Sunday, February 16, 2014

Inca buildings and Machu Picchu

 A shrine to enduring love- a world's wonder
Our trip to Peru had many highlights. Of course the reason we went was to fulfill one of my wife’s lifelong ambitions, to see the ancient site at Machu Picchu. She was born and raised in India and we had visited the Taj Mahal together in 1985. One can read about Shah Jahan’s shrine to his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal and look at many pictures, but actually being there takes the experience to a new level. The pictures simply do not do its ethereal beauty any kind of justice.

I had of course heard of Machu Picchu and knew that it had been built by the Incas and not discovered and destroyed by the Spaniards. I had also seen pictures of the site, mainly the famous one shown on tourist material that gives a view from a high point, with a sharply peaked mountain in the background.

It was time to do some reading and as usual before a big trip we took out a Lonely Planet book from our local Saskatoon Public Library. Their picture shows how complex and amazing the site really is.

Before we headed to what is probably Peru’s most famous spot we had the good fortune to spend a few days in the city of Cuzco. The main reason I had been pleased that our itinerary with the excellent Intrepid Company made this stop was the matter of altitude. The elevation at Machu Picchu’s high point is 2430 m (almost 8,000ft). That was going to be hard enough for prairie dwellers. For the last five years of our Kenya days we had lived in a small cottage on the weirdly named Lunatic Lane in Nanyuki at 1905m (6250 ft.). While there my doctor wife had seen a number of cases of altitude sickness some of them fatal, mainly in young, very fit military men who had ascended Mt. Kenya all too quickly and been overcome. I had seen a couple of cases of the same thing in cattle living around the 2500m mark. Cuzco is quite a bit higher at 3400m (11,200ft). If we could acclimatize to that, even a little bit, then Jo’s main goal should / would be no problem.

We were in for a surprise. Our guidebook mentioned that Cuzco is the ancient capital of the Inca kingdom and indeed we saw many fascinating things, both in and around the city. What struck me, more than anything else, was the stonework. It was explained to us by our charming and excellent guide Patricia who took five years of university to become a registered guide.

Detail of stone joints
Sacsaywaman, aka "SexyWoman"
While the huge rocks at sites like Sacsaywaman are amazing both for their sheer size and the fact that they must have been fitted after months or maybe years of shaping (you could not hope to slide a credit card between them, and there is no mortar), it was the intricate moulding and shaping in the Qorikancha church, which lies in the city centre, that really caught my eye. Maybe that is because I am a sometime woodworker and have some idea of the challenges, say in making a chess table. I have lots of fancy tools to make things fit. Seven hundred years ago the artisans who built these things did not have quite as much :) 

Qorikancha has several types of stone lock
One type of lock
 As you can see from the photos they used several different patterns to make the stones both fit and lock. Again no mortar. If the archaeologists and historians are correct, the stonemasons used hematite  to grind the granite-like rocks. Wow! Is probably the least one can say. 

A partly opened wall showing diffefrent locked stones
Of course the church is sadly more famous for what is missing than for what remains. The Spaniards removed many tonnes of solid gold sheets and sculptures, melted them down and shipped them back across the Atlantic via what is today Panama.

Patricia explained the likely reason for this intricate work. It was to earthquake-proof the buildings. There have been many (at least 40) such seismic events since the first recorded one in 1586. Patricia mentioned the 7.0 Richter scale one in 1950 that occurred right in the Cuzco region. 

Long before that the Inca builders had worked out that the interlocking stones and trapezoid doors and windows protected their buildings against the hearth’s shakings. Indeed, where the conquering Spanish had destroyed all but the bases of the old temples their newly built churches sometimes collapsed, leaving the older walls intact.

So, with excitement and anticipation we headed off by bus and train to Jo’s dream site. There we saw more amazing stonework. 

Temple of the sun – east and south-facing windows
The detail at the most important religious spot, the temple of the sun, is just as intricate at that at Qorikancha, as is the work at the House of the High Priest. At most other spots it is less crafted but just as robust.

The terraces for agriculture and their retaining walls all lie facing towards the rising sun. All those workers, for all those years, needed food. A real example of home-grown! Patricia told us that recent work has shown that most of the structure, some 60%, lies underground in the foundations. 

Descending tanks, all feedng one another
Intihuatana - see the hitch at right
An important part of the structures is the Hitching Post of the Sun (Intihuatana) which was used by astronomers to predict solstices. Water too was a vital part of the complex - the tanks at right all feed one another.

Anno domini, dodgy knees and rain-soaked stones forced us to adopt the discretion is the better part of valour approach to the last steep climb up to the hut of the caretaker of the funerary rock at the very top of the ancient site where those iconic photos are taken. Luckily group member Arran Smith, a newly minted vet (qualified almost 49 years after me!) shared his own pictures. He caught this one just before the clouds descended and obscured the wonderful view.

Arran’s view - thanks Arran!
Just like the Taj, none of the pictures does any sort of justice to the experience of being there.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Moray – an Agricultural Research Centre From the Ages.

My wife Jo and I have just returned from a memorable trip to Ecuador and Peru.
We organized our trip with the Intrepid company and they looked after us very well. Of course our main objectives were to visit the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu. They were indeed stunning, fascinating and thoroughly worthwhile. There was more that we had not expected.

On an outing near Cuzco, in Peru our charming and very well informed guide, Patricia, gave us the option of taking a side-trip to an extraordinary site that dates back at least 2,000 years. It is called Moray.

Once you leave the excellent tarred road the track to the site is a bit dodgy, but there were crews working on the mud and potholes with heavy machinery and we got through.
The extraordoinary 2000 year old site at Moray
There are three amphitheatre-like depressions in the natural contours of the hills, and each has been developed into what looks, at first sight, like an enormous set of bleachers. If the archaeologists have it right they had nothing to do with sport or performance art, but everything to do with agriculture and ag research.

The best preserved of them, the main one shown to tourists, has over twenty terraced levels. The most remarkable feature is that the temperature range between the top and bottom of the structure is 15°C (about 59°F for the unconverted). 

Steps for right and left foot climbers
That is not all. At every level the ancient builders made sure that workers with bad knees, like me, could get up an down to till the land using steps set in the walls. They also thought about irrigation. 

My arrow shows the top water channel
A line of water courses, set one above the other, descends throughout the structure. If you take a close look at this picture on the left you can see a rectangular ruin at the bottom. This is not an old and mis-shapen tennis court, but the foundation of what was almost certainly a storage house. Patricia had never had a guest suggest the tennis idea, but it was fun to see her double take.

Checking me out - but I don't know his name.
As I sat and admired the view this little character, about the size of a house sparrow or a chickadee, came and sat on the adjacent agave plant no more than a couple of metres away. I could not resist! I have scanned through the first ten Google sites on the query “Birds of Peru”, but maybe this fellow is simply too “normal” to get mention or take up disc space. Any expert birders out there?

Our June 2013 Lonely Planets  guidebook has a brief description of the Moray site and tells us that the entry fee is $10. By February it had risen to $15. Still a bargain at the price.

What an amazing place. Thank goodness we took that side trip.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Bushmeat and the African Trade to Europe

Last week I was in Peru and met an experienced airline steward who has flown with major airlines for many years into, and more to the point, out of several West African capitals. We got chatting about the bushmeat situation, something I have written about in books and on blogs for several years.
One of Amman's many pictures of the bushmeat trade

Of course writers with bigger followings, like the remarkable Karl Amman have written and photographed bushmeat and poaching stories to a wide audience. He also graciously allowed me to use some of his images in my book The Trouble With Lions .

The late Anna Mertz, who worked as an engineer in West Africa for many years reported on the horror show of truck loads of dead and badly injured antelopes appearing almost in food markets in Ghana long before the bushmeat trade issue reached a wider global audience.

My steward acquaintance told me that loads of bushmeat continue to come out of Africa bound for the UK with every flight. It is packed in passenger luggage, and the security officers who check bags before departure have no interest in, and probably no jurisdiction over it.  They are concerned with weapons.

The airplane staff can do little about it either. They do try to curtail the excess baggage situation, but even that is a hopeless task, as the routine response from Nigerian passengers is that a white-skinned staff member is picking on a black person. Inevitably some of the bags leak their contents and many planes end up with bloodstains and bad smells.

In Kenya Ann Olivecrona told me how she chanced to witness a bushmeat import at London’s Heathrow airport. As I wrote in 2008:

“in May 2004 she witnessed an amazing interchange involving bushmeat at London’s Heathrow airport. Her plane happened to arrive at more or less the same time as a flight from Lagos. During the time that she watched the procession, customs officials stopped every one of the Nigerian passengers and asked for the huge suitcases to be opened. Almost all were packed with smoked bushmeat.”

The bushmeat trade poses serious risks at both ends.

In Africa it is leading the rapid depletion of wildlife populations. Many species are involved. While primates are the most evocative for most people, the most popular species is the cane rat of the genus Thryonomys, known locally as cutting grass. They can weigh as much as 10 kg in the wild and in most West Africa countries efforts have been made to rear them for the meat market.  

Credit: Aurélia Zizo/Wikipedia

Here is a picture from the Wiki of one such rat, a male Greater Cane Rat (Thryonomys swinderianus) in a breeding station in Owendo, Gabon

Many tribes in the region have long held certain species taboo. Not any more. Anything goes.  One example is the African buffalo, long deemed off limits to one clan in Ghana. In October 2001 Ghanaian journalist Vivian Baah wrote a series of articles under the title “Guess What’s Cooking for Dinner?” in the Evening News of Accra. She related how in parts of Ghana:

“among the Ekona clan of the Ashanti's, it is a taboo to kill the Ekuo (buffalo). But these days, the members of this clan themselves are the worst offenders. Having turned their backs on the taboo, they now butcher the Ekuo with cheeky ease.”
Cape buffalo - aka Ekuo in Ghana

Of course this process will inevitably lead to the law of diminishing returns. Species will simply disappear or become rare.

In Europe there are serious disease risks. Much of the continent has an endemic foot-and-mouth disease status. If the disease gets into UK, for instance, it will cause billions of dollars worth of economic damage. All it needs is for some improperly preserved meat to carry the virus to destination. A little bad luck or carelessness and the explosion would take place. If this seems unlikely one only has to look at my home province of Saskatchewan, where, in 1952, illegally imported smoked meat from Poland led to the last outbreak of FMD.

Fruit bats roositng in Uganda


It is not just livestock diseases. Ebola and the closely related and equally deadly Marburg virus can infect humans who handle primate and fruit bat carcasses (fruit bats are a popular bushmeat item).

 HIV/Aids came to humans via chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys. No doubt there are other examples.

In a TTWL chapter titled Bushmeat and Bureaucrats I tried to make the point that thousands of words on paper would achieve nothing much. One example of such verbiage came from the European parliament. A tome from that body that took four years to reach “Provisional Edition” status came out in 2004.

Bureaucrats the world over are famous for producing complex, usually lengthy documents about almost any subject one can think of. The more pen pushers involved the more complex the end product. Only this human sub-species could have come up with the title EuropeanParliament resolution on Petition 461/2000 concerning the protection andconservation of Great Apes and other species endangered by the illegal trade inbushmeat (2003/2078(INI).” 

The material has ten Having regards to” clauses, fifteen appearances of “Whereas,” and twenty-one “Urges” and the like, a few with sub-clauses. There are no teeth to the document, just urges.

It is obvious, from my airline steward’s account, that the teeth are either absent or false.