Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Visit to Tarapoto

While being heavily rained on in a mototaxi for the second consecutive day, I asked the driver if it rained every day in Tarapoto. His response was…”sometimes.” The ambiguity of his answer for me sums up our entire visit.

Tarapoto is built on a series of hills in a valley surrounded by mountains. The city itself is pretty much indistinguishable from any other Peruvian city of similar size in terms of architecture, design and content. It doesn’t have much to offer in the way of tourist attractions beyond a small museum, the Orquidea Chocolate factory, and the Tabacalera del Oriente cigar factory which we didn’t have the opportunity to visit. The information office located across the street from the principal park is not very helpful regarding information or maps. To determine where an attraction was located and how to get there it was always necessary to ask several people – police, motodrivers, passersby before finally getting an answer, and that not usually very clear. For a city that encourages tourism, it seems to me there has been no effort made to put even a minimal tourism infrastructure in place.

That’s not to say a visit to Tarapoto isn’t worth the effort. There are several attractions outside of town that are worth seeing. The Ahuashiyaku waterfall is one example.

I like waterfalls. I especially enjoy jungle waterfalls. The pungent sweet aroma of wet, decaying vegetation; the calls of exotic birds; the dozen shades of green mixed with a sprinkling of other spectacular colors kept vibrant by mist from the falls all combine to create an attraction that I think appeals to my primitive being. There are many waterfalls located close to Tarapoto. We didn’t get to them but hope to on a future visit.

The town of Lamas located 22km from Tarapoto is regarded as a tourist attraction. Outside of a castle under construction there isn’t any one thing to create lasting memories in my opinion. The view of lower Lamas from the El Mirador tourist park offers spectacular scenery while enjoying a meal or drink.

The petroglyphs of Polish are located just a few miles from town. To reach the site we were told by several mototaxi drivers (who didn’t go there themselves) to look for “a new moto because the road is bumpy and don’t pay more than 15 soles round trip.” We ended up paying 40 soles to the only driver we could find who would take us there. The site is very small and comprised of a few large boulders with petroglyphs on some of them. The caretaker said the petroglyphs date back to the Inca period and were probably roadmaps of a sort. An incident while leaving the site deserves some comment.

When we had arrived at the petroglyphs I noticed two men sitting at the side of the road. They were manning a road barrier which was raised when we entered. In response to my question the caretaker told us the men were Ronderos; self-appointed vigilantes who exist to combat crime. When we attempted to leave the site, the men would not raise the barrier until we gave them a tip. The distinction between Rondero and robber is not clear to me.

Close to town is Laguna Venecia. Other than a small chocolate colored lake there is nothing to see or do. It has the look of what was or could be a tourist park, but the entire facility has the forlorn appearance of something from days gone by. It was deserted the morning we were there. To boot, the two motodrivers we had contracted to take us there and back voiced their unhappiness with our agreement and insisted on more money. As I write this I’m trying hard not to let these occurrences color my viewpoint, but there were simply too many blatant money-grabbing instances like this to ignore them.

We didn’t get to the village of Chazuta because the road was under construction, nor did we see what various tourist publications describe as a “must see” – the town of Sauce and Laguna Azul, mostly because we were short of time but also because we were tired of laying out exorbitant amounts of money for transportation. All of the tour services we saw charged 85 soles per person for transportation and lunch. We were told we didn’t need a tour service, but we’d had enough of dealing with private carriers.

Beside the Ahuashiyaku waterfall the highlight of our visit was something we hadn’t planned on - a very pleasant evening spent with new friends Tony, Herb and Luis at the Stonewasi bar. Mucho gracias amigos.

We will return to Tarapoto to see the waterfalls we missed and the village of Chazuta. And we’ll probably see Laguna Azul. But if someone were to ask me if I’d recommend a visit to Tarapoto, my answer would be an unequivocal …”maybe.”


Monday, July 25, 2011

A Mountaintop Chocolate Factory

Nestled atop a bluff on the outskirts of Tarapoto is the Orquidea Chocolate factory. It can be reached by an interesting up and down mototaxi ride (it seems as if one is always traveling either up or down in Tarapoto) from the city’s center.

The timing of our visit was not good – arriving on Saturday when the plant is not operating. On weekdays visitors will be given a tour to actually see chocolate being produced. We were limited to seeing cocoa beans drying in the sun, later to be placed in vats and allowed to ferment for seven days.

The entire production process was explained to us by these pleasant Orquidea employees, who also told us that Orquidea has been in its present location over ten years; has nineteen employees; sells all over Peru and exports to the United States. At present they manufacture nine standard varieties of ‘bars’ but will also produce custom blends and large blocks for resellers.

The ownership of Orquidea was not made clear to me. As I understand it Orquidea was an NGO start-up operation in 1998 with a budget of $30,000 and is but a small part of a larger effort in the San Martin Region to encourage alternate crops to replace coca. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the government of Peru have invested more than $100 million over the past fifteen years toward a goal of eradicating coca production.

The company has several web sites. This one has interesting commentary about local farmers growing cocoa as an alternative to coca.

Orquidea is attempting to enlarge its presence in the US and then hopefully to other countries. We bought several of each of their offerings and will vouch for the fine taste of their products.

If you should happen to visit Orquidea be sure to take a camera. The view alone from the factory is more than enough to make the trip worthwhile.

Tom and Maribel

Friday, July 15, 2011

Padrinos de Corte de Pelo

Peru is a land rich in traditions, and though modernization in the big cities may be causing some aspects of that culture to slowly fade away, many customs are still strongly held on to in remote villages. One such custom involves a ceremony centered on a child’s first haircut.

Davis Montenegro is 19 months old. Last month his parents Magno and Juanita decided it was time to get his hair cut. The custom is that family members gather together on the appointed day, and a sponsor or sponsors – “Padrinos de Corte de Pelo” (which translates to Godparents of the Haircut) snips a ceremonial cut of the child’s hair. Photos are taken which will be placed in an album along with the first snips of hair, to be presented to the parents and later to the child when it is older. Then everyone sits down to a big meal. It seems that most Peruvian customs I’m aware of usually involve a big meal somewhere along the line.

When Maribel and I were asked to be sponsors we felt honored and gladly accepted. We had no difficulties with the ceremonial cut, and Maribel kept cutting until the job was done. I don’t know if that was the plan or not but she did it. The only real problem I had was with the meal.

If there is a graceful way to eat cuy (guinea pig) I haven’t found it. The skin is like thick, very elastic rubber; cutting it with a standard knife and fork doesn’t work. There is no choice but to pick it up with your hands and try to bite off the meat without having the skin snap bits of meat all over the table, your dinner companions and your face. I usually don’t succeed but everyone politely ignores my mess unless I’ve showered them too severely.

The Montenegros are good people and Collique Alto is a good place to spend a relaxing half-day. We’ll be back.

Tom and Maribel

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Successful Medical Campaign

The three-vehicle convey arrived at the Collique Alto School at 9:30am Sunday, July 3rd. By 10:00am the team was set up and processing the first of what would be a steady flow of patients until the doors were closed at 1:30 pm – a full hour beyond the previously announced closing time. Set up involved designating separate classrooms for Triage/Pharmacy, General Medicine, Pediatrics, Gynecology and Dental and the placement of the appropriate equipment for each.

Triage was the first step in the process, where nurses took and recorded vitals including height, weight, blood pressure and temperature, and based on symptoms routed patients to the appropriate medical specialty.

Dr. Rogger Cieza Oblitas dealt with general medicine patients. Due to a missed communication we were without two other general practice doctors so Rogger had a heavy case load. Occasionally one of the other doctors would step in when patients were too backed up.

Pediatrician Dr. Jorge Wilmer Cacho Oliva was kept busy with the many youngsters and also made time to see general medicine patients.

Gynecologist Dr. Jorge Enrique Limo Peredo saw a constant stream of patients. A second gynecologist could easily have been kept busy.

Dr. Francisco Antonio Canlla Ore (second from left) was a huge help to the campaign. He brought with him a number of students from his university dental class, and offered to drive his own car when seating space in the bus was limited. On the right is Promesa Peru board member Attorney Salomon Morante Velasquez.

Dr. Ore’s dental students were a surprise. The professionalism they displayed was impressive. There was no hint that they were students as they handled a multitude of dental problems without any indication of awkwardness or uncertainty.

The final step in the process was the pharmacy, where nurses dispensed the prescribed medications including injections. We ran out of some medicines and had a surplus of others.

A general observation about the system is this – with due respect to the doctors and other team members, it is the nurses who are the backbone of a medical campaign. Much of the work falls on their shoulders, and given the demands for their time they also somehow manage to keep complete patient records and maintain a real time medicine inventory. Special thanks from Promesa Peru to Claudia Seclen Yaipen, Yosi Gil Mendoza, Cecilia Sosa Ramirez, Angie Katherine Cavero ChapoƱan, Ana Guerrero Valladolid, and the Nursing College of Peru IX Lambayeque. Our thanks also to Vilma Mendoza, Martin Angeles, Cesar Mestar, and the Regional Director of Health - MINSA for medicine donations, and to Jeff H., Joyce, Ray and others for financial contributions.

Many of the team assembled for a final photo upon our return to Chiclayo’s Las Muses Park – all of them expressing a willingness to “do this again.” And we will. Medical campaigns are a needed and rewarding activity.