A Letter From South America
A Letter from South America
Our first couple of weeks have been a blur of travel and it is only in the past few days that we've been in one place for more than two nights.
We're currently at Pamela's parents home in Chiclayo in the north of Peru and we will be doing some overnight trips from this weekend, on to Trujillo for some archaeology and maybe Piura for some beach time, before returning to Lima by overnight bus and then flying to Santiago and home. There's no internet here but we're supposed to be going to an internet café today, so this post can be uploaded.
This really has been an amazing trip; a trip of a lifetime as they say. I can't imagine that anyone with an ounce of humanity could come here and not be effected by it in some way.
Our first stop was Chile. Santiago is a huge but kinda cool, vibrant city; modern and quite western. There are all the amenities we take for granted and the people are friendly and helpful. We really liked it.
The subway in Santiago seems to be rocket-powered. It moves at break-neck pace but then so does the traffic, even on inner-city streets. Out of the city on the motorways, the roads are of good quality and although there are lots of tolls, they're inexpensive - the equivalent of a couple of dollars was the most we paid on any one section, I think. Off the autopista, they deteriorate a bit and you know you're in the countryside. The difference between the haves and the have-nots becomes more apparent in the rural areas and even the poverty has a hint of 'ye olde-world' quaintness about it - for those driving past it at least.
The wineries we visited have been amazing. At the first, they even flew a New Zealand flag in the car park outside the reception area in welcome. This was Viña Errazuriz and they showed us a range of wines from a new coastal development they have. They were really very good wines and in a style very similar to what we're doing at home. Watch out New Zealand!
We went to another called Bodega RE, which at first I didn't think we would get to, because they hadn't replied to my emails asking for a visit. But while we were in Santiago, an ex-kiwi winemaker I know, who now lives in California and about four months per year in Chile, saw my Facebook posts and asked if there was anywhere we wanted to visit. I told him about Bodega Re and overnight a visit was arranged with the owner. There we had one of the most interesting and intriguing tastings I think I have ever participated in. Just loved it.
Keeping this brief, after our loop around the Chilean coastal wine areas, we were back in Santiago for our bus trip across the Andes into Mendoza, Argentina. We had been trying for some time to buy tickets for this trip online, before leaving New Zealand and in the end, gave up in frustration when the bus company website couldn't seem to process any of our credit cards. It just kept timing out. So Pam suggested we buy the tickets when we got there. Turned out to be a great idea, because we got them at half the price!
That trip through the Andes is one of the most incredible excursions I've ever taken. It is simply majestic and we would both like to come back in winter time to see the difference some more snow makes. Honestly, it is worth the money to get the Chile, just to take the bus ride.
Once you're in Mendoza, you know you're not in Chile any more. Argentina is more hard-edged, it is worn-down, tattered and dog-eared and the people are a bit the same. The weight of all their recent history seems to have made them grumpy and mistrustful.
Pamela was feeling very anxious in Mendoza and when we ventured from our budget-location hotel, across the street to the giant shopping mall, it was absolutely packed with people. Pam's anxiousness became a bit of a freak-out and I wasn't compassionate. So as we sat outside the mall squabbling about what to do and where to go and how to get there, I looked up and noticed we were sitting directly outside the Hyatt Regency Mendoza. I suggested that we looked sufficiently like tourists to go sit safely in the lobby for a while and that they would call us a taxi to somewhere nearby, where we could get some dinner. They did just that, were very helpful and later we felt like we had resolved something together.
Then the next day, we went to collect our rental car and my card was declined. Now it was my turn for a freak-out! Where the fuck was all our money? We caught a tense cab-ride back to our hotel so I could check the balance and as planned, we were on-budget and had plenty of money available. We went back to the rental agency and paid with a different card and all was well. But I felt like I learned a big lesson about being compassionate with your partner when they are in the midst of a bit of a melt-down. And magically, the card that was declined worked perfectly well everywhere else.
The divide between rich and poor is more open and obvious in Argentina and although the areas around Mendoza that we travelled in were beautiful, we didn't really enjoy our time until our last day when, feeling a bit low, we decided to pull into a big, modern-looking winery in Leyda, just on the off-chance that it might be a place for a nice snack. There we meet a really friendly and charming hospitality manager who gave us a tour of the facility and we decided to splash-out $NZ75 each on the five course degustation lunch with wines included. Glad we did! It was fantastic and we both felt that this one afternoon just made our experience of Mendoza.
We took our bus back to Santiago feeling happy. Even the two hour delay at border control waiting for the Argentinian authorities to finish scratching their arses and picking their noses while staring out the window wasn't so bad as the location of the customs hall was a spectacular valley where it was about 22°C in the sunshine but with patches of snow in the shadows within walking distance. Still, someone from Chile and from Argentina should go to a border-crossing in Europe to see how its done (i.e. in Europe, they just don't have them).
After a fitful half-night sleep back in Santiago, we were off to the airport at 4.15am to catch our 6.20am flight to Lima. Don't fly Sky Airlines! They're gruff and unfriendly and have queues to make the British feel at home.
Lima is a mega-city and Lima traffic defies any form of rationality whatsoever. It is simply amazing to me that the place actually functions at all; it is Bedlam, it is complete chaos. I don't know how to otherwise describe it. But after the first couple of days you learn to relax and peer out the window at the craziness and laugh. Even when, during one of our cab rides (everything is done by cab in Lima) the driver managed to actually drive into a traffic cop on his motorcycle, we sat quietly in the back and chatted - while the traffic cop chatted, rather less quietly, to the taxi driver who eventually returned, grey-faced and looking worried.
We met with Pamela's twin brothers who as Pam has been telling me since we met, really are two good young men. You know as soon as you meet them, these two guys have substance, in spades. They picked up the rest of Pamela's family from the bus station and we all met at the apartment we rented in Lince, one of the nicer areas of Lima. We all had a chance to get to know one another and had a night out at an impressive water-park nearby with displays of lights and fountains, all really pretty, followed by dinner at a Chinese restaurant.
I didn't enjoy Lima at first, it is just so big and crowded and dirty, so I pushed for us to head north to Chiclayo, to somewhere smaller and more manageable, where we could base ourselves for some exploring.
I wasn't at all prepared for what greeted us in the north. The poverty is overwhelming. It's not Argentinian-style grim and grumpiness; this is full-bore filth and squalor. Its like the middle-ages but with TV. Garbage is piled everywhere and nobody even notices it. The roads, such as they are, are littered with football-sized chunks of rubble and paddling-pool sized pot holes. Every vehicle is a derelict Honda City cab or a three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxi. Traffic is slightly slower in Chiclayo than in Lima but only because the bowel-shattering dirt roads make travelling any faster literally impossible. It is equally chaotic and dangerous however. Pedestrian crossing have no known meaning and are simply ignored by everyone, pedestrians and motorists alike.
Chiclayo is a city in a hard desert. The land is flat and bare and parched to an interminable dust that infiltrates everything and is impossible to escape from. It gets into the weave of your clothing, your hair, your skin. It is hot here and you wake in the morning feeling grimy and return home the same way. We bathe twice per day, night and morning, standing in a plastic tub scooping cold water from a 20 litre pail. Each one is the best shower of your life! You emerge refreshed and thankful in your bones to be clean again.
Except in the central city, people live in adobe slums. The more wealthy in multi-storey brick dwellings which are always unfinished. Reinforcing steel juts from every 'middle-class' rooftop and I think they just build another storey on when the family gets bigger. Some are five storeys tall. In an earthquake this place will be devastated. Even if there was a building code. nothing would conform to it. The entire place will collapse into a letahl rubble of brick and mud and steel and the loss of life will be appalling. Peru, like New Zealand, knows earthquakes; it is just a matter of time.
Staying at Pamela's parents home is much better than I had feared. The dirt floor takes some getting used to and I have decided it is probably better if I don't venture into the kitchen (I know it is bad and wrong of me, but I really don't want to know the state in there). But all that said, we are so welcome and everyone is making such an effort for us, it has been really touching. There is nothing to complain about.
We haven't made it to Nazca yet. When we found out the cost of flights over the lines- about $US1,000 for the two of us - we decided against it. We've had a few days with the family and are now ready to venture out and look at some of the ancient sites in the north. We will head to Sipán here in Chiclayo and down to Trujillo over the weekend to see Chan Chan.
It has all been the most wonderful adventure so far, fun and scary and touching and a slice of life that you can never really understand exists until you are actually standing in the middle of it. Pamela and I were outside in the dark watching stars the other night and we both realised we are actually here. "What the hell are we doing in Peru?", we laughed.