Friday, 24 October 2014

If the (strawberry pink) jumper fits

In a country not short on spectacular landscapes,  for me the Mantaro Valley,  in Peru´s Central Andean Highlands, is one of the most beautiful.  I may be biased.  This is where my husband was born. These are the mountain streams where he learnt to swim, and the rural setting chimes with my own cherished memories of a childhood spent roaming the Devonshire moors in Southern England.  

La Huaycha  Hernan Ponce Sanchez
Although at more than 3,000 metres above sea level, the adventures and tales told here, like most things in Peru, seem more dramatic, more vibrant, shot through with the Ponce family´s own special brand of magic realism.

Tio Hernan was born here in the small town of Concepción, and the play of light over the valley´s streams and terracotta roofed villages is a favourite theme in the young artist's paintings. 
Huaytapallana- Morada Campesina 
 Hernan Ponce Sanchez

Tello also visited and studied the valley on various occasions. In 1942 the expedition to the Alto Urubamba river basin stopped off for three days in Huancayo, the region's largest town, before heading southwards, and Hernan tells us this story of how a singular purchase the archaeologist made there was to bring unexpected consequences further along the road. 

If the (strawberry pink) jumper fits
In which it is proven that first impressions can be deceptive

On the eve of our continuing journey southwards from Huancayo, Tello asked some of us to accompany him to purchase some items, one of which being a woolen jumper. And so it was that Mejía Xesspe, Pedro Rojas Ponce, myself and the archaeologist found ourselves, late that afternoon, on Calle Real, the busiest commercial avenue in all of this central region of Peru. 

Would you believe it? It seemed incredible that in such a town as Huancayo we weren’t able to find a jumper for a man who was of more or less average build and size, but we walked the whole length of the street without finding the right jumper.

Uman Caldo - Hernan Ponce Sanchez
By now the shops were beginning to close, and so I suggested that we go directly to the warehouse of the Súmar knitwear factory, near Constitution Park. I knew Hunacayo well and was sure we would find something suitable there. Súmar was clearly the answer to our problem.  Well it would have been if we hadn’t found the establishment closed when we arrived.

We could see a light coming from inside the building, and being somewhat desperate by this time and, having nothing to lose, we decided to knock on the door anyway. We were in luck.

“Please,” Tello said to the worker who let us in, “would you have a jumper in my size?”

The man literally sized him up. He was trying to remember what they had in stock for a broad chested man. But I also noticed him taking in the Indian features, the leather jacket, the old hat, riding jodhpurs and boots. Taking the archaeologist to be some kind of stockman or farmer, he answered him shortly. “No we haven’t anything.”

This was the last straw. Tello looked around at the overwhelming stack of jumpers filling the shelves, unable to believe that in a whole factory warehouse there was not one single jumper that might fit him. His physique was not what anyone might call unusual.

He prompted the man again, pointing to one of the uppermost shelves.
“Might there not be one up there. I can’t believe that amongst so many jumpers there’s not a single one in my size.”
“Well maybe, “the assistant replied reluctantly at last, “there is one but I don’t think you’ll like the colour.”
“Let’s see, show it to me. I don’t care about the colour. I need it for the cold.”

The man climbed up, caught hold of one and brought it down. Undoubtedly the colour was rather strange, but apart from that it fitted the bill perfectly.  It was good quality, with thick closely knit regular stitching, and had a high neck that zipped up the middle. It was a jumper you could’ve gone to the Pole in!

Tello put it on, then looked at us with gritted teeth: “What do you think boys?  I think I’m going to have to take it. I’m freezing here with the cold. How much is it?”

“Eighteen soles.”

Mejía Xesspe put his hand into his pocket. And then we had another problem – no money!

The archaeologist was not at all pleased. It meant that he had to drop his trousers to reach the emergency stash of money bills he carried pinned to his underclothes. But finally, with our purchase made, we returned to the hotel, all set for the onward journey.

The following day, we started working at dawn at the Collacoto ruins in Sapallanga. Then after a quick lunch in Huancayo we started off for La Mejorada and arrived there at dusk. Our arrival seemed to cause quite a stir.  Although I would like to  state here for the record that our truck was inscribed quite clearly on both sides in large white letters ‘Institute of Anthropological Investigations'.

The fact is that the whole neighbourhood came out to stare at this strange novelty. At first we didn’t register this as anything unusual. It’s not uncommon in small villages, and as Tello was something of a celebrity now, it happened to us on a regular basis, even though he made an effort to travel incognito. As soon as we stopped the vehicle, Tello gave instructions to Mejía Xesspe to look for lodgings for us. As he went off to do so, we spotted a group of elderly women, obviously widows, all dressed in black mourning, approaching us slowly. They stopped a short distance away and from there observed us carefully, whispering amongst themsleves. I took little notice of them, but when I got down from the truck I could overhear some parts of their conversation. There seemed to be a minor difference of opinion.

“It’s him Doña Petita.”
“I don’t think so.”
“It is. It’s him I tell you.”
“No it doesn’t look like it to me.”
“Yes it is, it is him.”
 Finally they came to a decision.
“Go on, you go Antonieta.”
 “No you, Doña Petita.” 
"Well, come on , we'll all three go."

Three of them separated from the group and moved closer, jostling amongst themselves and egging each other on. In the end the sprightliest of the three leapt forward and virtually threw herself in front of the famous scientist who until now had not noticed anything. 

He was still seated in the truck, lost in thought, contemplating the distant surrounding hills. His right hand was resting on the open window of the truck and without warning, the old woman bowed her head a nd planted a huge kiss on it:

 “Your Grace.”
“Good afternoon señora,” Tello was surprised at such a fervent greeting.

“Your Grace,” continued the woman, without apparently noticing the astonished looks on the faces of the archaeologist and his companions, “my daughter has prepared a lovely room for you. She’s arranged a bed for you. I can assure you it’s impeccably clean. Everything is new; sheets, covers, everything. The camp bed is fourteen years old, but it’s like new because I bought it for the Monsignor to sleep in when he passed this way on a visit to Huancavelica. I assure you we don’t let any old person use it.”

With this she glanced at me and the other members of the expedition. “The youngsters can go and stay at the hotel.”

Histórico Puente de las Balsas - Hernan Ponce Sanchez

Her deference and candid demeanour were not unusual for the people from the mountains, many of whom have never left their small villages.  She was offering the best that she could:  an exceptional camp bed with only one previous occupant on one single occasion …. and him an ecclesiastical gentleman at that.
Your Grace was a strange form of address but we didn’t see anything too unusual in this. Tello inspired genuine admiration in the small towns which sometimes approached near mystical proportions. He tried to avoid the limelight as much as possible because it bothered him, but even so his arrival was usually discovered and often many people came to welcome him, offering hospitality and information about the local areas. It was quite normal for them to greet him with great affection and reverence.

And so, still suspecting nothing out of the ordinary, and given that the hotels in these small villages were usually quite a calamity, Tello answered her gratefully:
“And whereabouts exactly is your house señora?”

“There, where that man in the boots is standing.”  She pointed to where Mejía Xesspe was walking up La Mejorada’s one long main street looking for a hotel. 

It was at this moment that the other women, no doubt following the advice of Thomas – ‘seeing is believing’ – decided to come forward too.

They flocked around the truck, but with such religious fervour that Tello eventually began to wonder about all this exaggerated piety. The penny dropped.  Caramba!  He was afraid the faithful and rather over excited catholic population of La Mejorada was going to be terribly disappointed.

Later we were able to confirm the cause of all the uproar.  It seems that the village had been waiting for a visit from the bishop for three days, and as there were so many little angels to be confirmed, they had begun to worry about his Grace. And that was why they had rushed so eagerly to greet him.  

But Tello was definitely not their man.

“Let’s get down lads,” he said opening the door of the truck. And what a fall from grace! The wide brimmed straw hat, the well-worn trousers and boots were not at all what they were expecting. They certainly weren't the vestments of a man of the cloth. Not even the foolish jumper was the exact shade of Persian Rose, so they couldn't blame that. How exactly could they have confused an archaeologist, and a scruffy one at that, with a bishop?

As soon as ‘his Grace’ dismounted and stood before them the faces of the Sisters of Mercy looked aghast. Their only hope for salvation was to make haste in the opposite direction. Goodbye sacred sweet smelling bed.  Goodbye clean sheets. Everything disappeared as fast as you could say ‘amen’. And, fallen from his altar, Tello had to come and sleep in the hotel with the rest of us.

Los Eucaliptos - Hernan Ponce Sanchez

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