I have not written a blog update about my project in Peru for a very long time. So, I finally thought I'd better update you all on what has transpired since the project had to be put on hold AGAIN due to the worldwide COVID 19 pandemic hit in early 2020.
As many of you know, I started my project in Peru at the amazing archaeological site called Saqsaywaman in 2010 and worked there till 2012. Then, due to my own health problems, I didn't return to the site till 2019. That return found us welcomed by both the Ministry of Culture and the five indigenous community that live on the active archaeological site. It was so rewarding to be working there again.
In 2019 we touched base with the communities to find out how their efforts to modernize were being received by the Ministry of Culture team. And, much to our chagrin, we found that there was still a huge amount of conflict between the people living on the site and the way the Ministry wanted to limit growth on one of Peru's most important archaeological sites.
Thus, we were asked to go into the communities and assess the situation and report back to the Ministry team. Here is a photo of our Quecha guide, Fernando Sallo, with his family at the entrance to the Sacred Valley.
In 2019 I also decided it was time to flesh out a "local team" of people for this work. I was honored to add author and adventurer Peter Frost to my team along with Fernando Sallo as our Quecha guide/translator. I also found a great young woman to help me with administrative tasks and translation from Spanish to English. Fiorela has been a great help from then on.
We were in Peru twice in 2019 and were granted a comprehensive "Convenio" to work on the site by the Central Director of the Cusco area. A great honor. To read about our work in 2019, please scroll down in this blog to the posts from 2019.
The Director of the Saqsaywaman Park, Dr. Solis, invited us to work with his team of anthropologists and reach out to the communities to record with our camera their concerns.
So, in early 2019 that's what we did.
As we worked in the communities through January 2020, we found that the conflict between the locals and the Ministry was deteriorating fast. Why? Same old problem...the communities want to build houses and infrastructure and the Ministry doesn't want to have building projects on top of sites that might still hold archaeological ruins. The situation with one community in particular was so bad that those local people even refused to work with us. This was very depressing for me as I had worked for years to gain their trust.
So, as we entered the first few weeks of February 2020, I found myself trying to figure out what I would do next trip (planned for April/May 2020) to re-establish trust with the community of X. There was a meeting planned for the second week of February of the Union of the communities. I was unable to attend, but Fernando and Fiorella attended and reported in.
Early February 2020 I was watching CNN Global one night and heard about this new thing called COVID 19. There didn't seem to be any immediate concern as it seemed it was contained in China. So, I didn't pay much attention. Then, when I arrived at the airport in Cusco to fly to Lima, I was shocked to see most people, especially those from Japan and China, wearing masks. When I arrived in Lima it was clear to me that we had a problem. I walked around the airport in Lima and found a mask. Thus started my flight home where almost all people on the flight from Lima to LA were wearing masks. When I arrived at the International terminal at LAX, almost everyone was wearing masks and talking about the COVID 19 pandemic.
Over the next few months, we all know what happened. I watched in horror as the pandemic spread to the USA and to other countries in just a few months. And, Peru was especially hard it. My trip to Peru in April/May was postponed. But, as the months wore on, it was apparent that my project in Peru was again on HOLD!!!
I zoomed with my team in Peru frequently and tried my best to keep up with the situation there. But, both the Ministry of Culture and especially the communities of people who live on the site, don't have good wifi. So, finding out what was going on had to be done via Messenger, WhatsApp and Facebook. Many of the locals have cell phones and spotty wifi.
So here we are in August 2021 and I haven't been to Peru since February 2020! I'm frustrated and feel bad for my friends there in and around Cusco and living on the Saqsaywaman archaeological park. I have heard that COVID 19 has been particularly harsh on Peru, especially in Lima.
My friends who live in the various communities have a VERY low vaccination rate as getting a shot is hard in Cusco. My friend and colleague Peter Frost had to fly to Lima from Cusco to get his vaccination.
The communities have been hard hit by the almost complete lack of tourism to Cusco. They have compensated by growing even more of their own food and eating a staple potato product called Chuno, a dehydrated potato that keeps for many years. This product is made by harvesting the local potatoes and then stamping on them till they are flat and then drying them. I am concerned what will happen this winter when these local people can't grow in the high Andes.
So, what have I been doing to keep my interest in Peru alive during COVID? I've been working on a new project, with my colleague Peter Frost, called IncaTalk.com. We have produced three episodes of this vlog covering several archaeological sites in and around Cusco and the Sacred Valley. We film ourselves via Zoom (as Peter lives in Cusco) and then we add video and stills to bring these sites to life. Check it out here: IncaTalk.com
I hope to get back to Peru later in 2020, COVID permitting. I turn 65 in December and I'd love to be in Peru for that milestone. I hope to build a Center For Visual Anthropology in the community of Fortaleza on the Saqsaywaman archaeological park. This center will be a place where community members and the people from the Ministry of Culture can meet in a neutral space.
I'm going to start fundraising for this project and, if you are interesting learning more, please contact me for details. firstname.lastname@example.org
Maren Elwood is a visual anthropologist and founder of On-Site Expeditions...a field school that will provide scholarships to aspiring heritage professionals. The first field school session will be in January 2020.