Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns

A Travel Rant- Gripes and Tripe


Today and just today I am tired and over it all. Tired of everything. forgive me a little purging. Tired of buses, wailing babies, snoring passengers, stamps, boarders, bureaucracy, passports, ten day old pastries. lagubrious Cathedrals, oppressive histories, paper weight monuments, the obligation of sight seeing snap shots, wonder less wondering, retarded conversations, deceptive cab drivers, misjudging maps, distances, mispronouncing words, gringo charades,black snot, insipid coffee, the daily 60 m diarrhaea sprint, indifference, apathy (my own and others), the hungry eyes of skeletal dogs, hollow bellies of grubby kids. Yanky tourists fond of words like Skeeeeeedaddle and fucking A! Crooked politicians, poverty, rain, piss stained terminals, cigarettes, not enough exercise, disturbed sleep, long nights, dodgy hostels, persistent hormones, lumpy pillows, saggy beds, overhearing orchestration’s of neighborly loving/ waring through paper thin walls, cold showers, showers that shock, toilets sans seats, toilets sans paper,pubic hair clogging communal basins. Packing and unpacking, backpacking in general, buses( again for emphasis.) Spanish pop- the infernal, ever green and all night long Shakira and Enrique, Paul Simon pan pipe covers, bannanas, Che Guava, Gavarra, Guervarra-how ever you pronounce it! Expectation, altitudes, procrastination, acclimatisation, Internet cafes, soggy pits, blistered heels,smelly socks and sweaty bits, sleeping pill hang overs, old underwear, shrunk sweaters, over priced airlines, infected mosquito bites, groveling shoe shine boys, pin striped capitalists, begging misfits, blind accordionists, Barney the ubiquitous Plaza dinosaur. Bleeding saints, maudlin martyrs,words that wont settle, collaborate, wasted time, ideas, currencies and conversions- rampant crime, anthropological navel gazing, cultural pervesion. Wading through priceless Lonely planet metaphors such as : the constant hum of of hollering vendors hangs in the air like chanting in a monastery -erm??? Americans (again for emphasis) Coca cola, Beer, Aqua con and sin gas - Con is the fizzy fucker that erupts at the most inopurtune moments.The random finger lottery of ordering from Spanish menus, the culmination either tripe tatar, chicken claw soup, or if I’m really lucky- a nice wholesome plate -all expectant eyes, grinning molars, tufts of fur-of roasted guinea pig.

In Search Of San Pedros Keys (The Wiz of Hauncabamba ) Part 2


The maestro ushers me into the basement of his homestead. A cramped room with cattle hides carpeting the floor and a raised altar (messa) at its centre .The air is damp and overbearing with a mismatched array of fragrances. The Altar cluttered with a variety of swords and objects: icons of saints, sculptures, earthenware bowls, dice, sea shells , bottles containing herbs and variety of colourful concoctions. The wall papered with dog eared ID and family photos (left by past customers), spectate our negotiation.The Maestros stolid gaze gives me the Jitters, I have not the tongue or confidence to barter. I agree obsequiously to the 200 Soles fee and that settles it. The ceremony is to commence at nine and in the mean time I’m shown to the cavernous upstairs kitchen for a last supper.

Chunks of raw flesh dangle from low hanging beams. An elederly woman with plaited hair sqauts beside a cauldron spinning thread. The reel invisible on its line seems to waft magically in and out of her hand. Potatoes, a sour chunk of cheese are placed before us and it is here that I meet my fellow pilgrims and patients: a leather faced and laconic Texan and his dolled up Peruvian bookie as well as another young Peruvian couple who have travelled from Piura to seek blessings for their family and sick child. When the Texan does mumble the semblance of a sentence, its to inform me that the Maestro healed his brother from a terminal illness a few years back and is a man of extraordinary powers.

After dinner we retire to a shared dorm. Anxiety alongside the Texans guttural snores, a lumpy mattress and blanket (so full of starch it feels as it were made of concrete) forbid me a moments rest.  I lie awake , tossing and turning, my imagination ticking into torturous over drive. The a rap on the door.

It is time.

The five of us shuffle into the ceremonial room to find the blanketed Maestro nestled into his throne adjacent to the Altar. I notice the Peruvian couples unloading packet fulls of items at his feet: Wallets, hand bags, kids school text books and array of family photographs. We take our place on the cow hide rugs and are handed our keys to the ancestors in the form of a cup of San Pedro. It is a bitter tasting substance that blazes through the body like a jug of tequila might. The lamps are blown out and Don Augustin is reduced to a voice sonorous and monotonous in the dark. His shaker, like the restless tail of a dessert snake underscoring his chanting. Every once and a while, and quite unexpectedly his voice rears up with- Abajo! (down) Abajo! (down) Abajo! (down) .Cautioning our wayward demons, as a owner might -a pack of over zealous and muddy pawed puppies.

A good two hours pass and despite feeling a deep and meditative drowsiness, I am yet to unlock the gate, see a hint of celestial light or converse with long lost grandfolks.

Then the thunk, thunk, thunk of muddy gum boots announce the arrival of the maestros three henchmen. From the light seeping through the cracks in above kitchen floor boards I can just make out their burly blanketed figures, apprentices is my guess. They step forward and beckon the five of us to rise. A sea shell full of tobacco liquid is placed in our hands and on the Maestros command we are made to inhale it through the nostrils. Its an acrid tasting tar like substance and similar (I would imagine-though I am yet to try) to taking an espresso shot up ones snozz.

This activity spins the room into brief hysteria. The lot of us reduced to a hacking, spluttering, coughing mess.  Abajo! (down) Abajo! (down) Abajo! (down) commands the Maestro. Abajo! Abajo! Abajo! respond his henchmen as the next sea shell arrives, then the next.

Shortly after this, one of the apprentices takes a hearty sip from a bottle of cheap perfume and then proceeds to spit the contents into each of our faces. A chaotic confusion, repugnant profusion of fragrances engulf us. This continues for some time until finally each of our outstretched hands are doused in the scents and we are made to run it over our faces and through our hair in an act of divine benediction and prayer

Still I feel nothing, no body drifting, atom splitting, cosmos cracking awe. Nothing except the steady increase of exhaustion and persistent fire in my sinus.

The Maestro now sets about consulting each of us individually. Spanish tones ping and pong in question and response. My limited grasp of the language does not permit me to grapple with the intricacies of their conversations, but from their post enthusing of Muchas Gracias´s Maestro, Muchas Gracias! I gather his divining was more then spot on. When my turn comes, the Texan reluctantly helps to translate. I’m told I am an escritor (writer) and there shall be prosperity and perhaps more travel ahead. Perfecto! Short, sweet and without any awful future anticipations.

It is at this point that I begin to imagine, rather pray we are crawling toward the finish line. Hopes no sooner dashed when one of the Maestros trusty Henchman decides he still has some unfinished business with me the my ol demons . He lugs me outside to undergo further perfume showers and then a final cleansing that involves an ominous looking baton-about the size of a baseball bat. It is an experience not dissimilar to being harassed at an air port security check though minus the ping.The baton running, back and forth, up and down my body, between my legs, over my head while he rants and raves, grunts and snorts. Abajo! Abajo! Abajo!

Back on the cow hide mat, and still the diligent Maestro holds vigil. In my state of exhaustion he sounds like Van Morrison grumbling the lyrics to ´Rave On John Donne´´. This I find strangely comforting. Rave on , Rave On, Rave on, Rave On through thy holy ghost etc……. It must be four in the morning and I can no longer withstand the drowsy velvet of his voice. I pass out, wake an hour later with face in the dirt and mouth full of mud.

The cocks are crowing throughout the valleys. Thick mists make for a diluted and eerie sun rise. That’s when I hear them, Oh God- The sound of skittish mules traipsing through the mud outside the room. Mules waiting to courier us to the remote and sacred lakes for the second half of the ceremony.

Will this interminable exorcism, tripless purging never end? I wish to cry out, but bite my tongue and prepare to mount my equally unenthusiastic ass.

All this time the inncesant tribunal of my inner monologue mocking : Ya,Ya pesky westerner, serves you right, you and your pseudo anthropological/ spiritualistic/ journalistic curiosities. Pah!

Okay, okay I repent: I just came along to have a good time and now I’m left wondering what in gods name I have gone and gotten himself into!

And so it is that our caravan of wonky donkeys and one somewhat (okay very reluctant) pilgrim begin their slippery and fated ascent for the Las Haringas or sacred lakes.


In Search of San Pedros Keys(The Wiz of Hauncamba) PART 1


Tired of trodden trails and keen to start the New year with an experience that might set a precedent of some sort, I endure a turbulent ten hour bus ride deep into the Northern Peruvian mountains to a place known as Hauncabamba. Hauncabamba is a region that ,thankfully, has no river rapids, Irish pubs or overpriced ruins to attract the adrenaline seeking, lonely planet abiding wanderer. Rather its a gloomy misbegotten little mountain town whose only traces of life can be found staring blankly from park benches in the central Plaza. My incongruous presence no doubt a novel (but not necessarily welcome) viewing diversion. 

Hauncabambas reputation (and hence the reason for my visit) resides in its wealth of Curanderos (healers) and Brujos (witchdoctors) who surround the sacred lakes of Las Haringas . Healers and mystics, who for a substantial fee will banish ones demons (or incur them-depending what youre after) while resolving matters relating to the heart, failing finances, fortunes, health, sex drives etc etc. With no immediate ailment, misfortune or penile dysfunction to declare (Though I have always maintained that prevention is better then cure) my purpose and curiousity lies more in sampling the ceremonies obligatory cup of San Pedro. A cactus extract known to offer up intense hallucinatory revelations and insight.

According to Peruvian mythology, San Pedro was an ancient, who through the consuming of the sacred cacti, managed to retrieve the keys to the universe that God had previously concealed from man kind. I like to think then that I come in search of a freshly cut pair. A pair that might unlock the chastity belt to my supressed sub consciouss.

On arrival at the Bus Station, Im ushered into a make -shift office, really just a room with a few laminated Las haringas posters pasted on the walls. A dusty folder featuring the Ciriculum vitaes of over fifty Curanderos is placed before me. While I leaf through the file , the bus station soft drink seller (and sometime tourism lady) babbles on in an incomprehesible stream of Spanish, showering me with maps and brochures (The type of enthusiasm I imagine comes with recieving your first customer in a long long while.).In my wearied state I can only nod and respond to with my staple Si, Si, Si as if I have grasped every word, when if the truth be told I have not the slightest clue what she is on about.

At a glance, the portfolios seem identical:  the Curanderos name, age and years of practise in the esoteric arts listed . Photos pinned to each page depict men (in ponchos and cowboy hats) in their late fifties, weilding objects that look (rather worryingly) like swords. I settle on a reccomendation I was able to come across through some vigirous internet research prior to my arrival. Don Augustin a  Cundero whose business card proclaims him to be the Maestro of Maestros.

So the big Don it is: Wizard of Hauncabamba, demon buster and answering machine to the anscestors. I secure an appointment for the following evening and in the meantime crash in one of the towns dillapidated accommodations that go under the (rather oppurtunistic) banner of hostel.

Four o clock the following day, and the wrap of knuckles sounds on my door. My taxi driver come to escourt me to my Curandero appointment. A boy stands on the other side , half my age and only just surpassing my belt buckle in height. I wonder whether his feet will reach the vehicle peddles and suprisingly they do, though this leaves his eye line barely cresting the wheel. I take a deep breathe and off we scoot.  Leaving behind the hostile plaza onlookers and low lying valleys, ascending into a landscape set in regular motion with mist and rainy season landslides (which explains the locals preferred nickname- la Ciudadque Camina -the mountians that walk). 
Cloud capped peaks, damp villages marooned in bannana thickets fly by, while the occasional deranged village mutt attemtps to savage the taxis Wheels. The kid narrowly averts catastrophe by swerving and swearing (Puta Madre!) at pigs and other errant farm obstacles that litter the road. There are moments where I realise my life is in the hands of an adolescent,his need for speed - insatiable, playing the wheel as if it were a play station consol.

Outside the sun is setting and a recent down pour retreating. The wet air caught unawares in the afternoon glow ignites in a techhnicoulour blush. Thick bands of colour arch from the ground up.
Which we way to Don Augustin-the maestro of maestros- I ask the boy?

To which he points a finger to the very spot where the rainbow brands the earth.

Were off to see the wizard (i humm) the wonderful wizard of Oz.

As night settles the taxi finally pulls up outside a rustic wooden settlement. There standing in the dim candle light of a doorway-the imposing shadow of the Maestro waiting to recieve me. 


Letter from a Shipwrecked Sailor- Final thoughts for 2007


Fine place to be at the closing of the year- Haunchaco in Northern Peru. Spanish ballads aching from a beach bar stereo, beer bottle perspiring in the sunshine, the Pacific rolling on in. I’m levitating. Maybe its the bubbles on a empty stomach, maybe its not being on a twenty four hour bus, corn bites crammed between white bread for sustenance or freezing and soaked to the bone out on in the Andes.

The familiarity of a sea front, golden torsos, strutting chicas, tatty umbrellas. The delighted shrieks of bathers when toes first reach water. While I consider myself a proud son of the Indian (and to her will always owe allegiance) for now the Pacific and her frosty reception, will just have to do. I shall sit here and watch the sun sink on an old year, sit with my sea view, drink beer till my belly grows and I can call it hereditary. I shall make a toast, take a sip for each of those I love-I will be parralletic in no time.

I shall smoke cigarettes under the pretense I wont tomorrow. Make a resolution or two ,for the guilty pleasure of breaking them. Mull over moments that resurfaced on a four day trek in the Andes. Where so alone and stuck with old thoughts was I, that I was forced to excavate new ones. Something to take the mind off cumbersome back pack and blistering heels. Pain a sure way to pop creative boils. Considering that 90 percent of writing is the thinking of it, I have had ample time to re-wire, re-work, re think characters and stories. Characters previously destined to fill the mass grave of my aborted imaginings.

They must break free, live their own god damn lives. That or stay trapped (to taunt and torture) in this the limited cell of my corpus coliseum (whatever part of the brain it is that houses such maniacs). It seems that every one is in the habit of having babies at the moment. Hell, in 2008 I might just consider popping some puppies of my own. I am grateful for this time, this sea side sunset to offer up my final meditation /masturbation for 2007.

I had a surf earlier, took a step for the first time off the edge off the edge of this continent. Funny that- for this sensation- I call myself a surfer but must confess, for the moment I am more bobber, content to let the element free feet from rock, concrete, carpet or slipper.I’m drunk now, writing this in the final hours of 2007 . This letter, idea, essay will be ill formed, poorly put. Forgive me for ending the year with poor piece of writing, for this i can find no excuse except the beer.

I have rediscovered solitude and am beginning to learn that it is more of a distant relation then close companion to that which we know as loneliness.I have experienced both and more often then not confused the two (one need not go to the expense of purchasing a ticket to South America to enable such discovery) .It has been a book by Marquez ,not 100 Years Of Solitude but a journalistic account titled The Tale of a Shipwrecked Sailor which has assisted me in exploring this little revelation/tangent.

In the account (a true story) a Colombian Sailor is tossed over board from his vessel into the Caribbean sea . Here he spends ten days adrift on a sinking raft, to fend of sharks, hunger and thirst until eventually washing up on shore to find himself declared a national hero. The similarities I have with this Sailor and his predicament are of course none. My cast away status being entirely self inflicted and savoured, my daily tribulation, incomparable to the horrors and struggles he faced drifting out over that indifferent expanse ( I have gone hungry but not yet had to feed off seagulls) Yet however desultory, adrift, lost I might have felt there is always a shore in sight, and if not in sight then just over the horizon.

Solitude then is a voluntary state, life with ones anchor optionally raised- bobbing, drifting call it what you will but loneliness, that is akin to days without water. A thirst with no end , a thirst that causes the sailor of Marquez’s story to sate and further exacerbate his need with salt water. There is wisdom in solitude (And yes self absorption, the danger of crawling entirely up ones own arse,as i might be doing now) but emptiness in loneliness. The sailor says he never feels lonely as long as he can remember there are people who refuse to bury him, refuse to think him dead until proven so. The minute he forgets this, these beacons- he hopes for a quick death.

Hope I have bundles of, solitude with an end in sight. A southern tip, sea side village on the East Coast (and west). Inhabited by people who I love, aspire to. A welcome end to wondering. I need not travel to escape then (like so many I meet) rather travel to return. And its not the cushy suburb, my six nippled staffie (who i miss terribly) that I long for. The generous space, who my folks- despite my ripe age- have housed me in and thus afford such a time away. Its not that, for quite content am I with cold shower, rusty springed bed, room enough to stack my books and tuna fish. Luxury for the moment is distance and draft enough to hang hiking socks without causing neighbours (or self for that matter) offense. It is the people, their quality, my tribe that populate such hope. People capable of solitude in their own spaces, capable of self criticism, who know how much to there is to know and fear knowledge for that very reason. People who see the world for the miraculous, tyrannical,mystical, mechanical, magical place it is. People like you.

I’m losing time, as I write the light is low , the waves all rolling and misty in the bay, dusk the brief respite before night, before morning, then boom a new day, year ,when we (some) rise with throbbing heads and wonder where it all went. So for brevity (and lights) sake, I shall be brief. May each day be a resolution.Know thyself , said (was it?) Thiresieus to Oedipus. I have only just started to re acquaint with my twin and it has been agreed, on this eve, that we might be able to work toward a common future (and even possibly grow to like one another)

There she goes, gathering up the last of her golden trail. Going… Going… Gone

Here’s to a year of other halves- in self and others

It is dark and can no longer see the page.

To solitude and never Loneliness

Now is Yesterday

Happy New year

much love

A shipwerecked sailor

bobbing an loving it

Feliz Año 2008- Haunchaco and the Hurricane Protection Pitch


Strange but refreshing company I had to see in the New Year. The morning of arriving in Haunchaco, a sea side village ten minutes from Trujillo (not unlike Durbs in its grubby beach and collection of baggied and burnt surfers) I stumble upon a ramshackle bamboo surfer retreat to meet Juan, the pro Peruvian. Jaun who has that universal beach boy type down to well waxed T. Cheeky Hawaiian grin and a disconcerting gaze that seems to be constantly peering out over some very very very distant horizon. He welcomed me to his abode, pulled up a chair and offered a free breakie. Hey what choo doing ta night? On answering I had just arrived and had no plans he invited me to celebrate the neuvo año with his family.

Now Juan has a vast family, the type (and im talking immediate siblings here) that take up two very large dining room tables and require up turned beer crates for the shortage of chairs their numbers warrant.Two of its players I shall take a minute to recall. Firstly Mrs Peru on my left, the national female fitness champ ( I’m sure she said body building but so baggy was her sweater that I couldn’t be sure if those were biceps bulging beneath) and her hubby (too my right) a native stoner from Fort Lauderdale, who informs me he is an entrepreneur in the Hurricane Housing Protection business . As the evening progresses and feast commences, Mrs Peru begins to tell her rags to riches tale. How she got her ticket into the States through some body building championship she hd entered. How she subseqeuntly stayed on, working illegally as restaurant toilet cleaner. He met her one night in the restaurant( The bog? ,I didn’t think to ask) and as she put it (squeling excitedly while smothering his bald patch with kisses): Gee ,my bebeee, Gee take me to the paradise, ge marree mi and geeve me the greeeeen card. Gee make a me gees secretaree!Then Miss Peru kicks in with a demonstration (with Eliza Doolittle type elocution). A hard sell Americana infomercial, her newly acquired English now faulty with wine and enthusiasm . With trademark Miami Mamma sass she launches into -Choo better listen op coz you no wanna miz dis deal, no on your life!

The whole thing becomes even more surreal (not helped by a puff of her husbands joint) when she sees my interest as an oppurtunity to practise her pitch. She rushes off , returning with arm fulls of test samples, samples of the hurricane debris catching netting and a deluge of business cards and brochures.

En for joost so and so many dollares choo can protect your house and leeeetle dog from dose beeg bad weeends!

Ain’t she a moon beam, grins hubby while I applaud the demonstration and say were Durban drafts a threat to homesteads I would have purchased the whole bunch.

After the feast, we make out way down to the Pacific edge, the pack of brothers reduced to naughty kids, bearing a man made of straw and stuffed with fireworks (similar to the long suffering dummy we crucify back home on Guy Fawkes). So the tradition goes that each family on the eve of an old Year must burn a life size replica- standing to represent the bad energy of the past twelve months. Considering this is a family of ardent surfers (and a sister who could beat the lot of them at an arm wrestle) the dummy comes attached with old surf board. This will ensure the New Year comes full of good waves, smirks Juan as on the hour he gleefully sets the dummy ablaze.

I glance up the beach then towards the town to see hundreds of similar figures burning and imploding. A disturbing sight too one who might stumble unawares on an towns entire population, insensate to the fire that consumes them.

Christmas Crackers (Harauz Peru)


Christmas Eve is spent on a roof top. This time the Northern Peruvian City of Harauz. These roof tops are pretty much, much of a muchness, littered with washing lines, water drums and crates of empty Inca- cola bottles.

Places where, amongst the flapping sheets, I may conference (in peace and secret) with my past in it’s current carnations .Safe from being overheard (or deemed insane) by the man on the street. Alas the worried eyes of the land dweller and his land locked imagination.

Dues- ex machina is not my Saints chosen mode of transport and I am yet to see them charioting celestial cloud. No clarion overhead announces their coming, rather raucous laughter and the sound of clumsy feet up an iron stair. So accustomed am I too this sound that I need no longer flinch or pinch myself when they appear before me in the flesh. Rather wait, arms akimbo, foot tapping with mock impatience,saying :What took you so long?

Ah Saint Ric- though he might be Nic (for his head is adorned with silly festive hat) and accomplice Rosalind (his complicit elf).

Ric who greets me with laconic tip of cap (need he say more) then sets about perching on roof top ledge, one leg up, sparking a cigarette, then tune on the trusty Accordion.

To begin, a few obligatory Carols (It is after all Christmas Eve and Rosalind the nostalgiac- insists). Santa Rosa who in her unmistakable tipsy thoothless rathp (The voice of bed time stories as distinctive and familiar as Attenborough is to Nature documentaries) sings what words she can remember.Finally with Bony M formalities out the way, and a version of Silent Night so sad that it might silence all others, Riccardo starts up with a ribald range of Gypsy Tunes. (Acquired, so Ros tells me from a recent jaunt/ haunt amongst the Danube dwellers in Eastern Europe)

That’s the spirit- she cries, hiking up her Mettizo skirt (She has come a traditional Peruvian guise the old sport) taking my arm and spinning me in circles .Rosalind- Saint of the vine and wobbly line (and only just adjusting to the continental confusion that comes with omniscience) complains that she cant find a Checkers in the area to purchase her festive poison: a box of white wine. After reminding her which southern side of the globe we reside, she scuttles off and in no time returns with an adeqaute local variation.

Robbed by the wine of all sense, my Saints of all solitude, our eve on the roof top runs wild. Till Riccardo stops his music and Rosalind slips her hand over my eyes .Warm soft hands, familiar lines of fortune guiding me to the ledge. Nearly twelve she says. Nearly time, whispers Ric.

Clackety clackety clack go the fire crackers on the streets below-like a pair of love sick tap shoes clacking in Morse. I watch a sky set on fire. Roaring rockets and whinging wheels . While both guardians lean forward and take turns to kiss my Saint Chris (look at me- then go astray-urges Ric). I mark their faces in the purple flare, the flecks of fire now sparking from their hair. Feliz Navidad, yells the city at once from their roof tops. So I crow back, with all my voice, Pan rousing Never land-Feliz Navidad!

When I next look they have vanished, but not completely. The exit, as with most things in life, more spectacular than the arrival. My eyes trail the scattered stars of their tails, watching them peter out over the tip of a distant cathedral. Then tumble to the Plaza, two smoking canisters (and just so I know where to follow them next) with Made in China printed on the side.