Opinion

A traveler and his hosts

Bob Graef -
Bob Graef
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After spending three weeks split between visits to the high Andes and the headwaters of the Amazon were home again. Looking back, and aside from the many spectacular sights and experiences, our most lasting memories will be of people.
Norma: One of Cuscos legion of street vendors, 14-year-old Norma accosted us outside the Cathedral. Finger puppets. You buy!
She was telling me to reach for my money, and I might have had previous hordes of vendors not raised my defenses. No, gracias, I said, but she persisted in surprisingly fluent English.
Why you no want to buy? You American, you have money. You buy for your children. How many children you have? And she thrust out a hand clad with home-knit finger puppets. She wasnt going to give up.
Where you live? she demanded.
In the United States.
Where in Estados Unidos?
Washington State. Not Washington D.C.
Where is that?
By the Pacific Ocean, near Canada.
Near California, capitol Sacramento?
No. Above above California and Oregon
Yes, Oregon. Capitol is Salem.
Washington State is above Oregon in the northwest corner of the United States.
I know who George Washington was. First president.
Oh really?
Yes, and then Adams, Jefferson and Madison and Monroe.
Her knowledge of the U.S. stunned me. We talked about her school and family. I handed her the price of a couple finger-puppets and left. When I looked back she skewered me with a steely look that said Id done the wrong thing, made a beggar of a salesgirl.
Vincente: Cusco has two taxi fleets. Tourists ride in mid-size Toyotas and Nissans with English-speaking drivers. Locals ride in Daewoo Picos like Vincentes tiny 4-seat sedan. Vincente agreed to take us on a tour of Cuscos barrios for 10 American dollars.
Vincente speaks Spanish and the Inca language, Quechua. He has two children and hopes to save enough to marry their mother some day. He drives from 6:30 a.m. each morning until 8 in the evening. Too many taxis, he said, so it takes long hours to survive. Vincente loves soccer and his passion for the game suggested that it might be the only thing that would cut into his driving hours.
Simon: We were eying an Inca wall near our hotel when a teen-ager sidled up. I am Simon. You see the twelve-cornered stone?
Yes, weve seen it. He followed us, carrying on about different styles of Inca stone-work. When wed left the crowd behind he said, You pay 30 Soles for guided explanation, please.
No way. Wed paid Vincente the equivalent of 30 Soles for an hour tour. When I handed him three Soles (A handsome tip in Cusco) he turned mad as a hornet and demanded his fee. We told him that we hadnt asked him to follow us, his fee was too high and to please go away. He shrugged and went in search of other suckers.
Clever: Leaving the airports baggage-pickup at the Amazonian city of Iquitos, we spotted a sign saying, Graef. Clever, the sign-bearer, used the bus-ride to our hotel to present us with his plan for our time on the Amazon. But having done a thorough web-search, we had ideas of our own which we checked out in tourist offices the next day. To our surprise, Clevers package was closest to what we wanted and he priced it at just over half the price of competing river boats and camps.
Antonio: While buzzing us toward a restaurant that evening, the driver of one of Iquitos three-wheeled moto-taxis asked how long we were staying and what we planned to do. When we said we were booked into a camp up the Yanayacu River, he asked if it might be Clevers camp (So Clever owned the camp). Antonio said he was Clevers cousin and often worked for him. We found Antonio and his moto-taxi lurking outside our hotel whenever we emerged.
Pam: Pam was the lovely Peruvian co-owner of the restaurant, The Yellow Rose of Texas. Our sidewalk table was a magnet for child-beggars whom she handled with tact and humanity. Dirty and undernourished, they would have pestered diners had she not shooed them off, but only after handing each a bit of food, likely scraped from a plate. I gave her a thumbs-up on her performance. When we returned twice more, it was to hugs and air-kisses from Pam and chats with her husband, a retired Texas oil-man. If you find yourself in Iquitos, dont miss the Yellow Rose of Texas to get the best Pisco-Sours in town.
Timo: Timo is a jungle guide and Clevers brother-in-law. He led us to remote forest villages and manned the forward paddle during our probes into the flooded jungle by dugout canoe. Timo is bothered by his spotty English so he quickly enlisted Evie and me as tutors. A man of the jungle, he has an uncanny eye for spotting and pointing out near-invisible critters frolicking or dozing in the forest canopy. He taught by example that voices and paddles should remain silent if one wants wildlife to show itself.
Since we were the only guests in Clevers rustic camp, Timo and his sidekick, Manuel, had ample time for lounging in hammocks. Instead of dozing, they passed a book back and forth, quizzing each other on English vocabulary. Manuel turned out to be Clevers youngest brother. When we borrowed a smaller dugout from Clevers sisters upriver home we rightly suspected that our stretch of the Yanayacu belonged to Clevers family.
Id love to introduce you to Senor Guerra, the snake man, and all the other congenial mountain and river people who welcomed us to their fascinating country but it would be far better if you could meet them in person.

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