Sun, sea & sand

Day 89 - Huanchaco

The sun turned a searing red as it began to dip below the horizon. Only a solitary tarmac strip disturbed the sandy expanses that lay to my left and to my right. The bus tracked Peru's Pacific coast until we reached the seaside town. Huanchaco was a small village home to fishermen and little else until surfers discovered its breaks. We too sought a break, though one from the vast distances we had to cover through South America's third largest country. The day after our arrival brought an undeserved defeat in the rugby, the day after that an undeserved victory in the football. At this point we broke our week-long alcohol fast. Michael's was done under medical advice, mine self-imposed after 3 months of daily imbibing. We stayed in a hostel called 'Chillout' which was run by a Scots fellow called Will who supplied fine Pisco Sours while decrying the state of the motherland.
Back into the desert we plunged, passing hills of silicated sterility and beaches of splendid inaccessibility. The landscape was slightly more diverting than the onboard entertainment which consisted of 3 films, back to back, on the subject of football (a most unfilmworthy subject in general). We were headed for Francisco Pizarro's 'City of Kings', home to 8 million people and with a name a bit like a green citrus fruit. One in three people in Peru call Lima their home so it couldn't be without its appeals, pollution-choked and carhorn-soundtracked though they were. The relative strength of the country's economy and partial immunity to worldly financial woes have rendered it a surprisingly costly country to travel through, no dollar beers here. Shopping for a replacement camera turned up some eye-watering prices you'd baulk at back home. It took 1 mall, 3 stores, 12 stalls and (roughly) 7 hours to find one at an acceptable price. We toasted the success with (to Michael's ecstasy) pints of cider in an English pub we found in the Miraflores area of the capital. Miraflores - mark that name.
"Um, shouldn't we have turned off back there?" "Or there?" "Or here perhaps?" The taxi driver and I were speeding along Lima's main thoroughfare but even my, admittedly wonky, sense of direction was telling me something was amiss.
3 hours previously...
"So you'll be back at the bus station at 3:15 won't you?" I sensed that even an emphatic answer of "yes" would not allay Michael's palpable apprehensions. So I replied "probably" and trotted off to survey Lima's historical sites. I toured the cool chapels of the cathedral containing the founder's tomb and photographed the baroque stylings of the Monasterio de San Francisco. I saw General San Martin astride his horse in the plaza bearing his name and chuckled at the statue of Madre Patria who, owing to a linguistic mixup due to the fact that the Spanish word for 'flame' is 'llama', rather than a burning crown placed atop her head wore instead...well you can probably guess. As I was about to make my way back a pleasant chap called Pedro engaged me in conversation. The formalities of names over with he announced that he was gay and would like to go for a drink. Alas, I replied, I have to be at Flores Bus Station in 20 minutes and so must take a raincheck. Disappointed though he must have been Pedro kindly hailed me a cab and gave the driver my intended destination.
15 minutes later...
"No Señor, Miraflores es thisa way." He was driving me to the opposite side of Lima. With my destination clarified I implored in broken Spanish "Flores!, rapido! rapido!" I must credit the dangerous tenacity with which he got me to the station in time and felt obliged to tip, though the amusement he got from the confusion was perhaps compensation enough.

Beyond the pail

Day 82 - Cuenca

Is it evolution that has given us the ability to internalise actions? That allows our conscious mind to leave the basic physics of any act to unconscious reflex while it wanders elsewhere? That sees the complexities of something like driving a car as nothing more than learned response? The subconscious takes over the familiar and rules routine. So it can be with travel. An autopilot takes control and the 'why?' of it slips almost as far back in the mind as the 'how?' Vision narrows and sees only the road. A whole country could be passed in this way and all memory will recount is "I was there". How quickly I forget the drudge of the past, how quickly our scale of what makes us happy and what makes us sad adapts to new realities. But then I believe there is no happiness without sadness, we need light as we need shade, we can detect only contrast. Sometimes life assumes the beauty of a symphony with its four movements of birth, youth, adulthood and death. Sometimes the notes strike a jarring clash, sometimes they transcend the mechanics of quaver and line and combine in resonating beauty, utter purity of being. Sometimes life is more and sometimes it is less than the sum of its parts. Sometimes life is beauty and sometimes it is grime. But for all that I tell myself now that senses must be shaken, look again at where you are and appreciate anew. Do not see only through the lens of a camera and do not feel only through the pages of a thesaurus. No moment ever comes twice be it fair or foul, open your eyes. 
We were about to begin a week's abstinence from alcohol, Michael's enforced, mine voluntary, and the bar could serve no booze. Sunday prohibition was far from ideal so we retreated to the hotel with a few cartons of wine served through a hole in the wall to toast our last night of insobriety. If Cuenca was a dry city on Sunday it was a wet city on Monday. Their version of Carnaval was less pageant and parade, more giant water fight. A fight we resoundingly lost, two ambling tourists were fodder indeed. You encountered people with water pistols (if you were lucky), people with water bombs (if you were unlucky) and people with buckets (if it really wasn't your day). It wasn't my day. The threat was everywhere, passersby, balconies above and drive-by soakings from the back of pickup trucks. It went a long way to explaining the unusually heavy police presence for such a sleepy town that we had noticed the night before. They certainly weren't there for the protection of unwitting foreigners though. I got hit again and again and how I burned inside at the feeling of victimisation. Oh how the curmudgeon grows within me! Michael's dry sympathy helped, or at least it would have done had there been any.
We spent a night in Macará on Ecuador's southern border, a place with all the utilitarian charm we had come to expect from these towns. The morning would see us cross into Peru, land of bizarre desert shapes and cities in the sky.

Somethings lost

Day 76 - Quito

As an dance track from my youth had it "Ecuador!" After a day spent in Otavalo and its renowned market, where I picked up a Panama hat for a song, we had hit the capital. Long days of travelling had left tempers frayed but a couple of days of rest and an over-the-counter culture had restored moods to normal working order. Quito is a slender city pushed to elongate by surrounding mountains. It seems the planning policy employed by the Spaniards who founded these places was "is the site near a mountain, if so build. Better yet find a volcano." You know you're at altitude when a short flight of stairs leaves you bereft of breath and at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level Quito certainly had altitude. I hadn't realised that on stepping off the bus I was planting my foot for the first time on Southern hemisphere soil. There were no markers on the road to Quito still less a giant band ringing the earth's waist so my straddling-both-hemispheres photo will have to wait for now.
Ah churches, what European city break would be compete without visiting at least 17 of them? A chore as a child, an attraction as an adult whichever side of the divine divide you fall on. Their architecture, their history and their symbolism all appeal to me but then I have read The da Vinci Code so maybe my imagination has something to answer for too. From the South American staple 'San Francisco' to the gilded excess of La Compania de Jesus, Quito is replete. We played an amusing game of cat and mouse (or priest and choirboy) in La Compania due to a rule banning photography, a rule we ignored religiously. The opposing team were quite good at 'catch the click' which resulted in several admonishments. Alas, another red mark on my heaven vs hell balance sheet. God is vengeful so I'm told and I fear he may have exacted his retribution as you shall later read.
The old part of the capital in which we stayed, while busy with religious buildings, was not the epicentre of nightlife. We did find an attractive little cobbled alley dotted with bars and restaurants and reminiscent of Prague but it wound down at far too early an hour. The alternative, we discovered, was the livelier new town and some quite horrendous drinks prices,  $50 wouldn't have even given a wobble.  Nonetheless we salvaged some fun playing 'spot-the-men-getting-no-sex-tonight' at the fried chicken joint where we ate dinner,  it was Valentine's day.
After a couple of lazy days attending to the admin of travel it was time to leave a city for whom a certain amount of affection had grown. An affection only a little diminished by a bitter aftertaste. Guayaquil is Ecuador's largest city and would be our next stop for no particular reason other than the fact we needed a next stop. It must have been a popular day to go to Guayaquil as the buses were booked up until 3pm so we had several hours to kill. And so it was that we found ourselves in that international stalwart, McDonalds. And so it was I found myself looking down ay the space on the floor that my courier bag once occupied. Amused confusion swiftly became knotted consternation and then desperate anguish as the reality of the situation made itself felt. The Security Guard couldn't have been more ineffective if he'd been dressed as Ronald McDonald and had a water pistol strapped to his belt rather than a revolver. He calmly waved away my pleas for help with pure indifference. Why the place chooses to employ him and not security cameras defies reason. The police took a report though it was largely typed up by a helpful lady who happened to be at the station with a stolen credit card issue and whose Spanish was better than mine and whose English was better than the officer's. It was all a formality in any case, I don't expect to see any of those possessions again. One must be pragmatic and acknowledge that although travel has taken things from me I'll never get back it has also given me things I'll never lose. Hope you got your pictures God.

28 buses later

Day 71 - San Agustín

It was late on the 70th day that we arrived at this little town in the hills. Our first of five buses that day had an electronic speedometer fitted in view of and presumably for the benefit of the passengers. The fact that it only had space for two digits when the driver could easily have put three to good use was concerning indeed. We tempered our fear as we careered along jinking roads with the knowledge that at least we were making good time. If there are any maxims of foreign travel then 'don't sit at the back of a minibus' should be one. It was a rule we had repeatedly failed to abide and again we rued while bring thrown violently over bumps and down potholes with nary a dab on the brakes. To distract from the spine realigning ride Michael quizzed me on my Spanish. Nouns, adjectives and the linguistic lesions that are irregular verbs until my brain could contort itself no longer.
"¿Hola?", "¿Hola?" our greetings met no reply. There was eery quiet but for distant music and the sound of our taxi driving back to the town below. The place was not so much a hotel as a collection of cabins perched high above the Rio Magdalena but if it was a ship it would be the Mary Celeste. Michael bravely volunteered to mind the bags while I ventured down dark, foliage covered pathways armed only with a fading torch. I emerged into a rain-sodden clearing and with the wet earth squelching underneath my feet I walked toward the two storey structure sat squarely in the centre. "¿Hola?", "¿Hola? music blared from above and my cries were drowned. I walked on past and toward a wooden fence and building beyond it. Soft, loamy soil enveloped my feet to the ankles and helped to persuade that this was not the way. I tried another forbidding path. "¿Hola?", "¡Hola!",  at last a survivor of whatever horrible tragedy had befallen this place, of whatever virulent disease had swept through its inhabitants. She disappeared off only to return with the owners who were very much alive and well.  Clemenza was of a delightfully hippyish inclination and gave us a tour of the grounds while her husband busied himself with a joint. We smelt the Jasmine next to the open air shower, drank lemongrass tea and looked across the valley at distant volcanoes, all before we'd even checked in.
Two horses stood patiently awaiting their riders while a third carried a portly Colombian wearing a white cowboy hat. Michael's off-stated desire to mount a horse on this trip was finally being satisfied as we were introduced to our steeds and trotted off down the road. We both jockeyed (see what I did there?) To lead the posse each urging his horse into as fast a canter as his nerve would stand. Slowing to allow our horses to regain breath we passed plantations thick with sugarcane and fields of coffee bush dotted with red berries. The products of both might soon be in your morning cup on the other side of the world. I like horses, they are rather majestic animals. They might be costlier to run than a car but they have more personality and are a good excuse to wear a hat. We were disappointed not to be supplied with Stetsons but were at least unencumbered by helmets though Michael still hankered for chaps. Apart from the occasional nuisance of having to look at archaeological sites it was a most enjoyable morning in the hills.
Colombia makes England look as if an iron had been taken to it. You need only look from the window of an intercity bus to see its tectonic shifts. The landscape doesn't just catch the eye, it engulfs it, steepling ridges rear like giant jaws trying to swallow the sky. However the broken bus curse had struck again and I stood in the sun in some nowhere town, sticky from the lime juice Clemenza had prescribed to treat my insect bites. At last our inevitably smaller, predictably less comfortable replacement bus turned up and we were back on the road again through trees clinging to sheer slopes and shrouded in mist. We alighted at Popayan, a town in the colonial style (bit of a favourite round here) whose sights include a clock on the main plaza manufactured in Croydon and...did I mention the clock? At least there was the distraction of England's game against Italy which, via a bit of jiggery-pokery, I managed to stream via iPlayer and the Atlantic Ocean. The audience for this game increased by 50% with the addition of a Welshman, though one suspects he was an honorary Italian that day. The evening was spent at a funfair on rides whose maintenance records we couldn't help but question. As we looped the loop Michael emitted noises that I had never before heard. Colombia was nearly done but it had not left the indelible mark on me that I somehow expected. Whose shortcoming was that? Time may tell.

Warning: contains goats

Day 69 - Desierto de la Tatacoa

The road forked. One way lay the city of Cali, population: 2.5 million. The other way lay the Tatacoa Desert, population: goats. Which way to go? The town of Villa Vieja lay on the fringes of the desert's sparse expanse. It is a town were nothing much happens and nobody seems to have anything much to do or at least not with any urgency, mañana indeed. A chicken bus replete with actual chickens dropped us in the main plaza. Shaded from the beating sun, old men ruminated in small groups while schoolgirls giggled in green gingham. A 'mototaxi', something akin to a cage welded to a moped, would take us the rest of the way. The first sign of our desiccated destination was a cactus sat incongruously among the trees. Trees that gradually turned to stunted shrubs above grass that straggled and yellowed. The landscape opened up before us as rocky dunes took the place of flat pasture. Life seemed absent save for wandering cows and the ubiquitous goats.
Estadero de Los Hoyos would be our oasis in the wilderness. We wandered lonely as the white clouds above, away from its squat concrete structures and down a dirt track winding further into the desert's interior. Unmolested by human presence save our own everything was silent and still. It was a place where a man could lose himself in solitude, could allow the din of life to quietly subside, could find a kind of peace. The sky seemed bigger and bluer out there, a deity to the two tiny dots that walked beneath it. We returned for a lunch interrupted by the voracious antics of a goat whose inquisitive hunger so typified his species. He enthusiastically supped beer from Michael's proffered cup and though my offer of hot sauce induced a sneezing fit I doubt it will curb his culinary adventures in the future. For his finale he abandoned all social decorum and surmounted the table itself in search of what lunch scraps he could find. As night fell over the Tatacoa and the horizon streaked purple and orange we set off again, this time in search of a restaurant for dinner. After 45 minutes of fruitless stumbling and having admitted to ourselves we had little (read: no) idea of the distance to our destination the inevitable retreat began. Our return was rewarded with a sumptuous dinner of rice and spaghetti flavoured with small chunks of what we feared was our four-legged friend from earlier.
With little in the way of passing traffic the desert was never going to be the easiest pace to hail a cab. Come the morning and feeling like a latter-day Livingstone and Stanley, Hillary and Norgay, Scott and Oates we resolved to escape the desert on foot. The two of us plodded a metronomic pace through undulating sandstone watched by distant peaks. A carpet of green began to spread across the land and the sky closed in to hug our perspective. Butterflies danced in the verges - black, white, red-dotted and swallow-tailed. Life returned as birds warbled to each other in the now proud trees. Everything in Villa Vieja was just as we'd left it as though time had stood still, time for another bus, time for another place.