Thursday, September 13, 2012

In which I go to the mountains and discover that habanero peppers are not small bell peppers

Two hours from Santa Cruz is a village in the mountains called Samaipata. I took a collectivo there through the low tropical mountains. In our frequent stops at tollhouses, I noticed the driver got no receipts from the toll collector. I also noticed he gave the toll collector only half the posted amounts.

When we stopped, little girls rushed up to the bus to sell bags of half-peeled oranges. I saw this all over Latin America -- vendors selling oranges with half the rind gone. They would use apple-peeling machines to scrape the orange part off. No one I asked knew why -- you still have to peel the orange -- and no one knew if the peeled rind was put to any use.

My destination was an organic ranch called La Víspera, owned and run by a retired Dutch piano tuner and his wife. Claire and John had told me about it, saying it was great place to relax. We got to the center of Samaipata, inching slowly through deep mud. Apparently, Samaipata had not been suffering from the drought.

When we arrived at the collectivo stop, I asked the driver if he knew where La Víspera was. He didn’t but stopped to ask. The first man he asked didn’t know. Nor did the second.

Try asking a woman, I suggested. I was right. The next woman we saw knew. She pointed us to the north of town up the hill. I looked at my backpack and then at the four-inch deep mud that passed for a road. The driver saw my look.

“I’ll drive you up there!” he said gallantly.

I was no fool. “That would be wonderful,” I said gratefully.

The wheels spun in the mud, trying to find purchase. He backed up a little, then charged forward again. Mud sprayed from the wheels onto the sidewalk. When we got to the hill, I was afraid that the car would slip down, but we made it to the gate of La Víspera.

I stepped gingerly out into the mud while the driver jumped out and ran to the back to get me my backpack. He insisted on waiting for me to get through the gate before handing me the pack. I decided he was deserving of a nice tip.

I started to walk up the driveway, trying to step from one relatively dry spot to another. Across the lawn I saw a tall, thin white-haired man wearing shorts and a pair of knee-high rubber boots. He ambled down toward me and took my backpack.

“I’m Peter,” he said. “I know the mud better than you.” He began to chat and told me about the farm. He and his wife had moved here from Holland years ago, fed up with the first world. They had built the house and the guesthouses themselves and had terraced the side of the hill to create the gardens in which they grow herbs and vegetables and some fruits. They sell the produce and also potpourri and herbal soaps and essential oils made from their herbs.

In addition to their herb, jam, and egg business, they take guests. Each of the six guest rooms is furnished with a camp stove, dishes, hand-woven cotton sheets, thick wool blankets and old National Geographics. Guests may help themselves to any produce from the garden and pay for it when they leave. Regular guests pay sixty dollars a night to stay, but backpackers -- like me -- pay only six.

I spoke to Juana, the maid. “How do you like working for Peter?” I asked.

“He is wonderful! He pays me twenty-four bolivianos a day!”

I asked if there were any Peace Corps volunteers in Samaipata.

“Once, there were two young women here. They were nice and worked hard. They taught at the school. But late one night, someone caught them so drunk they couldn’t stand! They had to leave.” She spoke of their departure with approval, but then added, “But now, we have no good teachers.”

That evening, I grabbed a handful of cherry tomatoes from the garden and made myself a pot of orange tea. I pulled a deck chair into the middle of the flagstone patio, wrapped myself in a blanket, and drank tea and watched the stars emerge from the twilight. There were no sounds except the occasional owl and the wind in the trees. Without dust in the air like in Santa Cruz, the sky was clear and the stars hovered low. It was another one of those absolutely gorgeous perfect moments that made me feel immensely lonely and totally insignificant in the universe. I don't know if you still have that feeling when you see something like that with another person, but I’d like to try it sometime.

The next day was sunny and balmy. I walked into town, went into the one open tourist shop and promptly broke a piece of pottery I didn’t even like. After paying the clerk, I decided I’d better go to where the goods weren’t so fragile and found the only produce store in town. It had not much more than some shriveled potatoes, a few bags of dried beans, some brown bananas, and some peppers. I decided I could cook the peppers with some tomatoes from the garden and eat them with rice. I picked through the peppers, which were small and ranged in color from green to red. I thought they were small for bell peppers, but noticed that the potatoes and bananas looked puny too. Maybe it was just something in the soil here. I bought about six peppers and some rice and walked back to La Víspera.

That evening, I gathered some tomatoes. Then I cut and seeded the peppers and the tomatoes and threw them in a pot with a little bit of salt and some fresh basil. Food with tomatoes always tastes better if it simmers for a while, so I waited several minutes before tasting. In my first bite, I got a piece of pepper. It seared my lips and I dropped the spoon in shock.

I’m a slow learner. I decided I needed to verify that all the peppers were hot. The one I’d tried had been red, so I fished out a green one. Surprise! It, too, burned my tongue. Frantically, I tried to fish out all the peppers. I didn’t know what cruel hoax had been played upon me, but I knew this was my only chance to save my dinner. But it was too late. Even though I pulled out all the peppers, they’d been steeped in the tomatoes long enough for the tomatoes to draw out their heat. I had to throw everything away (although it may have served as an organic pesticide).
I thought about making some plain rice, but then realized that my lips hurt too much to eat. I sat watching the stars again, feeling sorry for myself because I was really hungry but had burning lips and was physically incapable of eating.