The Great Aguas Callientes Ticket Scam

All I knew was that with every fiber of my being I wanted to get out of Aguas Callientes that night. Things were expensive enough that it was almost cost effective to take the $30+ tourist train. After being severely misdirected by locals who buy cheaper tickets on seperate trains, I found the office did I discover that Helmut at SAE was right: there were no train tickets to be had. I cursed her under my breath but there was nothing to be done.

Previously, as we were walking, Marco told me: “You talk a lot.” “Sorry.” I said. “No no.” He said, “You talk to lots of people, it’s good.” He was right in a way, not talking to people is dangerous. I travel by myself but I am never alone. When things go tough, the people around you can help you or hinder you, it’s almost always better that they’re your friends. The cheapo Americans might have been irritating but they pulled Marco and me onto the truck when everyone else (including the driver) hollered that there was no room. Later in Tupiza I hung out with a guy from the Check Republic. He said “hola” to absolutely everybody be they man, woman or animal. “Saying hello doesn’t cost you anything” he said, “and smiles are universal!”

I would have thought that making funny faces, like everyone does at babies, could be universal but it isn’t. The French are notoriously bad at languages, often knowing no more than French. To make up for this, François (one of the French tourists Marco and I hung out with at Machu Pichu) would make a lot of funny faces. This actually ended up disturbing Marco a lot: “Why does he do that!” He said, “Is he trying to insult me?” Clearly they don’t have the “let’s make a funny face when we’re uncomfortable” policy in Brazil. Good to remember.

As I was leaving the station I ran into these same French tourists (Emanuel, François, and Loire) that Marco and I had hung out with in Machu Pichu. Once again it had been helpful to talk to people. They had run into the same problem as I had, no ticket, but because they had been earlier they had been able to talk to someone. In 20 minutes they were going to meet with a woman who could get them tickets and they said Marco and I could try with them. I raced back to delirious Marco and tried to get my stuff packed up as quickly as possible. We barely made it, supersick Marco leading the rear, almost delirious he kept asking people where the train station was instead of following me. He would always receive the wrong information because we could not buy the tickets to the regular train, only the tourist train which was about 10 times more expensive.

We arrived at 3:20 to argue for tickets to the 3:30 train. After a lot of arguing and explaining, the guard finally let us through to join our French speaking friends. It didn’t matter because none of us caught it. We almost made the 4:20 train. Just as the train was about to leave the conductor asked us for money. As we hurredly got it out the conductor said “Oh well. Never mind. The train is going!” We all had a good laugh over this funny joke except Marcos who threw up into a bag of bananas near the train man’s shoes. Emanuel and I began making plans that if we didn’t catch this next one we would walk back all the way back to Santa Teresa. I was weakened but I was not staying in Aguas Callientes. Marcos… I did not know what would become of him. François began playing my flute and begging for money. “Propina… propina…” he would whine, imitating the singsong of Peruvian street orphans and their mothers. Times were desperate.

We made the train. Barely. And paid 104 sols (or three days traveling) for our 2.5 hour train ride. Outrageous. We had all wanted to go to Cusco but the train ended a stop early in Ollantaytambo. Emmanuel took the bus to Cusco and Marcos promptly staggered to the nearest hospidaje. An hospidaje is a cheap Peruvian hotel. I think Marcos went into a hospidaje. It might have been better if it were a hospital. Before he left I gave him my email and a bright orange Cipra pill. Cipras have been my psychological edge against desease. “If you don’t behave I’ll pull out the Cipra and then it’s toasties for disease!” I tell my body. I haven’t had to take a Cipra yet and I haven’t heard from Marcos.

It was only maybe a half hour to Urubamba but the sickness had been creeping up on me throughout the day and I decided to take dinner with François and Liore. I ordered Arroz a la Cubana which is rice with a fried banana and a fried egg on top. François also ordered us two beers. He haggled over the price of the beers for about 10 minutes. The whole restaurant watched. I wanted to crawl under the table but François relished practicing his few Spanish words: “No no. Señor. Nosotros pobres! Seis Soles!” We ended up paying the full price ($2.50) for our litre of beer each.

Peruvians like grease and this restaurant was no exception. I hadn’t especially wanted a beer at first but when the food arrived and I discovered that simply smelling the grease made me sick, the beer became an exciting alternative to eating. We clearly had too much beer though and François solved this problem by making a little contest out of finishing the beer. Half way through my second glass of beer I excused myself to throw up. I returned cured and, though I did not finish my Arroz a la Cubana, I went to sleep exhausted, mildly drunk and incredibly happy that I had been spared what we shall call “Marcos’ Desease”.

Machu Pichu-d

DAWN IN THE SACRED VALLEY

DAWN IN THE SACRED VALLEY

Marcos and I ran off to the place where we were presumably to have the best view: the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock, from which the classic Machu Pichu pictures are taken. We gazed down and the ruins stood there, majestic and grand. Awesome. Mist hung in the morning light, like a feint veil layed over the past.

We waited for the sunrise…

And waited…

And waited…

After awhile of not seeing the sun rise, hoping it would and realizing it wouldn’t, Marco’s hunger took control of him and we went to eat breakfast. Marco was so hungry he wanted to eat everything. The food was opened and and I followed suit.

A TERRIBLE TERRIBLE MISTAKE

A TERRIBLE TERRIBLE MISTAKE

We had not slept much and were not thinking clearly. Obviously sardines and yoghurt don’t mix under the best of circumstances. Obviously this is not a balanced breakfast. It was clear to a reasonable person what would shortly happen.

We were not reasonable people. I had about two good hours before we started feeling the effects of sardine poisoning. Marco had about 20 minutes.

I THINK I'M BEGINNING TO FEEL THE SARDINES

I THINK I’M BEGINNING TO FEEL THE SARDINES

We set about exploring the ruins again which, for me, included sitting, drawing and writing. I sat in the sun and was finally warm. The only problem was that every time I got comfortable the Machu Pichu police would whistle to get me to move, or at least sit up straight. You may sit in Machu Pichu but you may not lie down. I had had little sleep and was exhausted and I excused my lethergy with “overexposure”. But Marco was beginning to complain of nausea. He got worse and I began to feel sick as well. We were both too tired and sick to climb anywhere.

MARCO IS ILL

MARCO IS ILL

There are many places that make no sense without a guide. But Machu Pichu is, perhaps, the most amazing and least understood Inca site there is. Everyone has a theory and the truth isn’t really relevant. I mean you overhear guides saying, “Oh and this is where they conducted the circumcision rituals.” But these guides could never explain why it was they thought that. They probably just thought: small dark room: circumcision rituals. Anyways, I don’t even think the Incas practiced circumcision…

A GUIDE EXPLAINS HOW THE INCAS WOULD GO TO THE BATHROOM IN THE WOODS

A GUIDE EXPLAINS HOW THE INCAS WOULD GO TO THE BATHROOM IN THE WOODS

The place was magnificent. But it was hard for me to believe that we had simply stumbled into this place of wonder. It was too clean to be lived in, to well built to be untouched, too half built to be a real city. I felt as if someone had found a wrecked house and, instead of rebuilding it, had polished every broken place until it shone.

FANCY STONEWORK

FANCY STONEWORK

 

It was not Disneyland only because it was authentic. But, though all the original stones were there, it was 80% (I am making this figure up) reconstructed and “authenticity” becomes an issue.

I climbed about the ruins for a few hours, trying to make the most of being at a wonder of the world. But perhaps the most interesting thing I noticed about Machu Pichu was the bathroom grafitti, with which I became intimately aquainted.

PRO SHINING PATH PROPAGANDA

PRO SHINING PATH PROPAGANDA

The grafitti was old, from the 1980s, pristine and untouched. It called for socialist goverment by any means, declared the previous election, stated that Oscar Valencia [the leader of the Shining Path terrorist group] was a true hero. It made me wonder, why was this grafitti still here, in such a public place, after all these years?

We were sick. But not too sick to walk back to Aguas Callientes, a feat with which I will always be impressed with. Marco went back to our hostal to pick up the things we’d left there (and to use the toilet) and, in no ability to walk to Idro and then to Santa Teresa, I went to inquire about train tickets back to Cusco.

The First Tourist to Machu Pichu

Our main reason for waking up at 3:30 was, get this, we were scared of missing the sunrise. The sun was supposed to rise at 6am but we were also told that the gates only opened at 6am. A conundrum we did not ponder. So we silently awoke with our 3:30 alarm, took what we needed and set out. The moon was bright and we hardly needed Marco’s flashlight.

Just outside of Aguas Callientes there is a campground for $5 per tent. Just outside this campground, on the road, we saw the tent of the Americans. It was so predictably funny and absurd. It reminded me of how I travelled in Turkey when I was 20. Sustainable for a few weeks, harmful over a few months and a spiritual killer over a few years.

We continued on the path and encountered some Frenchmen who were adjusting their packs. They had got up extra early to be the first ones to Machu Pichu. “When we get there we will be heros.” Francois explained. Two of them (it turned out they were twins) had asthma and could not go fast. We soon passed them and continued up the stone Inca trail into the darkness.

We were overtaken by a local man, presumably the ticket seller. We had been going 45 minutes and asked him if we were about halfway. “Not yet!” he yelled behind him as he scampered up.

THE MACHU PICHU TRAIL LATER THAT DAY

THE MACHU PICHU TRAIL LATER THAT DAY

A half hour later met a Japanese couple who were resting by the road. There was a sort of formulaic conversation that took place anytime tourists met on this trail. First we would greet eachother in Spanish. Then where are you from? How many people did you pass? How many passed you? From this information, calculating in the speed of the people we had met, we could accurately estimate how many were at the top.

Having heard the terrible stories of $7 burgers and $3 cokes at the top, we were overloaded with food. Despite this we progressed fairly quickly, taking turns to carry our one backpack. We had a really funny trading etiquette. Trading was initiated by one of us asking to carry the pack. The other would immediately say, “Oh no. Just a little longer” and then after another minute or so they would say “Oh, that’s just about right” and hand off the pack to the other person. Actually if I remember it correctly it was Marco who always asked for the extra 2 minutes, I think I remember giving up the pack as soon as I was asked.

We made it to the top as about the 12th people up. Everyone had been concerned with being first up: the first tourist into Machu Pichu. They were kitted out in headlamps and hiking poles. Marcos and I had been only worried about the money for the bus and being able to see the sunrise. We were determined not to miss it.

As we sat about lazily for the next 45 minutes, I thought back over our decision to get up so early and also about my own decision not to bring a warm second layer. I was sitting at 3,000 meters in a T-shirt soaked in sweat. I was very cold. At about 5:50 a bus showed up and people started pouring off. A line quickly formed of those who had walked up to prevent anyone from taking their place.

DAYTIME ON THE TRAIL TO MACHU PICHU

DAYTIME ON THE TRAIL TO MACHU PICHU

A LINE QUICKLY FORMED

They should not have worried because the bus people formed a second line to the right. I asked what it was for. A lady told me it was for people who had prebought tickets. Prebought tickets!!!! No one who had walked had prebought tickets. the whole idea smacked of cheating! A few minutes later the people who ran the show opened the booth and the hordes of people from the bus poured in ahead of those who’d walked. The first tourist into Machu Pichu was not some trekker with a headlamp but a pushy middle-aged lady with a ticket.

Marcos and I bought our tickets and hurried through the gates, eager to find the best spot for watching the sunrise.

The Road to Machu P: Aguas Callientes

We were hungry and all the restaurants on the way were too expensive, run by lunatics, or had no food. But we were more tired than hungry and made a solemn pact not to sit down for food before we had booked a room.

Finding a room in Aguas Callientes was an exhausting endeavor. Firstly, the town is on a hill. You start at the bottom near the highest priced establishments and slowly work your way up to the more moderately priced ones. Marcos and I began miscommunicating as a night with little or no sleep will cause. “Should we go that way or that way?” “Which way or which way?” Eventually we settled on a moderately priced place where we could share a room.

We ditched our packs and began the search for a reasonably priced restaurant and came up golden with the cheapest place in town, serving a menu of soup and fried trout with rice and fries.

Now it was just a matter of finding information about how to get to Machu Pichu. The consensus was that we could either take a bus:$12 roundtrip. Everything to do with Machu Pichu is in dollars. Or we could walk uphill for 1-2 hours, “depending on how you walk”. We went to a local market and bought supplies: sardines, lime, bread, yogurt, and water.

We spent the rest of the evening browsing for artesenias in the giant tourist market. A journal style book caught my eye. Unfortunately, like so many beautiful tourist items, the cover was marred by a garish CUSCO: CITY OF THE INCAS, embossed on the beautiful leather cover. I asked the lady how much it was. “45 sols! It is leather. Maybe 40 for you but that is all I can offer.” I told her the book was nice but I wasn’t really interested. She began to open the book and show the quality. But as she turned it over we simultaniously noticed the yellow price tag for 35 sols. She quickly masked her surpise (and, possibly, embarrassment) and said “It’s expensive because of the leather. But for you, 35 sols!”

We returned to the hostal and packed our bags for the next morning, resolved to get an early night and an early start. I set the alarm for 3:30 and fell asleep, exhausted, pen in hand.

The Road to Machu P: Santa Teresa

I awoke to a knock as promised and stumbled out to the combi in the cold. A crowd was already gathered and the Americans, who had set up there tent next to it, began to stir. The combi was crowded. I had thought I had seen full combis before but I think we set a good record with 22 people into the minivan. I was impressed. We probably could have fit more but the three Americans monopolized the back seat which was actually meant for four people. Space was cramped and everyone carried their luggage, no matter how much, on their laps.

HOW TO GET THERE

HOW TO GET THERE

The road to Santa Teresa was to be about 2 hours. On the way people got on and off. At one point the minibus waited by the side of a cliff for a few minutes, the driver muttering under his breath “he’ll come… he’ll come.” Then up the side of the near vertical cliff appeared a man with a flashlight, he’d climbed the whole way from his house below. He was soaked in sweat and couldn’t speak for several minutes.

I began talking to a Brazillian tourist, Marcos. Neither of us spoke Spanish all that well but it was our common language. He really spoke Portuguese and faked his way through. He had heard about the route from an English traveller. It was at this point I realized that my information was by far the most accurate of the group. This route was not in guidebooks and the only way to know it was through word of mouth. Word of mouth had been working though. I was told that the year before there were about 2 tourists a day, this year there were about 20 per day. It was like watching a town in the path of a flood. I wonder if they knew what they were in for once they made it into the Lonely Planet.

 

SANTA TERESA: A TOWN ON THE VERGE OF DISCOVERY

SANTA TERESA: A TOWN ON THE VERGE OF DISCOVERY

The locals got dropped off where they needed to be while the tourists got escorted to a breakfast place. And had fried egg sandwiches and coffee. Then we hulked down to the local thermal baths.

Peruvian thermal baths are usually built up a little bit and cost a nominal fee to enter. I had heard these were free and expected a river with some hot water bubbling into it. The pools for these thermal baths had been under construction for some time and were the nicest I’ve ever seen. They were beautiful, made of slated stone, the water filling and draining at the same rate to maintain the level. Around the area construction workers hewed and hauled rock for the pools, presumably hurrying to finish them in time for the town’s entry into the Lonely Planet.

THE AMERICANS

THE AMERICANS

I whipped out my swimming trunks and took the plunge. The water was tepid but perfect for the day and I soaked for almost an hour while the others dangled their feet. On the way back Marcos complained that his foot was hurting him. He told me he had hurt it while running to catch a boat on the floating islands in Lake Titicaca. They are covered in terraces and he had fallen over one, spraining his foot. He and I lagged behind the Americans and I espoused the high altitude breathing I had learned from my painter friend in Maray.

MARCOS TAKES A PICTURE

MARCOS TAKES A PICTURE

We returned to Santa Teresa and bought juice and snacks to prepare us for the road ahead. We left the Americans and set out on our way to the tourist town of Aguas Callientes.

OLD WOMEN CARRYING TOURISTS' LUGGAGE

OLD WOMEN CARRYING TOURISTS’ LUGGAGE

We began our path down to the river, which we would have to cross. On the way we encountered two old women each carrying four heavy backpacks. They lurched and stumbled forward, clearly overweighted. “The weight, the weight! It is too much.” they cried. Marcos and I wanted to help but it was awkard, like helping the bellhop at a hotel. We each took a sleeping bag, allowing the women to use both hands on the heavy load, and carried them with our packs down to the “bridge”.

There was no place on the river to anchor a bridge so the locals built a kind of ripline with a bucket.

THINGS ARE PLACED INSIDE THE BUCKET

THINGS ARE PLACED INSIDE THE BUCKET

There was a bit of a line for the bridge and I got a chance to ask the old ladies about their work. Each tourist pays 10 sols ($3) for that service. Eight bags equals 80 sols per day. They each make 10 sols a day to carry the bags. This leaves 60 sols ($20) in profit for the tour guide or agency. An amazing business!

Soon it was our turn to cross the bridge and Marcos and I bundled in and crossed.

I love adventures that aren't very dangerous but seem so.

CROSSING THE BRIDGE

There were trucks we could wait for to catch a ride but we decided to walk along the road and hitch a ride on one when it came by. On the way we passed a graveyard all set with flowers. Interestingly one of the graves had been defaced with political propoganda.

GRAVEYARD WE PASSED

GRAVEYARD WE PASSED

We walked for about two hours until the truck came but it was full and the driver called that he would not stop for us. Up ahead there was a local Indian woman hailing the truck and I saw the driver slow to explain why he could not pick her up.

“Run!” I yelled. And Marcos and I sprinted to the truck and climbed on the back. The driver got out to tell us that we could not come on but we were already over the top and trying to find space. We immediately noticed the Americans. They had been further behind and had been picked up before us. They took our packs from us, pushed them further into the truck, and helped us aboard. The driver was right, there was simply no room. But room was found and Marcos and I perched on top of the backpacks the women had brought for the tourists.

THE BACK OF THE TRUCK WAS CROWDED

THE BACK OF THE TRUCK WAS CROWDED

We were dropped off at Idro, the power station behind Aguas Callientes, at about noon. This station was the final stop of the Cusco tourist train and one stop past Aguas Callientes. We were on the other side of Machu Pichu.

YOU CAN SEE MACHU PICHU FROM IDRO

YOU CAN SEE MACHU PICHU FROM IDRO

Now it was clear that there were about 15 or so tourists. Among them was a pack of 7 Israelis. They were sitting by the side of the road arguing with their guide. “You told us it was only one hour, it was two!” I asked them about the train. They told me that they were not interested in the train, they would walk to Aguas Callientes. I asked them how long it would take: “2 hours of walking, 3 hours in the train!” they laughed. Everyone I asked gave me a different answer on when the train was to come, everything from 1:30 to 4:00. Marcos and I decided not to worry about it and, after exchanging some Jewish jokes with the Israelis, we set off walking up the track. Marcos and I talked about US and Brazilian politics, the idea of united South America, music, and absolutely everything else. And, as we hiked among the breathtaking views, it inspired Marcos to sing: Big Rock Candy Mountain to which I responded with This Land Is Your Land.

"AS I WAS WALKING THAT RIBBON OF HIGHWAY..."

“AS I WAS WALKING THAT RIBBON OF HIGHWAY…”

On the way we would pass various houses, restaurants and forest restoration projects. People would appear at the door and invite us in or give us advise on the trail. We also passed a train called the Hiram Bingham train, named after the discoverer of Machu Pichu. The train from Cusco to Aguas Callientes and back is $75: expensive. The Hiram Bingham train costs $500. We asked and were told under no uncertain terms that we could not get a ride on this train.

THE HIRAM BINGHAM TRAIN (PROBABLY NOT WORTH IT)

THE HIRAM BINGHAM TRAIN
(PROBABLY NOT WORTH IT)

A half an hour later we were in Aguas Callientes.

The Road to Machu P: Santa Maria

I discussed the plans for getting to Machu Pichu with Yoyo and many of his SERVAS guests had gone this route. He was quite enthusiastic. The first stop on the route to Machu Pichu was Santa Maria. From there I would need to catch a connecting combi to Santa Teresa. Everyone I asked, meaning everyone at the bus stop told me there was a lot of transport between the two towns. The only person who disagreed was Yoyo. “Fine, take the early bus.” He chided, “You will either wait here or in the cold in Santa Maria. I was updated on the blog and had nothing else to do, and it was in keeping with my First Principles of Travelling: I took the early bus.

On long distance Peruvian buses you have assigned seating. I was assigned next to a young man about my age. He was wearing a very old sports jacket and smelled terrible. He said nothing to me the entire trip. The other passengers were in a hurry. Every time we stopped to drop someone off or pick someone up the bus would yell “vamos! vamos!” until the driver took off again. The trip was a journey into another world. Immediately we began to ascend. In the fading daylight I looked out over the yellow scrub, an ancient landscape. Two pigs chased eachother for what seemed like miles in a valley below the bus. As we ascended into and past the clouds the air becomes thin, dry, rarified and my nose began to feel funny. I thought of the term “nosebleed seats” and, probably due to the lack of oxygen, laughed quietly to myself. There are people who live in these clouds. They are completely bundled up. We pass a few men in a field; one is giving a soccerball a halfhearted kick.

Then came the dark and, for a few hours, nothing but me and my thoughts. And the smell of my companion. As we approached Santa Maria locals got on and off, using the bus to travel short distances, pueblo to pueblo. Indian families would pile on with their children, sit in the aisle, and pile off at some remote roadside location 20 minutes later. When we arrived in Santa Maria it was about 10pm and, Yoyo was right, there was no transport to Santa Teresa till 3am.

To my surprise, there were a few other tourists who also were following the same route. The ones who stood out most were 3 Americans who piled off the bus at the same time as I did. These Americans were of a certain breed of traveller. I have a certain aversion to travellers who “do” places rather than visit them. “Have you done Bolivia yet?” they would ask, as if Boliva was the villiage tramp, putting out for everyone. But unlike the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed trekkers, these Americans were of the “do-everything-as-cheap-as-possible-because-we-are-incredibly-poor” variety. I thought they might go for the $1.30 3 course meal or the $2 room (including shower and a 2:30am wakeup call). They couldn’t be bothered. They would sleep outside and eat their stale bread and cheese. It seems odd to me for a law school student or a phone company executive to pay $500 or more to travel to another country for three weeks only to live like a hobo. Admittedly, it’s fun to live like a hobo, but these people had brought $200 sleeping bags, $50 pants, $80 cook stoves to do it. They could have eaten out every day and not had to carry any of that stuff and still saved money. Having time to kill and no one to share a cup of tea with (the Americans went nuts: “30 cents for tea! It’s 15 cents everywhere else!”) I decided to wander the town.

The town was almost completely dark, the only place open being the ubiquitous internet cafe. There were a group of boys all huddled around a single screen playing the latest network game. They seemed surprised at my appearance but the boy in charge, if there was one, asked me if I wanted a machine. I asked how much and he told me it was about $1 an hour, three times the price of anywhere else. I asked him why it was different. Seeing as there was a Telefonica monopoly, they should charge everyone the same exhorbatant price. They told me that Telefonica did not serve this location. Instead, a satelite company did. Needless to say it was not Peruvian. They thought it was Arabic, or maybe Chilean. Peruvians really hate the Chileans.

I walked about the town for a bit more in the dark then returned to my hostal, read some of Inca Cola, and went to bed.

As I write this there is a young man next to me looking at pornography on the internet. There is a very beautiful girl on the other side of him and she keeps giving him mean looks that he does not notice.

A Day in Ruins

I woke up, stumbled out the door and into a breakfast place. I had wanted to take a shower but the water main only comes on three times a day for a few hours each time. There is a water shortage. After stuffing myself with eggs and coffee I hopped on the next combi for a town called Mara. Actually I just got dropped off at the junction where Yoyo had told me to negotiate for good prices. “Just act like you don’t want anything.” He advised, “Then other tourists will come and you can negotiate with them for cheaper prices.” I didn’t listen and allowed a self-serving taxi driver to talk me into getting a ride into town. “Lots of tourists go there to eat lunch!” he told me.

As soon as we arrived it became clear that he lied. The town had nothing besides an old woman selling vegetables that looked like they were from her childhood. Especially when he turned to me and said, “I will drive you where you want to go for [outrageous amount]. So I got out and was about to ask the town’s only policeman if many tourists stopped here. Before I could get the words out he said, “You want to walk to Maray? Just go that way, no more than an hour.” “But…” I said. “Oh, afterwards you want to go to the Salineras? Then you just walk back the way you came and it’s an additional hour extra.” I thanked this policeman, who was singlehandedly ruining his town’s taxi business, and walked off in the direction he had told me.

It’s funny that walking is so much more rewarding than just arriving somewhere in a car, as if you were magically placed somewhere you had no business of being. Also you get to meet people along the way. I began walking with a young boy who paints pictures of different sites and tries to sell them to tourists. He walked the road every day. The walk was difficult for me because of the altitude. He told me that the way to breath while walking in the mountains was to take a deep breath, hold it for 10 seconds, release, and take another breath. It isn’t something I could do anyways and I just panted my way up the hill. But I didn’t forget what he told me and later this technique helped me a lot climbing up to Machu Pichu as well as hiking around Lake Titicaca.

INCAN AGRICULTURAL EXPERIMENT OR UFO LANDING PAD?

INCAN AGRICULTURAL EXPERIMENT OR UFO LANDING PAD?

Maray is an old Incan agricultural experiment which involves terraces. The best I could understand it is that on different levels they would grow plants that came from different parts of their empire while making good use of the hilly landscape. The result is impressive to look at. So impressive, in fact, that Yoyo told me many new age tourists come there to pray and soak up the power of this farm, mistaking it for a site of some special religious significance. Almost all of this part of Peru is terraced and it was hard for me to tell what was so special about these terraces that loads of workers had “restored” them to their former grandeur.

I explored the ruins a little while and then sat with the same boy who accompanied me up the hill, drawing while he halfheartedly hawked his paintings. While the tourists did a circuit of the ruins, the tour drivers would come and talk to us about cars and look at the pictures. I got to talking to one driver about politics and Fujimori. I asked him why Peruvians would complain that all their politicians were thieves and then vote for a person who left his presidency (and the country) in disgrace because he stole millions of dollars from it. The driver countered, “Sure he was a thief but during his time the roads worked and he built things: now there is nothing! We want him back!” Later I learned from Yoyo that Fujimori legally could not be president because he was not a national, he had forged his citizenship papers. A reporter did an expose on this and was nearly killed as a result.

I negotiated with the pro-Fujimori driver for a ride to the Salineras, my next destination, for 10 sols. Once there he pleaded with me, “Please, 11 sols.” I do not know why I gave him the extra sol. On the one hand he needs it, but on the other, renegotiating the money is something that is demeaning to everyone involved. It’s also something that happens a lot in Peru, not so much because of Peruvians but because of the tourist culture it spawns. This had happened before but in Cusco it would happen constantly.

LOTS OF SALT

LOTS OF SALT

But it didn’t matter, I was at the the Salineras. I don’t quite know how it works but I assume a salty stream of water comes down the hillside. The Incas pulled out the old terrace idea but compartmentalized the terraces into pools. The water would flow from pool to pool as it made its way down the hill leaving their salty deposits behind. The result is the most amazing salt mines I will probably ever see. White sodium deposits covered the hillside like snow in the middle of summer. Harvesting the salt is very difficult work but completely natural and, presumably, sustainable.

TOURISTS WALK ON THE SALINERAS

TOURISTS WALK ON THE SALINERAS

That night all the internet in the town went out. Another example of the danger of monopolies. I later found out that the internet went out for Cusco as well and, for all I know, the whole of the country. No one knew what happened, when it would be fixed, or anything. There wasn’t really anyone to call to tell that there was a problem, they just waited for it to be better.

Urubamba Yoyo

The next morning came and I awoke and slunk out of the hostal at around 8am. The girls went to enjoy their breakfast and I had a lovely one in a hole in the wall on the street while waiting for the SAE to open. I call it the “Peruvian Breakfast”: a fried egg sandwhich, Nescafe, and juice. Then I hopped over the SAE office only to find out that they had neither internet nor coffee, which made me wonder what kind of a South American Explorer’s Club they were. I asked a woman, who I believe was named Helmut, about the route I planned to take to Machu Pichu.

Machu Pichu is only reached by the town, Aguas Callientes or by a 5 day hike along “The Inca Trail”. The Inca Trail costs about $200 to hike with a tour group, which is the only way you’re allowed to hike it. Because many tourists want to see Machu Pichu they limit the amount allowed in through the Inca Trail to 400 people per day. When I arrived in Lima in June the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu was booked up through September. 400 people per day, in itself, would be a large number of tourists for any other Peruvian tourist site. Most of the ones I had previously visited averaged about 3 or 4 a day. However most people do not visit Machu Pichu via the Inca Trail but rather take the infamous tourist train from Cusco to Aguas Callientes. There is one train a day and it costs $35 (or about 3 days of my budget) each way. This does not include the $20 entrance fee which brings it up to a healthy $90 total.

I had heard from a fellow SERVAS traveller in Trujillo that there was another way. First, I was to set out for Urubamba. From there I was to head by bus to a town named Santa Maria, from there to Santa Teresa. From there I could essentially walk to a power station one stop after Aguas Callientes and take the train into town for only $2.

Helmut was unimpressed: “You will spend many days doing this. First you must go to Quillabamba. That is 12 hours. Then you must go to Santa Maria, another 5 hours… Finally if you can do this then you will be in Aguas Callientes without a return train ticket and you could be stuck there.” The SAE is a club with information and librarians to guard the resources and prevent theft. I assume they’re also supposed to be encouraging and upbeat.

I’m not sure who was more unimpressed: her with my plan for getting to Machu Pichu or me with her for being the least explorative person I had met so far. She had the kind of aloofness one gets from dealing with a lot of stupid people. It was almost as if there was a desire to be stupid rather than have to explain a new route to 1,000 fresh of the boat tourists. She understood that what she said affected the itineraries of tourists and with this came a certain lack of humility and enthusiasm for the information being given. In Lima the SAE was more of a kind of cheerleading agency while in Cusco it was an overpriced library. Luckily, I was picked up by Cynthia and Maru. We decided to wander the immaculate streets and soak up some culture at the Pre-Colombian Art Museum.

The museum was nice. Really nice. It further reenforced my opinion that in it’s attempt to please the tourists, Cusco had become a small European replica, at least within the tourist zone. After the last few weeks it was strange to see so many white faces in one location.

THIS MUSEUM IS LIKE ANY OTHER IN THE WORLD AND UNLIKE ANY OTHER IN PERU

THIS MUSEUM IS LIKE ANY OTHER IN THE WORLD
AND UNLIKE ANY OTHER IN PERU

The museum was an attempt to bring “primitive” art out of the historical sector and into the artistic sector. The museum treated its pieces as having been created by anonymous masters of another time, which they were.

Hiding realism deliberately, the sculptor demonstrates a total understanding of sculptoric handling, for ruital and religious requirements. This small mass of great complexity and symbolism allows us to imagine the process of manufacture as well as the desire to shape beliefs and postulates of mythological order.

Hiding realism deliberately, the sculptor demonstrates a total understanding of sculptoric handling, for ruital and religious requirements. This small mass of great complexity and symbolism allows us to imagine the process of manufacture as well as the desire to shape beliefs and postulates of mythological order.

“Genius” was a word the museum like to throw about a lot, as was “perfect forms” and the ever recurring “primitive.”

But for me part of Cusco’s (and perhaps all tourist cities) charm lies in being able to find the local deals. And we were: after the museum we stuffed ourselves on a three course meal beginning in a tripe soup and ending in chicken in a kind of antipasta. Delicious! (and $1.50)

After lunch I was finally able to contact Yoyo and so I said goodbye to my Ecuadorian friends and walked over to the SAE office to pick up my bag and get some grudging directions to the bus stop.

Catching the bus went without a hitch and I brought my backpack on board with me. I shoved it under the seats where my feet would go. At one point an Indian lady got on and sat down next to me. My backpack blocked a little of her foot space and I offered to move it. I never should have because she immediately called the driver’s helper “Boy! This boy needs your help to move his backpack!” I felt embarrassed. I could easily move the pack if she would move her leg, which was on the pack. The helper looked confused. He did not know where to move it. It seemed fine where it was. “If it’s bothering you ma’am, perhaps you would like to sit in a different space.” “No.” She said, “I want to sit here. It’s my right!” She was a nutty one and now, because I had mentioned it, she was intent on having my backpack moved to somewhere else on the bus! It was only when I was sitting in a seat in the back of the bus with my bag and she had placed her own bag on my vacant seat that I realized her plan was to relocate me from the beginning. I had been completely outmanouvred in a classic game of Peruvian busmanship.

It was night as we descended into Urubamba and I could see a very large circle of fire burning on the hillside. I asked an Indian woman on the bus about it. She told me it was because of the university. They were celebrating after exams.

I called Yoyo on the phone. It costs the same to call his cellphone as it does to call the USA so he was in a hurry to talk. I told him I was at a gas station and he said he’d meet me and he hung up. I was surprised when he and a large shaggy dog walked up to me 3 minutes later but he told me: “There are only two gas stations in town! Anyways, I once asked a SERVAS guest to describe what she looked like and she told me that SERVAS people just know eachother! And she was right!”

We walked back to his house. He is an architect and is renting the house next to the one he is building. He owns two dogs and a parrot and is looking for another parrot to match the one he has. “Parrots are very particular.” He told me in English, “There are many different kinds of parrots and they different types don’t like eachother. Also with some parrots it is impossible to tell which sex they are without a DNA test. They can make love and be two females. They are physically identical!”

We talked for a little over some ham and cheese sandwiches with tea and he told me that the following day a good idea was to visit some nearby ruins called Maray and Salineras.

Off to Cusco

I returned to Lima for a few days which was relaxing as can be. I really needed it. It was the end of my first month abroad and time to take stock of all the whos, whats, whens, wheres, hows and whys. It was also time to steel myself for the next leg of the journey: Bolivia, Argentina, and Uruguay. I stayed with Tanalee at the SAE, which seems to be the only place in town that serves moderately good drip coffee. It was a healthy, lazy time spent almost entirely updating my blog and other dithering.

After a few days I left for Cusco, the tourist capital of South America. The journey was 24 hours by bus.

THE BUS RIDE IS TIRING

THE BUS RIDE IS TIRING

The bus first travelled straight south along the PanAmerican Highway along the coast. I had happily avoided this, the best road in Peru, for some time. But now I wanted to make good time and for speed and comfort the coast road was not to be beat.

WELCOME TO THE SOUTH COAST

WELCOME TO THE SOUTH COAST

The coast of Peru, from North to South, is essentially a desert. There is really nothing there except the shacks built by penniless folks with dreams of homeownership. The desert is free and anyone can build there if, for some reason, they would want to.

I DON'T THINK YOU HAVE TO PAY TO BUILD A HOUSE HERE

I DON’T THINK YOU HAVE TO PAY TO BUILD A HOUSE HERE

The only other buildings in the desert are chicken farms and there are a lot of them. These long tentlike buildings house thousands of chickens. They are in the middle of the desert and I have no idea how they get water.

ARR... CHICKENS BE LIVIN' HERE

ARR… CHICKENS BE LIVIN’ HERE

Soon after we hit Nazca we picked up white tourists and headed inland towards Cusco. My luck for interesting developments struck with a vengance when a rock slide covered our roadway and we were waylaid for several hours waiting for a small and hopelessly outmatched tractor to clear the rubble.

AND THESE ARE THE GOOD ROADS...

AND THESE ARE THE GOOD ROADS…

I befriended a couple of Ecuadorian girls and when we arrived in Cusco that afternoon I went with them to find a hostal. I tried to call my SERVAS contact, named Yoyo, in Urubamba but his phone was disabled. I called many times and only found out the next day that the problems were caused by Telefonica’s purchase of BellSouth: apparently all the phone lines and connections were screwed up. The Spanish company Telefonica has enjoyed a monopoly here for a long time. Apparently the secret to being a Peruvian president is privatizing and granting monopolies in exchange for large contributions to your bank account. This happens a lot. I heard a story where one Peruvian president granted exclusive international flight privileges to American Airlines in exchange for a personal helicoptor effectively closing the national airline.

CUSCO IS LIKE FLORENCE... SORT OF

CUSCO IS LIKE FLORENCE… SORT OF

Throughout the day I explored Cusco with the with Maru and Cynthia indespersed with unsuccessful calls to Yoyo. Of all the cities I know, Cusco reminds me most of Florence. Both cities are cheerfully aware that while their many great deeds and accomplishents are far in the past, they are quite proud of their past and don’t feel a need to make cultural waves anymore. Instead both cities are quite content to polish and reconstruct their rich history for the tourists. Many times a day there are processions and dances for tourists. Locals dressed in traditional clothes beg to have you take a picture with them for a small price and street vendors sell the same artesenias for the same prices. Cusco is definately more tourist savvy than the rest of the country. Here vendors skip the hard sell (“You buy useless product now stupid gringo!”) and go straight to the more effective soft sell (“gee your feet look tired. i bet these authentic inca sandals will be comfy!”) They also have a one-ticket-for-all-the-sites dealie. and the like…

THEY SURE LIKE THEIR CULTURE HERE

THEY SURE LIKE THEIR CULTURE HERE

One funny thing here is that the Cusceño flag is the rainbow. Like the gay flag. The Cusceño flag is far older than the gay movement but the gay flag is far more famous. This is funny for tourists and irritating to the traditional Cusceños. I have heard that they are thinking of changing their flag.

THE FLAG OF CUSCO

THE FLAG OF CUSCO

 

The day was hot and the night a little chilly, but nothing like what people had warned me about. Lima is by far the coldest city in Peru but Limeños will do anything to convince you that the rest of the country is like the North Pole.

TWO (CHILLY) ECUADORIAN GIRLS

TWO (CHILLY) ECUADORIAN GIRLS

Not having heard from my SERVAS host I went shared the room with Cynthia and Maru. We only had to pay 15 soles extra but I had to leave before 8am because the guy working the night desk wanted to do it under the table and pocket the money.

Huanuco

 

HUANUCO

HUANUCO

Huanuco is located in the stunning sierras and is poorest district of Peru and if that is any indication, and it probably shouldn’t be, the folks there are the friendliest I’ve met so far.

THE TEMPLE OF THE CROSSED HANDS

THE TEMPLE OF THE CROSSED HANDS

They had one fairly uninteresting tourist site, The Temple of the Crossed Hands, where I met some French tourists. We both told eachother that we were the first other tourists we had found in weeks. Most of the tourists I meet are French. Apparently there are different trails. The most famous to me is the Gringo Trail but I somehow can’t find it. I can only seem to find the French Trail and sometimes wander onto the British, Israeli, and South American Trails, the latter which is made up of, well, South Americans. I am startled at how few tourists there are in Northern Peru.

CLOTHES DRY IN THE HUANUCEÑO SUN

CLOTHES DRY IN THE HUANUCEÑO SUN

My second evening I sat down in a local bar,bought a large beer, and determined to finish my night alone and friendless in a foreign city. But the world saved me from myself, as it is apt to do these days. After no more than five minutes the neighboring table motioned for me to come over. They were a linguistics teacher and his son in law and they were drunk:

“Are you alone? How hard it is to be alone! How solitary! You must drink with us! We are from Huanuco. My parents were from Huanuco. Their parents were from Huanuco! We are Huanuceños and! And you are just a traveller. But we are friends now! Friends for life. Where are you from my little son? Oh, California? And my listtle son, you are far from home but you are not alone anymore, you are surrounded by friends! Why tomorrow you must lunch with us! We are having a lunch with the whole family! Yes! You understand me. You know how to swim? Good! For we shall go to a swimming pool too, my little son, my friend for life. How old are you? 25? That is the same as my son! Oh what a pity, I have not seen him for three months. He is in Lima to work. There is no work here in Huanuco. **slams fist on table** How Sad! How sad this country is! We are nothing! Our government, they take everything! How we do live!!!

And he was right: life is hard for Huanuceños. When I first arrived in Huanuco I noticed that all the police car windshields were covered in steel wire to protect it from stones and all the police wore a form of riot gear.

POLICE VEHICLE

POLICE VEHICLE

I asked a local kid why and he said it was because of protests. I asked why there were protests and he just looked at me and said: “Because of everything.” That was the most I could get out of him. The more I discuss politics here, the more I am reminded of my conversation on the boat about military governments.

Peruvians feel as if they are at a dead end. To give a sense of what kind of trouble they are in, they want their old President Fujimori back. He has a few obstacles in running for election as he fled back to his home country of Japan after stealing tens of millions of dollars near the end of his last term. Most of his cabinet is in prison. But still you see a large amount of “Fujimori in 2006” campaign signs up and their is a startling amount of popular support. Peruvians tell me that “In Fujimori’s time he built roads and he built colleges. The country worked!” I was also told other facts, that all the money he stole came from illegal narcotrafficking and not from the state funds at all. I pointed out that Peruvians always complain that they have poor candidates, that their governers are thieves and then they all rally round a known thief! But life is complicated here. Here the tracks of power run deep and those who have it are not likely to give it up anytime soon.

But if there’s anything these people know, it’s how to welcome guests. It seemed like every shop I entered the owners would offer me their home phone numbers in case I needed anything or ran into trouble. When it came time to leave I was scared to go into a bar because I didn’t feel like making new friends right before leaving and though I was hungry I felt bad about buying food because they would always serve me too much, even for 2 sols, they would give me a multicourse meal that I could never finish.

Such are the fears I wish to have.

Pucallpa to Huanuco: Pueblo Unido!

The bus trip from Pucallpa to Huanuco was, of course, eventful. All the overnight bus trips I take seem to leave at 9pm and take 8hrs. This puts me at some lame part of time at about 5am and to befuddled to be grouchy. So I generally hope for eventfulness on the journey so we can get delayed for an hour. I should but I do. I’m glad that I still enjoy the eventfulness of travel in Peru because it happens so frequently. The folks who gotta be at work at 5am (most of ’em) probably don’t appreciate it so much though.

The bus left on time but just as we left it began to rain. It rained for about 20 minutes. In the jungle it only rains for about 20 minutes but in quantity it’s worth about a year of Seattle rain. To cut a long story short we reached a muddy stretch of the road and there were about 30 trucks stopped in the mud all over the road. Here there is no policy of “hey it’s raining, let’s all wait till the mud is dry”, there’s the the “let’s dump some of the load we’re carrying on the road and then put our foot on the gas” policy. The result as that we ended up going on foot in the pitch black night from truck to truck, waking up the drivers and then arguing with them for about 15 minutes till they moved their truck 10 feet so the bus could get past.

THE BUS LIGHTS ILLUMINATE OUR VIGILANTE  ROADCLEARING MOB

THE BUS LIGHTS ILLUMINATE OUR VIGILANTE ROADCLEARING MOB

We couldn’t get too far ahead of our bus because it was dark and we were in the Jungle and, as one fellow passenger put it: there are 20 foot anacondas in the jungle. “Are you really worried about anacondas?” I asked this fellow, who lives in the area. “No,” he replied, “I’m going to stay here.” If the reader wishes to try his hand at this kind of puzzle, I suggest Rushhour, which happily avoids the six inches of mud, the mosquitos, and the “human element” which is a mob of 30 irritated passengers screaming obscenities at an equally irritated truck driver who wants to sleep rather than move his truck who inevitibly claimed that his truck was stuck in the mud and couldn’t move till morning. Sometimes the driver was right and his truck really WAS stuck and 30 irritated passengers would push a fully loaded truck the requisite distance for us to get by.

This also reminded me of a different ill fated bus ride from Chachapoyas to Tarapoto (5 hours: ha!). So on mountain roads buses careen around steep one lane mountain roads. As we climbed the hill an overly eager bus driver decided to remove our side mirror. I think he wanted more but we had a stingy bus driver. Needless to say buses around here don’t carry third party insurance. The police showed up in record time and quickly came up with the solution. The offending driver must pay out of pocket 50 soles (about $15) for the ruined headlight. “A slap on the wrist!!!” I thought. Not so: needless to say the driver lacked said money in a serious way and we waited for 2 hours while he somehow obtained it and we could move on.

On the plus side my journey from Pucallpa to Huanuco made me plenty of friends on the bus. On of the men was a travelling salesman. Here there’s a fiesta in every city every couple months and lots of people selling junk travel from town to town cashing in on the buying fever. He had enough money for one night in Huanuco and we split cab fare to the economic choice for hostals in town. It’s nice travelling with Peruvians, you don’t have to pay Gringo Tax.

Pucallpa and onward

We arrived in Pucallpa at 3am that night. Everyone stayed on board because Pucallpa is quite dangerous at night. The stories are that the taxi drivers take you off to some deserted place, kill you for a few dollars, and dump your body in the lake. Who knows if there is any truth to these stories but after the pirate incident I decided to head that same day for terra tranquila: Huanuco.

Pucallpa is a crossroads city, flourishing as the necessary junction from the river to several roads. Dirt roads. It is hot, humid and the dust from the dirt roads is intolerable. Every city in Lima has a plaza, some of which are nicer than others. But I think that only Pucallpa has an open urinal in theirs.

PUCALLPA IS DUSTY

PUCALLPA IS DUSTY

David, Lucy, Jarden and I all left the boat together in the morning and went exploring. Jarden is a Pucalpeño and knew the territory. The four of us visited the tourist strip: a mosquito ridden lake, quite beautiful but with litter and abandoned boats everywhere. It was much as one might imagine a tourist strip in the deep Louisiana bayou.

PUCALLPA IS FILLED WITH ABANDONED BOATS

PUCALLPA IS FILLED WITH ABANDONED BOATS

We then proceeded to the market where we ate watermelon.

JARDEN LIKES WATERMELON

JARDEN LIKES WATERMELON

Lucy Pucallpa, which is bad because she and Jarden are stuck there until they earn enough money for onward tickets to their next destination: Lima. Jarden’s brother owns a car in Lima and Jarden could rent it from him to use as a taxi. As I mentioned before, Jarden and Lucy intend to travel the country together, visiting family. Before they both had reasonable jobs that paid the rent and put food on the table. Lucy worked in a restaurant and Jarden was a mototaxi driver by trade. They each earned about 10 soles ($3.30) a day in income, which paid the rent but left no savings. It is hard to imagine that I used to earn in one day what one of them made in over two and a half months (of working every day, of course). It is hard to comprehend the fact, it is impossible for me to understand why. Here in Pucallpa their family didn’t approve of their unmarried status and they felt more comfortable sleeping outside than they did with Jarden’s relatives. They estimate that, working hard and sleeping outside, they could save the money they need (about $25) in about three weeks.

I gave them my sleeping bag and $1.50 (capable of buying a day’s worth of food) and I caught the evening bus to Huanuco.

LANCHA pt. 4: Pirates!

The next day passed quite as the others: sunny and lazy. But that evening there was quite a bit of a stir.

Most of the boat was watching Titanic. Meanwhile my game of Casino had turned into a conversation about Peru’s governmental problems, of which there are many. Like most other Latin American countries Peru has been plagued by thieving civil servants who view their primary task as looting the people. One of innumerable examples would be the 80km road that was built in the jungle connecting Iquitos to the neighboring town of Nauta. The road ended up taking 10 years and costing 48 million dollars. The reason was that over that period every regional president used the project as a kind of slush fund to line their own projects. Three separate regional governors did this until it was finally uncovered. There are many parties in Peru but only really a few serious ones, all of which are crooked. Peruvians are very frustrated.

I remember when I was teaching my room decided to have an “island theme.” I wanted to tie this into the whole idea of tying the island into different subjects. If we were really on an island we could study geography, history, and government. I was most excited about government. My plan: the initial idea was to give the kids an imaginary island and they could draw a map of the island, write up their own laws, etc. It turned out that this was a little openended for most of them so I decided to give them a preexisting island. For some reason I chose Haiti and, as the projects came in it became clearer and clearer that Haiti was in serious trouble. I would ask my students: “Ok. You’re the president. Now what’s the best way to solve this country’s problems.” We would talk for hours but I never found a student with a solution other than revolution. So we had a revolution: for art students would design the new flag, new rules, new everything. The project continued for a month before it ran its course and we moved on. Two months later the actual Republic of Haiti decided to follow our lead and had a revolution.

The point of the Haiti story is that, looking at a country’s options actually isn’t something only specialists understand and it’s becoming more and clear to me that Peruvians seem to feel that they are out of options. They are not big fans of democracy because over and over they elect people who steal from them and, sometimes, kill them. Something that has been coming up more and more in these conversations is turning to a military government.

I was raised anti-military and I have always believed that military governments are the kinds of things that begin with elite commandos raiding congress in the dead of night. But it seems that no government rules without popular support of one kind or another and there is currently a lot of support for the armed forces.

I asked my friends why the military government would be better than now. “The military provides more order. Our country needs more order,” they said. “But the problem isn’t that there is no order in the streets, the problem is that the government takes all the money. Do you think the military will steal less?” I replied. “There is more order with the military. The government too. There is just more order in general.”

I was unconvinced but at that moment there started to be a bit of a hullabaloo. People ran around the room and looked out the windows yelling “Saltaro! Saltaro!” meaning “Jumper! Jumper!” Since I got onboard I had been scared about the idea of falling out of the boat. The night before I had seen a large snake’s head moving about around the boat while we were stopped. The room became electric and people started becoming more and more agitated, running in circles and looking for something to do. But then people began to run away from the windows, quickly shutting them and then moving away. Some people began to hide under tables. Then a few shots rang out. “Oh!” I thought. “They meant ‘assaulto’!” I was in no position to understand exactly what was happening but had the overwhelming feeling that I would like to hide under the table with the others. Under the tables were a lot of crying children and I heroically gave my polar fleece to a 12 year old girl to put over her head. At least it felt heroic at the time. The atmosphere was very tense but after two minutes everyone came out and it was somehow all over. As we sped away into the night, leaving the attackers to gnaw at their bones, all anyone could talk about was the assault.

I heard stories from everyone about what had happened and every story was different. Jarden told me that the attackers were terrorists and that there was a terrorist village downstream and we had turned around and were returning to Iquitos. Others told me that they were just ordinary robbers, only after the money in the boat’s lockbox but we had outrun them. Gemma told me that this happens frequently and that they steal from all the passengers and frequently rape women. But the only story I believe is the one that I heard while standing while talking to a fellow boat passanger who was also on my bus from Pucallpa to Huanuco. Apparently there were no robbers at all. There had been a robbery four days earlier and, in the dark, a small boat didn’t respond to the captain’s hail. Our jumpy captain had started yelling that there was an assault underway, fired some shots in the air and hit the gas.

LANCHA pt. 3: filling up

On the third day the ship was entirely in a routine. I awoke late for breakfast (café con leche) but so did everyone else – apparently if we are to be served the same every day then we are not as excited to rush. I noticed pretty early on that I’d been mistaken in my assumption that because of my precautions against mosquito bites had worked for the past few days, I no longer needed to take them. I woke up to find a healthy 20 bites about my feet and legs. I had been so confidant in my shorts for protection but their weaknesses became immediately clear to me. The bites itched like hell for the next 3 or 4 days. Mosquitoes here don’t play around: the bites are about 3 times larger and a sight more itchy than those of their American cousins. The mosquitoes were also more devious and I had numerous bites on the soles of my feet. For the next few days it was terrible to walk in sandals and shoes burned like fire.

I spent little time in my pueblito instead in the restless spirit of my trip I decide to play the social butterfly flitting from floor to floor. The time passed lazily as whiled away the hours playing cards, drawing the scenery, taking photos as we stopped to load and unload cargo. People would get on and off the boat but more would get on than off and soon the boat began to become crowded. By the evening meal the landscape of the second floor had completely changed and our small backwater pueblito had become a bustling city complete with a bustling nightlife, food vendors and possibly a criminal underworld. It was so crowded that people would board the boat with hammocks and have no place for them. This is astonishing for anyone who has traveled in a boat where everyone slept in hammocks because, alternating high and low, you can fit more people into a small space in hammocks than any other method of bedding. That night people slept in the doorways and with the animals on the prow of the boat. Upstairs Gemma faced a problem because a two very large women had moved in so close to her that they simply could not both be in their hammocks at the same time. Every time Gemma sat down in her hammock the woman would cry out in pain but greeted any attempt at talking it out with cold, grim stonewalling. She knew she was in the wrong but she simply was not going to sleep out in the cold.

Our pueblito’s new immigrants posed another problem as well: with all this movement our baggage was no longer secure and constant guard was placed on our bags. But late that night while the pueblito circled wagons I donned my long pants and other mosquito protection and headed out to the explore Cantamana, a passing town, with some friends (Pedro, Gemma and Patty) from the boat. They were excited because the town had a telephone and they could call their families.

That night I stayed up looking at the stars a bit longer. Then went back to my pueblito and passed out.

LANCHA pt. 2: Fiesta on the 4th floor

I woke up much more rested. Breakfast was cafe con leche whcih is served in a bowl and has little to do with coffee or milk, looks like Amazonian river water and tastes like a Frapuccino fell in a vat of boiling water. The object of the game is to dunk your ration of 3 stale pieces of bread in the brown broth and soak up what nutrients you can. While to the reader at thome this may sound scant but I assure you that to us it it was like angel food cake with fresh strawberries and we finished our last drops with gusto. Well, I didn’t exactly finish but, as was to become the custom with all meals aboard ship, I would offer my food to Jarden who, at first with reluctance and then with increasing eagerness, accepted my gifts. Filled with bread, warm water and an eagerness to stretch my legs I decided to set off to see the other floors.

The boat begins in the hold, which is reached by a very large dumbwaiter attached to a winch and contains a lot of exotic cargo.
The first floor of the boat is also reserved for cargo and extends into the prow, where the larger cargo is stored: everything from contstruction equipment and boats to farm animals and large bags of dried fish. Boats and airplanes are the only way to transport anything to roadless Iquitos and for bigger ticket items the only real Previeweconomic way is boat.

THE PROW OF THE BOAT ON THE FIRST DAY

THE PROW OF THE BOAT ON THE FIRST DAY

THE PROW OF THE BOAT FILLS UP AS WE GO

THE PROW OF THE BOAT FILLS UP AS WE GO

As we go down the river we stop by tiny pueblitos and upload their cargo of bananas, fish, rice and other jungle produce and offload our travelling vendors who stay the night to sell their wares and then catch the next boat one stop to the pueblito downstream. We also take on people and as the voyage progresses hammock space becomes more and more dear.

SMALL COMMUNITY GATHERS TO GREET OUR BOAT

SMALL COMMUNITY GATHERS TO GREET OUR BOAT

THEN THEY CARRY STUFF ON

THEN THEY CARRY STUFF ON

The second floor of the boat is where I live and sleep. It is the biggest, the most crowded and it contains the kitchen. Every time the cook banged his spoon against the cooking pot everyone ran to get food. At first this wasn’t important as everyone got the same but, as the final days of the voyage approached and the kitchen began to run out of food, not everyone on the crowded ship got to eat.

The second floor also housed the majority of toilet/showers. The shower was directly over the toilet so, in theory you could wash yourself as you went about your business but I never tried this luxury. At first they were clean and self cleaning but later the drains become clogged and water and human waste piled up leading to an unpleasant for the unwary late night visitor.

The third floor was somewhat the executive level. While anyone could sleep here, there is less space and only two bathrooms which keeps the population lower. It also has a better stocked kioske which serves beer at the outragous amount: $1 per can. On Amtrak they charge $4.50 for a beer but here on land you can buy a delicious steak with all the trimmings and a drink for $1.50.

Aboard the Don Segundo it was virtually impossible to be without companionship and I needed only wander a few steps before finding new friends. Or rather they find me: everyone wants to talk to the gringo. I took a few pictures of children eating things off the ground the next thing I knew I had been invited to the 4th floor for a drink. Not wanting to arrive empty handed I went downstairs to get my supply of canchita, a treat for anyone who enjoys the the toasted but unpopped kernals of corn usually left at the bottom of the bag. Usually served on top of ceviche it is a tasty treat in its own right and on board the Don Segundo, best kept under lock and key. I kept it in a black plastic bag similar to my toiletry bag and every time I would go to get my soap Jarden would ask: “Canchita?” I had hidden some canchita in a blue bag and, suspicions unaroused, I ran back up to join the party.

The party was a real party complete with an MP3 cd player busting out the top 150 cumbya music hits which might as well be the top 5 because they all sound the same to me. After the cramped conditions below I was entirely unprepared for the sight. An MP3 player pumped out the Peruvian Top 150, which might as well have been the top 5 because they all sound the same to me. Young men and women danced, joked and drank beers in the sun.

YOUNG PERUVIANS READY TO PARTY

YOUNG PERUVIANS READY TO PARTY

I had imagined a 5 day Amazonian boat ride as a rather grim endeavor best remembered as a tough experience overcome with your fellow travellers. This might be true on the lower levels where people complained of the bread prices: “30 cents for five loaves? Outrageous! It’s half that at home! I would rather go hungry!” These high rolling 20 somethings had strewn the roof level with their empty, and expensive, beer cans. The only other inhabitants of the roof level seemed to be small children who took glee in throwing the cans off the side into the river.

Peruvians love to litter and, though I don’t pretend to involve myself with noble task of changing their culture, every time I see it I am filled with the burning desire to say “You know, one day you or your children are going to have to go down to that river and fish that bottle back out just to put it in a garbage can. It’d really be easier for everyone if you just put it there now.”

I FINALLY LEARN THE DANCE CUMBYA

I FINALLY LEARN THE DANCE CUMBYA

The day was idyllic and we danced the hours away.

LANCHA pt.1: Aboard the Don Segundo

This is a long post and I suggest the reader find a nice cup of Tension Tamer tea, a quiet place, and only then venture on the voyage found in the following pages. You have been forwarned. Avast!

Florence and I went to the market this morning and bought the necessary items for our respective journeys. His is the logical next step from Iquitos, the gateway to Brazil: a three day journey to the border town of Tabatinga. I, on the other hand, was doubling back on my route back south to Cusco and then on to Bolivia. We bought hammocks and ties, plastic bowls, utensils, flashlight. And water.

We are, of course, to be on a river which has plent of water. But as the ship also has bathrooms and the products of those bathrooms get dumped in the river, I concluded that I would need five days of water. I decided on 10 liters, fhat our 2.5 liter bottles.

Florence and I got a mototaxi to the docks where we had inquired earlier. Almost there it appeared as if there were a group of protesters spilling into the roadway. As we neared they began screaming at us “Pucallpa! Pucallpa!” and I began to realize that they were boat tauts, no more and no less than the the guy on the Lima buses who screams the route to, somehow, drum up business from people who thought they wanted to walk. I asked the driver and he said that there were two boats leaving tonight for Pucallpa but the food was better on the one we’d just seen because it was cooked by women. He also told me it was cheaper. Both facts turned out to be blatant lies intended to get more fare from us for my return journey back to the first dock.

We dropped Florence off and he and I bid eachother a fond “adieu” and I returned to the other dock. The taxi driver charged an additional price for our short return journey (3.5 soles) but had to wait while I got change by buying my ticket. The ticket cost about $22 for 5 days, including food. Unfortunately my change was returned to me as two 5 sole coins, which meant I had to rely on the driver to give me more change. He promptly decided that his time waiting for his increased fare was worth more than he’d thought and changed his price to 4 soles. I glared at him until he gave me another 20 centavos in change and then ran for the door.

It’s ironic that I should care about so little money but somehow it comes down to “principle”, had he quoted 5 soles in the beginning and stuck to it that would have been fine but the idea of changing prices because I am a gringo is upsetting to me and puts me in the position of haggling over 50 cents every time I buy something.

I BOARD THE GOOD SHIP DON SEGUNDO

I BOARD THE GOOD SHIP DON SEGUNDO

After my friend, the mototaxi driver escaped with an extra 15 cents, I wondered bewhildered up the flight of stairs leading to the second and middle floor of the boat, wondering if I ought to set up my hammock now or later. I finished clunking up the stairs with my 4 bottles of water I was greeted by a humming beehive of activity.

There were hammocks everywhere, old men, women, babies, kids, people of every shape and size imaginable. Among these hammocks kids flitted about selling products ñole bowls, soap, water, soft drinks, and home cooked meals for unprepared travellers while families hauled their worldy possessions about the large cabin. The occupancy of the boat said 250 but with the “bring your own hammock” policy I was sure no one was counting. In my bewhilderment I heeded the advice of everyone I had spoken to which was “pretty much every place on the boat is the same”, which turns out to be a complete lie, and I chose a place directly above the furnace and next to the kitchen, bar, and the only garbage I saw on the ship. The garbage can turned out to be the cleanest place on the ship as no one uses garbage cans in Peru. For our nonrecyclable items there is the river or, better, the floor of the cabin. The smell of raw, market-bought chicken pervaded the air, as did the five songs that get repeated over and over at every discotech. Luckily on board the Don Segundo the CDs were so scratched that you only had to listen to half the song.

At first I was worried this might not be enough but once on the boat I was happy I did not spring for the 6 bottle pack as the eager young water salesman suggested because just as I was beginning to realize that I was losing about one liter of water every hour from sweating in the 90 degree humidity I opened my first water bottle and heard the familiar “hhssssss” of sparkling mineral water, which is packaged exactly like still water, or as they like to call it “water without gas”. It is as if on the third day God Almighty first seperated land from the gaseous water and only later seperated regular carbonated water from it’s redheaded stepchild “gas-less water”.

I turns out gaseous or no, almost no one else brought water. To this day I do not know how Peruvians drink it, probably in the privacy of their own homes. In public they stick to juice, soft drinks and beer. If they do drink water then it’s the cursed carbonated water. I hoped to find some poor Peruvian who had, by some mistake, bought still water so that I could trade them, perhaps at a profit.

It only took me a couple of hours to realize the error of my ways and, though I hated to appear as if I were leaving my neighborhood with delusions of upward mobility, I bid a silent goodbye to my neighbors and slunk off to the front of the boat and crept into small space between two hammocks far from the noise and heat of the engine, which rocked the whole boat.

JARDEN AND LUCY PLAY CARDS

JARDEN AND LUCY PLAY CARDS

I then had an hour or so of reading my book before the typical getting to know you chit chat started up. On my right side was David, studying to take the university entrance exam in a private school and on my left was Jarden and Lucy, two penniless lovers who dreamed of travel but had no money. They go from city to city, visiting family and trying to save for the next onward ticket.

DAVID STUDIES

DAVID STUDIES

As I set up my hammock I noticed a girl of 20 or so years more tickled than most at the new addition to the neighborhood. Every move I made, tying my knots which made me nervous and I ended up tying them loosely. As we drifted off to sleep I notieced that this girl had no hammock and my neighbors told me semi-jokingly that she wanted to sleep with me. I glanced over in disconfirm this rumor only to find an unequivicable statement of affirmation on the girl’s face.

After talking for some time we slept as we could and woke up with the sun, around 6am. There was various movement as people went about their morning ablutions and then all of a sudden a man started banging loudly on a pot and within seconds the air become electric: we rushed with our tupperware towards the kitchen. Breakfast turned out to be Quaker (pronounced QUAH-KERR) which is Quaker Oats, very thin with condensed milk and water. Very sweet, and with some stale bread: delicious.

After breakfast we became more jovial. I offered my cards up and they became popular immediately. We played on teams and my team lost famously until I figured out that folks on the boat actually knew American style Casino and that I knew the strategy.

Far from the lonesome voyage down the solitary undergrowth, somtimes pushing fallen trees aside while dodging anacondas and unfriendly indians with blowdarts. Instead I’m playing games called “punch” and “dirty ass” with new friends while drinking Bimbo Break Lemon Lime Soda.

After this I passed the time writing, reading, and talking. I tried to read my Lonely Planet but it is like reading a phone directory for Disneyland so mostly I spent my time talking. Everyone likes to talk to the foreigner and everyone knows someone in the United States. Who knows if they actually do but they sure like to talk about it. They like to hear about my journey and differences in culture.

Also I have become more culturally prepared for the food sharing. I am careful not to offer things I want to keep for once something has entered into the community it belongs to community and is there to come and go as the members of the community wish. For instance, I offered my sleeping bag to one girl the other night and the next night she offered it to my neighbors, Jarden and Lucy. Also with precious soda: once one other person takes a sip of it it might pass the lips of the other 248 passengers before it returns to the original owner. But still, it’s worth it. Despite the fact that I am now the one buying drinks for everyone, I am pleased. At least people seem to have their own stories, own agendas, and not looking to get drinks from the rich gringo tourist.

I am the only gringo on the boat for five days and no one speaks a lick of English except for the occasional “Thankyou noproblem” which is followed by giggling at the use of a different language.

The days aboard the boat are divided up by meals. Lunch was typically rice, noodles, a very small piece of chicken (like a beak or a leg), and a dozen beans. Dinner was even better: chicken soup, minus the chicken. They do not serve drinks and, water being expensive ($1 a liter) no one really brought any. With good cause I began to see the writing on the wall: on day three the drink line was going to form around me and I remembered the best training manual I could have ever read: Tortilla Flats by John Steinbeck.

There are people who are happy that everyone shares for they have nothing. What a windfall to this culture I must be and while there is something to be said for the respect of private property, there is also something uncomfortable about having more and not sharing, asking those with less to sit and watch you enjoy your happy life. There’s something anti-community in, though at the same time I think respect of one’s “betters” and their wealth seems to be a cornerstone of society. Still, it’s interesting and refreshing having to rethink my bounderies, learning to keep that which is Ceaser’s unto Caeser and also asking myself who really needs these things more: me or the others around me. All private property is theft from the community and it is ironic that we feel this idea of loss most when our own private property leaves us and is distributed among the community, among those who want or need it more.

By lunchtime my enamorada had invited me to hear her sing at church and gazed at me with a look that could only mean she had the names of our first five children already worked out and that I would have to hurry if I wanted some say in the names of the second half of our family.

By now we had settled into a comfortable routine of playing cards and talking, broken every so often by Jarden turning up with new alcoholic drinks he had liberated from another “neighborhood”.

THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS

THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS

One of them, translated to “7 deadly sins” – essentially an alcoholic aphrodesiac that is “guaranteed to give you an erection” could well be the official drink of the jungle. All alcoholic drinks in the jungle seem to be aphrodesiacs. They are sold in the market, not the stores and all have names like “Breaking the Panties” or “Losing the Virginity” or something like that. They are all made from trees and are homebrews marred by no brand names. They are sold in markets by old women who probably ought to know better.

THESE LADIES SHOULD (AND PROBABLY DO) KNOW BETTER

THESE LADIES SHOULD (AND PROBABLY DO) KNOW BETTER

I now learn my Spanish in themes of conversation, much like the chapters in a Spanish textbook. I traded card games until late into the night with two twenty year old “boys” who ran their own business selling clothes. They explained words like “profit”, “investment”, and “factory mistake”. They would travel from Lima to Iquitos and back, selling their clothing to very small villages at a 150% profit. But even this outrageous markup, they explained, was the market price as the cost of travel to these villages is prohibitive. Many times they would only break even. But, if the reader chooses to browse the photo section of the blog, he will find that on this boat ride the rural villagers living in towns accessable only by boat wore new clothing only a few months behind that of Lima. I was very impressed by these boys and they were so impressed by my impression that one of them gave me a clipon reggae earring that he claimed to have made by hand.

Tired and interested in how it felt to sleep in a hammock I decided to retire. After one failed attempt which left me sitting on the floor I successfully entered the thing, pulled up my sarong over my body for a sheet and mosquito protection, and drifted off to sleep.

NEXT:
PART 2: Fiesta on the 4th Floor

Foreigners in America Beware!

So I searched on googlenews.com for “South America” and the number two article (after “South America Headed Towards Unification” was this article: Foreigners in America Beware! Not up to date on the news and being a foreigner in America, I quickly checked. I suggest you do the same.

I guess here’s a little something I’d forgotten after being a month in Peru.

My favorite quote:
Foreigners in America beware! Someday our patience will end, and then the despicable, lying mouths of the foreigners and corrupt politicians will be closed forever.

It’s hard to look in the mirror. I would like to tell myself that this is not a strongly held opinion but it was number two on googlenews for some reason… probably because lots of people check that site out…

forever is a really long time…

Iquitos Policos

Iquitos a tranquilo city in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. I met up with Tan of SAE and sister on their final day in town. I called my SERVAS host to leave a message that I was going out with them and we danced all night, only returning at 5am to sleep for a few hours before their plane. It was Fiesta Patrias and the main center was shut down for military parades. It occured to me that the USA rarely has large public military parades. When we want to show off our strength we use another country for our parade. I told this to Florence, who is from France, and he laughed…

On returning to my SERVAS house in the early afternoon I was greeted with the unpleasant news that she had not recieved my message and had notified the police and was on the verge of notifying the papers. It was unbelievably embarrassing to have to go the police and explain in my broken Spanish that I was alivea and had not been killed. In retrospect I want pictures of the police station but I felt too bad to take them at the time. In theory everyone had done everything right but I somehow felt I had been a burden and I decided not to go dancing again the next night.

The next day I went to buy stuff for the boat ride with Florence. I bought a hammock, water, flashlight, eating equipment, etc. I used up my last few Soles and literally had 15 cents to my name. We went to get cash and had one of those Holy Shit moments when the machine ate my card. The bank was closed and wouldn’t help me and only with the aid of a swiss army knife and some scissors did the damn thing come out, one hour and one very freaked out Nathan later. Scary scary.

COMING SOON ON NATHAN’S BLOG:

NOTES ON AN AMAZONIAN BOAT RIDE

NOTES ON AN AMAZONIAN BOAT RIDE

travelling light

So when I left for this trip I was surprised at how OCD I became about the size and weight of my backpack, weighing out everything that was to enter it. I was obsessed with “travelling light”.

People travel heavy because they do not trust the world to be there for them tomorrow. Perhaps they don’t trust that the place they visit will have things like coffee or tea and they bring their own. Perhaps the place they visit will not have people to talk to so they bring books. Perhaps the world will be hot or cold and the world will not provide shelter so they bring clothes for all situations. Many people travel by bringing their worlds with them, frequently on their shoulders. The typical story is that of course the world provides things and the instant coffee brought from home never gets made. The heavy packers end up either hanging onto their stuff for the trip (too scared to throw it away because perhaps they might need it some day) or they throw it out (and make the conversion to light packer).

ZEN

ZEN

But there’s also another kind of heavy packing. I recently found that I would frequently preoccupy myself with plans and eventualities that simply never got used. I carry many thoughts (“What job will I have when I get back to the States?”, etc.) like a 60 liter backpack! It’s uncomfortable to carry my worries but it’s hard to let go and not worry, allow the world to provide and enjoy the weightlessness.

Treehouse Haircut

BELIN, IQUITOS – Here many houses are built on stilts because the Amazon floods half the year and the city becomes like Venice, except imagine your Venecian Coke costing ten cents rather than two euros. Soda is definately cheaper and more readily available than water.

MR TREEHOUSE

MR TREEHOUSE

I needed a haircut and got one in a stilt house. Really cool.

I'M HAPPIER WITH MY SIXTY CENT HAIRCUT THAN I LOOK

I’M HAPPIER WITH MY SIXTY CENT HAIRCUT THAN I LOOK

So just realized that I’m in the same location as Blanka from Street Fighter II.

HERE BLANKA DEFEATS KEN AT MY HAIR SALON

HERE BLANKA DEFEATS KEN AT MY HAIR SALON

Iquitos

I missed the boat. But I got a plane and consequently…

Greetings from Iquitos, the world’s largest city which is not connected by any roads! Instead it is sort of an island surrounded by the Amazon River and then doubly isolated by being surrounded by hundreds of miles of dense rainforest with nary a city or town inbetween. Outrageous really. What is the city like? It has about 500,000 people (though when I asked, the mototaxi driver said 20,000) and it is loud and bustling. It’s super hot and humid year round. Way too hot for shoes. Also it is expensive because almost all regular items have to arrive by plane. To be honest, I’m not sure why so many people live here. Though perhaps I’ll find out.

THIS CAFE OVERLOOKS THE AMAZON RIVER

Right now I’m full of delicious caiman, which I had for lunch in a buttery sauce that would make the Cheesecake Factory blush. I was just walking back to my SERVAS host’s house to get my travel wallet, which I seem to have left here. Perhaps I will also take a nap and go out later.

My initial impression of the city is one of drama and crazyness: a party city in the middle of the jungle. Many tourists. Many locals wanting to get laid. In fact, outside of Iquitos the only thing Peruvians could tell me about the jungle was that there were many “mujeres callientes”. And they don’t mean “calliente” in the way that a cup of coffee or fresh bread is hot. Time after time I would mention I was going to the jungle and Peruvians would advise me to use protection. “Maleria?” I would ask innocently. “Condoms” they would reply. One particularly macho Peruvian looked at me with fear in his eyes: “Sometimes I am not wanting to have sex and I say to stop and they do not stop.”

So needless to say, Iquitos has a somewhat sleazy reputation. But what do the locals think about their city? I asked my SERVAS host who owns a taxi rental business: What makes the jungle different from other places in Peru? She answered that without a doubt it was the “mujeres callientes” that gave it the local flavor. Cheerfully she pointed out a liquor on the shelf of a store: “This is called ‘Breaking the Panties’!” Apparently a local favorite.

 

SIGN THAT YOU ARE IN A SLEAZY CITY

SIGN THAT YOU ARE IN A SLEAZY CITY

Every time I hear about this I ask if this cultural phenomenon is true, if it’s dangerous because of deseases, if it’s new and why it exists? The answers are 100% consistant and they are:

TRUE? yes, everyone says it’s true.
DANGEROUS? yes, everyone says it’s good to be ultra safe though no one says the place is desease ridden.
NEW? not a single person has any idea whatsoever about how long it’s been like this (though I’m guessing it’s old as the trees)
WHY? 2 explanations: 1) no one wears any clothes around here, which is partly true. Most people are half naked. and 2) there’s nothing to do in the afternoon because after 1pm it’s really warm and people just kind of lay around.

Synopsis: I have never been to a city where the promescuity of the local population is attached to a sense of pride.

JUNGLE TOWN

JUNGLE TOWN

Finally the pictures are up to speed with my trip. Mostly. I’ll be going back and doing more pictures as I get them uploaded. There are many many but if you want to see them, check the gallery my brother set up for me.

Global Challenge

While trying to price out trips to Lagunas de Los Condores in Leymabamba I came across what looked like a group of 15 British teen tourists. I figured they’d know about tour companies but it turned out to be a British group called Global Challenge, volunteers who come to Peru to help out Peru. This seems good because Peru has plenty of problems. They were filled with youthful optimism but they weren’t quite sure where to start. Having looked around the town they found that the most pressing job they could do was to paint the market and when I encountered them they were looking for paint.

Yesterday I came across the same group, this time in Tarapoto. They were eating at the best restaurant in town. I asked them how the painting went. “Not good” they said. The first problem was there was no paint in the town. Only a couple buckets so they had to leave the job half finished. The second problem was that the paint was ugly: red and green. “Christmas colors?” I asked. But the guy said no. The third problem was that the local Leymabambans kept telling them that they were painting incorrectly and wasting paint. This was infuriating to them and they sort of had the attitude of “hey! we’re doing this out of the KINDNESS OF OUR HEARTS! We’ve just payed about $3000, maybe as much as you make in a year, to come on a trip to HELP you guys by painting your market. You could be more appreciative!” What was most interesting to me was that while there was confusion, no one had really grappled with the main questions: Why was there no paint to be had? And why hadn’t the Peruvians taken care enough to paint their own market?

The cost of transporting this British labor was tremendous, if it was about getting the market painted they could have sent a cheque for about $30 but what it was really about was feeling charitable and teaching Britain’s youth to be good global citizens. Happily they told me that now that the market painting was over the group was off to spear pirhanas. I told them I thought that that sounded difficult. “What do you use?” I asked. They didn’t know but they were sure it was going to be easier than painting that market.

up the river

My aunt died yesterday and it’s hard not to be there for the funeral. The best way The only way I can really comprehend it is to imagine my brothers getting on the plane and my mom and dad at my aunt and uncle’s house. Dear family, when you read this, my thoughts are with you and I love you all and wish I were there.

I remember a conversation with Mrs. Culpepper I had before I left about loss. She said one way to view life is as a permenant condition of loss. Every moment we lose something and as we change we lose our old selves. We define ourselves in how we accept this loss and change. I believe travelling for long periods is a case study in accepting loss, a lesson in saying goodbye. Every day I meet new interesting people, close connections, and must say goodbye. Every day I find amazing places that I love and but there’s always the next bus.

To misquote somone:
life is but a memory and a forgetting…
trailing clouds of glory do we come.

Tomorrow I plan to set sail from the port town of Yurimaguas to the big jungle city of Iquitos. I’ll be leaving Tarapoto at 4am in a car going over super nasty dirt roads. It’s supposed to be 4-5 hours and I hope I make it before the departure time of 10am. Otherwise there isn’t another boat for 2 days. Tough stuff.

At the SAE office I took some unused maleria pills (Chloroquine & Proguanil) but in Tarapoto you can only buy Chloroquine. I did. 20 tablets of 250mg. On the plus side it’s cheap, on the minus side there’s some choloroquine resistance in the Amazon. Not good. Also the woman told me to take 500mg a day while CDC tells me 500mg a week. Confusing. Will look for Doxycycline in Iquitos.

I am tired and must now go to the market to look for clothes for the trip.

laguna de los condores

Leymabamba is a tiny town of a couple thousand, most famous for it’s museum of fairly grotesque mummies. Or at least grotesque to me. In Cajamarca the family I was staying with told me to go there and showed me pictures of the mummies.

MUMMIES IN THE SACK

MUMMIES IN THE SACK

MUMMIES OUT OF THE SACK

MUMMIES OUT OF THE SACK

MUMMIES LOOK BETTER STILL IN THE SACK

What the Chachapoyans (the mummy guys) did was suck out everything that wasn’t skin and bones, crumple it up and put it in a really pretty sack. Then they would draw what was essentially a cute happy face on it. Then they built a small building behind a waterfall and shoved in about 250 of these guys. It’s actually in plain view and you can see it if you know what to look for but no one really did. Not for at least a thousand years. Locals had a good idea of where it was but wouldn’t tell anyone for fear of grave robbers. It was eventually discovered when a European (I want to say Dutch) archeologist’s wife insulted a local saying that he would never find it and the local guy brought them straight to it. It’s tough to get to – essentially a cliff overhanging a black lagoon.

 

BLACK LAGOON

BLACK LAGOON

It’s an 8-12 hour horsey ride in and then an additional 2 and a half hours from the hut we stayed in.

8 HOURS INTO THE HORSEY RIDE

8 HOURS INTO THE HORSEY RIDE

HARD TO GET TO

HARD TO GET TO

HARD TO GET TO

I am led to believe it always rains there as when we set out it was raining and our guide looked up and said “good day for hiking! It’s hardly raining!”

GOOD WEATHER

GOOD WEATHER

I’m not usually into the concept of guides but this one was amazing and was highly involved in the project from discovery to removal of the artifacts. It was an amazing experience though it was cold and I got to take a little cold home with me as a souvenier.

Celendin to Leymabamba

On the combi from Cajamarca to Celendin I sat next to one of the guys who stops cars and searches them for drugs. He’s on vacation and visiting Celendin because they’re having an ongoing celebration for the next month. I asked him about the route I want to take through the jungle. Apparently there is some narcotrafficking. He said it was no problem. I arrived in the Plaza de Armas in Celendin alone with no plans and nothing to do until the next bus left for Chachapoyas 4 days later on Sunday (tomorrow).

Tired, I wandered around the center looking for a hostal. I had a great one for 15 sols ($5) with private bathroom with hot water at all hours. But the management was shady and kicked me out because they found people who would pay more. I ended up finding one for 10 sols and a more rustic feel. I was made aware that there was a fiesta in progress by the sound of fireworks being fired off the roof. We are not talking about the kind of fireworks that remind you of 4th of July. They´re the kind of fireworks that remind you that your insurance doesn’t cover acts of war.

THIS BAMBOO STRUCTURE IS RIGGED TO GO OFF OFF THE HOOK THAT IS...

THIS BAMBOO STRUCTURE IS RIGGED TO GO OFF
OFF THE HOOK THAT IS…

I decided to check out the plaza. There were thousands of people and in a town with 5000 people that’s really saying something. But being alone in the midst of a crowd where everyone knows eachother makes you feel alone, like an outsider. i began feeling a little sorry for myself, telling myself that travelling alone is tough and scary. But the fact is that it actually requires some effort to be alone. People are only alone by choice. By nature we’re social animals, seeking eachother out. And after about 10 minutes of feeling lost and alone ion a new city I got up some nerve, scouted out an appropriate throng of youngsters and began conversation.

Like most Peruvians they were incredibly friendly and asked me the usual questions about where I was from and what I was doing around. Then in a little bit the men ran off and bought some rum to mix with sprite. And it was here that I began to notice the differences in culture. They had a 2 litre of Sprite and a litre of rum and a dixie cup. The object is to pass around the dixie cup, the sprite and the rum and mix yourself a 1/8 of a drink. This progresses rapidly and in half an hour the bottle was done and and we proceeded to a bar where they began to drink heavily.

THAT AIN'T THE CAMERA THAT'S BLURRY IT'S MY VISION

THAT AIN’T THE CAMERA THAT’S BLURRY
IT’S MY VISION

In the next few days, the local 20 year olds adopted me and took me around the town and to visit the local hotsprings. It was nice.

MMM HOTSPRINGS...

MMM HOTSPRINGS…

I coordinated with Tanalees from SAE back in Lima. She’s on vacation with her sister and I cought a combi to Leymabamba to meet her. I arrived the day before and had a chance to explore the town. I met with two nice European ladies who were visiting the local weaving and milk products factories. Peru is my training grounds for checking out new travel styles and it’s cool to see different traveller types. These guys go into every store and ask “hey, where do you get this stuff”. Then they visit the factory. Pretty cool.

Cajamarca

I arrived in Cajamarca at 4:30 in the morning and waited till 6:30 in the bus station to show up at the host´s house. Made some progress in “Roughing It” (Mark Twain). The hosts were very welcoming and treated me to a lovely breakfast and afterwards the daughter, Sandra (16), took me around the town and I bought a shirt for 5 soles ($1.30).

In the afternoon I hung out in the town plaza. Every town over a thousand has a Plaza de Armas. Really cool concept. It’s a beautiful place surrounded by wonderful colonial buildings. A place where people come and stroll in a little circle to see and be seen and lovers come and cuddle in the cool evenings. I felt a little apprehensive. Peru seems more “normal” now, like Nevada.

Something interesting is that SERVAS hosts seem to think it is more interesting that I’m Jewish than it is that I´m from another country. Lots of questions and confusion. For most people I’m the first Jew they’ve met and in a Catholic country it’s pretty interesting for them. I had incredibly interesting conversations with my hosts about politics and culture. SERVAS is really amazing. Everyone has been so kind and generous.

Also most SERVAS Peruvians have heard of David Copperfield but have never seen a cardtrick before. People are very appreciative. Also it’s interesting to see how my tricks become more physical as I lose command of the language. But I can finally make jokes.

Here’s a bad one I just made up:

Por que personas piensan que vacas son perezososa?
Porque todo el tiempo estan en VACAciones!!!

JOKE INSPIRATION

JOKE INSPIRATION

Sadly (actually probably happily) it does not translate…

MULE TRANSPORT IN ACTION

MULE TRANSPORT IN ACTION

The next day I went on a long hike to Cumbe Maya with Sandra and one of her friends, Sarah. It was about 4.5 hrs uphill (2 hrs back) and it kicked my butt in parts and if you don’t ask directions you’re liable to get lost.

THIS GUY HELPED US FIND OUR WAY

THIS GUY HELPED US FIND OUR WAY

But it was super fun. Humorously none of us knew that Cumbe Maya is a famous ancient aqueduct so we showed up, ate lunch, and walked back without actually seeing the site. We returned and I took the family out to dinner at Super Chicken, a restaurant which serves… guess what… CHICKEN!!! Super tasty broaster style chicken with fries. Very popular here.

The next day I continued the hiking around Cajamarca with Sandra theme. First we visited some built up hotsprings with an historical twist: this is where Atahualpa bathed. Atahualpa is famous for being the last Inca leader and for being kidnapped about 10 minutes after the Spanish showed their white faces on the shore. In the small museum there was a the mummified corpse of a 20 year old woman who was sacrificed by the water cult. I wonder: was she beautiful? Full of life? How did she face her immenent death? Did they sacrifice the best or worst of the community? Or randomly? What stories did they tell the sacrificed before to get them to go along with it? And all to believe in a meaning. Something to keep away the darkness of disorder? Anything so long as it isn’t nothing… It is better to leave a scary world that makes sense than a meaningless one… or so people believe…

SANDRA AT BAÑOS DEL INCAS

SANDRA AT BAÑOS DEL INCAS

After the baños we went hiking for four or five hours to some 1000 year old cave paintings. If this seems recent, keep in mind South Americans never invented writing. In terms of recording data, llama drawings were high tech in South America.

LLAMA PAINTINGS

LLAMA PAINTINGS

I THINK THIS IS PART OF THE EAR!

I THINK THIS IS PART OF THE EAR!

On the way I got to sample my first piece of tounge and head meat in a delicious soup. It was scary looking but tasty. We returned and went to a very late lunch at Sarah’s parent’s restaurant. Upscale. Tasty.

That night I entertained the troops with some improv card magic and the next morning I left for Celendin.

Lima a Trujillo

So much to tell and I keep putting it off and it just builds up and I forget it. But here goes for some of it.

My last night in Lima I went to a marinera dance class with Tanalees, an girl from the US working in the SAE. She was amazingly helpful during my two solid days spent there plotting my course and researching. The dance class was just what I needed to loosen up for my overnight bus ride to Trujillo (a coastal city in the north).

 

HUANCHACO BEACH NEAR TRUJILLO

HUANCHACO BEACH NEAR TRUJILLO

Trujillo is a lovely city, much more relaxed than Lima but it still bustling with about a million people. It was the economy bus and I didn’t sleep much but it was worth the $8 savings. I arrived and stayed in spartan quarters. It was nice of the hosts to take me in too because I called a day in advance and they only signed up to have girls stay with them. They were, however, an awesome family and were incredibly welcoming. They took me around to check out the city. There were a mother, father and five daughters. I was visiting one of the daughters: Elva, a firecracker of a schoolteacher and activities director. She reminded me a lot of the Choices counsellors. The first day I visited some ruins with one of the sisters, Rosana, who is a archeology buff. The Huaca de la Sol y la Luna was awesome. It’s an old pre-inca city with lots of colorful painting.

PERUVIAN DOGS HAVE NO HAIR... EXCEPT THE MOHAWK...

PERUVIAN DOGS HAVE NO HAIR… EXCEPT THE MOHAWK…

 

HUACA DE LA LUNA

HUACA DE LA LUNA

More interesting was that on the way we passed a sign which says: Chicha de Hora which turns out to be a drink. As best I could understand it’s a corn based beer/alcohol made in plastic buckets and left in the sun for a few weeks. Like many recent food experiences it was tasty but scary. It also threw my stomach for a loop. Best so far is the ceviche: raw fish with lemon and garlic. Unbelievably tasty and on my last day in Trujillo I even tried Ceviche Mixta which comes with raw octopus, squid, and conches. Good but the fish is the best part.

CEVICHE MIXTA: WORLD'S PERFECT FOOD

CEVICHE MIXTA: WORLD’S PERFECT FOOD

8 YEAR OLDS PERFORM TAIKOWONDO

8 YEAR OLDS PERFORM TAIKOWONDO

I visited Elva’s school and watched a mid year show of their artistic talents. Pretty cute watching 8 year olds do a taikwondo workout. But it was cool and the flutes demonstration in the evening was awesome. I ended up leaving with a party on my last night, drinking more than I expected at Elva’s friend’s birthday party. Her friends are mostly English speakers because her school is an English speaking school, Flemming High School.

DIA DE PATRIA CELEBRATIONS

DIA DE PATRIA CELEBRATIONS

Trujillo sports its military pride by having the local school bands practice for Fiesta De Las Patrias, Peruvian Independance Day.

Elva’s family followed the typical pattern of bread with butter and Nescafe for breakfast, a huge lunch with meat in it followed by more bread with butter and Nescafe for dinner. Elva was really shocked that I wanted to help with the dinner dishes (not that there were many). “Men don’t do that here” she exclaimed.

ELVA (TOP LEFT) AND FAMILY

ELVA (TOP LEFT) AND FAMILY

Elvas sisters make awesome crafts but it’s weird because they’re all USA style “country” crafts: the kind of stuff that goes with potpourri. I don’t think Peru has learned about potpourri but I think it’s be all the rage with Elva’s family.

My fourth and final day in the city I met a fellow SERVAS traveller. He had hurt is foot and didn’t want to go hiking in Cajamarca so I got to stay with the host where he was planning on staying. Seeing a fellow SERVAS traveller gave me a lot of good reinforcement. We gave each other a little advice. Mine was on calling hosts. He had been emailing them weeks before. My system so far has been to call them up on the phone at the wrong hours and stuttering out “I am traveller from SERVAS. Sleep you please?” Talking on the phone is infinitely harder than in person, quite possibly because the people on the other end can’t see my apologetic looks as I stumble through tying to tell them that I only want to meet them if it’s convenient for them. When I called the host in Cajamarca I spoke to a child. Or I thought I did. It was confusing. I called back later though and braved it again and spoke to the mother. I think.

Anyways, that night I took a bus to Cajamarca. It was fancy: we had beds and were served tasty sandwiches and hot drinks and I arrived rested.

tourist culture

Having never surfed, let me say that I think travelling is in some respects like surfing. You get up a certain amount of speed and ride the wave, which eventually ends and you need to paddle out again to catch the next one. It’s billed as a cool relaxed lifestyle but when you’re actually doing it it’s exhausting. There are a million things to think about and everything is just a little more difficult.

Staying at the hostal reminded me that there is a whole culture built around providing services for people with too much money: drugs, sex, companionship, etc. It´s crazy though cause local people infected with this culture act overly friendly and then lay their agenda on you, then act shocked when you are suspicious. I assume that as long as there’s been tourism there’s been this odd culture of service but it always catches me by surprise, perhaps because it involves a certain amount of deception. These people aren’t your friends any more than a prostitute is your lover. In this fairly magical culture people use phrases like “you’re my good friend” and “just for you” and “oh… there’s just one thing i have to do on the way” to hide clearly suspicious activity ranging from trying to get me to buy something to bring home to trying to getting a money loan so they can buy drugs.

There’s a sad cycle involved. The vendors push trinkets and things for you to buy because people do buy them. If there were no buyers they would not try so hard. But they do it because they know they might succeed. People want the service.

THE PARADOX OF TOURIST CULTURE
But the other (and perhaps more insidious) side of the coin is that there is a huge demand for this type of attention. People want to go somewhere far, have a one night stand with a local who tells them they´re the greatest lover in the world, engage in semidangerous situations that end with them losing their money and gear. Apparrently for a lot of people that’s what travelling is all about. If the sites were free, who would go look at them? These days people like to pay for fun otherwise how will they know if they’re enjoying themselves and having an “authentic” experience.

Everyone wants the illusive “authentic” experience and looks jealously at other travellers because everyone else is having the more “authentic” experience. Two hardcore trekkers in the SAE made a rookie remark: “We want to go where there are there are no white faces: there are too many white faces in this room.” Irritated and trying to be clever I retorted: “well, there’s really only one way to fix that! though I really ought to have said “I think you’re going to have that problem wherever your go”.

So many people travel to escape themselves only to find a million people just like them. It’s very What the Bleep Do We Know? but until they change their own lens, very little will change for them.

REAL INFORMATION: ARREQUIPA STRIKE
At the same time there are lot of services that are not provided. In fact actual information like the fact that you can’t get to Arrequipa (and consequently the Southern part of the country) is blocked off by strikes and no buses or cars can enter the city. Most people are unconcerned about this. Saying “I think a might head off to Arrequipa” will ellicit a response of “oh, lovely weather” not “hmmm… I think Arrequipa might be difficult because there’s a lot of burning tires and broken glass (not that I’m saying there is, it’s impossible to tell). It’s a normal phenomenon like clouds in the sky and no one is going to go do tough reporting on clouds in the sky even when it involves violent confrontations with the police.

Puño

Yesterday I left my first host family in Servas and set off for my next one, which I connected with back in Sacramento when my Spanish was completely unintelligible (currently people understand the words I say but they´re fairly meaningless: “yes i like fish nights”). Anyways, typical of my 3 year old SERVAS list, the guy who is actually in SERVAS now lives in Berkeley but his family was more than happy to put me up. More than that, they got really excited about showing me around and hanging out. Last night some of my host´s friends took me out to a Peña, a kind of bar where they play the traditional music of black peruvians. Between sets, they play music and everyone dances but during the sets, people sit at long tables and appreciate the official dancers. At some point in the night there was a dancing competition between everyone who was not Peruvian. I was hauled up in front of probably 150 people and had to dance by myself for about a minute in a spotlight with a live band while everyone clapped along in time. There were about 10 other people and I ended up winning wby audience applause and got a big trophy filled with beer. Apparently I can dance now.

Today I went to the beach with my hosts. The beachfront is a lot like Tel Aviv´s (but cold) and has many modern looking buildings. It´s weird how some amenities are available and some not. For instance the very affluent house that I´m staying in has unlimited internet but no hot water. I think hot water is rare and no one seems very excited about the concept.

Every day there is new fruit to discover. Many are the same but larger. For instance: 4 kilo papayas. But there are just some crazy fruits that are hard to describe. Many of these are used as popular ice cream flavors.

Tomorrow I will leave these hosts (2 night rule) and check into a hostal. It will be good to talk to other travellers and get tips. Maybe meet people who´re also travelling. I´ve stopped into two hostals so far just to check them out. I get a funny feeling from them. There´s a really interesting aura surrounding them that it’s hard to put my finger on. I´m sure I{ll start writing about it as soon as I start staying in them. I remember feeling a little isolated and alone in hostels of South Africa. It´s infinitely better to stay with people: I constantly practice my Spanish, which has still not regained its former glory. It´s like being a tourist is my job and when I come home from work I can just be a visitor for awhile. When you stay at hostels you´re a tourist all the time. It´s a nice feeling to be able to switch it up a little.

PERUVIAN FOOD REPORT

All righty. Had some requests to tell about the food.

BREAKFAST

BREAKFAST

Good food abounds in this tasty country of goodness. Lessons learned? This is a list of stuff I already suspected but had reconfirmed by delicious Peru.

1. Everything can be made better with eggs. Including mixed drinks.
2. American food is generally toxic and should be avoided.
3. You can make a pate out of most things. Peru invented Anchovette fish paste.
4. The world needs more spicy cheese sauce on everything.

and the list goes on…

On my first day here I crawled out of bed at 11:30am and was welcomed to what would become my staple breakfast her: ham on bread. Delicious. I´ve always hated ham and still pretend to. Maybe I was just hungry. I don´t know. It was delicous. Bread is good here. Also there are two types of oranges. The orange kind that we have are only for eating. Here there is a second kind only for juicing. And let me tell you now: they juice well. Also this is a country where Nescafe reigns king in middle class households.

But then we come to lunch:
A delectable conconction beginning with yellow potatoes in a spicy cheese sauce that keeps popping up. Everything is made fresh, none of this prepackaged stuff from US of A. After the potatoes came Chicken top of Spanish rice with a little salad.

Perhaps it´s the hosts I´m staying with but they don´t seem to eat dessert. Only coffee or tea.

Today I arrived back at 6:00pm long after lunch (the main meal) but they apparrently made and saved me food: beans, rice and a modest portion of rich meat. Once again, delicious. I ate it while drinking: Inca Cola. It tastes kind of bubbly otter pops. which is frighteningly appealing. Peruvians are very proud of it. “it´s from 1935” says Brian. They point to it as a part of their cultural heritage which is helping them resist imperialism. Coca Cola will never catch on in all of Peru, Brian tells me: Inca Cola complements more Peruvian food.