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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…

The Chilean miners and that wonderful Spanish word ‘hábil’

October 13th, 2010 1 comment

 

The unconfined joy rightly generated by the rescue of the Chilean miners focuses attention on one of the less heralded aspects of Latin America.  Europeans sometimes make tedious jokes about a ‘mañana culture’,  usually when they have forgotten quite how inefficient European services can be.  In fact for me the people of that continent are often distinguished by what can best be described by that wonderful Spanish word ‘hábil’, a word that means ‘clever, skilful, adroit, expert, handy, deft, accomplished’ and the ability to make the best of slender resources.  

From Cuba to Chile I have always been impressed by the ability of mechanics, muleteers, stall-holders and just about anyone you meet to make things work if they possibly can.  Nowhere is this more evident than Chile [see my earlier post when I went there just after the earthquake] ,  and the patience with which they have managed to get the miners to the surface  – and with which the miners have endured unbearable conditions – puts most other countries to shame.  Which is not to say that the collapse in the mine was not due to casual safety standards in the first place, as Mario Sepulveda, one of their leaders and a union activist, had pointed out before the disaster occurred.  As the struggle for the earth’s resources intensifies, mines and oil rigs will have to dig deeper, with all the attendant risks and necessary vigilance that brings. 

But in a crisis situation, when what is needed is both pragmatic ‘habilidad’ and faith, then give me the South Americans every time.  Not least because they also manage to keep a sense both of humour and the surreal:  one of the miners, Edison Pena, apparently ‘kept up the spirits of the other miners by singing Elvis songs underground’.  He has now received an invitation to  Graceland.  You couldn’t make it up, boyo.

The Sentimental Education of Latin American Writers

October 8th, 2010 2 comments

So Mario Vargas Llosa wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. To be honest, I’d half assumed he’d already won it years ago, so  major a figure has he been for so long. 

I’m sorry not to have been in Peru for this as sure that while he remains a controversial figure there – more for his exile in Europe than for his political views – they would be celebrating. 

I remember being in a small town in Ecuador in 1982 when Gabriel García Márquez won his Nobel (he has apparently just twittered Llosa to say that they are ‘now even’).  Although it was only eleven in the morning, the bar filled up with excited revellers ordering brandies; he might have been Colombian, but the town was treating Márquez as if he were a local boy.  

He was writing of their world, with its perpetual llovizna, that wonderful word for a soft drizzle of rain playing over the dampness of the platanales, the banana-plantations, while the oceano nítido, the bright ocean, stood off in the distance. The predominant mood in his books was one of nostalgia, ‘tratando de recomponer con tantas astillas dispersas el espejo roto de la memoria, trying to reconstitute so many scattered shards of the broken mirror of the memory,’ a nostalgia weighed down with decay. 

Llosa plays a different game.  His books are often at the sharp end – the brutality of life in Death in the Andes, or under the dictator Trujillo (in one of his finest late books, The Feast of the Goat) – laced with surreal or erotic moments.  With Márquez and other South American contemporaries, he shares a fascination with the brothel as a sentimental education.  In his memoirs, A Fish in the Water,  he writes that ‘my generation lived the swansong of the brothel’, a place where one could live ‘a life apart’, and  laments ‘the banalisation of sex’ that accompanied its disappearance as changing social mores allowed for sex outside marriage.  He wrote about the one he frequented near Castilla in a novel that like much of his early work was autobiographical, The Green House

Márquez too has written a great deal about brothels – Love in the Time of Cholera is full of them, for instance – but it was his last novella that really upset critics, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, in which a man in his nineties sleeps with an underage girl, an uncomfortable and problematic book that showed that whatever else he was doing, Márquez was not ageing gracefully.  One wonders if the situations had been reversed, and it was Llosa who won it 30 years ago and Márquez in contention now, how comfortable the Swedish judges would have been with that. 

See my appreciation of Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera

Postscript:  in a later interview, Vargas Llosa described how he had been rung with news of the Nobel at 5 in the morning when he usually rises (one reason perhaps for his prodigious output);  he had been reading Carpentier’s El Reino de Este Mundo, which he commended as ‘mystical, fantastical but also profoundly realistic’;  they seem to me to be  the qualities which distinguish his own work.

The British Museum and a ‘forgotten continent’

September 14th, 2010 2 comments

The British Museum richly deserves the recent donation of 25 million from Lord Sainsbury.  Over the last few years it has been playing at the top of its game, with some breath-taking exhibitions and intelligent curatorship.  In Neil MacGregor it has a capable and charismatic Director, whose series A History of the World in 100 Objects, now just drawing to a close, has been one of the broadcasting successes of the decade.

But – and it is a very big but – there is one stain on an otherwise exemplary stewardship.  Look around the Museum and the visitor will quickly notice that an entire continent has been side-lined, excluded from what claims to be a ‘world museum’.  All the ancient civilisations have a gallery devoted to their achievements except one:  South America.

It is as if the achievements of the Incas and their extraordinary pre-Columbian forbears had never happened:  the wonders of Machu Picchu;  the gold tombs and masks of the Moche, often compared to Tutankhamen;  the Nasca culture who produced the famous lines;  or the many other intriguing pre-Columbian cultures of the Amazon and of Peru.

There are a few objects scattered around amidst other wider collections – but no permanent and focussed gallery;  nor has there been any exhibition about the Incas or South America for many decades; nor is the Museum planning to hold one, though it is perfectly possible– as Paris and New York do frequently – or to get long-term loans for a gallery. It is just that there is no particular will to do so. The Museum actually has plenty of holdings on South America shut up in the basement, left over from the old and now closed Museum of Mankind.

The centenary of the discovery of Machu Picchu falls next year, for instance, an event that the rest of the world is already celebrating – Paris has an exhibition right now – and which we are doing absolutely nothing about. 

The last time that the Museum was given money and Andeanists expected a long-standing wrong finally to be put right, the new gallery unveiled was… a Watch Gallery. Perhaps this time around the money should be used to represent a forgotten continent.

More Tales from the Amazon

August 31st, 2010 No comments

The night before I flew down to the rainforest, I stayed at a hotel in Cuzco.  There was a startling and curious mural stretching the length of the dining room which showed a Body Shop fantasy of an Amazonian paradise:   bare-breasted maidens bathing in idyllic pools surrounded by luxuriant greenery and compliant jungle animals;  the only thing most were wearing was a pendant of vaguely Incaic design.  Pass the jojoba shampoo.

I was not quite sure what I expected from the Amazon.  It’s become such a romanticised  ecological symbol – a flagship of all we stand to lose – that it’s become hard to see the trees for the wood.   Which is why I wanted to spend some time in one small patch of land, a reserve near the Peruvian town of Puerto Maldonado,  close to the border with Bolivia and Brazil. Read more…