Thursday, October 25, 2012

River Trip

Just as happens on ocean passages, on this trip down the river Ucayali from Pucallpa to Iquitos Peru, the days flowed into each other, demarcated only by nightfall and sunrise. So it's hard now to remember just how long it actually took, but I think it was five days. That's not counting the day it rained and the cement bag loading had to be postponed, then cancelled. Also not counting the day the officials came aboard late, delaying departure. Or maybe there was another reason, not evident to 'los gringos' in Cabin 1. There was a lot of speculation and precious little hard information up in our corner of the passenger deck, and that's not a bad thing.

Tuky III revealed itself to be 75 meters long, ten meters wide, and no one cares how tall, because there are no bridges to pass beneath. How critical the draft (how deep in the water) would be was revealed almost before breakfast on day one, when we ran hard aground and stayed pressed firmly to a shoal totally invisible in the 2-knot stream of dilute mud that constitutes the Ucayali.

The 440-horsepower Volvo Penta roared to little effect. Out came the depth sounder, a freshly-cut sapling with paint marks every foot of its ten foot length. Then the captain zoomed off in his aluminum skiff. As a result of the visit he made, a passing tug nudged its barge into the shore, tied it to a tree, and came to push us free of the sandbar. I can't imagine that happening on Delaware Bay!
On we went, doing a do-see-do around the outside of each bend in this very curvy river, then cutting across to the other side. We the gringos 'navigated' with an iPhone app, not much detail, but our dot was always in the river. There was no chart of any kind in the wheelhouse, and no electronics other than engine control, light switches and two horns, and some kind of radio we never heard in use. Instead, the appearance of cell phones in many hands was a sure indicator of an approaching settlement.

Breakfast: sweet watered ?oatmeal? and bread made dry on purpose
 The food bell rang. The passengers gathered their various plastic containers and shuffled before the cook and her ladle. We had misunderstood about bringing dishes and had none, so we were parked at our own little table in front of the TV, which displayed boring old music videos and World Wide Wrestling. The food was well-prepared but it was economy food, obscure cuts of obscure meats flavoring the eternal starch triangle of rice, potato and yuca.

Well, there's lots more, but the connection is too slow, the line growing behind me, and my patience, frankly wearing thin. And we're leaving for our 'jungle excursion' tomorrow, so I'll have to hope for time and opportunity to do a better job later on.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A River Boat Trip

Along the Ucayali River from Pucallpa towards Iquitos aboard the Tuky III is where we're headed, maybe today, or whenever the cargo is loaded. The deck still has space, but the hold, accessed through the small hatches outboard, has been absorbing toilet paper, pasta, sugar, soda, wine, cooking oil and much more esoteric stuff beyond accounting. I´ve even seen corrugated boxes labelled butter  - surely it´s canned?

Stevedore lines snake from trailer trucks backed as far down the hill as practicable. It's blazing hot. There is action everywhere: a  fleet of Henry (a company with 8 in their fleet ) boats are being loaded at the foot of the street 2 blocks up, and at the sawmills next door appear a steady stream of barges bearing big rainforest logs.
It's depressing to think about all the places where all those trees used to be. But I can't deny being excited by all the other activity on the waterfront, and I'm looking forward to this four- or five- day voyage of discovery (on somebody else's boat!).

We're on the Tuky III because of its clean and orderly aspect, because it's smaller than the vessels of the Henry fleet, and because one of its four cabins was available for us. Otherwise we'd be swinging with a hundred  hammocks on the covered second deck.In fact, we also have some budget hammocks, for a place to sit. As it is we still share the six toilets and three showers. The cabin is a small steel box with two bunks (clean mattress covers), a metal door that closes, and a ventilation grill, but it is all the way forward on the second deck and we're hoping for a breeze as long as the boat moves. We've brought drinking water, fruit and juices, toilet paper, chocolate, oh, and some mosquito coils. Can't wait to find out what else we should have known!
And, we just learned one important thing : Tuky III looks good now because it´s straight from the shipyard. We´re on the maiden cargo voyage! Also,  Google Earth for this  area is a revelation, as always.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I Ate a Guinea Pig!

In Peru, guinea pigs are a local delicacy, hence it seemed they should be  part of our Peru experience. So we made lab rats of ourselves by ordering ´cuy al horno´ (baked in a pizza style oven) in a cuyeria the other day.

They´re served with the head and articulated little feet attached, mouth agape, rodent teeth front and center top and bottom, and don´t forget those ears. Once we had verified their identity and admired the presentation, the man with the big knife whacked ours into more manageable pieces. Then we were left us in relative peace, aside from the cultural burden of eating a childhood pet.
Chewy, crispy, fatty skin: Doug liked that. Not too meaty, a bit of gnawing bones at times. Not quite red meat, rather, pinkish and mild tasting. The gut cavity had been stuffed with mint or something like it, which gave a nice flavor and left me thinking of lamb more than anything else.
Some interior 'corazonita' had been stuffed with potato hash and ??? and was served separately, like turkey dressing, or mini-haggis. And that´s about it for the eating experience. Maybe more than you wanted to know.
But wait! There´s more! We found our cuyeria in a cluster of about eight along the highway near an archaelogical site we were visiting (Tipon). Why so many right here? we enquired, but the answer was unsatisfactory: ´a special zone´. So where are all the guinea pigs now, I asked, thinking maybe they were in a giant cage or barn like chickens, but no, they were just 'in another house' to keep the restaurant clean and free of flies.

Many families keep their own guinea pigs - we´ve often seen them loose on the kitchen floor in rural areas (sleeping cozily under the oven they´ll be cooked in). They make a compact and economical source of protein in the cities too.  Even at the very elegant Santa Catalina nunnery in Arequipa they had a back room for cuy. And there´s always some campesina along the street selling alfalfa or other grass to feed them. They also eat fruit and vegetable scraps.

 To kill a cuy for dinner, the preferred method is 'estrangulo', with a wringing-the-neck graphic. Sounds like what grandma used to do with the chicken. The fur is pulled off with the help of warm water. The guts and later the scraps go to the pigs. Yes, that´s what she said. The rest is 'basura', trash, hence the flies.
Also I´ve read that the currently available species, which is native to Peru, has been so thoroughly domesticated that it no longer survives in the wild; that the domesticators, the Incas, also used the animals in medical treatments and diagnosis (you could say we do the same today). And, there´s a movement afoot to bring them to the US as food. They´re tasty enough, but probably the fourth-graders who have one as a classroom mascot won't want to eat them.

As I was digesting my cuy experience, I was wondering if I could or would or should eat a dog. Perhaps, somewhere in southeast Asia, I already have. It´s more likely, however, that I´ll move, if not fully toward vegetarianism, at least away from such 'charismatic' species. Wax moth grubs, anyone?