I said that Joanna’s blog last week reminded me of an encounter of my own with a Secret Room in a Museum and some unusual cultural artefacts – in fact it turned out to be a Peru Poser: Humour or Porn?
“Peru?” I hear you cry. “Home of Machu Picchu, the Inca Empire and Paddington Bear’s Aunt Lucy? That Peru?”
Yes. That Peru.
“Well strike me pink with gold knobs on. What on earth was the woman doing there?”
Um – would you believe work? Also expanding my experience of other cultures and seeing the world.
How I Got There
There was time, between the end of the steamship era and the advent of the Internet, when the world was a much bigger and stranger place than it sometimes seems now. You could cross continents but it was expensive and time-consuming. Above all, once you were there, you packed in as much as you could.
I got all the way from Mexico to Argentina for work. The deal was, I could return by any route I chose, as long as I paid courtesy calls on my employer’s contacts in any city where I stopped. I traversed Peru and stopped over in Lima.
What I Knew About Peru
Apart from the stuff I knew for work, largely economic and financial, Peru was unknown territory. Except the Andean pipes.
Maybe the Inca empire. Pizarro and the Spanish colonisation – largely because of The Royal Hunt of the Sun, I confess.
I’d heard of Machu Picchu, of course.
The Kon-Tiki expedition. Great adventure story. My Dad loved it.
I had my doubts about Aunt Lucy.
The Bear from Peru
Well, I was wrong to be suspicious of Aunt Lucy. There is a bear indigenous to Peru and other high and wild bits of north-west South America. The spectacled bear.
They seem to be loners. It looks as if they’ve survived because they can climb the tall Andean trees and hide from us. When they do come across man, their reaction is said to be docile but cautious. They are pretty close to vegetarian. They are, predictably, an endangered species.
Paddington Bear, unlike his cloud forest dwelling relatives, is almost dangerously friendly. He settles in extremely happily with his adoptive family, the Browns, and survives many mistakes and misunderstandings. He does have a hard stare, though, when his sense of fairness and justice is offended.
As a result, he is so much loved that he has his own statue at Paddington Station, where he was found. You can even see his luggage label “Wanted on Voyage”. Michael Bond, his creator, said that label was inspired by the child evacuees he saw on stations during the War.
What Else I learned in Peru
Machu Picchu is breathtaking – so huge and yet so simple that you feel with every step you take that you could step out into mid-air. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, deservedly.
Yet it was unknown to the wider world until 1911, when the Yale Peruvian expedition under Hiram Bingham rediscovered it. Though he thought it was the last Inca capital, whereas it seems more likely to have been the estate of a 15th century Inca Emperor.
The Spanish colonists never seem to have visited. I suppose it was on the wrong side of the Andes for them.
Pre-Columbian builders were unbelievably skilled. They moved great blocks of stone, weighing tons, slotted them together so tightly that you can’t get a sheet of paper between them, and built solid walls that have survived centuries.
And they did it all, apparently, without discovering the wheel. Nobody knows how.
The Humour or Porn Dilemma
Which brings me to that visit to Lima, via Arequipa in the south and Cuzco in the mountains. By the time I paid my official courtesy visit I had already pretty much overdosed on strangeness and previously unknown histories.
Would I, said my hosts a little shyly, like to visit the Museo Larco, a privately-owned museum of Pre-Columbian artefacts in a suburb of Lima. Aha, I thought, this will put everything in context, and I’ll know what was what and when.
Well, up to a point. The collection covers 4,000 years of pre-Columbian history, in four discrete regions of Peru and countless tribal groups. Overdosed? I’d hardly taken a sip.
So when the professional guide my hosts had sent with me said would I like to see the gallery of erotic pottery, I said “Sure.” Partly because I thought my Spanish had finally slipped its moorings and she couldn’t really have said that. Partly because I thought the new gallery might be somewhere to sit down and catch my breath.
Um – no.
Erotic? Well, not as in titillating. But certainly explicit. The anatomical detail was impressive.
Quite a lot of the figures seemed to me to be lids to vessels I thought of as teapots. There were also jugs with phallic spouts. Some were free-standing. Or sitting. Or lying. Some looked just affectionate. Some was pretty full on sexual activity of various sorts. People. Animals. A skeleton, I think. Rather small. All pretty cheerful.
And made of flower pot clay.
To one whose childhood had included Bill and Ben the Flower Pot Men, it was Just Too Much.
I tried to stay respectful and ask intelligent questions. But. Well. I kept thinking of inappropriately salacious dialogue in the duo’s characteristic Oddle Poddle language. And then I would break out in helpless giggles.
The guide smiled sympathetically. Academics thought they might be designed for ritual use, she said. But she often thought that quite a lot of them had just been made for fun.
And that really made me think. These pots (rather unfortunately called “sex pots” by an academic visiting at the same time as me, which set me off again) were apparently two thousand years old.
Maybe, just maybe, a sense of humour had just reached across millennia and said Hi!