IN THE TRACES OF THE MULE DANCERS. TRAVEL NOTES, PERU. JULY/AUGUST, 2019. Post 3 of 6

By Iain Sinclair

DAY SEVEN. WEDNESDAY July 3rd. SAN LUIS DE SHUARO.

 

After Tarma and the old Spanish hacienda, with the stand of eucalyptus trees, the stepped gardens, the white and yellow irises, the scarlet geraniums, the green parrot, the dogs and chickens, the running water, an oasis much appreciated by Arthur, we are firmly established on the road travelled by my great-grandfather. So much so that for the first time I begin to hear his voice, to feel the portrait I’m carrying taking form against the curtainless window.

 

‘We stayed here for some days,’ Arthur wrote, ‘greatly enjoying its splendid climate – a paradise for consumptive patients.’ And then they took the route we were now following. ‘We halted for breakfast at Acombamba, only six miles from Tarma, from which we had been rather late in starting. Acombamba is a beautifully situated but decaying hamlet, with about 1,500 rather seedy-looking inhabitants.’

 

Dropping through a gorge, where trucks and cars flirt at every bend with disaster, throwing dirt over the wayside shrines of previous victims, and slowing only for landslides and craters being repaired by ragged bands of children and old people, freelancing for pitiful alms, we made the shift to La Merced, the town on the border of the territory we want to explore. The first intimations of a more humid jungle culture. ‘The valley opens out, and the vegetation assumes a more luxuriant aspect,’ Arthur reports. ‘The moist steamy heat tells us that we are truly in the tropics.’

 

The turning point in the original Sinclair/Ross expedition of 1891 comes when they make contact at the Convent of San Luis de Shuaro with the priests who will guide them through the territory of the Asháninka to the point on the Rio Perené where they will take to the water, to survey the land granted by the Peruvian Government to those remote investors, the Peruvian Corporation of London. Arthur does his best, as he confesses, to put aside his native bias against the perceived iniquities of ‘the Spanish priesthood’. 

 

‘I honestly tried to go forward unprejudiced, thinking only of the monks of old, and the good they did in their day. But this convent was a revelation to us. We had never seen anything quite so filthy and suspicious looking before, and would gladly have escaped within an hour; indeed, did so, and began erecting our tent at a safe distance; but were implored not to insult the reverend fathers by refusing to accept their hospitality, an infliction which we bore patiently for several days.’

 

Arthur does not name their tonsured guides, but claims that they ‘knew as little about the path as we did ourselves’. Arthur’s companion, Alexander Ross, is more forthcoming. The man taking them forward is none other than the celebrated Padre Gabriel Sala, a Franciscan missionary of fierce temperament; a well-armed backwoodsman, bounty hunter, chronicled for rounding up souls for Christ, filling the fortress of his newly-established convent with children and other cursed or damaged outsiders.

Our own guide, Lucho, knows nothing of this history or the status of the vanished buildings. But I have seen Sala’s pioneering large-scale map in the convent at Santa Rosa de Ocapo, with its drawings of buildings and river traffic, and I recognise the shape of the wall beside the new church. And right in front of it there is a statue of Sala, up on a high pedestal like a stylite; grim-faced, gripping his bible like a grenade. As I lift my camera, Lucho calls out. He has found an old Chinese lady, Maria Genoveva Leon Perez, keeper of the church keys. Here is one of those magical presences, usually female, usually bright-eyed but mature, spirits of place stepping from forest or river to put pilgrims who have put in the necessary miles on the right path.

Maria gets on well with Farne. We are invited into her house, where she tells us how the convent collapsed in an earthquake and was never restored. She knew about life in the Colony, the harshness of the rule of the Peruvian Corporation. Yes, there were schools and hospitals – but only for sanctioned employees. Otherwise, all that land along the river was enclosed, forbidden.

We visit the church and then, at the back, the rough ground on which Sala’s border-post convent once stood. Arthur’s story has moved into an active present tense. In the earth I find a rusted machete and a stand for votive candles. On the wall somebody, at some past moment, has painted FS – as if waiting for Farne Sinclair, who has now arrived to confirm the prophecy.

If nothing else, Sala inspired Arthur to try out a phrase that has become a standard in contemporary politics. 

The worst weakness of the Hispano-Peruvian race is their inability to tell truthfully the little they know… The common people are born and bred to it, but their lies are clumsy, palpable, and comparatively harmless. With the priests and privileged classes, however, it becomes a studied art. “We must dissimulate,” said the chief priest of the convent, and I will give him credit for consistency in this; for during the three weeks I had the opportunity of studying this great economist of the truth, I never once knew him to utter a word that could be relied upon. 

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