Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ben Nigra Blog Entry



July 11, 2009
La Casa De Mi Abuela: Arequipa, Peru

The Vitor Valley is an awe inspiring and surreal place, a dreamscape for the curious and the romantic, and an enormous playground for the archaeologically inclined. Standing in the back of a pickup truck on those first trips out to the site, the morning chill and dust forced me to keep my eyes shut tightly. Now, as we enter week three, I find it hard to drive with the windows up, despite the dust. There is simply too much to watch. Cattle blocking the road on their way to pasture, sheep with month old lambs in tow, strange trees and alien birds, smoke rising from the clearing of fields, our Apu watching over us from afar, desert to the left, desert to the right, but dense vegetation forward and back - an entire world, wide awake. An entire world that has never slept, not since humans arrived to make Vitor their home some many thousands of years ago. And for human occupation, Vitor offers a gourmet assortment. A little Inka as an appetizer, Middle Horizon traditions for the main course (possibly two varieties, if the chef's in a good mood), a little local tradition for desert, the wines and apertifs all Spanish colonial, and modern occupations as a midnight snack. I hate to beat the metaphor to death, but I can't help myself - it is a mouthful.

Our blessed job is fairly simple: figure out what happened here from the beginning of human occupation in Vitor until we arrived three weeks ago. Our questions are of course a little bit more specific than that. However, in order to answer them, we have to make sense of everything that has occurred since our arrival. If last month some mischievous hooligans buried a pot in the desert, and if we stumble upon it, it becomes part of the story of the landscape. Everyday, as I walk around and make maps, I encounter Fanta bottles, tracks from cars, fresh cut cane, a child's homework, dog poop, you name it. This site is in no way a dead thing. It is fluid, alive, in flux, always becoming something more than what it was a minute ago; even our footprints and trails add a new chapter. We sign the desert in our own hand. We are not a group of perfect observers. We are participants in the story of Millo II. This is no one-way transfer of secrets from the ground to our heads. This is a perfect love affair - giving back when we take away.

I used to wonder why I continually choose to fly five-thousand miles just to dig holes in the dirt. I quickly put these questions to rest. You would too, if you could come and visit us. Not that this dirt is better or worse than any other - it is simply more puzzling, challenging. A veritable rubix cube (if you replace the colors with ceramic patterns). This may be one of the world's premier mystery novels. Sherlock Holmes would cry and wet his pants over the mystery of Vitor. Did you know that in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" Captain Jean-Luc Picard was an archaeologist before becoming a star fleet captain? No lie, watch a couple episodes. Do you know why he gave up the chance to potentially become the world's greatest archaeologist to be the captain of a starship? He excavated at Vitor. "Screw this," he said. "I'll take my chances figuring out the galaxy".

So the work may be hard, but the play is most certainly diamond. Here's one for anyone reading who enjoys the work-play of archaeology: Vitor has been a center of wine and pisco production for the past 400 years. The Spanish selected it and used it to supply their overseas empire with drink. This past week we got to enjoy this boon straight from the source, instead of stuffing our satchels full of the store-bought variety. Every once and a while there comes a time when teams need serious and immediate rest - maybe there's been a heat wave for four days straight, or field madness has put them at each other's throats, or the dusty earth has held on tightly to its secrets. We had a day like this, on Wednesday. So we decided to improvise, called up a combi, hopped in and headed out for a winery tour. This place was incredible - a hacienda built before 1600, full of giant ceramic jars for fermenting wine, walls crumbling, light creeping eerily through the cracks in the half-collapsed roof. And then to look upwards was to wake up in a nightmare - the entire inside of the thatched roof was covered with thousands of wasp nests, all covered in tens of thousands of black and yellow stinging insects. Silently treading through this place was the closet I've ever come to being Indiana Jones. Might as well have been crawling through a tomb full of arachnids. But the treasure at the other end was, in my opinion, better than a gold idol. Gold idols require a ton of paperwork, conservation, publication, and political hassle. Fresh, cool wine aged in 400 year old ceramic jars requires a cup. Salud.

So everyone had a wonderful afternoon drinking wine from the source, talking with one another, learning the history of this awesome place, and dodging flying stinging arthropods. I was trying to organize a soccer game for when we got back to camp. It never happened, because our tour had a second stop. This time we invited ourselves, unannounced but graciously received, to a pisco distillery a couple kilos down the river. For those of you who are unfamiliar with pisco, it is a liquor made by fermenting grapes, like a brandy. The location was surprisingly similar to the winery, minus the wasps - same giant 400 year old jars, but this time full of aged pisco. Needless to say, the soccer game never materialized.

I could sit for hours and describe the cool, sweet taste of pisco aged in Spanish colonial vessels on a hot desert afternoon. I could fill a book with all the small, perfect details, if I could only remember them. I could tell you stories of a perfect day, surrounded by friends - Peruvians and Americans, students, professors, and the inbetweens, locals, Arequipenos, Chicagoans, Californians, New Yorkers, together in an amazing, beautiful place surrounded by beautiful things and ancient wonder. I could attempt to fill your heart with tales of laughter and togetherness, problems long forgotten and forgiveness, the most admirable part of humanity come together to celebrate what else? - each other. But to understand, to really get it, you had to have been there. In the shade of the hacienda, Wednesday July 8, 2009. In the Vitor Valley.

Ben Nigra, field cartographer with the Vitor Valley Project.

Image #1: Spanish colonial vessels still used to ferment wine

Image #2: Terrifying realization that the roof was covered with thousands of wasps.

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