¡Hola a todos!
“What is this?”, I hear you all ask, “a third blog of the day – surely not!”. Alas, I am so far behind in my blogging, so eaten up with guilt and shame for having allowed myself to fall this far, that this is precisely a third blog of the day, although – as ever – when these little gems will actually make it into the aether of the worldwide web is anyone’s guess. This blog should at least, in hopeful theory, bring us as far as Cusco, my current seat of residence, a proximity to the present that my dear blog has not felt for some time now...
Cam and I arrived back in Arequipa late the same evening after climbing out of, potentially, the deepest canyon in the world. Back to civilization, back to our trusty friend Sebastiaan, back to the bright lights, back to cal-horrific chocolate cake, timeless afternoons of diary-writing and blogging. Arequipa became a symbol to we three, a symbol to a more comfortable, more ‘homely’ way of life; one where we visited the local cinema to see such luminous films as ‘Angelos y Demonios’ while eating our body-weights in popcorn. I love cinema trips and simply being half a world away on a different continent, in a different hemisphere does nothing to diminish such pleasures (I am anticipating with indecent excitement the forth-coming release of the latest Harry Potter film). We continued to frequent our favourite cafe (serving the best chocolate cake I have tasted in years, scout’s honour), to gorge on longed for ethnic foods hitherto absent on the road in Peru, including Mexican, Chinese and Turkish, to rave the night away – every once in a while – in one of Arequipa’s few intimate night-spots. We forged ahead with cultural activities as well, of course. The bus-tour of the city was illuminating, the ever-present looming bulk of Misti volcano threatening every picture-postcard photograph, heavily reminiscent of Vesuvius in the locale of the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Just as in that case, the locals refuse to desert their agriculturally successful lands on the valcanoes slopes, minerally enriched by the fallout of past erruptions. We took a trip to another religious complex, this time the Recoleta across the river from the monastery; it was superb – the greatest example of its kind since I visited the namesake area of Buenos Aires. Besides yet more tranquil, reflective alcoves, courtyards and colonnades from the great, classic tradition, the complex boasted a quite brilliant library, including some of the oldest books written in Peru and original signatures of Pizarro, Simon Bolivar and other luminosities from the continent’s recent past. The Recoleta also included some slightly less relevant, slightly more bizarre exhibits, including a room dedicated to stuffed animals: while I suppose some would find it reassuring to know that the practice of taxidermy is alive and well in southern Peru, I failed to see the need for such sights in the midst of such a pious arrangement of edifices. Nonetheless, the visit was another highlight of a time that has become firmly one of my favourite periods while on the road thus-far.
All-too-soon, Seb’s Spanish classes wound to a close; all-too-soon, Cam and I ate our last, decadent slices of chocolate heaven at ‘Capriccio’s’; all-too-soon, we were exiting the cinema for the final time, our stomachs (well, Cam’s stomach specifically; I need a far stronger fix of sugar) bloated with popcorn; all-too-soon, it was time, once more, to hit the road. We had already delayed our departure from Arequipa for a number of days, discouraged by a series of mixed, alarming reports of a general strike that was paralysing the country in the aftermath of the supposed atrocities towards locals tribes inhabiting regions of the Amazon in the north of Peru. Cam had even gone so far as to “leave” Arequipa one evening, saying his heart-felt goodbyes to Seb and I, only to reappear some hour or so later in our favourite pool-bar, carrying the news that there were no buses running to Cusco, our intended destination, albeit with us all departing upon different days. Finally, it was decided that Cam and I could afford to wait until Seb finished his Spanish classes, whereupon we would depart for Cusco together, three strong, young, vibrant (likely) lads standing more chance of reaching our intended target united than divided in the words of the late, great Dumbledore. After garnering countless conflicting tales of disaster and words of advice, we decided to take a little-travelled route among backpackers, due to its circuitous nature, to the transit town of Sicuani, some six hours or so to the south-east of Cusco and attempt to catch a further bus from there to the fabled city itself.
We rose early upon our final morning in Arequipa. Seb headed off to complete his final class at school, while Cam and I lounged about our usual cafe haunt, idling away the time with blogging and photograph uploading (and, yes, cake). We boarded the bus late that evening, none of us sure what to expect in the coming hours and surely none of us even considering the odyssey that was about to befall us. Cam put me in mind of Odysseus while we were in Arequipa, musing that we were little better than the great Greek hero’s men, enticed into Circe’s cave and promptly turned into pigs, fated to gorge themselves upon food for the rest of their days until their wise leader rescued them from such ignominies. We had behaved little better in Arequipa, saved the actual physical metamorphosis only and saved finally, not by our own Odysseus but, rather, a latent need to journey on to sights anew. The first leg of the journey passed utterly uneventfully. In a little under six hours, we arrived in a town equi-distance between Arequipa and Sicuani, where we were to wait some four hours before continuing upon a second bus to Sicuani itself. In this town, we met with sheer pig-headedness in the shape of a taxi driver of contemptible use; after assuring us that there was a bar open in the town at midnight, it soon transpired that no, there was no such place of refuge. The oaf then proceeded to ferry us back to our original pick-up point outside the bus depot, before charging us full-price for both journeys (still a very paltry amount). We haggled him down, just to reinforce our displeasure, and trudged across the road to a hostel that was kind enough to let us use a room for the three remaining hours we had to wait at a discount price compared to that charged for a full night’s stay. Those three hours and an uncomfortable snooze later, we headed back out into the biting early morning cold and boarded our bus to Sicuani. The bus depot had been nearly completely deserted, our’s being the only bus departing at that early hour, and we had wondered whether it would show when, suddenly, ominously, it appeared out of the mist, sounding its horn like an impatient child waiting in line for an ice-cream beneath a sweltering summer’s sun.
This bus journey was the antithesis of the last, at least in terms of comfort. The cold was hazardous and my feet were soon so painfully chilled that I could not even begin to try to sleep. The situation was the same for Cam so, at my proposal, we climbed upon the back seats and sat upon each other’s feet for an hour or more, facing each other, Cam’s legs squashed inside my own. The position was discomfitting, questionable, perhaps downright alarming to those more Catholic members of the travelling contingent but, we were at least warmer and the rest of the journey passed a little more bearably. This was my first experience of the infamous, oft talked of horror stories surrounding bus journeys in South America, aboard freezing vehicles. I hope not to have recourse to mention such a similar trial during the remainder of my travels. We arrived on the edge of the town of Sicuani to be met by a road-block, consisting of a lorry dumped unceremoniously across the road and surrounded by satellites of small camp-fires, providing residual warmth to groups of strikers hunkered down around them. The bus stopped quickly, dumped our bags from the hold with as little pomp as the strikers had treated their lorry and beat a hasty retreat: so hasty in fact that, rising slowly, lethargically, I was almost left behind, the bus travelling a number of meters before I was able to alert the driver to my plight. Walking into Sicuani with all of our bags, we were greeted by almost surreal – to my sheltered mind at least – sights of utter abandonment, numbers of people standing round, seemingly doing nothing at all, yet guarding road-blocks ranging from the completely derisible, such as small lumps of rock and earth, to the more spectacular, comprising of larger boulders, huge tree-stumps and the occasional heavy goods vehicle.
We walked some two kilometers or so into the centre of Sicuani, where we were met by an older man aboard a motorbike with a trailer attached to the back, who assured us that he could drive us – for a small fee, of course – to a waiting bus that would carry us on to Cusco. Completely without information pertaining to this evidently real strike and with no way of procuring the facts that we so desired, we felt that there was little choice but to deliver ourselves into this man’s temporary care and hope that what he told us was accurate. Alas, we had travelled only as far as the edge of the next small town before we became surrounded by youths and men brandishing bats and nails. The former potential weapons were used to slow the bike to a halt by means of visual threats only, the latter implements were used to puncture the motorbike’s tyres, while its owner looked on in dismay. We disembarked, forced to continue on foot though not actually threatened by the miscreants. We paid what little we could to our poor driver, under the watchful eye of the unruly strikers, picked up our bags and began to walk, swiftly meeting other travellers in the same predicament as we went. Talking together, we soon pieced together a rough jigsaw picture of the situation. Peru has long courted large, successful companies involved in the oil, logging and gas sectors, seeking to w**** off some of its considerable holdings in the Amazon in return for the opportunity for a few to get rich very quickly. One particular area to the north, the department of Bagua, had recently been fiercely resisting such developments and matters had come to a head within the past week, with protesters clashing violently with police in the region, leaving an untold number dead upon both sides of the line. It seemed that these strikers down south, incensed by the travesties being committed up north, were lending their support to the indigenous tribes’ cause in the only way that they could, by leading wholesale, debilitating transportation strikes along all the major roads leading into the jewel in Peru’s tourism crown, Cusco and the nearby Inca site and wonder of the ancient world, Machu Picchu. The strikers certainly appeared to be taking the situation seriously, with road-block upon road-block disrupting the route from Sicuani towards Cusco every few kilometers, sometimes less and always with a large block either end of any town en route.
Local entrepreneurial figures, astride anything from pedal-powered tuk-tuk creations to small motorbikes, plied their discreet trade between such towns and road-blocks for outlandish fees compared to normal public transport but, nevertheless succeeding in their target of hapless tourists for the most part – Cam, Seb and I included. The strikers’ fury towards such individuals and collectives was tangible, although they were careful never to allow we tourists to become caught in the crossfire. One horrible moment saw us arrive at the edge of yet another small town aboard small tuk-tuk type transport powered by small children of roughly ten to fourteen, to be confronted by yet more angry strikers and the startled, fearful cries of our drivers to disembark as quickly as possible. Doing so, the children about-faced and sped off away from the onrushing mob, who instead cornered a motorized tuk-tuk driven by an older local, kicking out at his vehicle, one striker even hurling a large rock into the driver’s cab, narrowly missing the incumbent’s bare head. It was at this point that I became truly worried, scared even, by what I was witnessing and simultaneously convinced of the lawless yet serious nature of the strike. It was from this point that we journeyed on solely by foot-power for the remainder of our odyssey, for some six hours or so, from just before lunch to after darkness had begun to fall that evening. As we walked, we passed impromptu meetings being held in the middle of the road, a figure, simply robed, addressing his listeners with the word ‘compañeros’ (comrades) at every one, a sign of potential leftist leanings within the movement, if such a disorganized rabble can be called such. Yet for my disparaging remarks, the strikers were certainly successful in deadlocking swift movement in the area, in turn raising publicity and, finally, compelling governement representatives to visit the area to seek some sort of peaceful solution.
We walked into the final town involved in the strike at roughly 5pm, the sun sinking low behind surrounding hills, blisters upon all our feet, near debilitatingly large ones in Seb’s case. Cam was smacked upon the rear by one woman as he attempted to climb a small embankment around the edge of yet another public strikers’ meeting. The people in the final town were certainly among the least friendly that we saw that day, crowds of youths roaming the streets on their bicycles, improvised puncturing materials in hand, disparaging, degrading remarks swilling around their mouths to be spewed out upon the weary travellers arriving, invariably by foot, within the town. One young hero had the courage to mock my slow gait, as he hurtled past upon his rusted bike, followed by a dozen or more compatriots. I limped into the town a little behind Seb and Cam, who had forged ahead this time. I certainly seem to move more quickly up steep hills than upon morale-sapping, undulating, rolling hills. It had taken us over ten hours of travelling from when we had disembarked our final bus on the edge of Sicuani to our final town involved in the strike, covering a distance of some fifty kilometers or more by an assorted mixture of motorcycle, pedal-powered tuk-tuk but, mostly, by hard, punishing walking. We were exhausted and utterly disheartened when, quite by chance – a marvellous troke of luck with which to end the day – we stumbled upon a large, bright red truck in the town’s square, quite prepared to transport us, for a price of course, to a waiting bus, ready to take passengers on to Cusco, some eight kilometers from our current position. Needless to say, we were entirely cynical of this statement but, neither did we have any wish to remain a minute longer in such a hopeless, hostile place. We jumped aboard the back of the truck, into its bed – bags and all – and settled down to what seemed likely to be yet another perilous ride. Fortunately for us, we soon met some locals upon the road, strikers who had glutted themselves quite enough for one day and were seeking transport home themselves. It was these hypocritical figures, so instantly recognizable to their fellow strikers, that saved us from any further misery and so it was that we were able to cover the distance – accurately estimated and imparted to us – in record time. Jumping down from the truck-bed, we were greeted by a quite inspirational sight; a bus, engine loitering, stood beside the road, filling up with passengers. A hastily scribbled, hand-written note in the back window read ‘Cusco’. My heart leaped, a feat far beyond my fatigue-drained legs, and we were among the last to board before setting off, finally, ten hours after we had hoped and reasoned for, to Cusco.
I realise that this is an incomparably long blog entry: spare a thought for my incomparably long day that has contributed so much to its formulation. I have tried to capture a sense of the mood in the air that day and to report upon such a phenomena for the first time with impartiality and accurate detail. By the end of this day, I was quite ready to string up any striker I might meet, utterly exhausted by their cause both mentally and physically. While I have calmed down considerably since that day, I can still recall the feelings experienced upon the road, the hostility so often encountered among the strikers, as if it were we travellers that were causing such disruption and disorder. I can also recall the wanton acts committed by so many in the name of those suffering in the north and the utter uselessness that such individual actions could possibly have contributed to those suffering so far away, particularly the random acts of violence perpetrated against those who tried to help we depleted tourists, backpackers and everyone else unlucky enough to be caught out upon the road. All of that said, the strike was undoubtedly successful in raising consciousness among many quarters and, through we travellers perhaps, even upon an international scale to an extent, no matter how fleetingly. We were, unfortunately, simply among those unlucky enough to be in the vicinity at the wrong time: of course, the treatment that we received from many of the strikers, while not being of a threatening nature, was nonetheless entirely unnecessarily distasteful and disrespectful. If this had arisen from a select few, I would pay it little heed; the bad eggs of a wider movement. Unfortunately, such treatment was meted out by the vast majority of the strikers that we met and this has left a bitter after-taste. I sympathize entirely with those suffering in the north but, not at all with those so enjoying their moment of anarchistic rabble-rousing down here in the south. We three were able to reach Cusco, along with some others: I have no idea how many were unsuccessful, needed longer to arrive here in the old capital of the Incas, or – females especially – felt more intimidated than we along the road. I breath a sigh of relief that we made it; a sigh of relief that I have heard of no tourist-related incidents in the Sicuani area; a sigh of relief that the strike seems to have ended in the aftermath of some successes, including the rescindment of two laws that had initially opened up parts of the Peruvian Amazon to foreign investment and big business.
Cusco was reached and here I have enjoyed a fantastic past couple of weeks, including my favourite single experience upon my adventure thus-far. Of course, that is another story (thank goodness I hear all – myself included – cry).
¡Saludos a todos!