“Just our luck. Two gringas,” says a man squished into the front seat of a small public transport van with his wife, the driver and a dog. In the back, 20 field hands, bank workers, grandmothers/herb and grain sellers, and children fill three rows of seats meant for 3 people each but actually stuffed with at least 5.
At least, that’s what I think the man said. He definitely muttered something about gringas (foreign women) and it didn’t sounds extraordinarily friendly, so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was just a little disappointed, not really angry.
“Yeah, two gringas who speak Spanish,” I replied, smiling, trying oh-so-hard to add levity to the situation.
From there, thankfully, Maureen – my friend, the other gringa – took over. It was going to be a long ride back from Marcarà to Huaraz from Carhuaz and before that, Chancos, so we’d better make friends. Especially when the combi would be bumping along the mountain roads, knocking everyone into their neighbours and we had the only “seats” left: in the front row, sitting on a plank facing away from the driver with our knees intertwined with the people directly in front of us.
We’d just returned from the thermal baths in Chancos. They were alright. We hadn’t waited the 4 hours in line for the medicinal caves with aromatic eucalyptus and huacatay leaves inside. Instead we’d opted for the bathtub-like private tubs and split one between us. It was hot, a little sulfurous, and really unhygeinic. Most of the locals come to the springs to bathe because they don’t have hot water in their own homes, so the public baths are pretty disgusting. the private baths are a little better, but like the medicinal caves, it’s at your own discretion how long you want to stay in there, so you could be waiting awhile for one to open up as the other bathers take their time. Then a couple of cleaning staff members go in with giant buckets of water and chuck them all over the floor to “clean.” Then it’s your turn.
Light-headed from the heat and steam after a long soak we grabbed a fresh-made orange juice with local eucalyptus honey (in our own water bottles, not the unwashed (“rinsed” in lukewarm water) glasses of the vendor in the incredibly touristy strip of stalls outside the baths. From there we headed to Carhuaz in search of guinea pig, manjar blanco, and ice cream (or sorbet, in my case). Sorbet didn’t exist, but we did find a homemade deep-fried guinea pig soup (the pig, not the soup itself) with boiled potatoes and nothing else but a good amount of salt at the restaurant recommended by our combi driver (a combi is a large van. A collectivo is a taxi that wait’s until enough people are going his way to leave, generally from village to village in rural Peru. Gas isn’t cheap.)
La Punta Olimpica actually knew what I was asking when I wanted to know if there was MSG or powdered bouillon in the soup. nope. Just salt, deep-fried guinea pig and potatoes – “aka kashki“. Perfect. Guinea pig is…tough. It has incredibly thick skin, so when you deep-fry it you’re not doing it any favours. I got the half guinea pig and it came flayed out over my soup. The tough skin would be fine if you could just remove it and get to the meat, but there’s really not a lot of meat. There are a lot of bones, and a thick layer of fat under the skin, and you can chew all the salt out of the seasoned skin, but the idea of swallowing a thick piece of leather whole is about the equivalent of swallowing the skin. So in the end, I ate the smooth and and silky potatoes, slurped the salty, oil broth (just what you need after a salt-reducing soak) and added some of the homemade hot sauce (oil and local chilies) for heat. I chewed my way through the guinea pig but when I finished there seemed to be more of it than when I had started. Guinea pig – 1, Amie – 0.
There are three ice cream places in Carhuaz. One has two sorbets. They’re no good. So stick with ice cream. There are lots of those. And avoid the market. It’s dirty, no one seemed to want to sell to us, and it felt very uncomfortable walking there. We walked a ways down through it from the main town square until I didn’t feel particularly welcome. Then we turned around and hopped on a collectivo back to the combi where we met out gringa-mocking guy.
We got lucky, though, because he just wanted to play.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked my friend, Maureen.The back two rows of combi passengers were smiling and shaking their heads at the very forward joking man.
“Yes! He’s very big and strong,” she added.
“You know, that’s okay, because I killed a man once.”
“Oh yeah? Well I killed three.” At this the entire combi cracked up. We were the entertainment for the rest of the ride. Well, Maureen mostly. Every now and then I piped in to say something like “No thanks, I don’t want to marry your 2 year old son. Maybe in 20 years.” Really, this guy was trying to pawn us off on anyone in his family if he couldn’t have us himself. Both of us, preferably.
So with intermittent jokes from the the man up front and Maureen, we bumped our way back to Huaraz. And the 15 people squished into the combi got a ride and a show out of the two gringas.