March 2000 - Three Weeks in Peru

Week 1 - Inca Kola and Gorgeous Mangoes

The first thing I saw when I entered my room at the Las Suites Hotel was a ceramic bull, similar to one I acquired in Puno on Lake Titicaca and which now has pride of place in the apartment. These are used on the roofs of many houses to attract good luck. The locals call them "torritos". Miraflores is a pleasant, leafy, suburb of Lima where most of the better off people live. It is close to the Pacific and there are many good restaurants, particularly seafood. Ceviche is popular and there are good clams, crab, octopus and sea bass.

First thing Saturday morning I walked the three blocks to the local supermarket. It is well stocked and will provide for all my needs. There is no fresh milk and I will have to use the UHT version. Vegetables and fruit are very good although I found the street vendors to be cheaper. I have got to know the couple who run a stall in the street just up from the hotel. I bought an enormous mango and three bananas for about 80 cents. The mango was one of the best I have ever eaten. Needless to say, I went back and stocked up the fridge with this wonderful fruit. The avocado and chirimoia (sweet sop) are also very good - the couple running the stall were giving out samples and now fly the Canadian flag.

It is the summer season on the coast when the temperature rises to the upper twenties and the skies tend to be clear. It never rains in Lima although there are some heavy mists at times. It is winter season in the mountains with rain. It gets quite steamy in Lima and the drinks sellers do a good trade - Inca Kola is popular. Sold only in Peru (thank goodness), it is a yellow sweet drink with a cloying taste. One has to be a real connoisseur to drink it a lot (or at all).

It is a little bit like living in an armed camp. All the houses are surrounded by high walls which are topped off with sharp spikes, electric fences or broken glass. Many of the houses look to be pretty nice and they appear to have pleasant gardens from the shrubs and ornamental trees that one can see over the top or through cracks in the fences. The walls conceal some strange sights. I came back to the hotel the other day to find a group of men laboriously maneuvering a body of bug (Volkswagen kind) up on to trestles in the street so it could be loaded on to a truck. The door was open to the property and it revealed an auto wreckers right next to expensive houses and hotels.

I think the walls also explain the fact that there are lots of dog droppings around but I haven't yet seen a dog. I presume these are also kept behind bars.

I went round to register at the Canadian embassy the other day. I managed to locate it by the great yellow and black bollards set in the road like tank traps and a very faded and scruffy Canadian flag waving in the misty polluted air. Getting in was worse than going through airport security and they even confiscated my key ring which contained my trusty Swiss Army knife which has passed all airport security checks since 1971. The person I talked to who took my registration form was protected behind thick glass.

The office I am working in is pretty good and I am privileged to have an office on the air conditioned side. They also offered me a corner office on the non air conditioned side which had a good view but which was pretty warm in the afternoon. The office procedure is similar to La Paz - kiss the ladies good morning and there is someone to attend to my drinks requirements. I even have my own private bathroom with toilet paper, running water, soap and paper towels which is highly unusual for a Latin American government office I also have an Executive Assistant, Ana Maria, who does research for me and also does the translations - she has two years graduate studies and 4 ˝ years legal studies so she is pretty useful. To top it off I have a car and driver to take me to and from the office. All in all I am not under much hardship. What I like about this set up is that there is no shouting in meetings as in Panama. My Spanish is improving so that I can get my points across although I have to be more aggressive than I normally am (I am usually so mild mannered).

Tonight ( Wednesday) I had a whole avocado which I cut in half and poured a can of octopus in sauce into the holes. This, with a glass of pisco, and a chirimoia (sweet sop) made an excellent supper. I had a mango this morning and have another one for tomorrow. The lady running the fruit stand is getting to know me:

"Muchas gracias, caballero, hasta manana"

I asked about mame, which is a tropical fruit from the north. She promised to get one for me the next day. It is delicious and has a firm golden yellow fruit and several large seeds in the centre similar to an avocado.

There is a freeway leading into the centre of Lima which works quite well. There are two bus lanes in the centre and the whole part is well landscaped. The lawns are well manicured and there are low plants set out in the form of the logos of local companies such as Price Waterhouse, radio stations etc. which obviously pay for the advertising. Looks like a good idea - wonder why Mike Harris hasn’t thought of this? There are also some areas on the sides of the freeway where people are sleeping out on the ground under blankets - I see them getting up every morning when I go to work. There are also a number of men selling papers and other things on the freeway. They know where the traffic jams occur and try and make a somewhat precarious living in this way.

On Friday I found a restaurant close to the hotel which has guinea pig (cuy) on the menu. It is available grilled on the regular menu but I will wait until the Saturday special when it is available picante.

Friday evening I went to an area close by with another volunteer. There are about 12 restaurants facing each other across a pedestrian mall. The prospective patrons walk down the center and are accosted by waiters from each side as they walk past. They don't actually fight for you but the verbal assault is pretty violent. It seems that the best restaurants, by the number of diners are those whose waitresses have the shortest skirts. There quite a bit of flirting between the prospective patrons and the waitresses and waiters.

There are all kinds of services available at the table as well as food. A fortune teller came past and was quickly followed by a guy trying to sell a watch, two kids selling gum (they were chased away round the tables by the waiter), another guy selling gum, two ladies who I didn't understand what they were selling but could guess, and a guy selling English newspapers. Finally a trio playing Peruvian music arrived. One was playing the flute and pipes and the others played a guitar and a charango (Andean stringed instrument). They were very good and played some of the dances I was familiar with from Bolivia. I spoke to one of them and he told me the dances came from Lake Titicaca All in all the evening was a lot of fun - and the food was pretty good as well.

Week 2 - Museums Galore

I was woken up by a dove this morning! There are a lot of them in the trees in the adjoining gardens and their gentle cooing makes a pleasant change from the barking of dogs or the incessant car alarms going off. This one was pretty loud and it must have been sitting just outside the window.

Three of us decided to go to the Gold Museum on Saturday aternoon. As I was the only one who spoke Spanish, I was delegated to negotiate with the taxi drivers. The hotel told me the fare should be seven or eight soles. The driver, whose family came from Huancavelica, which is in the mountains and is very cold, asked me for eight and I offered seven which he accepted and we all piled into this decrepit taxi which had no shocks at all. He drove slowly around every pothole and we finally arrived at the museum which is in the outskirts of Lima. Like the La Paz Gold Museum, there is a lot of Inca and pre-Inca exhibits but nothing from the Spanish period. It is vast and we spent a long time there. There is also an Arms Museum in the same building. This covers pistols, rifles, swords, blunderbuses, flintlocks, knives etc. It is reputed to be the largest exhibit in the world. I found it fascinating. Some of the earlier pistols and flintlocks were true works of art. All were hand made and many were exquisitely engraved. We then found a third exhibit of Textiles. By this time we were pretty well exhausted and this didn't leave a great impression. The whole place is a private museum and is well worth a visit.

Coming out, we found a couple of taxi drivers waiting for us but the street was very quiet so there was no passing taxi traffic. The first driver I spoke to wanted 15 soles ($4US) and almost choked when I said seven. He said it would cost him 8 soles for gas. The next one was prepared to take us for ten but, at that moment, another taxi drove up and set down a fare. I spoke to him and offered him seven which he accepted. His was a much better car and we were able to drive over potholes. On the way back we discussed the various ways of cooking guinea pig.

Saturday evening we went back to the pedestrian mall with the restaurants. We chose a different one this time and the waitress who was at the restaurant we had eaten at last night looked at us and waved. The fortune teller came around and when I said no she said

"Well you could at least give me a tip".

The usual array of sellers were joined by a man selling red roses and the trio played especially for us. It seemed to be a bit of a slow night and the waiters and waitresses were all out in the mall area moving to the beat of the music.

On Sunday morning a group of us decided to go to the National Museum. Again, I was the only one who spoke Spanish so I was delegated to negotiate the taxis (we needed two). This time I had to make sure the driver knew where the place was and put the first two in the cab after I had negotiated the fare. It worked well. The National Museum is a big, purpose built building which traces the history of the various civilizations that have existed in Peru. I was surprised to learn that there were civilizations dating back to at least 3000 years BC. The Incas came on the scene quite late, just before the Spanish, and they built an empire which stretched from Quito, Ecuador, through Lima, Peru and La Paz, Bolivia to Santiago, Chile. Amazing.

We found taxis to get us back to Miraflores and went out for lunch. One of the lunchtime specials was cuy picante and so I had guinea pig. I have had it several ways but not like this before. It was half a guinea pig, without the head, which had been baked in the oven then served with a thick spicy sauce with rice, potatoes and peas. Cooking in the oven produces crackling like pork rind although much thinner. It was a bit fatty and there were many small bones. It was pretty good although a bit of a chore to eat. We agreed that it was good once you had got it into your mouth.

Went for a walk in the local park Sunday evening. It was a typical Latin American park with many tall shade trees and several colorful flowerbeds of yellow and red celosia, petunias, salvias etc. There were lots of families with people selling balloons, popcorn, ice cream, coffee, sliced turkey and potatoes, candy floss, gum, etc. Everyone was happy and there was a small amphitheater where someone had set up some music and people were dancing. There were a lot of people walking around including some young girls with chaperones. Of course we were singled out as gringoes and we were followed by small kids saying "Meester, meester". There is a large artisans area where artists sell their paintings and I also found some wooden kitchen implements made from a hardwood from the jungle. They were so cheap that I didn't bother to bargain. The best I have found in South America.

We walked back through the restaurant strip (Calle de Pizzas) where Ron and I have eaten the last two nights. We were offered a jug of Pisco Sour or Sangria or Beer just to eat at their restaurant. Many of the waiters recognized us and smiled or shook my hand. I could only get away from one waitress by promising to come back tomorrow!

It has been very hot in the last few days and Ana Maria and I have gone out of the office building to get lunch. We found a couple of restaurants serving typical Peruvian almuerzo, (lunch). This consists of a starter such as soup, Russian eggs, salad etc. and a main course such as ceviche of fish, chicken picante or milenesa, pork or beef. Today I started with Minestrone Soup. It unlike any Minestrone I have ever eaten before, the only relation being the large pasta pieces, there was a lot of cabbage, potato, what looked like artichoke and a piece of com, complete with cob, which is called choclo. The chicken, rice and potato puree which followed was delicious. There was also a glass of something sweet. I took one mouthful and thought better of it as the water probably came straight from the tap. The whole meal cost 5 soles which is about $US1.40 and was incredible good value. There was also an " almuerzo ejecutivo" for 7 soles ($US2.00) but nobody was having that - the regular was pretty good value. It was very tasty - I just hope my stomach will be alright from the small amount of water that I drank.

There were old clear plastic bottles of water on each table. I originally thought these were to drink but they are put there to keep the flies away. This is similar to what we saw Honduras but I don't know how effective they are.

One of the volunteers, Bill Sear, is looking at the water quality. He left me under no illusions as to how safe the water is to drink. It is full of lots of nasty things that will quickly get to your stomach - even in Lima. It is safe after it has been boiled but other than that one should not drink tap water at all. One problem is that I am not getting any salad even though there is lettuce on most restaurant dishes. Also, I can't use any ice because one cannot guarantee that it has been made from safe water even though the waiters will tell you that is has been. I have been asking for drinks that are cold but no ice and this seems to work alright. The water is also very hard and it is almost impossible to get a lather, it is the hardest Bill has seen.

On Friday we had lunch at the same place as Thursday. This time the starter was a boiled potato, sliced into three and covered with a sauce from Arequipa in the south. The sauce was very good and was made from cheese, peanuts, vanilla biscuits and a herb rather like mint. Something else to try when I get home.

After lunch we walked around a poorer district where lunches were even cheaper - $USl.00. Several of the café's had tables with chess board markings marked in and people were sitting and playing chess while they ate. Outside in the street is an area where some tables had been set up for chess - it was covered over with a tarpaulin and there was an oil lamp for tournaments after dark. There was a man with a typewriter perched precariously on a box so that he could type letters for people who either could not read or write or who needed something typed for official purposes.

Tomorrow I am going out into the desert with another volunteer and we are planning to fly over the Nazca Lines.

Week 3 - Nazca Lines, Penguins and Chicharron


On Saturday we were up and out of the hotel at 06:00. Ron and I had hired a taxi for two days to look at the dessert of southern Peru. I had insisted that the taxi should have a serviceable, properly inflated, spare tire.  The first thing the driver did was to proudly show that he had a good spare.  As it turned out we didn’t need it but I wasn’t going out into the desert without one. There was a great deal of mist as we left Lima which was just as well because it isn't very pretty. The area is blisteringly hot and dry. The sun beats down mercilessly and there is no respite. There is agriculture from irrigation where the rivers flow down to the sea from the Andes. Cotton, corn, olives, grapes and asparagus were abundant. The little towns along the Pan American Highway were not much to look at, being either tire repair places, fruit stands or cheap restaurants. There were a large number of chicken farms, most of them empty as a result of disease.

We made good time along the Pan American highway which is a toll road and went directly to Ica which is 300 km and then looked at getting a flight over the Nazca Lines. It looked as if it was going to be difficult as the flights were booked but the argument turned out to be about whether we would have to wait 35 or 45 minutes. In the end we got on the first flight and had to wait just over an hour. We visited an oasis while we waited. There was a sad looking condor in a cage at the airport.

The flights are run by AeroCondor using a two man crew and a 9 passenger one engine Cessna. There was a good diagram of the lines in the seat pocket which helped us to understand what we were going to see. The flight was smooth and allowed us to enjoy this wonderful archaeological curiosity. The Nazca lines were discovered in 1941. They are gigantic drawings made by the Nazca people about 1500 years ago in the desert surface by removing the brown surface soil to reveal a yellow white rock underneath.

They can only be viewed properly from the air and this leads to great speculation as to why they were done in this way.

It took us 25 minutes to get over the lines and we then took over half an hour looking at each of the geoglyphs. The pilot circled first one way and then the other so everyone could see each one - astronaut, dog, monkey, hands, parrot, humming bird, condor, spider, heron or flamingo. Equally remarkable are the lines themselves which run absolutely straight, in some cases, for several miles (one is 25 km long). They seem to be located in a relatively small part of the dessert and there are many conflicting theories as to why they were done - astronomical calculations, ceremonial/religious rites relating to rain and fertility, extra terrestrial landing strips. Unfortunately the Panamerican Highway runs right through the middle of the site. I am not sure that the Peruvian Government is doing enough to protect the site - one dune buggy could destroy it irreparably. The flight helped emphasize the hostile terrain. Much of the land has been smoothed and except for irrigated areas is completely devoid of green. They have some of the largest sand dunes in the world in this area - the largest is reputed to be over a mile high.

After lunch we went to look at the town of Ica. We became mixed up in a convoy of police cars, all running their sirens and flashing their lights. They parked in a long line near the center. There must have been at least 40 of them and they were all new. It seems that Peru is getting 1,200 new police cars and this was the group going to Ica. It is no secret that this is one of the election goodies from the Fujimori government. It seems that the mayor of Arequipa spoke against Fujimori and his allocation of new vehicles has been sent elsewhere. Earlier in the day we had seen a group of policemen planting a line of trees alongside the road - any connection with the election?

The taxis are mostly the three wheel mototaxis although there are some newer yellow ones as well. The three wheelers are built in Korea, Japan and Peru. They only hold two passengers and the driver sits on a seat in front and drives it rather like a motor bike or scooter.

We went to the Tacama winery. Our driver had emphasized that they used the "metodico artesenal" and I didn't know what he meant until we got there. They trample the grapes with their feet and then press the grapes with a hundred year old press. The cheap wine (cachina) is put in clay pots (botija) and sealed with mud. The whole place was pretty dirty and we decided that the only safe thing to drink would be the Pisco which is distilled from grape juice. I think I would have preferred to see some metal vats rather than the cracked tiled picina that was used to hold the juice. The still was a pretty crude affair using a wood fire and the steam was run through pipes which were submerged in a vat of very dirty water in which children were swimming. We went to a dirt cellar where the clear liquid ran out of a plastic pipe and into a plastic bucket. Our guide put a glass under the pipe and taught us how to drink it. You take it down in one go and then breathe out to get the flavour. It was very strong indeed! There were a lot of very happy people down there. Afterwards we went to a tasting of various types of Pisco in a restaurant setting and found a smoother one which is distilled from grape juice and lemons to make Pisco Sour. This was pretty good - I bought some to bring back.

After supper we were sitting talking to the owner of the hotel when there was a short break in the power. He told us that the government would be cutting power in the town that evening in order to stop any demonstrations as the opposition candidate was speaking in Ica that day. He looked down the road and said that power had been cut to the hotel where the candidate was staying and mentioned that the TV had also been cut so that only the government station was broadcasting.

We decided to go for a short walk and the owner lent us the watchman's stick just in case. It wasn't needed but there is a siege mentality here as a result of the Shining Path troubles. Every house is walled off, most have night watchmen while all factories have not only walls but watchman's pill boxes at the comers.

The mattress was quite different. It seemed to consist of one enormous piece of foam rubber about three feet deep and with little give. It was surprisingly comfortable.

After a breakfast of two bananas and a glass of water, we left the hotel early and drove to Paracas. There were several people sleeping on the side of the road. They can get Pisco for $US1.5O a bottle - this is before it has the tax ticket put on it when it goes up to $4.50.

We boarded a boat at 08:00 for a trip to Balestas Islands. It took about 45 minutes to get there and then we spent about an hour looking at the wild life. These were one of the guano islands and are now a nature reserve. "Guano" is the Quechua word for shit so now, if I am so inclined, I can swear in Quechua. Somehow it doesn't have the same cachet as the Anglo Saxon version. The air is heavy with the smell of bird droppings. Some of these islands were reduced in height by 100 feet when the guano operation was in full swing. There is a small operation going on today and these people are the only ones allowed to land.

On the way out we passed the "Candelabro" which is a glyph similar to those found at Nazca - it looks like a candelabra and is known locally as "the sign of the three crosses. Nothing is known about it, it may be a Nazca sign or it may be a younger Huari sign as a sign of dominance over the land to warn sailors that they are in control.

The wild life is wonderful. With all kinds of seabirds wheeling around and diving into the water to fish we had very close up views of several thousand sea lions, pelicans, terns boobies, cormorants, vultures, Dolly Varden crabs and several of the rare Humboldt Penguins. It was pretty noisy and most people wore hats to protect against direct hits as the birds do not care where they do it. The animals were not afraid of the boat and we were able to get very close. The boat was moved very close to some of the rocks and we also saw several sea lions close up in the water.

We drove to a Nature Reserve where there was a small fishing village of Lagunillas. The only green in the entire reserve is the sea weed on the rocks. Here wading birds, such as oyster catchers, were looking for food. There were a few kids in the water but it is very cold and the only adults we saw in the water were wearing wet suits.

On the way back to Lima we saw several new police cars parked by the side of the road. It seems the price of a ticket is 70 soles so it is cheaper to give the policeman 5 or 10 soles. We stopped at a chicharroneria. With thoughts of the same places in La Paz, I happily entered just as the TV channel was blaring out the overture to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. There in the front were several chauldrons of pig - deep frying. This is a little more civilized than La Paz, as the plates are china and are brought to the table by uniformed waitresses. The pork is cut into very nice lean strips with a good gravy. This is accompanied by bread, onions and deep fried sweet potato. With a cool glass of Inka Kola I was happily munching chicharron, listening to the first act of my favorite opera and looking at an advertisement for Seven Up on the wall opposite where a scantily clad young lady was extolling the virtues of the beverage by pouring some of the product down an incredibly deep cleavage - and I thought the whole purpose was to drink it (maybe it is safer to spread it over one's body). It doesn't get much better than this!

As we came back into Lima the beaches were crowded. So much so that some of them were standing room only. As we approached the hotel we heard police sirens and saw 14 more new police cars being delivered to show that Fujimori was thinking about the electorate.

Crossing the street in Lima can be quite challenging at times. At most places there are lights with crosswalk signs which the drivers obey very well. However, at the more important intersections, although there are lights which change as expected, they are controlled by the traffic policewomen who are ensconced in a pill box at the intersection. They have a whistle and use white gloves to direct traffic so everybody obeys the police rather than the lights themselves. When crossing one must be aware of the white hands and out of the corner of one's eye one can see nine lanes of traffic on the starting grid itching for the off and not caring if there is any one in the way. On the left are two lanes of lumbering normal buses then two lanes of mini buses followed by five lanes of cars, mostly taxis. At the signal to start, a race commences and it seems the Volkswagen bugs are the first off, not because they are better, but because their drivers seem to be more aggressive. As the opposing line comes to a stand they are set upon by a dozen or so people selling drinks, ice cream, papers, garbage bags and pens.

I gave a second seminar on Tuesday. After the first one in which I used an interpreter, they asked that we dispense with the interpreter because most understand English well and because my Spanish is becoming passable. Then, at the last minute, they told me that there would be people from another Ministry including possibly a Director, a Director General and a Vice Minister, none of whom spoke much English. I went into panic mode and managed to get Ceso to send me one of their assistants who spoke good English and who had experience in this work. We agreed that I would speak as much Spanish as I could and she would help out when I had to use English and also if I hadn't explained things properly. In the end, only the Director turned up and the others send representatives but I did most of the two hour seminar in Spanish.

Just before the start of the seminar I went to the washroom. I was alone and as I looked at myself in the mirror I said out loud:

"You stupid bugger, what the hell are you doing down here when you could be taking it easy at home?"

I actually used stronger language but it is a very good question and is the essence of what I have been doing in various obscure parts of South America for the last five years or so. I think the answer, if there is one, is:

"I'm not really sure, but it seemed like a good idea at the time and on looking back afterwards, it was fun."

Click here to see all pictures taken on this trip

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