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Aha, an ugly place! Chiclayo and its two shore towns

The so-called "cozy" church at Santa Rosa

Let me tell you about the only ugly place that I visited in Peru.

Of course there are plenty of ugly towns in Peru; in fact the majority are ugly. I passed through them on way to prettier places, and I told you about them. Unfinished brick apartments with iron rods sticking out of them, mounds of trash everywhere, torn apart by armies of stray dogs, horrible roads - paved or unpaved - noisy, filthy, smelly, desolate... That’s how it is outside the city centers of beautiful Arequipa, Cusco and Cajamarca, too (Cajamarca is better off than the two others!). But I only passed through those and maybe missed out on some gems that they hid way from the main route – it’s possible. But I stayed for a whole day in Chiclayo, and visited its two sea-shore towns, Pimentel and Santa Rosa. They depressed me so much that I rushed out. They have one, important redeeming feature: the people are lovely.

I travelled around 4 hours to get from pretty Trujillo (but horrifying in its outskirts) to Chiclayo. Hey, this is crazy! Trujillo enchanted me but I forgot to write about it here! I loved its colorfully painted colonial houses and mansions, many renovated, others charmingly falling apart, its pedestrian street, its plazas, the French café where I felt I had fallen through some wrinkle in the space-time continuum and found myself in Paris, its liveliness… But nothing of great importance happened there. It was simply very pretty and pleasant.

So I arrived in Chiclayo and took a taxi from the bus station with a very helpful driver (as always). He took me to the Cajamarca bus station and even helped me to choose my seat while I was buying my ticket! Most of the overnight buses here have two stories and it turns out that the first story is the more comfortable one, with extra space for legs, huge seats, less people – they really are incredible. So I left my backpack there (which weighed 11 when I got here but now weighs 14) and went off to eat in a little hole in the wall without a single sign outside to indicate that it was a restaurant. I ordered a ceviche and a beer (it was 27 degrees—so hot) and everything was so perfect, the place was so authentic the food so good, the server so nice (we talked and he asked me if I was Spanish. I couldn’t believe my ears). I fell in love with the city and everything and everyone. Ah, the power of good food. The owner prepared a piece of paper indicating how to get to the three port towns and even wrote down what I should say to ask my way to a minibus!! He told me to be careful; that it wasn’t dangerous, but that I should be careful nonetheless.

I walked to the Plaza de Armas but it was a brand new one, with a few old buildings around and a few ugly, modern ones, and “Replay,” the huge Peruvian department store, housed in an old Belle Epoque hotel. All the trees had signs exhorting people to care for them and love them and not to throw their trash around (but it seems these signs only serve to remind people to throw their trash around). There are too many cars everywhere in Peru and the traffic is always infernal, as is the noise, but Chiclayo was particularly bad. The sidewalks are too narrow, there’s nowhere to walk. It was too hot to be tolerant of anything. Enough of this city, I said, and took a taxi to the faraway bus minibus terminal. The minibuses have a driver and an attendantwhose job it is to collect the money and scream our destination out of the window. Our attendant was a zealous one, calling out continuously and stopping only to cross himself while were passing in front of a church, after which he immediately continued to scream out PIMENTEL!

It’s like a desert around Chiclayo. They try to call them dunes, as in cooperative houses called Dune Houses, but it’s just a flat desert where the only thing that grows is trash. There are plastic bags and bottles EVERYWHERE. Not just mounds of them. They are EVERYWHERE. The whole countryside is a trash heap. How can it not bother them? We went through some neighborhoods with unfinished red brick houses and stagnant, stinking waters full of trash, with lands marked for housing constructions, all with tragic, fantasy names such as Eden Houses or Sea Breeze Houses.

I read that Pimentel was the luxury town of the coast, but I must have missed out on something, because all I saw were depressing streets with some modern buildings, the rare cute old house, but only one unappetizing restaurant. The seaside was lively. Families and friends were swimming, playing volleyball, laughing, walking on the long, charming pier, pretending to fish, walking on the long malecon (seaside walkway)... The sun had disappeared and it was chilly but the women were in light summer dresses and impossible heels. It reminded me so much of the Northern sea coast! It was grey, it was desolate, it was chilly. But there were vultures and pelicans as well as sea gulls. It was nice (Pleasant? Enjoyable? No, nice), but there wasn’t much to do.

So I took the minibus to Santa Rosa.

I got off in front of the market place, where some huge dogs had decided they hated some man and were barking frighteningly. The place smelled horrible. The sign welcoming us to Santa Rosa looked like a joke. The entry in Lonely Planet says: “A modern ruin – organic, pungent and powerful (I guess they got that right) – this rough fishing village is really quite entrancing. The dry-docked ships make for interesting Instagram opps (groan!!) ... Miracles have been reported at the cozy church” – the miracle being that someone was able to leave this god-forsaken place?? Maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind. I walked up and down the walkway and saw the vultures on each of the “cozy” church’s steeples, the church flanked by unfinished houses, trash, an empty field... I saw a man trying to paint his balcony while the whole house was falling into ruin... The old men sitting with their backs turned to the sea, sighing, but still saying “Buenas” to me, so hopelessly... And that smell of trash... The pot-holed streets… Yes, the dry-docked ships were picturesque, as were their names, and the men working on them – but that’s it. Of course ugliness so complete may also be said to be beautiful. The benches, palisades and fountains, all painted a joyful blue and yellow, but all abandoned, empty, and in such contrast with the surrounding drabness, served only to accentuate the depressive atmosphere. I couldn’t take it anymore. Stay and shoot yourself in the head!

I rushed back to the market place and got on another minibus to go to Puerto Eten, even though my heart wasn’t in it anymore. But my bus to Cajamarca was due to leave at 10; how on earth would I make time pass by in chaotic, noisy, horrible Chiclayo? So I told the driver where I wanted to go. The woman next to me immediately started to ask me all the regulatory questions: “Where are you from? Are you travelling alone? Are you married? Is your husband Belgian? Why isn’t he here? Do you have children? How old are you? What do you do?” She also asked me whether I liked Peru, what I’d eaten, what was my favorite food... She was really sweet. The whole bus listened to us and laughed when I said “No ninos, solo gattos”, to say “I haven’t children, I have cats.” Peruvians can’t understand the concept of not having children. And theirs are so sweet, they must be right. I haven’t seen a single child screaming or crying or being bothersome. I haven’t heard a single parent screaming. They are always affectionate. In Turkey, in Belgium, elsewhere this is certainly NOT the case. I actually take photos of the children here, they are so lovely. And me, I, Başak Balkan, I don’t mind when a mother with an infant sits next to me on the bus; no, I’m actually happy I can smile at the baby or hear the little girl talk and talk. All you who know me well understand how strange and new this is… They really are extraordinary.

Back to the minibus -- after we drove for quite a while, the driver suddenly slapped himself on the forehead and declared he’d forgotten about the signorita, meaning me. I had felt this coming, so I said, it doesn’t matter, I don’t have to go there. I didn’t really want to leave this nice group of people after we’d gotten to know each other so well! There was really a sweet atmosphere in the dolmuş.

I ended up getting off at the huge marketplace in Chiclayo, guided by a tiny old Peruvian woman and her granddaughter. I, with my 1m55, feel like a giant here in Peru. I talk to people and have difficulty in hearing them because their voices dissolve by the time they reach me. I really wonder if my friends have this problem with me. They don’t seem to. Maybe I’ve developed a strong voice only for this reason, so my voice will reach the missing 20 cm. And -- have I said this before – although Peruvians are tiny, their tables are always too high. Again I am writing with my elbows at a painful angle as I sit in a pasteleria famous for its cake called tres dulces, with chocolate, vanilla, caramel and pecan nuts. (I didn’t have lunch – only ice-cream and banana chips—I just came out of a bad case of diarrhea, you see).

Chiclayo’s market is very, very crowded, very big and has very little space available to walk. Every second meter is taken up by street food. Fried dough with a suspicion of cheese in it (hrmph, not at all like the çiğ börek it looked like, but the elderly couple were so happy to meet a woman from a place as far away as Turkey that I couldn’t feel too frustrated), grilled skewers of tiny meat, pineapples, ostrich eggs, fried potatoes, fried chicken – it all smells so good. And a stand selling only toilet paper. Toilet paper is like gold here. In every tourist bus, there’s a roll next to the guide for forgetful or inexperienced tourists. We all go around with toilet paper in our bag. If you go to a public WC, Mme Pipi gives you some paper when you hand her the money. Some restaurants have a roll outside so you can take only as much as you need. And of course, you can NOT throw the paper in the toilet (toilets are called inodora!!). And of course, there is NEVER any soap. So I carry that, too. But I must add that nearly all the toilets I visited were clean – especially in the south. The north is much less touristic but it’s still not as disastrous as it can get in Turkey. Sometimes the overflowing baskets of used toilet paper can get ugly.

I am so excited to go to New York where I will no longer have to carry a roll of toilet paper and a bar of soap in my bag!!! And I’ll throw the paper IN the toilet! I am sure I’ll feel so wicked when I do that the first time. It may be a difficult habit to break!

So...! Chiclayo’s market... I passed through it and then realized I had to pass through it AGAIN because I was on the wrong end. I walked and walked and felt I was losing my mind because of the noise and chaos. All these vultures add such an air of gloom, too. I hesitated about booking in to a hotel for the remaining 4 hours, but I needed to eat before getting on the bus... But I wasn’t hungry after all that street food... Arrgh, the indecision was just as bad as the exhaustion. I ended up taking a taxi to a restaurant extolled by the Lonely Planet for its duck with rice. The place was way out of the city, a big, luxurious-looking building, very modern, sort of Istanbul nouveau riche, with a doorman who had to ring the door so they would let me in... Hmmm... Inside: elevator music. Mmm…! And the place was called Fiesta! I was the only person there. It was only 7, but by the time I left, we’d be joined by only two other tables. The waiter brought me my duck with rice on a trolley, on a try with a silver lid, and prepared me a plate with two slices of the duck and lots of rice – the whole thing was enough for two people, at least! I had to leave half, which was painful. I’d have asked for a doggy bag if I had somewhere to heat it up! Because the rice was incredible. It was green from the amount of cilantro in it but the duck was overcooked – the first of overcooked meat I’d have for several days. The wine was good, and it was great to be in a quiet, calm place, even though muzak /elevator music) could be said to be worse than clanking car horns, especially after 2 hours of it! And the waiter was so kind and patient with my bad Spanish. Then it was time to get to the bus station, so they called me a taxi and off I went to join the Other World.

The bus was so comfortable. And this Samsonite inflatable traveling cushion I bought at Madrid airport is so amazing, I fall asleep as soon as I place it OVER my head - yes, you don’t put it around your neck, and that’s what makes it so comfortable. You don’t have this unnecessary bulge. I slept the whole 6 hours and woke up at 5 when we arrived in Cajamarca. And I am happy to say that Cajamarca is just beautiful. I’ll write about that in a separate chapter.

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