October 27, 2010
We lived with Sandro Chiri and his family for one week, in a large apartment building in the neighborhood of Jesús María. Every day we went to the Market to buy groceries, and Morgan would apprentice himself to Zoila, Sandro’s sister, as she taught him the ins and outs of Peruvian home cooking. Zoila was always smiling. Her walk was a very proud, very squat shuffle. Needless to say we were well taken care of, though most tourists seem to hate Lima. On that note, everyone and their mother, Peruvian friends and family alike, tried to dissuade us from visiting Lima the Cruel. We loved it there, and its cruelty is the same as in any big city in countries with inner diasporas. For all of its blight and sprawl, its disfiguring poverty and hazy avenues, it remains a proud, wonderful, cosmopolitan city. It is a wounded royal daughter of Spain, sometimes called the City of Kings.
Zoila’s homely auspices transformed every morning into a feast of strong coffee and fresh bread. She had an acute skill for reading our body language, which, combined with her strong spirituality, made her seem clairvoyant. The hairs on the back of our necks stood up as she casually told Morgan that he must pray often. When Morgan, dumbstruck, asked how she knew that, she told him that she could see his thick, blue aura.
She accompanied our meals with sometimes charming, sometimes upsetting, but always fascinating stories. They resembled Faulkner’s rotten onions, or Marquez’s magical ones, insofar as she would suddenly switch narrative voices and speak from different perspectives, all the while maintaining her own unique tone, until arriving at something uncomfortably human. Her unstoppable verbal stream of consciousness was like listening to the last chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, over and over again, and because of Pablo’s fluency they usually flowed directly into his ears, while Morgan and Theo were allowed to gently excuse themselves. One day the subject matter was so nonchalantly presented but so devastating that Pablo had to cool himself down by leaving and literally walking it off, in circles around Jesús María. That’s all we’re going to say about that, but let us reiterate how the abundance of our table was a balm in times of bitterness, and we felt like we were family.
Zoila’s husband, the upright, complicated, sagely and sweater-clad Miguel Ángel, would hang up laundry with Morgan and Theo on the rooftop overlooking Lima. He would decorate the cityscape with fabulous regional folklore: mysterious green lights that vaulted up to heaven from the sea, and unidentified flying saucers, and Peru’s recent earthquakes apropos the second coming of Christ. He also bummed many a cigarette, and told us all over countless glasses of emoliente how different foods were good for our digestion. In Lima we learned that food is great for digestion.
Jesús María itself is relatively middle class. A few blocks away from us we found the Goethe Institute, where one night we saw live jazz and where Sandro gave Theo a crash-course in the Peruvian Avant Garde. Just around the corner from us sat the Russian Cultural Center, the Vatican Embassy, and the oldest University on the continent, La Universidad de San Marcos, founded in May 1551.
The Museo de Arte de Lima, aka MALI, was one of the first wonders we encountered in Lima’s vast, uncontrollable sprawl. The second floor, where we expected to see the best and brightest 20th century Peruvian art, was sadly closed, but that didn’t stop us from whetting our palates on some much needed non-Latin American art: the first floor housed an exhibition of contemporary international short films, several of which were not unbearably dull, uninspired and boring. “Backyard-Hey! sun is rising,” by the Chinese director Yang Fudong, was shot in gritty black and white and documented a group of four men who always appear together, sharing the same space and acting simultaneously, while each maintains their own uniqueness. In it Theo saw the hyper-active, masculine, early 21st century Maya Deren that he’s always wondered about. Another interesting flick was called “I only wish i could weep,” and exists thanks to a Lebanese military official who was stationed along the Corniche. His orders were to film the busy seaside promenade for reasons of monitoring and security. Instead, he redirected the camera towards the setting sun, many times. Surprisingly, the military let him keep his footage, even after he was discharged. These weren’t the only two stand-outs. Each film had something to it and their diversity was welcome: other directors included Gillian Wearing, Hassan Khan, Astrid Nippoldt, Sigalit Landau, Rachel Reupke, Fabian Giraud, Yael Bartana, and Sebastian Diaz Morales.
The first floor also boasted an exhaustive and impressive exhibit on everybody’s favorite anarchitect, Gordon Matta-Clark. We watched him document the dissembling of many a hierarchical space for the sake of autonomous spatiality, while our tummies grumbled for us to explore the possibilities of occupying their non-hierarchical spatial configurations.
That night we took a cab to Barranco, a relatively monied seaside community with all the trimmings: here you find the internationally renowned restaurants that make Lima’s food-culture “important,” frequented by the ever-important French people. You also find fancy lofts and seaside condominiums, the home of Nobel-Prize-winning Mario Vargas Llosa, and the Pacific. On our way we met Adam, an old friend of Pablo’s brother. After college Adam converted to Catholicism and began missionary work on the outskirts of Lima. If you’re wondering why a Bowdoin-grad with a secular upbringing is now a consecrated layman working in Peru, the short version is this: while working at an NGO in Philadelphia called “Juntos”, which he co-founded and which focused on the integration of legal and illegal Latin American immigrants into US society, he was given a rosary.
Dinner that night was exquisite, although Theo as always could not reconcile Catholicism’s peaceful goals with the Church’s practice of telling people what they can and cannot do with their genitals. Adam is not a fundamentalist nor a fanatic, and being a young man in the 21st, understood Theo’s concerns. But then again it was silly of Theo to try to convince a consecrated layman with somewhat standard liberal invective. Adam simply invited us to the outskirts of Lima that next day to show us the kind of work he does, and to see how the other half really lives.
In defense of the largely indefensible Catholic Church, it is often the only institution working in the most marginalized, impoverished, and popular neighborhoods in countries like Peru. It feeds and educates people, independent of the seemingly important left-right bickering to which we are accustomed. And yet these youths are vulnerable. A Catholic education could easily limit their minds to the institutional chains of colonialism.
As we traveled into the municipality of San Juan de Miraflores, street-maintenance diminished as garbage piles rose, the telephone poles became makeshift, and plumbing disappeared. Pamplona Baja is where the Sodalitium built its Policlinico Sagrada Familia: here, all medical treatment is free, with an outsourced rotating staff. The Policlinico has a maternal ward along with physical therapy and daycare centers. Yes, it does sound like a run-of-the-mill hospital, but it is superior to the government-run clinics.
We piled into the bed of an old Ford pick-up and muscled our way up through traffic to Pamplona Alta, a city of squatter huts rising up out of the Chanchería pigfarms and climbing further up into the hills. Our truck kicked up dust as we drove along roads carved out of the mountains by bare hands. We found the forgotten ones: they had no place in the sierra, and now they live at the mercy of the dunes. In the 80’s and early 90’s The Shining Path spread out of Ayacucho like a Maoist plague, into the valleys and Sierras where many agriculturalists had to flee their homes. Sodalitium built an elementary school and steep steps that will eventually help the town receive government recognition – and the electricity and plumbing that come along with it. Squatter laws in Peru entail a seven-year commitment to a particular place, usually a shack made of garbage, tin, and discarded wood. Theo and Adam helped a smiling 4-year-old climb the steps by swinging her between them. As she laughed, the historical relationship between the Church and the Political Class, a revolving door of brown-nosing sycophants, murderers and bastards, seemed to disappear. Somebody asked Theo what he made of it all, and Theo responded that given the circumstances, he was inspired by the strength, resolve, and communitarian instincts made plain by the squatters and their families. He was concerned, he said, about heavy rain and floods washing away the entire town. What he should have been concerned about was any rain at all, and Dengue-carrying mosquitos breeding in sewage water.
Consistent with Peru’s societal disconnects, Pamplona Alta sits on one side of a hill while La Molina, the wealthiest neighborhood in all of Lima, sits on the other. We were told that there is a wall surrounding La Molina past which nobody ventures and which we’ve added to our list of Us and Them Walls. Limeños typically turn a blind eye to these communities, of which there are many. You might ask, where are the NGO’s and where is the Peace Corps? They simply aren’t there, not in Pamplona. The most controversial neighborhood in which many work is the seaside community of Callao, which is a lovely place in comparison. Morgan’s Pilsen Callao hat is testament to that.
Callao is where we went to bond with Sandro’s family. It was festive as all get out, like Thanksgiving and Christmas in one, except that it was just another Sunday in Lima… after a night of hypocritical debauchery in the glitz and glamour of Miraflores. After a large meal and meeting brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, and countless friends thereof, we drove to the seaside. Cans of beer were passed around. The marina was beautiful. After an earthquake in the early 20th century half of Callao sunk. If you wanted to, you could sail out and stand atop a sunken church cupola. After taking in the views at La Punta we all went for picarones, the Limeño version of the funnel-cake. We ate them alongside anticuchos, which are delectable, spicy, cow-heart shish-kebabs. Bottle after bottle of Pilsen Callao vanished. We felt like part of an even larger family now, but it came with a price. The strong breeze chilled us to the bone. Morgan and Theo fell ill the next day, the kind of ill where you get so hot and feverish you begin to fear for your capacity to have children. Intense, hallucinatory fevers.
Two days later we took all the necessary photographs with our adoptive family, said our goodbyes, and got on a bus to the white city of Arequipa. Had we not been committed to the red-wines of Ithaca and the southern pass, we would have stayed in Lima. We would have made it work.
October 22, 2010
The bus ride from Piura to Chiclayo was the kind in which you fall asleep during one Chuck Norris film, and wake up in the middle of another, worse Chuck Norris film. Dubbed. Both. Morgan remembers three Chuck Norris films. It could have been two, and then an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger.
We only stayed one night, because there isn’t much to see within the city itself, unless you love car horns and prostitutes. Our only major activity there consisted of frequenting Peru’s largest outdoor market, where we bought a bag of coca leaves that would come in handy later on in our journey. Many of the brujo-accessory vendors and apocatheries approached us with San Pedro, and would tell us how much we would enjoy shitting and vomiting and being harassed by crotchety ancestors. A man standing right in front of Pablo had his wallet snatched, and locals would give us the hairy eye, even if they were only telling us to watch out for the even harrier-eyed criminal element. We left that very day.
Chiclayo was too unruly for us, too loud and too dirty, though in its favor, it does have a beautiful plaza and delicious goats. But then again, Northern Peru is full of delicious goats, so we booked it to nearby Trujillo as fast as we could, anxious always to keep heading south.
We were so exhausted by the time we finally arrived in Trujillo that we unthinkingly got into a gypsey cab, something you are absolutely forbidden to do in Peru. Nothing happened, except that we were charged 4 soles instead of the standard 3. You cannot travel to Peru without hearing at least one taxi horror story. It is common for criminals to rent taxis, pick up the unsuspecting tourist, and take him or her to an ATM, at gunpoint. If lucky, the nightmare ends there, if not, you find yourself locked in a room for days, making the trip to the cajero. Our only trip was to not one, not two, but three unappealing brothelistic crackhostels, before deciding that we would spend one night in Trujillo, in a three star hotel, with decadently consistent hot water, and American sports on television.
It’s been stated previously that eating Chinese food in South America is a gamble, an event horizon, a trial by fire, a crucible, and an enigma wrapped in a riddle, that’s wrapped in a cloak of injustice and blasted through the sun to the other side of the universe, where you begin to doubt humanity. Some intrepid travel-writer with a stronger constitution than ours could write a best-seller documenting the sad state of Asian cuisine in the southern hemisphere, perhaps even providing some culinary history detailing just how things developed so depressingly. Perhaps a deeply repressed yearning for punishment would have drawn us in to this particular Chifa, if we weren’t already drawn in by sheer hunger and cold. No other restaurants were open, that we could see. We had no groceries or available kitchen. So we swallowed our pride, knowing full well that one false step could crush our spirits, but never in a million years expecting to dine in the dark night of our souls. One of the powerfully emasculating feelings on this earth consists of explaining to your waiter that your chicken is raw, and having him explain to you that the chicken is fine. You like it. You eat it. You wash it down with Inka Cola, a foul, bright yellow concoction that tastes like the bubble-gum-flavored flouride paste from your five-year-old’s visits to the dentists, blended with ditchwater and the blood of trade-unionists.
It worked like an episode of the Twilight Zone: we were ushered into a private booth, surrounded on all sides by dirty red velvet. Our waiter had a sinister grin. The floors were dirty tiles. We couldn’t see the other customers, because there actually weren’t any. The sounds around us were a recording of the exact same conversation we were having, which consisted of flabbergasted, disgusted and nauseated cries to heaven for forgiveness, played back in reverse, in different languages, at different volumes, because we’ve always eaten at this restaurant, in hell.
But enough about that. Trujillo is one of Peru’s colonial jewels. Founded in 1532 by Pizzaro, it was like walking through a town in Andalucia. There was plenty of culture to absorb within the city walls, and plenty of delicious tres leches cakes to be had, but we were drawn away from it, to the sacred sites and ruined cities of the ancient Moche and Chimu. The Temple of the Sun, Huaca del Sol, sits like a pyramid made of sand, at the foot of a mountain. In ancient times, when the people got fed up with the priests, the priests would defend themselves by standing at the foot of the mountain. The mountain was thought to be a god itself, and this deterred the masses. This may seem silly, but they appreciated the elements like any intelligent human being, and they didn’t sacrifice… any children. Very little is in fact known about the culture because it is not only pre-Inca, but did not have a tradition of writing its history. Instead, historical preservation occurred when temples stacked above older temples eventually became pyramids. Each generation was buried so that a newer, fresher one could build over the past. This makes the excavation process particularly delicate: archeologists cannot simply open the next room because the next room was filled with brick and sealed off to serve as foundation.
These ruins are not beautiful, in the same way that dung and straw don’t get you the Sistine Chapel. It was fascinating to us, however, that if it weren’t for one hurricane, nobody would ever have known of these people, who dominated just about half of modern-day Peru, and a little bit of modern day Ecuador. We thank the Sechura desert for preserving its own past.
Our lunch that day was fantastic…for Morgan and Theo, whose meals are generally exuberant and Catholic, and laugh in the face of Pablo’s survival sustenance, equivalent to the austere, midwestern Lutheran. Pablo had his usual, and only option – the omelet – while Morgan and Theo dug into a plate of falling-off-the-bone turkey and goat, with potatoes and huancaina, and a side of spicy kidneys, tripe, livers, and hearts, bathing in peppers and chillies, garnished with onions and rocoto peppers, and down the hatch with chicha morada. Here’s how.
Bellies full, we rode off to the majestic ruins of Chan Chan, whose long, sandy streets and wide squares are guarded to this day by bizarre, slightly demented hairless dogs, and grizzled anthropologists. It sprawled as far as the eye can see. These sandy mazes were the palaces of Chimu kings. Hereditary ownership of the kingdom worked like this: if the king’s son and rightful heir could not finish building his own future palace before the king died, he inherited nothing. We like that the little prince had to bloody his knuckles stacking mud-brick, in order to earn his keep. The Chimu also intrigued us as moon worshippers, as opposed to the Moche, who preferered the wrinkle-faced Ayapec, affectionately known as The Decapitator.
The Chimu and the Moche come from the same line, and their name change is attributed to some major natural disaster that forced a restructuring of their social hierarchies. There is no evidence of emmigration of the Chimu people nor of an immigration of Moche people. Their less than fantastic ruins were discovered by archeologists when a large amount of ceramics previously unknown to the region began to appear in markets. Stiff competition came from the graverobbers, known down here as Guaqueros, a kind of bat-dung cowboy whose stolen relics wind up, interestingly enough, in the hands of British lawyers. Problems don’t end there: taking the necessary steps to prove that a site is in fact a valuable ancient ruin takes time, and after all was said and done it was discovered that many of these guaqueros were dealing with big-wig international art collectors who had very good lawyers, some of whom got paid in artifacts.
After learning about the chicha-drunk king and his minions we stopped briefly in the seaside town of Huanchaco, where two aging, Uruguayan lesbians took what is, to this day, the worst and most unflattering photo of us. We sipped capuchinos and looked at gnarled, stuffed fish in the aquatic center, until we were fed up and ready to go to Lima.
A common bandit-ploy is to destroy a vehicle’s window with either a bullet, or a stone, and then to raid said vehicle if the driver is inexperienced enough to stop. Our night bus to Lima was run by a respectable company that knew to keep driving headlong into the night even after Morgan and Theo’s window was shattered. They told us to close our curtains completely, and that was that. By eight in the morning we were in Lima, greeted at the station by the poet, Sandro Chiri.
September 30, 2010
frontier towns and badlands
We left Vilcabamba at five in the morning, and caught a bus to the border in Loja. The driver had been kind enough to let us board, even though we had no cash. As such, we had to stop for a moment in Catamayo, so that Theo could use an ATM.
Theo got out and walked four blocks to the bank, having understood that the bus would wait for him at the corner. Naturally, the ATM didn’t respond to his card, and after countless desperate attempts, he had to give up and walk back into the heat. The bus was gone.
There was little to do but panic, recalling that Pablo and Morgan were asleep when the bus driver showed him out. After fifteen minutes of searching frantically, he arrived at the conclusion that the bus had left without him, and that he was stranded in southern Ecuador with nothing in his pockets but a pen and a credit card, and his favorite sweater slung over his shoulder. Soon after, a bored Ecuadorian woman in a run down bus station was surprised to see a sweaty, disheveled Theo approach her, slam his fists on the counter, and tell her desperately that he needed to get to Piura. Thank God that particular company didn’t go there, or he would have been on the next bus. Or he would have hitchhiked. Instead, the bored Ecuadorian woman directed him to the only company in town that makes the trip across the border, but because her directions were also Ecuadorian, it took him a long, long time to find his way there.
Ecuadorians like to be helpful, even when they can’t be. Ask an Ecuadorian for directions and you will get more than you bargained for.
Trust your spider senses before submitting yourself to the poor directions of a pleasant Ecuadorian.
Theo had never been happier to see them: Morgan was stepping off, peeling a clementine, and Pablo was behind him, rubbing his eyes. To Pablo, Theo looked pale, but relieved.
Macará is on the border of Perú, where the Sechura desert begins. It isn’t the depressing border town that Tulcán had been, in the north. It was lively enough to compel Morgan and Theo to explore a little. When they got back to the station they found Pablo chatting with a Chinese-Malaysian backpacker named King. King practiced medicine in Dublin, and was on his way to Lima.
Crossing the border into Perú from Ecuador was a million times more pleasant than the Colombia-Ecuador crossing. Police and military were practically non-existent, and nobody searched our bags. Thirty some-odd people waited in line for their exit stamps, and a calm, sole customs official processed all of them.
We walked along the river and crossed the bridge that left Ecuador behind. Passing under an inconspicuous “Welcome to Perú” sign, the friendliest customs official in the history of international border crossings greeted us like a long lost friend. Theo got a big thumbs up. “Perú is very big!” the man exclaimed, and demonstrated just how big with his hands. “Would you like 45 days in Perú, Theodore?” “Sería genial, gracias.” “OK!” Down went the happy stamp into the folds of his passport, the happiest it’s been for some time. The man’s smile got wider. “45 days in Perú for Theodore! Remember to keep your entrance form, otherwise…” He ran his thumb across his throat, and smiled again. Theo felt like a million bucks, and Pablo and Morgan received similar enthusiasm, along with tales of romance and heartbreak. We only hope that the stamp doesn’t turn out to be a counterfeit, like so much of the money.
that peace-corps look
As we drove into dusty Piura, we all felt like we were in a “third world” country for the first time. Dunes of garbage, stretching as far as the eye can see, littered the outskirts. Insane, frustrated taxis screamed at one another. We could see why Vargas Llosa made this the setting for one of his novels.
The scenery improved and decongested as we found our way towards the center. There we stumbled on a parade, replete with celebrating school children and smiling beauty pagaent girls on colorful floats, and clowns on stilts. As a counterpoint to the jubilation, Theo picked that very moment to realize that his Ipod had fallen under the bus, and had certainly been crushed, or stolen. Morgan, by the same token, was on the way to his particular bank (which by a stroke of luck had a big office in Piura) when it dawned on him that his ATM card was somewhere in Ecuador. We tried to forget our losses by eating baby goat, rice, beans, fried yucca and modongo, washed down with chicha morada, a refreshment made from red corn. That helped. Then we walked across the plaza to the heladería El Chalán and feasted on coconut, passion-fruit, algorobina, white-truffle, nougat, fig, and peanut butter ice cream. What credit card? What Ipod? Let’s have milkshakes now.
The next day King left early, before we woke up. We ate lunch at Matheo’s vegetarian restaurant, and went straight back to El Chalán to finish what we had started. Theo was so happy and caffeinated that he started practicing his Al Pacino impression, which caught the attention of the Americans sitting next to us. Four weird-looking girls and one depressed-looking guy had “Peace Corps” written all over it. Sure enough, they were stationed 2 hours outside of Piura, and would come into town on weekends to use the internet, and eat ice cream. They told us that they almost never see Americans and asked if we were also Peace Corps. We each gave them a story and then Pablo asked where they were from.
It’s amazing how some people will hang their heads as they pronounce their homestate, as though it were a leper colony: “Utah”…”Mississippi”… We left, and Theo wished them good luck with the humanism, but he wasn’t being as smug as you would think. Life in Perú’s Northern badlands can be tough as nails.
no más mujeres muertas
As we gathered our bags to head to the bus terminal, the hostel keeper called Pablo to help him understand an article. Written in English, it dealt with a study conducted by the University of Chicago, on abortion. This topic caught our attention in Ecuador, where graffiti would shout, no más mujeres muertas por abortos clandestinos. No more dead women from clandestine abortions (Translation, ours). A student group had gathered resources to provide support and information for women considering an abortion, which is no small feat in a country where abortion is completely illegal. More often than not, the student group advises a regimen of pills, pills that were developed for other things entirely. Their graffiti read: aborto seguro [phone-number]. This makeshift resource is better than nothing, but that’s not saying much. Unfortunately, on September 12 of this year, the Ecuadorian state attorney ordered phone companies to block the number, and they complied. We’re talking about companies from Spain – where abortion is legal – like Movistar. It feels as though the best that can be done is to spread awareness through graffiti.
si el papa fuera mujer, el ABORTO sería ley. If the pope were a woman, abortion would be law (translation, ours).
The innkeeper (and he really looked like an innkeeper) and his wife were struggling with the meaning of the word “screening”. The section of the article described indigenous and mestizo women who refused the screening process entirely, afraid that the information would be used to discriminate against them. Close to 50 percent of the population falls into the indigenous category, with little to no government representation. This, of course, is changing. Still, a little less than half of the country’s population lives beneath the poverty line, which means that a majority of women do not receive adequate medical attention. The innkeeper put it like this: you look at these women and they’re falling apart, how can they care for a child when they don’t have the means to take care of themselves. He was clear that he thought abortions to be horrible and of last resort, but necessary, at times. The “clandestine abortions” are often horrific (when resources like Aborto Seguro aren’t available), and often deadly.
It is easy for the church to condemn the nature of abortion without providing adequate alternatives. It is time that the government take responsibility for the well-being of its citizens, instead of stripping them of their liberty and dressing them in religious garb, like children, or dolls.
There was once a strong liberal tradition in Latin America, in the early 19th century especially, when the spectre of independence walked the streets and haunted the ruling class. In Quito the struggle for independence was particularly bloody, because it was carried out with the kind of conviction and bravery evidenced by the proclamation of an anonymous citizen, in 1810, at the convite de San Roque. We believe that what he said is one of the true gems of liberal thought, and we quote: No hay rey, no hay legítimo dueño, no hay Padre, no hay Señor, no hay herederos sucesores, no hay Soberanía, no hay legítima autoridad, no hay legítimos representantes ni recomendados suyos, no hay legatarios, Fideicomisos, Testamentos ni Albaceas. Todo es embuste, todo fraude, dolo, engaño, impostura y mentira. No hay más que Tiranos intrusos usurpadores. Nosotros hemos quedado libres naturalmente. – 19 Noviembre 1810
There is no king, there is no legitimate ruler, there is no Father, there is no God, there are no heirs or successors, there is no Sovereignty, there is no legitimate authority, there are no legitimate representatives, nor do they recommend any. There are no legislators, or trustees, or wills, or executors. It is all trickery, all fraud, falsity, deception, imposture, and lies. There is nothing but intrusive, usurping Tyrants. We have become free, naturally. (Translation, ours).
The kingdom of Perú was once the envy of the surrounding South American countries. Now, as we listened to our tired and decrepit innkeeper, who spoke with passion and despair, we considered just how far things had fallen.
September 25, 2010
It is our custom to argue over who gets the window seat and who sits with a stranger. Theo usually wins the window-battle but loses the stranger battle: quite invariably he winds up sitting next to somebody who smells worse than he does, or who prays as compulsively as he smokes, and more often than not, both. Morgan and Pablo find this funny. This time Theo won both the window battle and the stranger battle, but lost the war, the bulk of which totalled a day and half.
Between the bathroom and bouts of deep sleep, narco-trafickers murdered police officers amongst his colon’s flora fangosta; U.S. funded crop-dusters destroyed fields of coca leaf, and peasants cried, and elected populists; politicians-in-hiding were extradited and convicted of war crimes; the FARC (the revolutionary armed forces of Colombia) bushwacked fascist death-squads; guaqueros pillaged ancient ruins, selling their treasures to British lawyers, and Peru’s Shining Path set off car-bombs, in his intestines. The sordid bloody history of the past several decades was thus internalized, and cherry-topped with having to buy bottled water, oftentimes courtesy of the Coca-Cola Company, which is proudly responsible for the assassination of many a trade-unionist. This spiritual matanza gave way to apathy, ennui, and italianism. Considering that he’s usually “brooding and cthonic,” according to one particularly valued Oberlin professor, you can imagine how upsetting it was.
Morgan was next to march into battle. He fell ill the day that Theo recovered, and took his battle to bed and the water closet. Pablo braved on without the sleeping-all-day-and-all-night-method, but still suffered. After about a week we all surrendered, took our antibiotics, and tried our best to stop consuming lactose. That was the hard part. Morgan bought djapas for Pablo, hoping that prayer could somehow stop his out-of-control sweet tooth, which by then had been transferred to Morgan and Theo. They’d had tres leches before, but never like this. Never like this. Llorando se fue, y me dejo sólo sin su amor.
Thankfully, Cuenca is a lovely place to fall ill. Impressive churches and lively markets abound. Our hostel sat above the Riobamba, flanked by a handsome set of colonial steps that lead down to the riverside. It was also peaceful, which meant that Pablo could read his J.R. Chavez, Theo his Horacio Quiroga, and Morgan his Carl Jung autobiography, without distraction from drunk Australians.
When we needed to see sunlight, or to take a break from Nadal’s depressing U.S. Open victories, we would walk a block or so to visit the Hare Krishnas and eat their lentil burgers. Then we would get coffee and read the Herald Tribune, and Pablo would do all he could to satiate his voracious coconut-milkshake-habit ¡But the ice cream is homemade! he would protest. Weak from all this exertion, and not a little bloated, we would hobble back to our hostel to lie down. Whenever we walked through the nearby park while on our way to buy groceries, we passed by the statue of olympic gold medalist, Jefferson Pérez. He must have run like wildfire, because, according to his statue, he was stumpy. Somedays we tried on Panama Hats. It was time to eat cuy.
These delectable guinea pigs do not, as some testify, taste rather like a cross between chicken and duck. Texturally they resemble the Peking Duck one finds at East Buffet on Flushing Mainstreet, crossed with the roasted pig served at the oldest restaurant in the world, in Madrid, where Goya waited tables in his youth.
While Morgan was in the bathroom, our shy waitress approached Pablo and Theo to ask if they wanted to see how cuy was prepared. It looks a great deal like a guinea pig impaled on a spit and slow-roasted over coals. Delicious. Morgan and Theo had it all sorts of ways, and yet, Pablo was still upset and dissapointed that they didn’t eat its “face”. Theo struck back by taunting him with the guinea pig’s hideous skull. Pablo averted his eyes, and sifted through a pile of sad lima beans.
Guinea pig was one of the first animals to be domesticated in South America, along with the llama. It is a delicacy. In a famous rendition of the Last Supper, located in Quito’s Cathedral, Christ and his disciples preside over a feast of cuy and corn.
After seven days and seven nights we decided to leave purgatory. After five hours on a relatively uninteresting bus-ride (notwithstanding the curious swastika tattooed on the back of the hand of Theo’s newest neighbor) we arrived in Loja. There, we ate Italian food, and slept in an austere rat’s nest.
If Cuenca is where we fell ill, and Loja is where we transitioned, then Vilcabamba, the Valley of Eternal Youth, about an hour and a half south of Loja, is where we convalesced. An immense garden, birds of song, orange trees and friendly cats graced our living space. We would stroll through the sleepy town, admiring the stately elderly, and the omnipresent hippies. In the afternoons we would hang upside down, in a 180º inverting machine.
It wasn’t smart to walk back to town at 3am, but the late hour left us no choice: we could only hear the dogs as they ran alongside us in the pitch dark, and roosters would crow to remind us of our folly. We hoped that oncoming trucks could see us. Sometimes you need to spend hours playing pool at the Izhcayluma hotel, two miles outside of Vilcabamba, with a middle-aged man who tells you stories, and buys you beer, and pisco sours. He came to Ecuador because he was no longer satisfied with the Arabian Horse trade in Virginia. Patrick Swayze had died, and he was ready to move on. So were we. Unlike us, he was there scouting for a place to spend the rest of his life. He beat us all at pool. Cheers, David.
September 22, 2010
Sitting over coffee and humitas, the subject of conversation often turned to Quito’s capricious and often frankly incorrect weather. Here, it is possible to wake up, freezing cold, and painfully sunburnt. The insanity runs like clockwork: if it’s five o’clock and you expect a pleasant evening, it’s really safer to assume that a thunder storm is brewing up there in the surrounding volcanoes. If it’s warm and pleasant, expect a nice hailstorm. Do not buy alpaca if you feel chilly: the locals know the weather patterns, and know that in 15 minutes you will be far too hot. They use this wiley method to broil gringo tourists alive, and feed them to the guinea pigs.
We were taken in by a Washingtonian English teacher, and she graciously offered what she had: a half-inflated air mattress for Morgan and Theo to maneuver, and a bone-chilling floor for dear Pablo. We couldn’t have asked for more…dog and cat hair.
Quito passed by like a dream within a dream, accompanied by pan-flute renditions of the Beatles and Elton John. The Fedora-ed, cloaked indigenous women hawked fresh blackberries, with children strapped to their backs. The Old Town felt like Prague, at night. Pablo bought a sleeping bag, in vain. Chain reactions of barking dogs chased us home. Ill-conceived and overly sweet iced tea provoked cries of “No, man! No!” Ice cream spun in copper pots was always delicious, and Theo vomited in a billiards room full of Nigerians.
The city cuts through a valley, and its wings reach up into the mountains, always in the shadow of an extinct volcano, Pichincha. Nobody ever had change, and if you’ve ever wondered who actually uses Sakajewea Dollars, the answer is: Ecuadorians. Ecuador’s economy operates under the US Dollar, and has for about a decade. Primary exports include oil, shrimp, and people. Not funny, but true: the controversial dollarization process was fomented by El Niño, which ravaged their oil and shrimp exports, and by the countless numbers of Equadorians slaving away in the U.S., and sending back American dollars to their families.
One day, ascending towards Rucu Pichincha aboard the Teleferico, a woman asked us if we could help find her brother. He lives in New York. Or maybe New Jersey. Our hearts sunk as we floated up the mountain. Pablo gently told her that New York City is a metropolis, and that New Jersey is a state. A name would not help us. Pablo took a picture of her, with her daughter and mother. She took a picture of the three of us, and we dismounted the cabled box to look at Quito, far below us by then, and to start climbing.
Birds of prey soared over the valleys, and frost covered wildflowers. Pablo never believed in a million years that Theo’s lung capacity was any match for his, but it turns out that Theo has an inner mountaineer. Absolutely high from the thin air, he would often scramble far ahead to take pictures of Morgan and Pablo as they labored, winded and dizzy, up the dirt trail. We took ten-minute meditation breaks so that Pablo could catch his breath. He didn’t think he could make it, but he did.
It got quieter and quieter as the air thinned away, and we hiked upward through the cold. The trail took us as far as it could, over 12,000 feet above sea level. At times, the wind could easily have tossed us into the mouth of the old beast, or into the valley’s abyss. Theo wanted to rock-climb to the absolute summit, but that was suicidal, really. He had his new Merrils, (and his new high-altitude brain!) but that was the extent of our preparation for scaling a near vertical sheet of crag. Meanwhile, Pablo’s running sneakers and Morgan’s basketball shoes were shamed by the rocky peaks and their patches of snow. Besides, we still had a steep, forbidding landslide to cross, a mountain peak to descend, and a Teleferico to catch, before nightfall. It was six in the evening when we heard thunderclaps…below us.
Running through the clouds and the rain, something mysterious compelled us to stop now and then, to breathe, and to listen to the silent clouds that surrounded us, and that masked our altitude and everything else that came with it. The clouds moved quickly, and would sometimes expose the wrinkled face of the old earth, with hints of its panorama. Sometimes the rocks stared at us. Pablo’s running shoes excelled at this 20 minute free-fall of a descent (it had taken us 4 hours in the other direction) while Theo labored over each wildly unnecessary sprint. It wasn’t exactly unnecessary. We didn’t want to become fritters from the lightning in the cloud in which we were. Then we would have been really hot and cold, Pablo’s cold-stone mattress would have really sucked.
The next day, Theo thought he had discovered the perfect cure for our pained bodies, a balm for our bitterness, a shining river Lethe for our Nepenthe: an established cevicheria in Quito’s hectic central market. The ladies at the busy line threw fried sea bass over potatoes, and ceviche over that. Toasted corn, onions, rice and vegetables, shrimp, and conch. God in heaven. All was well in the world. The food was delicious. There was not a single tourist to be seen. A juice lady identified Pablo’s Puerto Rican accent, and smiled. She was Cuban. Would we like some guanábana juice? Great! Let’s show the fruit to Morgan, because he’d never seen it before! Hurray! Something in that delicious spread, however, smuggled an uninvited guest along with it. Hurray!
It was T-Minus 6 hours before dysentary’s crooked fingers slipped out of the shadows to pick us off, one by one. We had no inkling of the horror and dread that awaited us, as our cab took us up the hill to Oswaldo Guayasamín’s house. The driver was impressed by Theo’s Spanish. The only one so far. This is because somewhere along the line he got it mixed up: most of the tourists he drives don’t bother to learn a word of Spanish, and yet, he believed that it was the responsibility of the Ecuadorian Taxi Driver to learn English. We did learn several things from him that were not wrong-headed (multilinguilism for all!), while we drove by a little park with a statue of Abraham Lincoln. On the sign, Lincoln’s name had been crossed out and replaced with a “$5”.
Instead of Calle de la Independencia, the celebratory drag is called Calle 10 de agosto, after the date of Quito’s liberation from the Spaniards. This made walking more poetic: you can walk past the 10th of August, or you can walk through it.
Oswaldo Guayasamín is arguably Ecuador’s foremost indigenous painter, and his beautiful house, where many of his important works are located, speaks to his skills as an architect as well. In the 60’s and 70’s he was one of those brave modernist painters who connected the dots between German concentration camps and racist massacres on Latin America’s indigenous population, and moved forward with a non-exclusionary, all-encompassing, no-exceptions demand for universal human rights. Aesthetically this translated, as you can imagine, into portrayals of desperation and pain so powerful and extreme they’d make Francis Bacon wince. His paintings mostly revolve around these constellations: suffering, pain, tyranny, alienation, dissolution of self, agony, pain, and more agony. If he ever depicts moments of love and tenderness, they are always haunted. Fabulous stuff. We were especially impressed by his 1957 “Cabezas”, with faces superimposed on one another. His collection “La Edad de la Ira” (1963-1965) commands attention with its size and emotional burden. His four-portrait set “Los Culpables” (1963-1965) depicts the distorted heads of the priest, the general, the autocrat, and the president. No political unconscious needed here, Mr. Jameson. For us, other highlights included “La Espera”, “Cabeza de Judio”, “Rostro del hombre Eichmann”, “El Guerillero”, “La Madre”, “El Guitarrista”, and “El Violinista”, all from around the same time period, all devastating and wonderful.
Guayasamín was also an avid collector, but we were already experts on the Quiteño school of religious art, and relatively unimpressed with his plethora of bleedy Jesuses. His pre-columbian collection was repetitive, but graced by a guide with a sexy smile, a great tush, and a thing for big noses. His nearby Capilla del Hombre was sadly closed that day, but we still got a feel for his quasi-millenial outlook from something he wrote on his patio wall before he died:
“Siempre voy a volver. Mantengan encendida una luz.”
September 11, 2010
Our last night in Medellín we decided to eat Thai food, because, let’s face it, arepas don’t cut it every night. Eating asian food in South America is not easy. It can be, and will be, a dreadful, emotionally devastating experience. The owner of the Royal Thai House, who was educated at Queensborough Community College in New York, who ran a business in San Juan, Puerto Rico for ten years, and who lived in Thailand for two, knew this. He saw us furrowing our brows at his menu, walked out to greet us, and when we told him we were from the East Coast, he said to us, in perfect English, “So you know the real thing. Come in. My cook’s from Bangkok. This is the real thing.” It was. Afterwards Theo cut off all of Morgan’s hair, and shaved his head.
It wasn’t easy leaving Medellín. Playing pool (sometimes with the cleaning ladies’ daughter), sitting on the terrace watching the rain, listening to Jorge Ben Jor and eating fruit salad were all luxurious normalities.
Actually, leaving was simple: quite the opposite of most disheveled South American bus stations, Medellín’s terminal sat on the ground floor of a shopping mall. At its center, an aerobics class conducted itself. We used the ATMs, in public. We could have walked up two flights to see a movie. As we drove alongside the river, people strolled, jogged, or rode bikes.
On the freezing-cold bus they played a cute Colombian sex comedy called “In Fraganti”, starring the Colombian bombshell, Natalia París. According to Pablo’s neighbor, her marriage to a narco-trafficker disallows her from entering the US. Pablo had trouble sleeping because of that same helpful neighbor, who would poke him and prod him repeatedly so as to tell him the name of whatever town we were passing through. While Pablo’s sleep went thusly, Morgan dreamt of unruly fishtanks, and Theo came and went out of a dark place.
It was mid-morning when we finally arrived in Popayán, the White City of Colombia’s southern Cauca province. While Pablo took a much-needed shower, Morgan and Theo followed their noses to the Juan Valdez. Juan Valdez must have installed radars in their brains, because they found it quickly, and were soon sitting in the central plaza, admiring the city’s calm, collected pace. They watched children chasing pigeons, and old men shooting the breeze, and nuns floating by, while washing down guava pastries with strong Colombian coffee. They agreed that Popayán was dream-like. Nobody hustled them, easy targets though we were. The only man that approached them wanted to give them a pamphlet on Jesus and his relation to fruit juice. Indigenous men wheeled enormous wooden carts, filled to the brim with fresh strawberries. School children jumped on the backs of motorcycles.
We had lunch at Kanda, an indigenous-run vegetarian restaurant in a beautiful courtyard. It was across the street from the university. A hummingbird flew in and kept us company. Above the white-washed walls and cobblestone streets, gray clouds hovered over us. We were threatened with rain, but invited to duck into a coffee shop for pan au chocolate and other treats. Theo realized that he had never read the Communist Manifesto in Spanish, and hobbled over to the cigarette vendor to ask for it. Cigarette vendors sold Marx here, and Machiavelli, because Popayán reads books. There were students everywhere, and schools everywhere. They didn’t have the Manifesto; only paperback, abridged versions of El Capital.
This was the first provincial town we had been to during this trip. The demographics were different. We could tell that we were near Ecuador, but very much still in Colombia. Demented old men were allowed to dress in nice suits and do absolutely nothing. We knew we were in Colombia because the women were still beautiful, and good, cheap coffee was still available. Most importantly, we could still drink the tap water. These three Colombian things we miss the most: women, coffee, and tap water.
When it stopped raining we went to the Museo de Arte Religioso. The collection of Quiteño religious art was housed in a gorgeous colonial building with a courtyard, and gardens. We were surprised to have the young police cadet, who seemingly guarded the entrance, serve as our tour guide. Quite different from the cadets who had guided us through the Police Museum in Bogotá, this young soldier was a religious scholar, serving his mandatory military duties under the auspices of the Arch-dioses of Popayán. Before the dissolution of the Nueva Granada State, Popayán’s capital was Quito, now the capital of Ecuador. All of the religious art found in Popayán hails from the Quito School.
Things we learned. We learned that the church had, at some point in time, obtained a good deal of gold and precious stones (¿where on earth did they get those?). We learned that St. Francis received the stigma via hot-red lazer beams that shot out from a crucifix. We also learned that St. Gregory invented Gregorian Chant with the help of a beam of light emitted from a dove’s beak, and that an angel held his notebook open for him.
We didn’t exactly care about the brutal deaths of the saints and apostles. We were interested in what the future held for our young and impressionable guide. He was not yet sure if he would become a professional Police Officer, or if he would go to the university. When he told us he wanted to travel, we told him that he had better keep studying. We thought of him as we traveled South, and hope that he took our advice.
A Long Day’s Journey Into Ecuador.
We wandered around the city, still beautiful after all those earthquakes. Theo bought a pen for the poor and displaced. We ate, and slept miserably. We woke up at 5 a.m. and foot-soldiered to the bus terminal. We needed to catch the 6 a.m. bus to Ipiales, and we needed to get there before nightfall, so as not to fall into the hands of brigands. We are not being sarcastic. The road between Popayán and Ipiales is extremely dangerous. Bandits there have been known to attack even police caravans, and recall, from earlier posts, that the police here are no joke.
At a certain point in the rough-and-tumble ride, Theo spotted a bandit. He stood still on the side of the road, holding a pistol in the air. We drove right by. “That man was holding a pistol”, said one bus-driver to the other. “Are you sure,” said the other. “One hundred percent, but he wasn’t coming for us”.
More frightening than bandits were our run-ins with Police, and their unique brand of tyranny. The first disheartening moment occurred two hours into the ride, when they wouldn’t let a family of good, honest people onto the bus, because technically they were traveling with too many children. Toddlers, we mean, who fit easily on their mothers’ and fathers’ laps. The cops were counting them as adults. An old farmer who was on for part of the journey commented that police would not dare mess with a “bad man” were there such a person on-board. “We’re good people”, said their mother, as she watched half her family disappear behind the road. Everyone was upset. As we drove off, the bus driver had the last word: “They do this to make us suffer.”
The Pan-American Highway ran narrow, and wound up and down the hills. The roadside was ornamented with memorials to those who died on the way. By a recent landslide, on a newly built wall, hung a panama-hat, pierced through its center, from a hook.
The landscape changed before our eyes, from tropical density to desert, and San Pedro cacti. We cracked the windows open and looked out onto the mountains, which resembled the hands of old giants.
A toad-faced cop with a machine gun stood in the center of the road. We stopped. He slimed to the driver’s window and smiled. “I’m just going to check the entire bus”. Then he slimed his way inside, machine-gun-ready, and ordered everyone to present their identification. Pablo was holding all the passports. Theo was close, Morgan was in the back. The Toad flipped through Pablo and Theo’s passports looking for something, but he did not know what. He could not read.
“¿Where are you from?”
“The United States”.
“¿Where are you going?”
“We are on our way to Ecuador”.
For several minutes he continued blindly turning the pages of our passports. Eventually he handed them back, upset because he couldn’t arrest us. Pablo looked nervously back at Morgan, wondering whether to hand his passport back to him, or wait for the Cop to demand it. Morgan handed the Officer his New York Drivers License, and Pablo handed him Morgan’s passport. The Cop then pawed through Morgan’s passport and interrogated him about his baffling documents. He shouted at Morgan, who could not understand him:
“¡This does not look anything like you!”
“¿¡Where are you from!?”
Pablo and Theo were sweating, and preparing to talk consulate. Thankfully, the illiterate, power-mad toad was too tired to make a scene (he had already been on the bus for 15 minutes and could hear the irritated passengers rustling). While he finished checking the remaining IDs, Theo and Pablo heard the bus driver repeat, under his breath, “They only do this to make us suffer. That’s all.”
“That’s all”, agreed the woman who had to wait in Pasto for her family.
The bus pulled over so that we could eat breakfast and use the pit. None of us were hungry. Pablo and Theo talked about how the Police must be informant to the bandits, if not the bandits themselves. It was only 10am, and we were sauced. The rest of the journey was less troubling. No more cops. Sadly, going in tandem with long bus rides is watching a movie. The only movie our friendly bus drivers had was the delightful remake of the Texas Chain-Saw Massacre.
Theo sat in the first row and would have had to strain his neck in order to sully his innocence. Pablo and Morgan, however, could only avoid the film by looking out the window, but then, the soundtrack was at top-notch, and their headphones were no match. Theo’s were. Theo likes Horror films, not Torture-Porn. He blasted the Sun City Girls’ “Torch Of The Mystics” while the wind howled in his face, and watched as the tree-lines patched plots of land together. As such the passing mountainsides became a green quilt, signs advertised “Cuy”, the traditional roasted guinea-pig, and he knew we were in the Andes. He’ll tell you what eating guinea-pig is like a little later on, when he gets better. They say that when it rains, it pours. And when you’re constipated in Quito, in Cuenca, you’ve got dysentary.
It was mid-afternoon when we made it to Pasto. We had no time to eat, or smoke, or use the bathroom. We only had time to change buses, at which point Theo bought a wooden box full of locally produced caramel from a man who hopped on. Every time we saw the military, and the bus was stopped, Pablo and Theo got worried. They had heard news reports about wounded Colombian soldiers along some border. Unsure where, they figured that Colombian police would become harder to deal with. They imagined them coming on board and rounding everyone up, a bus full of indigenous people from rebellious, independent towns. Every military checkpoint we passed, Theo recalled a piece of grafitti he saw in Popayán: “Uribe = Guerra Contra La Gente”. You can take classes with Uribe at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Affairs. Make sure you ask about “False Positives”.
We finally got to Ipiales, and hopped on a colectivo to the border. We had been traveling for 10 hours. We walked to Colombian Border Patrol to get our exit stamps, and then walked across a bridge, into Ecuador, where we were immediately stopped by two National Policemen. “Hi guys”, said one of them politely. “We’re the Narco-Traficking Division of the National Police Force, and if you don’t mind, we’d like to take you into this room and rifle through your bags.” After smelling our thrice-turned clothing, they were ready to throw in the towel. “Go, just go!” They waved us out, gagging and hacking. We wish. They were nice about the whole thing, and we understood. Afterwards we kept walking. We walked through customs, where they asked no questions, and we walked to a colectivo, which took us to Tulcán.
The man sitting next to the zombified Morgan (we were all zombies at this point) had no arm, and carried a big bag full of limes. He was friendly, and when we got to the bus terminal, he made sure we didn’t get ripped off. Back on the colectivo, Pablo turned to Theo and said, “Well, it’s a good thing we didn’t try to bring any revolutionary literature across the border.” Theo and Pablo laughed all the way to Tulcán.
The 6 hour bus to Quito was excruciating. It didn’t matter how many clementines we bought in Tulcán. The music was deafening, the passengers drunk and loud. The man sitting next to Theo prayed constantly.
We were stopped several times by the Police, and luggage was searched (not ours). Twice, the girl sitting behind Pablo was asked to come off and explain her bags. We needed, yet again, to produce our documents. Tired, and slipping in and out of consciousness, it became difficult to differentiate clouds from mountains, or stars from lit mountaintops. City lights shone out as an orange mist that hovered at different points in the altitude, and we found ourselves in the Southern Hemisphere.
September 9, 2010
El Poblado is Medellín’s tropical Los Angeles, in miniature. The area’s main drag, the further away from the city we walked, became an exquisite homage to consumerism, and the cleanliness that comes with it. Smoke here, said the sign. Recycle there. Walk now. And you’d better walk, because the traffic here, like elsewhere in South America, has no consideration for human life. If you’re wondering why we lingered there, we didn’t. We were just looking for a place to fix Pablo’s cell phone, whose life was ultimately claimed by the jungle.
The buildings were not exactly skyscrapers, but they might as well have been. The Colmenas (bee hives) were bursting with banks and multinationals, as well as shopping malls that multi-tasked as gourmet restaurants, health spas, and condominiums. It was easy to feel uncomfortably comfortable, knowing that so much poverty existed so close to us. Luxury apartment complexes were surrounded by barbed wire, and heavily guarded. G4S, a privately owned security company, seemed ubiquitous. Pablo recalled that G4S was under the employ of the United States Government to provide protection for its embassy and cultural center, in Kinshasa. That was funny, because, we thought marines were supposed to protect embassies. Instead we had Office-Max security guards protecting our western hegemony. Pablo liked the corporatized atmosphere, at first. Theo was always skeptical. Atop a drool-inducing Guinness logo read the words “Beer Store”, and above that, its initials, BS.
Closer to our hostel, however (the highly recommended Casa Kiwi) one can find everything one needs in life: beautiful, everywhere parks, with streams and dense tropical foliage; fine dining, bookstores, and sex shops; strong coffee, fresh papayas, newspapers that openly slander Hugo Chavez, not to mention women with face-slapping breast augmentation, and soul-crushing ass-implants. The only caveat: there’s the ever-present security guard, with his finger on the trigger of a shotgun, standing by the entrance of the little grocery store where you buy coffee and cigarettes. If it’s a Sunday, he’s got two. And there’s literally one guy per Mercedes Benz outside the local church. ¿Is this what happens when, for ten years, every police officer had a bounty on his head?
Still, they sold birds of paradise, chrysanthemums, lillies, and sunflowers across the street from us. And we took Morgan’s heart-broken, weak-willed (and week-old) Timberland shoes to a friendly cobbler, who fixed them for 20,000 pesos. That took a few days. (They are better shoes now. If you have Timberland shoes, or boots, bring them to your local cobbler. He might be able to turn them into real shoes.) It also took several days for the cleaning ladies to do our laundry. One day, we knew they were doing ours, because we heard them screaming. “It smells so horrible!” (translation ours). Fair enough: Pablo is now short one pair of pants.
On Theo’s birthday we took the Metro downtown, to Parque Berrío, and El Museo de Antioquia. The Metro is safe, immaculate, and quiet. Just off the Metro stop, and outside the museum, you find yourself amidst run-down casinos, the occasional strip-joint, and home-made signs with photos of disappeared people. To Pablo, it felt like Atlantic City. “Except there are no mass graves in Jersey, that we know of,” Theo responded. The outstanding murals by Pedro Nel Gomez, arguably Colombia’s most important 20th century artist, depicted the history of modernization and industrialization in Antioquia. Hiding behind bullet-proof glass, they also offered a powerful counterpoint to the urban blight, which flooded all around Botero’s bloated, public statues. The Hare Krishnas at the nearby Govinda’s were disfigured, and more interested in converting us than feeding us. So we skipped lunch. And went into the museum.
Of the Botero to be seen here, and there is a lot because this was his home town, several works do him credit. His rooftop, frozen in time “Muerte de Pablo Escobar” (1999) echoes the slow-motion, violence-as-dance leitmotiv that you see in Bonnie and Clyde, or The Wild Bunch…only fatter. Staring at it, we felt no qualms about skipping the infamous, and expensive, Pablo Escobar City Tour. More interesting Botero (yes, there is interesting Botero) included his Gothic “La Noche” (1997), and his alternative Adam and Eve, in which Adam, not Eve, reaches for the fruit.
We were surprised to find Wilfredo Lamm here, but that wasn’t the least of it. His 1947 “Liberación, la boca roja” was inspirational and unexpected. Lamm was born under US Occupation, in Cuba, in 1902. That was the year of the Platt amendment to the newly drafted Cuban Constitution. The Platt amendment legally allowed US military forces to intervene on Cuban soil whenever, for whatever reason. Lamm died in France, in 1982. Why he should be around the corner from some boring Frank Stella piece from 1968 is anybody’s guess.
Antoni Tupie’s 1998 “Rito” did not belong in a room called “El Retorno de lo Real”, and the “Las Neo y Post-Vanguardistas” room was incredibly boring, as you might expect. They did, however, house some Miguel Barceló, the importantly abstract Spaniard.
The permanent collection was what really captivated us. Colombian artist Salvador Moreno’s 1896 “Estudio” is a tidy chiaroscuro, and would belong in the Prado, if it were not in Colombia. Colombian Impressionist Andrés de Santa María is also here. Colombian Modernist Pedro Alcántara Quijano Moreno’s 1912 “Dante y Virgilio en el Infierno” is hellish, and gorgeous. In the adjacent room we found the masterpieces of Francisco Antonio Cano. “Horizontes” (1913) and “La Última Gota” (1908) are truly spectacular. We stared at the caricatures of Ricardo Rendón, and the watercolors of Horacio Longas. We were surprised by Carlos Correa, and especially Débora Arango. She was a true daughter of Goya.
Nearby, Rafael Saenz’s 1959 “Marcha Funebre” and “La huida” deal with the diaspora of Colombia’s displaced. Colombia, second to Sudan, has the largest number of internally displaced people, estimated at 4.3 million (we think that is low-balling the figure). Diego Rivera’s 1943 “el despertar del indio a la civilizacion” was simply horrifying.
After the second world war we found Pedro Alcantara Herran’s “La Danza de la muerte” (1976) which Theo loved. Carlos Grenada’s 1969 “Estudio” and Luis Fernando Robles’s 1957 “Ritmo Veloz” are great examples of what forward thinking Colombian artists were up to at around the time when Andy Warhol killed art. Anibal Gil and Luis Caballero impressed us, right before we walked back out past the murals of Nel Gomez, and back into the mess of downtown Medellín.
Walking uphill from the Poblado Metro stop, Morgan found a group of Capoeiristas in Parque Lleras, and joined in. These claimed to play a contemporary version of the game that broke from the traditional Angolero style, to which Morgan adheres. Morgan was a little apprehensive, which made Pablo and Theo apprehensive as well. It was a relief for all to see how the Contemporary Capoeiristas slowed down their song and sat themselves down to accomodate our friend. The game became ceremonial. Afterwards we chatted with one of the Capoeiristas, Moleque (meaning, punk), who told us what it was like to grow up in Medellín. He grew up in the most popular neighborhood, where the authorities feared to tread. He recalled the Escobar wars, smiling and flashing his pocket knife. He lept over corpses on the way to school.
Things have improved. Pablo Escobar had enough money to pay off Colombia’s National Debt. When he died, his wealth was absorbed by the municipality, not Colombia entière. That’s what people said. We believed them.
August 30, 2010
Sir Francis Drake’s Playground
Cartagena de Indias was Spain’s largest gold and mineral export city from the “New World”. The city was pillaged often and brutally, and the British were quite good at this (still are). After Sir Francis Drake took the city in 1586, the Spaniards built massive walls and extensive fortifications to protect it. We found the breeze atop one of the bastions, El Baluarte de San Francisco, to be particularly pleasant.
As a result of the expensive and extensive construction of these walls, Cartagena was perfectly preserved, and remains the largest colonial city of the Americas. It is haunting while embrujante. Dance troops perform exuberantly in La Plaza de Los Coches, by the old clock-tower, where human-trafficking was once commonplace. As we sipped cheap coffee and watched the dancers, it became almost easy to forget that people still come here to have sex with children. Some of them might be bankers you know. Or lawyers. Or business executives.
We wandered through Getsemaní and entered the Old Town, where we promptly sat down in El Parque Bolívar. The cheap coffee that people carry around and sell was strong and sweet, the pigeons conducted themselves appropriately, and a preacher howled and wailed about Jesus, as though he were demon-possessed. Nearby the cannons pointed out towards the water, schooners and yachts docked in the bay, and across from the preacher stood the beautiful but expensive Palacio de la Inquisición.
The possessed preachers are even worse in El Parque del Centenario, which we walked through extensively to get from the walled city to Getsemaní. Pablo recalled the fire and brim-stone preachers he had encountered in the DR Congo. These preachers used small PA’s. It was upsetting to see audiences, so spellbound: “leave your job to follow God! Leave your education to follow God! Prepare for eternity with God!” This rant is not new. People stood with blood up their knees in Damascus. Some still stand, intoxicated with the Pill Bug of Murti Bing.
But the breeze was strong along the bastions on the old wall, the colonial mansions beautiful and adorned with flowers. The streets in Cartagena are laberinthine, and one gets lost easily, especially when practicing the derive. In such a manner, we accidentally found the house where Simón Bolívar wrote the Cartagena Manifesto, the declaration of independence for Nueva Granada (orginally included: Pánama, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador). Exemplifying Cartagena’s theme of spatial change and rendition, the house is now a library, with an air-conditioned reading room. Pablo found a collection of odes to Bolívar, and was thankful that Theo had his pen and his notebook:
Miguel Ángel Asturias: ¨Bolívar¨
Las veces que dije que no era la playa de pecho de arena,
¡Sino su caballo!
Las veces que dije que no eran las olas de crines de espuma,
¡Sino su caballo!
Las veces que dije que no era el tasquido del golfo en el freno,
¡Sino su caballo!
Suelta la brida en la tiniebla blanca sentía los ijares del caballo con pulso de amapola en sus tobillos.
José Martí: ¨Gran Heroe¨
Bolívar murió de pesar en el corazón más que de mal del cuerpo, en la casa de un español de Santa Marta.
¡Murió pobre y dejó una familia de pueblos!
Pablo Neruda: “Un Canto para Bolívar”.
Junto a mi mano hay otra, y otra junto a ella, otra más, hasta el fondo del Continente obscuro. Y otra mano que tú no conociste entonces viene también, Bolívar, a estrechar a la tuya. De Teruel, de Madrid, del Jarana, del Ebro, de la cárcel, del aire, de los muertos de España llega esta mano que es hija de la tuya.
Yo conocí a Bolívar, una mañana larga, en Madrid, en la boca del Quinto Regimiento. Padre, le dijé: ¿Eres o no eres o quien eres? Y mirando el Cuartel de la Montaña, dijo: “Despierto cada cien años, cuando despierta el pueblo”.
Bolívar died, having witnessed the fracture of his life’s work. Six countries claim him as their savior, each with heavily armed borders ready to destroy each-other a little more. He sits, trapped in bronze, high on his horse, cursed to witness the sometimes hidden, sometimes open, dislocation and impoverishment of every city he liberated. You can sit in the park, staring at his statue, thinking about how heavy his heart was when he died. His heart must get heavier every time you stop thinking because you need to turn down a street-hustler who wants to change money, or sell you cocaine, or a necklace, or chicklets, or a Pablo Escobar t-shirt, calling him “El Patrón”. Try wearing that t-shirt in Medellín, we dare you. The only Boss is Bruce Springsteen. Rise Up.
The only museum that fit our budget was the modern-art museum, strangely enough located in the Old Town, by La Plaza San Pedro Claver. It only cost 3,000 pesos, and Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Marquez’s introduction to the museum was worth that alone. The introduction to the museum is called “Aquí sólo falta un payaso pintado detrás de una puerta”. It was written in 1980, printed on magnificent parchment, framed, and signed. In it he describes how every house in Cartagena De Las Indias has its own incredible history, and how space, and stories, layered upon one another, influenced his literary creations. The most beautiful building in town, for instance, was the torture house for the Inquisition. The mansion of a Spanish Marquis became the home to artisinal shops, and later, a sea-food restaurant, with a clown painted on the door. A hostel with a bar-terrace (and wonderful views of El Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas) used to be a colonial mansion. Finally, in Cartagena’s Old Town, a modern art museum finds a home for its works. The only thing missing is the clown, painted on a door, by Cecilia Porras. The history of space changes, and story-telling gives birth to itself. This is Cartagena de Indias, a collection of stories, a wonderful, bloody palimpsest.
The museum holds its own treasure, under the steady whirr of giant fans. Drawings by Cecilia Porras, about whom Marquez talks about extensively, are stored in glass containers. Works by Cuban modernists Cundo Bermudez and René Portocarero levitate next to Gabo’s thoughts. There was a home for José Luis Cuevas, the Mexican master, and his brutal, Goya-eseque painting, “Carnicero”. An unexpected and frightening sculpture by Jim Amaral, a North American. Augusto Rivera found a home here, too, as did Miguel Angel Rojas, Christo Hoyos, Carlos Gomez, Pierre Daguet, Luis Alberto Acuña, Nohemí Perez, Maria Belén Saez de Ibarra, and of course, Enrique Grau.
The next day Morgan and Theo woke up an hour before Pablo, and immediately bought street-coffee (500 pesos for a small, strong styrofoam cup). Breakfast consisted of a ham omelet, pieces of toast, a glass of fresh papaya, blackberry juice and coffee (7000 pesos altogether).
Walking aimlessly, allowing the streets to take us where they may, we stumbled on a Govinda’s, a Hare Krishna restaurant inside a restored colonial mansion. Our ayurvedic lunch was calm and refreshing. Krishna and his cow watched over us as we ate fresh eggplant baji with brown rice and mung dahl, and a side of raw vegetables. We haven’t been dreaming at all, or we’ve been dreaming strangely. However, we are all part of Vishnu’s dream, which must have included Theo finally moving his bowels.
We fell into a deep sleep on the bus from Cartagena to Medellín, and woke up in a cloud forest. Black and white cows grazed on steep slopes, on lush green grass. We stopped and stretched our poor legs in the cold morning, and over cheap coffee Morgan chatted with a young chemical engineer, who maintains a long distance relationship with a girl from Medellín, a paisa. On the other side of the street from us, a farmer tilled his soil. It was eight in the morning.
Two hours later, driving through the clouds, black birds flew over Medellín, the city of eternal spring.
August 29, 2010
Our last day in Bogotá we caught a glimpse of Septimazo, an enormous street fair, and regretted having to leave. The weather was just improving.
The twenty-hour bus ride to Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast, was speckled with the sounds of a rooster inside a burlap sack. That rooster would wake us up occassionally. Theo read a beautiful story by Horacio Quiroga about a tortoise who carries a dying man to Buenos Aires, on his shell. Theo also drooled on himself. We all drooled on ourselves. It was that kind of bus ride.
Though Santa Marta´s Port is smelly, and polluted, we felt safe wandering through the streets. The rich buy up all the beach-front property: tired and ill-used colonial buildings frown in the shadows of their ugly, concrete neighbors.
We made it to the beach. The few young soccer players and homeless people did not seem to mind our presence. The sand was grey. In the distance, tankers, and the lighthouse.
As the sun set on the main drag, we needed to sit down. After several beers, people-watching, turning down hustlers, and yet accepting more beers, we realized we were at a Chinese restaurant called El Restaurante Chinatown. Pablo and Theo convinced Morgan to speak to them in Mandarin, to avoid getting ripped off. And speak in Mandarin he did, for what seemed like hours, and Pablo and Theo agreed that it amounted to a fascinating sociological situation. A Taiwanese, Queens-Bred, Capoerista Oberlin-Grad, shooting the breeze with first generation Cantonese immigrants, in Colombia. The language barrier was less important than the meeting of the twain. The rice was fresh, the plates were huge, the black bean sauce made just for us, spicy. Our sweat complemented the chef, and his family.
In the morning, Morgan fell in love with freshly-hacked coco frío. Pablo was upset that he did not eat the meat. Pablo wanted that meat. The afternoon we spent listening to Nirvana, and playing pool. Drinking on an empty stomach is always a good idea, and because we felt like bypassing Simón Bolívar’s death-bed museum, we settled for crossing by his statue several times.
We ate like kings at El Santo. Meat, red wine, caramelized apples a la mode. Dogs wandered about, and lizards scurried down the walls. Flash-lightning struck in the mountains, and a crackhead convulsed by Bolívar, on his high horse. His statue tells us: Nació en Caracas el 24 de Julio de 1783. Murió en Santa Marta el 17 de Diciembre de 1830. We wondered if he would be proud of this city. We know the answer. ¿Don’t we?
Most tourists avoid Santa Marta and go straight to a place called Taganga. It was once a quiet, peaceful, fishing village. It is now overrun by gringos, there for drugs, and good times. Still, we were happy to be on the coast.
(Jungle Boogie: La Jungla Colombiana y La Playa de Tayrona)
We woke up early. Through the cacophany of Santa Marta’s central market, we managed to swiftly hop on a colectivo. There were no chickens on the bus this time; just enormous carts that were swapped at various stops. The speakers blasted loud vallenato music, and the engine roared under our feet as we snaked our way up through the mountains.
The military checked our bags, we hopped on another bus, got off and began our hike through the jungle. We stopped to admire an army of leaf-cutter ants and their extensive traffic system, along with exquisite butterflies, the boulders, vines, lizards, and the sheer immensity of the tropical jungle, which all reminded Theo of the sticker on the colectivo’s rearview mirror: Busca Dios. Pablo lept onto a rock and roared, “Soy yo, el Quijote”. His destiny called, and he went. And Morgan and Theo had a hell of a time following him.
After hiking quickly and forever through the hot and humid jungle, past tarantulas, billions of leaf-cutter ants working endlessly on their hills, and dodging fire ants, we abandoned the set path. Because we heard the ocean, and wanted to test our rock- climbing skills on perilous cliffs. Our shoes came off, our shirts came off, the sand burnt our feet until the Caribbean Sea cooled us with soft kisses. It’s steady pulse calmed our breath, and we found ourselves between the ocean and a field of purple orchids. Then we rediscovered the path, and strolled through a cathedral of mangroves, until the enormity of the sea appeared again. Pablo was reminded of Gulliver’s travels to the Land of the Giants, Theo was reminded of Jurassic Park, and Morgan was reminded of the Land Before Time.
We finally found Arrecifes and our hammocks, which were thin and virgin- white, with mosquito nets for veils. We left everything under our thatch hut, and trekked through the jungle with nothing on but our bathing suits, and one small bag.
We were drenched in sweat as we stormed up and down the steep, winding paths; barefoot, leaping from stone to stone, from one side of the path to the other. While we ran, the purple-blue crabs crawled, or crumpled into their holes, or nibbled on fallen passion fruit.
Pablo and Morgan played catch with a coconut and laughed madly. A forest of palm trees invited us to our destination, Cabo San Juan.
The beach was stunning. The water was bluer than Theo’s eyes, the boulders that guard the cape more colossal than time. Morgan stared longingly at a coconut tree. Pablo floated onto his back and let the tide carry him into a waking sleep, while Theo clipped his toe-nails and let a tiny stream carry them into the sea. Then Theo swam out to the boulders, climbed up them like a crab, and when he reached the top he stared out at the water for what seemed like an eternity. Behind him, Pablo and Morgan felt miles away. It began to rain. Theo descended the rocks, slipped back into the water and swam ashore, while a tropical storm flew in from the sea and awoke the moist clouds that lingered above the forest. The storm was fantastic.
Barefoot and completely unprepared for stormy weather, Pablo threw on our day pack. He led our three-man crew through the jungle, which no longer had the same face. This time we ran, full-speed ahead, mud everywhere. Everywhere. Up and down. Climbing. Running. It was all washed away once we reached the palm trees. We threw up our hands to the sky as we sprinted through gargantuan puddles and angry streams.
When we made it back to the beach, not quite yet near Arrecifes, we took cover under a baker’s hut. We had shit-eating grins on our faces. The old-timer sat in a rocking chair, smoked a cigarette that needed ashing, and smiled at us. He asked us if we were staying at the next hut over, with the hammock rentals. As Pablo nodded, he told us that we needed to leave immediately, or else we would not make it. When we left his hut we saw what he meant. The beach was gone. The water was waist-high, and waves were coming in. If we had left any later, the sea would have taken it all, and we would have been up shit’s creek. Without a paddle, and practically naked.
And so we waded through fast, waist-deep streams towards viable stretches of beach, blinded in rain and sweat. Thunder clapped and lightning struck all around us. A nearby egret did not seem to mind the weather, and neither did we. That’s not true. Morgan was afraid.
This beach had claimed the lives of roughly one hundred people. Through the torrential rain we couldn’t exactly see the sign that warned us not to become a statistic. Undertow.
It tooks us hours to dry. Pablo’s camera and cell phone were ruined, Morgan’s journal was soaked, and Theo’s libido had dissipated. We did push ups to stay warm. Morgan did 100. He’s really quite strong.
When night fell, hours later, we sat under a thatched canopy and sipped mango juice. We agreed that we all had out-of-body experiences, and back at the hammocks we exchanged ghost stories. Undertow. Morgan’s mother had warned him about Swei-guay, lost souls that drag you under the water. Night is when the sharks come. At that moment, Theo missed his mother. He inherited his love of the water from her.
We aimed our flashlights on toads and tried, to no avail, to identify the sounds around us. Finally the drone of the jungle lulled us to sleep, though occassionally the sound of galloping horses would wake us. That was alright, because according to Pablo, the presence of horses indicates the absence of evil spirits.
Morning came sore, and full of mosquito bites (Pablo’s mosquito net was no virgin), but happy. The trek back was exhausting, and Morgan’s shoes fell heroically apart. We made him carry the backpack. Locusts, caterpillars. We came across a group of Italian tourists, some of them middle-aged, decked out in nice, white clothing, with big, heavy bags, and large, expensive cameras slung around their necks. We wished them good luck. Seriously.
After a burning two kilometers down an optional paved stretch, back towards the military check-point, a taxi driver offered to take us to Santa Marta for 5000 pesos each. We thought that was fair. It was the same price as the colectivo.
On the way back through the mountains we saw the familiar sights. Chickens strutting by stands along the road, children carrying papayas, red snappers dangling off the sides of trucks, and all ways, always, the military.
We took a bus to Cartagena, which stopped by a fancy Hotel and picked up two older rich women. They could only sit next to Theo, whose shoes were caked in mud, and who smelled like the Devil’s crotch: his only souvenir from a sacred place. We drove past shanty towns and incredible poverty as the sun’s orange light burst through grey clouds onto the Caribbean.
August 22, 2010
Yesterday Theo woke up early, and slept-walked to Parque Santander. He ordered a coffee and croissant, in French, and watched the business-men hurry about, and the glue-sniffers saunter. It was our last day up in Bogota. After Pablo and Morgan awoke we walked towards La Plaza Bolivar, flags flying high, well guarded by municipal police and the military. Pablo pointed out a man with measles.
In La Plaza Bolivar a man approached us with a cardboard poster and a laminated newspaper article: about himself, the toothless vagabond historian. In 1985 a guerilla organization occupied one of the central administration buildings. The president’s brother was a guerillero, and “this is the history they don’t want you to know”. A declaration in the Plaza reads: “Colombianos: las armas os han dado independencia, las leyes os daran libertad”.
Wandering away from the Plaza in search of the Police Museum we promptly found ourselves in an underdeveloped neighborhood, filled with people desperately hawking their wares. You might ask, why on earth are we looking for the Police museum? Because the Australian yobs at our hostel wouldn’t shut up about going into the basement and staring at all the morbid Pablo Escobar related paraphernalia. Crikey (?) It’s phenomenal!
Photos of the murdered Doctor, his jacket, his motorcycle. How wonderful. Colombian schools take field trips here. While the military big-wigs are murderers, the museum guides are cadets in uniform. They are babies. They have braces. They want to improve their English. They are brainwashed. The street outside is filled with army-navy stores. The gear, American. The money, American.
The Museum is a giant propaganda piece, and littered, on every wall, and over every corridor, with sayings like this:
“Si quieres ser feliz un dia, embriagate. Si quieres ser feliz un ano, casate. Si quieres ser feliz toda la vida, hazte policia.”
“Policia, manual de vida”
“Policia, nada tan parecido a un sueno.”
“Policia, institucion que sufre pero no muere.”
“Policia, hijos de la tierra, herederos del cielo.”
“Policia, constelacion de inmortales.”
“Policia, representacion viviente de los suenos de un pueblo o nacion”
“Policia, esperanza y futuro de la patria.”
“Policia, justificacion para vivir.”
You get the idea. Vomit.
There is a cure for all the political depression: comida tipica santaferena. A harp player enters the restaurant where you stuff yourself with ajiaco: chicken stew, potatoes, capers, sour cream, and fresh avocado. Drink Masato, a cheap, delicious, partially fermented rice drink. Go to the Crazy Mongolian, where the stir fry is excellent. Joey Ramone is up on the wall. The Ipod takes us from Judas Priest to Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”. And there may be hope for the world.