Thursday, 29 May 2014

All roads lead to Casma

The river Marañon, a tributary of the Amazon, rises to the north of Lima and flows along the eastern flank of the Andes before turning inland, carving through the mountains and continuing on through the rainforest on the other side.

In 1937 Tello got funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to explore the upper Marañon river basin and in June of that year the team set off north from the capital out onto the coastal desert plain, where they were to begin by exploring the river valleys

Some unexpected discoveries  led  to an unscheduled and highly successful three months stay excavating in the Casma valley, and the expedition was to eventually last an extraordinary six months and take them as far north as Cochabamba and Chachapoyas.

This little adventure occurs early on in their travels. Money, as always, is tight, and Hernan is just beginning to get used to life on the road and Tello´s robust temper.

All roads lead to Casma
In which our young adventurer's heroic undertakings take a wrong turn

When we left to explore the Marañón river basin, there were so many of us that we set out in two cars. Doctor Tello led the group. Then there was Mejía Xesspe, our assistant director at the National Anthropology Museum, and the one who was in charge of logistics and budget, the illustrator Pedro Rojas Ponce, the North American anthropologist Donald Collier and his two fellow students Honour McCreary and Barbara Loomis. As usual I went along as illustrator and Tello’s campaign secretary. 

We started off at Huaral and continued on beyond Sayán, stopping off and excavating wherever we found cemeteries and pre-Columbian ruins. we stayed for several days studying tombs in Lachay and then went on through Vilcahuara, San Nicholas and the port of Supe

At that time what served as a highway was little more than a collection of tracks that changed according to the whim of the dunes and the winds that erased them.  It meant that the drivers had to be very skillful. Ours were good on the tarmac streets of Lima, but they were hard pressed to negotiate such an uneven expanse of shifting desert dunes.

We were making our way toward Casma, descending the long incline just past Las Zorras, when we started sliding all over the place in the sand, struggling to keep the cars on the track. The engines began to rattle worryingly and we decided to get down and push. 

This was even worse, because each time we stopped and tried to restart, the more we pushed, the more the car sank into the sand.

We did the best we could, putting sacks under the wheels and stamping down the sand on either side for long stretches, until finally we managed to push the vehicles clear from the dunes. That worked for a while, but in spite of our best efforts, just as we were coming to the end of this section of track, one of the cars blew a gasket.  And there we were, stuck in the desert, left to the mercy of the Almighty!

After a long night in the desert, we eventually set off again the next day, some of us in the one good car we had remaining, the others in a passing truck, and we finally arrived in Huaymey at dusk. 

From there Dr Tello, Mejía Xesspe and the ladies continued on in the car, whilst Collier, Rojas and myself managed to hail a bus which could drop us in Casma on its way to Trujillo. The driver wanted an extortionate amount for the journey, and the car carrying Mejía Xesspe, who was the one who held the purse strings, had already left. But as presumably he would reach Casma before the bus did, we arranged that we should settle the account there on arrival.

We arrived in Casma at ten o’clock that night, expecting to find our companions already there so that we could pay our bus fares before the bus continued on its way to Trujillo.  Thinking that they must already be installed in a hotel somewhere, we set out to look for them. To our surprise they were nowhere to be found. It was a mystery. Most strange was the fact that we had followed them on the same route all the way without ever catching sight of them.

So now we were in a spot of trouble. The bus driver was waiting for us to pay for our tickets and the other passengers were getting more and more irritated about the delay. The uncomfortable truth was that we were in the embarrassing situation of not being able to pay. Previous expenses had used up almost all our salary, and none of us was due to receive a single cent more until the end of the trip. All we could was to wait for the others. 

When midnight came and there was still no sign of them, we managed to evade the driver and set off to find a hotel for the night.  Luckily when we told them that we were part of the Marañón archaeological expedition and explained the whole sorry story to the manager, he let us stay without paying in advance for the room.

None of us slept too well, and we were all up before six the next day. We were worried about the others, and decided to send out a search party without any further delay.

We rented another car and Collier and Rojas set off in it, fully equipped with winch, chains, cables, and extra gasoline and water; all procured on credit using Tello’s name. I must admit that by now a certain air of excitement had descended upon our small group, and we felt rather proud of ourselves taking the initiative and setting out valiantly to rescue our lost friends in the desert.

It was decided I was to stay back at base in Casma, and I jumped at the chance. Normally it was virtually impossible to get to know any of the towns where we stayed because Tello always had us on such a strict working schedule. So I decided to take advantage and explore my surroundings.

I wandered around for a while looking at the buildings and watching the different faces in the street.  When suddenly… oh boy … there was one that was all too familiar. Coming towards me was our missing quartermaster Mejía Xesspe! Far from being stuck in a sand dune, he was out on the street looking for us. I was in a real fix now.

Apparently the driver of the other car had lost sight of the tracks and had had to drive more or less by instinct, feeling his way along and stopping each time he felt the car straying too far into the sand. They had had a near miss when he had stopped just short of a precipice overlooking the ocean. Needless to say, after such a tortuous journey they hadn’t arrived in Casma until one in the morning.Unfortunately we hadn’t thought to check for them in the town that morning before launching our ‘heroic’ rescue mission.

I was the youngest member of the expedition, so as usual I was the one who bore the brunt of Mejía Xesspe’s reproaches. To be fair I was, after all, the one standing in front of him. But that was not what bothered me. I knew that was only a mild taste of what was to come. I was the one who was going to have to face Tello. Once he found out there was going to be hell to pay.

We made our way to the hotel where they had lodged for the night and Mejía Xesspe went in to break the news to Tello.

“Tell him to come here,” I could hear the enraged shout from where I was waiting sheepishly outside.

“And where the hell are the others?” were his first words on seeing me.

I didn’t get much of a chance to explain. He could hardly contain himself.

“You nincompoops. I can’t believe that out of the whole lot of you, not one thought to come and check if we were here before going back out for your little peregrinations in the desert! And you … were you such an idiot that it didn’t even enter your head that we might have arrived later?”

There was simply no answer to that.

“You only needed to ask around…” piped up Mejía Xesspe helpfully.

 “And now … who’s going to pay for this little escapade?” Tello went on. “Do you have any idea of how much the success of this expedition depends on us being able to stretch the budget?”

Uuof … I was in for a long and painful lecture.

“Imbeciles. There’s not one iota of intelligence amongst the lot of you”

It was no good. I could only listen to his rantings. It wasn´t worth bothering to reply.

“And where are you all staying?”

I grasped at this small chance to redeem myself. Tello was always very scrupulous regarding the cleanliness of his lodgings and I had noticed that the hotel where they were, although it was passable, was not as clean as ours. What’s more ours had larger rooms where we could work more comfortably.

 “We’re  in the Strasbourg Hotel, doctor,” I replied, “It’s  the best one in Casma and the beds only cost two soles more than in this one.”

“Oh you are, are you? Well look at that, the young gentlemen have settled themselves in the best hotel in Casma. It seems that my budget can cover these luxuries now as well. Oh no señor, you can just get yourselves all back here right this minute."

My face fell.  “But doctor, we’ve already arranged about the rooms; with food included. We got a discount for the rest of the days here.”

“That’s not my problem is it? You heard what I said – no luxuries. You come here to work and eat, that’s all. Anyone who doesn’t like it can leave.”

“But we’ve already asked the owner to order us nine lunches.”

Tello jumped up: “We’ll see about that.”

With that we all three of us went over to the Strasbourg. Tello stormed into the lobby and I braced myself for the inevitable. But to my surprise, when the owner spotted Tello, he hurried over to greet him with open arms.

“Julio! …. What a lovely surprise. These young people didn’t tell me it was you they were expecting. How wonderful to see you”.

“Miguel!. But how..? You…. Here?”

The two men embraced effusively. It turned out they were old friends, who knew each other from schooldays, and as was his custom, Tello’s fury evaporated in an instant.

So … a happy ending after all?  Well, there was still the small matter of the bus, which as it turned out, still hadn’t departed. The passengers were, by this time, in an uproar at the delay. 

But it looked like they would have to wait a little bit longer.  For there was Mejía Xesspe embroiled in hot dispute in the middle of the street with the driver who was not only demanding  his fares, but now wanted compensation for the inconvenience to him and his passengers, who had ended up having to spend a night in Casma.

No comments :

Post a Comment