Chasing Hugh Thomson to London

15 May

The train I am on makes it way past the green on the hills, to the Stuttgart airport; and I have a head full of thoughts. I am on the way to Holland. Beside me, an exceptionally nervous young man drums his fingers against his knees, taps both feet against the train carpet and turns around repeatedly. His quirky agitation disrupts my sleepy balloon and adds a beat to my breathing. It’s interesting how the mood of the person you are sitting beside can affect you. I had meant to listen to music and take in the green of a surprisingly warm May in Germany – but instead I am writing about his choppy rhythm.

I know what that agitation would mean in my body language: that I don’t have a valid train ticket. That was when I was younger and locked myself in the bathroom for the entire train ride, believing the train staff wouldn’t come knocking. They did – and I faked a blood pressure collapse – and wasn’t fooling anyone. I was 21, thought I had the balls of Keith Richards, and the wage from that summer job went to paying the fine for being silly on public transportation.

That’s not what I meant to write about, but that fidgety man distracted me. After glancing back and forth for half an hour, he got up and left. Probably to hide in the toilet.

Last week I was London – again. I flew over for a very special reason … one which trails back to Perú. Yes!

On my first day after landing in Lima, my father and I went to the bookstore Iberia in Miraflores, at the top of Parque Kennedy, near the Curacao, around the corner from the artesan market. This beautiful bookshop has an interesting sortiment of Spanish and English literature. I had a head full of jetlag and my Spanish was rusty, but this being my first day back, I decided I should start practising the line I intended to use throughout my travels: I told a surprised attendant that I was a writer travelling through Perú to research for my novel. Smiling, he said he looked forward to reading it and asked me what kind of literature I needed for my research. I dropped a few themes: shamanism, Andean cosmology, the Q’eros people, psychoactive plants, Peruvian cultures. He led me to the corner stored with these themes and I lost myself.

Bookstores and ancient ruins are one and the same thing. I’m still crazy studying whatever Johnny Depp’s profession is in The Ninth Gate: some kind of know-it-all on the history of books… To be a book specialist, a book historian: an Indiana Jones of books.

My first scans of the bookshelves all fed me autobiographies of what yet another European had experiences while taking ayahuasca in the rainforest. Ayahuasca tourism is big in Latin America. Luxury spas have been set up in the heart of the jungle, where tourists can drink Piña Colada during the day, meet the spa’s shaman in the afternoon, and participate in an ayahuasca ceremony in the night. It’s no secret that long before the Conquest of Latin America, shamans were curing illnesses that Western medicine is still stumbling to catch up with. The shamans insist the rainforest provides with cures for every illness on our planet, including cancer and AIDS. Fed up with pharmaceutical chemicals – or, in some cases, because Western doctors haven’t figured the disease out and don’t know how to cure it – an increasing number of Europeans are turning to the rainforest shamans for a cure.

The topic of ayahuasca is an endlessly fascinating one. Get a basic summary:  … or lose yourself in a library.

The digestion of ayahuasca produces beautifully patterned textiles among the Shipibo tribe, and great art works, such as this beautiful piece by Peruvian artist Pablo Amaringo


another ayahuasca art piece by Pablo Amaringo – and an important theme I want to incorporate into chapter 2 in “Munay”

I think it’s fantastic that ayahuasca is given its rightful place in the Western anthropological and medical world – but I honestly can’t read another autobiographical account of how ayahuasca visions changed the life of yet another anthropology student. I was hoping for something with actual cultural substance. Insight into how Peru “works”: how the past cultures have affected the modern Peruvian mind, information on their physical and philosophical wisdom.

And I stumbled over:

In his excellent book, the writer-filmmaker explores several Peruvian cultures – except the Incas. That already is a unique genre in itself: you don’t often come across a book whose main focus is not the Incas. Each chapter is dedicated to a different culture, which the author personally explores by visiting the places of worship, speaking to the archaeologists, anthropologists and autodidacts who dedicated their lives to studying the respective cultures. Huari, Nasca, Moche…

I was especially interested in the latter chapter because my family on my mother’s side are Moche. Very few books have been written on them. In 2009, on our Children of Roots film tour through northern Peru, Mark and I visited a school in the desert of Lambayeque, where the students are taught the dances, rituals and language of the Moche. When they welcomed us in the Mochik language, my mother and I were moved to tears. We had never heard the language being spoken before – if it does not disappear entirely, it is thanks to the initiative of schools such as the Escuela Daniel A. Alcides Carríon.

the headmistress of the school pointing to the school motto: “We Moche Are Still Alive”


the secondary classes of the school watching our film “Children of Roots”. The girl in the middle is dressed in typical Muchik clothing, in front of her are ceremonial dishes


apart from teaching the Muchik language and traditions, the school solved their economic difficulties in a poetic way: the classrooms are built with the same basic materials the Muchik used to build their houses: adobe and straw. The result are beautiful, breezy “outdoor” classrooms! The school caretaker painted typical Muchik motifs onto the walls. Here are Mark, Ochoa & I preparing to interview the headmistress in an “outdoor” classroom.

Another great twist to A Sacred Landscape is that the author included personal anecdotes, making the storytelling charming and amusing. Each culture was first depicted in historical terms, provided with the necessary anthropological theories – but always accompanied with a modern perspective. The chapter on the Moche, for example, focused greatly on the huaqueros, the tomb raiders. The Moche are famous for their pottery – especially for their erotic pottery. The huaqueros make a serious profession out of raiding tombs, selling artefacts to museums and tourists, and ofcourse also faking artefacts. Hugh Thomson interviewed several huaqueros, described their raiding operations, brought to light that most are paid quite well by museums, and critised that they may be the best solution to waiting for the archaeologists to arrive.

In A Sacred Landscape, Hugh Thomson also describes having personal access to Hiram Bingham’s notes and photographs of his discovery of Machu Picchu in the Yale archives – his team discovers the Inca ruins of Llactapata near Machu Picchu, which Hiram Bingham had stumbled over and then lost, and explores the ceremonial relationship between the two ruins – he attends the Q’ollorit’i festival, the most important festival of Andean cosmology, which takes places on a glacier of the Ausangate mountain outside Cusco – and was a large influence in my decision to live in Cusco for a month to work on my novel.

Upon my return to Germany, I decided to write the author, Hugh Thomson. I told him how much I had enjoyed the book, how it had accompanied my travels in Perú, about my work, and said I would be delighted to meet him some day. He replied – in the positive. So last week, I got on a plane and flew to London to meet him.

It was an animated conversation. We met eye-to-eye, writer-to-writer, and compared experiences on writing, on living in Perú, filmmaking, and Latin American literature. I had so many questions! His book impressed me so much that I may have gushed. He was interested in my writing, the magic realism in the novels, my work in the circus and the film workshops. We agreed that Perú is so very inspiring. Speaking to him reinforced my credo that work on a novel is done best “in hiding”: settle down for a while in the place which inspires you and gives you peace for writing. Leave the house, get on the road and find a simple little cottage – with a view.

Meeting Hugh Thomson was simply fantastic. I am so thrilled at the opportunity to meet someone whose writing I so greatly admire. So Hugh, if you’re reading this: thank you!

There seem to be Peru-enthusiasts all over the world, and at the end of the day, that is what unites us. I fly back in 4 weeks and am curious/nervous to see what will unravel this time. Peru feels like a never-ending train of thought… a boundless brainwave… a strand of hair leading back to the infinity of imagination.

Lessons learnt:  Have a notebook with you wherever you go. Write write write. If you can, wander the earth. Read as much as you can. And if you like someone’s book – write them. They might just reply.

Pablo Amaringo: “Beings of the Vegetation”

I leave you, dear friends, with an award-winning documentary about the Achuar people, who live deep in the Peruvian rainforest. A sweet film with beautiful shots of the Amazon rainforest!

Learn how the Achuar survive off the land and rivers, and maintain the ancient culture of their elders. Travel through lush virgin jungle to a sacred waterfall in search of rainforest spirits who give vision and strength. The Achuar are up against Talisman Energy and other ruthless companies that are on the verge of drilling for oil in their ancestral territory. Their culture and entire way of life is at stake. The Achuar made this film to show you how their extraordinary rainforest home is critical to survival.


Background information on the film:


One Response to “Chasing Hugh Thomson to London”


  1. Travelling around Europe in a caravan of ideas « Rit'i Sonq'o: A Writer's Journey - May 27, 2012

    […] the road – and I have to admit, it’s been the dream. I wrote the last blog post (“Chasing Hugh Thomson to London“) on a train to the Stuttgart Airport, and finished it at the airport while waiting for my […]

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