Note: Ryan has his own blog www.ryandecorso.us/blog
Another fascinating thing about Paraguay is that after the War, there were no men and hardly any sickly women. Something like90% of the men died and the rest were sick and wounded. So Paraguay tried to get people to come settle their country. Of course, the usual suspects showed up, and soon the land was filled with Mennonites, Nazis and utopists. The first Nazi party outside of Germany was ruled from Nuevo Germany, and to this day some 30,000 Mennonites live in the Chaco and in the city of Filadelfia—a German speaking city. That’s not to mention the troubled history of Nuevo Australia.
Paraguay also loved the Nazis. The chief of police in the 30s named his son Adolf Hirohito. Seriously. He also made swastikas part of the police uniform in a maneuver of awkward foreshadowing for the US-backed rule of Dictator Alfredo Stroessenor some twenty years later.
Anyways, enough about Paraguay, but before I leave the ‘guays, I thought I’d include this paragraph which I liked but couldn’t find a place to work in.
My Lonely Planet book called Montevideo a ‘Necropolis of broken dreams’. Something tells me that Kansas won’t take kindly to it when they find that their poetically honest State Motto has been stolen by Uruguay’s fading Art Deco Capital. But my point is that travel books aren’t necessarily to be trusted. I’m sure Wichita still clings to its crown, and that Montevideo is not a city of dead dreams any more than other cities. Although there is a certain ironic beauty in having even this motto stolen from your bleak city.
Now, on to what I’ve been doing since Trujillo. At the moment, I’m typing awkwardly and slowly on my laptop. I just can’t get my touch typing down tonight for some reason, and I keep making mistakes every other word. I’m in Abancay, three hours away from Cusco—the Orlando of South America.
Peru, is all desert. Why, was I not informed of this before? At least this isn’t strictly true, there’s the Amazonia and the Mountains, but hardly any people live there. They live in the dusty arid valleys of the coastal desert, where it’s so dry not even cacti can grow. Most cities are centered on rivers that are irrigated into green fields, a practice which is strangely thousands of years old, so it’s not as bad as it seems. The coastal cities were very unappealing, like driving along the Rust Belt in the late 70s. I affectionately dubbed Chimbote the ‘Cleveland of Peru’, which is saying a lot since Peru is like the Cleveland of South America. I would come up with a clever thing to call Chiclayo, but I can’t think of anything to do it justice, with the miles of burning landfills.
I did find some great quartz crystals in the Desert Mountains, and I am a lover of the desert. It wasn’t all bad. But looking back I’m struggling to come up with what to say about the area north of Lima, so I’m skipping ahead to the capital.
Lima. I had pictured a hot, giant, dirty slum, like the photos that come out of India. I was pleasantly surprised by the Anchorage (or Houston, for the non-Alaskans) on South America. It was modern, clean, moderately attractive and not terribly hot. Of course, the barrios spread miles in every direction, and there is plenty of awful poverty to see, but closer to the center is quite nice.
We came into Lima on the highway, and halfway through the city, the grease cap on our trailer broke, leading part of the brake drum to shear off in a barrio East of Miraflores. We were able to park in front of a mechanic’s shop on the side of the highway near a middle class, semi-gated community. The next day me, my dad and a taxi driver (whose family worked at the mechanic shop and lived upstairs) drove into the city to get parts. We drove around La Victoria for an hour or so, looking for the right stores, and had to make the twelve mile trip back to the trailer once to grab another part. I got a pretty good tour of the city, or at least one of the seedier areas of it.
La Victoria was rather surreal. At one time, it must have been a nicer, separate city from Lima, judging from the Art Deco and Art Noveau buildings lining the streets. However, La Victoria has since fallen into disrepair, and many of the buildings we drove past had mechanic shops on the first floor. It must have been at least a little difficult to turn a 1920s mixed-use apartment building into a drive-in auto repair shop…
The mechanic who was machining a new part for us said it would be done around 4:00pm, but when we got there in the taxi he said it would be another half an hour. We drove a couple of streets down so I could add a few Soles balance to my iPhone, then returned to find that the mechanic hadn’t given us another grease cap. By now it was five-something, and most of the stores were closed, but we drove around for twenty minutes looking anyways.
On the way home, we got a flat tire on the expressway. Lima’s expressways don’t have exits like American ones do. There’s maybe an exit every three or four miles, so we had to drive a while with the flat until we could pull off into a very upscale neighborhood. We got a couple of glares from formally dressed, rich looking people while driving with the tire flapping around. We got the tire changed and were back on the highway in time to make it back at about 7:00pm.
The next day we drove down the road to a Petroperu station where we parked for the day and drove into the city. We spent most of the day seeing Lima—we drove through Chinatown and several other neighborhoods before the last stop at a fountain park complete with laser shows. My mom and I went into the grocery store next to our trailer when we got back at about 9:30 to buy a few things before they closed. There was a creepy guy sitting outside the store at a table on the patio creeping. He looked sort of like if you combined a Germanic Professor from Back to the Future with a homeless Chilean ex-con—just sitting there, staring people down, unblinkingly.
We bought a few things, and went back to the trailer. Not half an hour later, I was sitting in the car when I heard someone walking outside. Lo and behold, he was there, standing five feet from my window, watching. He walked around our trailer a couple of times, then started talking to another woman from behind a truck in German while continuing to creep.
He left after five minutes or so, but not before I tried calling the other cellphone to tell them to lock the trailer and locked all the van doors.
There are some nights it’s nice to have a can of pepper spray by the door.
We stayed one more day in Lima, which was a failure. My iPhone died that morning, which was a bad start. I don’t know what happened to it, but now it’s bricked and won’t come out of recovery mode, and my only hope is to install iOS 6.1 on it and hope for a new unlock. But the software is 700mb so I haven’t had an opportunity to try that yet. We couldn’t find anywhere to park in Lima, not even at a grocery store. We gave up and drove back after several hours.
We stopped at a ruin site before leaving the city for Ica, where we spent the night and stopped at a supermarket before continuing to Nazca.
Nazca—home of the world famous Nazca Lines, or “Lineas y Geoglifs de Nazca”. Nazca is a poor city sustained mainly by tourism. We saw the Nazca Lines from an observation tower and a mountain, deciding against paying $150+ to charter a Cessna. The flight is supposed to be awful too, with lots of dipping and banking so everyone on board can get a full view of the lines. The observation tower wasn’t bad, and I got to see three separate figures. The mountain lent a more panoramic view to illustrate just how massive the lines are, and between the two, I had a thorough Nazca-Line experience.
The road out of Nazca to Cusco climbs to 13,000 feet in less than sixty miles. The altiplano was kind of a shock after months of warmth. The last time it was cold out was Colorado back in the end of October, it’s been warm to hot ever since then, so the cold was exemplified. I never really understood plateaus before, but there’s something really surreal to being fourteen thousand feet in the air on a frigid, rugged grassland populated solely by Vicunas and Chinchillas. It’s also utterly black at night, like when you’re in a cave with the lights off. The huge expanse makes your lights seem even less effective sense they just dwindle off into the darkness. There’s definitely an ‘out there’ feeling to it; the plain is a completely different environment, there’s not one familiar thing, or even sign of humanity aside from the two-lane road. Nothing lives up there but Vicunas and Chinchillas, as evidenced by the scattered camelid skeletons littering the ground. Elsewhere, something might have carried them off, but not there.
I didn’t suffer from altitude sickness much aside from a slight headache the first day. The thin air makes everything a little heady, but I don’t think that goes away in a shorter time frame, you just get used to it. The rest of my family was sick though, and we camped the next night even higher at 14,500 feet because we couldn’t drive in the dark. This was probably a bad idea, ascending 12,000 feet in 36 hours, but we didn’t have much of a choice. We ended up getting up early the next to go to a lower elevation since other people were sick, but the car didn’t start until an hour and a half later, at about 7:00am. Seeing the sun rise on the altiplano is a lot less fantastic than it sounds.
We drove for a while that day along some spectacular Peruvian scenery, and even saw chinchillas in the wild—for real. We dropped down about eight thousand feet to a low river valley that we followed for some time before climbing a thousand foot hill to Abancay (which rests at about eighty-five hundred—there’s a lot of ups and downs here). We were stopped in town by a huge Carnival parade for about an hour. We dodged water balloons and spray foam for a few minutes before giving up on finding the ATM and watching the parade which consisted of traditional dancers and bizarre, mildly disturbing, psychedelic parade floats (I’m nearly certain one was a giant disembodied mouth surrounded by Venus Flytraps). We were able to drive through at the tail end of the parade, along with all the other trucks and buses that had been stopped and parked for the night at a restaurant on the east end of town. I took a combi into town with my dad to pick up water and withdraw money from the ATM and became completely soaked with foam on the way.
We were in Abancay for several days because we needed to fix the car. I think five, maybe six. It’s easy to lose track. It was a really nice city, and had these incredibly steep hills. The town center smelled like brake pads.
Cusco was a one-day drive from Abancay. We stopped at a gas station right on the edge of town for the night. It was then that we discovered that the Shining Path had threatened to kidnap Americans from Cusco, and the US Embassy had issued a very high-risk warning and forbid foreign service employees from venturing to the area.
We decided that it would be best to drive through the city and not stop.
We drove through a few very picturesque Andean villages before stopping at a large market, where I bought a collar for my dog and my goat.
We camped that night at a hot springs on the railroad tracks on the altiplano. It wasn’t a particularly nice hot spring, but it wasn’t bad either. We paid for a private bath for S/1 ($.40) more per person, and got two baths inside a corrugated steel and cement building illuminated through the open ceiling by a single 29-watt compact fluorescent. The baths were the size of a normal hot tub and filled with murky 38C mineral water. Still, it was a really nice diversion from the cold and bland altiplano. I also got some really great photographs the next morning at the railroad station when the PeruRail engine pulled in.
We drove from Agua Caliente to Puno in one day. Most of the route was the same as before, obscenely picturesque with small villages, sheep, and people dressed in traditional clothing. That was, until we got to Juliaca. I don’t even know what that city was. Like some sort of awful boom town. The road had holes two feet deep and filled with polluted sludge. The road was packed too with buses, motos and cars. I have some good photos of the city that was situated on what I would call the “Urban Marsh” biome.
Puno has a bad reputation in guide books. I’ve heard it called anything from “windswept and barren” to “a frozen slum at the end of the earth”. Contrarily, Puno is actually a very nice city situated on the shores of Lake Titicaca with a pleasantly temperate climate. It’s far from barren, and actually quite bustling and picturesque. There have been thunder storms over the lake every night since we’ve been here, and the cobbler at the central Mercado said he would fix the four-inch whole in my hiking boot for S/5 ($2).
We’re going to be here for a while since our new phone is being shipped to the iPeru Tourism Office. My iPhone broke in Lima, and we need a phone. Smartphones are $1000 here, so I found a Galaxy SII craigslist in Fairbanks and had a friend buy it for me. Then we worked out the shipping paperwork (it goes USPS to the Anchorage DHL Office where it’s shipped express to Puno, Peru), had it mailed, and now it should be here within ten days. The next time someone tells me Globalization is ruining the world, I’m going to hit them.
In a moment of surreality, I’m sitting here, in Puno, Peru, in a gas station overlooking the freshwater-estuary of Lake Titicaca, eating Lays brand potato chips (or papas fritas), with lightning stuttering across the valley behind me.
I literally just found a sachet of ‘Aji Criolla’, which is literally ‘the sauce of white people’, in my bag of potato chips. It also happens to be vegan, which is even more awesome.
Yesterday, my brother max was bit by a dog at the gas station. I got to go with him and my dad to the hospital since I’m the only one who can speak Spanish. I can’t even speak Spanish, but I know enough to communicate, and after all the dog adventures I have a good understanding of medical terms. We got in a cab and went to the Clinica Puno, which couldn’t take us because we might need rabies vaccinations. The Hospital de la Nacion was like something out of a movie. First, it has a huge courtyard which was filled with people hanging around. I’m nearly certain they weren’t visiting someone in the sprawling, yellow, one-story complex—they were just there. The emergency room also had half a dozen older Peruvian guys hanging out in counterfeit Northface parkas. We got signed in, then after ten minutes we were able to see a doctor. Instantly, there were seven or eight people in the hospital room, in various stages of doctor-ship. There was one woman wearing heels, black pantyhose and a leather jacket, who I think was the head doctor who just supervised. Then there was a younger guy who wore white scrubs and treated Max who seemed to be the head operating doctor. Then there were a couple of other people in varying stages of medical dress who must have been nurses. It was very third-worldlike. They even had the metal tray filled with gauze soaked in a yellow antibiotic.
After they dressed the bite on Max’s leg, the doctor told us to meet with a guy outside who would come with us to the gas station to see if the dog had a rabies card. Miraculously, the dog did have a rabies card, so Max was spared rabies vaccinations at the Peruvian hospital.
All of this cost less than fifteen dollars, including the prescriptions and cab fares.
Now we’re just hanging out in Puno for the next week until the phone gets here. We’re going to take a boat out on the lake to see the famous Floating Islands, I’ll get my shoes fixed at the cobbler, and hopefully I’ll be able to get real coffee somewhere in the city. We also needed some time to prep for Bolivia. I was (well, we all were, really) on the fence about going to Bolivia. It’s $1000 in visa fees to get in, and it doesn’t sound particularly pleasant. But tonight it was finally settled when we came across “Cholita Wrestling”.
For those who don’t know, a Cholita is an indigenous woman who wears traditional dress. They’re very common here, and you know exactly what they look like—the tall, undersized bowler hats, the many fluorescent and Andean-patterned shalls and skirts, the hair pleated into the two braids. Cholita wrestling combines all of the greatest forms of wrestling into one, then adds more. The five foot tall women completely attack each other, climbing the ropes, throwing chairs, bodyslamming. Combine this with Mexican wrestling, props and an underground cage-fight atmosphere. Just google it, you can find some pictures.
Now I’m really excited to go to Bolivia.