru.

On the downside, issues of transit are even more fraught than elsewhere, even if you just want to walk around the few central city blocks near the plaza. The pavements are extremely narrow, and in the tight and bumpy streets, traffic drives extremely close to the kerb (Hiluxes and Corrollas mix with numerous battered moto-taxis; there are few of the little yellow 'Tico' taxis that dominate in Arequipa).

People seem to have little problem with any of the following: walking very slowlyy two abreast and blocking the footpath; weaving from side to side while talking on a cellphone, making overtaking difficult; walking two abreast and not making space for someone coming the other way; or simply standing still in a group and blocking the entire path.

This means that to make any progress, you often have to step off the sidewalk into the street. At the same time, there is no safe zone in the street, as the moto-taxis -- wth zero suspension and ancient steering -- often brush the gutter. You therefore have to make rapid tactical decisions about stepping on and off the pavement, calculating the proximity and likely speed of traffic and obstacles. With the jammed intersections, crumbling kerbs, and unpredictable human and vehicular traffic, almost every street crossing is a mini-adventure.

I've asked several people what the basis of the economy is here. Given that Ayacucho is in the bottom half of Peruvian departments with respect to poverty, there seems to be a suprising amount of apparent wealth. I've noticed an inordinate number of 4WD Toyota Hiluxes in the streets, on a per capita basis, many more than in much wealthier Arequipa. To be fair, a number of these seem to belong to various government agencies that maintain a notable presence. However, while the first couple of my interlocutors posited "just agriculture really" or "mainly goverment services" in response to my question, others later confirmed my suspicions.

What gives Ayachucho its sheen of dollar wealth is its connection with the coca economy. The lowland regions of the department, known as the VRAE (Valle de los Rios Apurimac y Ene, pronounced like the first syllable of "Bryan") are among the most fertile and productive in the world for growing coca, and according to United Nations reports, production is increasing more rapidly there than anywhere else. It goes without saying that the majority of the coca is not grown for traditional medicinal and cermonial uses. The VRAE is a remote, lawless zone where the presence of the Peruvian state remains shaky and the remnants of the Sendero Luminoso mix with ruthless drug traffickers. Yet it provides an injection of cash into the capital that shows up in the disproportionate number of banks, cars, and well-groomed women in expensive jackets.

Around Ayacucho

On Monday I took a little tour of one of the 'northern circuits' offered by local travel agencies. It was a very pleasant trip in a private vehicle, a middle-aged US-Peruvian couple my only company apart from Leo the guide.

From the city, we wound further downhill into a narrow valley with cactus lining the quebradas, spaghetti-western style. Natural irrigation from the river supported a fertile zone of fruit and vegetable production. We headed back uphill to our first stop, the archeological complex of Wari. The Wari were a 'horizon culture' that dominated the area from the 6th to the 11th century. In their two periods of expansion, they dominated as far north as Trujillo and south to Moquegua (basically three quarters of Peru, excluding the Amazon).

The Wari capital was the first walled city in South America, and their empire prefigured the Incas in important respects, notably in architecture and administration. They also seemed to have an impressive system of stone ducts that formed a subterranean water supply in a similar manner to the Nazca culture.

We walked through the military quarters, public amphitheatre, sacrificial platform (animals and occasionally people), and the royal tomb. The latter (pictured below) was perhaps the most impressive of the sites. It is divided into four sections, in which

Only 10 percent of the archeological complex has been excavated. Work began in the 1960s, and was of course completely abandonded during the 1980s and 90s and only got underway again around 2000. The Insituto Nacional de Cultura oversees archological investigations, but is predictably lacking funds, and any support from international institutes or universities or the private sector would reportedly be very welcome.

Later we continued on to the Pampa de Ayachucho, where the final battle for Peruvian independence was fought on 9 December 1824 and the outnumbered, outgunned 'patriotic' army of Jose Antonio Sucre defeated Royalist forces. The broad, flat windy plain at nearly 3,000 metres above sea level almost seems designed for an old-style cavalry battle -- you can imagine Braveheart being filmed there.

Dominating the landscape was the 44-metre obelisk depicted below. Its construction was commissioned in 1974 to commemorate 150 years of independence (designed, ironically, by a Spanish sculptor). The various levels in the scultpure are supposed to stand for the different geographical zones of Peru.

The final stop of the day was in La Quinua, a strikingly pretty and clean village of tiled roofs and cobblestone streets where almost every family is dedicated to the production of ceramics made from local clay. Most are model churches, campesinos working, or children playing muscial instruments. The photo below shows some of the typical designs. I couldn't resist, and bought a couple of ceramic pieces and a retablo, which, if they survive the journey back to New Zealand, will become presents for some lucky people.

On Wednesday, I caught a kombi to the town of Huanta, just over an hour from Ayacucho. It's another attractive town, nestled in a green valley, with exceptionally well laid out plazas incorporating botanical displays. I think I was a bit over tired by the time I got there, and perhaps coming down with something, so only stayed a few hours before heading back to the capital, without learning too much about the place. But as I learnt later, La Quinua and Huanta probably give a distorted impression of rural Ayacucho.

The above pictures and descriptions should provide a prima facie case for why Ayacucho is overlooked and should probably receive a lot more international tourism. However, it's not all sunshine and flowers, and in a further post I'll try and do a rather more image-light summary of the other things I learned while in the region.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Catching Up and Travelling in Circles

Because I'm so long-winded and becuase there's always a tension between doing and writing, I tend to find that when I'm travelling my blogs are always catching up with one another, and often get out of order.

So it is that although I had started a more narrative-style piece from my time in the Colca, that's only going to get finished if I have time tomorrow, while in the interim I'm dashing off a quick 'planned movements' post.

Right now I'm back in Lima. It was Lizbeth's birthday yesterday, and Hugo had two returning Swiss clients to pick up from the airport, so it was decided to have the celebrations in Lima at the house of Lizbeth's uncle Antonio, attended by numerous members of her labrynthine family.

I've just bought myself a bus ticket to Ayacucho So far on this trip I've travelled Lima-Arequipa-Cuzco-Santa Teresa-Cuzco-Arequipa-Colca-Arequipa-Lima. I'm currently planning on working my way from Ayacucho through Andahuaylas and Abancay (check the map) to Cuzco and from there back to Arequipa. I will have described a big circle.

From there, I plan to head back to the Colca for a few days, and will also try to fit in some trekking and climbing. Hugo has offered to go with me to Ampato, but you can never tell if he's serious, and in any case I insist on doing a 'warm-up' trek or climb. At this stage, a likely possibility is the Salkantay trek in Cuzco, which is a more gruelling and remote alternative to the Inca Trail, with ascents up to 4,600 metres.

It's ironic. Most travellers who arrive in Lima are eager to escape the crowds, the pollution, the insecurity, and, in winter, the grey overcast skies. Sunshine, laid back villages, and picturesque landscapes beckon in the Peruvian interior. Yet, after nearly four weeks in the more tourist-favoured regions, coming back to Lima is a relief in a number of ways. Most prominent, surprisingly is the climate. June skies might be unremittingly dull, but the moist air feels like a balm after the rock-bottom humidity and ever present dust of the sierra in the dry season. In Arequipa, I've always got mild nosebleeds and lingering snuffliness, and in the past used to think that smoking was partly to blame, but it's been the same this time and I haven't been smoking. Yet, a couple of hours after arriving in Lima, all my cold-like symptoms had disappeared.

Another nice change in Lima is the food. There's certainly plenty of tasty eating to be had in the sierra, but you have to shop around a bit, and the food can be plain and stodgy at times. Lima is home of comida criolla, the cuisine developed in Peru with strong influences from Andalucia, and it is also where Chinese, Italian African, and Japanese touches have made the greatest impact. Seafood is generally delicious, and while chili, coriander and other spices add zing to most dishes and even in the cheap places, food is normally presented with flair.

Although I'm biased by the fact that questions of traffic and transport are a bit of an obsession of mine, I think I'm on reasonably firm ground on saying that they are among the most important issues facing Lima at the moment. The surge in economic activity over the past few years is a generally good thing, but the greater disposable income has meant more more people on the move, and more vehicles on the road. Traffic in the past was chaotic and dangerous, but usually flowed to some degree. The last couple of nights, we have found ourselves in Hugo's hired 4x4, absolutely stuck in crawling traffic, smoke-belching kombis mixing with the newer vehicles of the aspirational middle class. It is starting to resemble Bangkok.

To be fair, there are a lot of public works projects underway, some of which have already delivered sweeping new freeways and interchanges. Luis Castañeda is making a big legacy push before his term as mayor expires, and a number of projects are to be inaugurated on January 18 2010, including a bus way and the ill-fated electric train that was begun in the 1980s. It will be interesting to see what improvements occur, but Lima remains unique among large South American cities in not having a mass public transit system. If it wants to become a truly world class city, it desparately needs either a proper metro or a fully integrated busway system like Bogotá's Transmilenio.

With its football team at an all-time low, Peru is in need of sporting heroes. Fortunately, it has found one in the impressively-named Kina Malpartida, current women's world heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Last night, almost everyone in Lima was glued to the nearest TV screen watching Kina defend her world title against a Brazilian opponent. There was even a big screen attracting a large crowd in the Plaza Mayor. Kina's defense was comprehensive, totally dominating the fight and unleashing a massive straight right in the third round that convinced the referee to end the bout early. The crowds clapped and cheered wildly. In an ironic twist in this macho society, a tough woman has restored some of the deflated national pride and self-belief.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Images of the Colca

This post is a bit of a cop out given that blogging is supposed to be a primarily written medium and I generally aim to do a reasonable job of narration and description.

However, much of what I've learned and experienced over the past week or so has to go into my 'enthnographic research methods' project, while some things won't show up until my Master's thesis next year. I'm therefore reserving the more writerly tasks for things that I'm going to get graded on, and this post is little more than a series of glorified captions.

So, here are some snaps from my time in the Colca Valley last week.

This is a view over the village of Cabanaconde from near the mirador of Achachuia (a lookout point into the nearby canyon). The mountain in the background is 6,025-metre Hualca Hualca, from whose slopes Cabanaconde has traditionally received most of its water. Unsurprisingly, it is considered the main apu or mountain divinity for the village.

Anyone who has been near Peru, or been subjected to any of my accounts of travels there, has probably seen enough images of the Colca Canyon. But I think this one is worth including anyway. Taken from Achachuia, it gives a reasonable idea of scale, showing the drop from mountaintop to the river. This is not the deepest or most precipitous part of the canyon -- the section near the Cruz del Condor is considerably more spectacular. However, Gelmond assures me that the deepest part of the canyon is actually quite a lot further downstream, when the river has already become the Majes. That's something I'll have to check out some day.

The green strip in the above picture is Sangalle, which was once a verdant orchard, but now offers tourist accommodation, camping, and swimming pools. The area known as the Oasis is owned by Lizbeth's family and currently administered mainly by her younger brother Pablo. Pablo is aiming to convert the accommodation at the Oasis from rustic bamboo bungalows with dirt floors to rooms made of adobe, with tile floors, corrugated-iron and palm thatch roofs, and glass windows. He is building a new kitchen with space for a restaurant, and hopes to install an electric generator in the near future.

The picture shows rows of adobe bricks drying in the sun. They are made of mud poured into a mold, reinforced with wiry ichu grass, and then left to dry for five to six days. After this time, the adobe is rock hard. Although adobe doesn't withstand earthquakes well, it is still the dominant building material in most of the Colca Valley, and would certainly offer improved sleeping conditions for tourists at the Oasis.

The latest addition to Pablo's modernisation drive is a large refrigerator, which will apparently run on gas. Apparently, it took 14 men to bring the fridge down Cabanaconde. If you've ever done the trek down into the Colca Canyon, or something similar, you can appreciate what a monumental task that must have been. As a reward for their effort, Pablo's father put on a burrillada. Translated literally: they ate a donkey.

Cabanaconde's corn is famous as the tastiest and most nutritious in the valley, and perhaps in all of Peru. The harvest ends in May, and at the time of my visit, people were mainly occupied in collecting, deleafing, and drying the corn which had been collected in great heaps in 'corrals' after the harvest. The señora in the photo below kindly agreed to let me watch and learn about the process and take some photos of her and her family at work.

After nearly a week in Cabanaconde and the Oasis, I headed to Yanque, a village about two hours up the valley towards Chivay. There, I was met by Edy, who works at Lizbeth and Hugo's place and is studying gastronomy in Arequipa. He is from the village of Ichupampa, about 30 minutes walk from Yanque, and was back there for a couple of days for his birthday. He had offered to show me his village while I was in the Colca valley.

On the way to Yanque, I discovered that the locality was coming to the end of four days of fiestas. The final flourish was an afternoon of bullfighting at the local ring. On our way towards Ichupampa, Edy and I decided to stay and watch.

This is a view of part of the crowd watching the bullfighting, including the band, which struck up a Mexican-style flourish as the bullfighters entered the ring, and then continued for the rest of the time with variations on the distinctive, swirling local melodies. The mountain at the right is Hualca Hualca (seen from a different side than in Cabanaconde), while the peak poking its head over the horizon, Putin-like, is Sabancaya, the volcano that erupted in 1994, melting the ice cap of nearby Ampato and leading to the discovery of the mummy Juanita.

There were four bullfighters, one each from Puno, Arequipa and Cuzco, and one all the way from Venezuela. Below is an action shot as one of the more boisterous bulls managed to separate the bullfighter from his cape. We stayed to watch four bulls, and left before the toro de muerte, or the bull which is to be killed. I kind of preferred it that way.

Between the bulls was an impressive exhibition of the marinera, a dance of criollo (Spanish colonial) origin and practiced with the greatest attention on the north coast of Peru. The dance follows a pattern whereby the women elegantly dances around waving her handkerchief at the man, who describes tight circles on his horse and occasionally takes off his hat to salute the lady. It was pleasant to watch, and I was particulalry impressed with the performance of the horse, which they call a caballo de paso.

The below picture is of Edy with his aunt outside her small 'milk product plant' in Ichupampa. Edy's aunt and uncle have small plots of land which they largely use to graze animals, as do most of the residents of the locality. They received some assistance from an NGO called DESCO to establish the plant and were taught how to make saleable cheeses and yoghurts under appropriate conditions of hygiene. Their daughter was the one who was mainly responsible for the commerical side of the process, and she has now moved to the Majes Valley with her husband, although she is still assisting her parents to an extent. Edy's uncle told me that it is difficult with just the two, but they are struggling on, and that the NGO 'puts pressure' on them to keep the business running.

The milk is pasteruised and flavouring is added to the yoghurt, but not preservative. This means that it only lasts 3 or 4 days, and most is sold locally. We bought a cheese to take with us to Arequipa, and some delicious yoghurt which we consumed in the bus on the way.

That Incan Ruin in the Back Yard

If you've done the rounds of the Incan ruins in Cuzco, the stone work in the photos below should be quickly recognisable. The large, rectangular blocks, smooth surfaces, and uncanny fit, are all hallmarks of the architectural structures to which the Incas accorded importance. The contrast is notable with the rubbly stone work to the right of the picture, while it can be seen that these stones and the Incan blocks have all been glued together with the dried mud used as cement in the traditional adobe constructions of the region.

For various reasons, I didn't get a very good angle on either photo, and you can't quite see that the large, 'Incan' blocks form the left hand side of a doorway, which has been filled in with the rubbly stones. The right hand side of the doorway (out of picture) was also made of large, smooth blocks.

So, is this doorway in some obscure corner of Machu Picchu, or one of the lesser ruins dotted around Cuzco and included in a tourist route? No, in fact it is sitting quietly in the back yard of a private residental property in Cabanaconde in the province of Caylloma, Arequipa. The doorway was apparently part of the palace of a regional Incan governor. Now it's an anomalous structure out the back of someone's little corner shop.

It's things like this which kind of sum up what is so attractively offbeat and incongruous about Peru.

I'm not going to reveal the exact location, so as not to subject the owner of the property to excessive harassment. Yes, I know that I only have about thirty readers, of whom most probably won't be in the region in the near future. But it only takes someone from the Lonley Planet or similar to happen across this post, and the next thing you know the place has become a tourist curiosity, whether or not its owner is ready or willing.

As you'd imagine in the case of a piece of architecture that has presumably sat virtually untouched for over 500 years, there are stories of strange powers attached to the Incan doorway. However, I won't say any more for now -- the details need to be worked into the report for my ethnographic research project.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Radio Silence and the Tragedy in Bagua

Tomorrow I head off to the Colca valley at 2:00 pm in the afternoon. I feel like I've spent a couple of days too many in Arequipa and haven't advanced as much as I'd like with the main purposes of my trip. But it's probably been worth it to get over the various niggling problems and soak up some comfortable living before venturing into harsher conditions. Surely four essentially sleepless journeys of more than 15 hours within two weeks justify some recharging of batteries, especially when combined with jet lag, a cold, mild diarrhea, and a smattering of bites from both bed bugs and mosquitos?

I'll be in the Colca region for anything from 5 or 6 days, to 2 weeks, depending on how much progress I make with my studies, how nice people are to me, and whether I come back to Arequipa between my time in Cabanaconde and my intended visit to the village of Ichupampa. There is internet in Cabanaconde, but it is likely to be slow, and in any case I should be busy with other things than sitting in an internet café. There is therefore likely to be radio silence on this blog for a while, and the posts will continue to come in fits and starts.

In the absence of blog posts, I nevertheless hope to maintain my 'scratch notes', 'field notes proper', log, and transcipts< / obscure academic reference>. Ironically, most of the latter are so far stored, not in my dog-eared notebook, but in an unpublished 'in draft' entry on this website. Google's servers are the new poste restante.


Ironically, being in Peru I find myself almost less in touch with current events than when I'm in New Zealand. We didn't have any internet at Hugo's Lodge, with the nearest access 4km away in Santa Teresa (although now Hugo has installed a satellite service), and in Santa Teresa it was hard to come by any newspapers, let alone something serious like La Republica. For this reason, I had been rather ignorant of the gathering tension in the northern jungle, in which native communities were blocking major roads and demanding the derogation of legislative decree 1090, which they claim opens their communal lands to easier exploitation by mining and petroleum companies.

I'm therefore just piecing together information about the terrible tragedies that have occurred around the town of Bagua, near the main route to Chachapoyas and Tarapoto, where confrontations between police and native communities have resulted in the death of at least 23 policemen and an unknown number of local community members.

As conflicting reports filter in from the TV and radio, and different groups try to put their side of the story forward in the media, the only thing certain is that there terrible things have occurred, and there is bitter agony all around. It's somewhat reminiscent of the events in Pando in Boliva last September, although worse, in that most of the violence there occurred in a single confused clash, which doesn't seem to have been the case here.

The political drama brushed by obliquely last week, when, as we drove in Hugo's 4WD on the way to Santa Teresa, we passed numerous minivans and trucks laden with "natives" who were returning from having blocked the way to Machu Picchu as part of a national protest. However, Cuzco's ceja de selva is not really a focus of the conflict, and as far as I can tell , almost all of the residents are recent immigrants from elsewhere in Peru, mostly the sierra.

For those who have picked up some news through the international media, they might like to set these shocking occurrences against any impressions I might have given of a warm glow of material development in Peru's main urban centres. They might also note that a number of commentators have quickly made the connection with the wider context set by president Alan Garcia's "Dog in the Manger" discourse, which I criticised a while back. Regardless of the details of exactly what happened and how, when a whole class of people are treated as mere obstacles in the path of progress, outbreaks of conflict and violence are hardly unexpected.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

New Inca Trails

If I had got up at 5:00 instead of 6:00 as Gelmond had wanted, we would have had time for breakfast. If we'd had time for breakfast, we would have had something more than three oranges each to sustain ourselves. As it was, when we finally got going on the walk shortly before 6:30, we had to hurry, lest the clouds puffing off the moutainside obscure the views of the snowy peaks and the heat of the day catch up with us in the middle of the trek. To be fair, I hadn't yet figured out that Gelmond's time estimates for "there and back" were more accurate if taken as referring to the outward journey only, so was less worried than I should have been about the lack of breakfast. But once again, the discomfort that intruded on an interesting and spectacular trip was mostly my own fault.

After arriving at Hugo's Lodge, I had been introduced to the local team. Walter, from the village of Ichupampa in the Colca valley, who I already knew from when he worked as a domestic employee at Hugo and Lizbeth's place, was working as a cook. Aquilino, a local guy of indeterminate age but with wiry strength, cleaned, laboured, and helped in the kitchen. Gelmond was Hugo and Lizbeth's favoured guide for their Sudamerica Tour trips. A twenty-eight year old native of Arequipa, he had become a minor expert in architecture, iconography, prehispanic history, Peruvian geography, and cooking. His enthusiasm for guiding had earned him a personal mention in the latest Footprints guide to Peru. He almost never stopped talking.

A week previously, Gelmond had gone with Jaime, a compadre of Hugo who owned the land further up the hill (beyond Hugo's property of five or six hectares, the terrain is communal, until Jaime's land begins above an irrigration canal). Jaime made only occasional visits to his terrain, and most often ascended directly from Santa Teresa. They had taken a mule and worked their way up to the little house inhabited by Santiago, Jaime's caretaker. On the way down they had passed a pretty waterfall and a cave where they found some fragments of ceramic of indeterminate age. Gelmond thought the route would be an attractive one for tourists, given the views, the variety of flora and fauna, and the fact that the pathways were effectively Inca trails. I was keen to do some trekking, so we agreed that the two of us would undertake further reconnaissance.

The first stretch of the trek was on a broad, comfortable path along the side of a quebrada that cut into the mountainside at right angles to the rio Urubamba. We were under shade for most of the way, and the only discomfort came from the rapid pace set by Gelmond. Less than twenty minutes uphill from the lodge, there were striking views of the peak of Nevado Salkantay, its snows reflecting the ealry morning sun.

After a bit less than an hour we arrived at an irrigation canal that was being developed by the local campesinos. From there, the way got steeper, and was complicated by the fact that Gelmond couldn't find the path he had taken with Jaime the previous week. He had marked the entrance as being ten steps from the end of the canal, but in the following week the canal had been extended significantly. So it was that instead of working our way up the zig-zag pathway that we eventually found on our way down, we ended up scrambling across the mountainside through thick grass, thorns tearing at our clothes and skin.

Half an hour or so of this and we eventually came to a flatter, clearer stretch by a grove of avocado trees where the path reappeared. There were further spectacular views of Salkantay and back down the valley, until we were immerse in tangled bush. Here, as we were to later repeat to numerous travel agencies in Cuzco, orchids "grew like weeds". It wasn't really the season for orchids, and most were dry or without flowers, but at the right time this would clearly be a paradise for botanists and flower lovers.

After working our way through the bush for around half an hour, we climbed a short rise to find a tidily cultivated plot of vegetables leading up to a tiny shack of wooden stakes with a roof of thick straw, rather giving lie to Gelmond's promise of a casa at the end of our climb. We negotiated geese, hens, and a rather snappy, nervous dog, before the stooped figure of Santiago appeared around the side of the shack.

On the way up, Gelmond had told me Santiago's story. Santiago was one child of a campesino family of six or seven. In the past, it was common for parents to send the elder children out to work as peones for a landowner, which would then support the youngest one or two to progress with their schooling. Santiago had worked on the land for the same family for twenty-five years. But when the owner died, his children decided that they didn't need Santiago any more, and threw him out.

Jaime said he had found Santiago amid some fields near Santa Teresa, weeping. He had been sleeping in a cave, surviving on the moisture that dripped from the roof. Jaime took pity on him and said he could come and live on his property. Gelmond said he only paid him a few soles a month, but brought him substantial provisions including flour, sugar, rice, coffee and cigarettes, which amounted to quite a bit of money.

As we approached the shack, Gelmond said: "now comes the difficult part -- I have to try to speak Quechua". Santiago spoke almost no Spanish, and was also rather hard of hearing. In fact, Gelmond's Quechua amounted to a few phrases, and Santiago seemed to be nearly deaf, so comunication was mostly limited to smiles and hand waving.

After we said hi to Santiago, we dropped down into a little dip with a stream where we collected water and ate some carrots that were growing alongside the brook. By the time we got back, Santiago had prepared us coffee, which we drank sitting on a little bench inside the shack, watching a multitude of little cuys ferreting in the straw under Santiago's bed. The surroundings were definitely rustic, but the obligatory radio broadcasted the familiar plaintive strains of a huayno from Ayacucho, picking up its signal from a station in Santa Teresa.

We then carried down through thick bush along a barely-existent trail for about twenty minutes to the waterfall. A little beyond that was the cave. Gelmond explained that the lining of the interior with sand was another sign, along with the ceramics, that it had been used for shelter at some stage. We hid most of the ceramic in a discreet spot, and took one rounded fragment for testing by the Instituto Nacional de Cultura in Cuzco or Arequipa.

As we struggled back up through the tangled vegetation, I commented that it was a bit like being in Indiana Jones, and we both lamented the terrible job the most recent film had made of its supposed setting in Peru. "I wanted to write a letter of complaint to the production company", said Gelmond.

According to Gelmond, I was probably the first foreigner to walk the route, after himself, as a representative of the "Independent Republic of Arequipa". With my somewhat clumsy gait that led to a couple of slips, and my complaints about being hungry and thirsty, I didn't think I made much of a pioneer. But it wasn't an entirely unreasonable supposition that I was the first gringo to pass that way: despite the proximity to Machu Picchu, some of the places and geographical features of the region don't even appear on Google Maps.

Gelmond's explained his theory that the true home of the Incas, as well as the major cultures before them, had really been the ceja de selva, the fertile fringe between the sierra and jungle that we were in. That explained why so much of the iconography and religious traditions of these cultures were based on warm-climate animals and plants. So why, I asked, had their centres of power all been based in the sierra (Chavin de Huantar near Huaraz, Wari/Tihuanaco in Ayacucho/western Boliva, and the Incas in Cuzco)? Gelmond reasoned that these were strategic sites for dominating the surrounding area, and allowed the preservation of foods that would quickly go off in the warmer lowlands.

We walked back the way we had come. The previous week, Jaime and Gelmond had continued around the mountainside and dropped down directly to Santa Teresa, but this was an extremely steep route, and Gelmond said that for all his trekking experience, he had nearly fallen four times. They had left the mule in a forest grove, as the descent was not safe for it. Given that I was now being overcome with low blood-sugar clumsiness, retracing our steps was definitely the prudent option.

Following the path on the way down, we discovered the gentle zig-zag through the long grass that we had scrambled up a couple of hours earlier. The trail was marked by mule droppings, indicating where Gelmond and Jaime had ascended the week previously. When we finally came in sight of Hugo's Lodge, lunch was about to be served, and we set ourselves on it like famished men. We had taken about six hours. It was a fascinating and spectacular walk -- but the last time I'll knowingly set out without breakfast.

From the Snows to the Jungle

"Abra Malaga" has a romantic, almost mystical ring to it, and it was this vague promise evoked by the name of the pass we were to cross that I set against the concrete forebodings inspired by "Cuzco", "jungle", "road" and "bus".

My premonitions of a painful journey over narrow and potholed byways were mostly misinformed. After the rolling descent from Cuzco to Urubamba and the obligatory detour through the ancient cobblestone streets of Ollantaytambo, a smooth, broad and superbly-engineered road serpentined its way up to 4,316 metres above sea level, bringing to mind the highway that climbs across the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza. The ashphalt then continued most of the way down to the Urubamba river, only losing a little shape after crossing three or four waterfalls, and eventually giving way to a well-maintained and relatively smooth dirt road along the side of the valley for the last hour or so to the town of Santa Maria.

The promise of exotic landscapes, however, was more than fulfilled. As the bus finally ground its way to the top of the pass, tour groups on bicycles with matching jackets were preparing for their descent next to a sign that warned of a "Zone of Mists", which itself was nearly swallowed by swirling, watery cloud.

A couple of s-bends below the pass, the mist parted enough to reveal an enormous glacier on the flank of 5,682-metre Nevado Veronica, its icy teeth seeming almost close enough to touch (more awe-inspiring than suggested by the photo above of the entire peak, taken in clear early morning skies on the return trip).

Further below, the straw grass of the puna rapidly turned to moss-draped cloud forest, while the thinning mist revealed broad swathes of hillside covered in dark greenery sweeping steeply down to the tight serpentines of the Urubamba river, far below. As the altitude lessened, the cloud forest turned to subtropical trees and ferns, and the familar flat leaves of banana plants began to appear.

After the bus dropped onto the dirt road that worked its way down the valley towards Quillabamba, little villages began to appear, bougainvillea brightening the rustic buildings of partially-painted adobe and corrugated iron. Walls were invariably covered with giant upper case letters promoting the candidacy of one candidate or another for the district mayoralty. The roadside was hedged with cultivation, of maize, bananas, papaya, mangoes, mandarins, coffee, and tea. One small village announced that it was the "national capital of tea", and just beyond, people with baskets worked in tidily cultivated plantations that looked straight out of a Dilmah advertisment.

Yet, despite how pleasant all this sounds, this oversensitive gringo was in significant discomfort for much of the way, and had to make a considerable mental effort to take in and enjoy the sights.

The previous night I had taken the bus from Arequipa to Cuzco with Lizbeth's sister Karina who was heading back to work at Hugo's Lodge. At just over nine hours, the Arequopa-Cuzco journey is not overly arduous, but I hardly slept a wink as the bus heating was kept on full blast. I watched miserably as the screen at the front of the cabin that showed the time and temperature ticked upwards from a pleasant 22 degrees when we left Arequipa to eventually stall on 28 degrees.

Before the start of the journey, I had insisted that I wanted to do it in stages, since I had already had two trips of over 15 hours in the previous week and was only just getting over the jet lag. We talked of the possibility of staying the night in Cuzco or Ollantaytambo before continuing onwards. However, this suggestion kind of got overridden by Hugo's urgent message that he needed meat for a large group that was arriving at his hotel, and could we please bring him some from Cuzco.

Arrival in Cuzco was scheduled for 5:00 am, but we didn't get in until 6:30. The bus for Santa Maria left at 8:00, so it was a rushed hour and a half to buy the tickets (at a different terminal), grab some breakfast, go to the market to buy some meat, and get back to the terminal in time to load the luggage and get on the bus.

By the time we arrived in Urubamba a little over an hour later, I was still a bit dazed, but starting to appreciate the landscape and the journey. Here I made my great mistake. As luggage and passengers were loaded, many of the Cuzco passengers filed off to use the toilets in back of a local comedor. I decided I couldn't be bothered, owing to some combination of the long line, the distinctly rustic state of the toilets, and not really needing to go.

Around half an hour later, when the bus passed through Ollantaytambo, my long cup of black coffee from breakfast had caught up with me and I felt like I could use a bathroom. In another little while, as the road started to serpentine upwards, this feeling started to gain urgency. When the bus stopped at the last sign of civilization, two thirds of the way up to the pass to fill up with water, I was hoping for a genuine mechanical problem that would allow passengers to get off the bus and relieve themselves. When we reached the top of Abra Malaga, there was little else on my mind. Half way down the other side, I could barely move, and I let out a loud groan when an older guy who had got on at Urubamba estimated that it was "about another hour and a half" to Santa Maria. "I really need to go to the bathroom too", he said.

Some readers might have seen my piece about "bus buskers". On this trip there were two. The second busker, who waited patiently for twenty minutes while a young guy told jokes and did tricks, was selling Chinese herbal remedies, pills with a mixture of ginseng and resihi mushrooms. After the usual long spiel about the terrible state of the Peruvian diet, he moved on to describing specific problems with the liver and kidneys which these remedies could ameliorate, as well as their effectiveness in preventing (for the men) an inflamed prostate and (for the women) vaginal infections.

The bus busker made a particular example of himself. His other job was working as a conductor for rival company Ampay, which did not have a bus running this particular day. He assured us that his frequent journeys between Cuzco and Quillabamba required him to maintain a regular intake of the remedies. "I damage my kidneys every day", he said.

As the bus left the asphalt and wound its way along the valley, I was sure that we would soon be in Santa Maria. Each time the vegetation started to be dotted with banana plants and electric cables appeared overhead, I chanted a little mantra under of breath of "be Santa Maria, please be Santa Maria". But each time, it was only a small settlement with a handful of corrugated iron roofs, and yet more political advertisments.

Finally, there was a shout of "who's getting off in Huyro?" We were about to arrive in the capital of the Huayopata district, and the bus would stop. While a couple of passengers were extracting their luggage, I and the older guy jumped off the bus and sprinted across the road. A woman with a kiosk outside the municipality building answered my urgent query. "Through the building, to the right, and to the right again".

As I finally obtained relief, I noted that the other guy must have been even more disoriented than I. He never appeared in the bathroom whiel I was there, and he only got back on the bus some minutes after I did.

From there I could sit back and enjoy the rest of the journey, which only lasted another twenty or so minutes before we finally got off in Santa Maria, to a warm wash of tropical air, and a hand that pulled at my backpack as we waited to unload the luggage. It was Hugo, playing the clown. His Hyundai 4X4 was parked a few metres away, and after grabbing some lunch in a nearby comedor, we set out on the 45-minute drive along a narrow dirt road above the precipitous river gorge, to the town of Santa Teresa, and down to the fabulous new hot springs complex of Cocalmayo. That was the end of the road, so we parked the truck, and walked the five minutes across the bridge and up the path to my first view of the famous Hugo's Lodge.