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Monday, October 22, 2012

She dreamed of paradise...

Mike and I circled the airline gate like hungry sharks, checked and checked, yes, that was the one printed on our Peruvian Air tickets.  Yet it was distinctly marked as LAN Airline. With LAN uniformed staff and a sign that read Arequipa.  Not Lima. Okaaaaay, where was Peruvian Air? We widened our circle. No Peruvian Air representatives at any of the gates. Back to the gate. Asked the LAN staff about our flight. "That is a Peruvian Air flight," they intoned, "nothing to do with us. This is LAN. We do not know about Peruvian Air flights." 

There went the hope that perhaps the two airlines worked together, had merged or some such thing.

El crappo.

another stop sign for my photo collection

Feeling like an idiot, I asked if the clearly marked gate number was indeed the correct gate number. Si.

Well, it was worth a try.

Our flight was at 11:10 am, and it was already 10:45. Other travelers were doing the same uncertainty dance that we were. This is similar to the potty dance, but with a different sort of urgency and accompanying embarrassment factor. So we asked them, "are you supposed to take flight 217 to Lima?" Yes, yes they were. Yes, they'd been told this gate as well. No, they couldn't make heads or tails of it either.

We heard one or two uncomplimentary opinions about how things are, or more aptly are not, organized in South America.


As we have a history of screwing up flights, and our flight home to the USA was out of Lima at 9:40 in the evening, we were getting squirrelly.  At a loss, I tried to read a book,  then started compulsively photographing things in the overpriced gift shop. Silver free-form alpaca sculptures. Shot glasses. Stupid T-shirts.

Everyone who was sitting calmly looked like a Peruvian. Everyone who was squirming or gesturing madly or stalking around with the whites of their eyes showing, was generally shouldering a backpack and somewhat paler than the local population.

The LAN plane left. The staff packed up their things and left.

We looked at each other, slightly numb. Now what?

Then, miracle of miracles, Peruvian Air staff materialised out of, well, thin Peruvian air and put up a large sort of sandwich board for Vuelo (flight)  0217 LIMA.

Baby, baby, that's our plane! They covered the LAN logo with a Peruvian Air one just as said plane rolled up, large as life, just outside.

Small airport, shared gates. Now it made sense. Why hadn't the LAN people hadn't said so? It was plain we weren't the only neurotic tourists. They must get the same questions over and over again from the same confused gringos. Was this some sort of previously unnoticed Peruvian talent for sadistic, systematic torturing of tourists? If it was, well, it was probably earned by those who came before us, fair enough.

But no matter. We all piled on, gringos and Peruvians alike, de nada, de nada, soared back over the stunningly white Andes and an hour later were back on the ground in Lima.

Back to the Barranco District of Lima, the rush and noise of the city, back to the rest of our luggage, safely stowed with our friends. We had time to repack, position our suitcases by the front door, and go out into the warm Pacific air with April and Royce to catch one of the local buses to dinner. There we'd meet more friends, who all wanted to say "good-bye for now."

The local bus, with its hawker calling out the rates, swayed and jolted along through Lima's endlessly honking, pollution-spewing traffic, while we hung on and grinned at each other and tried to shout over the roar about which cross street the restaurant might be on, and felt perfectly happy.

There isn't much else to tell. The sun went down, and we flew back home to the USA. It felt like taking a decontamination shower. Everything was a little more sterile, a little more predictable, less colorful.

We had one more travel moment, at US customs. We had wondered, was it truly OK to bring back the ground chocolate bean paste, still snugly wrapped in plastic and tucked into a boot? (Not one of the ones that suffered through the hideous bathroom in Cusco, by the way.)

While Mike was retrieving the last of our luggage from the usual rotating belt, the drug sniffing dog came over to where I was waiting, canine-snuffling over the rest of our gear... and sat happily down next to it. I gave it the eye. Go away, I thought at it fiercely. Go away.

It did no such thing. The handler at the other end of the leash smiled nicely and asked a couple of friendly questions. Where were we coming in from? (oh great, I thought.) Peru.

And did we have any food in our luggage, a sandwich, perhaps? Or some fruit?

No, no sandwiches. Chocolate and coffee, though, oh, and prepackaged pepper paste, I answered honestly.

"Ah," he said, "well, great, have a nice day," and he and the dog walked happily away, the dog looking in no way concerned about anything.

Long, deep breath.

Two little kids waiting at SeaTac, threw themselves at us, wrapped limpet arms tightly around and asked if we'd had a good time. Yes, we told them, yes we did.

We'd gotten lost, found ourselves again, eaten guinea pig and alpaca and roasted our own chocolate beans, discovered altitude sickness and coca teas, gazed at a 122 foot Jesus, arms stretched out over the slums of Chorrillos, danced in Cusco, the Incas' "navel of the world," seen spiders as big as your hand, glittering like jewels in the thick air of the Amazon jungle, climbed ancient stones in the highlands lack of oxygen of Machu Picchu,

drunk wine and laughed with old friends and new friends and complete strangers we'd never see again.

So we went back to our little house in the Pacific Northwest, waiting placidly in the woods for us, and tried not to dream of Sopa de criolla, or of rioting color and sound, to dream only in English, without Spanish, not to dream of the powerful Pacific in her other guise, warm waters instead of breathtakingly cold.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hold on to me as we go down this unfamilliar road...

I woke feeling some altitude sickness again. It reminded me sharply of morning sickness, the same nausea and annoyingly helpless sensation of being waylaid by forces completely beyond our control.
Which was lousy. The Quinua staff soon knocked on the door to lay out breakfast for us in our room. A beautiful private breakfast, and I could barely look at it.

waiting in the morning light

I forced myself to drink two cups of Coca tea, averted my face from Mike's usual breakfast. of coffee. The eggs, thinly sliced hams, abundant cascades of fruit, basket of fresh, warm bread, yogurts and cereals went unloved. Mike drank several glasses of freshly squeezed juice to make up for me.
It is a tenant of travel, however, that even if you feel lousy, heck, you're still on vacation and there are things to do and places to see, or is that the other way around. Regardless, you must move your tuchas out of bed.  And it felt better to be out in the clean air of morning, picking our way over the cobblestones, sunshine streaming down from the terraces into the central square below us.
The sky was blue, blue, blue, the blue you can only experience in the mountains where the air thins and heaven is closer. If there is one thing I will remember about Cusco, it is the sapphire blue of the sky, echoed in the paint on shutters and balconies and doors throughout the city.
We were headed for the San Pedro Market, needing gifts to take home, alpaca sweaters and scarves, leather goods and the like. Nora had told us that this was a place to see regardless, and that most tourists never make it there.
Ah, those magic words.
We found the the San Pedro Market  spread out within a spacious, open sort of warehouse, tumbling out the sides, a place where you can get a meal, sort through tables and tables of produce, look over endless varieties of potatoes heaped onto colorful blankets on the cement,
 bring home your daily bread. Enormous rounds of bread. I was tempted to buy one just to see how they were packaged for transport. This was no slim baguette to be slipped into a tote bag along with Hemingway's Movable Feast and some leeks.
Nor was this a sterile supermarket. Mike and I we have always enjoyed going food shopping to see, well, what the locals are actually eating, which gives us a much clearer idea of what a place is really like. Here were fresh foods, and meats as well, lots of meat; every part was for sale and there was none of the coy disguising of more recognisable bits. Nicely, there wasn't too much of an odor accompanying the graphic displays, which made me wonder; however did they have fresh seafood to offer? Cusco is nowhere near the ocean.

There was a Shaman booth, buckets of live frogs (apparently to eat, not for magical or medicinal purposes, but what do I know?) and plenty of things that we simply couldn't identify. Which is part of the fun of travel, now, isn't it?

The finest discovery, however, was a new nominee for "Worst Bathrooms Ever."

Now, you all know that we've been in some interesting excuses for toilets. And that, frankly, we're none too picky. But the public toilets at the San Pedro Markets were truly outstanding in the YE-GODS-did-I-just-catch-a-disease?! department.

We'd hunted them down, those baños, and coughed up our soles for the privilege. The fellow at the door tried to trick me into paying extra, but I politely demurred, having already observed how much the locals paid to enter the facilities. It stank, and the floor was wet, at least an inch deep in places. My already unsettled and mostly empty stomach lurched a little.

There was one big room for all, a channel drain down the center, stalls behind thin wooden doors on either side. Opening a random door revealed a hole in the tiled floor large enough  to do what needed to be done. A sort of bathroom attendant gestured us to free stalls, and flushed the toilets for us first.

Wait, you say, there weren't any toilets.


You are quite correct. The bano attendant fellow "flushed" out the holes by splashing a plastic container of water into them with a flourish, which sloshed some of the contents down. The rest surged out straight at us, down the slant down to the drain, when it pooled and foamed menacingly.

Holy crap! Why had I worn soft leather shoes with openings?! What the hell was I thinking? This is South America for cripe's sake.

Fast footwork saved us, partially, but my feet were soaked. Mike fared a little better in his sneakers.

I was going to burn those shoes, not to mention the socks, as soon as I could get out of them, and disinfect my feet with alcohol. Or bleach. Maybe formaldehyde. That might do it.


Copious amounts of hand sanitizer later we were squelching back to pick up our bags at the hotel and be driven to our plane.

For our final act in Cusco, we forgot to turn in our hotel key to those nice people, resulting in a frantic and apologetic call from us at the Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport, which is smaller than it's name implies. We left the key, with more apologies, at the mostrador de información. The two manning the desk looked confused as all get-out. We hoped the hotel driver would show up shortly and explain what the turistas had done this time. Then they could all have a good laugh, no real harm done.

Just enough time for a bracing coffee before we borded, thank God.

Except that our flight wasn't listed at any of the gates. What on Earth....?

Monday, September 10, 2012

There is a star in the sky, guiding my way with its light...

Back to Cusco

Up, up the valley, the jungle and river out the tiny hired bus' windows, toward the mountains, a cheerful strawberry air freshener swinging back an forth from the rear-view mirror, fringes dancing happily from a skirted valance across the inside of the windshield, and a varied group of nine passengers swaying back and forth like cattle in a transport van. In the very back a mother had laid her little girl on the floor to sleep on a bright blanket. That made ten.

We weren't more than an hour out when the driver pulled over and parked by a roadside stand. He jumped out and opened the back, and here came uniformed men. Everyone seemed calm about this.


Ah. Policia.

Quite normal, Laura informed us. They were checking to make sure no one was trying to smuggle large amounts of coca leaves. For the manufacturing of cocaine.

I decided to keep my purse and camera with me, and Mike stayed near the bus. It wouldn't do to have to realise a hundred miles down the road that something we care about had gone missing.

The little stand sold water and dried fruits an candy bars and the like. I wondered if they gave a kickback to the policia for having the pull-over site at their business. It would make sense.

Away from the stand, papered with bright Fanta labels, was the baño. Well, papered on the outside, anyway. This was a rugged sort of outhouse, but any port in a storm. The man who reached it just before me opened one of the doors, looked in, made a disgusted noise and waved his hands in front of his face before turning his back and, like the other men, urinated on the ground a few feet away. 

I suppose it was nice that they all turned their backs. Ugh, the ground was wet and squishy. Best not to think about it.

Personally, I thought the inside of the latrines wasn't that bad. A few deep breaths and my nostrils were pretty numb to it, and fresh air was just out the door, after all. I'll bet in summertime it was another experience, but now there weren't even that many flies to bumble up against bare backsides at that most vulnerable moment.

I swear they do that on purpose. Bastardos.

The policia poked around in the luggage a little, obviously weren't all that worried about us, and sent us on our way again.

Laura had recovered from her flu, and continued to be the vivacious, informative guide we had quickly learned to adore. Between entertaining stories and local tidbits, she suggested we exchange emails so we could send each other photos. Great idea, right? So she wrote down the contact information for a Nora Kloppenberg.

Nora. Not Laura. Ach, sheiße! We'd been calling her by the wrong name this entire time.

So we felt like idiots. Not that that was anything new. I just keep hoping we'll get beyond that, grow out of it, or something like that. Then I spent a few miles wondering if our accents are so overwhelming that the difference between the N sound L sounds aren't even noticeable.

Nora didn't even seem to give it a second thought. Which was awfully nice of her.

The little bus continued its yawing winding ascent into the mountains, as trucks thundered down, generally on the other side of the road. The skies got bluer and the air thinner. It became apparent: gradually and mercilessly I wasn't feeling so good.

Headache, nausea, the shakes. Our old friend, altitude sickness. Not pleasant. Not pleasant at all.

We hadn't been able to maintain the doctor-recommended minimum intake of 100 ounces of water daily,  not with little bottles being the only source for safe water. Coffee and beer, well, they really counted against the total, now, didn't the? Should have loaded up on juice, I moaned quietly to myself and put my head between my knees. Felt like a wuss. A rather sick wuss.

Mike and Nora were looking at me with such concern that I waved them away, put on some earphones, cranked up my favorite tunes and concentrated on the music, breathing deeply and well,  going all Zen.

Hey, it worked during childbirth, and it worked here as well. The shaking went away, leaving me queasy and my eyes feeling like they were too big for my skull. This was an improvement.

Now the little bus was zipping along downhill, descending from the mountains, bit by bit. The city of Cusco is still at 10,800 feet, and the altitude ickies ended up staying with me until we flew back to Lima at sea level, but no one hurled this trip, including me.

...and the crowd goes wild.

Long hours later, we pulled up and disembarked into the nighttime of  Cusco. Mike and I had gone back and forth as to what would be an appropriate tip for Nora-formerly-known-as-Laura after taking such good care of us. Far beyond our expectations she continued to play tour guide, telling us stories and pointing out such things as a colony of basket weaver birds in a giant tree alongside the road -I know, I thought they were only in Africa and Asia too, but that turns out not to be true; we saw them with our own eyes.

Her best story was of catching a taxi in Cusco, and the driver, sizing her up, tried to charge her triple the usual amount when they reached her destination. "C'mon, man, " she had said to him in her local Spanish, "I'm no tourist, you know the rate is about such-and-such." Called out on his game, the driver became very angry, spitting insults and shaking his fist, finally getting out and locking her in his taxi. He refused to let her out until, terrified, she gave him all the money.

Nice. This girl, we fervently believe, deserves to be spoiled. So instead of trying to come up with some sort of dollar amount to thank her, we invited her out to dinner. And as she is the local, we asked her to choose someplace special. So, after dealing with a surly taxi driver for us, helping us find our hotel, and offering to pick us up in an hour, we eventually ended up at Cicciolina, a highly atmospheric, romantic sort of restaurant, packed with patrons, and after things like beautiful wine and creamy risotto and some truly impeccable service, we thought we'd still gotten the better part of the deal to be in Nora's lovely company.

Oh, and dessert and tiny cups of espresso. However would we go back to real life?
Nora even took us on a rather-needed after-dinner walk, giving us even more stories about the area, showing us the "mustn't miss" spots, marking up our map for us so we'd know where to find the best local crafts to take home for gifts. We decided that it might be best to adopt her.
Sadly, travel is full of good-byes, and this was simply another one of them. A little choked up, we went back to our hotel, feeling the elevation, our lungs working hard to pull in the dark air, the lights of Cusco below and the stars above, an alley cat streaking through the narrow passageway to our place, faint music from somewhere down in the streets. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Uestro amor sabe a chocolate

Coffee and chocolate. Hospitality and laughter. I was beginning to wonder if we'd stumbled into a third-world Eden.

Chocolate. That mysterious, dark substance harvested from the Cacao plant Theobroma cacao Literally translates as "food of the Gods." .

Back in the day, Columbus thought the cacao beans were a sort of almond, and seeing how the Americans coveted them, brought some back to his King and Queen. Not having found China nor gold, he may have been a little desperate. As it was, the Spaniards had no idea what to do with the beans for decades, finding it bitter and unpalatable. That is, until Cortez witnessed King Montezuma of the Aztecs ritually drinking a spiced chocolate drink some 50 times a day, not to mention the hordes of cacao in his royal storehouses, used as currency, and figured maybe this was worth reinvestigating.

I particularly liked this tidbit from Wikipedia: "Hernando de Oviedo y Valdez, who went to America in 1513 as a member of Pedrarias Avila's expedition, reports that he bought a slave for 100 cocoa beans...10 cocoa beans bought the services of a prostitute, and 4 cocoa beans got you a rabbit for dinner."

Cortez further proved his worth to history by coming up with the idea to mix sugar with the bitter chocolate and spices. Spain proved how naughty they are by keeping this secret from the rest of the world for a century, but finally the secret was out: chocolate? Delicious.

Now we were going to learn how to make it. But not the Spanish way. The Peruvian way.

First, the beans have to be fermented. Without this process there is none of that wonderful chocolate flavor. When there are lots of pods, the beans and the marshmallow-y sticky pulp are piled together in large containers sealed with banana leaves. When there are few, then a liter water bottle with the lid cut off and a plastic bag to allow for expansion of gases serves just fine.

During the next  days the mixture is occasionally stirred and the fermented alcohol converts to acetic acid, which penetrates the bean, allowing the chocolate flavors to form and reducing bitterness. How long it needs to ferment depends on the type of cacao. Then the beans are spread out to dry and are ready to be roasted.

This is where we got to join the fun. Juan, smiling as always, built a hot little fire outside, blowing on it through a metal tube and plunking the cacao beans into a blackened iron pot above the flames.

Where they had to be stirred and stirred...and stirred some more with a stick, carefully distributing the heat. I found the stirring hypnotic, and the scent that rose from the pot...rich, smokey, faintly chocolatey.

We took turns stirring the beans, conscious that time was running out. Somewhere along that long road our bus was trundling along and whenever it arrived, we would have to leave. Juan watched over us, obviously happy to be alive and doing what he does.

The oil in the beans rose to the surface and they became shiny, through some mysterious alchemy Juan knew exactly when to remove them from the heat and put them into a enamel bowl for me to stir and stir some more with another stick, cooling them gradually and evenly, and loosening the outer husk of each bean.  

Now it was my job to winnow and husk. I had no idea at the time that that's what it as called, as Juan speaks as much English as I speak Spanish (possibly less), but that didn't matter. He showed me to stir, then taking the still-burning hot beans between thumb and forefinger, rub until the papery husk popped and came off, revealing the chocolate version of gold inside.

My hands are not those of a farmer, and my fingertips were smarting and singed, but I was having the time of my life.

Now we were really in business. Don't let the bus come yet, we implored the Gods, not yet.

Mike and Juan  and I had a little party, working together in the sunshine to get the outsides off the beans. As soon as that was done, Juan hustled us over to a grinder, bolted firmly to a workbench. A handful of cacao beans went into the top and grind grind grind came out

recognisably chocolate! It was arduous work, grinding those nibs. Juan is apparently a strong little fellow, as he neither grunted nor strained when he demonstrated how it was done.

Mike is a big guy, no weakling he, but he was working hard at the thing, turning the crank and trying to keep it moving; momentum was key. I gave it a try and surrendered it back quickly enough.

Finally we had a beautiful plate of pure cocoa paste that smelled like pure heaven.

Julia formed it into a perfect glossy dome and then offered to make us drinking chocolate, and would we like it made the traditional way, with water, or perhaps we would like milk instead?

We went hard core, make it with water, we said, to her approval.

Stay away, bus, stay away.

The watched pot boiled on the wood-fueled stone stovetop, Julia stirring carefully, adding sugar,

then poured it back and forth between two containers, and back and forth again to make it foamy, just as the Aztecs and Mayans did hundreds of years ago.

The moment of truth. Julia handed up the cups almost reverently, and in that spirit, we took slow, careful first sips.

Oh, wow.

Incan hot chocolate is chocolatey and surprisingly nutty and elemental in some way. It was similar in texture and experience to a really good cup of espresso. There was a smoothness and a grittiness that was hard to define. I decided not to worry about it and let the moment be what it was; once in a lifetime.

and then the bus came, and we had to scramble.

We threw back the last of the hot chocolate, Julia pressing a package of the rest of the paste, wrapped in plastic bags and hardening as it cooled, into our hands, we hugging the family in hurried good-byes with choked throats and inadequate graciases, running with our backpacks up the dusty road where the minibus chugged impatiently, Laura reassuring the driver that si, si, we were coming.

Chiquita the dog looked after us and went back to lie down among the drying coffee beans.

The family had waved adios, adios, and went back to their lives. Back to their next guests, back to the work at hand.

Monica, Juan, Miguel and Julia

We clambered into our seats, with apologetic glances at the other passengers on the bus. The taste of chocolate was still on our lips, as was the sadness and regret of travelers; our brief time with this magical family was over.

Monday, July 23, 2012

'Cos I'm on a world with the chocolate trees...

We lumped ourselves into a dusty local taxi. This was indistinguishable from any other car, as far as I could see, but of course everyone in town knows who the taxi driver is...why on earth would he need to put a sign on top of his car?

Silly tourists.

Our destination: a cacao farm. That's right. Chocolate.

display of chocolate bean stages at ChocoMuseo, Cusco.

It was chocolate, not coffee, that had brought us to this region in the first place. I had stumbled upon Choco Museo while mapping out things to do in Cusco. A chocolate museum? Delightful. Further investigation led to their tours, and that was all she wrote. It had to be done. Many emails, some in Google Translate-assisted French (!) and a good hunk of cash (US dollars, s'il vous plaît), and we were all set.

That had been a month ago; now we were rattling down the road, a tall, ever-smiling cabbie in his 20's, shiny dark hair to his shoulders in the driver's seat, our translator Laura in the front seat next to him. We were in the backseat, belting out any and all Inglés 80's hits along with the MP3 player, no matter how cheesy they were.

It seems that everyone with a car who can afford an MP3 player has one. Radio is iffy in the mountains, after all.

our taxicab and a local woman with traditional braids, shirts, and hat.  

Various and sundry bling bounced and swayed from the rear view mirror and we bounced and swayed in the backseat until we got to the tiny town of Maranura,  which had a paved road down the center, tuk-tuks and chickens.  After the town, back to the dusty, jolting road, until, after a series of twists and turns, the road disappearing until we followed tire tracks in the grasses. We reached a little farm with an enormous red blooming poinsettia arching over the tire track road and many, many butterflies, different kinds and colors,  flitting and flirting with each other in spirals and the dust.

The jungle was denser here, trees and vines competing for the sunlight. As soon as we entered the farmyard we realised that this was a far, far poorer residence than Juan and Julia's, neither as well kept nor half as welcoming. The animals and children looked less cared for. Juan and Julia's place had been a welcome respite from reality; shades of the poverty of a third-world country, which can wear on you as you travel though Peru, lived here as well.

I had read that the vast majority of the world's chocolate farmers live in extreme poverty; with that in mind, comparably, these folks were doing okay.

All the buildings (of concrete) and animal pens (branches and wire) were arranged around a rectangular yard area; the dogs flopped in the dirt seemed disinterested in us. Laundry strung on lines crisscrossed the open space.

A conversation between a old woman with deep creases who had been soaking coffee cherries and our translator didn't appear to be going terribly well. I sneaked a look in the kitchen, having heard it was a can't-miss. This turned out to be an understatement:

Guinea pigs! Running all over the floor! Chirruping and cheeping and muttering to themselves. Cuy cuy they said. Oh for cute.

It makes sense to have easy to raise, fresh little bundles of meat scampering about in your kitchen. They eat scraps that fall off the table and don't require refrigeration.

This is what I told myself. And they taste good, I recalled. Still...

I fired off a few shots with my trusty little camera, and good thing I did, for the older woman finished her discussion with Laura our translator  then shut and bolted the kitchen door. Whether she didn't want me to photograph it is uncertain. What was certain was that I was done doing so!  

Another woman, younger this time, showed up, and some girls peeked at us. Laura turned to explain. there had been some sort of mix-up and they hadn't expected us. Maldito.

One of the little girls had come up to Laura and was looking expectantly at her. It was finally worked out that we could go onto the farm and the little girl would helpfully go with us. She was a confident and sweet child. and it was she who told us in singsong Spanish that those giant spiders might jump at but that they not bite us and not to worry. Salta no pico, de nada.

We followed the small figure into the shadows.

As we ducked and pushed our way through some heavy growth, Laura asked Abigail about a cat that she hadn't seen for awhile. It had died, we learned. Laura expressed condolences to Abigail for the loss of a pet, saying "that's sad." Abigail shrugged unconcernedly. "No. Why is that sad? We can get another cat, who cares?" Laura translated for our amusement.

Right. Farm animals. Not pets, like those at Juan and Julia's.

The ground was thick with crackling dry leaves, the trees much closer together than at Julia's plantation. It felt like jungle. I found myself thinking about snakes. There are quite a few deadly ones in the Peruvian rainforest, I had read. How many in the "eyebrow" of the Amazon, I wondered? Fer de Lance, Coral Snake, Bushmaster, Green Tree Vipers?

Oh well. At least we didn't have to worry about crocs or alligators or piranhas or electric eels. You needed to be on a river for those.


We carefully avoided the spiders and their webs. A chicken scratching in the leaves, flipping them into the air nearly gave me a heart attack.   Besides the butterflies, Tillandsia (air plants) that had fallen from the trees littered the ground. I picked one up with an exclamation, as I'm rather fond of these funny plants that don't need to be planted to survive, and was told "weeds".

Well, I like them.

Through the dense smaller trees, we came to a more open area where the large-leaved Theobroma cacao trees grew, some small, others soaring overhead. Chocolate trees! All thoughts of snakes evaporated like mist.

cacao pods, old and dry

When in season, we were told, the pods perch in clusters on the trunks of the Cacao trees.

Of course, they weren't in season, so a sort of Easter egg hunt began, trying to be the first to spot one that had been missed during harvest.

Craning our necks, we searched for the Nerf-football-shaped pods that grow in shades of the sunset. These contain both a sticky, marshmallow-y substance and, most importantly, the chocolate beans.

Lots of them.

But you had to find the pod first.

Abigail found a long forked stick and, turning it around backwards, picked a mandarin for us by catching the fruit on one side of the fork and the stem on the other and pulling. 

Sucking on the fragrant citrus sweetness, we kept looking, butterflies still swirling around our feet.

Finally Laura spotted one and we cracked it open, to dismay. Dried out. No marshmallow goo to try.

Laura slipped Abigail some money, indicating to us that it should be done away from the house. The adults would surely take it away from her if they knew, she explained quietly, as they generally did not treat her terribly well. "Keep it hidden, it's a secret, don't tell," Laura emphasized to the little girl in Spanish over and over again. Abigail is the abandoned daughter of a gringa, of whom the family did not approve, who had apparently dumped the child with her Peruvian father and never looked back. Mike forbade me to even think about adopting her.

It's hard not to think such things in third world countries.

We wandered back to the farmyard, noting that the semi-outdoor dining area also doubled as a schoolroom, keeping our hands away from the temperamental white dog Blanco, and admiring various and sundry poultry that Abigail caught and brought to us in turn to inspect. I took her photo and then let her look in the view screen to see herself. Then I handed her the camera to play with, much to her delight and surprise.

She took this photo of her sister, gesturing to her subject to scoot forward into the light for a better picture, and composing the shot carefully. Much to our surprise.

Then an obligatory group photo during which she bossed us like a big shot photographer.

The two little girls sat and scrolled through the memory card, once they figured it out, looking at all our photos like it was a television. At one point they became quite excited "caballo!" they sang out with joy pointing and laughing at the screen. Laura asked them something, and they chattered gleefully; they'd never seen a real horse before, and I'd gotten a drive-by photo of some on the mountain pass.

Admittedly, horses with their heads obscured.

It was another insight into the lives of those children. I was rather sorry it wasn't a better photo.

After this is got rather interesting. Abigail confronted Laura, holding the camera up and asking how much I had paid for it. I mentally converted Arab Emirate dirhams to US dollars to Peruvian soles and came up with a ballpark figure. Then Abigail, clear-eyed and intelligent, had Laura tell me that she wished to buy the camera from me...with, one must assume, the money we'd just given her.

Can you say awkward? I must have looked quite comical for a moment. With Laura's help I replied that I was very, very sorry - but no, I only had one camera and, no darling, I couldn't sell it. "She can't get batteries for it anyway," Laura said, "and they would probably take it away as well. Don't worry about it."

Fortunately we had another highly desirable carrot to dangle: we offered to share our taxi back to town. Abigail's father rushed to take a shower in the plywood stall next to the plywood stall that served as a toilet. (Don't ask.) I nearly ran into him as he came out, half draped in a towel. Abigail also scampered to get ready, disappearing to change into her best going-to-town clothes and getting her hair wet and slicked back to look nice for the townspeople.

Neither of them seemed to believe that we would be willing to share, let alone didn't mind waiting for them to get ready. Another insight, I suppose.

While we waited we wandered down the lane a bit, taking a funny photo of Laura and her cigarette with a tobacco plant,

then, after Abigail and her father came hustling down to join us, squeezed back into the taxi, where 80's tunes were playing at full blast once again. Abigail nestled snugly and happily on Laura's lap as we bumped and swerved back to town where we said good-bye and adios, gracias, gracias to our small guide and her father.

I braved a tiny grocery to pick up more bottled waters; we were out and could feel that we were getting dehydrated, a danger since we were going to go back over the pass that day. I gave up trying to figure out how many soles the proprietress wanted for the aguas, sin gas, and, in the trusting way of travelers sine lingua, stretched out a hand with what I figured would more than cover it. She tittered with her friend and picked out some coins, and gave me change.
If you can't talk the talk you takes your chances.

Back at the plantation, we packed up our gear and then were summoned by Juan and Julia to come make our very own chocolate.

No, really. Can you say terribly excited?

Mike and Natalie in the jungle. The edge of the jungle, anyway.
Banana, papaya, cacao, mango, and mandarin trees visible.
And goodness knows what else.