I was all packed up and ready to move on. It had been almost a week and I still had yet to find a couple to go on the desert trip. I was disappointed, but felt ok that I would not get to go out to the desert after all because my week had been filled with interesting people and experiences. It must have been around six when I finished packing and Alisa (the owner of the hostel) came in.
There’s a girl outside. She said.
I Laughed. Thanks Alisa, but I don’t need you to tell me every time a girl walks by.
Fine, but she’s American. Alisa remarked and walked down the hall. I wasn’t really in the mood for conversation, but it certainly would be nice to have a conversation with no translation, upturned “I’m not really sure what you’re saying” faces, and nods at remarks misunderstood, so I went out anyway to say hi. Lauren (pronounced Laur-en) is a 25 year old law graduate from Pittsburgh, and four hours later we were still engrossed in conversation about Peru, America, and everything in between. It was only around ten that night that I realized it was too late to catch a bus, anywhere.
So as it turned out, I owe Lauren a lot, because I stayed an extra night at The Sand and Lake. Expecting to sleep in and leave around midday, I was awakened at 6 am by Alisa looking annoyed and exausted:
What? I said. Cabrera…Really? I forced my eyes open, threw on a sweater, and sure enough, just on the other side of the sliding glass doors was the Desert man and his trademark steel black truck.
I woke up this morning, he said, at 5 am, and I said to myself: I could wash my car, or I could go take you into the desert. For whatever reason, I felt like I had to take you. So go get ready, time spent here is less time there!
As it turns out, Roberto went from Hostel to Hostel looking for me before finally locating me at 6 in front of Sand and Lake. I tore open my bag and grabbed my camera, desert pants, trekking shoes, my hat, and the water I had left and we headed out of Huacachina.
Along the road, Roberto showcased his unusually potent driving ability as we narrowly avoided a head on collision with a tractor trailer by merging into a narrow gap between a pick-up and a sedan. We stopped for a breakfast of chicken sandwiches at a truckstop restaurant.
You always know the best place to get coffee if you look where the truckers are stopped, Roberto says. He is right, the little shop with more dogs than people had the best local coffee I’ve had in Peru.
By 8 am, we had reached the outskirts of the Ocucaje desert. As we drove, Roberto pointed out evidence of graverobbing and mining. He followed his tracks from past trips, mocking competitors who attempted to follow them but got turned around in circles. As we turn a bend, I watch a fox atop the Cliffside.
Is that a fox? I ask.
What? Where? Roberto slams on the brakes and backs up. I point out the little fox forty feet above us. I don’t believe it! This is incredibly rare. You do not see them during the day. I have never even seen one in daylight. You are very lucky. Roberto gets excited and snaps some pictures.
Pleased at the good omen and that it seemed almost as if our adventure was being watched by the spirits of the desert, or at least a fox, we continued on.
Running along tracks he knew well, Roberto showed me the remains of ancient whales and rambled on about geology while I tried to pick up as much as I could while transfixed by the magnificence of the desert sea valleys. Fossils dotted the landscape, anywhere the soil darkened to a reddish brown. The sheer multitude of them is fascinating, but these were ravaged by thieves and careless miners. The best was yet to come.
Roberto finds a suitable ledge and we hop out in search of his favorite finds: Shark teeth. I see the first three, all broken. Roberto smiles. You are good! He laughs and looks for his own. After just five minutes of walking or so, Roberto starts jumping up and down like a schoolgirl with a date to the dance. A few seconds later I see it, a bright red-orange tooth the size of my thumb in nearly perfect condition. I am still pretty impressed, but Roberto gets back to the hunt.
We search a while longer, and uncover some smaller teeth and crab fossils. As we comb the protected Cliffside, Roberto starts to describe his methods. I listen closely and try to follow along. Afterwards, I came up with these rules for fossil tooth hunting in the desert:
1. If the bones are shattered, the teeth will be too.
2. The teeth must be on the downside of a hill, where they are protected by strong afternoon winds and sandstorms.
3. The teeth are often found near bones, and always found where the sand changes from white to orange, red, brown, blue, or even black. The darker the better.
4. They can be often found together.
5. Look for a shimmer 5-10 feet away. Rocks will shine, but only teeth will shimmer.
6. Keep an eye out for triangles in the sand.
I could keep up these rules, but it takes a lot more practice to know where in a massive desert to pick the spot to search. We keep going as I pick up little ones here and there that Roberto is entirely uninterested in. We look at some more whales, and Roberto takes me to meet Pepe.
Pepe is not Hispanic, my one year of forensic science tells me. I explain this to Roberto, but he refuses to change the name. I knew that already, the Desert man says. No Peruvian had corduroys thirty years ago. Surrounded by plants, Pepe likely thought water was nearby and stopped to rest. He was fooled by the resilient plants though, and never got up again.
As we drive in of search of Roberto’s favorite whale, El Diablito (Little Devil), we get lost. Time is the only thing you have, Roberto says, and we seem to be wasting it. The Desert Sage’s philosophy of life is this: All we have is time, and all we leave behind are our offspring. We come from the ground, which gives us life. Everything else is black and white. So to Roberto, life is a matter of time well spent and family well appreciated. He even has a wooden carved necklace to represent his philosophy: a donut shaped circle with green string on top (life) brown on the bottom (earth) and black and white on the top.
While I am not quite sure if everything is black and white, I can’t help but agree with the man whose life actually is the ground. He has some more practical philosophy on his work as well: I take nothing that will not be destroyed. The shark teeth, as you can see with your pocket full of fragments, shatter. What they have to show is lost. I do not dig for teeth, I rescue them. As for the rest of his fossils, he took only those at risk of being destroyed, and hopes to have a museum in Ica someday to house his collections.
They are Ica’s heritage, so the museum must only be here.
Unfortunately the task will fall to someone else, because Cabrera is tired of his fame and is getting to old to worry about a museum. It would be a hard sell besides, since Cabrera hates most paleontologists.
Fingerologists and rapers, all of them! He shoves a protruding middle finger at the dashboard, the sky, and anything else that will receive it. That’s his term for the illegal “scientists” who take fossils from the Desert and put them in museums thousands of miles from Peru. He wouldn’t mind so much if they built a museum nearby. But as far as Roberto is concerned, they are stealing. To be honest, he is right. They come without the permission of the government, take the fossils, and smuggle them out. Not to mention they leave trash like this cast around:
The aged protector of the Desert who has taken the degree of a French Paleontologist and put grave robbers and fossil thieves behind bars is still just a bit lost. “I’m looking for two mountains on the right! He yells in frustration. I laugh inwardly, since I see no mountains at all within 50 kilometers. We eventually find our way to Roberto’s protected whale, El Diablito, named for his devilish good looks (really).
I like to camp here, Cabrera says. The spot looks out on a vast portion of arid land from a protected mountain cove. He points out the path of a meteorite down a mountainside. I start to see his point about Desert spirituality.
We seek out more teeth at a nearby hillside. It is about noon, and I am starving. The extra chicken sandwiches are gone, so I ask if Roberto happened to bring anything else. Of course! He says, and hands me a tin of Sardines and a spoon. Funny how the Desert smells like the ocean sometimes… I brave the first bite—not really a fish person besides—and find it disturbingly tasty. A thin film of preservatives coat each slimy, soft fish, but I gobble it down as fast as I can, partly out of hunger, and partly out of the fear I might hurl.
Satisfied but with a fishy taste stuck behind my wisdom teeth, we get on with the hunt. It had been almost five hours since our first great find at 9 am, and Roberto’s mood was growing sour despite the cigarette every fifteen minutes. I practice my technique, but end up picking up a lot of cool rocks and very few teeth. Roberto and I walk side by side, looking in opposite directions. He stops, bobs his head back and forth to catch the shimmer, and grabs my hand. Then my waist. Then the wild Desert man starts doing a greatly sped up waltz in place.
I don’t even see it! I yelled. I am looking twenty feet off, right where he pointed, and seeing nothing. He runs over and picks up a perfect black, blue, yellow, and white fossil the size of my palm. A tooth left behind from an ancient great white shark. $300 euros! Not even I have one with yellow like this! The Desert Man yells for all to hear.
I told you! I told you, John, didn’t I? I am the best! My guide turned babysitting gig would have made the coldest heart smile. He really does love finding shark teeth, even the ones he gives to me!
I admire his freedom, and of course the tooth itself. It really is beautiful in a way that none of the others we found are, so even though I’m now broke, I’ll never sell it.
We drove on, the mood permanently heightened. Roberto shows me two more of his treasures before we leave: a whale with fossilized skin and another whale with a crystallized brain.
Leaving the Desert, Roberto grows pensive again and we talk about his future, and the future of the Desert. You are like me, he says. I can tell now. That is why I felt the need to take you out today. How about this? You stay here and work for me. You go and find people to take trips, and you come along, make good money for each person, and teach them yourself what I’ve taught you.
I am very tempted. Exploring the Desert, always hunting for the next amazing find, living at complete peace in a silent landscape, and working with a man who has carved his own place in the world with pure skill and no degrees.
I know I have to decline for now, but if life goes south, I‘ll go with it and work in Peru.