“I’m obsessed with inventing stories for people I come across. An overwhelming curiosity makes me ask myself what their lives might be like. I want to know what they do, where they’re from, their names, what they’re thinking about at that moment, what they regret, what they hope for, whom they’ve loved, what they dream of…” Flaubert
Finally we got to another country. And suddenly everything seems to look so different. As if somebody waved a magic wand and changed the entire world around us. There are no more those incredibly noisy, rattling auto rickshaws – ubiquitous three-wheel taxis that swarm through the cities being the main workhorse of Peru’s transportation system. There are far less holes in the roads and no more crowing all-day-long cocks. But what pleases us most is the fact that we may finally buy quite well brewed coffee.
“The Indians in the jungle drink that shit, but we prefer beer,” as once said the head of the police station, as we set up a tent near their headquarters. “Well, I do not really know why we do not drink it,” he answered when he heard that we drink coffee more than he drinks water. “Everyone says it’s unhealthy, but I don’t know why – it’s pretty natural. Oh, they’re carrying cocoa,” he added, pointing at a passing truck. “Oh, and there is another one with fruit, look! Bananas, pineapples, mangoes, they are taking them to Europe. It’s funny, because we do not eat fruit too much, either. And actually I do not know why. I think you can’t satisfy hunger just by eating fruit. Can you? Well, it might be truth but if I look at you…Just skin and bones, you don’t have any fat. And tell me, when you cycle, you don’t get tired?
So, we are in Ecuador now. Surprisingly, the repertoire of the asked questions changed dramatically. The people stopped asking if we are tired (the most commonly heard question in Peru is: “No se cansa?” – “Don’t you get tired?”), neither they ask if the sun does not burn us (“No se quema?”). Suddenly they stopped asking why we do not have children yet. Since we are so old, then we should have at least a couple.
The differences in semantic field may also be seen in the responses we get to our questions. So, it turns out that in Spanish you can also build grammatically correct, long sentences and you do not keep the conversation going hearing “eeeeeh” all the time. And if an asked person does not know something, they say they do not know, rather than mislead and explain that we are about one hour drive to the town (when actually we needed at least two days).
Let’s continue that semantic topic and let me write something about next phenomenon; let’s call it a temporal-spatial one. I would like to draw your attention to the daily usage of allegedly simply words such as near, far, right, left, top or bottom. Really, I would have no problem with that, and I wouldn’t care less if for someone “up” means “down” but that semantic indefiniteness is used in practice. Little things while cycling are more frustrating than the road sign saying “downhill”, followed by a steep uphill.
The change also took place at the catering level. We got to know a new fruit called pitahaya (called also ‘dragon fruit’) – delicious, very juicy fruit, resembling granadilla in flavor, but unfortunately, very expensive. Also, pacay-like fruit grew substantially and now is called guaba
My grandmother used to say that fruit is not food and one should eat something more filling in order to satisfy hunger. So, although I like fruit very much, bearing in mind my grandma’s advice, I always try to eat something filling. Anyway, In Peru, with all its unbelievable wealth of natural edible wonders, we still encountered repetitive, very monotonous menus. Perhaps, as one of my friends noted, it is the effect of “shallower” modernization of that country, especially compared to Ecuador, not to mention Chile or Argentina. In a similar tone writes Anna Wieczorkiewicz in her book “Tourist’s appetite”.
“Everyone knew which food was allowed and which was unclean, and they knew that it was not up to them to decide what to eat. There were taboo rules that required certain rituals and determined what could be eaten, how, and by whom. There was not much space for individual culinary tastes. The sense of taste undoubtedly existed, but what was good or bad was decided by the community; community understood as a collective being. De gustibus non est disputandum” – we repeat today after the ancients, believing that the tastes are based on individual, personal experiences and not on what all people share (although after a while we have to admit that our judgment is still culturally conditioned and referring to the system of meanings adopted in our society)”
So perhaps this monotonous menu has little to do with culinary tastes, but it is culturally conditioned. So, Peruvians would be probably equally surprised in Poland having to eat bread with tomato and cucumber on breakfast, as Poles are in Peru having to eat each day thick broth and rice with fried chicken in the morning. All in all, caldo, (broth), commonly called caldito, seems to be a national dish in Peru. At any time of the day, no matter if you order breakfast, lunch or dinner you’ll get caldo full of floating delicious chicken paws, accompanied by overcooked noodles.
Not that we have something against broth. Good chicken soup could be a good and a nutritious meal. Nevertheless, for breakfast, Fidrygałka and I would like to find sometimes something else. A bun, an egg with a slice of bread and an orange would do. In Ecuador we can finally buy much better bread than that in Peru, and it is baked also in the morning, not only late afternoon. The food in stores (and in bazaars!) has printed, visible prices, and in the streets brakes and common sense are used far more often than the hornets. There are less bloodthirsty mosquitoes and flies, and even those which bite us after the sunset and at dawn, do not leave so many itchy red souvenirs.
People don’t put their huge loud speakers in front of the buildings and they do not play music so loud (which seems to have one, repetitive, immensely irritating, trotting-horse rhythm), bookstores appeared in towns and they offer more than albums about pope life and affectionate romance (no, not in one volume), but above all – finally it got cleaner. The Polish guy, about whom I already wrote, who lived for ten years in Peru and still works there as a touring guide, tried to explain to us that not quite developed (among most Peruvians) a sense of aesthetics. Well, he thinks that littering and putting rubbish wherever you want is “closer to their nature and that we should not interfere and explain anything.” Finally, he added that he liked it and if he didn’t he would live in Germany.
Well, I don’t what to elaborate on the topic if life in ditch-like conditions is closer to anyone’s nature – and anyway – I don’t care. Likewise, I do not intend to encourage anyone to change their habits and household preferences. Let everyone live in conditions in which they want. Nevertheless, for me any ditch is just ditch, and even if it does not bother anyone, it simply stinks. And even for that reason, from time to time it’s nice to find places where, apart from the scent of decaying human activity, you may find other, more natural scents, not necessarily those making us to consider what is closer to human nature, and whether aesthetics have anything to do with the accumulated pile of stinking garbage, or it is just a civilizational whim.
Anyway, I let myself get away from that pessimistic tone and will stop tweaking the rusty spiral, because in my (surely) exaggerated, wasteful depiction of Peru, where I often have to plug my nose (and the ears – from the rattling rickshaws) I go faster and faster and I will inevitably fall over very soon. It would be unfair to that beautiful country (which offers an endless variety of attractions), if I did not mention the places where people do use garbage bins and where any waste is sorted and not thrown around. Strangely – and as if contradicting the thesis of the aforementioned Polish guy (who also said that Peruvians litter because they lack education) we found those places in the jungle, in very remote villages, where there were no schools or any other secular or ecclesiastical Institutions, including those who seem to have a monopoly on proclaiming the truth about life and the whole world.
Also distancing myself from generalizations on the catering side, I would like to highlight here (as I have written in previous texts) the unbelievable wealth of local, Peruvian variations of vegetables, fruit and oddly but very tastily prepared food, such as grilled bananas stuffed with cheese and ground nuts. We bought them in Moyobamba and they were a real feast for the palate.
And what about people? Where are they? Those ordinary people you meet for the moment and soon forget? They are, of course, they are. They appear suddenly, as if set by fate and destiny, like puppets marched from the sky, puppets pretending to be humans, and in fact, they are only ghosts that do not let us forget what we are here for and what really matters in life. Warmth, a good word, an exchanged smile, some time spent together…
On the Christmas Eve we got to the border, but decided to cross it next day. We were about to put up our tent virtually in a ditch, when quite unexpectedly a strange woman invited us to her house. I have absolutely no idea how come she came so silently in her rickshaw, because we had not heard any noise before. So, an hour later, we ended up at the table eating chicken broth. And when we started praising Peruvian fruit, a huge watermelon was put on the table.
On the border we ate the last Peruvian meal. The last caldo and rice with chicken. When we were about to leave the restaurant, something touched my calves. A cat. A ginger one, of course. All those cats. They also go with us. They are here all the time. They hide in the panniers, peer from the trees, creep into our imagination, and sometimes they go out, just like people – they suddenly appear, filling the space between what had already passed and what is to begin in the future.
The New Year finally came. I would like to wish you all (those I know and those I have never met but who hide behind the words) the happy New Year – the most beautiful dreams and the most beautiful journeys, the most sincere smiles, and the travels to the places that do not exist. And even if they exist somewhere, then let them be far away to “get to them as late as possible, so to get there – if possible – never.”