Monday, February 02, 2015

A Former Marine, Man Mountain And Skinny Jewish Guy Walk Into A Bar

A wonderful consequence of the publication of my 2014 book -- There's A House In The Land -- has been getting back in touch with old friends, some of whom I had not heard from, let alone seen, in decades.  Take Simon Lipstein. (Please!)  Simon could not attend our gala book signing/band reunion late last year, but he did send along the following reminiscence of a trip to South America 42 years ago this month embarked upon by one of the main characters in my book, a dear friend and himself.  Read it and weep -- with laughter.
In 1972-73, Tom Daniels was into Eric Von Daniken's books and came up with the proposal that an expedition to Cuenca Ecuador would be a good idea because Father Crespi lived there and he had several gold artifacts and a meteorite described by Van Daniken.  I forget the significance of this stuff, but I think it was that, combined with the lines at Nazca in Peru, there'd be proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life.  Whatever, the expedition was planned for January 1973, which was convenient for me since I was working at the Newark News Stand at that time and when the University of Delaware was not in session, business was slow and I could take vacation.  So, I volunteered, fully expecting that Tom would lead us.

As it turned out, Tom had great ideas for the expedition but couldn't, wouldn't and didn't go.  Do you remember this at all?  Before I go on, if you don't remember, don't scroll down and just take a guess at who, among the Medford crowd went.

It was Mack and Beet.  Try to picture that trio: Mack still in Marine shape but a little shaggy; Beet weighing in at about 300 pounds with shoulder length hair and me at my full adult 5'7" and about 130 pounds.  The adventure began with having to drive to Miami in order to fly to Quito on Ecuatoriana Airlines, about the only one that serviced Quito.  Do you remember anything about 1973?  There was a gas shortage, alternate day gas sales depending on the last digit of your license plate, PSA's asking people to curtail driving.  Not us!  We took off for Miami in someone's station wagon, my memory is Catbird's, with probably 15 red 5 gallons plastic jugs of gasoline strapped to the roof!  Unbelievable!  The car was full: Tom, Catbird, Mack, Beet, me and at least two others who I cannot remember  What I do remember is that as the smallest guy in the car, I never got to it up front or next to a window.
* * * * *

As I remember it we drove straight through to the airport, but I could be wrong.  Someone may have known someone in Miami where we crashed for a night.  Anyway, we discovered at some point that we needed shots to get into Ecuador and Tom said we could get them in Panama City where we'd have a stopover on the way south.  So, off we went in a little prop jet, my first time out of the country (beside Canada and Mexico).  None of us spoke Spanish and I remember only a vague plan based upon what Tom would have done if he had gone. 

We landed in Panama City and went into the city to a hotel and explored around a little and somehow figured out where to get the shots.  Before leaving the airport, though, we learned that Ecuatoriana's fleet flew south on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and north on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and prayed for safe flights on Sundays.  So, we had an extra day in Panama with no plans, no idea of what there was to see there or do.  But, being the sophisticated resourceful men of the world we were, we found a bar, ate ceviche from street vendors and figured out how to take a day long train ride along the Canal from the Pacific to the Caribbean and back, so we could kill our extra day.  That was great and Mack tapped into some local products that made the day unforgettable. 

So, on to Quito!  We land and the plan is to take a bus to Cuenca which is somewhere south of Quito, still in the mountains.  We take a cab to the "bus station" which is just a field with a bunch of school buses sitting around, randomly leaving and arriving.  Again, someone we find the right one and get tickets to Cuenca with no idea how far away it is, how long it will take to get there or really how we'll know when we get there.  Our backpacks go on top of the bus and on a balmy afternoon at 10,000 feet we get on board and get stared at by the entire busload of people, none of whom are as big as me and none of whom want to share a seat with Beet since the seats are their size, not ours.  We find seats anyway and off we go.  Spectacular views of the Andes as long as the daylight lasts, but after dark it gets really cold and our jackets are keeping our backpacks warm on the roof and we don't know how to ask for them or when the bus will stop so we can get them, so we suffer. 

Eventually, in the middle of the night, the bus stops at a cantina that is miraculously open as there is no radio or other way to communicate between the bus and the cantina.  We get our jackets and go inside to see what we can score to eat.  There's no menu, just apparently sopa (soup).  Well, that should be hot, or at least warm, so we go for it.  It arrives with a small piece of meat with a bone sticking out that could be a chicken leg, but doesn't really look like one.   We're cold and hungry, Mack is a Marine, Beet eats anything and I'm along for the ride, so we chow down.  Somewhere along the way we find out that a staple of their diet is guinea pig. 

We manage to sleep once we have jackets and wake up still high in the mountains and later in the morning arrive in Cuenca.  Its a beautiful town on the Inca Highway that continues on to Tierra Del Fuego.  We find a pretty good hotel and through a friend of a friend or something similar, make the acquaintance of a girl from Oregon who is teaching English there.  She shows us around town, introduces us to her students so they can practice their English on us and also act as our interpreters.  They know where Father Crespi's monastery is and take us there.  He does have some amazing stuff, but he doesn't speak any language that any of us or our interpreters speak, so its difficult to converse.  He also smells like he hasn't bathed since he took his vows, maybe he swore to poverty, chastity and stinkiness?  We saw a lot of the stuff that was in Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, including the meteorite and gold work.  We stayed in Cuenca most of a week, shopping, trying the local cuisine, and the teacher threw a party in her apartment the last night we were there and we coerced her into letting us sleep on  her floor as already our funds were running short.  She was paranoid that she would be disgraced if anyone knew we stayed there, but I think we pulled it off. 

* * * * *
So, then back to Quito by bus to catch a plane to continue our trip to Peru.  We had been given the name of a guy at the University in Quito who might be able to put us up for a night, so finding him was out goal.  We had our jackets for the overnight bus ride, but somehow we arrived in the middle of the night and had no idea where the university was in relation to where the bus field was.  I had some French from high school and U of D, and parsed together enough Spanish over those few days to ask "donde esta la universite?"  But Quito streets are up and down and not on a grid and there are no streetlights, so it was hopeless in the dark.  We asked a guy our age for directions and figured out from his answers that it was a long walk.  We got through to him that we needed a place to sleep and he seemed to offer the floor in his father's store.  So, off we went, hoping for the best.  We pass a corner with several people standing around, including one guy who is speaking English, so we ask him for some interpreter help and he confirms that our man is well intentioned, but that we have to get up and out at dawn before his uncle opens the store and that the university is that way. 

The next few details are partially speculative as I don't remember all of this.  We got to the university after a few hours sleep on a wooden floor.  I don't think we ever found the guy, but the food was more diverse and more identifiable.  We also discovered that we had another night to spend in Quito, so somewhere along the line we took a tourist bus to the Equator monument outside Quito so we could be assholes in the northern and southern hemisphere at the same time.  We splurged on a hotel room near the airport so we could was our clothes and get a good night's sleep.  I do remember the flight from Quito to Lima.  First the plane flew down out of the mountains to Guayaquil on the coast of Ecuador.  The mountains are jungly and dense, the coast is swampy and dense.  From Guayquil, the plane flew just off the coast to Lima.  Very nearly at the Peru/Ecuador border, the land changed from swamp to desert, showing the effects of the Humboldt current.  Still it was beautiful. 

And then there was Lima, a sprawling metropolis.  We still had nearly two weeks to kill, with plans to get up to Cuzco and Machu PIchu, then stopping at Nazca on the way back to Lima.  There was a vibrant community of travelers our age who were generally bumming around South America because it was cheap and easy to go from country to country.  We befriended a group of guys from France who among them were some who also spoke English or Spanish (no one spoke all three languages).  One way or another they were almost everywhere we were for the two weeks in Peru.  Lima was great, a large central square that was the meeting place for everyone traveling through and therefore a source of everything anyone needed including information on how to get around, where to eat and drink and stay.  But, it was also surrounded by government buildings and on our last day there, troop transports were guarding the square and tensions were high.  Time to hit the road again.
* * * * *

We headed to Cuzco first by rail to a town called Huancayo, I think.  That night, we again got a hotel so we could wash clothes in the bath tub and get some sleep.  Huancayo is served by rail because it isn't too high in the mountains, but from there to Cuzco it was back on the school bus.  But now we're experienced bus riders so we have some food and jackets and we can sleep sitting up.  Next stop is Ayacucho, after a day and a half ride, another middle of the night cantina, refueling from a tanker on the road and I still don't know how they set this stuff up.  We're riding through jungle and the roads are one lane with oncoming traffic, including trucks and other school buses, inching past.  There are animals on the bus, which is standing room only and again we have no idea how long the ride is.  We arrive in Ayacucho at night and figure out our next connection leaves in the morning, so we need a cheap room for the night.  This one was so cheap and in such a bad location that we blocked the door with the dresser.

We survive the night and its back on the bus.  This ride is again high in the mountains, with alpaca and other uniquely South American animals in the fields.  We're sleeping through the night, but I notice that the bus has stopped.  Not knowing the language keeps us from understanding why, but with morning we discover that the hours of rain during the night have generated a rock slide that blocks the road, which cuts across a steep mountain side with a river several hundred yards below.  There is a line of vehicles on our side of the slide and an equally long line of vehicles on the other side and crowds of people working both sides to clear the slide by rolling the rocks over the edge down to the river.  As scrawny as I am, I'm not much help, but Mack is a Marine and he jumps right in to the great appreciation of the crowd.  Then, out of the morning mist, a Beet arrives and a cheer goes up as though he can move the mountain by himself.  He can't and it takes hours to clear the road, repair it and for them to figure out who gets to go across the narrow crossing first. 

And so we arrive in Cuzco alive, muddy and tired.  Even in 1973, Lima was a huge city, trying to be cosmopolitan with bars, restaurants, high rise buildings and, of course, as the capital of Peru, government buildings and embassies.  Since it is also on the coast, there's a port and its just a big city.  In Ecuador, Quito was cute and Cuenca was quaint, or maybe it was the other way around.  None of the three was anything like Cuzco.  Cuzco seemed to be built of huge granite rocks and paved with smaller ones.  Its a tourist destination because it is the gateway to Machu Pichu, but it has a charm all its own.  The people seemed to be mostly local natives, Indians rather than descendants of the Spanish and very nice in comparison.  Yes, I have thought of retiring there in my wildest dreams.
* * * * *

Somewhere along the way we picked up Saulo, a Brazilian I think, who didn't speak English, but somehow we could communicate with him.  Together with him, we found a nice, low cost hotel room for all four of us.  Our plan was to stay a couple of nights, then go to Machu Pichu, then return to Lima  till the return flight to Miami.  We paid for the first night when we arrived.  We toured Cuzco for a couple days, reconnected with a couple of the French guys from Lima, learned to say "pollo con arroz" in the restaurants, and learned could get to Machu Pichu on the local train instead of the higher priced, more direct tourist train. 

When it came time to check out of the hotel, the owner wanted to charge us for the first night again, since he hadn't been there that night.  The language barrier sprang up as I tried to explain that we had paid for the first night when we arrived.  No one understands another language when they think they're being cheated.  Saulo intervened and I was able to make him understand, don't ask me how, and he was explaining to the owner that we didn't owe for the first night when the guy who was working that night  walked past our window.  I shouted to Saulo "I gave the money to him" in some form of pigeon Spanish, which he quickly translated so the owner understood.  My claim was verified and we were off.

The local train to Machu Pichu runs along the mighty Urumbamba River and makes many stops.  The tourist train makes no stops and people back then could take it to MP and get back to their rooms in Cuzco the same day.  So, the local train was crowded with locals and many people like us: traveling on the cheap, making friends on the way and enjoying the journey as well as the destination.  With Saulo's help, I had an extended conversation with a local guy who insisted that all of us were Communists.  There's only so much one can say with limited language skills, but the conversation was lively.  Each stop, each village was a little different and there were kids selling candy and sodas at each one.  Local color that the other train just blew through.

At Machu Pichu, there was a sturdy bridge across the river, it was a mighty river, and a little way up the hill a sort of roofed shelter with open sides where the backpackers could spread out sleeping bags on the dirt or on a couple of dozen bunks, or as I was lucky enough to score, hang a hammock from the poles of the bunks.  We were carrying a large pot and lots of people contributed to a stew that was shared for dinner, along with whatever else anyone was cooking or carrying.  There was a cantina a little further up the road and they sold beer to go, so that happened too.  Entertainment was provided by three Brazilians, two men and a woman, who spoke no English back sang a note perfect version of "Suite Judy Blue Eyes."

* * * * *
The next morning, well rested and well fed, it was time for the visit to Machu Pichu.  The site sits on a plateau about 1500 feet above the Urumbamba.  There's a road and shuttles navigating the switchbacks, but the Marine, the man mountain and the little Jewish guy needed to save money to buy souvenirs we'd spotted in Lima and didn't want to carry, so we began hoofing it straight up a dirt trail with Mack in the lead, of course.  Mack was silent, Beet was sweating and I was complaining, but after many a break we made it.  Wow!  MP is well known now so I won't repeat its history, but its worth the time and effort, no matter how expended, to see this place and imagine how it was to live there and hide out from the Spanish. 

Towering above MP is a pinnacle called Huayna Pichu.  There's a great picture of MP on its Wikipedia page taken from the top of Huayna Pichu that shows MP and the swithchback road beautifully.  Well, the intrepid threesome hadn't had enough climbing up to MP, so we took on Huayna Pichu.  The Incas had built a trail that included steps up the steepest parts of this climb, but, they were very small people and the steps were very small steps.  Certainly they didn't fit Beet's feet well and it was a tough climb for him especially.  The view from the top is worth every step.  The Urumbamba curves around the plateau on three sides and the Amazon jungle stretches away to the East, with the Andes on the other side.  And, in the heart of summer south of the Equator, its all green except for the rock.  Anyone who knows the three of us should take a moment to picture our 1973 selves clinging to the top of this spire with our mouths hanging open.  Check that one off the Bucket List.

It was time to head down, since even the walk back to the shelter would take a long time.  Of course we used the straight down dirt trail and spent another wonderful night in the community shelter with our international group of friends.  Many were leaving for further adventures in other South American countries, but our French friends were headed back to Lima, so we joined forces since they were not interested in returning the way we had come.  Instead, we would take a train to the through the town of Puno on the Bolivian border and the shores of Lake Titicaca, then south almost to Chile and the town of Arequipa.  Titicaca was beautiful, but it is so high in the mountains that there is almost no greenery.  In 1973, there was a heavy military presence at all border towns because of various rebellions and drug smuggling.  It was good to just move on. 

* * * * *
We left the train in Arequipa and had bus connections to make the next day.  We'd been on the road almost three weeks and I was exhausted, suffering from amoebic dysentery which is hard to avoid when eating local food.  I'd lost weight and my frame pack had gained weight.  Our frugal French friends almost never paid for lodging, so that night we bedded down with them on the concrete parking lot of a car dealership near the bus station.  Just what I needed.  During the night, some locals went through our packs, but we really didn't have much to lose.  We knew by then to sleep with our money and documents in our pockets.

Mack and Beet still wanted to see Nazca, but I didn't.  So, I retreated to Lima with the French and made plans to meet up with Mack and Beet in a couple of days in the Central Plaza in Lima, checking on the hour so neither of us was stuck in place all day.  To my delight, the bus back to Lima was a Greyhound style coach with comfortable seats and took less than a full day.  This was so close to American I could have cried if I wasn't so dehydrated.  True to their style, my French friends elected to bed down in a park in a residential neighborhood.  I awoke in the morning to the sound of footsteps coming toward us and quickly woke mes amis so they could speak for us all.  No problem, they were just checking that we were all right and that we knew we  had to get going pretty soon.  Okay by me.  We spent the day with a visit to the beach, then went to the movies to see Woodstock.  It was hilarious to see it subtitled in Spanish with every reference to drugs translated as estimulantes.  And Mike Donahue was there by the latrines as he is every time I see that flick.

Beet and Mack returned the next day and the meet went as planned.  We were seasoned travelers, so there was no sweat with loose connections.  We had enough money for a hotel near the Plaza, some good food and found the souvenirs we'd had our eyes on.  The French guys hung out with us and made sure we knew how to got wherever we wanted to go and got us to the airport on time.  The flight from Lima to Miami was non-stop and Ecuatoriana flies prop-jets on its long distance routes.  I couldn't believe there was enough fuel to get such a slow moving plane that far. 

* * * * *
The cultural contrast just landing in Miami was as stark as it could be after three weeks in the third world.  The crowd was friendly, but the customs officials were stern, unsmiling almost threatening jerks.  We had to uncap the frames on our backpacks so they could be sure we weren't smuggling anything.  No problem there.  The problem was that no one was there to pick us up.  I had a job at the News Stand to get back to before the university started up again, but Beet and Mack didn't. 
The Medford rolling gasoline bomb was not going back on the road for us.  Someone had a friend in Miami we could crash with and I called Mom for rescue: a plane ticket home if you want me back a work.  I left Beet and Mack there.  Mack went to the Keys, I don't remember what Beet did, but I didn't see either of them for a few months.  But, we were all back at Medford by Flag Day.

1 comment:

Jberry said...

Nice Story Si. Reminiscence of my trip at the end of that year through Mexico & Guatemala.

I've seen articles recently about Cuenca being one of the top five places for ex-pats to live. What I found most interesting is that it lies pretty close to the Equator but the yearly temp averages in the mid 70°F due to the altitude.

Appreciate the time you spent recalling this adventure.