Beating Soroche

I made it to Puno several days ago for what was to be the high point of my trip. Of course, I am referring to the altitude of 12,500 feet. Tomorrow I venture out on Lake Titicaca to see the Uros Islands (floating agglomerations of reeds anchored to the lake on which people live) and Isla Taquile. Since today was rainy, I expect the water to be rough, so I purchased some dramamine at the local InkaPharma just to be on the safe side.

If you have been following my posts about Peru, you know that I was fearing the ill effects of soroche, acute mountain sickness. Although I am still occasionally short of breath and have to wake up two or three times during the night, these are considered normal reactions. I took a two-pronged approach:

  1. I had my doctor prescribe Diamox (generic: acetazolamide). I take one tablet a day, and that does tend to account for several of my night trips to the bathroom.
  2. I take coca leaves in two forms, both of tea and, when the symptons worsen, I chew the leves directly. It helps to have a high carb diet to go with this.

It’s nice to be able to plan for this sort of thing. In the lobby of Puno’s Casa Andina Classico Tikinari Hotel, I get a big kick out of the whey-faced travelers staggering in with their giant rolling suitcases only to hear they will be picked up at 7 am tomorrow for several tours for which they are totally unprepared and likely to beg off from because their head aches, they are dizzy and nauseous, and in general remorseful for ever having signed up for their trip.

On Saturday, I board the Andean Explorer, a famous train that crosses the altiplano from Puno to Cuzco. That’s where you’ll hear from me next.

Under Three Volcanoes

I have made it to Arequipa, which is surrounded by three volcanoes, El Misti, Chachani, and Pichu Pichu. We are at approximately six or seven thousand feet. During the days, the weather is sunny and warm with cool evenings.

Yesterday I visited one of the greatest tourist sites I can remember: the gigantic Convento de Santa Catalina. It is so large as to be almost a city within itself. Here several hundred Dominican nuns lived and died, never leaving the convent grounds. A locuturio was provided to communicate with members of their families, consisting of a series of benches in front of grills. For most of the nuns, they had to have a chaperon to make sure that nothing inappropriate was being communicated (this did not, however, apply to senior nuns).

The grounds had several cloisters and “apartments” for the nuns and their servants, consisting of a spartan bedroom with pryer alcove, servant’s quarters, and a kitchen.

In Arequipa, it was expected that the eldest daughter would marry, and that the second (and subsequent?) daughters become nuns. Consequently, many of the nuns were from good families. Indigent nuns, of which there were several, themselves became servants to other nuns.

Tomorrow I hit high altitude for the first time. I will cross the Pass at Patapampa (15,000 feet) and sleep in Coporaque by Cañon de Colca (10,000 feet). The day after, I travel by bus to Puno (12,500 feet). I have already begin taking Diamox—and I have been mainlining mate de coca to allow my system to tolerate the onset of soroche.

On Foot in Lima

I finally made it to Lima, where I am staying at the Antigua Miraflores Hotel. Because no one sleeps well on a long flight—regardless of what they may claim—I am a bit groggy. All the more so as I have just made the acquaintance of the Peruvian national drink, the Pisco Sour, a brandy and egg white cocktail that is as smooth as a baby’s bum.

Today was dedicated to cleaning up loose ends. I got lost several times, and I covered approximately ten miles on foot, but I did manage to

  • Locate the South American Explorers, which had moved a mile from its old 135 Piura adress.
  • Obtain my train ticket for the Andean Explorer route between Puno and Cusco
  • Buy some prescription meds over the counter that my pharmacy muffed back in Los Angeles

Tomorrow, I visit the Museo Larco and the National Museum of Anthropology, which should pretty much take up the whole day.


On to Peru

I’m Flying to Lima Tonight

I’m Flying to Lima Tonight

The time has finally come: Tonight I board a LAN Chile jetliner to fly me nonstop to Lima. I should be at Jorge Chavez International Airport at 10:55 tomorrow morning Peru time, which is the same as U.S. Central time. (Countries so near to the equator don’t need to have Daylight Savings Time, as the times for sunrise and sunset do not change as much as they do in the temperate and polar zones.)

L.A. is doing its best to push me out of town. We have more Mexican monsoon weather with high temperatures and high humidity. Curiously, although I will be only a few degrees south of the Equator, the icy Humboldt Current keeps coastal Peru cool and cloudy for eight months of the year, from March through November. I can’t wait to see what type of tropical hell I will be returning to in L.A. on September 30. Once a couple years ago, Martine and I landed from a Canadian vacation to a temperature of 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius).

Chances are I will be posting little or nothing over the next three weeks, or if I do, there won’t be accompanying photos until October.

To keep in touch with Martine, I have a fully charged Mobal international cellphone that will charge me $1.95/minute for calls to the U.S. I could get cheaper rates by other means, but I don’t want to be buying cellphones and special memory cards in a country where I do not speak the lingo well enough to be make good decisions. Mobal picks the local telephone company for me—the one with the most bars in the city I’m in—probably Movistar [sic] or Clarin in Peru.

Have a good September!


The Truth Is Fragmented

Peter Breughel the Elder’s “The Tower of Babel”

Peter Breughel the Elder’s “The Tower of Babel”

I love the story from Genesis of the Tower of Babel. Here it is from Verses 1-9 of Chapter 11 in the King James Bible:

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shi’nar; and they dwelt there. And they said to one another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they all have one language: and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

Therefore is the name of it be called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

It is my opinion that language was not the only thing that was confounded at that point: So was religion. Across the face of the earth, there are at least as many religions as there are languages, or even dialects.

Today Martine and I went to the L.A. Greek Festival at Santa Sophia Cathedral near downtown. Once again we were stunned by the beauty of Saint Sophia, with éclat of all the glittering gold in the icons and decorations. I am curiously drawn toward Eastern Orthodoxy. But then I am also drawn to Roman Catholicism, in which I was raised; Buddhism; Hinduism. Probably to all major religions except the youngest, Islam, which seems to be entering a self-destructive death cult phase.

Depiction of the Trinity in St. Constantine’s Chapel at Saint Sophia

Depiction of the Trinity in St. Constantine’s Chapel at Saint Sophia

I not only believe in God, but in a sense I believe in all of them. I do not currently attend church, but I am thinking of attending services at Saint Sophia when I return from Peru. And while I am in Peru, I will visit scores of Catholic churches built by the Spanish. Also, on the flip side, I will visit the Museum of the Inquisition in Lima.

When the languages of man were all “confounded,” so also was the truth. It was fragmented into thousands of discrete pieces, some of which are beautiful, others of which are damaged, losing whatever truth was originally there.

I believe that, in this life, man must find fragments of the truth and hold on to them, irrespective of their origin. Truth and beauty abound, but also horrors unimaginable. Putting the right pieces together, very like a mosaic, is what life is all about.


Chabuca Granda

Songstress Chabuca Granda (1920-1983)

Peruvian Songstress Chabuca Granda (1920-1983)

When I go to another country, I like to have some idea of their most beloved music. Why? Because it tells me a lot about the culture. For Argentina, I listened to the tango songs of the immortal Carlos Gardel, who died in a plane crash in Colombia some eighty years ago. For Iceland, I love listening to Ólafur Arnalds. For Peru, I picked Chabuca Granda, famous for her song “La flor de la canela,”

Born Maria Isabel Granda Larco on September 3, 1920, Chabuca has a number of her songs available on YouTube:

Granda is known for the nostalgic Afro-Peruvian rhythms in her work. It is not that well known that Peru has a fairly substantial black population, especially in the south, from which Chabuca hailed.

To honor her, the Peruvians have set up a large entertainment space called the Alameda Chabuca Granda along the Rimac River and directly behind the Government Palace. She also has a park dedicated to her in the Barranca neighborhood in which she lived.

Fade to Black

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Buster Keaton (Right) in Sherlock Jr. (1924)

I lost a good friend of forty-six years yesterday morning. Lee Sanders died of pancreatic cancer in a hospice only two blocks from my apartment. Since he was admitted a week and a half ago, Martine and I had taken to visiting him at least every other day.

Searching through my vast archive at Yahoo! Flickr, I am dismayed to find I have no photos of him. I realize now why this is so: Lee was a motion picture projectionist and an avid film goer, so I only ever saw him indoors where I would have had to use flash, which I hate. So I’ll reproduce this scene from the 1924 film Sherlock Jr., with Buster Keaton as a projectionist. I did not want to take any pictures of Lee at the hospice, because he deteriorated so markedly from visit to visit that it saddened me to have to document it. The last day, just hours before his passing, he was barely able to talk articulately; and he was obviously in great discomfort with his swollen left arm, which was elevated on pillows.

Lee had been not only a projectionist, but an officer in IATSE Local 33. He was frequently interviewed about the art of projection and the plight of that art now that digital projectors were being installed in theaters around the country. In a website entitled A Hollywood Job Fades to Black: Film Projectionist, you can hear his voice saying that he intended to be “the last projectionist alive.” Unfortunately, he didn’t make it.

I know union people because my father was a shop steward for MESA in Cleveland. Lee did not quite fit the image: He was articulate, soft-spoken, and scholarly. He spent his spare time seeing great films. His favorites included F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964). You can see a list of Lee’s favorite American films, to which I’ve added my own in the rare cases where we disagreed:

In fact, Lee was a major influence on my film-going. I could never hope to have seen as many pictures as he had—though there was a time in the late Sixties and early Seventies when I could match him film by film.

Something of a renaissance man, Lee was also an avid reader and aficionado of classical music. He frequently drove up to Carmel for the Bach Festival. And he was not only active in the Culver City Democratic Club, but honored by them with a plaque appreciating his efforts that he had hung on his hospice room wall.

Although he never married and had a family, Lee was well liked. I remember his telling me he took a date to a quadruple feature and was surprised to find that she couldn’t (and wouldn’t) sit through the whole show. Martine liked him better than all my other friends.

In all our years of friendship, I never remember him getting angry. He was like a Bodhisattva among people pretending (badly) to be wrathful deities. But then he was a graduate of the Besant Hill School of Happy Valley in Ojai. The school was co-founded by Annie Besant, J. Krishnamurti and Aldous Huxley. His time there was a happy one, and he remained close to the school all his life.

Now there is a hole in my life with Lee’s passing, and I am not sure how to fill it.


The Guano Economy

Guano Island Off Peru

Guano Island Off Peru

When Peru finally won its independence from Spain in the 1820s, there was no short quick route to prosperity. Much of South America’s economy was primarily agricultural, based on large haciendas, many of which had just changed hands from Spanish loyalists to officers of the revolution. It took about twenty years before Peru discovered that its primary source of wealth was actually bird sh*t. There were a number of islands off the coast of the Atacama Desert in the south that were covered to a depth of several meters with a centuries’ long accumulation of guano. Europe, which was trying to recover from the ravages of the Napoleonic Wars, needed the fertilizer to insure rich crops.

Mining the guano was no picnic. Peru imported thousands of laborers from China to dig up and bag the guano for shipment to a customer base that was willing to pay top dollar for the … stuff. Native Peruvians did not breathing in the noxious particles, so it was mostly immigrants who worked the islands. For about thirty years, Peru was sh*tting pretty, until it hit the fan. (Had enough of the puns yet?)

After much of the guano was shipped overseas, it was discovered that the Atacama Desert was rich in nitrate fertilizers, which were a good substitute for the organic stuff. At this point, the main actors in the business were Peru, Bolivia (which then had a seacoast), and Chile. Bolivia arbitrarily raised the taxes on mining nitrates. As many of the companies supervising the mines and transporting the fertilizer were Chilean, they demanded tax relief. Bolivia refused, and Peru backed Bolivia.

What Kind of Bird Izzat?

What Kind of Bird Izzat?

In 1879 began the War of the Pacific, with Chile arrayed against both Peru and Bolivia. As Chile had better military leadership and weaponry, it won handily after a number of bloody sea and land battles. The upshot was that Bolivia lost its access to the sea (though they still have admirals for some reason), and Peru lost its State of Tarapacá, including Tacna, Arica, Iquique, and Pisagua. (Eventually Tacna was ceded back to Peru some years later.)

In the end, the British took over the nitrate mining industry, with most of its associated profits. Bolivia suffered the most, as it lost all access to the Atacama Desert. Peru was outraged at having been occupied by Chile, though it fought a fairly successful guerrilla insurgency. Nonetheless, it had suffered a humiliating defeat with repercussions lasting to the present time.

As to the profits from fertilizer mining, they dwindled rapidly; and Peru went from being a wealthy country to being an economic basket case.

For more information, click here for a good illustrated review of the 19th century guano mining industry.


Supreme Competence and Moral Probity

In at the Beginning of the Western Film Genre

In at the Beginning of the Western Film Genre

There were cowboy films before William S. Hart. As early as 1903, there was Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, which was filmed in the wilds of New Jersey. Then there were the films of Broncho Billy Anderson who was the first film western star—those his films were also shot back East and were redolent of New Jersey.

No, it was William S. Hart who really got the ball rolling back in 1914 when he teamed up with Producer Thomas H. Ince to produce a series of oaters at Santa Ynez Canyon just a few miles from where I live. (John Ford got started around 1917 with Harry Carey, Sr. in Straight Shootin’, but Hart quickly became the better known of the two stars.)

The Hart hero was almost always a loner, half-civilized if at all, but radiating an awakening sense of moral probity. While he was in the process of making his decision, God help any bad guys who tried to do him in in the meantime.

A Still from Travelin’ On: Hart with Monkey

A Still from Travelin’ On: Hart with Monkey

This was certainly true of Travelin’ On (1922), which I saw this morning at Cinecon. He is simply J.B., an illiterate loner who rides into a crude Arizona town run by Dandy Dan McGee, a saloon keeper who runs all the vices from his Palace of Chance. When a preacher, his wife and daughter pull into town in their wagon, they witness a fight between two toughs, which the preacher tries to stop. Some time later, Hart rides into town and runs afoul of Gila, one of McGee’s cronies, whom he makes short work of.

Both McGee and J.B. fall in love with the preacher’s wife. When Hart sees McGee make a move on her, he threatens to kill him the next time he sees him. Of course, he does, but not before he takes the rap for a stage robbery committed by, of all people, the preacher—and then he rides off alone, after saving the preacher from being justly hanged for his crime.

I never seem to tire of seeing Hart’s films. I visit his ranch in Newhall once or twice a year and see to some extent how his character was formed. He married a younger star named Winifred Westover and had a son named William S. Hart Jr. (whom I knew). He never remarried and lived on his ranch with his sister until his death in 1948.

It was around the time this film was made that Hart was upstaged by other Western stars, most notably Tom Mix. Mix was good, but there was something about Hart that was unique.