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.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Ceramics and Sacrifices at Museo Larco Lima

Lima was a bright, exciting blur. A tour guide yelled at me, threatening to call the police and confiscate my camera. I gawked at pre-Columbian ceramics depicting the entire spectrum of sex acts. Got caught in a crowd of Catholic worshipers in the Plaza Mayor, some following the Christ procession on their knees and in purple robes. I feel like a lone adventurer vine-swinging through the city.
First stop was the Museo Larco. Larco was a millionaire’s son with an affinity to pre-Columbian archaelogy. More than just a rich boy though, he went on to discover several civilizations dated before the Incas, including the Moches. The museum used to be his mansion: a beautiful sprawling white building draped in bright flowers and languid vines. I accidentally stumbled on the erotic exhibit before finding the real entrance. I decided to leave the erotic exhibit for last so that I could build up my maturity level :) One of the first rooms is the immaculate storage area of the museum’s entire archive of ceramics. The main exhibit astounded me with its sensible curating and ultra-professional presentation. It outlined the many overlapping civilizations of Peru over the last 2000 years. The Moches I found out created ceramics with true likenesses of their leaders, unlike other groups. Their empire collapsed though thanks to El Nino in the 1600s. Not only did it drown their irrigation system but the population lost faith in the religious and political leaders who were supposed to be preventing all this with their ceremonies and sacrifices. And many sacrifices there were, they usually picked the strongest human specimens for the honor. Warriors would battle to be sacrificed. I wondered if any of them threw the game to avoid the “honor.”

Blunt knives were on display as representations of the blood-letting. They would drain the sacrifices’ blood into ceremonial cups, unclear if the priests drank it. Shiny things are always attractive so I moved on to the gold exhibit. Silver buttons, giant earrings that required piercings the size of a child’s fist, gold breast-plates, headdresses and the ancient version of Flava Fav’s gold grills lined the museum walls. I thought I had seen enough but then there was Larco’s erotic exhibit, which must be the most extensive collection of pre-Columbian porn in the world! There was a quote on the wall from Larco justifying that he wanted to study how they sexual lives related to society and religious ceremonies so he was only seeing it from the archaeologist’s perspective. Right.

Every variation of sexual acts was depicted many times over in these ceramic jugs. Some just used the shape of genitals as convenient models for spouts or openings. As I learned, everything we’re doing now has been done since the dawn of time. We humans really aren’t that creative! I had a quick lunch in their garden restaurant, which just like the museum, was an elegant white draped in vines. And I was off to the Monastery of San Francisco in the historical center of Lima.