Peru’s three main climatic-cultural zones are costa (coast), selva (jungle) and sierra (mountains). For the past three months I’ve been living at the fairly high altitude of 2400m, between selva and sierra. Chachapoyas undoubtedly has a highland culture but it’s not quite high enough to count as sierra.
This weekend my language school had a trip to the selva town of Tarapoto for a teachers’ conference organised by Ryan Brux from El Cultural language school in Tarapoto and sponsored by the US government’s Regional English Language Office for the Andean countries, Beyond the Textbook: Active Strategies for More Communicative and Engaging EFL Instruction. Apart from one day in Lima, it was my first experience of one of Peru’s other faces.
To travel across Peru is to become accustomed to a continually renewed sense of wonder at the inconceivable splendour of the landscape. As we crossed over from the Amazonas department to neighbouring San Martin, the mountain ranges became covered in countless acres of untouched, original forest. We finally descended to the hot selva plateau with its coffee and banana plantations. Coffee beans were drying on mats outside the houses along the road. It’s sadly representative of Peru’s economic situation that in spite of its being a major producer, coffee served here is almost always unspeakably awful. I’m still not quite sure whether some of the occasional cups of sweet lukewarm brown liquid I’ve failed to avoid were supposed to be coffee or not.
Tarapoto is a completely different kind of town to the slow, reserved and stubbornly eccentric Chachapoyas. It’s hot, noisy, fun and flamboyant. Battalions of three-wheeled motorcycle taxis roar continuously through the streets. Hi-fi shops blast out their music at twice the volume. It’s so hot all year round that locals start putting on jumpers if it drops below 30ºC. Bars advertise exotic jungle potions like the reputedly aphrodisiac ‘Seven Roots’, snake liqueurs and a repulsive-looking bottle of enormous pickled grubs. Down the road there’s a specialist scorpion venom shop too.
We take advantage of the selva dwellers’ love of outdoor swimming, visiting a thermal spa, a recreo (outdoor swimming pool with bar) and a gorgeous artificial river pool during the weekend. As planned, I pop into the market before the conference starts and buy a medicinal herbal extract called sangre de grado, nationally renowned but produced in this region, from an effusively friendly vendor who explains that she’s not a herbalist but she “loves beautiful natural things”. She cheerfully submits her product to the two purity tests – rubbing a sample on your skin to see whether it foams, and smearing it on a clear bottle to check for consistent colour. I tell my Chachapoyan friend, “es puro” (“it’s pure”). The vendor beams.
At the conference, I pick up a few useful tips at the workshops, but more interesting is getting a sense of how the US Embassy’s language office works and meeting local Peruvian English teachers. Discussing the relative merits of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters with a young Peruvian teacher while looking out over the San Martin jungle plain to the mountains is an experience to be treasured.
Early on Sunday morning, after a quick return to the market for papaya juice and humitas (maize meal steamed in banana leaves, a bit like polenta), we say goodbye and thanks to Tarapoto for a lovely weekend, stopping off at a final swimming place near Rioja before heading home to funny little Chachapoyas.