People my age are thinking about their retirement. I can’t even see past a few days. Every once in a while the social conventions tickle at my neck, trying to get my attention. Social conventions like career, planning, master’s, security, raising kids, etc. tug at my collar. Here in Latin America it’s the same deal, albeit with a unique twist. Here it’s not career career career, success success success… rather, it’s family family family, work work work. “Where is your wife?” is a normal question that I receive often. “I don’t have a wife. I don’t think I want a wife.” “No wife? Without kids who will take care of you when you’re old?” Back home we expect our pensions and social security to cushion our fall from youth, but here your family is your investment, so to speak. Both cases represent the norm. But you might say that I prefer my cup of tea with salt.
Ramble on baby, just keep on rambling on there’s no cause for alarm just rumble away and let all those wonderful thoughts litter the private sphere where your people read you and think that you must be a little wired or tilted set to tumble off a hill. But don’t you worry cause there’s a chair under my behind and bright lights and air conditioning and other people silently trapped in their own internet worlds. And here I am tranquil. A library offers that, tranquility. Internet cafes here are a bustle of annoying Latin music bands over the scratchy speakers and kids yelling about WoW stats or this or that. I prefer book worms.
It’s hot outside. Too hot for walking. Or, rather, too hot to walk without planning your route to coincide with ice cream vendors’ locales. I made it here with 1 sol, or roughly 35 cents, by buying a chocolaty treat that was frozen for a moment but began to trickle cream in the scorching sun, and walking until it was kaput at the next vendor’s stand, there to buy yet another popsicle, this time milk and strawberry. Did you ever play the original Monkey Island? If you did, do you remember the part where our hero has to carry a corroding substance and he transfers it from mug to mug until he arrives at his destination? No? Don’t remember? Well if you do, this was a lot like that.
And it brought me to my library. My Amazonian oasis, I should call it. I’ve been here for five days, something I should think unthinkable. I had to come all the way here to remind myself that I really don’t like being in the kind of heat that leaves you wet after three strides. Short strides. I came for the food. I’ve abandoned my idea to cook as many potato varieties as I can, because most all that I’ve seen are pretty similar, despite being completely different. Instead, I’ve decided to eat a lot. Not one but two friends named Sam have passions for food that have rubbed off on me. Since I’m in one of the food capitals of the world I ought to aprovechar. Remember Sierra’s 300? Well, you didn’t think that I’ve already spent it all did you? Allow me to catch you up to where I am. Prepare yourself for a long haul from the crispy cold mountains to the torturing hot jungle, and don’t forget to wash your feet!
Santa. That’s the name of the river that ran through Carhuaz, the last place I posted from. It’s brown, frigid waters rush by, frigid from the glacial sources and brown because people throw everything into it, considering it a disposal rather than a giver of life. Instead of my antenna peak campsite, I made my new home along the banks of the Santa just outside of town, the peak of Huarascaran still in view. It was a restful night.
The next day it was more sun block and more walking until finally a car decided to take me and take me far, yessir, took me far all the way to Huaraz, where I had a friendly French girl waiting for me to give me shelter for a few days. He dropped me off in front of the Quechua Explorer tour company where she was working.
A bright smile greeted dirty me. But she didn’t mind. She had big round brown eyes and curly dirty blond hair. Everyone has auras or vibes or whatever the hell you want to call it. Sometimes you know immediately if someone else shares a similar demeanor and you know immediately whether you’re going to get along. This was one of those moments and I knew we’d kick it royally. And that we did.
I left my pack in the office and ran out to grab a bite. Food. Gotta find the market. And when I did it was a bustling street scene with all sorts of vendors vending, shoppers shopping and storefronts being corny. I found what I was looking for, a chalkboard advertising their “menu” for 3.5 soles. The menu includes the obligatory soup, the “segundo” main course, and a refresco. I ordered “Tallarin con pollo”, or basically, spaghetti with chicken. Remember Mariano, the old man who shared his meal in the mountains? Deja Vu. Same basic idea, but this meal exploded with all sorts of awesome flavors. It’s not spaghetti like we know it back home, it’s just the spaghetti noodles, and the sauce is completely different. I asked for the recipe afterward. The girl wrote out on a bill: “tallarin criollo, tomate, ajos, cebolla, hongos laurel, zanahoria, alverjitas, pollo.” I tried to squeeze out the names of the spices they used but she insisted they didn’t. Hum bug. It was the best plate I’d had in Peru yet.
Outside I looked at the mountains. A single sloping cloud connected all the peaks. Must be shitty to be up there. But a beautiful sight nonetheless.
I stayed with Aurore for three nights. That was her name, “Aurore”. She was from Lyon, France. There were two other guys staying with her when I arrived but they left the first night. Damien and Jean-Luc from Toulouse, France. I get along with the French easily. There’s something about their reserved interest and calmness that I admire. My French was sloppy at first but after the three days it had come back to me.
I walked around with Damien. We shot the shit. I’d been to Toulouse and it was my favorite French city, La Ville en Rose. Damien and Jean Luc were headed to Trujillo, and were going to stay with Abraham, coincidently. I told them to appreciate his striding walk. They asked about Chan Chan and I told them how to sneak in from the back. We mentioned Carcasonne, the biggest medeival city in the world right near their hometown of Toulouse. They’d never been. “You’ve never been?!” I shouted, “It’s the most beautiful thing!” I was there years ago. I snuck around in the rainy night on a vineyard hill to get a snapshot of the city lit up brightly. A farmer flashed his light on me and I sprinted away. That was a fun night.
Damien and I discovered then “paricones”, fluffy fried dough topped with honey poured right out of the comb. We moaned with delight. All it was was egg, flour, sugar, a bit of salt, rising agent, and the honey. Good gawd man was it tasty.
At Aurore’s place there was a view over the town, the white peaks looming so close you could lick them. Damien packed his things and then we hit the town as night fell, Jean-Luc off skyping with a darling and Aurore still at work. Huaraz was a modern city in the 80’s. It had been destroyed by the 1970 earthquake that burried Yungay, but they had rebuilt in haute fashion, at the time. We walked the streets until we found a place Aurore had introduced Damien to. It was a medicinal boutique where they sold all sorts of medicinal treats to treat the soul. Bottles of this or that, herbs hanging from the low dark ceiling, and steam rising from a couple of pots that a man and woman were working frantically over. Because alas, the small shop was packed with people ordering drinks called chuchwas, said to be good for all sorts of ailments. Damien caught the guy’s eye, “para la garganta, dos porfa, “for the throat, two please.” 1 sol got us a great big glass mug of hot brown liquid. It was like vin chaud, but stronger. I tasted anis, rosemary and clove. It was very alcoholic. I asked Damien if he thought the folks here really believed that this helped their ulcer or whatnot. “I sure do,” he responded with a chug.
Aurore and I feasted on pollo a la brasa that night, and I dipped into my Sierra’s 300 reserves to afford the meal of half a chicken over french fries.
The french fries were thick and righteous with the mayo. The next day she had off work, and with 3 American friends of hers we jumped in a combibus and drove toward the mountains. We spent 3 blistering hours hiking up to a lake called Churup. This’ll be the death of my boots I thought. We made it to the top and I ate some of my machica and showed the others the stuff. We could see Huaraz far below.
Back in the city, after a long detour we decided to take over rocky hills, I wanted to take Aurore to the Tallarin con Pollo restuarant. It was closed. Instead we feasted on fruit. Passion fruit, tiny sweet bananas, and pomagranite. I bought my first bottle of Inka Cola, a yellow sodapop. Aurore had said it tasted like medicament. The French say the same about Dr. Pepper and I love the Doctor. Inka Cola was ok, but it was no Dr. Pepper.
In the mornings we cooked fried eggs. I like mine liquidy. The pan was too small to wow my host with eggs in a basket. We made a bizarre dough out of the machica but it didn’t cook like we wanted. Passion fruit compensated.
In the evenings we scoured the city for menus at below 4 sols. We found 3.5 and feasted on pachamanca de pollo for the first time. It was a large plate of food: chocolo, chicken, potato, brown herbs and spices called huacatall, greenbeans, and sweet potato. I pushed the sweet potato aside and ate the rest of the spicy dish. It was a challenge to negotiate digging the giant green bean peas out of their shells in my mouth, but well rewarded. The desert was a white peach variety from a woman on the street. Not nearly as juicy as the golden peaches I’m used to.
Back at the apartment with the view, it was a hot shower. A hot shower. What glory.
Keep on keeping on; time to go, and on the fourth morning I biz-ed my French friend goodbye and on the road it was, this time in the direction of… well, of somewhere else, I suppose. I didn’t have a clue where I would end up that night. It was a crispy morning but the sweat gleamed anyway under the wieght of my pack as I strolled out of town. My shirt has become a digusting excuse for clothing. The pit stains are permanent and the deodorant that I use has set up shop in the synthetic fabric, not to be displaced by any detergent no matter the grade. But to a man his work shirt is part of him. I’m not about to substitute a lesser garment. I shall wear my deteriorating shirt until it itself decides to unravel.
So many destinations. I could head toward Lima but that would mean I’d have to hit up the internet to try to contact a CS there. I didn’t feel like it. Maybe I’d just go slowly in the direction of the capital. But then also there was Chavin de Huantar, a 2500 year old ruin north on a dirt road 2 hours out of Huaraz. I decided not to go there, it’d probably take too long to get rides anyway. I looked at my map. I wanted also to check out Huanuco, and Pucallpa, way up there in the Amazon. Some said I’d have to go Lima way and then remount the main highway north, but there was another thin red line indicated by my map that led through La Union east directly to Huanuco. What to do what to do.
I stuck out my thumb. A pick up truck stopped. “Where are you going?” “Lima.” “Hop in.” “And where are you headed sir?” “Chavin.”
And so it goes, I had a ride to Chavin de Huantar. Why not. The man was reserved and when I asked if I could come along to Chavin with him his vibe was a little bizarre. But he took me along, and we grabbed a worker hitching on the way. The road was a curvy catastrohpy, climbing into the desolate hills of the closing mountains. The sky was plotted with bunches of clouds like fistfulls of cotton balls. The vastness was impressive; we could see hundreds of kilometers in the distance, and in places fell rays of rains gray as dawn.
We passed a large black lagoon and travelled through a long tunnel, opening up on a deep cut gash of mountain, the road winding down into a green valley beyond. We were immediately greeted with a giant white statue of Jesus holding his cross. The only thing missing was the sign. “Jesus welcomes you to Chavin, enjoy the touristic places we have to offer!”
A few hours more and I was saying goodbye to the man. “You aren’t going to pay me?” he asked. Ugh, he’s one of these guys. I had made it clear I didn’t pay for transportation. “I’m hitchhiking dude.” I wasn’t going to pay, and I could tell by his inflection that he wasn’t necessarily expecting me to, but he’d try anyway, and break any kind of connection we’d made along the way. But there was no connection, and I didn’t care. Some difficult irony existed in that his name was “Just”. He left.
Chavin is a small town in a steep forested valley, it’s buildings pastel blue, aqua, and yellow. There were tours offering adventure climbing, adventure sports and blah blah. No thanks. I just wanted to see where this Chavin culture, which had ruled from Jungle to Sea before the Incas, had their main meeting ground. I walked up a hill and found a closed gate. The guards were looking bored. “It’s closed,” one said. Goddamnit. It was Monday. Monday! Not again! First the museum of Sipan and now Chavin. Deja fuckin’ vu. I could see the ruins just on the other side of the gate. “Aw come on, just one gringo tourist doesn’t make a difference, let me in. I just wanna draw, I won’t even go into the tunnels.” They wouldn’t budge, so I left.
I walked and grabbed a bite to eat in a small wood shack. It was a tangy orange sauce smothering a plate of chicken and rice. The meat always comes on the bone, it’s never cut up for you. All the better. It was a delicious meal and the lime salad was the icing on the cake. I bought some passion fruit on the street and walked out of town on the opposite side of the river, up around a bend to where there was a good view of the ruins. I could see the covered areas and the brown rock that formed the walls and plazas. I walked down to the river. I could swim this easily. The guards were lounging at the gate, no way would they catch me sneaking in. I looked at the current and got a chill. Sometimes, friends, it’s not about not being worth it, but about whether you feel like it or not. I didn’t want to hang around any longer. I had an urge to travel great distances. I wanted to be on the road again.
I ate my passion fruit. The sun was high. The town was quiet. No cars were passing back over the pot-holed road. An hour, nothing. All I wanted to do was at least make it to a different lagoon on my map, there to camp the night. Finally a truck, a blue truck. A giant wood trailer, open to the sky. Looks empty. I hailed the vehicle and pointed up indicating I wanted into the trailer. The three guys in the cab stopped. “Where you headed?” They asked delightedly. “Direction Lima.” “Hop in the back, the ladder is on the side here.” I climbed up and swung down into the big trailer, wood walls surrounded me and the only thing in there was a pile of planks.
The only thing worse than a holey dirt road is a holey paved road, because the recoil is all the more firm. This ride was a violent 3 hours back to the main highway. Part of the time I stood and peered out of the slits in the wood like a forlorn bum stealing a ride in a freight car.
Back in the vast desolate hills the driver popped a squat and his helper climbed to the top, as did I. We sat on the crossbeams of the trailer 15 feet above the ground and chatted. His name was Santos. He must have been around 50 years old. He wore a bright red knit cap. His lined polo shirt and slight potbelly reminded me of my grandfather, Bapa.
“Where are you from?”
“Yup. So, are you guys heading to Huaraz then?” I queried.
“No, to Pucallpa.”
No way. You mean to tell me that my destinations have been decided by the coinciding passing of two rides that happened to be going to my options? That’s the way of things. They were passing on the thin red line road via La Union. They’d arrive there that night, and to Tingo Maria the second night, and on the third night they’d be in Pucallpa.
“Can I come with you?”
“You bet you can! You wanna see Pucallpa? The girls yea?”
I’d heard the women in Pucallpa were the sexiest in Peru. Luis told me that. His wife’s from there. Don’t mistake my tone: sex tourism does not interest me. I appreciate bodies, is all, and so do you I’m sure. But like I said, it’s the food at this point… You’re thinking: yea right you fucking horn dog….
Jorge was the driver and he was from Huanuco. He hadn’t eaten for two days because he only eats the food from the orient, from the jungle. Santos did a little dance, throwing his hips from side to side, “the girls walk like this there, you’ll see.” Everyone laughed.
There were a few other people in the cab I didn’t meet, other passengers. I jumped back into the trailer and we were off, after Santos had refilled a jerryrigged gas can on the roof of the cab that fed the motor directly. The sun had reached the horizon. I said my shy goodbye to the pink sun-splashed peaks, as I would not see them again.
“It’s cold, the road to La Union, do you have more clothes than that?” I was still in my t-shirt.
“Yeah it’s no problem.”
The only problem turned out to be the road. It was a single lane paved road, but not really really paved. In the trailer I had my most violent ride of my life. It was cold. It was really cold, what with the wind penetrating the slats and the altitude forever mounting. The air was thin as it was, but the slapping planks of wood with which I shared the space threw sawdust into the air and clogged my lungs. I took out my sleeping bag and crawled inside, zipping on the hood. I sat huddled in the corner closest to the cab, and rode out the storm bouncing up and down on my pack and slamming against the wall. If I could’ve taken a video of the back of the trailer, you might think that we were crashing the entire trip. The only scarrier trip I’ve been on was a plane in a blizzard with my family in upstate New York, which felt like we were going to crash the entire ride. Deja vu. Oh the memories. Speaking of memories, do you remember Honduras? This is not the first time I’ve ridden in the wood trailer back of a truck down a long dirt road to a town called La Union! Remember? More darn deja vu.
Eventually the road mellowed out and, besides occasional plumes of white transmission smoke from the gargling truck, my roof viewfinder to the world was dotted with bright white stars and silhouettes of passing canyon cliffs. After many hours we had reached La Union, where the other passengers disembarked and took the annoying planks of wood with them. There, we slept, and I slept well in the trailer, sprawled out on the floor in my sleeping bag.
The morning brought a brisk climb over another pass, and I was invited into the cab for the warmth. These guys were a couple of old farts, but they were really joyous and a little vulgar. We pulled over to a building. It was on the side of a hill and only a dozen precarious stlits kept it aloft. It was dark inside. Piles of potatos were scattered on the floor. We took a seat. “How much is the menu here?” I asked. “Seven soles,” Jorge told me. “They don’t have rice or something?” “They have bread.”
I told the guys I’d just get a soup and some bread, but Jorge and Santos ordered me a plate of what they were eating anyway. “You gotta try this.”
It was pachamanca again, but this time, with cerdo, pig. It was a large hunk of meat, a side of wet purple onion salad, and about 5 or 6 mini potatos steamed soft. We ate with our hands. It was a glorious feast, it was. The cerdo had a sharp taste, and that hint of fried cerdo, or, bacon, filled my jowls.
Down the road a few hours. We heard suddenly a large crack. Oh shit. This truck was already falling apart, but to add to the devastation, one of the main supports of the drive shaft cracked and the whole thing fell into it’s metal safety stirrups. Orange cones at the curve. A quick poop in the woods. Jorge and Santos gone up to the closest village walking to get the cracked part welded back together. Can’t do that back home. You’d be out of luck without a tow truck for this repair. But not here, no sir. Those guys were gone two hours and when they were back, we slammed the piece on the driveshaft, hauled the heavy thing into the air and bolted the brace into the chassy. Good to go.
Hours and hills and the thin road that went steep, came up shallow, then crested hills and descended once again. A car drove by with 3 sheep tied to the roof. I cocked my head at the sight. Every once in a while, we’d stop, Santos’d mount the cab and refill the gas can from the tank below. The one lane road inevitably brought confrontations with other trucks. One time, we came face to face with another truck and neither driver would back down to let the other pass. Jorge yelled out the window, “Concha tu mandre! Fuck your mother you idiot! Back the fuck up you’re blocking the road asshole!” We had the high ground, but the other driver had bloodshot eyes and his aggression was blurring his logic. Until finally, he backed down.
Other confrontations passed more amicably, and finally we pulled into a valley: Huanuco. We stopped briefly to get butt fucked by some greedy cops, who extorted 50 sols from us (yes, I paid too), and then continued to Huanuco.
A medium-sized town. Dusty town, at least at the parts we saw. We pulled onto the large swathe of open dirt in front of a place that read “Large Machine Mechanics.” Here we stayed for 4 hours, into dusk and into dark, the dust never really settling. At one point Jorge and Santos disappeared into a taxi and left me to guard the truck. Santos had offered me his pistol for protection but I assured him I could handle it without the gun. At another point I disappeared with Santos in a taxi to drive around looking for other mechanics, picking them up and essentially importing them to our truck. There they worked and worked, replacing part after part. I bought a small powdered sugar dulce that was two crusty cakes sandwiching caramel. I walked around, saw side-of-the-road hotels with the words “touristic recreation” in their name. Any place puts “turistico” to up their chances of convincing would-be clients that theirs is the hotel to go to on vacation.
Hours passed, and then we were underway.
But it was not to be. The engine kept shutting down. It appeared that the mechanics had made it worse. More side of the road at night work and after a few hours more we were back on the road, albeit back on the road with a broken truck. Somehow the guys made it work.
We talked about drugs. Marijuana is rare here, somehow. People just don’t smoke it, or know very few people who do. What’s more is that they generally consider it to be very bad. I hate when the stuff is grouped with “drugs”. Alcohol is worse. I told Santos that, and he didn’t believe me. I told him chewing coca leaves was akin. “No,” he’d said, “coca leaves get rid of hunger, sleep, and give you a lot of energy.” They had two big bags of the leaves in the cab. I decided not to push my point.
That night we pulled over to a restaurant and I suggested the lady fix me a plate of whatever for 3 sols. Jorge spoke up to her, “don’t listen to him, bring him the same as we’re having.” And so I feasted on cerdo asado, barbeque pig. It came off the bone like water off a leaf. Again the guys treated me to this meal. I scooped Jorge’s leftovers into a bag, and when the woman saw me doing this she gave me a big bag of crackers for the road.
I was tired, and the guys worked more on the engine. I crawled back into my sleepingbag in the trailer. That night we were eventually underway. We’d reached the main highway back in Huanuco, so I was under the impression it’d be a gentle ride to Tingo Maria, paved all the way. I was wrong. The road was out, so it was a dirt road detour of several hours. I think Jorge and Santos must have been in a hurry, because they were relentlessly roaring over the road with such speed that it made that last dirt road seem like a joy ride. In fact, it made a real car accident look comfortable. I didn’t sleep that night, and I couldn’t get their attention to let me back into the cab. I was trapped. I sat in my corner refuge, my full stomach jostling around. Hours and hours of torturous bumps, and finally I was laying down, falling asleep in the stationary trailer that had at last come to a stop.
In the morning Santos was gone, dropped in Tingo Maria, and Jorge and I on the outskirts. We were in a truckers’ area, a dirt plot of land, a mechanics’ hut, with pissers and a squat shitter. I ran into the bathroom and squatted. PLS stands for “Pure Liquid Shit.” The disastrous ride on a full stomach had not been good to me. But the episode passed and Jorge woke up and came out of the cab.
“Truck’s broken, you’ll have to find another ride to Pucallpa.” Pucallpa was still 6 hours away. Apparently the truck finally gave out in the night. We parted warmly, and I walked over to the highway.
In two minutes a thing pulled over for me. It was a motorbiketruckthing. A motorcycle with a gated platform behind it. Two guys were riding in back, and they waved me over. I thought it was a scam at first, but they seemed legitimate. So, my first ride in a motorbike truck. And 6 hours of it, all the way to Pucallpa. A mixing of the bumpy ride the night before with the breathing of sawdust had given me a soar throat. It was very early, and the thin dawn light and slight humid air hinted of the powerful sun to come.
The guys in the back were friendly. One was about 40 and looked like the fire chief from Die Hard With a Vengeance. The other was really high, his eyes hidden behind dark shades, reflecting the burn in his apple pipe as he took a hit. His nose had been broken. He also looked like a movie figure. He looked like the skinny bad dude from Super Mario Bros. He wore a green sleeveless shirt and had the popular stencil of Che tatooed on his upper arm. I thought silently to myself… do I have a hero?
We passed through slippery mountains of rainforest canopy and landslides that had knocked out many sections of road, all washed away in the river. We passed “the Devil’s shower” waterfall and got a little wet. The sun was intense and I lathered on the cream. 6 hours later we were entering the long stretch of road into the city of Pucallpa, the biggest city in the Peruvian Amazon. There were almost only mototaxis. Yellow, blue, red, black. It was a veritable buzz of business in the streets. I remember Luis from Pamparomas had said he’d planned to buy a motortaxi here. A future buzzer.
I said goodbye to my moviestar buddies and began walking. It was hot. It is hot. It’s hot. Like I said, I had to come all the way here to remember that I don’t like being in this kind of heat. It was like Mexico’s Pacific coast again. It was like Barranquilla. It was another deja vu. It was hotter.
I walked to the river. I had it in my mind to scope out the scene and find out about work on a boat that could take me to Iquitos. But, really, I didn’t want to stay in the Amazon, so I didn’t bother asking around. For anyone who is curious, though, it looks very possible to get work on any number of boats, there are so damn many companies.
The river stretched out for a kilometer or so to the other side, where a large plantation of sugarcane and small white shacks skirted the horizon. But I felt like I could see beyond that. I felt like I could see into the heart of Brazil, that I could see up and over the vast plain that is the Amazon Basin. In Misahualli I did not have the same sensation. Here, I could almost feel the depth of the rainforest. Maybe, maybe just maybe, someday I’ll actually go into the thing.
The waterfront was bustling with activity. People carrying bags of grains or rice, or big stalks of plantains, a loudspeaker preaching the wWord of God, seemingly double-parked river freighters crowding the steep bank. Workers rushed to and fro with dirty knickers and barefeet on the rocky dirt ground. Ice cream vendors shuffled their carts back and forth, blowing into New Years-esque horns to catch peoples’ attention. I walked into the market area, another bustle of life. I took in the smoky air and considered the smells. I found all sorts of things I hadn’t seen before. Fried plantains on plastic plates, topped with deep-fried chicken feet, throats, and hearts. Tasty. Then there was the banana leaf sachel of rice or tamale, or the crispy skin of pig with hair still poking out, or the drink vendor with big plastic jugs of purple corn refresco or brown sweet fruit juice. I began tasting left and right, a sol here, a sol there, negotiating to give me half the plate or half the glass for less, always saving but always experimenting.
There were no more women in top hats and thick stockings. Instead the people wore thin clothes or no shirts and the girls strutted around in miniskirts or tight short shorts. Gleaming skin was all around me and I felt like a dirty mess in my raggety outfit with my cumbersome pack. But the rumours were true, there were jungle beauties abound. They walked with confidence and threw me an eye occasionally. I felt shy and undeserving, the only thing really attracting any attention being the foreigness of my face. But alas, it is what it is. The trip was worth the rush of heat, at least for a day or two.
I walked back to the center and sat to draw a street scene. At a blue cabin newspaper stand, all the periodicals wer clipped together in a vertical curtain, and old men glared closely at the headlines. Election year, the public sphere saturated with corny advertisements and shallow catch phrases that are conceived by marketing experts. “Honesty is the difference.” “Peru wins.” “With strong youth, we can.” Keiko is an ex-president-now-in-jail’s daughter, and ex-army officer Ollanta, they say, is Chavez-like. After getting chewed out of some sols by those cops in Huanuco, sometimes I really understand why people want a strongarm president: they think he’ll actually stop corruption. Don’t ask me.
I drew the old men next to the newsstand under a shady tree, and another man in a wheelchair hidden in the shade selling gum and cigarettes. Then I was approached.
I looked up to see a beautiful girl staring down at me. “Hola,” I offered. She looked prone to say something and then shuffled away. I returned to my drawing, but in the corner of my eye I caught her returning. “Hola,” she said. She was a very pretty girl, and she held her hands behind her back. “Cuanto me cobras para dibujarme?”
Wha wha whhhaaat? She had just asked me, “How much will you charge to draw me?” I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know what to say. I did just that, I said nothing, letting out a few uneasy studders as I stared at her. “Or is now not a good time?”
“Well, I’m drawing this at the moment. You know, I’m not very good at drawing people.”
“Oh, I bet you are.”
“Well it’s not quite the right time or place, like, maybe later sweetheart.” I didn’t know what I was doing. Her body expression was bizarre. Was she hitting on me? The next question answered that for me.
“What do you do at night?”
“I sleep.” You corny fucker you. “What do you do?”
“I study. Why are you in Pucallpa, most foreigners are afraid of this city.” I looked around. I actually hadn’t seen any other white folks like me, or any backpackers either.
“I wanted to check out the… the food.”
“Maybe you can draw me some other time.”
I thought to ask her to sit down, or at least if she wanted to do something, a drink, anything. But I had a funny feeling.
“How old are you?”
“Ah, jovencita.” She didn’t look 17. With my little remark about her being a youngster she seemed hurt, and the conversation ended shortly after when she walked away. It’s hard to tell how old people are. Most girls and boys at 18 are either in a relationship or have a kid here. That’s not an exageration. I was left on the curb there, with a blank mind.
Eventually it grew dark. Had to think about where to sleep. I had considered hotels, I had sent one message to a gringo on couchsurfing, but this town had not been hit by the CS wave yet. What I had seen was a firestation on the other side of the plaza. I’ll go sleep with firemen, I thought.
At the firestation I met a short old man who had to be poked to be woken up. He was jolly, and shook my hand enthusiastically while I explained that I wanted to sleep there. He took me up to meet the other firemen. There was John, Freddy, Thomas, and the bossman. They were all very happy to see me, and not only would they let me crash in the station for two nights, but I got a bed in the dorm where they slept, and there was a cold shower and private bathroom. Yeeesssss, cooolllllddshooweroowerwerowershower!
The sweat gone, I shot the shit with Freddy. We stood out on the staircase next to the pole, overlooking the lot where the firetrucks were parked. I shared the basics of my trip with him, and he told me about a time a Canadian and German stayed in the station. “When was that?” “Back in ’98”. It’d been a while since they had a guest. Freddy was around 30, married with a kid, and was also a fireman at the airport. He was eager to know me, and I was glad for it.
The whole situation reminded me of times in the past. This wasn’t the first time I’d crashed out in a firestation. In Guatemala it was a dark dangerous night wandering a sketchy town called El Rancho, until I came upon the firestation and they let me lay out my bag on the back of one of the lime green firetrucks. In Panama it was David, and then the big city, but this time I actually had a bed instead of a couch or a stretcher. But it was very deja vu-ish nonetheless. I went out and found a bite to eat in the market. The night gave me a timid air around the loud motortaxis. Their constant roar would be an ceaseless attribute of the city. I ate more paricones with honey, the woman smiling and giving me one extra. I bought a 1 sol bag of detergeant and back at the fire station I washed my pants and shirt, the first time since Trujillo. When I finished up Freddy and John came to me.
“So, we wanna take you out, what do you think?”
“Sure, let’s go.”
And so it was. We walked over to Freddy’s family’s house first. It was hidden behind a hardware store, closed, as it was already 10pm. We walked over a wooden bridge in a sort of swamp backyard in which Freddy insisted that there used to be crocodiles. I met his brothers and his mom and he showed me his brother’s wood carving of Jesus. I had met a Mexican family in Mexico City, Lenin was the name of my friend, and he had showed me a painting that his brother had done of Jesus. Deja Vu. Jesus really is big here.
John and Freddy and I then jumped into a motortaxi and rode out of town, down a long dirt road flanked by sugarcane fields. Hidden strip joints poked their facades out of their alleys. We stopped in front of “Sharlott’s”. Inside was a palm-stutted open-air area surrounding a central platform with a stripper pole. Around the perimeter of the place were tucked-away rooms glowing red. Silhouetted women in lingerie glided their arms up the door frames and peered out into the place, trying to catch the eye of the men at the plastic white tables.
This was only the second time I’d been at a strip joint in Latin America. Yet more deja vu. The first was over a year and a half ago, in Mexicali, a rough town on the border with the States. There, my friends insisted they pay for a hands-on lap dance. I went along with it, a healthy feeling of guilt whispering warnings in my ear.
Back in Pucallpa, we had 4 big bottles of beer at our table and I was beginning to feel the effects. In between dancers I translated the 80s music that was playing from English to Spanish for John and Freddy. We drank and watched the dancers dance to Aerosmith or corny porn music. We sat rather close, and they would come and move all over me, shoving my face into their clevage or grabbing at my thighs. John disappeared into one of the red rooms with a girl. “20 sols for some action,” Freddy told me.
The owner of the joint walked with high shoulders and an air of cowardice that I can’t quite describe. I consider his type a low sort. I don’t know about the girls, I imagine some enjoy their work, but I doubt all are there by choice. A little after midnight the joint closed and we rode a motortaxi back to town. We met up with Thomas and some other of the firemen to go out for more drinks, and by the time we’d returned to the firehouse again I was beat. The tall dormitory housed five creaking metal bunkbeds. The high windows were screened with mosquito netting, but it did little good against the onslaught of the bugs. I plopped on my bed and fell sweatily to sleep atop the wool blanket of the bottom bunk.
The next day I wandered around eating rare things. I found an extraordinarily sweet fruit. It had a green skin and five or so medium-sized seeds inside, a thin tough white skin guarding them. But you eat all of that. It was the tastiest and most expensive fruit I’d tried yet. It’s name was Chirimoya.
Freddy and John had convinced me to stay longer, Freddy offering his place instead of the firestation. But I would be at the firestation one more night as Freddy’s son got the runs and he had to take care of him. I went with another of the firemen, Eddy, on a motorcycle ride to the nearby touristy lagoon. It was a refreshing ride in the warm night.
Back in the station I sat and watched the TV with the bossman. An advertisement for a Kenny Rogers Live in Lima Concert flashed on the screen. Thomas showed up and was annoyingly drunk. He kept insisting that we go to sleep in the dorm. For a bunch of guys joking around about how the rest are all gay, Thomas is actually pretty gay, I thought. It turns out he has a wife and kids. It also turns out his name is Winter, not Thomas… not sure how that little detail got lost.
Saturday night Winter and I went around the corner to throw back some brewskies. I decided I liked him when he was moderately drunk, but he was almost silent when sober and was crazy annoying when plastered. But our little jaunt in the corner store, sitting around a plastic white table with our dark Pilsner beers, passersby staring curiously at our match, I learned the fireman’s lema, motto: “God, Coutnry, and Humanity”.
“And you know what the police motto is?”
“No, what is it?”
“God, Country, and Law”.
“That’s why I never ask at police stations. Something about authority and power distorts weak minds.”
Winter had thin dark eyes and a full head of shining black hair. “Us,” he made too many gestures, trying to find the right gesture to signify ‘us’, “we the firemen. We are humans, you,” he poked my chest, “human. Freddy, John, human, humans. We don’t forget that.”
This was not the first time I’d thought about this. I’d decided once before that those who chose to be firemen chose humanity over law. I love firemen. Most of them.
Because, alas, there was one among the firemen here in Pucallpa I did not like.
One day I was sitting alone in front of the tv, watching a dubbed The Patriot, when a short pudgy man with a blank face stopped half way in between me and the door. He just stared at me. Then he asked with a upward nod, “what? what are you doing?” I stood and offered a hand which he shook limpily. I explained the same I had to everyone, but he only half paid me any attention, instead using his conscience to dial a number on his cell. He walked away while I was mid-sentence to chat with someone on the line. I heard “gringo” and “that’s not how we do it here.”
As it turns out, this was the head bossman, not the older man that I knew. This man didn’t pay me any kind of respect, and treated me like a thing invading his space. He didn’t want me there, it was obvious. But alas, I wasn’t going to leave, it was already late at night. When I said goodnight to him and another young fireman that I hadn’t met but who has a laugh like a jackal, the head bossman just stared at the TV and gave me a passive “humph”. I didn’t like this weasel of a man. Obivously, authority had gotten to his head.
In the morning my friends explained that he was indeed the only true asshole of the bunch. No one liked him, but they couldn’t very well negate their superior. My firemen had my back, all was well. I knew so much about them, anyway. The motorbike taxi driver was once a mormon missionary in Cusco. “Yea, you just wanted three wifes,” I joshed. Dillinger was a happy father and snapped a few photos of his kid on my lap in the firetruck. Winter was from Ica like my friend Luis from Pamparomas. And evreyone, late at night, seemed to wander around in whitey tighties, watching infomercials or game shows. We got along great! If only not for that damned boss. As it was, I was to be kicked out. But since the head hancho is only there 1 day a week, Sunday morning he was gone, and my firebuddies and I decided I’d stay one more night. Not to mention the surprise of PLS once more. I stayed close to the bathroom all of Sunday.
It must have come from the fish I ate. A moment in the Amazon without trying river fish is a moment poorly spent. The second floor of the port market had blue walls. I walked passed several women absently yelling at me their menus, but a fish barbeque had caught my eye. Several species were being roasted over coals in a tire rim. I inquired. Mine was a juicy and meaty fish called Chiripira, a long fish with a flat shark-like head, with a side of salty boiled bananas and sevada, a cold coffee-tasting refresco.
I ate more of the rice/chicken/olive filled banana leaf sacks, called juane as it turns out. I ate picarones (they aint called paricones but Im too lazy to change it now), zuri frito which are fried caterpillars, more tacachos (fried banana with parts of pig on top, my part being the cheapest: broiled hairy skin), etc. I offered my glands new tastes of fruit like the juicy pear-like pepino de fruta, or the dry crumbly orange lucuma. There was also a fruit called caimito, but it was out of season. Too bad, because it would not be first time I’d’ve tried a fruit called caimito. The first was in the Yucatan.
The rains here are long-lasting and you are soaked in one second. I had to come back to the library to snag my passport that I’d forgotten. Not only would the librarian not let me use the computers again without buying a library pass, but he tried to extort 50 sols from me for my passport. When he asked if I wanted to use the computer again, my passport grasped in his hand and a sly twinkle in his rotten eye, I angrily denied and swiped the document from his hand, storming out to leave as bad an impression of him for the others present as I could.
And so here I sit on a wet humid evening in a tiny internet place. The walls are yellow like aged paper, and the humming of the passing motorbikes is my soundtrack to this post. The old man I had to poke to wake up when I arrived to the firestation the first day has become a sort of adopted grandfather-figure. He always has a smile on his face when he sees me, and calls me “mister greeeengo”. He taught me the names of all the pouncing kittens in the yard, the old rusting firetrucks their playplace.
I’m going to go back there now, one more sleep for me in the firestation dormitory. The windowframes are painted cherry red. Age and peeling paint stain the once-white walls. A bunch of half naked men will sleep in there tonight. And tomorrow it’s once more the road. But if I could opt to stay a few more days with my newfound friends, the choice would be as clear as white or rye.