Jane Wilson-Howarth

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Darkest Peru

Tuesday, 13 June 2017
A long, long time ago, soon after the extinction of the dinosaurs and before a strange wrinkling affliction took over my face, a bunch of us from the University of Southampton hatched a plan to spend the summer vac in darkest Peru. This would be my third expedition and knowing how character clashes can cripple research projects, I decided that compatible personalities were better qualifications than research competence. During the three months it took us to find Spanish-speakers and make preparations it evolved into a big expedition involving nine students, a stray journalist and a psychiatrist.
Last month Dermot – said stray journalist – messaged me to point out that it was 35 years since we’d gathered in Peru and shouldn’t we mark this in some way? One of the advantages of my writing is that old friends sometimes find me and the alumnus office of the University of Southampton helped us contact others.
The expedition had proved to be an exciting couple of months and our projects were diverse, but I found it odd to realise just how patchy my recall of this time was. Psychologists talk of flashbulb memories and I certainly have an array of cerebral snapshots including:
  • The astonishing breathlessness that hit me on jumping out of the Huancayo train to stretch my legs. We had stopped to let the down train pass and were up at an altitude approaching 4800m
  • In Modesto’s bar (just opposite the yawning entrance of the great cave of Huagapo) standing in a circle with Carlos, the local policeman, swigging beer from the bottle, noticing how ridiculously fizzy it was at altitude (3500m above sea level)
  • Torrent ducks
  • Distant circling condors looking impossibly huge but which then disappeared behind a mountain proving they were even bigger and more distant than I’d realised
  • The American anthropologist studying local healers who pass a guinea pig over a patient then reach a diagnosis by observing the way animal’s guts fall
  • Eating guinea pig in a rich piquant sauce, served with a foot standing vertically from the tiny joint of meat ‘so you know it isn’t chicken’
  • Hacking through prickly Amazon jungle (now at a mere 620m above sea level) and encountering insects – mantises, I think – whose tail perfectly resembled a snake’s head complete with eyes and fangs
  • Entering an oil bird cave, lit by a hole in the roof, where blubberous fluffy white chicks made squelchy calls for more food from their clicking semi-echo-locating parents
  • Diving into a submerged cave in the Rio Monzon with a rope round my waist and Dave on the other end with instructions to pull me out if he didn’t receive the right series of tugs
  • Finding an opossum with her babies snoozing in a bundle of leaves
  • Scaring Dave with a vinegar-squirting tailless whip scorpion whose eight legs that spanned half a metre
  • Steve’s insatiable appetite.
The 1698.5m long Cueva de Huagapo near Palacamayo; note Mandy for scale on the right. This is at 3572m above sea level and the water was cold

It is such sharp impressions that stay in the memory.
There were few tensions that I was aware of, except perhaps over food. Prestige supported us by donating two pressure cookers and we usually dined on beige-coloured, less-than-tasty one-pot vegetable stews. Avocados were grown locally and were very cheap but we grew bored with them too so tried vary to our diet by adding condensed milk, cherry brandy and even dried egg.
Reading material was also at a premium so when one of the lads was half way through a huge blockbuster, the owner generously ripped it in half along the spine so that another of the team could start reading the novel. Our diet and local microbes made our guts unreliable and the nearest shop was a four mile walk there and back so when we ran out of toilet paper someone with diarrhoea used the blockbuster as loo roll. There was an emotional altercation when reader two discovered that pages he hadn’t read had be soiled and burned. I recall the argument but – strangely – not who argued.
I have now reconnected with friends from various expeditions and it seems amazing how, even after decades, we feel comfortable in each other’s company. Perhaps it is because we are all risk-takers and kindred spirits. More likely it is because if you’ve been exhausted, ill, cold, hungry or frightened and got through those experiences together, that creates a bond. Certainly that was my feeling when four of the women from the Peru expedition gathered in Taunton at the weekend and how delicious it was to recall those uncomfortable weeks while strolling in the sunshine along the Bridgewater and Taunton Canal and later over a good stew with few glasses of wine. There was no initial awkwardness when Ali and Mandy joined my sister and I, although I did need to keep reminding myself to call Mandy Amanda.

There is more about the expedition at the bottom of the Scientific Publications pages including Dermot's articles and in the downloadable 104pp 9MB peru_report
 
L to R standing: Ian Stronge, David Kay, Ali Denham, Amanda Patton, Julian Payne, the late Dr. Tony White. Squatting: Steve Gontarek, Dermot Martin, Jane, Mary Styles (Jane's sister) and Nicki Halliday.
 
Jane and Mary in an impromptu laboratory on a Karimat
Posted: 13/06/2017 13:47:59 by Global Administrator | with 0 comments



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