Monday, January 17, 2011

Field Trip to Huancas

Everything went wrong on our outing to Huancas, but by the time I got back to my room Saturday night, I couldn’t help but grin. Against all odds, the day had turned out to be one of the best of the trip so far.

Things started off OK. Miguel, my Spanish teacher, had suggested that Rie and I join him for a trip to Huancas, a tiny town near Chachapoyas that’s famous for its clay pots and beautiful views. We met at the school at 4:00 and walked to the taxi stand, a muddy lot where colectivos sat waiting. A driver called “Huancas?” out his window and we piled into the back seat. Shortly a fourth passenger arrived, a short, bent, wrinkled woman who sat up front and began chattering in a way I couldn’t decipher.

With the car full, we were off, jouncing over the most rutted, uneven track we’ve been on so far, and that’s saying something. We climbed up out of town, rattled past the tiny airport, and bounced along for 10 kilometers or so, looking out over the green hills. (I’ve learned they’re considered hills here, not mountains, however high they seem to me.) The chattering woman got out at a small gate among the agaves, and then the driver took us into town and let us out at the plaza.

It was like stepping into another century. There were no cars and few people, just timeless-looking adobe and wood structures lining the square. Mud streets ran around the plaza and outward in several directions, a few tile-roofed structures on each one. Then the roads ran off into the hills where widely-spaced houses sat on small plots of corn and cane. Mist wafted through the hollows and the clouds hung low.

It started to rain, and Miguel took us down a side street to the pot-making center, which turned out to be empty and locked. We looked through the slatted wooden gate, but there wasn’t much to be seen besides some big flowerpots at the far end. So we stood under the overhanging roof, our backs to the wooden gate, and watched the rain.

Up the street a few buildings away, a Seventh Day Adventist service was underway and we could hear singing out the open door. Otherwise, there were few signs of life, just chickens and a turkey pecking their way along the street, the occasional stooped woman going by in a knee-length skirt and sturdy shoes, a blanket-wrapped bundle on her back. From time to time, an older woman came down the street, lifted a crossrail or two out of the fence opposite, climbed through and tended a wood fire over which was an iron pot of boiling water sending up steam into the wet air. Miguel said she was probably cooking moté, fat kernels of corn, and later it turned out he was right.

I could tell he felt bad about the rain and the locked gate, but he kept his good nature and made an effort to salvage some semblance of a Spanish lesson. “What is the woman doing?” he asked me, grinning as he added “Presente continuado,” the tense we’ve been working on.

I gave it a try: “Ella está cucinando.” That’s about where my Spanish stands at this point.

We reviewed my colors and ran through what’s become our routine in my daily lessons with him—when I got up that day, what I’ve done, what I’ve eaten. He described how to make a local dish called arroz con pato—rice and potatoes cooked with onions, culantro and cumin—and then made a pitch for the healthfulness and deliciousness of el cuy. I asked him where the best cuy was to be found.

"In my mother's kitchen," he replied. She prepares it, he said, in a clay pot like those made at Huancas, boiling it with onions and potatoes and other things.

“Meanwhile,” he said, humor in his eyes, “the other guinea pigs run around the kitchen floor. When the stew is finished and you eat it, they maybe come over and you feed them a little bit and they sniff it to see if it’s somebody they recognize.” He laughed and we did too.

We talked about our childhoods, he quizzed us on the capitals of the South American countries, and he asked about our lives back in the States. How much does it cost to rent a room in Chapel Hill? How much does it cost to stay in a hotel?

At one point he indicated a donkey and asked me,“Como se llama?”

“Burro,” I said.

“Burro,” he repeated slowly, as I hadn’t gotten my double-r quite right. And then again, “Como se llama?”

But my brain was getting tired from the hard work of communicating in Spanish. “Mike,” I said.

He laughed.

The rain went on and on. When it finally let up enough so that we could walk up the road a bit, admiring the ancient-looking adobe houses, it suddenly struck me that I had to teach my English class at 7:00. It was 6:15. We had to go, immediately.

We hurried back to the plaza where the colectivo driver had told Miguel we could get a car back to Chachapoyas. The place was utterly deserted—no cars, no people. Shortly the rain started up again and we took shelter in a small adobe structure. Miguel tried to call Fidel to tell him I wasn’t going to make it back on time for my class, but there was no signal. He tried again and again—nothing.

No colectivos showed up. The light began to go out of the day, the streetlights came on around the plaza, and the quiet town grew even more silent and deserted as night fell. Rie and I started to joke that maybe we should just stay there, that we’d probably get a better night’s sleep in Huancas than we did on our noisy street in Chachapoyas, but the prospect became more disconcerting as more time went by. Was there even anywhere there to stay? There was clearly no hotel on the plaza. Would we have to knock on doors and ask for lodging? Miguel was scarcely more familiar with the place than we were—he’d only been there once before.

We talked and talked to distract ourselves. At one point, Miguel made a comment about how many bowel sounds there were in English, which of course cracked us up.

“We’re even now,” I told him, grinning, and I explained to Rie that in one of my first lessons I’d mispronounced the word años.  

“She told me she had 42 anuses,” Miguel said and we all laughed. (Actually, I’d told him my real age—I guess he knocked off a few years out of courtesy.)

Finally he reached Fidel on the phone, easing my conscience about my class. Then he disappeared, leaving Rie and me to wonder whether this was all an elaborate initiation process on the part of the school—you take new teachers out to Huancas and abandon them. But when he came back he had a packet of crackers for each of us and a bit of information—there were no colectivos in the plaza after 6 p.m. If you wanted one, you had to call and have one come out from Chachapoyas. So he called Fidel again and then reported that Fidel was sending a car.

To pass the time as we waited, I asked Miguel to teach us a song. He was singing short snippets of a wistful and romantic waltz—something about your red lips and your eyes which I will never forget, something else about three things and no more—when a colectivo suddenly appeared on the other side of the square and went around a corner onto a side street.

Was that our car? Didn’t the driver see us? Where had he gone and was he coming back? We were tired and hungry by then and eager to get home. Miguel walked up to the corner of the street down which the taxi had disappeared, but three or four dogs surrounded him, growling and jumping.

The car finally came back, a couple of passengers in the back seat. But by then Miguel had reached Fidel again and learned this wasn’t our car. Or something. I was getting confused about what was going on. In any case, Miguel told the colectivo driver to go on without us. We stood there some more, all of us beginning to shiver.  

More time went by. Once a light shone down the road and we heard the sound of an approaching engine, but it was just a motorcycle. Then another colectivo drove up—a small and very welcome miracle. “Chacha?” the driver asked out his window. Rie and I were ready to jump in but Miguel was hesitating, trying again to reach Fidel. He couldn’t get a signal, and Rie and I opened one of the car doors, seeing as we did that on the shotgun seat, which was fully reclined, was a year-old baby, sound asleep. Then suddenly Miguel was in the front seat and we were off.

Where was the baby? I looked across the back seat past Rie—nothing. Was Miguel holding her? No. The driver hadn’t put her in the back of the station wagon, had he? We were hurtling down the dark hillside, bouncing over the ruts and rocks, and I prayed the baby was secure.

By then it was full night. Every once in a while, a face would appear in the headlights--people walking along the dark road, a couple of kids on horseback, cows coming at us randomly, the odd motorcycle roaring past. At one point, a colt came toward us diagonally across the road and I gasped as we sideswiped it, or seemed to. I felt no impact and heard no sounds of pain, so perhaps we didn’t, but the close shave scared me. At least I’d finally located the baby. Her little feet were hanging over the stick shift—her father had put her across his lap and she was riding that way, still sound asleep, while he shifted gears and ate something or other and carried on a conversation in Spanish with Miguel.

Meanwhile, Miguel was still trying over and over to reach Fidel, who he said was now on his way to Huancas to get us. We passed a colectivo on the road, but it had two passengers in the back and it didn’t stop when our driver honked, so we figured it wasn’t him. And that was the only car we saw. Everything else we passed was a motorcycle, a person or a beast. Soon we were headed down the last hillside towards the city lights of Chachapoyas.

Miguel turned to us. “Should we go to the school?”
“Let’s go eat,” I said. “Let’s go to the plaza.”

His face was troubled and apologetic. “Fidel says the car he’s in will cost 25 soles and that we have to pay for it.”

“Then I guess we should go to the school.” It was the last place I wanted to be just then, but what could we do?

“La escuela Ingles?” the driver asked Miguel, and then we were there. The school door was open and the lights were on. Fidel’s mother was at the secretary’s desk and another of the local teachers came out the door grinning.

“Where have you been?” he asked, laughing at our bedraggled state.

“Huancas,” we said.

“In this weather?”

“It looked fine when we set out,” Miguel said, looking to us for confirmation. We nodded.

The teacher was still laughing. “Why on earth did you go?”

“It was a field trip,” said Miguel, looking at me. We had compared the Spanish and English phrases earlier. “It was Kathleen’s Spanish lesson.”

“Was it at least a good lesson?” the teacher asked me.

“Yes,” I said. “It was.”

Another colectivo pulled up. Fidel got out and with him, unexpectedly, Priscilla, a young, pretty Peruvian teacher. Fidel radiated irritation as he paid the driver and when he came in spoke sternly to Miguel in Spanish. I apologized to him and Priscilla for their trouble and paid him back immediately for the cab fare, but still he was annoyed and mimed strangling Miguel.

“What could we do?” I put in. “We’d already let one car go. There was a colectivo, Miguel couldn’t reach you, and we just got in.”

I was tired and hungry and just wanted to get out of there, but first I asked Fidel about my class. Had any of my students showed up?

“Two of them,” he said. “They went up. I think they’re still there.”

I thought at first he was teasing me but then realized he was serious.

“I was distracted trying to get a car to go get you,” he said, shrugging.

They were still there? Nobody had told them what happened and sent them home? Shit! I went up the stairs to my classroom, saying goodbye to any credibility I may have gained with my students that week. But there was another class in there, no sign of my kids. I went back down, shaking my head at Rie and Miguel. There was nothing to do but wait till Monday and explain to my students then.

The three of us sidled out of the school, Miguel hanging to one side as if about to say good night and go back to his house. He still looked abashed, though we’d told him several times he had nothing to feel bad about.

“Come eat with us,” I said.

“Really?” he said.

“Yes, really. Please come.”

And he did. We walked down to the plaza and ordered a big meal and a jug of Pisco sours. A few bites, a few sips, and the disastrous day shifted into a shared joke, something we could laugh about together. We talked and talked, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish, covering Peruvian and American historical figures—we toasted Martin Luther King, whose birthday it was—and where exactly each of us stood with regard to the Catholic religion we were all raised in.

When Miguel first asked about this, Rie said gently that in the United States people didn’t usually talk about religion, that asking about it was almost taboo.

“I like to talk about it,” he said simply. And so we did.

After supper, he walked us to a corner near our house, gave Rie the cheek-to-cheek air kiss we’ve become accustomed to, and then turned to me. I did the air kiss and then just hugged him, wanting him to know there were really and truly no hard feelings and that we’d meant it when we’d said earlier that, in a weird kind of way, it had been a good day.

For me anyway it came down to this: When we set out for Huancas, we were teacher and student. By the time we got back, we had become friends. (KK)


Alex said...

It sounds like you guys are having a blast! Yay!


perujan said...

Hi from inside Peru! I'm laughing so hard at the typical mishaps you are experiencing. I have gotten so used to them that I have forgotten how it must be for someone new to Peru. Enjoy your stay in Chachapoyas, but remember this is promising to be rainy summer.

I sent you an email with a suggestion. Please answer before 11-12 am tomorrow. Thanks, Jan Briggs

Boo Howe said...

I love your writing, Kath. You two are really carrying us along on your adventures...thanks. Love, Boo

Kathleen Kearns said...

Aw shucks, Boo. Thanks for reading. We´re glad to have you along--and I think of you every time I use my bandana handkerchief!