Pucallpa behind me like a fading wake, the long mounting road into the Andes and out of the jungles of the Amazon began to beckon. A sign on the side of the road suggests that the working man’s world is engrained in the mentality. It warns: “papa, don’t run, your family awaits you,” as if women don’t drive.
Walk until the sweat wets the shirt, until the smell rises because you forgot to don deodorant, and after obliging two short rides and hours of said wetness, once more out of the city, on the rim. There I was without suerte for a few hours more. The firehouse left behind in the urban wake, the sun peeking through the dark clouds.
Another ride. “We know another gringo. He drinks a lot. You want to meet him?” Not this time, the road was too attractive. Another motorbiketruckthing, called a trimoto takes me. Detours into poor communes of crumbling earthen or flimsy planks of wood houses, yelling “sardinas y platanos, aproveche de la baratura!”
Slowly the small hills came and I was climbing in elevation. To Aguaytia. Beyond. Past more strip joints. Pucallpa memories engraved in my cerebrum. The bizarre irony of Latin America the machismo, the cat-calling, the 4-hour hotel specials, the plentiful strip joints and the plentiful Latin songs about girls sung by 40 year olds. But everyone is married with kids at 20 (exaggeration, but not far from the truth). Everyone always asking me about girls. Their girls. Country girls.
I reached a summit of a town where a mechanic curiously called “gringo” over and over, despite my acknowledgement. Every private car a taxi, many pick-ups taxis too. More than once apologizing for stopping a taxi. Most of the taxistas friendly as all heaven until they learn I pay not for transport, and their faces turn to stone and without a goodbye they’re gone. Fucking cheap-ass gringo. …Why do I have so few arguments? Where are the people who don’t believe in hitchhiking, who would yell at me to get a job? Obvious… they don’t pick me up.
A pick-up ride into another town and the rains from the dark clouds burst forth with a furry. My umbrella open, trying to avoid the gusts of wind. But when invited inside the cab I met friendly faces and we drive into the vast steep jungle canyons that would lead back to Huanuco. We stopped at a “touristic site”, called Velo de la Novia, Veil of the Girlfriend. A seemless waterfall that begins thin and opens wide along the smooth rockface cliff. It does look like a veil.
The day finally coming to a close, a quick meal of cold beans and rice (always better to eat at the right hour). The woman, her name Angelica, offers me a free bed for the night. But I’m anxious for the moderate climates of above and I continue thumbing until fate stops for me a truck.
Alas the hours begin to dissipate. I sit in the middle of the cab between bright-eyed Peruvians. We stop here and there and load the trailer with bananas or scrap wood. 6 hours into the heights, and suddenly I’m back in Huanuco.
That night the driver, Iner, invited me to sleep in the trailer, the truck parked in the yard of his house. We were on the north side of the city. The house was a simple two-room cinder block construction, the yard open-air. A few chickens puttered about. Three cages filled with guinea pigs, the animals making their muted humming sound all night. Iner rolled out a cotton mattress in the back, and I slept well in my sleeping bag.
In the morning I observed the guineas. They humped at hypersonic speed. One chicken approached me and tiled his back, staring at me with one eye, the pupil crossed by the bottom eyelid in a menacing or hateful suspicious gaze.
Iner came into the yard. “When you come back we’ll kill a guinea pig together.” I’d never killed and eaten my own meat before. But that would have to wait until the next time I find myself in Huanuco, Peru. Who knows.
His wife, Erica, fried us some eyes which we ate with “French bread” and hot chocolate. A plate of mote on the table, boiled kernels of chocolo corn which you squeeze out of their skins to pop into your mouth. And potatoes. Yes.
I thanked my hosts and began the walk to the south, to the other side of the city. I pass a long shady avenue, the tall trees painted white at their trunks to combat some unknown plague. So it goes in Latin America.
I sat in the plaza de armas for a spell. Shaded shoeshine chairs and women selling plastic bags of peanuts or sweets, old men discussing on the benches, a fountain squirting, everyone going somewhere because there is where they have to be. Perfectly primed flora skirt the gated grass patches. The library. The town hall, the church. Men-Yi Chifa Chinese restaurant.
Then I continue to walk, to leave Huanuco or to arrive somewhere else I’m not quite sure. Hours and the close sun is powerful enough to elicit a raspadillo, a snow cone sold in the street. Unlike the ones I’m used to this was soaked in a thick real syrup of strawberry and peach. Refreshing.
And then, finally, a bright yellow semi truck pulls over and away I go with 5 other men in the cab. A bit crowded but warranted. I shared my snow cone. A side of the road stop at a gulley for the men to wash their faces and brush their teeth. We passed a bicyclist in the road. “I bet he’s French, I tell the others.” They asked me where my bike was. “I don’t want to bike. People do these bike trips to see nature more than anything, and to accomplish a feat. I prefer to speak, so I hitchhike. I think I learn more about a place, a people, a language.” A couple hours more and I’m alone in a mountain town once more.
The town names are so many, hard to keep track of. Names that I may never hear again. I see a menu at 3 soles with lomo saltado listed below. There I went and sat at a wooden table in the tall restaurant. Bizarre mix of posters lined the walls. An exaggerated naturescape; bright green grass and multiple and unrealistic levels of a impossibly blue waterfall, foregrounded by brilliant red blue and green macaws. Then the poster of a bleeding crucified and white Jesus. And then, of course, the soccer teams and individual statistics of players. Here they chose team Spain of the 2010 World Cup. So it goes.
As I eat my delicious and rarely plentiful plate of food, I think there really isn’t a great diversity of belief systems here. Catholics or Evangelists all. Have I met an atheist in Latin America? I looked at the television then. A commercial for some food product. The mascot was some mestizo guy in blackface with an exaggerated bottom lip painted red, and he spoke in a squealing voice. Now that’s damn racist. Alas, here, it is not. And so it goes, I suppose.
It was too much food. The plate cost 6 soles to my surprise, but a little pleading and I was charged 5 instead. Shouldn’t list plates ike that under the menu, darnit.
Back on the street, out of town, there then approached a bicyclist. He stopped in front of me. It was the one I saw from the truck. “Hola,” he told me. But that was all I needed. I responded: “Je savais que t’etais francais!”
“How did you know?” He responded in French.
“It’s just a vibe get.”
“How do you speak French so well?”
I laughed, knowing that I wasn’t speaking as well as I used to speak. “I lived in Poitiers for a time.”
Roumain, his name a pure French name, meaning that you’re lost in the pronunciation of it if you don’t already speak French. A new friend. A tall friend, nearly 6’10. Also arrived via Zumba Ecuador. “How many days did that take you? Dirt and mud and all.” It took him 4.
In all the year and a half or so wandering around on the great highways of the Americas, I’d never met a bicyclist. Alas my time had come, here in Small Village Peru.
“I’ll wave and yell when I pass you in my next ride,” I said. And he continued on his way.
I had no more rides that day. A new decision: truckers with glasses never stop. The day was dying. Old age should burn and rave at close of day. What should I do then? I’ll go find a spot to pitch tent.
I bought 10 centimos worth of sugar to mix with my machica. Beyond the town limits a thick maroon river flowed in a flat valley next to a long pipe leading into the mountains. A power plant. Alpacas, cows and chanchos grazed. I imagined their offspring with four eyes.
They let me camp beyond an old abandoned group of buildings along the river. I took refuge in my tent. The mosquitoes long and round, with legs like a daddy long legs. Pigs oinked me a serenade. As I dosed I thought, “why do I always reference Star Wars and Lord of the Rings?” Why? WHY? They are worlds outside our own, but being from the human imagination they’re part of us anyhow. They’re reminders that our reality is not definite, that possibility is endless. I love that.
The wet morning, condensation licking at my tent flaps. Pack. Back to the road. There was a trucker already stopped on the side. I walked up to him.
He had goodness in his eyes. “Hello gringo.”
I shared my story, my travel that I’m doing, that perhaps I could come along with him. Yes and here, eat this fruit. An anona it was, with a soft yellow skin that looked like pineapple, but inside capsules of liquid white with almond-sized seeds I spat out. The fruit tasted like yogurt. And what was he doing to that tire, did he need help? “Claro que puedes ayudarme.”
We dirtied our hands good as we tugged off two giant tires from the double trailer. Deflated them and yanked off the rims in parts. Two new tires, We slammed on the rims and pulled an iron bar across their surfaces to right their positions. Gustavo was his name. He leveraged two wrenches and straightened the air intake pipes. The engine roared and the air pressure mounted. I pumped full the tires, and Gustavo transferred the tiny valves onto the new ones and gauged the pressure. 100 psi, perfect. A bit more of exertion and we’re strong-armed the lug nuts back in place. Lowered the rig and loaded the spent tires into the back. And we were off.
Up the winding road, climbing to the pampa, the alpine plateau that forms at the conjunction of 3 mountain ranges, we passed Roumain and I screamed over the noise “tout va bien!?” Maybe he didn’t here me.
We passed three other bicyclists. Over 600 days of travel without seeing bikers, and here in two days I see 4.
We climbed to the plateau. “This is mine country,” Gustavo informed me. We passed giant complexes of sheet metal building against torn-at cliffs. Huge piles of discolored earth littered the sides of the road. Much of it would enter the river and contaminate it more. A lack effort at improving the image of the mines being planting trees into the stuff. But their leaves were brown with rejection.
Our alpine plane was long rolling hills, a stretched-out horizon of rocky peaks in the distance. Some had snow, some did not. Gustavo pointed out a forest. “Does it look like a forest?” he asked. It did, but it couldn’t be so high. “It’s a forest of stone.” And so it was, thousands of spikes reaching for the sky, their grey immensity visible from so many kilometers away.
We spoke at long length. We spoke about everything. They were good conversations. One began thusly: “Who should win the election Gustavo?”
“I think Keiko will win.” He pointed at a giant open-pit mine in the distance. “That’s Keiko’s”
“I don’t like when the rich run for office. Too many conflicts of interest.”
“The rich have all the power.”
“And they’ll keep it. Most rich people became rich because they already had the money to work with. Investing, that’s how you get rich. How do you invest if you have no money?”
“Right,” Gustavo agreed, “and people here can’t get money.”
“Whether it’s an engrained acceptance of the way things are, or whether it’s those damn soap operas like Al Fondo hay SItio, that teach people that the rich can do whatever they want and the poor have their place, or whatever the cause of poverty, how the heck is a miner who has a family to support ever going to save enough to make more?”
“It’s a trap, really,” he agreed. “Ollanta wants to give more opportunities to the poor.”
“And that’s a good thing. But he was a general. I think socialism is a good thing, but why is it that the only socialists that make it to office in Latin America are militaristic? Regardless of the inequality of the money, really, everyone has rights. Simply taking money from the wealthy is just going to create more problems.”
“A millionaire doesn’t need a million dollars. Who needs a million dollars?”
“Agreed. But you can’t just take it away. I have no real solutions. I can only imagine that some pan-human change of mentality needs to happen. People need to want to help people. It can’t be forced.”
“You can’t force it, true. Violence begets violence,” Gustavo concluded with a solemn nod.
And so went that conversation. We reached the top of a hill and saw the Lago de Junin spread out below. It was not an impressive lake. But pueblo after pueblo was visible in the grassland vast, like lonely colonies in the frontier. Mining towns. I began a new conversation thusly:
“Do you think that miners consider that mining is all they can do?”
“Some, yes. A lot of work follows the family. A miner’s son will be a miner.”
“I suppose. Sometimes it’s like that back home. In one respect it’s like that in my family. I will not be a lawyer, like my father, but I will be a poet, like him.”
“You read a lot in Spanish?”
“Not much,” I responded. I’m still reading Tarzan en Acapulco, which I bought in Ensenada, Mexico over one year ago.
He held up a small Bible. “I read this.”
“It has some good things in it. Most of what the Man says I agree with. But I’m not religious. I believe in a something, but undefined.”
“Ah, I see..” Gustavo was humble. He wasn’t going to preach to me like so many have.
“Anyway, I don’t think I could live here. I’m from a metropolitan place. I need art. I need diversity.” I heard my own words but they sounded sour. Someone has to mind mines. Would better education open up more options? Would a town turned metropolis create a strong desire to leave the mining work for someone else? But who? There is always a someone else. There has to be. There has to be. For that I mourn the plight of man.
We drove on. We drove for hours, the heavy load of wood from Pucallpa straining the old engine. We drove through a small town called Huayre with an abstract and intriguing central plaza. I giant purple monument to the maca that they grow here. It was mounted on a castle-like building. Strange.
The plains rolled out into the great beyond. An endless landscape of brown grass. Telephone lines marked a trajectory into the horizon alongside a train track, both disappearing into the haze of distance. We passed a battlefield called Chacmarca, where the forces of Bolivar fought one of the major battles against the Spanish loyalists for their independence. Knowing that a field was once bloodied gives it a fearsome air.
“So they grow maca here?”
“Yes it’s pretty much the only thing they can grow.”
“At least it’s natural. Most of the food in my country has been altered somehow. Tomatoes are rendered redder in their genetics.”
“I wondered about that. You have perfectly long and uniform carrots. And really orange. Here they’re of all shapes and sizes,” Gustavo remarked.
“Yea, well, you know they choose the best variety and change the genetic composition to make all of the product the same. They also make them more resistant to diseases. But most crops are of only one type, of one species. Monocropping is much safer, because it more closely represents how things grow in nature: among other varieties and species of plants.”
“Here, the government is considering letting hybrids and GMOs enter the country.”
“I think it’s a bad idea. Here you have 4000 types of potato, in my country we have maybe 3. Here you have over 400 types of maize. In my country we produce a shit ton of it, but mostly of one type. One type, that’s it. We’ve lost gastronomic diversity, at least in our fields.”
“You mean all of your food is the same, and it’s all changed scientifically?”
“Pretty much. My brother grows organic. But in my country, To sell organic food in the supermarket you need to be certified. In Europe they at least have the labeling right: any product with GMOs has to be labeled, not the other way around.”
“That’s crazy. What about the markets?”
“Don’t’ have ‘em. Maybe a farmer’s market once a week in certain places. But we live from the supermarkets.” I told him.
“Sad. Here, you find everything in the market.”
“I know, the markets of Latin America are my favorite part.”
“So the real food in the US is labeled ‘oragnic’?”
“Yea, pretty much. And you know? It’s more expensive. It costs more to eat pure. It’s almost a style in some places. In some places, it’s a mark of wealth. How fucked is that?”
“The Bible says ‘don’t plant different species in the same hole’. Those hybrids are in a way blasphemous.”
“Sure, I suppose,” I offered. We were driving through another small mining town.
“Do you have houses made of mud in your country?” Gustavo looked at me and gestured to the buildings passing by.
“Sure do. Extreme naturalists. But they make up about 0 percent of the population.”
“The houses are wood yea?”
“Most. But there’s a big difference.”
“We move a lot.”
“What do you mean?”
“The nature of the beast, Gustavo, is a big problem in my country. We move around a lot. For instance here families consider their houses an investment. They build on them, and they pass down generations. It isn’t always like that in my country. We move.”
“What do you mean the nature of the beast?” asked Gustavo.
“Image. Image is everything. Take the market. I go to the market here and I say ‘gimme a kilo of mandarins’ and they give me a bag stuffed full of whatever mandarin. In my country most only take the fruit that looks the best. The rest is thrown out most of the time. Image. The same goes for houses. Styles.”
Gustavo pulled over in front of a restaurant. We went in and ordered a meal. In the cold climates of the sierra all the restaurants are indoors. We ate aji de pollo, a spicy chicken dish with a creamy sauce. I love that the Peruvians take the time to create delicious sauces. It’s all the difference. Gustavo had already treated me to a breakfast of tallarin saltado, but wouldn’t hear me when I said I’d handle this meal. “Maybe one day you meet a Peruvian in your country and you buy him some meals.”
“So, styles, image, yea?” He asked.
“Yea, like in your soap operas here. They show a style of living. People take that shit for truth. What truth is it though? Sanitary wealth. It teaches people to care more about image than about quality.”
“I know what you mean, the telenovelas are disgusting I never watch them.” Gustavo was interesting. He also never threw his trash out the window but kept it in a bag under my feet.
“I have an example for you. My neighbor’s house was bought by a construction company. It’s a perfectly good house. A roof, running water, heat, air conditioning, everything works and it has many rooms and bathrooms. But guess what? It’s outdated. It doesn’t look new, it looks more like a farmhouse. The housing market is already low, and so for the construction company it’s more profitable to demolish the house and build a new one. It’s a perfectly good house. It’s an incredible waste of material. Some is recycled but most is tossed.”
“Here in Peru we don’t do that. Maybe some in the big city, but we would never demolish a house like that.”
“It’s very wrong. We waste so much. We consume and upgrade and throw away. I can’t necessarily say that it’s the fault of my countrymen either. It’s bullshit, but how are they to know any better? The system wants them to consume because the whole thing is an exponential giant!”
“Exponential in a finite planet.” Gustavo hit the nail on the head.
“And what the fuck can we do about it? I don’t have a damn clue.”
And so went our conversations. We drove on, passing fields with running Vicuna, the plateau antelope. At a crossroads, Gustavo smiled bright and shook my hand. “It was a pleasure to know you.” “And you.” He drove off toward Lima, and I sat to draw a landscape, ready to then head south to a city called Tarma.
Concluding my drawing I threw out my thumb and was taken by a pick-up. I sat in the bed and watched as we descended the hills into the cupped valley where Tarma is nestled. I watched the land change into a patchwork of color: the red of the earth and rooftops, the green of grass and crops, and the gray of rock and mute gray of the road. Hundreds of levels of plots of flowers created giant steps that led the road down into Tarma. The city of flowers, it is called. I did not arrive with the bloom, but there I saw at least whites and purples and thin greens.
Down, passed an immense cliff like a wall riddled with bullet holes riddled with caves. And then walking toward the plaza de armas. Already I saw the differences between here and elsewhere. Large plate-sized crispy fried pancakes, larger than normal papa relleno, bowls of crème brulee in the pastry shops, and red, green, and blue popcorn. I remember those.
It was dark. At the local firehouse they accepted me with open arms. I had a bed on the second floor dorm, up a skinny spiral staircase prone to collapse any moment. We watched old black and white movies and I fell into a shallow sleep. The lack of oxygen at this altitude, or the cold woke me spontaneously.
Sometimes I wonder what I’m missing. I write about certain things and note the difference between places. But not everything. What about regional art? What about politics, architecture, literature? What about families of plants, breeds of dogs, types of clouds, sects of God, or music varieties? I don’t have all the knowledge, or, hell, all the vocabulary I want. I suppose it’s a matter of time. I wish I could write about every micro world.
With these thoughts I fell out of consciousness finally. It was a dream-filled sleep, despite my inability to reach REM. I wonder if the cold brings more dreams than the heat.
In the morning I visited the bathroom. Yellow pages to wipe. Maybe all the firemen in Peru use the yellow pages for that. Goodbye my firemen pals. They looked surprised to see me go so soon.
At the library there were no computers, but they let me use the computer at the tourist office for a few hours. I saved my document on my USB drive, pocketed it, shouldered my pack, and once more it was the road. The road. So it goes. Do you grok yet?
The return trip is always faster. A few hours walking out of Tarma, back up the road I came down, and then a ride in an ice cream delivery truck, all the way back into the barren hills of the antiplano.
My forehead rested on the window, eyes stealing the light and showing me what they saw. It was the steel cold train tracks following us the road careening down to the next town, Oroya. An urban expanse that seemed never to end as we drove out toward the westerly direction of Lima. Mining town. Hardened faces. A resolute air. That’s the way of mining towns I suppose. They almost cry that tomorrow will be the same as yesterday.
The train would come through here. I kept my eye on the tracks. The train yard was wide and gated off, and the bulls roamed with their yellow vests flashing and clubs swinging at their hips. Further out of the town the tracks crisscrossed the highway several times until finally they seemed to rest on the far side of the valley, well out of the urban development. I thought, I could ride that rail.
It was around one p.m. when the driver pulled over to a pachamanca restaurant. There were dozens of the restaurants alongside the road with women waving plates at passing drivers to try to get them to choose their establishment. The driver asked if I wanted to come eat with him, but the food cost 10 sols so I wished my benefactor well as he disappeared inside.
The women in front of the restaurant giggled at me as I began to walk away. “Hey gringo, come!” They waved at me to come over. “You want to eat?” I called back that it was a little pricy for my presupuesto. “No we invite you”. A man came out of the restaurant and pulled back the plastic tarp covering the fire pit where the pachamanca was cooked. He cut off a hunk of meat and threw it into a bag with 5 or 6 potatoes to hand to me. I took it, not trying to hide my surprised facial expression, thanked them, and began my walk. One day I will be on the other end of the random act of kindness.
The scene was this. The remnants of the town clung to the highway as it stretched away from the center down a long valley of desolate grassland hills. A river ran in a gulley behind this last tentacle of urbanization, among which was a restaurant called “Shit”. The train tracks lay 300 meters from the river on the other side of the valley, buildingless.
The plan was this. It was midday. I knew a train would pass eventually. I’d wait all day. I was going to arrive to Lima on the rail. On the way to Tarma I’d seen a train pass. They were mineral trains, not much space for a hopper. But the caboose was a low walled platform open on the top, I’d be able to run up to it and jump in.
I found a “bridge” to cross the river. It was a wire bridge, with one wire you walk on and two to grasp for balance. The metal was cold to the touch, my palms gingerly wrapped around. On the other side of the river I walked to the train tracks, far enough away from the houses that no one would take much note of me. Alongside the tracks I found a hairy hill, the grass rising to my height. A small cut-out cove offered the cover from the train engine I’d need. The ground was a patch of mint leaves. I laid down for the long wait.
And it was a long wait. The day dwindled as I read Tarzan en Acapulco, stared at my map, or played my thumb piano. I decided to put on my long underwear, the first time in the whole trip. The last time I wore them being in -40 degree Montana. Then I donned my hoodie that my buddy Jeff gifted me before I left. Then I pulled my hat my brother gave me years ago down over my ears.
The pachamanca and potatoes in my belly, there was only the machica left to eat. The day became dusk became night. I had a few more layers on, and I was snug in my sleeping bag. I could see my breath. Telephone poles on the hill were black against the twilight sky. Shadows are so perfect.
Soon the glowing blue disappeared and night fell. It had been ages since last I’d watched the stars come out. But they came in the thousands. The Milky Way splashed across the sky like spilled milk. Bright stars like glitter. The black canvas of night, a pure thing. I took a cow tail strand of grass and waved it over my head as I lay on my back. My wand. And I, the master of the universe, commanding the cosmos. The planets spun, the stars shone, the life forms breathed because I willed it! But alas, I was not the master of the universe. I was rather a cold traveler in a field of South America, pretending to paint the stars.
My game was over and I fell asleep, but not for long. I woke to the familiar sound of the whistle of a slow moving train. I squinted in the blackness. There it was. A train. A train, that is, going in the wrong direction. –Sigh-
I lost interest and suddenly realized how cold my feet were. I reached down and found my sleeping bag was crusted with frost. Shit. I looked at the time. 1 a.m. I was frozen solid. It must have been around 20 degrees. I couldn’t stay outside like this. But if I set up my tent and the train passed, I wouldn’t have time to pack it up before I missed my chance. But now my fingers were beginning to ache in the cold.
15 minutes later the tent was set up and I was furiously rubbing my hands and toes as I took refuge in my sleeping bag once more, trying to bring the feeling back to them.
Sleep eventually came, at intervals. In the morning the tent was caked with a crust of ice. And the feeling in my feet was completely gone. How the hell am I going to survive when it gets colder…
Perhaps it is better that not one train passed me in 18 hours of waiting. These are mineral trains, and the open caboose would be a freezing experience. Perhaps it is better that I didn’t succeed in arriving to a giant city in a train, since I would have no bearings and it would be nighttime. Perhaps it’s better that I save that experience for some other time. In any case I had no choice. I packed my tent, in doing so basically losing my hands to the biting cold, and crossed the slippery foot bridge, back on the highway still with layer after layer of clothing.
A pick-up took me down the road and then Henri picked me up in his double trailer truck. He was carrying wood from Pucallpa, like Gustavo. Can you dig it?
We drove up to Ticlio, the highest standard-gauge railway station in the world. Perhaps it was better that my first rail ride wasn’t on this line.
All the towns on the descent to the desert coast of Lima were mining towns. In one, the bus stops were giant blue hard hats with red miner’s headlamp. They looked like paper mache.
The road was cut through a scarred landscape of dead hills. How to describe it to you… If hills could rot. Open pits, steep tracks leading to mines of all sizes tunneled into the rock, the white calcite deposits dripping down the mountain like running make-up, perhaps because of tears.
5 hours and then the rocky desert hills that I’d seen in Chiclayo appeared once more. In the distance I couldn’t see anything. Lima. Smog. Amazing smog. More amazing than in any city I’d ever visited. It was as thick as harbor mist in a horror flick.
We arrived to Lima via Chosica, the long arm stretching into the sierra from the pacific city. The traffic was dense and convoluted. A bus scraped off the side mirror of another and yelling ensued. Beep. BEEP! BEEEEEEEP!!!! Horns and beeps like the bleeps of radio editing… might as well be I suppose. Isn’t that car trying to say something. Car-nese. FUCK YOU. BEEP. BEEP BEEP.
The pollution was almost choking, or maybe it was the combined rush of the big dirty city with the big dirty city noises that sent me into a haze. Goodbye to Henri as he pulled into a guarded complex, and now, Lima. Gastronomic capital.
Graffiti tags were littering the public sphere everywhere I looked. I respect graffiti, but tagging pisses me off. Because you can? Ignorant fucks. Control your goddamn ego.
The big city. 5 million? Maybe, says one woman, maybe 4 million. 10 million, says a tourist pamphlet. 8 million, suggests my logic. When was the last census? I don’t know, I can’t get a clear answer to the size of this city. Wikipedia? Anyone?
A 5 sol meal, because Lima is not cheap, it is expensive. Products are cheap, but all the food is imported. I jumped on a bus to the center of the city, a massive avenue, seemingly wide as it was long. Witness to another car crash. Shit. Most accounts of Lima are that, shit. Dirty, armpity, ugly. All the more reason to check it out.
But contrarily, the crumbling streets and smells subsided as the bus dropped me at a huge open roundabout surrounded by park space and giant black statues to conquistadors. The palace of justice a monolith of a building, its giant support pillars like diplomas contesting to its legitimacy. Other giant buildings in the giant place. Like European cities, the old centers of South American capitals replicate their glory. And yet, the bossmen are the corruptmen. So it goes.
The metropolitan is the newer clean energy bus system. Quito has one. So does Bogota. Inside the central station was like an American mall. The irony being that the cheap eats are in malls in America, but here the same stores are the ritzy high-class eateries. So it goes.
An hour to the end station, Matellini, and another 30 minutes on a connecting bus to an area called Surco. The same program system-wide played on the tvs in the stations and buses: soap operas. A bit of walking before I found an address I had in my pocket. There I saw walking a very white guy with green and blue hair. “You have to be staying with Franco and Camilo, are you?” He was. He was Bridger, from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This wasn’t the first time I met a patron of that city on this trip, the first time was a relaxing four days kicking it on the beach with Ian in Baja California.
Bridger opened the door to the house where I’d be staying. It was as big as a classroom, the kitchen area in the far corner, 4 mattresses laid out on the floor, a television in the opposite corner, and a black spiral staircase disappearing into a hole in the ceiling. The walls were plain and white, and the bright light lit the scene. 6 or 7 people were sprawled out here and there. I’d found my second co-op-esque house stay in South America.
Fast-forward. It has been 3 nights here. I met Spanish Alberto, German Julian, Argentinian Laura, Mexican Machete and Edgar, Peruvian hosts Camilo and Franco, and Colombians Zulay and Nicolai, who I knew already from Diana’s in Quito. My sleeping bag is spread out on an oriental rug on the second floor, an un-finished brick-wall concrete-floor room. Camilo and Franco are our hosts. They’re an intellectual pair of crackerjack humorists, Camilo always making abhorred sexist comments but sharp justifications and Franco a matter-of-fact thinker who puts fun and friend before anything else.
Camilo packed a familiar clay bowl of tobacco and wrung it onto the long pipe of a hookah, jerryrigged onto a glass moonshine bottle of water. We smoked heartily and let the momentary effects wander around our heads. Oh how I love a good narguile toke. I had two. I smoked with Saudis back in Oregon and Morrocans in Morroco, Turkish in Turkey. I smoked with the best of the best in my room back home. I smoked until I smoked no more and it had been 2 years hence. But I’m back!
Bridger had never been to Latin America, and these were his first days here. We walked 6 hours to the neighborhood of Barranco, avoiding several areas where frantic women had grabbed our arms to warn us we’d be robbed if we continued down that street. Thanks frantic women. One guy tried to lead us down a side street from the avenue we were on with a sketchy smile and wink to a group of his friends on the corner. I told Bridger that that could be considered the first time someone tried to rob him in South America.
Barranco was the bohemian district. We walked through the center of Surco, wine outlets galore and impossibly perfect flower patterns in the plaza, to get to Barranco. The buildings were short and well-kempt. The park was looked after and the grass was off limits to asses and feet. The beige stone of the church carvings against its mustard yellow walls was pleasing to the eye. We strolled to a mirador on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The pollution flew silently over the gray waters. It was a very touristy area, but remarkably pleasant. I wondered if my friends who had warned me about Lima had been to these areas.
Another day we hopped the metropolitan to the center, wandered around some ritzy areas before heading to the plaza de armas. The pedestrian walkway peopled like China. We inquired at several movie theatres about Thor, but everything was dubbed.
China town, closed museums, the old Spanish wall, stone bridges, cevicheria “The Erotic Shark”. We walked in circles but I couldn’t find the street food I wanted Bridger to try. I think Lima is segregated. The tourist areas vs. the shitty areas. There doesn’t seem to be much in between.
Peruvian flute bands. They were everywhere. I thought about South Park. I wondered if Peruvian flute bands really do keep the giant guinea pigs at bay. I wondered if Stone and Parker knew that Peruvians eat guinea pig. I wonder right now if you my reader has any damn clue what I’m talking about.
Bridger has green and blue hair, so walking around with him was funny. Stares, pointing, giggles. He told me that back home he has an exotic painted car and wears spiky green goggles and a cape. Right on, I said, good thing you toned down at least a bit.
It was refreshing speaking English and having all of my Latin American knowledge listened to with interest. I felt almost host-like in a way, but when he thanked me for ‘letting him come with me’ I felt bad and said that no, we just are. And so it goes, too, that we had plenty in common. We talked about video games. He said, “my Diablo had a glitch and whenever my sorceress needed to buy mana pots, none of the vendors would sell to her. I’d have to constantly go back to town to heal,” and I knew exactly what he meant.
Alas now Bridger is gone and I’ve cooked a meal that came out perfectly for Edgar and I and now I’m laying on the floor writing on the Colombians’ computer. The city is big, I’m staying in a house packed with people and new folks are probably coming right now. There’s always something going on. Conversations roaring until late, someone always opening a bottle of beer, drugs being smoked. Camilo and a friend of his had bought two big arms of the San Pedro cactus, a powerful source of mescaline. They peeled the green skin and put it to a boil for 12 hours. That might be a good story for next time…
We watched Battle L.A. last night. Then we watched Skyline. We all feel dumber for it. Maybe tonight we’ll watch The Dark Knight and I’ll point out Chicago landmarks the whole movie. Or not.
Everyone here is an artist. Everyone travels by playing music in bars or by selling necklaces, jewelry or bracelets. Someone suggested I sell my drawings. Blah. They have to buy materials and hang out in areas where tourists stroll in order to make their living. I couldn’t do it, not constantly. I need more freedom.
But alas, Lima. Expensive. Paying transportation, paying city buses. Ugh. Double ugh. Ugh, man. I’ve decided not to test my palate here. Remember tacacho that cost 1.5 sols in Pucallpa? Here it costs 10.
Alas, here in Lima I will stay until I bore myself, but finally I can sit still for more than a week. Not because I want to but because my feet want to. Well, there it is. Alors, voila. Pues, asi es. Signing off is yours truly. Peace be with you.