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Peru, Past and Present

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Living with the ancients

Five women embark on personal pilgrimages into the bloodstream of their country’s identity and tell us how the story of Peru is entwined in its stones, songs, rituals and feasts. In the first chapter of our Talking Points series, Marie Arana explains the inextricable links between Peru’s past and present.

My most powerful childhood memories of Peru are sustained by scents: the sweet, thick aroma of molasses pits that accentuate the sugar fields between Lima and Trujillo; the bright, tart perfume of freshly cut cane. I grew up in those fields and the smell of sugar lives on in my head, its sweetness pervading a deep olfactory node of my being.

Strolling into a fragrant garden in Washington D.C., where I now live, I can be thrown back in time to a road lined with endless marigolds; their pungent bouquet welcoming me once again to Hacienda Cartavio, where I spent my first five years. Wandering through an ancient aqueduct in Rome, I’m reminded of the musty odour of the pre-Columbian Fortaleza in Paramonga that I scaled with my brother George, pretending we were the gods the fortress was meant to honour.

In Peru, we live with constant reminders of our ancient past. Even Lima, its bustling capital of ten million, still claims a complex network of Inca canals. The stone ducts cut through the desert like lacework – a splendidly engineered system of life-giving veins that continue to irrigate the city. Callao, the long, grey spit of land that lances the Pacific like an angry sword, continues to admit visitors via its airport and seaport just as it once received Venezuelan liberator Simón Bolívar, and British naturalist Charles Darwin when they stepped onto that ground in different centuries with very different missions.

Sometimes we live atop Peru’s history without even knowing it: in Lima, my brother and I would ride our bicycles up and down what seemed a mammoth bluff, just a short distance from the house, on Avenida Angamos. Decades later, engineers excavating the hillside revealed that it harboured buried treasure: the monumental Huaca Pucllana, a sacred, seven-story pyramid built sometime between 200 and 700 A.D. At the time, we assumed we were city kids, wheeling through an urban landscape, free from any auras of the past. In fact, we were playing in the fields of the gods, treading on ancient spirits.

Over the years, I’ve been drawn back to that stretch of the Pacific – 350 miles of arid, wind-whipped sand between Lima and Cartavio – but again and again, I am astonished by the ways history was so present in my childhood. Just south of where we lived, was the millennium-old city of Chan Chan with its extravagant architecture and intricate passageways. According to my father, the highway we travelled to visit my grandparents in Lima cut through the centre of that pre-Colombian capital; we were riding its pierced heart. I often wondered how the spirits of the dead felt about that trespass.

I didn’t know it at the time, for it was yet to be unearthed, but just a kilometre or two north of our house, under an expanse of sandy dunes, was the Huaca del Brujo, the ‘Sacred Temple of the Sorcerer’. This magnificent funerary complex cradled the mummy of a powerful and beautiful tattooed queen, the Señora de Cao. When archaeologists pushed away the 1,700-year accumulation of rock and sand, they found golden crowns, elaborate jewellery, and walls alive with colourful images of pumas and serpents, as well as chained, naked prisoners. I visited the site just after it was opened and, as I approached the fierce Moche queen’s temple, I was met by a sudden olfactory flashback. A sweet southern breeze had jolted my senses. It was coming from the sugar fields where I used to live.

Marie Arana’s latest book is ‘Silver, Sword, and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story’ (Simon & Schuster). Her essay was originally published in the “Talking Points” pages of Belmond’s in-house magazine, Mondes.

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