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Catfish Heads, Salted Avocados, and Ochos Locos: Life in the TRC Kitchen


Without a doubt, the Peruvians I came to know best were the guys on the TRC lodge staff. They fed me, played cards with me on rainy afternoons, always invited me to play fœtbol, and were extremely patient with my sometimes comical attempts at conversing in Spanish. Only when it came time to board the boat for the last time did I realize how spending two months together in the middle of nowhere had made us surprisingly close, even given our communication difficulties.

The chef was Vladimir, and he was a darn good one. A chubby and extremely short man, he insisted on wearing an immaculate white apron and an enormous chef's hat that probably increased his height by a full thrid. Vladi always adopted a very serious and professional air whenever he was at work, but his face would crack into a grin at the slightest provocation. Like all chefs, he was delighted when I asked for additional helpings, which was nearly every meal. He'd do his best to reach his arm up around my shoulder and tell me, "Claro, Matt, siempre hay comida para t'."--there is always food for you. His one fault as a chef was his forgetfulness. Whenever I had an afternoon clay lick session and needed to take my lunch with me, I would remind him at breakfast, usually several times. He would never let me make my own sandwich--sandwhiches are not really part of the Peruvian diet anyway--but always insisted that he would have food ready for me by the time I left. More often than not, however, I would arrive back at the lodge after a morning of birding, stroll into the kitchen to collect my food, and Vladi would slap himself on the forehead, light the grill, and rush back into the storeroom to grab some meat from the freezer. "Cinco minutos, cinco minutos!" he always yelled. I'll have it ready in five minutes! This system actually worked rather well, because by the time I had the rest of my gear packed and went back to the kitchen, there would be a Tupperware container (or "tooper," as they called it), full of rice and a whole peeled avocado, and Vladi tending to the unidentified protein portion of my lunch crackling in the frying pan as foot-high flames erupted from the grill. "Your meat," he would say to me, grinning and pointing at the charred piece of animal flesh swimming in grease. The meat, along with a substantial portion of the grease, were dumped into the container, then Vladi would take the avocado, itself now coated with fat, and dip into a large vat of salt. The whole package was then presented to me with careful instructions to mix it well. I must admit, though perhaps not the epitome of healthy eating, Vladi's lunches were certainly not lacking in taste and always provided a welcome diversion during the early-afternoon lull at the clay lick.

My favorite (or at least most memorable) story of TRC food occurred toward the end of my stay, when the supply boat failed to arrive one day and the lodge was completely out of meat. Vladi and the rest of the staff decided to spend the afternoon fishing in the river to rectify this problem, and they were extraordinarily successful, snaring two enormous catfish that were each longer than Vladi was tall. Some of the tourists wanted to take pictures of them, but he couldn't even hold them up without their tails flopping on the ground, which drew a good amount of ribbing from the rest of the guys. The fish, attractively prepared by frying in delicious batter, had a taste to match their impressive size; dinner that night was perhaps the finest I enjoyed during my entire trip.

Walking into the kitchen the next morning, I was almost knocked out with the essence of fresh fish. Countertops were strewn with parts of fish carcasses, and Vladi was hovering over one of the larger chunks with a knife, chopping feverishly and tossing the results into an enormous pot of soup simmering on the grill. Their didn't seem to be any discrimination in what anatomical element was being added to the brew. We frequently had soup for breakfast in the kitchen, but it was usually some reasonably tasteful variety such as beef and tomato or, more often, chicken and banana. Leftover nuggets of random catfish parts did not greatly appeal to me, and for once I wished I could indulge in scrambled eggs and pancakes with the tourists, but I was only allowed to eat out in the dining room at supper. Vladi soon announced that the soup was done, and everyone crowded around with dented aluminum bowls in hand, serving themselves with ladelfuls of the chunky stew. I waited until everyone was happily slurping it down, then approached the pot warily, trying not to think of what I would discover there. Little globs of white stuff, some of which could conceivably have been meat, were floating on he surface, swirling gaily in the convection currents. Harmless enough, I thought, as I scraped the surface of the soup with the ladle. But as the ladle drew across the liquid, the murky slick of fish oil cleared for just an instant, and there on the bottom of the pot, beady eyes gazing up at me unblinkingly, whiskers waving lazily in the water, gaping mouth stuck open in a dull stupefied expression, was the massive head of Vladi's prized catfish.

I ate the stew quickly. It tasted fine. The texture, however, was a tad unnerving. I tried to gulp it down as quickly as possible to keep time in my mouth at a minimum. I think Sabino, the waiter, noticed my uneasiness, because afterwards he brought me a leftover sweet roll from the tourists' table. Sabino was another major personality around the lodge (although, when the entire lodge staff consists of four people, most personalities have some influence). He was genuinely good guy and I am better for having known him, but he could be a bit of a joker at times. I met him my first night at TRC as I was staring at a map of southeast Peru hanging on a railing. He sidled up, introduced himself, and started pointing out all the rivers in the region where he had panned for gold. Impressed, I asked him if he had found anything. S', s', claro he replied. He had then hiked through the jungle with his loot seventy-five kilometers to the Cuzco-Puerto Maldonado Road (the only major road in Madre de D'os) and presented it as a gift to a local orphanage. His manner earnestly deadpan, I had no reason to doubt his story unti lthe next day when he informed me that the chicken we were eating was, in fact, guacamayo negro, black macaw--a species which apparently roosts in caves by day and emerges at dusk to feed on bats.

On another occasion, he sat beside me at breakfast and asked casually if I had a girlfriend. For the sake of conversation, I lied and told him yes. He grabbed the deck of moldy cards that always adorned the kitchen table and asked me to shuffle and then cut the deck five times. I obliged, and he began to lay out the cards in some unrecognizable pattern. After five minutes of rearranging cards, making matches, flipping some over, and discarding some entirely, he suddenly inhaled sharply, turned to me gravely, and said, Lo siento--ella tiene otro. She has another.

Sabino was uncontestedly the lodge card shark, or at least as close as someone could get to being a card shark when we only ever played one game, namely Ochos Locos, which is the very catchy Spanish name for Crazy Eights. The lads were fond of playing to see who had to do everyone else's dishes, and they did it at every meal everyday, which is rather a lot of games of Ochos Locos over the course of two months. As bad as I felt doing it, I usually declined to participate in favor of some other equally aimless activity, such as chasing little gray birds into dark thickets filled with biting insects, but I still found myself dragged into several games a week. I can proudly say that I was never the big loser, although I couldn't help but get the feeling that the other guys resented me slightly for my success.

Sabino was also an occasionally enthusiastic birder, once in a while accompanying me on my outings and always willing to offer advice on where best to find birds around the lodge. One day when there were no tourists at the lodge and no work for him, he told me he would take me to the best birding spot around, a somewhat mysterious (mythical, even, from the way he talked) location known as The Bowl. I had seen it marked on the map but never tried to actually visit it, owing to the drastically overgrown trail leading there. Sabino, however, claimed he knew a feasible route there, so after lunch we equipped ourselves with machetes and binonoculars and marched off into the forest. Two hours later, we were still marching, our progress for the last two kilometers retarded somewhat by plants on steroids requiring a massive operation involving lots of whacking things with machetes, the sudden branching of the trail into four equally passable ways (which conveniently coicided with a sudden failure in Sabino's navigational memory), and the path that we chose submerging itself in a swamp that was soon pouring in over the tops of our boots, then engulfing us up to our waists in warm, stagnant, extremely opaque water filled with God only knew what kinds of wriggling creatures, and through it all Sabino glancing back at me and grinning and saying muy cerca, muy cerca. Very close. We eventually climbed up onto a fallen tree in the middle of the swamp and Sabino announced that we had made it. This was The Bowl. Unfortunately, the promised jackpot of birds seemed to have temporarily vacated the area, and really the only noteworthy sighting was a King Vulture seen overhead through one of the gaps in the canopy. Oh well--certainly an adventurous afternoon, at any rate.

The other two guys on the lodge staff, Pachanga and Maximo, were never quite as talkative as Sabino and Vladi; in fact I don't think either of them said more than two words to me the entire two months. Pachanga was the kitchen helper, and, to be quite honest, he was not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. Whenever he saw me, he always nodded, grinning toothlessly, and said Hola amigo. I would respond accordingly, and that was as far as our conversations ever got. Pachanga's other memorable characteristic was the cassette tape he always (and I do mean always) played while working in the kitchen. It must have been the only music in the entire lodge, so the other guys somehow tolerated it, but the songs were almost maddening; one particularly fine selection contianed a total of two words (est‡ borracha, meaning "she is drunk") and ten seconds of music that was repeated for a whole five minutes. Maximo, on the other hand, was definitely the strong silent type, the jack-of-all-trades who singlehandedly kept the lodge in working order. His words to me were always a pleasant Buenos d'as, usually as he was walking by on his way to fix a broken toilet or kill a wasp in some concerned tourist's room.
Maximo was also one heck of a soccer player, which I witnessed firsthand the one time I let them persuade me to play with them. The game took place on a wide sandbank across the river, and with the boat drivers and I included, we had enough people for four-on-four. The day was typically hot and humid, we were playing under the full power of the mid-afternoon sun, and the results were rather comical: none of us save Maximo possessed any notable skills, and this was the first time I had done anything halfway athletic since breaking my ankle nearly two months ago. The simple image of the lanky, pale gringo hobbling around after a soccer ball in the midst of a bunch of short, tanned Peruvians somewhere on a riverbank in the Amazon rainforest is, without a doubt, an enduring one in my memory.

A portrait of TRC's cast would not be complete without mentioning the lodge's most colorful characters (literally): the chicos, our semi-wild macaws that paid the lodge almost daily visits. These were birds that had been hand-raised at the lodge six or seven years ago, then released into the wild. All had integrated very well with the local wild populations; some had even paired with wild mates and raised their own broods. But to them, the lodge still signified an occasional meal, and we were happy to oblige them--it was a good way to keep track of their survival and health. We had about half a dozen Scarlet Macaws and one Red-and-green Macaw that visited regularly, and each had its own little personality quirks. Some were extremely amiable, accepting their bananas without fuss and eating quietly while I read the tiny number engraved on the metal band on one of their legs. The trick was getting them to hold the banana with the foot the band was on so the number was visible, but some birds refused to cooperate in this regard (I think macaws are left or right-handed), or else they just took the banana and flew off into the forest with a few high-decibel squawkers as if to say, "Ha ha, sucker!" One of the Scarlet Macaws was very cooperative while he was eating, but when finished, would fly to my shoulder and wipe his beak on my shirt, then just sit there contentedly until I shooed him away. A few of the others were first-class troublemakers, timing their visits to coincide with breakfast. Instead of perching on the kitchen railing to wait for their banana, they'd sail directly into the dining room and crash onto the tables, scattering dishes and either delighting or petrifying the tourists. Then they helped themselves to as many pancakes and fruit slices as they could before being doused by the Super Soakers that Vladi and Sabino kept stashed in the kitchen for such situations. It was like a scene from a botched Hollywood bank robbery: Vladi and Sabino would come charging into the room, weapons in hand, yelling for the innocent civilians to get the hell out of the way, and the offenders would take off, screaming bloody murder and flapping a few circuits around the dining room before making their escape. I think the macaws enjoyed the ruckus they caused more than anything else.

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Last Updated:  13 January, 2003

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