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Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Plan B

Back many, many years ago when I was still working on my plan A for life (college, job, family, etc.) I visited a lonely and fairly remote village on the Pacific Ocean in the north of Peru. The Pacific Highway turned inland for many miles at this point on the coast so there wasn't a direct bus route directly to the village of Puerto Chicama. I had just spent a few days of surrealist reverie in the mountain town of Cajamarca. It was here in Cajamarca that Pizarro began his conquest of the Incas almost 500 years ago. Holy Week, or Semana Santa as they refer to their Mardi Gras, had just ended. I could digress for many pages on that pagan/Christian festival but let me keep to this story.

I was on the Cajamarca/Lima bus and it was about 2:00 a.m. when I noticed that we were approaching the cross road to Puerto Chicama. I grabbed my pack and moved up to talk to the driver. He told me there was a small village on the highway at the cross road and he would drop me off there. As the bus sped away in the dead of night I looked around and wondered if the driver would hear me if I screamed for him to come back. The village was completely dark. Not one single, solitary light could be seen in any of the streets or inside any of the dwellings. Puerto Chicama was another few miles due west from here but that was an even smaller village than this and probably locked-up even tighter.

I was about halfway through a year study program in Peru. I attended the Catholic University in Lima, the best school in the country. When I told Peruvians that I was studying there it was like telling them I was going to Harvard AND Princeton. When I say that I was studying at that university I should put the word study in quotation marks because I did lots of things and study was probably what I spent the smallest part of my day doing. To this day I speak pretty good Spanish so I don't think I was wasting my time there. How many people can say that they actually remember anything they learned in college?

The fact that I was in a pitch-dark village in the middle of nowhere didn't bother me in the least at this stage of my stay in Peru and I was ready to sleep in some doorway or other. As I searched for a suitable place to flop for what remained of the night I saw a sign for a hotel. I knocked quietly on the front door. After a few moments an old woman carrying a candle opened the door. As she showed me to my room she explained that the village was completely without electricity for a few hours each night. She lit a candle or two in my room and shuffled out the door. I blew out the candles from the bed and noticed that the village was as quiet as it was dark.

The next morning I hitchhiked the three miles or so to Puerto Chicama. I had no sooner shouldered my pack when a guy about my age approached me and explained that the village had one hotel but not a single restaurant. If I cared to eat while staying here he invited me to take meals prepared by his mother at his house. Sounded good to me. He led me to the hotel. The place must have been built in better times because it was a pretty nice structurally although the rooms had become pretty worn out. The desk was downstairs and the rooms were above. The hallway between the rooms was without a roof and they all shared a single bathroom and an outdoor shower. The only other guests were a couple of Peruvian surfers. The bathroom was pretty nasty but my room was clean enough. I loved all of the graffiti and artwork on the walls drawn by other travelers. I am not much of an artist but I couldn't keep myself from adding to the decor. I penciled in a beach scene with palms and seagulls. I wrote a short paragraph explaining my existence in this coastal town and left a few suggestions for fellow travelers concerning other spots they might care to visit.

The second floor of the hotel had a balcony with a splendid view of the Pacific and I spent a good deal of time up there drinking cold Crystal beer, reading, writing, and gazing out over the water. I always tried to imagine I was an Inca seeing the masts of a Spanish galleon on the horizon. Besides trying to coax Mozart into leading a healthier life (so that he would have lived longer and wrote more music) my second biggest historical fantasy would be warning the Incas that the Spanish were a sack of bastards and should be killed on sight.

I threw my pack in my room, took a cold shower, and headed out. It was lunch time and I almost immediately came upon the guy who offered me board at his house. His mamá could cook like no other. I've never had better seafood in my life. Peru has about the best shrimp in the world, crab, and fish of all sorts--most notable here was the flounder. I had three meals a day in their home and was treated like a visiting family member. The se?ora's specialty was caldo de mariscos, a sort of Peruvian bouillabaisse with a huge cracked crab in the middle.

Puerto Chicama is fairly well-known among the surfer crowd for having near perfect waves and a long break along the southern point of the town. I wasn't a surfer so I spent my first day exploring the coast to the south. There is a small island close to shore so I swam to it and hiked up to the top. When I was living there the chief export in Peru was fish meal, a poultry feed made from anchovies. The cold Humboldt Current coming up the west coast of South America is one of the world's greatest fishing grounds. Another big industry in Peru is the production of fertilizer made from guano or bird droppings. These droppings are shoveled off the coastal islands like the one I was currently exploring. The sea birds of Peru are as diverse as they are numerous and their food supply--the anchovies--is endless. So Peru makes money on feeding birds and selling their shit.

After I reached the top of this small island I noticed a raised earth platform, perhaps three feet high--like a table. There was a human skull on the table. The really weird thing is that after having lived for six months or so in Peru and learning about all of the strange Indian cultures this didn't really strike me as odd. The drug culture among the various Indian civilizations is pretty intense. Coca leaves are sold (or were back then) legally in the Andes. Hallucinogenics can be found occurring in all sorts of plants. Although the skull didn't really alarm me I decided to swim back to shore just to be on the safe side. When it comes to ritual human sacrifice I prefer to error on the side of caution. Call me a pussy if you want to.

Although I don't have an ounce of entrepreneurial blood in my body I would sit on the balcony of my hotel and look out over the beach and dream of turning this place into a tourist destination. I began writing a short story about a disgruntled American who pulls up stakes in the U.S.A. and moves to Puerto Chicama to renovate a run-down hotel. He works with the villagers to turn the place into a sort of Peruvian Martha's Vineyard. God save the planet from such a dream but I have always thought that if life gets so bad that I needed an out I would try a similar adventure. I thought back then that everyone should have a plan B if things turned to shit, a sort of trapdoor to life, a parachute, an escape hatch.

I was a college student back then. I got fairly good grades and saw the world as my oyster with infinite possibilities. But even in those halcyon days I was already dropping out. I discussed this with the other students in my program, mostly kids from east or west coast schools much more expensive and prestigious than the Midwest state school I attended. I said that we all must have been dropping out by spending a year in Peru instead of spending this time in some intern program in Washington, D.C. or on Wall Street. They all disagreed with me. Who knows, maybe they are all doctors and lawyers at this point. I couldn't say if I've taken the road less traveled. It always looked pretty crowded to me but it has made all the difference.

I figure that I am on plan 6 right about now. I've been through the entire alphabet of plans, plans A-Z, then breezed through the primary colors, and 1-5 of the ordinal numbers. Life has been pretty good through them all I must say. Not too many things I can complain about that weren't all my doing. I have plan 7 laid out fairly well right now and have been saving cash for two solid years. More on that later.

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