Thursday, September 27, 2012

A little about gold mining

Looking at this landscape you'd wonder what could possibly sustain life here. Well, William and Marcos were two taxi/guides who showed us around the desert areas of southwestern Peru and they both had interesting stories to tell. William's family was one of countless driven out of the Andean highlands in the vicinity of Ayacucho by Sendero Luminoso activity, and the counter-revolutionary crossfire,  a generation ago. The guerrillas have been mostly tamed, but many of the displaced campesinos have made new lives in the desert, and in the cities, where their cobbled-together dwellings rise up the hillsides.

William's older brothers have gone back to their ancestral village 'where the air is clean and the vegetables and water are natural' but William is reasonably pleased with his present life and contagiously enthusiastic about Peru. This despite, to my mind, the rather grimy nature of his hometown, Ica. But what stories are behind the dusty gates and ramshackle doors!

One place William took us  to see was a ´gold factory'. We were wary of an awkward tourist stop,  wherein the driver presents the ´walking wallet´ (us!) to his friend for evisceration. Well, there was a bit of that, but also, a pretty interesting story about how the small people of this world make their best effort to survive.

Turns out that the mountains behind the desert, indeed the country, are loaded with minerals (fifty percent of the GDP of Peru is from mining). In the vicinity of Ica, there is gold, and silver, copper and other ores too, and there are men willing to dig for it with picks and shovels, carry out out on their backs, and deliver it to people like William´s friend.

We learned that gold is easy enough to separate out from the rest, if you have mercury, and a  'mixer'. That´s what's happening here. The miners' families stand on the board on top of this rock, and see-saw to and fro for hours at a time, chatting and texting as the ore is crushed and mixed with mercury to precipitate the gold. How exactly it happens I can´t quite explain, but at some point some of the liquid in the cesspit is drained, and eventually there is some gold, and some recovered mercury. (Yes they know how dangerous mercury is, and attempt to recuperate it, according to some government regulations posted on the wall.)
It is much harder to recover the other minerals, so the remaining ore is sold to ´the big company'.´Somewhere I read that ten or fifteen percent of the world´s gold production is mined in this or similar 'artesanal' fashion.*

Marcos had the rest of the story.  He and his brothers and cousins had actually been miners. They went way back into the mountains, with dynamite to make the big holes in the hard rock, and picks and shovels for more delicate work. Weeks later they might have enough product to carry away.

 I had a mental image of  prospectors in old Western movies, but there is much more to it, How many  donkeys might be needed to carry  supplies, like water of which there is absolutely none, food, tools. Was there a road or any truck access?  Some of the men brought their families; some of their wives worked there too. Their children certainly breathed the dust and didn´t get much schooling. But still, it was an income when there were few other resources. However Marcos had put in three years of study for his tour guide license and hoped he'd never go mining again.

 And here´s a picture of my new necklace, the first actual piece of gold jewelry I can ever recall having bought. It´s the monkey copied from the Nasca lines,designed centuries ago and crafted by in the back room of the 'gold factory.' Aren't I a good tourist?!
* Actually this particular form of artesanal mining seems almost harmless compared to what I just read about  in the February 2012 Smithsonian magazine. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

This image taken from
I first heard of the Nasca Lines on some 'news of the weird' Erick von Daniken TV show. The world at large barely registered them until airplanes began to fly over Peru. The Lines are 'drawings' in the sand, formed by removing rocks to reveal the differently colored substrate. Thanks to the extremely dry climate, they remain nearly as built  more than a thousand years ago, other than one inadvertently truncated by the Pan American highway. I've read that they cover an area more than 55 kilometers in length, but there's a lot of discrepant information out there.
Here's a layout courtesy of

There are over sixty images, some hundreds of feet long, and many  radiating straight lines as well. Of course there is rampant speculation as to the meaning of the symbols and the act of constructing them. The builders died out leaving little behind other than mummified bodies and artifacts in graves that were thoroughly pillaged even before the Lines were (re)discovered.
The mummified remains, buried in underground rooms,  were accompanied by tools and household goods, including valuable ceramics, and fabrics, which rarely survived. Grave robbers left the remains scattered about, and archaeologists have been gathered what they could and set back in place. What looks like tails is in fact hair.

The tourist can be flown over the Lines in a small plane, or can climb a metal tower beside the highway for a quick peek at the nearest image, which is the option we chose. Some of the images can also be seen from nearby foothills.

Even if one of the figures may resemble an astronaut, I'm not buying the 'aliens in spaceships' theory about the origin of the Lines. I like the idea expounded by the astronomer who gives the nightly planetarium show at the Nasca Lines Hotel. He points out that this was a desert culture necessarily focused upon water, who perhaps made processions of prayer or praise along the straight Lines which might have been oriented towards a particular source.


 Spiral wells built by the Nasca people still exist and are still in use. This is one of several which channels an underground stream from several miles away. 

 The figures, the condor, hummingbird, monkey, spider, hand, and others (the astronaut?) might have been intended to remind the gods (the Sun?) of the presence of the Nasca people. If so, I find such earnest and laborious supplication very touching, and more rational than von Daniken.
Dr. Maria Reich, a German mathematician, was so fascinated by the Nasca Lines that she spent  her life researching them, right here in this room, now a museum. You could say she was the one who put them on the map and gave Peru's tourism a big boost.

As usual, Wikipedia can tell you a lot more.

Here are a few more pictures taken in the area

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Peru's Desert

If you read the atlas you{ll learn that much of southern Peru is a desert, but nothing puts that so firmly in mind as a ride along the Pan-American highway south from Lima. From the second floor of our behemoth Cruz del Sur bus, we looked out over an ashy-tawny expanse of mainly sand,  interspersed with small stones and rocks, and ranges of mountains - the Andes!- moving in and out on the eastern horizon.

Sometimes we ran closer to the Pacific, where towns like Pisco lay at the end of dusty spur roads. This area was subject to a major earthquake five years ago, which accounted for at least some of the battered and crumpled look of what we saw. The country performed a wide-scale simulation of earthquake (sismo) preparedness strategies on the anniversary.

Our destination this day was Ica and Huacachina. The former revealed itself to be an agricultural center for the production of onions, celery and grapes, particularly the grapes from which the Peruvian form of brandy known as Pisco is made. Agriculture in the desert, you might wonder how they manage. I saw an Israeli breakfast in a restaurant, so maybe those desert-renewal experts are in town helping out.

So far the water  has been mainly from wells tapping underground streams draining from the Andes, and from Andean rainfall running down riverbeds during three months of the year. The actual annual rainfall here is measured in scant fractions of an inch.  But they are running short, the wells are getting deeper, the rains not as reliable, and it is a wonder that an estimated 220,000 people can support themselves here. Among the things we were told, and, as usual, there is no knowing what is really true  is that there is a strict prohibition on the construction of any new well, but also that the Chileans (who seem to be the villains in many matters) are buying up land and planting cheap grapes to flesh out their own wines. 

Huacachina is an oasis just a few kilometers from Ica. The oases (?) of my imagination rise up from flat desert, whereas here the oasis is a fold among high surrounding dunes, but it is a classic, pretty little lagoon that you can walk around in twenty minutes. It is surrounded by palm trees, and small hotels and restaurants. The attraction here, other than the sheer shock of the scenery, is that one might go sandboarding, or careening up and down in a dune-buggy. We clambered up to one of the tops to take in the sunset and on the way were overtaken by a squad of incredibly fit military types who ran through the sand like it was asphalt.

The lady at the hotel Curasi told me that there used to be seven oases like this in the area; hers was the only one left, and they been topping it up with water from a truck for several years now. Her family had been waiters in the restaurants, saved their money and were able to built their hotel on the proceeds, so they have a sure interest in keeping the oasis irrigated.

Like everywhere else we have been in this Peruvian winter, it is pleasant during the day, and two-blanket chilly at night. And I forgot to mention that in this up-side-down hemisphere, the toilets, given the chance, do in fact flush clockwise.

Ica has a flag-raising ceremony in the downtown Plaza de Armas every Sunday morning. These were among the many schoolchildren, boys and girls,  taking part. They enjoyed having their picture taken, and wanted more!