Friday, August 18, 2017

Views from around Lima's main square

Lima's Plaza de Armas or, as it is officially known today, Plaza Mayor, is Lima's main square. It was there that the Spanish city of Lima was founded in 1535, on the site of an existing native settlement.

The square is surrounded by the Cathedral, the Presidential Palace, and City Hall. Many visitors mistakenly think that the buildings are colonial, but the only colonial architectural elements still surviving there are the art cast iron fountain, inaugurated in 1651, and the Royal Magistrate's House, also from the 1600s. Over time earthquakes, fires, and "progress" have led to the reconstruction or replacement of the rest.

The plaza and the surrounding boulevards are usually crowded with tourists, local visitors, taxis, and hawkers.  The reason I was able to capture images relatively devoid of crowds was that on the day I went in late July the plaza was closed to visitors.

Public school teachers from the Cusco region had gone on strike for better wages and better conditions, and had journeyed to Lima to press their case. There, there were joined by local teachers, and were staging rallies and marches a few blocks away, near Congress.  The government had decided to close off the plaza to avoid any disturbances or scenes in the vicinity of the Presidential Palace and to "protect the historic center".

Of course, I did not know that when I ventured downtown and found myself cut off from the bookstore I wished to visit.  After being rebuffed at one intersection, I found a spot where the police were letting a few people in. They shut access just as I was about to go in, and asked us to wait a bit. People got verbally belligerent, and the officer in charge --feeling stung after his earlier gesture-- now insisted that access was definitely closed unless one had an ID showing that one lived or worked in the area.  Fortunately, someone called to him that she had some foreign visitors who had "come all this way to know the historic center", so he instructed her to go in at the far end of the barricade.  Hearing that, I quickly followed, and when challenged, I told the officer there that "he said for tourists to come in this way" and handed him my California driver's license.  The cop glanced at it and waved me through.

Thus, I got to stroll around the periphery of the nearly deserted plaza, emptier that I've ever seen it, and on a serendipitously sunny day.

Lima city hall (built in 1944).

Art cast iron fountain (from1651), and the Presidential Palace (1938).

From L to R: Presidential Palace, Mt. San Cristobal, Royal Magistrate's House (17th C.), Archbishop's Palace (1924).

Lima Cathedral, viewed across the Plaza, from Pasaje Santa Rosa.

In the foreground, the monument to Taulichuscho the Elder, last indigenous ruler of Lima.

Old Post Post Office & Telegraphs building

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Huaca Malena

On July 21st, the same day that we visited the cave with the mysterious bones, Orlando and I traveled a bit further south along the Pan-American Highway to Huaca Malena.

Huaca Malena is a precolumbian site in the district of Asia, a couple of miles inland from the coastline.  The site was first established about 200 C.E. but subsequently was apparently all but abandoned for an extended period.  It gained new life as a Wari ceremonial center and necropolis from about 700 C.E. to about 1100 C.E.

The site consists of a large mud-brick platform, with associted terraces, altogether encompassing several acres.  It was first described scientifically in the 1920s by Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello.  Tello and his associates discovered some 300 mummy bundles at Huaca Malena, establishing Huaca Malena as one of the most important pre-Columbian cemeteries on the central coast, along with Paracas and Ancón.

Like many other archaeological sites, after initial study Huaca Malena was left largely unstudied and unprotected and several decades of unscrupulous and indiscriminate looting ensued.

I knew of the looting and thus had a sense of what we'd see, but I was unprepared for the level of destruction visited upon the place and for the sight of a relatively recently-looted mummy abandoned on the surface.

The sheer scale of the damage is sobering. The upper level of the mound has been cratered and almost all architectural features obliterated.

The scale of what has been lost to looters is evinced by the hundreds of skulls that litter the site.

Orlando and I wandered about the mound for over an hour, checking out the exposed remains and artifacts.

One notable feature, among all the piles of skulls and bones, was the high proportion of deformed skulls. Cranial deformation was practiced by several ancient Peruvian cultures and was usually reserved as a mark of high status birth.  The large percentage of them attests to Huaca Malena's importance and the high status of those who were buried there.

 There was also evidence of the sofistication of the ancient Peruvians who lived in the Mala Valley surrounding Huaca Malena, in the form of at least one trephinated skull.

Trephination, or trepanning, is a type of surgical intervention in which a hole is made through the skull to expose the brain, or at least the dura mater, and thus relieve swelling or pressure from injuries. It is, in essence, an early form of brain surgery.  The healing surrounding the opening in the skull in the photo above points to that surgery having been successful, at least insofar as that the individual must have lived for a good length of time following it.

In addition to human bones, Huaca Malena is also littered with the detritus of whatever else the looters did not want.

We found this lovely little woven bag near the exposed mummy.  Orlando, who knows textiles, was able to immediately tell that it was made from a combination of cotton fabric and llama or alpaca wool.  It was sad to know that instead of being in a museum it would just sit there and rot away.

In addition to many textile remnants, we also encountered the remains of several other types of grave goods, including corn cobs, gourds, pacae pods, and camelid bones.

We were particularly surprised when a number large oddly-shaped stones associated with graves --or at least with the pits from which mummies had been looted-- turned out to be whale vertebrae.  Where they grave offerings?  Grave markers? A sign of special status?  However they were intended, they were certainly impressive.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Monday, July 24, 2017

Lunch at Astrid & Gastón

Last week, leading up to my birthday, I followed Liz's suggestion and treated myself to lunch at Astrid & Gastón.

Astrid & Gastón, the brainchild of pâtissière Astrid Gutsche and chef Gastón Acurio, is consistently ranked as one of the world's best restaurants. It has been on the San Pellegrino list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants since the list was launched fifteen years ago. (It is currently ranked #33 in the world, and #4 in Latin America.)

Liz and I have eaten there previously, treating ourselves to the tasting menu, when the restaurant was at its original home in Miraflores.  A few years ago Gutsche and Acurio moved it to the Casa Hacienda Moreyra in San Isidro.

Originally, the idea was that the space would hold two restaurants: one with a more casual vibe, and another which would be the actual Astrid & Gastón.  That scheme has been dropped and, although the two different dining spaces remain, the same Astrid & Gastón menu is offered at both.

This time around I ordered a few dishes à la carte.

House-made breads with, from L to R, guacamole, smoked tomato butter dusted with tomato ash, house-made butter.

Scallops with a pesto dressing and dusted with apple ice.

Sea urchin roe on toasted brioche.

Roasted guinea pig with corn cream, huacatay sauce, quinoa, and purple corn humita (basically a sweet tamale)

A couple of mini desserts that came with my coffee.

Of course, everything was delicious and the service was great. I left there a pretty happy guy.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Cave With A Creepy Mystery

The area near the town of Mala had at one time been somewhat remote, mostly agricultural land but is now being urbanized and my cousin's bought a plot of land nearby.  That led to my uncle exploring a cave he found while hiking along one of the area beaches.

He mentioned to me that there were some interesting remains in there that he thought I should see, so off we went this morning. After driving south of Lima for about an hour on the Pan-American Highway, we pulled off the road and headed down a dirt track toward the sea near the mouth of the Mala River.  Rounding a large stone outcrop, we came to the cave entrance.

The cave had been carved out of what long ago had been cliff at water's edge, but is now a hundred or so yards removed from the breakers.  Stones eroded from above have built up at the entrance, meaning that to approach once has to climb up the debris pile, and that the cave floor then slopes sharply down from the entryway.

Upon first glance, the impression is one of moist disarray. Slime and mold cover the floor and lower walls, and there are a number of plastic bags and empty bottles. Clearly, people have used the cave as a place to party, drink, and -one surmises- get high.

But, then, there's the bones:

At first, one might think that someone died in there, maybe of an accident, or an overdose or alcohol.   That would explain one corpse, but one person would not have two different -sized femurs from the same leg.  In fact, once one learns to distinguish the mold-covered shapes, one sees that the floor of the forward part of the cave is littered with femurs, ribs, and other bones. 

Counting femurs and sets of hip bones, we were able to determine that the cave holds the remains of no fewer than four individuals, at least three of which are piled in one corner of the alcove.

Given the conditions in the cave, the bones are clearly not ancient, but a several decades old at most.  [11 Aug. 2017: This would be supported by something I just noticed: The skull in the photo above appears to have what may be a bullet hole in the back.]

Unless the people were walked up to the cave and killed in situ, we were, then, looking at a body dump. But, whose? 

The physical effort required to haul a corpse up to the cave would be daunting, to say the least, indicating whoever humped them up there must have had help.  Serial killers?  A criminal gang, perhaps? Of course, it also crosses one's mind that they might be individuals who "disappeared" during the war of the 1980s and 1990s, or who died in police custody at some other time.

It is likely that, with a condominium going in next door, it won't be far long before the bones are removed and disposed of or interred with but cursory attention from the authorities, if that.

I expect that the answer to the riddle of the bones in the cave will never be known.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

40th Anniversary of the General Strike of 1977

Last week I attended a commemorative meeting marking the 40th anniversary of the nationwide general strike of July 19, 1977.

At the rally at Plaza San Martin, the previous week, someone had handed me a flyer for the event, and it immediately piqued my interest because I distinctly remember the strike.

At the time, Peru was ruled by a military junta presided by Gen. Francisco Morales Bermúdez. Morales Bermúdez and his allies had, a couple of years earlier, deposed his predecessor, Gen. Juan Velasco Alvarado.  They then set about undoing the structural and social reforms initiated by Velasco. They introduced monetary adjustments which dealt severe blows to people's standard of living, at the same time that they froze wages and let prices rise. They countered protest of these measures with states of emergency, night-time curfews, jailings, exile, and worse.

I was in grade school at the time. I remember that things were tense in the days leading up to the general strike, and everyone wondered how big the walk-out would be, how successful.

I have vivid recollection that on the morning of the 19th Lima, then a city of almost five million people, seemed absolutely silent and still. Not one store was open, not one bus or taxi circulated. No one, it seemed, went to work that day. 

Photo from a display at the event.

Speakers at the event, held at the headquarters of Patria Roja --one of Peru's largest communist parties-- explained how 23 unions had decided to work together and established a unitary struggle committee at a secret meeting at the offices of the water utility workers' union.

They talked about how the struggle committee --which even included the government-sponsored state employees union!-- reached out by word-of-mouth to other unions and tried to bring them on board, first to the idea of a national one-day general strike, and then to the specific date.  All of this, of course, had to be done clandestinely.  The risks were highlighted by the fact that 18 unionists had already lost their lives to the repression in the first half of the year.

As it was, the government arrested many top union leaders and leftist party leaders in an effort to thwart the strike organizing and to cow the movement into submission. It did not work, of course.

The strike was nearly total and paralyzed the country. The people, and specially the working class, had flexed its muscle. In one day the military lost all claim to legitimacy and popular support.  Within a year it had begun the process of transitioning the country back toward representative democracy, with elections to a Constituent Assembly.

Those were heady days, which I well remember. We all, even us middle-class children, felt that the return to democracy was also our victory.

However, as Alfredo Velásquez --then head of the public school teachers union (SUTEP), and part of the joint struggle committee-- explained, the workers' movement paid a heavy price for having spearheaded the opposition to the military regime.  On the day of the strike a number of workers and peasants lost their live in Lima and in other cities, including 13 marchers who were gunned down in the Lima district of Comas.  In the days following the strike the military government passed a law authorizing the summary firing of workers, and in one swoop over 4000 unionized workers were dismissed, decapitating nearly every industrial union in the country. It was a blow, Velásquez said, from which the Peruvian labor movement has never recovered.

Unionists who participated in the strike pose for a group photo.