The Real Deal
Through my new lens, the telescope of memory, I viewed the elaborate preparations for my aunt’s much anticipated formal spring wedding at my grandparents’ home in Miraflores, the suburb of Lima where I grew up. Tía Maruja had met her fiancé at a Diplomatic Corps cocktail party during my grandfather’s ambassadorship tenure in France. Radiant in her Parisian haute couture 1950s wedding gown, the full skirt with mesmerizing meters-long train and veil befitted an aristocratic socialite bride. My Tía Maruja and Tío Esteban stood at the altar surrounded by elegant flower arrangements in antique sterling silver urns, and exchanged their marriage vows at the church filled to capacity with family and invited guests. Following the lavish garden reception at my grandparents’ home, the newlyweds left on extended honeymoon south of Lima, at a posh beach resort in Paracas Bay, where they explored nearby towns along the scenic Pacific coast, including Nazca, renowned for its pre-Columbian ceramics, colorful plume art, mummified trophy heads, and exquisitely woven textiles. Nazca was also the location of the mysterious lines and figures etched in the pampas which had been rediscovered by German-born Dr. Maria Reiche just eight years earlier.
At long last, my Tía Maruja and Tío Esteban had returned from their honeymoon and road trip adventures, and during my family’s Sunday luncheon at my grandparents’ they shared tantalizing tidbits about the German-born mathematician, Dr. Maria Reiche, who immigrated to Peru in the 1930s. On her first day of fieldwork in the pampas, armed with a broom and rake, she began cleaning away the accumulated dust and debris away from lines, and quite by chance uncovered a giant spider – 150 feet long. Since that first and memorable day in 1946, Maria gradually uncovered hundreds of geometric lines, surrealistic figures, and over a dozen animal figures, including a hummingbird, a whale, a condor, and a giant monkey with a spiraling tail. Maria continued to spend her days alone, sweeping and measuring the mysterious red-brown pebbles encrusted in the stony coastal desert. She often camped out for weeks at a time sleeping in the open, existing on a meager diet of cheese, fruit and nuts. My Aunt explained that in the extreme heat of the desert with little wind for relief, Maria had little choice but to begin her work before sunrise when it was cooler. The locals reported seeing her at dawn hitchhiking with broom and rake in hand. Maria, they added, caught rides in the back of cotton farmer’s trucks passing through the Panamerican Highway, and often made arrangements with the driver to catch a return ride back to spend the afternoon plotting and charting measurements onto topographic maps in her room at the old Nazca hotel.
My grandfather, Papapa, recalled a few years earlier Maria had met with the Peruvian Air Force personnel from the National Photography Services to update them on her fieldwork findings, share data, and to ask for the use of Peru’s first and newly arrived military helicopter to take low-level photographs of the animal and geometric designs. Air Force officials approved Maria’s request, and the Lima based helicopter and crew was dispatched to work with her in Nazca. When the bulky camera equipment proved to be too cumbersome to take pictures from inside the cabin, they came up with a daring and unconventional strategy. A wooden board was fastened securely to the helicopter’s landing skid and Maria and her camera equipment were strapped to it. Aerial photographs of some of the drawings appeared in numerous publications and in Maria’s book, Mystery on the Desert. The townspeople spoke fondly about the fearless Maria and her sensational helicopter flight over the desert. They were also grateful to Maria because her work attracted visitors who came to see the lines and put the sleepy coastal desert town on the tourist map.
When I sat at the table and first heard these amazing stories about Dr. Reiche, I was eight. I grew up in an upper-class family with all the comforts of a privileged and cultured life in Peruvian society. In the forties and fifties, the girls in our social circle were expected to study piano, take dance lessons, learn embroidery. Art classes were limited to painting flowers or fruit, no nude sketching was allowed! Although Maria came from an upper-middle-class German background, she was an intellectual, and gave little importance to upper-class customs and expectations for women in Peru. Even though top government officials and local sources rendered considerable assistance to Maria in her work, the scholarly and intellectual European was shunned, and not welcomed into Peruvian high society’s parlors. Maria had no desire to attend their soirées, anyway, she preferred to be in her own milieu. Maria lived a simple, unconventional life while pursuing her mission in the pampas passionately and with gusto.
On that summer Sunday in 1953, when my grandparents’ invited me to move from the children’s table to sit with the grown-ups, I listened to the conversation with unbridled curiosity. Letting myself indulge in a fantasy-on-air from up in the azure sky, the sand and gravel red-brown desert on the Nazca plains looked like an artist’s sketchpad with drawings of lines, geometric shapes, plants, imaginary creatures and animals. I was a would-be bohemian traveling freely without my nanny, a Tía chaperone, or pesky siblings. But in my fantasy flight over the desert, there was someone else besides the helicopter pilot in the cabin; it was none other than Maria, the woman who I was fascinated by, and my heroine.
In September 1997, at the age of fifty-two, I traveled back home to Peru accompanied by my husband and our young niece; I was on a mission in search of my childhood heroine, Dr. Maria Reiche. After the usual obligatory family social visits in Miraflores, we invited my cousin’s teenage daughter to join us on our southern Peru adventure. Traveling by bus along the Panamerican Highway, our first stop was the Paracas Bay beach resort where forty-four years earlier my aunt and uncle had spent their honeymoon. During our stay, we went on several excursions to explore the area, including the Paracas National Reserve.
Pablo, the marine biologist guide and boat captain, expertly steered our motorboat along the Paracas peninsula’s colorful red sand beachscape where we spotted flocks of flamingos feeding along the shoreline, as well as pelicans and several species of seabirds. Next, we headed to the Ballestas Islands a marine wildlife sanctuary off-limits to people. Pablo navigated the boat around the group of small islands’ arches and caves and up close for us to photograph families of barking sea lions basking on rocky shores. Slowly cruising around the tranquil turquoise waters, we came upon the tiny island home of hundreds of captivating Humboldt penguins. Some stood on the rocks curiously looking at us, while others quickly leaped out from the ocean waters and onto the rocky island feeding freshly caught anchovies to their polluelos, young ones. At the nearby guano island, home to the zarcillos and other natural fertilizer producing birds, we spotted nesting booby seabirds guarding their guano droppings nests’ clinging on the sides of rocky and plunging cliffs. The stunningly scenic Pacific Coast in southern Peru was like no other place, swarming with a variety of birds, nesting seabirds and barking sea lions, it offered us, Galapagos Islands wannabe adventurers a new, personal experience with a chance to explore a marine wildlife sanctuary by boat for a day.
We left Paracas Bay the next morning, a different experience awaited us in Nazca; I was on a personal quest in search of Maria, the woman who for more than fifty years had lived freely and in solitude charting, studying, photographing, and fighting to preserve the ancient and mysterious desert etchings made more than 1,000 years ago. A few kilometers outside of town, the bus passed a group of teenagers hitchhiking along the side of the road. I vividly recalled my Tía Maruja’s story about Maria hitchhiking on the Panamerican Highway in the late forties and fifties, way before the sixties and seventies when the allure of hitchhiking became part of the coming of age dream of some baby boomers in the United States; and, in the nineties still popular in Peru.
Arriving in one of the world’s driest coastal deserts a few hours later, we checked-in to the modest Hotel Nazca Lines built in 1946, where Maria had lived comfortably free of charge for more than a decade. Nonetheless, the hotel owners as a tribute to Maria, kept the room just as she had left it – walls covered with charts, maps and photographs of the lines and figures. They shared reminisces about “the outsider” who over time won the confidence of not only the townspeople but the Air Force as well. Suffering from Parkinson’s disease and blinded by glaucoma, the 95-year-old Maria had recently moved to Miraflores, where she lived in the house of her dear friend and caregiver, Ana Maria Cogorno. Maria was now considered a national hero, who the government honored in 1993 with the Order of the Sun, Great Cross medal, and Peru’s highest civilian award. The Peruvian government had also issued a postage stamp with her picture, her birthday became an annual event celebrated in Nazca with ceremonies and street dances, and throughout the country schools are named in her honor. In 1994, the Maria Reiche Museum opened in Nazca.
Sadly, on the day we arrived in town, we learned two small propeller planes flying over the Pampas lines had clipped each other’s wings crashing and killing the ten European tourists on board as well as the two Peruvian pilots. While the authorities investigated the tragic accident, the tourist flights over the Nazca lines were halted temporarily. We hired a driver and set-off early the next morning in a vintage 1950s Chevy deluxe 4-door low-rider sedan to see some of the mysterious desert lines and figures up close, and to visit the Maria Reiche Museum.
The first stop on our road trip adventure was the 49-foot metal tower Maria had erected at the side of the Panamerican Highway. Climbing up steep metal steps to the top of the tower’s viewing platform, we enjoyed a panoramic view of the pampas. We could see the giant lizard sliced in half by the highway, the enormous tree of life, the pair of large outstretched human hands with only nine fingers, and the most amazing mess of lines running in all directions that were carved in the ground between 900 and 200 B.C. by ancient people spread out over 35-miles. Our affable driver and tour guide made several stops along the highway pointing out lines of interest, including where Maria had observed the December 22, 1941 solstice, the longest day of the year in the southern hemisphere. Arriving at the Maria Reiche Museum, we were met by Victor Garcia, who showed us around the one-room adobe house at the San Pablo ranch where Maria had lived in primitive conditions without electricity or running water. The arrangement with the local farmer, allowed her to be closer to the fieldwork area, and the small simply furnished room at the ranch became Maria’s center of operations for the next decade. Her bed, desk, papers, and small table with kerosene burner and kitchen items was just as she had left it years earlier. Victor told us he was one of several guards Maria paid with profits from the sale of her book, Mystery on the Desert, to patrol the ancient lines. Maria believed the lines may have been used by the Nazca people as a calendar for farming and fishing activities, and to plan seasonal and religious celebrations. When we left the museum, I was flooded with admiration for Maria who through sheer will successfully carried out her one-woman mission studying and protecting the ancient pre-Columbian mysterious lines and figures.
The following morning we left Nazca and made our way back to Lima. As soon as we arrived in Miraflores I contacted Maria’s caregiver, who invited me to come over to their house that very afternoon. When I arrived Ana Maria met and informed me that Maria was frail and bedridden; had her good days and bad days. Thankfully it was a good afternoon for a visit. She graciously led me upstairs to Maria’s bedroom, where the walls were covered with maps and charts of the Nazca lines and figures, and drawings from school children. Dr. Reiche smiled when Ana Maria introduced me, and then left us to reminisce privately. I hugged Maria, and held her hand, and, filled with admiration, I told her that meeting my childhood heroine and role model after all these years was a life-long dream of mine. Maria smiled, pressed my hand and whispered about her life and work on the pampas, “It was the happiest time of my life. I can see every line, every drawing in my mind.”
Dr. Maria Reiche (1903-1998) spent half-a-century as the self-appointed guardian of the Nazca pampas. She never stopped believing in the importance of protecting the mysterious and alluring red-brown pebble pre-Columbian drawings encrusted in the stony coastal desert that are among archaeology’s greatest mysteries. UNESCO designed the Nazca Lines a World Heritage Site in 1994.
About the author:
Katacha Díaz grew up in Miraflores, a suburb of Lima, Peru. She earned her BA and MPA from University of Washington. She was a research associate at the University of California, Davis. Among the many children’s books she has authored are Badger at Sandy Ridge Road for the Smithsonian Institution’s Backyard series, Carolina’s Gift: A Story of Peru and Wild Horse Country for Soundprints. Her writing has appeared in Twisted Vine, Foliate Oak, Guideposts, New Moon, Collecting Figures, Dollhouse Miniatures, and elsewhere. She lives in Astoria, Oregon, where she is at work on a short-story collection and memoir.