Monday, April 19, 2010

The Old, Dusty, Roundabout Trail

Juleen left just over a week ago. Though, in our last blog entry, she suggested that our blog would be no more, she forgot one important thing: it's all the rage to resurrect oneself and come out of retirement. Christ was probably the original trend-setter. He was followed, a few thousand years later, by the likes of Ryne Sandberg, Michael Jordan, and, repeatedly, Brett Favre. Being the trendy type, I'm naturally following suit.

I wrote most of the following piece a few days into my stay in the north of Peru. Tarapoto, Peru is an interesting setting. Here I am volunteering for a total of two weeks. I am primarily doing two things: collecting and organizing parasite infection data and speaking with indigenous communities about climate change. Is Tarapoto as unique as I make it out to be or am I just cranky?

Another day and, though little was accomplished, the night beckons. The sidestreets are still of dust, and the dirtbikes and their brethren taxis still roar through the street, pale orange soil or otherwise. The stickiness is alive and well, too. After a few blocks, half uphill, of rapid walking the sweat begins to bleed through. In blotches, my grey shirt turns a shade darker. Even the delicious mint-chocolate chip ice cream couldn’t fend off the heat and its friend, sweat. This slow, dusty town is not strong on tourism, and I detest the weather, but it’s not all bad. Compared to the constant hassle of street vendors and beggars in Cuzco, this is paradise. Definitely wouldn’t mind the chill of Cuzco, though.

The Tarapoto, Peru Plaza Mayor.

Efficiency, as the cold, is not the order of the day here in Tarapoto. Perhaps the inhabitants have purposefully inserted squares where there should have been circles, slowing the gears, and keeping life from running as quickly as it could. Perhaps it would, at full speed, run away from them. Perhaps they’re weary of the heat and the sweat and, thus, intentionally add disorder to intentionally slow the pace. For me, the inefficiency is infuriating. Coupled with my frustration, each set of unnecessary added steps is another proverbial straw striking the camel’s back. It causes more, not less, sweat to pour out of me. My shirt darkens further.

Prime example: At the grocery store I ask for contact solution. The woman behind the counter grabs it, but, of course, she does not give it to me. Before making contact with the blue box that contains my solution, I must pay and get my receipt. After I pay, the cashier has another woman walk the solution to the distributor, a woman who checks receipts and hands out items. I must walk the 30 feet to the other side of the small store and wait in line to show my receipt to the distributor. I wait mostly patiently and fend off a rear attack by a potential cutter. With my receipt Xed, the distributor casually hands me my contact solution. Easy as pie!

The city sits on a grid. East-west streets around the plaza are paved. North-south streets, like this one upon which the URKU offices and, thus, my accommodations sit, are rarely paved, regardless of location.

Speaking of treats, after this consumer endurance test, I need an ice cream fix.

The ice cream kiosk sits at the entrance to this same grocery store. I approach the young woman. She is equipped with the scooper and access to twenty glorious, colorful flavors. I ask her which flavor is best. She starts to rattle the name of each. I cut her short. She confirms my suspicion; the green with a hint of darkness is mint-chocolate chip. I’m sold. “That one. Dos soles.” But she doesn’t handle money. She directs me to the cash registers where I must compete with all of the store’s customers and all of their items. All I want is an ice cream cone. Two soles. Mint chocolate chip! I hesitate, thinking about leaving the place just out of spite, and a bit of principal. “I can’t let them jerk my chain around like this! It’s ridiculous!” But I do. I want the mint-chocolate chip. It looks good, and it is.

Right behind these red doors? An upscale cafe on the Plaza Mayor that inexplicably closes during lunchtime hours.

I’m still conflicted about whether I should have bought the ice cream. But my experiences paying for printed documents and, later, trying to buy bread at lunchtime show me that unnecessary, painful, sweaty inefficiency is just how it is in Tarapoto.

Motorcycles and affixed chariots are the transportation mode du jour. I might sweat less if I took one.

Now, almost a week into my two-week stay in Tarapoto, I don’t let the city’s signature inefficiency bother me as much. It helps that I’m beginning to understand the calculus behind store openings and closures. Still, my bid to buy bread today, a Sunday, was nonchalantly denied. I am taking down hoops, but, still, there are plenty to jump through. Though I return to my small room dustier and damper than necessary, I usually enjoy the circus, or at least its ice cream payoffs.

An unrelated picture: My impromptu radio debut on Millenium Radio Sunday morning. Daniel, first from the right, surprised me with questions about why I'm here, what I've learned, and last words. I said that when I return to the US I'll be better at doing unexpected things, like surprise radio interviews in foreign languages. The guy in the deeper blue shirt translated everything into Quechua.


  1. It sounds like you are counting the days -- or at least the degrees. I hope you'll do at least one more blog entry though. I'd love to hear something about the parasitology project. See you soon --

  2. Loved the imagery I got out of your writing, Jody. Very nice. Thanks for scooting out of retirement for your admiring fans :)

  3. I think Jay-Z came out of retirement also...

    You're going to love the inefficiency of Oman, it sounds right up your ally.

    Lastly, I love your writing. Have you read "The geography of bliss" by Eric Weiner? I think you would love it. Courtney gave it to me and it was one of my favorite books last year. Juleen would enjoy it also.

  4. Welcome to Tarapoto! Sounds like you've already encountered some of the town's many quirks. I tried to buy a regular, no-frills pencil a few days ago; it took three people to sell it to me but the wait time wasn't too bad, just a little over 6 minutes. Incredible.

    Interesting blog. I've been living in Tarapoto for about a year and was previously unaware of URKU.

    Good choice on the ice cream by the way – mint choc chip is the best in town.