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Archive for the ‘Travelogues Latin America & West Africa 1976-78’ Category

First published by the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, January 2, 1977

POSTMARK:  Costa Rica

cahuita

By COLLEEN McGUIRE And TOM McGUIRE

Cahuita, Costa Rica, is a savagely beautiful and still obscure paradise 30 miles north of the Panama border on the lush green shores of the Caribbean Sea. Even the’ name of the little village (pronounced Cah-wee-tah) rivals Tahiti in evoking images of tropical splendor.

To arrive at secluded Cahuita we first had to pass through the principal east coast port of Puerto Limon. This is the site where Columbus landed on his fourth and final voyage to the New World. Forty kilometers south on a partially paved road that parallels the sea lies Cahuita. We pass infinite rows of banana trees. A large majority of the banana plantations in the Limon area are owned by the infamous Robert Vesco of Watergate notoriety who is presently in political exile in Costa Rica.

The tropical countryside is so glorious that upon entering Cahuita we were clapping and singing, much to the amusement of the Tico truck driver who picked us up in Limon. Tico refers to Costa Ricans in the same sense that Hoosier designates Indiana residents.

The truck pulled to a halt on Cahuita’s main dirt street and deposited us in front of the town’s only bar. It was mid-afternoon and, judging from the size of the crowd hanging about, these folks don’t, seem to take their work as seriously as do Americans.

Four ethnic groups comprise Cahuita’s estimated population of 1,000 – a handful of Chinese, young homesteading Americans who have purchased cheap land, Latins and the Carib blacks. It is the blacks, whose ancestors were brought in from the West Indies to build the railroads, who are dominant.

The blacks of Cahuita are by far the most colorful and mercurial faction of the population and are almost a direct reflection of the black culture of deep, rural Georgia.

This striking resemblance is apparent in the slow pace of life due to two forces – the intense heat and a mode of existence that is infinitely removed from the hustle-bustle of a sophisticated technological world.

We encountered Roy “Pepe” Carter (no relation to Jimmy!) sitting at the bar selling his lottery numbers. He’s the local bookie and the owner of a ten-room dwelling which he leases out to backpackers looking for cheap accommodations. We accompanied him to his place, walking at our normal pace. As Pene tries to keep up with us, he cries, “Hey mon, slow down. You ain’t in the city no more.”

the blacks’ native elocution is delightful. Instead of a conventional “hello” which implies very littie, they substitute “OK” or “Alright.” Their vocal inflection indicates that we actually are OK and alright in their eyes.

Another frequent colloquialism is “pura vida.” It is generally used in the same instances when Americans use the expression “right on” – that is to denote enthusiastic support of an idea or feeling. Pura vida translates as “pure life” and you know they really believe it when they sing out the phrase accompanied by a vigoous shake of a clenched fist.

The blacks, as opposed to Cahuita’s other ethnic groups, are trilingual. Most of them speak English, Spanish and Carib, although not in that order of proficiency. Even amongst themselves they tend to jump from one language to the next, making it difficult to discern which exactly is their mother tongue. When we asked Winston, the town sheriff, which language he knew best, he replied in a mixture of English and Spanish that he was unsure.

The merchants of Cahuita seem unconcerned about whether they get your business. You never know when a store will be open and, even if the store is open you can expect to wait indefinitely for someone to “jump” to your service although you’re the only customer in the store.

Normally in America when you go to a restaurant you’re expected to order something. Often you’re asked to leave if you don’t. Here it is the opposite; loitering does not have a negative connotation. Perhaps this explains why one’s presence in a restaurant often goes unacknowledged.

Instead of patronizing Cahuita’s three restaurants, we got a better deal and better service by dining at “Mizz” Rachel’s. Mizz Rachel is an old, black woman who serves meals to tourists in the casual atmosphere of her home. By making informal reservations with her that morning you can expect the most decent meal in Cahuita that evening. For the price of one meal, she heaps double portions of everything on your plate.

Somehow she has the culinary skill for enhancing the simplest dish of beans and rice. Her specialty is yam soup. We asked her for the recipe and she eagerly recited the ingredients. But contrary to Betty Crocker style, Mizz Rachel is vague when it comes to explaining how to combine them into soup. “I jes put um together,” she smiles.

After dinner we walked uptown to check out the action of Cahuita on a typical evening. The favorite pastime, besides drinking beer, is playing dominoes. It’s fascinating to watch a group of four or five blacks engage in a spirited contest of dominoes. They are not passive contestants, instead playing with the aggressiveness of cutthroat gangsters playing poker. There is a smooth rhythm in their style which captivates our attention. Each turn is executed by slamming the decisive domino onto the wooden tabletop. The loud clack and the exuberant chatter of the players is heard all up and down main street.

Cahuita has all the magical charm and rustic beauty of the most mythical tropical paradise. Highlighting the setting are two sprawling beaches. The black one is studded with roots of trees jutting out of the sandy terrain like the polished antlers of some aquatic elk.

The other has glistening white sand and tranquil blue waters of many shades. The contours of its densely palm-fringed shores arc for a mile to a distant coral reef where a sunken Spanish Galleon lies dating back to the 16th Century. Scuba gear and an adventurous spirit are needed for first-hand exploration.

The refreshing aspect of these gorgeous beaches is that they are still totally devoid of the hotel chains that spoil the beauty of other already developed beaches. Thus, we consider ourselves fortunate to have visited Cahuita before the impending onslaught of tourism. Recently a bank and a post office have augmented the community’s civic growth. These establishments are sure indicators of a sleepy tropical hamlet destined to evolve into a potential “hot spot” resort.

The new bank seems incongruous in Cahuita. The banker, a Latin, reflects the city’s image. He is efficient and meticulous in his work. His official manner – performing calculations on the adding machine or acting very business-like while counting insignificant sums of money is a parody. He thinks he’s a teller at Chase Manhattan instead of a mere clerk in Cahuita, Costa Rica. But still, he represents change and progress.

Another subtle indication of change and progress is the installation of electricity at Pepe’s. For years the only source of light was candles. However, the day we left, the electric company from Puerto Limon came to install electricity. Within two years Pepe intends to add a restaurant to his place.

Cahuita’s mystique lies in its virgin land and dynamic people. Its appeal is best expressed by our black friend Opie’s classic one-liner: “I came to Cahuita for a day and I’ve been here ten years.

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, January 16, 1977

POSTMARK:  Colombia

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

For my brother and me, Colombia was like a good Russian novel — difficult to get into, but very rewarding if you keep striving.

Our introduction to South America was Cartagena, the most beautiful Latin city we have visited on this trip. Its charismatic architecture — white buildings, Moorish arches and black wrought iron balconies —echoes the beauty of ancient Spain. Perhaps because it was the Christmas season, the narrow streets overflowed with people.

Cartagena once was one of the prime coastal cities where Spanish pirates returned from the high seas with their booty. A towering stone wall surrounds the old city where ancient gray cannons peek through the wall’s apertures. The majestic fortress of San Felipe stands as evidence that Cartagena was strongly fortified.

As if still under the influence of the glory days of their pirate ancestors, Cartagena’s people glory in the black market. Every other street vendor is selling cartons of Marlboros at cheaper prices than your local Kroger supermarket. A package of Marlboros sells for 33 cents. You can purchase one cigarette for 3 cents.

Near the market televisions, radios and other non-Columbian appliances are sold openly at drastically reduced price tags. There is just too much contraband for the police to arrest every single illegal vendor.

Cartagena’s warm evenings are conducive to outside eating and “dining” at the market is a unique experience. At a regular restaurant one doesn’t normally sit at the same table with strangers, but since there’s only one table here, everyone eats together under the open sky. Other people stand around waiting for a vacant seat.

The silverware was stacked in a glass on the table and you helped yourself. Out of the huge pots nestled on hot charcoals, a black woman scooped up bowls of beans, rice, fish, potatoes and soup. Everything was good and filling except the soup, in which cooked chicken claws floated morbidly in the broth. They may have no qualms about eating such things, but I couldn’t hack it.

One treat sold in the streets is freshly peeled and fried potato chips. These far surpass Lays or Pringles because the chips are hot as well as free of artificial ingredients. What a delight for potato chip fans!

Cartagena’s beauty makes it a big tourist town, which in turn means high prices. Both of these are extremely evident in Bocagrande – the new and also beautiful section of town. Despite the city’s charm, the tourists and high prices made it difficult for us to initially accept Colombia, so we trekked on into the countryside. Standing outside the northern industrial city of Medellin, we cursed the cars that swiftly passed us by. Finally we got a hitchhiker’s dream ride.

First of all the driver, a Colombian named Sigifredo, volunteered to take us all the way to Bogata, at least a 14-hour drive. And secondly Sig (his nickname) proved to be overly generous with his money (as computer specialist for the South American Chase Manhattan Banks, he could afford to be).

We took two days to drive to Bogata. Sig refused to let us spend our own money. His son is studying at Columbia University in New York and perhaps Sig wanted to take care of us in the same way he hopes Americans are being kind to his son.

We drove through high hills dotted with coconut trees. Sig pointed out that the coconuts on the trees were no bigger than moth balls. They’re called corozoas and despite their smaller size they have the same qualities as normal coconuts. Clusters of cana brava also decorate the hills. The plant is a variety of sugar cane with the stalk resembling huge green feather plumes.

At Rio Sucios, Sig offered to buy us a Coke. The waiter brought three bottles, one with a straw in it and two glasses. Tom and Sig got the glasses while I got the Coke with a straw.

We asked several young boys for the road to Pereiro, but their directions led us down a dead-end street. When we returned they were all laughing hysterically. No apologies were necessary though, after they reminded Sig that the day, Dec. 28, was Dia de Innocentes, literally meaning day of the innocents, Colombia’s version of our April Fool’s Day.

Later Sig treated us to a typical Colombian meal. Sancocho, the soup, was made from the yucca plant with potatoes added. Mazamola consisted of cold corn in a bowl of cold milk. Sig told us that the poor eat mazola in its own corn juice because milk is too expensive. Arepa was a white corn biscuit. Except for a sizeable chunk of meat, the native dishes were far too starchy for my personal diet.

We finished the meal over a cup of superb Colombian coffee. Black coffee called tinto was always excellent here and generally cost four cents in the small towns. The entire bill for our three meals totaled $1.80.

The region we traversed the next day gave rise to the great Andes Mountains. However, since it was
only their beginnings the mountains reached only a mere 7,500 feet. At the top the clouds created a white fog, making the curving road very dangerous, compounded by slow-moving cargo trucks that are forced to inch upwards at 10 or 20 m.p.h. Hence, we awoke very early to travel this stretch before the heavy traffic set in.

Before climbing upward, Sig made a pit stop for fuel and we were astounded to learn that gasoline is only 10 pesos (30 cents) a gallon. Apparently Colombia has enough oil to eliminate costly importation and maintain a low price for its people. Yet the people must pay $6,000 for the cheapest new car — Renaults — for which there’s an assembly plant in Colombia. The tax on foreign cars is 300 per cent, giving a Mercedes Benz, for example, a $50,000 price tag.

The stretch of the Andes we crossed was called La Linea. At the bottom of the road there was a Virgin Mary statue with about 15 sparkling candles glowing at her feet. Sig told us that before making the treacherous climb, many truckers light candles in exchange for the Holy Mother’s protection.

After crossing La Linea, we agreed that a candle isn’t a bad idea. It really was a difficult road. There were no gas stations in the mountains and it was not surprising to see overheated cars stalled and parked dangerously on the side of the small road. A bonfire near several trucks indicated the drivers had to spend the night in the cold mountains. Despite the difficulty of crossing La Linea, it was one of the most beautiful drives in terms of scenery.

In April or May each year, a bicycle race takes place on this road — reserved only for those with the stamina, endurance and energy to conquer La Linea by pedal.

After La Linea, we crossed a long flat valley, ascended another mountain range, and then crossed another prairie-like stretch. At last we came to the final mountain climb. At the top, the capital city of Bogota – one of the toughest cities south of the U.S. border awaits two wide-eyed kids from the Benton County cornfields.

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, January 30, 1977

POSTMARK:  Colombia

By COLLEEN McGUIRE and TOM McGUIRE

Bogota, capital of Colombia, population exceeding 3.5 million, has the notorious reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities in South America.

Throughout Central America we heard countless horror stories from fellow travelers warning us of eyeglasses being pulled off their faces or jewelry yanked from their necks, wrists and even pierced ears. These bloodcurdling tales filled us with fear, but our intrepid personalities impelled us to investigate this city to verify or dispel the rumors for ourselves.

We have found Bogata to be a stimulating center of culture with more class than most cities we have visited on this trip. The avenues are a bedazzling spectacle of towering skyscrapers, modern, architecture and sophisticated people fashionably dressed.

The city is exciting and alive, like a Latin version of San Francisco. Discotheques blare from about every corner, and movie theaters showing the latest in Hollywood sensationalism thrive with long lines. Xerox, General Electric and Goodyear light up the skyline as examples of the multitude of U.S. industries invested here.

To safeguard ourselves against any unnecessary assaults, we decided to spend a little extra money for a decent hotel room. For only 20 pesos (about $7) we found a reasonable deal — hot water, comfort, privacy and above all, safety. Another one of the terrifying stories circulating through the backpackers’ grapevine is the dangers and uncertainties in checking into a cheap, disreputable side street hotel.

After settling into our quaint hotel, we prowled the streets with our new friend, Sig. We visited at least three restaurants where he insisted that we order anything we desired, and in between these coffee breaks Sig took us on a tour of the town.

Every wall we passed was painted with political graffiti and slogans demanding justice and people’s rights. A typical phrase we saw read “Contro el imperialismo yanki somos,” which translates as “We are against Yankee imperialism.” Bogota activist students are presently “en huelga” (on strike) against the six-month university tuition fee of $900 which is sky high for their standard of living.

Colombia mines and exports 95 per cent of the world’s emeralds, so jewelry buffs can get incredible deals here if purchased from the right person at the right price.

Scores of men patrol, the streets looking for prospective suckers to buy their phony emeralds. They uninhibitedly approach you like an old friend, then proceed to furtively show you their collection of emeralds for sale. If they’re not authentic then they’re ridiculously overpriced. A resolute “no gracias” usually stifles these sidewalk negotiations.

The gloomier side of Bogota is that it unquestionably has some of the most degenerate people we’ve ever seen. They create sights you just don’t want to look at or confront. Because these people are the scourge of humanity, with ugliness and despair in their eyes, you really get the creeps when they look at you. They crouch in alleys or sleep cloaked in rags on church steps, haunted by the wretched anguish of minute-to-minute survival.

Like costumes, the tattered derelicts wear black pants and a black sports coat. Their clothes are so old and moldy with stench that they look ready to disintegrate. Their filthy faces seem as if charcoal had been smeared on their cheeks. Their hair is matted and unkempt; their eyes have the glossy daze of a Charles Manson. The only element these depraved individuals lack to complete a zombie appearance is froth drooling down their chins.

Bogota’s nights are as brisk as a crisp October evening. It is therefore terribly painful and disconcerting to the senses to see these unfortunate people sleeping on sidewalks like neglected animals. Newspapers and piles and piles of rags serve as protective blankets.

It’s a doubly pitiful sight to come across a woman in such circumstances, surrounded by her whining, hungry children, yet they are found on practically every down-town block.

The face of one vagrant boy became familiar after making daily requests for pesos. Instead of offering
money, Colleen flashed on the idea of giving him a woolen vest she seldom wears. The gift would be much more beneficial to the nameless child than a couple of pesos. His reaction to Colleen’s gesture was to silently grab the jacket and run.

Later, returning to our hotel, he happily ran up to us all decked out in his new bright red vest which looked absurdly incongruous with the rest of his squalid garments. He stroked it as if it were a mink coat, thanked us with an enormous smile before turning away to show it off to his friends.

The prospect of spending New Year’s Eve in the big city seemed appealing to us yet it didn’t occur exactly as we anticipated. We naturally presumed that as the final hours of 1976 eroded into history, 7th Street (the most active) would be teeming with activity. But it was empty and deserted like a staged gunfight set. Our misconception about how a New Year’s Eve in the city should be celebrated is attributed to having watched too many Johnny Carson New Year’s Eve programs that telecast live coverage of Times Square celebrations overflowing with people and noise.

Later we were informed that the custom in Colombia requires the family to congregate during the last hours of the outgoing year. But when 1977 officially arrives, the young people go off to celebrate in their own style. Thus, during the hours before the bells toll midnight, the only people wandering Bogota’s most frantic avenue are the street dwellers and a few tourists like ourselves with no home to party at.

Rather than venture out into the darkened streets past midnight, we stayed in our hotel room proposing toast after toast with crystal clear Aguardiente to commemorate the New Year. Aguardiente is Colombia’s national liquor, an exquisite tasting distilled spirit flavored with anise that is bottled throughout the country.

On New Year’s Day we visited the bullfighting stadium. The coliseum is round with high arched entrances and intricate geometric designs on the walls. Disappointed, we learned that the next bullfight wasn’t until the following week, when Agustih Parra of Spain — one of the world’s celebrated bullfighters — was to dazzle audiences with his mastery.

Since the gates were open, we went inside to have a look. The coliseum is huge with a seating capacity of 30,000. Two matadors were practicing their art — one waved the traditional red cape while the other charged at his adversary holding a pair of bull horns to his head.

Back outside we met an entourage of midget matadors who had flown in from Madrid to participate in the upcoming bullfight. They looked amusing in their official regalia of polished brown boots a fancy suit with tassles and a huge hat with plumes sticking out of it. They asked if we’d be around to see them perform and advised us not to miss them standing on top of one another to kill the bull. At that, they all exploded into munchkin-like laughter.

We have no regrets about visiting Bogota. Many of those horror stories are no doubt true and we did keep them in mind strolling the city’s avenues. All in all, though, we’re glad that we chose to tackle this rough city for ourselves, and after our week’s stay, our traveling philosophy remains intact: “If you don’t go looking for trouble, the less vulnerable you’ll be to trouble.”

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ecuador

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, February 20, 1977

POSTMARK:  Ecuador

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

The Spanish word for equator is Ecuador, whose capital, Quito, lies within 25 kilometers of the zero degree longitude line. Quito holds the distinction of being the second-highest capital in the world. The city’s unusual geographical position makes for very warm days and downright chilly evenings.

I found Quito’s charm in the old southwestern section of the city where steep, winding streets dip into deep ravines that have either been filled or have stone viaducts built over them. Plaza Independencia, the heart of the city, was a perfect example of Quito’s huge plazas that are dominated by ornate churches. Nearby was the monastery of San Francisco, the earliest religious foundation in South America (1535), as well as an astronomical observatory, also the oldest in South America.

From high in my hotel room I could safely marvel at the arched bridges, towering steeples, domes and the Pichincha Volcano. I almost preferred this passive method of observing Quito, as strolling through the town is not always pleasant.

I’ve visited many cities in my travels, but I must confess that I’ve never come across one that smelled so much of urine as Quito. Certain cobblestone streets that look enticing for strolling turn out to be torture for the nose. What amazed me was that the stench is not confined to one area, but rather you caught whiffs of the strong odor throughout the entire old city. Businessmen carrying briefcases are as guilty as the native Indians in perpetuating this nasty habit.

The native Indian population forms a large part of Quito’s interesting personality. Many of the men pull their long jet black hair back into a braided ponytail. They wear fedora-like hats, woolen ponchos and, when they are not barefoot, their shoes seem as skimpy as ballet slippers. The women also wear the same brown felt hats as the men, giving them a rugged masculine appearance. Babies are wrapped in a blanket or shawl tied around the mother’s back, papoose-style.

The, Indians are a short race to begin with, but shrink even further from the immense weights they carry. I saw their bent-over bodies hobbling down the streets with unfathomably heavy objects tied to their backs, such as mattresses, desks, or huge sacks of potatoes, all to be sold in the market. When they unload the pounds, their backs fail to arise erectly. The shortest of gringos towers over the native Indians.

Ecuador is rich in oil. The reserves lie in the eastern area of the country, the Oriente, which is untamed equatorial jungleland. I took an eight-hour bus ride from Quito down to Lago Agrio, the temperature lowering as the hours ticked off. Following the gravel road the entire length of the trip was the mighty pipeline carrying Ecuador’s future wealth to the Esmeralda coast where most of the oil is shipped to California.

I had to spend the evening in Lago Agrio, whose population basically consists of men employed by the oil companies. The men passed their hours drinking beer and gawking wildly at any member of the female sex — particularly if she happened to be a gringa in shorts. Between the weather and the men, it was a toss-up as to which was more oppressive.

The next day I was able to catch a bus to Coca, it was about a two-hour ride entailing the crossing of two rivers, and twice all the passengers had to collect their luggage, take a ferry to the opposite bank and reload it on another bus. This was no chore for a backpacker, but several passengers had all sorts of cumbersome possessions, and one woman was transporting two mattresses and several chairs.

Finally I arrived at Coca, a small river village with plenty of American engineers employed by Gulf or Texaco. I noticed enviously that from their living quarters protruded the ultimate in tropical luxury — air conditioners. My intentions in coming to Coca were to look for some means of water transportation to Rocafuerte, Ecuador’s eastern border town to Peru.

Normally there is sufficient river traffic on the Napo to easily procure a ride from the natives in their dug-out canoes at a small cost. However, it hadn’t rained in several weeks, making the waters unusually low and highly difficult for traveling.

The scarcity of native boats forced me to search for other alternatives. The Ecuador navy had a small base in Coca, so I figured it could help me out. Luck was with me as a crew was going down to Rocafuerte that very day. After I had a short, but persistent, conversation with Lt. Francisco Espinosa he allowed me to accompany him and his men.

The troops were outfitted entirely in U.S. Marine uniforms. The boat was from Britain and I recognized their weapons as the Uzi submachine gun of Israel. Lt. Espinosa’s cotton T-shirt was from Red China. Except for the Ecuadorian flag waving in the breeze, all their equipment, from knives to canned goods, seemed to be foreign.

Cruising down the Napo River is a spectacular event. The land is a jungle of dense green foliage on both banks. As we sped by isolated thatched huts, the children would run to the river’s edge and wave at the military boat as if its passing were the big event of the day. We passed natives in dug-out canoes loaded with bananas, paddling by with long poles as oars.

In this dry season with the waters so low, giant sand bars came out of their rainy hibernation, filling the Amazon tributary with scattered lonely beaches. Llori, the young soldier guiding the boat, did an amazing job of avoiding the sand bars. In a way he reminded me of the Bedouin tribes in the Middle East. Those nomads can travel the desert and know precisely where water hides beneath the sand. Llori, a native of the Oriente, can travel the equatorial rivers and know precisely where sand hides beneath the waters.

Only twice on the trip did Llori get stuck in sand bars. Lt. Espinosa ordered his crew to get out and push. The men were only waist deep in water, but the current was so vicious that they had trouble maintaining their balance, let alone freeing the boat.

The first time we got stuck, I stupidly jumped overboard to help, but the current was far more powerful than I realized, and I found myself helplessly floating downstream. I was only carried a short distance, since I managed to cling forcefully to a huge, stationary branch. Lt. Espinosa immediately came to my aid, terminating my frantic fantasy of floating into the obscurity of the Amazon.

We stopped for lunch at a small village called Panacocha, which turned out to hold a colony of Frenchmen involved in oil explorations.

Juanta was on the luncheon menu. “Is Juanta like a cow?” I asked. “No,” replied the lieutenant. “Nor is it a pig.” I caught a look at the head of the animal in the cooking area and noticed it was rather small, with two good sized tusks. I told the lieutenant that it looks like juanta could be a boar in English, but he smiles and said, “Muchacha, juanta is only found in the equatorial jungle, so I doubt if the word exists in your language.” Well, whatever it was I ate, it was delicious.

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First published in the Lafayette Journal and Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, March 8, 1977

POSTMARK:  Peru

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

It was 8:00 am and and I was the first in line to pay Ecuador’s $2 exit fee to leave the country. With my passport stamped, papers all in order, I crossed the sizable bridge and walked into Peru, the land of the lncas.

This northwestern border seems a logical geographical division for the two countries. From the dense green tropics of Ecuador, one finds in Peru a dry, sandy climate. From the bordertown of Tumbes to Peru’s capital of Lima it is 1,300 solid kilometers of arid desert as one follows the Pan American highway that hugs the Pacific Ocean the entire length of Peru’s western coast.

To me, this stretch of road was the ugliest land I’d seen in South America. It was barren and desolate, a perpetual monotone of brown earth.

The adobe mud huts were almost camouflaged, for they, too, were an ugly, dreary brown. Poorer people reside in structures whose walls and roofs are yellowish woven mats (petates) that I’d normally seen as floor coverings, and the petates appeared so fragile that a flick of the finger might cave in the walls.

In fact, all along the route battered petates were scattered in the rough sand, victims of the fierce winds. The winds whistle eerily and blow continually, turning every village into a miniature dust bowl. Laundry drying in the dusty air seemed such a futile chore for the women. You would have to seclude yourself indoors perpetually to stay clean. Every person in every village wore dirty clothes.

The roadside was marred by scattered mounds of garbage, half buried in the sand like tombstones of civilization. A deserted dead animal would attract a flock of hovering vultures, intensifying the morbid lifelessness of the empty area. Occasionally a solitary red-flowered tree would brilliantly illuminate the otherwise drab environment..

Perhaps the land is different in the winter, but in their present summer season, I confronted miles and miles of brown bleakness dotted by pitifully dirty and dull villages.

I tried to imagine what the word “beauty” means to the Peruvians who’ve lived in this dismal environment all their lives. The poverty, the boredom shone in the people’s eyes, and the winds constantly rearranging the dust and the colorless terrain made the two-day trip from Tumbes to Lima one of the most depressing rides of my travels.

Basically, I was unimpressed with Lima. There were several lovely plazas and various enchanting buildings, but for a big city there’s nothing very intriguing in Lima that would lure me back to the capital. It’s a poorly organized city, especially in the inadequately planned newer suburbs.

Not only was Lima highly expensive for such a poor country, but the capital’s night life peters out around 11 p.m. Toque de quida, which means “curfew,” was announced by a loud gong at 1 a.m., and after that hour absolutely no one was allowed on the streets except for the patroling Peruvian police. Graffiti on the walls indicated that most citizens resent this inhibiting law, which has been in effect since July.

I met a sophisticated Peruvian named Abraham who filled me in on the state of the government and the mentality of the people, and who showed me around the city. He was enjoyable company compared to many Latins who befriend you as a status symbol just so they can be seen strolling with a gringo.

Abraham showed me the super rich areas of Lima as well as the super poor areas. The people refer to their ghettos as pueblos jovenes, which translates as “young towns.” He also took me to a highly tight-knit gypsy section of Lima, and peering into an open door I saw very little furniture but many brightly clothed people sitting on the floor playing some sort of card game.

I saw a totally gruesome sight in downtown Lima — a man who was so poor that he literally had no clothes.  He was covering his torso with newspapers and scraps of plastic to protect what little privacy he had left.  Barefoot, he walked with a daze as if he had just come from primitive jungleland and couldn’t understand how he landed in an urban jungleland.

Another unusual place Abraham took me to was a little restaurant that was the only place in Lima where you could buy camu camu — a nourishing drink made from a fruit found only around Iquitos, a jungle city on the Amazon River in northwestern Peru. The juice is pink and is said to have 30 times more Vitamin C than the equivalent amount of orange juice.

During the 1800s many Chinese were brought to Peru to build the railroads. The result was that Lima now has some  of the finest Chinese cuisine this side of the Pacific.

Twenty miles from Lima are the l4th century Indian ruins called Pachacamac which looked identical to all those depressing looking adobe mud homes I already had seen on the Tumbes-Lima route.

I took a surprisingly comfortable train ride from Lima to Huancayo, climbing upwards into the high Andes Mountains. At one point the train was at an elevation of 15,000 feet, supposedly the world’s highest train ride. Herds of llamas were grazing on the grassy slopes. Their long, erect necks give these animals a noble appearance.

The Indian women wore stovepipe hats and cumbersome skirts which surely must hide several woolen petticoats to give them their bulky effect. A beautiful looking race of people with high cheekbones, and dark eyes very Oriental in shape, they speak Quechua, the same language their Inca ancestors spoke. The rhythm of their music and the Quechua words sound astonishingly similar to Vietnamese.

At the market in Huancayo I came across an Indian woman sifting through her daughter’s hair, which was a nest of lice eggs. This I did not find unusual, but what totally shocked me was that when the woman found a louse, she hurriedly popped the insect into her mouth as if it were a live pill. And in fact, she told me that she was eating them to cure whatever was ailing her. I grimaced when she offered me her warped medicine.

From Huancayo, I took what had to be the most precarious bus ride of my entire life to the next isolated city called Ayacucho. The train terminates in Huancayo, so one must travel on the dubious road that passes through the untamed Andes to reach Ayacucho.

Peruvian buses are ancient monstrosities that could very well collapse at any time. Andes roads are ridiculously narrow, totally unpaved and wind dangerously around sharp curves that desperately need some sort of guard rail. The bus path was so high that when I got the nerve to look down, the river was a mere thread of water. All these dangers were compounded by the reality that at any moment falling rocks could come crashing down on our dilapidated vehicle.

To make matters worse, I took this 15-hour bus trip at night, and by 1 a.m. we were in the midst of the snowy altitudes of the Andes. Sure enough, the bus broke down in the most freezing portion of the route and, naturally, the bus lacked heating. Fortunately, we were only stalled for an hour, I’ll never regret dragging my down sleeping bag through South America specifically for, those freezing hours. The Indians came prepared also, piling blankets of warm alpaca wool on top of themselves.

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peru

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, 1977

POSTMARK:  Peru

By COLLEEN and TOM McGUIRE

Undoubtedly one of the most charismatic cities in all of South America has got to be Cuzco, Peru, once the capital of the Inca empire. In the Indian language of Quechua, Cuzco means “navel,” and at one time the natives believed that Cuzco was situated in the exact center of the world.

Arriving in the city, we were instantly struck by Cuzco’s enchanting personality. Few places have the ability to charm so quickly, but Cuzco is unique and It immediately won our affections. For two weeks we were prisoners of the magical spell of this old Inca citadel.

The heart of the small city (120,000 people) Is the Plaza de Armas. This attractive square is rich In history, for it is in this plaza where the decisive turning point of the fall of the Inca empire took place. In 1833, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro betrayed the Inca ruler Atahualpa by executing him where the church of Santo Domingo now stands.

Cuzco still boasts amazingly well-preserved masonry which is the original stonework built by the skilled Inca artisans. One Just can’t believe how perfect those ancient masons pieced together huge chiseled rocks with such mathematical precision that nothing was needed to hold it together.

Other less important walls were constructed by haphazardly placing different sized stones together and filling in the spaces with mud. The result was as coherent and appealing a pattern as a patchwork quilt.

Ordinarily we don’t go around observing wall formations, but the ancient Inca stonework was too amazing to ignore. One day when we were strolling through Calle Triunfo, a narrow alleyway in Cuzco renowned for Its impeccable stone walls (Including the well-known carved stone of 12 angles), we came upon a sight that left us transfixed with wonder.

Two decrepit street musicians, one blind, the other legless, were playing their instruments to an audience that included only the two of us. The stocky blind man, wearing almost surrealistic pink sunglasses, plucked away on a battered harp. His little partner played a steel flute, and like the blind man’s, his hollow eyes never changed direction.

Although they were performing for alms, very few people walked by while we were there. Obviously the
pair preferred the mystical setting of Calle Triunfo to the more populated Plaza de Armas which could have earned them more money.

Their native music was beautiful In its simplicity and close resemblance to the hypnotic music of the Orient. We stood there awed by the bewitching sounds echoing against the stone walls, feeling profound compassion for two handicapped individuals endowed with a talent for creating beauty.

Just outside Cuzco, within walking distance, is the ruined fortress of Sacsahuaman. Three huge walls run parallel, yet In a zigzag fashion, for more than 360 meters. Every Inca wall inclines perfectly toward the center, from top to bottom. This design is supposedly earthquake proof. All corners are smoothly rounded, but ironically with all these circular finishes to the hard rock walls, the Incas were oblivious to arches. Instead, ail doors, entrances and niches in walls are squared.

Sitting on top of the fortress, we admired the precision of the stonework. The walls markedly resemble huge Jigsaw puzzles. We were amazed at the perfect engineering feats they accomplished with their primitive implements.

At the foot of the fortress roam numerous llamas with black, brown or white fur. The animals are so docile we were able to walk near them, but not close enough for petting. When we saw llamas in Chicago zoos, they weren’t that striking. But grazing freely in their native territory with the ancient ruins in the background, the Peruvian llamas presented a lovely scene.

Included in the admission to Sacsahuaman are visits to the Temple of the Sun at Kkenkko (Quenco in Spanish). We descended into a large cave. In the middle Is a huge flat stone big enough for a person to lie on. Presumably the subterranean room was used for sacrificial purposes. Further on is another Inca fortress called Puka Pukara. Perhaps It was installed to guard the nearby baths at Tambo Machay.

Tambo in the Quechua vocabulary refers to a resting place along an Inca route, sort of like truck stops. Tarmbos offered food, drink and rest from the rigors of traveling on foot in rugged Andean terrain, and centuries later the Tambo at Machay served its original purpose for us, two weary hikers.

Cuzco rests in a valley at 3,500 meters above sea level. To reach the surrounding ruins, we had to climb towering hills. We discovered it’s no myth that altitude markedly affects one’s breathing. We were forced to move slower, take frequent rests and at times experienced difficulty in digesting food. Despite two weeks to acclimatize ourselves, we never fully adapted to those tremendous heights.

It was a distance of three miles between Sacsahuaman and Tambo Machay and in between the ruins, we found scattered adobe huts inhabited by Indian families. Most of these people were farmers and since we were walking we had the opportunity to stop and observe them at work.

A group of five or six peasants (including women) were necessary to cultivate the soil. They were using tools Identical to those archaeologists describe ancient Indians as using. A wooden apparatus with a steel curved blade on the end is still used by the natives to turn the earth by hand.

Two farmers wielding the crude instruments would simultaneously one…two…three dig into the soil working on the same row. They were followed by another peasant carrying a sack of seeds and depositing them in the earth upturned by the dual diggers. This tedious method of farming wasn’t helped by the steep incline of the hill they were cultivating.

Potatoes seem to be the primary crop which is not surprising since the potato is indigenous to this area. The “papa,” as it’s called here, is one of the few crops able to withstand the high altitude and rocky terrain of the Cuzco area. Indiana farmers can’t imagine how easy their work is in comparison to all the energy Peruvian farmers must devote to their land and the meager results these peasants receive.

We spent the entire day exploring the ruins on the outskirts of Cuzco. By the time we arrived back in the city, it was approaching dusk and thus getting cool.

Cuzco’s weather is such that if you stand under the hot sun in the day, you sweat. Move several paces to shade and you shiver. So with no sun the nights get really brisk.

We ran downhill to our hotel as the sun set behind the mountain on which Peruvian soldiers in 1819 inscribed in gigantic letters “Viva Peru.”

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mp

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, April 3, 1977

POSTMARK: Peru

By COLLEEN and TOM MCGUIRE

Throughout our southbound journey, whenever we were asked where we were headed, we would reply “Peru.” “Ah,” would be the normal response, “you’re going to Machu Picchu.”

Machu Picchu, the prime tourist attraction in Peru, is an ancient Inca city situated 76 miles northwest of Cuzco and rests at an elevation of 8,000 feet above sea level. These incredible ruins lay hidden from the modem world for nearly 500 years until Dr. Hiram Bingham of Yale University discovered this legendary lost city in 1911.

Most tourists take the five-hour train from Cuzco, spend several hours at the ruins, then retreat back to civilization in the evening. We decided to approach Machu Picchu in a quite unconventional manner — hiking for three days on the original Inca trail to reach our destination.

Our exciting odyssey commenced on a rather chaotic note. To arrive at the Inca trail we had to take the train from Cuzco to Kilometer 88 (Machu Picchu is at Kilometer 112) and departure time was 5 a.m. So an hour beforehand we staggered out of our beds and ambled over to the station where a horde of Indians were already waiting at the entrance gate.

When the man opened the gates, people began stampeding in the darkness for seats for themselves and all their cumbersome belongings. We pushed and shoved just like everyone else.

The train stopped just long enough to deposit the four of us in the middle of nowhere, so-called Kilometer 88. The only activity in sight consisted of several Indian women who were squatting near the tracks like colorful statues.

To reach our trail we first had to cross a crude manmade bridge spanning the turbulent Urubamba River. There was one hut on the other side and its apparent resident approached us. We chatted for awhile about our journey, gave him a cigarette, and in exchange he gave us brittle green leaves and an object that resembled a long slender stone.

The Indian demonstrated to us how to use his gift. Take a fistful of the leaves and wrap them around the small chunk of the stone which is actually concentrated ashes and breaks fairly easily. Put this wad in the side of your mouth and just chew it casually like tobacco. He explained that all natives participated in this age old custom and its effect is good for hiking in the high altitude.

Immediately we realized that he was giving us coca leaves, the stimulant that in its further state produces cocaine. We had seen many Indians chewing the cud that turns your saliva and teeth a fungus green and we knew that the ancient Indians also regularly indulged in the habit. And we figured that since we were doing the Inca trail, we should do it the native way.

The first half day of hiking we were all chomping away on the Indian present. It numbed the entire side of our mouths and made us feel extremely energetic. However, the sensation soon died away, leaving a rancid taste. We abandoned the coca leaves thinking aloud what poor Indians we would make.
The hike through the imposing Andes Mountains was breathtaking — literally. The vista of towering snow capped peaks in the distance was phenomenal.

The entire Inca trail is strewn with forgotten ruins which are appreciated only by those who undertake such an unorthodox approach to Machu Picchu. The second day we stumbled upon a petrified fortress called Sayacmarca (meaning elevated town in Quechua). This remote ruin is perched high atop a protruding cliff overlooking a stupendous abyss. The stonework at Sayacmarca is moss encrusted with age, and the grounds are smothered by unkempt jungle growth. Its desolation was haunting, perhaps because swarms of camera toting tourists haven’t yet scared off the ghosts of the eternal Inca spirit.

Our last night we camped at the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, the Inca baths. Crystal clear water still flows through narrow channels carved in the rocks. Here was one of the few places in Peru where we enjoyed the luxury of cold, uncontaminated water. Instead of sleeping in a nearby damp cave, we found a simple straw hut erected inside the ruins, a dwelling we were amazed, yet relieved, to find.

The next morning when the clouds lifted we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu atop a mountain six hours away. We didn’t see the vacant city again until the last hour of our hike, as the remainder of our trek led us through a tropical rain forest.

Towards the end of the hike, we had to grope to relocate the obliterated path. Operating with complete disregard for nature and the priceless Inca stone trail, the Peruvian government is foolishly raping the land to construct a fancy hotel at Machu Picchu’s back door. The engineers detained us for an hour while they heedlessly dynamited their own beautiful wilderness.

Oblivious to the perpetual drizzle, we were ecstatic upon arriving at Machu Picchu. However, we were too weary to explore the ruins immediately, despite the inviting temptation they offered.

After a rejuvenating night’s sleep in a warm bed, we were ready for the ruins the next day. Machu Picchu stands as a fossilized testament to the ingenuity and cultural superiority of a long vanquished race of enigmatic Indians. It completely baffles us how this city in the clouds was constructed without the aid of modern technological devices. If you could see the astounding engineering and exquisite craftsmanship that went into making Machu Picchu a reality, then you could well understand our amazement and the many, many questions that flooded our minds.

After walking around the magical ruins, we realized that we were confronted with one of mankind’s oddities that must be seen — not written about — to fully absorb the staggering beauty of this fantasyland

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