Polling Day

By Nicholas Asheshov

With polling day on October 3 the campaigns for regional and municipal elections are heating up and this is not just a spectator sport in Peru. Hundreds of people in every district, thousands in every province are running for office and to judge by Urubamba, Cuzco and Lima, which I follow with attention, the democracy-count runs the gamut from vicious to ferocious.

Half-a-dozen candidates have been murdered, one would-be alcalde in the backwoods of Huanuco is in jail for organizing a who-can-drink-most competition with wood-alcohol at which the three winners died, and the alcaldesa of Santa Anita, a Lima district which includes a main foodstuffs wholesale market, escaped when her car was fire-bombed.

There are even aviation connections. In Lima the front-runners are Lourdes Flores, on my Right, and Alex Kourie, in the misty Middle. Lourdes, a 50-something lawyer, has run for President of the Republic two or three times and had always seemed to me to be jolly, too talkative but nice. Few, including me, now think this because the TV and newspapers have forced her to own up to working for years for a fellow called Cataño whose name is really something else but he changed after being nabbed years ago with 100 kilos of cocaine. Lourdes has for some time been Chairman of Peruvian Airlines, owned by Mr. Cataño, at $10,000 a month plus exes.

Lourdes also does not chat freely about another client and friend, Jose Luis Sanchez, the Spanish spinner who collected $3mn from Fujimori’s master-fixer Vladimiro Montesinos, now doing life in a Callao prison, during the 2000 general elections. Sanchez was in charge of the dirty tricks section.

Lourdes has also been legal advisor to the people, many of them from Pakistan, who import tens of thousands of second-hand cars, trucks and buses from SE Asia to come and gasp their last smoky, fumy breath on Lima’s clogged streets. Many of them, to add injury to insult, started off as right-hand drives from Japan, Hong Kong and the conversion to left-handers is often poorly done meaning dreadful crashes and buses going over Andean precipices. It’s all illegal, but Lourdes has shown the importers how to get local magistrates to slap amparos, laissez-passez orders thus circumventing the laws. Mr. Cataño, though not from Pakistan, is also a leading importer of pre-owned vehicles and the drugs police are pressing him for details on his finances.

Alex Kourie, mayor of Callao, has had problems with a tiny one-mile section of the only road to Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport where he was charging a $1 toll; for years it was easily the most profitable venture in town, making infinitely better margins than LAN, COPA and TACA combined.

An unfancied outsider, Susana Villaran, has come up fast on the loopy Left. Susana, one of those expensively-brought-up caviar socialists, as they’re known in Lima, has a collection of convicted terrorists on her aldermanic lists and spat furiously at my friend Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the banker and former PM, when he mildly commented that foreign investors were “keeping an eye on”–some such– her swift rise in the polls.

The present mayor of Lima, Luis Castañeda, a close associate of Lourdes, is running for President in next year’s elections, but has been dogged by connections with a $20mn scam involving garbage collection and some Brazilians.

For us in the provinces this is all entry-level shenanigans. At the moment the mayor of Cuzco is the third since the elections four years ago. The first two achieved the impossible by getting caught with their fingers in the cookie jar. The way that crooked alcaldes actually get caught, though rarely, is what is politely known as nepotism; no one can resist having their cousins, children, domestic servants and mum and dad on the payroll. Actually, none of the voters objects -they’d do the same; noblesse oblige. But they only get accused of it when there are more serious matters that can’t so easily be proven.

Here in Urubamba we keep up with the metro crowd. Our alcalde, Benizio Rios, one of the vaguely-lefty NGO people who infest Peruvian and Bolivian provincial life, has just been booted out of the town hall for nepotism. Items like sewage infecting the municipal playground, gross potholes in the streets are not criminal offences. But you’ll be glad to hear that because of a judicial technicality, which may have nothing to do with Benizio being friendly with the appropriate magistrates, he is running for our alcaldia again. His slogan is “Honradez y Experiencia.”

Benizio has the backing of the well-heeled Hugo Chavez —come in, Caracas--party, whose symbol is a simple “O” for Ollanta Humala, an ex-army commandante and wanna-be Chavez whose wife has problems explaining where all her money comes from. On top of that Benizio has the support of the Machu Picchu bus drivers, to whom he awarded a 30-year monopoly, worth $10mn+ a year for 20 creaky buses between the train station and the ruins. This is totally, believe me, illegal but Machu Picchu is a no-rules zone, off-limits even for SUNAT, Peru’s tough IRS.

There are 13 candidates for Urubamba mayor and it’s not only Caracas and the bus people but the government budget that makes it worthwhile. Eduardo Guevara, a three-time mayor here, and a good friend, tells me that in his day it was a million or two. Now it’s $20mn. Eduardo, who’s running again, was round for a coffee the other day together with a candidate for mayor of one of our districts, a Catholic priest, an excellent young chap who we’ll call Arturo. As we were talking, I found that a lady had come in and was physically attacking Padre Arturo, spitting, hitting, swearing. It was a comadre of mine, a schoolteacher and it turned out that Arturo was the father of her one-year-old baby, a frequent visitor but we’d never been told and, of course, never asked about daddy. But there I was, like one of those referees in a wrestling match on the telly, trying to separate the contenders. Naturally, my comadre’s family is running one of her many brothers, also a good egg, for the alcaldia of the district against Padre Arturo. Try as one may it’s not easy to stay out of local politics and now you see what I mean about it being not just a spectator sport.

Letter from Urubamba, Sept 30, 2010

Traditional Candles

By Nicholas Asheshov

In a backyard patio in Tica Tica, a barrio high above old Cuzco, a cauldron was bubbling over a wood fire.

“It has to be 200, 220 degrees,” Mario Calderon tells me. “If you let it get any hotter the colours will spoil, go muddy.”

The cauldron contains 50 kilos of paraffin wax from China and Argentina and Mr. Calderon, a master candle-maker, will use this batch to make dozens of elaborately worked bright red candles of different sizes most of which will be used in churches for fiestas and saints days, or by people like me who like candles.

Candle-buyers preparing for the Virgen de Asunta for mid-August were crowding the Calderon’s shop in Calle Meloq down near the Plaza de Armas. Mr. Calderon’s wife, Gavina Ninantay, says: “Our year really gets going on May 3 with the Fiesta de la Cruz. That’s our big day of the year.”

Of course, there are dozens more saints days to attend to.

The candles produced by the Calderons are brightly coloured and elaborately decorated in blue, yellow, bone, black, green, brown and reds—with endless carved baroque vine-like curls on which are stamped silver and gold flowers recalling, one supposes, the days of the Colony.

The biggest candles here run to 1m 80, a head taller than most of the clients, and six inches in diameter, a pair of which, elaborately decorated as always, run to S/400. Foot-high candles, three inches thick with three kilos of wax go for S/50 the pair with all sorts of sizes and colours in between.

Ms. Ninantay, a bustling hard-sell grand-mother, tells me that clients take cases of her candles to Germany, Argentina, the U.S., “a todos partes. Los Chilenos son bien pagaditos.” Saga Falabela in Lima send her designs and substantial orders, she adds.

“Easily the best wax comes from Argentina,” Ms. Ninantay says. The China wax is “rough and flakey” by comparison but the Calderons use it because it’s cheaper, at S/.8,000 the ton. The Argentine is S/11,000/ton.

“Con pura China al momento de decorar se revienta.”

“The worst is the Española y Turquesa. Parece grasa, desaparece rapidito.”

She also brings in from Lima the coloured die powder, made by Bayer in Germany, and liquids, also from Bayer, with different aromas. Mr. Calderon says, “We use canela, rosas, vainilla, clavo de olor, chocolate”. Sounds lovely, but Ms. Ninantay says, “Putting in the aromas gives us both a headache.”

Another important element is the wick.

“Some are too fast and sputter,” Mr. Calderon says. He puts arida on the rolls of thick thread as well as acido boricopara purificarlo de lo plastificado porque ya pues no es puro algodon.”

Experimentamos para que nuestra vela arda bien.”

Most of the Calderons’ candles come from home-made molds cut from PVC tubes of different thickness bought in the hardware store. Some of them were originally tin cans of Cil cooking oil.

One end of the tube is blocked with a round piece of tin cut to size, with a small hole in the middle for the wick. The liquid wax is poured into the top end of the mold.

“If you put the wax in too hot it melts the PVC and twists it,” Mr. Calderon says. “So you have to wait till it cools to 150′.”

Then it takes six or seven hours to cool: “You can’t do it in the fridge, se raja. Cuando trabajamos en esto, cerramos las puertas.

Seria mas facil para mi comprarme unos congeladoras, but once we did it for a rush job but they came out pesimo, perdimos todo. In the fridge the outside of the candle gets cold faster than the core.”

The decoration takes two hours for each candle. I watched three lads in one of the rooms of the rambling house sitting on low stools with an iron bowl of hot wood coals on a low tripod. Each had a thick candle hefted in his left hand which he held over the brazier to keep the candle soft enough to carve, with different size sticks like pinceles, the intricate vines and flowers into it. They would quickly dip a small wooden flower stamp into silver or gold-coloured powder to produce an amiably busy shining effect.

Each of the lads, one of them one of the Calderon children, would be off to technical school later in the afternoon.

Se trabaja a base de tradicion y habilidad,” says Mr. Calderon, whose father was a candle-maker. “There’s no how-to-do-it handbook.”

Published in Spanish in Caretas the week of August 14, 2009

Kura Ocllo, a Peruvian heroine

By Nicholas Asheshov

As Franacisco, Gonzalo, Hernando and Juan Pizarro entered Cuzco in 1533 they were met by a deputation presenting to them the 17-year-old Manco Inca.

The Pizarros, who had just garotted Atahualpa, Manco’s half-brother, in Cajamarca and they were happy to set up young Manco as a front man.

It probably wouldn’t have worked anyway but a new tragedy unfolded that has coloured Peru ever since. Gonzalo Pizarro, a tough, tall, ferociously brave bully, conceived a passion for Manco’s young wife and half-sister, the beautiful, clever, loyal Kura Ocllo.

Gonzalo persisted. The Inca court gave him all the girls he could want. They even gave him another pretty half-sister and dolled her up to look like Kura. But after a few nights Gonzalo soused her out and kicked the sister out.

Gonzalo and a gang of his thugs simply sequestered and raped Kura and kept her. Manco, furious and desperate, left Cuzco. The rape by Gonzalo of Kura Ocllo set off a 40-year rebellion that blocked any possibility of a meeting of the minds between Conquistadores and Incas.

Kura escaped back to Manco and they both retreated to the mountain-jungle fastness of Vilcabamba, beyond Machu Picchu. From here they waged a partly-successful war against the Spaniards.

In one incident it was Kura Ocllo herself, now 20, who spotted a detachment of Spaniards creeping up a steep path to Oncoy, above the Apurimac, to capture Manco. She organized the womenfolk to impersonate Inca troops to frighten the Spaniards while Manco himself led the charge on the Spaniards, killing all 30 of them, a tremendous victory that ought to be celebrated by an annual national holiday.

Gonzalo himself then led a military expedition into the Vilcabamba. With him went two of Manco’s half-brothers, full brothers to Kura Ocllo. These went ahead to try to negotiate with Manco who, however, had them immediately beheaded –in front of Kura Ocllo. As Gonzalo and his men closed in Manco escaped, but alone. The horrified Kura Ocllo paralysed with shock refused to desert the bodies of her brothers.

Gonzalo threw Kura to his men. On the way back to Ollantaytambo, she tried to protect herself by covering herself in her own excrement.

In the plaza of Ollantaytambo, where today hundreds of tourists park their buses every day, Francisco and Gonzalo Pizarro ordered her stripped naked, tied to a stake and whipped while Cañari mercenaries stoned her and shot darts into her.

She refused to cry out, the chroniclers report, until just before dying, she shouted out, “Cowards!”

Manco, like his wife-sister, was clearly a noble, brave, devastatingly young leader. He was assassinated in Vilcabamba a few years later by the same renegade Spaniards who earlier had killed Francisco Pizarro himself down in Lima.

Gonzalo rebelled against the Crown, killed the Viceroy and 300 royalist Spaniards and was later executed in Cuzco by a new Virrey.

Manco and Kura Ocllo, youthful, dashing, are the stunning heroes in one of the epic moments of world history.

Here is Othello and Romeo & Juliet all in one, a crueler, nobler Helen of Troy-Paris-Achilles. But how many Peruvian children, or their parents, know this story? Two of my children did their early-ays schooling within a couple of miles of the scene of her outrageous death. But I’ve asked them, and other Urubamba kids, and they know her not.

Nor did I, of course. I have extracted and summarized the Kura Occlo story from Kim MacQuarrie’s excellent “The Last Days of the Incas” due to be published shortly in Spanish in Lima, in time for the Bingham-Machu Picchu fandango in July.

Kura Occlo and Manco are just two of a great cast of characters in a gigantic confrontation, the collision of two of the great traditions of humankind.

In France, Joan of Arc, burned at the stake by the English in 14xx, is a much-loved heroine, a registered saint and indeed us English treat her memory with equal affection. The English are also proud of Boadicea, the Celtic queen who was, with her daughters, publicly tortured, gang-raped and killed by the Romans two millennia ago. Kura Ocllo deserves, surely, to be remembered with similar pride by Peruvian schoolchildren. Manco, likewise.

MacQuarrie’s sources for the Kura Oclloa story are the account dictated by Manco’s son, Titu Cusi, the last-but-one Inca, to Cristobal de Molina, and a letter by a Spaniard explaining to the King of Spain how Gonzalo stole Manco’s wife.

MacQuarrie’s The Last Days of the Incas tells the stupendous story of the Conquista better than anyone so far. It is deliberately dramatic “…blood dripped from Pizarro’s sword…” etc. But it is also carefully researched and runs parallel to John Hemmings’ classic The Conquest of the Incas which appeared in 1970 and updated and translated into Spanish in 1995, a gripping must-read.

But Kim MacQuarrie’s “Last Days” brings the cruelty, the civilizing savagery, the wealth that was to transform the economy of Europe and above all the characters to immediate life. The five Pizarro brothers, unbelievably tough and courageous, impossibly wealthy, low-born and ambitious,

The backdrop was a society, the last, sadly, of a score of great cultures produced here over many millennia, which functioned much better than any contemporary in Europe, and incomparably better than any that has struggled to succeed in Peru or anywhere else in South America.

Perhaps MacQuarrie’s “Last Days” will inspire teachers in schools all over Peru, high and low, to take a new, proud look at their own world-class predecessors.

Published in Caretas Country Notes in Spanish


By Nicholas Asheshov

If you are someone’s compadre or comadre you should note that this year el Dia del Compadre is Thursday week February 12 and that the Dia de la Comadre is February 19. Out here in the campo we celebrate them, in my case cautiously, as an entree to Carnavales.

Most people are multiple compadres. I have at least two-score myself, counting those who are padrinos of my own children as well as those where I myself am the padrino. Every wedding produces another crop, one for the civil ceremony and another lot for the church, as does primera comunion. If each Peruvian adult has, say, just 10 of these relationships, that means around 150mn compadre relationships. Perhaps a Peruvian could register himself in the Guiness Book of Records as the world’s numero uno compadre.

Of most of my compadres and ahijados I am fond and proud. One ahijado, Jhon Acurrio Caytuiro, the son of a prominent Urubamba market mamacha, got onto the front pages of the Cuzco papers by winning first place on the entry list into the Universidad Nacional San Antonio Abad, the first time apparently that a lad from the outlying provinces had achieved this. He got into the Computer Science faculty and had done his secondary schooling at an agricultural school run by Spanish hermanos up the road in Yucay.

Another ahijado, Rene Huilca, started life at 3,600ms asl 24 years ago in a cold Quechua valley and I ran into him just this morning driving a station-wagon taxi, right up there with thousands of university graduates all round the world, on the Urubamba-Cusco route. He worked his way through secondary school in Cuzco as a cobrador on micros. He is a courteous live-wire for whom I was able to do my duty and give him, plus a sister, a job a few years ago, both of them honest, smart and bi-lingual.

Their father, my compadre Melchior Huilca tells funny stories in Quechua –you know they’re funny because he giggles all the way through them– and lives up beneath one of the Veronica massif glaciers fighting off pumas and rustlers among the crags and waterfalls. Once Melchior and I went to the foot of the glacier to buy a couple of llamas one of the costs of which was that I should become compadres with the owner who lived in a small circular stone and ichu-thatch hut at over 4,300ms asl.

On the way down a steep slippery path one of the llamas lay down and refused to budge. When camels do this you’re supposed, of course, to light a fire under them. Instead, Melchior just grabbed the animal by its ankles and, incredibly, slung it over his shoulders in a fireman’s lift and continued stolidly all the way down to our truck.

In Tarija, Bolivia’s most charming region, the compadre/compadre days see exchanges of cakes, turkeys, sheep and liquor, emphasizing what they call there the “parentesco espiritual” which is the essence of the southern European tradition of compadrazgo.

For getting married, having compadres de la boda is a legal requirement, both for the civil and for the church. Once my wife and I were dragooned into being the compadres for a shotgun marriage between the son of an already-comadre and a local girl who had just had a baby with the son. For some reason it all had to be done there and then, so we had a word with the alcalde and we had to spend the evening listening to a tinny recording of the Blue Danube, everybody making forced smiles at each other while we signed the papers.

There is a lot of US anthropology literature on compadrazgo, a key aspect of campesino culture well beyond the Andes, Alejandro Camino, the anthropologist, told me when he contacted me the other day. “The idea is to extend your reciprocity relations by establishing artificial kin ties, creating strong bonds and obligations.

“The word in Quechua for “poor” is huaccha –orphan; ‘Kin’ links is what makes you richer, from San Isidro to Cerro de Pasco to Urubamba.”

He went on like this for a bit more, emphasizing what a good deal it was to be a compadre.

“Ah yes,” he said eventually, clearly coming to the point, “I want you to be the padrino for the primera piedra of my new house.”

Published in Spanish in Caretas the week of January 28, 2009



Planes, Trains and Boutique Hotels

By Nicholas Asheshov

July and August are always the top weeks of what has become a year-round rain-or-shine season for the Cuzco tourism industry though things have been slow following powerful flash floods in January. Global-warming rains suddenly quintupled the volume and speed of the monsoon water in the Rio Vilcanota, the one that wraps around Machu Picchu, slashed out big slabs of the narrow-gauge railway line that chugs tourists from Cuzco over the mountains and down a dramatic canyon to the ruins.

Machu Picchu Cut Off! Tourists are increasingly coming to see other things like the Manu and Iquitos jungles, the Nazca Lines, Lake Titicaca. Whatever: no Machu Picchu, no tourists.

The railway, a concession run by Orient-Express Hotels, OEH, is, six months later, not fully operational but the last 25 miles is open again with crawl-along speeds on the recently-repaired bits. But, hey, who cares if it takes a half-hour extra to get to such a stunning destination. Presumably by next year it’ll be back to rock-a-bye normal where on the only straight stretch top speed at the best of times is 25 mph.

This year, on this evocative little line another change is taking place. The Orient-Express monopoly is ending, a subject on which I am a world authority as a founding Director of Andean Railways Corp, the feisty challenger. We led a ferocious three-year regulatory battle against the PeruRail –Orient Express– monopoly. Today it’s all smiles, a bit guarded for sure, but those of us, starting with Bob Booth himself, who remember the glory days of airline regulation and outrageous protectionism, need no elbow-jogging to know the lengths to which monopolies will rise to keep the bacon to themselves.

The tourist industry in Cuzco has improved enormously in just a few years. Orient Express, a decade ago, brought five-star hotelier skill and style to their Monasterio, Cuzco and Mach Picchu Lodge and, using their panache and marketing zap, completely up-heaveled Cuzco. They quickly trained their amiable but one-star personnel to international levels and raised the comfort bar, with breath-taking prices to match. Good for them and today there’s a lively range from $10 to $1,000. No one in Cuzco, pre-OEH, knew even how to spell croissant. Today the Brescia-Libertador group, together with Starwood, are opening, next door to my own adobe riverside, woodland home, a spiffy $52mn Luxury Collection spa, lovely views of river and snow-peaks up-valley from MaPi itself. Marriott is putting up a new Olde Inca tambo in cobbled Cuzco, and there’s half-a-dozen charming luxury-boutique hotels already open. They meld in well with a daily roster of religious processions and up-the-workers down-the-politicians rallies.

There’s suddenly a flurry of snazzy restaurants with names like “Jack’s” and “Chicha” offering Novo Andino guinea-pig aux fines herbes and carpacho de alpaca. And, Dios mio! Starbucks is opening next to the Catedral. Cuzco’s been a 24/7 party since the beat-bearded ’70s so it’s just getting better. Even Barry Walker’s Cross Keys pub, which recalled the gun-slinger saloon in Star Wars, is in new, non-creaky quarters just off the Plaza de Armas with Manchester xxxx-ale and loos that work.

Today LAN is running 14+ flights a day to Cuzco, using A319s, TACA two (A319,A320), Star Peru two, and Cielos de Peru, a start-up, two more. No night flights, thank goodness. I can remember when CUZ, 11,300ft asl, would get one or two DC-3s and DC-4s wing-tipping it between the glaciers below the summits.

One example of the new upper-crust tourism involved the other day none less than Pedro Heilbron, COPA’s CEO, and Matias Campiani, CEO, Pluna, Montevideo, leading a lively bunch of top Young Presidents from all over: I had pleasant chats with South Africans, Greeks, Mumbai Indians, Francaises and most other breeds. Pedro, together with Alberto Beeck, the Peruvian financier, had asked me to tell them in a fireside chat How to Find a Lost City, an interest of mine since my National Geographic days. I told them that the way not to do it, about which I know a lot, is to look for a blank spot on the map and say, Aha! that must be where El Dorado is. I told them about people, including friends, who had come to a sticky end doing this, and that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are about to shoot a movie in Bolivia about Col. Percy Fawcett, the Lost World Brit who disappeared into the Mato Grosso in 1925.

My new computer-controlled hydraulic Parker-Cummins-powered DMU-autowagons, vaguely reminiscent of a San Francisco tram painted with parrots, is called, of course: The Machu Picchu Train –The Lost City Traveller. They have cost me and my partners slightly less than late-model Dreamliners with the advantage, I suppose, that if they run out of gas at least we can push them home.

Letter from Urubamba, July 23, 2010