Wednesday, September 30
Tuesday, September 29
Monday, September 28
Sunday, September 27
Friday, September 25
Thursday, September 24
Wednesday, September 23
Tuesday, September 22
Monday, September 21
Sunday, September 20
Saturday, September 19
But what most people don’t know is that the coca, the main ingredient in cocaine, has been and is still used medicinally in most of the jungle region. Coca leaves are in many Andean kitchen cupboards.
Have a stomach ache? Chew one a coca leaf for awhile, or boil the leaves in a cup of hot water to make mate de coca. You’ll feel better pretty quickly.
Here in Peru, many people use coca leaves to help with the high altitudes they climb into each day.
Puno, which is at 12, 500 feet above sea level, was my first occasion to try mate de coca. I had nausea on the bus ride from the rapid change in altitude and booted my breakfast in the bus bathroom. But when we arrived, Sergio’s cousin quickly brewed me some mate de coca and I felt much better.
Because of situations like mine, it’s really difficult for governments to monitor narcotrafficking in countries like Peru. There are many legitimate coca farmers, who grow the leaves and then bring them to the cities to the sell. The narcos, however, who grow the leaves and then sell them to drug lords, or process then with kerosene, are the ones to catch. Many times, it is difficult to differentiate between the two.
Now in Peru, the domestic terrorist group of the 1990s, The Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso, is having a comeback, mainly because the drug crackdown in Colombia has pushed some of the cocaine business to the Peruvian jungle—one of the few places the senderistas still operate. Now they have their violent agenda and drug money to fund it. While there have been few terrorists incidents in the past five years, the situation still concerns many Peruvians.
But it's impossible to put laws over something as wild as the Amazon. Especially from a South American perspective, it seems so futile to attack the drug trade from the supply side.
Friday, September 18
Our second day in Puno with Sergio’s two brothers, we woke up too late to visit anything more than 20 minutes away. Thinking I could be of help, I pulled out my Lonely Planet to find another option, and there it was. It sounded great!
“On a small promontory on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, Chucuito, a small Aymara town, is one of the oldest in the altiplano region....Said to date pre-Columbian times, Inca Uyo is composed of dozens of large, mushroom-shaped phallic stones, most a few feet high, which locals claim were erected as part of fertility rituals....At the center of the ring, lording over the temple is the king phallus."
Ha! Perfect! Close by! Historic! Pre-Columbian! Quaint! A "king phallus" included! What more could we want for a half day trip that would get us back in time for lunch with Sergio’s very anal-retentive aunt?
The combi (bus) dropped us off in front of a colonial church. With the two Brits we met on the combi, we went in. The paint had chipped away. The benches were dusty, as if no one had attended service there in quite some time. What little I know about the Catholic tradition frustrates me in moments like this. I don’t understand the paintings, nor the little glass boxes with doll-like saints locked in them.
And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one because within a few minutes we were outta there. We walked down a few blocks to a beautiful mirador (lookout) where we could see over the farms to the south to the expansive lake east of Chucuito. We took enough pictures to supply National Geographic for a year, and the finally were on our way to the main event—the king phallus!
We arrived to discover that it costs 10 soles ($3.30) to enter the dinky courtyard the size of a city block. Luckily, Sergio convinced the Senora to let us in at the “Peruvian rate” of two soles ($0.60). Quite a charmer, that boyfriend of mine.
On one side, there was a row of booths selling woven hats and trinkets to take home. In the middle, was the supposed main attraction.
But the real attraction was Panchito, the baby alpaca, whom the site managers so cunningly relocated to this little courtyard. Sergio’s 23-year-old brother must have played with Panchito for 10 minutes. I had to give him a little hug too.
After little Panchito started to bore us, we entered the kingdom of the phallus.
Sergio thought it was hilarious. Everyone laughed, took pictures and sat on the stones, which supposedly helps you to be fertile.
Sergio asked me if I wanted a picture. It occurred to me that the Incan sun god might be a little offended by my making light of this ancient homage to his greatness, so I declined.
The Brits laughed at that, and then proceeded to tell me how the whole temple was just a rouse, a tourist trap made to bring money into Chucuito. They had read it in a guidebook.
After we had our fun, we left to wait for the combi, where we met the man who cares for another Catholic church just off the plaza. He showed us around, even though the church was closed down, and then explained to us the “true” story about the phallus kingdom:
According to him, the garden was originally an old stone ruin, possibly pre-Incan. But before that could be documented, someone thought it would be really funny to adjust the stones just bit so they looked like penises.
It was just a joke until some foreign anthropologist came along, and without consulting any locals, publicized his interpretation of the place as a pre-Incan/Incan fertility garden. This interpretation, while antagonizing at first, finally benefited the community of Chucuito. Peruvian and foreign tourists have come flocking to see this odd “ruin.” At $3.30, it’s been a good thing for the community.
But some are not too happy with this farce. For them, it ignores the centuries of ancient culture, from which some of them descended. It’s not right, they say.
I took my picture, and enjoyed the novelty of it all. It will be interesting to see if this little "ruin" will exist into the 22nd century, or if the rouse will be discovered.
When I read my Lonely Planet again, it did say:
"..some contend that they, or at least the manner in which they are displayed, are fake, a hoax perpetrated by locals to rustle up tourist business. Spanish missionaries did everything in their power to destroy all symbols and structures they considered pagan, and it is highly unlikely that they would have constructed two churches nearby but left this temple intact."
That'll teach me to read a little bit more carefully.
Many things are smaller in Peru than in the States—the cars, doors, streets, the people. It’s something I noticed immediately when I arrived. The national highways are two-thirds the size of the two-lane highways back home.
"But isn't it impossible to maintain the safe and regular flow of traffic?" you ask. Why yes it is. But the cars are smaller too. They have to fit through narrow cobblestone streets from the Spanish colonial area, and squeeze by commuter buses on the highway. It makes sense, then, that the VW beetle (escarabajo) was practically the national car at one time.
But the people? Yes, the people are smaller here, generally. They don’t eat hydrogenated high fructose TV dinners with loads of saturated fat five times a week. I think I may have seen ONE person I could classify as obese. Everyone else enjoys bread and tea in the morning, a nice big soup with a main course at lunch, and bread and tea again in the evening. Snacks are available, but Peruvians must not eat them or they’d be our size.
These are all interesting things to observe, but it's started getting old. EVERY time I get in a taxi (usually ticos), I bang my head on the door frame; EVERY time I get in a combi (bus), the ceiling is too low for me to stand up.
It will be weird coming back to the States. I remember arriving back from Chile, my first excursion abroad, to what seemed like an inflated country. Some poor idiot was in a corner somewhere blowing real hard so everything would be just a little bit bigger.
My mom picked me up that day from the airport in her little Chevrolet Jimmy. I felt like I was riding in an army tank to my first battle.
Tuesday, September 15
On the four-dollar, six-hour bus ride, I definitely got my money’s worth. Beyond the nausea, the lack of air conditioning and the smell of coca leaves and alpaca poo, the largest value-added bonus on the trip was the potty break.
We were traversing the “Altiplano,” the 12,000+ mesa in southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia that claims Lake Titicaca (Peruvians say their half is “titi;” the Bolivians got “caca”).
After we lost site of Puno, the lakeside town where the majority of Sergio’s family lives, it was only the Altiplano before us, the territory of alpacas, lllamas sheep, cows and vicunas. At one point, the bus driver even had to honk the horn so a group of llamas would get off the highway.
Every once in awhile I saw a human figure on the top of the hill behind a herd of llamas. Women sometimes, they hid under layers of the traditional Quechua skirts—voluminous, bright and hand-stitched. Both men and women carried all their belongings on their back in a colorful cloth.
I couldn’t figure out if the homes I saw were in construction or decaying after decades of use. Most were incomplete stone homes with aluminum roofs held down by rocks and boards, usually with a stone fence surrounding it for when the sheep come home.
But when we approached the turnoff to Cusco, a little “colonia" appeared. I related it more to an I-40 truck stop—Peru style. The gas station, just as in any U.S. truck stop town, was the nicest building, freshly painted with advertisements. There were two restaurants I could make out from the worn letters on the doors, a few grocery stores and rows of adobe homes. The littered streets were patrolled by the local muts--a pack of homeless dogs characteristic of any Latin American town from Mexico to Chile.
The bus slowed to pass by the highway police station. There, sitting on the side of the road was a 20-something girl in worn sweatpants and a pink cap that said “Angel” in gems. With her bag, she approached the bus driver and asked something I didn’t understand, then hopped on.
Two minutes later, the bus pulled over and the girl who boarded the bus started selling chicharrones, fried chunks of pig meat (including the skin). For two soles (about 60 cents), Sergio bought a little sandwich bag full of chicharrones with toasted hominy. The girl really cashed in on the bus. At least half of the people on the second floor of the bus with us bought chicharrones.
The other half of the passengers went outside. Men, women, little girls—all went out to pee about 30 feet from the bus, in full site of their companions on board. What a sight, there in the dry, flat Altiplano. It actually seemed to me that the Quecha women had it the best. Their layers of bell-shaped skirts provided the most private and easy pottey break. I actually had to go too, but figured my big white ass would be a little harder to ignore. And I had no wool skirts to hide under. Instead, I shamefully watched the hilarious scene out the window, wishing only that I was brave and rude enough to take a picture.
Within four or five minutes, everyone was back on and we were on the road, the chicharrones girl with us. Once she had sold her beach bag full of merchandise a few miles out, the bus pulled over again and she departed with at least 40 soles and a smile. I imagine she walked back to the truck stop, at least three-four miles back, and then waited for the next passenger bus to come.
Sergio’s reaction was funny. He ate his Peruvian fast food and cursed the bus for not having a functional bathroom. I wondered how he felt. I could watch with interest, a smile and a degree of distance.
But this country--where stray dogs rule and young girls walk miles in the cold desert for less than $15 is his. In all its spectacular geographic diversity, rich indigenous culture and poverty, Peru is Sergio’s home.