The Peruvian Blues

Yes, I’ve got them. Sounds a little strange, I know. Have you ever been
there? If you have, maybe you understand. Because it’s not just your
run of the mill blues… It goes a little deeper, it’s a cultural thing. Kind of
hard to explain, actually. Peru often weaves a sort of a spell into a person,
a kind of heart-felt memory that sticks with you, long after you leave…
if you leave. Hell, now that I think about it, my short time in Chile did the
same thing. But that’s another story.

There are requirements to getting the Peruvian Blues, as you might guess.
For starters, you have to fall in love with it. Peru has to get under your skin,
make you smile more, cry more, feel fear more and overcome it more.
To be this lucky, to feel Peru right into your core, you have to, first of all,
be able to speak a little Spanish. Not much English spoken down there,
last I checked. Also, you have to learn to get comfortable with the slightest
touch of fear. Because you’re never entirely safe there. If you’re not Peruvian,
or Peruana, as they prefer, you need to show respect for them and their
culture… very important, necessary to move through their country easily.
Strange and challenging as that can be, I like it. It’s part of their “charm.”

I’m lucky. I somehow managed to meet the above requirements. Oh, I had
help, lots of it. My parents took me down there in 1957, where we lived for
18 months. I learned to speak Spanish in a pool hall in Ilo, Peru, when I was
15. My folks were adventurous, unafraid, and taught me to be the same.
I never was able to match them in that regard, but I held my own for a time.

A few of the artifacts I brought back

Playing 8 ball with two Peruvian guys my age one afternoon down in the
village, one of them made one of those great shots that you seldom see.
I had heard them before, on a great shot, call the other a “lechero,” which
is “milkman” in Spanish. The idea here is that they humorously equate
the idea of being lucky with being a milkman. Okay, you get it, right? So
this kid makes a great shot, and I say, “Lechero,” as I have heard them
say to each other a dozen times. But it wasn’t cool, because a gringo
said it, and the guy flashed a switchblade and swiped it across my chest,
tearing my shirt and leaving a small cut. It scared me, but didn’t hurt.
When the shirt I was wearing started turning red on the chest, the Peruvian
boys bailed and that was the end of it. Except I had to explain to my mom
how blood got on my white shirt. She was not pleased. My dad just smiled.

In a hotel restaurant in Tacna one morning, I was ordering breakfast for
my mom and me. Mom and Dad never picked up much Spanish, so I
became our interpreter. I ordered for Mom, then ordered what I thought
was two scrambled eggs for myself. What I said was, “Dos huevons revoltee,
por favor.”

The waiter gave me a strange look, nodded and walked into the kitchen,
where we instantly heard 3 or 4 of them laughing in there. I knew something
was probably wrong with my order, so when the waiter returned, I asked
him what was funny. He smiled, patted me on the shoulder and said, “You
ordered two fried testicles. Eggs are ‘huevos,’joven. You ordered “huevons.”
Huevons are testitcles. Not to worry, I will bring you eggs.” At 15, it nearly
killed me to explain this mistake to my mom.

Those 18 months in Peru in ’58 and ’59 were magical for me… all of them! We did so many things there, mostly activities down on the beach. After all, there was no one there but us! We fished, dug in the sand for artifacts, and I would walk down there myself and just sit around, maybe throwing rocks at the “Gooney Birds,” or shooting lizards with my dad’s .22. The best times though, were when Jane Walker (who I thought I was in love with) and I would ride my motorbike down to the beach with a picnic basket and a couple of Cokes. We would eat sandwiches and watch the waves roll in. I will never, ever forget those wonderful days.

I spent two weeks in Peru again in ’94, this time in the Northern part, in the
Amazon backwaters. I was 51 this time, in a very different place, in a a very
different part of my life. This time I was a sound recorder for a documentary
on acculturation of the Peruvian Amazon Indian cultures. The first week I
shot sound for the camera crew, the second week I was on my own, as the
producer took a group of agri-tourists into Equitos, the closest city, for
several days, leaving the cameraman, Sandy Fuller, and I in the camp in
the forest. To say that week was a blast doesn’t do it justice… it was magical!

I had an occasional guide, Carlos, who lived in the area and spoke decent
English. One evening we were canoeing the backwaters, recording the
evening rain forests sounds, and the mosquitos were getting bad. I raised
my hand to smack one on my arm and Carlos warned, “No no, don’t hit.
You kill one, a thousand will come to his aid.” Carlos also took us on an
overnight trip to the tiny village of the Bora Indians. That was a trip in itself.
The Bora had already been acculturated, to a point, that their chief had a
small one-channel tv set in his hut, and they took their goods for sale (things
like fish, birds, hand-woven fabrics, etc) down river each week in a 5-horse
motor boat, rather than canoes. Our breakfast was boiled piranha, which I
promptly got sick on. But the Bora gave us a dance and a small band concert
which more than made up for it.

The Bora Chief’s Family

On one of my free days i wandered out with my sound gear onto some of
the paths outside the eco camp that led to other small villages. Was sitting
under a tree eating a sandwich when a group of little monkeys started
appearing out of the canopy, staring at me and chirping. I’d say something
like, “Hey, little guys, want a bite of my sandwich?” and they’d scurry back
up into the canopy. But they were curious, and perhaps picked up on my
vibe, that I wasn’t going to hurt them, and began following me through the
trees, swinging and chirping. Two days later I went out with the rest of the
camera crew, who hadn’t been able to find them. The monkeys “found us,”
showed off for us and I was the hero of the day. That night at dinner, it was,
“Give Monkey Man another round!” Har har har.

Yes, there were huge spiders, strange-looking snakes and poisonous frogs,
little guys, that Carlos knew. He actually held one in his hand, gently turned
it over and showed its bright red underbelly. He explained it could kill us
with its poison. Okay Carlos… what say we put it back on the tree and move
away?

My favorite time, though, was the night it was too hot to sleep and wandered
over to the main hut to see if I could find something to eat. The camp was
quiet and the bartender was the only one left in the big hut. He was closing
up, but said he’d give me a beer. We talked, he said he loved music and
pulled out an old guitar from a case under the bar. He strummed a few chords
and began to sing a Peruvian song for me. A soft, sweet voice, it was pure
heaven! He gave me another warm beer and invited me to sit down behind
the bar on the floor with him, as he needed to hide from the camp owner…
he wasn’t supposed to play the guitar or drink the beer! So we sat there on
the floor behind the bar for over an hour, drinking warm Peruvian beer and
playing and singing the sweet, sad Peruvian songs. Oh my heart, I loved that
night so much!

When I got back, I recorded an album of songs in the Peruvian style. Here is one of them, written for my guide and friend, Carlos.

What fine memories. Almost every day I was in Peru, there was an adventure
of some sort, or a magic moment that I can still recall to this day. And I still
miss it, with all its mysteries and challenges, its many moods and dimensions…
I miss the rainforest, I miss Carlos, I miss the soothing sounds of the midnight
frogs and birds. I miss Pisco Sours, I miss the Peruvians’ good hearts and sincere smiles, their simplicity and their dark, shining eyes. I miss it all, and a strange, almost painful emptiness grows within me that one more brandy cannot erase.

Yup. I’ve got the Peruvian Blues.

Steve Hulse

2 Replies to “The Peruvian Blues”

  1. Love your many memories of Peru. What a wonderful experience for a young man. Your parents were amazing, to allow you the freedom to enjoy and learn from this time.

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