Tuesday, September 15

Chicharrones and a Pottey Break in the Altiplano

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.

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