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Cat Blanket

 

 

There is a skeleton somewhere along this road, lying by a shrine, half buried by sand. I watch out for it each time one of the many, colourful little shrines flick past. A cyclist riding through South America has posted a forlorn photo of him standing looking down at the skeleton of the woman. She still has her long, black hair, he says, and her legs are badly broken. He wonders who just left her out here.

 

Some crazy person.

 

Shrugs a local when he asks. More likely an ordinary driver out here who figured they could get away with leaving her after they hit her, I think.

There are so many shrines along this road, so many accidents, but it doesn’t surprise me at all. Peruvians drive like they are playing a hilarious computer game. They cut us up, tailgate us relentlessly and squeeze in to gaps half the size of their car just to be in front of us. Jamie mutters under his breath as yet another truck overtakes us at high speed, nipping in front of us at 60 mikes an hour with less than a metre to spare and forcing him to brake hard because the space in front is too small. Fortunately, once we leave the towns and cities, the drivers are few and far between and it is mostly trundling lorries making the long journey to god knows where dotting the road at long intervals.

The wind howls through my helmet, uppercutting me now and again and blowing dust in to my eyes. Sand dunes roll in and out of the landscape, the light cutting beautiful shadows along their spines. Sometimes the landscape around us is beautiful, sometimes scratchy, barren and ugly. At times the road edges close to the sea which is often obscured by mist. Tiny towns crowd in to the bays but they are uninviting, mostly; dirt roads, piles of rubble and structural rods bristling from the tops of unfinished buildings. Often, stretching up long banks of sand are strange, seemingly uninhabited networks of windowless huts built from woven reed. I squint at them, trying to find signs of life but there are no cars, no motorbikes, no people. Occasionally, a string of tired looking washing hangs in shadow inside, I can see it through the gap between the roof and walls, but apart from that, no sign of life. There aren’t shops or anything for miles around and I spend the wind rushing, noisy hours on the bike peering in and trying to work out who these empty, shacky towns could be for.

The question remains unanswered by the time we reach Trujillo and peel off on a smaller road to the coast. Huanchaco seems to be a tourist destination but I can’t imagine there will be anything there at the end of the long, empty road. Dirty sand pours out around us in every direction broken only by concrete buildings and plastic bags rolling in the wind. The smell of the sea suddenly mingles with the dust in my nose and we round a corner to be confronted by Huanchacito, the little sister of Huanchaco. A few minutes later this has seamlessly dissolved in to our destination and we turn off the seafront on a search for our hostel.

At first the town looks to be a disappointment. More quick fix, ugly Peruvian architecture. How this nation ever managed to carve the razor sharp blocks of stone that would so beautifully connect together to become Macchu Picchu I don’t know. Unpainted breeze blocks and flimsy, drunken looking concrete will be this generations gift to their descendants. We ride through the back streets with a sinking feeling until we get to our hostel at the far end of the beach and things start looking up.

Huanchaco has a certain, cool, blanched charm. The pale light washes clean the pastel shades of the houses and lights the swathes of sand in the gutters giving the place a slightly ethereal air. There are murals painted on the walls; a smiling, besuited cat, a group of haunted looking, brush haired men. The hostel is comfortable and clean, a sun bleached patio with a narrow gap through the bougainvillea covered rooftops to the sea. Birds chirrup in the vines growing up the walls and later, I will scoop a tiny chick from the road. It’s anxious parents will follow me as I push it in to a cradle of twisting branches. I can’t find the nest from which is has fallen so it perches there in unfamiliar surroundings, it’s ugly, tiny, downy face looking pissed off and its chirrups panicking its parents further.

The warm, turquoise seas of central America are a dreamy thing of the past here. The Pacific is tumescent and bone achingly cold. Surfers glide on the indigo waves, far out by the pier as we gingerly let the chilly waters lap over our feet.

 

Argh god no!

 

I screech at Jamie once a wave has knocked me in and the water has swallowed me up. There are big stones at the bottom on which we repeatedly stub our toes and after 45 seconds of strained swimming, we get back out and sit in the sunshine on the empty beach. Two men stand bare chested in the water swiveling their hips and reaching in to the water. They pluck something we can’t see from the seafloor and throw it in to a net and then swivel again, pluck and chuck.

 

What are they doing? Is that stones? What is that?

 

I ask Jamie who peers intently at the men as they are knocked about by the surf. Eventually, heaving a net full of large, purple crabs out the water, one man walks up the beach, tips the confusion of orange legs and bruisey coloured shells in to a hole he has dug in the sand. He lays some plastic sheeting over the top of the haul and steps back in to the waves. We don’t know how they are doing it and watch, mystified and enthralled as they swivel and chuck. Why aren’t the crabs rebelling? Do the men have iron toes? What are the crabs for?

Later, we walk in to town to find lunch and there on the menu, plates of crab. We wonder why there aren’t more people stumbling about, waist deep in the waves making money with their iron toes. Disappointingly the crab only turns up in the posher restaurants to which we don’t frequent so we never get to try them. Instead, we scarf down plates of cheap ceviche followed by fried rice with squiggly things from the sea or deep fried chunks of fish in little back street restaurants. We interrupt a family eating their lunch, sending them all back to the kitchen, plates of food gently steaming on the table. They cheerfully bring out our food and charge us a pittance for the trouble. We slink out guiltily afterwards, buzzing with Inca Kola and wondering how they make a profit from these prices only to return the next day for more.

People drive to the beach and couples seat themselves in the sand to watch the sun go down in the evenings. Though it’s not the most beautiful stretch of coast I have ever encountered, there is something friendly and communal in the sharing of a sunset. I leave Jamie reading at the hostel and stroll past the snogging lovers and families gathered around their cars to the end of town. The buildings suddenly finish and beyond, a long stretch of rocky, empty cliffs stretching in to the distance. It is one of the loneliest sights I have ever seen and I realise how empty this corner of the world is. It’s just little bundles of houses clinging together in a sea of nothingness. I stand on a grassy hump of sand staring at the disappearing rock face and then in to the shallow pits of sand beside me. They are marshy and damp looking with great long reeds growing from the middle. Wonky, wooden structures built in to the sand sag under the weight of blackened, rotting bundles of reed and I am puzzled by their abandonment. They build beautiful canoes here from the reeds once they have dried and turned golden. Perhaps they have found a new and superior source of reed? Certainly, when we visit Chan Chan, a nearby Inca ruin, great tall healthy swathes grow in abundance from the reservoir there putting the sickly looking ones in Huanchaco to shame.

Chan Chan, Mochica for ‘Sun Sun’ is outside Hunachaco in the desert so we hop on a collectivo and squeeze in to the back seats. The battered up minivan stops and starts all the way down the seafront. The young man collecting money throws open the door and shouts Trujillo Trujillo Trujillo out the door and more people jog up and jump aboard. It’s only when I notice a series of high, crumbling walls rising from the dust sailing past us that I realise the driver isn’t stopping.

 

Chan Chan?!

 

I call at the conductor.

 

Chan Chan!

 

He shouts back and the driver stops. We tumble out in to the desert and walk back along the road, cars roaring past us.

The main site is a half hour walk from the highway and we follow a long, narrow road through luminous carpets of softly blown sand, squinting in the bright sunshine and listening to the encroaching silence. Huge adobe walls rise from the ground in front of us, the original bricks peeking through the dusty stucco laid on top. The landscape is reduced to a series of high contrast shapes formed of deep shadow and curves of hot, splashed sunshine against the blonde walls. The spectrum is reduced to pale straws, deep browns and the intense blue of the sky. A vulture sits atop one of the walls and looks anxiously down at us, flying away in a panic as we approach.

There are no entrance signs, no kiosks in sight and we wander about for a while, lost in the dazzle. Eventually one of the workers excavating the sight points us back in the direction we have just come from and we find we have walked straight past the entrance. A puzzlingly large group of police are gathered in front of the ticket office, milling about and chatting. They greet us as we peer in to the dark ticket hut asking for two tickets. The tickets are slid out from the darkness by a woman who takes one look at the note Jamie gives her and shakes her head.

 

Sorry, no change. It’s too big.

 

The tickets have cost us twenty Soles and Jamie has given her a fifty. This is the main archeological site in the area and the ticket booth hasn’t got any change. This has been a reoccurring theme on this trip, people wincing as we hand over a ten note to pay for something that costs seven.

 

You don’t have change?

 

They will ask, looking worried.

 

Er…no….

 

We will say, wondering how a shop can have absolutely no change at three in the afternoon and we will have to put things back on the shelf or the proprietor will scurry off down the road to borrow change from fellow vendors. It’s odd but understandable, many of these people are poor and don’t make many sales or are reluctant to hand it all over to bimbling tourists if they do. This place, though, this is a Unesco World Heritage tourist site with security, a big excavation team, money thrown at it, and still no change. We are told we have to wait until other people come so we sit and we wait and no one comes. A couple of policemen wander up and ask us the problem then riffle through their wallets to look for change but no one has the right combination. They shake their heads regretfully and practise their English with us instead.

Eventually I ask Jamie if he has a ten. He answers in the affirmative.

 

Do you have two twenties?

 

I ask the woman in the ticket office. Of course she does. I hand her the extra ten and we are given our tickets and two twenty Sol notes as though it was the obvious answer. I feel like I just solved a puzzle of The Crystal Maze and we are off to the Aztec Zone to crack more brain teasing problems.

Chan Chan is so worth the effort even though Richard O’Brian is nowhere in sight. It is old, really old, built over 2000 years ago, surviving until the dastardly Incas came and did a number on it in 1470. Undulating stone walls fill the space in front of us, their tops worn soft and round by centuries of desert wind and the twenty five year cycle of storms produced by El Niño. Long, straight corridors funnel us in to vast, empty plazas blazing with light. The Chimú people who built the city, worshipped the gods and goddesses of the moon and of the sea. The sea in particular is a reoccurring theme throughout the place. The original fish net ornamentation is still carved sharply in to the adobe walls and repeat carvings of turtles and toothy fish encircle the walls. The place is utterly quiet but for the sound of birds and the faint, shushing whisper from the reeds blowing in the breeze and I can smell the sea beyond the walls but only just.

I stand staring out over the low walls trying to imagine the people who built it looking back at me but fail completely. It’s too alien a place to make the connection. Jamie takes photos from the top of some steps and waves when I turn and see him. Someone has scratched ‘Jesus‘ in to the wall and I can’t help wondering if desecrating historical sites with his name was exactly what Jesus had in mind. There are other names scratched in to the walls too, each person convinced of their own little piece of immortality as they carefully formed the letters in the dried mud. Like the blurred walls around the edges of the site though, the melting, crumbling, almost unrecognisable relics of this civilisation, these scritchy, scratchy pieces of graffiti will be smoothed away by the passage of time too. I sigh under the weight of this thought and go to join Jamie and suggest we get an icecream. If everything ends, might as well have a treat before it does so.

As we ride out of Huanchaco the next morning there are a dozen or more locals out at sea paddling about in reed canoes. I point them out to Jamie who, until now, was convinced they were a tourist attraction only. The front of the canoes curve elegantly up out of the water and the rising sun makes silhouettes of the beautiful shapes. I think of the undulating reeds at Chan Chan and realise I am seeing a little piece of history that has survived to the present. Maybe, I think, not everything and everyone is forgotten. Good for Jesus, Diego and Paola ‘n’ Jose (4 eva).

Lima is a long haul down the coast and we intend to stop halfway down in a little town called Huarmey for the night but we are feeling wide awake and raring to go by the time we reach it. Only another three hundred kilometres to go to the capital.

 

We’ll be there by half four.

 

Says Jamie confidently and with that we drive on through the endless sand towards Lima, looking forward to some good food for which the city is famous. We don’t anticipate the traffic. Remember that bag of cats who organised Medellin? Well they have brought the same team in for Lima only this time they gave them traffic lights. Cats must like traffic lights because there are thousands of them. There is no metro system here, no trams and no separate bus lanes so everyone drives and they all do so like maniacs. In some places, four lanes of traffic are merrily waved in to one by traffic wardens and every half kilometre is a set of lights. Each set of lights is green for ninety seconds and red for ninety. In the ninety seconds of red, the half kilometre section behind fills with traffic right back to the previous lights and so on until the city is completely gridlocked and all the cars grind to a halt, except the taxis who seem to think they are exempt and try to drive in to fourteen centimetre gaps wherever see one. In Peru, people use their car horns a little like marmots use their little shrieks. They warn other people they are coming through, warn of intruding vehicles, say hi to one another, announce their arrival and sometimes, just beep because they can. Lima is a noisy, noisy place.

Fourteen hours after we set off in the morning, we arrive, faces blackened by traffic fumes and almost unable to get off the bike so locked are our poor knees. Jamie has left long strings of foul language festooning the streets of Miraflores and has driven at high speed the wrong way up a one way street to demand answers from the traffic police. He has squeezed through gaps between buses, wobbled over holes in the road, driven in long, frustrating loops and waited at about twelve thousand traffic lights. The ten mile journey from the edge of Lima to our hostel has taken four hours. Two of those I have desperately needed the toilet and all of them were done on a tyre flatter than a Lima pedestrian crossing the road in rush hour.

We knew we had a puncture right back in Piura but the tyres we ordered are only available in Lima so Jamie plugged it carefully and we hoped for the best. The best however, eluded us and eventually a taxi driver leant out the window and pointed out the sagging tyre to us and we had to stop again. An hour later, surrounded by intrigued and helpful men who make suggestions in rapid fire, heavily accented Spanish all at the same time, we have fixed the tyre again with the help of some mysterious black liquid and a new plug. When I ask the owner of the tyre shop what the liquid is, I am fairly sure he says milk and gasoline. This being Peru, anything is possible.

Whatever the liquid is, it holds the plug in and puncture closed nearly all the way to Lima but the 600km journey eventually works its black magic on our repair and the tyre is so flat that Jamie can’t get a pressure reading at all from it by the time we arrive. We have dented the rim twice and are still a twenty minute drive from our shiny new tyres. We couldn’t care less though, our knees ache, our heads buzz, we are hungry and tired and cross and all we want is a hot shower and a comfy bed.

Fortunately we have both those things in our cosy, friendly hostel which is tucked away in the oldest building on the street right next to the towering, marble clad Crown Plaza hotel. It’s a rather odd mix of places to find on the one street but we are in the heart of Miraflores, the safest, most cosmopolitan area of Lima and we have steaming showers and a telly in our room so we are fairly ecstatic.

Lima has a bad rep. It’s coastal position and relatively warm climate leave the place perpetually in the gloom of low, grey cloud and fog. The traffic is some of the worst on the continent and great swathes of the city are acutely poor and dangerous to be in. However, there are long, kempt parks skirting the cliffs in which reams of families exercise, paraglide, caffeinate, cycle and chat. Some of the best chefs in South America produce some of the best food in its myriad restaurants. There are thriving shops, cinemas and cafes, beautiful, old mansions, interesting museums and glinting shopping centres. Best of all though, there is a park full of cats.

It’s called Kennedy Park and it is right in the throng of things. Edged on all sides by traffic, bars, cafes and shops, we really have no idea how so many felines decided that this was their kind of place. It’s not peaceful, private, warm or replete with sofas so its not clear what brought them here. Here they are though. Everywhere we look, a cat is curled in the grass, in a flowerbed squashing the marigolds, under a bench, creeping in to your lap when you aren’t looking. There are tiny kittens and big old bruisers. There are ginger toms and delicate mackerel tabbies. Some are boney, some corpulent. Everywhere there are cat biscuits. People come here specially to feed them. A charity taking donations even comes and puts out plates of cat meat to which seventy, eighty cats flock and snatch mouthfuls occasionally growling and batting one another over the head but mostly peaceably helping themselves and moving on for others as they arrive.

It’s my favourite place probably in the universe. We come back each time we are passing nearby and just sit on the benches lending our laps to those in need of a stroke and marvelling at the weirdness of the place. In one corner, beside a pile of gravel and tangled plastic cordons are a great pile of cats just lying on each other. There must be ten in a great furry puddle of whiskers and blissed out faces. We stand next to them and stare.

 

It’s a cat blanket!

 

I shout excitedly.

 

I want a cat blanket!

 

One pale ginger tom opens his eyes sleepily to see what I am fussing about but can’t seem to stay awake. He stretches his long legs and shudders then flops back and slumbers once more. I have to restrain myself from scooping the whole lot of them up and stuffing them in our panniers.

The place is completely ridiculous and it’s hard to draw ourselves away, so comical are the galloping cats escaping from excited children, bullied kittens, slinking wimps and punch-ups between matriarchs but eventually we must. There are, after all, many things to see in Lima that don’t have paws. We wander out past benches of people, each group with a dozing feline keeping them company and out in to the city. The day is growing dim and we have an appointment with James Bond. Don’t tell him but even in his little, blue swimming shorts, he can’t compare to the cat park. He can try though. But he’ll have to try pretty hard.

 

Yucca Cheese Pancakes

This is a recipe I was given all the way back in Colombia. They are baked in the oven thus not technically pancakes but you could pan fry them in oil too. They are fine textured and deliciously gungy and can be eaten on their own or piled with eggs, cheese, salsa, whatever you think.

1lb cheese, any cheese should work but I recommend something like caerphilly, lancashire or perhaps a strong cheddar.
1lb yucca (cassava or manioc) flour- available online here or at African or South American shops.
1 teaspoon of baking powder
3 eggs
Salt to taste
Milk

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees celsius.
Whisk the yucca flour, baking powder and salt together then add the eggs and stir together. Add milk a tablespoon at a tine if the mixture is too thick. Grate the cheese and stir in.

Drop spoonfuls of the mixture on to a lined baking tray, you want them to be somewhere between ping pong balls and tennis ball sized depending on what you want to use them for lower the temperature of the oven to 150 degree and put the tray in. Cook until they are a pale golden brown and spongy to the touch.

Equally you could fry these in oil in a pan on both sides.

Nom.

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