la mandarina

Last night was the best night of the trip, and a highlight of any of our travels. I´ve been wanting to hear music somewhere, not performed for tourists, just local musicians making music, as we usually do when we travel. We had a couple of tips from the guidebook, but none of them panned out. I was beginning to think it just couldn´t work for us in Peru, but now I realize we had to get out of the very heavily touristed areas. Last night, completely by accident, I got my wish, and then some.

After yesterday´s blog post, we hung out in town. We took off our socks and sneakers and walked on the beach (must put our feet in the Pacific, who knows when we´ll see it again!), ate a honey and cracker snack that is sold on the street here, and watched surfers, fisherman and men working trap lines.

While we were dusting off our feet, a dog approached us. She was emaciated - every rib showing, the knobs of her spine visible, tail bones protruding - and she was pregnant. Most street dogs are not so skinny. She wasn´t dirty, and wasn´t afraid of us, so we thought perhaps she had been a house dog, gotten lost, and didn´t know how to survive on her own. She clearly wasn´t getting enough to eat for her and her pups.

While she put her head on Allan´s leg and he pet her, I went to a restaurant across the street, hoping they could sell me some scraps or maybe a piece of chicken. A little girl, the daughter of the owner, took me around the corner to a little store, and helped me buy a bag of dry dog food for S/ 2.50.

The dog ate kibble out of my hand, crunching away happily. While Allan went off to get her some water, I was already trying to figure out how we could get her back to Canada with us. A pregnant dog with no shots or papers, from Peru, and we´re traveling by bus. I reluctantly had to agree with Allan that it was simply not in our means.

Fortunately for my heart, after she ate a lot, she drifted away from us. We left the rest of the dog food where we saw several young dogs scavenging, and, standing a distance away, saw that they got it and were eating.

This left me feeling very sad. We were also a little further down the strip, away from the main restaurants. I wanted to eat at a local place, but that´s hard to do for dinner. Peruvians eat lunch in restaurants near their schools or workplaces, but they eat dinner home with their families. However... the following day would be Mother´s Day, a big holiday here. So people were out celebrating, and staying out late before a day off.

Right across the street from where we left the dogs, I spotted a restaurant, all plastic tables and chairs, the front open to the street, directly across from the ocean, with maybe 10 or 12 local people inside. When a man waved us in, we figured it was a friendly place, although we had no idea what that would mean.

We ordered dinner specials, all including ceviche, obviously priced for locals and not tourists. Only then did we spot two men with guitars. A woman sitting on a wooden box began to thump on it, using it as a drum, and sing - the first female musician we´ve seen here. We had stumbled on a peña, an impromptu Latin music scene.

The musicians were sitting amongst the other customers, as they do in pubs in Ireland (and perhaps many places I`ve not yet been). There´s no separation between musician and audience, which creates an entirely different feeling. You´re not watching a show, you´re part of the music.

The other diners were an older couple, a younger couple and small group of men. The older woman had a rose and some Mother´s Day cards on her table. Her husband was playing drums on the table, obviously a percussionist, as he was using different parts of his hands and his elbows. Once in a while, he would get up to dance a few steps by himself, and shout his appreciation for the musicians.

At first we were just listening politely. One of the guitarists welcomed us to Huanchaco, and told us it was ok to dance. The music heated up - most of the other diners were singing along to many songs - and it was only a matter of time before one of the men asked me to dance (after asking Allan´s permission).

Here´s a bit that my mother, who is reading this, will love. In Spanish, a descriptive adjective is often applied to a person as a nickname. Morena, for a dark-haired woman, becomes La Morena, the dark-haired one (feminine). El Viejo is The Old One (masculine), viejo meaning old. The crazy one, the fat one, the limping one - anything. I was wearing a tangerine-coloured t-shirt. Tangerine en español is una mandarina; we see them sold on the street all the time. Soon I realized they were referring to me as La Mandarina.

Various men asked me to dance, then they insisted Allan get up and dance with me, then everyone changed partners several times. The two other women danced very demurely, while the men were flamboyant peacocks.

One man in particular, a very dark-skinned guy in a soccer jersey and shorts, barefoot, was playfully annoying, asking me to dance constantly, but seemingly just as content to strut around by himself.

We bought a round of beer for the musicians, and one guitarist came over to ask where we were from ("Canada Ingles o Canada Francese?"), and we chatted about Huanchaco.

The older man made several pronouncements, as far as I could make out, welcoming all people to his town and his country, declaring us all one human family, all brothers and sisters, no matter what we look like and what language we speak. He seemed so heartfelt, it was so sweet. He made toasts to La Mandarina and her hombre, ending with Viva Peru and Viva Canada.

They played all kinds of music, a few songs I recognized, but mostly not, and not a Condor Pasa in sight. Everyone except us sang along on many numbers. The woman had a deep, rich voice. The men were singing most of the songs, and when I requested one from the woman, they played "La Bamba". At the part that translates "I am not a sailor, I am the captain" (Yo no soy marinera, soy capitan, soy capitan), she sang, "I am not a secretary, I am the boss".

The older couple and the young couple eventually left - hugs and good wishes to us all around, and more pronouncements about peace and love, and I thought the party was breaking up. But our guitarist friend told us the night was young.

We moved in a little closer for a few more numbers, and the beer really started to flow. We were ordering large bottles of Cusqueño Negra, a dark beer that´s much better than the Trujillo Pilsen and - finally - very cold, pouring it into small glasses.

Eventually the female musician left. Again I thought it was quitting time, but Marco said, "Ahora es la mejor vez" - now´s the best time.

We all pulled our chairs into a rough circle, including two tables full of beer bottles and glasses, near the front of the empty restaurant, right near the sidewalk. At this point I´m the only woman there. They are substituing "Laura" (pronounced Low-rah) or "Laurita" ofr every woman´s name in every song, and insisting Allan and I kiss during all romantic numbers. Pele, as Allan called him, or Speedy, as I did, was hamming it up to the sky, dancing by himself, making "fake" passes at all the men, and in general playing the fool and keeping us all laughing.

Marco was pushing us to request songs, but what do we know that they also know? At one point, they insisted we sing in English. They said, there´s a song they love in Spanish, but in English it´s very difficult, would we please please help them. It turned out to be "My Way".

Now, that was one of my father´s favourite songs, and I grew up hearing it a zillion times. And if the radio was on, I could sing every word. But do you know how difficult it is to come up with lyrics, cold, after listening to Latin folk songs for hours, and drinking copious amounts of beer? (Answer: very!) We stumbled through and da-da-da´s the rest.

They ran through "Let It Be", "Hey Jude" and "Yesterday", a kind of unintentional medley, the beginning riff of "Satisfaction" (Allan and I were very entertaining for that one), "House of the Rising Sun" and a few lines of "Dust in the Wind". I thought they might know "Like A Rolling Stone" (great singalong chorus there!) or "Blowing in the Wind" but I got only polite smiles.

Too many English lyrics and we would lose the other guys, so it was back to Spanish. When they did a Peruvian number, everyone told us it was important and we should listen carefully to the lyrics.

Just so I remember... Marco, the young guitarist, had very short black hair, tanned skin and the big Peruano nose. He was very nice looking, with a lovely singing voice, great range. The older guitarist had an Asian cast to his face, as some Peruvians do. (Carmen said people will be called La China for this, not as an insult, as a description.) This guitarist didn´t say much, and played beautiful acoustic lead guitar. Speedy was very dark-skinned, with bushy dark hair and moustache, and reeked of beer and cigarettes. He and two other guys were barefoot - beach boys.

And one point, I left the group to try to pay for all the beer, for everyone, but our poor waiter was completely flummoxed by this request. He didn´t want to say no to me, but he couldn´t bring himself to comply. Speedy came over to see what we were whispering about, and the waiter pleaded, "She wants to pay for all of you!" Speedy took me by the hand and walked me away, bringing me to the center of the little circle to dance. Marco asked Allan what the problem was. When Allan told him we wanted to pick up the tab, Marco said with great seriousness, "No, that is not possible."

Beer and music and laughter and silliness flowed for several hours, until the two waiters cleaned up our tables and handed everyone their respective bills. Hugs and good wishes and thanks all around. It was just as well my Spanish is weak, because I would have told them how I felt, how happy I was.

Back at the hotel, our German Shepherd friend Nick was waiting up for us, prancing around, leading the way to our room, then dancing on our bed.


She said...

What a wonderful experience. Occasions like this make travel truly rich and memorable.
I've been away for a bit, so it was a real treat to read the past few days' worth of your adventures. Looking forward to the next installment, as always.

laura k said...

Thank you, She!

I think of an experience like this as the rewards of staying open to experience - and slightly off the beaten track.