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A GEOGRAPHIC SURREALISM
David Tipton

 

 

Geographically Peru is an amazing country. Twelve degrees south of the equator, Lima should be hot and wet, surrounded by luxuriant vegetation, but in fact it has a mild climate. In the summer it's warm and dry, but for four months of the year is canopied by cloud that hangs grey and depressing over the coastal strip. Garua - fine drizzle or Scotch mist - dampens the ground, and people's spirits, but it never actually rains. For weeks on end the city lies shrouded, humidity is high and the damp seems to seep into the bones although it's never cold enough for an overcoat. These climatic conditions are created by the Humboldt current in combination with the mountain wall of the Andes. There is a legend that the Incas, knowing full well about its lugubrious winters, deliberately led Francisco Pizarro to the Rimac Valley when he was looking for a site to found his coastal capital, in revenge for the Conquest. As it was January with blue skies and a warm sun the Spanish, it is said, were tricked into staying, but this seems doubtful. Almost certainly Pizarro was attracted to the site because it was centrally-situated with a fine natural harbour, thus ensuring his line of communication with Panama and Spain. 

Though the coast is arid, maize, sugar, cotton and rice are all cultivated along the narrow river valleys while the plain round Lima is extensively farmed. The city itself is like an oasis, full of greenery from careful irrigation, and during the winter months you only have to drive twenty miles into the hills, to emerge from the cloudbelt into brilliant sunshine. At two thousand feet above sea-level there's sunshine all the year round. Sixty miles further up, at 16,000 feet, the road reaches the top of the pass where it's cold and bleak, but drops down again to the eastern highlands at approximately 10,000 feet where the climate is Mediterranean. Another fifty miles east, the road descending rapidly, and you enter the jungle. So within two-hundred and fifty miles of the coast you can pass through four distinct climatic zones. My wife, Ena, and I made this journey with Maureen and Johnny Maurer in July 1964. 

Maureen, who was originally from New Hampshire, had studied Spanish in Mexico City, then at San Marcos University in Lime. She had first met Johnny, a Peruvian of Swiss descent, in Arizona where he had been studying Business Administration. Because his parents were in the Peruvian diplomatic service, Johnny had spent his childhood in Havana, Washington and Rio de Janeiro and was therefore trilingual.

Well-read, cosmopolitan, he was an entertaining companion. When we first met them Johnny was running his parents' chicken-farm near Lima although they lived quite close to us in San Isidro. They became two of our closest friends, Maureen helping me to translate and edit the anthology of Peruvian poetry we brought out during our second stay in the country. 

It was Fiesta Patria, a national holiday celebrating Peru's Declaration of Independence from Spain, when we made our trip. Under the protection of Lord Cochrane, a peripatetic English admiral, San Martin arrived from Chile and declared independence in 1821 although most of the country was still in Spanish hands. Real independence was not achieved until 1824 when that other hero of the South American republics, Bolivar, defeated the Spanish viceroy and his army in two decisive battles at Junin and Ayacucho in the sierra. Nonetheless the main festivities now celebrate the Declaration rather than the victories. It is a time when many Limenos, taking advantage of the holidays, leave Lima for the mountains. 

We left by car early in the morning with Lime, true to form, cool, cloudy and damp. Thirty miles up the Rimac valley, travelling due east, we emerged into sunshine. Below us we could see the ridge of cloud clamped over the coast. In front of us were the Andes, sheering up like an impenetrable wall. The Central Highway, a metalled road, follows the railway which is the highest in the world, reaching an aititude of 16,000 feet, zigzagging through the pass or sometimes tunnelling through the rock-face. Built by an American engineer, Henry Meiggs, in the late 19th century, it's an impressive feat. The road ascends slightly beiow the railway. On the coastal ranges the mountains are arid and striated, shadowed in the sunlight, though the valley is green and cultivated with the Rimac, a narrow stream, rushing down towards the sea. With each loop of the road the view becomes more spectacular, elaborately-terraced slopes on either side. Far more of the land was farmed under the Incas than it is now. Their ingenious system of terracing followed the contour lines and is testimony to the science they brought to agriculture. Much of this terracing was allowed to go to ruin when the Spanish arrived and is still no longer utilised. 

Though the Spanish brought destruction to the Inca Empire one cannot help admiring their courage and stamina. This rugged terrain which even by car can be a daunting experience was regularly traversed on horseback and foot by the Conquistadores. Though ruthless in their greed for gold, something in their determination when faced by insuperable difficulties and their fearlessness in death seems to transcend this materialism. That such a small body of men, surrounded by an alien people, had the audacity to penetrate such wild country still takes the breath away. Moreover, many of them ware middle-aged, even in some cases quite old. Francisco Pizarro himself was in his fifties when he first set foot in Peru. One of the most colourful of them all, Francisco de Carbajal, was over seventy. 

Carbajal was born towards the middle of the 15th century and for forty years, under most of the great leaders of his day, served in the Italian Wars. He was at the Battle of Ravenna; saw the capture of Francis I at Pavia, and was present at the sack of Rome. His prize from the booty taken there was simply a notary's paper which he sold back at a price that enabled him to cross to Mexico. After some years there he was sent to serve Pizarro and later given a grant of land near Cuzco, only coming out of retirement when the civil wars between the conquerors themselves broke out. Foreseeing trouble he converted his land into gold and tried to return to Castille, but unable to do so devoted himself to the situation at hand. 

During the years of war he built up a reputation for infamy and atrocity. He was said to have taken a diabolical pleasure in teasing his victims, cracking macabre jokes at the moment of their execution. A cynic, he looked upon life as a kind of farce but at the same time was an excellent military leader, especially skilful in guerrilla warfare. He never seemed to tire or to care for danger. He knew every mountain pass in the country and was believed to be in league with the devil. When his troops were falling , back in the face of heavy artillery fire at the Battle of Chupas, Carbajal leapt from his horse, threw off his helmet and cuirass, and cried out: "Shame on you, my men. Do you give way now? I am twice as good a mark as any of you" A fat man he sprang forward through the cannon fire and musket-balls, leading the bravest of his men to overcome their opponents and take the guns. 

Siding with Gorizalo Pizarro against the Viceroy, he hounded Centano, a supporter of the Crown, through a thousand miles of rough country, summarily executing any of his followers who were captured. Once Gonzalo was undisputed head of the country, Carbajal occupied himself working the sliver mines at Potosi in what is now Bolivia, but advised his leader to throw off all allegiance to the Crown. "In fact you have already done so," he said."You have taken arms against a Viceroy, have driven him from the country, beaten and slain his followers in battle. What favour or mercy can you expect from the Crown? You have gone too far either to halt, or to recede. You must go on boldly, proclaim yourself King; the troops and the people will support you." 

He further advised him to marry an Inca princess so that the two races might be united under a common leader. Gonzalo Pizarro, a romantic-realist, who usually dressed ostentatiously in black velvet with golden plumes adorned with jewels, seriously hoped to unite the Pizarro family with the Incas, and set up an Independent Peru. "Spain," he said, "Wishes to enjoy what we have sweated for and with clean hands to benefit from what we have given our blood to obtain." It was, in fact, the first attempt of the colonists to gain independence from Spain. 

Carbajal made a joke of everything. On hearing of the defection of their followers when the new governor, Gasca, arrived from Spain, he amused himself by humming a popular tune: 

'The wind blows the hairs off my head, mother;
Two at a time, it blows them away...

At the Battle of Huarina, when Gonzalo defeated the army of Centano, the man Carbajal had previously chased all over Peru, it was the intrepidity of the old warrior that won the day against superior odds although once again Centano escaped. 

When they were finally defeated by Gasca at the Battle of Xaquixaguana in 1548, Carbajal, watching his followers deserting and going over to the Viceroy, again hummed the words of his song. Both he and Gonzalo were captured and the domination of the Pizarro family came to an end in Peru. Gonzalo's defence has pathos. "It was my family who conquered the country," he said, "and as their representative here I felt I had a right to the government." Carbajal, on the other hand, joked and quipped until the end. When he met Centano in the Viceroy's quarters, he said: "It is so long since I have seen anything but your arse that I had forgotten your face." 

Over eighty years old, Carbajal was sentenced to be drawn and quartered. When told of this he said: "they can but kill me." On the day of his execution many came to see him and he treated them all with caustic humour. Some cavalier thanked him for once sparing his life and expressed a wish to serve him. "What service can you do for me?" Carbajal asked. "Can you set me free? If you cannot do that you can do nothing. If I spared your life, as you say, it was probably because I did not think it worthwhile to take it." When urged to see a priest he retorted: "But of what use would that be? I have nothing that lies heavily upon my conscience unless it be, indeed, the debt of half a real to a shopkeeper in Seville which I forgot to pay before leaving the country." They pushed his bulky body into a basket which was drawn by mules. "Cradles for infants and a cradle for an old man too, it seems," was his comment. He refused the consolation offered by the priests who had kept him company to the gallows, ridiculing them by ironically repeating their pater nosters and ave marias. With his courage and carelessness in the teeth of danger, Carbajal typifies the conquistadores although his cynicism and lack of religious conviction are peculiar to himself. 

A few hours after leaving the coast we were at Ticilo, the summit of the pass; 16,000 feet above sea-level. We were surrounded by jagged snow-capped peaks, glaciers and barren rock in mineral shades of maroon, steel-grey, verdigris and rust. We stopped and took some photographs. The air was rarified and made breathing difficult. It was also extremely cold. We soon returned to the car and began the slow descent through the altiplano. The terrain was bleak, sparsely covered in coarse grass with an occasional splash of orange or mauve flowering-shrubs. We passed herds of grazing llamas and Indians at the roadside wrapped in thick ponchos against the blustering wind. Further on there were some clusters of factories belonging to the large mining companies which with the Indians as cheap labour extracted the rich deposits of copper, lead, zinc, gold and silver found in the area. Though some of these mining companies have been nationalised most are still owned by foreigners. It galls Peruvians to see such wealth channelled out of their country, but they need investment and loans. 

Emerging from high plateau, range upon range of mountains turning to mauve in the distance, we sighted the old sierra town of Tarma below us in the valley. The view was beautiful. As the road spiralled down we could see the twin-towered pink church and the red-roofed houses clustering in the valley which was a checkerboard of yellow, russet, brown and rust. On the hill slopes, dotted with stones there were herds of grazing cattle. One could imagine the Spanish felt at home in such valleys for the eastern highlands are reminiscent of parts of the Mediterranean. 

Tarma wasn't of much significance during the Conquest although in the Indian rebellion of 1536, an Inca general, Tupac, who opposed the Spanish until 1544, made the town his base. A Spanish force under Alonso Marcadillo was finally sent against him. Despite being ambushed on innumerable occasions it reached the town and remained in the valley for several months, terrorising its inhabitants. The Spanish consumed the Indians' store of food and killed most of their cattle. Naturally they robbed the Indians of all the gold and silver they possessed. They raped their wives and kept many of the inhabitants chained, making slaves of them. Indian chiefs were tortured in order to find out the whereabouts of Tupac. In fact he had withdrawn to Huanaco, another sierra town, and fought on from there. Another expedition was sent out to subdue him. Under a man called Chavez this was said to have slaughtered over six-hundred children under the age of three in the Tarma district besides hanging men and women indiscriminately. But Tupac eluded capture. 

While in Tarma we stayed at the Tourist Hotel, wandering round the markets and enjoying the warm sunshine. It was the southern winter and although the days were warm, the nights tended to be cool and crisp. On our last night there we watched a firework display put on in the plaza to celebrate the Declaration of Independence. We joined the jostling Indians dancing in the square. Many were drunk on chicha jora, an Incaic beverage made from fermented maize, or pisco, a grape brandy. Much to everyone's amusement some of the rockets shot off at unpredictable angles into the crowd. A brass band played the Peruvian National Anthem and the revels continued until after midnight. I wondered how much the Indians who had apparently poured into the town from outlying districts actually comprehended. For the Declaration of Independence had meant little, and changed even less, for most of them. 

Leaving Tarma we travelled east along a road lined with poplars and eucalyptus. These petered out as we left the valley. Within the next fifty miles the road descended 8,000 feet. It was an incredible pass hacked out of the side of the mountains. Far below us was the thin silver snake of a river. The sheer slopes were thinly-vegetated but as we got lower, precipices inches from the outer wheels, the vegetation became denser and the river got closer. After an hour-and-a-half we were almost on the level of the stream. Waterfalls and cascades poured down mossy rock-slopes. When we stopped the car we could hear the familiar sounds of the jungle. The change was remarkable and abrupt. We had stripped oft Jackets, then sweaters and finally our shirts. 

Over the last few miles to our destination, San Ramon, the road gradually straightened out. On both sides there were low-lying hills, plantations of bananas, pineapple and tobacco symmetrical on their lower slopes. San Ramon itself turned out to be a one-street, L-shaped town of ramshackle wooden houses, stores and restaurants lining the banks of the river. We managed to get a room at the Tourist Hotel, but went into town for supper. We found a Chinese restaurant and had an unexpectedly splendid meal. 

The following day we drove on east again to La Merced. Though it was a jungle-outpost, most of its inhabitants seemed to be from the sierra. On a hill above the river was a fine colonial church while the market in the town centre was extensive and colourful. Apart from the tropical fruit though, most of the goods for sale were cheap manufactured products from Uma. We left Johnny's car in La Merced and took a minibus for the last part of the journey to Pampasilva, a small settlement on the Perene river. There had been recent rain and the road had an atrocious reputation so we didn't want to risk getting stuck in our Peugot. Our little bus seated twelve passengers whose luggage was piled up on the roof-rack. While waiting to leave we watched a group of Indians, drunk as lords, quarrelling outside a bar. It is an Indian tradition to get drunk on national holidays - short breaks, I imagined, from an oppressive routine.

Following the river once again we soon left La Merced behind. On both sides were vivid green hills. The narrow, unmetalled road was greasy with red mud and scored with the deep indentations of tyre-treads. In some places it crumbled away on the open side and there were precipitous drops of a thousand feet or so to the river. It was just about the worst and most dangerous road I ever encountered in Peru although the drops were less impressive in terms of distance than on some of the other passes I was to experience. We crossed and re-crossed the river many times, finally following a smaller tributary, the Perene itself. I was on the open side of the bus and often saw nothing but a yawning gap down to the river. Skidding on mud round hairpins, we all laughed and joked about the danger. 

We had been driving for an hour when we were halted. A line of traffic stretched along the road in front of us. Johnny and I tried to find out what had happened. A few hundred yards up the hill an open pick-up truck had gone over the edge. Evidently it was a common enough occurrence. We strolled up the hill in the heat to have a look. At the point where the accident had happened the slope down was almost vertical. However, trees and tangled vegetation had stopped the truck from rolling right down to the river. It had been caught in the angle between a tree and the precipice. The back of the truck had been full of women and children who had jumped or been thrown clear as it had toppled over. They'd grabbed at the vegetation to save themselves. Apart from cuts and bruises they appeared unhurt. The driver and his companion were still inside the cab and volunteers had gone down to try to get them out. The wife of the trapped driver was hysterical. Her screams punctuated the shouting of the men below. 

By now a line of vehicles was strung out down the road. The hot sun sparkled on the green leaves of the Jungle and with the engines silent you could hear the dry sound of insects. Finally the police arrived, but they failed to bring towing equipment. For an hour, stripped to the waist and sweating, the volunteers worked to move the truck. At last they succeeded in releasing the trapped men, both of whom had been chatting to their rescuers. The driver, it seemed, had tried to leap clear through the open window, but had been caught with the weight of the truck across his chest. The moment the pressure was removed he died. The other man was still alive. We watched them haul up the bodies on strips of tarpaulin. The faces of both men looked waxen and grey. 

The traffic began to move again so we had to get back into the bus. We were all shaken by the accident and the journey, a joyride until then, became a bit of a nightmare. Maureen and I were sitting on the window side of the mini-bus with a clear view of the drop below us. 

At times its wheels were so close to the edge I had to look away. As we descended the road became narrower and muddier - much more treacherous. Finally we arrived in Pampasilva which was little more than a collection of huts huddled together on the banks of the Perene. Although less than three-hundred miles from Lima we were in an outpost of the jungle. Once out of the bus we went straight into a wooden shack of a bar and ordered beer. We drank six large bottles between us before our nerves felt steadier. 

The river at this point is fast-flowing, with rapids that the Indians in their canoes negotiate with ease. We found the owner of a canoe and hired it for an hour. All the canoes had small Massey-Ferguson outboard motors. Our Indian took us a few miles downstream, shooting the rapids, which were extensive, with consummate ease. We visited a village of Jungle Indians. All chattering at once they tried to sell us beads, bows-and-arrows and spears. Leaving the village we went on another half-mile or so, stopping at a place where the river narrowed into a rocky gorge. We took some photographs from the shore here before returning, more slowly upstream to Pampasilva. 

When we caught the bus back to La Merced in the late afternoon sun I felt relaxed enough to face the ride though once or twice I climbed out of the window and onto the luggage-rack with the drivers boy. It seemed the safest position in the event of an accident, besides providing the best views of the sun setting over the jungle and river. 

The following day we returned to Lima, completing the 250 miles in ten hours. At eight in the morning we rolled into San Ramon with its green hills, plantations and patches of red blossom, ethereal in the early mist. The more distant hills had a bluish sheen and someone must have been hunting for we saw puffs of smoke and heard the crack of rifle shots. We set off again, the tang of wet vegetation and the aroma of wood-smoke in our nostrils. At Tarma we bought some food for a picnic lunch and by the early afternoon were high up in the altiplano. Sheltered from the ice-keen wind we stopped to eat. Solemn and oddly-dignified llamas were grazing in the distance. There was a weird silence save for the whine of the wind. 

In Tarma we had filled the thermos-flask with hot water in order to make coffee Forgetting that the altitude could cause it to boil, Johnny undid the top and it exploded out, spilling into his lap. 

Fortunately there was a mountain stream by the side of the road where he could bathe his scalded thighs. He drove on with a wet towel draped over his legs. Once back in Lima the burns healed up quickly. 

By mid-afternoon we had reached 15,000 feet and were among the strange mountain peaks and still lakes. On our way up to Ticlio at the top of the pass the exhaust-pipe dropped off the car. We had to stop on the curve and, teeth chattering with the cold, secure it with our trouser-belts. Minutes later it began to hail and snow. The belts failed to hold the exhaust-pipe in place for more than a few miles so we stopped again. In a blizzard, on top of the continent, we spent ten minutes trying to wrench the exhaust off the car. At last we succeeded and cruised on down in a splutter of small explosions. At one point we stopped again to look at the burnt-out wreck of a train that had recently jumped the line and tumbled into the gorge a thousand-feet or so below. We could follow its downward route by means of the debris scattering the slope. It was a melancholy sight on that grey and dismal afternoon. By the early evening we were travelling through the brownish foothills into the shantytowns on the edge of Lima, but it was dark when we saw the halo of reddish light from the city and began speeding through the suburbs, still shrouded in mist, to our apartment in San Isidro.