Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sex, drugs, and Carmelite nuns

One day after we got into Lima, Ross came down with a fever. We tried to ignore it, not wanting to make a big deal out of nothing, but pesky thoughts of dying of malaria kept popping up, since we'd just been a delicious dinner to ravenous mosquitoes in the jungle and, most likely, to deadly bacteria in the Amazon river. (Ross was secretly hoping it would be the plague, of which there has been a recent outbreak in Peru. It's the perfect disease - easily treated with penicillin, but bragging rights for the rest of your life.) Dying of malaria would be very inconvenient because we had plans to go to Bolivia after this, so we decided to go to a hospital to make sure that our plans would not be hampered by imminent death. I'm glad that we turned out to be in Lima when we were in need of a hospital instead of a more remote part of Peru. One guide told us that, in very rural areas, some indigenous people who don't have enough money for healthcare treat themselves using guinea pigs instead. In case you haven't heard of this method before, here's what they do:

They take a live guinea pig and rub it all over their body. (If you've never had anyone mime 'rubbing a live guinea pig all over your body,' you truly haven't lived. It's exhilarating.) The campesinos (farmers or peasants) believe that by doing this, their disease will be transferred into the guinea pig, so they cut open the guinea pig to diagnose themselves. If they find something wrong with the guinea pig, they believe that indicates what was wrong in their own body. (Only black guinea pigs are used as medicine. The other unfortunate souls are enthusiastically eaten all over the country as a dinnertime treat. Guinea pigs suffer so many indignities at the hands of the Peruvians.) However, for some reason, guinea pigs are not seen as a suitable treatment for children, so for children they do the same thing, but with eggs. This makes even less sense to me - how are you supposed to make a diagnosis using an egg? They don't even have body parts! The way the guide explained it, "They don't have enough money for medicine, but they already have guinea pigs and eggs, right?", with which I had to agree.

So I was pretty happy to find that we didn't see even one guinea pig scampering around the hospital. I did see an egg, but only in the form of my sandwich. The hospital was quite professional; in fact, the experience was quite a bit more enjoyable than a typical Emergency Room experience in North America. A+++, would visit again!! $300 worth of blood tests later, we discovered it wasn't malaria or the plague, it was just a regular old flu that happened to strike at the moment we'd be most paranoid about it. Damn sneaky viruses. 3 days later I also came down with a fever. We briefly debated going to the hospital for tests again, because what if we let our guard down, assumed it was the same flu, and at that exact moment, malaria made an ass out of u and me? How absolutely ridiculous would we feel THEN? But we're too lazy to be that paranoid, and I'm still alive, so I think we made the right choice.

Another happy coincidence was that we got sick in a hostel that is as cheap as it is bizarre. Our hostel is what would happen if you crossed an old Colonial mansion, a museum, and a zoo (Ross tried to capture some of the weirdness in his first ever youtube video). There is pre-Inca pottery lining the front desk. Roman statues hide in the corners, and every corridor is peppered with religious Spanish paintings. Getting to our room is like walking through a labyrinth. You walk up one long regular staircase, then one spiral staircase. Then you pass a rooftop patio in which you encounter several budgies, 3 turtles, a cat, a dog, a parrot, and what we have only been able to guess is a macaw. One more spiral staircase later, and you finally arrive at our room, where we spent a week in bed, trying desperately not to wake up when the macaw and parrot began squawking every morning ("Hola!" the parrot would shout hopefully, over and over again). Sleeping through all of that might have been possible except on top of that, every morning at 9am, the restaurant on the patio blasts music for their breakfast customers. And by "music," I actually mean, one very worn album of French love songs from the 50s, each song indistinguishable from the last, played over and over again until my ears would start to bleed. I spent every morning in a rage, wondering if the entire city of Lima was just some cruel, psychopathic joke.

In the last few days, I have finally been able to ascertain that it is not, in fact, a cruel psychopathic joke. Instead, it is simply an absolutely chaotic whirlpool of 8 million people squeezed into a city with the infrastructure for about 13 people and a llama. Areas of devastating poverty surround quite lavish neighborhoods filled to the brim with historic landmarks. Traffic is an unbearable mess - getting from one side of the city to another can literally take several hours during rush hour, as we found out while trying to get back from the hospital. Cabbies will routinely simply refuse to go to Central Lima during this time. Because many huge intersections lack street lights, cars just dart out into oncoming traffic with no understanding of "right of way" and honk angrily when they find that other cars are - surprise, surprise! - in their way. Not to mention the daily parades, which aren't actually an election quirk as we thought, but actually just a favorite national pastime, akin to reading or playing Backgammon. If the government spent half the money on street lights as it spent on parades, I think Lima would probably not have earned the nickname "Lima, la horrible" from noted Peruvian essayist Sebastian Salazar Bondy. (He was actually referring to the weather, but I'm sure he'd say the same thing about the traffic, were he alive today.)

Nevertheless, once we were healthy enough to say our tearful goodbyes with the parrot, we actually found that we enjoyed exploring Lima quite a bit. One of my favorite parts happened our first night out. Still in somewhat of a flu-y haze, we chose to go to dinner at a restaurant that our guidebook said was run by French Carmelite nuns. Walking up to its exterior, we were greeted by a closed gate, with a sign saying "We're open! Ring the bell!" Hmmm. We rang the bell and waited. Finally someone answered, "?" I wasn't quite sure what to say. "Uh... para cena?" I stammered ("...for dinner?"). I suppose this was the right answer, as we were quickly buzzed in. Puzzling.

We were further confused as we were led to our table. "Bon soir!" they greeted us in French. Except my brain, which has been struggling to think exclusively in Spanish for the last 2 months, interpreted this as complete gibberish. She may as well have squawked at me like the parrot. The whole night, none of us could decide which language to speak in, so every conversation was conducted in a mix of French, Spanish, and English. The problem was that some of the nuns spoke Spanish but not much French, while others would address us mostly in French and a bit of English. I only speak some Spanish and no French at all, while Ross has no Spanish but a tiny bit of high school French. And everyone, trying to be polite, tried to speak the other person's preferred language, but nobody could decide what that was.

"Ready? Ça va?" approached a nun.
"Oui, merci," Ross responded, while at the same time I answered, "Sí, gracias!"

This continued the entire night, every interaction ending in laughter as the nuns tried to engage us in conversation and made fun of our stumbling around at every opportunity. I never knew nuns were so cheeky. (By the end of the dinner we started throwing some German and Russian into the mix, just for fun.) The food was outstanding - in fact, it was the only truly amazing meal we've had in Lima, despite our guidebook raving about this city as the "gastronomical capital of Peru." (I don't buy it for a second - even a gastronomical capital can't salvage the horror that is Peruvian food.) After dinner, the nuns gathered in the dining room to sing Ave Maria, all facing a picture of the Virgin Mary (which I'm sure the virgin appreciated). They handed out little cards with the lyrics printed in French and Spanish and invited everyone to sing along, but I didn't, because they sang in French, and it was a different version of Ave Maria than I was familiar with. (Neither of these things stopped Ross though. Perhaps his religious fervor was just too overpowering.) It was quite a touching moment and a perfect way to end a very bizarre, but absolutely lovely, dinner. The only better way would've been if I could've taken one of the nuns home with me to be my grandma. So cute!

To now turn in a completely different direction: Several weeks ago we promised that we would go to a museum filled with pottery made by the Moches, one of the most insane cultures that has ever lived. Artifacts that have been found from their culture suggest that the Moches were obsessed with sex and death (Freud's predecessors). For example, they would make 2 warriors from their culture fight it out to see who would be sacrificed. The loser would then be 'cleansed' for sacrifice by being forced to take San Pedro for a week straight. (Normally I would be all for that sort of fun, but to be on a hallucinogen for a week before being killed would probably be a bit of a downer.) Then he would be ritually anal raped and decapitated, after which (according to one theory) the priest would drink his blood. And that was only the beginning of the fun - their pottery frequently shows women being raped by pumas, women having sex with corpses, men with venereal diseases, and lots and lots of anal rape all around. So of course we were excited to go see this museum. And indeed, their pottery was more grotesque and fascinating than anything I've ever imagined. Observe:

Aaaand I think that is a good note on which to end. For more pictures of Lima, including many, many more pictures of pottery with cocks on it, click here.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Drench me in bug spray and show me monkeys

On Tuesday, giddy with excitement at the prospect of going to our jungle lodge, we walked to the Muyuna office to meet our guide and drive to the port. The first thing we saw upon stepping into the office was a couple in their 70s sitting across from us, bags packed, our giddy expressions mirrored on their faces. As we made awkward small talk, we were joined by 2 Austrian guys, both also in their 70s and both very, very deaf. WTF? Up until this moment I had been feeling like an intrepid explorer, ready to face the boundaries of human existence and come out the other side unscathed, laughing in the face of dangerous animals and excruciating humidity alike. Seeing wrinkly, barely mobile retirees about to do the same thing quickly forced that fantasy out the window. My mind started to race with very age-ist thoughts: Perhaps we were in the wrong office? Maybe we had accidentally signed up for the senior citizen resort package and would spend our next 4 days eating Jello by a pool? Oh god, what have we done? I WANT MY MONEY BACK.

Fortunately, we were soon joined by 4 British 20-somethings, and order was somewhat restored in the universe. Before we knew it, we'd been speeding down the Amazon in a motorboat for 3 hours and were almost there. For the last leg of the trip, normally the boat would turn off from the Amazon into a smaller river to get to the lodge, but this was low season, and the river was even lower than usual for low season, so the boat couldn't get through. This meant that we had to hike for about 45 minutes in the sweltering heat to get to the lodge. This proved somewhat more than the elderly couples had bargained for. We had to walk across a log to get across some water at one point, and that taxed one of the poor men so much that he later slipped and fell. His wife quietly informed me that he was 78, and had arthritis in his knees, which made it hard to walk. At that point I wasn't entirely sure that they would make it back out of this expedition alive. Wasn't hiking meant to be a big part of the point of this trip? They were obviously quite brave, but I still didn't want to be grouped with them for our hikes.

When we got to the lodge, however, all these thoughts disappeared. It turned out to be a huge step up from what I was expecting. It was fully screened, with running water, hammocks on the porch, and a cafeteria with boardgames, fooseball, and delicious food. We were greeted with ice cold passionfruit juice and wet towels (to wipe our already conspicuously dripping sweat). Unlike Sean's experience, we didn't have to poo directly into the river! Success. The only downside was the lack of electricity, which meant that at night we had to use 2 kerosene lamps, which had a tendency to keep going off in the middle of anything important. This made nights in the lodge really creepy. 2 of the walls were basically just screens, which was great, except that you could hear every insect, frog, and bird with deafening clarity. You could hear bugs fluttering and scratching against the screens, and it sounded like they'd somehow gotten through the screen and were closing in on our faces. Thank god for headlamps!

(We later found out that our cabin was right next to the 2 deaf Austrian guys, who we could hear shouting at each other quite clearly thanks to the screens. And who, perplexingly, played panpipes poorly while we tried to nap.)

Our first day, we took it easy with 2 short boat rides: one in the afternoon, to bird watch, and the second in the night, to look for nocturnal creatures. Bird watching was way more fun for me than I thought it would be. You just sit there (love it) and watch things (awesome!) while the guide tells you interesting things about cute animals (what could be better?). Our guide, Julio, had this supernatural ability to be able to spot any animal from like a mile away -- "There!" he'd point, "A kingfisher!" or "A wattled jacana!" And we'd squint and squint and finally see a blurry blob way over in Chile or something. (Fortunately we brought our monoculars, which helped, even though it made Julio make fun of us for looking like pirates.) 

The night ride to look for nocturnal wildlife was also quite fun. For a long time all we saw was snakes and frogs, but then suddenly he moved the boat very slowly towards a clearing on the river. Of course, we saw nothing and just sat there in silent anticipation. Then he jumped out of the boat (something I would NOT do with all those snakes out there) and came back in holding a baby caiman! We all got to hold and pet him (he was quite helpless if held by the neck and the tail) and I instantly fell in love. If only they didn't grow to be 7 feet long and deadly, I'd totally want one! So cute!

Our guide, Julio:

Little did we know, they were just letting us rest up in order to save our energy for the next day, for which they had planned an EIGHT. HOUR. HIKE. I've never done an 8 hour hike in Vancouver, much less in the jungle. (The group of older people were going on a separate, 3 hour hike. Suddenly I was jealous that we weren't going to be hiking with them. Instead it was us and the 4 Brits.) We donned our gumboots and long sleeves and were out the door by 8am, dripping in sweat by 8:02. Although the first part of the hike was pretty interesting (we saw millipedes, leaf cutter ants, a rare poisonous dart frog, and a tree rat. Plus, Ross ate larvae! "Tastes like coconut," he said), we soon found ourselves trekking along for several hours without seeing anything at all. Julio kept hurrying along, desperately trying to find monkeys to show us, and the 6 of us scurried behind him in single file. This wasn't the best system - Julio would put his hand up when he heard something, indicating that we should stop and shut up, but by the time this message traveled to the last person in line, even the sloths had had time to run away. He was clearly getting quite frustrated - he said normally we would've seen tons of monkeys by now, but he didn't even hear any this time. Perhaps there had been a monkey exodus, as Ross suggested, or perhaps 7 loud people tearing through the jungle just isn't a good way to attract shy creatures.

Meanwhile, we kept walking and walking and walking (and walking), swatting mosquitoes away from our faces and getting more and more cranky. Insect repellent does nothing when you're sweating too much to keep it on your skin. By the time we stopped for lunch, we didn't even care about seeing monkeys anymore. We just wanted to go back to the lodge and have a cold shower. But there was still a 2.5 hour hike back, during which Julio kept stopping to make a last-ditch effort to listen for monkeys. I wanted to scream at him to let it go, but somehow kept my mouth shut. His persistence finally paid off. In the very last hour of the hike, we got to see 2 pygmy marmosets - the smallest monkey in the world! They were cute and all, but by that point I was just too grumpy to care. Later, we found out that the older group had seen tons of monkeys and sloths on their 3 hour jaunt. Sonofabitch.

Pygmy marmoset:

Me being too tired and disgusting to care:

Because we had barely seen anything on this hike, Julio suggested that we leave at 5:45 the next morning to look for nocturnal monkeys. Ah, 5:45am, awesome! Just what I wanted to experience after a day like that. The hike turned out to be short, yet mesmerizing - within about half an hour, we had seen 3 different species of monkeys and a sloth! This time the monkeys were jumping all around the trees, in every direction -- you didn't know where to look first! I couldn't believe we had seen practically NONE the day before! We followed this with a boat ride to the Amazon to look for pink dolphins. They are quite shy and they don't jump like grey dolphins do. It's like they know they're extra interesting so they're purposely elusive and stubborn. Bastard dolphins. (I still love you though, dolphins.) However, we then got to swim in the Amazon river, which was slightly terrifying after finding out there are piranhas and whatnot in there, but it was super warm and nice, so I stopped caring pretty quickly. Finally, we went to a swamp filled with 2 meter wide lily pads on which a baby could sleep without drowning. By this point it wasn't even 10 o' clock and already we'd had the craziest day of our lives. I forgave Julio for forcing us on our death hike.

Later, we went canoeing with Julio. By this point the 4 British people had left, and we had our guide to ourselves. I'm not sure if you know this, but canoeing is fucking hard. Not 2 minutes in, my shoulders were already hurting, followed quickly by the rest of my body. After what seemed like 4 hours, I asked him, "We must be nearly there?" And he laughed and said we were only about halfway. OMG. So we took the opportunity to chat to him about his life, and he told us that he's never been anywhere outside of Peru. But if he were to travel, he said he'd want to go to Canada first. "Why Canada, of all places?" we asked in astonishment. He told us he'd had a couple who'd stayed at the lodge, who had invited him to Edmonton to show him around, so he really wanted to go to Edmonton! I told him not to expect much (according to my friend Jenny, who is from Edmonton), but then felt somewhat bad for stepping all over his dreams like that. Seeing snow and a city outside of Peru would probably be so new that it would still be great fun, even if it was in Edmonton.

That evening, we went on a night hike, nervously stepping through the brush with flashlights. We saw tons of huge spiders and tarantulas, scorpions of all sizes, and even a scorpion without a tail that looked like a spider! The worst of both worlds! This probably wasn't the best choice of activities for me to do right before trying to sleep. I was thoroughly creeped out and, after that, pretty much ready to be done with the jungle.

Our last day, I almost didn't go on our final morning hike. Putting on my disgusting gumboots, and my clothes that were by this point completely drenched in sweat, sunscreen, and bug spray, and going out there to deal with the mosquitoes again - it was almost too much to handle. But I sucked it up because I didn't want my last impression of the jungle to be the spider scorpion. And on that hike, the onslaught of monkeys that we saw turned out to be like nothing else we'd ever seen. It was absolutely stunning. Monkeys were jumping from tree to tree, picking fruit, scratching themselves, staring right at us with curious little eyes, peeing from a tree... It was like being in a Planet Earth documentary, and Julio was like David Attenborough with a machete and better hair.

3 monkeys (looking down from the tree):

I was pretty happy when we were finally on the motorboat heading back to Iquitos. 4 days in the jungle was more than enough for me. I'm glad I experienced it, and I genuinely had an amazing time, but it was pretty intense. It's good to be back in a place where you have motorcycles attacking you instead of insects. It's hard to believe people live in the jungle their entire lives - they are clearly made of much tougher stuff than me. Most of the villagers get their food using canoes, and probably have never experienced running water, much less hot water (while we canoed, we passed a family washing themselves in the river, with grandma sitting topless just like in National Geographic, boobs down to her thighs). Julio didn't sweat once, didn't put on insect repellent, nothing. In fact, as soon as we got back from our 8 hour hike, he asked us, "So, who wants to go fishing before dinner?" as we all nearly died of exhaustion. I've never felt so sheltered in my life.

3 children canoeing down the river on their own:

Tomorrow we're flying back to Lima, where I might finally stop sweating and maybe even be slightly cold for a while. I'm excited.

Click here for way more pictures of the jungle, and see our previous post for more pictures of Iquitos.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Wow, the last few days have been intense. Shit has been real up in here, as they say (or may not say anymore).

Right now Ross and I are in Iquitos, the largest city in the Amazonian jungle, only reachable by boat or plane. The humidity here is absolutely unbearable. It feels like you're trapped in a sauna that's been wrapped in llama wool, dragged through a forest fire, and then left sitting in a swamp. It's mildly uncomfortable. Fortunately we've decided that Iquitos will be the place where we splurge (because you have to have a good splurge every once in a while if you're going to survive a year of backpacking), so we got a hotel with air conditioning! Oh sweet, sweet air conditioning. Possibly the greatest invention known to man.

Past the heat and humidity, Iquitos is a difficult place to describe. It's the kind of place where, instead of driving cars, mom, pop, and 3 kids pile onto a motorcycle, sans helmets. Instead of squirrels hopping around the main plaza, there are giant rats. The marketplace offers sloths (as pets), larvae (as food), Valium, and Chicha next to the usual array of splayed chickens and fish (Chicha is a beer that is traditionally made by grounding corn, moistening it in the maker's mouth, and then forming balls to lay out to dry. In short, we've been calling it "spit beer," but despite that it's actually quite good). During meals, we've been approached by children begging for food, a boy selling quartz, and one drunk, overly enthusiastic waitress who insisted on hugging each of us on our way out (I didn't mind this at all - maybe we've been enjoying too much chicha). The people are beautiful and friendly, and the juice is so good it's like a smack in the face. It feels wild and unkempt, but also laid back and fun - completely removed from urban mores. Pictures would probably be a lot more successful at conveying a sense of what it's like, so I'll wait until we have those up instead of writing any more.

We've booked a guided tour into the jungle for 4 days. Tomorrow we take a motorboat down the Amazon river for 3 hours to our ENTIRELY SCREENED lodge. Ross's brother, Sean, just did a similar tour of the jungle last week, and was attacked by ants. ATTACKED BY ANTS. As in, one moment he was walking along being all British, the next moment there were ants down his shirt and in his hair, biting the shit out of him for committing the grave sin of brushing against their tree branch. He also reported that there is such a thing known as "sweat bees," which prefer to attack the nose and eyes. I'm slightly terrified of this aspect of the jungle. I completely flipped out when we had to sleep in a hostel that had a cockroach in it. Hopefully it will be like aversion therapy and I'll come back completely unaware that bugs even exist. After this is over I will laugh in the face of cockroaches! Ha ha! Or, alternatively, I will actually go insane and spend the rest of my life rocking back and forth, mumbling incoherently about screens. (We got nets to wear on our heads just to be sure this doesn't happen.)

However, according to Sean, the trip is totally worth the onslaught of bugs. Every day we will go bird watching at dawn. Then the afternoon will be filled with hikes to various regions to see monkeys, butterflies and hopefully bears or something. Those live in the jungle, right? According to Mowgli? We will also go fishing for piranha, and at night, do hikes to look for nocturnal animals like tarantulas and caimans. I'm excited - it sounds at once exhilarating and a bit nightmarish. I'm sure the reality will be something else entirely.

Today I had to go shopping for a long-sleeved shirt, because apparently those are somewhat handy in the jungle. It would've been good to have thought of that before actually being IN a city in the jungle. The fashion here, understandably, is to wear as little as possible. Store after store, people looked at me like I was nuts when I asked for shirts with long sleeves. When they did have one, all they had was one size, "standard," which may be standard if you're a petite, beautiful Peruvian jungle woman but was comically undersized on me. I felt like a big, pasty Godzilla, lumbering around their stores with pit stains bigger than some of their small children, scaring away all but the bravest of salesgirls. Fortunately everyone came out unscathed (except for my ego), and I managed to acquire 2 long-sleeved shirts. Huzzah!

Anyway, if we're not back by Friday, send help!

More pictures of Iquitos:

Monday, October 4, 2010

In which Marina learns that animals are scary

I probably should've waited another day before writing such a scathing review of Huaraz. Now I feel a bit bad. Oh well, at least they're all too poor for internet, so they'll never know! Joking.

To even things out, here is one nice picture of Huaraz:

We realized that because everything around here is so far away, and also because we are a teeny bit incompetent in the art of getting around rural Peru, that we should probably hire a guide next time we try to go somewhere interesting. That way we might actually be able to experience the scenery properly instead of coming home exhausted and bitter and rearing to leave the area as soon as humanly possible.

On that note, we got a guide to drive us to a rock forest called Hatun Machay, and it proved to be a fantastic decision. We got to learn fun little tidbits about South American culture from the guide: for example, there is a fierce rivalry between Ecuador and Peru. Peruvians call Ecuadorians 'los monos,' or 'the monkeys,' because during times of war they tend to hide in trees to shoot people. Meanwhile, Ecuadorians call Peruvians 'las gallinas,' or 'the chickens,' because during war they just run. Lovely.

Our guide was, no joke, the most talkative man in South America (strangely, that was listed in our guidebook), which forced my Spanish skills through an intensive bootcamp. During the course of the day I found out how to say such exciting words as "shrine," "carving," and "goat." That's the kind of thing you only learn in the school of hard knocks, baby. Of course, I can't remember any of them now except "goat" (cabra), but I think we can all agree it's still a success.

The rock forest was a massive collection of ancient rocks. Doesn't sound like the type of place that you'd drive 2 hours with a guide to see, I suppose, but it was amazing. It was finally a place that matched the natural beauty and weirdness of Icelandic landscapes. There are ancient carvings in some of the rocks from the cultures who inhabited them thousands of years ago. There are also several people who still live in little huts only several meters away from those carvings! Just when I thought it couldn't get any more rural, these bastards shatter my biases again. These huts are in the middle of the desert, many miles from any other people. How in the hell do people survive in these places? And WHY, for the love of god? Why live in a place where there are no people, no food, and no water? Of course, the scenery's great, but it's like... you could move to Huaraz and eat more roasted guinea pig than you could shake a stick at! Tempting, no? But of course, then you wouldn't be surrounded by rocks. Pros and cons.

Today made me realize how removed I've been from animals my entire life. (When we passed by a group of sheep, I shouted "Look, little baby sheep!" to which Ross responded "You mean 'lambs'?" Ah, yes. Those.) I've never seen donkeys, pigs, or cows in a wild environment before, and it was actually a bit frightening. You realize how incredibly big and strong these animals are, and how helpless you'd be if they decided they don't like the cut of your jib.

We kept a safe distance for the most part, but at one point we were both bent over looking at some pretty flowers (yes, we are tree-huggers) and I heard a slobbering noise right behind me. I knew it couldn't have been Ross, since he hardly ever slobbers, so I turned around to investigate, and I saw a cow (or a bull, I couldn't tell at that point - they both have horns! Who knew?) not 10 feet behind me! A possible BULL, RIGHT NEXT TO US, probably ready to eat us and everyone we hold dear. I was literally rendered speechless and just uttered a series of "Uh...uh... um...." in a terrified manner towards Ross. I suppose it's not often that I talk like that, because this made him realize something was wrong and he turned around. "What do we do?" I whispered. "Just back away slowly" was the obvious answer. As we backed away, we saw that it was merely a cow (I've never been happier to see udders in my life), and that she wanted nothing more than to chew some grass by where we were standing. Thank god. Near-death experience? I'm going to say yes.

Here is the cow that nearly killed us:

We've finally realized, at least, why everyone raves about this area. We probably should've just listened to reason and gotten a guide from the very start instead of assuming that we were cool enough to do it ourselves (we're not). We've been convinced to stay one more day to go see some ancient underground tunnels (woot!) and we'll probably be going with the same guide again, so expect more colorful Spanish words to come tomorrow.

The rock forest was an amazingly photogenic place, so we've added a lot more pictures to the album.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Huaraz: at least it's got oxygen

Okay, it's not often that a bus can be exciting enough to blog about, but today is one of those times. For our 9-hour overnight ride from Trujillo to Huaraz, we decided to splurge on the ultra-super-VIP, gold-covered, unicorn-fart bus. Not only did the plush, mattress-sized seats go all the way back, but we also got a blanket and a pillow, and not one of those static-y blankets that you get on airplanes, either, but a Peruvian, llama-wool cocoon of happiness. We were offered coffee and tea as soon as the bus started moving, and then they gave us a nectarine juice box and cake. CAKE. I half expected the stewardess to start offering everyone coke and lap dances to accompany the in-bus movie. (It turned out that I was not far off: as soon as we got to our hostel, after what turned out to be a TWELVE-hour ride, the host immediately welcomed us with mate de coca. Fortunately neither he nor his septuagenarian wife thought to offer us lap dances.)

If only the rest of Huaraz were so wonderful. The guidebook described Huaraz as a bustling metropolis next to ancient ruins, hot springs, and a gorgeous mountain range rife with trails, waterfalls, lakes, wildlife, and all that is good in the world. One of the peaks in this range is even rumored to be the mountain on the Paramount logo! Naturally, we found out the hard way that "bustling metropolis" is actually a euphemism for "tiny, rubble-strewn dump." And that "next to" actually means "3 hours away, down a dirt road, in a combi; Oh, and if you want to actually see anything before the clouds and rain roll in at 2pm, you have to wake up at 5am and be on your way by 6:30am. Have fun!" (We have since gotten a more specific guidebook.) We managed to do one day-trip to see one of the lakes, and found that although it was beautiful, it wasn't worth the excruciating pain in the ass (literally) of sitting in a combi for 6 hours to get there and back. (Perhaps Ross and I are a bit spoiled from the beauty of Iceland.)

Combis are a fascinating South American way of getting around. They're small buses that are meant to hold 12 people, but generally they stuff more like 20 in them. One guy 'drives' (I use the term loosely) while another, usually teenage guy hangs out the window, shouts their destination at pedestrians, and collects money when people hop on (and hop they must, for the combi will only stop for a maximum of .4 seconds to let people on). The first time we took one was quite intimidating. Ross and I were both shoved in with 2 other people in a 3-person seat, sitting right behind the driver on a bench facing everyone else on the combi, nervously guarding our pockets. Everyone was staring at us and we, in turn, were desperately trying to avoid eye-contact and communicable diseases while simultaneously trying to figure out how much and when to pay the prepubescent teen in charge of the fare. Directly across from us was a guy with a guinea pig in a bag on his lap. He was petting it and being somewhat affectionate, but because roasted guinea pig is such a common dish around here, we couldn't help but wonder if it was meant to be his afternoon snack.

(An interesting anecdote: When talking to one of our Peruvian guides about the combis, she asked us "What do you call the guy who hangs out the window and shouts?" as if it didn't even occur to her that this concept might not exist in Vancouver.)

By now, of course, we are nonchalant about it. We hail them from the side of the road like natives, palm down. We get incredibly annoyed if we're trying to hail one and it's already full. "They can still fit more people in there!" we shout with indignation. It's little things like that by which we proudly mark our progress from bumbling gringos to seasoned travelers. So it comes as no surprise that, while we felt comfortable enough to catch one up the mountain to see the lake, we quickly regretted our decision when we realized that 6 hours in one of these contraptions was about 5.5 hours too many. Maybe we're not so seasoned quite yet.

Our trip to the lake, although underwhelming, was a very good way to force some perspective on Huaraz. As the combi bumped along the dirt road up the mountain, we passed increasingly rural houses inhabited by increasingly poor locals. Many of the women were washing their clothes in tiny riverbeds... washing them as we went up, and 2 hours later, still washing them as we came back down. Damn. It made me appreciate even the cold showers we've had recently. Most of the houses lacked paint, fences, even windows; they were simply shelters made of wood or mud bricks. After that, Huaraz really did seem like a bustling metropolis.

However, perspective doesn't last. Today we weren't able to go anywhere because it's their election day, which means everything gets shut down, including the buses (and, delightfully, the infuriating parades). A gloomy mood came over us when we realized we were going to be stuck in Huaraz for the day ("Hey, at least there's running water" isn't consoling for very long), and we quickly started to crave any sort of distraction. It seemed like the perfect time to try the San Pedro cactus. This would've really turned things around and made for a great story, except that the cactus did absolutely nothing. I thought I was joking when I said that the guy probably sold us ground basil, except that the 'cactus' actually smelled like ground asparagus. So... there's that.

Tomorrow we're doing a tour of a rock forest 'nearby', and then making our way to Iquitos, a city in the middle of the Amazon jungle. That should provide a tad more inspiration. Perhaps soon you'll see a post about something other than cars and buses! That would be exciting.

Click here for more pictures of Huaraz and the 'surrounding' areas:

Saturday, October 2, 2010


A few nights ago I dreamed I was standing on a frozen lake and through the ice I could see a drowning kitten frantically scratching at the underside of the surface. Naturally my instant reaction was to punch a hole in the ice and haul the kitten out of the water. The creature then crawled up my arm and began suckling on my face so powerfully that it proved impossible to remove. I then noticed another kitten under the ice, punched it free, and it immediately joined its feline comrade. As the dream progressed I spotted and rescued about a dozen kittens, all of which ended up dangling by their lips from my increasingly crowded face. I hope to dream of having them surgically removed in the near future.

This mad nightmare was appropriate for our previous location (Trujillo, Perú), which was once populated by the Mochicas, possibly the craziest people who ever lived. My brother Sean, who has so far written two intense thriller novels under the pseudonym Tom Knox (because the publisher considered his real name too feminine), was also in the area researching his next literary gorefest, and the Mochicas will play a prominent role. It would indeed take an entire book to describe just how completely lunatic this "civilization" was, but suffice to say their pottery and murals often depicted such delights as women having sex with pumas, giving handjobs to corpses, and male prisoners being ritually gang-raped and then slaughtered so that the priests could drink their blood and possibly eat their flesh. This process may in fact have happened in reverse order, meaning eaten alive and then gang-raped. Their primary god, Ai Apaec ("The Creator"), was alternatively known as "The Decapitator", perhaps because "Ai Apaec" was also considered too feminine. There's much more, I'm afraid, and you'll get to see some extraordinarily disturbing photos when we visit the Mochica erotic pottery museum in Lima! I bet you can't wait. I know I can't.

The present-day inhabitants of Trujillo have calmed down a bit in terms of canibalism, necrophilia and bestiality (as far as I know, anyway) but compensate by being exceptionally loud all the time. It's election season in Perú, seemingly for every level of government, and roughly half of the entire population is running for office. There are candidates' posters plastered everywhere, cars covered with them, the fronts of many buildings and even the sides of mountains transformed with paint into gigantic promotional signs. The thousands of hopefuls compete against each other to organize the biggest, noisiest and most obnoxious possible parades through the city streets ("my name is Miguel Bartara and I approve this massively irritating cacophony"). Each without exception proclaims him- or herself to be honest (HONESTIDAD!), capable (CAPACIDAD!), hard-working (TRABAJADOR!) and a safe choice (SEGURIDAD!), and promises to end the corruption that is rife in South American politics. Of course, that's what the last lot said too, but I think this time they really mean it.

The remaining 50% of the population of Trujillo – those not running for president of something or the other – all drive taxis. The many, many, many, many cabs there are bright yellow and have illuminated signs on the roof just like those back home, but apparently this isn't sufficient to indicate their extreme willingness to take you to your destination of choice because not only do they often have blinking, flashing, multicolored frames around their license plates but also every single one of them will beep at you as they pass by on the street, just in case you didn't notice them with your eyes. It doesn't matter that you've already ignored 35 beeping taxis in the last ten seconds; the 36th will also do it, just in case you've changed your mind in the intervening milliseconds. "How about now?" they beep inquiringly. "Do you want a cab now? How about now? Cab for you, señor? Cab here! How about now?"

But drivers there do not reserve beeping solely for bumbling gringos who might need a ride. Because road signs are universally ignored, drivers also use beeps to communicate with each other and loosely coordinate their violent swerving. They beep before entering an intersection, while passing through the intersection, and upon leaving the intersection. They beep before turning left and they beep before turning right. They beep before, during and after overtaking another vehicle. They beep if they see someone they know, often attempting simultaneously to drive and climb out of the window to more freely wave at and have a shouted conversation with their friend. They beep if a nifty idea occurs to them, or if they hear the word "radio" on the radio. Remarkably we have only witnessed (the aftermath of) one traffic accident, which was in Cuenca, Ecuador. While we didn't actually see what happened, we're relatively certain it was caused by the driver being so busy beeping at other things that he crashed into the car in front of him. There is so much blinking and beeping and flashing, in fact, that even William Shatner would eventually lose his cool.

Were I president of Perú I'd put a stop to it, by damn. And my poster would look like this:

Click here for more pictures of Trujillo: