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Thursday, December 22, 2011

I'll be there for you...

Probably my favorite photo from the trip.

Not that Montezuma took his revenge on us -thank the Aztec Gods -but he could have.

Our weekend wasn't over. Sunday morning we breakfasted in Haiti. Not the country, (a bit far to walk/swim for us) but a good restaurant, popular with tourists and expats for its outdoor seating, where you can watch the Lima world go by.

I mention it just in case you should ever happen to be in Lima and need a good breakfast, or, more importantly, if you'd like to try their notoriously strong version of the signature cocktail of Peru, the Pisco Sour. Which I suppose you could have for breakfast but then you'd spend the rest of the day horizontal. Not necessarily a bad thing, but we had places to go and people to see. Orange juice, then.

"We" entailed, you guessed it, Mike and me and April and Royce. First stop: Mike and I took especial pleasure in showing April and Royce, residents of Peru, a local mercado (marketplace) at Ricardo Palma, that they'd yet to discover.

This was a small victory for us.

Sweet-faced flower seller removing thorns from roses

Mike and I both think that going food shipping in a foreign country, even if we don't buy anything, is a great and simple way to learn about the place and its people. Such a basic question: what do you eat?

This mercado took up a city block, with the outer narrow stores selling just about everything, and the everythings were stacked to the ceilings. DVDs, clothing, cleaning products, spices, kitchenware, like the store below,

and another which, inexplicably, had a stuffed, creepily red-eyed iguana suspended over the doorway. The stuffing escaping from the mouth of this stiff-footed fellow did not entice me to shop for kitchen gear.

Go figure.

Textile sellers along the walkway.

Food carts, flower and lace sellers clustered around the large main entrance. The sellers were pleasingly non-aggressive, merely arranging their wares and helping their customers. No hawking, no hassling.


A child and his grandmother selling delicious-smelling meaty somethings wrapped in leaves or husks.

Once you entered the halls of the open market the stalls were selling fruits and meats. For whatever reason I am driven to photograph meats swinging from hooks without refrigeration, and for this, I apologize.

I'll spare you the seafood photographs. While there were plenty of flies, the meat was probably fresher than anything we buy wrapped in a rectangular styrofoam package in the USA. Considering everything, the meat section wasn't terribly unpleasant, and the fruits were definitely fascinating.

There were the fruits we know, pineapples and oranges and grapes,
but there were stand-out differences as well;

Bananas thicker than the ones we know, blushed pink. The strange but reputably delicious chirimoyas, looking a bit like a round armored armadillo with green scales, orangy fruits with multiple protuberances to encourage chicken fertility, (no, really,) brown fuzz-covered offerings whose innards you were supposed to smoosh and put in your hair as a sort of conditioner, (this was explained in Spanish with lots of charades-esque hand motions, but I think we got it figured out,) enormous papayas...well, you get the idea.

I have no idea what those pale brown things are, above. Mushrooms? Giant Brazillian nuts? Really thick leaves of some sort? Your guess is as good as mine.

It was a riot of color and fragrances, some stalls as carefully laid out as in an upscale grocer's display, others a confusing mass that looked like what we might have returned to had I not cleaned out the vegetable drawer of our refrigerator before going on vacation.

Wait...did I clean out that drawer...?

The other nourishment for the people of Peru is obviously Catholicism, answering basic question #2 about the people of a place: what do you believe?

This one was easy to answer because there are crucifixes everywhere. I mean everywhere.

The Virgin Mary joins Jesus in looking silently down over the shopkeepers and their patrons, perhaps blessing the daily work. There was even a beflowered, ballooned litter to bear Jesus aloft on special occasions.

It was fitting that after the market we set off to find Jesus. This sounds like we were on a spiritual quest, but no, we were seeking the Cristo del Pacifico, which should have been easy to find since this particular Jesus stands along the coast, 122 feet tall. We could see him from far up the coast in our Miraflores hotel, especially at night, when the statue is flooded with color from spotlights.

It took a bit of creative driving, but eventually we found the correct road to the top of the mountain. Many jokes were made about the path to finding Jesus. Apparently there are wrong turns and detours.

As we passed some young men on skateboards three of them jumped nimbly onto the back of the truck, skateboards underfoot, holding onto the tailgate, one throwing his helmet into the truckbed with a resounding clunk. We were momentarily alarmed, but their easy grins and hang loose hand gestures reassured us; they were simply looking for a free ride up the hill.

Safety is not job #1 in Peru: there was a Red Bull skateboarding competition being held on the steep hill road, but they didn't bother to close the street to motor vehicles. So here came skateboarders at top speed, down through the traffic.

This was insane.

When we left the pavement where the sandy parking area began, we abruptly lost our skater friends. Skateboard wheels not so good on the sand. One hotly pursued us on foot, skateboard under his arm, to retrieve his helmet.

I felt guilty. Royce laughed. Business as usual.

Good kids. I hoped none of them ended up roadkill.

We were above the Chorrillos slums of Lima, looking down with Jesus over the squalor.

Someone was building boats among the shacks. We wondered how they planned to get their watercraft down to the water.

It looked like good work.

Looking up the coast to the rest of Lima where something like 8 million people live, altogether.

We didn't have time to walk with the crowds of pilgrims to the feet of Cristo del Pacifico, being late for a barbecue being held by our Dubai-now-Peru-friends...in my honor. Well, that's what I was told, anyway. I was a bit floored, but then, any reason is a good one for a party, yes?

And I am nothing if not an enabler.

I only regretted not getting to see what sort of religious tokens or keepsakes were being sold to the masses beneath the icon. Like meat hanging out in the the open, I find that sort of thing intriguing.

Off to a gated community, then, far, far away from the slums.

Behind the tall walls of our friends' home, by the swimming pools, many hugs, barbecue sizzling, salsas and beers and a large cossetted German Shepherd looking for handouts. It was strange and yet reassuringly familiar to see the faces of those that had meade up our away-from-home family in the Middle East, now in South America.

Glass of wine in hand, a few of us drifted away from the party, which was small and intimate enough to be a perfect time, to go see the waves crashing on the shore a few blocks away.

We could hear the surf long before we reached it, but before that we passed a portapotty bring used as an office:

classy. Dilbert, eat your heart out.

and out to the beach where the wind was skipping along and the waves were beating the shore. Huge waves, thundering as they pummelled the sands. And this was a calm day. Apparently on the rough days the waves invite themselves into the foyers of the waterfront properties.

We stood over the sun-scorched corpse of a beached dolphin that apparently even the ever-present vultures didn't want, in a surreal moment, wineglasses in hand.

and back to the party where we tried out the gigantic corn (tasteless! How strange and disappointing is that?) talked and laughed and shared stories and ended up singing loud and late to one guest's excellent piano playing.

compare the corn to the limes for size perspective. Crazy!

It was a day to absorb, not judge, watch and appreciate and taste and devour the experience.

Monday, December 5, 2011

You're as cold as ice....

Up, up into the mountains, we began to notice the altitude. While it was getting colder by increments, more interesting was the change in pressure.

With apologies to the nice man who lent us the truck we were in, (erm, sorry John!) we'd already had several somewhat explosive incidents en route. It wasn't deliberate. In Peru you have to choose between two types of bottled water: "sin gas" (without carbonation) or "con gas" (with).

Now, obviously it makes sense to bring the sin gas ones on a road trip, but somehow, every liter bottle Mike opened was con gas, and it sprayed everywhere. He began to suspect April, the purchaser of said water, of a setup.

April did have a mischievous grin. Or was openly laughing. But then, she could have been wholly innocent and merely enjoying the irony. I was laughing pretty hard and I know I didn't do anything.

It could never be proven one way or the other.

And yes, of course Mike could have checked the label before opening. This, of course, is far too obvious and simple of a solution to be employed.

More unexpected, and in the category of "don't want THAT in the eye," was hand sanitizer. An indispensable item for travel, to be sure, but going up into the mountains, every single darned time I popped open the top the alcohol gel shot out at a seemingly random angle. Splat.

More giggles.

Admittedly it was a sanitary mess, as messes go, but still.

All along the highway were car washes, often with the additional allure of a baño.

The baños were marked with spraypaint, and apparently they would (literally) boot the sheep away from them for you without any additional fee. All roadside carwashes were easy to spot, hoses propped up so they sprayed an arch of water up into the air.

child and roadside car wash

We stopped to photograph some especially interesting bridges, Royce taking his life into his own hands by dashing across the street for a better angle, and Mike wandering over to peer down a gully to the river -look at all the garbage:

Keep in mind this is in the middle of nowhere, in truly beautiful country. It's not the garbage, however, that tells the real tale of pollution.

La Oroya, a heavy metals mining town on the other side of the mountain pass, has the dubious distinction of falling at #5 on the Blacksmith Institute's list of the 10 most polluted places in the world. To give you perspective, that's 3 places worse than Chernobyl which comes in at at #8.

So when we drove past the water bottling plant, Mike and I decided we had chosen well to not move our kids to Peru, and we also gave Royce a hard time over his love of eating the Peruvian "mountain stream" trout. Eeyach.

Of course, we kept drinking our bottled water.
Water is one of those things. Have to have it.

We came upon another bad accident, this one without any sort of humor about it, no escapee produce this time. Instead, the scene was of an upside down diesel tanker truck with its many wheels in the air. The cab must have been at least partially crushed, though it was hard to tell from our perspective.

Once again, the crashed vehicle was on the wrong side of the road. I suppose if these trucks go off on the other side they go off cliffs, more often than not? Best to crash into the hillside and oncoming traffic?

Best not to think about it.

The air was colder and colder, and...sparser. You could actually feel it when you got out of the car. A funny sort of weakness, a unsettling sensation that there was something Not. Quite. Right.

I found it easy to ignore, but April got quieter and quieter once we were above 10,000 feet. Hiking in the Himalayas (I told you they have good stories!) she discovered that 10,000 is about where she starts to feel ill. We were watching the altimeter go higher and higher with a strange, almost giddy sense of accomplishment. The truck was still running well, which was nice. We'd wondered.

At about 13,000 feet we were driving past Casapalca, a mining town where silver, zinc, lead and copper are pulled from the ground. It looked like a cold, hard place to live. I tracked down a newspaper article that claimed the men there commonly labored for 12 hours a day to earn $116 a month in 2008. A disheartening figure. Miners have it bad everywhere, don't they?

There were miners in their hard hats, but it didn't seem to be a man camp. There were sweet-looking children with little dirty faces, playing or watching cars go by and women in the traditional garb which, suddenly, made good sense. I'll bet that a brimmed hat crowning colorful layers, skirts and thick socks and knits, offers some pretty darned good triangle-shaped protection from the cold.

A compelling, if brief, peek into a very different sort of life.

14,000 feet above sea level, then 14,500, we watched the altimeter and the scenery with almost equal fascination.

You might think this was becoming a miserable trip. Not in the least. We were driving up into the Andes! I mean, how great is that?

It was beautiful up there.

We got out of the truck one last time at Ticlio Pass, the highest railroad crossing in the world, at 15,807 feet. Bloody cold!

Briefest of brief posing for photos, then the heck back into the warm truck and descending down the road from there.

Now that the thrill of the summit had passed, I was feeling more than a bit off, and, judging by the lack of conversation in the truck, so was everyone else. Headachy, queasy, just bad.

The sun deserted us as well, and we fled back down all 15,000 feet to temperate, misty Lima. It turned out to be completely true that by simply returning to lower altitudes, altitude sickness goes away and you feel much, much better.

Ironically, many miles later, there was a train near our turn-off, now with its brilliant headlamp blazing. Points to Royce for choosing a good landmark after all.

A long and amazing day, crowned with cocktails and good Italian comfort food when we got back to the coast. We were exhausted.

But what a well-earned exhaustion it was.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Happy, I'm feeling glad, I've got sunshine in a bag...

We were now at 7800 feet above sea level in the town of Matucana, the capital of Huarochiri province. Founded in 1647, Matucana is a colorful, carefully-kept, happy-seeming community where even the dogs are really, really good at chillin':

there is a cat with striking smoky blue eyes, worthy of Daniel Craig,

and love is in the air.

Before beginning to explore, we hit up the public restrooms, and were consequently hit up by the local snack seller for half a Peruvian sole apiece for the privilege. No idea if she was actually entitled to the charge. There was a baño sign beneath the cat, so most likely; either way she had the necessary credentials, being both nearby and insistent.

After paying up, I tried and tried to ask her the name of that blue-eyed cat sitting on her counter but she flat-out refused to answer. Perhaps my Spanish is worse than I thought. I even bought a few chocolates and Chicklet Gum with an alpaca on the label from her -an attempt to loosen her tongue. Paying customer and all that, right?

Not a chance.

It seemed like a good time to break out the cheese and crackers. Not to mention the wine. The sunshine and fresh air and the excitement of exploring enhanced our appetites. Mike and April and Royce had been in Matucana before, but on a market day. Then the center of town had been bustling with festivities, families and food stands, and musicians.

Today we relaxed on benches, cups of wine casually in hand, and though the street had plenty of activity, we had the park in the town square all to ourselves, rather peaceful, the sounds of water flowing in a fountain and the cooing of pigeons, wind in trees and, wait...the boisterous sputtering of Tuk-tuks.

Tuk-tuks! Omigod! One of my favorite things in the whole world!

For those of you not familiar with the joys of tuk-tuks, they are the toughest, most adorable, three wheeled, up to three-cylinder engined, open-sided, burpitty bumpetty vehicles known to man.

Begging indulgence, even before I had savored a plastic cup of wine, or three, I simply HAD to go for a ride in a Peruvian tuk-tuk. Our schedule would accommodate my little whimsy, couldn't it?

It would. I did my happy dance.

April was up for a bit of fun as well so we left the guys behind and waved down the nearest tuk-tuk. We offered the driver 20 soles for a tour of the town, an offer he accepted quickly with a smile. Obviously we had overpaid, but what of it? Figuring it was worth every penny we girls plopped ourselves down in the slightly uncomfortable (yet another part of the tuk-tuk charm, yes, I have it bad) back seat and our fantastic ride buzzed away with us down the street.

Of course there aren't silly things like seatbelts in tuk-tuks. All a tuk-tuk requires is a sense of humor and willingness to take things as they come.

Our driver zipped us around, we grinning like little kids, to all the places at the edges of town where the road ended. Past puppies and children playing, the adults watching the children, working, or standing around talking, April regaling me with stories from her time in Africa, and of tuk-tuks she has known across the globe.

Matucana itself is situated in a beautiful valley. Past the buildings with their flaking, often colorfully painted concrete walls, sometimes with murals of sheep and bees and plants, the metal roofs held down with rocks, the sweeping green and blue hillsides begin. Beyond that the Andes rise, magnificent and white against the sky.

local honey for sale

While we were tooling around in our tuk-tuk the boys went out to play on the trains. Literally on them, in a working train yard. The poor fellow on duty there was just about wetting himself for fear that the idiot white tourists would get hurt as they clambered about.

Which they didn't.

Royce did, however, get some great shots there, and also of the local fussball table,

don't you just love the hand-drawn faces ?

and made a little friend as well. This cheerful bit of boy is named Sebastian, playful and a natural in front of the camera.

When April and I unfolded ourselves from the tuk-tuk, and after thanking our driver profusely, we found the two of them, thick as thieves, grinning over the images on Royce's viewfinder. Mike was happily exploring the nearby area to his hearts content.

On Royce's suggestion, before we left I gave Sebastian and the nearby children the chocolates I'd purchased from the baño lady. The smiles were worth every penny.

You can see why Mike and I like to travel with Royce and April; regardless of language differences, they always seem to know exactly the right note to hit with the folks we meet, a skill for the traveller that's right up there with being able to laugh at yourself, to be open to new things, and to never lose your sense of wonder. Friends with those attibutes are a treasure indeed.

“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” – Tim Cahill