It was more than a decade ago that I set off to Peru. I left my sister’s house in a western district of London and went to Heathrow Aiport. I went to the terminal that serves South America and other distant continents. I cannot recall which one that is. I was flying on Iberia – the national airline of Spain. I got to the terminal and then it struck me: I was flying to Lima via Madrid. I needed to be in the terminal for Europe. I hastened to the right terminal and made it. It was an inauspicious start to an enormous journey. Me entry point to South America was Lima and my exit point was Rio de Janeiro. Over the next five weeks I passed through Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. I have never been to Latin America before.
The one thing my brother in law knew about Lima was that it was the home of Paddington Bear.
The Hispanics take appearance exceedingly seriously. That is why on telenovelas everyone is so good looking. From toddlers to coffin dodgers – looks count. They may be totally bereft of acting ability but their thespians are all visually alluring. The formula for that genre of soap opera is a love scene, a fight scene and a scene of hysterics. Never fails. True to form on Iberia the staff all took immense pride in their appearance – even if some of them were overweight or had bad bone structure. Their clothes were immaculate and not a follicle was misplaced.
There was a brief layover in Madrid Barajas Airport. I wanted to withdraw money but there was no such place where I was. I asked a cleaner – he did not speak English. It was time to try to resurrect my GCSE Spanish. I had been practising with my gap toothed Spanish colleague Elena in the preceding months. ”Hay un lugar donde puedo retirar dineiro?” Only later did Iearn the word for cashpoint – cajero automatico. He said no. I asked the police if I could go out to do so but was refused.
On the flight to Lima I sat beside an elfin French girl. I was 23 and she was a little younger. Her name was Clotilde. She had short mid brown hair – spiky and boyish. She was desirable but could have made herself more so. I had first addressed her in Spanish – later we spoke French. It transpired that we both spoke German so we spoke a little in that language. She worked in a nursery and was visiting a friend of hers in Lima. I told her I was attracted to her and asked for her contact details. She gave me her email address. I later wrote to her but she never replied. She was smiley but maybe disliked my asking and felt she could not decline. Though I treasured the German I was also a sexual opportunist.
I was dozy and slept for much of the journey over the Atlantic. At one point a conceited looking steward in a red jacket asked me what I wanted to eat. ”Nadie”, I shook my head. His expression registered only mild surprise. I later realised I had committed an error. I had meant to say ”nada” meaning ”nothing”. I had answered the question, ”What do you want to eat?” with ”nobody.”
I read Lawrence Rees on the British Empire.
Evening came and we landed in Lima. There were longish queues but passport formalities were brief. Out through customs. The faded blue uniforms of the customs officers were topped off with baseball caps. I amused me to see the abbreviation SS on their shoulders. The words Servicios Seguridades explained it. In Spain ”servicios” means ”lavatories”. Spanish like English is a language that divides – especially on the two sides of the Atlantic.
I went out and ran the gauntlet of overly helpful cabbies. I fingered my guidebook. Those following me outside. Eventually I went with a guy whom I had earlier rejected. He was a short and brown-skinned Peruvian. He had thick glasses and seemed harmless. This is often a factor in choosing a cabbie. If it came to it is this someone I could physically best? We haggled over a price. He told me his name was ”John”! He pronounced it ”Hon” – not Juan. He showed me his licence and sure enough it was the Anglophone version of the name spelt J–O-H-N.
We drove through the not so busy streets of Lima. He pointed out this sand pyramids as some ancient Inca site. We went to the Miraflores area. Around and around. He could not find the place. We passed the Belgian embassy which I took to be a good sign. At least we came to the hotel and I checked in without difficulty and paid him however many soles. Sol means sun in Spanish and the currency of Peru is called the sol. The Incas used to worship the sun.
The room was small and basic. It was well heated. I slept like the dead. I awoke and amused myself over a copy of Hardcore. Autumn was in it as was gangbang champion Claire Brown – complete with the dates of her children’s births tattooed on her slender arms. I had run the risk of taking that obscenity in with me – unsure if it was legal in Peru. I never put it to the proof.
Next day I dressed in shorts. It was August. Idiotically I had not cogitated. In the Southern Hemisphere August is the equivalent of February for the Northern Hemisphere. It is winter. I was the only one in short trousers. Peruvians never wear shorts even in hot weather – only trunks and even then strictly only at the beach.
It was misty and chilly. I had only two pairs of trousers with me. In time I bought more.
I called the girl from a payphone. They existed back then. A recorded voice came on in Castilian. Luckily I knew that marcar meant dial. I spoke to her and she was very happy to converse with me.
The place was rather dirty. I saw the main chain of supermarkets was E Wong. There is a large Chinese and Japanese community. They are often big in business and the professions. The president was Alberto Fujimori.
I walked around a lot. I saw the graffiti – Bush Hijo de perra. Bush son of a bitch. The idiom works in Spanish. The S of Bush was written as a dollar sign.
I took a minibus into the city centre. I stepped on and saw a man as white as myself. I instantly knew he was not Peruvian. I spoke to him in Spanish. He initially denied being a foreigner. Then he relented – he was German, here teaching German in the army academy. He considered himself a Peruvian now and squeezed the hand of his brown skinned girlfriend. She smiled with deep sincerity from behind her glasses. I noticed there were black Peruvians too.
The Plaza de Armas was the focal point as all over the Hispanic World. The city centre was clean and the buildings were beige and handsome. It was very carefully preserved. I went to the presidential palace. I filmed the soldiers stomping around. Soldiers in parade dress wore uniforms from about 1800 – as in around the time Peru became independent. Stylised army uniforms mostly date from that era. The band played El Condor Pasa – reworked by Simon and Garfunkel for the song I would rather be a hammer than a nail. An officer in a green uniform held his sword aloft from the top of the stairs – a door into the palace was open.
The area behind the palace was not far off shanty town. It was just beyond a dirty little canal.
I had a guided tour of the cathedral. I chose to have this in English. My middle aged and crow foot face guide was personable. She pointed out to me images of the blessed virgin with a mountain coming out of her skirt. There had been a mountain goddess in Inca mythology. When Christians came to Peru they superimposed their Mariolatry onto this mountain deity – literally. It was telling as to the syncretism of religions. On a side street near this Christian prayer house I saw a procession of people dressed in old style Inca costume processing along the street – keeping the tradition alive. Their culture has not entirely gone to rags.
I went to the Larco Mar shopping centre. It was like something in the United States. I looked out over the Pacific Ocean. The waves roared in. It was far too wild to swim. The climate was horrid – foggy and cold,
In a cafe I flirted with a plump waitress. I suggested meeting that evening. She said she was busy but the next night would be good. She gave me her number but by the night after I had left the city. Never to return – probably.
I discussed things with a travel agent in the hotel. The manageress had been keen for me to meet this chap. Hermano Mayor was on the telly – Big Brother. We had a good natured chin wag about that before getting down to brass tacks. He got me to talk him through all I wanted to do in Latin America. He could arrange it all and quoted me a price. I asked just for the bus ticket to Quito. He nodded and looked down – disappointed. He went and bought me the ticket. I later discovered the mark up was only 100%. Serves me right for not getting it myself.
A friend of the manageress was the cabbie who took me to the bus station. He had been in the navy and had had an eye operation lately. I chatted happily to him. I was going around with a pocket Spanish dictionary in my pocket.
I got to the bus station and boarded my bus in good time. It was a rickety rackety vehicle – a colour so pale and stained that I cannot remember which one it was. It would be 24 hours to Cuzco. I could not contemplate such a journey now. I did not have much money and wished to preserve my funds. i could not consider flying to soon on my trip. I conversed amicably with the Peruvians. One of them stuck in my mind – being unusually tall for his nationality and attired in denim overalls. He was headed to Abancay. We passed through the desert south of Lima. I have seen the Arabian desert but this was drier. I could not believe that the Peruvian desert was nothing but sand – not a tree and not a blade of grass, just beside the sea too.
We watched American films with subtitles. They should be good at English for that reason but they are not. They showed each move twice. One was a police investigation thing – a private detective was hired. She was a decent looking blonde and a statuesque brunette wanted the private detective to tempt her husband. The detective had sex with the husband and brunette was dischuffed. There was also Norbit starring Eddie Murphy. I thought these Peruvians cannot spell Norbert. I later learnt that the character really is called Norbit.
The vehicle followed the serpentine road as it twisted from the plains into the foothills and from the foothills into the chilly mountains. There were switchbacks and the land tumbled away sharply to one side – down hundreds of metres. If the driver took his eyes off the tarmaced road for a split second that could be enough to send us plunging over preciptous edge of the cliff to be dashed to death among the rocks far below. I decided to try to avoid such journeys before. I have never liked mountains. Coming from an isle it is predictable that I like the seaside.
I slept. I read more. We stopped at some cafes and I walked. My arse cheeks ached. At long last we pulled into Quito. I walked gingerly. It is at a very high altitude and as my book warned me one gets tired walking 100 metres. I found a place a little up hill from the Plaza de Armas. It was affordable but pleasant. There were books to take – left by other guests. One was entitled Spaans – meaning Spanish in Dutch. The lack of hot water was a grave problem especially considering that it is fornicating cold in Quito.
This is the Gringo capital of the continent.
In a bar around the corner I saw a group of Irish people in their 20s. There was a chap there who looked very like Paddy – my chum from Saintfield. But these people had Dublin accents – it was not him.
I ambled around the Plaza de Armas. Outside there was a cathedral mentioning something being donated by El Caudillo de la Ultimat Cruzada de la Hispanidad contra el Bolshevismo – Franco. It was from the 1950s.
I purchased a pair of garish trousers in inimitable Andean style. They were cotton. I had few pairs of trews and it was bitingly cold in the mountains. I saw some graffiti saying viva Irak and denouncing the United States. The US military had just assisted the Iraqi National Congress and the Iraqi National Accord liberate that country from the hideous tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Viva Irak indeed. It was only through American muscle that this was possible.
Beyond the main square the town was shambolic. In the distance I could see the serrated edges of the Andes. The towered formidably.
I bought a railway ticket to Macchu Picchu and an admission ticket to the historic site. This cost over $100 – in that place and at that time this was a price that was more than handsome: downright ugly it seemed to me. But this is the tourist magnet of the continent. There is no tourist who comes to Peru who can avoid visiting this attraction. Therefore the Peruvian authorities can more or less charge what they like. However high the price – tourists will pay it.
I awoke the next day at about 5 am for a ice cold shower. I wrapped up warm and toddled out over the unlit and unsteadily paved streets. I made my way to the railway station. A short and distinctly camp middle aged Peruvian was there in his blue railway uniform. He spoke goodish English, ”Oooo – it is cold.” I boarded the train. I noticed a fairly old Indian couple. By Indians I am not using an outdated word for autochthonous Peruvians. I mean people from India. They were the only Indians whom I saw in that country. It was a sign of the growing wealth of India they Indians should come to far to go on hols. It being an indecently early hour to rise I soon returned to my slumbers.
The train passed some shanty towns that were shocking in their abjectness. This was the Peru that tourists are not supposed to see.
The train went this way and then reversed and went that way. It sort of zig zagged to go up the mountain. The angle was too severe for the iron horse to go straight up. We came to a narrow ravine and the railway went up one edge of that. I saw a footpath and saw many white tourists in shorts and T shirts – bandanas around their heads and hefty rucksacks on their backs. I recalled my colleague Trudy who had done this – walked the Inca Trail. A muddy brown river splashed by between rounded rocks.
After about three hours we arrived at our destination. As we detrained I spoke to one of the desirable young train attendants. She was surprisingly tall for a Peruvian. Her jet black hair was scraped back. I cannot remember what her exchange was about but she called me ”sir” – we spoke English of course. Her female colleague chided her drolly as though she had been flirting with me. My interlocutor said, ”es mi pasajero” – defending herself. I thought how gratifying it would be to bed her. But I was cognizant of the menace of disease. I did nothing about it. I was due to leave town very soon.
I had come to the not so fair town of Aguas Calientes. This means hot water. There are hot springs there. Some tourists come there to bathe their aged and aching bones in the naturally hot water there. There was a clutch of hotels there for those who wished to indulge themselves in the hot springs. The very steep mountains were carpeted in thick vegetation – the green varying from olive to leprechaun green. I decided to have a bit or ten at a nearby tourist restaurant. It seemed that everything in this dingy place was made of plastic – including the food. After a little nourishment I walked down the dirt road along which minibuses whizzed every minute. I went to a pick up point. I got on a clean beige minibus and was taken up the mountain. The mountains seemed to form a wall. The road came in from the south but no road ran north. The sideroad we were raking zig zagged up the very sharp gradient of the mountain to Macchu Picchhu itself. After ten minutes the minibus purred to a halt and an assortment of Occidentals were disgorged.
I went to the gates of Macchu Picchu. A knot of brown skinned Peruvians stood their lightsomely. I presented my ticket. I was offered a guide but declined. I would just read the signs. I wished to go around on my own at my chosen pace and in an order that I was to decided. The gates were at a narrow point in the plateau that formed Macchu Picchu. This was an ancient Inca city believed to have been abandoned in the 16th century as the Spaniards came near. It was forgotten for centuries. I believe some indigenous Peruvian legend attested to it. An American academic – Hiram somebody – rediscovered it in about 1910.
At the gate there were some grey stone little buildings. A mountain tapered up to the left. Once in the gate the town was laid out before me. There were dozens of grey buildings – none of them with a roof on. I pottered around the buildings. There were no signs saying wht was what. Guides shephereded their mostly American charges about and elucidated the supposed function of each building. I walked to the left and left again – a trail led away and let me see the next valley. The valley fell away very steeply and the path became dangerously narrow – barely clinging to the side of the mountain.
I had a goo stroll around. I spoke to a 40 something clean cut Australian. He was a cheerful type in specs and was keen to ask questions about my video camera. I liked this place – it was very remote though. I must have spent less than an hour. I am sorry to say it was a bit of a let down. Soon I took a minibus down the mountain and headed to the station for the three hour train trip back to Cuzco.
I spent what little remained of the day walking a few central streets and recuperating. I bought a railway ticket to Punto. Next morning I was off.
I boarded a train that was rather worn. My coach seemed to be full of females only – suits me! I commented to the male ticket inspector ”Es solamente por mujeres?” But he correct me and pointed out a couple of men at the far end.
I spoke to a tall, pale woman. She turned out to be Finnish. We conversed in English but a tiny bit in German. She spoke French and Swedish too! Her light brown hair was blatantly dyed. There was a mournful and pensive aspect to her angular face. She was slimmish for one well beyond menopause. She told me about Finland. I often used to ask about compulsory military service in those days. Her son had been called up. He refused to do military service or indeed civi c service. For this he was sent to prison. I alluded to this being a ‘crime’ – I did so deliberately. On mature reflection that was a needlessly provocative and cruel thing to say. She did not take offence – or so it seemed. It was a treat to speak English since Spanish required mental endeavour.
Our train clattered over the Altiplano – the plateau that is made up of southern Peru and northern Bolivia. The landscape was a cafe au lait colour. There was a little scree at the foot of each mountain. The official bush broke the arid monotony of the higgledy piggledy topography.
We stopped in the middle of nowhere to give us the chance to see a market. I had not the least intention of purchasing any of the lama wool tawdry trinkets being hawked by the indigenous Peruvians. The salespeople were mostly got up in folk dress. A few mangy lamas stood about imperiously. It made me call to mind a limerick:
I don’t know much about Peru but I do know
A woman is fine, a boy is divine but a lama is numero uno.
I was glad for the chance to perambulate up and down the length of the train since my haunches were stiff from sitting.
Toward evening we descended into the lakeside town of Puno. The land was still dry. The station’s white walls were liberally stained with all sorts of colours. What can have done that? The town was litter strewn and raffish. I found my way to a hotel picked for its price from the guidebook. It was much better than you might expect.
I wandered the mostly unpaved streets. It was mostly low rise – few buildings stood above two storyes. The whole place gently slipped down towards Lake Titicaca. Yes, children in Geography love that one especially when enunciated for comedic effect: Titty – Kaka. Despite the rundown state of the place it began to grow on me. I sat at a streetside restaurant and ordered comida tipica from the brown skinned and smiley teenage waitress. I asked for water and she inquired, ”Quieres un chicito?”. I stiffened – what was the imprecation here? She had asked, ”Do you want a little boy?” Most certainly not! To be offered a rent boy by a seemingly winsome waitress made me question the shine I had taken to this parlous place. She explained to me that ”un chicito” although literally rendered as ”a little boy” means a small portion of whatever it is. Yes, I did want a small bottle of water as it happened.
Typical food consisted of chips and some red processed meat with mayonnaise. I hope it was not hamster. People in this region are known to have a festival where they dress up their hamsters and guinea pigs – lovable beasts as rodents go – in miniature human clothes. They then kill then and eat them. There is something amiss with that.
Next morn I descended from my commodious bedchamber to partake of breakfast. The only other person in the room was a girl in her late 20s. She had pale flesh and dark blonde hair tied back in a demure bun. She wore glasses. She was slender and her pert rack was easily discernible through her beige top. A broad grin sat on her fellatio-inviting lips. I engaged her in conversation in my best Castilian. Even in Spanish her German accent was as blatant as a punch in the face. We switched to German. I told her how in Spanish I occasionally said ‘und’ instead of ‘y’ because I had spent a couple of weeks in Germany of late. She was doing a PhD about the History of the Altiplano.
I headed down to the lake. Dusty concrete jetties lead to boats. There was the odd fisherman lifting the catch out of his orange nets. It was a sunny though a blustery day.
I bought a ticket for a cruise. An elderly, bespectacled , dark complexioned, craggy faced Peruvian gave the talk – first in Spanish and then in English. I appreciated this – I could practice Spanish and then check I had got it right. He was patently of the native race. I spoke to a hefty British tourist. This guy was several years my senior and knew no Spanish. He was on hols in Peru only – not doing a big tour.
Within minutes out small craft filled with a dozen tourists had glided to a reed island. The people of the lake build these from matting reeds together. The women of this community tend to be very obese. It was odd stepping onto the island and feeling it wobbling underneath me. They also buily houses of the same material. These reed islands were of course not islands because they were floating. Think of them as giant rafts. We entered a one room reed school and met a few small children. Their drawings were for sale. All pre arranged of course. i did not make a purchase. We had a brief go on a narrow wooden hand built canoe. All this was at once educational and gratifying. The slim but stooped guide told us how most of the people of the reeds developed rheumatism and arthritis from living so close to water.
Back to the shore. I walked around this dun and grey town. I walked into the main church – or was it even a cathedral? I saw the image of the crucified Christ.
For the first time I thought about how gruesome it was to have this battered and bleeding cadaver as the focal point for our spiritual meditations. The Latin Americans really go to town on the gore factor. I found it very distasteful – the vivid tones of the blood and bruises against the palour of a fresh carcass.
I thumbed through my guidebook. there was a crucifix up on the hill but people sometimes got robbed up there at dusk. Give that a miss. There seemed to be nowt else to do. I went and bought a bus ticket. I hastened back to my hotel. I grabbed my stuff. I went to reception – rucksack on my back. I would not be staying a second night after all – would it be possible to have that refunded? The teenage boy on the desk hesitated and looked down before slowly and softly saying ”No.” Shite – and onions.
Off to the bus station. I waited on the uncomfy plastic chairs. I tried to doze off. Every so oftena man would shout, ”Arequipa, arequipa, arequipa – diez y media!” This was announcing the 10.30 bus to Arequipa.
At last the bus to Tacna came along. I boarded and soon fell akip. We traveled through the night.
Not long after dawn we pulled into the utterly forgettable fly blow border town of Tacna. I resolved to get shot of this place sharpish. I did not leave the bus station. I fell into conversation with some Peruvians who were going over the border. We agreed to share a cab to the Chilean town of Arica.
The taxi was one of those American cars that is very long. It was ancient by automobile standards. The red carpet inside the car was matted with stains. There was a middle aged Peruvian woman who was slim and desirable. She told me she was ”soltera y trista” – only half jocularly. It being morning my hormones were high and I thought of giving her one despite her wrinkles. I told them I was from Ireland and they asked about the skirts were wore. ”Yo nunca trajer in una falda – jamas, jamas , jamas” They all laughed heartily. They always mix us up with the Scots. I got asked about Corazon Valiente – Braveheart. It was such a hit in Latin America. It reminds them of their history I suppose.
We got to the border. A Peruvian copper searched my knapsack and found a porn mag. ”Playboy?” he inquired smiling naughtily. In fact it was nothing so cultured – Two Blue hardcore. He told me it was not allowed in oh so religious Chile. I gave it to him. I later found that such material is freely availble in Chile.
On into Chile. I should have propositioned that middle aged woman. What can it have hurt?
I soon checked in to a low grade hotel and bagged some Zssss