Downtown in The Lost Cities of the Amazon

This article first appeared in March of 2012, in Spanish in Caretas and in English in the Andean Air Mail & PERUVIAN TIMES.
By Nicholas Asheshov
Some weeks ago two events, one of them startling, came together to pin-point the mysterious new conundrum of the Amazon.

The first was the appearance on a busy riverbank in the Madre de Dios of a few dozen members of a previously-isolated group of Indians. They killed someone who had been trying to help them.

The naked Indians, seen on TV screens around the world, were described by anthropologists as descendants of an unbroken line of hunting and gathering savages, living fossils of our neolithic past.

This is, according to new Amazon thinking, incorrect. These Indians are the sad, socially degenerated remnants of nations and tribes that were productive, sophisticated and stable just a few centuries ago.

The other event was an article in The New York Times that reported on the discovery in Acre, only a few hours travel from the Madre de Dios Indians, of extensive, deep straight, or sometimes circular, trenches, ridges and mounds dating back to pre-Columbian times, indicating a large, well-developed society.

This was just the latest evidence that the Amazon, or at least parts of it, was heavily populated by well-organized societies in much the same way as the high Andes were remodelled by the Tiahuanuco, the Chavin, the Chachapoyas, the Huari, and the Incas.

Over the past couple of decades the pre-history of the Americas has been revolutionized, setting off poison-tipped academic and ecological vendettas.

First of all, the Americas were populated much earlier, at least 33-35,000 years ago, double the time previously calculated. That is back to Neanderthal epochs.

Second, there were many more people here when Columbus arrived than was earlier thought. And, most important, the societies and nations of the Americas were much more sophisticated and structured than was previously understood. They were agriculturalists, not the war-whoopers of the movies. Their mode of life and agriculture had massive, long-term effects on the original pre-human forests. Fire was a basic control mechanism.

Today the evidence of genetics, linguistics and archaeology is clear that the Amazon was not just an impenetrable green hell populated by primitive hunters and fishermen eking out an unchanging, culturally marginal existence.

The same applies to North America. Here most of the descriptions of primitive Indians come from 18th and 19th century travelers who were seeing only the sorry leftovers of great nations that had been obliterated by smallpox, viral hepatitis, influenza and other European and African diseases. The Conquest set off the Dark Ages in the Americas.

In the Amazon the same collapse, featuring malaria and yellow fever, was exacerbated by the rubber boom of the late-1800s and early-1900s.

You can check this out in three fine recent books. Two of these are Charles C Mann’s easy-to-read, well-researched 1491 and a sequel, 1493, just out; and in John Hemming’s Tree of Rivers, a masterly description of the Amazon. Hemming, author of the classic The Conquest of the Incas has also written, earlier, three volumes on the peoples of the Amazon.

Charles Mann describes, for instance, how my old friend William Denevan, Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, discovered how the Beni, on the edge of the western Amazon in Bolivia, was a flourishing, well-organized center of islands and causeways on what is today a bleak, sparsely-inhabited combination of dense jungle and flood-plain, inhabited today by sad remnants of Siriono Indians.

Bill worked on the Peruvian Times just before me in the 1960s and his stories on the Beni and similar mounds and trenches around Lake Titicaca in the PT were the first indication of this revolution in South American prehistory.

“Beginning as much as three thousand years ago, this long-ago society,” Mann writes, “created one of the largest, strangest, and most ecologically rich artificial environments on the planet.”

Great stuff.

Mann describes the Amazon as one of the world’s half-dozen agricultural heartlands, where plants were domesticated, the epicenters of civilization. Others were the tropical Andes, Central America, the Fertile Crescent, and China.

The Amazon, including the area where the savage Indians appeared the other day, just north and west of the Beni, was the source of yuca, known elsewhere as manioc or cassava, as well as tobacco, peanuts chili pepper, chocolate, Brazilian broad beans, the peach palm, and Brazil nuts.

It was also the homeland of Hevea Brasiliensis, the rubber tree, which was to be, along with steel and oil, one of the three creators of the 20th century version of civilization.

For the Amazon, including the Indians on the banks the other day of the Madre de Dios, rubber became a disaster, just as gold and silver had been for Peru and Mexico. The malaria and yellow fever, imports from Africa, that it helped to spread turned the Amazon and its western tributaries into what Charles Mann calls “depopulated fever valleys.” Slavery did the rest.

The Amazon as a center of civilization has become the subject of a bitter dispute between two magnificent lady academics, the archaeologists Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian Institution and Anna Roosevelt of the University of Illinois.

Hemming mentions the two warring camps on the issue of whether or not there were tribes with sophisticated, stable, large populations: Dr Meggers says that the Amazon basically had only hunters+gatherers; Dr. Roosevelt says that there were big lively societies all over the place.

Here is a message to me the other day from John Hemming and you will find nowhere else a more precise and appropriately colorful description of the state of play today in Amazon studies.

Broadly, I think that Anna (and her acolytes like Michael Heckenberger) are right to say that there were large chiefdoms on some riverbanks of the main Amazon and its tributaries (although there were also very long stretches of uninhabited river). Those chiefdoms were based on the river and its fish and turtle resources. 

But I think that the Roosevelt school exaggerates the size and sophistication of their beloved chiefdoms, which they compare to the great civilizations of Peru.

They also exaggerate the extent of human manipulation of forests. Remember that it was very laborious indeed for early man to fell trees (other than palms) with their stone axes. And they had no need or desire to do so: they were very happy in pristine forests full of game. Planting the trees they liked near their villages was merely rearranging the deckchairs. It did not alter the Amazon landscape.

Meggers is right about the inability of Amazon terra-firma forest to support villages of more than a thousand people maximum – the surrounding game is exhausted otherwise, and the soils under mature forests are too weak to sustain large-scale farming. So, away from the rivers, early tribes were not much larger than their modern descendants at the time of first contact and before being hit by imported disease.

For many years, John was Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, London, and we can all understand what he means by “rearranging the deckchairs.”

But not everyone agrees. Charles Mann in his just-published 1493, calls the Amazon “the world’s richest garden,” quoting archeobiologists and looking at parts of the Amazon today that are carefully-distributed and well-tended collections of trees, plants and fish and game reserves.

Today there are tourists but it can still be a tough place. Near the Acre ruins noted in The New York Times, settlers are still gunned down by big-money ranchers. I remember John telling me of the day in 1961 when he carried the arrow-filled body of his friend Richard Mason back to camp. A decade later, in 1970, I myself was searching the jungles of the Pantiacolla in the Upper Madre de Dios for my friend Robert Nichols, chief reporter of the Peruvian Times of which I was then the editor, who had set out to find Paititi, a version of El Dorado. It transpired that he, and two French companions, had been stoned to death by the Machiguengas.

Unlike John, I am not prejudiced by knowing what I am talking about and I unreservedly plump for the Roosevelt school’s bumptious Amazonian super-civilizations and I am supported by no less than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Their latest movie, due out this year, is The Lost City of Z, where Brad plays Colonel Percy Fawcett, the English explorer, searching in 1925 for El Dorado in the Amazon. Let’s hope that Brad has better luck than Percy, who never returned.

————–

Notes.
Colonel Percy Fawcett said: “The answer to the enigma of Ancient South America – and perhaps that of the entire prehistoric world – will be found when the old South American cities are located and opened up to scientific research. These cities exist, and I will prove that they exist.”
————-
Tony Morrison, the wildlife photographer and author, on a recent trip to the Beni:
“Setting out from Trinidad in the Beni we hopped on a 35b bus in the plaza and headed to the great mound at Eviata where the entire village is built above the floodplain. I went there to see the last of the Siriono tribe, as they have a base around the old mission church. What a bedraggled lot they were and the mound is now topped by a huge ENTEL satellite dish — not a bad place to site it as it should be above the annual flood.”
——
Vera Tulyneva charlie.quispe@yahoo.com . Ms Tulyneva is completing a thesis on “Paititi” at the Universidad Catolica, Lima. Commenting on The New York Times story on ancient remains in the Acre:

“The earth constructions of Acre have been in the news for the past five years. The first one to speak of them was Martti Pärssinen, an historian from Finland who had been working in the region for many years. In fact, they are not “geoglyphs,” i.e. earth figurative drawings of apparent religious/ritual function, but rather utilitarian earthworks, like drainage trenches. Acre, Mojos, Beni, Xingu and many other Amazonic regions are full of them.”
————–
Michael Heckenberger website on Xingu: The Xingu Ethnoarchaeological Project
————–
An article on Acre: Pre-columbian geometric earthworks
and Geometric Earthworks in the Upper Purus

————–
The New York Times: The Nazca Lines of the Acre jungle – Land Carvings Attest to Lost World
______________________________________

Nick Asheshov is a veteran journalist, noted explorer and entrepreneur. He was editor of the Peruvian times from 1969 to 1990.

——————————————————————

In response to this article, Dr. Jennifer Watling responded: (See her paper on the subject: Watling et al 2017 + SI)

For you to state the following: ‘These Indians are the sad, socially degenerated remnants of nations and tribes that were productive, sophisticated and stable just a few centuries ago’ for me shows a great disrespect and lack of knowledge about indigenous Amazonians and their ancestors, I’m afraid.

Best,

Jenny

Dr. Jennifer Watling
Post-doctorate Fellow,
Laboratório de Arqueologia dos Trópicos, Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia,
Laboratório de Micropaleontologia, Instituto de Geosciências,
Universidade de São Paulo
https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jennifer_Watling2/info

Chinchero — Lost in the Clouds of Poor Engineering, Bad Finance

By Nicholas Asheshov ✐

It seems President Kuczynski is to lay the First Stone of the new Chinchero Airport in Cusco this coming week. If so, it will be the third first stone for this sad project. Presidents Toledo and Garcia have preceded him. Some locals say Presidents Belaunde and Fujimori were others. We have to hope President PPK’s stone suffers the same fate. Chinchero is a disaster waiting to happen.

This week top regulatory officials in Lima resigned in protest at the illegal contracts for the financing for Chinchero. But crooked finance contracts are the least of of what has always been a rotten project.

The Cusco city fathers say they need a new airport. This is incorrect. Their object is to grab the valuable building land of the present airport. But even if Cusco needs  a new airport, Chinchero is easily the worst of the alternatives. The Pampa de Anta, nearby, is incomparably better. Anta is dramatically lower in height and is already runway flat.

Chinchero is outside Cusco  at an oxygen-less 500ms higher, on the road to Machu Picchu.

It started off, as these projects do, with funny money. Four years ago the Cusco Regional Government, run then by ‘Humala associate Jorge Coco’ Acurio, paid $70 million for a 330-hectare string of potato fields on the rolling, cold, cloudy massif of Chinchero.

The lucky owners of the fields were the 426 members of a couple of Chinchero’s comunidades. They received $230,000 for each hectare, making them by far the most expensive potato fields in the world. You can buy a hectare of potato field in Idaho, the world’s biggest potato region, for $5,000 per hectare. In expensive southern England, in Devon and Somerset for instance, the same potato field might cost GBP 10,000, one-twentieth of the Acurio Chinchero price.

The Chinchero potato fields are good for potatoes, beans, a couple of sheep and a burro.  They make a lousy airport. Difficult in fact to find a worse location. The average height of this ancient farmland is 3,700 m.a.s.l. The only commercial airport in the world that is higher is El Alto, at 4,000 m.a.s.l., the airport for La Paz. El Alto can be used only for local one-hour , max 90-minute hops down to Cochabamba and Tarija and Santa Cruz. Arica is a ski-jump away, Lima a hop up the coast. But that’s it. El Alto never will be commercial because planes cannot take off at these altitudes with a full load of fuel and passengers.  You can have either a full tank and just a few tourists or lots of tourists and a few gallons of fuel, enough to get down the hill. In the case of Chinchero, that means Lima. As Newton said, apples fall down for free. Bolivia’s international airport is at Santa Cruz at 400 m.a.s.l. Passengers to and from La Paz to Rio, Buenos Aires, Miami and even Lima go via Santa Cruz. Check the timetables.

It will be the same for Chinchero. The bureaucrats and politicians in Cusco and in Lima, at ProInversion and the Ministry of Transport, have taken to calling it the ‘International’ Cusco airport. This is a lie propagated by the under-funded concessionaire, Kunturwasi.  Flights between Chinchero, if this idiot, foggy project goes ahead, will continue to go via Lima, as they do today and till the next century. With one difference. The tickets will cost $300 more than they do today.

Fog, hailstorms, normal in high mountains, add to the Chinchero danger. The glaciers and snowfields of the Cordillera Urubamba, at 6,000 m.a.s.l., loom over Chinchero. They are just a few miles to the north of the Chinchero potato fields. Picturesque, dramatic. Dangerous.

Technological advances in aviation are focused on electronics and nano materials. But Newtonian physics will not change, whatever the Cusqueño powerbrokers seem to think.

It could not get worse? Yes, it does.

The Chinchero massif is a limestone base. For engineers, this means sinkholes. For instance, the Inca terraces at Moray close to Chinchero at the same height, are sinkholes.  The Chinchero lakes of Piuray and Huaypo reflect the same geology. Engineering studies reflect no deep drilling to assess this risk. A 200-ton airliner will one day  land at Chinchero and open a massive instant hole. Not good.

Cusco road, sewage and electricity services are already pathetic. There’s talk, but no plans exist for new transport between Chinchero and Cuzco, nor Urubamba. Power cuts are almost daily in Urubamba, the province in which poor Chinchero is located, thanks to state-owned Electro Sur Este.

What to do with the 7 million tourists a year promised by President Kuczynski?  Machu Picchu is already at a standing-room-only 5,000, sometimes 7,000 visitors a day. A study commissioned by the government says the max daily entry cannot pass 5,400/day. Call it 2 million per year.

Cuzco thinks, says, it needs a new airport. The present one, Velasco Astete is at 3,250 m.a.s.l., 500ms lower than Chinchero, which is a big difference at these delicate heights.  Velasco Astete, run and owned by Corpac, the government airport authority, consists of 240 hectares of good flat land which could easily and cheaply have its runways extended and expanded, with new terminals and, above all, new electronics. The A219 and A320 used by Latam and Avianca can fly in on self-drive computers as they do routinely, of course, in Europe and North America where the weather, though for sure not the height, is much worse than Cusco ever is.

But the Cusco shakers, the chambers of commerce and the local politicos have other plans for Velasco Astete’s 240 hectares of land, which is only a few minutes from downtown. As building land it is worth already today $1,000/m2, $2,000/m2 before the end of the decade. Use your own fingers to work out how much this free gift of land will be worth to the imperial city’s top dogs.

In theory, the central government (all Peruvians) is owner of the land,  and indeed this is how it should be. But, no, the Cusqueños have already bought it. Under a quiet agreement with former President Humala, the $70mn it paid the Chinchero comuneros is being handed over to the central government in exchange for the 240 Corpac hectares of Velasco Astete.  Acurio was later thrown out of the regional president job by the Cusco Supreme Court for one of several instances of corruption. Acurio is one of the Humala-Heredia team being investigated by state prosecutors for corruption linked to the jailed Mr. Belaunde Lossio for thousands of millions of dollars in state construction contracts.

So Chinchero is shrouded in big money corruption, and should be stopped, investigated on these grounds alone. This apart from its technical stupidity, a characteristic of corrupt projects.

There is a good way for the Cuqueños to have their cake and eat it too. They can do the sensible thing and build a new airport on the Pampa de Anta, closer than Chinchero to their downtown and flat as a tortilla. It needs a few million bucks worth of drainage but none of the expensive earthmoving of Chinchero. Its approaches are no more dangerous than Cusco itself, better actually.

What height is Anta? Same as Velasco Astete, 3,225.

What is the Region Cusco to do with its world-record expensive potato fields, burro grazing at Chinchero? Forget it. The money has long gone on pick-up trucks and on a forest of dreadful cinderblock highrises.

Chinchero is a traditional Andean village with a fine cultural tradition in textiles, with superb views of the cordilleras reaching over to Machu Picchu. Leave it as it is. No airport means tourists will retain as fine a view as any in the Andes. The bells of the charming colonial church will continue to float out over the Inca ruins, the primary schools and the workshops of the internationally recognized weavers.

Nick Asheshov was editor of the Andean Air Mail & Peruvian Times during the 1970s and 1980s, and of The South Pacific Mail, Santiago during the 1990s.  He was Latin America Editor of Institutional Investor, New York over the same period.  He lives in Urubamba, where he writes a blog and where he has been prominent in the hotel and railway business.

This article appeared in the Peruvian Times on  January 26, 2017

The people who ran the Sun

By Nicholas Asheshov

The Incas, living as they did at 3,000m a.s.l., focused on the Sun’s capacity to provide more than warmth for their fertile, glacier-fed tropical valleys. They and their predecessors grasped, like the Egyptians and others, that the movements of the Sun, moon, and stars could predict rain and temperatures.

Informatica, then as now, was power. But the study and understanding of the sun and the stars gave the Andean peoples much more than a weather channel. They were able to reflect the orderliness and mathematical precision of the heavens into their own world. The unequalled exactitude of Inca stonework and their careful, magnificently engineered, imaginative landscaping of their mountain world was a statement of philosophical power on a Shakespearean scale. They would control the uncontrollable: the earthquakes, enemies, famine, and disease. Under the Inca there would be no apocalypse.

The Incas took it a logical step further. They would control the Sun itself. At Machu Picchu, Choquequirao, Pisac, and a score of other centres, they placed carefully-engineered granite blocks and windows so finely that at the solstices —June 21 and December 21— needles of light would hit exactly at such-and-such a marker.

The Incas, like politicians through the ages, spun the Sun story. It was they who were family with the Sun, sons no less of the Sun. Running the universe had become a family business. The sun’s rays would change direction on the orders of the Inca every 187.5 days.

At the winter solstice, the Inti Raymi, visitors to Ollantaytambo today can climb high up to the other, western, escarpment of the Rio Vilcanota and at 7:00 a.m. on and around June 21 can look down across the river half a kilometer away and watch a sudden sharp spotlight, then, moments later a couple of hundred yards away, another and then another, appear on an Inca throne-room the size of a tennis court.

If this is a stirring experience today it is not difficult to imagine the awe,, the grateful weeping, the roars of enthusiasm with which tens of thousands of Inca faithful would watch this mystic magic five, six and more centuries ago. They would see their Inca and his family re-born, the unchallengeable nexus of this world with the past and the future.

Accurate knowledge of how to interpret and predict stellar movement was a vital part of the management of a heavily populated agricultural society for which control of irrigation water and of the rivers was essential in both drenching monsoons and periodic drought.

The Incas upgraded the Tiahuanaco and Huari terrace systems and roads into one of the world’s safest and most productive polities, as we can see today from a million terraces in great flights of ingenious engineering of one of the planets most spectacular sculpted landscapes. The renovations included unequalled mountain hydrologic and civil construction, together with agricultural and genetic research.

The magnificent interconnected terraces in the Colca, the Urubamba, the Pisac and a score of other Andean valleys needed sophisticated agricultural techniques and engineering controlling water, heat, and experienced biological genetic experimentation. These terrace systems were so delicate that most of them are today unused because no one is sufficiently knowledgeable and well-organised to use them.

The Inca Empire, stretching thousands of miles along the Andes from Colombia to Argentina, was joined by perhaps 15,000 miles of stone all-weather roads with A, B and C grades of size for lateral valleys of better quality and deeper penetration than any land communications system anywhere in the world until the advent of the railways in the 19th century. Legal, census and production records were kept on the decimal-based khipu knotted strings.

Warehouse complexes stored food and clothing. The Andes were more cohesive, more productive than anywhere in contemporary Europe, on a par with Ming Dynasty China.

Today energy not the Sun, has become the new god. It is energy, starting just two and a half centuries ago with the invention, in England, of the steam engine, which has created a different universe. Before 1750 no one moved faster than a horse, a running man, or a sail-driven galleon. Wood fires became coal, electricity, petroleum and nuclear.

A Bank of England economist calculated the other day that if we look at the 50,000 years of the existence of modern homo sapiens and call it 24 hours, 99% of the progress will have taken place in the last 20 seconds. It’s a nice notion though it might be seen to give short shrift to the Acropolis, to Leonardo and Bach. But it makes the point that few among the seven billion of us can understand the world today and for sure no one can control it. It is built to change. Intrinsically unstable. It must, faster and faster, keep on the move.

By contrast, anyone can see, at Machu Picchu and at Sacsayhuaman that the people who built these achievements did indeed understand their universe. They had done it themselves, stone by careful stone. It was built never to change, to last forever. Maybe it will. FIN

First published in Spanish in Caretas in March, 2015

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

Compadres

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

 

 

Where there’s chutzpah, there’s Pachamama

By Nicholas Asheshov

I first met Washington Gibaja in 1995 when he was 13. He was the pushiest and most winning of half a dozen village urchins offering their services as guides in the dramatic ruins at Ollantaytambo.

“How did the Incas construct this citadel-temple?” he intoned in a pip-squeak voice, confidently imitating the big-shot professional guides. When three even smaller urchins began a song-and-dance act we said we hadn’t any small change. Washington said expansively, “Don’t worry. I’ll handle it”.

A week ago I sat with Washington at a table at the Tambo Café in the Plaza de Ollantaytambo eating roast pepper and palta salads. I had run into him at the airport. His card featured a classy chacana design and went on

Magical Tours Peru

Washington Gibaja Tapia

Manager – Photographer – Writer

Machu Picchu Cusco Peru

Private Native Guide Ceremonies & Workshops

“See you Saturday,” he had said.

His websites include www.Magicaltoursperu.com  and as we sat with him and his pretty wife Pamela and four-year-old daughter, Washington was signing for me a copy of his new book, Sabiduria y Amabilidad de la Pachamama.

Thirteen years ago his efforts as a guide supported a handful of younger brothers. Today as he scribbled quickly a dedication he was telling us of his trips to universities in half the states in the U.S., to Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand and Taiwan.

Then we moved on to his campaign a couple of years ago for mayor of Ollanta. “I lost because people got confused with the numbers,” he said. “I think I’ll be in next time.”

His English is quick and fluent. The bubbly energy that had caught our eye back in 1995 was very much still there but the brashness had meshed into a good-humoured earnestness.

I already knew how he had talked himself into an early big leap forward. He must have been 16 or so and was as usual working the ruins when he spotted Sharon Forrest. Sharon is a big, blonde Canadian leader of New Age tours to Peru, Egypt and India. Forty years in the business, Sharon once hypnotized me and said later that I’d talked like a parrot of my previous lives.

In any case, there she was like a battleship at full steam surrounded by her admiring group as she preached in the ruins. Ni sonso ni perezoso, Washington went straight up to her and said in broken English, “You were my mother in another life.”

It was chutzpah meets chutzpah. Sharon is an admirable personage who enjoys doing good and nothing by halves. A few months later Washington had a room in Sharon’s house in San Diego, California and was going to school there. One of his little brothers was later to join him.

Washington told us the other day that he had just returned from a tour including Sedona and the Cascades Ski Resort above Seattle. He had given séances and organized shamanistic ceremonies: “Groups of 20 to 30, put together by friends. I made $4,000. Ten percent of this I used to buy story books in Lima for the kids in the schools up in the highland communities. I coat them in plastic and give them to the teachers.”

This is part of a virtuous circle that sees Washington organize chocolatadas at Christmas for the 35 Quechua communities out in the boonies among the glaciers above Ollanta, Peru at its most profound.

When visitors buy Washington’s book, @ S/35, they mark one of four boxes on a fly-sheet to signify where they want their 10% to go. The choice is between ojata sandles; the chocolatada; school books and a school-lunch comedor for 120 kids that Washington has set up in Ollanta itself.

“They put in their emails and I send them photos of what they contributed towards. I’m building up quite a mailing list.

“Obviously I’m pretty well known to the people up in the comunidades.”

Sabiduria y Amabilidad is full of fine photos, many of people not just ruins, all taken by, of course, Washington. The book, which has a twin version in English, takes travelers through a score of sites as well as Machu Picchu including those round Lake Titicaca. It’s without doubt the top New Age guide to the Inca world. Here’s a sample from the Intro:

“Todos poseemos una forma de energia y solamente tenemos que empujarla hacia el planeta y compartirla con nuestros semejantes asi como la Pachamama comparte su energia con nosotros plena de amor y humor.”

It’s all fluid, fresh and polished, a credit to the Ollantaytambo and San Diego educational systems. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of Jan. 16, 2009

 

How Calca absorbed Maotsetung’s Naked Chullo

By Nicholas Asheshov

If Lima follows Manhattan this year everyone in Miraflores and San Isidro will be wearing a chullo to work when the wet winter begins.

Thousands of people were wearing chullos at President Obama’s inauguration parade in Washington and my colleague Verlyn Klinkenborg, in a front-line dispatch to The New York Times, “Season of the Chullo” reported: “Gone is the Afghan pakol. Gone is the keffiyeh. This is the winter of the Andean hat.”

Verlyn immediately, however, puts her fashionable finger on the chullo’s only weakness: “It’s impossible to wear a chullo stylishly.”

She describes the chullo as just “a bag for the head”, briskly writing off seven millennia of Andean civilization. But she does spot a message.

“Perhaps the anti-stylishness of the chullo, its simple functionality, is its politics.” She prattles on:

“Perhaps it signals indigenousness, international-ness. But what it mostly says is, I don’t care how I look as long as I’m warm.”

Warm, simple, colourful, cheap and politically correct is a powerful combination but though gringas wear chullos and often, whatever Verlyn says, look charming in them, up here in the Andes the chullo is for men only.

Las mamachas in the markets in their keep-the-sun-off stovepipe sombreros or, on the Altiplano, their little bowlers on top of their braids or the shepherdesses in the red-and-yellow soup-plate monteras come in hundreds of variations. But girls don’t wear chullos.

What’s more, it’s men who make them. Franco Negri, the man behind La Casa Ecologica in Cuzco, tells me that the chullos he buys in Ocangate, around Ausangate, the highest Apu in Cusco, are all made by men.

“Real chullos are made by crochet knitting with five needles,” he says. “The men make the chullos and the llama-fibre ropes while it’s the women who make all the textiles with the traditional waist-loom.”

The other day, in any case, I ran into the man who has produced the defining statement of our time for the chullo. His name is Maotsetung Jimenez Dorado, a 29-year-old sculptor who has created a 2.70ms bronzed stone-cement statue of a strapping Andean Indian dressed only in his chullo and it was installed not long ago outside the bus station in Calca, a lively market town 20 minutes up the road from Urubamba.

Sited on a two-metre plinth just up from one of Calca’s two traffic lights, it has caused an uproar. “La madre de las monjitas dominicanas del Colegio Belem puso el grito al cielo, los padres de familia quejaron diciendo que “los niños se enferman,” Maotsetung told me.

“La madre dijo que la estatua es ‘morbosa’ and asked me why didn’t I do a statue of something like Heroism or Religion?”

Maotsetung, an evangelico, tells me that “the chullo es la expresion indigena de las alturas“.

His statue tells us that “los indigenas no son alienados y que son tal cual desnudos.”

Maotsetung’s statue was his graduating thesis work from the Escuela de Bellas Artes de Calca.

Maotsetung says, “I did un estudio profundo para presentarlo como obra de arte y no erotico. I even made the pene disproportionately small.”

In one hand the chullo-wearer holds apututu, the sacred Andean conch shell used in ceremonies and in the other a sort-of plaque with “Escuela de Bellas Artes” inscribed.

The statue is a reddish-bronze colour made of 500 kilos of marmolina, @ S/.1.20/kilo con cinco bolsas de cemento, mas fierros, and seis cubos de piedras para plinth/fundacion. “No me han pagado todavia para las piedras,” Maotsetung says referring to the Sub-gerencia de Obras de la municipalidad.

It took months of door-knocking, endless waiting for appointments, for Maotsetung to get the municipality to put up the statue. “Nadie le daba bola.” recalls Jean Concha, a mutual friend who works in the municipalidad.

Instead of lobbying Calca’s highland alcalde, Siriaco Condori Cruz, Maotsetung focused on lower levels like the Oficina de Educacion y Cultura de la municipalidad.No lo tomo al chico en serio,” Jean Concha says.

Maotsetung’s persistence paid off, “Pero no habia nada de inauguracion.”

Al inicio lo taparon con plastico,” reflecting the controversy that swirled through the town’s two radio stations and its markets.

Though a little weary of small-town politics, Maotsetung is hoping to get financial and official blessing for his next project which will be, naturalmente, “una ñusta solamente con su montera.

I am sending Maotsetung a suitable cheque to get the ball rolling. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of February 27, 2009