A week prior to departure, out of the clear blue, Judy informed me that she was planning on packing a regular suitcase. “I’m not taking a backpack. I am not shlepping around,” she said, matter-of-factly.
“OK,” I said, before leaving the room.
The following day she started to pack her carry-on suitcase with wheels.
It was all I could do not to make an issue of her decision. This, after all, is our 5th trip to Central/South America (not to mention a dozen or so Mexican vacations/expeditions), and each time it’s either started out or ended up being a “shlepping” experience.
And for shlepping, a backpack is kindofa requirement. It facilitates getting from bus to boat to taxi to bungalow to lodge to canoe, to parts uncertain or unknown.
I wouldn’t call our trips hard-traveling, but I guess it depends on what you’re accustom to. It’s never organized too precisely, or planned too far in advance, that’s for sure.
When I got home Judy informed me that she had reconsidered and repacked, this time in a backpack.
Plans are indefinite as we sit in Tom Bradley International Terminal in LA. In a few minutes we board a 12:30 p.m. direct flight to Lima where Tato picks us up at midnight. (His given name is Jose Luis Noriega. From 1988-1992 he attended USD where he played on the men’s tennis team that I coached. This is our second trip to Peru; the first was in 1990, when travel within Peru was a little dangerous). We’ll spend the day in Lima, then, with Tato and his brother Felipe, drive six hours south to Acarí where the Noriegas grow and produce olives for exportation. After a couple days visit, the tentative plan is for Tato to drop us off in Nasca on the way back to Lima, where we’ll take a bus to Cusco, then a plane to Puerto Maldonado, in the jungle. We’ll spend 10 days or so in Puno, Lake Titicaca, southern Peru, next to the Bolivian border, then fly back to Lima, where we’ll explore for a few days, then fly home.
Hard to get my mind around the enormity of the Noriega’s olive business. Tato and his family are in it from the bottom up. They grow and harvest their own olives, they select, pit, separate, cure, brine, stuff, slice, store, bottle, label, market and ship all over the world.
To give perspective to the whole operation, it would’ve been helpful here to describe the scene in their Lima plant where 40 women sit on stools on opposite sides of conveyor belt, each dressed in white tee shirts and pants, wearing white rubber boots, masks and hair nets, slicing small sweet red peppers (pimientos) then stuffing them into large green olives. But this’ll have to wait until our return to Lima, because the plant was closed for repairs.
The Pan American Highway, which spans the length of South America, goes right through Ica and Pisco (where, in August of last year hundreds died in an earthquake). The two-lane blacktop is a typical blue highway in the States––the one you’d take to get from Elko, Nevada to Sandpoint, Idaho––but in Peru it’s the same road that provides international travel for tourists and commerce alike.
A large truck laden down with adobe bricks (the same which provided shelter to the unfortunate victims of the earthquake before killing them) struggles up a gradual incline. With a similar kind of opportunistic skill that he employed on the tennis court, Tato waits patiently for an opening to pass. When I see him forego a good chance to pass, I tell him that without the two girls in the back seat, we’d be there already.
It’s a joke that’s not that funny, and I wonder what response Felipe has to it. A couple years after we visited (in 1990), Felipe and his dad got into a bad accident on this road. His dad, who was not wearing his seatbelt, went through the windshield, and in the process, broke his femur. Felipe, the driver, escaped without injuries. I don’t recall the details and I would certainly not ask Felipe now.
Tato just gave us an hour-long after-breakfast summary of the business. He explained the details and workings of finance, personnel, industrial machinery, harvesting (500 migrant workers come down from the Andes, camp out for two months) and irrigation (“When it’s your turn to receive water, and it’s 2 am on a Sunday morning, and your guy isn’t at the source, you lose it.”)
I leaned that there are green olives and black olives and off-color black ones, and small ones and a little bit bigger than small ones and medium ones, large ones and a couple sizes in between. I learned that the market in the Middle East requires a larger harder grey olive and that the olive you sell to a Brazilian pizza maker differs from the one that goes on a Papa John’s pizza. And that some guy in Caracas Venezuela annually buys tons of green olives for a Christmas-pastry bread that every Venezuelan gets, and I mean every Venezuelan. I leaned that olives are sold in bulk, sliced, pitted and stuffed with pimiento, garlic, onion, celery and what not, that Tato’s main job is to maintain the relationship with customers that could involve taking them for a weekend trip to Acarí.
While Tato detailed the olive business, I flashed back on his tennis. A 4-time NCAA All-American, he won two national ITA championships and, for most of his senior year, was ranked #1 in the country. He was calculating and methodical on the tennis court, and he seems equally so in business.
I’m sitting on a canopied swing shaded by pine trees on the edge of an expansive area just west of the hacienda. I lean my head back to rest my neck and I see olives hanging heavily off braches. If I rock the swing a little, I can reach up and touch them. Judy sits on the other side of the lawn, flipping pages of her Birds of Peru book she purchased at the San Diego Zoo (for a price I’d prefer not knowing). I joined her this morning for a bird-watch walk in the olive fields (groves?), but w/o a breeze, the gnats quickly drove me back to the hacienda. Judy’s passion for bird watching overridded (overrid? overrode?) the bugs somehow. Later, I heard that I missed watching a guy ford a river by pulling himself across on a cable.
For those in the olive business, it’s like a museum––500 year-old olive trees that apparently were never pruned.
Pichona begins to worry about Judy, who left a couple hours ago to birdwatch. “It’s not unusual,” I said. That didn’t comfort her so Felipe volunteered to take the truck and go look for her.
“This is futile,” I said to Felipe after 10 minutes or so. “She’s searching for birds, we’re searching for her. It’d be easier to spot a rare bird than her,” I think.
I explained how she hides in the shadows, sits still as can be and waits for the birds to come to her.
A moment later we see her, a bird book in one hand, binoculars in the other.
“Be back for lunch in an hour,” I said.
At 6:30 in the evening it’s a perfect 70 degrees, we’re sitting on the terrace of Tato’s mother’s 4-bedroom luxury apartment. I’ve got my feet up on a glass coffee table, waiting for the beers to get a quick chill in the freezer. Dinner will be served in the formal dining room sometime after Tato returns.
So far this is not what I’d call hard traveling. After two days in Acarí, we’ll spend the night here, then fly to Cusco tomorrow.
Seventy year-old Bartolomeo Tanata drives us to the airport for our flight to Cusco. I’m thinking that most taxi cab drivers of his age would have retired, and if they’re still working, it would be doing something less stressful. Besides a responsive car, a Peruvian cab driver needs measures of courage and quick reflexes, resolve and confidence. Driving in Peru is, in a word, competitive.
When WW2 ended, Bartolomeo came to Peru with his custom shoe-making father, who, his son said proudly, sold his hand-made leather shoes to Sears and Roebuck in Lima and beyond. They stopped producing shoes in the late 80s, when Alan Garcia was president. “He was the worst,” Bartolomeo said, spitting out the words. He went on to say, in so many words, that if it wasn’t for Garcia, he’d have taken over his father’s shoe business and now he wouldn’t be spending 10 hours a day sweating in his cab; instead, he’d be passing his time flirting with women cobblers between long visits at a streetside café, sipping expressos, reading the newspaper and hanging out with his buddies (he didn’t say that). I asked if his father came here to work but he didn’t answer me. There’s a story here that may involve Hitler and Mussolini, I’m guessing. That’s how the Germans ended up in Argentina, and the Italians in Peru, I think. Before I can get the answers we arrive at the airport.
Somewhere around midnght I awake with what feels like a vice grip on my forehead. I find out in the morning that Judy feels the same. So, now, alternately scribbling in my notebook and slurping asparagus soup, my head is upright and tolerable, but Judy’s is under a pillow.
Our all-day bus tour went through what’s got to be some of the most spectacularly beautiful high plain scenery in the world: rugged snow-capped mountains, magnificent canyons, rolling green fields, lush valleys, parted with brown rivers and streams. Dotted along the roadside were Andean men and women, keeping watch of their small herds of goats, llamas, alpacas and cows. Accompanying each was a friendly looking dog that couldn’t take his eyes off the traffic. (Puzzling that we saw so many handsome dogs sitting by themselves, apparently guarding nothing, accompanying nobody.)
Sympathetic, but trying not to pay attention to Judy’s incessant tossing, turning, belching and groaning, at 6 am I crept out of bed, took a shower, packed my day pack, then went for breakfast. I knew she wasn’t leaving her bed, certainly not for a two-and-a-half-hour boat ride. Ordinarily an able traveler with a constitution superior to mine, Judy’s self prescription was another 12 hours of rest. She was interrupted, I learned later by gunshots and the clomping of what sounded like the boots of dozens of soldiers. Slowly, she said later, she pulled back the curtains of the 3rd floor street-side room with a view of the Puno plaza, church and municipal buildings.
For the next two hours she sat on the side of the bed and watched a military parade.
Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest lake navigable to large vessels, lying at 12,500 feet above sea level. Astride the border between Peru to the west and Bolivia to the east, it’s the second largest lake of South America (but only the 19th largest in the world), covering some 3,200 square miles.
Two Dutch girls on a 3-month South American vacation, a solo female Chilean ad agency artist, and 2 young Brits who quit their jobs for 6 months of travel, are curious about what they perceive as a Vietnam-era draft-evading ex-hippie American apologist who promises to vote for anyone who proposes ending George Bush’s folly in Iraq. On the roof of the boat, two and one half hours go by quickly in conversation, some about politics, most about travel.
Four blocks of reed roots, each about one yard wide, by 2 yards long, by 1 yard tall, are held together by sticks and string, then the four blocks are tide to longer poles that are planted into the lake bed. The 4 blocks are placed adjacent to 4 more blocks which are, etc.
The whole island is about the size of two and a half tennis courts. The island we visited was home to 10 families. With the exception of a few men who earned money from tourists, the others were fishermen.
To get to and from the mainland, or from one Uros Island to another, the locals traveled in boats made of reeds. To cook their meals, on an open fire, they burned reeds.
The motorized 30-passenger tourist boat takes 2.5 hours to get from Puno to the non-floating island of Taquile. By non-floating, I mean terra firma. It’s here where the guide says that he’ll meet us at the restaurant at the island’s summit, which, he says, is 600 uneven stone and boulder steps up, at an altitude of 13, 000 feet above sea level. My head hurt the worst during the first 200 steps; the second 200, my thighs felt worse than my head; then, on the last 200, my lungs entered the competition for the pain quotient contest.
The guide sat his 30 charges in a semi circle, then directed them to introduce themselves by name, nationality and job: 5 Germans, 2 Belgians, 6 Chileans, 2 Italians, 1 Ecuadorian, 2 Canadians, 2 Dutchmen, 3 Japanese, 2 Brits, 1 Frenchmen, 3 Brazilians, 1 American.
Marcos, our guide on the trip to the Uros and Taquile islands, stands in front of the boat and lectures about the pre-Incan civilizations that we’ll see during the trip, how they have, for the most part, maintained their way of life for all this time (since the 13th century AD, or so). In the middle of his history lecture a cell phone ringer goes off. He looks around for a second, then pats his chest pocket. “Sorry,” he says.
The modern 20-seat Mercedes Benz tour bus stopped in front of our hotel at 7 am. Inside were 10 travelers, each dressed alike with their Goretex boots, Ex Officio convertible hiking pants, Columbia long-sleeve sun-protectant collared shirt, L.L. Bean lightweight, water-resistant jacket (with hood, of course), and Indiana Jones-type safari sun hats. I’m only guessing that each was wearing one of those climate-controlled long sleeve REI undershirts—the kind with the ultra-thin material that promises to keeps you cool in the summer, warm in the winter. The cost of the traveler’s uniform, not including their Pentax compact zoom binoculars and Canon mega megapixel digital camera ranges from anywhere from $800 to a lifetime income for a local potato farmer.
Katarina and Stephanie are spending their last day of vacation driving around and around the plaza on bicycles while their mothers sell ceramics made at home, on cardboard tables that sit in front of the Catholic church in Pucara.
The longest river in the world is the Nile, the Mississippi second, the Amazon third.
At 14,000 feet, La Raya is the highest point I’ve been.
An Andean highway “echoes a glorious past when the Inca Empire boasted a 14,000-mile network of roads” that conquistador Juan Botero Benes said “excels the constructions of Egypt and the monuments of Rome.”
There are three distinct geographical zones in Peru: the coast, the mountains (Andes/Cordillera, the world’s longest mountain range, beginning in Chile, ending in Ecuador?), and the jungle.
There’s something to be said for wandering around. Not sure where to go, in the process you see a lot of things. These past 5 days, although they’ve been pleasant and interesting, have had few surprises and almost no stress. When Tato said that a guy name Ramiro would greet us at the Cusco airport and take us to our hotel, he did. When Ramiro said that he’d be at our hotel at 7am the next morning to take us to the bus station, he was. When he said that a guy by the name of Felipe would greet us in Puno, to take us to our hotel, he did. When Felipe said that he’d pick us up at the hotel at 6:30am to take me to the port for our trip to the Uros and Taquile Islands, he did. And when he said he’d meet the boat on our return and take us back to the hotel, he did. It went on just like this until he took us to the airport, carried our bags to the counter, pointed us in the direction of the gate, and said goodbye.
It was all nice, but also much too…uneventful.
Picture this: you’re sitting in an air-conditioned bus, in comfortable arm chairs, next to tinted windows, staring down at the kinetic life of the city. Outside it’s gritty, bustling, colorful, vibrant, loud and teeming with life; inside, just the hum of the air conditioning system.
A short 30-minute walk this morning: I try, mostly successfully to stay in the flow of foot traffic, which is not easy, because, unlike my fellow pedestrians, I’m not going anywhere. When I stop to take in an interesting sight, I check behind me so that I do not block someone’s path. The solution is to step into the doorway, out of traffic, then look around. The soundtrack is a cacophony of greetings, conversations, music, engines and car horns. And on this morning, it includes the splashing of mud puddles.
The small, low-landscaped river port town of Puerto Maldonado is connected to Cuzco by a road that, at this time of the year, the rainy season, would take 18-24 hours to make the 200-mile journey. So we fly.
Seated next to me on the 50-minute flight was a small dark-haired young woman who said that she was from Puerto Maldonado, and that she had been in Lima to place her 9-year-old son in school. In her arms was an infant that, as soon as the plane began to taxi, she indiscreetly started nursing. Before we began chatting, I was expecting that she’d be reserved and reluctant to say much. I would’ve guessed that she had been to Lima to visit relatives or seek medical help for her baby. As it turned out, she was a lumber baron, and that she exported what she said was “hard wood for floors.” When she told me that, I hesitated to ask any more questions. I couldn’t help but think that she’d be uncomfortable speaking with a foreigner about a business that involves deforestation.
Heavy breathing puts the creatures on alert
Standing at the river’s edge, watching the water roll by in a slow syrupy way.
Salty banana chips and unparalleled Andean popcorn that would make Orville envious.
It’s not so easy to slog through the mud. You need to be sure-footed and decisive. Any step will do, but if you delay the decision on the following one, the preceding one will hold you back, literally.
It’s the mud. It recedes only a little faster than it returns to shape. An extra moment of indecision and the mud reclaims its shape, along with your rubber boot. While I try to extricate one boot, mud envelops the other. Do something quickly or you’ll end up with your hand in up to your elbow, or more.
At Lago Sandoval the otherwise idyllic canoe ride is spoiled, alternately by the Norwegians and then the Germans, taking turns talking, not loudly, but loud enough to put whatever wildlife exists nearby in the hunker-down mode. Plus, if you’ve ever floated in a canoe in a swamp or lake on a breezeless day, you know that the last sound you want to hear is the human voice.
I’m sure that even heavy breathing puts the creatures on alert.
OK, been here 24 hours now and still no mosquito bites. I may be shortening my life by a year with all the DEET I’ve applied, but at least I’ll go down w/o itching.
After dinner I asked the German girls if they knew the name of Werner Herzog. They responded with blank stares. Then I asked if they knew of the German Werner Herzog.
Then I asked if they had heard of the German film producer Werner Herzog.
“Werner Herzog?” Sarah said, finally, pronouncing his name like it should be.
“Yes, Werner Herzog,” I repeated, in my English, which got a laugh.
“No,” Sarah said, which got a bigger laugh.
Then I explained that he was a renown film maker who recently made the film Rescue Dawn, which starred Christian Bale, about the German/American pilot who was shot down on his first mission in the Vietnam war and made a prisoner of war. (I believe that his prison-mate in the movie got an Academy Award nomination.)
I went on to tell them that Herzog also produced the films Aguirre, The Wrath of God, and Fitzcarraldo. Immediately, Albert, the girls’ Peruvian guide, lifted his head in recognition.
“You know of him?” I asked.
“Yes, his steamship is up the river,” Albert said.
“It is?” I asked, incredulously.
“It’s under water,” said Albert.
I explained that it was about this guy Fitzcarraldo, who, for reasons I don’t recall, hired natives to move the ship over land, from one river to the next, with a complicated system of ropes and planks and muscle. It’s one of those movies that you never forget, in part because it’s true.
The other movie is about a Spanish explorer by the name of Pizarro, and his unsuccessful and fateful search to find the lost city of gold. This, too, I believe occurred on this river.
“The movies will bring back lots of memories of your jungle vacation, I guarantee you,” I said.
Next time I’m going to buy one of those expensive long sleeve shirts that doesn’t absorb the sweat. Plus I’m going to bring another pair of pants.
Six of us are on the trail before sunrise. Blurry eyed and foggy headed, we follow our flash lights onto the muddy path.
Just moments after we leave, my body and mind begin to awake, and, I notice, so do the jungle creatures.
The group walks in step, one behind the other, following Erica, our guide. Me, I decide to fall back. When I see them waiting for me to catch up, I point my camera at something and they proceed.
It’s better alone, to just listen, to feel the jungle––conversations are distracting, explanations of flora and fauna seem, for now anyway, pointless.
My mentor was a jungle native that we met while working our way from Quito to Coca, Ecuador, down the Napo river, one of the Amazon tributaries. He walked so quietly, so nimbly, so sensitively, his eyes upwards, constantly observing the goings on in the forest canopy. Shirtless, speaking Spanish, he moved suddenly only to squash a pestering mosquito (he seemed to feel their presence, then time his slap a split second before they plunged their stinger-like proboscis, I think it’s called. It’s like he glanced ahead on the trail, memorized a dozen steps, then gave his complete attention to the jungle. I walked behind him, watching him watch the jungle. He reminded me of a cat, each deliberate step taken without losing connection and balance of the prior.
Bird blind clay lick
Sitting on benches, motionless, behind a wooden structure with a narrow slit at eye level, staring at the side of a cliff, waiting, waiting, waiting, for parrots to come down from the tree tops to lick the clay––for its minerals, I’m told. The parrots are there––you can hear them––but they can’t be seen, yet.
Judy, me, one guide, 2 interns and 2 Peruvian men, I assume, all serious bird watchers. It’s an exercise in patience, concentration and sharp eyesight.
I look down at the 2 Peruvians. With eyes fixed on the cliff, hands in their laps, binoculars held at the ready. They were here when we arrived.
So far, nothing. Just sounds. Squawking. Chirping.
Finally, in unison, the Peruvians lift their binoculars, one whispering to the other. Kinda like watching your guy, on your team, shoot a free throw in the waning seconds of a tied game.
The Tambopata river flows by, just as quietly as the birders sit, as though it, too, is giving the birds freedom to feed.
The birds’ reluctance, I’m told, is caused by a healthy sense of self-preservation. Feeding in the open, on the cliff, exposes them to predators––hawks, I presume.
Judy, certainly, has the internal makeup for this non-activity. She can do the same thing for hours. Fix a toilet, fold the laundry, watch TV, repair a clock.
Finally, I see a group of green parrots with yellow tails, large, flutting about in trees in front of the cliff. They’re thinking, planning their move.
Lots of chirping, from the same species, it seems.
Dozens, off to our left. Communicating.
No, let’s wait.
No, not yet.
A dozen greenies circle out over the river’s edge. A reconnaissance. Then back to the trees.
The bird sounds like a dog bark, a turkey gobble, a laughing infant. The Peruvians turn their head.
Thirty minutes go by. Lots of chatter. No takers.
Is there a hawk nearby?
A whistling sound from far off. And then the sound of a million cicadas.
Incessant whistling, whistling with one’s lips, not teeth. It’s right again. Close my eyes and it’s night.
A 12-member “flock?” of birds fly by, all chirping, then make their way up river.
Now, a sound like an animal growing, off in the distance.
I look over at Judy and she’s patting her stomach, looking embarrassed.
Five minutes go by.
The green parrots fly, one, two, then all, to trees 50 yards up river.
Judy pokes me on the shoulder. I follow her look. There’s a spotted cat of some kind standing, frozen, on the path. In less than a second, he turns and runs up the path.
One of the Peruvians whispers to the other.
The green and yellow parrots return in full force, like attacking native American Indians, hooting and hollering.
The green birds retreat in mass.
Small birds of unrecognizable color fly out of the trees, over the river.
Five minutes later the same birds fly overhead and up river. One squawks, the others do not.
I wish I had a cup of coffee (con leche) and a plain cake donut.
A good hour has gone by.
No bird has the courage to risk licking the clay today.
Not a bird in sight now. Only a sound that sounds like the last water leaving the tub.
“Incredible,” says Erica. “Did you see the ocelot?”
I told her that I only saw it for a second as it ran down the path.
She said that she first heard the soft rustling of leaves, that she first thought it was a lizard, the she saw it creeping toward the path, barley making any noise for its size—about the size of a small dog.
The German intern unzips her backpack, then pulls out a zip-lock bag in which contains a small packet of vanilla wafers. She takes out a few cookies, then puts it back into the package, into the zip-lock bag and into the backpack, then she zips it up again. It’s an unnatural man-made aberration of modern noises.
Then she sneezes.
She’s becoming the center of attention, possibly what she wants.
Lots of off-in-the-distance chirping. A flock approaching?
The greenies return from down river, fly overhead.
In a way, this reminds me of the dutiful wife accompanying her husband on a pre-dawn fishing trip: She’s there, bundled up against the freezing air, with her pole up, line in the water, but her mind couldn’t be farther away from the fish.
A flock of a hundred little birds, all, it seems, chirping, fly from across the river. Somewhere in the middle is a hawk four times their size.
“Shitfire!!” they scream in unison, as though their collective voice is their only defense.
The boring lip-whistler, off in the distance.
To me the experience was good enough even though no birds revealed themselves for a close look. This, I figure, is what it’s like for creatures, great and small. You eat when you can, that is, when you’re able.
I sat and looked and listened and wondered what was happening.
Sharing the boat trip here was a bald-headed Canadian man and his frumpy, soft, bespectacled 30-something wife. The next evening they were not to be found. Thought for sure that she couldn’t handle sleeping under a mosquito net, constantly listening for creatures sneaking into her bungalow, up the bedstead, onto her pillow, and burrowing their venomous snouts into her ample dough-like skin.
Inquiring as to their whereabouts this morning, I’m told that they are “tenting” at a nearby bird blind, spending the entire day sitting behind high-powered binoculars.
Sunday morning at a local farm, the family gone to town: Sitting on wooden benches on the porch/kitchen/dining room/water storage area under a thatch roof, talking about the word “gracioso,” which means amusing in Spanish. It doesn’t, Erica says, mean humorous, comical, funny or entertaining.
Watching a duck try to catch a fly.
“Now that was “más que gracioso—graciosísimo,” laughs Erica as she sits down for lunch in the rustic dining room of the Explorer’s Inn. As Judy follows her, I ask what’s so funny. Together they were trying to identify a bird, Erica explains. The bird in question, Erica said, was “an especie of thrush.”
But Judy couldn’t understand why she called it “a piece of trash? ”
Sitting, writing, on the veranda/porch of the bungalow, I’m distracted by black birds with yellow heads and tail feathers, flying back and forth across the grassy field. I reach for my binoculars.
Thirty five years ago the Explorer Inn purchased the property from the father of the owner of the farm. They, in turn are guardians of the 5,000 hectares from the Department of the Interior (Wikipedia: One hectare is the equivalent to 2.4710439 acres).
On Sunday afternoons the workers play a friendly but spirited game of soccer on the magnificently situated field that lies between the bungalows and the jungle.
“See the guy in the red shirt?” asks Robin, the female post-graduate political science major turned ecologist from British Columbia. After I spotted him, she told me that through their conversations she was awed by his knowledge of plants and animals. “He may have a 6th grade education, but he’s got a PhD in biology.”
As I write this, as the sun sets and the birds quiet down, Judy and Erica are still at it. I think they’re trying to spot a some kind of woodpecker. Judy’s like the fanatical surfer who stays in the water until it’s too dark to see approaching waves.
I understand that some of the Inn’s workers are local natives, and that there is a community of them who are allowed to hunt and fish on one side of the preserve’s Cococha. The Inn’s administrator tells me that the indigenous people who share the lake have been poaching into the reserve, which, of course, affects the number of monkeys accessible to the tourists. He went on to say that there is nothing they can do, and that it would be foolhardy to incite them to aggression, to the Inn or the tourists. His only recourse, he said, is to explain to them that if they leave the animals alone, on their side, they’ll reproduce enough, and some will migrate to their side of the lake.
Back to Robin: She tells me that the local people believe in the spirit life and that she’s been told by some that they consult a shaman from time to time. “They take a hallucinogenic of some kind, and the shaman helps them boost their inner animal strength and instincts––you know, the strength and courage of the Puma.”
5:00 am: Honking howler monkeys, I presume, awakening, grumpy, or so it seems, in full force––loud as a jet engine––from a distance of 50 feet or 5 miles. Bats and noisy flying insects. Absent-minded whistling. Gregorian chants. Chirpy little tweety bird calls saying “Ain’t I pretty.”
A few yards behind the dining room/reception area and you’re in.
Take a hike: Quickly you distance yourself from what you know. Before you’ve taken 5 steps on the jungle trail you’ve entered another world. It envelops you. No longer do you take up so much space. No longer do you feel so important.
On one side, the slow-moving Tambopata River, on the other, miles and miles of jungle.
Judy wakes up in the dark. I can hear her combing her hair. Surely she’s been checking her Indiglo Timex watch since 4 am, waiting for daylight.
“Judy?” I say from under my mosquito net.
“I’m going to get a cup of coffee then look for the motmot,” she says.
“Yeah, the motmot,” I answer.
Through the swollen, sleep-encrusted eyes, in a heavy, blissfully tired catatonic state, I stare into the 100-foot-high trees. Being in the jungle is not unlike jumping into an alpine lake––it awakens you.
Streaming down river in our “fuera de bordo” (means outboard—motor), we pass peque peques, which are small, maybe 8-10 horse-power motors with the guts exposed, that get their name form the rat-a-tat un-muffled sound they make. It’s the poor man’s means of transportation, which can take up a big chunk of your day if you’re going to town on a windy day.
And then, coming in the opposite direction, we pass the indigent indigenous people’s mode of transportation: A dugout canoe “motored” by two guys with poles, pushing themselves up river. How far are they going, I wonder?
Looking down from my window seat at 10,000 feet, I see great swaths of open land where forests once stood.
When you’re in the thick of it, and you’re sloshing through mud beneath towering trees and foliage that seems to be moments away from enveloping you and the path you’re on, you feel like such a small part of the world, in an odd way, no more important than anything else that lives here. When I stare up at a great old tree, I feel less significant and more significant. I am part of something grander than me, and I fee honored, if that’s the right word, to be a part of it all, if only for the moment I’m here.
Between bits of writing and short glimpses between spotty cloud cover, I’m reading a story entitled “Apocalypse Now,” written by Pulitzer-prize winning scientist Edward O. Wilson, and re-printed from the New Republic. One of the first paragraphs sets the tone: “Scientists estimate that, if habitat conversion and other distinctive human activities continue at the present rates, half the species of plants and animals on earth could either be gone, or at least fated for early extinction by the end of the century…”
Back in Cusco, to the Hotel Prisma, to room 310, where, on a blurry little TV, we watch CNN’s reporting of the Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island primaries, where John McCain has gathered enough delegates to become the Republican nominee for the November Presidential elections, and Hillary Clinton swept 3 of 4 states to slow/stop Barrack Obama’s 11-state consecutive wins.
Alpacas and dogs on alert
Middle of the afternoon, at Tato’s country horse farm, located 40 minutes into the foothills above Lima. Mario comes out with a small bucket of ice. We’re sitting under a 30-by-30 open-air lanai, an outdoor room, patio, with barbecue, bar stools, humongous dining table, sofas and dogs, w/food and entertainment to follow. Cesar and Justina, Tato’s caretakers, take care of the food, along with Maria, Tato’s domestic.
I have never been treated so royally. Never.
Maria comes out to inquire if we want coffee for tomorrow’s breakfast.
OK, let’s get picky: There’s no stream running through the property. There are no fish in the stream. There are no trees on the mountains behind the house. There are no lakes within walking distance.
The ice-cold beer comes without asking.
Lord of the manor.
All for our enjoyment.
Sitting on plush high-back chairs on the patio, after a late lunch of chorizo (sausage) sandwiches, Argentinian steak, quiche, sliced tomatoes and Argentinaian red wine.
Alpacas and dogs on the alert, making sure they don’t get run over by the horses.
iPod on Bose speakers play soft music in the background.
“Do you want coffee, or something Judy?” Tato asks.
Temperature: a perfect 72 degrees.
Here come the bigger horses.
Cesar brings out the mother and daughter.
“I think that’s the best horse we have now––the little one,” says Tato.
They are genuine Peruvian Caballos de Paso.
A private performance.
This place is unreal.
Tato yells to bring out Valentina.
The dogs, alpacas, 2 horses put on an exhibition.
Back leg and front leg together. Right together, then right, not alternating.
Judy’s got her head in he Birds of Peru bird book so I decide to go to the Museo de la Nación to see the part of the terrorism exhibit that I overlooked the first time I visited.
I leave Pichona’s elegant apartment on foot, heading to the main thoroughfare, Boulevard Javier Prado, where I’ll hail a taxi.
On this and other neighborhood walks, I don’t see much. The buildings are mostly hidden behind 10-foot-high walls on which are perched electrically-charged fences—4 to 6 strands of high-voltage wiring that, working or not, would make the would-be robber wary.
The well maintained, curbed and sidewalked streets are, for the most part, empty of local residents. I walk with and past the occasional gardener and maid and nanny––but not locals. I see doormen and chauffeurs and dog walkers but no elderly strollers, no kids tossing balls in the street or playing soccer in the driveways.
I do see men in uniforms––security guys, driving patrol cars and scooters and bicycles.
In the mornings I see more activity––school busses and vans and kids walking empty-handed while their nannies carry their backpacks behind them. I also see immaculately maintained SUVs coming in and out of garages with their automated varnished wooden doors.
The taxi takes me to the museum, only to discover it’s closed for construction. An administrator points me in the general direction of the archeological museum.
So, block after block I navigate cars and people and shops and businesses. On this block paint stores, on this block school supplies stores, followed by blocks of Peruvian fast food restaurants that sell ceviche and chicharrón and pollo asado. Then ramshackle hardware stores, sweet-smelling flower stalls, fruit and vegetable stores, meat markets and print shops.
Meanwhile: horns beeping, girls squealing, brakes squeaking, mufflers belching, motors whining––it’s a cacophony of noise on a hot and breezeless afternoon.
Young men walking assuredly, old men walking unsteadily, toddlers drug behind overwraught mothers, teenage girls hand-in-hand, looking to see and be seen.
Large crowds of people stand on street corners impatiently waiting for overstuffed, under-powered busses to take them to the dusty suburbs.
Three men yelling draw a crowd so I stop to see why.
An aging-to-ancient dirt-filled dump truck sits in the middle of the two-lane road, tilted, resting on an exposed rim while its tire lays nearby, creating a detour that cars follow onto the sidewalk.
The men try to get the tire out of the road but the relentless traffic will not allow it. Finally, the boldest of the 3 men darts through an opening, lifts the huge tire upright, rolls it to a position 20 feet behind the truck, then pulls out a red rag from his back pocket, resting it on the tire.
The other two men laugh.
I’ve just spent a week in the jungle, observing biologically adaptive creatures in their daily effort to eat, survive and reproduce. Apparently there is no time for recreation, leisurely walks or afternoon naps. Right now, on the streets, in this neighborhood, it seems the same.
The car repair block(s): muffler and radiator shops, brakes and transmission, welders, body and paint. Cars and car parts, owners and drivers and repairmen scurry about in a steamy maze of purposeful activity.
Where a sidewalk once was, a car straddles a large enough hole in the ground to enable one man to replace the oil of a faded green Datsun.
A few dozen blocks later and I’m nearing Pichona’s neighborhood.
A chorus of horn-blowing directs my gaze to a semi/flat-bed/18-wheeler stalled in the middle of a one-way, two-lane street––its nose is edged against the center median, its tail blocks both lanes.
The exposed transmission or whatever it’s called rattles, grinds, as the driver unsuccessfully tries to put it in gear. Something is frozen.
When the passenger jumps out of the cab and starts pushing, I hear myself say, “C’mon, you’ve got to be kidding.”
Just as the chorus gets louder, the driver jumps down and starts to push.
I should help.
Another hand surely won’t make any difference.
Maybe I should.
Then, just before I probably won’t do anything anyway, it starts to move.
Inch by inch, then foot by foot, it’s moving. The two modest sized guys push the 18-wheeler out of the lanes and into the center median.
Back in Pichona’s neighborhood, tired but relaxed, I consider buying a D’Anafria ice cream cone from a guy pushing a little yellow cart on wheels.