The drive from Chiclayo
On a long, dusty road, in the midst of a domestic dispute, when it is late morning and neither party has eaten or even had a coffee, there is nothing like reaching the unpromising restaurant some fellow at the toll-booth said we’d find in 20 minutes or so, getting out of the car, and being assaulted by the strong scent of urine from a huge, fresh puddle a couple of feet in front of the door.
Men in rural Peru piss most everywhere. So do I. But what kind of mind pisses two feet in front of the front door of an open restaurant in mid-morning? This isn’t a late-night drunk denied one more pisco sour. I’m guessing it isn’t a comment on the quality of the menu inside. It’s just pathological obliviousness to others?
We arrive tired and dusty and hot and irritable from lack of sleep and lack of harmony. The Hostal El Sol is on a very main street, a noisy one. This doesn’t bode well, but a room in back, with the air-conditioning on, is quiet enough. Initially the defects of the place further fuel Ragna’s irritation, but somehow it grows on us. An air-conditioned room, a cup of coffee, and being off the road after the sleepless night in Pimental work wonders. The place grows on us so quickly that we stay three days and like it.
If there’s a lot to see in Piura, we don’t. We do walk the streets some, through a town that seems busy and pleasant and not very photographically interesting. We do errands, wander through an outdoor book-sale, and eat one of the best meals we’ll have in months. The meal we almost don’t get: we’re looking for one restaurant, but it seems closed, so we try another, Capuccino, and find that the two seem to have combined, even though one made its reputation on sandwiches and desserts and modern food and the other on traditional Peruvian cuisine. In any event, we sit outdoors and enjoy both, a marvelous meal topped off by great desserts, all in a pleasant environment.
We also decide that we will indeed head up to Huancabamba after stopping to look at pottery around Chulucanas. The road to Huancabamba is indeed a “road less traveled,” and for good reason: a dirt road not always intact because of streams and rain, it twists around mountain curves and leads only to Huancabamba. The road down the other side is even less traveled. On the map, it doesn’t even appear to go all the way through to the paved road connecting Jaen with the Ecuadorean border. Ragna’s game for taking it anyway, although we’ve no idea whether we can get through or we’ll turn North or South at the paved road.
Rushing down a narrow street in Piura I suddenly grin at an imaginary dialogue:
“Who is this guy Al Quilo, and what office is he running for?”
“Must be the Presidency – I see his signs everywhere in Perú!”
But the humor depends on two things: seeing here, as in Mexico, town after town, wall after wall even in the countryside, the walls of houses in cities, painted with old signs advocating candidacies for the Presidency or the local Alcalde; and knowing that the verb Alquilar means “to rent.” And even then it ain’t all that funny.
Add the row of second-floor windows overlooking Sanchez Cerro. The building is probably a school, for I see a wistful schoolgirl, in school uniform, staring down at the busy street, and two windows away a schoolboy with a tie, and then a second schoolgirl appears in the empty window between, all of them dreamily contemplating the outside world, freedom. Imagining adulthood or this afternoon, who knows?
Before leaving Piura, I get around to something I’ve meant to do: I buy a hammer. Un martillo. I have forgotten the Spanish word, but it’s among the easiest to mime. Un martillo? Si!It is an admittedly absurd act, based on a second-hand memory. An older friend once told me about driving a truck briefly in New York City, probably in the very late 1940’s. His boss or an older driver told him the streets were rough, and to get a hammer. It’s a devastating weapon, if you hit some guy on the head with it. In the event of a dispute or potential robbery, emerging from the vehicle with a hammer in hand might be nearly as effective as a gun.
The story stuck in my mind. I’m going as a stranger into some pretty remote places. With a camera worth more than some folks earn in a couple of years. And a woman to think about. I’m not going to hit some guy on the head with a hammer to keep him from taking some dollars or soles from me; but in the unlikely event of a really desperate situation, . . .
I feel silly, buying the hammer. I consider buying some wrenches, too, since those we might actually need if the car fails us somewhere; but I wouldn’t have a clue what to do with them, mostly.
I feel silly; but as I stride down the street, my hand holding the handle of the thing in its bag, I feel somehow stronger – and laugh at myself. But what the hell. In a day or two we’ll be on a dirt road from a remote mountain city to some places the Lonely Planet folks don’t even mention.
I believe in the old Mexican adage, “Bad Roads Make for Good People.” I expect no trouble. If I did, I wouldn’t take Ragna there. But if somewhere, in six months of traveling, some bad thing unexpectedly does happen, I might rather have el martillo with me than not.
Ragna had bought an iron back in Trujillo – and, trying it out in Piura, found it didn’t work. The two of us had plugged it into every possible outlet, turned dials and pressed buttons, and failed to make it work.
As we are leaving the hotel, the security guard, helping us with our things, discovers it in a bag in the room and holds it up to me. I tell him it is basura. He eyes it’s newness and cleanness and isn’t so sure. I shrug, and we plug it in again, and he either finds a button we didn’t see or otherwise shows more wit than we had, and the thing in fact works fine.
He is delighted to have fixed it and amused by our our stupidity. I also give him a larger propina for saving us the cost of a new iron.
We pause for gas. The sign seems to say they have 95, the car is supposed to run on 98 or 97, and in the mountains we will find only 90 — if that. The young man says they have only 90 at this station and beyond, although there is 95 back in el centro. We do not wish to retreat to the center of town.
As he begins to pump gas, someone is close against the back of the car, doing something. A young man with a rag, trying to get a few centavos for purporting to clean the window, but at first it looks as if he’s trying to open the door, so I shout. When he comes near the front window I say, “No, gracias,” and he retreats a bit. When I step out of the car to go speak with the attendant, the young man is sitting ten meters away. I see now that he is not fully there mentally, and also walks with a limp, and I beckon and invite him to do the back windshield for a small sum. He does, but is not even capable of concentrating on that. Every so often his eyes gleam in excitement over invisible people or events. He doesn’t accomplish much with the window. When I pay the boy, the attendant smiles to himself – perhaps glad to see the poor fellow get something, perhaps amused by foreigners’ carelessness with their money.
An older man, probably the owner, has wandered out and answered my casual question about the distance to the turn-off for Chulucanas. He is interested in where we are from and where we are going, and I answer his questions. I decide to ask him about a problem we’ve been having: the windwhield-washing fluid that should shoot onto the windshield when we turn it on worked fine at first, but now on my side it makes merely a feeble stream onto the hood, stopping far short of the windshield.
Along with the younger man, he takes a look at it. There’s ample fluid, and the hose is connected as it should be. He sends the boy for an awl, then for a needle, and tries to clean the little hole from which the water shoots toward the windshield. This fails to cure the problem. Opening the hood again, he finds a leak, and has the boy wrap tape around it. We try the thing again, but the stream is still feeble. Eventualy they find four or five leaks, and wrap them all, and the stream improves.
There is an appealing gentleness in the way he instructs the younger man. Some of us cannot tell anyone anything without trumpeting the view that we are quite something for knowing what someone else does not. Others have the skill of imparting necessary information so directly and simply that it seems to arrive on its own, or it seems that we ourselves have always known it somewhere and are merely recovering it from some back passage of memory with a little assistance. This man has that gentleness or skill.
I ask him what caused the problem. He asks whether the car was parked on the street. It wasn’t, and also would have made a loud alarm sound had someone opened the hood. He offers his opinion that it must be rats, and hands me what’s left of a roll of black tape, in case the problem recurs.
I thank him.
I then offer him money.
“No,” he says.
“Cuanto?” I ask.
He shakes his head.
“Cuanto es, por este trabajo?” I ask. [How much for this work?]
He gives me a chiding sort of look. “Es solo este, no mas,” he says, pointing at the nearly finished roll of black tape. Just that and no more. “Un sol.”
I try to give him two instead, but he refuses. Firmly.
“Pero es tiempo,” I insist. [But it is time.]
He gives me a “don’t be silly” look, returns the second coin, and clearly will not accept it if I proffer it again. Instead I thank him, and shake his hand, and he wishes us a good journey.
Perhaps Ragna’s presence, a woman’s presence, evokes pride; perhaps our foreignness inclines him toward the most honorable behavior, from unknown motives; and perhaps he simply does not wish to be a man who takes more than something is worth simply because he can. I have no idea. But I respect him.
He is one more very fine human being whose name I do not even know.
We pass a small farm, and Ragna wonders if she can videotape the family working on it, so I ask. An old man and a younger one, apparently his son, are out front working.
The old man asks why we would want to take photographs there. I explain that we come from a different country, and that all countries are different. For example, I point out, in my wife’s country, Iceland, there are no burros. This information startles them. They ask me twice whether that is really so, and ten minutes later the boy asks again, are there really no burros in her country?
Eventually the man agrees. I cannot make out his words, but his gesture says, “If you like, feel free, I can’t see what sense it makes, but why not?”
Gradually the whole family gathers: five or six kids and a very shy mama. The last to join us is a very small girl, probably about 2-3 years old, who emerges from a building dozens of meters away and lingers shyly until a slightly older brother runs to her, takes her hand, and leads her out front to see what’s going on.
Ragna videotapes them, and I shoot a few photographs, mostly of their delight as she shows them the video she’s shot. Eventually – not having been asked, she gives them S./ 20. The boy hands it to the old man, the patriarch. This money – about U.S. $7-8 – is a windfall, more than some folks there make in a day of hard work. As we drive away the whole family is retreating to the house, perhaps to discuss what to do with the money, perhaps to laugh at the oddness of people from outside Peru.
A small sign for La Encantada points left down an unimposing dirt track. You could easily miss it.
We are on a country lane. We do not see another car or truck. We see burro-drawn wagons
carrying corn, other crops, dead animals, and passengers. We see a horse-drawn wagon or two. We see moto-taxis carrying passengers, crops, and even, in one case, dead animals, their necks hanging down from the back, inches above the road. We see women carrying baskets on their heads. We drive slowly so as not to raise too much dust around the people riding slowly in carts or walking.
At the edge of a small village we should turn right, but off to the left some kids are drawing water from the ground with an old-fashioned hand-pump. This is the communal well, and they are drawing water to a pail,
then the young woman pours the water into a large, blue metal drum on a wagon tied to a waiting burro. They will take this water home, to a house that obviously lacks running water. This is a very hot place, and likely more so in summer. Yet they are wonderfully cheerful. As Ragna videotapes them and the young woman with them, I learn from a local fellow that La Encantada is about five or ten minutes further by car.
We pass some sort of building near a canal, where much water is shooting out into a concrete ditch? and a boy and a girl are bathing in it. Moments later down a long, narrow side lane we see several young women carrying baskets on their heads. We pause to photograph them. They giggle as they pass. We wave and thank them. They laugh. In the baskets I can see clothes, and guess that on our return we may see them washing the clothes where the children were bathing. It seems a long walk. If someone stopped to photograph me while I was making that walk, I’d ask him why the fuck he didn’t give me a ride. In fact, we would if we could, and I remark to Ragna that we should get a luggage rack just to be able to help someone now and then.
We drive on. La Encantada, at first glance, is an impossibly dusty and sleepy place, without a car or truck in sight. The main street on which we eventually find a dozen or so pottery workshops, is wide enough for five or six lanes of traffic, but there’s nothing except an occasional burro or horse, one boy on a bicycle, and a man sprawled in the front seat of a parked moto-taxi, asleep.
We stop first in the gallery of Roso Alamo, who is out back working on pots. I take his picture, compliment his work, explain that we cannot take so much stuff because we have a full car and months of traveling ahead of us.
I do buy a “Christo de las Campesinos”: a Christ dressed like a Peruvian farm-worker, down to the cap and a moustache/goatee, nailed to a cross that, when you glance down to its lower end, turns out to be a shovel. I compliment him on that, and ask whether it was his idea or someone else’s. He credits “el maestro, Max Inga,” who he seems to say is now dead but whose sons have a gallery down the street, to which the children will show us if we like.
I am (probably wrongly) assuming the boy and girl are the potter’s children. I plan to give them a sol for guiding us to the other gallery. Soon the boy, walking beside me, begins whispering, rhythmically, “propina, propina, senor, propina” and I tell him “Si, claro, en un ratito.” [Of course, in a very short while]
We stop at a couple of other galleries. The Inga gallery is the most extensive, and there are many more things we’d like to buy. I do buy two figures that seem to me simple, graceful, evocative.
We are indeed enchanted by La Encantada. The pottery is quite fine, and quite cheap. Wide, dusty streets with ours and one other car visible, just a few mototaxis, and the occasional bicycle or burro. So many small pottery shops with the workshop out back. People in their homes or just in front of them, or grinning at us from the doorways. People who seem to get on with each other.
Let me not romanticize the place: it is a place of poverty. The streets are not paved and, at least in the nearby town, there isn’t running water.
Returning to the main road, we indeed see the women washing their clothes. Ragna videotapes them doing it, then vastly amuses them by showing them the videotape, as a few children, chickens and burros look on, not overly curious.
At the turn near the village well, I stop to ask a resting mototaxi driver the name of the town, which sounds like “Whampalus.” Ragna wants to drive in and shoot a little more, and with the fine late afternoon light I’m more than willing. We park across the street from a house where two men and a woman stand chatting while two burros and a wagon stand waiting. After Ragna shoots some video of them and wanders down the street awhile, I take a few shots. The burros stand in the strong late light, and beyond them someone
has written “Peru posible – mas trabajo” I try to compose a shot that catches the burros and all the words, without my shadow, but it’s difficult. When I mention to the men that I like the composition with the burros and the phrase, they take me as asking them to be in the picture, which is fine except that they block the lettering. I shoot a few that way, then they continue passing the wooden bowl and drinking from it, so I shoot them doing that.
Then they offer me some, and I know that health concerns mandate that I refuse, but I cannot. I do ask what it is. Nectar. I do ask whether it is purely nectar, or has been made with any water, and try to explain that foreigners are vulnerable to things in the water that don’t harm locals. They say it has not been made with any water and has been “dos dias in la cocina,” which I take to mean that it has been cooked in some fashion for a couple of days – and may or may not have some alcoholic content. I drink. It is not a familiar taste. It is neither strikingly good nor strikingly bad. At some point I ask them what it is nectar of, and they reply “maiz” – corn. Each time they pass me the bowl, I drink, though my drink is closer to a sip than to the gulps they each take. Glancing at the bowl we are sharing, and at a dead fly floating in it once when it comes round, I am well aware that I’m behaving unwisely. But I’m here. At some point the woman brings out a bottle, and a yellow plastic glass. They tell me the bottle is fresher, and it tastes both better and cooler. For awhile we take turns pouring a bit of the stuff into the yellow glass and drinking from that. Then Ragna returns. They ask whether she might like some too. She politely declines, and we leave.
At one point Ragna asks me to stop so that she can film another burro-drawn wagon as it approaches, and this time she gets lucky. Five young ladies, walking in single file, emerge from the side lane and into her shot with jars on their heads and turn left, toward us, and pass by. It’s as if she started shooting and hollered “Cue the women with the jars on their heads!” and some assistant director shooed them out into the road at precisely the right moment.
We have three options: to see what passes for a hotel in Chulacanas; to return to Piura; or to drive on for an hour or so and see what sort of lodging we find in Buenos Aires, which is at least promisingly named. She opts for the first choice [as I had hoped: I’m tired, I may be about to feel a little borracho, and I feel very much like showering, writing a little, and looking at our photographs and video from the day.
Crossing the bridge into Chulucanas, I add one more photo to the day’s haul: the setting sun, directly down-river from us, lays its usual bright reflective line across the water, but tonight it silhouettes three boys playing on an island in the river. Their thin black figures, outlined against the bright yellow trail of sunlight, seem to dance.
Finding the hotel involves a maze of one-way streets and closed roads. When we do find it, we’re greeted by a Peruvian fellow who’s just returned from Hawthorne, California, where he lives. He tells us that this is the best hotel in town, and repeats it so often we begin to wonder whether it is true. Eventually a younger man, the clerk, joins us, and shows us rooms.
Ragna decides on the room that doesn’t look out over the park across the street. The park has a gas station on one side and a bunch of moto-taxis waiting for fares or dropping them off, and we are not sure how late the activity will last.
But the room lacks towels. When I reach to open the door to go downstairs in search of them, the doorknob falls off in my hand. We now have no way to leave the room. Sudden visions of some horror film – is this Peru’s Bates Motel? – dissipate when the young man knocks on the door. He’s brought towels. We tell him our plight, we push our key under the door to him, and he opens the door. Although he quickly restores the door-knob, and it seems to work, Ragna has seen enough of this room, and we move across the hall to one overlooking the park. As a result, while we review the day’s haul of video footage and stills, there’s a constant tension between our urgent need to open the windows to mitigate the room’s undue heat and our urgent need to keep them shut to limit the population of moths, crickets, and whatnot.
The choice between a local chifa and several pollerias [chicken places] is not inspiring, so we make tuna sandwiches in the room. La Encantada has delighted us, and we are happy to stay in and work on our shots of it.
We are thirsty, though, and twice I wander down for a cold soft-drink. Once, late at night, I watch TV for a few minutes while I wait for the clerk to return to his desk. Of course my Spanish isn’t up to comprehending all the details of newscasts, but there are visuals and titles to help. Bermania, cien mil muerto: 100,000 dead in _________! I recall an intense weak in Burma, the beauty of the country and the people, and the unique gentleness of so many Burmese. A volcano in Chile: from Peru, that news resonates a lot more than it does in Oakland.
I walk back upstairs, trying to avoid stepping on the crickets. ________.
La Encantada. It is the usual bind: I would love to be able to bring these people running water and an easier life. Driving away from La Encantada, I was even daydreaming about how to interest some larger group of people with money to contribute to an aid project to do that. At the same time, the inconveniences of unpaved roads and limited water undoubtedly contribute to the isolation and tranquility of the village.
In Piura we stayed at the Hostal El Sol. It was not impressive, but became quite comfortable: it was air-conditioned; there was wireless Internet in the room; there was a convenient coffee shop downstairs; everyone was helpful and friendly; and from a room at the back of the hotel, with the air-conditioning on, we really didn’t hear much noise from the busy street out front, Sanchez Serro.
In Chulucanas we stayed at the only hotel we found, Hostal Vicus, at Jr. Ayachucho 101 – Esq. Hipolito Unanue y calle Apurmac. Rate was just S./ 30 and there was a cochera; but (a) on the front side, the street noise lasts till at least 1 a.m., when the dogs take over until the mototaxis start again at about 5:25 a.m; and (b) the room was warm unless we opened the window and the door, which involved sharing the room with a growing number of insects (though possibly none that bite); and (c) it was a challenge to figure out how to add hot water to the shower stream, and when we did we got mild [but shocking] electrical shocks in the effort.
Piura: We ate at ______ / Capuccino and at a chifa in the neighborhood of the hotel. The former was one of our best meals in Perú. Delightful. The chifa made a great and filling shrimp fried rice, but the other dishes weren’t stellar. Price was quite moderate, though.
Didn’t notice anywhere to eat or drink in La Encantada. I’m sure there is somewhere, but would advise anyone driving out there for a few hours not to depend on finding a restaurant.