The museum in Leimebamba is two or three kilometers out of town, in the direction of Celendin. You can’t miss it. In fact, I think you can see these characters from the road. And you shouldn’t miss it. It’s in a nice setting, and has a lot of interesting content.
A chart explains which people were ascendant in each of nine geographic regions of Peru in each century from pre-Christian times to the 16th Century. What stands out is that we do not see the Inca at all until near the end of the period, and then suddenly they appear ascendant in every region except the “Selva Baja” – the lower jungle, the Amazon basin. I hope to learn why they failed there, or didn’t bother. Perhaps they didn’t care for the climate; perhaps the dense lower jungle held nothing of interest for them or was difficult to conquer because of the terrain and the inherent advantages indigenous people had there.
I feel annoyed with the Inca, as I often do – rather the way I hated the Yankees, perennial winners for whom my father rooted, when I was a kid growing up in New York. But I can admire their accomplishments [as I never did with the Yankees]. Within just a century they conquered some very extensive real estate (from Colombia down well into Argentina and Chile), much of it desert or rugged mountains, without the benefits of modern weapons, transportation, or communications; and at least in Peru and Argentina, they ascended many cold, high peaks (peaks that were not climbed again until the last two decades of the 20th Century, by people using gear the Incas could not have dreamed of) and stayed up there long enough to leave human and other sacrifices to placate the mountains, which [or whom?] they regarded as gods.
The chart also places the changing peoples of the Peruvian regions in context, showing what was going on in Europe, Asia, and North America at the time, such as the life of Buddha, the Roman Empire, and the birth of Christ. It is interesting to note that the Incas conquered most of Peru at roughly the same time that Genghis Khan conquered much of the East.
There are also various bits of clothing, pottery, musical instruments, and the like, as well as a kiosk where several of the musical instruments are set near buttons you can push to hear the music made on the particular instrument. Flute music echoes through the room, enhancing the experience.
And there are mummies. (Even a mummified cat with a ring in its nose, showing that it was domesticated.) Many mummies, as well as information on mummification and the difference among various kinds of mummies.
We ask the woman why the mummies look as if they are in so much pain. “Gravidad,” she replies. As the mummy is left in a sitting position, the lower jaw falls. She points to one, and to his hands crossed high on his [or her?] chest, and explains that
they were placed that way to hold the lower jaw from falling open, but that with time the jaw slipped down anyway. Around another mummy, some kind of rope was used to keep the lower jaw in place. There too, gravity won out, over time.
As we climb away from it, the museum and the valley it occupies grow smaller and greener. At switchbacks we pause and look back.
In a green field near what feels like the top of the earth, I spot a woman and a girl washing clothes and buckets, and we stop. The woman smiles, and starts to come up to the car, but I explain we need nothing, have stopped only because it is a beautiful and peaceful place, and that with her permission we’d like to photograph her. She laughs. We do so, although even when she goes back to her task she watches us more than what she’s washing.
We hear music. Haunting, unfamiliar music, coming from an unseen source. We ask whether it’s from a radio or something else. She explains that it’s from the church, a small building nearby that we hadn’t noticed or that stood out of sight from the road. It’s Sunday, she adds. I explain that with all the traveling we’d lost track of that fact, and she laughs. We stand listening for awhile. The sound carries well in the thin air, and the music haunts us, but we have miles to go before we sleep, and do not retrace our steps for a closer look.
Moments later, after long green high-mountain meadows, drier mountains, and fewer isolated homes, we reach the pass. On the other side is sudden stark beauty, with clouds hugging the peaks. The countryside is quite different, and hard to photograph effectively. Below, very far below, is a green valley.
Again we marvel at the Incas. How the hell did the Inca go all over this country and conquer it all? Even now with roads it’s difficult. This is not the first time we’ve stopped in awe at the adventures of the Incas and the first Spaniards. The Incas did not even have horses – and although there were llamas in Peru, I haven’t heard that the Incas rode them, though they used them to carry things. How, I’ve wondered, did they know where they were going; how did they keep themselves fed when on the march, and have enough in reserve to attack and conquer someone when they reached their destination? Once they’d conquered a people, how did they communicate with sufficient clarity and speed to deal with local problems in a variety of places?
Our sympathies almost waver – in a ball-game that was won and lost nearly half a millennium ago.
We come around a corner and suddenly see a small group of people, most on horseback. Beside them, the land drops away sharply, and behind them clouds cling to the peaks. We stop, of course. Ragna walks several meters away to photograph the view, then the people. One of the men, not on horseback, holds a bottle they have been drinking from. He offers me some, and I cannot think of refusing. I glance at Ragna, who might be concerned that a little “white lightning” could endanger my ability to negotiate the mountain roads, but she’s filming the view. I drink a bit, more for the fellowship than for the taste or effect, and afterward keep thinking about the peaceful Sunday they are enjoying, in such an isolated and beautiful environment. The hamlet is called Achupas. The folks on horseback have come to this spot from some even more isolated farm the roads do not reach.
Soon afterward, as I am thinking how fine and green and peaceful the countryside is, we pass a sign on the road: Fundo for sale. I wonder, almost passionately, how much it costs. Not with any practical intention, but what a dream it would be to be in such a place for significant chunks of time!
About 20-30 minutes later we reach a stretch of road that is straight and level for 100 meters or so, with a sheer drop and splendid view on our right and steep hills climbing from just off the road on the left. There’s a house further down on the right, with a white horse tethered by the cliff, admiring the view. On the left, where a pipe brings water from some stream in the hills, a little girl has been washing clothes, surrounded by pigs. As Ragna gets out to photograph her, her older brother stands by the car and chats with me.
His name is Nenemias. He is 11. He has lived here all his life. He walks up the hill for an hour each day, perhaps to Achupas, to attend school, and walks back in the afternoon. Does he like going to school? “Si, como no?” He would like to be a mechanic when he grows up. I talk to him for a while, without enough Spanish to ask the questions I’d really like to ask, or understand the answers. I think of the girls at Karajia. The sweetness of children in remote places. Cities can be a kind of poison.
In a hamlet just past where the kids live, we pick up a hitchhiker. He rides with us for awhile – he is going to Maranon and Balsas. With my limited Spanish, I understand that there’s a big river there, and guess that Maranon and Balsas are two small towns at either end of a bridge over the river.
The long descent is through country that is nearly as dry as the world gets. As we near the end of it, the valley looks impossibly green. It reminds me of Moab: of reaching the town through hot, dry desert and parking my motorcycle behind a wide river with greenery on both sides; then, of being naked and alone and swimming the dryness and desert heat out of me. This town, though, isn’t nearly as inviting as Moab, and I don’t see a good restaurant or bar. Or anything air-conditioned.
Marranon and Balsas are not two towns separated by a bridge, but a wide, brown river (the Marranon) with high rock cliffs on the far side, with cactus on the tops of them, and a small town named Balsas on the near side. A small, dusty, hot town with simple bars and restaurants. We enter one – with lots of tables and a refrigerator, but otherwise empty except for a woman napping on a blanket on the floor. She rises and puts on her sandals, and a dog wanders out from the back room to see what’s going on. We buy a couple of cokes.
Another thing we do not see is a gas station. We ask about buying gas. Two little girls follow us everywhere, and when we reach the shop we’ve been told sells gas, it doesn’t look promising.
There is no one in the shop. Her attention drawn by the girls or my “Hello?”, a woman makes her way down the stairs from the second floor. I ask if gas sells itself here. Yes – but just 84. That will have to do. I ask to buy two gallons, hoping that’s enough and that the lower-rated gas won’t seriously screw up the car. She unlocks a door and draws the gasoline from a metal drum into a pail, and we go outside to the car. She holds up a huge funnel, and places its narrow end in a big plastic coke bottle, out of which a part of one side has been cut away to accommodate the process. She nods to the can, which I hold up and pour into the funnel, and the gas passes cleanly through it and down the coke bottle into the tank. (As I pick it up I suggest that Ragna might want to videotape the process, which she does. Later I suggest that it might be one of the most interesting bits of video to some in Iceland, particularly men; but she points out that in remote mountain spots in Iceland, things might be very like this at times.)
We buy a few snacks and some fruit, and approach the bridge, but a barrier blocks our way. A helpful fellow from one of the bars runs over to the police station to get someone to lift the barrier, and we cross. People are swimming in the river, just outside of town. As we drive the switchbacks on the other side, we keep looking back at Balsas, getting smaller and smaller. This side of the river is appealing, in a barren sort of way, but almost totally unpopulated.
At some point we see a man waiting for transportation. He makes a slight gesture toward us, and we stop, and move stuff around to make room for him.
Ragna and I continue our conversation, but then she says it’s impolite to ignore our passenger, and that I should talk with him. I’d be just as happy to leave him alone and concentrate on the road, rather than trying to make conversation in Spanish, but I acquiesce. His name is Hippolito Chacon. Does he live in Celendin or back where we picked him up? Back there, but higher up. He has a chacra. What does he grow to sell? Avocados; wheat and corn; yucca. Why is he going to Celendin? Near as I can make out, to buy things. Also, he has a son studying medicine there. He has five kids, all in their twenties. He is 58.
Am I right that he has no road, and would have to ride horses or walk? Yes, he walks. And no electricity? None. Is life hard? Yes, he says cheerfully, volunteering that the walk to and from the chacra takes an hour and a half.
We look across at a small peak, extending upwards like a thumb. There are green fields on it, on terrain that looks so steep one might fear falling off. (It’s a green thumb.) Hippolito says it’s wheat. It is beautifully green – and the folks who work the field must have a hell of a view.
I photograph these fields, but Hippolito owns one. [Why do I not ask him how much such a place sells for?!] I wish we could return and rent mules and ride to his chacra. I wonder how it is to live so far from everything. We write down his name when he gets out of the car in Celendin, but I can’t imagine that even if we drive this road again some day we will have his name with us.
We reach Celendin – coasting the last several kilometers down into town, because I’m not completely confident that we have enough gas to make it otherwise. We let our friend off at a side street that leads to where his son lives.
We stayed, and ate, in the Hotel Celendin. A night’s lodging was S./37.50 [about U.S. $ 13-14 at the time], for a pleasant matrimonial room with a view of the Plaza de Armas, and places to sit on the balcony overlooking the courtyard.
All was not perfect. Ragna was pretty repulsed by the bathroom, with a barely-functioning drain full of long, black hair and walls marred by stuff from previous tenants’ noses. She spent a lot of time cleaning it, we had to get a guy up to the room to fix the drain, and various things such as drinking glasses and a second towel were absent. On the other hand, it’s a lovely hotel, with a nice courtyard, a promising restaurant, and a balcony overlooking a quiet plaza, but it is not as clean or well-appointed as it might be. For S./ 37.50 I’m disinclined to complain!
The hotel’s restaurant appeared locally popular. We sat at tables in the courtyard we could see through the kitchen window folks lining up to buy food to go. We found it adequate, but a little disappointing in light of the pleasant site. Walking in the morning,we saw places we guessed served better food.
About the road: it’s a fairly full day’s drive, but we spent much of the morning in the museum, stopped fairly often to shoot photos and video, and still reached Celendin well before dark on a winter day. There’s not a lot on the way, in terms of restaurants, gas stations, or even small stores. Tank up before leaving Leimebamba, and take sandwiches and drinks along.
As noted, the museum in Leimebamba is worth stopping at, particularly if you’re interested in the various civilizations in the Central Andes at various times, and/or if you find mummies reasonably fascinating.
A FAQ concerning the mummies would be why they look so nightmarish, rather like the famous Norwegian painting, The Scream ; not because they were in great pain, or suffered great fear or humiliation or anguish as they died, but simply because the lower jaw, over time, drops. Therefore the embalmers attempted various means, including placing the arm or wrist in a position to help hold up the lower jaw, to counteract gravity. Gravity usuallywon, eventually.]