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PanAm cuts through Nazca Lines

We were in the middle of breakfast when Freddy (tour agent) turned up to say we were leaving in 20 minutes for our flight over the Nazca lines - we thought we had another hour on top of that to play with. We had to be ready to check our when we got back so it was our fastest showering and package routing to date.

Apparently its good weather for flying and the airport have been ringing round to get people to come out early. From what we were told yesterday we had expected to have to wait in a queue at the airport for an hour or so before we set off. Not so, we turned up and left straight away. This wasn't great for me as I had a dose of travelers tummy (possibly also due to quite large amounts of alcohol last night!) and my request to use the bathroom before we went was met with a very firm "no time" response.

The plane was a little 6 seater. I've never been in one so small before so it was pretty exciting. It rolled slowly forwards and down to the end of the runway, turned around and before we knew it we were off and up in the air. We had been warned (by Freddy and Duncan and Jen) that it was a bit of a roller coaster and that we should not have a large breakfast before we flew. Our earlier than expected departure meant that it was less than one hour since we had eaten so potentially risky. Every one is provided with a plastic bag just in case.

We were also given a map showing the way we would fly over the lines and outlining in which order we would se the various shapes. The plans did roll and turn sharply a couple of times as we flew over each design twice so that both sides of the plane got a good view. My tummy lurched once or twice but turning into the roll and focusing on the horizon soon balanced out any ill feeling.

From the air you start to get a feeling for how impressive this site is. The shapes are clearly delineated but from 1,000m up don't look particularly large. Stef has taken pictures but I've not looked at them yet so don't know how well they will come out. While the animal shapes were stunning, what I found more impressive were the geometric designs - lines stretching straight into the Horizon connecting geographical points of interest as well as large triangular and trapezoidal shapes. Its a real criss-cross of activity and a feat of engineering - the lines don't lose their directness even when they go over hills and down into dips.

The most commonly held current theory is that they were used to make processions and ceremonies to the gods to bring water to the region. Research in the Andes ice files has shown that there was a forty year draught at the end of the Nazca period. This is likely to have been the main cause of the demise of the Nazca's, after nine separately distinguishable periods of activity.

The ceremonies mainly involved walking processions. Failure to stay on the lines would have been cited as the cause of any subsequent crop failure or other malaise. Walking the lines that mark out the animal shapes is thought to have been done because this would endow the individuals with the qualities of that animal. Around the lines archaeologists have found pottery and ceramics which they believe were smashed as part of the rituals. They also found evidence of human sacrifice - giving something back to Pachamama (Mother Earth).

After the flight we saw a video of a BBC programme on the lines. This was much more informative than the lecture last night providing greater context. It was odd watching a BBC documentary in a brick shed on the edge of an airstrip in the middle of the Peruvian desert. People in the UK may begrudge having to pay the TV licence fee but I think its worth it for the quality of programmes they make.

Back in town we booked our bus but have gone with a different, cheaper and relatively new company. This may turn out to be false economy but the company was recommended by Freddy's cousin so hopefully it will be OK. We spent the middle of the day sorting out pictures and trying to remember what we'd spent our money on so we could check if we were within our budget. It has been a really sunny day and pretty hot with it so we were both glad to be in the shade.

In the afternoon we had another tour to the Chauchilla Cemetery. The name Chauchilla is derived from the Quechua language and means middle lightning. In total the cemetery is about 2km square. It was discovered in the early 1900's but over the next 30 years grave robbers relieved the tombs of their gold, ceramic and textiles just leaving behind bones and broken  bits of pots which were scattered across the site.

About 12 tombs have been restored and mummies and bones have been placed in them to create an impression of the tombs as they originally were. The Nazca believed in life after death so people were buried with their possessions and food as they would need these for their journey to, and life in, the next world. The quality of the tombs and their contents reflected the wealth of the person who had died. Human sacrifices were sometimes also made. A small museum on the site has some mummies on display. AS the climate here is very dry they are remarkably well preserved and their skin, hair and nails are still intact.

Archaeologists have learned a great deal from this site. The Nazca suffered from arthritis, osteoporosis and tuberculosis. They also had a high incidence of infant mortality. Average life expectancy was between 35 and 40.

After the cemetery we were taken through to a craft centre for a demonstration and the inevitable exit through a shop. The demonstration showed how the Nazca made their pottery. The clay is dug up from the ground, soaked in water for a few hours and them mixed with another powder for form a soft a and pliable clay to work with. All of the pots were made by hand using moulds, no spinning wheels were used. The paints used to decorate the pots were made by grinding different coloured ores into powder, again mixing/soaking them with water but then filtering the resulting paste. There were seven base colours that the Nazca could get from their surroundings and they then mixed these to give greater diversity.

Once the base pots were made they were left to dry and harden in the sun for about an hour before any holes and handles were added. After another hour of drying they were painted. Each colour also took time to add and to dry but the resulting painted surface was rough to the touch. Pebbles from the river bed were rubbed against the skin to get the natural oils and were then rubbed against the pots to create a very smooth finish. It must have taken about 2 days to get this far in the process. The pots were then fired overnight and after 14 hours of cooling down were ready to use. The firing ensured the painted colours remained fast.


Gold Rush in Nazca

We felt obliged to but something and bought a small pot (which will probably break before we have chance to get it home). We declined the shop in advance at the next stop, a workshop showing how they extract gold. The process is labour intensive with chunks of rock being ground down through successive processed to a fine powder. It is then mixed with water and liquid mercury until the gold is extracted (we both lost the plot a bit on this demo so I have probably got the process wrong!). The average miner extracts seven grammes of gold a week, each of which sells for between US$7 to US$ 13 - not a great income.

Back in town we paid for the tours, bought water for the bus trip and went for an early dinner. We're really just killing time until the bus leaves and both of us are twitchy. We had looked forward to coming to PerĂº because there would be loads to see and do, particularly compared to Paraguay. What neither of us had expected was that it would be so tourist oriented. In Uruguay and Paraguay (less so because we traveled by bus) we shaped and influenced what we did. Here, to make the most of the sights you need a guide and in most cases this means a pre-packaged tour.

What we really need is a base for a week or so that we can move around from. Every day we are either moving on or seeing something and it is as if we are under pressure to do so. We have agreed it would be good to just have a "normal" day or two where we work to our own timetable rather than that of a hotel, and where we do normal everyday things - washing, supermarket shop, paperwork etc ending up curled up in joggers and a fleece on the settee with a takeaway pizza for tea watching a good film on the telly. It is not going to happen for a while!

After dinner we decamped back to our hotel lobby killing more time waiting for the bus. Its our first overnighter and we are not really sure what to expect. Although the days have been hot the nights are cold and we are not sure how warm and cosy the bus will be. As with so many things on this trip, time will tell!