Monday, January 18, 2010

The Universe has a Wicked Sense of Humor, but I Love it Anyway.

And so, with a great party but little fanfare, my program with Living Routes in Lamas has come to an end. It was a good program, and if you ever want to visit the high Amazon of Peru and get out of the beaten tourist track, I highly recommend the place where I stayed, the Sangapia Hotel (link needed). It was an eye opening experience, and I learned a whole heck of a lot about the indigenous groups in the area, and their struggles to keep their forests intact and preserve their way of life. They need money pretty badly – political organizing takes legwork, but what is two days away on foot is often only a few hours away on a truck – they’re trying to buy a 4x4 truck. However, I believe that Haiti needs your cash much more right now, so I’ll hold the plug for SEPKA (the indigenous rights organization that I got to know a little) for later.

The one thing I will throw out there – if any of you know a grad student or other person with environmental impact assessment abilities, this is desperately needed to try to counter the obviously false environmental impact assessments produced oil and extraction companies which state that their activity will have no impact on the forest. The reason I suggest a grad student is because these indigenous communities don’t have the money to buy a used truck, much less hire a professional environmental scientist. On the off chance that one of ya’ll does have that connection, put them in touch with me via e-mail and I’ll pass them on to the communities in need.

Now for everyone’s favorite: a story.

This is the story of my last 24 hours, because it is exactly what it should have been. We got off the plane back to Lima at 1:40 pm. Picking up my luggage was straightforward, and I got a taxi to the first of two possible bus stops. I say ‘two possible bus stops,’ but actually there were four. Transporte Wari, the bus company I’m using to get to Cuzco, has four locations in Lima, but doesn’t say on their website which busses leave from which locations. Fortunately, my first guess was a good one, and I was able to make it all the way to the ticket counter (after grumbling about expensive airport taxies). At the ticket counter, I discovered that there were simply no more seats left on any busses going to Cuzco that day, Sunday, and I was given the opportunity to buy a ticket for the next day, today. I bought myself a ticket and then sat back wondering what I was going to do with myself in Lima for 24 hours. I knew that some other folks from the Living Routes program were going to be staying in a hostel called Kokopelli in the district of Mina Flores, and that some other folks who had a late flight were planning to meet up before the flight there for drinks on the rooftop bar. I didn’t have the address of the hostel, but I went and found a taxi driver who assured me that he could take me there, and said it would cost 20.

He waited until we were halfway across town to ask me for the address. When I didn’t have it, he stopped in at another hostel and went inside. He came out five minutes later and told me that they couldn’t find the Kokopelli hostel online, therefore it didn’t exist. I chuckled – because what else are you going to do? – and told him to drop me off in the center of Mina Flores. I figured I could find the hostel myself. He didn’t want to drop me off in the center of Mina Flores, and we argued about that some. Eventually, I prevailed upon him to leave me in front of an internet café, and he pulled over on some street a few blocks from Kennedy Park, which is, I think, the functional center of Mina Flores. Then he asked for 30. I reminded him that he had said 20 earlier, so he told me that he had meant 20 dollars. This really didn’t make sense. I had paid about 20 dollars to get from the airport to the bus stop, which was at least three times as far as he had taken me. I usually don’t mind paying good money for services rendered, so if we had been at the Kokopelli, I might have given him 30 soles, but this guy had not taken me where I asked to go, and had then refused to leave me where I wanted to be dropped off. I told him I only had a 20 soles bill, and he could take it or leave it. He took it, but was unhappy about it.

Alone, in a foreign city, with my 23 kilogram home made duffel bag on my back, I did the only thing that made any sense at all – I found an internet café. Thankfully, Peruvians don’t mind giving lost gringos directions or I might never have accomplished that feat. I promptly found the Kokopelli Hostel’s website and copied down their address. Armed with an address, and the knowledge that I was within seven or eight blocks of them, I set out again, only to get lost, again. Happily, a Peruvian guy who was hanging out in Kennedy Park looking for friendly USAmericans to practice English with noticed that I was lost and, after getting directions from a policeman, walked me to the hostel. Predictably, he asked for some money when we got there, and I gave him a sole.

Because the universe has a wicked sense of humor, the hostel was booked up for the night, and they couldn’t give me a bed, but could tell me that the friends I was trying to find had dropped their stuff off and left about five minutes before I showed up. Because people are, after all, good in our nature, they let me put my stuff in their luggage storage space, which they usually let guests use to store gear while out trekking.

I went back out on the street, and back to the internet café from earlier. I changed my hostel reservation in Cuzco to reflect my change of plans. Then I started looking for food. I didn’t want to get too far away from my landmark, Kennedy Park, but I also didn’t want to eat at any of the US fast food chains which encircle the park. Eventually, after much poking my nose into side streets, I found a hole in the wall café to sell me some comfort food, which turned out to be a very tasty rough analogy of a hamburger. I ate it while chatting with a British woman who had just finished spending six months in La Paz, Bolivia, working as the barkeeper for a hostel there.

I went back to Kokopelli, where one of the wonderful employees decided that I had suffered enough for one day, and gave me a free shower. Now, this was not just any free shower. This was A) my first hot water coming out of pipes since I left the USA on Christmas day and B) the first water-coming-out-of-plumbing and hence first honest shower of any sort in two and a half weeks. (Lima is in a state of drought, the municipality was only giving water for an hour every other day. When we had a little water, we were flushing toilets with buckets, and to get clean we went to a pipe with a steady stream of, probably a paved over creek, coming out of a hillside at about head height where the local people did laundry.) When I got out of the shower this same very nice employee informed me that he had found and made a reservation for me to stay at another place a few blocks away for 30 soles (about ten dollars) for the night. I put my bag back on my back and, on my way out the door, I bumped into my friends from the Living Routes program who told me to come back and hang out with them.

When I got to the place where I had the reservation, it was much nicer than I had expected. Turns out that, in the same way that in the USA you can get a cheap upgrade if the nicer rooms don’t have guests, in Peru hotels offer cheap, unreserved rooms as overflow space for hostels. I got a big room with a private bath, my own TV (which I didn’t use) and three beds (because, why not?). This room usually goes for five times what I paid for it.

I went back to the Kokopelli hostel and had a very pleasant evening saying goodbye (again) to a bunch of new friends. On a related note, a good Pisco Sour is my new, official, favorite mixed drink. I went to my room around 11 and slept until 8.

Upon waking up I took another shower. (Two showers in as many days! Unheard of luxury!!) At about nine, I went in search of breakfast. Now, searching for a good meal in a foreign city is a particular kind of art. You have to get far enough away from the touristy parts of town to get food that isn’t designed for what they think you want (they almost always get it wrong and you’re better off eating the local food) but you need to stay close enough to the nice parts of town that you get a meal that won’t make you sick. Fortunately, I had all morning. I went and got a hot chocolate from the place I got the burger before and, on a whim, went and drank it in Kennedy Park. I was amazed that three shoeshine guys tried to get me to let them shine my sneakers. Is that even possible? I was temped to let one of them just to find out.

Once I was done with the hot chocolate I was powerfully hungry, so I set out in search. Around 10:30, crisscrossing side streets but staying between to main streets I could find my way back on, I eventually found a little sandwich shop in a business area that seemed just right. This was the place for me, even if they weren’t expecting me. I waited at the counter for a full 90 seconds before I “ahem”ed and got the shopkeeper to look away from a catalogue for music equipment and notice me. I got their only breakfast item, a big bowl of mixed fruit with yoghurt which had puffed rice and some kind of syrup on top. It was delicious and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

After breakfast I meandered back to my hotel, wrote this post and am about to go post it. Then I will check out, probably go straight to the bus stop, and hopefully find some lunch in there somewhere. Unfortunately, I have to leave here at 1, but the bus doesn’t leave until 3, so I must go to the bus stop a little earlier than would be ideal, or haul my stuff around for two hours.


  1. Great story, James. I remember getting water every other day on the island of Paros (Greece). I think it was 1977 but I remember it so well. I'm loving your posts.

  2. I absolutely agree, only the only memory I have of carrying water for daily use is from MN. I too am loving these, thanks.