You immigrated to the United States as a child. How did your love for the landscape in South America affect your relationship to North America?
I grew up in a sugarcane hacienda outside Trujillo, Peru, on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, so, as a child, I was always aware of the land and the sea, and the way we inhabitants of that coastal desert were entirely dependent on the natural resources around us. My earliest memories are of earthquakes—there were 18 by the time I reached the age of five—so I suppose I knew from childhood that the land could feed or destroy us. That is a fairly powerful lesson in the life of a child.When I came to North America, I was struck by how so much of the land around me was inhabited. I couldn't imagine being in a place where you could drive and drive and drive, with human beings always in evidence. Of course, I came to live on the east coast of North America, which is so different from the west coast of South America, where I was born.
What landscapes in North America do you love, or hate?
The first memorable impression I had of North American land was the smell of cut grass. Having grown up in a virtual desert, I had never seen great fields of grass. We may have had irrigated vineyards or sugar fields, but grass as it exists in the United States was impressive! I loved that.I certainly can't say I hate any landform in North America. But I do remember being astounded by the endless moonscape of factories in Bayonne, New Jersey. I had never seen land so marred by its inhabitants!
What is your favorite landscape in South America?
Most people don't know this, but Peru has five kinds of landforms: coastal desert, mountain, jungle, islands, and prairie. And all of it in close proximity! It always amazes me that you can descend a snow-covered promontory not far from Cuzco and suddenly be in what we Peruvians call "the eyebrow of the jungle," with its lush green tangle of vines. I love that. The interdependence of the two, the way the snow feeds the Amazon tributaries, is so striking.
How did flying with photographer Robert Haas for this project change your understanding of South America?
In all truth, I was taken aback by the growth of the cities. The urban centers have burgeoned as a result of natural disasters—earthquakes, famines, and floods. And, with the terrorism and political precariousness of the 1980s, millions of people poured into the capital. Seeing the shantytowns that had sprouted up around the cities in the past 30 years was heartbreaking. But on the positive side, I was moved to see the prevailing beauty of the land. I had never imagined it could look like that. The sights from 5,000 feet (1500 meters) in the air were astoundingly beautiful: The way the sun shone on the water, the way a single instant of light and atmosphere could render a landscape magnificent. In moments like that, one realizes how precious our natural world is.
What was it like to ride in an open-door airplane? Was this a thrill for you, or just terrifying?
I was both thrilled and terrified! Terrified by how vulnerable a small airplane in a windy and mountainous country can be and thrilled by the visual feast that was being offered from those heights. But what made the greatest impression on me was the physical hardship—the athleticism!—of taking photographs in those conditions. First of all, you are being buffeted by the fierce gales rushing in through the open door. Second, you are freezing. Your hands are stiff and your fingers are numb. How Bobby was able to manipulate the cameras under those conditions is still a mystery to me. Sitting behind him, not moving anything but a pencil in a well-gloved hand, I was in awe of his fortitude and perseverance.
Just that Bobby's title—"Through the Eyes of the Condor"—really delivered its promise to me. I had always wanted to see my native land through the eyes of a bird. I guess that desire was born from all the legends I had heard as a child. And seeing my magnificent continent from that aerial perspective was a gift I will never forget.