What grows in a desert apart from Wachuma the psychotropic San Pedro Cactus? Dry forests that’s what. And with a little help from aquatic engineering developed by the ancients, rice grows too. Seriously rice? Waterlogged paddy fields rice? Yep. But I’m getting ahead of myself here and a little over excited. Learning new stuff from Olga and Pedro our amazing driver to pass on to you all, I do get very over excited. In a ‘seriously can you believe that!?!’, kind of way. (5 pieces of punctuation there – I’m sure that’s illegal). Anyhow let me back up and slow down. Off to Chiclayo today and we rise at 5am as it’s a 4 or 5 hour drive. Off to see the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan and all that gold I’ve been told about. Woohoo. So been looking forward to this place.
We head through the tiny town of San Pedro de Lloc where the single floor houses bustle with stay dogs, donkeys and residents along the front while backing on the the rears of the properties is a river that ebbs and flows round several rectangular fields in which rice is grown and harvested. Rice was introduced to Perú by Chinese people the Spanish brought over as slaves from the Spanish Philippines. Most were not Chinese in fact but from Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, East Timor, Sri Lanka and even India but were all called Chino. They were mainly men and were often sold to the Spanish by Portuguese slavers. So there is a vast mix of diverse cultures here not just the Spanish, Andeans and tribes of the rain forest. There is too as in most places around the world a massive love of Chinese cuisine and Chinese Peruvian fusion restaurants here are everywhere, called Chifa.
Each field is in a different state of development from just germinating to resting from being harvested. We drive down tiny dirt tracks with brooks on either side feeding water to the rice.
We are heading today to see an actual dry forest called Cañoncillo. Back in the day when the Moche people occupied the north eastern coastal areas of Perú much of it was covered in dry forest. The trees consisted of mainly carob which grew to a ripe old age but also several other extremely drought resistant varieties of trees bushes and reeds. Carob syrup, Algarrobina is used to make a tasty milky cocktail that I highly recommend trying.
All with very tiny foliage to resist water evaporation in the harsh heat. The plants pull water up from the ground to create grass rimmed watering holes. Warning from Marco our 8 year old guide – dry forests create themselves on desert and desert is sand so be careful walking close to the watering holes as the sand can swallow you whole. Thanks Marco for keeping us save you wiley young kid.
Perú has only two seasons and it’s closeness to the equator means that almost all year round the sun rises at about 5.30am and sets at 6.30pm with a slight lengthening of the days in the summer. This means the trees just get slightly greener in the early summer and a tad more leafy. They blossom and fruit too. Carob seeds have long been part of the diet in the region for both humans and animals. Especially the desert fox or sechuran zorro who used to be quite prolific in the dry forests.The Moche depicted these foxes on so much of their pottery so must have seen them as vital to the forests. With the loss of their natural habitat as forests were cleared to make way for sugar cane and the fear that the desert fox eats chickens many have been hunted and killed. Test have shown they do not eat chickens in fact but opinion is hard to shift and has effected their numbers massively. Birds are still abundant here today as can be witnessed but the numerous tracks left in the sand. The grasses around the water holes are peppered with tiny flowers.
The many aquatic fowl are however very shy and tend to hide in the reed beds when humans approach. There are also iguanas and sand coloured lizards, cañanes that scamper all around. Marco and I whistled at the birds pretending we could speak their tweet. We couldn’t but it sure spooked the locals winged watchers who gathered and amassed to check us out. Olga blew down her tiny ceramic ancient bird shaped whistle and suddenly we were in Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ in pale green two piece dresses and jackets. Argh!!!
I lie. None of our magic whistling brought any more birds into view. It just made them noisier in declaring their territory and embellishing their songs to a level we couldn’t hope to mimic. On returning to the car via the super jungle style hole in the sod lavatory I trod on a thorn so vicious and so beautifully designed to effectively inflict pain that we both stopped to marvelled at its cruel design. Three thorns almost 2cm each set at 90 degree right angles like a 3D corner. Mind you it was fairly daft of us to both be wearing flip flops to walk across the sand. Especially as I’d just applied sun tan oil to protect my skin. My legs became totally flocked in sand up to the knees. My flip flops flicked it all over the shop with every step. Mind you had I been wearing my plimsolls the thorns would have pieced the soul and entered my feet. Ouch! So as it turned out our flip flops were thick enough to cope and were strewn with the barbs underneath.
Since the colonial times many areas of dry forest have sadly been destroyed and few remain today. It’s time they were recognised as part of Perú’s heritage and protected. It is only by seeing these magical landscapes that you really begin to appreciate the truth behind the early civilisations that made their homes. I now understand better how and why they worshipped all of nature and how it supported and fed them. Please Perú don’t lose these landscapes. Act now and save them.
Back on the road to Chiclayo and The Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan. This museum was built quite some distance from the ruins in which the treasures were discovered. The town had the craziest driving I have ever witnessed. How it works is you imagine you are the only car on the road and so you don’t need indicators, or to look where you are going. just pull out and ignore all the cars honking their very loud horns at you. Our driver said car horns are the national birdsong of the nation. I told him that in Rome the car manufacturers had seemingly turned down the volume and increased the pitch of all car horns so they sound like tiny toy cars. So now most drive without the anger as they sound rather silly and pathetic tooting. It so took the macho edge out of the equation. Perú, you need to do this – your roads shit me up.
The remainder of this blog is one giant moan about the squandering of precious resources so feel free to just look at the pictures. I’m trying very hard to get the attention of the Minister of Culture or one of his many burocrats.
I hear many stories of corrupt archaeologists who discover tombs and treasures and keep rather quiet while they secretly supply the black market with looted treasures. People have private collections in their homes of artefacts that should be on display alongside the rest of the contents of tombs in museums. However the government here underfunds digs at tombs understandably due to the fact that there are so many tombs and palaces hidden under dried mud that are yet to be explored creates a funding drain. Each time another is opened and treasures are discovered they are obliged to build another museum. The problem is that most of the money for projects of this scale is paid to the architects and building contractors. They also seem to design all the museums in a mock Inca style regardless of the architecture of the actual culture they are meant to celebrate. They seem spend little on the preparations of the texts to explain the pieces on show and use Google translate to write the few odd texts in English that makes little sense. The museum stared with text written in Spanish and English albeit rather odd literal translations from Spanish but soon that all stopped and I was left to guess my way round the exhibits.
I am sorry to moan but I was so frustrated at the shiny new Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan. Firstly you are allowed no camera’s, no phones and no bags inside. You have to leave them in a locker for which the museum takes no responsibility as visitors have lied about cash being stolen to get compensation. So it’s their way of absolving themselves of all responsibility. They said camera flashes would destroy artefacts but there were only ceramics and metals on display. There were no textiles to damage and really why not just ban photos in light sensitive galleries. Without photos to post on social media it is hard to generate free advertising among people to encourage others to visit. I wouldn’t have minded so much if I could have bought a book in the gift shop but there was not even a proper museum shop with postcards or any books. And my wallet was so far away in the lockers that I couldn’t buy anything had there been something I wanted.
Also PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE understand that displaying ceramics on metal wires and stands damages them! You have all these treasures and you are putting them at risk in your brand new museum. Who curates these places? Tell them to get some Perspex and save the ceramics. Photographs of the discoveries in situ adorn the walls next to the cleaned up shiny treasures. But while the photo might show 10 ornate beads the display case will have just 7. What happened to the others? And where were all the other golden pieces I had read about? I was left very grumpy and sad as I had yearned to see this place and I was so disappointed. After having spent 90 minutes in the very dark interiors of the museum we were blinded by the bright sunshine outside. About half a kilometre away from the museum but in its complex was an attempt at a living village selling craft items however as most visitors were anxious to be reunited with their phones and bags nobody walked down the tree lined avenue to the poor shopkeepers.
I’ve seen enough museums to realise that golden opportunities to generate income for these institutions are being lost. All the museums are built to include coffee shops which are all shut. Rather than the shops selling postcards, posters, books and reproduction jewellery and artefacts from the galleries they often sell t-shirts and cuddle toys or school exercise books. Or again are simply shut. Most TVs with video presentations are not turned on or are broken. Light’s are broken too but the museums can’t afford replacement bulbs. Water is turned off in toilets and taps and urinals that are broken have plastic bags taped around them.
We are talking about new museums some just a few years old. There is no programme of sustainability. No plan to attract tourist and their fat wallets. Some museums or or smaller educational interpretation centres like the one created in the village of Magdalena de Cao is already shut after an exhibition was installed there to encourage visitors and money into the town.
However the Museo de Cao created by the Wise Foundation does nothing to encourage visitors to go and see the still living descendants and culture that exists here. In the museum there is a video about the Sacred fermented chicha de Jora that the Moche drank and used for rituals. They still produce this in the village of Magdalena de Cao but nobody suggests going there and trying it. It is still made there in the exact same way and is buried in the desert to ferment for 1, 2 or 3 years and each tastes completely different. Here orange maize is harvested to make the chicha.
The ministry needs to spend the money more wisely and stop paying vast sums only to the architects and contractors who take the cash but seem to do very little to earn it. Get your act together to create sustainable museums. Well stocked museum shops with books, postcards, posters and reproductions of jewellery and ceramics. Pencils, pens, colouring books both for adults and children. Key rings, tea towels, aprons, cushions this list could be endless and provide the museums with cash flow to keep the museums alive. All museums should force visitors to exit via the museum shop and spend money buying souvenirs. Not to skip it and leave. Have coffee shops and restaurants that are open serving such good food that people want to eat so much they sometimes come just for the food. Education centres where schools can bring children to learn to love and wish to preserve their culture. And have running water in toilets not no water or just a trickle or you will spread diseases throughout the museums.
I’m so sorry Perú but I’m hoping a good kick up the backside might make you all sit up and realise that most tourists visit Machu Picchu and that’s all. In the UK and likely in many other countries too we don’t even really know there are other cultures in Perú beside the Inca. Encourage TV companies to visit other sites rather than just Machu Picchu. Or create a series yourselves that can be given voice-overs in other languages. Get the message out that Perú is bursting with wondrous sites to visit. You have a beautiful heritage rich in ruins and unopened tombs. You have the natural resources to conquer the world of tourism but you seem to be living in the last century. Just google search the British Museum and see how they do things. Or the marvellous V&A or the Louvre in Paris there are so many great museums. Grab a flight to the USA and visit some of their epic museums and realise that you too can achieve world class galleries. Or just go to the Larco in Lima and see how they do it. Free WiFi throughout the museum for instant Instagram posting. Lush formal gardens with outdoor seating and a restaurant that simply everyone wants to eat in. Pleeeeaaase Perú and especially you Signor Minister of Culture fix this and be the world class cultural country that you should. I adore everything I’ve seen here but stop squandering your cultural heritage. One final joy was this very Peruvian Christmas scene of the Lady of Cao and Father Christmas side by side.