IX Huancabamba 8-11 May

Huancabamba 8-11 May:


We awaken early.  I have not slept well, annoyed at having agreed so quickly to arrangements with the shaman: I want to see the lakes, and wouldn’t mind seeing a ceremony or even participating; but I’m not so enthusiastic about this particular shaman, and suspect that the price is too high. An early walk reassures me on the latter point: I stroll into the police station on another side of the Plaza de Armas, and ask what the market value is for that sort of thing; and although the first cop hasn’t a clue, the second, who looks more as if he might know about such things, says the going rate is 300-400 soles. Too, a walk around the town quiets my mind.

But Ragna wants no part of it. She tells me to tell the shaman she’s too sick. She actually is a little sick, but more than that she’s concluded that he’s dangerous. She saw a dead rooster on the wall in his hovel, and believes that whatever powers he may have he doesn’t use benignly. A bad and vivid dream has confirmed her thoughts on the subject. During the night she has been wrestling with someone, probably the shaman, and needed assistance from her dead twin sister and her father to extricate herself from danger in the dream. There’s no way she’s going to the corner store with this guy, let alone up to some distant lake.

I go downstairs at more or less the appointed hour, and almost immediately the Shark’s four-wheel-drive car pulls up. The shaman, now wearing a big white cowboy hat, looks a little more of a presence than he had the previous night, but he’s not exactly charismatic. I explain that Ragna’s sick. I take a shot at recovering the money I paid down, but, as expected, I’m told it has already been spent for supplies used in the ceremony. I comment, a polite version of the view that S./ 100 will buy a hell of a lot of supplies, but it is what it is. No point in fighting a losing battle or getting bad-tempered about it. My bad.

Ragna still feels tired from her restless night, and her stomach isn’t well. She says I can’t do anything for her, so I wander out again with my camera. I pause for breakfast in a small, family-run restaurant. I drink my coffee and watch the people pass. An old man sits at a table near the door. A schoolgirl, young, emerges from the back and he, apparently her grandfather, takes her hand to walk her to school.

One of my core beliefs is that if you stand around on a street-corner long enough, something will happen. A frequent habit, when in unfamiliar situations, is to go with the flow, speaking honestly when spoken to and managing a joke now and then if I can, assuming someone will clarify what’s going on when I need to know, or my instinct will alert me if something is dangerous.

I stand on a street near the market, with my camera. A man selling an odd variety of health foods and love potions has asked if I want anything, and I’ve told him I’m just looking. Another fellow gets talking with me, to the extent that my Spanish permits. He is in radio, and has been in Huancabamba only a short time. He is working on some sort of radio piece on foreign tourists’ opinions of Huancabamba. I am a foreign tourist. Ragna is the only other non-Peruvian I’ve seen in my brief stay here. He hopes that I will give a short radio interview. (He does not know that I have been a TV talk show host scrounging for guests, a newspaperman with column inches to fill, or a trial lawyer persuading third-party witnesses to undergo the indignity of testifying at trial, and therefore sympathize with him.)

No matter that I have been in Huancabamba about sixteen hours, and in bed trying to sleep for about half that time. No matter that I have no opinions about the town beyond the beauty of the mountains, the apparent friendliness of the people, and the hearsay understanding that there are shamans around here. I am a foreign visitor. I agree, of course. I look up the word embarrassed in my pocket dictionary and explain that being interviewed in a language I do not speak on subjects of which I know nothing may prove embarazaso. He is not dissuaded. [I hope I didn’t say embarazada by accident!]

Timing is a question. I would like to help, but at the moment I want to go and see how Ragna is doing.   After awhile, when a woman with a notebook and tape recorder shows up, I realize he’s been keeping me talking until she could get there, and that she has some involvement in all this – probably as his boss, since he’s been here only 30 days.

We walk past their radio station to some ministry of tourism or somewhere, and go in to look for someone. It seems that this official’s participation in the interview is required or desired, but he isn’t there. I explain that I must go see how Ragna is doing. They walk with me to the hotel, and after checking with Ragna I tell them 11 will be fine if it works for them.

the rice sifter

the rice sifter

Ragna and I go out. We have a coffee in the same small restaurant I’d tried before. This time a man is sitting at a table with a bunch of grains – possibly rice – in front of him on the table, separating something from something. He’s sifting the rice to clean it. His

portrait of the rice-sifter - Huancabamba

portrait of the rice-sifter - Huancabamba

concentration appeals to us photographically, so we quickly capture that on Ragna’s video-camera and my Canon.   Then we’re on the way to the radio station, retracing the steps I took with Ricardo and the woman earlier. I spot the ministry we went into, and a woman on the balcony recognizes me and points the way.

The radio station is as unimpressive inside as the entrance had suggested. Inside, several young men scurry about, or chat with us as we wait. It is not clear to me whether we are waiting for the person from the local ministry, waiting for something else, or just waiting.

Eventually we are shown into the studio and sit across from Berta and Ricardo. They hold huge old-fashioned microphones. For quite awhile we watch them doing the news. It is both comical and impressive. I have done what they are doing.

They are frantic; yet they are also highly professional under circumstances that many seasoned radio announcers would find trying. [For example: wire-stories for newspaper are not written to be read over the radio. That is, “Despite his conviction for indecent exposure, cigar-smoking four-term Senator Huffpuff, asked this morning in his Washington office about his plans, surprised reporters by insisting that, no matter whom the Democrats put up, he will be renominated in November by a wide margin” becomes: “Embattled Senator Huffpuff says he will run again. This morning he told reporters in his office that he could beat any Republican, despite his conviction for indecent exposure. It would be his fourth term as Senator.” Easier to say in smaller bites, and easier for listeners to hear if the subordinate clauses go at the end of the sentence or become independent short sentences. Ricardo is holding up the newspaper in front of him and reading from it, making what changes he can on the fly. This is not easy. I can’t tell whether or not he’s making mistakes, but he’s reading clearly, smoothly, and assertively, which is perhaps the main thing.]

But they are scrambling! For newspapers to read from, to get buttons pressed in timely fashion, to play cassette tapes when they need to. They play one tape by jamming the microphone up against the tape recorder, rather than connecting it electronically.

They have explained to their listeners that they have as studio guests two foreigners, and will be asking them about their reactions to Huancabamba. Eventually they do turn their attention to me and ask a few questions. We are there for perhaps an hour, much of it in the studio, where they are sometimes scrambling to read news and announcements and sometimes struggling with the effort to interview a moron. Having exhausted the substance of the interview (I like Huancabamba just fine, it was a long drive, it was great to look down at the clouds, and the people are friendly and interesting) in the first few moments, they artfully stretch things for a good while. After the first bit of interviewing, Bertha asks if I can give a greeting to Huancabambans for the occasion of mother’s day, which I agree to do. I opt for a simple one: “Salud to the people of Huancabamba and best wishes for a happy mother’s day,” first in Spanish and then in English. At some point she writes Ricardo on a piece of paper and writes Bertha on another, to make sure that I know their names and can use them on air, as friends do.

[Happily, I do not recall all the questions I was asked.] Some elicit merely “No comprendo, disculpame” or “Yo no se.” Others. such as my occupation, what else I’ve enjoyed in Piura, or how long Ragna and I have been together, I can answer.  With a few others, as if Ricardo’s hand had turned a faucet, my gradual stream of words becomes a torrent.  For example, he asks about the importance of English, and elicits a bit of a lecture on how, whatever one make think about England or the United States, English is becoming the international language and will thus be essential in their development of tourism. 

At some point he asks what I think about U.S. politics. With my usual subtlety, I reply that George Bush is an idiot. Ricardo is delighted, but Ragna is embarrassed.  She will tell me later I could have used some better word to describe the President of my country. Unfortunately, the only other words I can think of for the President of my country are a good deal worse than “idiot.”

Ricardo asks why, and I start explaining. (But for my limited capacity in Castellano, I might still be running my mouth.) This occupies a good chunk of minutos, and is a little livelier than what has gone before.

At some point Berta asks if we’ve tried a local drink, which sounds like Ron-popo but does not involve rum. We have not. She indicates that they will close the segment by asking me whether I like it, and I say I’ll reply that I’d love to try it.

I listen carefully for the cue, which never comes. Instead they thank us for participating, and ask if we have any parting words, and I thank them for the invitation and add that by now I am ready for a ron-popo, which goes over pretty well.

Once we are off-air, Berta asks if we would indeed like to sample a ron-popo, which of course we would, and arranges that we will return to the station at 1, apparently to go from there to her home. Ron-popo is not a store-bought concoction.

amused fruit vendor

amused fruit vendor

portrait - woman in black

portrait - woman in black

We have a half-hour or so, and spend it walking up the street through the market. It’s a delightful interlude. We’re shooting a lot of video and stills, exchanging simple jokes with vendors and children, enjoying Huancabamba as much as the local citizens are enjoying the oddity of us. We receive a lot of smiles and no resentment. “Hey, gringo, where you from?” rings out with a friendly smile from vendors. They grin when they see us shooting pictures of their neighbors, and when Ragna shows people the video she’s shot, they enjoy that.

Then we return to the radio station and walk back through much of the same area with Berta and Ricardo. He has told me at some point that she’s “a celebrity” or “a star” locally, and she clearly knows most everyone. People greet her by name frequently, or she stops to visit a vendor for a brief personal chat. (For some reason I think of the English-language radio station in Taiwan again: the disk jockeys were as big there as TV stars, and even a newscaster I knew was startled to visit a local house of prostitution and get told that since he worked for ICRT, the evening’s entertainment would be free.)

Berta’s a huge frog in a small pond.  (Huancabamba has about 9,000 citizens and is twelve hours from anywhere.) 

Her house is a simple one of adobe, with hard dirt floors. The kitchen is shared with a few tiny chicks wandering around at will and a guinea pig in a small cage under the kitchen counter. (At some point we ask about the guinea pig. I have to look up the word for pet, and ask whether the guinea pig is an animal domesticó. Yes. So you don’t eat it? “Si, es muy rico,” she replies enthusiastically. It turns out that guinea pig is a special treat, eaten on someone’s birthday.)

Berta begins mixing the drink, and immediately involves Ragna in the process. For five people, six eggs are called for, and everyone takes a turn beating them by hand for a spell, while we talk and joke. We talk of politics, hometowns, and whatever else folks talk about, and there is a good deal of laughter – and more as we consume the drink.





The house is thought-provoking; or feeling-provoking: it makes me sad. The bedroom, which we see through a doorway from the yard, also has a dirt floor, and limited furniture, though there are books piled on the bed and decorations on the wall and what-not. The toilet is out back, with a shower curtain around a hole in the ground and a shower, so that this outdoor area serves both as shower and toilet.

Berta is a serious professional, even a local media star, yet lives as she does. She has, it turns out, four children, at least two of whom live with her. I have lived as she does when budget-traveling, but would find it difficult to combine with a busy professional life. (Later I recall that I did live for awhile in a schoolbus as a busy journalist in New Mexico, and on a boat without a toilet or shower while practicing law in San Francisco; but in San Francisco I had a toilet avilable up in the boatyard, a shower at the gym, and a spacious and well-appointed office on the 30th floor to work in– and I didn’t share the boat with four kids.) Anyway, I sympathize with her.

At Ragna’s request, I ask if Berta knows of a local farm family that might be willing to let Ragna videotape their daily lives, for which she would of course compensate them. She does.

Meanwhile, she and Richard suggest lunch. We fall in with that plan, and start walking. It’s mid-afternoon by now, and most restaurants are closed.

We continue walking up the street, and before we get there I guess what our destination will probably be: El Tiburon.   The shark is there.  He walks like he owns the place – which he does. He has a big four-wheel-drive car and an easygoing manner.  

He asks how Ragna is, and solicitously provides chicken soup. (Hungry, and quite recovered from her partially fictional stomach problems, Ragna must content herself with soup because she does not want him to think we were fibbing about why we didn’t go with his shaman friend.)

We are six at lunch: Ragna and I, Ricardo and Berta, and Berta’s two kids. Berta’s son Larry Williams sits near me. A studious boy with big eye-glasses. His mother says he knows a fair amount of English, but he’s too shy to use it. At some point I offer him sort of a lecture on not being afraid. Or of doing what you need to do even if you are afraid.  I tell him that the only thing in the way of anyone’s learning a language is not daring just to plunge in. I tell him about amusing the hell out of all sorts of Chinese in bus stations and streets, but laughing with them and learning a good deal more Chinese than I’d have learned by keeping my dignity. [Who the hell do I think I am, FDR? “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”] Hokey as it sounds in writing now, it seems to work: he begins working a lot more English into conversations, proud of himself and amused by the surprise in his mother’s face – and repeats “Don’t be afraid,” like a mantra.

Walking back toward the Plaza, we meet a second shaman, walking with his wife and kid. He is a younger man, and a fellow in whom I sense good nature and benevolence. Him I would trust readily as a guide to the lake, and I would be interested to see the sort of ceremony he would perform – although I’d still probably resist the hallucinogenic cocktail. I discuss possibly visiting him Sunday.

Ragna is up ahead with the kids. Berta’s daughter has taken a great shine to Ragna – as most people do, but particularly most kids, and most particularly young girls to whom she must seem a model of beauty and class.

I’m a bit tired by now and would readily take a rest, but that’s not on the cards. Berta has a farm family to which she will introduce Ragna so that Ragna can videotape their home and daily life.

We all drive out toward the village of Sondor:

Not long out of Huancabamba, Berta says we should stop to see something. We climb out of the car and head for the river. On the way we pass a woman knee-deep in swirling water, washing clothes. I photograph her, and she grins. It’s raining lightly. Then there’s a nice rainbow. The place Berta’s taken us is all right, but it’s the woman in the river and the rainbow that will linger in memory.  Within moments, the light rain becomes a heavier one, and we race back to the car half-soaked.

Sondor is about a 45-minute drive, along a narrow dirt road I will learn well. There’s one spot where part of it has disappeared, a three-foot by three-foot area exactly where one’s right front wheel would be if one didn’t notice it, and there’s a ten or twenty meter drop. I shudder to imagine driving home at night a little drunk or inattentive, or blinded by oncoming headlights. It’s just big enough to be dangerous, yet just small enough that one could overlook it.

In Sondor we meet the family. A forty-ish woman, Teresa, and four children. Her husband isn’t there. The four children include a late-teenage girl, a girl about 5 years old, and two boys aged perhaps 11, one of whom turns out to be a cousin whose parents died.

Teresa is warm and welcoming. The house is simple, but better than many we’ve seen. Ragna arranges to return in the morning.

As we start home, Berta says she wishes to introduce us to a friend, the town’s former mayor [Alcalde], and we drive to his home. He and his wife greet us courteously. We sit in the front room, drinking a bit of wine and making conversation. He has an adobe factory, and the house has been made from his bricks. It’s a nice house, more than nice in comparison with those around it. It’s not what would be called a mansion in the U.S., but in the context of where we’ve been it is impressive; and beyond the pleasant flower garden is a view that encompasses a good deal of beautiful mountain. We stand out there, just after the sun has disappeared, admiring the view and the silence.

It is past dark by the time we start back toward Huancabamba – and about ten minutes into the drive we approach a curve where a motorcyclist has just fallen. He is not seriously hurt. He is at that stage, which I recognize well, of checking all his limbs and realizing he hasn’t been much hurt. There are also two women standing there. I do not quite know what everyone has to do with everyone else, but they have called an ambulance. Now they recognize the boy does not need it, and when an older friend shows up on his motorcycle, the two of them leave; but we have to take the two women back toward Sondor to try to telephone the ambulance not to come all the way out there. There follows an interminable wait in the darkness, with Ragna and me and the two kids sitting in the dark car on the outskirts of Sondor, completely uncertain where Berta and Ricardo have gone or how soon they will be back; and when they return, we are asked to take the two nurses back to Huancabamba with us, so we all crowd into the car and make the return trip.

Back in town, the kids do not want to leave us, Larry Williams clinging to my arm and the girl still admiring Ragna.

Later that night Mario returns to report that our laundry is still not dry. Ragna has him bring it anyway, and he returns with his aunt, and she and Ragna hang the laundry on the hotel roof. Mario wanders down to visit with me, picking up and examining various strange items in our room and asking me if I would go and buy him some clothes tomorrow. No. We have given him a good deal more money than was necessary for the laundry service, because we like him and because his father is dead, his mother has seven kids, and Mario is working as well as studying. He is a very charming ten-year-old. I explain that we sympathize, and, yeah, we have more money, but not so much that we can afford to buy clothes for all our friends who need them.

The next day we drive back out to Sondor.
Teresa and son

Teresa and son

Once she is situated, Ragna asks me to leave her alone with them for awhile – or politely reminds me that I wanted to shoot photographs in the area, and says I can do that now. I go for a drive, shooting a bit, while she shoots at the house.

man near Sondor barbershop

portrait of Sondor man

portrait of Sondor man

She gets some good video of them, including a wonderful shot in which she sets up the camera, at a fairly wide angle, so that we see Teresa working away at the sewing machine while the boys and the teenage girl pass through the frame on various errands, after which the youngest girl – a budding star! – approaches

the star

the star

the camera unbidden and, at the right edge of the frame, starts washing her face and hair from an outdoor spigot, perhaps the only water source in the house. She smiles at the camera – while Juan lingers in the background, interested but not quite sure what to do with himself.



I worry about Juan. Perhaps it is my imagination, fueled by fiction about kids in his situation, orphaned and taken in by family. There is no question that love surrounds him, and that they are good to him; yet I sense that he is deeply uncomfortable in life, in his body. As good as they are to him [and Teresa seems as caring and patient as the Platonic ideal of a mother must be], he may never feel he quite belongs. Once, when I’ve gone to the car for something, he approaches the house carrying alfalfa. To make conversation, I ask his age. He is so shy, apparently, that a neighbor boy, younger, has to repeat the question for him, and finally he says 13, almost mumbling.

boys & puppies - Sondor

boys & puppies - Sondor






It is a simple house, but with several small bedrooms to accommodate all the children. The downstairs floors are dirt. The walls are adobe, not always covered. The fairly large main room has a TV in the corner, but seating is mostly the thin wooden benches one sees throughout Peru.   The downstairs bedroom doubles as a storeroom, and has a cabinet full of potatoes in it.

farmhouse living room

Upstairs are the kids’ rooms. The youngest girl’s “room” is a corner of the hallway with curtains on two sides hiding a small bed and lots of her drawings on the wall.

Their cash income is limited, and when Ragna wonders at some point whether they have ever been outside Peru, and I ask if they’ve traveled, Teresa replies that, yes, they sometimes work at a chacra a couple of hours’ walk from here; but the children seem happy, the garden is fertile, and Teresa’s wealth of paitence seems unlimited. 

On the way back to Huancabamba, we stop to see Afranio, the ex-Mayor. He is happy to see us. The three of us sit in his house, talking about the house and the town. When we leave to walk to his brick factory, he does not lock his door, and remarks on the fact that people in Huancabamba or Piura or Lima have to lock their doors, but people in Sondor do not. The place is peaceful and quiet, and we enjoy the short walk.

Afranio overlooking kiln

Afranio overlooking kiln

The brick factory is closed because of damp weather.  He points out the elements of it, talking on camera for Ragna’s video, and also points out a nearby waterfall.

As we walk, I ask him – knowing it may not be a polite question – whether he is no longer alcalde because he no longer wanted to be, or . . . He interrupts to explain that he no longer wanted to be, that life is more tranquil, that he prefers industry. He owns a bread mill as well as the adobe factory. He explains that there is no other brick factory around, even in Huancabamba and some other towns in the area. “Entonces, usted es un rico,” I tease him.

His pride is clear – and justified. He is a contented man. He makes things that people need. He does it with care, and undoubtedly profits from it. He has a family, a garden, and a fine view of the hills, in a town where people leave the doors of their houses unlocked.   He is a gracious man whom I like and trust, quickly.

Afranio and Afranio

Afranio and Afranio

As we walk back toward his house, I compliment him on his house. Curious, I ask how much such a house would cost to build today, and how much land costs around Sondor. It is very little. At that moment, I feel tempted.

Just then we pass an old sign advocating his election as alcalde, and I can’t resist photographing him walking past it.

Back at the hotel, we find that Ragna has forgotten her cell-phone. We make the 45-minute drive out to Sondor yet again – and after dark yet again. This time we meet Teresa’s husband, too. They are all sitting in darkness watching TV. They have the cell-phone, and she has been urging him to take it to us in Huancabamba – a long journey I’m glad he didn’t take. We sit awhile on the long wooden bench against one wall, then leave them to enjoy their TV show.

On the way back from Sondor, we pass an old farm couple headed home from their chacra. When we stop and offer them a ride, at first they do not understand. “No,” they say, eyes wide. Whatever the question is, it cannot be good.  When they understand that these foreigners are offering a ride home after hours of labor on a small farm, they accept readily. The man’s joy and surprise are audible in his sigh as his ass sinks into the comfortable back seat of the car. His wife is so old and stiff she can hardly climb in – yet she has labored all day. I do not ask their ages. As we drive on, the scent of growing crops fills the car. When they thank us, the warmth in their eyes shames me. I have been so lucky!

sign near Sondor









“Justice should be like Death, which comes to all, without exception”  

Travel Notes
Lodging in Huancabamba is toward the simple end. At the Hotel Danubio, our room overlooking the plaza had three beds, a lot of dust, and a cold-water private bathroom – and the electric contraption to add hot water to the shared hot-water shower gave Ragna a shock. The place was inexpensive. There was no cochera, but folks told me that with the police station across the Plaza de Armas and a police car usually parked near our corner of the Plaza, and a guard at the nearby bank, no one would mess with our car.
El Tiburon was as good as anywhere to eat – maybe the best in town – and is neither mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide nor readily visible, since it’s several blocks from the Plaza de Armas. Take a moto-taxi or, from the Plaza, walk left on the street in front of the police station and keep going.
Other Points
I regret that we didn’t get out to the lake; but the weather was cloudy and occasionally rainy, and Ragna was more than tired of our hotel and wanted to leave. Shamans are there, and no myth; but choose one carefully. 

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