Friday, 9 October 2015

The celebrity ruins of Celendín

the route from Celendín to Leymebamba
 photo - Omar Carbajal ©PromPeru 

About 100 kilometres east of Cajamarca, is the town of Celendín.  In the published reports of the expedition team’s stay in the area there are pages and pages with photographs and illustrations of the ancient stone burial towers or chulpas they investigated in nearby Chocta. 

In contrast, there are two paltry sentences describing the previous day’s explorations. One of which witheringly sums up: “some of these specimens seem to be archaic, although difficult to identify due to the scarcity of material”.  

In Hernan’s Anecdotes I found the story behind the story.  

The celebrity ruins of Celendín
In which a mysterious Inca city proves to be elusive - but at least there is some good eating for Hernan

We were already four months behind schedule when the Marañón River Basin Expedition arrived at Celendín. When Tello went out on expedition he resembled in some ways the great Don Quixote. Like that famous wandering horseman of La Mancha, he also followed his own fancies and predilections, and this often led him to make numerous unforeseen discoveries. It was one of the reasons why he was so good. He was not afraid to launch out on a spontaneous exploration, not knowing where it would lead him or when it would end.

As he went along making enquiries here and raking up snippets of information there, he would sometimes digress from his route whenever he saw ancient mysteries or riddles to unravel. He would make lengthy diversions along unfrequented footpaths, just on the mere chance that he might uncover something along the way. Of course this had much to do with our delay in reaching the town.

When we did get there, a tea had been laid on for our arrival to give the archaeologist an opportunity to get to know the various notables and townspeople from the area. Tello had only had breakfast that day and so was ravenous by the time tea was served consisting of two or three polite little pastries
Plaza de Armas - Celendín

But all that was forgotten and his hunger disappeared in a flash when he heard the great news; the ruins of Tolón! An entire Inca city on the top of a nearby mountain! His eager informants were two young teachers and an aged white haired gentleman. I wrote down their names in the notebook I carried everywhere. It was, as always, my job to hunt down data and take notes, so as not to lose even the smallest details we gleaned from such meetings as this.

There were many contenders for Tello’s attention, but it was these three who he was most interested in.  The first two youngsters had only heard of the site. The old man with the silver moustache however, told us that he had visited the place in his youth, and was able to give us a brief description of the ruins and their location at the top of Mount Tolón.

What was exciting was that the description of the location and other references brought to mind the famous ruins of Tunanmarca in Jauja. Pedro Rojas Ponce and I, ‘jaujinos’ both, threw our two pennies worth into the conversation as well. Surely it would definitely be worth a look.

On the other hand, Dr Aladino Escalante was a good friend of Tello and current director of Celendín’s school. He and a couple of his colleagues formed something of a rival group to the ‘Tolonistas’ who were keen to give the scientist some information of their own.  There were, as yet unexplored, a number of extraordinary stone chulpas in nearby Chocta. 
fig. 1
Tello listened carefully and patiently to both camps, mentally sifting through the details, comparing them with other similar archaeological sites, in order to attempt to identify what they might find in each place.

But in the end the enthusiasm and passion of the old gent’s recommendations, won the day.“Well, gentlemen, as soon as we come back from Port Balsas, we set out for Tolón.”

 And so it was that on our return from Amazonas we duly set out for the place indicated by the old gentleman and his two young friends.

We were a large, boisterous group. At the head went Tello, accompanied by some local public figures. There were also numerous teachers and their students. 
Normally the archaeologist liked to limit his traveling companions to those members of his own expedition, so as not to have to waste time in small talk and socializing, but they were such a jolly and enthusiastic bunch of people, and the countryside through which we passed was so charming, that the four hours it took to reach La Tortorilla, at the foot of the legendary Mount Tolón passed with us barely noticing the time.

As the sun began to set, we could see menacing black clouds advancing from the east. There were also rays of lightning and the distant rumble of thunder. In view of this it was becoming imperative to find some kind of shelter for the night. Happily close by there was an abandoned dilapidated hovel in which, despite its diminutive size, we could accommodate more than fifty people if they squashed onto the coarse wooden platforms lining its walls, which in the past had served to store the harvest.

Cold and fatigue forced the majority of the group into the hut in an attempt to get some sleep. They arranged themselves around the platforms and on the floor. Naturally they offered the archaeologist the best spot they could find, which was where the farm hands would’ve slept. There were still some tattered remains of the fleeces they used as mattresses, and it was on these that he laid out his sleeping bag.

Meanwhile, Mejía Xesspe and we, the two remaining members of the expedition, bedded down the animals. It wasn’t long before our thoughts turned to the question of food. But who wanted to cook at that time of the night. Besides we were all exhausted from the journey. Nevertheless, Mejía Xesspe had a suggestion, “I managed to get hold of some pork ribs. Lovely and fresh! Look for some firewood and we’ll roast them up to make chicharrones.The doctor also must be hungry. What do you say?”
photo from the Art of Peruvian Cuisine

The very mention of the word chicharrones was enough to spur us into action, but now came some rotten luck. We had barely had enough time to gather together enough dried cow dung, which on the puna, was the only type of fuel to be found, when the heavens opened. Not to be discouraged, our hunger drove us on. Suffice it to say that by this time we were prepared to make any sacrifice necessary for those succulent chicharrones. We could almost smell them already. 

We put on our ‘waterproof’ ponchos, which were in fact nothing more than bits and pieces of leftover plastic packing material. They stuck out about us so stiffly that we looked as if we were about to dance that famous Peruvian dance of the condors. Rojas held on to the flapping pieces of Mejía’s ‘poncho’ and I improvised some kind of cover with mine, and so struggling for more than an hour in the dark with the driving rain, the smoke and the sopping wet cow dung, we were finally rewarded with a delicious batch  of chicharrones, albeit rather more ‘well done’ than was usual. 

But when Mejía Xesspe went into the hut to invite Tello and the others to join us, he met with no response, only a mighty chorus of snoring. Of course it was a shame we couldn’t share the ribs. But then a rather more pressing problem presented itself. It became apparent to us that there was no room left to shelter inside the hut. The only solution was to lie down outside with as much of our bodies as possible under the small veranda. It was, shall we say, a less than ideal arrangement there in the pouring rain and cold night air, but as it happens it turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise.

At sunrise the next day, Tello, who was an early riser and usually the one to wake us all, found us already washing in a nearby stream. 

“So boys; what kind of a night did you have?”

“Uf! We slept like kings, doctor,” replied Mejía, sardonically.

“Well I had the most terrible night of my life… truly terrible. At around midnight, I woke up with my bed infested with fleas. I swear it was only when they were completely satiated with my blood that I was able to get anything resembling sleep.”  He inserted his walking cane underneath his jumper to scratch between his shoulder blades.

“I see you all had the luxury of eating chicharrones,” he observed.

“We had to pay for it by sleeping outside,” answered Rojas.

“And did you finish them all ….?” 

Something interrupted him before he could continue. He grabbed his stick and began to peel off his clothes feverishly.

“I think I must be full of lice. Help me to see what the devil it is.”

Anybody watching would’ve taken him for a madman. In a trice he was half naked, right there on the freezing cold altiplano. There was no sign of fleas or lice in his clothes, but it didn’t take long to spot the series of blazing red lumps all over his neck and shoulders… It was ticks! And they had embedded themselves so firmly in his skin that when we pulled them out, the skin stretched and his face contorted with pain. 

I wonder now if this nauseating harvest and the resulting disinfection was maybe a bad omen.
fig. 2

Soon it was time to climb the famous Tolón, which luckily was marked on our map. The mountain was high and rough, ugly in itself, but it afforded a magnificent view of the beautiful surrounding valleys and blue horizons. 

We began to climb at seven in the morning and one hour later were happy to see some signs of archaeological remains; a small rectangular enclosure of more or less one metre, with the remnants of walls a few centimetres in height. We took it to be an outpost of the ancient city. But as we advanced further on up the mountain we saw no more sign of any antiquities.

The climb was arduous and our large group soon began to diminish in size. Tello, in spite of his advanced years was always at the front forging ahead, but we were less than half way up before various members began to take frequent rests and the majority in fact went not much further. It was thirsty work. All our canteens were already empty, and we had finished our morning rations of toasted maize and beans.

Eventually, around noon, we arrived at the summit, sweaty and thirsty, and still no sign of the supposed Inca city.

“Well, this is an enjoyable jaunt isn’t it?” Looking about in every direction, Tello’s face belied the fact.

“And so which side are the ruins?” he asked after a pause.

“Don Fulano, where are the ruins that you said you’ve seen here on the summit,” one of the students shouted out.  By now there was a nasty hint of sarcasm in his voice.

“No sign over here,” snorted another.

“I don’t know, it was Don Zutano who told me,” was the sheepish reply.

“Well I got it from Don Perencejo,” Don Zutano answered promptly.

Unfortunately Don Perencejo was mysteriously absent, and whilst the ‘toloneros’ and ‘tolonistas’ argued amongst themselves, Tello lay back against a rock, calmly looking into the distance and contemplating the vast, panorama before him. It seemed once more that he had been led up the wrong path. Reluctant to give up hope altogether of the mysterious ruins, he ordered three of us to spread out across the mountain, searching as we went, along some different paths.

A little way down the track we came across a couple of local labourers, farm tools in hand. Mejía Xesspe asked them if they knew of any ruins around about. They looked about for a moment as if trying to remember and then one answered, “Old ruins, around here? No there’s nothing around here.”

“But there are, many people tell us they’ve seen them on one of these hills.” Mejía Xesspe was not ready to give up.

 “No, I’ve seen nothing, there’s nothing like that around here.” The peasant was positive.
When we finally returned back to the top, Tello didn’t even have to ask. Mejía Xesspe’s face said it all.

“Yes, I know; another load of Casma bull!”
festival time in Celendín  
To this day, it still seems strange to me that our amiable companions should have been so mistaken. Recently I had the opportunity to discuss the case with Nicholas Puga Arroya, the author of Cajamarca Tales. According to him, the original opposing group of townspeople who had doubted the expedition and who afterwards reveled in ridiculing the failed attempt at every chance they got, told him that the mountain where the rival group took us was, in fact, called Mount Cueñaspunta. 

It wasn’t even Mount Tolón.  Was it their mistake or that of the excellent Army Geographic Service map that we took? We’ll never know. Or maybe it was all simply the bad memory of our over zealous ‘toloneros’ who later tried to cover up with: ‘Well it was so and so who told me.”

Whatever the truth of the matter is, there still remains in me a vague hope that somewhere amongst those hills lays a whole Inca city waiting to be discovered. Whoever does uncover it, I hope that it is one of the good folk of Celendín, so they can finally have their day.

fig. 1  chulpa in Chocta
fig. 2  one of Hernan's illustrations of the chulpas
both taken from Arqueología de Cajamarca: Expedición al Marañon - 1937

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