Thursday, May 17, 2012

In which we go hungry on the train from Cuzco to Puno

From Cuzco, Kelly and I took a ten-hour train ride through the altiplano (the high plains) to Puno, which was at the time (this was 1994, I think I mentioned), the epicenter of the Peruvian terrorist movement. Had the internet been around and had our parents had any information whatsoever on what was going on with the Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), they would have been panicking at the idea of their daughters traveling alone in the area. Their two blonde, definitely not from there daughters.

In other parts of South America, Kelly and I could blend. In Santiago, in certain neighborhoods, and in other cities, if we didn't open our mouths, nobody would know we weren't from there. Chile is an immigrant country. The main feeder countries are England, France and Germany. Don't quote me on that - I'm basing that statement on my remembered observations. There are a lot of green-eye blondes in Chile. There are cities where, in the early 90s, you would hear as much German as you did Spanish.

But in rural Peru, populated by Aymara and Quechua (again, don't quote me - I could do some research, but I'm lazy - these are just the groups I remember as living in that area), we did not blend. They were dark skinned and dark haired. Kelly and I were not. The women wear brightly-colored sweaters on top and several full skirts at once. The bottom layer is usually a crinoline and the top layer is made of brightly-colored pillowcase satin with three or four horizontal pleats sewn about three inches above the hem. On top of this is a giant apron behind which they tuck their hands, their nursing babies, and their money. They wear their hair long in two braids that fall down their backs and are tied together at the bottom with ribbons. On their heads they wear bowler hats. From the back, all you see are these plump multicolored figures with dark vertical lines dividing their backs.

I don't think they wear underpants, because when they need to go potty, they just drift out into the field, stop, pull their skirts out, and hover. Then they stand and come back. Done. It's actually a good system. There are no trees around. No materials for making paper. You work with the environment you have. Don't fight it.

Kelly was wearing white, which by now was beige. Yes, she had indeed packed only white clothes.

I was wearing black. I had traveled before. She had not. We did not blend.

This was when the Sendero Luminoso was killing foreigners. We didn't know about it. We weren't paying attention to such things. Not that it would have been so easy to get the information. We had our weekly Newsweek, but who knows what they were reporting? I flipped straight to the movies and gossip section when I got my mail.

Now that I look for hard data, I see that they had murdered 16 foreigners from 1989 to the time we took our trip. We probably would have said, "Oh, we'll take our chances."

So we were on the train. It was beautiful countryside. High in the mountains with that beautiful clear yellow mountain light. The sky is the most amazing blue. I still remember it, almost 20 years later. Nothing but blue skies and golden meadows. And very poor people, of course. When there is no manufacturing, when there is nothing to do but subsistence farming and even that is limited to potatoes, there is not much opportunity for wealth creation. The weather is crummy up there: cold and windy. Even the children's skin is already starting to turn to leather. But the countryside is gorgeous.

We had reserved seats, but the Quechua who boarded, sacks of potatoes, chickens, and babies in tow, packed themselves in the aisles. There was hardly enough room for the food vendors to pass through. Yet they did, with candies, cookies, tangerines, bananas, empanadas, bread, hardboiled eggs, fried trout served with sides of salad and boiled potatoes, and a large, newspaper-wrapped package that opened to reveal an entire side of roast mutton that the seller hacked at with a cleaver.

I looked hungrily at the fish and the mutton, but Kelly claimed that you couldn't pay her enough to eat that stuff - that it all probably carried cholera and typhus. Don't laugh. People still get those diseases. So I peeled another tangerine - fruit you can peel is usually safe no matter what - and gazed wistfully across the aisle at the people who were eating the trout with no apparent ill effects.

We arrive in Puno, a pit of a city, and left the next morning by bus for La Paz, one of Bolivia's two capitals. Once again, we were the victims of Peruvian petty taxation. Upon arrival in Copacobana, the bus attendant walked the aisle to collect an admission fee. I asked if going into Copacobana was optional. No, he told me. It was obligatory. Apparently, nobody had thought to include this fee in the bus ticket price.

The same oversight occurred when we had to cross Lake Titicaca. (Stop laughing. That's really what it's called.) We were ordered off the bus and onto the ferries run by the Bolivian Navy, motto: "Toward the Sea." It seems that Bolivia, a landlocked country, one of two in South America, the other being Paraguay -

wait. Now I have to check to make sure that I am correct about that because there is no better way to drive traffic and get comments online than to make a mistake. And yes, I am correct. OK, back to the story.

has never given up hope that the decision of the 1878 War of the Pacific with Chile will be reversed and Bolivia will get northern Chile back. Kind of like Mexico demanding the return of Texas. Wow. That Latin America history class in college sure didn't go to waste, did it? And yet I am unemployed! Can you believe it? I can't, either!

At first I thought how nice that we didn't have to stay on the bus for the crossing, but then I realize that once again, they were extorting money from us. We had to pay our own ferry fares.

We finally got to La Paz without incurring further expense. La Paz, as far as I could tell, is a distinctly unremarkable city, although I didn't see the entire place. It's dry and dirty without parks or any green spaces. (Again, I didn't see all of it. I didn't get into the nice neighborhoods. I am assuming there are nice neighborhoods.) Bolivia, besides being known the world over for the quality of its cocaine, is the poorest (or was, at the time) country in South America and it showed. There didn't seem to be much money devoted to infrastructure or public services, especially sanitation. If you've ever been in the stairwell of a parking garage on the east coast, you know what I'm talking about. The entire city reeks.

As far as the minor things - food, for instance, La Paz was also backwards. The restaurants were not very good and were also expensive. We got really excited when we saw a Denny's. You may scoff once you've spent a year in a place where you cannot afford to eat in the good restaurants, where they oversalt the food in the inexpensive restaurants, and where they slaughter sheep behind your office and leave the butchered meat hanging on the banister for two days, but our hopes were dashed when a Bolivia Peace Corps volunteer told us the food was really bad there. I went to a market and found some anemic-looking turnips, then peeled them with my Swiss army knife, and ate them raw.

The one advantage La Paz has is great shopping. I was especially happy to be traveling with Kelly at this point. She is an extremely efficient shopper and is the fastest charger in the West. My Mastercard almost broke in half, but what was I supposed to do in a place where I could buy handknit alpaca sweaters for $30 and handwoven alpaca rugs and blankets for $20? Really, I had no choice.

The rugs and blankets were a good investment. I still have them.

The sweaters, not so much. There are only so many sweaters you can wear. And, as it turns out, there are no bright green sweaters that I want to wear. If only I had realized it at the time. Or sweaters with jolly happy scenes knit into them that make me look like a kindergarten teacher. What was I thinking? Where were Stacy and Clinton when I needed them?

Oh, the perils of vacation sweater shopping.

We learn from our shopping mistakes, don't we?

And then we find new shopping mistakes to make, and yes, I'm talking to you, cute orange wedge shoes that felt just fine at the fancy consignment sale at the JCC last year but turned into a vise when I wore them to dinner. How many times must we make the same shoe mistake over and over? How many, I ask you? They never stretch. They never stretch.

We had to return to Chile. It was either two hours in a plane or $100 more for shopping. Twenty three hours in a bus it was.

At 5:30 p.m., we were at the bus station, sleeping pills, snacks, and Walkman - we could share the earphones between us - in hand. Rugs, blankets and sweaters dragging behind us to be stowed below.

In the first hour of the ride, we congratulated ourselves for saving so much money by taking the bus. We ate all the food we'd brought, but drank none of the water because we took immediate notice of the fact that the bus company had decided to maximize ticket revenues by installing two seats where the toilet normally would have been. In the second hour, we had to stop reading our magazines because it got dark and there were no reading lights on the bus. (Kelly's boyfriend mailed Glamour to her every month.) (Yes, we were in Peace Corps lite.) We talked about food and wondered what the Quechua women next to us were drinking from their hip flask.

"Water!" they shrieked when I asked them. Then they collapsed into a fit of giggles.

Their giggling did not distract us from our serious debate about whether Michael from thirtysomething was a brooding hunk or just a jerk. As I reflect on it now, I have to go with jerk. My tolerance for not-niceness has plummeted to zero these days.

In the third hour, we stopped for a 20-minute dinner break that lasted 70 minutes. While Kelly and I were tapping our feet and pointing at our watches, she nudged me and asked if that man drinking a liter of beer was our driver.

In the fourth hour, we discovered why he was drinking: he needed to be relaxed to drive over the road that has just ceased to be paved and was rocky and rough. At the time, there were not many paved roads in Bolivia. I remember going over some of the mountain roads - unpaved, narrow, hairpin turns - closing my eyes and thinking, I'll bet there are no atheists on this bus right now.

The jolting didn't distract us as we tried to sleep because we were too preoccupied with being cold and wishing we had our blankets from the luggage hold. In the morning, we discovered ice on the ceiling of the bus. It was about then that we started think it might have been worth the extra $100 to fly.

In the 22nd hour, after we had crossed the Chilean border, where we had to get off the bus, show our passports, be sniffed by German shepherds, have our luggage sniffed by German shepherds, and wait in a very, very long line - the entire process took over an hour, we stopped for lunch. Two Bolivian men sat by us and proceeded to interrogate us about our ages and marital status. When we informed them that we were 28 and 30, they nodded and told us politely that we were very well preserved for our ages.

We thought so, considering that the hip-flask-toting Quechua women ten years younger than us looked like leather.

They were far more concerned when they learned we were unmarried. "You're missed the train," they told us. "Now you'll have to be tias. Haven't you met any Chilean men?"

When we told them that Chilean men were just a bit machista for our tastes, they mused that we hadn't met any Bolivian men yet and that such an encounter could change the course of our lives. For the better, one would assume.

After having heard this sort of thing for a year now (although most people were polite when they learned I was a spinster and would change the subject to the weather), I was fed up. I asked, "Is it possible that I don't like men?"

Their jaws dropped. Their eyebrows flew up. They stared.

Finally, one of them turned to the other and said, "This soup is really good, isn't it?"

They left us alone after that.

We got back to La Serena, where Kelly lived. An American friend of hers whose husband worked at a gold mine (literally and I mean that literally) was out of town, but had left the house keys for Kelly so we could stay there. The house had all the major appliances: washer and dryer (at my house in Temuco, I washed, or that is, my cleaning lady washed my clothes by hand in the bathtub), microwave, TV with cable, VCR, and a CD player with a huge collection of CDs. Every evening, we sat in front of the picture window that overlooked the ocean and watched the sun set while we sipped gin and tonics, listened to KC and the Sunshine Band's Greatest Hits, and waited for our clothes to machine dry. That was a vacation.

Monday, May 14, 2012

In which Sly really does criticize how I eat bacon

I am going through some old emails and found this one from Primo. Remember the Bad Bacon Eater episode? He had forwarded me an email from Sly and Doris:

I was also put off by the obsessive way she ate her bacon, which I considered more than weird. If, in company, one doesn't want to eat what is served, either refuse it or don't eat it. What she did was kind of an insult to me.

Then they went on with some more great parental observations:

I guess I will have to remind you that you are THE LIGHT of ourlives. Your sister is dead, and the pain doesn't diminish much with time.

Your stepbrothers, despite the caring we tried to exhibit during their upbringing with [their mother and stepfather], have proven to be grave disappointments in multiple ways. Your new love has two siblings,which should be of some comfort to her and her mother and a potential "extended family" for you.

I encourage you to cultivate Ted's family tie because, without his bullshit, he seems to have a keen mind. We will never be able to understand Jack because he simply doesn't communicate with anyone.

[Ted's wife] is also a very complex and interesting person--her sense of entitlement seems to have come from her upbringing as a diplomat's daughter in households that always had servants and "uppity" social circles.