Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lima and The Peruvian Jungle

Tuesday September 29, 2009

As it turns out, Peru is pretty distracting. I hadn't even finished talking about the food and a million other things have happened. Not that I'm complaining, of course.

So, back to the first day: Afer lunch, Cathy went to teach her history class at the Catholic University, and Sergio and I went to the conveniently nearby zoo. I had my first, albeit somewhat artificial, glimpse of alpacas, llamas, vicunas (llama type animal; all three are really difficult to tell apart), jungle cats, and, my favorite, penguins. I cannot wait to see penguins in their natural habitat. They are the funniest, most awkward animals I have ever seen. Luckily for me, Peru, Chile and Argentina all have penguins wobbling around in certain areas.

That night, I went with Sergio, Cathy and Juan Luis to Brisas del Titicaca, which was presenting a handful of traditional folklore dances and music. I say only a handful because the city of Puno alone has over 700 dances. They covered all sorts of genres, from jungle dances, to the dance the Spanish used to teach the Incas about good and evil, using scary diablo costumesto denote evil and having the angel in white come out the victor. Another dance, in an unusual twist, the bull kills the matador, and then a girl with 16 skirts enchants the bull. The 16 skirts are representative of wealth. Although not material wealth, rather, the more family you have, the wealthier you are. The poor girl with the 16 skirts almost fainted when she was finished dancing. Wealth can be heavy! My favorite dance was of the Incas mocking the Spanish. They made fun of their outfits by wearing Spanish looking skirts, made fun of their weapons, and their way of dancing.
Between each couple of dances, the band would play a song or two so the audience could dance. There was a class reunion there from 1959 and all these little old ladies and one old guy were up dancing and drinking pisco sours until 2 in the morning.

The next day, we went downtown and wandered around, checking out the architecture and the plazas. The buildings are gorgeous, some as old as 16th Century, some made out of mud and a type of straw found in the Andes, some classic colonial style, some baroque and dizzyingly detailed.

The main is called the Plaza del Armas, and it's structured like every other plaza in a city/town that has been conquered by the Spanish. The government palace where the President lives is at the front, complete with a changing of the guard at noon. The current president is Alan Garcia, who ran the country into the ground between 1985-1990 but was re-elected because his opponent was even worse than him. To the left, City Hall. And to the right, is the seat of the Church; the cardinal's residence and the Cathedral of Lima, the Archbishop's headquarters. In the center of the plaza is a statue of San Martin, the man who liberated Peru in 1821 from the Spanish (as well as Chile and Argentina). On the front of his statue is the likeness of a girl, or an angel. She was supposed to have a crown of fire, but the artist got the word for fire mixed up and instead she has a baby llama on her head.

We took a tour, in English, of the Cathedral. The guide said it would take a mere 30 minutes, but it took over an hour. Sergio was incensed: "she lied to us, and in front of God!" The audacity!

Anyway, it was very interesting tour. Old school Catholic Churches are delightfully macabre. Underneath the actual church part, is the crypt where all the old important clergymen are laid to rest. There is one woman buried there; her and her archbishop husband somehow negotiated her a spot in the crypt. But, it is typically an (very) old boys club. In the center of one of the rooms, there's a glass covered hole in the ground where you can see tiny, infant sized wooden coffins. Very simple, unmarked. This is where the unknown babies of the congregation (and according to unofficial sources, some of the nuns' babies) were buried. The tomb goes down five metres. Five meters of unmarked baby coffins. There is also a glass of water set next to the wall in the tomb, for when the spirits get thirsty. Towards the end of the tour, the guide asked me if I wanted to make a Confession. Evidently, I look like a sinner. I wonder how she knew!

Afterwards, Juan Luis and I went to the second annual gastronomic festival in Lima. In which there was tons of food, contests for best cooking (Juan Luis' friend's restaurant won for best causia, which is an incredible potato dish), and all sorts of food related things for sale. I had read in my guide book that you can find guinea pig in Peru - called cuy, and I decided that I would find it. Well, it sure didn't take me very long. Walking through the vendors, there was a table piled high with skinned, headless, eviscerated cuy carcasses. Now I just need to find the cooked version so I can eat it.

Later that night, in a beautiful bar out on the pier in Miraflores, with the ocean crashing and laughing all around us, a bartender named Yave (another name for God) gave me a lesson in Pisco. The liquor is made from grapes and has many different types, depending on what you are going to use it for. A lot like wine, actually. There is a rivalry between Chile and Peru for who has ownership of the original pisco sour. Peru has the one up on Chile, however: there is a town in Peru called Pisco but not in Chile, Peru exports their Pisco to Chile but not vice versa, and perhaps most damning, Chileans make the Pisco Sour completely differently, so in fact, they are not even the same drink.

The Jungle:

On Saturday, we drove into the Central Highlands, through the Andes into the jungle. It's a six hour drive from Lima, and the road crests the highest mountain pass in Peru at a whopping 4818 metres above sea level. On a related note, coca leaves make for a great altitude sickness remedy.
The landscape from Lima to the Jungle is like a slideshow of climate types: from dusty desert it becomes the sierra and then, the patchwork quilt-like farms in rust and sepia tones (it's dry season) suddenly burst into a plethora of intense greenery and the squawking of a thousand birds and ginormous bugs. The air changed from crisp, chilly mountain air into humid, heavy, jungle air. Delicious.

Most of the small towns we drove through in the mountains were centered around either mining or farming. One town in particular has a heart breaking story. The people live and work in the refinery where all of the mines process their minerals. Among the waste products is a heavy concentration of lead. The mountains in this area are a strange marbled grey color, from the acid rain. Nothing grows on them and they look anemic. The lead in the air and the water has a devasting effect on the people: their life expectancy is 40 years old, they are very short, and they suffer a gambit of lead related health disorders. However, if they do not work in the mines/refinery, they die tomorrow and if they do work in the mines, they die in 20 years. Out of the fire and into the slow cooker. The mining company is from the United States and they refuse to adapt their environmental policies.

Our hotel was in San Ramon - which is not in my guidebook, so we certainly veered off the beaten path. Not all that far from where we stayed was a Shining Path cocaine operation. Needless to say, we didn't bother with that part of the jungle.

After a quiet night having dinner, taking a dip in the pool under the stars and then going to bed early, we signed ourselves up for an 11 hour tour on Sunday. The tour was lead by a 12 year old boy, who was surprisingly bossy for someone so young. He conducted the tour in Spanish so I relied on Sergio's translations and the few words I could pick up. Mostly I probably looked like a lost tourist.

We visited a bridge with a rusty, tenous hold on life. Somehow, vehicles still make it across, not without some praying or choice epithets though, I'd bet. The river we so precariously swayed over was the Chanchamayo. Mayo being Quechua for river and chancha meaning burnt embers or coals from the fire. The aboriginals used to fish at night, in the moonlight and the rocks looked like embers glowering underneath the water.

The 12 year old took us to one of the remaining aboriginal tribes, where they dressed us up in their traditional clothes, put red face paint on our cheeks, told us their story and then we all danced the healing dance to drums and flutes. Afterwards, they had jewelry and other crafts for sale, and one of the older ladies who was working the stand saw that I had a few spider bites. I noticed the bites right when I got off the plane in Lima, so I blame san Salvador airport. Anyway, her and a few of the children made a big fuss over me; "oww amiga!" and the lady put some green salve on them. And wouldn't you know it, the following day the bites were almost gone. The old lady healed me!

After being healed, we went to two waterfalls, got to jump around in the pools of water; a much needed respite from the heavy heat. I probably lost 20 pounds that day. Sergio said he felt like he was sweating out his soul.

Traditional jungle fare for lunch followed: a mixture of river fish ceviche (raw fish marinated in lime), fried fish, fried bananas, yuca, and pig meat that tasted a lot like bacon but was thicker cut, not as greasy and was not bacon.

The tail end of the tour included a short trip in a tin can with a motor that they calleda boat down the Chanchamayo and a trip to the coffee factory. Peru grows spectacular coffee, and imports most of it to Europe. Peruvians, much to my surprise, don't really drink a lot of coffee. More for me, then!

Today was spent driving back through the mountain pass, and then to dinner at a fancy fusion buffet. There was so much food, I nearly exploded. They had the central buffet table that was of a typical buffet style and size. But then, they had 4 stations where they cooked food for you: argentine steak, peruvian-chinese food (chifa), peruvian sushi, and italian pasta. And for desert there was a chocolate foundation, with local Peruvian chocolate. Like I said, almost exploded.
Oh, and the men's bathrooms were hilarious. On the wall above each urinal was a picture of a hot girl pointing and laughing. one of them even had a measuring tape. Priceless.


  1. Are you going to be gainfully employed while there, or is it all about eating, drinking, and sight-seeing?