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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.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Jump jive and wail.

Now I have a confession. A small one: I was pretty proud of the way I'd handled the ant attack. Not, perhaps of the hop-slap-smack-yelp dance I did, but of being sensible, not freaking out.

I'd even said as much to Mike: "Good thing I'm not one of those silly, you know, girly girls who are afraid of bugs, eh? You'd have had a hysterical mess to clean up after all those ants." He gave me my due, and I internally forgave him for laughing at the time.

Besides, I would undoubtedly have laughed too, had the situation been reversed.

Ten minutes later jungle karma got me, in the form of a large, pissed-off cockroach. I'd gone to the bathroom, a very nice little bathroom at that, and when I reached for the cheery yellow towel to dry my hands, it skittered out from beneath the terrrycloth as only cockroaches can.


Startled, (not afraid, NOT afraid, I tell you!) my gah was, thankfully, only audible to the nearby vicnity.

The cockroach, probably a bit put off by the whole thing, ran like hell for a safer spot to nap. Either that or he went back to the ants and reported another score for Team Insect.

Mike got another laugh out of it, and so, despite my chagrin, did I.

So you see, I'm not even half the badass I wish I was.

Yes, I know you're not surprised. But could you at least pretend to be, maybe a little?

Back at the wooden table, Juan and Julia's son got out a book on origami and began to carefully fold a bird. This struck me as fantastic, Japanese papercraft in the Amazon. I watched a bit, then went and ripped a few papers out of my journal, shaped them into squares with careful folding, licking and ripping, then crafted a cootie catcher.

Perhaps you are not familiar with cootie catchers. Also known as paper fortune tellers, these are always a hit with kids. The little boy watched me carefully out of the corner of his eye. Now I needed to decorate the cootie catcher, so that we could play the game.

I tried to remember some Spanish words. Numbers, I can count to four. That was easy.

Colors, um, check. I hoped I could spell them correctly. I knew I would have to say the letters in English, but figured the kids would give me a pass on that one.

Now for the inside. Animals. I had to come up with eight of them. OK, ranita (frog), gato (cat) perro (dog) caballo (horse) pescado (fish) pollo (chicken) vaca (cow).

Phew. That just about exhaused my knowledge base.

Laura had come over, interested, and Mike nudged me; Juan and Julia's daugher, a shy teenager who'd barely managed to even meet our eyes, had stopped her work and sidled closer to see what we were doing. I explained with a flourish how the cootie catcher worked, Laura translating excitedly. "I remember these!" She said, "we had them as children in Germany -we would put funny sayings in them."

She translated to the two kids how the cootie catcher worked and we played a game, then I handed over the catchers and was well rewarded with happy eyes and shy gracias.

Dinner that evening, gathered with the family around the heavy table, evening breezes and jungle sounds drifting and mingling with the mouth-watering frangrances of the meal. Julia had  boiled and sliced yellow potatoes to be slathered with a spicy, creamy sauce. Papa a la Huancaína; Huancayo style potatoes. I was so pleased- one of the recipes I'd learned how to make this back in Lima in the cooking class.

The sauce has diverse ingredients  that would do Food Network's Chopped or Iron Chef shows proud: chilis, lime juice, fresh cheese, nuts,  evaporated milk, and crackers.

The potatoes alone, we'd discovered, are so starchy as to be strangely dry, to a North American palate, but are when smothered in the sauce, I could eat them all day if they weren't so filling. The meal continued with everything incredibly fresh, the chicken tender and actually tasting of chicken, the fruits as fresh as you might imagine, having just been picked off trees 20 feet away, each dish so obviously, palatably wholesome and delicious, we were satisfied down to the tips of our toes.

What is amazing to me is that Julia, with the help of her daughter, prepared all these foods on this sooty, wood-fueled stone stove:

A microwave would have been positively alien in this kitchen. No thermometers, no timers, no antimicrobial soaps or icemakers. Nada. There was a big table for chopping, a sink for washing, vegetables in baskets, loaves of breads on shelves, carefully draped with cloths; everything carefully in its place. It...resonated with some deep part of myself that will never get a chance to connect with that sort of true, elemental cooking. Providing real, honest food.

Am I saying I would trade in my grocery stores and deep freezer? No, not at all. Merely that it was...refreshing...to see that my way wasn't the only way. She allowed me to pitch in a bit, peel some vegetables the next day, but I would have had to have lived there a month to really learn anything.

If only. But life isn't like that, so we spent our good energies relaxing and having another cup of that beautiful after dinner coffee. Laura had bought beers for everyone at the local store, so we leaned back and drank those too. Juan seemed particularly pleased with that.

Despite the late night coffees we slept like the dead. Or would have, what with all the travel and the wonderful fresh air, but for one factor: the farm rooster. It, like all of its kind, had no bloody idea that it was only supposed to crow when the sun came up. I think that only happens in storybooks. It was easy to get used to the constant jungle sounds of the Amazon, the bugs and the rustles and the peeps and chirps of nighttime creatures, but that darned rooster waited for everyone to drift off to sleep and then would let fly with his piercing cock-a-doodle-doo. Then he would chuckle to himself and wait 20 minutes, then do it again.

In the morning, Juan asked, in Spanish and pantomime, if we'd slept well. I pointed to the rooster, grimaced, made cock-a-doodle-doo sounds and the universal "wring his neck" hand gestures.

Juan laughed himself sick and offered us coffee.

(completely innocent curly-feathered hen.)