Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Trip to the Coast & Desert - Ica ...

The bus took a long time getting out a crowded Lima, and it was a good 4 1/2 hours before we rolled into Ica. I was pretty beat, so shelled out 25 soles for a comfortable hotel room with a private bathroom, and crashed hard (that's less than $12 NZD / $8 USD, by the way - Peru is cheap, you should visit!).

Next morning I did a bit of exploring round the centre of Ica, confirming my impression that in Peru what is known as "the coast" shares certain characteristics. Ica was as chaotic, dity and haphazard as Lima, though obviously on a much smaller scale (200,000 inhabitants). Three-wheeled taxis, similar to the model made famous by Mr Bean, dashed comically round the uneven streets, adding to the feeling of disorder.

This is the hottest part of South Peru - inland away from the cold sea, and at an altitude of only 500 metres. Still not as blazing as you'd expect at this latitude - only really hot between 10am and 5pm, and refreshing outside those hours. But enough to give the town a heavy, lazy feeling.

I visited the Vista Alegre bodega (vineyard) 5 minutes from the centre of Ica and was taken on a tour to see how they make the wine and pisco. It finished with an opportunity to taste the various products, and I was pleasantly surprised by the wine. I had formed the impression of Peruvian wines, perhaps with some prejudice, as being unsubtle and oversweet. A bit of sweetness is indeed unavoidable, given the lack of a real winter, but these wines were smooth, eminently drinkable, and swimming with aromas of herbs, fruits and spices. I would have bought a bottle, but it's pisco that is the most "typical" product of Ica, and so I opted to take a bottle of the classic Sol de Ica to present to Paola's family, with whom I was to spend Christmas dinner.

The charms of Ica central somewhat exhausted, I headed the 5km out to the oasis and tourist haven of Huacachina. A little pool fringed with palm and orange-flowered acacia trees, the oasis is surrounded by enormous sand dunes, which have become extremely popular for sandboarding - one of the things I had to tick off my tourist list. I didn't particularly like the vibe of the hostel where I stayed, though - it had a transient, slightly seedy feel, and I thought the young guys who ran the reception and travel agency were rather insolent. Yes, that's the word - sometimes I really think I'm getting *old*.

The next day it was off with a group of other palefaced tourists to go sandboarding on the dunes. The ride in the buggy was a bit of an adventure in itself, as we plunged vertically up and down the steep ridges and hollows. This is probably all kinds of disaster for any ecosystem exisiting in the dunes, but I put that out of my head like a good tourist.

The sanboarding itself was a bit of a laugh, the dunes high enough and the sand hard enough to get some speed going, but the boards didn't allow much manouvering and got sandlogged before reaching the bottom. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, with my few experiences snowboarding, I was one of the least incompetent, though still took plenty of tumbles on teh way down.

On the way out to Hucachina the taxi driver had told me about a local legend - the village of Cachiche and its "seven-headed palm tree". Cachiche is said to be the centre of witchcraft in Peru, and diabolical influences are responsible for the form of this particular palm, which has grown in twisted loops, repeatedly burying itself in the sand and sprouting another leafy crown. According to the legend, there was a local witch, who lived to th age of 106 and is supposed to have cured the stutter of a local boy who later became a congressman. On her death in 1987, she prophesied that when the seventh head of the plalm tree appeared, Ica would be wiped out.

In 1997 (an El Niño year) massive rains in the hills above Ica sent flood waters hurtling down the valley, breaking the banks of the river and burying Ica in a tide of mud. At this time, the villagers of Cachiche noticed that the seventh head of the palm tree had appeared and sprouted leaves. They quickly set to the task of cutting it off, at which point it stopped raining, and the flood waters ceased, just before they entered the village of Cachiche.

I decided to check out the story at first hand, and the next day dragged along an Israeli guy and English girl in my dorm room and took another taxi to Cachiche. Five minutes from the centre of Ica, it was a poor, sleepy looking collection of ramshackle houses and fruit trees with a few bored-looking people sitting around in the heat. We drove right up to the diabolical tree itself, and the taxi driver sought out a local woman to recite the legend in return for a small tip and a soft drink for her daughter.

Not everybody coincided in their account of the legend. According to the second taxi driver and the local woman, it hadn't been the "good witch" of 106 years who was responsible for the curse - she would never have done such a thing! In fact, the palm tree had historically been the centre for the ceremonies of the "bad witches", who had performed human sacrifices in return for knolwedge of the future. One of these witches, when she drew the short straw and was to be sacrificed, violently objected and placed the curse of the seventh head as she died. These days, she said, the villagers were always very careful to lop off the palm tree's seventh head the minute it showed signs of sprouting.

Meanwhile, just round the corner, was the meeting place of the "good witches". These were just "curanderas", we were told, who had practiced healing rites. The 106-year old had been one of these, and had cured the future congressman when he came to her as a 14 year-old boy with a crippling stutter. As a gesture of gratitude, he had a statue erected in her memory. It's a golden Art Nouveau nymphette with a head of curls. The good witch was said to have been something of a babe; she "bewitched with her beauty" according to the plaque on the statue.

Opposite the statue, where a local boy recited its history in return for a small tip, resided the current witch of Cachiche, a smiling man in his fourties doing a slow trade from his little store, sponsored in the bright yellow of Inka Kola. He offered to read our palms, but we instead opted for a couple of chilled Inka Kolas to quench the thirst.

The Ica regional musuem, which was supposed to be very good, was closed, so I cut my losses, grabbed my bags from the hstel in Huacachina, and jumped on a local bus headed for the two and a half hour ride through the desert to Nazca.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Trip to the coast - Lima...

It's summer in Lima. Remarkably for a city only a few degrees south of the equator, it spends eight months of the year shrouded by the garua, a thick coastal fog produced by the cold Humboldt current, and in winter the temperature hovers around 17-18 degrees. But by December a hazy sun has come out, the temperature is up to 25-26 degrees, and the high humidity makes the air thick and steamy on the streets.

The true extremes of Lima are supposed to be the leafy mansions of San Isidro and Miraflores, and the desperate poverty of the pueblos jovenes (shantytowns) on the rim of the city. But in the centre itself you can pass from tranquility to chaos within one block. In the area around the Plaza Mayor, the pedestrian mall on Jiron de la Union and the boardwalk along the Rimac river by the old railway station, Paola and I walked on clean, spacious pavements past splendid colonial buildings under the watchful eye of abundant police.

A couple of blocks away we crossed the avenida Abancay, officially the most polluted and noisiest street in the whole of Peru. Crowds of people hovered on the sidewalks waiting to dash across the avenue between the dilapidated minibuses belching clouds of smoke. We picked our way through the usual menagerie of sidewalk kiosks, street sellers, hawkers, beggers and thieves, only to be submerged in the pre-Christmas chaos of the barrio chino, where a human flood tide surged in all directions past shops and galleries filled with cheap jewellery and trinkets, and it wasn't clear who was buying and who was selling.

And we almost didn't even get there. With tickets booked for the 5:30 pm bus from Arequipa to Lima, I reluctantly took at face value Paola's promise that she would "pick me up from my place at 5:00 sharp" I had desisted from promising to pick her up, as I thought she didn't want her parents to know she was going to Lima with me. In fact, although she can't stay the night at my place, and I'm forbidden from ever going upstairs (where her bedroom is) when I visit her place, her mother had been told casually "I'm off to Lima with Simon". Complexities of Peruvian morality.

Although we were really supposed to *be at the bus terminal* by 5:00, I gritted my teeth (sometimes I think I'm turning into Dad) and accepted the 5:00 pm pick-up time, and was dutifully waiting by my front door at the indicated hour. At 5:10 I called Paola's cell phone. "You're already in the taxi, right?" I asked. "Yes, yes", I could hear her lying.

By 5:15 I was starting to sweat; I smoked two consecutive cigarettes pacing back and forth and checking the clock in the store by my front door. At 5:20 I phoned the desk of the bus company at the terminal and spoke to the guy we had bought the tickets off. "Can you make sure the bus waits for us?" I begged. We're, uh, having some problems with the taxi but we'll be there soon". The bus company guy winced. "Well, the bus has to leave at 5:35 sharp....where are you?". "In the centre" I replied. "Ufff" I could hear him shaking his head. I hung up after a couple more desperate supplications to wait for us.

By 5:25 I was renouncing any relationship that might ever have existed between Paola and I, rehearsing the last string of insults I would ever deliver to her, and readying myself to make a last desperate attempt to get to Lima by myself.

At 5:26 a taxi stopped by my place bearing a grinning Paola. "What are you trying to do to me, woman!" I blustered. "We'll never make it!"
"We'll be fine", Paola assured me. "It's only 5:20". After consultation of various timepieces and the radio, it did appear that my clock had been five minutes fast. But we still had to get to the bus station, normally at least ten minutes south of the city centre, through rush-hour traffic. I squirmed in my seat as we waited at traffic lights and urged the poor taxi driver to take any possible short cuts.

The taxi clock was reading 5:32 as we pulled up by the bus terminal. I grabbed all our bags and made a desperate rush for the terminal entrance and the Cromotex counter, Paola trailing in my wake. Fortunately the bus was still there on the tarmac and we were able to load our bags into the luggage compartment. But as we climbed aboard, the bus was already moving. We had made it by the absolute skin of our teeth.

I was still shaking a little as we pulled out of Arequipa, with the sky getting dark. Paola curled up in her seat and glanced up at me. "Everything alright, baby?" she asked innocently.

Once in Lima I was dragged into what seemed like *every single* clothing boutique on Jiron de la Unión and suffered in the non-airconditioned galeries of the barrio chino while Paola painstakingly inspected a huge variety of jewellery and other trinkets. But it was good to be there. Lima is everything Arequipa is not, or aspires not to be - humid, dirty, and chaotic - but it's good to get out of the provinces for a change. Lima is also one of the culinary capitals of the world, and the seafood in particular is delicious. We ate cebiche (chunks of raw fish marinated in chili, lemon and onions) in sidewalk cafes and enjoyed the warm air.

In between the shopping, we also made it to three different musuems - the Musuem of Popular (Folk) Art, an exhibition on "Women in Peruvian and Mexican Prehispanic Society" in the old railway station, and the Musuem of the Inquisition near the Congress building. This was my favourite - a historical tour through the building that housed the Lima branch of the Spanish Inquisition up until the 19th century. The same building later housed the Peruvian Senate, which was featured in the second half of the tour. This is one of those nice ironies which remind you you're in a country that doesn't make any sense.

We also made it to a silver workshop, and were given a guided tour through the process of forging the silver and making it into jewellery. Paola has ambitions of making and selling her own jewellery, in funky designs of silver and alpaca, so was keen to inspect the possible competition. But design wasn't the workshop's forte - mostly the rings, earrings etc were in predictable moulds for mass export consumption.

After two days, Paola had to go back to Arequipa on the 7pm bus. I had drifted into her time zone, and we suddenly found ourselves with 15 minutes to get from the hotel to the bus station - again through rush hour traffic. On hearing about our deadline, the taxi driver changed direction and threw us a blanket. "Put that over your backpacks" he said. "We'll have to go down Abancay".

On the way through the chaos of the avenida Abancay Paola and the driver swapped carjacking stories. Apparently Paola and a friend had once been attacked in a taxi in Lima; the assailants managed to leave her a nasty cut, but didn't actually take anything. "Yeah, they're usually half-drugged" said the taxi driver. "You know, the other week a guy tried to jump into the car when I was with a señora. He grabbed hold of the lady's purse, but I accelerated and shook him off onto the sidewalk. Then she goes mad at me, says I was in cahoots with the thief. Jesus, I just saved her from getting robbed! What thanks do I get?".

Welcome to Lima.

As it happened, we arrived to Cromotex terminal shortly after 7:00, and things were running on a more typical Peruvian schedule; people were still lining up to check their luggage. By now I had abandoned the idea of heading to the north of Peru; there wasn't time before Christmas, all the bus companies were raising their prices, and it would be hard to even get a seat in the last week before the 25th. Instead I said goodbye to Paola and wandered two doors down to the Flores terminal where I jumped on the first bus headed for Ica, three hours away in the desert south of Lima.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

I saw this article on the Stuff website and would have to dispassionately say that this time they've got it right. Yes New Zealand is beautiful, but yes, it's also a bit boring and is not necessarily the best place to live, though a tourist will almost certainly have a good time.

It also inspires me, after having done a bit of travelling, to provide my own list of the best and most beautiful. I've still (hopefully) got a couple more countries up my sleeve in South America, so it'll be interesting to see if that changes anything.

Make comments!! On the website, rather than sending them to my email. That way other people can see what you've put too. Of course, I've never really been to Asia or Africa, so would be interested to hear comparisons from people who have, and have also done Europe/North America/Latin America like me (Paul Bryant, are you out there?).

Here goes:

Most beautiful country: Guatemala, by streets. New Zealand comes second, so I'm not being deliberately anti-patriotic! Guatemala, in addition to tremendous variety and constant beauty within a small space, has an undefinable feeling of magic.

Most livable country: Spain. To live somewhere, you want a combination of things: natural beauty, economic opportunity, security, friendliness, climate, vibrance, urban beauty, outdoor life, history and culture. Spain gets good ticks on most points.

Friendliest people: Argentina. This one surprised me, as I generally find travelling Argentinians a bit tiresome. But in the country itself - welcoming, educated, generally respectful, and with a touch of joie de vivre. And even paleface tourists like me get treated like normal people.

Most beautiful big city: Paris. Untouchable. Despite its awful outer ring.

Most beautiful medium-sized city: lots competing,and at this point beauty and liveability become intertwined. Some candidates are Venice, Italy; Seville, Spain; Wellington, New Zealand; Salta and Mendoza, Argentina; and Arequipa, Peru. Everywhere has its ups and downs - Venice is indescribably beautiful but very touristic - could you really live there? Wellington would win easily if it weren't for the climate and the lack of social life for 25-35 year old single people.

Most beautiful small town: La Antigua, Guatemala beats out Grenada, Spain. Volcanic cones and green hills hover over cobblestone streets and ruined baroque churches with red, purple and yellow bougainvillea climbing over the crumbled stone. The climate is delicious; at the end of the wet season you can sit under a moonlit sky and watch the lightning flashing in the hills.

Most liveable place: After much thought, London. But you *have* to have a good job and the ability to escape on holidays to the continent. I'd need to spend much more time in New York and perhaps San Francisco to make the comparison. I like the saying "If you're tired of London, you're tired of life".

Ugliest place: A tie between Newark, New Jersey and Juliaca, Peru. Neither place is actually particularly poor, but seem to share a collective disgregard for the quality of life.

Of course, many of these opinions have been formed by fleeting visits or initial impressions, so I'd welcome corrections or disagreements.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

News Brief from Peru - "Rebellion" in Andahuaylas...

Don't know if any of this has filtered through to the ourside world - it was on CNN en español, but hadn't been picked up by the AP...some of you might find it interesting anyway....

While we were sunning ourselves and eating the world's best olives in warm, tranquil Arica over New Year, a group of young army reservists led by a former Peruvian army major and aspiring politician Antauro Humala took over a police station in Andahuaylas, between Ayacucho and Cusco, and 832 km southeast of Lima. Four police officers were killed by the group, who espouse an ideology called "etnocacerism" and demanded the resignation of Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo.

The rebels had originally planned to attack two army bases near Andahuaylas, but on discovering that the bases were on alert, opted for the police station, which was unguarded but held a substantial store of arms. The takeover was apparently achieved without a shot being fired, but the four officers were killed later when they tried to approach the station.

A standoff followed as the rebels held 17 police officers hostage and Peruvian police and army units surrounded the area. Crowds of people gathered in the streets, largely in support of the rebels, and formed barricades near the police station, blocking the approaches. Meanwhile, mediation efforts were underway, led by the Ombudsman's office and the parish priest.

Antauro Humala is being depicted by the national papers as something of a charlatan and an opportunist. His brother, Ollanta Humala, has been a military attache in France and South Korea and is supposed to have been behind some shady events including a "staged" uprising in 2000. Antauro at one point received 6% in a presidential poll but has recently dropped out of view, and it's being said that the events in Andahuaylas are an attempt to gain political attention and leverage.

The Etnocaceristas are described as having an "ultranationalist" ideology. From what I can make out, it's a crude mix of indigenous resentment, and xenophobia directed in particular at Chile and the United States. "Etno" is "ethno", and "cacerista" comes from Andrés A. Cáceres, a Peruvian hero of the 1879-1883 war against Chile. (see the full translated newswire article below). Of course, Humala is not himslef indigenous, and was educated in the Franco-Peruvian college. Unsurprisingly, his main adherents are young, little educated, unemployed men.

Early afternoon yesterday (3 Jan), after negotations had broken down a couple of times and various incidents had left one of the rebels dead, Humala gave himself up, along with 50 of his comrades, in the municipality of Andahuaylas. Other reservists remained barricaded in the police station with the hostages until this morning, when they also gave themselves up.

The whole episode was brief and seemingly pointless, but worrying, in that it presents a precedent and model for other groups to vent their frustration or make a name for themselves. It's hardly the best thing for Peru.

Meanwhile in Arequipa...

The events in Andahuaylas had also triggered off unrest in other regions of Peru. We arrived back here yesterday a little past midnight and this morning the streets were tranquil, giving no indication of the events of yesterday. I was updated by the girls at the agencia and the newspaper, accordng to whom things had gotten a little ugly. Three thousand protesters and a handful of members of the etnocacerist movement gathered in the centre of the city around the plaza de armas. The rowdy protests got a bit out of hand when news came through that in Andahuaylas Humala had reneged on a previous decision to surrender.

In a fit of excitement and jubilation, the protesters started ripping up stones from the plaza and forming barricades. The police responded by dispersing the crowd with tear-gas bombs. According to the paper, the worst-affected were children and old people who happened to be passing through the area at the time, and suffered breathing problems. There were seven arrests made.

La Republica reported that "tourism shouldn't be affected" by the incidents, as it was all over fairly quickly. I can make an assurance to the contrary, however. Prior to going to Arica, Tessy and I had responded to a request from an agency in Cuzco who had 14 tourists wanting to do four days in Arequipa. We put together a programme, worked out a budget and provided the programme and proposed price to the Cuzco agency. On my arrival back here Lizbeth informed me that the tourists had accepted and were all set to come. However, news of the disturbances in Arequipa filtered through to them and, anxious for their security, they decided to cancel. Instead they will be heading for Bolivia. That's a loss of what would have been a considerable earning for our agency, not to mention the about $3200 cash that it now not going to be spent in Peru. You hardly need the tear gas to make you want to cry...

Some Background...

This is quite interesting. I've translated it directly from the online news service.

Lima, 4 Jan (EFE).- Antauro Humala, leader of the ultranationalist movement "Etnocacerista", which took over a police station in the Peruvian city of Andahuaylasm, told EFE, hours before being arrested, that he compares his actions with those of the presidents of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, and of Ecuador, Lucio Guitiérrez.

Humala indicated in a telephone conversation with EFE that the Ecuadorian and Venezuelan presidents, who led military coups in their respective countries before governing them, "represent a generation of officers who seek to stamp out the corruption of the military class stemming from the School of the Americas in Panama controlled by Washington".

While denying that his uprising has electoral ends, Huamla noted that "we are officers of medium rank who want to put an end to the moral collapse of the old generation of soldiers in Latin America who are linked to narcotrafficking and other war crimes".

The retired major and leader of the ultranationalist movement "Etnocacerista", who defends executions as an effective method to get rid of corrupt politicians, said that he acknowledged that Chavez "has revolutionary and historic merit, because he stands firm against the pressures of the United States".

Commenting on the issue, the ex-minister of the Interior Fernando Rospigliosi said that "Humala wants to imitate the spectacular actions of other Latin American military officers like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador, who made coup attempts which catapulted them to popularity and ended up winnign elections".

Peru began the year 2005 shaken by the takeover of a police station in Andahuaylas (832 km from Lima) by some 150 members of the ultranationalist movement "Etnocacerista", who took control of a large stock of arms, held 17 police hostage and killed four.

Antauro Humala indicated that the uprising was intended to demand the resignation of the Peruvian president, Alejandro Toledo, who has a 9% approval rating according to the latest polls.

Regarding the date of the rebellion, which coincides with the Cuban revolutionary victory in 1959 and that of the "zapatistas" in Mexico in 1994, Antauro Humala acknowedged that he chose the date "because we knew we would find the police unprepared after the New Year festivities"

Humala, who may face charges for the rebellion that imply an average of 25 years in prison, revealed that he chose Andahuaylas to begin his rebellion because "in Peruvian history it was the epicentre of the rebellion by the Chanca culture against the Incas (13th century) and the peasant army which liberated Lima from the Chileans was formed in 1883".

He emphasized that he is "afraid of death" but that he "has spiritual peace which allows his participation in this historic movement which has already achieved its revolutionary task".

According to unofficial figures, the followers of Humala in the marginal zones of Lima, Ayacucho, Tacna, Moquegua, Arequipa, Puno and Apurimac reach 4,000 persons, who are mainly youth with few resources, little education and without any possibility of finding employment.

"Etnocacerismo" takes its name from the marshall and ex-president of Peru Andrés A. Cáceres, hero of the war against Chile (1879-1883), and feeds on xenophobia againstChile, the United Sates and Israel with a discourse which uses the terms of indigenous complaints and demands.

The chief "etnocacerista", a retired major, and his brother, Ollanta Humala, a retired commandant, took part in 2000 in an uprising against the president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), who quit the presidency of the Peru in that year in the midst of accusations of corruption.