Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Renzo's Story

Eleven-year old Renzo had the cheeky grin and ready patois of a kid from Lima's barrios. He was happy enough when he said goodbye to his parents at the somewhat chaotic Enlaces station, beside the roaring traffic of the avenida Javier Prado, and boarded the bus with Hugo and I.

On the sixteen-hour journey to Arequipa, though, he was sleepless, panicky and intermittently nauseous. By the time we got off blinking in the White City's morning sunlight, Hugo, by nature sympathetic, was getting slightly impatient.

Over the next few days Renzo suffered from severe separation anxiety. He cried quietly in the room he had to share with Gerardo, and when a call was put through to his parents, sobbed down the phone to his mother.

Lizbeth was less than empathetic. "Aunt!" she shouted down the phone, in front of her nephew. "He's been blubbering all day! He misses your teats!" I told her I was taken aback by such vulgarity, and she chortled.

When he forgot his homesickness, Renzo brought out a series of anecdotes of life in the barrio of San Juan de Miraflores. This is one of the "old new" areas of Lima; once a pueblo joven, it gradually built itself up into working class respectability - though is now plagued by the crime and insecurity that spares few parts of Peru's teeming capital.

This time it was Lizbeth who was a bit shocked, as she listened to the tales. "That area's gone downhill", she said, shaking her head. "When I used to stay there as a student, it was tranquilo".

With casual relish, Renzo told us of how he had been attacked in the park where he liked to play football. "One time I was in the park with my bike, and these guys came up and robbed me at gunpoint. I resisted, and tried to get away on my bike, but they ran after me and threw me to the ground. They stole my helmet and left me there".

How old were these guys, I wanted to know. About seventeen, thought Renzo. And they had pulled a gun on him for his cycle helmet? "It was a motorbike helmet", he said, as if that explained everything.

Renzo shrugged that off plegmatically as an isolated incident and said it didn't worry him to go back to the park. "I'm not afraid of anything", he claimed. But playing and wandering on the streets, he'd been witness to at least two other violent crimes.

One time he'd seen a young guy with his girlfriend get attacked by four muggers, who stabbed the young guy in the leg before running off with his possessions. "Blood came spurting out", according to Renzo.

The people of the neighbourhood came out en masse, but the muggers were long gone. The kid was taken to hospital, where a piece of the knife was removed from his thigh.

Another time Renzo saw a man get grabbed by two guys who ordered him to "give us all your money". When the robbery produced little yield, they got angry, shouted "fuck, why don't you have any money?", and hit him in the head with a tyre iron.

Renzo also claimed to have witnessed a gunfight, just a couple of blocks up from his house.

"The U and the Alianza (Alianza Lima and Universitario de Deportes, rival groups of football hooligans) were fighting, and the police came and started to fire in the air. Then everyone started to shoot at each other", he recounted.

Renzo said he watched from a roof, about 6 or 7 metres away through a peephole in a steel wall. Had anyone been hit in the gunfight? "Sure, lots of them were hit - in the leg, in the arm, the chest, the stomach, the face".

Two of the Alianza cohort were killed, said Renzo. The police were greatly outnumbered and retired from the scene. "Later the Alianza went to look for the guys from the U, and killed seven of them. They cut their throats with big knives".

It was hard to know how much of this to believe, as when I pressed for details of the incidents in question they were supplied in exaggerated, improbable, and somewhat inconsistent fashion. But Renzo's world was was starting to sound uncomfortably like City of God.

He was fascinated with the street gangs that wandered through his barrio from even rougher areas like Villa El Slavador and San Juan de Lurigancho, home of Lima's notorious penal facility.

Like a budding social worker, Renzo deconstructed their criminality. "They're people who haven't had any education, their parents have treated them bad, that's why they're like that. It's not their fault; it's the fault of the parents".

So he wasn't afraid of the gangs, I asked a little incredulously. He shook his head.

"They don't do anything to us kids, they just fight amongst themselves. They steal the arms to defend themselves against the other gangs, or the police. Sometimes the commit a crime so they can get taken to jail, then they escape and steal weapons off the police".

So when the gangs were around, was he happy to just play football in the normal places?

Renzo paused. "Well, when they're around, I don't play. I want to watch them". He ruminated a second. "It's ok for me. But I do worry about when my parents go out. I worry that it's not safe for them. I can take a risk, but I don't want them to. I say 'no mamá, don't go out on the street'"

For all the bravado, I wondered if Renzo wouldn't prefer to live somewhere that didn't feature acts of mortal violence as part of life's daily tapestry. He'd grumped that in suburban Arequipa "there's no kids; there's no football on the street", but I asked him if he wouldn't like to be somewhere safer.

He shrugged. "I'd live wherever my parents were".

"Ok, so assuming your parents were with you, where would you prefer to live?", I queried.

"If my parents were in Lima, I'd prefer to live in Lima", he affirmed. "If my parents were in Arequipa, I'd live in Arequipa".

A la Hora Peruana

Have I ever written about "Peruvian time"? Oh yes. Here, here and here.

So it is with considerable amusement that I read in an almost Onion-like article from the Associated Press that the Peruvian government is launching a "plan to combat lateness"

According to the article, "schools, businesses and government institutions will be asked to stop tolerating 'la hora peruana', or 'Peruvian time' - which usually means an hour late". On March 1, it was intended that sirens would sound and church bells ring out, alerting 27 million Peruvians to synchronize their watches.

In part, this appears to be political points-scoring by president Alan Garcia, who likes to contrast his own punctuality with the notorious tardiness of former president Alejandro Toledo.

But to the extent that it's sincere, just synchronising watches and requesting everybody to turn up earlier for work is not going to change Peruvians' deep-seated, fatalistic attitude to time. Rather like life, it's seen as a force that is nebulous, only partly controllable, and prone to unexplained discontinuities.

Some of this perception is captured by the expression "ahorita", a word used from Mexico through Central America to Peru and Bolivia. As a dimunitive of ahora (now), you could be forgiven for accepting the dictionary translation, which defines it as "right now". But, as anyone who has lived or travelled in these countries will tell you, instead of applying more precision, the dimunitive serves to make the meaning more fuzzy or liquid, spreading out the "now" until its boundaries are no longer discernible.

When someone says that something will happen "ahorita", they are usually indicating that, though they are hopeful that the event will occur soon, they will not be held responsible for designating any specific moment.

"Ahorita vengo", for example, would be literally translated as "I'll be right back", but someone seeking to truly understand the import of the phrase should take it as meaning something like "I may be some time".

There are numerous examples of Peruvians' strange conception of time, of which I only have space to cite a couple. Among the many occasions when my Peruvian ex-girlfriend made we wait an unreasonable amount was an afternoon when had we agreed to meet at 4:00 pm to go to a movie. We decided that she would pick me up after her university classes at the office of Incaventura, where I was explaining trekking and climbing expeditions to groups of tourists.

At 4:15 I got a call to the office; it was Paola. "Hey, it looks like my lecture is going to run over time", she said in an apologetic tone. "He's already kept us here longer to explain something and it'll be another ten minutes before we get out. Sorryyy"

I was puzzled. "But what time was your class supposed to finish?", I asked. "Four o'clock", she said with a hint of impatience, as if I should have known that.

To get from the university to the tour office required her to take two minibuses and then walk several blocks. In the absolutely best combination of circumstances, it was twenty-five minutes away. Exactly which wormhole in the space-time continuum she had ever planned to crawl through to meet me at 4:00 pm, I'll never know.

Lest one take all this personally - and in the case of my ex-girlfriend it was so frequent and exaggerated that I did - it's worth observing that the same approach is routine even for esteemed individuals or for very important events

In my most recent trip to Peru, I attended a wedding in Arequipa, which was scheduled for midday Saturday. Some friends of mine from New Zealand, travelling through the Andean countries, also happened to be in Arequipa at the time, and one of them had experienced some health problems which required a specialist appointment at the local private hospital.

The appointment was for the same Saturday as the wedding, at 9:00 am, and I was to attend as a translator. I went to the hospital on Saturday morning already in my suit, thinking to be on the safe side I would plan to go straight from the hospital to the wedding.

By the time the medical issues were sorted out, it was getting late (the doctor had arrived at the hospital twenty-five minutes after our appointment time). The church where the wedding was to take place was only six blocks up the hill, so at 11:45, when everything seemed to be more or less ok, I left the hospital and hurried up to the church.

Arriving about 11:59, I was the second person there. I introduced myself to the bride's aunt, who was standing outside, and we went into the church. People started to drift in; about 12:10, the bride arrived - surprisingly early, and before the groom - and not long after, the ceremony started.

I can recall looking around and feeling a bit disappointed for Chriss that the beautiful colonial church was only one third full for her wedding. But about fifteen minutes into the ceremony, I turned around again and saw that most of the pews were full. People continued to arrive through the readings and the hymns, and eventually it was packed.

Almost last of all arrived the bridesmaids, who strolled into the church about 12:30, looking only very slightly embarassed, and took their place in one of the front pews.

So the lateness has no real rhyme or reason, and can't even be relied on to be consistent. In at least one case I found myself in an embarassing situation when someone I was relying on to be half an hour late actually arrived twenty minutes early.

It would be easy to assume that this is a result of a relaxed, straw-in-mouth approach to life by people who like to take it easy. But in fact the notable thing about Peruvians is that they often seem to be in a terrible hurry. People bump into each other rushing out of shops. Waiters and shop assistants are frequently harried and impatient. Inter-city buses speed along winding mountain roads, taking the curves with more haste than is necessary.

For people from other cultures, all this can be bewildering and frustrating. But once expectations are adjusted, "la hora peruana" begsin to grow on those of us who also tend to feel that time is a fluid and slippery beast. The amusingly passive Spanish verb constructions beloved in Latin America, like "se me hizo tarde" ("it got late on me") capture this feeling well.

I do have some sympathy with the Peruvian government's attempt to stigmatise chronic lateness, which is part of their general modernising drive to get the country to shake itself up and learn to solve its own problems. And yes, it's partly about respect for others, acknowledging that other people's time is valuable to them.

At the same time, it would be a less idiosyncratic, colorful society that gave itself entirely up to the mechanistic observances of schedules. To maintain an ambivalent, uneasy relationship with time's measures is, in part, to assert that they're not all that matters. The day Peru marches to the beat of the clock, it will have lost some of its unaccountable charm.

Fortunately, I don't think there's much chance of that happening in the near future.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Ghost Stories of the Sierra. II: The Mummy Juanita

For any visitor to Arequipa, one of the recommended highlights is a visit to see the famous "Mummy Juanita" in the Catholic University's Museo de Santuarios Andinos, about one block from the Plaza de Armas.

In a temperature-controlled glass case, huddled in richly decorated Incan rugs, Juanita stares out at the visiting tourists. Her skin is showing the effects of 500 years without moisturiser. Her long hair has split ends, and time hasn't been kind to her gums. But she's recognizably, remarkably, the fourteen year-old girl of royal blood who was sacrificed on the icy summit of 6,300 metre Nevado Ampato, five centuries ago.

Juanita was discovered in 1995, when ash and smoke erupting from neighbouring volcano Sabancaya melted part of the ice cap on Ampato, and the seismic activity shook apart her snowy tomb.

The mountain guide who discovered Juanita, along with American archeologist Johann Reinhard, was Mickey Zarate. Though you won't hear anything about him when you watch the National Geographic video that they show at the museum; Reinhard's is the only name mentioned.

These days Mickey has a little hole-in-the-wall office on the calle Santa Catalina - directly opposite Incaventura's office, and next door to Blanca's internet cafe. He's still a mountain guide, but has been completely overshadowed in the business by his brother Carlos, who occupies an entire courtyard a couple of blocks further down Santa Catalina, with a shiny 4WD often parked in the interior.

Mickey is often to be found drowning his sorrows, lamenting his problems with women. He's bitter about the lack of recognition he received in relation to the discovery, and is keen to tell his story to anyone who'll listen.

He had an article written which tells his version of events leading up to the discovery of Juanita
Last time I was in Arequipa he showed me an English translation. He wanted me to check and see if it was alright. There wasn't time on that trip, but when I got back to Arequipa recently Mickey was still waving the translation around, and this time I had a chance to take a look. The translation he'd had done was indeed deeply flawed, so I redid it for him.

The below text is the completed translation. The last sentence is something of a rhetorical flourish, but in an ironic way, it's true that the discovery of Juanita was only the beginning of the story. In a further entry, I'll attempt to relate the tale of the "Curse of the Mummy Juanita".

More Plaudits for Famous Guide Miguel Zarate

At the peak of his guiding career, together with the archeologist Johann Reinhardt, Zarate discovered the tomb of “Juanita” on Nevado Ampato (6,380 metres).

The beginning of the adventure, which culminated in the discovery of the Nevado Ampato mummies, dates from 1989, when Miguel Zarate, heading alone towards the ice cap, came upon a ceremonial plaza at around 5,000 metres above sea level. At that time, the first gassy emanations from the volcano Sabancaya were beginning to melt the ice around the summit of Ampato.

The experienced mountain guide then organized a return expedition with a German group, which opened a new route towards the peak. There they found the “Altar” at about 5,800 metres above sea level, bringing back samples of bone and ceramic fragments.

In 1991, Zárate met up again with his friend and climbing partner Johan Reinhard, whom he had known since 1979, and they spoke about the theme of Andean sanctuaries. The archeologist indicated that he would undertake expeditions to the mountains of Coropuna, Sara Sara, Hualca Hualca, Calches and Huarancante. Ampato wasn’t considered of sufficient importance to be included in the project at that stage.

In Feburary 1992, when Zárate again visited Ampato with a French friend, a storm prevented them from ascending beyond 5,850 metres, where they found scraps of wood and ichu, indicating the construction of a stepped pathway towards the summit.

From 1992, Zárate waited for Johan, to encourage him to ascend the peak. He described his work to many who understood the subject. Some believed him; others no, but for lack of finance and permits, it wasn’t possible to continue with the excavations. Zárate continued patiently waiting.

“I saw a young girl fall, and she called out to me. When I went towards her, I took her in my arms and ran down some stairs, and she said to me: 'Mickey, please, don’t leave me!', and I answered her 'I’m not going to leave you'. 'Promise me!'. 'I promise you'. "

Such was the recurring dream that Zárate had in the days prior to the expedition that discovered the body of Juanita, the “Ice Princess”.

But this surprising discovery wasn’t just based on mere sentiments and dreams – there had been fifteen years of expeditions and previous discoveries which indicated that the 6,380 metre summit of Ampato was the icy home of the sleeping princess.

In September of 1995, Zárate met with Reinhard in the Le Bristol café in Arequipa, and convinced him to travel to Ampato. In 1963 Carlos Zárate Sandoval , Miguel’s father, had led an expedition to Picchu Picchu, where they found the tomb of another Incan princess at 5600 metres, but the body was damaged. In 1994, Miguel’s older brother Carlos returned from Ampato with photographs and a strange braided rope brought from near the summit.

The story began on the morning of the 2nd of September 1995. Miguel Zárate, Johan Reinhard and muleteer Henry Huamani departed from the village of Cabanaconde towards Nevado Ampato. The first results of this expedition were seen at 6,200 metres: on the frozen and pale ground they found scraps of rope, ichu, wood and pieces of ceramic. They were on the right path.

But it was Friday the 8th that was destined for the major discovery. Despite the lack of oxygen and the effort required to work at that altitude, they made it to the summit.

“While Johan took notes, I focused on inspecting, checking and cleaning the area - tasks that we always undertook when reviewing the sites that we visited”.

“Then I noticed that there were remains of a structure and I saw a small fan with reddish feathers sticking out of the mountainside. In that moment I let out a whistle, and raising my pick, called out to Johan”.

Zárate and Reihard embraced each other – they had uncovered the sanctuary.

“We also found pieces of wood, gold laminates, three feminine statuettes, silver, and spondillus (sea shells)”, recalls Miguel.

But its structure had collapsed and the body had fallen down the slope of the crater. Ingeniously, the explorers tossed stones wrapped in yellow plastic to observe their trajectory. The stones rolled and stopped 60 metres below. On descending, Miguel saw a bulky object and pointed it out it Johan, but the latter, not being able to see Zárate, stopped at his side where he gestured with his index finger and said jokingly “There it is, don’t you see; what’s got your tongue?”.

Close by the fallen stones, with her face exposed to the weak rays of the afternoon sun, a young Incan girl was seen by human eyes for the first time in 500 years. Juanita had been discovered.

It was 5:15 in the afternoon. They didn’t think twice about it. A precise blow of the ice pick from the mountain guide freed the Incan princess from her icy prison. “Your pack is bigger” indicated Miguel to Johan, who got rid of everything that was in his pack. While Miguel lifted the bulky object of almost 40 kilos in his arms, he remembered his dreams. He secured it in the pack and lifted it on to Johan’s back.

Time was against them; night fell and the temperature plummeted dangerously. They had to leave Juanita at 5,950 metres to shelter in the camp at 5,800 metres. That night they couldn’t sleep. They agreed to separate; Johan would climb up to collect Juanita and bring her back to the camp.

Very early on the 9th of September Miguel descended to base camp at 5,000 metres, carrying all the equipment from Camp One, and returned for Juanita at 5,800 metres. He brought up Humani for assistance, but the muleteer refused to help bring down the mummy, and returned to base camp, fearful of the curse of the sacrificed girl. Reinhard was very angry and threatened him: “If you don’t catch up with Miguel with the donkey; if you don’t help him, I won’t pay you a single cent”. The muleteer reluctantly agreed.

They descended to 4,600 metres, and there made the final camp, as night was rapidly falling. “I was afraid that if we left the princess to the elements she would fall easy prey to some animal or suffer damage from the weather, so I decided to place her inside the tent; by my side, to be precise”, recalls Miguel Zárate. “Henry didn’t sleep at all that night”.

The 10th of September, they arrived in Cabanaconde, from where Zárate left that same night at 11:30 pm, and on Monday the 11th at 6:00 in the morning, he arrived alone with the mummy in the city of Arequipa. There she spent three days in his house, in a new freezer provided by his friend Dante Lucioni. After that, Miguel and Johan decided to present Juanita to the Catholic University of Santa Maria.

The rest of the story began to be known on the 9th of October, when El Correo, a regional newspaper, featured the great discovery and Juanita the “Ice Princess”, the young girl buried in Nevado Ampato, became the world-renowned protagonist of a story that began 500 years ago - a story that is not yet finished.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle

Photos to come

In the broad clearing there were three spacious wooden bungalows raised on stilts, with high roofs of palm thatch. Each bungalow featured a shady porch with room to hang at least two hammocks. Inside were cots hung with clean mosquito nets. The bathroom had a concrete floor, cold running water and a flush toilet. Only a few large ants mooched around the base of the cistern.

Back down towards the river was the dining hut, with a long table of rough wood, a water filter, a thermos with tea and coffee, and a canopy which kept out the sun and the insects.

The jungle refuge offered just my preferred blend of bourgeois adventurism. Wilderness with catering.

It was a different world from the tacky jungle lodges around Iquitos with swimming pools, hot showers and observation towers. But it didn't quite require you to be Tarzan, when you'd been a deskbound bureaucrat only a few weeks previously and were still recovering from your confounded sunburn.

The refuge was a respectable 215 km from the city. We had driven an hour and a half along Iquitos' only highway, to the little port of Nauta, then travelled another two hours by motor canoe. We cruised along the Marañón to its juncture with the Amazon, crossed the great river, then headed an hour up the Yarapa – a tranquil, muddy-coloured tributary – to find the half-hidden entrance to a quiet lagoon.

The refuge belonged to Andres, a local guy who after 20 years guiding tourists had acquired his own business with a little office a block from the waterfront in Iquitos. His younger brother Juan was the chief guide on our trip.

There was a fair menagerie of pets: a tapir, a peccary (wild pig), a coti (racoon-like creature) and a toucan. They were fully tame yet idiosyncratic. The tapir apparently liked to head into the jungle at night time to look for food, returning to the refuge in the day, where it was also fed. Only a year and a half old, it was still on its way to its full-grown size of 300 kilos. The toucan was slightly loopy: the staff at the refuge sometimes had to pick it up and put it on a ledge or a tree at night, because it had the tendency to fall asleep on the ground – a risk to its health and safety.

It would have been a great story if they had all wound up at the camp as orphans, collected by a kindly hunter or villager. But I found out that from the assistant guide Mike that they had been bought. There's a small trade for those who can snatch a young animal and sell it to the lodges as a tourist gimmick.

Our first forest walk was a pleasant enough exercise in Junglecraft 101. We found a termites' nest and crunched on a couple of the supposedly edible insects. Juan pointed out a rubber tree and cut it with his machete to show how the sap flowed out and coagulated. We saw the slash marks on the trunk where the rubber collectors had tapped it last century.

From a palm tree we sampled the larva which nested in the hollow branches. A slight taste of coconut. I managed to quaff a couple, but was ready to believe that they were tastier when fried.

We refreshed ourselves with fresh water from the liana tree, whose branches form a natural filter. We observed the giant ceiba – the Amazon's largest tree – and a fallen mahogany, though we didn't se any that were standing. While I was prepared to believe Juan's statement that this was "primary jungle" - in the sense that it had never been cleared for cultivation - it still wasn't quite what you imagine as pristine rainforest.

A monkey was glimpsed here; a couple of parrots there. But any other wildlife was well and truly scared off by the tapir, which ccompanied us on the walk, frolicking boisterously.

After two hours we were drenched with sweat, bolstered by a tropical shower which had filtered its way through the canopy. Moisture ran off my forehead and into my eyes. Mud squelched and sucked around our shoes. Though my long sleeves and head-to-toe covering of insect repellent were doing the trick (I had stripped naked and smeared myself well with the lotion before leaving the bungalow), the clouds of mosquitos were intense and persistent

I figured I wasn't quite ready to take a day-long trek, let alone form a guerilla army to fade silently into the forest and strike like lightning at the invader. Given a bit more acclimatisation, I thought I might manage a one-night camp.

After sundown we went back into the forest to look for tarantulas. They weren't hard to find: every second tree seemed to have a fat, hairy resident, its eight thick legs grasping the trunk. We crept a little closer, positioning our cameras.

Every metre we moved further away from the clearing, the thicker the mosquitos became. I'm not a spider fan, and had expected to be freaked out by the hairy arachnids that like to feast on small birds. But while I didn't want to get too close, and nervously hovered just long enough by the spider that Juan scooped onto his machete to get a good photo, the tarantulas seemed positively benign and tranquil in comparison to the ever-present mosquitoes, swarming and whining like an angry plague.

Later, we headed out in the canoe to look for caimans. The moon was high and bright, and Juan was sceptical about whether we would see any. “When the moon is high, they can see us coming”, he said.

We silently sailed through the still waters of the lagoon, down the quiet river, and through flooded groves of trees. No caimans, but for the first time I was struck by a thrill, a feeling of the wildness and immensity of the dark jungle.

The night was loud with the chirp of insects and the the bellow of tree toads. Disconcertingly close by came the rumble of a motor - a ferry making its way up the Amazon. I thought I heard people's voices. I asked Juan, who said there was village with a Presbyterian church about five kilometres away; the singing was drifting on the night breeze. It still wasn't quite Heart of Darkness.

In the torch beam we saw the glowing eyes of a scampering monkey; and later a big owl flapped silently from its perch. But the caimans were nowhere to be found.

In the morning the mist was rising slowly, Avalon-like, from the surface of the lagoon, and we went out in the canoes to look for birds. Across the lagoon, along the river, through the reeds and the mangroves, we patiently identified the species: parrots, parakeets, kingfishers, vultures, herons, dotted this and crested that. I only saw the splashes, but two pink river dolphins broke the water twenty metres behind our canoe.

Every now and again Juan or Mike spotted a sloth. We stopped the canoe, while the guides passed around the binoculars and tried to point out to us where it was. “There! Don't you see! Just to the left of that forked branch!” When we finally picked out the stationary sloth, it was by managing to reconceptualise what had appeared a bird's nest or pile of leaves.

After an hour I'd lost all concentration. My ass was sore from sitting in the canoe and I was desperately craving coffee. On our return from breakfast came disappointment: the coffee tin was empty, and I had to make do with cinammon and clove tea.

We took the canoe across the other side of the lagoon, anchored under some shady mangroves, and began to fish for piranha. We had simple wooden rods – whittled tree branches with a line of thin wire and a rough iron hook.

Juan passed around chunks of chiken and beef. It was good bait for carnivourous fish. The problem wasn't attracting them – it was outsmarting them. Time and again I found that my hook was stripped bare, although I had hardly felt any pull on my line. After a while, Juan snagged a small catfish, then a couple of snapping piranha. Then at the third attempt, Tomas – a Swiss tourist - managed to get one as well.

Just when I'd given up hope of ever catching anything, I responded with a jerk to another almost imperceptible tug. I lifted my line out of the water, and this time there was a flash of orange; a wildly thrashing piranha was snared at the end of my line.

I hung the flailing fish above the canoe and let Mike subdue it. As a fishing incompetent, I didn't want to get too close to its powerful jaws which can apparently take off a finger with a single bite.

My success wasn't repeated. Over the next half hour we steadily worked our way through the rest of the bait. Rossmary – a girl from Iquitos – gave up in a sulk and announced she didn't want to catch one anyway. We headed back across the lagoon for lunch.

As we drank tea and compared photos, Mike brought me my piranha, lightly fried in margarine. It was tasty, though the flesh was scarce. For a brief moment I felt like a real hunter-gatherer.

But thank goodness they'd remembered to cook us some chicken.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Sweat and Tears

I've had some difficulties with the climate in the jungle. It's been hot, to the extent that even the locals are complaining. Normally, that wouldn't be a problem: I'm an evangelical hot climate convert. But a couple of weeks ago, I made the mistake of getting quite badly burnt at the beach in Mollendo (Arequipa), when I didn't spread the sunblock around well enough when we went to play volleyball and football.

By the time I got to Iquitos, I was peeling on my back and chest, and had dried-up blisters. A couple of days and nights of the intense humidity and constant sweating, and I had come out in a rash all over my chest and the lower part of my back. I would wake up from a disturbed sleep scractching furiously. I tried smearing myself with aloe gel, moisturizer, and, following the advice of my local self-appointed nurses, alcohol (not recommended!).

Something had to be done, as I was about to head into the jungle itself for a couple of days, and I didn't want to even contemplate mixing with the mosquitos with my skin in such a state.

So I went down to the pharmacy, described my problem, and the woman there gave me a cream containing ani-inflammatory steroids and antibiotics. By then they were getting sick of the sight of me; in the first couple of days I had started to develop an irritating sore throat, and requested something to relieve that. Later, I returned and demanded their best insect repellent, as I have a history of being sweet meat for mosquitos.

I'm happy to report that the medicines were all cheap and effective. The pills and lozenges they gave me for the sore throat cleared up the irritation nicely, though they couldn't prevent the snuffly cold that developed a couple of days later. After using the entire tube of cream over a couple of days, my skin rash had settled down well too. This was also helped by a decision to sleep under a single sheet with the fan on its lowest setting (still rather strong) blowing directly over me. Part of my problem had been sleeping the first few nights with no sheet and the fan switched off, causing me to wake up with the sensation that somebody had empited a bucket of warm water over me.

And the excellent combined mosquito repellent / suncream prescribed by the woman in the pharmacy really worked! Together with the couple of long-sleeved t-shirts that I bought before heading into the jungle, it helped me to return to the city without a single bite, despite the clouds of voracious insects that accompanied us on the jungle walks (story to come).

I have a tendency to avoid all medication this side of Panadol, and generally go along with the post-Silent Spring distrust of too many chemicals and medicated lifestyles. In the jungle of Peru it's a different story. With the outdoor lifestyle abundance of fresh fruit and fish, chronic Western ailments are not really the problem. What is going to hurt you will hurt you swiftly and without apologies. You need to fight back fast with good drugs. My philosophy for living here has become: when in doubt, medicate, medicate, medicate.

I'm fortunate enough to be able to afford to do that, but that's the flip side of the inherent gringo vulnerabilities that we bring with us and cause us to fray at the seams in a beautiful natural setting where people wander cheerfully round explosing their healthy, bronzed and glowing skin - not something I can ever aspire to.

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Friday, February 02, 2007


Take one January afternoon in Iquitos, 34 degrees celcius with 62% humidity. Location: an old aircraft hangar on the way out of the city. Add approximately 5,000 people packed into the structure, spilling out of the only open side towards a concrete terrace with a few tables and a makeshift bar. To season, let local Iquitos band Explosión! belt out a high-energy mixture of cumbia, merengue and tropical pop, with the odd salsa piece for variety. Simmer at a high temperature for several hours until everything is liquid.

It was a typical Sunday afternoon in Coa, one of the popular (semi) open-air discotheques where weekend concerts start in the late afternoon and continue into the night. The usual protagonists are local acts like Explosión, Kaliente, Sensación, Adrenalina, and so forth. They boast a battery of synthesizers, an extensive percussion section, and at least three or four bikini-and-tassles clad dancers, who sinuously spin and gyrate to the music.

Refreshments are provided by two or three harried people rushing about behind a tiny makeshift bar outside, frenetically opening crates of beer and fishing water and coke out of a bucket which once contained ice, while everyone pushes and shoves, shouts, and waves money.

This particular Sunday was bolstered by the presence of Lima act Los Caribeños, who were supposed to be the highlight. But by the time Explosión had finished their frenetic two-and-a half hour set, with stops only for a couple of crowd competitions (breaks are for wusses), Los Caribeños' brand of tropical ska-funk seemed rather tame and repetitive.

Besides, by then I at least had transferred almost all my body's water content from the inside to the outside. My friend Clayra insisted that she, I, and her friend Blancaflor (they have such pretty names here) work our way as far as possible into the middle and the front of the crowd as possible.

Have I ever sweated more? Has anyone? I made several trips to push and shoulder my way to the front of the bar and bring back beer. Within a couple of minutes, it was like warm tea.

The habit here is when people finish their beer, they simply place it on the concrete floor beside them - with preditable consequences. Clayra did this, and I picked the bottle up, saying: "hey, I'll take them all outside and leave them on a table". "No, it's all right", she said. "Someone comes round and collects them".

This is true - there was a guy with a bag scavenging the bottles. But he didn't always arrive in time, and as the crowd got denser bottle collecting was no longer practical. The previous time I came to Coa, we arrived when the band was already half way through, and the floor of the hall was scattered with broken glass. This time, I was able to see the process in action. It's always going to happen, and with typical Peruvian insousiance, nobody does anything about it.

Carnival is about to start, and groups of the local teenagers were getting in early, covering each other with flour, and randomly spraying around beer. We managed to escape most of the flour, but the beer was unavoidable, and by the time we stumbled out of the hall, three songs into Los Caribeños, I smelt like the University of Canterbury Student Union the morning after Orientation opening night.

Somehow the girls managed to remain relatively dry, and given that we were all in the same place when the beer started spraying, this led me to conclude that the sticky moisture covering from my hair to the knees of my jeans was 90% pure gringo sweat.

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