IN THE TRACES OF THE MULE DANCERS. TRAVEL NOTES, PERU. JULY/AUGUST, 2019. Post 5 of 6

DAY FOURTEEN. WEDNESDAY AUGUST 10th

THE RAPIDS.

 

Heading downriver on his balsa raft, in what I projected, before I arrived on the Perené, as an Aguirre, Wrath of God voyage into chaos and dissolution of all that colonialist planter confidence, it started to come apart for Arthur. As it was doing now for Lucho, our guide, and for the underlying and on-going conflict between curated tourist highlights and the necessity of understanding and untangling the means and motives of the Sinclair/Ross expedition of 1891.

 

Arthur stumbled and slid from the ruined hutch of Juan Santos Atahualpa into the riverside camp of the Asháninka chief he called ‘King Chokery’. (More probably, according to Ross, Kinchoquiri: a name associated with settlements on the Rio Tambo.) The king was sick, feverish, attended by a personal physician or shaman.

‘Our chief priest cautiously approached, unbuckled his flask, a sort of bladder he always carried well primed with rum – the only spiritual matter he dealt in,’ Arthur wrote. ‘The tube attached to this he placed in the royal mouth, into which he injected a liberal supply of the spirit, which for the moment had the desired effect. The King, lifting his head, indicated that we might be permitted to lie down on the earthen floor at his feet, and there we lay, supperless and saturated with perspiration, till next morning.’

 

Kinchoquiri recovered and consented to the construction of balsa rafts. ‘Trees were at once cut down and fixed together by pins of palm wood. The balsa, or raft, consisted of seven logs, about 24 inches in circumference, rather roughly pegged together, but sufficiently buoyant to support three of our party on each. Seven of these rafts carried our company of twenty; the King accompanied us, and as he himself had never been forty miles down the river, it was an interesting voyage of discovery to all concerned.’

 

And to me. I had been preoccupied for most of my life in London with the myth of this river voyage, the casting off into unknown waters. There had been a few adventures over the years along the Thames, a passage from Hastings to Hackney by swan pedalo, in company with Andrew Kötting, being the most recent (and eccentric) version.

We calculated, from Farne’s researches and the study of maps by Ross, Sinclair, Padre Sala and others, that Kinchoquiri’s camp must have been close to Puerto Yurinaki. And we made a detour on our return from Mariscal Cáceras to identify the launch spot. In grainy twilight gloom, romanticised by naked bulbs hanging outside stalls offering dusty fruit, beer and coca, we rambled along the river bank until we found a line of moored boats, pulled up on a shingle beach. With advertisements for balsa excursions.

 

On the following morning, we made our push to get to the rapids at Ipoki, the essential climax of Arthur’s outward journey. And the heart of the matter. The rapids were where it came apart, divisions and rifts and simmering quarrels surfaced. After these dramas – vanished priests, disgruntled porters, whirlpools, a night spent with rifle on lap waiting for an imminent attack – the expedition lost focus. Arthur suffered serious altitude sickness on the return journey.

‘It was a weary zig-zag: my mule and I got sadly short of breath, but it had to be done, and what is more, we were in a tremendous hurry, my companions being possessed by the one idea – to break the record – which neither my mule nor I shared… By and by the heart’s action seemed to fail, and I suddenly collapsed, slipped off the saddle and lay down on my back, my mule gasping for breath beside me. When I gradually came to myself, I could see around me the bones of many a good mule and llama, cleanly picked, while high in the air floated the ever alert condor, said to be the largest and most powerful of all birds.’

 

The boatman Lucho had fixed to carry us towards the rapids had vanished like Arthur’s priests. We’d stepped out from the shared minibus and were standing in the morning heat at a small settlement where no phone connections seemed  to work and nothing our guide attempted was going to get us on the river.

But Lucho was resourceful. He flagged down a truck stacked with empty plastic fruit crates and got us a lift, wind-surfing and hanging on, dodging branches, on the road to Ipoki. We agreed to keep the driver on, if we failed to get an alternative boat at a riverside halt with café on stilts, hungry dogs and a couple of tied up motor launches.

But nothing was going to plan. Lucho called Beliza, telling her to gather up some food, take a taxi, and start work on the lunch. I placed Arthur’s photograph in a dugout canoe, and then let it float away towards the rapids.

It was determined –  ‘Let’s go, vamos, come on!’ – that we would visit yet another waterfall. There was some confusion over the term ‘cascades’. Lucho knew about jungle paths to waterfalls, but we wanted cataclysmic river features, rivers of no return. Ipoki was an initiation, a barrier between worlds. The Asháninka were reluctant to paddle any further, they would be swept into a whirlpool of dead ancestors. Arthur’s first experience of the balsa was an epiphany. After the sweat and tangle and dirt, this flight.

‘We started in single file, I electing to sit in the prow of the foremost balsa. It was a glorious morning, and as we glided onward at a rate of four miles an hour, through ever changing, but always enchanting, scenery, the effect was indescribably exhilarating. Every nerve seemed stretched to the highest pitch of enjoyment; the eyes, glancing from scene to scene, took in more impressions than the mental powers could take note of. Such a wealth of vegetation seems to mock at the idea of a few puny planters ever making much impression upon it.’

Then the Aguirre hallucinations begin. 

‘Turning a bend in the river we are struck by what seems the ivy-clad ruins of an ancient castle; but it turns out to be only an aged tree clad from top to bottom with verdant creepers, its huge horizontal arms supporting a perfect screen of living trellis-work below, while ferns, lycopods, and rare orchids, beautiful in hue as they are grotesque in form, grow upright from the damp decaying bark.’

Padre Sala shocks Arthur by fishing with sticks of dynamite:  ‘diabolical and unsportsmanlike’. The result is approved by the Asháninka who scoop up the dividend.

A woman and two children fall from a raft and are drowned. ‘It seemed the standing joke of the day, and no one enjoyed it more than the woman’s husband, who danced with fiendish glee the whole night through, encouraged by the screaming laughter of the native ladies.’

In the prow of the leading balsa, Arthur notices that they are gliding ‘rather faster than was pleasant’, and he hears a ‘ not very distant roar like muffled thunder.’ They have arrived at the Ipoki rapids.

 

Further and further we bounce and shudder on the river road, stopping from time to time to ask about rapids. Eventually, just beyond a bamboo hut selling fruit and stale biscuits, we see the first angry ripples, white streaks in a river that is beginning to boil. The woman who keeps the stall advises that these rapids continue, getting higher and fiercer all the way, for about five miles. There is no road but a sort of track through the jungle. She warns us against taking it: ‘a place of danger’. Beyond the rapids we are in conflicted narco territory, with private fiefdoms, guerrilla remnants from the Maoist days, traffickers, indigenous men paid to carry packages down impossible trails, bands of raiding forestry pirates. Leave well alone. As compensation, she gifts us with huge bunches of sweet bananas, which we devour as we jolt back to the riverside restaurant where Beliza is ready to serve up the lunch.

There is now a man sitting in the long launch, playing with an outboard motor. But Lucho won’t approach him, he’s hungry and there are more important matters to consider than our whim to be out on the water. ‘Yes, there is a man in the boat, but he is not the boatman.’

But there is also a boy, paddling to the far shore in the dugout canoe. He can be approached and he agrees, for two soles, to take us on the river, once more at that magical time of day. Out towards the point where a tributary enters the Perené and the water begins to seethe and make patterns.

This is much better than any motor cruise. Low to the surface, leaking a little, rocking at the slightest movement, this short voyage is as close as I come to the exhilaration Arthur experienced and expressed.

 

IN THE TRACES OF THE MULE DANCERS. TRAVEL NOTES, PERU. JULY/AUGUST, 2019. Post 4 of 6

DAY THIRTEEN. TUESDAY AUGUST 9th.

The Silence in the Jungle.

 

Following on from the recordings made with the Asháninka at Marankiari, the gifts and exchanges, the way the women responded with such excitement to Arthur’s photographs of ‘King Chokery’ and his wife, the sense of kinship, and then the presentation of the copy of the original contract between the government and the Peruvian Corporation, we felt that certain parts of the story were being withheld or glossed as myth. Bertha Rodriguez de Caleb agreed to talk to us, in the twilight, beside a smoking fire, only because of the intercession of Beliza, as intermediary and translator; a fellow Asháninka who had already helped and advised over the meal prepared by the river. Bertha knew about the cave of Juan Santos Atahualpa, the messianic leader of the uprising in the 1740s, but she told the story without revealing any details about a possible pilgrim route. The paths over the plateau above the Perené, and the significance of the journeys to the Salt Mountain, Cerro de la Sal, always seemed to invoke the names of those neighbouring settlements, Metraro and Mariscal Cáceras, working plantations right at the outer limits of land controlled by the Peruvian Corporation.

 

‘We entered the great Trans-Andean forest after crossing the Pucartambo river,’ Arthur wrote. ‘We were a goodly company to start with, consisting of seven Europeans, as many Cholos, and a score of mules. The shade of gigantic trees seemed grateful at first… But the road was a villainous rut at a gradient of about one in three, a width of about eighteen inches, and knee deep in something like liquid glue. Before we had gone five miles one-half the cavalcade had come to grief, and it was some weeks ere we saw our pack mules again; indeed, I believe some of them lie there still… Shortly after six o’clock we were overtaken in inky darkness, yet we plodded on, bespattered with mud, tired, bitten, and blistered by various insects.’

 

Lucho’s headlong velocity – ‘Come on, vamos, let’s go’ – is neutered by the obligations of hospitality, that a meal, lunch, must be prepared as a social event with advice coming from all sides, with many participants, donors, casual witnesses. Root vegetables, variants on the inevitable yucca, are being hacked by machete on the mud floor of an outhouse shack, set conveniently close to the box with the hole for relieving urgent bodily functions. 

Lucho intended to bring pork as his offering, but remembered in time that this would not sit well with Seventh Day Adventists, followers of Fernando Stahl. He went early to the market in La Merced and chose a nice mix of prehistoric mud creatures, all bone and spine, and plump piranhas with rictus grins. They smoked and simmered. And made for a fine broth. After which, the dialogue could begin.

It had been hinted that, if all went well, we would be guided to the shrine of Juan Santos, a short distance from the village. The post-prandial gathering at Metraro showed no interest in Arthur’s photographs, but the locals were engaged by the letters and documentation dealing with the transactions of the Peruvian Corporation. They were shocked to discover, confirmed in writing, the duplicity of Stahl. The Adventist missionary offered, if he was permitted to establish settlements and schools, to make the Asháninka biddable, sober and willing to work on the coffee plantations. Soon he was conducting baptisms in the Perené.

The spokesman of the village, in long plaid shorts and sandals, mounted a motorbike piloted by a character in a cap with a DOPE signature and cannabis leaf design. And we were instructed to follow: we would be taken to the path that led to the cave of the reincarnation of the betrayed and slaughtered Inca, Atahualpa.

 

‘At last,’ Arthur continued, ‘there was a slight opening in the forest, and the ruins of an old thatched shed were discovered, with one end of a broken beam still resting upon an upright post, sufficient to shelter us from the heavy dews. It turned out to be the tomb of some old Inca chief whose bones have lain there for over 300 years, and there on the damp earth, we lay down beside them, just as we were. Our dinner consisted of a few sardines, which we ate, I shall not say greedily, for I felt tired and sulky, keeping a suspicious eye upon the Jesuit priests…

We were told, by the way, that the bones we were handling were the bones of Atahualpa, so treacherously murdered by Pizarro; but in Peru, of course, every such tale must be taken cum grano salis, and in this case the remains turned out to be those of a pretender who died about 1740…’

 

Juan Santos Atahualpa has become an authentic icon of resistance for the Peruvian tourist industry. In the main plaza at Pichanaki, on the back of a hoarding placed alongside a giant coffee cup for a recent festival, is Juan Santos, looking like Colonel Gaddafi about to greet Tony Blair in his tent, stern desert gaze and tribal robes. But the resting place of his bones remains obscure: hut, cave, shrine or, as some accounts have it, carried to Tarma.

We are hacking through the cloud jungle, trying to keep pace with the men from Metraro. Pressed hard against dripping rocks, reaching for vines. The village leader pushes ahead to test the path, overgrown, blocked by fallen trees, to the sacred cave. His bike jockey, the man in the Dope cap, holds us back. This is the moment of the silence in the jungle. Nobody moves. The birds are hushed. Everything is in green suspension. We catch our breaths. A moist and luxuriant interval, standing, not talking, but already suspecting that this is as far as we will be allowed to go. None of those miraculous old women will manifest to wave us through to the next stage of enlightenment.

The leader returns: it’s impassable, we must retreat. We follow the motorbike through a golden-hour landscape of small farms and thickets of dead and dying banana palms. Our guides dismount and walk down a dusty road beside the ghostly barracks of a diminished coffee plantation. Here is the final and most unexpected revelation, a tall blue and white pyramid, triggering memories of the pyramid in the grounds of Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s in Limehouse. But this alien structure has a memorial function, it is dedicated to the Adventist and colonial prophet, Fernando Stahl.

‘He must have been a Mason,’ Lucho pronounced. ‘Like all those Jesuits and bankers and politicians in Lima.’

It was that time of day. ‘I shall never forget that calm, bright Sunday afternoon when we looked out for the first time on the great interminable forests of the upper valleys of the Amazon,’ Arthur wrote. ‘The faint buzzing of bees, the subdued chirping of finely feathered birds, the flutter of brilliant butterflies, are the only commotion in the air… What crops of vegetables and fruit might not be produced in such a climate and in such a soil.’ 

 

IN THE TRACES OF THE MULE DANCERS. TRAVEL NOTES, PERU. JULY/AUGUST, 2019. Post 1 of 6

By Iain Sinclair

It was a long-held ambition to follow the journey mapped and described, with picaresque vigour (and a degree of latitude), by my Scottish great-grandfather, Arthur Sinclair. He published his version of the 1891 expedition, undertaken with fellow planter Alexander Ross and ‘practical botanist’ P. D. G. Clark, in 1895. These men were on commission from the Peruvian Corporation of London to survey a vast tranche of land, more than 500,000 square miles, to assess its potential as an economic resource: exploitation by way of coffee estates and forestry. The journey, involving mules, bounty-hunting priests, encounters with indigenous people and a river adventure on balsa rafts, had serious and long-lasting consequences. 

 

The push to make the trip in July 2019 came from my daughter Farne, who was determined to record a series of podcasts and to satisfy her own curiosity about her distant relative’s motives and experiences. She was returning to a country she had previously visited in her gap year before university, earning the money required by working for the printers who had published all my early books. We were accompanied by the filmmaker Grant Gee, who had his own agenda, gathering material for a piece entitled The Gold Machine. My brief diary jottings are framed by quotations from Arthur’s book, In Tropical Lands: Recent Travels to the Sources of the Amazon… 

 

DAY ONE. THURSDAY July 27th. LIMA.

 

Arthur Sinclair: ‘And now, when in the capital, I am afraid I shall disappoint you, for I am not fond of cities; my heart always longs for the quiet country beyond. A simple man, my tastes lie among the simple people on the mountains, or in culling the common weeds by the wayside. I cannot, therefore, enter here into any detailed description of Lima, which at one time, we are told, was considered the gem of South America, and though now somewhat sullied, is still beautiful; picturesquely situated, with a climate almost perfect, the sun rarely scorching, and the rains never bedraggling the inhabitants.’ 

 

Dust. Haze. Horns. Arbitrary cab jumps: we learn, by experience, the more battered the better. The wrecks operate in wild, improvisatory spins and surges, down streets they have never before attempted, patron saint swinging as you corner, taking off on speed bumps, avoiding the main, permanently stalled boulevards with their Cola hoardings, cancelled hotels and new narco banks. The smarter vehicles, addicted to airport runs, have blind faith in the oracular pronouncements of sat-nav, robotic voices that always land them in the same twilight waste ground, by a perimeter fence, near a discontinued railway. With dogs.

 

With Farne, I set off, at her suggestion, to find the South American Explorers Club. A nice metaphor for what followed. Time is provisional. ‘Twenty minutes, comfortably’ becomes an hour of traffic dodging and shade chasing. The given address is a locked gate and shuttered windows. Enquiries at the Brazilian/Peruvian Cultural Institute carry us back to another dead building. The Explorers Club is just a Borgesian test: we fail, until we appreciate that the thing to be explored is our own incompetence. The Club is long gone (exploration rebranded as Adventure Tourism) – although, as we learn later, it was once operated by Lucho Hurtado, the man who will be our guide through the cloud jungle.

 

Arthur Sinclair: ‘Here I was shown the remains of the “Gran Conquistador”, a fit relic for this holy of holies. Pizarro, the pitiless tool of priestcraft and the conqueror for covetous Spain, had, like the last Napoleon, one redeeming trait in his character, viz., a taste for architecture, of which this cathedral is an example… It was on the 26th June, 1891, the 350th anniversary of Pizarro’s violent and bloody death, that the coffin was opened… On removing the lid the body was found almost in its entirety and completely mummified, still partially covered by rags of silk… and the remains of a finely embroidered shirt. The body was quite desiccated, and of a dingy white colour. On close examination it was found that certain portions were amissing, viz., the fingers, toes, and certain other parts, having been cut off and removed. From the appearance, the committee were satisfied that these mutilations had taken place immediately after death…’ 

 

Access to Plaza Major and La Cathedral is denied by a line of black uniformed police in baseball caps. We were told that they were anticipating a gay/lesbian protest action. Passage to the cathedral and the remains of Pizarro might be possible in one hour or two. Honouring Arthur’s taste for Chinese enterprise, we lunched on a platter of rice and bits with compulsory litre of sweet Cola. And delirious TV news reports shot raw on phones and surveillance cameras,  ferociously edited: motorbike thefts, looped corruption trials (often lasting for decades), street killings and chases.

 

When, eventually, we are allowed into the grand square, it is deserted. Pizarro’s remains seem to have been classified and reclassified on numerous occasions. Real flesh, fake bones.

 This is the right setting, without question, for Grant to record a brief reading I’ve been asked to do, to promote an anthology edited by Chris Kelso. ‘Death’s charnel house and every stage in the process of mortality, the unrobing of flesh from bone, is made visible…Churches are large buildings, in which, after the concept of sanctuary lost its force, nobody chose to live. And only marbled duplicates are permitted to sleep and wait.’

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Picture 1 of 4

 

Peru trip, photos, part 2

Iain has sent a second set of photos of his recent trip to Peru

Iain Sinclair reads from ‘I TRANSGRESS’ // Lima 27/06/19

 
I contributed 3 short texts (prose poems) from my very limited edition (10 copies only) of Fifty Catacomb Saints to an anthology (I Transgress) edited by Chris Kelso, and published by Salo Press, Norwich. Chris asked contributors to post phone-recorded readings of their texts for promotional purposes (on YouTube). 
I don’t (can’t) do phone recordings and, in any case, was on the point of departure for Peru. In Lima, visiting the cathedral previously described by my great-grandfather, I asked Grant Gee to film a softly spoken reading. We had just finished inspecting the bones and monument and mummy (status questionable) of Francisco Pizarro. So it felt like the right place (by smell and sound) for this text. Grant was gathering footage for his proposed feature film, The Gold Machine. He covered our journey all the way. He’d like, if sufficient funds can be raised, to return to Peru next spring, to spend more time on the key locations. (Iain Sinclair)