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april 8, 2005 -> pisco is Peruvian

I gasped for breath.  The bus station was sweltering, and the strident horn-honking was maddening.  Filthy urchins begged for money or food.  Everyone else just stared at us.  On the street, hundreds of Indian-made motor rickshaws scurried about the streets like multicolored rats, stirring up dust and honking like throttled ducks.  Hand-painted billboards advertised the latest movies.  They had the same good-but-not-quite-right quality as in India.  Dark-skinned natives walked past in bright clothing.  Oh God!  Were we back in India?  I felt a growing panic.  My stomach twisted in fear.  Nori had to be here to visit her friend, but I didn't.  I began planning an early escape. 

Melanie stepped out of the car like from a different world.  She was wearing a Pucci-inspired blouse, yellow pants, a wide-brimmed sun hat, and gold-rimmed sunglasses embellished with filigree butterflies.  Her outfit would have been ‘glam' in New York, but in Ica, Peru, it was otherworldly.  Her boyfriend, Alfredo Ferrari, extricated himself from the car and slowly unfolded.  At 6' 4'', he must have been one of the tallest men in Peru.  Nori and I were no longer interesting; now everyone was staring at them.  Nori and Melanie reunited with happy shrieks.  “Let's get out of here!” Melanie suggested.  I began to relax.  Everything would be alright.  Then Alfredo began driving.  His last name could not have been more appropriate.  He treated every street like the final straightaway of the Indianapolis 500.  

Ica was an unattractive town in a beautiful setting.  It reminded us of oasis towns in Egypt and Morocco – ugly brick and concrete buildings wedged into a narrow seam of fertility between sand dunes and sun-baked plains.  But as we have learned again and again on this trip, a local contact dramatically alters the perception of a place – we ended up liking Ica.  We visited nearby Huacachina, a beautiful lagoon encircled by tall sand dunes, and joined a twilight dune buggy and sandboarding trip.  We drove through Cachiche, a superstitious community that venerates and fears its resident good and evil brujas (witches.)  We stopped at a breeding farm for fighting cocks and roasted our feet on a dune overlooking a carp-filled pond.  We enjoyed the same delicious home-made tejas (a sort of praline) that the late Pope munched on during a visit to Peru.  And everywhere we went, Melanie brought a bottle of her fantastic pisco. 

Melanie had returned to the country of her birth to launch a business she had long dreamed about: producing and exporting pisco, a grape-based white spirit beloved by Peruvians and Chileans.  It had not been easy going.  In addition to the expected third world inefficiencies, Melanie had also endured grape supply problems, a snubbing from larger established bodegas, and most of all, constant risk of theft.  She and Alfredo once discovered a dishonest employee hiding in a vat of half-fermented grape juice.  He had been stealing the mildly alcoholic ‘green must,' and had dived in the vat when they made a surprise visit.  But she had persevered.  In only her second year of production, her pisco had won several local awards.  Now the problem was educating a North American and European market about a product they had never heard of.

Both Peru and Chile claim to be the home of pisco.  Peru has a much stronger case, but Chile has greater production and better marketing.  At the Peru Travel Mart tourism exposition in Lima, (which we gate-crashed thanks to Melanie's help) the organizers had handed out embarrassing lime-green bandanas to all the visiting tour agents.  They read “Pisco is Peruvian!”  We never tried Chilean pisco, but we can definitely vouch for Melanie's product – particularly in a pisco sour, the national cocktail of Peru comprising pisco, lemon juice, sugar and egg white. 


Our last day in Ica, we drove north to the Paracas National Reserve, Peru's first (and only) marine conservation area.  We covered the 100 kilometers in ten minutes thanks to Mr. Ferrari.  According to the Nature Conservancy, the Paracas Reserve is “one of the most biologically productive marine areas in the world, serving as a major food source for fish, birds and marine mammals.”   

We crowded onto a boat with thirty Peruvian retirees, and motored off toward the Ballestas Islands.  The sea was choppy; the oldies were getting soaked from the bowsprit.  Some giggled like kids, others made grumpy prune faces.  We stopped briefly to observe the giant ‘candelabra' that had been etched Nazca-style on a slope of the Paracas Peninsula.  After nearly an hour of jarring, wet travel, we reached a cluster of guano-iced islands.  They were heavily eroded by the sea, with numerous caves and tunnels bored straight through. They were also covered in shit – guano to be exact.  Unbeknownst to them, the thousands of cormorants that inhabit the islands are quite literally sitting on a fortune.  Every few years, their guano is collected and sold at US$2 per pound for fertilizer.  We saw a few endangered Humboldt penguins, and thousands of sea lions, petrels and boobies. 

The Nature Conservancy is working with the government to reduce the environmental damage caused by nearby fish oil and fish meal factories, over-fishing and uncontrolled tourism.  They have a long way to go.  I did not see a single guardaparque (park ranger.)  I also noticed what looked like a new drilling platform just opposite the peninsula.  I later discovered that it was a highly-controversial natural gas processing facility opened in 2004 – the terminus for a gas pipeline that originated in the Peruvian Amazon.  Designating a national park is one thing.  Protecting it is something different.