Saturday, March 29, 2008
Ayacucho to Cusco
It always seems hard to imagine how guerilla movements linger for years in remote places, like the FARC in Columbia, or the now defunct Shining Path in Peru. That is, until you go to those places themselves and understand how rugged and hard it is to move around in them.
My daughter Lily came to visit for a few days, and I threw her into the deep end. Eight hours after stepping off the plane in Lima we were on a bus to Ayacucho, birthplace of the Shining Path guerilla movement. As we loaded our luggage a little man videotaped us, then marched up and down the aisle shooting each passenger. What’s up, I asked him.
“In case someone steals something or there’s an accident, then we’ll know who did it,” he said.
“So there are a lot of accidents?” I said.
“Oh no!” he said.
“A lot of thefts?”
“Oh no!” he said, scanning us all carefully.
Ayacucho is only a few hundred miles as the crow flies from Lima, but it took 10 hours to get there on a freshly paved road. The mountains are steep, high, relentless. And I’d miscalculated: I needed to get Lily to Cusco, 100 miles down the road, for her flight to Lima. But Cusco was another 24 hours away and there were only two choices: a bus at 6:30 am or a bus at 6:30 pm. “But don’t take the night bus,” the hotel clerk warned. “It’s dangerous.”
So on the bus we were again, at 6:30 the next morning. And immediately it was clear why it took 24 hours, why the night bus was dangerous, and why it can be so hard to dislodge festering guerilla movements in the mountains and jungles of South America.
There was no road. Or what was called the road was a one-lane dirt track that rose and fell thousands of feet in altitude, full of switchbacks and cliffs and eroded sections that dropped straight down steep mountainsides. Mountain ridge after ridge, valley after valley – traveling ten miles took hours – through villages of adobe mud and thatch, atop high, treeless mountain plains where there was nothing but sheep and alpaca and round, waist-high thatch shepherd’s huts. We plunged into river valleys that were hot and humid before climbing back up above the trees, all at the speed of a walk. This was the highway; anyplace off the road and there was only one way to get there – walking in brutally steep country. Every six hours or so we’d stop and we men would pile out – 16 of us pissing on the side of the road. The women didn’t budge.
At dusk we pulled into Andahuaylas to change buses. Twelve hours to go. The station was wild, dirty, almost medieval, and Carleton, a mid-50s Canadian, was freaked out. “I promised myself I wouldn’t take any night buses,” he said, “but the rest of the journey is at night. I’m really scared; I had to turn my eyes away a few times on those cliffs.”
Poor Lily. We ate a quick meal of chicken soup on narrow wooden benches under a tarp and then took off. Roaches swarmed out of the curtains; they fell into her lap, crawled into her coat, scurried under feet. The bus filled to standing room only with people who were so brown and withered they looked like canned mushrooms. Bowler hats and long pig-tails; a dog; an old man dressed in black and so small and frail he was like a marionette puppet.
All this time on buses is odd time – time in sort of a suspended state. You’re in the heart of things, but removed, too; sometimes I want to climb out of the bus and be in places and not just passing through. And it’s physically painful. Lily and I were in agony by the time we rolled into Cusco; but at some points I get Zen-like, just succumb to the pain in my knees and my aching neck and my hunger and thirst. It’s out of my control and I rise out of that suffering into an odd state of grace, totally surrendering, my mind dancing to distant places.
Lily was dizzy from it all. But last night, over beers at the bar, we fell into conversation with a German traveler who bragged about getting away from the hordes and finding the real Peru, and then listed his itinerary of all the regular gringo trail destinations. Lily laughed, gave me a sly look, and started telling the tale of the bus from Ayacucho….