Peru postcard

Shivering sweating in my puff jacket next to two kettles, two pots on an iron grid over a cooking fire, its orange glow and a candle to light the small drafty adobe room. I’ve been ordered there by Olga Susanna to keep warm as she prepares a tea from a collection of leaves and green twigs, simultaneously with her daughter-in-law Berlitz cooking dinner. One of the boys, maybe he was assigned to make sure I don’t fall over, is pressed close on this bench where I’m rip tides of nausea. Sometimes they look at me gravely, mostly there is levity and buoyant rising volumes of talk and laughter.

We are a few hundred meters from Kuelap, where I hiked up and spent the day, the bike and my gear left at Pablo’s in Tingo far below. As mistgreys and then the easily underestimated cold of evening came, my judgment and ability and stability for the two hour steep muddy downclimb dwindled. Olga Susanna has been exploring around Kuelap and assisting archeological teams for most of her life, she wears her KP1 ballcap jauntily. She was raised and in turn has raised her family in the lee of its walls, and when her granddaughter sells soup to shivering deteriorating tourists, few details elude her. She insists that I come inside, she vetoes any talk of my descending. With even the produce truck long having left the village until tomorrow, it was settled that I would spend the night there.

Gauzy shifts in attention, pendulum focus, each detail jumps out then sinks in my perception’s pool: Berlitz is in her 20′s, two small children, one a whirling daring cherub, the other with an infant’s awake and alive exploration. Ronald, her husband, holds the baby aloft in beaming pride, over the next day I witness him as involved in her life as any father I’ve known of. He wears mismatched futbol shoes, one Adidas, one something else, mudcaked from feeding the sheep and cow. The boy with me is his much younger brother, the last, I gather, of Olga Susanna’s children, strands of relations interwoven seamlessly, then a sister between him and Ronald in age, she is feeling unwell so we bond in convalescence, she has a colorful dress over her khaki pants with neon pink socks, black pumps, a snapped up denim jacket, a knit cap that she pulls over her nose sometimes, exuding mountain village cool.

Ronald is telling a story about Berlitz joining other women in the village to drink quantities of wine, he’s laughing and she is, too, confessing to liking the thick rich taste of the homemade stuff, Ronald has a grainy video on his mobile showing them carrying on, we all howl and it rumbles my middle uncomfortably. They are in harmony together, visible play and respect and collaboration.

Olga Susanna’s father is hard of hearing, they explain, but without any shortage of things to say. He launches into stories of his youth in guiding mule trains over the mountains delivering salt to villages hundreds of kilometers around, moist half closed eyes gleaming like marbles in the deep wrinkle folds of his handsome face. All the while he cuts reeds lengthwise with a flashing machete, his rough yellow fingernails stark against the haft, thin cords will be worn into twine later in the evening. Olga Susanna leans up close to her father to shout in his ear, yes, he would like some potatoes, we huddle over no two alike soup bowls, the children politely insist that I use the metal spoon even if this means they eat with the plastic. I drink two more brimming cups of medicine.

More stories in darkness, the air has a density that comes from family and community, familiarity. Ronald sets up a place for me to sleep, I go to bed with my body still astral in fever but with my consciousness quiet in the beauty and kindness here. The next morning they brighten at my presenting as visibly improved, I’ll bounce the baby on my knee and airplane her as Berlitz eats breakfast, I’ll listen rapt to Olga Susanna unpretentiously lecture on Chachapoyan history. Our thick hugs and smiles and parting met eyes, then I’m off into the mud for the valley, humbled by the sense of loving vitality above.

Peru postcard

Drinking tradition: Everyone at the table, in this case six of us, one bottle of beer open at a time though many in ready reserve. Two glasses total, one stays at the center of the table, the other is passed from drinker to drinker counterclockwise. The drinker pours, saluts everyone, clinks the open bottle, drinks at her or his own pace, sure, chugging is okay but not expected, then dumps the backwash into the middle-of-the-table glass, which will ultimately be discarded. When we move the operation outside to the campfire, the on deck drinker holds the bottle of beer while the one cup is being consumed, the backwash is just flung into the grass.

***

Peru readily rockets up the list of favorite places. But, if the coffee improved to being merely terrible, I would be elated. If there is a television, it’s on and at near maximum volume, from the time one wakes until going to bed, unless you go to bed with it still on like a loud incoherent relative. Every single dessert and sweet looks heavenly; every single one is incompetent college first year dorm baking mediocrity. And the bread makes me chuckle; remember the bun on a McDonald’s filet-o’-fish from when we were kids? Yeah, artisanal breadmaking by local standards.

***

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When Pablo, 12, speeds off downhill on the Pugs at an alarming sprint, I’m pretty sure that he’s going to put it into the ditch. Damned if he can’t pilot the thing like he was born on it, all while sitting on the top tube. We head back to his parents’ restaurant, his older brothers take turns wrestling the big tires, I hang out with his father and his friends. Eventually they get their hands on the iPhone, listen to some music, swipe through my photos. Everyone gathers to watch twenty minutes of Inception, no subtitles. The daughter has DiCaprio’s photo in her wallet and at first she speculates that this is Titanic 2. What, on a new boat? Didn’t he die? I shake my head. “He looks fat and old,” she complains. They want me to explain it, but it comes out all garbled and they end up thinking that he’s stealing good dreams from bad people to sell in order to make money to get home to his children, a premise they find entirely sound.

***

Suspect I’m running a serious fever, achy weak, indignity of fierce mocking waves of belly pain and nausea and all the urgent measures consequently required. But I’m at Kuelap, one of the great ruins of an ancient culture, archeologically a rival in Peru to Machu Picchu, with few tourists and complete freedom of exploration. So I’m going to explore. I wander past a group, peripherally aware, I suppose, that it’s a school trip of some sort. A junior high kid is tugging my shoulder, “a picture?” “Sure,” holding out my hand for her camera. “No, me with you.” “Oh, um, yeah, okay.” Her friend snaps the shot. “I want a picture with the gringo!” My stomach moils, I try to smile. Several queue up, the idea catches on. As each stands next to me I’m cognizant of the high number of sweat/stink/sleep cycles I’ve been through without washing. Pride keeps me from doubling over in pain. Everyone, the whole class, then the three teachers, the teachers!, somehow need a photo with the gringo. My face twists into new visages of not happy when no one is looking. Then the multitude of BFF’s want photos with both of them and me, I’m periodically moments from puking or worse. We’re posing in this circular ruin with a deep stone lined fire pit in the center and I’m fighting back bile saying, “careful don’t step…” and she’s tumbling backwards shrieking, my grip on her upper arm in a panic lock, I whip her up out around. Nervous laughter, friends clap, I’m eyeing that hole wishing with all my guts it was an outhouse.

Peru postcard

Protected by remorseless origami hills in static heat, the remote border crossing into Peru is simple and friendly. At this midday hour — far from the scheduled bus arrivals, themselves infrequent — as quiet as I’ve ever encountered. A young man in badged polyester ocean blue short sleeves saying goodbye in Ecuador, his off-the-clock buddies insist on a round of beer, a bespectacled old man in need of a shave who would be at home in the academy shaking my hand, welcoming me and wishing a beautiful trip in Peru after insisting on a six month entry against my requested three, owing to my being on a bicycle and I should take my time to enjoy his country. A 70 meter bridge separates them, I wonder if they are friends, sometimes chatting over juice. A few lazy buildings, lunch, ice cream and some banter with mototaxi boys who trade rides on the Pugsley for my piloting their covered three-wheelers in a circle.

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The theoretical knowledge that Peru is poorer potentially distorts the image, so I concentrate on really looking: sure, narrower road spec, the Toyota Hi-Lux taxi, ubiquitous in southern Ecuador, has been replaced by a smaller more efficient Corolla DX wagon, more pairs and trios than singletons on the motorbikes, that first minuscule town an unmitigated wreck of torn trenched dirt streets and ramshackle cinder block or adobe mated with wood scraps, none of which has the slightest bearing on the exuberant immanence on the front stairs or dirt lot chairs calling out to me (“hello, Gringo!” “Welcome, Gringo!”). Roosters, turkeys, pigs, donkeys, horses, ducks, children, unfettered in kaleidoscopic chaos already at a volume I rarely saw in Ecuador.

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Three into four hours of grinding into cliffsides that could be Arizona or Jordan, I crest and am lifted from a trance by a town Sunday festival, a futbol match in the center, women playing volleyball (or its local variant) right next to it, music, motorcycles, smoking food tents, teenagers crisscrossing the mud main avenue with confections triumphantly aloft, the stray dogs and somnolent pigs unquestionably belonging, too. Spectators watching the game turn around, “can I ride it?”, “go for it,” and circling the pitch but mostly the thing is I’m standing there in descending light, envious but also swept slightway into the completely unpretentious buzz of these friends hanging out.

The comparative shyness of Ecuadorians has given way to an unapologetic, thoroughly confident presence in one another’s existence, your movement in everyone else’s attention and so to be observed, spontaneously, enthusiastically commented upon, as so it is for you to participate. The feeling is not one of being judged but of figuring in a story continuously publicly told out-loud that situates orients elevates, that highlight the humor or modest drama or plain ordinariness of events. I get playfully heckled by unretreating self-assured teenage girls, groups of cab drivers call me over, then call their friends over, to say hello, a family in their front yard wonders if I might demonstrate riding for their tiny wide eyed son, rifle slinging grinning soldiers in mirrored shades and boonie hats reveal shortcuts and tell me my bike is better than the others they’ve seen gringos riding. A pair of college students waiting for a ride under a tree insist on sharing their snacks.

There is the sense of shared emotional texture, where what people are feeling is naturally genuinely part of the open continuous public space. One can share objects, one can share words, this is yet another sharing, swept into delight or curiosity or calm through those around you.

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Eating

There is no sign outside the concrete block like a garage, you’d spotted the tables and people sitting close. The bike is against the wall in a conspicuous place and ideally where you can see it from inside, or at least can see people’s eyes and posture as they look at it. You’ve already negotiated the checkpoint of children who want to touch the tires or fiddle with the grips and brakes, the young men who gather ’round were offered an opportunity to take a ride and often older men enthusiastically accepted honorary invitations to these sessions, unsteady circles in the street as everyone cheered and whooped. No matter how hungry or cranky or in a hurry you are, you’ll do this, everyone around now knows about the bike and cyclist, knows where you are from, heard your voice and your Spanish and where you are going, where you started, what’s in the bags because by now you’ve learned or reminded yourself of the words for esoteric camping equipment. All laughed together.

You walk in, there are four or five tables. You don’t necessarily get your own, you just find an open spot, perhaps people rotate around and bring in a chair to make room for you. If there are no chairs then you wait outside, diners know when there’s a queue and there isn’t any dallying after the meal. Usually men outnumber women five to one, sometimes no women at all, sometimes a more balanced ratio, very rarely a child, that’s not what this place is for. You take your seat wishing everyone who is already eating buen provecho, better just “provecho.” There’s likely a tv on, everyone staring up at it. When there’s not, the people not yet served can be joking, murmuring to one another quietly but that will stop when their food comes. The other electrical outlets are recharging mobiles. The men who work outside still have their stained ball caps and dirty work boots on, no one cares that you’re soaked with sweat, you’ve greeted everybody and everyone has acknowledged you in some way. Sometimes you’ve even clasped hands with the people at your table if they aren’t already eating, and you certainly have with the server if he’s a he but not if she’s a she. You wait, you don’t ask or interrupt, you were noticed and the arrival order is taken seriously, no matter that it’s full of regulars and you’re an outsider you won’t get served especially early nor be skipped over, and soon you will receive a small tray of utensils and immediately a bowl of soup. Napkins are likely already on the table, with not very hot hot sauce, catsup, a bowl of sugar, salt and sometimes pepper. If there aren’t these things on your table and you want them, you pardon yourself as you take them from another table, no one minds your reach.

When your soup is placed down you will be asked what version of the meal you would like, usually only two choices though what two will vary by region. Fish or chicken, or chicken or beef, or chicken or pork, or fish or beef. Fairly frequently there is no choice at all, and then you’re not asked. Shortly after your soup is finished, maybe it was chicken or potato or green vegetable or pasta, two or three or all, or quinoa, your plate arrives. Always a substantial bed of rice, then regional adornments, a few tomato and onion slices, red beans, lentils, hominy, cornmeal, some combination of these, cheesy spaghetti on the rice once, the animal on top of the heap. You could, of course, have declined the meat altogether which would be double checked to see if you’re serious and then honored indulgently since you’re a pain in the ass gringo with special needs and ideas and don’t really belong here or expect much to fit in in any serious way. Or you could unscruple communality, sociality, eating the same things in the same movements, your body in a parallel arc of energy transformation. Within a few minutes of your starting in you’ll receive a tall glass of fresh juice, once in awhile instead a cup of hot water for tea or to make coffee from the jar of instant now placed on the table. Some people will ask for a beer or Fanta Orange in addition, there can be a refrigerator in the room and you’ll just get them yourself. You’ll never eat with your hands no matter what, everyone around you works the utensils in the European custom, knife never leaves the right hand, everything is stabbed or scooped with the left hand fork, no switching. Unless it’s a very small town in which case you only received a spoon, then everything scooped, the meat manipulated with the spoon’s perpendicular edge.

The pace will be steady, verging on hurried. When you’re done and especially if there are others waiting, you’ll stand and find the server in the kitchen. It will cost $1,50 or $2, or if it was dinner and the portions were a bit bigger, as much as $3. You’ll walk out wishing provecho to anyone who arrived after you did.

You’ll pedal off, a few people will wave and wish you a good, safe journey.

Ecuador Postcard

Past days in a row in the tent, next town seems big enough for lodging of some modest sort, roll in, ask around. Get directed about like a pingpong ball, finally triangulate to a tiny restaurant. There’s a woman doing embroidery at the counter with her maybe 10 year old daughter. I rehearse my question, she says there are two, one has bedbugs and the other, not very far, is closed. Hm, oh well, I’ll head on a few more k and wild camp again, easy. I say some polite, small talkish things as a prelude to parting. Her Aunt, it turns out, lives in New York, evidently with a tall American. “She’s super guapa,” the woman says, “like me.” I smile, and a moment later remember to shown my teeth a little so as to seem noncommittally affable. Then she says I can maybe stay at her house. I’m thinking, maybe? contingent on what? and the daughter brightens and nods vigorously. The daughter is scheming out loud about how it will go, apparently we’ll watch some tv, when the woman’s mother emerges from the back room.

The woman says, “This gringo is looking for a hotel.” I only bristle a little anymore at the misguided irony of being called a gringo.
“Well, the one up the hill has bedbugs.”
“That’s what I told him.” This is unfolding more or less as if I’m not there. “So I invited him to stay at my house.” Daughter interjects, “yes!”
“Where will he sleep?”
“Well, I was thinking with me.”
My eyebrows shoot up, but I manage to stifle any other reaction.
Grandmother says, “he knows what we’re saying!”

The woman turns to me and says that she has a plan. The man with the truck next door will drive me and her to find the nice hotel’s owner, he’s probably with his [word I don't understand], and if we can find him then I can probably stay there, but if not we’ll sort things out with sleeping at her place. (Daughter looks crestfallen.) But I have to give the man with the truck a dollar. Sure, great, wonderful, though the tent would be a lot easier at this point, though I don’t say that out loud. I’m thinking back now to a conversation I had in Cuenca with the chatty pizza man — who lived in Germany for 20 years and apprenticed with genuine Italians, he emphasizes genuine Italians, in their pizza shop before returning to Ecuador, his pizza was uncommonly good — where he said it’s a real problem there and in the surrounding countryside that all the men leave to work in the USA or Spain, abandoning many many women without husbands or boyfriends. I was told this in a certain spirit, but filed it away merely as a bit of sociological trivia. We leave my bicycle with the grandmother, when I return it will have a pink gingham tablecloth over it, and we head off across town in the truck. After a few stops and conversations (“we’re looking for so and so because this gringo wants to stay in his hotel,” which is, of course, now entirely false, thinking of my tent) we find the man. He’s quite jolly and eager to open the hotel. We bid farewell to his [word I don't understand, but she's discreetly affectionate in parting with the jolly hotel owner] and beeline in dust and shooting gravel back to the restaurant. It’s settled, then, the hotel will be officially opened just for me, the daughter is unabashedly disappointed and the mother, well, I kiss the air next to each cheek in turn for her generous help and rush off to catch up to the hotel owner.

We arrive at this impossible, wrinkle in spacetime edifice, it’s a relic, like something from a sepia photograph captioned “Hotel Reina Elegante, Main Street 1922″ but now all flaking paint, rotting timbers, and plaster repair work. “Gringos always love this building!” Through a rusty iron gate, up creaking stairs, buzzing bulbs swinging free from ceiling wires, this is a joke, right?, I can almost, if I squint my eyes, see parties and gowns and jaunty hats a hundred years ago, but now only ghosts. I’m installed in my suite with an entry parlor and side room, creaky shutters and water stained but fancy hardwood floors. When there are guests the owner sleeps in a suite on the other side of the building, a half floor down, just knock on the door if I need anything, that will be $8, good night, if I want dinner, the restaurant just at the corner is friendly. I stash my things, walk through the pitch darkness toward the open sided cooking area, as much a “restaurant” as your neighbor with a decent toolbox is an “auto repair shop”, where five very old women dote on me as if I’m the seventh son of a seventh son. I return and tuck myself in.