For those following our travels in Peru in the autumn of 1987, you may wonder where we have got to. I suppose, after the tranquillity of Arequipa which we visited here it was inevitable that we would find another gear as we left to head for the Bolivian border and Lake Titicaca. What a splendid name that is, combining a smutty expression with slang French; the school boy in me couldn’t believe such a place might exist and, at some level, I wanted to see it in much the same way as I wanted to see Piddle Trenthide in Dorset.
In fact things didn’t get perky for a while as we stayed in the lakeside town of Puno which is memorable for being unmemorable. The lake is the border with Bolivia and is, at 12,500 feet above sea level, the highest navigable lake in the world. I suppose giving up geography at 12 I find these statistics awesome. I mean why doesn’t it drain away, if it’s so high? Surely there’s a crack somewhere? I remember going to Fraser Island off the coast of Australia and being told it was made of sand. Then we saw Lake MacDonald and thought: water on top of sand… erm, how come? Is this another dastardly Aussi plan to confuse the pommie? It certainly left me wondering.
Anyway, as I was left to me confusion, we settled into a hotel and rested up. Travelling was tiring hereabouts. The thing that made a difference, though, was that we had been in Peru for a week and by now spent a significant amount of time at altitude. My teeth had settled and I was no longer squeezing mango slices between my incisors. Solid progress with solid food.
We had a full day in Puno mostly planned around a boat trip on the lake to visit the man-made reed islands. These are world renowned and inhabited still by the Uros Indians who make them from the reeds on the shoreline and then add to them to stop them sinking as the lower reeds rot.
It’s an odd experience, stepping off a boat and sinking into the matting. In places water seeps through to your shoes and the mind says ‘come on, find land, you moron’ while the guides and the locals all smile and encourage you to step further away from the boats.
It was fascinating, meeting these short squat people, wrapped in shawls with their curious round rimmed bowler hats and stunning clashing colours and their simple woven homes, like human weaver birds. But soon enough the choreographed nature of the tourist visit began to jar. The guides, educated and English speaking corralled a group of women and children who sat creating small pieces of basketry and toys. They waited until a sign and then laid them out for our inspection.
Part of me wanted to help by spending but the money goes to the intermediary and I knew that the cut for the women would be paltry. I offered a note to one who looked askance and offered me a knitted something. The unspoken rules meant my charity was to be channelled and my guilt, which is a constant in these sorts of set pieces, was not assuaged. These folks are as on display as any museum exhibit, a sort of living diorama for my Western eyes. Some argue that without the money I might input their lives would be deeply ingrained into desperate poverty but is the solution this form of economic circus act?
Later I looked at our purchases, meagre things that we neither needed nor, frankly wanted but if we’d not bought them how much more guilty would I feel? I had paid to be complicit and knew no way out.
The next morning there was a palpable excitement at breakfast. Our group had gelled reasonably well given the disparity in ages and expectations – though the estate agent had a thing about lawyers and wouldn’t stop niggling at me to justify why my profession was full of intransigent bigheads; it didn’t help that I agreed with her – so we shared each others fun. We were to make one of the great railway journeys of the world, crossing the extraordinary Altiplano to Cusco the home of the Inca.
The journey took many hours climbing up and down the plains of the Andes peaking at nearly 15,000. All along the way we say small groups who’d run to the train if it stopped and offered us anything from bags of nuts to live chickens.
In return they accepted money or, the children, biros which appeared to be the currency de jour.
I nearly never made it. Things happen slowly in Peru. There’s a languid approach to things like timetabling. We were ushered on board, into the luscious if rather shabby first class coach and settled to wait. And wait. And wait a bit more. One of the group decided to take a photo of the train and headed for the end of the carriage. I followed as we had been chatting and, to my surprise he climbed off the train and onto the clinker that formed the bed of the tracks. There was no platform here; it was a ladder to the track level.
History doesn’t say why he called me down to see something but I followed and he fired off a couple off shots. He then turned and climbed back. I waited with my hand on the bottom rung until he’d created space. As he stepped up to the footplate, the train began to move. Surprisingly quickly given its size and the fact it hadn’t moved an inch before.
One minute I’m enjoying the train yard and this behemoth of a beast; the next I’m swung into the air with my legs flailing far too close to the enormous and now turning wheels. If you’ve not trapezed your way onto an iron beast as it picks up speed across the highest railway in South America then I have one recommendation. Don’t. It is off the scale shit-scary.
The Textiliste smiled at me as I took my seat; the waiter brought us the first of three three-course meals that we enjoyed as we began to dip down out of Puno. I sat back and stared at the cameraman who had already taken his seat. He had no idea; no one had any idea of my narrow escape. As is often the way with me, as I pondered the what ifs, the terror wasn’t a result of the near death experience. No, it was the idea that, had I been left behind I would not have been able to explain why. For me it is far more awful to suffer such acute embarrassment than to be extinguished. I confessed my near stupidity to the Textiliste later. She smiled in understanding as she patted my leg; her silence could have been a kind way to forgive me or it could have been merely an unarticulated way of saying ‘silly man’.