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!”

“Anyone killed?”

“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….

Monday, March 24, 2008


I’m reading The Naked Tourist, by Lawrence Osborne, in which he muses about the traveler’s dream of finding the end of the earth and his obsession with “the idea of leaving the world.” I’ve chased that dream for years, from my journey to a Dayak longhouse up the Mahakam River to hanging with pygmies in Irian Jaya and Oroki reindeer herders in Siberia. But those places are fading; they’re mirages of a quaint and distant past – they’re not really real anymore.

As we lurched into Lima after 28 hours of travel on a single bus from Guayaquil, it hit me that this trip is all about the opposite. It’s not about losing contact with the modern world, it’s about embracing it, reveling in it, losing myself in its massive vascular system as its multitudes lurch and pedal along its thousands of miles of veins and arteries and capillaries.

I mean, we watched eight movies, classics all, including Resident Evil III and Armageddon (there are no chic flicks on South American buses), while inching through the crowded market and border town of Huaquillas (six foot tall plastic flowers; quail eggs, four for a dollar; stilettos and skinny jeans and an upside down pig on a hook) and rain in Chiclayo so driving it flooded the streets up to the curbs and then paused in the hot morning sun to wash our hair in a concrete trough by the side of the road. “Only seven more hours to Lima!” said one of the drivers, shaking the water out of his hair like a dog after a bath, before lathering up his armpits. We ate quivering red Jell-O and watched the Bee Gees in between flicks, as Mariana, a 24-year-old “food engineer” whose favorite food was spaghetti, chatted on her cell phone and her 21-year-old sister read the Latin American edition of Cosmo, all while passing broken, dusty towns of tiny, garage-sized brick houses and sun and wind and burros and internet cafes.

All driven along the miles by two “conductores” – such a better word than driver – with gold teeth and faded, mystical home-made tattoos on their shoulders, who switched the wheel every five hours and slipped the bus through its seven forward gears like it was all they ever did. Which was true: they drove from Lima to Guayaquil (28 hours) back to Lima and then another 20 hours on to Puno, before turning around and doing it all over again.

“Lots of accidents,” they said, laughing. “You want to drive?”

And then, a few hours later, I was drinking a pisco sour with the world’s most famous volleyball player.

I’m smack in the very middle of the world and it’s a very weird place.