In 1987 the Textiliste and I decided to store up our holiday allowances and try something exotic. A year later we did the same thing with our trip to Kenya and Tanzania, about which I have written here, here and here but 1987 was when we found this urge to explore beyond the confines of Europe. I can’t exactly remember how we chose but the decision was Peru.
Up to this point our most ‘exotic’ destination had been Yugoslavia then under the communist charms of Tito – we were watched constantly and fed various sorts of meat that might have been anything, not necessarily mammalian; we ordered a bottle of red wine one night and were looked on with astonishment – after we drank a glass we understood why. It was fascinating but hardly relaxing. This had to be different, didn’t it?
To begin with there was the flight – a short hop to Amsterdam and a change to a KLM 13 hour long haul to Lima via Quito on the way out (on the way back it was via Caracas and never have I sweated so much so quickly (well, apart from when Mum, aged 81, overtook while trying to clean her glasses)). I didn’t know flying could be boring as well as terrifying, sometimes both together.
When we bounced uncomfortably to a halt in Lima International Airport in the early grey hours of one Sunday morning, exhausted and surprised at how drab not only was the sky but also the soil. The Pacific rumbled along a straight shoreline as we flew over the coast on the way in. On the drive into town and our hotel we passed a shanty town – the first I’d seen and, in retrospect hardly the worst example but I was suitably thoughtful on checking in. This was really a different world to my limited European experiences, even communist ones.
So much jarred and confused the mind; yes the architecture had a Spanish feel, hardly surprising but the ground was so dry – I learnt of the Andean rain shadow that keeps a desert strip along the coast which I wasn’t expecting, naively thinking of Peru as an Amazonian country – an early introduction to the many contrasts we were to experience.
We are advised to rest and then meet up with our guide and some of the other group members for a briefing. Yeah, right. We changed, grabbed our camera and headed for the reception to get some directions to the city centre. We needed to absorb everything, now without the dilution of a guide.
On the way down the stairs we bumped into another couple and a solo traveller of much our age who had been herded onto the transfer from the airport and we formed a small group – I wish I could remember their names or say we kept in touch – pre Facebook that was never easy.
Reception didn’t exactly encourage us but then again they didn’t turn us off the idea of a little free time exploring. They gave us a map, waved in the general direction of the Presidential palace and off we set.
Peru, in 1987, was still a (just about) hopeful place; after years of military rule, the 1985 general election returned a socialist in Alan Garcia, touted as South America’s JFK. Reforms were promised, economic revivals expected. But already there were grumbles and the Banking nationalism had ruined the economy. The ferocious terrorist movement – the Shining Path, at the time up there with Barder Meinhof, the Red Brigade, the IRA and the Basque Separatists as the most feared in the world – were still active and one city – Ayacucho – was closed to all tourists and under martial law. Did we think about this dynamic? Not really.
There’s a square in the centre of Lima – the Red Square as it happened, due to the colour of the surrounding buildings and not some leftist memorial – which we crossed, fascinated though we were by the street vendors – and kept on the route to the palace. I saw bougainvillea for the first time and fell in love with its beauty. Though tired I was mesmerised.
We reached the palace, fired off a couple of shots (ha! With the camera) and turned for the hotel, aware that we had to be back to meet our guide for the promised briefing.
Red Square, on the way back was very different. All along one side a group of placard waving protesters were being corralled by the heavily armed police. None of the street vendors remained in place. We did the sensible thing and began to circle the square on the opposite side to the protesters when a small group burst out of a side street, followed by riot police. Before you could say ‘Hola El Marinero’ the square began to fill with gas – teargas. I’d not been teargassed often (like never) before this and, well, it wasn’t on any bucket list. We ran – youth has its advantages and this was one. Fortunately our hotel was along the road that still allowing a way out and we showed an impressive turn of feet. Still the stinging, clawing way the gas seizes on any moisture – eyes, ears, mouth and, unbelievably elsewhere about one’s person and irritates every sodding inch of flesh is an experience I won’t forget in a hurry.
Oddly we never got any photos of this little escapade. Or maybe not so odd.
‘… and I recommend not going out on your own…’
Of course the guide said that, a lovely blonde lady from Swindon who knew her Peru.
‘Tomorrow the day breaks into two. Free time to laze about and recover or a trip to the Colca canyon and the possibility of seeing the Condor flying.’
We’d been told about the Canyon though what no one knew at the time was how deep it really was – it took until modern GPS methods were used to measure it accurately in 2005 at over 4000 metres. It’s the deepest canyon in America over twice as deep as the more famous Grand Canyon. Who would pass that by? Plus the chance to see the 7 foot wing-spanned Andean Condor – the ‘eternity’ bird?
Not us. We set off bright and early in a mini bus with ten others. Our guide explained about the topography, how we were going to climb into the Andes, passing parts of the Alto Plano – the alpine level plateau that is very fertile – topping out at some 14,000 feet…
‘The air is thin. So you will need to take care.’
We nodded; sitting in a minibus, passive and ignorant what could happen? Well, while we sat and watched the countryside unravel, not a lot. But then we stopped by a lake, to stretch our legs. We hadn’t reached our highest point yet but it was chilly. We walked forward to a slight slope down the shoreline, threw a couple of stones and walked back to the bus. Well, I jogged. Fifteen steps that’s all. By the time I stopped I was chewing a vacuum wringing out the emptiness with my tongue trying to find a semblance of oxygen. My head span and my limbs shook as I fell into my seat, sweating profusely. Behind me a woman vomited copiously out of the window and several others made sounds like balloons leaking.
Our guide laughed. ‘You aren’t acclimatised’ he said. If I could have spoken at all I might have shared one of my father’s many aphorisms
The world hates nothing more than a smart-arse
‘We stop soon. You will be fine. We all take tea, yes?’
The man was a cretin. Tea? When I’m asphyxiating? Anyway after another uncomfortable forty minutes when I felt like I was being subjected to a craniectomy from the inside out, we stopped at what looked like an abandoned miner’s cabin but turned out to be a cafe. What it lacked in daylight and olde worlde charm it made up for in… not much actually. I was eased into a grubby plastic chair by the Textiliste as one might an ancient relative whose percussive bowels have been a bit dickie and offered a cracked mug of some stinking herbal brew.
I was too exhausted to resist the blandishments of the guide as I took a couple of scalding sips. Almost instantly I felt a lot better. One mug in and life had recovered something of its former bon-hommie.
‘What is this fine brew, my man?’ I felt tip top, the cat’s doo-fees no less.
He shrugged, a smirk on his face. ‘Is cocoa tea.’
‘Never had it as a tisane before, old chap,’ whatever it was it had scripted me as a wannabee Terrance Rattigan. ‘Can we buy some teabags?’
Another shrug. ‘Perhaps. But do not take home. You may have some issues.’
Light gradually dawned – all rosy and sparkling as it was – that this was coco in the cocaine sense of the word, not the cup of Cadburys of my imagination. Sniffer dogs had had a field day in the past, it appeared.
Sadly the impact was short lived. We drove on for another hour and I began to come down. While I was still aware of my surroundings I watched, stunned, as we all did, at the extraordinary engineering of the ancient Peruvian people, the Incas, and their strip farming, creating vertiginous field-systems from the precipitous slopes everywhere.
By the time we reached the canyon, I was choosing the three tunes for my funeral. We had lunch – mine was water, with a side of bile – and sat on the terrace.
After a while a cry went up. A condor had been spotted, circling on the thermals thousands of feet down. I perched on the edge and looked over. This extraordinary bird spiralled slowly, rising inexorably as it took in the possibilities for some carrion. Up it came until it reached our level.
Around me excited voices cooed and expressed awe. I was past vocalising anything. The bird and I exchanged a look. We understood each other. He knew, with the avian certainty of the scavenger, that he only had to wait a few hours and he could have me on toast. With a nod of his stately head he floated on, noting the spot for later. He might signify long life with his ‘eternity’ label, but he was counting on mine being curtailed.
Altitude sickness is awful, debilitating beyond measure but relief is instant as you drop to oxygen-rich levels. By the time we were back in Lima I felt restored and bloody hungry. I could have done with a cuppa but the buffet in the hotel was good enough. As I enjoyed some lightly grilled chicken I thought about that condor, ruing that he hadn’t carried me off when he had the chance. How I laughed at my good fortune. How I thought I was now free of the consequences of challenging the altitude before I had had any sort of acclimatisation. How wrong I was, as you shall see,