Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pisco in the Dunes

Julio Ramón Ribeyro himself suggested that he drank little other than Bordeaux, but his story "La casa en la playa" is remarkable for, among other things, its celebration of a particular pisco.

In the story, Ribeyro's narrator and his friend Ernesto take several trips south of Lima in search of a deserted beach ideal for a small house. An excerpt from the account of their third trip, no more successful than the first two, is included below:
Laguna de Huacachina (Ica), Peru

From "La casa en la playa"

I will say beforehand that this third excursion was also a failure and so break all the rules about creating suspense in a story. But this time the failure had nothing to do with the difficulty of finding deserted beaches. It was simply because of the demijohn. 
Everything had begun promisingly. Our two young friends Carol and Judith were going with us. We also had the good luck to be able to stay for three days at the Pesca Peru club, a small resort close to the Hotel Paracas reserved for the executives of the company. The club was nice: a dozen bungalows, a pool, a sauna, a ball court, lounges, a dining room, and the entire staff at our service. Since we were there during the week, we had the place to ourselves. 
We liked the place so much we spent the whole first day swimming in the pool and savoring the excellent dishes prepared for us by the Japanese cook. Our plan was to take Ernesto's truck and head out the next day for beaches south of Ocucaje--the theater of our last expedition--this time without either guide or recommendations, just playing it by ear. 
At dusk we decided to go to the Hotel Paracas for a change of scenery and some pisco sours. That was when the demijohn first showed up, not in its real form, glassy and cylindrical, but in the person of Don Felipe Otárola, who could be called cylindrical but not glassy and in any case was a reputed local grape grower. He was an old friend of Ernesto's; he sat down at our little table and invited us to spend the next day at his small Ica vineyard, the only thing left to him after the land reform. Ernesto tried to explain to him that we were in Ica only for three days and only to find a deserted beach, but Otárola was unbending and ordered us to come by his farm at ten in the morning. Then he would leave us free to go on with a search that, in his view, was completely idiotic. 
Carol and Judith couldn't care less about enology and they refused to go visit Otárola's vineyard the next day, choosing instead to stay at the club sunbathing by the pool in thong bikinis. So Ernesto and I had to face that engagement alone and stoically cross the fiery, hundred-kilometer plateau between Paracas and Ica. Sweltering, we arrived at Otárola's house close to noon. And we still had to visit the vineyard! Otárola led us down a dry and dusty road through the outskirts of the city until he stopped in front of a gate in a long adobe wall. We went though the gate and found ourselves in the vineyard: barely five or ten hectares but very well cared for. Lined up along irrigation furrows, the vines grew as high as a meter and a half and were supported by stakes and protected by cane arbors overgrown with intertwining vine shoots. The grape bunches weren't ripe yet. Ernesto and I thought the visit would be limited to contemplating the vineyard from the entrance and listening to a few comments from our host. But grape growers are fanatics, single-minded men with violent passions, so Otárola didn't just give us a panoramic view of his vineyard; instead, he had us tour it furrow by furrow, vine by vine, bent over on account of the low cane covering, suffocating in the heat, breathing dust, and listening to technical explanations that our desperation prevented us from understanding. When we got out of the place, Ernesto and I were hunchbacked and exhausted, but Otárola was proud of his demonstration. 
There had to be some recompense for that torture. Back at Otárola's house, dying of hunger and thirst (Carol and Judith were waiting for us at the club to eat lunch), our host offered us a farewell pisco sour. Yet another delay! But not in vain: the pisco sour he put in front of us in big glasses seemed to be a gift from the gods. Not only did it banish our hunger and thirst, it also endowed us with uncontainable happiness. We asked for another one and yet another, but the third one was denied us. Otárola was a responsible man. We had to drive back to Paracas and it was better to do so sober. It was finally time to go.
"The wine I make isn't that great," Otárola told us frankly, "but my pisco, the pisco I make for my own use, has no match here or anywhere else in the world."
Next thing, he went to the kitchen and came back with a big bottle that must have had ten liters of pisco in it.
"Here you have it. So you can take it to Lima or Paris and remember this poor farmer."
The demijohn!
From then on the afternoon devolved into the absurd. Carol and Judith were still sunbathing by the pool, but angry with us for being late. To mollify them we showed them the bottle as if it were a trophy and asked the Japanese cook and bartender to prepare us a pisco sour before lunch, which, according to the reproaches of our girlfriends, had been ready for more than an hour. But the pisco sour was so good that we had another one and just after that the four of us were in the pool, euphoric, splashing around and shouting, while the Asian kept bringing us new rounds of his concoction and reminding us, without our paying any attention to him, that the cebiche was getting warm and the rice with duck was getting cold. Only as the afternoon went on did we recover a bit of lucidity and realize: 
Primo: we hadn't eaten lunch. 
Secondo: for the second day in a row we had put off the excursion that was the object of our trip.
After showering we ate quickly and decided to set out for the deserted beach, even if it meant spending the night in unfamiliar terrain. We threw some food and other things into the truck, among them, very well-corked, the demijohn. 
We had barely gone twenty kilometers when it got dark and we started to wonder where exactly it was we were going. We were at a crossroads: the Panamericana heading to Ica and another road that presumably went to some cove. To decide which way to go, we uncorked the pisco and drank straight from the bottle, helping each other to lift it, so heavy it was. Straight like that, without any ornament, that pisco was heavenly dew, thick nectar that filled our mouths with fragrant warmth and the taste of mythical vineyards, to the point that we almost saw Bacchus drinking and Silenus dancing. 
"That way," said Ernesto. And he turned onto the secondary road that, as we noticed a few kilometers on down, led not to the ocean but into the sand dunes. And what dunes! On that moonless night, they undulated endlessly under the light of nothing but the stars. A low voice seemed to be coming from the dark plain. A bit farther on we yielded to its summons and agreed that we should get out of the truck and brave the inhospitable dunes on foot. Ernesto parked the truck on the side of the road and we headed into the darkness, the demijohn our only provision. 
The sand was warm in spite of the hour, and our feet sank noiselessly into the softness. We went on very close together, following the lay of the land, dips and rises, all of it under the soft light of the stars. But as we went forward (halting regularly to take swallows from the bottle, which Ernesto was carrying), we began to feel an intoxication that, more than from the alcohol, was coming from the powerful spell cast by the desert. We were walking faster and faster, farther and farther apart, as if absorbed by an unseen force, until at last we broke into a run and our group split up. Ernesto and Carol disappeared in one direction and I found myself alone with Judith under the immense dome of the sky. 
"Wait," I told her, before she disappeared like the others, and grabbing her by the hand we stood still listening to the silence. 
What a marvelous sensation! I felt Judith's heart beating in my hand and in unison with us the distant pulse of the sidereal world. The two of us sat down on the sand and then lay face up looking at the sky in astonishment. At that late hour the spaces between stars, planets, and constellations had been filled in with more and more lights so close to each other that they formed a milky blur and at last the sky turned into one sparkling silver dome. A sky like that I hadn't seen even on the highest Andean plateaus or on the driest coasts of Almería or North Africa. Now I understood, only now, why the ancient inhabitants of these bone-dry, cloudless plains were bound so closely to the stars and learned so much from that window that opened every night onto infinite space. Astronomers, prophets, potters, weavers, farmers, fishermen, builders of roads, temples, and cities were for centuries educated in the school of the cosmos. 
Judith and I, still holding hands, merged into the desert and the night and became fused to the heavenly bodies blinking in the silvery sky; we were in a state of exaltation that disembodied us and melted us into the immensity of the universe. And we would have stayed that way if it hadn't been for the distant cries we heard. 
". . . to!"  
". . . ol!" 
It was Ernesto and Carol looking for each other in the desert. We stood up right away to go look for them and set off running over the rolling plain, but as we chased those voices we too ended up losing each other. Each one of us was running around shouting for somebody else. I went backwards and forwards or ran in circles, guided by a shout and distracted by another in a space that was neither dark nor light but bathed in phantasmagoric light. I realized then that I didn't have to shout the whole name, just the last syllable, it was louder that way and took less effort. And the others must have made the same discovery: 
". . . it!" 
". . . to!" 
". . . ol!"  
". . . lio!" 
At last I heard a "to" next to me and I ran into Carol.  
"I've been looking for Ernesto for hours," she said. "Where in the world were you? Let's stay together, please." 
We kept going into the darkness, guided by Ernesto's and Judith's shouts, which resounded anxiously from separate, distant points. In that soft light and on that uniform terrain it was impossible to get oriented. At last, after countless twists and turns we ran into Judith. Only Ernesto was missing. The three of us, not straying too far apart this time, shouting each other's names to indicate our position, tracked the plain, and when we came around a dune we spotted Ernesto standing on top of a small rise and gazing at the sky, his arms raised. 
"Damn!" he said when he saw us. "I was just about to blast off for the Milky Way!" 
We were tired, excited, but happy to be reunited. Now it was a matter of finding the road where we had left the truck. The only information our poor knowledge of astronomy could give us was the Southern Cross, which was shining triumphantly in the stellar map. We followed its orders and fifteen minutes later made it to the road; then, walking along the road, we made it to the truck. Ernesto turned on the headlights and we saw a marker indicating kilometer thirty-three. Only when we started back for the club did we realize we had forgotten something in the desert: the demijohn.
The demijohn is eventually recovered, of course, but the story of the recovery is perhaps for another day.