Saturday, 14 February 2015


'Agro-towns', as in farming and not trouble, have a certain commonality, irrespective of locale. Be it the 'grain-towns' of the Australian corn belt, the Canadian prairie or the Argentine Pampa. The first indicator will be the molina, the mill of silos and tangled gantry elevators, breaking your horizon. At the outer reaches, comes the oily band of small workshops repairing a selection of broken farm machinery; next is the glossy glazed emporiums of new tractors and combine harvesters, with a support cast of specialised kit, some of it incomprehensible. Arranged around the perimeter are their internationally recognisable names fluttering up ranked flagpoles. Keep pressing on, in towards the centre, and by the time you've reached the central plaza with its cathedral that is in competition with the telecomms shops and its acolytes of glazed banks, you will have already passed several very acceptable accommodations. These last are, for me, what distinguishes an 'agri-town'. Clean Accommodations for the Travelling Salesman. 'Singles', sometimes 'Dobles', never 'Matrimonials', beds in cleaned rooms with a view. This in a land where windows can be an optional extra, decent wifi and a secure garage underneath. Often these buildings stand apart, in dramatic contrast to the their neighbours. That divergence is greater in a Peruvian Ricetown.

We're sitting up on the third floor, a verandah of cold tiles and cool shade, a fresh breeze adding to the relaxed atmosphere. We're in the desert, so a soft dust is a constant companion; you get used to it, especially if there's constant running hot water in the shower. A very comfortable accommodation. Yet next door, we look down on a single storied shack. It's walls are a canyon of un-rendered brick, that of our and the neighbour's walls, the roof a crude patch of tattered polyprop sheet covering a frame of woven reeds. Protruding through this meagre modesty screen is the ubiquitous satellite dish, that vestigial roof bleeding the flickering blue blush of television, that reflects off the surround of razor wire.We're heading down onto the coast yet again. It's as if we're carrying a lodestone that has a magnetic attraction for the shoreline, only for it to depolarise, to point us back to the hills after a few days at the seaside.

Cycling down a narrow green corridor of flooded rice paddy that's trapped in place by the surrounding sand dunes. Down another river that rises high up in the Andes, that's collected enough snow melt to carry it all the way past the intervening traps of irrigation ditches, down to the ocean.

These features are always a surprise and an interest. The sandscape appears flat, it looks as if it will stretch far on, all the way on for a full day, all the way to the distant horizon. There is absolutely no indication of what is to come. Suddenly the asphalt rolls over the edge, turns a bend and drops away, sliding down the side of its valley, down to a bridge crossing, and a re-ascent back up to that flatscape. The interest will be down in those bottom lands. The monoculture, the single crop in the valley flats. Will it be mango grove or olive forest, melon patch or rice paddy, Pisco lemons or a 'to be Googled' exotica? We've found them all. We've sampled each, some extensively.

Paddy rice requires people, a lot of people. As we leave our acceptable abode at first light, the first of the them are starting to congregate on street corners. As we progress through the town the crowds of waitIng people grow. The women bundled up in shawls the men carrying a spade or machete. A slat-sided lorry passes and then pulls in beside one gathered throng. A plank is pulled from the sub-frame and the crews start to clamber on board. We meet the same or similar a short while later, their cargo of workers disgorged.

One squad are pulling young rice plants, preparing them for transplanting. Up to their calves in water, shaking mud from the roots, hauling the dripping mass on their backs to a waiting truck. We carry on, and the next element in the planting process is a few fields further down the road. Another squad is bent double prodding plantlets back into the flooded paddy. Whilst one unfortunate lad has the unenviable task of feeding the patch. A deadweight sack on his back that is sinking him into the glour as he hurls handfuls of feed at the paddy. The next plot has a person spraying chemicals at a ripening crop, his minimal personal protection an old shirt tied over his head to guard against the sun. Around another turn, an old man is dam-building and channel-clearing an irrigation ditch, the waters slowly easing across the plot. These succeeding vignettes unfurl like we're traveling through an old Dutch Master, perhaps a Pieter Bruegel painting. Each small increment of a story, adding to the completed picture.

Local PPE?
A bucolic, pastoral idyllic countryside of succulent green fields edged with fastigate poplars, of a population going about their simple agrarian business. And just like those paintings and this town's wall art, the truth of a long day's hard graft, that of slathering around in paddy mud, earning today's dollar, is hidden.
Rice is the primary crop, but there are a few small plots of exotica: sweet tamarind, tamarillos and tomantillos, with roadside stalls serving 'cremolada de mango'; shaved water ice and fresh picked fruit pulp. Nectar.