Peru. The land that is not


“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.

down means up

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.

christmas supper

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.”

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Puerto Pizana (1)

“One day the word homeland will disappear – said Galileo hastily – People will look back on us, enclosed in our cramped borders, killing each other for the lines on the map and say how stupid we were.” Mario Vargas Llosa “The War of the End of the World”

Finally we found out why some people used to scream, crying out a phrase which resembles a word “pistachio” and run away from us before we even have time to say anything. And we also understood the meaning of that gesture which looks like cutting off one’s head. Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, Peruvians think we are famous ‘pistacios’, or ‘pistachos’ (also written ‘pishtacos’) – a pair of white, insidious thugs (and at the same time – secret agents cooperating with the government) who come from village to village and kidnap people to decapitate them, and then suck their fat in order to sell it to pharmaceutical and cosmetic corporations.

It should not be surprising that children believe in such a nonsense (when they are rude and misbehave, parents threat them that white ‘pistachos’ come and eat them), but it turns out that adults also believe in the legend of the abduction of the people by gringo-like Andean vampires.

In the Andean tradition ‘pishtaco’ is a mythological figure. The word comes from the Quechua word ‘pishtay’ – which means “behead, cut the throat or cut into slices”. ‘Pishtaco’ appears in pre-Spanish annals, where we can find information about hired killers sent by rival ethnic groups in order to eliminate VIPs or simply decimate the population.

According to Albert Tauro del Pino ‘pishtaco’ is a highwayman – often a white foreigner – whose main occupation is to attack people to suck their fat. That fat is then sold and the meat is eaten in the form of chicharrones (typical dish of Peruvian cuisine). It is also said that ‘pishtacos’ bury their victims to fertilize lands, or put them into the foundations of the buildings.

The legend in its current form spread in the time of the Spanish conquest. Andean Indians feared missionaries and perceived them as ‘pishtacos’ – those creatures who kill people and use their fat to oil church bells to make them especially sonorous.

For many residents of the Andean region excess body fat is still regarded as a manifestation of good health, strength and beauty. Indians for centuries believed that many diseases have their origin in the loss of this tissue; in the Andes, a slim silhouette is far from being any canon of beauty.

However preposterous it all might seem, a few years ago some strange events took place in the Amazonian jungle. In an article from the newspaper ‘El Pais’, dated November 20, 2009, we may read that after several months of investigation, the police took three members of the gang called ‘Los pistachos del Huallaga’. More than sixty people, mostly residents of Huallaga valley were ritually killed. Fat obtained from their body was subsequently sold for fifteen thousand dollars per kilo. The group, which acted as a religious brotherhood, caused panic in the area but because of their alleged co-operation the government residents did not disclose any disappearances, fearing about their own lives.

That area was until recently the area of activity of the Shining Path guerrillas and ordinary smugglers. Disappearances in the Hualla valley were on the agenda, which may explain why so many disappearances remain unknown. And it is very difficult to determine how many murders were committed by the members of that religious brotherhood.

Polish ‘pistachos’ move slowly to Ecuador. Santa Claus is coming to town. Colorful, illuminated sleighs with too loud music and advertising gibberish move around the cities. We leave the noise and get outside the buildings. But even there you can still here lots of silencer-deprived engines of the tricycle crap. The sun is scorching. We stop pedalling and lie under a mango tree. We eat fruit in the shade and with our sticky fingers shake off the giant ants and beetles. The world around us explodes with its intensity and exuberance. Someone stops nearby and through thickened air cries – Chamba! Suerte! Have a safe journey! And he is actually right. Because what else you could ask for? What more you could expect?

We finish mango and get a move on. A little more, just a little more, to stay with each other, stay with the world. Chamba, suerte.

Carretera Marginal de la Selva


“If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest—in all its ardour and paradoxes—than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside of the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival. Yet rarely are they considered to present philosophical problems—that is, issues requiring thought beyond the practical. We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia, or human flourishing” Alain de Botton “The Art of Travel”

It wasn’t until we got to La Merced, that it became to be really green, warm and ‘fruity’. Granadilla (in English – ‘passion fruit’) came first. The whole road was full of stalls at which we could buy those delicious bauble-looking fruit. It has a really fantastic taste, and juicy interior filled with numerous, edible seeds.

And then we got to a new valley and saw lots of even more oddly-looking fruit. Pacay, also known as ‘ice-cream beans’ (due to the sweet flavour and smooth texture of the pulp that covers inedible beans) which taste resembles cotton candy. Aguaje, which supposedly contributes to breasts growth and, if eaten too often and too much, may cause a change in sexual orientation. Chirimoya (also known as ‘custard apple’, called by Mark Twain ‘the most delicious fruit known to men’), tuna (not to be confused with fish – that fruit is called in English ‘Indian fig opuntia’, ‘cactus pear’, ‘prickly pear’ or ‘Barbary  fig’), pepino (also known as ‘pepino dulce’, which means ‘sweet cucumber’ in English in order to differentiate it from cucumber – vegetable – which is also called ‘pepino’ in Spanish), pomarosa (‘rose apple’ in English), to name just a few.

Coconuts we usually got straight from the trees, but sometimes we did buy them on the street, in a delightfully decorated, tiny inns, where for an equivalent of thirty cents we could relax and escape from the scorching sun, enjoy delicious coconut juice.

Do Puerto Bermudez 115

Interestingly, the fruit and other stuff we used to buy in one valley, a hundred miles away were not only unattainable, but often completely unknown. For example, it was virtually impossible to buy sweet preserves of fruit called aguaymanto. We bought two jars near the town of Huasahuasi, and unfortunately, we opened them only in the evening – just to try, when we were already a few dozen miles away, and almost three thousand feet below. I am writing, ‘unfortunately’, because the taste of that marmalade was absolutely unique, incomparable with nothing we knew from our own country (where the fruit preserves are really good).

Do Puerto Bermudez 026

Surely, we should have learnt at last that if something is in one place, it does not mean that it will be in the next. So, if for half an hour we are passing several stalls with honey, we can assume that tomorrow they will disappear, and instead of honey will be passing stalls with something completely different: mangoes, pineapples, papaya, coconut, cheese, or antidotes for snake bites. And the lady who sells mango is absolutely right when she advises us to take more, because further away nobody sells them. And truly – there is no explainable reason why. The climate is the same, the soil is the same, but for some reason mangos go astray.

That “specialization”, or rather “uniformity” is multifaceted and affects not only food, but permeates many other forms of social life. When you look for a shoemaker in a town, you find it on the one and only street, along with ten or more other shoemakers. When you want to fix the bike – all workshops are located next to each other on the same street. You want to buy eggs – go to bazaar, where several people sell exactly the same product. You go to dinner – and you encounter five restaurants with identical menu (apart from the fact that they usually offer the same ‘package’ all day long – the same broth, rice and chicken for breakfast, lunch and dinner). Nobody tries to do any subversive activities, to break out the order and to sell fruit where only vegetables are offered.

We’re in Villa Rica. Finally, one can feel, literally and figuratively that Peru is one of the world champions when it comes to growing coffee. Interestingly, the Peruvians do not seem to drink coffee much or, I should say, they seem not to drink it at all. And if they do, they prepare a sort of dishwater resembling in taste dirty water from a sink with a slight coffee flavor. It is very difficult to find in Peru places with a good espresso. Villa Rica breaks this pattern, but even here, it is not so easy to find a place that serves a good cup of coffee. We buy a few packs of the aromatic melted seeds alongside with two bottles of coffee liqueurs and continue our way towards Puerto Bermudez.

Do Pucallpa 094

If we had known that the next part of the trip would resemble either a mountain, rocky trail, or a clay-sandy road, than we would have thought twice before choosing that part of Peru for pedalling. Maybe, if we had known what would lie ahead of us, we would have chosen instead that uninteresting, dirty, boring and windy highway leading along the Pacific coast from Lima to Trujillo. But then, we wouldn’t have met Panchito, we wouldn’t have taken the bath in the river at night, accompanied by the half of the village, we wouldn’t have heard stories about Boa Terrestre and Loro Machaco, and we wouldn’t have met a Brazilian guy from Manaus who prepared an astonishingly good coffee for us. And above all, we wouldn’t have been here together. And I wouldn’t have been here with you.

“When I dance, I dance, when I sleep, I sleep, […] and I wander in order to wander” Montaigne.

Elementary particles

Do Pucallpa2 058

“One curiosity of being a foreigner everywhere is that one finds oneself discerning Edens where the locals see only Purgatory.” Pico Iyer

A warm, masculine voice came out from the street. I looked at Fidrygalka. We stood still, motionless, in the middle of a spacious room of a wooden house, where we were taken by a man half an hour earlier. The shadows of our silhouettes, pictured on the opposite wall and framed by the window shutter would look interestingly in the most banal scenery, let alone in a natural, dark  amphitheater of the Amazon jungle, where a dozen families cut out some trees and set up a small settlement.

Someone approached the door of the house and once again greeted us in a soft voice. It couldn’t have been the host, because he had already said goodbye and went off to a nearby town. We were about to shrug off that unexpected visitor but he did not give us time to think it over and unceremoniously came inside the house.

– Welcome to San Pedro de Pinchanaz! My name is Panchito. I came here to greet you. Jose said that some gringos had come and I should see if they need anything. You need nothing? Only water? Surely, there is portable wáter here and you can take a bath in it if you want, but it is better to bathe in the river, over there, behind the house. I’m so glad you came here! How long are you going to stay? Just a day? Oh, too bad, I thought you would stay longer because I wanted to go fishing with you tomorrow. So maybe next time when you come back? You do not know when? And not that way? But there is no other way. You have to come back that way, otherwise you will get lost. But you do not know when? In two years? No problem, it could be in two years. I suppose I still be there, and the fish will be there, too, unless the river dries up. It is not raining as much as it used to, even now, when it should rain more, cause we have the rainy season now.

What do I do for a living? Well, actually, nothing too special. I have a garden, I grow some vegetables and coffee and sell it in Villa Rica. I have some sheep and fish in the river and that’s all. Stay a little with us. You’ll get to Pucallpa anyway, if not in a week, than in two. The road is nasty, lots of stones, mud and streams to be crossed. Sometimes people from the town come and say that the road would be paved in a few years, but they haven’t started it yet. For nearly twenty years they say the same nonsense, but it’s just bulshit. And how is “thank you” in Polish? So I dziekuje (thank you) once more that you came here.

It’s hard to say why we decided to stay only one night there. On the day of our departure, Panchito and his colleagues offered us two huge coconuts and wished a good journey. Then we moved on, along the road known as the Carretera Marginal de la Selva, or Ruta Nacional PE-5. Two weeks earlier, when Fidrygalka and I were sitting in Lima over a cup of coffee and the map, wondering whether it would be a good idea to take the road to Pucallpa instead of cycling along the west Pacific coast, we both were full of doubts and hesitation. Especially, when we heard those bloodcurdling stories told by one Polish man, who lived in Peru for nearly ten years.

According to that man (who literally fell in love with the country of the Inca Empire descendants and now works there as a fully-fledged tour-guide), we must be well prepared for some attempts of robbery, aggression, felonious acts of extorting money (for so-called “protection”), and generally lack of hospitality and undisguised animosity towards gringos. The road we were about to take is (according to our super guide) unsafe, insecure, unlawfully, very wild and immensely wet.

And how did it look like in reality? Apart from just one encounter in the jungle with a few stoned Indians, who behaved quite aggressively the people we met were very hospitable. We spent time with people who quite frankly enjoyed being able to accommodate us, who devoted their time for us, who used to offer fruits and shelter; people for whom, like for us, those meetings were unique, valuable and important.

And although in almost every village they warned us not to trust any strangers, and God forbid, not to cycle at night – even when we got stuck in the jungle after dark we felt safe there. But how one could believe in all those warnings when nothing like that happened?

When I was returning to the tent after a swim in the river, where among chirping insects and flashlight we were bathing with the whole family; when I was falling asleep on the floor of the house council, to which the limping gentleman for almost an hour was looking for the key – I could not help feeling a sort of complementarity. As if a part of me had already been there for a long time, somewhere in the Amazon jungle, which, after all, didn’t appeal to me before. And as if that part I left among those people, quite consciously, among tangled looks, rounded up words, those invisible marks left somewhere in the air.

And yes, I’ll pass away, you will pass away, and maybe only some elementary particles will remain. But now I am, I am still here. And there is that strange desire with me, that longing for something which perhaps does not exist, but what drives and pushes me somewhere.