Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Johnny launches away

In Lima, on a muggy Wednesday afternoon, we barely made the 2 p.m. bus to Huacachina.  All the cooing doves had gone to roost, and the strung-out taxi drivers were feeling the need to come down and take a nap.  The fumes choked me and burned my eyes.  I wish I had worn my bandana.  The street vendors walking between the rows of cars at the stop lights sold everything but bandanas.  They had cold Inca Kolas in small soft ice bags, cheap colorful toys and trinkets and balloons and newspapers.  But no car-fume masks.  I thought of the Chinese on bicycles riding through Bejing.  I took breaths with my t-shirt to my mouth and nose and wondered if we were really insane or not, on our way to “the dunes.”  It was not too much unlike the early 1984 David Lynch movie “Dune,” with hopped-up spice heads replaced by drunken dune-buggy drivers.  That day, we rolled the dice.  And there was a feeling of freedom to it all and danger, even though we were not going anywhere.  We were just stuck in traffic.

At the bus station BC managed to somehow exchange our tickets to Huacachina for Wednesday instead of Thursday, and it wasn’t long before we were loading up onto a shiny black double-decker tour bus.  The inspector did not find the four beers we hid in my backpack between cold 2-liter water bottles and some clothes.  And this made for a nice refreshment on the four-hour ride southeast through this barren, seaside landscape of tan dirt.  There were small huts dotting the sand, and an occasional village with Coke and Cristal signs.  It didn’t seem possible that someone could live in these huts.  Surely, I thought, they were just storage units.  But, no, this was a neighborhood.  I didn’t see anyone living in them, but they were surely around somewhere, possibly making these reed mats I see everywhere used as fencing and sand-wind barriers.  It just was all too unreal, but I’m sure they would think the same thing about Calion.  It inspired me to live as simply as possible. 

Viewing all of this through the tinted windows was not enough. I needed to get down in there and eat the same sandy chicken they were.  Not this time.  This time I was sipping cool beer on the top of a bus, with a loud TV.  Is background music a Peruvian necessity?  BC and I whiled away the time by taking snapshots of … the basics.  Sand.  Barrios.  Ourselves in the bus with a panorama app.  One of us had to take the backpack downstairs to the bathroom to pour the beers into a water jug, to keep the stewardess from busting us out.  You’re not supposed to have beer on the bus.  I have a ring that doubles as a bottle opener.  There’s a story to tell later about that ring when we got back to Lima three days later.  In the meantime, the ring was serving us well.  And by 7 p.m. we were 300 km down the Pan-American Highway in the city of Ica.  

This city of over 219,000 was full of little three-wheeler taxis called Tuk Tuks, personalized with colorful paintjobs.  We took a regular taxi to Huacachina though, and I recently read that in 2007 researchers found the fossil remains of a prehistoric penguin, Icadyptes salasi, that lived in this region about 30 million years ago.  It was about 5 feet tall, with a foot-long beak.  Common crops in this “Land of the Sun” are cotton, grapes, asparagus, and olives.  They rely on an aquifer fed by glacial melt water, but due to overuse it is drying up.  This is leading to calls for more efficient irrigation, or adding dams and water diversions. I have seen a documentary film about the U.S. government encouraging Peruvians to grow asparagus instead of coca to cut down on drug imports.  This unfortunately led to a downturn for the asparagus farmers in Michigan, and the migrant labor force it employed.  But, on the upside, it encouraged the Michigans (Michiganese? Michaganites? Michagonians? Michiganders?) to modify their market with more costly and hippy-happy organic produce.  I’m not sure how that helped anyone exactly yet. 

Coca leaf in its raw form, hoya de coca, seemed no worse than chewing tobacco, or taking a caffeinated BC Powder.  But, apparently, I have heard, when you make it into cocaine, for strippers and other sad people, you have to add chemicals that offset its medicinal value.  I’m not defending its use, or am I?  I’m just saying it’s part of the culture there, as much as chewing tobacco is in Mississippi.  But in Mississippi, they don’t use Red Man for altitude sickness or an upset stomach.  Or do they?  The Coca Candies in little green packages at the store came in handy on the plane ride back.  But they sure do mess up your taste buds.  My mouth felt weird for a week after eating the last one.

That afternoon, at the Hotel Mossone, there was vacancy in both rooms.  In the wide courtyard centering this 1920s colonial style resort by Huacachina Lagoon, I looked up into the night sky to spot the Southern Cross.  This was my first opportunity to do so.  The city lights in Lima don’t afford such a view.  And I think I saw the Crux.  Orion the Hunter off to the southwest threw me off.  I didn’t know he would be here.  I read now that Crux, the smallest of the 88 modern constellations, is sometimes confused with the False Cross.  It was one of the two.  I think I can mark it off of my list of things to do either way.  “Crux is somewhat kite-shaped, and it has a fifth star (Crucis).  The False Cross is diamond-shaped, somewhat dimmer on average, does not have a fifth star, and lacks the two prominent nearby ‘Pointer Stars.”  In case you’re wondering.

That night at the hotel’s restaurant we ate possibly the best meal ever produced.  That aji sauce needs to go global.  It’s the perfect blend of spices.  We were lapping it up like hungry dogs.  This is a reason Peru is known as the Gastronomy Capital of South America.  I told my mother about these aji (peppers) and she found a website that sells all sorts of Peruvian and South American favorites to gringos like me and Peruvians away from home.  It would have been good to have more friends at this time, to enjoy the space and awesome edibles.  But we made do with just two.  And off to bed we went to rest up for a big day of sand dune buggy riding and sliding.  And bouncing.

The feeling of sand bits hitting your face at 30 mph is not necessarily the most pleasant feeling in the world, but my skin did have a nice shine to it at the end of the day after I showered.  It’s what you might call an incidental micro-derm abrasion treatment.  I can’t recall our driver’s name, but he was a good fellow and drove us as fast as the little 4-cylinder would allow arriba y abajo the great sand dunes of coastal Peru.  At one point overlooking this cinematic landscape he came to an abrupt stop, and said “you want to slide?”  I knew what he was talking about.  Those damn snow boards.  The last time I attempted to do anything like this I nearly broke my thumb.  It was also on spring break, but in Colorado, in the snow.  Me and skis simply do not get along unless it is in a body of warm water.  I have all of this on video, from my perspective with those video glasses Dad got me.  But the short end of it is, I fell over 2 seconds into my run and went end over end for about 30 feet.  This cartwheel flying maneuver induced a good shot of whip lash that exhorted its torment on me all the way home.  I couldn’t feel anything of course on the dunes.  I was sufficiently dosed up with hoya de coca, and Peru beers consumed at the store by the dunes while waiting on the buggy driver.  This became a trend for the rest of the day, as we each took on less intense forms of Dr. Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta in an apparent attempt to unlodge something festering in our brains.

Judging by my bizarre handwriting --- asking questions about Haiti to el president Obamamama and the Time Warp drawing “Ahora Wharpa” – I can confidently report we achieved our twisted goal.  And it had nothing to do with slipping on the tile floor.  I had slipped on it before I was drunk, too.  These glassy tiles were an uncommon safety hazard.  They are usually reserved for drunk-tank degenerates and time-bomb terrorists.  I could not wrap my head around it.  How in the hell could they legally allow these to be installed?  It was inhumane.  It was only something Steve Martin could make me forget.  And so we laughed ourselves to sleep listening to his standup from the speaker of an iPad.

The next morning I awoke in a wicked underworld, where all sounds are amplified to wrenching levels and sunlight scalds eyeballs with blazing luminosity.  BC's AADC (Above Average Drinking Capacity) is coupled with a Wolverine recovery rate.  We got a quick breakfast, he got a beer, and we paid out.  It was low rent, this place.  Two nights for about $120, and the food was incredible and cheap.  We and and drank like kings for two days on $60.  That made it better, and I was coming around, but I wasn't ready to drink a beer yet.  We hired a ride to Ica for a visit to the Museo Regional de Ica before stopping into another eatery, and then taking a bus ride back up north to Lima. 

At the museum I had to sit down for a few minutes.  My stomach churned looking at those 500-year-old mummified human remains.  I tried reading the descriptions, but my eyes wanted to cross and close.  I managed to look head-on at one of the mummies for five seconds to get my money’s worth.  He was sitting down with his legs up to his chest.  He looked like Willie Nelson, with long reddish hair and a bandana.  I saw mortality.  Laying in bed the following week I would imagine myself as a mummy, a thousand years from now, as people walked around my remains and wondered the same thing I did about him.   “What did he do? Was he a sculptor … a painter … a farmer … a writer?  What names did he have for the stars?  What was his favorite food?  Did he wear boots?”  This caused a flaskback of the night before, when I slipped in the hotel room.  I still had sand in my boots from the dune buggy ride and they made a loud, grinding noise as I walked along the tiled floor.  I tried to be polite and step easy.  Maybe it was just these damn boots causing all the problem.... 

Final Note
It was all a thrilling mad dash.  A little dangerous.  Very dusty.  And my mind is a bit wider than before.  I have a long way to go before I am able to travel to a Spanish-speaking country on my own though.  I will likely never stand up on a snow board again that wreck on the sand hills of Huacachina.  And I will never eat bus food again.  (Forgot to mention I got sick from the bus food.)  And I had that feeling of impending doom once too often in the back seat of a Lima taxi cab.  At one point, a bus had nearly hit my side of the car as the strung-out driver slipped the clutch and stalled us in the middle of a busy intersection.  And yet there seemed to be very few accidents.  Have they done studies on this?  I lay awake at nights thinking about the trip and its effects on me.  Why had I not studied up more on my Spanish before I left?  Why did I lose my customs papers at the airport and nearly miss my flight?  When, if ever, will I return?

There are no perfect answers.  Just more questions.  But one thing is for sure: The more you see, the less you know.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Johnny Rockets, Part III

The markets of Lima are so colorful and active.  For an Arkie neophyte international traveler it is somewhat overwhelming.  The first market I got to was with BC, after a long walk in search of a restaurant that served cuy, or roasted guinea pig.  We needed to find a few vegetables, and hoya de coca.  A little hut in the back had the coca, for about S/.4 for an oz.  We also found a woman selling fresh chicha, a mild alcohol drink made from maize.  This one came in a half-liter bottle, for S/.3.  I was good to go. 

At this point, after an overnight flight and 2 beers, I was slightly delirious.  My memory is still sketchy of what all happened.  It was warm.  I was in blue jeans and boots.  My feet were hot.  Drivers used their car alarms as horns.  Every corner has a community dog that lounges in the shade without a leash.  I never saw one get hit by a car.  Vintage Volkswagen bugs are common commuters, along with all the other newer compact cars: Toyota, Honda, Fiat, Peugot.  There were Chinese cars I’d never seen on the road, but in car lots on the edge of town; those little white mini-trucks and buses that only go 25 mph.  We did not find the restaurant he wanted to go to.  BC said it was because he is usually on his bicycle.  We walked a mile or so until we settled on a hole in the wall next to a rusted-out truck.  You could really see through the truck it was so corroded. 

The restaurant turned out to serve the best pescado frito (fried fish) with aji amarillo and red onion relish with arroz y frijoles blanco, possibly ever made.  It was like someone had chopped off the back wall of a house and put some tables and a counter in it.  The place was packed for lunch.  There was one table available, in the back next to a blue pantry by the kitchen.  We sat there.  A little black-headed toddler wobbled up and started pulling pots and pans out of the pantry.  His mother came over, pulled him out, and took our order. The boy broke a cup.  We all laughed. 

Another market I visited was the following day, with BC and Cindy during a tour of Lima by Andres.  Before I get to that though, allow me to explain how we got there.  We drove down the Costa Verde to Chorrillos, aka “Lover’s Lane,” with its huge statues of men and women making out.  Surfers were on carrying boards to the beach.  It might as well have been Santa Barbara.  The driver had tuned the radio to the city’s American music channel.  It was 70s hour.  “I love the Bee Gees,” Andres said, after one of their tunes came on.  Later, the announcer rattled off something about Barry Manilow.  “I love Barry Manilow,” Andres declared.  He and my mother would have hit it off.  My Arkansas compatriot, Cindy, in the back seat with BC and Andres, was proudly sporting the state’s Hog, and was never short of a quick question for our tour guide and driver.  Actually, it was just like having my mother with us.  Cindy was going to get her $40 worth.  She asked Andres about many things to do with modern Peruvian culture, from marriage and divorce rates to drug abuse and TV shows.  Cindy is a second-grade teacher.  She works daily with the best questioners in the world.

In the little car that could, we drove past many dogs and shacks on the bare hillside to get to the top of a mountain overlooking the sea and Mira Flores.  There, a massive obelisk commemorates Las Batalles de San Juan y Miraflores, 13 y 15 de Enero de 1881.  According to Wikipedia, this was part of The War of the Pacific, which I’d never heard of before.  “The War of the Pacific, aka Guerra del Pacifico, was fought in western South America between Chile and a united Bolivia and Peru from 1879 to 1883.”  The rest will have to be studied later. 

Atop this mountain, where so many died so long ago, I talked to Andres about Peru’s ancient cultures.  Since I knew we were not likely going to make it to the Nazca lines, I asked him what he thought they were.  He said they were likely a message to their gods.  And what about all the advanced stone carvings of Machu Picchu, and the ancient pyramids of Caral, the drug-induced rituals, all of those canals, the human sacrifices, the deformed cone heads, the trephination?  Yes, it’s all true.  They were an advanced, freaky lot.  (This is not what he said, I’m reading his mind.)  Honestly, I didn’t want to make him think I was one of those guys, who believes in aliens, so I resorted to my usual ways and told him about something I’d seen on YouTube about Caral, in northern Peru where a bunch of pyramids had been found that dated back to 2,500 B.C., or possibly even older.

I felt more comfortable talking to BC about this later, and since he has been to Nazca and flown over the monkey and spider and big hand, I felt like he was as much of an aficionado as anybody else.  BC thinks they were simply made to honor their gods.  And I think, yes, those gods could have been aliens.  That’s pretty much the jest of it. No one knows for sure, but we do know that there have been pyramid-building civilizations here since at least 2,500 B.C.E., which is about the same time the ancient Egyptians were doing the same.  And everyone knows that aliens had something to do with that.  The Moche are what archeologists call a “mother culture.”  The question to me is, why did all of this pyramid building around the world all begin around the same time?  Why was head deformation so common all over the Americas?  Did they all come into contact with the aliens?

At the market I saw no pyramids or aliens. There were red, yellow, purple, and green fresh fruits and vegetables and nuts of all kinds hanging up and in buckets, or displayed in crates.  The vendors were usually older women sitting in chairs.  There was a woman cutting the toes off of chicken feet and tossing the de-clawed feet into a bucket.  At another counter a whole chicken was laid out with its head dangling off the edge.  Fresh cuts of beef attracted some flies, but not too many really.  A large octopus was stretched out on ice, surrounded by red and white muscles and clams, filleted sharks, and 5-pounder flounder.  A boy was running around with a little dog.  Next to a wall was an alter to Jesus and Mary.  In a booth a woman made fresh pineapple and coconut juice.  We stopped for some juice.  This was just one corner of a massive market that stretched back for a block or more.  On our way back to the car I spotted a rack of new movies.  They were bootleg copies of recent films, like “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained” at S/.7 for three.  BC said he knew where to get them for less, but I went ahead and picked out three: those two and “Argo.”  Also at the market were a lot of wooden spoons, which I recommended Cindy buy to beat her kid with.  She chose instead to look at the fake Crocs.  But ,then she decided not to buy them because they didn’t have any pink ones in her girl’s size.  Andres paid a man a sole to stop traffic as we backed out of the market to putter on up the road.

And in Johnny's next and final post, you shall hear all about his grand adventures in Huacachina....  Stay tuned...