Tuesday, June 24, 2008

It's a Dog-Eat-Dog World

Literally, as the picture to the left shows. There's a foul-smelling, polluted creek in my neighborhood here in Larapa, on the outskirts of Cuzco, Peru, that wends its way through construction sites and residential zones, and along the highway. Each kilometer it becomes dirtier and dirtier, its water cloudy with what looks like laundry detergent but what smells like human and animal effluvia (a bit like the bathrooms in several of the hostels I've stayed at--particularly in Central America). Plastic bags litter its banks, looking from a distance like festive multicolored streamers, but up close not nearly as pretty. If one looks closely among the trash (while holding one's breath, of course), other shapes emerge on the river's banks--such as this decaying dog corpse I found the other day, just the right thing for an afternoon treat for two other dogs passing by.

Further on, another dead dog lay in the water, protected from being feasted on by its compatriots by the flowing water. As awful as it is to see a dead animal--particularly man's best friend--in a waterway so near where people live, it's better, I guess, than the thousands of plastic bags that are visible. At least the dog will decompose within a month or two; the plastic bags will be around for years.

But why all the dead dogs? you ask. Well, they seem to make a good metaphor for my last month here in Cuzco. As I've posted earlier, I've run into money problems down here. Cuzco's a great city to visit, if you've got money to go out and drink, eat, and see the sights. But if, like me, you've exhausted your savings, it can be tremendously boring. I've been mostly staying inside, combing the Internet for freelance work, checking my bank account hourly (isn't the balance supposed to grow from interest?), losing even more hair from worry. It's been a dog of a time. (Hey, I had the pictures and I had to make the metaphor!)

But I am happy to report that my finances have taken a turn for the better, and I should be heading out of here next week. I'll be heading on to Bolivia, just in time for Morales' recall referendum in August. I've got some other pictures of Cuzco that I'll be posting in the next day or two (and an account of a particularly traumatic day in which I was attacked by dogs not once but twice!), so stay tuned. And my apologies to all of you who have been wondering if I am still alive.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Come Have a Chicha With Me, Chica?

Chicha is a generic term for different types of drinks throughout South America. But in Peru, chicha means one of two things: Chicha morada is a sweet drink made from purple maize, cinnamon, and cloves. Frequently, it is served with lunch (as it was in the picture to the right, with ceviche and fried rice--or chaufa--all for only $1.50) [Update: The dollar has surged since I first arrived in Peru, and at current rates the meal only costs $1.21.]

Or it can mean chicha de jora, a mildly alcoholic drink made from fermented corn. Originally, Andean women made it by chewing corn kernels and then spreading the paste on the ground to dry. Naturally occurring diastase enzymes from the chica maker's mouth would cause the starch in the corn to convert to maltose, which yeast would consume, producing a slimy--almost mucus-like--cloudy beverage with 1% to 3% alcohol. Nowadays, this process is done in urns over fires in the back rooms of chicharías, without any mastication (I hope).

Chicharías, or chicha pubs, are almost always informal little rooms built onto the sides of the chicha maker's home. There are no typical bar signs advertising a chicharía; instead, a wooden pole is affixed to the door frame or awning, around which a sheet of red plastic is wrapped, resembling a sloppily folded paper rose. Chicharías are plain, sometimes squalid rooms, with little more than a couple of mismatched tables and chairs under a fluorescent light, and a loud television is usually in the corner of the room, playing wonderfully out-of-tune traditional Andean music videos. Unlike the Mexican cantina, where a woman can run into trouble if she decides to go inside, chicharías are frequented by either sex, and it is not uncommon to see women sitting alone after work, quickly gulping down a chicha or two before heading home to cook her family a meal. (Pictured to the right is a sweet chicha maker who tried to get me to drink more after allowing me to take this picture; I had already had three, so I declined.)

To say that chicha is an acquired taste is an understatement. As mentioned above, it has a mucus-like film on top, underneath its foamy head. Its smell is pungent, slightly sour, and it is sometimes served a little above room temperature, which gives it an organic, earthy, fecund quality. But it's sweet and hardy, and after an initial jolt of nausea that hit me the first time I tried it, it was surprisingly tasty. Perfect for a cold night in the Andes.

Chicha always comes in a large, dirty glass, containing a bit more than a pint. There's no alcoholic effect from just one glass; it's much too weak. You need two or three glasses to get a proper chicha buzz. Fortunately, chicha only runs 40 to 50 centavos per glass--about 15 cents. You'll have to use the bathroom several times to get through those three glasses (and bathrooms in chicharías are normally only unlit corners cut out of the concrete wall, with a hole to pee down into--if you can see it). But look on it as an exercise--a prostate exercise: According to Wikipedia, tests are being made to determine if chicha de jora acts as an anti-inflammatory on the prostate. Ah, now we can get slightly drunk and help out the old prostate. (See, Mom, I am taking care of myself!)

OK, that's it. What am I doing typing? It's chicha time!

Various chicha "flag" photos follow.

This is the outside of the chicharía where I took the photo (above) of the women. The flag is outside a long, dark alley; it's the only indication that walking up there will reward you with a frothy concoction, and not a knife in the back.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sharing Beer and Catching Cold

I've just moved into a house in Larapa , an upper-middle-class neighborhood about a 10-minute cab ride to the east of Cuzco. The house is right next door to the Universidad Andina del Cusco, nestled in a mountain valley. It's a three-story building, and my room's on the second floor with a small balcony and windows facing the west so that the late-afternoon sun warms it before the Andean winter night sweeps in and chills everything.

Speaking of chills, I've been properly introduced to the Peruvian way of drinking with friends (in this case, two couples share the house with me: Helard, a Peruvian man, and Elise, his Dutch wife; and Perico, a Peruvian musician, Brittany, his American wife, and Amaru, their 9-month-old son). Whereas in the States everyone gets their own glass when the liter of beer comes out (or, more likely, everyone gets their own liter), here in Peru, when several people get together to drink there is only one glass for the entire party. One by one, each person takes the same glass and fills it with beer, and when done empties the residue (i.e., the backwash) into another glass that is passed along with the drinking glass. It's in stark contrast to our way of drinking in the States, where you have your drink and I have mine. It's more communal, and it requires patience, because "bogarting" is unheard of here--you take as much time as you want with your drink and nobody complains. Unfortunately, as I've found out, it's also a good way to share various germs. After the first night of beer drinking, I came down with a hell of a cold that I assume I got from sharing beer (and, residue cup notwithstanding, everyone else's backwash).

So last night and today I've been combining the healing powers of both the Andes and the Amazon by drinking a blend of uña de gato (cat's claw, a medicinal Amazonian bark) and coca tea. It's not the most pleasant-tasting tea in the world, but coca has relieved me of headaches in past, so I figure I should give it a try. (I also tried out the healing powers of chicha, a fermented corn drink, last night. I'm not sure if it helped, aside from making me slightly buzzed and causing me to pee about eight times in two hours, but it was fun. More on that later, as I still need to do "research" for my grand chicha post.)

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Resting Up and Not Much Going On

Here in Cuzco, I've fallen into a bit of a routine: Wake up around 9 a.m., drink a leisurely cup of coffee or two, wander downhill to the Internet café. check job listings, e-mail, and gasp at my rapidly swindling bank account balance. Then I go sit in the sun and try not to think about it.

Funds are running out, so I've decided to check out some apartments in the city (which are cheaper--and much nicer--than staying in hostals). Hopefully I'll be getting some work from New York (thanks to Craigslist), but I'm also looking into teaching English here in Peru. While the money situation is depressing, Cuzco's a pretty good city to be "skint" in, as an itinerate British journalist I've met puts it. So stay tuned. Nothing's happening right now, but that can't last forever.