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Peru - The End

Traveling in the North

August 14, Cajamarca’s most famous pastelieria (pastane)

I truly regret I don’t have more time to discover the North, because here I feel like the intrepid traveler! I am often the only foreigner in the whole village or town. I’ve seen only a total of round 5 foreigners in all of Cajamarca. There are lots of Peruvian tourists, mostly from Lima. I read and I go off to find the minibus and I travel with the locals, then I take off and walk on isolated roads. There is often no one or only a few people when I get to my destination. I love it.

But the cuisine is totally different. Gone are all the Gaston Acurio-style restaurants. There are only a few dishes on offer and none of them are truly spectacular. I had mediocre lunches and dinners until I discovered a hamburger joint, which makes 20 sorts of hamburgers, the likes of which I’ve never had. I’m going back there tonight! So, I must confess, I think the great “Peruvian cuisine” is not really a tradition, or maybe I should say, it’s a 20-year tradition. Without Gaston, they have ceviche, which is certainly spectacular, and lots of sweets and cakes which are marvelous, but otherwise they have Chifa (a fusion of Chinese and Peruvian cooking), lomo saltado (pieces of steak cooked with onion and tomatoes), rice with fish, with chicken, with beef, wonderful alpaca meat, fried chicken and fish, roasted chicken, fried potatoes, sweet potatoes, quinoa soup (yummy) and chicharron (pig skin) - very standard stuff. So I’ve been spending much less money, which is great! I was sick with diarrhea for a whole day and that was cool, too, because I was able to stop lusting after food for two days. Of course I’m glad it’s over because traveling is half about the food, for me. I walk and I discover and I eat. I walk and I discover and I eat. And I read and I write.

I love my hotel. I really liked my hotel in Cusco, too, but this one is different. First of all, I have a garden view and that is really important. When I was sick in bed, I minded it much less because I could see the garden from my open window. It’s very quiet, except when my elderly French neighbors are there, because there is no sound isolation whatsoever. We listen to each other use the toilet, wash our faces and talk, whether we want to or not. I hear them argue. She seems a bit emotional and irrational; he seems very patronizing. I‘m very curious about what they’re doing here. It seems they’ve been here for a month and will stay till September! But it’s not easy to speak to people who hear you have diarrhea every day, or who you hear doing everything... I am very happy to say that they went somewhere on Sunday and haven’t been back since… It’s been great to have my privacy back!

My room is huge and has a big mirror and closets and tables and everything I need. There’s hot water and the soap is really great and the toilet paper is not of the cheapest type! The café attached to the hotel is famous for its coffee and I admire the people who work there. The whole hotel is centered on helping the deaf and hires some deaf people to work in the café, as well as single mothers. There are deaf teenagers in the courtyard and the café everyday doing their homework, learning to dance and having a good time. It’s very heart-warming. When I was sick, everybody asked me how I was and the woman in charge of the café gave me a delicious, special herbal tea. And it’s relatively cheap at 60 soles. I’m so happy that my last experience here in dear Peru is such a positive one.

Cajamarca is a very different place. As I said, it’s not touristic. There are a few hotels lots of restaurants, no bars or discos except for on the week-ends. Everything is for the locals. The prices as well! The streets seem “clean” because the buildings (all the same size; 2 or 3 storied old houses) aren’t disfigured by protruding signs. Shop/hotel/restaurant names are written directly above the door, on the building itself, in a very discrete way. There are nearly no advertisements, absolutely no neon lights - it’s just the people, the buildings and the streets – and the trash and the dogs and the street stalls!

But from the looks of it, the Cajamarcans are just as hard of sight and in need of dentists and generally in bad shape as the rest of Peru: just as in Arequipa or in Cusco, the streets are lined with opticians’ shops, orthodontists’ clinics, and pharmacies. But here they are also obsessed with their hair. I have never seen such a concentration of barber shops!!! And all the women wear their hair super long…

The biggest Plaza after the Plaza de Armas is named after Amelia Puga, a 19th century poetess. The longest street in the city, the one with the nicest restaurants, pastelerias and cafés is also named after her. Wow!

August 15, Cajamarca Airport

I stayed for nearly two hours at that pastelieria yesterday, writing! Then it started to fill up and then there were no tables left, so I felt guilty about monopolizing the nicest table. Plus, I’d had enough of sitting, so I left, took a walk, then went to my hamburger joint. It’s such a funny place. It’s tiny. The walls are covered with posters from movies from the 80s, like Grease, Footloose, Back to the Future, etc. The music is also from the 80s (they were playing a whole Air Supply album when I arrived). But then they allow young musicians to come in and we get to listen to traditional Peruvian music! What a lovely contrast. When I went to the toilet I thought of this blog, because they had both toilet paper AND soap.

Oh my god, a guy just sat across from me, here at the gate at the airport, and it’s the same guy who sat across from me during lunch today in a small Cajamarcan restaurant. It’s a small world!

The first day I arrived in Cajamarca, I was still suffering from how long I’d had had to sit in buses the day before, from Trujillo to Chiclayo, on minibuses to those horrible coastal towns, then all the way to Cajamarca. So I started to walk from the Plaza de Armas, I walked until I reached the more “popular”, poorer areas, with more people on the streets and lots of food stalls, then I continued to walk until I was on the highway leading out of town, with fewer cars, and gosh, it was so hot and there wasn’t any shade, but I continued to walk until I reached the countryside… I wish I’d taken snippets of videos, to show the passage from one area to the next, I can visualize it as if it were a movie, you know the kind I mean? I walked by the airport, by mounds of trash, by cows and dogs and villages and people who seemed surprised to see me and with whom we exchanged cordial “Buenas tardes,” and over small streams full of plastic bottles… It rained with huge, heavy droplets and I took refuge under a house’s protruding roof, sure it wouldn’t last. It didn’t. Then I walked some more through the earthy-rainy smells and arrived in a charming, green village with old, beautiful houses and fields where people were working. An hour and fifty minutes after having left the Plaza de Armas, I arrived at the Ventenillas de Oruzco, a mount of superimposed tombs dating from pre-inca times. The walk was much more interesting than the destination. But all I’d wanted was to have a destination. While having a pleasant conversation with a mother and daughter, the rain started again. I’ve never seen such big rain drops! I ran down to the street and was very lucky because a minibus heading to Cajamarca stopped right in front of me. The town’s streets had turned into rivers! It’s a good thing their houses all have these protruding roofs, which helped somewhat, though I sometimes entered in competition with people coming from the opposite direction. I finally arrived at my restaurant of choice and had a very dry rabbit with spinach. Oh, where was the Cusqueñan cuisine!

August 16, plane to NY

My favorite establishment in Cajamarca was a tiny bar called Usha Usha, which belongs to an elderly musician called Jaime Valera. I went there on Thursday evening and would have returned the next day, hadn’t I been sick. But I went back on Saturday. It’s open only on those three days of the week. Jaime plays the guitar and sings traditional South American, Spanish as well as translated French songs (“Ne me quitte pas”) with his eyes closed and smiling with pleasure. Sometimes, he’s accompanied by his bartender who plays some hand-held percussions and “caja” (African box) or two other musicians who also play the guitar and all join him singing. The first night there were only ten of us. It was so cozy! Jaime likes to pontificate, “il tient son cour,” he lectures, and he demands that everybody be quiet and listen to him. That first night we all willingly listened to him – and I dared, with my bad Spanish, to intervene, which caught him by surprise. But it became a discussion with the whole room, especially a girl from Lima, who was also traveling throughout Peru alone. Liza was very fun and nice and had around 10 drinks that night, which she carried very well! On Saturday, however, there were 25 people, which meant there was no room left for a 26th person. There was a whole table of young people from Lima who didn’t want to be lectured at; who had come to have a drink together and talk amongst themselves. I could understand them, but this wasn’t that kind of place. If you don’t want to treat Jaime’s lectures as part of the performance, you should go elsewhere. As it was, Jaime stared at them, didn’t play, while his embarrassed (? or bored?) co-musicians strummed on their guitars or waited patiently. Jaime then embarked on how the youngsters should put their phones away for a while and why Cajamarca, which held the greatest gold and other reserves, which was actually the richest region in Peru, was so poor – it was because they had forgotten their roots. So he started to remind them of these roots. After a while, the second guitarist started to play in earnest, to remind Jaime that this was, after all, a bar! Many people knew the songs they were playing and sang along. They laughed at the lyrics, and I felt frustrated because I couldn’t understand them. I met a lovely Cajamarcan woman who insisted we meet up for coffee the next day. She gave me her phone number and although I hesitated, I didn’t call her.

But the first night was magical, with just ten of us, all happy to listen to Jaime and to discuss Peruvian history or world politics as a group. It was like a party at someone’s home, with good drinks and excellent music and sweet people. The second I entered, I felt welcome. I sat down, Jaime finished his song, and then he turned to me, said welcome! What’s your name? Where are you from? (he didn’t ask me my age!) When he heard I was from Turkey, and that I was traveling alone, he was extremely surprised; he turned to everyone and said, she’s come all the way from Turkey! He applauded me, and all the others joined in. I bowed. We talked a bit more about where I’d been and then he sang another song. I’ve never been welcomed like that in any other bar in my life! When I returned on Saturday, he stopped mid-sentence, opened his arms wide and hugged me. He introduced me to everyone as a representative of the great Ottoman Empire!

I had another great solo discovery when I went to a town called San Pedro by minibus and from there to a pre-inca site called Kuntur Wasi. The road was as bumpy and tiring and beautiful as ever, as we went up mountains and round a thousand hairpin turns. Peruvian drivers don’t like to keep to their side of the road. They insist on using the opposite side, driving very fast, and then they have to swerve when another car comes. And I sat up front, next to the driver on the way back! Good Latino music was on full blast, the driver was driving like a careful maniac, we stopped in a village to pick up a bagful of potatoes to be left off somewhere in Cajamarca, ladies with huge sombreros and wide colorful skirts got on and off… In short, I was truly in Peru! It truly is so much more rewarding to travel without a guided tour.

San Pedro was a pretty little town, made up only of old houses like the ones in Cajamarca. I’d fallen asleep on the bus and the town itself was so sleepy that I had a hard time waking up. I had to find food, but I was still sick and there weren’t many restaurants. I went to the market place and there I found two girls who had cooked one single meal and soup in huge cauldrons. They had rice and a delicious potato meal with lots of cilantro. It was just perfect, accompanied by the fluorescent inka cola. The girls were very interested in who I was. They had never heard of Turkey before. No one with whom I spoke that day had heard of Turkey. I tried to explain where it was, but it seemed so far and foreign that it defied their imagination. How strange -- I thought all of Peru was watching Turkish series! Having received sustenance, I embarked on my hour-long walk down to the village of Kuntur Wasi. I walked downhill, but I was still was so high up! The vistas were incredible at every turn. I was so sick of taking photos, but each view demanded it. It was even more gorgeous from the site. I walked all around and had a 360 degree view of the mountains all around. In Peru, I often had the feeling of being on top of the world. It’s so difficult to take it all in, all that gigantic beauty. I stood still and tried to digest it. The only sound was that of the wind. There wasn’t a single person, apart from a policeman and the ticket seller. I had seen from the register at the site museum that I had been the only person to visit all day. What a change from the touristic sites in the South!

I walked back to the village and went to buy some water. A little boy followed me inside the bodega and asked, where are you from? Are you married? Do you have children? How old are you? When I said 42, he made such a face! I asked him how old he was, and he said 8, as if that were the only respectable age to be.

I took one of those rickety motors back to San Pedro, together with the village’s school teacher, a very sweet woman of 26 years. Everyone here so is so obsessed by age!!! Moira told me not to tell anyone about my age in New York, that it’s very taboo. Each time all these Peruvians posed me this question, I thought of Moira and laughed. The motor was extremely loud and uncomfortable, and it was very hard for me to understand what the school teacher was saying and to answer back (although the first half was all the regular questions), but we had a pleasant drive up to the town. Then I waited for around a hour for the minibus to fill up, then the bus went all around town hoping to pick up more passengers the finally we were on our long, dangerous, beautiful way.

I offered myself a last guided tour the day I was to take the plane to Lima. We were supposed to leave at 9, but we left at 9, Peruvian time, meaning 10.15. It was a group composed exclusively of Peruvians from all around Peru, including a family of 9 members from the northern jungle! One of the sons sat down next to me and took out a mandarin, which reminded me that I also had one. He ate and finished. I saw he was waiting for me to finish. And indeed, once I finished, he offered to take my mandarin peel in his plastic bag. See how gentlemanly they are? We went up more than 700 bumpy meters and throughout the 1.5 hour ride, the guide explained the history of the place and much more. I understood nearly everything! Once we arrived, I really had to pee so I ran to the toilet. Toilets up here in the north are something… Or rather, the women using these are really something! In Cajabamba, a woman arrived as I waited for my turn and brazenly passed in front of me. I asked her if she was working in the market, and when she said yes, I said of course, please take my turn. She just glared at me aggressively. Once it was my turn again, some other woman appeared out of nowhere and jumped in front of me, pushing me aside. I said, hey, what’s this? She said, let me use the toilet. I said, one person, then a second one, what about me? She took hold of the door and wouldn’t let go, so of course I did. It was pathetic! Another toilet emptied, I went there and I saw the woman abandon the toilet we’d fought over!!! At the pre-inca ruin which I was mentioning right now, the problem wasn’t entering the toilet (though it could have been, hadn’t I arrived first), but getting out of it. All the women were so closely huddled around my door that I couldn’t get out and hurt my arm as I tried to. I despised them, and thought, argh, what peasants! But then they all turned out to be so sweet that I was ashamed of this thought. As always, they were interested in who I was, and were very happy to see I spoke some Spanish and that I loved their country (so very Turkish!). They kissed me and took pictures with me before we parted. The guide was the best I had throughout my time in Peru. It was as if this were his first time visiting the site. He was so enthusiastic about these people’s achievement, 3000 years ago, to be able to carve out these perfect canals out of solid rock, at a perfect 90 degrees, at perfect slants and curves to allow the water to go at a certain debit all the way to Cajamarca! Also, you could see that he felt very sorry for all the poor villager women and children interspersed all around the site, selling wild flowers, shawls, drinks, singing songs… He talked with them and encouraged us to buy stuff (I bought an ear of corn) and he also bought some flowers. The villagers walk two hours to get there. Some were so old, I wondered if they were carried all that way. My heart is so tired of seeing such poverty, and I don’t think the situation will get any better in New York.

It was a wonderful last tour, a delightful ending to a perfect 49 days. We returned to Cajamarca, I had a last lunch of trout and artichokes with a glass of lemonade, I returned to my beloved hotel to pick up my bags and my eyes went all misty as I left. Even though I hadn’t been able to visit the North as much as I had wanted to, I was ready to leave. I don’t know how I would have felt had I had 10 more days to see more – I rather think I’d have been up to it; I really regret missing out on Chachapoyas, but as it is, I am so happy to be on this plane right now, on my way to New York. I guess I’m in a state of mind when just about anything makes me happy. It’s a state of mind that seems to be independent of anything external. A kind of awe about these past 50 days. My last night in Cajamarca, I couldn’t sleep. I had written this and the previous chapter the whole evening and couldn’t stop thinking about all the things I’d seen and done and thought. I like to lie down in bed and think back to all the places I’ve visited, remember each hotel room, each person I met, each restaurant , café or hotel where I typed on my laptop, each dish I ate. Sometimes I feel I saw nothing at all; that I stupidly followed the “Gringo Trail” as it’s called , but with that boy from the jungle, on the tour the last day, we looked at a map of Peru together and I said, wow, I’ve seen a lot!, and he agreed.

I didn’t cry as I left Peru, but writing this now… I think I am amazed at what I’ve done, even if it was a rich tourist’s indolent pleasure trip – I ate my way through Peru!! But I also talked my way through Peru. I met as many Peruvians as I did foreigners, though of course the language barrier prevented me from having as deep conversations as I had with, above all, Marie, Maylis, Marie-Sophie, Laura, Martino and some others. There is such a flood of images coming over me, of faces and views, and also echoes of conversations! How can I say, without sounding like a cliché, that I have been incredibly enriched by what I’ve experienced? My heart is swollen with feeling. I am very curious about what will happen to me in the coming weeks and months; whether this wealth of feeling and experience will have lasting effects, and what these effects will be. I have some inklings already… I’ll be observing myself.

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