Published: July 9th 2010July 7th 2010
Just Point and Shoot
The highway from Huancayo to Huancavelica...
Someone did something to piss off the driver who is taking us from Huancayo to Huancavelica. Master of his own Nissan sedan equipped for four scrawny passengers, he seemed to be in a good mood. Perhaps he was rooting for Argentina and lost it after they rendered a fourth goal to the Germans. I honestly have no idea, but why did he have to take it out on us? It is no wonder why Peru is famous for stories that appear in the newspaper or on the evening news about public transportation vehicles that roll down hillsides. I never really understood why until we got Mario Andretti as a driver.
Rosalinda and I are pinned in the back seat like some high school physics experiment on centrifugal force. The racecourse is a one hundred fifty kilometer stretch of Andean turns, switchbacks, and deadly dips. On one side is the mountainous hazard of rock falls and loose livestock. As we hugged the highway carved into the mountain, I observed something peculiar within a few feet of my car door as I looked down: earth. I imagined that my remains would be discovered somewhere between an adobe home surrounded by a stone fence
It a long way down...there's a guardrail, right?
and a flock of grazing sheep. On each turn I held on to the bar above the rear passenger window and braced to either absorb Rosalinda’s body crushing mine (thankfully she is rather thin and light) or reduce the punishment my rotund frame will impose upon her. I spoke softly so as not to be heard, “Is this guy a normal driver for Peru?”
She really did not know how to answer. “I suppose so. Why?”
“Because I am not interested in this being the last time I’ll ever be frightened for my life in a car.” There have been so many other instances, of which one of the most vivid was a shuttle ride from Antigua to the airport in Guatemala City. All of a sudden, Michael Schümacher hit the brakes and I was kissing the backside of his headrest while at the same time being hurled into the side door. To my left was about five hundred feet of atmosphere between me and a babbling brook most could only make out with binoculars. Whenever possible, I stick my camera out the window to take photos of the rugged and unforgiving mountains. A soon as the shutter snaps, I
A Cover for a Travel Book?
Artful graffiti in Huancavelica...
quickly withdraw my pocket Olympus model so that my forearm isn’t snapped off as we approach a deadly curve. Saving me from death is a brightly painted guardrail in white about the height of Yoda. This driver’s tinge of hidden bitterness originates from his lifetime ban from the Formula One circuit. He was out to prove them wrong. If he could get his cargo passengers across the Andes quicker than Scotty from Star Trek, perhaps he’ll be reinstated.
Make no mistake…Huancavelica is the lethargic capital of the poorest region of the same name in all of Peru. The good news, ironically, is that everyone is on the same page. As with other towns in Latin America there is always that neighborhood that stands out in terms of its posh apartments, upscale stores, and well manicured green areas. In Huancavelica, no one has to worry about keeping up with the Jones’. Compressed along the polluted Río Ichu, Huancavelica is holding itself together. It is a community of colonial decadence mercifully off the main track of foreign travelers. The pace is slow; the only timepiece visible to the public is the functional analog clock on the left belfry tower of the
cathedral. Hardly anyone pays it any attention. Huancavelica is über-Andean. Besides my own, I have seen two other faintly European faces. The rest look like they could have posed for any of the Peruvian tourist posters hanging in travel agencies of suburban Chicago. Of the 40,000+ that live here, I am the only white person. What is even more pleasing is that no one really cares that I am here. Huancavelica is a victim of its geography. It is easy to get here from Huancayo, yet to move farther south requires an evil combination of a four-in-the-morning bus departure, only to be left in some unpronounceable town to await a connection for Ayacucho. That alone keeps the tour buses from parking along the side streets of the Plaza de Armas.
Rosalinda is a fast learner when it comes to the new thing called trudging your life on your back. To get a taxi to a certain point, she has determined that she is the better option than me. Twenty years experience dealing with unscrupulous male drivers is no match for match for a smile and a peek at an appealing curve or two. She is able to race through Huancavelica
Printing services available...
and collect information about various sleeping options, eliminate the non-contenders, suggest a viable possibility, and do so punctually. I have taught her to scope out all options on how to leave a town the moment we arrive. She knows now to trust others, but always verify. Though Rosalinda does not exert herself nowhere near as much while commuting to work in Lima, she does not complain about the physical demands of hauling her belongings, petty inconveniences, or incompetent staff at guesthouses.
I, on the other do complain even though I know it will lead nowhere. Proof of this is when we registered at the Hotel Asención:
“Buenos Días, señor.” He was the ordinary desk receptionist, as told by his soiled overalls and oily fingernails.
“I have come back down to register for the room.”
He was going to have a go at it. The normal receptionist had stepped away and he was going to see this through. He took out the resistration booklet and turned to an open triplicate page of carbon copies. He grabbed a pen instead of a hammer. “Yes, señor. Your DNI please.” He was asking for my Peruvian national identity card.
“Sir, I do
Most of the Plaza de Armas was sadly a construction site...
not have one.”
“Then I am sorry, you cannot stay here.” Right then and there, Donald trump would have fired him before the first commercial.
“Can I offer you something else?” I was trying to help him. Perhaps he would catch on and deduce he should request my passport.
“No, señor. I am sorry.” I looked up at the molding where the wall meets the ceiling. Maybe there was a camera there and this could make one of Peru’s Favorite Home Videos shows. Asking me for a DNI? It would be far easier to ask my president for his birth certificate.
I dug down my bag, retrieved my passport and offered it to him. I even opened it to the page with all my personal details. The “receptionist” wrote down my name as Hartford, then Connecticut. That happens to be my place of birth.
“No, Incorvati. Then Richard as the first name.”
He filled in a few more boxes. “Your nationality?”
Oh, my…The letters U-S-A are emblazoned all over the place. I looked at Rosalinda. Even she was aghast at his ignorance, but not at his stubbornness to never admit he has no idea what he is doing.
One of the commercial streets of Huancavelica...
That is a common trait where I have traveled in Latin America.
“Mozambican.” I couldn’t help it.
I peered over the counter to see what was coming next. “No, señor! Stop! My date of birth is NOT the fourth of September 2019. That’s the passport’s expiration date.” he made the correction. Apparently he missed two vital lessons when he was in school, the first on monthly calendars and the other on the concept of a space-time continuum.
Rosalinda took over and paid for the first night. She was due five soles change. The poor guy fought with subtracting forty-five from fifty.
“I’ll see you upstairs,” I mentioned to her.
Huancavelica beams with produce markets, ornamented church interiors, degraded timber balconies not suitable to support pets or a change in air pressure, numerous chicken rotisseries, and an unexpected number of Internet cafés.
Rosalinda and I took to the nearest pedestrian street connected to the Plaza de Armas. I turned around and sighed at the main square. It was now amok in plastic covering, stacks of stone to be set, and other industrial equipment. “What is the problem, Ricardo?”
“The Plaza de Armas, I am so disappointed. When we
They could use some attention...
arrived yesterday, I was so pumped to see it.”
She saw nothing particularly special about the open space, now even more open since it has been torn apart for renovations. “But why?”
“It is one of the most well preserved plazas in all of Peru. There is no better example of Spanish presence except for maybe Cuzco. Look at the arcaded sidewalk,” though it was hard to see it from our angle due to the plastic retaining wall. “You’ll be hard pressed to find anything like that, the tiled roofs, and a cathedral façade like the one in front of us anywhere in your country. This plaza is an absolute gem,” if not for it being a construction site, I failed to add. She pondered my words. If not for this trip, she would never have come here and seen the square. Moreover, Huancavelica would have just remained a point on a political map of a country she still has yet to discover for herself.
We ordered a half chicken at a rotisserie shop, which came with a small salad and greasy fried potatoes. Her portion was of plump breast meat. What made it to my plate could best be
Lots of Potential
One of Huancavelica's many balconies...
described as a young juvenile, perhaps even a chicken kidnapped and brought over from Ethiopia. The waiter scooted by our table; he did not check on us. That’s not part of the service in Peru. For a $5 lunch for two, you get what you pay for more. “Señor, un momento, por favor.”
The young chap of about twenty came over, mildly annoyed having been interrupted. “Sí?”
I grasped the 500 ml bottle of Cristal just to be sure I was not being too demanding. Having done so, my warm hands probably sucked the last bit of frigidity from the tepid glass container. “You wouldn’t happen to have a colder bottle in the back?”
“No, señor. We serve it here “a tiempo”. I deduced he was talking about room temperature.
“You mean here in this restaurant?”
“No, Ricardo,” interrupted Rosalinda across the booth from me. “People here don’t put their drinks in a refrigerator because it is cold enough here at night. It is winter.”
The waiter wanted this session to end, “Would you like for me to bring you another bottle?”
“No, gracias”, and he was off to check his cell phone for any text messages.
I fired back
On their way to a Sunday procession...
at Rosalinda in a didactic tone, “First of all, it doesn’t get cold here.” A few degrees above freezing is nothing.” I have to silently swallow some of her off-the-cuff comments about walking around with temperatures in the mid 40’s. “You are from Puno. You should know what cold is.” Her ten years in Lima have vaccinated her from the cold reality of the earth’s climate. “Second, and far more importantly, even the most backwards pitholes of this planet through which I have had the misery of slogging do their utmost to keep their beer cold.” I could not conceive of it any more delicately. “It is not civilized.” Ayacucho was our next stop. Right then and there, I knew our time in Huancavelica was limited.
Naps and Huancavelica go together. It’s not like you’re going to miss anything during those two afternoon hours you’re chasing rabbits through a field of daisies. Aroused from a rewarding sleep, I make my way to the end of Virrey Toledo and admire the two churches at the Plaza Bolognesi. Rosalinda orders deep fried pork from a street vendor. The baroque façade of the Iglesia San Sebastián brings me back to wandering through the
Iglesia San Sebastian
Bathed in sunlight...
alleyways of Zacatecas. I poked my head into the nearby Iglesia San Francisco to be astonished by the extraordinary detail of the faded green pulpit. With a good dusting from an industrial vacuum and a touch up from a team of restoration pros, the altar and sacristies would be the jaw-dropping talk of Peru.
Rosalinda commented aloud after a dinner of noodle soup and roasted chicken, “I think after two days in Huancavelica one can easily get bored.”
“That’s the point.”
“It’s OK to get bored and let your mind pointlessly ramble.”
“True, but Huancavelica is so…chiquita.” It is so small. I love aimlessly rummaging through the town’s Sunday market. Tents abound hawking mostly useless junk. Shoe kiosks abound; I have never seen so many. While passing second hand furniture on the way down to the river we came across a sparkling table and chair set made of cross sections of the tree from which it was cut. The cut for the table top comes from the lower part of the trunk; its base is made of a thick upper branch. For décor, she has cleverly twisted smaller twigs around the base. The same can be said for the
Iglesia San Francisco
Belfry tower and towering hills...
four stools, the legs of which are all made from the same tree along with the connecting rods. When I get her attention, she is adding yet another coat of glistening finish. It accentuated the deep dark knots embedded into the wood’s character. The whole set gleams in the sun and was unquestionable the most impressive piece of art in Huancavelica outside of any church. Bear in mind, I don’t care to my spend time gawking at handicrafts. “Señora, that is spectacular!”
“How long did it take you to make it?”
“Oh, I worked on it on and off for several weeks.”
“It’s just incredible.” I couldn’t take my eyes off the intertwining twigs. I marveled in the originality of her design. “I have to ask, how much are you asking for it?” She told me the price and I nearly fell over. I had to negotiate with her not to lower the price, but raise it to some level of respectability. “No, señora, you cannot be serious.”
“It is too much?”
“You are asking two hundred soles for the set?” I gasped. We’re talking a little over seventy dollars.
“Sí, my family has to eat.” I fantasized
Table and chair set in Huancavelica's Sunday Market...
how I could get it into my pack and get it back to the States in some salvageable form. I even had the cash on me.
“But señora, in my country you could ask for five hundred, even more. People would fight amongst each other to buy it from you.”
That amount of money was difficult for her to process. “You mean five hundred soles?”
“No, señora…five hundred dollars, easily.”
“I think I like your country, but I like Peru, also.”
Wherever my travels take me (and I don’t mean Singapore, Switzerland, or Tokyo), I make a point to carefully observe the dogs. Most of them are always strays and at the bottom of the canine evolutionary spectrum. They prowl in packs, snap at each other, rip at scraps, and at times cause general mayhem. Some hobble with a hind leg suspended in the air. Others wince from open bleeding wounds. It is not uncommon to see the mangy beasts around town with one eye. For reasons foreign to me, Huancavelica’s strays are in rather spectacular shape. While I am not declaring any of them ready for the Iditarod, they are a happy and healthy bunch. The alpha male’s rib cage is not its main physical attraction. They are not famished. Most run with a steady gait. None froth at the mouth. While their population is still out of control and they bark relentlessly at night when any bitch is in heat, there’s something to be said for their general condition. While I am not sure exactly what, it must in some way reflect well on Huancavelica.