Updates from Perú (Days 2-3): Huacachina

Cumbia, Tourists, Dunes

I had to get out of Lima. I’d like to see more of the city, but not now, not after 6 months in a similarly smoggy metropolis just a few hours south. As you can see in pictures on my previous post, the whole city is blanketed in a cloud of smog. It’s warm enough, but everything appears gray and dreary until the sun goes down.

At night, the city lights up rather beautifully along the coast. And I have to say that even the trashier cumbia clubs seem to keep up appearances better than what I’m used to on Pio Nono. And they lack some of the charm–Cumbia isn’t nearly as fun if you don’t feel socially uncomfortable and at least a small part of you fears getting stabbed on the piscola. Dirty charm is what the club I saw lacked. Everyone was too friendly. The lead singer of the band, noting the out of place Australian, Brazilian, and American (Estadounidense to keep PC), showed us the basic step while they rest of the crowd took a break. I think he thought we were trying to hard. From what I’ve seen this isn’t hard to do: The cumbia that I’ve seen in Chile tends to be much looser. Everyone in the Lima club maintained their distance from one another, kept their fists firmly in front of their chests, and rigidly shuffled back and forth. And they all took the dance floor and retired from it at the same time, like a herd of dancing well-mannered sheep.

But again, this is not what I came here for.

I cut off my planned second day in Lima and caught a bus to the desert town of Ica. Everyone says Ica is four hours from Lima, but they aren’t taking into account that the interurban buses stop to pick up travelers along the highway at reduced fare. No one but these highway travelers seem to be happy about this, as the rest of the passengers berated the driver with a torrent of “¡Vamos, pues!” He didn’t seem to be listening. The trip took about an hour longer, but in general wasn’t bad.

On the bus I closed my eyes somewhere outside of Lima and opened them on the moon. Rolling sand dunes replaced the dilapidated city outskirts. The buildings were still crumbling, but somehow this felt more appropriate in the middle of the desert.

Upon arrival in Ica I caught a cab to the Huacachina oasis 6 km away. This place was more touristy than I expected (I don’t know why I didn’t expect this; the oasis is stunning). Palm trees, restaurants, and hostels line the lake on three sides, but on the fourth it opens up into the dunes. If you want to see young backpacker tourist hell, this place is fairly high on the list (One image that stuck with me was two North American girls, probably about 17 years old, with fresh blonde dreadlocks and awkward, enchanted smiles spread over their faces as a local man played a version of “La Bamba” on the guitar with lyrics adapted to describe the Huacachina oasis). But the dune buggy rides and sandboarding make up for it (see the video in my previous post).

On my second night here I caught a bus to Arequipa, 10 hours away and an in-between point on the way to Cuzco.

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Updates from Perú: Dune Buggy

Video of a ride through the sandunes surrounding the Huacachina oasis in Southern Perú. Another update on the past couple days when I get to Cuzco (the 16th). I’ll be hiking through Colca Canyon until then. And now I need to get some sleep. My transportation leaves at 3 a.m.

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Updates from Perú (Day 1): Lima

Missing Stories, Buses, and Cebiche

As the plane descended I was able to peek past the woman in the window seat at the rapidly approaching city. What I saw was framed by the southwest corner of the window and the woman’s back and seemed incomplete. Not just in the sense that area surrounding an international airport never gives an accurate portrayal of the city beyond—the buildings actually looked like they had been abandoned in the middle of construction. Some stopped after the first story, and none reached beyond the third. Walls continued for a couple of feet up past the roof, with sprouts of the buildings’ iron frames sprouting out like the jagged bone of a broken-off limb. Only one side of each building had been painted.

Maybe this is the lingering aftermath of one of the many earthquakes that have shaken Lima over the centuries. Or project money ran out. Or they were just forgotten. Or someone said “close enough” mid-build.

This aesthetic was consistent for most of the cab ride in, but thinned out considerably when we hit the more upscale parts of Lima. During this time my driver Hector gave me the earful of national pride ubiquitous to such airport transfers. He told me the best cebiche (a delicious cold fish salad cooked only with the citric acid in its lemon juice sauce) is found in the city’s port district of Callao, and, since the dish supposedly supercharges the libido, it is best “shared with a Peruvuan woman.” I won’t reproduce what he said happens next under these ideal circumstances.

One of my favorite things to do in a new city is try out the bus system. I feel it can provide an accurate and penetrating cross section of the culture driving a city. Santiago’s buses are clean and uniform but riddled with problems just under the surface. Buenos Aires’ are the most fun and have the most style (like pimped-out shrines to both the Boca Juniors soccer team and the Virgin Mary at the same time), but are also completely disorganized and mildly terrifying. Lima’s are the most personal but also the most chaotic of the three.

Lima's buses with their attendants. I'm not sure if that's smog or clouds covering the sun.

Lima's buses with their attendants. I'm not sure if that's smog or clouds covering the sun.

First, Lima’s buses are personal in that every bus has an employee who hangs out the door and shouts the buses route, collects money, and asks you to where you want to go. I had some trouble with this initially. The woman at my hostel’s desk told me to grab any bus on Arequipa and tell them to let me off at Piura. I think “piura” might be some kind of insult. An attendant would ask me where I wanted to go, and when I would ask if they stopped at Calle Piura” they would suddenly go silent, look straight ahead, and take off. No response whatsoever to my question. Eventually I tricked my way on to one of the buses by waiting until I was seated and in transit before disclosing my destination.

Second, the city buses are personal in that all of them are absolutely tiny—like (slightly) extended Volkswagen buses. Passengers are guaranteed to spend the entirety of their ride smashed against someone else’s ass.

Yes, sir, I will have my cebiche at 5 in the afternoon and whenever I please.

Yes, sir, I will have my cebiche at 5 in the afternoon and whenever I please.

Pursuing Hector’s words of wisdom, I went in search of a good cheap plate of cebiche late in the afternoon after I had discussed my next few moves in Peru with the nice people over at the South America Explorer’s clubhouse. A little alleyway diner served me a tamal (maíz/cornmeal stuffed with chicken and some kind of semisweet fruit resembling small grapes), a bowl of bright purple marinated onions, a heaping plate of cebiche, and 2 glasses of chicha morada (a sweet beverage made from purple maíz) for under US$10.

I sat outside as I ate. A man passed me by and shook his head, saying incredulously to the air in front of him: “¿Cebiche? ¿A esta hora?” Cebiche? At this hour?

I thought this was hilarious.

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News Report: Women in Chile’s Prisons

Presidential Contenders Voice Concern, But Offer No Concrete Proposals

(June 29, 2009) The women of Chile’s swollen prison population must not be ignored, president of the NGO Abriendo Puertas Ana Maria Stuven said as she opened their seminar titled “Women and Prison” last Thursday in Santiago.

Chile, a country of 16 million people, has over 53,400 inmates, according to Human Rights Watch. This puts the national number of female prisoners at more than 4,500.

“It is a mistake to only consider male prisons,” said Stuven, whose non-profit organization has worked in the Santiago Female Prison for the past eight years.

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Barnyard Fowl and a Military Dictatorship

Trying To Understand Chile’s National Dance, the “Cueca”

I had been to the Galpón Victor Jara before, but this was an entirely different scene. The normally omnipresent Iron Maiden T-shirts had been replaced with pañuelos (handkerchiefs) and the crowd was no longer packed like cattle against the stage. A space had been cleared out in the middle for dancing, surrounded by chairs for observers.

All of us in the crowd were going to dance the cueca – Chile’s national dance – we would have an audience, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

Los Trukeros performing at the Galpón Victor Jara June 3, 2009

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YouTube’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold

The Internet has flexed its muscles in Guatemala.

Last month thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Guatemala City demanding the president step down after a lawyer was killed on the street by an unidentified assassin. The United Nations is now planning an investigation while the international community, concerned about the future of the Central American nation, looks on anxiously.

This political crisis, however, wasn’t prompted by any press story. It was sparked instead by a clip posted on the YouTube video sharing Web site. In the video, the now deceased attorney predicted his assassination – and laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom.

“This is the most serious political crisis the country has faced since the (1996) signing of the peace accords,” said Anita Isaacs, a Haverford College political science professor who studies Guatemala’s democratization. The peace accords ended what had been a nearly four decade-long civil war. “The country is hanging on by a thread,” she added.

This, then, is the story of the YouTube video that sparked a U.N. investigation and threatened to take down a Latin American government. Continue reading

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They Don’t Teach You About Tear Gas in J-School

Just before protestors starting throwing rocks at the police, I realized that I didn’t look like a journalist.

The other reporters I could pick out of the crowd were wearing day-glow sleeves with “PRENSA” printed down the side and their press passes dangled from cables around their necks. They had bigger cameras, professional microphones, and their publications’ emblems all but tattooed on their foreheads.

I was wearing the t-shirt and jeans I wear every day and the same bright red backpack I’ve had for the past three years. The only thing remotely professional about my appearance was the camera in my hands and the laminated press pass peeking out of my pocket. I looked at best like a tourist, at worst like any other protestor in the seething crowd. They were students. I was a student. The fact that I was carrying a camera wouldn’t make a good case for my independence.

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