04 November 2012

Nazca day one: mummies, ceramics and gold

I’m here and I’m exhausted! What a nightmare of a bus journey – not because of the bus, but the road twisted and turned its way around the mountainsides, from Cusco’s 12,000 feet down to Nazca’s almost sea level, for 14 hours! I slept a little but it wasn’t very restful – I had to wedge myself into my seat with my arms to stop rolling constantly back and forth as that rolling motion was making me feel seasick. I looked out the window from time to time once it got light but all I saw was dry, rocky, hilly country and yet more winding roads ahead, so I quickly shut my eyes again. I imagine some of the roads we drove down during the night were fairly hair-raising, so I’m rather glad I did the journey at night.

On the short drive to the hotel my taxi driver persuaded me to go on a tour with him this afternoon – perhaps not the smartest move for a woman alone but, if anything, he will be after my money, nothing else from a wrinkly old bat like me, so I think I’ll be safe. I’ll leave most of my money and my passport locked up in my bag at the hotel and I’ll charge up my phone – not that that would necessarily help.

Oh, and the hotel, the Kunan Wasi which I had prebooked on booking.com, is fine – just one block from the Plaza de Armas and clean and bright, if rather twee. Check out the bathroom picture!

I’ve had a shower and a nap but I’m still a little shaky from exhaustion, and the more than 30°C heat here is energy sapping, so I’m sitting in a restaurant in the plaza, having a sugar-filled Coca Cola and about to have some food, which I hope will revive me somewhat.

Later … well, the afternoon was fine. Jeffrey collected me from the hotel on time at 2pm and we were soon speeding south down the Pan American highway in his little red taxi, enjoying a somewhat stilted conversation in Span-glish – his English is about the same level as my Spanish – about life, love and Nazca – mostly, about love. It seems I was wrong about him only being interested in my money! He quickly asked how old I was, if I was married, and, though he is 39, he is not married, preferring, it seems, to pick up women from around the world and show them a good time Latino-style! He was very complimentary – said he thought I was between 40 and 45 and wouldn’t believe I am 56 – all part of the charm process! But I am not interested in a brief fling with a shortish  Latino from Nazca, no matter how nice he appears, how much he smiles and says sweet things and touches my arm.

About 30 kilometres south of Nazca we turned inland and churned up the dust, barrelling over a barren dirt road. We passed a modern-day cemetery of wooden and metal crosses – surprisingly there were no families there today on the Day of the Dead, cleaning up the graves and having a picnic lunch with their deceased family members. Before we reached the surrounding hillsides, which are where the mummy civilisation actually lived, we reached the place where they buried their dead.

Twelve graves have been opened at Chauchilla for tourists to see the mummies. The graves are covered with wooden and thatch shelters to protect them from the 3 to 4 hours of rain this place receives each year and have stone walls on their southern sides to protect them from the constant wind that soon had my hair blown wildly and my face covered in gritty sand.

The mummies are fascinating – seated in a foetal position (the tendons behind their knees and across their elbows were apparently cut post-mortem to achieve this) (another opportunity for Jeffrey to touch my arm to explain this!), their skin rubbed with minerals, wrapped in cotton and textiles, then placed in the graves, all facing towards the rising sun. From this, archaeologists have concluded these people believed in reincarnation. The hair and textiles, and sometimes the skin, are remarkably well preserved considering the burials date from between 200 and 1000AD. The hair was particularly fascinating – extremely long and now lying curled around the body on the sand – but these may have been the original Rastafarians, wearing their hair is big spiral mounds on their heads.

The bodies are buried in family groups of, on average, 2 or 3, and up to as many as 6, including the occasional tiny bundle of a baby, sometimes all in one chamber, sometimes in multi-roomed chambers, and they have very simple grave goods – earthenware plates of corn and meat and urns of water. Some of the pottery is plain, some decorated. Around these restored graves are strewn the remains of hundreds more that have been subject to the vandalism of grave robbers, hunting for the more ornate pottery. Fragments of bone and pottery, pieces of hair and textiles, just lie on the surface of the sandy soil.

Unfortunately, my camera started playing up at this point. It would take normal pictures but, if I tried to zoom in, would take a blank picture and had to be turned on and off before taking a normal image again. It hasn’t been jolted, banged or badly treated in any way so I have no idea why it chose this moment to become faulty. Maybe the mummies didn’t like being photographed – spooky!

It’s easy to see why the Nazca civilisation failed due to lack of water, particularly as their economy and daily sustenance was based on agriculture. The valleys surrounding the now-dry river beds form green stripes on an otherwise arid and barren landscape, so there is obviously water underground near the rivers for those roots deep enough to reach it.

The only crop I saw was cactus, grown both for its fruit – called tuna here – and for its leaves, which provide the ingredients for face creams and ointments. As well as tourism, the area’s main industry is mining – those barren-looking hills are rich in copper and gold, and I was to see more of the gold extraction process a little later that afternoon. But first we headed off to the workshop of the most famous ceramic-producing family in the region, the Emilia pottery workshop. Grandfather Andrés Calle rediscovered and practised the traditional techniques of his Nazca ancestors, and his descendants continue in his wake. They have photographed most of the pieces in local museums and now reproduce these for sale to tourists.

I was first shown the process, based on the rich clay deposits of the region, with no moulds used, simply a very basic form of wheel, more like a spinning plate, and using a llama bone to smooth the external surface of the vessel. The colours – shades of red, white, yellow, brown and blue – come from minerals, ground down into fine powders and mixed with water, and the firing process uses a traditional clay-brick oven, which must be heated to 900°to bake the ceramics sufficiently. Once fired, the slightly grainy surface of the pot is rubbed vigorously with special stones, which serve to polish off the roughness.

Then to the salesroom, of course! And, although my suitcase is already destined to be full to bursting when I leave Peru, I couldn’t resist a small wall plaque, with a figure of the god of Tiwanaku, the civilisation in Bolivia near Lake Titicaca. Apparently, this and the Wari and the Nazca cultures were all linked. Many of the ceramics had picaflor designs and I was tempted by them, as a reminder of my time at Picaflor House, but I preferred the colours of the other piece.

From ceramics to gold … we next visited a gold processing workshop, where the rock is pulverised then mercury used to extra the gold dust – a very large amount of rock for a very small amount of 14 to 22 carat gold – but enough for families to labour away at this backbreaking task for a few years to make their fortunes. They work in small co-operatives, the better to protect each other during times of ill-health and injury, probably quite a frequent occurrence considering everything is done by hand and part contains potentially hazardous chemicals. It reminded me of the coca-chewing silver miners of Potosi, in Bolivia.

This is how they pulverise the gold-bearing rocks, standing on that plank and rocking the large stone back and forth.
That was the last call of the day and Jeffrey dropped me back at the hotel just before 5pm. And my first impressions of Nazca? Well, it is disproportionately noisy in relation to its size. Just sitting in the restaurant at lunchtime the noise level generated by the air-conditioning unit, radio and television, external traffic and jovial patrons must have been well above acceptable decibel levels. The city seems small and rather unattractive. The large plaza has benches, sculptures and a tiled walkway all decorated with the symbols from the lines but little else to beautify it, though a smattering of trees provides some shade from the sweltering heat. The church is utilitarian and, frankly, ugly. There seems to be nothing old or historical within the city itself, which is what usually gives a city its character and charm, at least in my eyes.

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