A Travellerspoint blog

Lights fading on South America

I'm wandering the roads of Lima on my last day in South America. My mind is cycling through images of the last 5+ months and I'm coming to grips with the reality of heading home. With the Burger Kings, KFCs, and McDonalds surrounding me, it feels like I'm already half way there.

I head over to the cliffs overlooking the beaches and ocean. There is a group of teenagers horsing around and suddenly I'm thinking back to Pichilemu and the midnight BBQ with the Black Sheep. And then I think more about Chile - Pete's birthday, putting the car in the river, the historical Torres del Paine hike, the volcano bar debacle, even the turd in Valdivia - and it feels like years ago that this adventure started.

I look around for things that might trigger memories of Argentina. They are everywhere. The buses remind me of the epic ride up Ruta 40. The kids playing soccer remind me of Boca Stadium and the country's passion for the sport. The beer ads remind me of lazy sunny afternoons in Mendoza eating fried egg steaks, drinking cervezas, and talking about nothing. The grafitti on the bench reminds me of Damien, the Doctor, and the wildest Xmas Eve ever. And the ocean in its grandeur reminds me of passing out and then waking up on an isolated beach on New Year's Day. 2007 has been entrancing since Day 1.

A motoscooter zooms by and the sun is starting to set behind the smog that engulfs the city. All that's missing is Hugo's family and a chovito and I'd swear I was living it up in Uruguay again. Although we were only in that country for a few days, I now know a few days is more than you need to make it happen.

Enter Bolivia. Can anything really mimic Bolivia? I scan the area but there are no llama fetuses or sex potions for sale. And if I were to escape the city, I doubt I'd find beautiful plains of salt to roam around or Death Roads to fly down. At the same time, I'm relieved that no horses gallop by and that my mouth currently has a full set of teeth. I quickly check to make sure it hasn't fallen out again. You never know. You never know what might happen next in South America.

My series of flashbacks finally arrives at Peru. Part 1 of this country brings me back to chasing shamans through the Sacred Valley, discovering secrets about Macchu Picchu, rock climbing in the canyons of Arequipa, and parading with the characters of Carnaval. I remember the colours and the music but also the sadness of parting with friends and learning to continue alone. I take a glance at the date on my watch. It's Friday the 13th and I laugh reminiscing about the legendary bus ride that ended the traveller portion of this journey.

I leave the oceanside and head back towards the centre of Miraflores where cafes and bars are beginning to set up for the night. During my couple of days here, I am overwhelmed by how much I'm already missing Huancayo. The posh outdoor malls, hordes of gringos, and tourist oriented establishments make me long for the noisy, smelly, carcass-infected market authenticity of the place I had called home for the last month. Where am I now? This can't be Peru. Not the one I know. An old lady walks by wearing a long skirt, a tattered sweater, a UFO style hat, and is carrying a baby in a colourful blanket wrapped around her back. She stands out even more than me in this sea of modernity and it is in this moment that I truly feel lucky to have spent a good chunk of my trip living and volunteering in Huancayo.

Evening has come and I know it's soon time to head off for good. I therefore make my way towards the hostel to pick up my bags that are packed to the brim with so much crap. All I need are my photos and writings. Why did I purchase all these irrelevant souvenirs? I ask such questions but there is no one around to answer... even though at each corner, I hold out hope that one of the many friends I've met or re-met during this trip will suddenly pop out. One of the saddest aspects of travelling, I find, is how quickly you get attached to people...only to have to say goodbye instead of see you later.

As the taxi zooms off towards the airport, the acceptance of leaving suddenly hits me hard. I panic that I didn't spend enough quality time with certain people and regret not having done certain things or gone to certain places. I should have gone deeper into the jungle, taken my flight to Colombia, bought a motorcycle, watched a football match, tried Ayahuasca, and lived amongst a tribe of headshrinkers in the Amazon. Man, I always do this to myself, wanting to do everything. Even with all the unique zany quirks of my trip that defy most tourists'/travellers' itineraries, I have the audacity to be unsatisfied. I literally slap myself to snap out of it. After all, one of my original goals was "to come home in a few months and be able to say "damn, if just for that one time when _____, the entire trip was worth it."" I think I can safely think of a couple such moments.

The taxi has broken down and I'm helping the driver push the car to the side of the road. He apologizes for the inconvenience but I'm thinking this is such a fitting end to this trip. Eventually I just strap on the backpack and walk the last mile to the airport under the faded glow of the moon. Down the line, I wonder what I'll miss and remember most about South America. At age 26 now, I also worry how many trips like this I have left. I'll be on the road again for sure, but maybe not as the photohappy, reckless, accident prone, peril seeking vagabond that I had endeared myself to this time around. That would be a shame. Those qualities have made this journey unlike any other before.

I think many people expect too much from their travels. They believe, or at least hope, it will change them in profound ways or provide a magical escape that will solve all upon return. That's a lot of pressure to put on what is essentially just a prolonged vacation and I feel a lot of travellers are jaded in this respect. Character change takes a lot more than 5+ months in South America. Escapes are only temporary. Years ago, I too had these lofty expectations but now I realize that these journeys are more about the adventure itself and less about you. We chase wealth, fame, and power, but I think all we really need is to chase adventure. Maybe we all just need to get out a little bit more.

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Posted by bchu 15:12 Archived in Peru Comments (1)

Last call

I've never known many homes. Travelled to quite a few places but only lived in a few. Toronto, Hangzhou, and now Huancayo. Quite the oddball collection of cities but one thing is common throughout - it sucks leaving any of them.

I've mentioned how ugly Huancayo is. After a month here, that opinion hasn't changed but the underlying beauty I associate with it has expanded even more. There's something to be said about being familiar with a place. Something about walking down the street and having friendly faces say hello to you. Something about knowing exactly which buses to catch and where to actually get off. Something about understanding how much things should cost, like a taxi or kilo of fruit, and not worrying about being ripped off. Something about not having to say you're staying at a hostel and only passing by for a couple of days.

But even the ends of these lines eventually come. And as always on my last days anywhere, I'm in a mad rush to do a hundred different things at once. I find myself strolling down the usual streets one last time, partying in my favourite haunts, snapping photos of the everyday common, and getting a last whiff of the beautiful mercado.

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For some strange reason, I also feel the need to say thanks and so long to the local internet guy, the girls at the corner shop who always sold me water, the dude who tailored a suit for me, and other similar daily characters. You really get attached to the little stuff once you've been anywhere for a while.

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But all those previous goodbyes are minor compared to parting with all the people you've grown so fond of lately. "Don't ever tell anyone anything. If you do, you start missing everyone." On my second last night, we're having another bonfire on the roof and I'm looking at everyone realizing we'll never quite hang out in this context again. It's the same difficult truth that I've come to deal with with my buddies from Hangzhou. Gone forever are the late nights at the Plaza, the manic dancing, the warm buzz off calientes, the rounds of assassins and sardines, the cake binges, the weekend trips, the pachamancas, and such. Yea, we might meet up in the future but only for a few days at a time and unlikely all together. But at least I'll probably see them. I don't know if I can say the same for my spanish teachers, local friends, host families, colleagues at the medical centre, or the boys at Inabif. That's an even sadder reality.

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Now with my backpack strapped on for the first time in forever, I find myself waving adios to the few that remain and to Huancayo maybe forever. I've been asked many times if I enjoyed the travelling portion or the living/volunteering portion of my journey better. It's a fruitless question. But when I first lost my tooth and thought I'd have to go home for surgery, I know it was this segment that I was most upset I might have to miss out on. I guess my intuition was right. It's been a phenomenal month here.

Tribadigine love in the city of Villagetown always. Getting pisced from the day we were born from the vagina of a cave.

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Posted by bchu 13:22 Archived in Peru Comments (1)

Who's helping who?


View The Route thus Far on bchu's travel map.

I feel like dog poop. My nose is congested, head is pounding, throat is sore, and I'm coughing my lungs out. Coming off another late night made for a long morning at the medical centre and all I want to do now...should do now...is lie down. I crawl into bed but somehow I can't fall asleep. Even worse, I'm feeling even shittier, both physically and mentally. Probably because I know I should go to Inabif. Probably because no matter how crap I'm feeling, I owe it to the boys whose early childhood problems make flus and colds seem inconsequential.

So I get up and make the 20 minute walk through the pouring rain to the orphanage. When I enter the large white metal doors, I'm greeted by a couple of the boys, not via the mobbing and arm pulling like in Ayacucho, but with firm handshakes and pleasant hellos. I make my way to the classroom and find most of them in their usual spots. Alex has started a new drawing, another of his masterpieces for sure. Jorge is flying through his homework, eager to finish it so he can get to the ping pong table and exact his revenge on me. Mirko is reading silently to himself in the corner. Hector is struggling with his math and is waving me over to help him. And I smile because I'm already feeling infinitely better.

For the next 2-3 hours, I help out the 10-15 adolescent boys with their homework, play games with them, and just try to be an overall positive influence. It's what I've been doing here each afternoon for the last 3 weeks, complementing my mornings at the medical centre. At first, I just wanted to see what some of the other volunteers were doing. But after just one afternoon at Inabif, I was so excited to come back the next day. I was blown away by the maturity of them all. I was humbled by the way they look after each other. I was enamored with their politeness and generosity. I was addicted to their jokes and sense of humour. And I was commited to helping out in anyway possible because I was appalled that their parents actually left them and/or abused them.

At 5pm, I walk away from the ping pong table still with the title of champion. The boys are already vowing to take me down tomorrow. I tell them to concentrate on their homework first and as always, they listen. They listen. I can never get kids back home to listen. Just one of the many reasons I love this place. Before I leave, I make a visit to the younger ones who are usually doing amazing acrobatics on the monkey bars and swings. They rush over to say hello and I often wish I had more time to spend with them as well. On my way out, I take a quick peek behind me and see a throng of kids waving in the distance. My aches and pains have temporarily subsided and I stroll home with a quotidian grin. My only discomfort is with myself. I can go in and out of Inabif as I please, to and from Huancayo whenever, and back and forth across borders with relative ease. Those boys don't even leave the orphanage's perimeters very often and yet they live like they're on top of the world.

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In case you didn't know, I'll be home next weekend. Like with any long trip, I'm really excited yet a bit disappointed as well.

Thanks to everyone who sent me a birthday message the past weekend. I didn't really need to be reminded of my old age, but it was much appreciated. Went camping a few hours from Huancayo, got pisced, and slept beside the campfire sometime near 7am. I'm also told at one point in the night, I pulled my pants down and sang Koombaya. Seems to fit in with my theory that the older I get, the less mature I'm becoming.

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Posted by bchu 18:56 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Welcome to the jungle


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Humid to the nth degree. Mosquito and insect ridden. No escape from the heat. Even when it's raining, which is always. This is the reality of the jungle that I had only heard and read about too much recently. And while a few months ago I was quite excited to take a hammock on a long boat ride down a river, I had reached the point where I no longer wanted anything to do with the jungle. I also remembered that riding on the water makes me more nauseous than 7 pisco sours and a round of cumbia so I'd probably be spending half my time puking my guts out anyways.

But as always, curiosity crept in. I still craved a little taste of the jungle. Even if it was just the Mickey Mouse version for a weekend. So I grabbed some fellow volunteer friends, my spanish teacher and her husband, and hired a bus driver to take us 2500m down to the fringe of the Amazon basin.

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In those few days we never floated down the river or got too down and dirty but my version of the jungle was still a memorable place...

...where you were exposed to new levels of greenness and where everything around you felt as if it were alive and moving.

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...where we spelunked our way around a cave whose entrance resembles a vagina. Local women who are unable to give birth come here to drink the water in hopes it will turn their fortunes around.

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...where we made bonfires with the assistance of gasoline and plastic bottles. Why? Because the owner of the land we were on had a large machete and a stubborn attitude.

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...where the rain was absolutely surreal. Never had I bore witness to such an intense and prolonged downpour. I just stood silently under a tree and watched in awe at the water crashing off the top of the bus. So simple yet such a marvelous natural spectacle.

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...where some of the insects were strangely charming like this guy that was snatched out of midair.

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...where jewelry will hunt you down no matter how remote you think you are.

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...where if you look hard enough and hike far enough, you will be rewarded with a swim underneath the most serene waterfall ever.

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...where you might stumble into native communities and listen to the beats of the jungle.

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...where you can satisfy your appetite by eating rodents similar to this guy.

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...where you have to push your bus out of the mud or push your friends out of the bus.

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...where a morning walk in the hills might lead you to find an abandoned jaguar/bobcat cub...and bring it home, like the family we stayed with did.

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...where the flora is composed of unique shapes and vibrant colours.

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...where you have to cross rivers by swinging along cables and cover gaps by taking giant leaps.

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...and where beneath its beautiful overcoat, I caught glimpses of its dark depths and realized that I prolly wouldn't make it out if I went much further or stayed much longer. Different people have their different habitats and while I'd like to think I can hack it anywhere, I am quite convinced the jungle would eat me alive. Kinda makes me want to go back now. After all...

"A man who has trod softly on the jungle floor has the blinkers pulled from his eyes. His lungs breathe purity and his mind is honed to right and wrong." - Richard Fowler, Trail of Feathers

Posted by bchu 05:29 Archived in Peru Comments (2)

Drunk lumberjacks


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"You're the first foreigner I can recall ever visiting this town," she remarked.

"Yea, I heard this was the happening place. So what exactly is the deal?"

"Well basically, the festival doesn't end until the last tree falls."

More on that later. Two coworkers from the medical clinic (Cesar and Mabel) had brought me to Ahuac with the promise that it'd be one of the more unique experiences I'd have around here. Thinking we were heading to the town square, I was a bit surprised when we got out of the taxi at an abandoned fork in the road. We walked for a little while when I began to hear the saxophones. A few minutes more and we encountered the following:

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"Hope you're ready to drink," laughed Cesar. I wasn't. I was coming off a late intoxicated night and only 3 hours of sleep. My head had been pounding all morning and my stomach was barely holding down lunch. But when the first bottle was passed around to me, I was too timid to refuse. My rationale was that if I was drinking, at least I wouldn't have to dance. Wrong again. These people have perfected the art of simultaneously multi-tasking the two.

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Things were made worse by Cesar and the band egging on the girls to dance with me. As I've mentioned countless times in this blog, I dance with the grace of a wobbly barstool. Sadly, the town of Ahuac was going to have to see it live and in-person. Wailus is the name of the traditional dance in the Mantaro Valley. The girls lift their skirts slightly and, with their arms close to the body, sway rhythmically from side to side. In contrast, the boys flutter their arms like wings and tap the ground rapidly with their feet. The combination is supposed to mimic two chickens flirting...seriously. My version looked more like a wounded chicken begging to be put out of its misery. The townfolk even made me don a traditional vest and hat to add to the embarassment. Two thoughts crossed my mind. 1) I really wish there was someone here who knew how to use a camera and take better pictures for me, and 2) I am so glad I'm drinking right now.

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The Wailus is kinda like a Peruvian bhangra. And that guy kinda looks like Jas!

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From the random spot on the road, the band and supporting troupe paraded its way towards the village with the music and dancing continuing throughout. All the while, this playful old woman kept harassing everyone with ortega...reminiscent of a stinging needle plant. She even rubbed me under my shirt! I felt so violated and again, relieved I was near drunk.

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The centre of festivities for the evening turned out to be a patch of dirt surrounded by farmland, a couple houses, and a convenience shop. Crates of beer littered the ground, families gathered to party, and old folk chewed coca leaves by the side. When the band wasn't playing, they kept reminding me that 7 is a good number of girls to have at once. And when I wasn't listening to relationship advice from the band, I (un)fortunately was coerced into dancing and drinking some more. Within an hour I must have been introduced to the whole village.

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Noticeable upon arrival were the 5 or 6 holes in the ground, each about a couple feet wide. Cesar and Mabel mentioned something about raising and chopping trees and I remembered hearing something about this in Cusco. It sounded crazy then and it was even crazier experiencing it live. The procession is called Cortamonte. It starts with decorating the trees with balloons and of all things, plastic wash bins. They are then propped into the holes and secured into place.

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Next, a clay pot full of candy is hung between two of the trees. Little kids march around in a circle and take turns hitting the pot with a wooden stick, much like a piƱata. Eventually it breaks and the kids rush in to grab as many treats as possible. I believe this also signals the official beginning of the main event.

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Night is quickly settling in. The band has been playing for over 5 hours now with minimal breaks. I can count about 20 empty beer crates on the ground. People are just rounding into form when the axe makes its first appearance.

The music starts up and it feels like the hundredth time I've heard this tune. Meanwhile everyone grabs a partner or two and starts dancing in a circle around tree no. 1. The first axe wielder steps up and hacks like a madman at the trunk. When he's had enough, he passes the axe on to either a volunteer or a person of his choosing. Grandmas who can barely lift the thing get a go. So do the macho guys trying to show off to the girls. Heck, even I took a few chops to the cheers of the crowd. Only one thing was consistent...you had a bunch of drunk people swinging a severely dangerous weapon in the dark in the close proximity of other drunk people and little children. That being said, I think it's an outstanding tradition. And for a second it felt like I was at Ferg's Farm again with Sascha Yui.

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Eventually the tree comes tumbling down. Kids swarm to the crash site and maul each other to grab the balloons, wash tubs, and other ornaments. I wasn't so much worried about the tree falling on me than the kids trampling all over me. While everyone is getting prepared to tackle the next tree, there is one official secretary recording names and contact details into his large notebook. I have never seen anyone take their job so seriously. You see, the person who knocks the tree down has to first chug a beer and is now responsible for helping organize the party next year. Cesar even told me that if I had dealt the final blow, I would have had to send money from overseas and designate a representative to go for me. I thought he was joking but my host family confirmed it had happened to one of their friends who was studying in the US a few years ago. Needless to say, I stayed clear of the axe for the rest of the night.

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The treecutting routine repeated itself numerous times for the next couple hours. Even though there were originally only six trees, they kept raising the fallen ones again to keep the fiesta rolling. During the course of the night there were more than a few times when I just stopped dancing, looked around me, and thought this is the South America I've been searching for. It was memorable to say the least...not so much because of the costumes, music, or dancing...but for the realization that sometimes the long road actually takes you to the right place.

The last tree went down around 9:30pm. And although the logic of the girl I had met earlier was right, her prediction was way off. The party kept rocking for many hours more.

Posted by bchu 17:50 Archived in Peru Comments (3)

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