Staff Blog


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Day 15: Coquimbo, Chile

Saturday, Sept. 27
Coquimbo, Chile

I woke Friday morning in Coquimbo, a desert region eight uncomfortable hours by bus from Valparaiso. The green, flower-covered hills surrounding the Universidad Catolica del Norte campus are an anomoly, according to my oceanographer hosts; usually the landscape here is brown. But it´s rained three times in the past few months, and the dormant wildflower and grass seeds took full advantage.

It´s been a fascinating trip, but also exhausting, and while I´ve had the lucky opportunity to chat with Peru and Chile´s smartest marine scientists, I haven´t had much time for play. The resplendent Valle del Elqui is only an hour away from here by bus, and several people have encouraged me to visit. Apparently it´s an energy vortex, like Sedona, where electronics and brain waves behave erratically. But yesterday was packed with interviews, and today´s flight is in three hours. No time.

My wild Friday night consisted of sitting in bed at the hotel and watching the U.S. presidential debate on CNN. The election seems to be of peripheral interest here and in Peru; a few taxi drivers have asked about Obama. They have a sense that he´s the good guy and think it´s a big deal that he´s black, but don´t know much else about him. They have all asked: Who is he running against? When I tell them John McCain, they ask: What about Hillary Clinton?

Fair enough. I will admit a little sheepishly that before this trip I couldn´t even name the presidents of Peru and Chile--Alan Garcia Perez and Michelle Bachelet Jeria, respectively--much less the presidential hopefuls.

Still mildly sick with a sore throat and fatigue, as I´ve been all week. Robin overcame her gut pains, flew back to Peru and is trekking Machu Pichu. My computer is no longer responding to the Chilean plug power adapter, so I´m typing on the hotel´s machine. I´ll have to upload photos when I get home tomorrow.

Home. The thought is more soothing than this cup of tea.

-Kera Abraham

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Day 12: Valparaiso, Chile

Wednesday, Sept. 24
Valparaiso, Chile

I wake up in a Pablo Neruda poem:

The Pacific Ocean spilled off the map!
There wasn't anywhere to put it. It was so big,
chaotic and blue that it didn't fit anywhere.
That's why they put it in front of my window.

(my translation of a fragment of "Una Casa en la Arena," displayed in Spanish on the living room table at Neruda's coast house, La Sebastiana, now a hilltop museum in Valparaiso)

Well, OK, the sea isn't right outside my hostel window; a classic car covered in spraypaint under a twisty "Where the Wild Things Are"-esque mural occupies that view. But if I were to slide down the steep cobbled street lined with candy-colored buildings, over a few precipitous drops, I'd eventually splash into the salty cold Pacific.

Valparaiso is an artist colony, a Dr. Seuss/Tim Burton town, packed with delightful absurdities. It's a playland, with impossibly stacked hills and houses connected by skinny twisty staircases and incline cars. Every wall is a canvas for murals, graffiti art, revolutionary declarations. Flowers grow from the spaces between cobbles in the streets. Artesan shops and hip little cafes and nasturtium vines sprout from the sides of narrow, winding streets. Men play drums on the propane tanks loaded onto the backs of trucks. The city spills colors all over itself.

Wish I could stay here all week. But tomorrow, alas, we're off.

-Kera Abraham; photo by Robin Parrott

Day 11: Dichato, Chile

Tuesday, Sept. 24
Dichato, Chile

The natural landscape here is dramatic but compromised. Entire hillsides have been excavated to make room for high-rise condo buildings. Clearcuts are bald patches in the vast young forests of pine and eucalyptus, neither of them native. My host tells me they were chosen because they grow fast and straight: living lumber factories on the slopes of the central Chilean coast.

On transportation: Chilean drivers actually respect lines on the road and stop for pedestrians. That's normal for Monterey, but it's a stark contrast to Peru, where crossing the street is a game of Frogger. ('80s children, you get me.)

Chile's transit system, however, is vastly superior to the U.S.'s. Buses and trains connect the entire country. Today we take a bus from Concepcion to Chillan, then a train to Santiago, and back on a bus to Vinas del Mar. Despite the two stops it's a relatively quick, easy and reasonably priced trip.

-Kera Abraham

Monday, September 22, 2008

Day 10: Concepcion, Chile

Mon., Sept. 22
Concepcion, Chile

After Peru, Chile seems very...what's the word? First World? Developed? I'm not comfortable with either of these terms, especially since they seem to correlate with lighter skin. But this is a first impression.

The people I've seen carry themselves more like Americans than Peruvians—absorbed in their own worlds. No one has tried to sell me anything or catcalled me. But strangers haven't smiled at me, either. Feels like home.

The fish market also contrasts sharply with the one we visited in Peru. The fish are displayed cleanly on tables, the shellfish arranged attractively in dishes, looking good enough to eat on the spot.

The Universidad de Concepcion campus feels something like the University of Oregon, with its statues and manicured lawns under gray skies, but with shabbier buildings. Students (the men hippishly scruffy, the women casual metro-chic) flow between classes like currents in a lazy stream. Outside the oceanography building, a giant whale skeleton swims in the air.

We are both tired and a bit sick. All this moving around is draining.

-Kera Abraham; photo by Robin Parrott

Day 9: Lima to Concepcion

Sunday, Sept. 21
Peru to Chile

Well, I got busted.

I bought the stuff in Lima the night before my flight to Chile. Packed my things and caught a few hours of sleep before waking up at 3:30am to take a cab to the Lima airport. I figured I'd enjoy it on the plane, before going through Chilean customs.

But I fell asleep on the flight, forgot all about it. In the Santiago airport the signs were everywhere, reminding me to get rid of it. A bulbous green receptacle at baggage claim offered one more chance, no questions asked.

I didn't even think twice. Thought I was clean. An airport dog paused at my bag, sniffed, raised its tail--then moved on.

When my bags passed through the customs x-ray, the officer pulled my backpack aside and asked me to open it. No sweat. Then, as she ruffled through it, I remembered:

Two oranges and a bag of raisins. Carajo.

The officer pulled out the offending produce and frowned. Come with me, she said.

I know agriculture imports are forbidden. And I understand why: the light brown apple moth, for instance, probably hitched to Cali on an innocent-looking fruit. The spore that causes sudden oak death, the scourge of Big Sur, is believed to have arrived on a gentle rhododendron. So these Peruvian oranges, and even the sealed bag of raisins, could theoretically cause serious trouble in Chile.

But I felt ridiculous sitting in the customs office like a kid facing the principal. Over the course of about an hour, I got a little lecture and had to sign a series of papers, including a statement--"I bought it in Lima, meant to eat it on the plane but fell asleep and forgot I had it. I'm sorry."

The fine might be $4,500 U.S., said the woman handling my case. Then she paused, just to watch me hyperventilate.

...But, she added, since you're not aggressive and this is your first offense, we'll give you the minimum fine of 37,000 pesos--about $75. The next time, she says, it will be much more severe.

I swore there would not be a next time.

-Kera Abraham

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Day 7: Pucusana

Friday, Sept. 19
Pucusana, Peru

Mom-and-pop fishermen are known as "pescadores artesanales," a tribute to the craft of fishing without the militaristic gear of commercial boats. Here in Pucusana, a dry coastal village about 60 km south of Lima, the muelle chico (small wharf) is dominated by hand-painted wooden boats owned by fishing families.

The fishing may be small-scale, but the collective toll is significant. There aren't many big fish left here, one local explains, and the next generation may have an even smaller catch. Without regulations, the pescadores continue scooping up whatever they can; even the little fish can be chopped up and eaten in ceviche.

A note on ceviche: The Peruvian staple is made with chunks of raw fish and garlic-flavored lime, served with thinly sliced onion, cilantro and sides of fat Peruvian corn and sweet potato. I ask about the risk of parasites in the raw fish, but the locals answer, "It's not raw; it's cooked in lime." Peruvian limes have a really high acid content, they explain, which kills any little organisms that might be living on the flesh. I don't know if that's a safeguard against Bubble Guts, but the fish pieces do appear opaque on the outside.

My new Peruvian friends are quick to warn me that I shoudn't trust the Chilean ceviche, because they use a weaker lime. It's part of a pattern of general disdain for anything Chilean. The Chileans are stuck-up, they say. They have no culture. And their Pisco sucks.

I fly to Chile Sunday morning, so vamos a ver.

-Kera Abraham

Friday, September 19, 2008

Day 6: Paracas National Reserve

Thursday, Sept. 18
Paracas Marine Reserve, Peru

Two dead sea lions lie belly-up on the desert dirt of the Paracas Peninsula, their bleached ribs showing through leathery black skin. They´re about a quarter-mile from the beach, much farther inland than lobos marinos normally roam.

A few feet from the carcasses sits a toppled wooden boat weakly proclaiming its name, "Guido," in peeling paint.

I am mystified, but the taxi driver explains: A tsunami surged two kilometers inland about 20 minutes after the 8.0 earthquake in August 2007. The sea lions must have been following the fisherman, heckling him for fish, when the water hurled them earthward. Neptune vomiting after a shake-up of a party.

Paracas is both desolate and abundant. Peru´s first and only marine reserve, it was created by the federal government in 1975 to conserve the diverse marine life that teems off the region´s coast. Fishing is allowed, but the methods are restricted. Signs remind fishermen not to use explosives.

Not much lives on the parched land, but the waters host roughly 300 algae, 200 mollusk, 200 fish and 100 invertebrate species. Otters, seals, turtles and thousands of grunting sea lions cavort in the deep teal sea. More than 200 bird species mob the guano-coated Islas Ballestas, including Humboldt penguins, pelicans, cormorants, ibises, condors and various boobies.

Speaking of which—the heckling from men on the street is getting tiresome. Cultural differences, I know, but the ability to walk down most California streets (Fremont Boulevard excepted) with a minimum of objectification is one happy consequence of the American feminist movement.

-Kera Abraham; photo by Robin Parrott

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Day 5: Just south of Pisco, Peru

Wednesday, Sept. 17
Just south of Pisco, Peru

Spent the afternoon in the San Andrés wharf with IMARPE's gentle Antonio Cabreras as my guide. Today's market is a crush of human and fish flesh, men hauling in the catch, women cleaning and selling it, their kids either helping out or whining for the candy that opportunistic vendors are slinging.

Friends, this is not Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf, where the seafood available to customers is displayed on ice behind glass. The day's catch is sorted by species and spilled onto the wharf's cement floor. In one area, fishermen bag their mariscos: wriggling crabs, scallops and mussels. Women at nearby tables pound the shells off snails and bag the tiny curls of meat.

In another area, the only pescados I recognize are halibut and bloody bisected rays. Dozens more species sprawl on the cement, some of them pretty alien-looking, whose names I can only scribble in Spanish. Fish with red dots or leopard spots, potato-white or gold-flecked black. Antonio's colleague, Sixto, finds one fish he'd never seen before, a bizarro thing with a head like a seahorse and skin fresh off a New York runway. Weirdest thing about this fish is that it has no scales or teeth. Its only apparent defense is a rubbery triceratops spine.

On another note, it seems I've underestimated most of my travel costs, based on the price ranges in travel guides. The constipated expression on George Washington's face explains it: Five years ago, $1 exchanged to about 3.5 Peruvian soles. Now it's worth less than three.

Today's New York Times online confirms that U.S. stocks are falling deeper into their "slump." As if a little chiro will straighten that economic spine right out.

But I don't expect any sympathy from the fishermen I've met today. A sack of mussels so big it takes a grown man to lift will fetch about 30 soles, or $10.

-Kera Abraham, photo by Robin Parrott

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Day 4: Pisco, Peru

Tuesday, Sept. 16
Pisco, Peru

On the evening of Aug. 15, 2007, an 8.0 earthquake struck the central Peruvian coast, flattening homes, hospitals, hotels, stores and churches. More than 500 people in Pisco and surrounding communities died, and a reported 70 percent of the region's buildings were destroyed.

Now, most of the town is under construction. Some standing structures appear hastily slapped together, with thin wooden walls. People pray in a church made of sugarcane. A local tour guide shows us a picture of the church that stood in its place before the terremoto: a stately 400-year-old landmark with exquisite details.

Natural disasters don't care about a country's GDP. Monterey or Carmel could find itself in the same situation—rebuilding after a devastating quake, doubly hurt by the property damage and the drop in tourist dollars. I think of Big Sur after this summer's fires. More than one businessperson has told us, "Thank you for coming to Pisco. We need visitors to survive."

We've heard warnings about Pisco's crime rate, but the locals we've met seem sweet and helpful. We eat dinner at a little family restaurant, where the TV is on full blast, featuring a ranting man in a suit whose voice is more fevered than a Baptist preacher's. That, the waiter tells us, is Peru's government spokesman. Quite a contrast to our prim Dana Perino.

We get a kick out of the bilingual menu. Bistek, beef, is translated to "beetsteak." Mate de coca, South American cocoa tea, is "killed of coca." Filete a lo macho—fish fillet cooked with parmesan and lime—is "filled to the male thing." Of course we order a few Pisco sours, the drink that made this town famous. The waiter tells us his brother makes the Pisco from uvas claras, green grapes grown in the hills to the east.

It's 10pm, but the sounds of traffic, radios, human and canine voices tell us Pisco is wide awake. "It kind of sounds like Burning Man," Robin says. In fact, the folks here are grateful to our fur-clad desert pilgrims: Burners without Borders, a volunteer group of roving ravers, is assisting the reconstruction.

-Kera Abraham, photo by Robin Parrott

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Day 3: Lima, Peru

Monday, Sept. 15
Lima, Peru

We rise at the crack to meet with MBARI's Dave Field, our giant blond oceanography tour guide, who escorts us to the Instituto del Mar del Peru (IMARPE)—the military-run marine regulation and research center at the national port in Callao. The IMARPE building is circumscribed by a fence and friendly guards who called Robin and me "bebita."

From the top floor of the building we can see that we are on a peninsula. To the north, an idle anchovy fleet:The fishermen have reached their quota until next season. An IMARPE scientist tells me anchovies represent 90 percent of Peru's catch by weight, and Peru has the most productive fishery in the world. That's a lot of Caesar salads.

To the west, a historic fort tells the story of Peru's battles with Spain (the 1865-1866 war over lucrative bird poop on the Chincha Islands) and Chile (the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific, which cultivated a bitterness that 125 years later manifests in arguments over the claim to pisco, an alcohol the Peruvians invented but the Chileans mass-marketed).

To the south, the poor and middle-class neighborhoods are visibly divided. On one side: the nicely manicured park and a charming trail along the water. Nasturtium flowers crawl up palm trees and an out-of-place rhino sculpture grazes in the dirt. Guards patrol on bikes, keeping a protective eye on us gringas in particular, and schoolkids in indigo uniforms crowd around a daffodil-yellow snack cart.

Garbage literally delineates the neighborhood so bad that a guard runs after Robin as she wanders over the line in deep focus. Lima's untreated sewage is discharged into the ocean just a few kilometers up the Costa Verde, I learn, and only the locals with fortified guts can eat the parasite-riddled fish baited in these waters.

-Kera Abraham, photo by Robin Parrott

Monday, September 15, 2008

Day 2: Lima, Peru

Sunday, Sept. 14
Miraflores, Lima, Peru

The taste of guanabana (soursop) and maracuya (passionfruit) juice takes me back to Central America nearly a decade ago. So does the smell of diesel in the streets. Peruvian corn has the fattest kernels I've ever seen, and it's served in cross-sections with a spicy lime sauce.

McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC, even a Gold's Gym colonize the Miraflores business district alongside high-end retailers hawking Givenchy and Guess, and cheaper outlets offering two-for-one polyester suits. The mish-mash of corporate and mom-and-pop stores reminds me of Seaside's Fremont Boulevard.

Kids play and couples make out in Parque Kennedy, a lovely stretch of green accented by rectangular garden plots. People gather to watch girls in yellow skirts and boys in green shirts dance to the thumping of drums. The tribal sound mixes with a preacher's sermon in the ornate church across the street.

-Kera Abraham

Day 1: Lima, Peru

Saturday, Sept. 13
San Francisco, USA to Lima, Peru

The 6am American Airlines flight from SFO is delayed two hours, gobbling up my layover and forcing me to trot a mile, lugging luggage, through the diabolical labyrinth that is Miami Airport. I huff sweatily up to the gate at 5:04pm for a 5:15pm departure. Incredibly, they let me board.

LAN Peru's service trumps that of any domestic flight I've taken since 9/11: hot dinner, coffee and wine, warm wool blankets, ample leg room, and personal TV screens with two dozen movie choices. All free, in coach.

Arriving in Lima after more than 16 hours of travel, I learn that American Air failed to transfer my checked bag. But immigration goes smoothly, and a half-hour cab ride through the streets takes me to a hotel in Miraflores.

The streets at midnight are bumpin'. On Saturday nights, the cab driver explains, Lima's jóvenes keep the bars going until sunrise. I ponder bed, but a posse of pigeons is cooing up a racket outside the hotel window, and a second wind blows me outside.

I grab a sidewalk table at a bar called Corleone, order a pisco sour and a plate of tart ceviche, and read a few chapters in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, glancing up occasionally at the buzzing stream of scruffy dudes in black leather jackets and fly girls with blond streaks in their straight brown hair. Shakira keeps the rhythm.

Sorry, Montereyans. Beats Alvarado Street, manos down.

-Kera Abraham