Saturday, March 21, 2015

Hacienda San Nicolas- onions, dystopia, and amateur anthropology

San Nicolas looks a little like the set of a dystopian novel 50 years after the end of civilization. Back in it's day, it had a movie theater, an airport, and a train station. Now Hacienda San Nicholas is just abandoned land and squatter housess, the bricks from tumble-down buildings used to make stacked-stone walls enclosing farmer's fields.

The large train station is carpeted in sprouting onions, the church condemned by an earthquake. Small herds of sheep and cows are driven down the main street, herded under a decaying bridge by men on horses and thir dogs. The hacienda big house looks half haunted, half inhabited. Signs of a once booming economy are quickly disintegrating into something that soon only archeologists will be able to discipher. 
 What caused this booming town to be abandoned? How could such magnificent buildings just decay in silence, not even known to exist by the majority of local people?

A mix of factors--an earthquake, the sugar factory moving up the coast, the highway changing location, and the railway closing down--led to this strange occurrence. San Nicolas, now disconnected from highways and commercial centers is fading into nothing.
Dora, a woman from our church, grew up on the hacienda, her father being the majordomo--a chief administrator. She led us around the ruins and described what it had been like. "Over there was the town square," she waves over at a dirt track running through dust and patchy crops with adobe houses in the background, "It had a town hall, and a big movie theater where you could go up on the balcony and look over town."

"Back on that hill was the health post," she points to a hill scattered with uneven piles of adobe bricks and no discernable purpose.

"This was the church, and that staircase was how you got to the Patron's house, but it is all bricked over now." The church, looking old and abandoned but complete except for a few large cracks, was of a scale not even seen where I live in Puerto, a fishing boom town where "money ran like water" during it's golden years.
The hacienda commands a view of fields and distant ocean waves, and a prime location on what was once a main thoroughfare, a footbridge spanning from hacienda porch to warehouse second floor.
Dora pointed to a wooden shed, looking as though it were being consumed from the ground up, saying "that's where everyone lined up to get paid and receive the big sacks of rice, potatoes and other stuff the Patron gave them."
Nearby, there is a cemetary that is quite different from the other local ones. Instead of brightly colored mausoleums and high-rise coffin apartments decorated with paintings and figurines, the Japanese cemetary is stately and minimalistic. Narrow, pointed grave markers and breathing tubes stand in rows. Peru received many Japanese and Chinese migrants who, though at first treated as slaves, made their mark and have shaped peruvian culture and cuisine. Dora tells of local kids taking advantage of the fruit and money left at new graves before it was closed off from the public.


What started for me as a church fieldtrip to the pool ended in an investigative adventure in amateur anthropology.
It's incredible the way simple changes in infrastructure and industry can so profoundly erase a town, leaving sunflowers and piles of rotten onions where once stood airports and movie theaters. 

Maybe dystopic and post-apocalyptic stories are currently so popular because, in an age where we feel limitless and invincible with our ground-breaking technogy, we need to be reminded that one little failure, or a string of innocent changes can topple not just towns but whole civilizations. Nothing is forever- As much as we try to pretend it is not, life truly is fragile.
Life lesson: Sieze every day and live it to the fullest before your livingroom is used to store surplus onions and foreigners with overactive imaginations take safaris through your backyard.

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