Monday, May 14, 2007

"Wages of Fear" Moments

If you have not had a chance to view this little gem of mid twentieth century film, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, the title of this entry will need some explanation. If you have, the accompanying photos will probably say it all, and you can then decide if you want to bother reading the rest.

The film in brief, revealing as few crucial details as possible: In a tiny backwater of Venezuela, not very long after the end of World War Two, the first noteworthy event since the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, which hasn’t seemed to have made much impression, is the recent arrival of an American oil company. A sad collection of ruined men from Europe and the United States have washed up here through bad luck, bad decisions, bad planning, or a need to get away from wherever they were before, often with the law close behind them. They provide new employment for local whores, and attempt to gain enough money off of the dregs and odd jobs of the American’s bonanza so that they can get out to anywhere else. Mostly they slowly rot and die there. A desperate chance appears in the form of a well fire that can only be put out by an emergency shipment of nitro glycerin to the well head. Two trucks will carry the explosives, which could go off at any bump in the road, driven by expendable men who must be willing to bet their lives. There are of course plenty of these. That’s the story, but of course it’s really all about how damned souls struggle in their own self made hells, while heartless capitalism and an uncaring jungle wait to devour them. Five dead bodies, three and a half breasts, plus tantalizing cleavage from Vera Clouzot, zero special effects explosion scene, and excellent white hair and teeth. Joe Bob says check it out!

I pass all of this along to tell you that if you like this movie, you will love the Peace Corps Peru experience!

This is not to say that our situation is much at all like the movie. Our chances of survival are significantly higher, and our work, even on bad days, is much more pleasant and rewarding. But many interactions with motorized transport could come straight from the film. No explosives (so far), but the same heartless and brutal relationships between men and machines and nature that doesn’t want to be tamed. (Women just get to suffer. Come on, what did you expect of this kind of narrative?)

Most parts of Peru have some form of major construction or reconstruction going on at all times, and work that can’t be done with no other tools than machetes (see earlier entries) requires trucks. Most of these have seen better days. Many buses appear about the same. The one road that attempts to unify the whole country, the Carretera Pan Americana, ignores the mountains in most places, has only recently had many of its bridges repaired after they were washed out by the last El Nino, and can be blocked off by a truck crash, a funeral procession, a very enthusiastic party, a very determined clown, or someone leaving rocks in the road to rob passing vehicles.

In the photo above we see the dump truck that the beekeepers hired to haul gravel to the apiary site, about three kilometers from the paved road, so that they could mix concrete to line a well (hand dug of course).

You don't want this man's job. A bucket full of dirt was dropped on his head last week. Fortunately for everyone, he survived.

This road needed to be improved significantly just to bear burro carts, and it was not all that passable for them. We had to push the cart to help the burro over the hill. Getting the dump truck over the hill took repaving the road with tree branches and brush. They did this several times, and the driver got very annoyed that we wouldn’t cut more trees.

Riding out with this truck was my second motorized adventure on this particular bit of dirt track. In the first, Fidel, treasurer of the beekeepers, decided that because the person who had agreed to bring their burro had failed to show for a work day, he would haul us and our equipment out to the apiary in the very busted down old jeep that had been rusting next to his house. This required siphoning gas from his truck and hotwiring the car. As he ground gears trying to push us through the sand he kept repeating, “Se sufre, pero se aprende!” (He/it suffers, but he/it learns). I wasn’t sure whether he was referring to the car or to me.

Riding with Fidel usually turns into an adventure. Last week he took the truck to a sister organization’s apiary so we could see their harvest methods. We were fine after leaving the highway, and going through several villages of decreasing size and increasing altitude. We were even okay driving up the dry streambed, bouncing over small boulders and hitting tree branches along the way. (The guys standing in back didn’t appreciate the tree branches, but they made a game of seeing who would get raked the most by the really thorny branches.)

The trouble came on the way back, when we found that the small concrete culvert that we had driven around in the morning, before crossing the stream that didn’t go anywhere near the culvert, had by mid afternoon acquired two dump trucks, a grader, and a large pile of gravel and boulders that effectively blocked our route back to the highway. Taking the natural approach of any healthy Peruvian male towards a roadblock, Fidel attempted to drive over the gravel pile. Only when the truck achieved a thirty degree angle and started to slip backwards and sideways in a sickening manner did he decide that he needed a different approach. One of the dump trucks pulled up behind and gently shoved Fidel’s over the gravel.

Lest I give the wrong impression of Fidel’s driving, I should note that the road itself, and the terrain it runs through, often provide plenty of drama. Arriving in the beach town of Mancora, where we vacationed during Semana Santa, the Pan Americana drops three or four hundred meters from the arid plateau of northern Piura, dotted here and there by oil derricks and showing signs of particularly savage El Nino damage, through seemingly endless switchbacks, to reach sea level. At each hairpin turn the breaks and transmission of our sad old bus protested deafeningly. Once there we realized that a Spring Break party had broken out in the middle of the one road connecting the border towns along the frontier with Ecuador to the rest of the country. No worries. When the semis wanted to get through they could just hit the horn and push people out of the way. That’s how you do it in little towns in South America where neither the arrival of Spaniards or oil companies or surfers from around the world really impresses the locals.


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