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Faces of Tradition

December 10th, 2013 No comments

CTTCACCH-0113 - joe coca cover shot Elders

Attended the recent Tinquy, which was a quite wonderful get-together in Cusco of the world’s weavers – and what a great place to have it, as weaving has always mattered so much more in Peru where, while there was no pre-Columbian writing, they could always express themselves with textiles.

It’s the only time when I’ve addressed an audience who were mainly spinning as they listened – on the good principle that, however boring I might be, they would still get something out of the session.

To mark it, a fine book published by two of the moving spirits of the festival, Nilda Callañaupa and Christine Franquemont, Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andeswhich I cannot commend too much (and have on the cover as well!) – not least because the photographs by Joe Coca are quite excellent, with moving and dignified portraits of the elders of weaving, the old women – and some men – who have kept the ancient traditions alive.

Tragically, Christine Franquemont died on the first day of the conference in Cusco, and this book stands as a memorial to her.

All that glitters

October 27th, 2013 No comments

I go to see the press opening for El Dorado at the British Museum, which is excellent – one of the best curated and lit shows there of recent years.  The exhibition is careful to remind us that while the Spanish conquistadors were excited by the gold they found, even more enticing was the gold they didn’t  – and nowhere was this more embodied than in the legend of El Dorado, a myth so potent it has persisted from Sir Walter Raleigh to Walt Disney.

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The Colombian civilisations made gold offerings in liminal places – like mountains or lakes, such as the one of the El Dorado legend in which a naked gold-powdered leader offered precious jewellery into the water.  They used gold to transform themselves into otherworldly creatures with a metallic second skin, their nose pieces and earrings swinging so as to catch the light.

And the exhibition is well timed, not just because it is the first major show for many years that the British Museum has had on South America, but because our obsession with gold continues: a rise of some 1000% in its price of the last 10 years; an accompanying gold-rush in those countries like Peru whose mines have been reopened, or the Amazon panned, with devastating environmental effects like arsenic run-off. For a searing indictment of quite what this has meant on a human scale, read Marie Arana’s recent extraordinary article about the La Rinconada mine, ‘Dreaming of El Dorado’.

Choquequirao will open to the public

September 4th, 2013 No comments
choquequirao kallanka walls 82 lo-res

Choquequirao – overgrown kallanka walls in 1982
(c) Hugh Thomson

The news that Choquequirao, sister city to Machu Picchu, is finally to get opened up to mass tourism obviously raises mixed emotions in me – at first romanticising my own early visits to Choquequirao 30 years ago when still covered in scrub, as in the photo I took here  – and more recent visits with just a few others there, after a 5 day trek – but is that being selfish?  If managed well – and I do think the Peruvians manage Machu Picchu exceptionally well given all the problems of access – then opening up Choquequirao is all to the good and a cable car may be better than having lots of buses going up a road….

The fascinating new discoveries of just the last couple of years make it even more worthwhile seeing the site now that it’s cleared, as below.  And the vantage point 6,000 feet above the Apurimac makes its position in some ways even more spectacular than Machu Picchu.

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An outrageous plan to build a new airport for Cusco on the beautiful highlands above Chincheros

February 4th, 2013 4 comments

Interesting piece in this week’s Economist which confirms what I was suggesting in a From Our Own Correspondent report for the BBC last year, that Peru is booming away at a phenomenal rate of between 7% and 9% this year, figures that those of us experiencing double or treble dip recessions can only dream of.

The boom has been helped by strong minerals, cautious banks (you have to be a cautious bank if you’re operating in Latin America!) and an emerging middle class.  It’s seen the dollar fall against the local currency, the Peruvian sol, by some 25% over five years – not such good news if you’re planning to travel there, although compensated for by rapidly improving infrastructure:  over the last decade, the number of roads in Peru has doubled, an extraordinary statistic for this huge country that is five times the size of the UK.

But with wealth comes responsibility – and in particular, responsibility for the environment, not something that has always been Peru’s strong suit (remember the riots about introducing gas pipelines to the Amazon, when local indigenous tribes confronted the army and police).

Now there is an outrageous plan to build a new airport on the beautiful highlands above Chincheros, some thousand feet above Cusco, which is the city that it would serve.

The old airport in Cusco is deemed to have run its purpose – mainly because it can’t take international flights, and also because developers are eyeing up what has become a valuable inner-city resource for housing, having started off as a few fields on the outskirts of town when I first went there in the early 1980s.

There are some doubt as to whether a new airport would really do much better for international flights – and no doubt at all that it would be a huge eyesore on one of the most beautiful areas close to Cusco and one which many tourists see as they travel over towards Machu Picchu.

My old mate Nick Asheshov has written astutely about this in his column for the Peruvian magazine Caretas.

The idea has been ticking over for years and no one really thought the authorities would quite bring themselves to do it. Tragically, it now sounds as it is a done deal, as large amounts of money have been handed out to the local communities already as recompense.

The view over the Chincheros plain to Mount Verónica, past lakes and fields of growing quinoa, is one I have always cherished and I for one will be very sad if it now becomes a sprawl of not only the airport but all the ancillary hotels and mess that an airport inevitably brings.

Machu Picchu in the clouds

September 21st, 2012 No comments

There is a good interesting roundup of current theories about Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Times in which the author, Rick Vecchio, sensibly doesn’t commit himself too far in any particular direction…

…Unlike many of the guides at Machu Picchu who are still perfectly capable of telling you that this was where the Inca emperor hid his Virgins Of The Sun and that stone over there was where they sacrificed the black llamas.

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For my own brief introduction to the interpretation of the ruins, take a look at the short film I did for CNN last year:  See Hugh’s cut-out-and-keep 5 minute guide to Machu Picchu for CNN.

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Then you’ll understand why I prefer to use this picture of my own in which Machu Picchu is covered by cloud, rather than the usual sunlit panorama.  It’s a place we still don’t fully understand although we have recently gained some useful pointers.

Espíritu Pampa: The Last City of the Incas

October 27th, 2011 3 comments

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Ten years ago I sat in the middle of the ruins of Espíritu Pampa and despaired that it would ever be cleared. Dense jungle covered the site. Kapok trees had ripped open the Inca stonework, their roots gripping doorways and niches. Brush obscured the lines of the great Plaza, the kallankas and the ornamental fountains.

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The work of ever restoring the place seemed both Herculean and pointless – the ruins were too extensive and remote, the vegetation just too dense, for this, unlike most Inca sites, had been built not in the mountains, but in the jungle on the eastern slopes of the Andes as they joined the Amazon.

The site has enormous emotional resonance – ‘the last bastion of Inca resistance’, as a noticeboard proclaims at its entrance, it saw the final dying of the flame after the Spanish conquest in 1532. Having held out in the mountains of the Vilcabamba for some 40 years, by 1572 the last Emperor, the young Tupac Amaru, was on the run, pursued down here into the rainforest by a Viceroy intent on finally wiping out “the pretender across the mountains”.

Espíritu Pampa was burnt in the process; the Emperor caught and executed.

But perhaps because it is such a potent symbol, the Peruvian government have made a superhuman effort and cleared it – one substantial section just three weeks before we arrived. I can finally appreciate the immense size of the site, radiating out from the central Plaza where they have tactfully left a few of the giant kapok trees.

Now is the time to visit, before the vegetation returns under a less benign or interested administration; or when someone realises that with just 30 or so visitors a year making the week long journey, the cost of maintaining it cannot be justified.

The Pinball Of Peruvian Politics: A New President

August 6th, 2011 No comments

Every year, the Lima seafront becomes more Californian; not just the surfers hanging out in the Pacific breakers and paragliders spiralling around the cliffs, but the sense of affluence:  there are families strolling along the promenade after eating at one of Lima’s increasingly fashionable seafood restaurants and the shopping malls are full of  IPods, boutiques and tropical fruit flavoured ice cream.

But this is the first time I’ve been here when even the taxi drivers aren’t complaining. The Peruvian economy is booming, with a 7.1 percentage growth rate that European countries can only dream of; the Peruvian football team, serial underachievers, have done well in the Copa America, beating the old enemy, Chile, along the way. And they have been celebrating the centenary of the discovery of Machu Picchu, not only as the symbol of the country’s glorious Inca past, but because they finally managed to get back all the artefacts that American explorer Hiram Bingham took with him to Yale in 1911.

However, having told me all this, the taxi driver will then usually shrug and say “but now, quien sabe, who knows?’  For the recent elections have delivered a shock result that may take the pinball of Peruvian politics off in a completely new direction. Read more…

Another dissolute memoir

January 24th, 2011 No comments

Another dissolute memoir which turns out to be a travel book in disguise.  It seems only a few weeks ago that I posted on Howard Marks’s High Times (no I wasn’t referring to mine…).  But I have a particular interest in ‘Life’, this autobiography by Keef (I had never realised this was a self-appointed nickname):  before publication his managers had been talking to me about possibly directing the forthcoming documentary that will complement the book.  Talks went on for a while but were then blown out of the window when Johnny Depp said he wanted to do it as his first directing job – clearly rather a better name to have over the marquee and an old friend of Keef’s anyway. 

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Life is fun – some good stories told with the trademark louche bonhomie, either travelling through the Badlands of the southern States or downtown Kingston.  And one of the most memorable passages is when he takes us to Morocco, Tangier and Marrakesh for a key moment in his story, the love affair with Anita Pallenberg when she leaves Brian Jones for him, almost pulling the Stones apart in the process. 

Someone has to make it into an opera – the beautiful but tempestuous boy (Brian), the beautiful and even more tempestuous Anita (“she certainly made a man out of me”) and Keith himself, the picaresque hero, with the story played out against a sixties Morocco that he describes well — the kef and hash, the orange trees, the sheer alien nature of the place just a slip of a way from Europe (“it could have been 1000 years ago”). 

As it still is.  I have been over to Morocco three times in the last year and it never ceases to amaze me how such a wild country can be just a few hours on a no-frills flight away (Ryanair from London Stansted). 

For my feelings on how you can “get lost in Fez”, see the recent feature I did for the January issue of Conde Nast Traveller

But one particular moment in Keef’s travels particularly intrigued me – when he fetches up in, of all places, Urubamba, the small town in Peru where I lived with my family five years ago, as recounted in Cochineal Red:  he and Mick have to sing for their supper (and a room for the night) as no one knows who they are.  

It’s a story I’d heard when staying in Urubamba but always discounted as one of those tall stories.  Sure the Rolling Stones came here and played here in the small corner cafe on the square.  Pass the Inca treasure will you…

Wine and Granta’s ‘best of young Spanish language novelists’

December 6th, 2010 No comments

Literary launches are often dull affairs — dutiful publishers, respectful friends, bashful authors — so very agreeable to be invited to the Granta launch for their new ‘best of’ list of ‘young Spanish language novelists’ – in Granta 113.  Someone (Saskia Vogel) has had the bright idea of combining the reading with a professionally hosted wine tasting so that each writer is paired with a fine Spanish vintage.  As punters are only given one glass, this means they have to drain it between each reading to get a refill.  Result?  A happily inebriated audience who appreciate every last word that the writers feed them. 

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And the writers themselves?  Granta make much of the idea that this new generation (i.e. born after 1975) have not experienced the repression of Franco or the Latin American dictators, so write more of the personal than the political.  This perhaps oversimplifies the work of the older generation – like Vargas Llosa and Márquez – and also ignores the work of some of the finest young Peruvian writers like Daniel Alarcón (Lost City Radio) and Santiago Roncagliolo (Red April) which is intensely political. 

But they do have a point as it is true that one huge influence hangs over this generation and not necessarily a benign one:  the late Robert Bolaño, who was been canonised by the literary world since his untimely death.  Bolaño made a virtue of an autobiographical approach – what it was like to live as a writer in the  Latin American bohemian world of casual sex and drugs – which in the hands of a master is all very well,  but when played out in infinite variations by disciples can become introverted and dull.  Writers have affairs and literary rivalries — fine .  But give me Macondo or the War At The End Of The World for a bit of scale and vision.  Both Alarcón and Roncagliolo provide that in their novels above, as do some of the others;  the best of the work here is, to use one of Borges’s favourite words, nítido,  lucid and intense (and very well translated), and as ‘viscerally real’ as Bolaño wanted South American literature to become.  Granta are to be commended for their commitment in launching the project. 

What is notable is the lack of women writers.  All six of those reading tonight are men.  And only a quarter of the total published list are women.  This is not the fault of Granta, who have rightly selected just on merit not political correctness.  But surely the next wave of Latin American writing will see far more from the likes of the remarkably accomplished Lucía Puenzo, who is both a filmmaker and writer. 

Back to the winetasting, which should be developed further by other literary publicists:  I’d like to see a vodka tasting with Martin Amis and Ian McEwan;  champagnes with Howard Jacobson;  and ‘Amazonian armpit arguardientes’ with Will Self.

see my full review of the issue

A platform for the Incas

November 22nd, 2010 2 comments

After all the excitement of the Poetry Festival, am now off to a series of gatherings of a very different sort:  a conference at the British Museum on Peruvian ushnus, the raised platform structures often found in the centre of Inca plazas or on hill tops.

This may seem a slightly esoteric subject, but the ushnus are both at the centre of the Inca world and yet surprisingly little understood.  As one of the speakers plaintively noted, the Spanish chroniclers of the time did little to describe them.

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One thing is immediately apparent: Andeanists, like poets and indeed like Incas, tend to celebrate their gatherings with many libations – at a party held by the Peruvian ambassador, the pisco sours were flowing freely and only copious amounts of black coffee provided by the British Museum allowed attendees to focus on the complex astronomical siting of the ushnus, which at sites like Huánaco Pampa are aligned to solstice and equinox risings of the sun.

My own interest comes from work we have carried out at Llactapata, with on-site help from Tom Zuidema (the keynote speaker at this conference),  which has buildings which are similarly aligned to the sunrises of both solstices – see The full report on the expedition.  There is also a large ushnu-style raised platform structure measuring some 60 feet by 40 feet, enclosed by a five feet high retaining wall – which like almost everything else to do with ushnus needs more investigation, but is the only known ushnu from which Machu Picchu is clearly visible.  With an alignment of 110 degrees, the platform is orientated almost dead on the December solstice line for the rising sun.  Read more…