In Arequipa I rent a little room at the Hostal Regis ; cheap, comfortable with plenty of character (French colonial, apparently), and like most hostels in this range, slightly run down. A little wooden writing table sits against one wall; two simple chairs, the bed and and night table make up the rest of the furniture. The only thing on the pale pink walls other than the usual grimy marks is a mirror, which I try to avoid. The white ceiling has cracks and water stains; the floor is old, polished wood. The room feels well-used — comfortable and cosy and with its little desk it feels like the kind of place I could settle down and work hard at writing.
From where does this restlessness arise? Was Chatwin right when he speculated humans are essentially nomadic? Sometimes the restlessness feels like a compulsion, but I wonder whether I'm travelling towards something or running from it. But from what, or whom?
Earlier in the afternoon I'd visited La Canasta for a coffee and struck up a conversation with a Canadian in his seventies. Bob enjoyed referring to himself as "the old goat", emphasising the phrase with an impish grin. He wore a Captain Ahab beard and had been well tanned by the Peruvian sun. He'd first come to Peru almost thirty years ago as an irrigation engineer working on a massive project funded by the World Bank and ever since, he'd been spending half the year in Canada and half here. Converting the desert into productive agricultural land still continues, he said. I didn't say how I felt deserts needed protection from development just as much as many other land types, but did say how beautiful I'd found the deserts I'd passed through in Peru. He seemed to understand that.
But who benefits from these irrigation schemes, I asked, the local people or the big companies?
He leaned forward and tapped the table with a long, tanned finger. You've hit the nail right on the head, he said, and went on to explain how the locals worked so hard for so little for the companies reaping the profits.
If you complain they just tell you to go and find work somewhere else — if you can.
They walk such long distances, he added, and described the places they lived. I recognised some — the kind I'd seen from the bus, the kind that had filled me with horror.
Some of them don't even have roofs, Bob said. Although retired, he worked with local communities, trying to improve their lot. Mostly irrigation, I think. The changes he'd seen saddened him. When he'd arrived, Colca had been beautiful; now the changes were too much, too fast. He'd tried to tell some of them, no, you don't need electricity here, but it was no good, they all wanted electricity and TVs and other modern things.
Later I wondered how he reconciled his desire to help improve the lives of the people he clearly loved while not wanting their lives to change. Perhaps he wanted only certain changes — those that fulfilled his own desire to help but not those that allowed those people much greater control over their own destinies.
He'd admitted his preferences didn't matter, and when he said he wouldn't be around much longer he sounded almost as if he relished the idea of his own extinction — perhaps because he wouldn't see the changes that had already begun to sadden him. I liked him, liked his compassion and his love for the place and its people, and I hope his work remains valued, that he's remembered as someone who made a difference for the right reasons.
The bus crawls out of Arequipa with the air conditioning turned off; already the air has turned hot and stuffy. A man with uncoordinated limbs and a severe speech impediment stands at the front of the bus and with great effort manages to deliver a long speech, of which I understand a few words. He starts moving down the aisle, forcing lollies on the passengers. Later he'll return collecting payment or the uneaten lollies. This is a way of life on all but the high-end buses everywhere I've travelled so far in South America.
We stop to pick up two women with a huge load of boxes of produce and bales of grass and straw. Quarter of an hour later we stop again to load a pile of enormous blue bags of potatoes. People on the bus begin complaining angrily about the painfully slow progress; someone starts stamping his feet and others take it up, drumming on the floor, shaking the bus. The driver berates the potato loaders — ineffectively, of course. Patience and acceptance seem unusual here — at traffic lights, for example, the moment the lights turn green horns begin blaring. An instant response isn't good enough; it's as if the person in the car at the head of the queue is to blame for the person further back not being at the head of the queue.
Outside Arequipa the conductor moves through the bus, closing the windows and at last turning on the air conditioning. We pick up speed and I gaze out at the stark mountains where high up a little snow still clings. There at least I can see no sign of humans. High mountains can be a last refuge because they offer nothing material, nothing that can be exploited. Yet even those mountains can sometimes be desecrated; not satisfied with revering them, we mark them with the signs of our veneration — crosses on summits, swastikas painted on rocks. Sometimes even the non-material gifts of mountains become a reason for leaving our marks — for example, while delighting in the ascent of a difficult climb, we leave a line of bolts on a buttress — and sometimes we desecrate simply in the attempt to immortalise ourselves — graffiti aren't confined to fences, buildings and railway sidings.
Yet this is how the world is. In Puno in the evening while talking with Stephen from DC I mention the idea I'd discussed with Bob — that in a sense everything is authentic. I point to the wood-fired pizza oven where we wait for our orders. That's not part of traditional Peruvian culture, I say. He grins. I explain how I think cultures can't be static, how I admire more than regret the way Peru and other places have capitalised on their history and culture while also providing what the tourists want — wood-fired pizza, for example (but not authentic pizza, as my Italian friends later point out — what's being offered is the abomination from the United States). Yes, the loss of traditional ways of life saddens me. Here in Peru it's still strong in places but it's inevitably weakening and will eventually survive only as scheduled shows for tourists. But despite the protestations of the romantics, traditional ways of life were and are hard and consequently short. Who can blame those forced to live those kinds of lives for seeking a more comfortable existence? Whether the modern lifestyle really lives up to the expectations of those who desire it is questionable — I suspect mostly it doesn't, but at least those seeking it can hope it might. Nevertheless, the gentle, wood-fired-pizza guy in jeans and T-shirt (and who looks disconcertingly like Willem Dafoe) is to me just as authentic as the women in their colourful, traditional dress and cowboy hats — this is the authenticity of the present.
I'm not sure Stephen's convinced. I doubt Bob was. I doubt many others would be, particularly those who prefer to call themselves travellers not tourists and claim to be searching for authenticity. Still, for the moment I'll stick to my assertion that what we think of as authentic is mostly the unpreservable past being left behind by the present, and what we think of as fake is often part of the authentic present.
At ten to midday the conductor starts the video to satisfy the demands of those like the man next to me who apparently see the journey as a necessary evil — those who have been reading newspapers, playing portable video games, sleeping, talking on phones, and ignoring the beautiful, sere, stony desert through which we're passing. Am I the only one who loves these tenacious, flowering cacti, the shrivelled plants, the high mountains under a sky streaked with mare's tails, this land like a gasp?
At 12:18 p.m. we pass a sign saying "Zona de Vicuñas", and there, a short way off in the desert, a vicuña lifts its head. Lithe, golden-brown, the pale under its belly extending a little way further up its body. Further on, four more, then more still. Does anyone else see them, even when we pass a family right next to the road?
The bus pauses at the Putahuasi pay station, then drives on. A dust devil, swirling; a small, simple shed with grey walls and a yellow thatched roof; many vicuñas; a few llamas; mountains on the encircling horizon. Soon after, we pass a 22-wheel lorry on its side, a similar lorry waiting while men transfer gas bottles from the overturned truck. This time, everyone on the bus gawks.
The sense of altitude increases. We stop briefly at Imata near a strange monument of a flamingo with outstretched wings. A caracara flies past and another perches on a rock as we leave the tiny town. I feel so high I never want to descend; coming down will be as figurative as literal. I love this landscape: bleak but not unrelentingly arid; small waterways, half stream, half tarn, in shallow valleys; the hills of the altiplano rolling gently towards the sky — the sky, through which we drive. Somewhere in all this emptiness we pass a small cemetery crowded with crosses tilted at various angles and enclosed by a low adobe wall. A sign says 4528 m. Can we go any higher?
Apparently not. We begin the gradual descent, past a lake among yellow-brown hills. A small flock of flamingoes feeds near the shore. More lakes — Andean geese, coots, teal, more flamingoes. Another accident — a van rear-ended by a truck — and again the bus passengers turn from the dreadful video.
A caracara sits like a sentinel on a rock above the road. We stop in a small, quiet town — the sort where I feel like getting off just because I know no one and am known by no one; the kind that offers the dream of vanishing forever. After the bus has set down and picked up passengers the conductor opens the vents in the roof and as the bus picks up speed the wind rushes and howls in a way utterly fitting this landscape.
But someone gets up and closes the vent.
At Juliaca the light comes from another time, another world. On the outskirts the busy streets also appear curiously deserted, the contradiction disorienting. This is how one might imagine the streets of a city after some catastrophe — an epidemic, perhaps — with a few survivors mingling with the ghosts of those who no longer live there. Further in, the town looks like a scene from Blade Runner, with people everywhere, jostling, dodging tricycle and motorcycle taxis, squeezing past innumerable stalls, somehow functioning amid the chaos. Everyone seems to be welding, fixing things, making things in small dim workshops or outside on the dusty, potholed streets. We drive past an open shed, dark, full of big carcases hanging on hooks; past a man in a green and yellow dragon suit striding along the street, clutching the dragon's head while his own head hangs between hunched shoulders as if depressed. For all the horror of the place — almost everything the opposite of where I feel most at home — I like Juliaca, or at least find it fascinating. Here I could be lost and anonymous; for the first time, a plane flying overhead seems like a link to a world I'm not ready to rejoin.
I still don't know whether I'm running away or travelling forward, and even less idea who or what drives me.
A flock of Andean gulls with their beautiful black faces. Straw stooked as it was in New Zealand before I was born. Three ostriches (not rheas) in a small paddock as we leave Juliaca, one of the strangest places through which I've passed.
Finally we reach Puno, where I take a taxi to the Hostal Los Piños. On the way, a rat scampers in a street, but it turns out to be only a brown plastic bag swirled by the wind. Rats, I suspect, will outlive us, but perhaps these ubiquitous scraps of plastic, the symbol of our dependence on oil and our wilful rejection of caring for our only home, have become the new rats of the modern world.
I think I prefer the old rats — the authentic rats.
1. “Hostal” is the usual spelling in South America.
1. “Hostal” is the usual spelling in South America.
Photos (I have no photographs from the bus journey from Arequipa to Puno. These words, with photographs from elsewhere, will have to suffice):
1. A small village in Bolivia, from the train between Oruro and Uyuni.
2. The road to Chimbote from Trujillo, in northern Peru.
3. The Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca, Bolivia.
4. Salt pan just outside Oruro, from the train to Uyuni
5. Flute player in the Valley of the Moon, La Paz. Clearly not a vertigo sufferer.
6. Caracara on one of the summits of the Muela del Diablo near La Paz
7. Coastal desert on the road from Trujillo to Chimbote.
Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor