This is another story from the continuing saga of me and Ms. B. on our first journey together in South America in 2011. I am finding great amusement reflecting now upon my younger self engaged in the ultimate heroic struggle. It’s kind of an old story and a new story at the same time. What does it mean to be independent? What does it mean to be part of a couple? Wherever do you draw the line? In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if Ms. B. was even mad at all because of my late night jaunt. As I read the story now, her character certainly does not show any evidence of anger. Perhaps I merely felt guilty because of my imagined misbehavior and I projected that guilt onto her perception of me. Human beings are crazy creatures and strange things sometimes happen. I will have to ask her. “Hey Ms. B. Do you remember that night in Cajamarca four years ago…” Anyway, this version may or may not be the exact truth, but it’s the way I wrote about it in my notebook back then.
The Big Party
Cajamarca, Peru Feb. 2011
Imagine the scene. Altahualpa, the leader of the Incas, worships the God of the Sun. He cannot read or write because the Incas have no written language. He and his followers meet the Spaniards in the main square of Cajamarca in order to welcome them to the continent. When Pizarro gives Altahualpa a gift of a Bible, the Inca leader does not know what to make of it. What is this strange thing you call a book? It is not food or drink or gold or silver. It’s not a tool or a weapon or a toy. What purpose does it serve? It is nothing. He tosses the Bible aside because he thinks that it is irrelevant. Unfortunately, the Spaniards think differently. To them, the Bible is significant, precious and holy. And because Altahualpa does not properly respect it, the Spaniards think they are morally justified to massacre the Incas. And so, they do. With their horses and swords and suits of armor, they have a significant technological advantage. It doesn’t take them long to kill thousands and capture the Inca leader. Thus, the history of South America changes completely because of a misunderstood metaphor.
When we arrive in Cajamarca on a Thursday evening in early February, we are seriously concerned that we will not be able to find a hotel. Why? Carnival… a very big Carnival. It was not our intention to go to Cajamarca for Carnival. We were going to Cajamarca as the first stop on the back way to Chachapoyas. As mature and responsible adults, neither Ms. B. nor I are big fans of the wild party scene. Yeah sure, I’ve been to a few wild ones in the past, and no doubt I’ve gone off the rails on the occasional bender. Indeed, if you read some of my very old stories, you will find that a small percentage involve me drinking too much of the local poison and embarking upon an inappropriate and overly ambitious adventure with just met locals. But all that is in the past. Now that I am traveling with a partner, I have to restrain my reckless impulses. So it definitely was not our plan to go to Cajamarca for Carnival. We were on our way to the Chachapoyas region for the natural wonders and the ancient ruins. Cajamarca was just supposed to be a one day rest stop in a nice mountain town with Inca hot springs. But the day we leave the beach in Huanchaco, a group of the scoundrels on the beachfront tells us “oh, you go to Cajamarca today, you will arrive just in time for Carnival, it’s going to be great. Cajamarca is the best place for Carnival in the whole world.” And then, at a rest stop on the bus journey to get there, a guy with a guitar sings a long and beautiful epic song all about the craziness of Carnival in Cajamarca. So we look it up in the guide book and the book warns us about the reckless abandon associated with the Cajamarca Carnival. Oh no, what are we getting ourselves into?
We arrive in the city in the early evening and take a taxi to the main plaza. It’s already swarming with people and there’s a big stage set up for a band and the preparations for an apparently grandiose fireworks display. Oh shit, I sure hope we can find a room. Surprisingly, the first place we look has a double available. It’s kind of a shitty room and is definitely a little overpriced but it does have a small balcony overlooking the street. Concerned about availability, we take it immediately.
After dropping our bags, we head out to find some food. A burger and a beer for dinner, it’s a little like being back home. But then we wander through the main plaza and it’s nothing like home at all. More and more people are flowing in. The police have blocked the roadways to traffic so it’s only pedestrians walking around… thousands of pedestrians. It seems like the city’s entire population of 100,000 is now swarming around the center plaza.
But the music hasn’t started yet or the fireworks so we decide to return to our room for a little while to rest up before the show starts. Our room is only a half a block from the plaza. We could not have a better location in terms of proximity to the action. Indeed, we can almost see the party from our tiny balcony. Ms. B. lies down on the bed while I sit on the balcony and watch the action in the street. It’s definitely getting crazy out there. After a while though, I too decide to stretch out on the bed for a brief rest… It sure was a damn long bus ride getting here and I am very very tired… I do hear the sound of loud live music and fireworks in the background of my dreams but somehow I sleep through the whole damn thing… and so does Ms. B. We awake at 3:00 in the morning to find that the party is over. Yeah sure, there are still many drunk people wandering around in the streets below our balcony but the music has ended and the fireworks are over. Oh well, Carnival goes on for many days. We missed opening night but there is much more to come.
The next morning, however, it does not seem like Carnival at all. The streets have been cleaned and there’s no music, no parade, no water balloons and no drunk people. It almost looks like the party never happened. We switch to a much better room with a balcony right on the plaza. Again, if it’s Carnival, how can such a sweet cheap room be available? Oh well, Carnival or no Carnival, we might as well enjoy the city. So we spend the day exploring this incredibly beautiful place. Once an Inca capital, once a Spanish capital, they chose the location for good reason. Nestled in a valley of green hills, abundance seems the overarching theme. We visit the main market. How many varieties of fruits and vegetables can possibly exist? They certainly aren’t going hungry in this town. Indeed, observations indicate that the average person is about twenty pounds overweight. Ms. B. and I climb steep stone steps to the top of a hill with a panoramic view of the city. We wander through the handicraft markets. Again… abundance; there is no shortage of well made clothing, accessories and arts and crafts. By any rational definition, the people here are very wealthy. By international economic standards, however, they are impoverished and underdeveloped.
For me, at least, the most interesting part of the day is our visit to Altahualpa’s prison chamber where we learn some things about the historical confrontation between the Incas and the Spaniards. Altahualpa was held prisoner for many weeks while he promised the Spaniards he would fill the room he was imprisoned in with gold and silver. Then, when he did fill the room, the Spanish murdered him anyway. They were going to burn him alive but he accepted Christianity at the last minute so they hung him instead. Ultimately, the Spanish won the war because of technology. Horses, suits of armor and metal swords made a big difference. Thus, an army of a few was able to slaughter thousands…
In the evening, there is still no sign of Carnival. Almost the opposite of the night before, the plaza is strangely quiet. There is no live music, no parade and no water balloons. What the heck is going on? After a cheap and delicious meal in a local eatery, Ms. B. is tired and wants to relax. We return to our nice room with a balcony to read our books and perhaps play scrabble. No Carnival anyway, so we might as well stay in.
But I don’t want to stay in and I can’t explain why. I guess there’s a bit of the devil inside. I have an inner impulse to misbehave. “I’m going to go get a drink somewhere. Maybe I can pick up some weed. I won’t go far; just around the plaza here.”
“No problem,” says Ms. B. as she lies back on the bed with her book, “have fun. But come back and get me later or let me know if you are going to be out for a long time.”
So I go to the local bar and have myself an adventure. Nothing too spectacular or even illegal but it is a bit like one of those crazed nights from years gone by. I know it can be dangerous and it’s definitely not good for my health, but getting drunk with stranger locals in foreign countries is something that I really like to do. On this particular evening, the alcohol in question is the Peruvian specialty of Pisco. I meet some fine humans at the bar and commence drinking it with them. The fine humans turn out to be off duty police officers but they sure are friendly. I have this great debate inside my head as to whether I should ask them about weed. We are all drunk together, all amigos, with loud cheers and much laughter. Certainly they wouldn’t arrest me or look down upon me for such an inquiry. They are off duty after all. But I need to phrase the question correctly and it’s hard to speak Spanish while drunk on Pisco.
The devil only knows where the time goes. I ask my cop friends about carnival and they tell me that events are staged in different parts of the city each night and tonight’s event is on the other side of town. I’m not sure how it happens exactly, but somehow I end up on the back of a motorcycle in a pack of motorcycles making my way to an after carnival party on the other side of town. The party turns out to be this chaotic rave scene with drugged out, half naked dancers, extremely loud dance music and flashing bright lights in this big old warehouse of a building. My life is so bizarre. Here I am, drunk out of my mind, in a foreign country, in the company of four friendly off duty cops, in a place that makes me think of hell’s disco. This might be a good one. I can sense the unfolding of a crazy story! Next up… guns and hookers and cocaine. Seriously, all I wanted was a little weed and I have found myself in the middle of one of those scenes again. Oh no…
But then I remember Ms. B.. She might be worried about me. I wonder what time it is. The truth is, I don’t like discos and I don’t much like guns or cocaine or hookers or cops either. Yeah sure, I do like a good story. But this one here is going nowhere. I excuse myself from my cop friends and go outside. I flag down a taxi and it takes me back to the hotel. It’s after three in the morning by the time I reach the room and I am somewhat intoxicated.
So Ms. B. is a little angry. It’s hard to say how angry because the power of the Pisco makes it so I can’t quite comprehend reality. No doubt, her anger is justified. I was inconsiderate and she should be mad. Luckily, I pass out into a sound sleep before she has a chance to fully articulate the depth and breadth of her disapproval. And the next morning when I awake with an oppressive pounding pisco hangover, Ms. B. is gone from the room. Thankfully, she didn’t take her backpack so she just went to breakfast alone. By the time she returns from her morning meal, I am mostly forgiven. She even agrees to spend the afternoon with me visiting some nearby Inca attractions.
The rest of the day turns out to be amazing. The ancient structures of Inca world underlying the modern Cajamarca gives the whole region a wonderous mythological atmosphere. It’s interesting to me that Christianity became the dominant metaphor but it’s the ancient Inca stuff that attracts all the visitors. The Inca baths and hot springs are just totally awesome. Ms. B. and I use the wrong tickets and a “duh.. we are stupid tourist” look to sneak our way in for a semi illegal private soak. What fun! Breaking the rules and getting a hot soak in an ancient bath is definitely good for our souls and bodies. Afterwards, we go on a public transport adventure to find the ancient stone ruins called the Ventanillas de Orusco. Admittedly, the ruins themselves are not exactly spectacular, but the interesting characters we meet as we find our way there and back again definitely make the journey worthwhile.
It’s after dark by the time we get back to the city center. We buy ourselves a bus ticket to leave town the following morning and we have a nice big meal in a local chicken restaurant. On the way back to our room, we buy a bottle of wine to drink on our balcony. It’s been a nice stay here in Cajamarca but the time has come to continue on. Standing on our balcony overlooking the plaza with wine glasses in hand we clink them together in a cheers. And that’s when we hear the far away sound. No doubt about it, it is drums and trumpets and fireworks. Do we, perhaps, have ring side seats for tonight’s Carnival performance? Sure enough, a short while later, the Carnival parade comes marching and dancing past our room. That’s right, we are leaving tomorrow to go to Leymebamba. But right now, this moment, our last night in Cajamarca, we have one more big party to watch from our ringside balcony seats. How good is this life! Cheers!