Beneath the Desert Sky Jeff McAllister Peru Bucket List
Jeff McAllister in Peru

In Northern Peru, dogs can cure asthma. The proper proportions of pollen, aloe, and roasted herbs will cleanse the body of appendicitis, and a tonic made of cactus will show you the heart of the world.

Nicola and I were sipping a juice made of melon and algarrobina in the port town of Paita while the stand owner, Walter, revealed his membership in a group of new age explorers who used energy levels to measure our relationship with the earth.

“What do you think of all this,” Nicola asked in English—our private language in the monolingual markets of Northern Peru, where most merchants quit school around the age of 10 and married at 13.

“Walter’s fascinating either way, but I find these stories most interesting if you allow yourself to believe.”

The Church of Catacaos (Photo Credit: Jeff McAllister)
The Church of Catacaos (Photo Credit: Jeff McAllister)

Travel has always sparked my fascination with the supernatural. Despite growing up in a Godless Canadian household, I’ve always admired the beauty in devotion. There’s a humble confidence in placing your fate in the hands of an external force—this is something I’ve bared witness to a lot as I’ve explored foreign lands. Piura and the surrounding villages—Paita, Yacila, La Isilla, and La Tortuga—were filled with it. I bought my snacks Bodega de Jesus. Cab drivers crossed themselves each time they were forced from the city streets to cross the dust-baked crucible of the desert. I spent three nights in Yacila, bunked above a prayer group who gathered nightly to moan hymns over a looped synthesizer, tears streaming down their faces.

Despite this obvert adherence to Catholicism, pre-Incan mysticism seemed to bubble below the surface of every town I visited.

A Fisherman in Paita (Photo Credit: Jeff McAllister)
A Fisherman in Paita (Photo Credit: Jeff McAllister)

“What sign are you?” Nicola asked as she leafed through a one soles paper on the bus to Chulucanas.

I told her I was an Aquarius.

“You have large project ahead of you that maybe you should have taken more time to plan.”

She rumpled the paper into her lap and smiled. Outside, the gnarled hills of the Sechura bet chests against the blood-orange sky. It was clear that my project wasn’t going as smoothly as I hoped. The shy locals where hesitant to be directed in front of the camera and my crippled Spanish, the opposite of the regions’ soft, rapid dialect, made it difficult to coax a smile. Each time I stumbled out of the dunes, sun-baked and sweltering, the only residents that seemed to welcome my presence were the hairless dogs that nipped at my feet. I’d loaf around for a couple hours, exchange timid smiles and remove my hat in exaggerated courtesy despite the angry sun that nipped at the back of my neck. Finally, someone would comment on my blond hair and we’d eventually negotiate a quick session, but not before I vented my frustrations.

“Try Catacaos,” I was told in Piura.

“Try Narihula,” I was told in Catacaos.

Finally, lapping chicha out of a painted pumpkin, I was approached by man who used to guard an underwater cable that ran the length of the Americas.

“I am responsible international communication,” he boasted. “You two can remain friends because of me.”

He recommended we head further out of town toward the district of Cura Mori. Another bus, another endless sky.

Related:  TBLI Reflection VI: How to Measure a Journey?
Story Time in Cura Mori Travel Jeff McAllister Peru Bucket List
Story Time in Cura Mori (Photo Credit: Jeff McAllister)

When we arrived we were pointed in the direction of a man in a large sombrero and an unbuttoned shirt. I told him about my intentions within the region and he sat me down with a smile.

“When I was younger, four Italian PhD students came to me with a similar request. Because of them I met the Pope, Gabrielle Garcia Marquez, and Fidel Castro all in a matter of 20 years.”

Nicola looked at me, the same way she had three days earlier at Walter’s juice stand. Whether the story he was about to tell was true or not, I was enthralled.

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6

  • Katya C.

    Looks like you at least got the fisherman to smile! Keep the portraits coming, Jeff. =)

  • Chelsea

    That sounds incredibly frustrating, but it also seems like you handled things quite well. Good luck as you continue your project, I’m really enjoying your writing and photography!

  • Brook

    Love getting a peak into this journey, Jeff; your writing is beautiful, I feel like I’m there! Good luck on the rest of the project, I’m so looking forward to the rest of your posts!

  • Jen

    LOVE reading about your journey. Your portraits are fantastic 🙂 What’s the favorite portrait you’ve taken so far??