Wednesday, May 9, 2018


Machu Picchu, Peru, 2003

IN THE SUMMER OF 2003, MY EDITOR AT THE FREE DAILY ASKED ME IF I'D LIKE TO GO TO PERU. He had run into somebody from their trade commission at a party and it had led to an invite to attend Peru Xport, a trade fair happening in Lima that September. He was either unwilling or unable to attend, so he asked me to go instead, maybe write an article or two, perhaps post a diary about the trip on the paper's website.

It would have been terribly selfish of me to say yes. We had a baby at home and, although my wife was on maternity leave, she'd be a new mother left alone for five days. She was also an ex-journalist from a family of journalists, who understood better than I did when an editor's request was anything but, and that it was best for me to accept. For my part, I had lived a very untraveled life, and was eager to go anywhere at all, never mind a place as exotic as Peru.

And so I found myself on a plane and, after a brief night's sleep in my hotel in Lima, on another plane early the next morning to Cusco, for a quick trip to Machu Picchu before the trade fair began, all paid for and organized by PROMPEX, Peru's trade commission.

Machu Picchu, Peru, 2003

I would recommend that anyone should visit any marvel of the world if you ever have the chance. Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramids at Giza, the Grand Canyon; anything that's incredible or improbable or awesome, whether man-made or not, will lift you from the banal and workaday, at least for a while. I had never imagined that I would see Machu Picchu until I was actually on the Peru Rail train heading there from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the town where you get off the train and catch the bus to Machu Picchu.

It's fascinating that no one really knows the actual purpose of the ruins, which were only discovered just over a century ago by the explorer Hiram Bingham. There are educated guesses and vague descriptions ascribed to certain areas - the Guardhouse, the Temple of the Sun, the Room of Three Windows - but the only thing we know for certain about Machu Picchu is that it took an awful lot of effort to bring the building material and labour up from the valley floor to this breathtaking saddle between two mountains.

As for Bingham's discovery of the place, it's likely that it was found and plundered at least twice in the 19th century, and it appeared on maps in 1874. When Bingham arrived, there were families already living there, hauling up soil from the Urubamba river valley to the Inca terraces. I can tell you that the llamas that roam the site, acting as groundskeepers, are pretty scary when they come at you while you're walking along a narrow path without guardrails hundreds of feet above the valley floor.

Machu Picchu, Peru, 2003

The altitude sickness that I'd managed to avoid all through the trip to and from Machu Picchu hit me with full force that night in Cusco, but thanks to some coca leaf tea and the pure oxygen piped into my room at a very nice hotel, I woke up the next morning feeling better. Juan Jose, my minder from PROMPEX, took me for a wander around Cusco and then up to the hills above the city to the ruins of Sacsayhuaman.

In a way, Sacsayhuaman is more impressive than Machu Picchu because of its walls, built with massive stones chiseled to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. While much of the site was demolished for materials to rebuild Cusco as a Spanish colonial capitol, enough remains to be awe-inspiring, with the added bonus of being largely unvisited by tourists compared to the famous city in the clouds.

Cusco, Peru, 2003
Sacsayhuaman, Peru, 2003

Back in Lima, we got about the real purpose of my visit - the trade fair and the business of publicizing Peru's resources and products. I stayed in the Sheraton Lima, with its rooms laid out around a vertiginous atrium lobby that was almost as awe-inspiring as Machu Picchu. The fair itself was held on the grounds of the Pacific International Fairgrounds - an annual fun fair rented out for the occasion. (Don't look for it now - it was demolished not long after I was there.)

Over the course of the next two days I saw my second fashion show of the trip (the first one was on the train to Machu Picchu), talked to people dealing in everything from minerals to sweaters, ate a lot of food and drank a lot of pisco sours. At one point, standing around idly with Juan Jose, we were suddenly enveloped in the security entourage around the First Lady, wife of then-president Alejandro Toledo, and shifted along with it to a line of armoured SUVs, surrounded by a dozen hawk-faced men with mirrored shades and earpieces.

Sheraton, Lima, Peru, 2003
Pacific International Fairgrounds, Lima, Peru, 2003
Fashion show, Lima, Peru
Paraglider, Lima, Peru, 2003

At one point I finally got away from the trade fair and got a tour of the city when Juan Jose took me to interview the CEO of a mining company at his private club in Miraflores. My research for the trip had mostly consisted of reading Nicholas Shakespeare's novel The Dancer Upstairs, about Peru during the years of the Shining Path's terrorist bombings, and the movie version starring Javier Bardem.

It was amazing that the city had only recently experienced regular bombings and assassinations. Peru's government had become a major proponent of economist Hernando de Soto's "microfinance," which filled the streets with vendors and private bus lines. Once, while waiting with Juan Jose at a stop light, a hawker approached our cab with a big cardboard placard covered in bootleg DVDs - including a copy of The Dancer Upstairs.

Pacific International Fairgrounds, Lima, Peru, 2003
Lima, Peru, 2003

I took a lot of photos when I was in Peru. My workhorse SLR since the early '90s, the Canon EOS Elan, had finally given up the ghost not long before, so this was my debut outing with a really impressive new camera - the Canon Elan 7e, packed with more features than I ever imagined in the old EOS, including eye-following autofocus, a truly magical bit of wizardry that, for some reason, Canon hasn't featured in any of its subsequent digital cameras.

I bought the 7e knowing that it was probably my last film camera, and expected to be using it for at least a few more years. Peru was, in fact, the last time I would use it seriously, as the free daily would buy a Canon DSLR for me to use a few months later. The Peru trip was my first real shooting job in at least two years, and I had obviously decided to keep things simple - there's an awful lot of symmetry happening in these shots, and subjects located directly in the centre of the frame.

I had hoped that a long lay-off from taking photos would revive some of the inspiration I felt I was losing at the end of the '90s, when the frustrations of a flagging career had made me second guess myself more than I usually did. Clean, clear, unfussy - I wanted to find my way to taking photos that could be described this way, and I was encouraged by the results when I got back all those rolls of film from the printer. I particularly liked these photos of Inca mummies taken at the museum of archaeology in Lima. They looked like I felt.

Inca mummies, National Museum of Archaeology, Lima, Peru, 2003

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