They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Travel diary (09 out of 28): “Mazamorra” taste...

Travel diary (09 out of 28):

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated and commented by Sara Plaza

[Diary of the journey by land across the ancient Inka Empire, from LIS Meeting to LIS Meeting, through Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and NW Argentina, from November 5th to December 1st, 2006]

We got up in a over-populated Lima, absolutely packed, busy, noisy... We were embraced by this hum, this sort of confusion, while we were still a bit slept and quite tired after that 52-hour journey along the Latin American Pacific coast. For a couple of minutes, we were not able to react to this burst of activity. The streets were flooded with taxis that stopped next to us and invited us to get in, forming a queue. In fact, the first thing you have to do before opening any taxi door in Lima is to bargain the price with the driver (there are no taximeters, no fixed price, so you have to haggle over it). That is the reason for such a long line of taxis waiting for us: they know that if you do not agree with the first taxi driver, you will try with the following one (and Sara haggled over the price as many times as it was necessary to reach an agreement). Public means of transport added color and sound to the urban traffic: in each bus, van or lorry, there was a man literally hung up on a kind of handle (or just grabbing firmly the frame of the bus/van/lorry door) shouting with all the strength of his lungs, the names of the following stops. In addition, this man is the one you have to pay for the ticket, and the one you have to say "next stop goes down, please" if you want to get off. He also finds a seat for you (if there is any free, of course) and argues with other men like him in the middle of the road, in order to "defend" a space for his bus in such a chaotic stream of vehicles. In this jungle of smoke, shouts and hoots we got up, in the middle of a strong current of people making their way to their working places. The sky was grey and will be grey the rest of our stay in the city. A friend of us described Lima weather as "melancholic"... and he was not far from the truth: the light rain and the cloudy sky made you feel a sort of sadness, though it might have been the lack of sun rays over our heads what most affected us.

In the streets you could see the typical restaurant light-signs (offering the traditional "ceviche" made of fish, and many other Peruvian cook delights) and the famous "chifas" or Chinese restaurants, which because of its brimful of food dishes and its economical prices were very popular in the entire Andean world, and we did try one of then the previous night.

We were not very far from the New National Libray, which was placed in Prado Avenue, so we made our way to it since this would be the seat of the Congress.

The II International Congress on Librarianship and Information (CiBi 2006) was to take place between the 13th and the 15th of November, under the motto "Information: challenges and new tasks in the knowledge age." It was organized by the Peruvian Librarians Association, and there would be conference tables, lectures, posters sessions and services and information tools' exhibition. Definitely, everything betokened a considerable dimensions event, in which a good number of colleagues would take part. Most of the lecturers came from different parts of Latin America, but there were also two or three guests from Europe.

The New National Libray building –next to the National Museum– was officially open only a year ago. It is a modern building of considerable dimension. The old one, placed in a much classical building of the last century, is located downtown and you can find there the Public Library of Lima and all its secretaries.

It was early when we arrived, so it was easier to get our bags and IDs and meet some of our friends from the organization. We discovered that the costs for participating in the Congress were high (70 dollars) and also that those in charge of the exhibition and selling of information services (that is to say, well-known "information traders") played an important role in the event. Such an "introductory card" made me feel a bit worried and, why not, alarmed me.

Having a look to the programme and reading between the lines, I found, to my taste, that the Congress did not draw the Peruvian librarianship reality at all, but a world that had nothing to do with the daily work of our Peruvian colleagues. Certainly, I did understand that those who had organized the event were intending to give birth to a new space where coming ideas could be exposed and discussed. I think of this to be valuable, of course, but much the same as it happens in my own country, users and professionals' features were not taken into account, as neither were considered the needs of the communities that would be our services receivers. This opinion, that I shared with Sara as a criticism, was also put into words by many people attending the Congress, what made me think that I should not be wrong in my previous comments.

The preponderant place given to "information traders" in Congresses has always made me feel uneasy. I know the role they play and why they occupy such an important place: the sum of money they give to the organization (and their material contribution as well) use to be a considerable amount (I do not speak of this event in particular since I do not know its conditions). However, acting like this, we are giving those "traders" an importance that they do not deserve, and forgetting that they are the ones who take advantage of the libraries funds, selling something that do not belong to them: scientific information. That information should be available to everybody under Open Access policy; it should be free and without costs for those who need it, especially professionals, researchers and students whose work and education depends mainly on the possibility of accessing those resources.

If we give such an important role to publishers and database sellers, libraries are perpetuating an everlasting tyranny that should be destroyed. And it should be wiped out precisely by librarians, because we are the one suffering it from a long, long time ago.

In my conference (that would take place that afternoon) I would present that issue under the title "Open Access in Latin America", participating in a table about information democratization.

Having a deeper look at the programme, I found a table where would be discussed the social role of libraries in the Knowledge Society. Imagine what would not be my surprise when I took notice of the person in charge of the main lecture on the subject: the vice-president of EBSCO. One of the principal knowledge traders in our continent was going to give us a lecture on social responsibility. It would be something similar to listen to Bush talking about human rights, something that, however, many people have been doing for a long time without questioning themselves or having doubts about this contradictory fact.

My perspectives on the Congress were getting darker and darker, but I thought that I had a good number of friends in Lima with whom we could share a lot of the Peruvian librarian "real life". We avoided the official presentation and left the huge building to look for a place to have lunch: a supermarket (yes, we use to visit them in every place we go, and it is unbelievable how extraordinary rich those areas are in fruit, vegetables when the country produced them). We discovered more than 15 different types of fruit that we had never seen before, nor heard of them in advance. Meanwhile, in the Congress, the director of the Municipal Library of Lyon (France), Patrick Bazin, was making his speech, simply named "The libraries, tomorrow". The second inaugural conference was on the part of Joan Torrent Sellens, director of the research group belonging to the ONE (New Economy Observatory) from Catalonia, who would speak about "TIC, economic knowledge and development: a new opportunity for Latin America". This last one laid emphasis on the fact that world economy is changing towards a new model based on the profit from information as a rough material on which the chain information-training-innovation would be based. His speech also explained the opportunities for "peripherical economies" (yes, you are right, the Latin American ones) in this new market.

At 14:00 did start the table "Digital resources access democratization". Firstly there was a lecture by Luis Núñez (Academic Computing Board general coordinator at Los Andes University in Merida, Venezuela,) and in second place, another by Gabriela Ortúzar (Information System and Libraries director at Chile University). Both of them explained in deep and in a very precise manner, the Open Access phenomenon: Núñez mainly talked of institutional repositories and academic intellectual heritage preservation, while Ortúzar speaking was centered on university libraries and its role in digital information management. After they had finished and once the questions round was over, the following lecturers hardly had 15 minutes to present our papers... not taking into account that at that point of our table the matter had been long discussed already.

Then it was the turn for the person representing Creative Commons Peru (whose name I forgot not because I was predisposed to do it, but because this person left the table immediately after reading his paper). Later came Julio Santillán Aldana (E-LIS and "Biblios" journal editor), who presented the work of E-LIS in general, and particularly in Peru. Little had been left to say, so when I was supposed to show the sleepy audience my presentation (in only 10 minutes' time) I decided not to pay attention to my papers, and improvised a very basic dissertation on Open Access philosophy, emphasizing what it meant for Latin Americans, secularly facing divides such as the digital one. My question to the public was "Of what use is all of we had been talking about this afternoon, if we are 'trenches' librarians, if we are Latin Americans, if we face thousands of problems that nobody seems to solve, if we have a lot of needs, a lot of deficiencies to be covered that librarianship gurus do not know anything about?" My own answer was that for those who did not have access to digital networks yet (and will not have them, probably, in the near future) what we have been discussing during the last three hours was absolutely useless (and we should be aware of this when we teach in a classroom or we propose services). And for those who already had it, this was the only possible alternative, considering the databases, documents and services high costs that "knowledge traders" (sat in that conference room or reaching agreements with rich libraries in any other room) wanted to be paid.

Open Access means to have scientific articles, papers, documents and so on, with tested quality, offered free by their own authors, on condition that their authorship was respected. If we, as librarians, started doing some research, learning which were the most confident open archives and how to use them; if we were able to teach our students, our researchers, our professors and users to recognize their value, we would have an immense (and growing) source of knowledge at our disposal. An egalitarian, solidary and fair source. A source which use would not feed the publishing "alligators".

At the exit, holding Sara's hand, we talked to Julio Santillán, and we met Rosa María Merino, who, from that very moment, would be our guide through Lima and her world. A few steps forward, we also were welcomed by Nelly Mac Kee de Maurial, organization committee director. A bit further on I was interviewed by some students from the Librarianship career of San Marcos University (who did know this weblog and most of its contents), and I was greeted in Quechua by the colleagues of Huamanga University. This wonderful greeting was due to the fact that I always finish my presentations in PowerPoint with a slide in which you can read "Thank you" in the main original languages of the country I am visiting. In Chile it had been Mapudungu language, and it was Quechua language in Peru.

We left the Congress at a point which was the starting one for three workshops that would last for the following three days, and said to Rosa María, our "guide", that we wanted to go downtown as everybody else, that is: by bus. We should admit that the surprise was noticeable in our friend's eyes, however, there we went on a small van, moving backwards and forwards and swinging from one side to the other while the vehicle made all sort of dangerous maneuvers in the middle of the terrible traffic expected at the rush hour. For the price of 1 "sol" (the Peruvian currency. One "sol" is equivalent to 1/3 USA dollar), we were almost to crash a couple of times and it only took us an hour to reach our destination. In her own travel diary Sara wrote down:

"Truly it is a whole experience to travel on those vans. They use to be packed, so once you managed to squeeze into the vehicle, you can see that some people travel sat but most of us do it grabbing the roof bar and swinging in all directions, while you listen to the directly-come-from-hell sound of "reggaeton" [popular music, mix of reggae and salsa]. The ticket costs between 0.50 and 1 "sol", but if there is too much traffic, you look like a tourist or it is public holiday, they can ask you for 1.50."

We got off near the Nation Congress Building. The pavement was overpopulated in the very centre of Lima. We walked towards the square that serves as the Nation Congress inner courtyard. There, flying in circles over our heads and sat at the top of the trees, I could see the largest quantity of "gallinazos" ("zopilotes", a sort of vultures) that I had ever seen in my life. There were as many as doves in our squares. In fact, I thought that the greatest amount of "vultures" would be inside the own Congress... but I did not want to be too disrespectful with the political reality that, though probably similar to that of my own country, I did not know yet. I declined the invitation from the Congress Library director to visit this unit, because I did not want to bother him and also due to the little time we had to visit the city and learn about its reality and the streets that were gradually getting darker.

From the National Congress, we walked along a street beautifully framed by colonial balconies and shutters made of wood, with old shops (sometimes recovered, sometimes not) opening its big doors and offering all types of things to the public. There are a lot of iron street lamps hanging up on a short of hooks fixed to the walls of those high houses with wide wood beams supporting their roofs.

After a few blocks, we arrived at the "Mayor Square", where rose the Government Palace (that belonged to Pizarro in the old days, and was now habited by the Nation president, Alan García), the magnificent Cathedral with its patterned doors and its balconies with extremely beautiful shutters, and the bronze fountain –the only original witness of the square– that at the beginning had a clock mysteriously disappeared when was being repaired.

A bit further was the Municipality Palace, the mayor's residence, where Mr. Castañeda –the current mayor– lived and probably would continue living; in a few days there were mayors elections in Peru, and in Lima he was the favorite candidate.

In two sides of the square there were arcades with shops and cafés, and surrounding this area were crowded streets, some of them only for pedestrians. Next we went to the Rímac River shore (in Quechua language it is written Rimaq, that means "the one who can speak"), finding in our way Santo Domingo and San Francisco churches. In one of then we could see San Martín de Porres' statue, who is said to be the poorest among the saints and the poors' saint, the little saint with the broom, that dark-skinned acolyte that swept the church door in the old days and is now the paladin of Lima, the most worshipped, the one who receives most pleadings and most offerings. Before arriving at the river we passed the Post building, with its inner arcade packed with shops where you can find many different sorts of postcards, stamps, envelopes, paper... This arcade had a stain-glass windows structure on the roof, but it was destroyed by the last big earthquake in the 70s, happened on the grounds we were stepping on.

[Talking of earthquakes... While I was waiting for my turn to give my conference, at the Congress table, the grounds trembled a couple of times long enough and with the strength needed to shake up the water inside the glass I had in front of me. Nobody made a single movement except me.]

Finally we were on the Rímac River shore, where there are a number of selling stalls (some of them with wheels) offering meals and desserts to the walkers. A bit tired after a very long day, Rosa María invited us to try a small cup of "mazamorra morada", a delicious dessert that is served hot. It is a very old Andean dish that consists of boiled corn, which is stirred up with "camote" (sweet potato) flour to make it thicker and a touch of "quinua" ashes, and it is sweetened with some fruits (their juice and small pieces of them). It is presented with a pinch of cinnamon on its jelly-like surface. This variant is very different from the Bolivian and the Argentinean ones, but it is delightful anyway.

Still we had time to complete our visit with a short bus tour to San Cristobal hill, once more invited by Rosa María. This is one of the mountainous terrains that dominate the city. The competent tour guide told us a bit of the colonial history of those places, of viceroys' love affairs with public lovers, of monks with aristocracy ladies... And we could see how the slopes of the hill were occupied by a human settlement that with a lot of effort climbs up the steep streets, though maybe it is not exactly a "settlement" since they have water, electricity, gas and people seem to be not that bad installed. Nonetheless, nobody could stop observing the poor conditions of this part of the city. Once we reached the summit of the hill, we saw Lima at our feet, immense as it is, spreading its illuminated streets and houses to every side, making the darkness much brighter. The only absolutely black spot in the starring horizon was the enormous cemetery.

We were going down when we run into the smallest church in the world, a tiny building which front wall was no more than 4 or 5 meters of width.

Our friend, colleague and "tour" companion left us in the arms of the also colleagues Julio Santillán and Ada Sosa, with whom we had dinner in a corner of Villa María neighborhood. There, while we learnt a bit more about the peculiarities of the librarian world in Lima, we tasted the traditional "anticuchos" (grilled slices of cow heart) with "yuca" (manioc), "papa" (potato) and "chicha morada" (a variant of the "mazamorra morada", filtered and fluider).

It was late at night when we haggled the price with the taxi driver who took us to our hotel. That city not only had resulted exactly the opposite to "terribly dangerous", as many had advised us. Lima and its people had wide opened their doors, showing us a world that we just started to discover: very close to our Hispanic culture but deeply colored by the indigenous presence, with own and very strong tints from the old times.

Still there was a lot to be seen... But this will be the matter of the next post.

A big hug from this side of the world...