Dec 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 19 Comments

Matchbox Maniac

Desert coastlines have always intrigued me.  Two seemingly different environments, yet they make an appearance together on occasion.  They are an odd couple.  They are no peanut butter and jelly or tea and scones, but they work.

Once we left Lima’s city limits, where green lawns, bushes of flowers and palm trees were on sprinkler system life support, the frigid air of the Humboldt Current made itself known, sucking the landscape dry.  The Pan American cut alongside mountains of jagged rock.  Chipped away from cliff faces, broken boulders lay scattered, some caught in place during their spiraling decent through loose gravel, others making it to the Pacific Ocean where they sat in piles.  Where the mountain was too immense, the road tunneled its way through the innards of the beast.

Brad could hardly focus on driving, his eyes darting from the road to the waters below.   “Oh I bet there are so many fish down there”.   And yes there were.  Small villages hung off the edge of the mountain, seemingly selling only seafood.

We had come down with a bad case of seafood obsession after our arrival in Lima, with ceviche and fillets of grilled fish as our lunchtime staples.  The most mind boggling experience was in the Lima market at the intersection of two walkways.  The past has shown that in Latin markets, vendors group together by product type.  The fruit stands in one walkway, the flower arrangers in another, and comedores in a cluster, vying for your dollars.  Yet, as we rounded the corner, unexpectedly there sat a cevicheria in a maze of smoothie stands.  It was bustling.   Elbows pinned to our sides, we shimmied into the seats of two barstools and ordered the standard bowl.  What came out, however, was nothing near standard.  Two bowls overflowed with chunks of fish, clams, and vegetables marinated in lime juice.  Cancha, popped maize kernels, fresh herbs, and a brothy spicy aji sauce transformed the dish into a hot steaming stew.  I’d go back in time for this meal.

Back on the coast, we chose a random seafood joint and filled up on more ceviche.

With our tummies full, we drove on.   Just as the highway began to stray from the coast, we veered off to Paracas National Park, stationed on a hammerhead shaped peninsula.   In all directions, valleys of hard packed sand unrolled before us.   Sand dunes freckled the landscape, windswept and dusted on one side with a spattering of white shimmering salt.  The road disappeared and the desert appeared before us like a skateboard park.  With no dotted lines to steer in between, donuts formed in the sand and tracks crept up the side of steep dunes.  Brad, like a kid with his favorite Matchbox car, took Nacho to his limits.

Yet, Nacho was no Matchbox car, which, with the flick of a wrist could jump rivers and fly through the air.  Nacho was a different breed; more of a house on wheels than a sports car, sputtering to a stop before ever mounting a sand dune.

“Quick Sheena!  Take a picture. I can’t hold Nacho here much longer”.  Poor Nacho would lose traction and Brad would gently reverse him back down to safe ground.

Our campsite was spectacular.  The valley of desert broke off at the coast, exposing sediment that had formed in flaky sheets of rock.   The rocks ended abruptly and a sweeping coastline of red beach took its place, teeming with birds and the occasional seal.  Like a rice cracker, salt formations pockmarked the ground and gaping crevices fell down to the red sand.

Without reference points, the landscape was deceptive.  Everything looked close.  Nothing looked steep.   We spent a morning, out of control and laughing, running down the sides of the sand dunes, nearly front flipping with every leap.

To the East of Paracas, we continued on down the freeway through the Ica desert, a land of more sand dunes and dirt formations.  Just as our throats became parched from the heat, we were granted with fields of grape vines.  A checkerboard of vineyards began popping up, leaving the sheets of sand behind, until they were eventually overtaken by the town of Ica.  Shipped all throughout the world and to every nearby village and city, they are the world’s best producer of pisco, a white grape brandy, produced since the 16th century with the arrival of the Spaniards.  Pisco, while commonly drunk alone, has also been the main ingredient in a variety of mixed drinks, with the most common easily being the Pisco Sour.  Here is the traditional recipe: blend 3 oz pisco,1 oz lime juice, ½ oz sugarcane, 1 egg white, and 4 ice cubes.

While in Ica, we stopped at a small bodega called El Catador.  We were shown the pisco making process which, in one long run on sentence goes like this: grapes are crushed under a huge adobe platform with a 150-year old huarango trunk (here our guide insisted he take our photo), the juice is poured into clay containers called botijas de barro, and then distilled in boilers of copper basins.

While eating handfuls of purple speckled corn, we sampled all the varieties of pisco.   We left with a bottle of “love potion” pisco, which our guide insisted was so smooth and sweet, and that we’d drink the whole bottle before realizing it, resulting in the inevitable.

Our drive continued on.  Farther South, we entered the flat pampas of the San Jose desert , an ancient sketchbook containing 70 pages of plant and animal figures, all within a range of 1000 square kilometers.  The media used: scraping of dirt.  Sometime in the past (no one knows exactly when), canals 20 centimeters deep were scraped into the manganese and iron rich surface.  What gave way below was a layer of lighter colored rock.  In the 1970s, when Peru discovered these drawings, the Pan American highway already ran straight through one of the figures.   For travelers, this made for a very quick sightseeing adventure.  We veered off the highway and travelled up a set of rickety set of stairs to a lookout tower.  From above, we could see three sets of Nasca lines: a set of hands, a lizard, and a tree.

Pretty cool.  All in a day’s drive.

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Dec 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 12 Comments

What Happens in Lima

Elderly Woman Behind a Counter in a Small Town

There are many interesting things about Alex.

Jeff and Amy had given us his phone number in an email, told us we should look him up.  As a gift for finishing his Master’s degree in mathematics, Jeff and Amy – both math professors at NAU – brought Alex to Mexico City, and in doing so planted a travel bug that would refuse to die.  A few years later he picked up and moved to Lima.  Didn’t speak Spanish, no job, no plan, just wanted to do something different.

This is an interesting thing about Alex, but it isn’t the most interesting thing.

Sheena and I were in the process of giving Nacho a deep clean – scrubbing chunks of mystery substance off of the stove, wiping strange and smelly juices from the fridge – when we heard a creak from the front gate of the hostel.  Someone entered and we followed the sound of boots on pavement to our sliding door.

“You must be Brad and Sheena.  Hi, I’m Alex.”  He bore a vague resemblance to Eddie Vedder, but the words poured out of his mouth like smooth molasses, each calming utterance having the bass of distant thunder and the haunting resonance of a well worn vinyl record.

He is a man with the voice of Eddie Vedder; this is the most interesting thing about Alex.

From our hostel we walked the two blocks to the Miraflores waterfront and turned left.  Along the boardwalk high above the ocean people zipped around on bikes and rollerblades wearing tights and elbow pads, while youth couples necked on park benches against the ocean backdrop far below.  Alex talked about life in Lima, but all I heard was the soothing sound of Pearl Jam.

I wonder if he sings in the shower. If I sounded like Eddie Vedder I’d shower thrice daily just to hear myself sing.

Alex brought us to a nice restaurant nestled in the cliff face, and we found seats on the outdoor patio overlooking the ocean.  Portable gas heaters competed with the cool sea breeze wafting up the cliff face as we ate dinner and Alex talked about Peru using his Eddie Vedder voice.  After dinner we ambled along the boardwalk.

“If you’re interested,” he said, “I was headed to a friend’s apartment for horror movie night.  You guys are welcome to tag along.”  Our plans consisted of sitting around in our van and then going to sleep, so this seemed like a great idea by comparison.  A few minutes later we were in an elevator climbing to the 16th floor of a waterfront apartment building.

When we arrived, Nightmare on Elm Street was paused onscreen; a sweaty man stared crazy-eyed at a woman, his mouth agape.  We chatted with Alex’s friends – all expats from one place or another – and ate microwaveable chicharron.  I frequently wandered into the kitchen where, from high above the city, the lights of Lima spread out like a sparkling carpet all the way to the horizon.

Hours later, in the wee hours of the morning, Sheena and I strolled along the boardwalk back to our van.  When we had left the apartment, Nightmare on Elm Street was still onscreen, still paused on the scene with the crazy-eyed man.  I tried to imagine what it would be like to expatriate to Lima, but my mind was haunted by a voice, like smooth molasses.

In Hippie Bus We trust

As Sheena and I strolled the sidewalk toward the hostel where we were camping in Lima, someone yelled at us.


To our left a 1985 VW Vanagon with a pop top slowly lurked by, the driver leaning out the window.  “Are you guys Brad and Sheena?”

We looked at each other, surprised.  Last time we checked… “Yes!”

The man with the van turned out to be Miguel, a reader of our blog.  He’d first written to us at the start of our trip asking if we’d be passing through Lima.

“I’m on my way to the monthly Westfalia club meeting.  Want to follow me over in Nacho?”  It was nearly 10PM and we were tired, but when propositioned by a charming stranger  in an old van, how could we say no?

We hurried back and got Nacho ready, and then followed Miguel through Lima traffic for 40 minutes to a Burger King parking lot.

After weeks in the mountains among shepherds and small town folk, hanging out with a bunch of Westy fanatics made us feel right at home.  We opened up the sliding door and had a Nacho open house.  People cycled through, sitting on the couch, taking photos of various things, and asking questions.  After a while families coming out of the Burger King started looking at the vans, and a new wave of couch sitters cycled through Nacho.

While Sheena held down the fort I walked around and checked out the other vans.  I found myself standing next to a freshly painted 1970’s camper van, listening to the owner recount his recent trip to the mountains.

“I was going up a hill and I noticed some smoke in my side mirror.  By the time I pulled there were big flames coming from here.”  He pointed to the lower corner of the rear engine hatch.  “I used the fire extinguisher, but it didn’t work.  Too small.  Someone else came by and put the fire out with their extinguisher.  He showed me how to do it – you have to point the extinguisher like this…” he pretended to hold a fire extinguisher and aimed it at the engine bay.  “Psshhht! Psshhht! Psssshhhhhht!  See? Just like that.”  Everyone looked at their shoes and solemnly shook their heads.  It was as if one of the man’s own beloved children had spontaneously combusted during the road trip.

Westfalia people everywhere, it seems, share a common weak spot for these cars.  We give them names, we decorate them, and we spend far too much money on them.  We lower our heads when they eventually go up in flames, but then we fix them and give them a fresh coat of paint.

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Dec 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

The Saddest Desert Clown

The moment the man spoke, I knew we were in for a ride.  He had been standing there harassing another vehicle, and was just finishing up when he saw us coming slowly up the hill toward him.  Immediately he snapped to attention, dollar signs in his eyes, and frantically waved us over.

As the police officer approached our window he straightened his back to give the illusion of professionalism.  He looked at me and inhaled, pulling the corners of his mouth back to reveal his teeth, raising his eyebrows, and telling us with his grimace that we had really screwed up.

“I pulled you over because you have committed a serious infraction,” he said.  He didn’t tell us what we’d supposedly done wrong until he’d planted the fear in our hearts and given it enough time to take root.  He slowly swept his gaze over his boots, down the road behind us, along the side of our van, and then stopped at my face, staring, trying to be intimidating.

The moment he spoke I figured him out.  His predictability was pathetic.  In northern Peru all of the cops we’d come across had been nothing more than clowns in uniform, and he was no different.

“You, unfortunately, were speeding.  What is the reason that you speeding so fast? This is a serious infraction.”  He peristaltically barfed the words up from his gut and spewed them out for me to look at, as if to let me figure out what to do with them.

“I was speeding?  That’s strange.  When you pointed at me I was being overtaken by three vehicles in a row.  Why didn’t you pull the overtaking vehicles over instead?”

“Those other vehicles have already been stopped up ahead.  I radioed them in.”  He pointed to his cell phone, which was clipped to his shirt near his shoulder.  It wasn’t a radio, but he grabbed it and tilted it toward his mouth to show me that he could magically use it as a radio.

“How do you know I was speeding?  I don’t see a radar gun.”

“My colleague at the bottom of the hill has the radar.  He radioed you in and I stopped you.”  We were in the middle of the desert, and he had no colleague at the bottom of the hill.  In a desert devoid of all life, you notice when there are other living things around.  Still, he wanted me to believe that we had been caught up in the middle of their sophisticated web of radios and radar guns.

I was visibly getting ticked off by his pack of lies.  After having been pulled over by numerous ill-intentioned, corrupt police officers every day since entering Peru, I no longer viewed them as being in a position of authority.  I found myself addressing them informally, as if dealing with a pest.  They were sloppy, inappropriate, and impossible to respect.

“You committed a serious infraction.  The ticket is 300 US dollars.”  He threw that out there and let it fester  for a while before continuing.  “What are you going to do about this problem?”

“I’m not going to do anything about this, because there isn’t a problem.  I wasn’t speeding, so there is no problem.”

The back and forth continued this way for 10 more minutes.  He repeatedly told me about the infraction, I denied all wrongdoing, and he asked what I was going to do to remedy the problem.  He was tireless.  Finally he got the hint that he wasn’t getting anywhere.

“Does she understand what we’re saying?” he asked, pointing with his chin toward Sheena.

Yo no entiendo nada!” Sheena said, clearly indicating that, yes, she did speak enough Spanish to understand what we were saying.

“Please get out of the vehicle.”  At this, the clown walked behind Nacho and waited for me.  I let out a stream of profanities and felt barely able to keep myself from throwing it in reverse and gunning it.  I cooled off, got out, and met him behind the van.

When I met him, he was no longer speaking formally, now choosing to speak to me in a quicker, familiar tone.  Sort of what you’d expect when being shaken down by a criminal.

“Look, just give me something material.  If you give me something – a gift – I will let you go.  What do you have in the van?”

“Tell you what,” I said, “I will give you a snack.  You can either have a granola bar or a banana.”  He had gone over the line, and I decided that I’d rather pay for a ticket than give this d-bag a bribe.  We hadn’t paid any bribes yet, and I wasn’t about to start.  I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror if I knowingly let this scumbag walk away with anything of value.

“A snack is not enough.  Give me your watch or your wedding ring.  Are these surfboards?  I would take a surfboard too.”

Who did this comedian think he was?  “I’m sorry hombre, but I’m not giving you anything.”  I decided to level with him – put all of my cards on the table.  “When we left home, my wife and I agreed that we’d never pay a bribe to a police officer.  Therefore, it’s impossible for me to give you anything.  If you’re hungry I can give you a snack, but I’m not giving you my watch or my wedding ring or my surfboard.  I’m happy to take the ticket.”

I knew I was putting him in an impossible situation.  To give up now would be shameful.  He would have lost to a gringo tourist.

“Just give me something material,” he repeated.  His tone had changed; he was feebly grabbing at the fading chance of a successful shakedown.

“Are we done?  I’d like to go now,” I told him.  My internal filter was full and I no longer cared about the outcome.  He stood there looking at my vehicular paperwork in his hands.  After a few seconds he folded them slowly and handed them back.

“You can go.”

And so there in the desert we left him, the uniformed Peruvian bandito.  The saddest of all of the desert clowns.

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Dec 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 14 Comments

Way Up High in Hatun Machay

An Austrian with crisp blue eyes and a full red beard chopped firewood outside in his lederhosen and flip flops.  Cold air cut through us.  It was close to freezing and the sun still hadn’t set.  Questioning where we were, Brad glanced at the GPS.  No wonder Nacho was misbehaving, we were almost at 14,000 feet.

Hundreds of sheep swarmed the hillside like ants.  They moved in unison except for the chaos arising from the pack of baby sheep among them.  Oblivious to the world around them, they were lost in a game of sprinting in circles, karate chopping the air, and vertical bouncing like frightened cats.

When the sun began to set, I bundled up, ready for a quick evening hike.

Hatun Machay sat on the hillside opposite the refugio; a stone forest considered to be South America´s best rock climbing destination.  The area was unbelievable.  As I approached the edge of the outcropping, overhanging rock formed caves.  Dirt like finely sifted flour covered the earth and overhanging rocks were littered with 10,000 year old petroglyphs and cave paintings.  The walls were like a sketchbook of doodles; stick figures, snakes, geometric carvings, ancient happy faces, deer and hunters.

As I entered the heart of the rock outcroppings, smoke wafted in the air.  Sheep skin dried on a string and small rocks were stacked purposefully, forming rock barriers between the boulders.  Someone lived here.  Like chameleons, dome shaped huts made of straw were almost invisible in their surroundings.  An older woman in brightly colored clothing sat in the doorway of her home.  Antonio, her husband, appeared like a ghost.  In his hands, he cupped a bowl of ramen soup, vegetables floating on the surface.  He offered me dinner.  The wife retreated into the environment, shy, and perhaps tired from the day.  Antonio showed me his home, comprising three huts; one for cooking and the others for living.  They raised sheep and lived simply.  They had lived within the rocks for decades and would continue until death.

I continued onward, exploring the granite rocks.  Sheets of razor sharp rock jutted up into the sky, like artisan chocolate melted on tinfoil, cooled, and placed upright on a fat slice of cake.  Other sections of the rock were pockmarked and dimpled from the ancient water that perhaps once ran over them.  As the sun began to set, the sky turned bright pink and blue.  Unfathomable beauty.

The sheep that ran earlier were now corralled in for the evening, pinched between the boulders and peering out at me in boredom.

A fire crackled in the morning and the refugio was suddenly packed with climbers.   While Brad roasted the last of our raw coffee beans from Colombia, a beautiful dreadlocked Argentine girl pulled an oversized apple pie from the oven.   Between bites of the apple pie, a pot of hot water and a tin of coca leaves circled the communal table.  Wildly popular, coca tea is drunk by hikers for elevation sickness and chewed by truck drivers to increase alertness.  Coca leaves, as harmless as poppy seeds in a lemon muffin, yet illegal in the United States.

Once our bellies were full of pie, we took off into the rocks for a short exploration.  As we wandered up the hillsides, we crossed a small trickling spring.  A tin pitcher sat next to it, used by the natives for a quick drink of water while herding the sheep.  We retraced my steps from the previous night, exploring everything all over again.  The local women were out of their huts, gathered on the hillside, shearing sheep.

It was nice to be roaming the hillsides.  Just the previous day we were passing through town after town.  Skirting the Cordillera Blanca, we again went through Yungay, a town with a horrific past.  Nearly the whole village disappeared in 1970 when an earthquake dislodged a massive chunk of ice and mud from Peru´s tallest mountain, Huascaran. 18,000 dead in just a few minutes.  Yungay also happened to be the hometown of the older man who had ridden down through the mountains with us on our wild ride.

After seeing Yungay we stopped in Huaraz, a city of cement and ramshackle buildings.  It was an intense mess of fast taxis, European trekkers, and entrepreneurial spirits along the sidewalks selling all things growing from the ground.  Peruvian snack food – puffed corn glazed in sugar – was sold in bags the size of small children.  In the market, distant relatives of my pet guinea pig were gutted, raw, and hairless.  We had seen the living ones in the countryside, nestled in a bed of hay, plump and pregnant.  In honor of my sweet Punkie, whom I lowered into the ground in my neon pink lunchbox in the 4th grade, I just couldn’t eat them.

Word on the street was that there was a brewery in town that couldn’t be missed.  With Brad on a seemingly never ending mission to seek out good beer, this would be the mission for the day.   We had been tricked in the past so we both remained leery; most bars tended to have European beer bottles on display, yet the reality was they were merely decorative, like antique relics in a museum.

Two Tasmanians ioined us for drinks at the brewery.  Earlier in the day they had attempted to recruit us on a 10 day circuit hike through the Huayhuash mountains.   They needed fellow hikers to divvy up the mass quantities of food required for the long haul.  I had flashbacks from our hike and knew I was not the person for the job.  As the designated walking pantry on our last hike, my feet had suffered.  My baby toenails were near extinction, black with massive gaps behind each nail.

We spent the evening sampling the beers, eating popcorn, and throwing darts.  Ana and I competed viscously for who would finish last in our game of darts.

As soon as we left Huaraz, rural life picked up again.  Local women carried bundles of wild plants in their shawls and entire families worked in the fields.  Livestock roamed the streets and distant peaks jutted up into the heavens, like an erratic lifeline on a hospital monitor. Twenty-two of those peaks towered over 19,850 feet, views I promise cannot be done justice by photography.

Back at Hatun Machay, it was time to get Nacho back on the road.  First we´d have to climb back up the rough road to the 14,000 foot pass we´d driven over the previous day.  Nacho despised the altitude and I couldn’t quite grasp how we were going to get back out.  I jumped in the passenger seat as Brad held onto the reins of our drunken, bucking horse.  Brad slipped the clutch all the way up the hill as Nacho clung on to dear life.  We bounced around in our seats like a set of dice.  Books exploded off of our library shelf. I screamed.  Brad tried to look brave [ed. note: Brad was brave]. Yet, we made it.

We floated out of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, from 14,000 feet to sea level in the span of only 100 miles.  We stopped only when we ran into the sea.

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