Friday, November 18, 2011

Pacaya Samiria The Real Amazon

The canoe looked like nothing more than half a tree trunk carved out. The slightest movement could capsize it. Yet three tourists and three days worth of camping supplies could fit, bracketed by two local guides who rowed through the Samiria river. All you could hear was the paddle parting brown water and the screeches of parakeets and parrots. The paucats, curious yellow-bellied birds, were the noisiest. The females industriously build nests from long strands of straw and guard their eggs inside these hive-like sacs. The male paucats cheerlead on the side by gossiping and singing. What else did we see? A sloth slowly chewing, reaching, picking a leaf, bringing it back to its mouth. A lot of blue martin kingfishers with their long fisherman beaks. Capuchin monkeys, a white-faced tamarind. An elegant black-spotted white heron who could have been at the center of a Japanese painting.

Our guides Marcial and Maria whipped up full meals, spaghetti and fried eggs, over nothing but a woodfire. Marcial especially was a hardcore Amazonian man. Soft-spoken and shy, he turned out to be deadly to river fish. After sunset, he took us out in the canoe: river and trees might as well have been one, so solid was the black sheet of night. The only light came from his headlamp, sweeping the waters for dormant fish. With one hand on the paddle, his other hand stabbed into the water with a three-spronged spear. A few seconds of bubbling and splashing later, his spear brought up a flapping fish. He must have caught at least eight them and hardly ever missed.
Suddenly, something heavy and wet jumped straight into my lap and started flapping up and down between my thighs. The city girl in me screamed, the wannabe adventurer in me tried not to flip the canoe mid-freakout. Apparently, the fish here often jump out of the water to escape predators. Too bad they're completely blind and land on people in boats. Only when my brave friend sitting at the front of the canoe punched the fish in the head with his fist did the flapping stop and my screams. The next morning, I had the same fish for breakfast.

Where we slept was an open-air wooden house of sorts, balanced over stilts. At first we were excited but having a room to ourselves with platforms and thin mattresses. But when darkness arrived, so did the cockroaches. The lack of electricity meant it took us awhile before noticing. A flashlight and candle were our only source of light.  It started with the one on the table, almost scampering into my journal. Then there were the ones on the walls, the floor, the doorframe, on our backpacks, inside our jackets. Giant Amazonian roaches the size of my palm that stood up on their legs. When my friend was about to hang up a bag of food on a nail, she suddenly realized that the nail was actually a cockroach. By the time we came back from fishing, that plastic bag was dripping in roaches. Marcial indulged us pansy foreigners by killing a dozen of them. Right after, another dozen arrived. Along with twin giant gray spiders half the size of my face. That first night, I did not sleep a single second. By the following night, I was so exhausted I told the roaches to all go to hell and slept like a rock.
We went piranha-fishing the next day with pieces of fish as bait but they were too smart for us. Marcial told us about a British tourist who once got half his forefinger bitten off by a piranha and I quickly withdrew my fingers that were streaming in the water. We left the water for a hike where the path was barely discernible through all the vines and shrubs. The tangles onshore are even more dramatic inside the forest. We came across a 500-year old tree, the oldest tree in the park. Its roots could have encompassed rooms. Several roots seemed to rise out of the ground as if standing on tiptoe. I wonder if it was the earth that sunk or the roots that yearned for light. The path started getting very muddy. My whole foot would get sucked into these puddles. Marcial used his machete to clear the path and to fashion us staffs as we climbed and balanced on slippery logs.The mosquitos were a super breed, piercing through repellent and cloth to get a taste of me.

The jungle or "selva" is a web with every leaf, wing and fish scale connected. Vines are the threads that build it. Even trees and roots mimick their shapes, curving and twisting amongst each other in a chaotic interdependence, so unlike the predictably straight trunks of pine forests, maples of the North. Each vine thread leads to a clumb of roots, like messy tassels, that dangle above the water or spread and disentangle within it. On our way out of the park, the last inhabitant we saw was a furry river otter bobbing up and down, calling out to a hidden friend on the shore. I wanted to think that it was talking to me. I wanted to think that within the last few days, I too had become a thread in the intricately woven and chaotically beautiful selva.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"El Romantico" Boat Ride to Lagunas

"El Romantico" could not have been a more ill-fitting name for the snail-paced wooden thing conquering the Huallaga river by inches. We were supposed to be on the express boat that morning but our seats got give away, so our only alternative to go from Yurimaguas to Lagunas was this 11-hour boat ride. I'm sure I could have swum faster. Instead of seats, the boat offers wooden beams and each passenger brings in their own colorful hammocks and sets up their own spot. One man had a sack full of fish, another barged in with chickens swinging off his back, their feet bound and their faces placid, accepting of their fates.
Vendors roamed onboard before departure, hocking everything from bread to scissors to condoms. “Don’t get pregnant on the boat!” the man yelled as everyone tittered. One old lady who was reclining in a hammock snapped something sassy in response.The hammocks were stacked so closely together there’s an inevitable amount of bumping into people as you try to carve a path through the sea of cloth and feet. In the bathroom, the wood was so moldy mushrooms had sprouted. Above a dead spider, furry and thick-legged, dangled like a Christmas ornament. Ants crisscrossed the planks. Around 1:30pm, they brought styrofoam boxes with lunch: dry rice, beans, tasteless plantain and a piece of chicken. 

The thought of doing nothing for an entire day terrified me but it turned out to be a rather pleasant, lazy adventure. The boat made several stops, part of the reason why it took so long, and at each stop, people unloaded and loaded cargo: moto-cars, sacks of beans, crates of chicken, blocks of ice for preserving fish... Dangling my feet over the front of the boat, I felt like there was so much more sky here. The water was of a lazy brown that captured every cloud, lining and beam of light, like a relentless mirror that has darkened with age but retained all the clarity of youth.
From the top of the boat, we chatted with the boat owners and the only other foreigner, a French architect who had been traveling around the world for the last 15 months. We watched as the sun gave in to darkness, though not before unleashing a slew of colors and light behind the shadows of the boat.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Chocolate Factory

The wafts of chocolate coming out of the factory made me melt on the spot. Orquidea, the largest chocolate company in the San Martin region, was giving us a personal tour! I might as well have died and gone to heaven. The sacks of fermented cocoa beans, the series of machines to grind the beans, smooth them, remove the acidity, mix in sugar and milk: all leading up to bins of chocolate paste lining the factory floor. I wanted to dive in and swim in it. Instead of Willy Wonka's orange midgets, they have very professional and much more hygienic employees all in white who mix and fill the chocolate molds on a warm metal surface. In one corner, one woman was experimenting with different types of liqueur fillings.

            Our guide brought out a tray of samples, milk and dark chocolate. I kept brainstorming questions to ask him so that I could discreetly reach for the tray again and again, all the while nodding earnestly. Their super creamy dark chocolate has 65% cocoa. They mix crispy quinoa with milk chocolate to give it that crunch. The mocha one was better than any cup coffee. I wanted to stash myself in a corner just so I could run around at night after closing and make angels in the chocolate syrup or push over a machine and canoe down the chocolate river singing "oompa loompa doopa dee doo, I've got another puzzle for you..."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Chazuta Chazuta!

The motorboat provided no cover. It was a two-hour boat ride on the Huallaga to visit the cocoa farms in Nuevo Paraiso. I wondered if it's called that because it was a real mess before. Cold, cutting wind and occasional showers were the travel standard here. Tiny, sharp-winged birds with silver-white bellies flicked the river surface, diving for fish. 
On the way to the farm, we trekked along a muddy path where I was enchanted by a flower called the “Licorna,” resembling a braid of red and yellow bird beaks. After our meeting with the farmers, we were stuck in Chazuta for awhile. The odd thing about this tiny, dirt-covered town is that its one and only road is closed for construction from 6am to 6pm every single day. To kill time, we asked the municipal building to unlock the small houses in the plaza for us. These held archeological digs of ancient funerary urns. The clay jars looked too small for a human body, it’s possible that some of them were luggage to take into the underworld. We tried to visit the historical "museum" in the municipal building but they couldn't find the keys even as a young man tried a ring of about fifty of them. Circling around town, I discovered bite-sized children holding hands on the way home from school, playing inside a cardboard box better than any car, ones with vacant stares who hung onto doorframes. A pharmacy offered its menu in big red letters painted on the front wall: Cures! Injections! Instant pregrancy tests!

I was offered some fresh guaba, and unlike guava is about half my size. It's a curious fruit whose outside looks like a plump vine while the inside is similar to cocoa, white flesh over large stones. I snacked on it happily from the back of our truck until I discovered further up the fruit's long stem a brothel of maggots. They reassured me that these were "natural" maggots that very often live inside the fruits and that the rest of the guaba was fine. I still prefered not to eat any more after seeing all those flesh-colored things squirming inside. The road seemed to have opened again and we headed back to Tarapoto in the dark of evening.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Field Rats Taste Like Pork

In addition to gorgeous mountain views, La Collpa restaurant in Tarapoto offers meats that you prefer not to think about when chewing and sighing with happiness. From left to right: palm salad, picuro (a wild field rat), ribs, friend tilapia, chorizo and venison. The field rat was like pork with a kick of extra flavor: crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and as fatty as bacon. Subway monster-rats in NYC probably aren't as tasty.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Saucy Lagoon

 The Blue Lagoon in El Sauce felt like a giant, private swimming pool surrounded by overlapping mountains and palm trees. Paddling on my back, I had the sky to myself like the inside of a big blue bowl with swirls of white: steam from a home-cooked soup. I could up eat up every bit of it with a spoon.

What a slice of silence is Sauce compared to the sweaty, pulsing chaos of Tarapoto. We circled the lagoon by boat where the guide pointed out the 50 foot-high platform jutting out of a cliff for brave souls to jump off of. One of the other volunteers was the only one from our tour group brave enough to attempt it. I climbed up to the platform with him for moral support. From up there, the smallness of the boat in the distance and the dizziness from looking down, as if from a five-story building, was enough to kill any of my adventuring tendencies. When he jumped off, I was the one who screamed.

The lake is overseen by a barren volcano that no longer erupts but once in awhile, releases sulfur into the lake which kills all the fish. Returning from the boat ride, we found our eccentric tour guide "P." A shady-looking Santa Claus, he traveled through the Peruvian jungle for 15 years as a missionary before working in tourism. Rumor has it he once got lost in the jungle for months and survived on nothing but grubs and wits. That night, we stayed in a quiet, riverside bungalow and sat by the water drinking coffee "coctels" or liqueurs.
The next day we woke up at 5:15am to catch the sunrise: only it was bright as day already and the roosters had been crowing since 3am. So instead we went hiking and stumbled upon a beautiful riverfront property with elaborate gardens - turns out it belongs to Don Pollo, the chicken kingpin of Peru. The friendly old gardener told us any other time he would let us walk through the gardens but Don Pollo himself was coming by that day. I imagined a cigar-smoking mob boss leaning back in a leather armchair, stroking a chicken made of solid gold.

Heading back to Tarapoto, our colectivo got stopped by a military checkpoint. Soldiers with huge rifles marched over to the car and demanded to see our ID's. We didn't have our passport with us and just as I was having flashes of me sprawled on the floor of Peruvian prison, he acquitted us because of our American tourist status, though not before asking me if I was Korean. One of the guys in the colectivo didn’t have his ID and he got taken out of the car to be questioned. I caught a glimpse of the soldier unbuttoning his shirt, poking him in the chest, searching him. They searched all the bags in the trunk. After what seemed like an eternity, the guy was released to come back to the car.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cocoa Groves in Juanjui

 Thanks to Willy Wonka, I always believed that chocolate came flowing in rivers with Oompa Loompas paddling down in canoes. Not so. The cocoa farms where it all begins are far more beautiful. I was visiting a cocoa farm in Juanjui. To get to this far-out farm, we had to ferry across the Huallaga river in a ferry.  And by ferry I mean someone took three long canoes, tied them together and slapped a bunch of wooden planks on top. That was the ferry. A lone captain with an oversized stick steers it back and forth along that narrow piece of river. 

All around this grove in Juanjui stretched cocoa bushes, their arms full of the red fruits that look like elongated footballs. The ground was covered by a thick carpet of dried leaves and empty cocoa shells. The cocoa is only ripe when it starts turning yellow. One of the farmers cracked open a yellowed one with his machete, exposing the white, sticky flesh inside. It tasted much sweeter and fruitier than I expected, only that the flesh is meager compared to the seed. After the seeds are harvested they need to be fermented for 6-7 days. For chocolate they would need to ferment at least 75%. The fermented cases had the intoxicating smell of Bailey's. I think that's how a lot of chocolate liqueurs are made. Afterwards, they dry them out in the sun by laying them out on mats. All the streets were covered in drying cocoa I was afraid our truck might run over them.

After our meeting with the farmers in the grove, they were kind enough to make us lunch, which was why a poor chicken started racing around the whole plantation, trying to escape its doom. The men had their arms out, running after it, trying to corner it. That terrified mass of feathers finally ran into one of the sheds where the wife was able to tuck the chicken under her armpit and take it to the side to be killed. An hour later, we were slurping on a steaming bowl of “caldo” or chicken broth with carrots and potatoes.

There were many handshakes and hugs when we left the town. Before disappearing into the dirt roads and jungle green, the last splash of human color I saw was a little girl with a big umbrella, hiding from the ruthless sun.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fried Ants and Caterpillars, Yum!

A wise person once said, "anything is edible once it's fried." That person might be me. The fried ants were jungle-sized with claws and wings. Crunchy and salty, not bad at all. I could see them as a kind of bar snack. They only felt funny if a bit of wing got stuck in your throat. The caterpillars though were another story. They had the texture of cardboard on the outside and mashed potatoes on the inside. It didn’t taste like very much but the texture was vomit-inducing. I had to chew and keep chewing until I could get it down. Thankfully a glass of cold beer helped me wash it down. Never again. Some fat crispy ants maybe, but not caterpillars. Even some Tarapotinos find them disgusting.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mototaxi Roars in Tarapoto

As a dear friend informed me, Tarapoto is the hometown of the professional Quidditch team Tarapoto Tree-Skimmers! Outside of the Harry Potter world, Tarapoto is a small city overflowing with fresh jungle fruits, dirt roads mixed in with the paved, brightly-painted houses with low roofs and some of the best food I’ve ever had. The only way to get around are by mototaxis, which make you feel like a human macarena as they roar down the street.
I take these at least four times a day:

Sunday, October 16, 2011

No llamas in Lamas. Just Castles.

Unlike its name, the town of Lamas has no llamas. But there are streets draped in colorful murals, some explaining the town history and others as advertisements. I saw several artists painting these beautiful murals by hand. Lamas is one of those most culturally preserved towns in the area with Quechua traditions surviving today from over 500 years ago. This shows in the brightly-colored, flower-embroidered dresses the women wear, the way they balance huge cans of water on their heads, how their houses only have slivers for windows to keep out evil spirits. The town is also cursed or blessed, depending on who you ask, with the most incongruous of sights: a brand-new Italian castle. An eccentric Italian man came to this traditional little Quechua village a few years ago and decided to build this brick monstrosity, complete with turrets and fake flags. It’s now a restaurant and quite the tourist attraction for Peruvians.
On the way back to Tarapoto from Lamas, we got into a "colectivo," one of those shared cars that shoot off to select destinations the minute the seats are filled. The first warning sign was that the right passenger door wouldn’t open and one of us had to climb in from the back. The front windows were automatic but the back were manual. It was clearly a Frankenstein car put together from many carcass bits. We had a brief moment with a big juicy rainbow but the sky quickly turned into pouring rain. Still, the driver kept speeding and passing mototaxis. All of a sudden, the car started swerving into the opposite lane and kept swerving from one end of the road to the other. Either his brakes weren't working or his wheels were as bald as Howie Mandel. It was maddening to see him press the gas pedal even as we were yelling “Mas despacio mas despacio!” I had a sinking feeling that he might just kills us all. Only after we threatened not to pay him did he pull back the certifiably insane driving. Half an hour later, I made it out alive and well enough to blog.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Battle of the Pomegranate Tree (I lost)

Bang! My eyes flew open. It sounded like a rock thrown into my wall or falling on the roof. This was my first night in Tarapoto after a weekend of ceviche and tourist sites in Lima. I looked around the room: the sound seemed to have gone away. I chalked it up to the Rio Shilcayo Hotel’s jungle atmosphere. Bang! again. This time at 2am. The next was at 3am, and so on until the brightness of morning. I got out of bed feeling as through I’d fought through a medieval siege. Only when I went outside did I find the pomegranate tree stretching its branches directly over my bungalow. And in the grass lay the big red fruits that had attacked my roof in the night. One pomegranate was cracked open, exposing its jewel-like flesh. I wanted to eat one as revenge but the car was waiting to take us to our new hotel. I solemnly vow to eat a pomegranate before leaving. That goddamn fruit cost me an entire night’s sleep. Did I somehow offend the Tarapoto tree gods with my blog?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Stacks of Bones and Catholic Parades

The taxi driver told me that the historical center would be completely blocked off today for the religious parade going on. I couldn’t really understand which holiday but with the word “milagros,” my best guess was that they were celebrating Christ’s miracles. Apparently there’s a different one almost every month, I just happened on the Oct. 1st one. We struggled through traffic until he let me off at the Plaza San Martin. From there I still had to fight through another five blocks of massive crowds, through a shopping street full of Payless and McDonald’s, to make it to Plaza Mayor.

The monastery looked grand from the outside and run-down on the inside. Seven soles got me a terrible tour guide. She could barely speak any English even though she was supposed to be giving the English tour. I probably would have been better off listening to the Spanish tour. Most of the time she interjected Spanish words anyways. At first it was just me and an older Korean couple: the woman kept jotting down dates of the monastery’s renovations. I guess it’s a kind of concrete information. Later on another group joined who were equally baffled by our guide. What I was able to decipher from our guide was this: there are still 20 Fransican monks living there and at one point in its history, there were 250. I could hear those same 20 monks playing basketball on the other side of a tall iron gate. The library houses some of the oldest books in America.  They looked deliciously dusty and leather-bound. I wish I could have flipped through some of them. Some incomprehensible information about all the various altars was imparted. But the really juicy part was the catacombs!

She led us down a dark passageway and all of a sudden, we were surrounded by bones. They were just piled into corners, every kind of limb. It seemed they were somewhat organized by length of bones or body part. They were mostly remains of families who attended the monastery’s church and monks themselves. The walls are built with lime to help sterilize germs and diseases. One passageway had stone bins of bones. The very last one held all the skulls. There must have been thousands of people down there with their bare bones exposed to the living world. At the end there was a well where skulls and other bones were arranged in a circular pattern. I was sneaking some pictures along with another tourist, but for one of them, I forgot to turn off the flash.

“NO PICTURES! I CALL THE POLICE!” our guide screamed. She threatened to confiscate our cameras and have us arrested. No such thing happened of course and she didn’t bother to delete the pictures on my camera. I was starting to be a little fond of our guide with her grandma glasses and thick-wool cardigan. She was the exact image of a sad librarian.

By the time I left the monastery, the Plaza Mayor had filled with Catholic worshippers. The changing of guards happened to be in full swing at the Parliament, the guards in blue and the band dressed in red. I could barely breathe the plaza was so full. And everyone was staring in the direction of the golden altar advancing down the street at snail’s pace. People were singing hymns. Some leaned out of windows, tossing flower petals. Those who followed behind the procession were dressed in long purple robes, the truly devout walked on their knees.