31 March 2006

Travel to Mancora

We flew out of Cusco to Lima, and then from Lima to Tumbes near the Ecuadorian border after a four hour layover. At the Tumbes airport we opted against the 100 sole taxi fair to Mancora and caught a small bus going into the city of Tumbes. The bus waited for a couple airport employees, and because of this, we all suffered in dense clouds of mosquitos. My feet are still covered in bites.

In Tumbes we discovered that the taxi fare wasn't going to change, and I, determined not to be ripped off by the taxis took the invitation of the bus conductor to find us a cheaper ride. He took Cassandra's bag and walked us through town and to a weird little garage full of American sedans from the late seventies and early eighties.

This would be our ride. A thirty foot long black Lincoln with no regard for speed limits or reasonable passing. This particular mode of transport is called a ¨collectivo.¨ Like any ride in Peru, one feels in a collectivo that safety is perhaps not the highest priority. The main requirement for drivers seems to be strong desire to drive at least twice the speed limit at all times, and a long elbow for hanging out the window.

I was skeptical of the crowd of men standing around the entrance, hawking rides to Piura, a couple hours past Mancora. They seemed a sketchy lot. There was a young guy with a shaved head, and an older fellow who seemed to be the main salesman, and at least a few others of unkown origin or occupation. It was entirely unclear who the driver was, and when the bald guy took our bags and threw them in the trunk I must admit I was a little afraid I'd never see them again. But we were fresh from our robbery experience in La Paz and I wasn't going to let anything get by me.

When we left the lot and bounced onto the road we heard the trunk slamming shut. This made us nervous. Had our things been exposed this whole time? Who was that guy? and what was he doing with the trunk? We quickly came up with a pretense for stopping the car and taking a look. Cassandra needed her antihistemenes. I got out and looked in the trunk with the driver who apparently knew what was going on and took care to point out all of our luggage. Perhaps he didn't know the trunk closer either. Or maybe he was just reassuring us.

The drive was long, with an occasionally crying baby in the front, and C and I crowded in the back seat with two other people, a disinterested girl in small clothing, and a stoic man in a buttondown with a sidebag. They arrived separately, but before long were sleeping on each others shoulders.

The driver was not interested in the scenery. We passed every vehicle that we approached, and were stopped at every checkpoint. Once by the highway patrol who seemed very interested in the gringos riding in a collectivo and who wanted to search Cassandra's bag, and once by the military or something. Both stops were quick, but our driver was disconcertingly nervous both times. At the second one he rolled up all the windows and motioned for me to be quiet and said that he'd roll the windows back down when we were past.

We made to Mancora in the middle of the night, and wandered around for a while looking for a place to stay that was in our price range. It it a very touristy place. We've heard that the president, Alejandro Toledo, likes to spend a lot of time there. I guess when your approval rating is 20% you probably need a break. He wasn't there this time, and we found a place to stay called 'Arena Blanca' and went to sleep.



23 March 2006

Cusco

The trip into the heart of Bolivia was fast and strange. We spent less than twenty-four hours there, and then we were gone. My impressions are vague and almost dreamlike. Now we're back in Peru, in Cusco via one night in Puno.

Walking through this city one can't help but be struck by the history of this place. We are staying in the center of the city, not far from the Plaza de Armas. The street plan, and foundations of many of the buildings are pre-conquistador. Only a few blocks from our hostal is a street lined on both sides with Inca masonry, one piece of which is the famous 12-sided stone. Many of the stone faces are the size of a dinner table and at least three feet thick.

On top of the amazing Inca stones are the square and very linear mortared Spanish walls. One sees in these very stones the succession of civilizations, and something of the change of pardigms that occured.

When Pizzaro defeated the Quitan army at Cajamarca in 1532 he took the Inca emperor, Atahualpa captive. In an attempt to save his life, and perhaps the fate of his empire, Atahualpa offered the Spaniards the proverbial king's ransom, a large room full from floor to ceiling with gold and silver. Pizzaro and his men took the gold, but they killed Atahualpa anyway, and since then the riches of Peru have flowed to Europe, and more recently North America.

I can't help but wonder what would have happened had the Incas somehow been prepared for the Spaniards. What might have happened if they had continued their rapid and aggressive expansion? Certainly they would have met the Aztec and obtained the wheel, and maize. What would have happened then? It is difficult to imagine.

Perhaps their time is finally arriving. Ollanta Humala has taken the lead in the most recent presidential poll. Elections are in three weeks.

The Hustle

I may have talked about how big and impressive Lima is, but I hadn't been to La Paz yet. I don't know how many people live here or the elevation, or really much about it at all. You'll have to excuse my lack of knowledge. And I'll try to forgive myself, because it's already gotten us into trouble.

When we arrived in the city yesterday afternoon, the conductor stopped us before we got off to give us a stern warning. "Don't trust anyone," he said. "Don't take any taxi that only says 'taxi,' don't follow strangers, take much caution," and again, "don't trust anyone, it's a very dangerous city."

We caught a very legitimate taxi, and took it to the center of the city, which is I guess where tourists usually go. We had a few ideas of hostals that we'd like to look at from the guide book, and we'd met a couple fellow travellers on the bus. One was a fellow from Juneau named Matt, and the other was a British woman named Karen. It wasn't far from the bus station, but it was a long time before we got to where we were going.

People seem to like walking in the streets here. Busy streets, full of busses and taxis and cars and motorcycles. They walk right out in front of cars. I thought this was something that I was used to in Peru, but it's a billion times worse here. Our bus alone came within inches of running over an old lady, a couple dogs, a middle aged man, and who knows how many more that I didn't see. It was stop and go all the way here.

The Hostal that we wanted to look at first was one called Hostal Lobos. But the driver didn't take us there exactly. He took us to a restaurant called El Lobos. We knew from the book that the hostal should be somewhere very close. There seemed to be a lot of places to stay on this street, and we were sort of standing around, dumbstruck, looking at the signs, slowly thinking about our choices. In retrospect we must have looked like the epitomy of stupid gringos. All of the places that we could see seemed to be closed, completely shuttered in the peculiar Latin American way, with shut doors and metal garage door pulled down.

It didn't take long for a man to approach us and ask what we were looking for. He was an older guy with spectacles, a little pudgy and seemed to know exactly where we were going. He quickly led us down the street a little way, and then took a left down a smaller street to a hostal that was not the one we were looking for. This whole time he was talking to Matt. I don't know exactly what he was saying. Matt said he'd take a quick look and see if it was a good hostal. For some reason I decided to follow him in, maybe because the old guy was ushering me in, I don't know. So it was a train, and we all followed right into the lobby and sat down trustingly.

You're probably thinking to yourself, "No! Don't do it Drew, the conductor told you not to follow strangers. (And so did your mom when you were in kindergarten.)" But he seemed so nice, and we'd taken the very helpful suggestions and guidance of strangers in other places. It didn't seem so odd.

The prices weren't bad, and the lady at the counter was very friendly, dressed in traditional Andean garb, with a baby wrapped in bright woven fabric slung across her chest. We decided that Cassandra, Matt, and Karen would go look at the rooms. I'd stay in the lobby to watch our luggage. So the three went upstairs with the man that worked there and I stayed.

C had left her two small travel bags on the table, one stuffed into the other, and I thought it might be better to have all of things consolidated, you know, for security. So I took her little bags and stuffed them in between the two big packs on the couch, then sat basically on top of them. I was wearing my pack, so it was on top of C's little bags.

What happened next is a little confusing, and what I'm about to write is more of a reconstruction than anything. At the time I didn't realize anything was happening.

As the others were heading upstairs and I was sitting down, another guy walked in wearing a black leather jacket and went to the counter apparently trying to get help. The lady at the counter was already occupied with the man who'd brought us here, so black jacket came and sat down next to me. He picked up the little sheet of paper that told the prices for the hostal and started asking something in very fast Spanish that I couldn't understand. I was listening very closely, trying to be polite as he jabbed at the paper and repeated the same thing over and over again. He had my attention completely, and the lady at the counter was still talking to the old guy.

What I didn't see was the guy sneaking in the door, reaching behind me and grabbing Cassandra's little bags. It seemed a little strange that the guys I was paying attention to took off at the same time rather abruptly, but I was overwhelmed already. As they left, I saw the third guy slinking out the door and turning the corner. I think that he might have been shooting for Matt's bag which was sitting on the floor, but I just happened to turn my head, which scared him out.

When the others came back down, C asked for her bag and I stood up to get it for her, but it was gone. I instantly realized that I'd been hustled. What a horrible feeling. I had no idea it was happening. I am a stupid gringo. I learned something though. Look for the third man, right? Position yourself so you can see what you're gaurding, and the door, ok? Damn. She lost her journal, and calendar/address book, some clothing, and a knife that she got from her parents. Thankfully her glasses, passport and money were all with her.

It was a rather horrible experience. C was very, very upset. We ended up staying in the hostal that the crooks had taken us to. The hostaliers were obviously involved only as unwitting pawns in the criminal scheme, used perfectly. We checked in and then the four of us walked around a bit, looking for the things that the theives must have discarded because they were of no value, but found nothing.

It was getting dark so C and I walked back to the hostal, and Matt and Karen went to get some dinner. They most graciously offered to bring some back for us. We are most indebted to their kindness. They were helpful and understanding at every juncture, doing their most to support and console. I hope that someday I have the opportunity to return the favor.

Now we're getting ready to leave. Heading back to Peru. We've decided that it's not our time to explore Bolivia. I think I'll come back on another trip and be more prepared.

16 March 2006

Puno

We've been in Puno for five days now. It is the main Peruvian city on Lake Titicaca. We didn't plan on being here this long, but Cassandra was sick and she visited a doctor here and needed some rest, or at least a break from travel. We've spent a lot of time wandering around, looking for restaurants, and various other little places where we can get the things that we need.

A couple days ago we visited a small menu place. It is a common type of restaurant in Peru. There is a soup, a choice of entre, and a drink, almost always a sweet purple colored liquid made from corn. The whole meal costs between 2 and 4 soles, or 65 cents to $1.30.

This place that we went gave me yet another reason to admire the resourcefulness of Peruanos. Unfortunately I was unlucky enough to be party to this habit directly. I accidentally ordered a plate of beef tripe and potatoes in a yellow sauce. It was served on rice. I'm afraid if it wasn't for the assaultingly spicy sauce supplied on the table I wouldn't have been able to get it down. The spicy stuff must have been put there for just that purpose. Even after picking out all of the jiggling hunks of rippled yellow stomach lining, the taste of my dish was roughly similar to the smell of a cattle barn. In the future I'll know better than to order the cryptically named Cau Cau.

Damn. From a distance it looked so good.

08 March 2006

Camana

We tried the beach but it was too cold. And there was a minor fiasco trying to get there.

We passed it, and made it almost all the way to Arequipa, but decided to try our luck with a random smaller bus going back the other direction. It didnt take long, and there was a very friendly english speaking guy at the restaurant where we were dropped off. Thank goodness we didnt get stranded there. It was a small place in the middle of nowhere. We had traversed probably one hundred kilometers of completey barren dunes between there and la Punta Camana. These were severly impressive, massive, mountainous wastes of sand. That it is habitable to humans defies my imagination. But we made it out of there.

It turns out that la Punta Camana, and Camana proper are two different places. It is noticable on a good map, but not in the Lonely Planet. La Punta was the beach. It was warm outside, but the water was cold. Too cold for C. So we went into the city proper and have been here for the last couple days. I like it a lot here.

The people are very very pleasant, and the town itself feels so much mellower than Lima, and unlike la Punta, it hasnt been destroyed by a tsunami, which is nice.

03 March 2006

Fresh in Peru

Yesterday as Cassandra and I walked throught he Central District of Lima we came to a bridge across el Rio Rimac. When we got to the other side we found a bunch of fruit vendors, and what appeared to be a much poorer area of the city. We walked for a couple of blocks, not really knowing where we were going before we were stopped by a policeman who told us it was dangerous for us to continue in that direction. He looked at the bag I was carrying and made a gesture to show that it was going to be snatched if we continued on. He escorted us back to the bridge.
I wish I could blend a little better here. But when you are a foot taller than everyone, blonde, and walking around witha girl that has tattoos all over her body, you cannot help but draw attention.