In 1987 the Textiliste and I travelled to Peru for a three week holiday. In the last instalment we had visited the beautiful and beguiling Manchu Pichu. Now back in Cusco we have a rather long winded journey ahead of us before arriving at our destination on the Amazon. As usual nothing is straightforward.
In order to get from Manchu Pichu to Iquitos, our departure point on the Amazon, we needed to return to Lima. That entailed two flights and an overnight stop in Lima.
First up it was Aero Peru, which was far from the sort of national airline I had come to expect from European carriers. The plane was aged, tatty and smelly, in an old-socks-meets-new-sweat sort of way. But we made it, we laughed and chalked it down to experience.
One has to live through such things, we told ourselves, if we were going to call ourselves hardened travellers. Ha! If we had only realised we had been in the lap of luxury…
Our next flight wasn’t due to leave until the following afternoon so, after a quiet night a group of us wandered into the centre, avoiding Red Square and its memories of tear-gassing and headed for a local bar recommended by the hotel. It was situated a few hundred yards from the Presidential palace, in a leafy side street. The day was sunny, the vibe soporific and the pace slow. It was a little after 11 and we ordered coffee, with the promise of a last Pisco Sour before we left. The talk was desultory, fractured and meandering, with little focus. Then, from stage left a slurry English voice…
This was a surprise; our accents – Geordie, Brummie, Sarf London and RP – had been mistaken for Aussi, South African and, most curiously to us, Canadian but not once English, nor, oddly American. The questioner was short, verging on the weedy, unshaven and a long way towards drunk.
‘You drunk yet?’
We looked at each other and turned away. Clearly a sad loser who we’d be better off ignoring.
‘How much money have you lot lost, then?’
That piqued our interest. ‘Money?’ ‘Lost?’
The stranger shuffled his chair to join us, not that we asked him to. ‘You don’t know, do you?’
Remember, dear reader, this was long before the Internet and global 24/7 news coverage. We shook our heads. What was there to know?
‘You from London?’ He pointed to one of our party, the one whose Estuary English rather gave away his Peckham roots. A nod confirmed his ancestry. ‘So is your home still standing?’
It took a while for a semblance of coherence, but the following emerged to stun us.
- This sot was the Reuters news correspondent for Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia
- The financial crash of October 19th 1987 – Black Monday – had taken place the day before
- This followed the hurricane of the preceding Friday carving a swathe of havoc across southern England
- Ronald Reagan had ordered a gunboat to go and wave some guns at the Libyans causing a rumbling of fear across the Middle east
- His considered view through the prism of a dozen Piscos was that the world was probably ending so…
- No news from any of his countries, including a coup displacing the new president would make any headway with the world news wires so our new friend decided to get blattered instead; he bought us all a pisco and suggested we join him.
We didn’t believe him, of course we didn’t but, on return to the hotel we asked for an update. It was true. One or two rang home; mostly to be told to ignore the headlines, enjoy the holiday and pick up the pieces on our return. Sage advice really. Since then I’ve gone abroad with a frisson of fear that disaster might be stalking us even if we have no clue. It makes a change from worrying about my organisational incompetence.
And so it was we arrived at the airport thinking the worst was lurking thousands of miles away. Oh no. Welcome to Fawcett Airlines. If Aero Pero seemed to be the nadir of commercial flight, it was a paragon of travelling delight compared to Fawcett.
The plane was a propeller affair with an 25 year old United Airlines logos peeking through a dodgy paint job. Three of the seats allocated to our party didn’t have any way of staying upright, and flopped against the seats in front when not flopping against the seats behind. As we were being found functioning seating a woman came on board carrying a crate… of guinea pigs. Someone let out a nervous giggle and suggested this might be the in flight meal. At which point a man came towards us with a box containing two chickens. We wondered where the vegetarian option lurked…
Some of our group tried prayer; for some it was the solution recommended by the Reuters man. It just didn’t seem real but real it was.
Within ten minutes of taking off we started flying across trees – endless trees. The famous Amazon jungle. We flew very low and at one point appeared to be about to crash into a thick piece of jungle.
As knuckles turned white and a lot of anaemic faces were pressed to the windows – have you ever flown with windows with catches so you can open then to obtain a cooling breeze? Try Fawcett. I think it is to allow you to chunder more easily – a lush grass strip emerged out of nowhere; we landed and let off the livestock family before turning round and taking off again. If anything that was worse. Thunder Mountain at Disneyland was less undulating.
By now I’d closed my eyes; it was really the only way to stay sane. Getting off at Iquitos was easily the best moment of the whole holiday pushing my first view of Manchu Pichu into second place. And then the heat and humidity hit me.
Iquitos feels a bit like New Orleans, with a strong southern Europe feel to it. It was charming but the thing that really stands out is the clammy clawing humidity. I’d never felt the like, not even in a sauna in Hamburg surrounded by sausage enhanced Germans with over friendly smiles and ludicrous genitalia – that is another story. Even my ears seemed to be leaking sweat.
We had a long boat journey ahead of us to reach our lodge. I rather hoped there might be a slight breeze which the boat might stir up as it ploughed down the Amazon. There was but barely sufficient to make things comfortable.
In truth we weren’t to feel good again until four days later when we climbed on board Fawcett airlines for the hop back to Lima. How we loved that quaint antique flying machine with its numbing vibrations and bowel freeing dips and dives.
To add to our delights the boat broke down and for a while we drifted in the pitch dark between large commercial ships that traverse the river. Even though we were some 3000 miles from the mouth into the Atlantic it was huge already. Stunningly massive. I couldn’t get my head around its scale. All I wanted was to get off it.
Finally our trying day ended with us taken to a room at the lodge to sleep. We were given a mosquito net and told when breakfast would be.
You know, I’ve never cracked dozing-in-a-puddle thing, especially my own puddle and this was no exception. I tried a shower but all that did was replace one slick skin with another. Immediately I dried myself I was wet again. By now the sweat was sweating.
Honestly? I hated it.
Ok the trip to the local village was informative, the fishing for piranha intriguing and some of the wildlife and insects beautiful but being totally and completely saturated and slimy all the time was awful. I barely slept, or ate.
As for having a pee… when a fire hose worth of sweat is cascading off your willy it loses its essential sense of relief. I felt constantly scratchy and fractious. It turned out to be perfect preparation for the family we started 2 and a bit years later. Not the peeing bit, obv.
I suppose it was a shame, in retrospect, that we ended on something of a low note. Maybe, in truth, I was a little anxious about what might be happening back home; I’d put up a new fence a while before and feared it might have been destroyed.
That was my overriding concern – it probably should have been the roof or the economy but my fence seemed to fill my waking hours. I wanted to get back.
Sometime in the early hours of a late October weekday we landed at Heathrow and said goodbye to our new companions. Promises to keep in touch were made and addresses swapped. We did for a while but without social media it was too much effort and the contacts faded. I wonder where they are now?
We caught a cab and dozed the hour back home.
Nervously we let ourselves in. I went to the kitchen and peered out back. Glory be! The fence was still standing, every one of the panels. Clutching my first proper cup of tea in three weeks I headed outside to inspect my rather splendid handiwork. John, my neighbour was in his garden.
‘Hi. Been back long?’
‘Just got in. We heard you had fun. Hurricanes. Economic collapse..’
‘Yep. We lost a tile. Could have been worse.’
‘Yes. Looks like we got away with it.’ I peered at my roof which seemed intact.
‘I thought you’d want the fence put back up.’
‘Your fence came down. I didn’t want all that new planting ruined so we put it back up.’
‘All of them.’
He smiled. Was he winding me up? I never did find out.