Friday, January 19, 2007

Logbook: Peruvian Ports

Peruvianports1Early Wednesday morning, I followed my usual routine of getting some coffee and heading out on deck to take a look. For what I saw, I had only one thought: “We must have docked in the wrong place.” As far as I could see up and down the coast, there was nothing but sand: beaches, dunes and mountains. Directly in front of me -- at the base of a huge sand mountain -- was a small, chaotic collection of run down buildings that I came to learn was, in fact, our intended port of call. Salaverry, is the main port for northern Peru and -- evidently -- a major source of sand. Besides that it has nothing going for it. Although the ship’s excursions to the nearby “old” city of Trujillo -- which focused mainly on shopping for arts and crafts -- didn’t appeal to me, it was immediately evident that staying in Salaverry for purposes of exploration would be of little value. So, I hitched a ride with the tour bus into the town square of Trujillo and hopped off. I walked around the square -- with its picturesque array of fairly well maintained and colorful “old” Spanish buildings -- for a few minutes then came upon a nice hotel with an open foyer. On a hunch, I went inside, fired up my Mac, and found an open, stable, wireless internet connection. After more than a week of limited bandwidth, I spent some quality time checking in with my “peeps.”

Peruvianports2At noon it was time to hitch a ride on the tour bus back to the ship in time for our early afternoon departure. Back out at sea, we were visited by a very large number of dolphins who put on quite a show. After a quiet night of cruising, we arrived in Callao -- the port city for Lima -- yesterday morning. Again, the scheduled excursions didn’t intrigue me, but Callao is a proper port and a proper port city so I decided to give it a try. With my pack on my back, I disembarked and immediately ran into some immigration officials with whom I started having a typically lively and entertaining chat in Spanglish. I asked to take a picture with them and one of the women asked me in return to show her how to use her new digital camera. I was happy to help, and within a few minutes she was all smiles, shooting away. That seemed to really cement our new friendship, so we carried on for a while longer and I asked for suggestions about what to see and do in Callao. They suggested I go to the old fort, but were concerned that I be very, very careful on the streets: “It is not safe.” I vowed to keep that in mind. Since Callao is a big, working port, pedestrians are not allowed to walk off their dock. So, I again hitched a ride on one of the excursion buses for a ride to main gate several hundred yards away.

As I bid my fellow passengers good day, I sensed a few of them gasping in mild horror as they saw the scene I was about to enter: chaotic traffic, milling crowds, abundant street vendors, vagrants, trash, filth and, of course, stray dogs. I will admit that it was all a bit daunting, but it didn’t make my internal meter go tilt, so I put my head down and walked briskly through the melee to a corner where several cabs were waiting. I hopped in one, pointed to the fort on my map and off we went. Five minutes later, I paid a dollar for the fare and got out at the fort’s main gate. I spent a few minutes admiring its architecture then saw a sign indicating there was a military museum on site. Approaching the guard at the gate, I pointed at the sign and asked if it was open. He made a brief radio call and moments later a man showed up to escort me inside to a ticket booth. I paid my entrance fee -- with the usual comedy of negotiating the conversion rate for dollars -- and joined a small group of locals ready for a tour. The young woman who would be our guide asked me if I spoke Spanish and I explained that I could understand it “mas o menos” if she spoke slowly and clearly. At first I thought this was a big lie, but over the course of the next ninety minutes it turned out to be only a small lie. I found I was able to understand about half of what she was saying and thoroughly enjoyed the tour through Real Felipe and Peru’s long and colorful military history -- most of which, of course, involves their various conflicts with the Spanish.

At the end of the tour I left the fort and sat on a bench in the small park just outside its walls. Within five minutes, three different people -- a Thai woman and two Peruvians -- came up to me and told me to be very careful on the street: “It is not safe.” I decided that this was enough of a “message” to be taken seriously, so I hailed a cab and pointed to the pier on my map. As we proceeded to drive away from the pier along the waterfront, I voiced my objection and told him to stop. We both got out of the cab and I pointed to the ship which was clearly visible in the other direction. We had a good laugh, because it turns out that far from wanting to kidnap me or anything, he had just assumed I wanted to go to the yacht club to get on my own boat! A few minutes later, I was standing at the main gate to the port. After showing my ship’s ID card to the guard, he asked me for a dollar -- an obvious petty extortion -- then allowed me to enter and board one of the port’s shuttle buses along with about a dozen longshoremen and other port workers. There was immediately a little joking going on at my expense, but I just spun my finger around my ear and said “Gringo Loco.” As usual, that did the trick and we all had a good laugh. I got off at the stop next to my ship and walked to the gangway for boarding. All in all it was a rewarding port call. Shortly, the excursions returned and -- after a brief delay while on of Peru’s two submarines cleared the channel -- we set sail for ports further south.

Today has been another fine “day at sea” and has been all the more enjoyable for me because our rapid progress to higher latitudes has been accompanied by milder -- at times even cool -- temperatures. Soon, I hope to break out the warm clothes that have been in my pack for almost six months! Over the next few days we will make port calls in Arica and Bahia Coqimbo en route to Valpariaso, the port city for Santiago, Chile.

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