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July 19, 2011 9:21:56 | in art, culture, lifestyle

Crossing the Andes with Rafo Leon

Crossing the Andes with Rafo Leon
Farmer at Acopalca, Huancavelica, with a huge trout from the farm in his village. (Photo: Water H. Wust) See slide show.


By Jorge Riveros-Cayo

“If you continue upstream by the Kumpiroshato River, you will reach the tributaries on which the inhabitants of Mazokianto – a Machiguenga community in the high jungle, which means ‘toad ravine’ in their language – feed on. It is a place where there barely exists a numeric reckoning of history, marked by milestones in some calendar instead, because the natives follow the wisdom of their ancestors. It is a village that made contact with Western chronology less than a decade ago. Before that, there were no months or years. And just recently, a system using the term “after Christ” has been adopted to register the newly born,” writes Rafo León in Trasandino, a new book he authors, sponsored by Transportadora de Gas del Perú (TgP), the company that built the gas pipeline a decade ago, from Camisea in Cusco’s Amazon region to the Peruvian coastline near Lurín.

This is a very unique book. It has been conceived almost like a documentary movie with extraordinary images, mostly shot by Peruvian photographer Sergio Urday. Thus, the book is not the reflection of reality but, instead, of a particular view of the world. In this case León’s personal impressions during his travels from the profuse Amazon tropical rainforest to the highest altitudes of Peru’s geography, down to the most arid desert in the world. A savvy traveler and writer, Rafo León crosses the Andes to explore a country that is surprisingly still quite unknown to its inhabitants. The book is highly recommended if you know Spanish and enjoy intense travel stories. Trasandino is available at the main bookstores around the country.

Crossing the Andes with Rafo Leon
A storm approaching the fields of Santa Bárbara, Huancavelica. (Photo: Walter H. Wust) See slide show.

The Machiguenga tale continues: “Just three years ago, a school was made in Mazokiato that brought with it an education system taught in Spanish, as an initiative of the gas company. The 20 students from the nine families of this village wallpapered the classroom with drawings and representations of what they learn: numbers, words, concepts. The teacher comes from outside the village. The students understand Spanish, but very rarely respond in that language.”
 
“When the Camisea project started in 1999, the villagers of Mazokiato were initially frightened by the roaring presence choppers and backhoes. They had never seen machinery, but they rapidly became used to these noisy incursions. The gas pipelines passes just barely four kilometers away from their village and that has changed substantially their lifestyle. Education in Spanish and corrugated iron replacing palm leaves, made its way into the village as part of the exchange. Shoes, boots and rifles were also introduced to complement their traditional ways to hunt.”

Rafo León traveled all along the 730 kilometers through which the gas pipeline makes its way from Camisea to the Lurín coastline. A variety of landscapes, geographies and communities are crossed by that, in one way or another, have been impacted by the construction of the gas pipeline. Trasandino is León’s attempt to explore what has happened and changed in a decade through stories such as the Machiguenga villagers in Mazokiato.

"While we were flying in a chopper over the marvelous lanscapes through which the gas pipe meanders, we were marvelled by the old cultures that emerged from this difficult geography, with its stories and traditions, and its singular and surprising characters. We spoke of the immense luck we have of being part of this project and of how it has marked our lives," says Ricardo Markous, TgP's CEO.

A tale from Huancavelica

"It would leave when it wanted and arrive when it felt like it. It was the 'tren macho' that would not stop before anything or anybody. In Peru, this concept has given birth to a term not only for males but also a name to a train. It was built during the government of Leguía, around the first quarter of the 20th century – between 1908 and 1926 – to unite Huancayo with Huancavelica.  An expression of its free will was the unexpected changes of its trajectory. Initially, the train should have united Huancayo with Ayacucho, following the longitudinal axis of the Andes range. But another macho of the period, the Public Works Minister, Celestino Machego Muñoz, decided that the train should go to Huancavelica instead. Why? Because of the mining activity in the area. But the train ended up carrying passengers instead of minerals in its new route. Another proof of its indomitable character," writes Rafo León about this legendary train no longer in use.

Crossing the Andes with Rafo Leon
The pre-Hispanic aqueducts of Cantalloc in Nasca. (Photo: Sergio Urday) See slide show.

“It is quite curious the semantic overlapping of the word ‘macho’ to refer to the train. Machu in Quechua means ‘old’ – many years later the train, scarcely well kept and terribly unpunctual, was transformed into an elder. The Spanish language came in to help and transformed 'machu' into 'macho.' That’s how the problem of Peru’s men was resolved," says León with a dash of sarcasm.

“Almost with a temperament of its own, the 'tren macho' went in and out of 38 tunnels along its 128 kilometers, with 70 passengers and more (always full), crossing 15 bridges, some of them only for real machos due to how steep they were. It was suppose to unite Huancayo and Huancavelica in six hours, but as you never really know with machos, sometimes it would only do one part of the route. Then, the passengers had to figure out how to continue the travel to their destination. It generally lasted more than six hours, never less. The passengers, who knew about the train’s strange sense of humor, would take it easy, relax, and eat their meals aboard chatting. Children loved this jolting and capricious dragon that made so much noise but bonded families and friends.”

And then León explains what was seeing during a journey on the 'tren macho.' "The train's route was the following: it went parallel to the Mantaro River, reaching La Mejorada, still in the Junín Region, and then it would follow the course of the Ichu River. The landscape seen from its windows was marvelous all year round. The train had stations: Tellería, Izcuchaca, La Mejorada, Acoria and Yauli. Since years ago, the 'tren macho' was an attraction for world travelers as much or even more important than the other 'machu,' Machu Picchu, due to all the features it boasted: the landscapes, the sky, the fields, the forests, the rocky places and the rivers. Also the works on the way: the colonial bridge in Izuchaca, the hot springs in Aguas Calientes and the rail infrastructure itself, almost a miracle that you perceive  when you confront Infiernillo, the Cápac Ñan, or in Sacayhuamán, or in Kuélap, those human works that seem to have been done in complicity with nature, otherwise they would have been impossible to do."

Down to the coast

During his long journey to write Trasandino, León crossed Cusco, Ayacucho, Huancavelica, Ica, and Lima. Five regions that differ considerably but are part of a whole.

"There exists a certain consensus that the Andes were an axis from which social life was organized in this part of the Americas. This is sustained by historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists. And this book talks about this too. Of how the Amazon jungle contributed for centuries to the Andean leadership. And how the coast is being successively transformed by the Andean influence. That is why the book is called Trasandino. Trans Andean," writes Sandro Venturo, from Toronja, the publicity company that came up with the book concept.

When the gas pipeline was built, many archaeological sites were discovered on the way. "The output of the archaeological work highlighted the historical value of sites and remains that go back to the Formative Period in the jungle  (1,300 b.C. - 200), a period of which little is known, all the way to the cultures, lordships and empires from the coast and the highlands, and the Colonial and Republican periods," writes León.

Crossing the Andes with Rafo Leon
Piquero de patas azules or the Blue-footed booby, with a chick during a sunset on Peru's coastline. (Photo: Walter H. Wust) See slide show.

TgP decided to exhibit all the findings in a museum located in the Lurín Valley, a 30 minute drive south of Lima, where the gas processing plant is located.

"The TgP Archaeological Exhibit in Lurín is one of the most modern museums in Peru. It contains a permanent exhibition of 362 artifacts," explains León in his book. As an example, pieces from more than 20 different sites located in the jungles of Cusco including stone axes, obsidian-made arrowheads, and collars. "Some of these materials, such as the obsidian used to make the arrowheads, are not found in the jungle," says León. "This proves that there probably was contact with highland populations of Cusco or Ayacucho," explains archaeologist Luis Salcedo.

Trasandino is a book that covers a wide specter of themes enclosed in such a complex and diverse geographic and cultural area as the one crossed by the gas pipeline. Stories of villages, rituals, treasures, food, migrations, species, and millenary traditions of five distinct regions of Peru have been carefully researched and written in Rafo León's particular style. The book has been exquisitely designed and the photographic content is quite unique and amazing. If you know Spanish and would like to explore a bit more of Peru's inside history, buy the book. You won't regret it.

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