Saturday, January 31, 2009

On the run

Whoa yes we have been places and seen some things since we last wrote. Where did we last leave you? We were about to go to Kuelap, which we did. It is a very impressive mountain fortress where the Chachapoyas people lived in houses with round stone fountains and thatch roofs. Eventually the Incas took over and set down a few of the rectangular houses they preferred but luckily they weren´t so polygonally prejudiced that most of the older structures were not razed. I was particularly impressed that the Chachapoyas people had built little corrals within these houses to hold one of their favorite foods: wild mountain guinea pig.

From The Trip, pt. 2: Mountains to Lima

In Chachapoyas we had a really great time getting breakfast and sometimes lunch at the Central Market. They have juice stands along the second floor with juices from fruits we didnt even know existed. They also sell this three-flavored yogurt sundae covered in cereal and a bit of molasses. Outside, past the rows and rows of freshly slaughtered chickens, giant bags of grain, brightly colored fruits and vegetables and live and fresh skinned guinea pigs, vendors sold small bagfuls of little tiny speckled eggs that they hard-boiled on their carts. I never did figure out which bird they came from. Nevertheless, we encountered a surprising amount of gringo animosity in Chachapoyas and we were ready to leave when the time came. The bus company we finally convinced to take our money seemed to have an explicit agenda against the comfort and happiness of foreign tourists, but we made it to the coastal town of Chiclayo eventually.

From The Trip, pt. 2: Mountains to Lima

The public transportation has been more frustratingly elusive than life threatening lately; the local transportation seems fairly impossible to figure out. However, Peruvians´taste in intercity bus movies continues to astound us.
  1. Chachapoyas to Chiclayo: Nutty Professor I & II, Big Mama´s House, Mrs. Doubtfire - Overarching theme: men in fat suits, preferably dressed as women? not sure.
  2. Chiclayo to Trujillo: Cliffhanger - dubbed Sylvester Stalone was pretty entertaining.
  3. Trujillo to Lima: The Pianist, Phat Girlz, Last Samurai - I dont even know what to say.
  4. Lima to Pisco: Shoot em up, Dead Silence - seemingly inappropriate for an all ages bus ride.
Compared to the quaint rural market of Chachapoyas, the market in Chiclayo seemed incredibly HUGE. The stalls were divided by the type of thing being sold. Imagine stalls of shoes as far as the eye can see. All the juice stands grouped together, everybody clamoring for you to take a seat and drink their juice. Piles of recently hacked chicken feet, giant fish straight from the ocean. A row of ¨witches¨stalls where they sell herbal remedies and the occasional voodoo doll.

After we extricated ourselves from the market, we took the microbus to the coast, which is an interesting experience in itself. Basically a mini-van that they cram about 20 people into, but they only charge about 30 cents. Like one man on this bus who was headed to the coast with a rack of sunglasses to sell, many people have asked us how we feel about our new president. They have all seemed fairly surprised that he is black because they seem to think the US is mostly white and most have asked if we like him and if we voted for him, but they havent seem too surprised when we said we do and did.

From The Trip, pt. 2: Mountains to Lima

The beach at Pimentel was really nice. The local fishermen construct these weird half-boats out of reeds that they paddle with both legs hanging into the water. Despite selling the most delicious churros either of us have ever tasted, some ceviche from the boardwalk may have taken us down. Nothing a little Ciproflaxin couldn´t take care of, but no more mariscos for us for a little while...

The next day we saw some more ruins outside Chiclayo, the tombs of Sipán, its associated museum and some pyramids at Túcume. Then we got straight out of town down to Trujillo. We were hoping to get off at the small town of Paiján in order to catch a ride to Puerto Chicama, but it was too late by the time we passed through... and that was how public transportation prevented John from surfing the worldest longest lefthand break.

From The Trip, pt. 2: Mountains to Lima

Trujillo had some very nice colonial architecture, but we wanted very much to get to the beach again so after a breakfast of banano con leche and queque at the market and a brief stop at Zoological (read as, Taxidermy) Museum, we split for Huanchaco. There, John got a chance to surf the not-so-longest waves in the world while I got acquainted with Lolita.

From The Trip, pt. 2: Mountains to Lima

The next day John was feeling a bit too under the weather to surf and I felt a bit too under the weather to go ruin seeing so we set off for Lima, with some trepidation. A sprawling town of eight million with no central bus terminal, Lima seemed a trap from which we might never emerge, but we did fine. Left today with no problems. Now we are in the dusty town of Pisco, famed for its.... penguins (not what you thought I was going to say was it?). Tomorrow we are headed on a boat around the ¨Poor Man´s Galapagos¨ and then hopefully we will depart for Huacachina, famed for its giant sand dunes, which you can apparently sled down.

What they say about the extremes of Peru´s climate and topography is true. From the humid, hot, more or less flat jungle, over the topsy turvy chilly foggy mountains all covered in epiphytes, down to the coastal desert as stark and lifeless as Death Valley, Peru seems to have it all and so far we have only seen half of it. I find it amazing that it took us approximately 2.5 hours to fly from Lima to Iquitos and approximately 2.5 weeks to make our way back. Now we are on the beaten path.

We will see what the ´Gringo Trail´has in store, hopefully more frequent blog updates if nothing else.


In any other country, or at least in america, if I were to see the ruins of an old hollowed out building, or even an old building foundation, I would pause and try to briefly create a plausible story of whythat decaying piece of civilization resides in that particular location. In Peru these husks have been scattered everywhere, in cities, the countryside, unfinished second stories. These discarded leftovers are so ubiquitous I am no longer concerned with their individual histories. In fact the culture seems to have a deep and rich history of discarded ruins as evidenced by the eroded mud brick temples of their ancestors. I guess it really tells a piece of the story of a fairly impoverished area where land is cheap and subsistence is easy.

Unfinished Second Stories...

Speaking of ruins: I think, for Peruvians, that having a second story to one´s home is pretty prestigious. The majority of structures in Peru have either unfinished upper stories, or have not clipped the rebar extending from foundation walls. The result is a sea of rebar as you look over a city. I imagine that second stories are usually planned but don´t get finished because they aren´t necessary.

The Rice Paddies of the Northern Highlands

From The Trip, pt. 4: Arequipa to the frontera
This isn´t really unique to Peru, but I wonder if rice farmers know that the results of their toils are quite beautiful objects´de arte (Picture forthcoming, I hope).

I wear a funny hat in Peru...

...And people often stare at me and chuckle. Its OK, though. I´m different, I´m a gringo, as I´ve been reminded quite often now by drunkards staving off their hangovers in the Markets. I might as well look different. Tourists of my sort have very little to offer the country they are in. They don´t really put that much into the economy, and most of them are rude (in my case unintentionally). I might as well at least make them laugh.
From The Trip, pt. 2: Mountains to Lima

The Flaura and Fauna of Pisco, Peru

I´m watching a small gnat wander across the screen of the internet terminal in my hostel in Pisco. I´m pretty sure its movement is constrained to moving in one direction for a finite unit of distance, at which point it randomly changes direction. At each change in direction it appears to be constrained to turning straight, forty five, or ninety degree angles, as if it were navigating across a piece of grid paper.

I think it might have flown up my nose.


no. there it goes again, Its actually quite remarkable.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Three Worlds Away Pt. Dos

From The Trip, pt. 2: Mountains to Lima
In Peru, at least the more rural areas, a majority of the economy is based on cottage industries. People running their own businesses, stores, taxis, etc. There seems to be a lot of collectives and people working together. We went to a market this morning and it was beautiful. We´ve been going to as many of the community markets as we can but this one stood out. Most of the larger towns have built structures to house their markets. This one was two stories, half open air with food vendors on top, and meat and vegetables on the bottom. There were a few clothing and electronic stores also. It seems healthier than the american supermarket because the wealth is distributed, it emphasizes community, and the food is fresher.

This means that farmers are generally located in town within walking distance of the market, producing less crops, but more or less subsisting on what they grow.

Also, because people are poor here, and cars and gas are really really expensive its not surprising that public transportation is really good, except none of the transportation is public. Its all privately run. All the buses are run by tour companies, and all the taxis and motorcars are operated by the driver, sort of like the taxi system in America, but I don´t think you need a badge to be a business owner. Transportation costs are quite reasonable.


From The Trip, pt. 2: Mountains to Lima
We missed the bus to the ruins this morning and ended up doing laundry and wandering around town. We stumbled upon some sort of a celebration associated with a church at the top of a hill. A small band played somewhat ambivalently on the opposite side of the street while ladies stood next to tables covers in fruits and breads shaped like mermaids and waving ladies. An older man danced in the street with a wooden crate on his shoulder, dancing back and forth across the street avoiding traffic, then a white furry little foot slipped out between the boards in the crate and I realized it was a crate of guinea pigs! After he stopped dancing around with his box of guinea pigs, we wanted to get a better look at these mermaid shaped breads. As we were looking, the man offered us a taste of the sugar cane liquor he and his friends were drinking out of a five gallon bucket with half a coconut. It was tasty.
From The Trip, pt. 2: Mountains to Lima

Friday, January 23, 2009

Three Worlds Away, Pt 1

From The Trip, pt. 2: Mountains to Lima
Its no surpise that Peru is largely a third world country. Driving through most towns reveals a level of living most people would not be at all comfortable with... but for the most part, ones world view is largely relative to ones surroundings, and for the most part Peruvians seem happy, moreover, thriving. Several things I´ve noticed:

  • The more sophisticated a town seems to be, the earlier they go to bed. The amazon is probably the poorest place we´ve been... They seem to like to party. Maybe its the jungle.

  • Building shape, function, and materials are very regional. Driving from the Amazon to the northern mountains there is a smooth gradation in the materials used for construction. Manufactured hollowed bricks and cinder blocks are everywhere, but largely building materials are gathered from a reasonable proximity in which the building was constructed. In the amazon, most houses were constructed of bamboo, slender palm trunks, and palm leaves. As you reach the mountains, the buildings begin to incorporate more adobe and start taking on a more colonial appearance.

  • Most peruvians don´t have double pained windows, or windows at all, really.

  • When a hole opens up in the local market place, you´ll see more people (at least an order of magnitude more) offering that service than you can possibly imagine the local economy can handle. Every town has at least ten bus companies, one hundred mototaxis, and photography stores as frequent as starbucks...

    Patterns: Lots of people doing the same thing at the same time yields some pretty interesting random patterns, like 300 hammocks on a river ferry.

Peruvians have Weak Stomachs, Or Bus Bathrooms are Dangerous

For the past two days we have more or less been on a bus. We started off in the back of a small bus where a mom was trying to squish herself and her three children into one seat and we were squished into the remaining three seats with another guy. After stopping for two hours to wait out some construction, we asked to switch with his much smaller wife and son. I am glad we did since one of those three children in the back seat ralphed halfway up the mountain. This seems to be a developing trend on our bus rides: children ralphing into plastic bags, which their parents throw out the windows into the gutter which is littered with bags of ralph...
From The Trip, pt. 2: Mountains to Lima
From The Trip, pt. 2: Mountains to Lima

From The Trip, pt. 2: Mountains to Lima

Another developing bus ride trend: Peruvians´ bizarre and varied taste in bus ride movies. So far their selection has ranged from Police Academy I to The Condemned to Little Man...

I made the mistake of trying to use the bathroom while our second bus tore around Andean turns with amazing centripetal force. I careened to the bathroom door which had to be wrenched open with maximum strength, then proceeded to almost fall out of the wide open bathroom window as we took another turn... but I lived to tell the tale.

After eating some pollo frito and waiting for our collectivo taxi to fill and staring down some disconcertingly curious children, we took off on yet another mind-boggling ride, barreling through the darkness, swerving between lanes, passing cars on blind turns, no seat belts to be found, the driver trying to hang his sunglasses from his air freshner with both hands (!), as we hung out over the nothingness that probably would have been a great view in the daytime but was too abyss-like for comfort at night. Finally we arrived safe and sound in Chachapoyas, Land of the Cloud People, a pretty colonial town in the cloud forest. Tomorrow we are hoping to hike out to some pre-Incan ruins that supposedly rival the Macchu Pichu. More harrowing public transportation surely awaits.
From The Trip, pt. 2: Mountains to Lima

Eduardo II

From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle
I didn´t really know what to expect when we started out on our three night two day river boat ride up the Amazon and out of the jungle. They weld these boats together out of sheet metal just upstream of where we got on. Eduardo II was a three story tall boat that stopped at least once an hour at seemingly random spots in the jungle to load and unload people and sometimes unlikely cargo.
From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle
At the first stop, John found me to tell me we had run aground because the spot where we parked looked like pure jungle but then suddenly there were many more people on board and we got the hang of the thing. The lower level housed an ever changing cargo: piles of green bananas, cars, crates of chickens and Inca Cola, a pet parrot on a string, a pet turtle in a bowl, turtles for eating, two cows even came aboard at one point, then later a few puppies.
From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle
From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle
From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle
The second level housed about two hundred people in hammocks.
From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle
The third level sported a few metal boxes with doors and bunk beds, known as camarotes and some more space for hammocks.
From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle
The whole experience would have been more enjoyable if the four bathrooms hadn´t been located on the opposite side of the two hundred people in hammocks. We ate our meals at little table that was also located on the opposite side of those hammocks, which was served by three men who were great cooks and rather effeminate. Our days passed like this: wake up, eat, sit in hammock sleep and read, eat, sit in hammock read, buy popsicle, watch it rain, eat, sleep. A tough life! But eventually we reached Yurimaguas.
From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Things we forgot to mention...

1. On the Southeast corner of the Plaza de Armas in Iquitos is a building designed by Alexander Gustave Eiffel, of epynoninous tower fame. Apparently this guilded metal building was destined for Quito, Ecuador, however the shipping company got the destination a little bit confused.

From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle

2. Instant coffee on toast does not taste like cinnamon, despite the fact that it looks like it and can be confused for it if one doesn´t know the name for cinnamon in spanish... it actually doesn´t taste that bad, but will procure strange looks from the hostess.

Night Crickets

I think that the reason that we didn´t get dinner on our second night, despite our long arduous river excursion is that there is no electricity in the Amazon, it was late, and our gracious host could not be adequately sure that a little bit of extra protein might jump into the pot, scaring his squeamish guests.

Amazonian Adventure Pt. 3: Lost! in Mosquitolandia

We ate that fish for breakfast and I thought it tasted like freshwater swimming.
From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle
Speaking of which, the guide told us we should not actually go swimming in the lake because the electric eels were attracted to noise. He said, the caimans, the snakes, the piranhas they all are afraid of noise but the electric eel, they are attracted to the noise.... ok, no swimming then! Somehow they had found a dead electric eel and we looked at it lying on the shore. One of them had also snagged a tiny caiman at some point so we got to hold it until it tried to make a break for it with a swan dive out of John´s hands. It went free.
From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle
We packed our bag, left it with Walter´s friend and his boat, then set off on a three hour hike through the jungle. The other guy was going to pick us up at the river on the other side. We hiked and hiked but shockingly the jungle seemed lifeless, except for hordes of ants and mosquitoes. We heard one monkey far off, but there were no monkeys to be seen, which made John very sad. Hopefully we will see a monkey and a sloth at some point while in South America. We saw armadillo tracks and poo, but no armadillo. No other mammals nor birds for that matter either, which was unexpected for a rainforest and certainly disappointing. We did find a termit nest that Walter scratched and then let them swarm over his hand, then he rubbed his hands together, claiming that the woody smell of crushed termit was like a natural insect repellent. John tried it out; I refrained.
From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle
We also found rainforest fruits, one whose seed you sucked on then spit out, one that tasted kind of like a kumquat, one that contained grubs that the guide tried to get us to eat, claiming they tasted like coconut, but having already just gotten over my first bought of traveler´s diarrhea, I passed. John, who had talked big in the market, also passed. We hiked straight over at least ten leaf cutter ant mounds about three feet high. Despite what Indian Jones and the Legend of the Crystal Skull (or whatever it was called) may have lead you to believe, the ants did not swarm out and devour us in our tracks... At one point, Walter started hacking a vine, cutting away a section, then as he held it up water poured out and we drank it.
From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle
It reminded me of Armenian birchwater. We saw alot of beautiful flowers and fascinating trees, like the rubber tree that dripped liquid latex and brought so much wealth to Iquitos back in the day. At one point I am fairly certain we went in a circle, which was a little worrisome, but we had faith in Walter and we eventually made it out.
From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle
We ate some espaghettis on the boat on the river then headed back to the levee then back to the river taxi. We watched a storm roll across the river with lightning and thunder as the boat fought the wind upstream and we eventually reached the town where we caught our first Peruvian bus for the long 2 hour ride back to Iquitos. We just ate some Peruvian Chinese food, which was pretty much exactly like American Chinese food, except that we paid $4 total for more food than we could eat and a liter of beer. Amazing. Tomorrow we will try to catch a boat up the river and out of the rainforest. Another day, another adventure. If we do catch the boat we probably won´t have email for three to five days. I hope inauguration goes well for President Obama!

Amazonian Adventure Pt. 2: Good Morning, Tarantula.

From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle
The next morning, I rolled out of the mosquito net face to face with a tarantula. I think I may have darted back under the net, but reassuring myself that tarantulas cannot hurl themselves through the air, I ducked back out careful to never turn my back on the giant furry thing. John got out and said, Oh! It´s shooting hairs! backing away, which made no sense to me but apparently he saw some show on which tarantulas fought off predators by rubbing their little legs together to shoot their hairs off.... After breakfast, we jumped in the motorized canoe again and blew past where we had been the night before up into a series of lakes, where we set up camp in a little cove. The guide had forgotten the tarp and was sure it would rain so he and his friend began constructing a shelter out of palm leaves and sharp branches stuck in the ground. I had no idea how useful machetes are! We helped a little bit but mostly got eaten by mosquitos. After a lunch of some kind of tuna stew with rice we went fishing, but maybe the fish could smell our fishy breath with suspicion because they were not biting. Well to be more accurate they were somehow managing to eat our catfish bait off the hook without eating the hook. Those wily piranhas. It was a little disappointing to not catch a piranha as promised but it might have been frightening to see them jump around the bottom of the boat. We went back to camp to get ready for sleeping under a mosquito net under a palm leaf shelter, then we went back out in Walter´s endless effort to catch us a caiman. The calls of nocturnal birds, the booming call of Amazonian bamboo rats, and various species of chirping frogs was altogether deafening. As we paddled through some floating vegetation a frog landed on my knee and rode there for awhile. Then a very large fish, over a foot long, followed suit and threw itself into the boat! I screamed a bit as it thrashed around but eventually it died and the guide said it would make a good breakfast (see John´s take on this event in ´His name was Breakfast´ below). Maybe the lake gods had decided to make up for the bad piranha fishing... After watching lightning flash beautifully on the horizon and seeing more lightning bugs floating on the black water that did not reflect the stars, I actually fell asleep in the boat as Walter would not quit until he found a caiman, but he eventually admitted defeat and we turned back. Once away from the gentle lull of the boat and in the mosquito net on the hard ground, we found it was pretty difficult to sleep in the jungle! The noise of the mosquitoes buzzing outside the net was worrisome. Giant ants somehow kept getting in, but we eventually got to sleep, eventually.
From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle

Amazonian Adventure Pt. 1: Heart of Darkness

Friday we took a motorcycle taxi to a taxi to another mototaxi to a river taxi down the Amazon, then walked over a levee to another river, then took a motorized canoe and five hours later from when we started we finally arrived at our Jungle Lodge. Our guide made us lunch and set up our bungalow, then we set out on a canoe trip up the river to see some wildlife. We saw many brightly colored birds, a few bats waiting out the daylight on a tree trunk, and a few shy pink river dolphins. Our guide took us far up river and as dusk set in I started to think about the Heart of Darkness. We actually got out at one point and hiked behind our guide Walter as he macheted his way through the jungle but water dead ended us fairly quickly. The horror movie side of my imagination got the better of me for a second, but Walter seemed not like a machete murderer and I stopped thinking about it. We got back in the boat as dark set in, then Walter focused on finding caimans, another name for tiny little alligator, but after searching every bit of underbrush while he paddled with his flashlight in his mouth he never saw the telltale reflection of their eyes. Feeling the tug of the canoe paddling down the river surrounded by the noises of the Amazonian jungle in the pitch black dark was a pretty amazing experience. I lost my frame of reference as the stars reflected in the water and drowning lightning bugs outshone the stars. I expected the stars to be different down here and was surprised to see Orion as the most prominent constellation in the sky. I need to remember to see if the Coriollis Effect applies or not. John says the force is too weak, plus I don´t remember which way water went down the drain in the northern hemisphere... After alot of paddling we finally we made it back to the lodge. Caiman or no caiman, it was a good first day in the jungle.

From The Trip, pt. 1: SF to Jungle

His name was Breakfast

All the muscles contracting in his body simultaneously as rehearsed thousands of times before, the Arowana leapt, breaking the water´s surface. An exceptional jumper, this leap was no different, exceeding one meter above the surface of the oxbow lake. At the apex, gravity gripped the creatures undulating bodice wrestling it down. As the Arowana braced for reentrance to his epolimnion home, he was greated by an unyielding surface. Gasping for air, he struggled, but was similarly bound on all sides. The arowana rested, feeling the vibrations of the water underneath and the cool lapping of the wind driven waves above his prison.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

First real day in Pear-oo...

...went well. We started out shyly walking down a street known for the Portuguese tiles that were imported to beautify the rubber barons mansions back at the turn of the century before a British guy smuggled some rubber tree seeds back to create plantations on the Malay peninsula, but then the discovery of oil boomed this town again. We continued on toward the ´Venice´of Peru, which we found out only seasonally floats and is not presently floating because the rains are just starting. Apparently in March the river rises about 10 ft and people travel from place to place in canoes. As we walked through the market, we saw many odd sights: everything is sold in tiny inflated plastic bags, spices, oil, soup, eggs, we saw live giant grubs getting skewered and thrown on the bbq still squirming (john says he would still be interested in eating them), fresh turtle meat with their adorable little legs still attached, ladies rolling tobacco into cigarettes, and many many mangy dogs. Some cats. A few live chicken, many dead ones.

In addition to the sights and smells, the sound of the mototaxis really defines the character of this jungle metropolis. Apparently there are 20,000 mototaxis in this town of 400,000 and they never stop thrumbling! We went to the one museum in town and saw plaster castings of individuals from the various indigenous tribes around Peru, Venezuela and Brazil in what used to be the governor´s mansion. Then the museum guide ditched the museum to take us on a tour of the city, complete with canoe ride on the Amazon to check out a neighborhood of floating houses and a game of volleyball and also giant lily pads in somebody´s backyard.

Tomorrow we leave for the jungle with a guide from our hostel. Apparently we are going to stay in a lodge one night, possibly camp out in the rainforest the next, go fishing for piranhas, swim, hike in search of monkeys and sloths and keep our eyes peeled for the elusive pink and grey amazonian dolphins and giant amazonian otter.

We are about to go eat our first Peruvian Chinese food, called The Chifa. All in all, so far so good.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

By the bustling thrum of the Mototaxi...

We´re here in Iquitos, probably one of the most remote metropolises in the world. Iquitos is located in Northeastern Peru at the confluence of the Amazon and some other river I can´t spell offhand. It can only be reached by plane or by boat, which makes for some interesting emergent culture. Right now, the Plaza de Armas, or central square, is alive with people eating, scooting around in their mototaxis, taking walks, and looking at facebook or online dating sites in the internet cafes. So far everything seems to have a run down charm, and despite its rough edges, the populace seems incredibly inviting. We´ll post more after we see more.

Monday, January 12, 2009

All packed...

...and ready to go.

These are the things that will be attached to our backs for the next 2.5 months. Tomorrow we leave! After a brief stop for some airport pupusas in El Salvador, we will talk to you peru-side.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

One week until blast off

Check out JD's Christmas present.
It is 100% Lost-proof.