Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Onion

The other day, in Nazca, I popped into a tiny corner shop to buy some coffee. The old man behind the counter remembered me from the evening before when myself and Jenny dropped in to buy a pack of cards.
"¿Café?" he repeated. "No, no hay café aquí." He shook his head sadly. The shop had everything else but coffee. He offered me some hot chocolate powder instead. "Es muy rico también," he pointed out.
"No gracias," I replied, before asking for the second thing on my list - an onion. "Una cebolla!" he repeated, before looking at me strangely, as if trying to figure out why on earth anyone would want to buy an onion. No. No onions to be had either.
He really looked sad at this stage, as if he'd failed as a shopkeeper by not having the necessary goods in store. He asked what I wanted an onion for. To cook, I replied.
"¿Para cocinar?" he repeated, as if he still couldn't believe it.
He then asked if half an onion would be sufficient, that he had an onion he was going to use for his dinner, but he would gladly give me half. Wait there, he ordered me, before disappearing into a back room. He returned with half a large onion which he proudly placed on the counter.
"Para ti," he proclaimed. He then told me he is making lomo saltado (a beef stir fry, mixed with onions, tomatoes, chili and chips, usually served with rice), and that he would be happy to share it with me too. "Do you want some?" he offered.
Jaysus, I couldn't eat the poor man's dinner! I politely refused. "No gracias." I looked around to see if there was anything in the shop I could actually buy. In the end, just to avoid leaving the shop with nothing but half the old man's onion, I bought another bottle of water, despite us already having about 20 litres at home.
Later, I went out to eat anyway. S/. 5 (about €1.25) for a starter, main course and refresco. As a tribute to the old man and his generosity I ordered the lomo saltado. It was good, but I'm sure it wasn't as good as that which I could have been eating.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Jesús on Perú

Many people look to Jesus for advice and counsel, happy to spend hours and hours, days even, praising him, talking to him, asking him for favours. But yet he never answers. Very rarely in any case, and when he does they build a shrine and make a fortune out of tourists from it.

We met a different Jesus in Puerto Bermúdez. Very different. We didn't talk to him, but still he talked and talked and talked, telling us of his difficulties and the hardships he endures living in Perú. They haven't built a shrine to him just yet, (nor will they, I suspect), and for now he makes just a bit of money from tourists. For Jesús is the proprietor of the Alberque Humboldt, a refuge for weary backpackers to lay down their rucksacks and plan excursions into the jungle. As soon as we arrived he started, as if we'd removed a dam from which a torrent of complaints and misgivings could suddenly surge forth. "¡Ay, Perú! Un país impredecible," he declared. "Bueno es malo y malo es bueno. Noche es día y día es noche."

A Basque from northern Spain, Jesús had travelled the world, written books and articles, given lectures, even hosted a TV show, but now he finds himself in Puerto Bermúdez, a backward village with few facilities almost in the exact centre of Perú, with no apparent easy way of getting to or from anywhere else.
He explained that he had been living here for the last ten years, during which time everything was a fight, everything a struggle for existence.
Bureaucracy was his particular bugbear. Created just to make jobs and vice versa. For each job created by the state, there are five more created to add more paperwork to the process, he suggested.
"You wait and go to the first window to get your ticket stamped. They tell you to go to the next window. You wait, and they tell you to go to the next window. There they say you must come back the next day. ¡Ay ay ay!" Sounds spookily like Berlin.

Jesús explained that there was simply way of knowing what was going to happen next. "At home, en España, you can plan your retirement. Here, you can't even plan what you're going to do for the afternoon!"
He suggested Perú was the most corrupt of all the South American countries. And there's some fierce competition there!
Despite it being the seventh richest for natural resources, its people have nothing. Shit roads (if any at all), intermittent water supply, haphazard infrastructure. (As if to demonstrate his point, that night we had no electricity at all. He cooked by candlelight, and we had no idea what we were eating.)
Education is a particular problem. Apparently 92 per cent of secondary school teachers don't even know the subjects they're teaching. I'm sure they know what they're supposed to teach, but apparently they suffer from a lack of training themselves. "La educación en Perú es el ultimó del mundo," Jesús pointed out.

"Perú no hay mierda," he blasted bitterly. "Nada. No roads, no water, no organisation. nothing. ¡Hijo de puta!"
Jesús' language was shocking. Everything was "hijo de puta" and "puta madre". If you thought my language was bad you should talk to Jesús.

I asked him why he moved here at all. "En Perú no hay razones." He said it was better not to ask questions because there are no reasons for anything in Perú, no answers to any questions. "En Perú no hay razones por nada. ¡Puta madre!"
Eventually he said it was perhaps because he's mad. I told him that he isn't mad if he thinks he might be mad. He looked at me sceptically. (I wasn't sure about that one either, but felt I should say something.).
When Jesús wasn't talking to us, he was talking to himself. I suspect he may have been right after all.

Riddle of the Sands (Nazca)

Sometimes to fully appreciate something you need to take a step back.
Sometimes even that's not enough. You have to really get back. Fly high above the Earth to marvel at what's below.

So yesterday we took a plane (being unable to fly ourselves) above the desert plains of Nazca to have a good gawk at one of the world's great mysteries. For these desert plains are anything but; they're home to the enigmatic and world famous Nazca Lines! (Just because you never heard of them doesn't mean they're not famous. Everybody else has.)

Crazy lines and mad angles, they include loads of various shapes, figures and creatures. (Geoglyphs if you're scientifically-minded.) From the ground these huge etchings are indistinguishable from the other lines, rocks and shit scattered about the desert but from the air one can clearly make out a dog, a pair of hands, a spider, a hummingbird, a stork with a wonky neck and a monkey with a ridiculously curly tail. Less clear is a tree, a parrot and a whale. (Surely the only whale to find himself in the desert).
Hundreds of others are scattered around this giant desert canvas. Meanwhile an "astronaut" scratches his head from an overlooking hillside at the madness of it all...

They're cool! Over 2,000 years after the Nazcans began decorating the desert (taking the darker sun-baked top to reveal lighter sand below and putting it to the side to make the lines), scientists and experts squabble over the reasons and point of it all. Sun worship? Messages for aliens? Some, if not just one, believe the Nazcans actually had hot air balloons and could fly above the desert to admire their handiwork.

After flying over the images myself, I've concluded they just did it for the laugh. Feck all else to do around here. There you go. Mystery solved, case closed.

We flew above it in a tiny propeller plane, five of us including the pilot. I sat up beside him! I studied his every move and reckon I have it down. Just a matter of flickin' a few switches and pullin' a few levers. Easier than driving a car at any rate. No traffic lights or anything to crash into up there.

An inviting huge red button directly in front of me begged to be pressed, the temptation growing as the flight progressed. Thankfully the artworks below provided enough distraction for me to hold my will. I felt I passed a test.

Our pilot pulled off all manner of stunts to make sure we really saw the figures below. Jenny was so moved by what she saw, her stomach contents came out for a closer look too...

The German for desert is "Wuste" which I'm sure English-speakers can thank for the word "waste". Not taking any chances of confusion with an after-dinner sweet, these Germans.
Nazca is no Wuste though. Those iconic images show that sometimes desert can be sweet too.

More pictures from the plane above the plains which are anything buit plain can be marvelled at here:

Monday, October 26, 2009

Huacachina sandboarding

Huge mountains of sand loom over Huacachina, a palm-fringed oasis in the middle of nowhere which makes a living from the apparently foolhardy exercise of sandboarding. This involves climbing up the dunes with a board in hand, getting to the top, sitting or standing on the board and then coming back down again.

This morning we rented sandboards and set off on what we were told was the easiest piste to climb. Christ, what work! We traipsed and traipsed and traipsed, and then traipsed on some more. We looked back down. About five metres gained.
"Will we go here?" I gasped with what breath I'd left.
We went on. Sand slipping underfoot. Twenty steps to climb one. Huffing and puffing like huffy-puffy things. Sun beating down without pity. Gulping and gasping, leaden legs heaving and straining up the sliding sands.
Jelly legs at the top. Finally we'd made it! Enough energy to flop down onto the board and descend in one minute what it took 45 minutes to climb. "Weeeeee!" you'd say if you had any energy left. We were still gasping at the bottom. No energy for anoher go.

More pictures here:

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Jimmy Martín

I met another rat last night, this time in our lovely clean hotel. Just outside our room's door, he nonchalantly hopped up onto the steps to the roof when I came out to collect my clothes which had being drying outside. Nicely fat, big and healthy looking, he ascended three steps before pausing, as if for a chat.
"¡Hola! ¿Como estas?" His nose twitched with curiosity. Whiskers wiggling with nervous anticipation. Jimmy Martín was his name. A long term resident. Been living in Pisco all his life. A good place to live for a rat, as are most Peruvian cities. Plenty to rummage through and eat, food everywhere, convenient living quarters close to the action. The noise can get annoying alright, but in general there aren't too many complaints. Rats like music too you know.
Jimmy Martín was too young for the earthquake of August 2007, but older rats told him about it. All the upheaval, the chaos. The influx of foreign rats into the city in its wake. He certainly doesn't want to see another one. He's happy just the way things are.
This morning I saw another rat, this one ambling along by the side of the mini-pool below the bathroom window, nice and casual. He sniffed the water, and all but dipped his front paw in, as if contemplating a dip. I looked closer. He looked strangely familiar. Nice round plump body. A confident gait. It was Enrique! Jimmy Martín's cousin! Time to go methinks...

Islas Ballestas (Birdshit Islands)

We survived the birdshit islands without one drop hitting our heads! It was hit and miss there for a while though (more miss than hit obviously) but we returned from the Islas Ballestas with nothing more caustic than the guilty conscience of a well-fed uninvited guest.
For half the promised hour we bobbed up and down like tourists in a boat, mouth's natural urge to open firmly resisted in the interest of flying shite. The amount of birds was incredible! They were everywhere. Every nook, every cranny, every ledge, above us, beside us, all around us! Feathers flying left right and in between.
I'm no expert on birds (feathered or otherwise), but I was told there were cormorants, boobies, pelicans and all sorts of others whose names I can no longer remember. There certainly were a lot, whatever the hell they were.
The only ones I was interested in were the penguins, and I'm happy to report they actually exist outside zoos! What they're doing so close to the Equator is a mystery to me, but Humboldt penguins were cooperatively waddling and hopping around the lower ledges around the islands, throwing the odd envious glance to their feathered cousins actually flying above them.
Adding to the sense of excitement was huge herds of sea lions, bellowing and guffawing as if a GAA match, flapping and fighting as if at a Waterford GAA match. Thousands of them were crammed onto one beach. Some of them vacated for the water before we arrived, Waterford fans before the final whistle. Don't worry lads, your time will come.
The Islas Ballestas are harvested every ten years for their stacks of bird shit, guano, which is a lucrative crop shipped to north America and Europe for fertilizer. The nearby Chincha islands were the subject of the Guano Wars with Spain in 1865-66, while Chile also took over Perú's guano-producing islands at some point or other.
On our way to the islands we stopped to look at a giant candle-holder etched into the sands by the ancient Paracas culture. Evidently nothing better to do. Scientists and experts still row over what it means. Don't ask me. Crazy Paracans.
We went to have a look at their reserve after the islands tour. The Paracans themselves were long gone of course, conquered by the Waris who were in turn conquered by the Incas, but the peninsula on which they based their culture is now protected, despite being nothing but a desert. I wonder if they found gold or oil in it would they bother protecting it. (What "protected" actually means is another thing. It seems cars and buses can simply drive in willy nilly. I actually mistook lines in the sand for more crazy Paracan etchings until I learned fishermen sometimes take shortcuts through the sands.)
In any case, there we saw a flock of flamingos become a flock of flamingoes when they took off just as another bunch of tourists arrived to gawk at them. Perfect timing.
We also saw some unimpressive fossils which may or may not have been just weird rocks. The cliffs were impressive tough, as was the sight of the sea crashing against them, and the evidence of erosion all round.
But what the hell. I saw real live wild penguins today. Everything else is just scribbling in the sand.

More pictures of the Islas Ballestas, and the slightly less-exciting Paracas peninsula can be found here:

Saturday, October 24, 2009


We've come to Pisco specifically to visit las Islas Ballestas, the "poor man's Galapagos". Being poor, we have to make do with inferior animals to those which rich tourists can enjoy on the proper islands in the middle of the Pacific.
Nevertheless tomorrow mornin' we'll see sea lions, Humboldt penguins, flamingos and loads of other less-interesting birds, while I'm also looking forward to visiting the islands which made a fortune out of shite. Bird shite to be precise. More on that some other time.

Also in shite is the city of Pisco itself. Levelled by a 7.7 magnitude earthquake two years ago; 800 killed; 40 to 50 unaccounted for. The streets are still lined with rubble, and everywhere you look there are signs of destruction. Houses tottering, buildings half standing,
Whole tracts of land beside the rebuilt road into the city were just mounds of rubble, waiting for the diggers to come and push it away so the houses can be rebuilt. They'll account for a few more once they go through that.
Those who used to live in those houses, those who survived, now live in wooden huts just across from the rubble, saving and scrimping so they can rebuild their homes again. I guess they didn't have insurance. Even if they did, I'm sure earthquakes aren't covered under the old "acts of God" excuse.
On the main square, the front of one three-storey building is missing completely, walls stripped away to leave it naked and undignified, three levels of rooms laid bare complete with furniture as if dissected in a larger-than-life biology lesson.
Everything is wrecked. Even the cathedral is in tatters, all boarded up with its spire in a sorry state. I wonder if that was covered under the "act of God" rule.
Some buildings are rebuilt, but none are fully back to pre-earthquake standards. Even in our hostal, which is the cleanest and nicest we've stayed in yet (no rats, fleas, maggots etc.), there's still work going on, builders cementing walls, securing ceilings, proofing stuff against future 'quakes.
Rebuilding and clearing up is still going on. They were fixing pavements today. All over the city cement mixers are turning, while old women look out sadly from half-built huts and remnants of houses.
At least they survived. Messages to the dead are unavoidable. A moto-taxi passed by while we stopped for coffee earlier. "En memoria de mis padres, Ida y Juan." Parents lost and remembered on a back window. Plenty of other "en memoria" messages could be seen on other back windows too.
It makes you think.

More pictures of Pisco can be seen here:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cats, rats and fleas

We're on the move again. The Amazon didn't live up to expectations so we're heading for the coast. Sandy beaches, penguins and the clear blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Not sure if that means we can go swimming or what but we'll soon find out.
The return journey from Puerto Bermúdez was better than the hin Fahrt. No foul-smelling fowl, and the driver mercifully skipped over all the impaled goat arcade tunes. Nothing too exciting to report there.
We spent €100 on our Amazon sojourn, all in, so now we really need to be careful. Last night we stayed at the Hotel Chanchamayo in San Ramón, highly recommended in our guide book for "hot showers and cable TVs in the rooms". It had neither, but €3.50 said it was good enough for a night.
Once we threw the bags down we noticed the room smelled like a zoo. The bed steeply inclined towards the middle, making for an alpine sleep. The room itself was filthy, but what the hell, it was just for one night...
Furious scurrying and yowling from above woke us up in the middle of the night. "¡¿What the fuck is that?!" More screeching. Then a huge crash as something heavy fell over, either in the room next door or in the roof above. More yowling. "It's cats fighting." I hoped it was cats fighting. "Ratten," Jenny replied, confirming the worst. ¡Rats! Jaysus, what next? Debris from the ceiling fell onto my face as the scurrying continued above. At least I hoped it was debris. It felt suspiciously like a flea.
My whole body itched as I could feel little fuckers biking, sucking, gnawing. Christ, I was being eaten alive! Meanwhile the commotion continued above. Better fleas than rats I suppose. I went back asleep, clinging to the sides to stop rolling into the centre.
"Now we know what the stink is," Jenny said cheerfully in the morning. "It's rats piss." Hmmm. Good to have that little mystery cleared up. At least now we now what smells to keep a sniff out for in future.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Amazon trekking

I had high hopes of adventure when we set off on our Amazon hike. The rain-enforced delay to our departure just heightening the sense of excitement and expectation. The Amazon for Jaysus' sake! Loads to see and encounter!
We were accompanied as we set off by a Swiss guy who will forever owe me S/.7 and Achilles our guide. Unfortunately, his heel happened to be his inability to find any animals.
We gazed around expectantly as we set off in our motorised canoe, the dark clouds threatening to open up again as they had been doing all night and morning. Such is precipitation in a rain forest. A couple of ordinary birds but nothing else exciting. Never mind. An hour later we landed on wet land, and took our first footsteps into the lush green jungle.
Achilles, who was armed with an impressive machete, cut and hacked his way through before us. Seemingly determined to deforest the damned jungle before our eyes, he chopped down everything in our path. And several things off it too.
Meanwhile, he stopped at random trees and gave us forgetful names for all of them. While very large and impressive, they all looked the same, and for all I know he just made up the names while hoping for a wild animal to make an appearance.
He had a strange way with trees. He would at them fondly, bemoaning the loss of the forest to loggers and foreign companies, before giving it a few friendly chops with his machete. As if trying to toughen them up for the inevitable chainsaws to come.
He chopped down a few more small trees with his machete. One he used as bridge to help us over a flooded area. Then the rain started again...
We learned one tree would fetch S/.50 on the market, about $17.50 or €12. A pittance considering their size and the length of time they take to grow. Signs of deforestation (apart from Achilles') were already evident, albeit not on the scale just across the border in Brazil.
Meanwhile the rain was really pouring down as we traipsed around in circles, Achilles chopping and hacking and frantically looking around for any sign of life. Anything. We would have been happy with anything. Never mind the jaguar, crocodiles, sloths or monkeys, a snake would do. Even a parrot. A feckin' spider. Anything.
But we found nothing. Rien. Nichts. Nada. I also learned my new trekking shoes, the ones I bought because they say "waterproof" at the side, aren't actually waterproof.
We returned to our flooded canoe as the rain continued to pour. Only an hour or so back to the hut. Sure it wouldn't be the same if it didn't rain.

For more pictures of Puerto Bermúdez and the trek (no animals were filmed in the making of these pictures), click here:

Monday, October 19, 2009

Fowl road to Puerto Bermúdez

The journey to Puerto Bermúdez was spectacular. We drove through 12 rivers to get here, over countless streams, past waterfalls, rock ridges, gaping pitfalls and troughs big enough to swallow a small elephant. Some of them were big enough to swallow a large elephant. It truly was a terrible "road", worse even than some of the roads in Ireland.

In fact the only thing worse than the road was the music, the noise of which we had to endure for almost ten hours. I am now convinced Peruvian music is the worst in the world. Certainly worse than any shit I've ever heard before. If it's not pan pipe shite, it's even more tortuous. We left at 5 am (an hour after scheduled departure time) when we were subjected to a strange mix of Japanese video arcade music, tinny electronic noises, combined with a woman screeching like a goat recently impaled with its own horns. No correlation between words, tune or music, if indeed any of those words could be used in describing what can only be described as utter shite.
If lampposts were offered the gift of hearing, they would return it on learning they would have to listen to it. Utter shite as I may have said before. I felt like driving my foot through the CD player, particularly after the third playing.

The only thing worse than the music was the stench. Wherever you go in these countries (Central and South America), people are sending their chickens on voyages too. Every journey is accompanied by boxes of swawking and clucking feathered feckers, craning their necks out of their cramped cages as if to see if they're there yet. I don't know what the obsession is with sending chickens on bus journeys. If they're on every bus going in every direction, then why don't they just keep the chickens where they already are? Surely the arriving chickens are just replacing the departing chickens. As if their owners are trying to show them the world from the confines of their cages.
In any case, the stench of our accompanying chickens was fowl. The entire back of our pick-up truck was taken up with boxes of the creatures, all crammed in like chickens in cages. The stench was unbearable. A putrid assault launched on the senses every time the truck braked or slowed down, to send wafts of evil foulness forward in our direction. My clothes still stink from the vile stench today, despite being aired and rained on since.

But it was a spectacular journey. Ignoring the smell and the music, the sights were breathtaking, especially when we negotiated the last of the mountains and could see the flatness of the jungle canopy below, the Amazon stretching for miles and miles, as far as the eye could see.
It had been a tricky drive to get there, great chucks of the track literally gone and washed away in places, the heavy rain inducing earthfalls and landslides down the steep slopes to jungle floor below.
Our driver aimed for every pothole he could find. He didn't have to look for them either. Myself and Jenny shared a seat in the front, and I had the joystick up my arse for most of the journey. But the driver didn't care. He was huge, with about nine bellies. Said he was 25 but looked about 50. He was almost bigger than the truck itself.
We almost got stuck at one point, the wheels on the 4x4 spinning in the muck up a particular incline before three local boys came to the rescue. After holding our tubby driver to ransom for one Nuevo Sol (1 S/. = about 25 cent), they did something to the wheels and we were able to spin our way up the hill.

A journey for the hard of hearing and hard of smelling, but spectacular nonetheless. How or if we get back is another thing altogether.

More pictures can be fowled here:

La Merced, maggots and Indiana Jones

La Merced is a bustling bumbling jungle uncivilisation; a collection of streets, alleyways, buildings, cockroaches and people, all randomly thrown together on the side of a hill to create an ill-formed feeling of security from the surrounding wilderness. Three-wheeled motorbike taxis (tuk-tuks in other countries) nip in and around the main square, beeping of course like their big brothers in cars, but thankfully only with little motorbike beeps.

A surprising number of Chinese restaurants cater to local hunger, a sign that even in the furthest corners of remote, China is slowly taking over the world. Even a pair of shoes, made by a Peruvian company, and picked up by me in a Peruvian shop, had the obligatory "Made in China" sticker on it. If even the Peruvians are saving money, sending their shit to China to be made, what hope for the rest of us?!

(Incidentally, I also learned that "Made in China" actually means Maggot in China auf Deutsch. A source of great amusement to Germans when examining goods they would otherwise purchase. Sounds like a great adventure for such a little creature, perhaps sending postcards to the maggots back home. I might revisit this in a later post when back in Deutschland.)

Thoughts of commerce, world trade and economics were forgotten when we went on a trek to El Borgoña, a waterfall we reached after hiking along a trail beside the valley, over rocks along a river-bed, and then through the river itself, clambering over rocks and negotiating gushing water torrents as we battled out way onwards. It was, we were told, El Ruta Indiana Jones, but I was unable to ascertain what connection, if any, our route had with Mr. Jones. We did cross an impressive rope-bridge over a raging river below. Butterflies, a few vultures, a frog, and a wonderful valley vista to be seen but no other wildlife. No snakes, tarantulas or anything like that. Just as well I suppose. We raided an orange plantation (an orangeage?) for fruit on the way back. Just for the hell of it. And vitamin C of course too. I'm sure Indiana would have approved.

Pictures of La Merced, including waterfalls on our hike to El Borgoña and depressed local animals in cages for tourists' amusement, can be seen here:

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Andes to jungle

Huaytapallana didn't happen unfortunately. The idiots who supposedly organised it for us didn't actually organise it. They couldn't even organise telling us they hadn't organised it. Such is the way with idiocy.
In fairness, it was as if fate decided we shouldn't go. A bad dose of the runs had put the runs on our plans to climb to the glacier the previous Saturday. I'm happy to report that problem has since been sorted out.

So we left Huancayo. Not before our hosts, the ones we'd been paying $170 a week so we could work in the orphanage, outrageously tried to charge us another $50, a fee for their "services" and final insult of a charge for two extra days. Despite us not staying two extra days! I told them in quite certain terms where to go.

The journey through the Andes to La Merced was spectacular. We saw them as they should be seen, not a mine in sight. It was one of those old buses, so you could slide over the window and stick your head out like a dog. Great! I tried keep my tongue in my mouth as I soaked up the sights. Curved flatness between the mountain tops as we crested the heavens. Soft khaki scrubland, electrocuted green tufts shocked upwards in clumps. A herd of alpaca scattered before us, white tails up and away.
Then the descent began. Hairpin bends after hairpin bends. Dizzy angles. Trees, grass, foliage. Lushness! Greenness! The richness of vegetation! No shortage of water apparently as plant life competed for living space. Paddy fields and haphazard villages scattered en route.
The Andean hills climbed ever higher around us as we made our way down towards the jungle, mountainsides looming precariously above us. We drove along roads cut into their sides. Rocks and boulders littered the side of the road, brought crashing down by chance or by nature, who knows? I wondered if a boulder would come crashing down on our little tin bus. Not much chance of survival. Thankfully none fell, and hours later one could really hear the sounds of the jungle. Bugs and critters with feck-knows how many eyes making all manner of noises. Dusk was falling and the heat was building. In the darkness we could see nothing. Shapes of trees perhaps. Things. We drove on. Then the bus turned off. Down a dirt track. Suddenly we're driving through water. We're driving across a river! I wonder if we're going to make it at all. A couple of hours later however, we pull into La Merced. We'd made it!

Our hotel is a classy sort of place. The kind where you can scrape your name on the walls. Toilets without seats, dark dingy corridors. Cramped rooms. Cold showers but that's a blessing in disguise. The heat necessitates them. Inca steps higher than they're wide. Stinking co-residents, only slightly worse smelling than the toilets. But it's cheap! Just four euro a night. Jenny found a creature in her bed this evening however. A little wriggley fucker. We're leaving in the morning.

We're going to proper jungle to be precise. Not really wild enough here. After all, they have internet. Tomorrow, at 4am, we're starting out journey to Puerto Bermúdez. There are no roads so we're taking a truck through the jungle for a journey which will be between seven and 12 hours, depending on weather and track conditions. Some tribe of indians live there, as well as all manner of creatures. More Amazonian than this part of the Amazon. Amazonier. Sure what the hell, we may as well.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Adiós Huancayo

On Wednesday we're finally leaving Huancayo for La Merced which will be our first stop on the way to the Amazon. Not sure what internet access is like in the jungle so this will probably be the last post for a while.
I certainly won't be sorry to say adiós to Huancayo. A shithole if ever there was one. At least I didn't feel I was going to get shot, like I did in Guatemala City, or kidnapped like I thought I would be in México City, but they're about the only good things I can say about the place. I would actually sooner go back to either of the other two.
I did meet some nice people here, but statistics will guarantee at least a few nice people no matter where you go. In any case, most of the nice people I met here were foreigners. The locals, I generally found to be quite rude towards outsiders. (There were exceptions of course.) So much for Andean hospitality. We'll see how we get on in the Amazon.

Torre Torre

Torre Torre. So good they named it twice. Warped and wrinkled rock formations etched and chiseled into the side of a red mountain like nature got bored and wanted to try something crazy. Huge pillars of stone standing proudly for no particular reason, columns of aesthetic possibilities reaching mind-blowing vertigo-inducing heights. You wouldn't want to fall!
We wandered up there yesterday with Bobby, our hosts' scaredy-dog. Seriously, he ran away from a cat, a pail of water and the wind among other things. But we brought him along anyway. The sight of the perrito's little ears bobbing up and down as he ambled along more than making up for his lack of bravado.

We passed through shanty towns and dusty streets, the wind whistling à la spaghetti western, wizened gum-toothed locals wishing us "Buenas Tardes". Then abandoned shacks, and a lonely donkey eyeing the well-worn dusty trail. As if harbouring thoughts of freedom. A bird of prey circled high above us.
They warned us not to hang around Torre Torre after dark. "Muy peligroso." So we heeded their advice. Like true gringos we left at midday, the sun beating down in all its intensity and not a scrap of shade to be found anywhere.
But it was worth it. Never mind the spectacle of the rocks, it was worth it just to get away from the incessant noise in Huancayo. Jesus, the relief! No beeping horns. No taxis trying to run you over. No godawful crap blaring from shot speakers. Just quiet. A quiet din from the city just to remind us it was still there, enough for us to revel in the contrast.
On the way back we saw a woman pulling a pig, apparently finding it difficult to coerce the animal to go where she wanted it to go. Her heels planted in the ground as she leaned back, pulling the rope taut as the pig leaned the other way. A particularly pig-headed pig.

We also saw four piglets running and frolicking around in a pool of muck. Happy as pigs in shit, which is, of course, what they were. I was happy as a pig in shit just looking at them, taking about 400 photographs before the others called me on.

Tomorrow we'll be climbing the 5,557 metre mountain of Huaytapallana, a six hour trek which other trekkers have described as hell but worth it. Apparently you think you're going to die, but we'll find snow and ice, a glacier, some lakes and very little air. Every breath will be a fight to suck in scraps of oxygen. They'll be giving us coca leaves and chocolate to help us cope. As long as there are no beeping taxi drivers up there I don't care.

Pictures of Torre Torre can be found here:
And the pigs can be seen here:

Monday, October 12, 2009

No tears

There were no tears today when I bid a final adieu to the niños of the Inabif orphanage in Huancayo.
Miguel looked a bit shocked though. "Where are you going?" he asked. The jungle. "And after the jungle do you come back?" No. "After the jungle do you go back to your country?" Si, desculpe. "Oh."
The others just shook my hand. I'm not sure if they realised it was a final farewell. It doesn't matter in any case. Jesús barely looked up from the coach. Juan smiled and winced when I squeezed his hand. Juan Carlos barely reacted when I gave him copies of the photo of his family, the one with three grannies. Probably the only photo the family will have. "Gracias," he said meekly, without lifting his head to look at me.
They're all good kids, even if they did their best to make it easy to say goodbye today. Jhon and Jayo, our two students for the last couple of weeks, were particularly uncooperative this morning, sulking and pouting and doing anything but a simple exercise based on the digestive system.
I won't be sorry to see the end of biology lessons. We also taught social studies, mathematics, history, English and Spanish. Us teaching them Spanish! Grammar and stuff like that. Never mind we can barely speak it ourselves.
Volunteers come and go and I guess the orphans are used to goodbyes. After all, they don't have abandonment issues for nothing. They'll be okay.

¡Que fenómenos!

Further to the incident of ever-increasing wide-eyed schoolkids crowding around us to look at the strange gringos last week, yesterday three women actually stopped us and asked if they could take a photo of us. A photo of us!
Initially I thought they were asking if we could take a photo of them, but no, they wanted us to pose so they could capture the sight of us on film. I was too shocked to realise what was going on before they actually took the damned picture. Something to show the grandchildren I suppose. Proof they once encountered such incredible specimens.
We really are a wandering freak show for the locals, and they aren't shy about letting us know it. I could hear the women laughing behind us as we wandered on.
You'd swear we had six eyes, four noses and arses for faces. (No comments please.) People usually stare as we walk past. Oftentimes with mouths open too. Sometimes they talk among themselves and laugh after we've passed, other times they actually comment directly. Even now, as I type, there's a kid standing in front of me, just staring, as if trying to eat me with his big brown eyes.
It's clear we're the subject of much wonder for the Huancayans. It brings a whole new meaning to the term ¨tourist attraction¨.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Wanka yo (Huancayo)

I've already explained the origins of Huancayo's city name. With this vital piece of information at hand, it is easier the understand the complexities of life in this mountain city of 323,024 people.

Locals are still proud to call themselves Wankas but perhaps none are more worthy of that name than the taxi drivers. Of course all taxi drivers are vermin, only slightly ahead of solicitors in the evolutionary food chain, but Huancayo's taxi drivers are truly the worst I've encountered.
They would sooner run over you than let you cross the road, beeping at you as you cross even if you're at a pedestrian crossing and they're driving through a red light. I do not exaggerate. We've had a couple of near misses. They also honk their horns incessantly (like real Wankas).
Even as I type, I can hear the fuckers beeping and honking outside as if their lives depend on it. They just never stop. Apparently, they beep at pedestrians to let them know they're free to take them to their destination. I'd sooner walk my legs to stumps than take a lift with one of those Wankas. Every third car here is either a taxi or a combi taxi so as you can imagine, the din is unnerving.

The locals have apparently never seen foreigners before either. Walking around is like being the centre piece of a freak show. All of them stare as if they've never seen such specimens before. Jenny's dreadlocks are a particular cause for wonder. (I don't know how many times she's been asked why her hair's the way it is and whether she can wash it).

One day, we mistakenly paused for breath outside a shop. Suddenly a group of kids were around us asking us where we're from and whether Jenny washes her hair. As she fended off the questions, I tried counting how many kids were around us. It was impossible. They were multiplying! At least 35 formed a tight circle around us. Each new kid who joined asked the same questions again as they all stood gaping, wide-eyed in awe, amazed to see such strange creatures. Eventually we just had to push our way through the ever-increasing group to get past.
They followed us! A whole throng of the fuckers. We had to duck into a quiet side street to escape them.
(Other volunteers include Norma, a tall blonde German girl with legs up to her neck, and Zenab who's even taller, of Nigerian descent. You can imagine the looks they get.)

As if we're something to look at. You'd want to see the locals. Fashion is most definitely not their strong point. Brown woolly jumpers, black baggy tracksuit bottoms, black shoes and white socks without a hint of shame. The little old women, who are as wide as they're tall, wear about six woolly cardigans each, black skirts up to their necks, and big thick woolly socks up to their knees. Their arms hang out at their sides like penguins' as they waddle down the street.

Mangy dogs are absolutely everywhere. Foraging in bins for food or sniffing the ground for morsels. Hundreds of them hang around the meat section of the market, roaming under counters drenched in the blood of chopped up cows and pigs (and guinea pigs), hopeful for a spare scrap to fall into their grateful jaws. (It wouldn't induce you to buy any meat. Flies land at will on the unprotected meat, while women half-heartedly attempt to wash and mop up the rivers of blood with pails of water.)
Even in the medical centre in nearby Chupaca, where we had to go to make sure we didn't have pig flu, there was a dog rummaging in the bin for food. Discarded body parts and amputated limbs I suppose. The medical centre was about as hygienic as the market. The toilets were an absolute disgrace apparently. I couldn't bring myself to look.
When not foraging or sniffing, the dogs just lie around bored. Thankful for the fleas for company.

Again, like Lima, the pollution in Huancayo is incredible. Noxious fumes, great black clouds belching from exhausts. Litter everywhere again, the river bank destroyed. Sheep and cattle roam the street-sides for scraps of grass, but how they find any at all under the refuse is beyond me.

For some strange reason, oranges and mandarins here have far more pips in them than anywhere I've ever eaten oranges or mandarins before. I'm not sure yet if this phenomenon is restricted to the oranges and mandarins of Huancayo, or if this occurs all over Perú. I'll let you know in due course.

Tonight Huancayo celebrates however, as will the rest of Perú. Since attaining independence from Spain, this country has lost every war it has ever been involved in. That doesn't stop them celebrating. Tonight we'll be celebrating losing a vital battle in the war with Chile. Better to celebrate than mope about it I suppose, and I for one am happy to adhere to the custom.

More Huancayo pictures, including several embarrassing ones, can be seen here: