57. to Puerto Maldonado and Cusco (Sept. 28-29)
The boat from Corto Maltes back to Puerto Maldonado passes many egrets and the occasional caiman.
All too soon we are there. The Canadian points out the supports for the future bridge, and we muse on how soon the bridge may be a reality and how it will change lives here.
The van drops me at the Corto Maltes office – directly across the street from the Wasai Lodge. I leave my backpack there and reserve a room.
Luci plans to take the group on a tour of the Sunday Market in Puerto Maldonado. She’s shown us a tree that produces something they call “Dragon Blood,” a somewhat miraculous cure for minor scrapes and bruises and infections, and says they sell it there. The van will stop there, then head for the Don Carlos Hotel, where Ragna and Selma are staying.
I head instead for the SUNARP office, which I’d managed to locate before we went to Corto Maltes. It’s urgent that I do some paperwork: when I bought the car, I put it in Ragna’s name and mine, and now will need her to sign off on it so that I can sell the car when I leave Perú. I’ve figured everything out except a pretty basic fact: it’s Sunday. Offices are closed.
So I grab a moto-taxi to the market to tell Ragna about this new problem.
In the market, at first I’m rushing to find Luci and Ragna and Selma, but it’s a market, and pretty soon I’m seduced by its photographic appeal. I shoot what I see: children giggling beside cages of tiny chicks, skinny chickens hanging in the air between vendors and customers, a tiny girl in a stroller wearing over-sized sunglasses and clothes that match her stroller, like some Hollywood starlet; the fresh meat and fish and the tired or laughing faces of the women waiting to sell them.
I even shoot these videotapes — thinking of a kid I know who worked full-time on “Ratatouille.”
Luci greets me from a few feet away before I even see them. I explain to Ragna and Selma that it’s Sunday, and that I’ll get up early on the morrow to go to SUNARP or a notario. They’ve already bought the dragon blood, and Luci waves very generally back toward wherever they bought it, then leads the others toward the van.
I decide to have a look for the dragon blood. A young man from Corto Maltes asks me if I’m lost, obviously sure I’m meant to be on the van with the others. I tell him I’m not. He asks, almost incredulously, whether I mean to stay at the market. I do.
Still shooting intermittently, I head off in the direction Luci pointed in, and ask. Early on when someone fails to recognize “dragon blood” I mime the idea and learn the Spanish phrase (since forgotten), which is more useful. Everyone knows the stuff. I get pointed in several directions, figuring I’m getting closer, and finally one man, having pointed me back toward the meat and fish vendors, decides instead to walk the few dozen meters with me, and I find myself back where I started, a few feet from where I encountered the others. A man is indeed standing by the meat and fish tables with a few small bottles, and sells me one for five soles.
Working my way back toward the corner I first arrived at, I’m hailed by a fast-talking young man who wants to sell me a native spear. I tell him that I can’t. When he asks why, I explain that I have a long way to travel, back to my country, and can’t take too much stuff. He recognizes the logic, but suggests that instead I take a picture of the indigenous man standing there with more spears and a young boy. I’m not clear on his motive. Does he think I’m going to pay him a propina for taking their photo? Is the slight mockery in his tone just good humor, or is he, as I infer, making fun of them? I decide to photograph them and pay them something. It’s an unpromising photograph, but they look like they need something. The indigenous man’s face appears full of confusion, uncertainty, timidity, as if perhaps he doesn’t come to the city often or feel comfortable here.
So I shoot a couple of quick shots of them, then pay the indigenous man (who looks as if he might not even have asked for a propina or expected one) two soles and the boy one. After a moment the boy puts his arms around my thighs and holds me tight, leaning his head against me affectionately. I’m embarrassed by how little I gave him, touched and saddened by how small an amount could evoke such gratitude – or perhaps more than the coin it is the unqualified friendliness he feels from me in a market where people are not treating him and his father very well. I pat his back for a moment.
Walking further, I see them again, the old man negotiating with someone to sell the half-dozen spears he’s carrying. It’s hot and muggy, and the boy should have an ice cream. I see an ice-cream vendor walking away from us. When I catch up with him I ask for two ice cream cones. One for the boy and one for his father or grandfather. The cones are a sole each. As I give him a five-sole piece I point to two children playing on the ground nearby, and ask him to give them one each, then rush away with two cones and my change. It pleases me that the two kids will have a nice surprise – and that they won’t see who’s responsible, particularly that he’s a norteamericano.
The indigenous boy and his father are still near where I’d seen them. I hand the boy a cone, then ask the man if he would like the other, and his face lights up. I hand it to him and continue on my way.
Later that evening I wonder why third-world outdoor markets still hold such appeal for me. Okay, shooting the floating market on Inle Lake, with buyers’ shallow wooden boats just pulling up to vendors’ wooden boats for as long as the transaction takes, or the Sha Ping market near Da Li, in Yunnan, with all the weird medicinal stuff and the people in traditional costumes, sure; Lhasa, with Khampas standing around next to slaughtered yaks that haven’t even been cut up yet; even Pisac, okay. But this is a Sunday market in a city. Still, I can’t resist the faces and the tableaux, and the striking omnipresence of dead fish and animals. The moment they set me loose in it I ran around like a dog in the Gila.
At breakfast the next morning, on the deck with a view of the Mother of God River, these thoughts will morph into a couple of tanka:
how many tired faces have
how and why we struggle on.
(Finishing the second, I’ll be troubled by “we struggle on.” They struggle on – perhaps. But quite possibly their lives delight them, and it only appears, to the eyes of a spoiled gringo, that they are struggling. Maybe the weary indigenous man selling spears feels quite content with his life. I don’t know. I can’t fairly say that I struggle. “Struggle?” Sure, I’m a little down about the end of a relationship. But only a 16-year-old could seriously call going on with my life “a struggle.”
Back at the hotel, I get my stuff from behind the counter. I muse on the fact that while visiting a market where a kid was so grateful for a sole or half-sole, I left a computer, hard-drive, and extra photographic lenses in a back-pack on the floor behind the hotel counter, not ten meters from an open door to the street. Something I don’t often do. I think about all the things foreigners (and Peruvians, particularly in Lima) say about Peruvian honesty or dishonesty, and about all the hotel rooms in which maids have cleaned around stuff worth what they make in a year or two, taking nothing. All the men in remote locations who’ve grinned at me or posed for Ragna’s video-camera or asked me whether we’ve been to Cusco, without any effort to enhance their incomes by robbing us. The cab-driver in Cusco the other night who, when I automatically gave him three soles for the short ride from the Plaza to the Hostal, returned half a sole to me.
There’s some sort of parade going on, so I rush back out immediately. I rush around shooting a bunch of pictures, but the only two I like are these:
At breakfast I sit watching birds and listening to the boats and other sounds from the river, and write four tanka: the “Mother and daughter” tanka set in Corto Maltes, one on the indigenous man in the Sunday market, then the two more quoted above.
I assumed that the man was the boy’s father; yet in memory, a day later, he seems too old. I remember sad, weary eyes and something beaten-down about him — and hope I’ve merely imagined that.
Already feeling sweaty, I walk down Leon Velarde, one of the main streets, toward where I’d seen a sign for an abogado’s office.
The abogado’s office is empty, except for the man himself; but, as I’d guessed, it’s a notario we have to see, and he says there’s one in cuadro 7 – block 7 – and I continue walking. As I do I call the hotel to ask Ragna for her passport number. Selma comes to the phone instead, and eventually gives me the number.
The notario’s office is already full of life, with various employees of the notario helping various local folks, and other people waiting around in chairs. A woman working there explains that they can draft a document in which Ragna authorizes me to sell the car – but that when I sell it I’ll still need a copy of Ragna’s passport with an “authorization to do business” stamped in it. Which Ragna doesn’t have; but I’m pretty sure the woman’s wrong about that part of it. I start giving her the information, as well as copies of my passport and the car owner’s card, simultaneously calling back to Ragna’s hotel. Again Selma comes to the phone, and I give her the notario’s address. Moments later she shows up with the passport. While the woman copies it, Selma and I talk briefly.
The woman says they can have the document ready for Ragna’s signature quickly. Selma says they’re just packing, and can come back in a few minutes. It’s about 9:35, and I know they wanted to be off to the airport by 10. I tell her I’ll wait at the office, and do.
Time passes. I get a cold drink from a nearby stand. I stand outside and shoot a few more photographs of passing motorcycles with families on them. I sit in the office. I review a draft of the document. I notice a change I would probably make if we were in the States – that instead of delegating me to sell the car Ragna should delegate me “or his designee,” in case I get someone else to sell it; but that seems a technicality, and I’m hot and sweaty. I try to write a tanka, but the place is too crowded and I’m out of sorts, and wondering where Ragna and Selma are, and whether I’ll get out of Puerto Maldonado today myself.
At about ten minutes past ten, I start calling Ragna’s cell-phone, then the hotel phone. When I finally reach someone at the hotel, she says they left for the airport ten minutes ago! It takes about three minutes to reach the notario’s office. I wonder whether Selma forgot the address, but she knows it’s between her hotel and the Plaza, and it couldn’t take long to cruise the dozen blocks involved. The only other notario is a little ways down this block. Meanwhile, if I don’t soon do something about my own flight, I may not get out of Puerto Maldonado today.
Still, I wait; but I am beginning to guess that Ragna’s blowing this off. It seems crazy, since I have $500 I’m supposed to give Selma, and will also be spending time and money to send Ragna’s things to her; and even without those incentives, how could you hate someone so much you’d do something that could cost him ten or twelve thousand dollars, when all you needed to do was make a two-minute stop in an office?
Did she get panicked by fears she’d miss her plane, and then her connections? Or did they get lost, lose time, and then give it up? Or does she hate me more than I imagined? She has said several times, when I’ve mentioned the car papers, that she couldn’t care less if I lose a bunch of money.
Finally I tell the woman they must not be coming back, that perhaps Ragna is angry. I walk toward the LAN office, but even then keep glancing back or pausing to watch whether any mototaxi stops at the notario’s office.
The walk is an odd low point. I’m surprisingly un-angry at Ragna, although disappointed, both in her and in my own judgment of character. I’m less troubled by the car problem than I might be: if I can’t sell it, I guess that’ll be an omen that I’m meant to move to Perú. It’d be a startling answer some day: Q. “Why’d you move to Perú?” A. “Because I owned a car down here that I couldn’t sell.”
Mostly I just feel sad. How else would one feel, ending a relationship of nearly eight years? Compound that with the distance from home, the heat and mugginess of Puerto Maldonado, the wasted morning trying to adjust the car papers, and the possibility I might not get out of town today.
The LAN office is a classic bad-news, good-news story: I tell ‘em I don’t have my ticket and guess I need to buy a new one, and they tell me there are no spaces on today’s flights and no spaces on tomorrow’s. I resolve to search more fully for the missing ticket. But when I ask which flight I was meant to be on, and my passport number confirms I’m on the second flight this morning, they point out that it’s an electronic ticket. The reason I can’t find my ticket is that I never got one, of course – and don’t need it.
I hail a moto-taxi, and the man takes me to the hotel and waits while I go to the room for my stuff. On the way, the cell-phone beeps, and the screen says I have a missed call – from Ragna’s cell-phone. For once I get through, and she asks where I’ve been. When I ask her what happened, she says they got lost, had problems communicating with their cab-driver, and couldn’t reach me. I give her the notario’s address, and tell her I’ll be back there myself as soon as I can.
The moto-taxi driver takes me back there. They’ve been and gone. The woman is doing whatever further stuff it is that she needs to do to give me an official, certified copy. Although I’m grateful they could deal with the problem at all on such short notice, the additional minutes seem awfully long. Then when I think it’s nearly over she tells me to go next door to the bookstore/stationery shop and buy a diskette, so that they can put the document on that too. I spend two or three soles for the diskette and return. Eventually she gives me the document and the diskette, and I’m off to the airport.
Of course I’m in a hurry. I should be in plenty of time for my flight, but you never know. On the other hand, if Ragna and Selma are on the earlier flight I’ll likely have missed them, and I need to give some money to Selma – and kind of want to say good-bye to them, after all the madness.
It begins to rain slightly, and the driver stops to get from the roof some flaps to place as doors to protect me from the rain. “No me importa,” I explain. He makes sure he understood me and climbs back onto his seat, mumbling something, maybe that I might find it matters a lot in a few moments when the rain becomes a torrent – which is, of course, what happens.
Soon one of my legs is soaked. Drenched in rain and sweat, I’m guessing I’ll be cold once I’m in the airport. But I’ve no time to screw around with the curtain. Then the moto-taxi stalls, and the driver removes some cover then kick starts the thing, and we’re off again. Almost everyone else in sight is diving out of sight, or driving under the roof covering a gas station’s pumps, or parking the bike and standing under a building’s eves with a notebook or newspaper over his or her head.
My driver pulls in to a gas station to put 50 centimos worth of gas in the tank, but doesn’t insist on the flaps, although I tell him sheepishly that he was right about the rain.
Now finally we’re cruising. The rain has diminished a little, and there’s less wind, so I’m not getting pelted anymore; and we’re beyond the main part of town, moving along smartly – when an ominous noise and a jerk puncture that dream. It sounds serious. A moment later, when the noise recurs, I look down and see that the chain has slipped off whatever it connects with around the rear axle. I know it’s over. Before I even get out of the moto-taxi I spot an empty one approaching from the airport.
As the new cab makes its U-turn, I ask the old driver how much I owe him. Getting rained on as he goes to inspect the damage, he’s the definition of “disconsolate.” When my question penetrates the haze – he’s surely uncomfortable, it may be that the necessary repairs will challenge him financially, and he’s losing the fare – he shakes his head and seems to indicate that he doesn’t deserve anything because he failed. However, he got me close to the airport; and earlier he drove me to the hotel and back to the notario. I repeat the question, and he aks in a low tone for five soles, and I give him ten.
Not long afterward, I’m sitting in the waiting room with Selma and Ragna.
We laugh over the day’s crossed signals. When I pass Selma the money, we laugh that it must look just like a drug deal, and joke that I should take her backpack and walk off with it, as if I’ve just purchased whatever’s inside. It’s good to laugh. The confusion and crazy rain have made moods lighter. Likely I will not see these folks again – Selma’s flying to Lima without getting off the plane. Ragna will get off in Cusco, grab some of her stuff from the hostal, then fly immediately to Lima. We’ve had harsh words. I’m glad to part laughing.
In Cusco, the hotel employees welcome me back. They are not surprised that the other two have left.
Two quite reasonable hotels are the Don Carlos and the Wasai Lodge. The former is at the far [South] end of the main street (Velarde) from the Plaza de Armas. The latter is on Billinghurst, the single street between the Plaza de Armas and the hill overlooking the Madre de Dios River. I liked the Wasai better — but it was awfully hot and muggy in Puerto Maldonado. I took several cold showers each night, trying to get to sleep.
The Wasai is closer to the action (overlooks the river quite near the ferry boat and the landing from which boats head up to Corto Maltes and other such places, and is just a block away from the Plaza de Armas) and has a nice view. The Don Carlos is further away — maybe a little more quiet if you don’t get a room that backs up against the yard full of barking dogs. I’d say the Don Carlos would probably appeal a little more to upscale travelers. The Wasai also organizes jungle tours and, I think, has a lodge somewhere in the jungle. I think I paid S./ 120 per night at the Don Carlos, and slightly less at the Wasai.