A Bus to Puno

The bus station was teeming with Quechua families with suitcases-worth of belongings in rainbow papooses which they squeezed through the doors of the buses. There were a few gringo backpackers, too, with the look of the road about them. Touts shouted destinations, barely pausing to breathe. “Arequipa-Arequipa-Arequipa-Arequipa-Aquipa-Aquipa-Aquip-Aquip….” But no one was buying tickets to Arequipa.

I wanted to go to Puno and knew from the guidebook that it would be a full day’s drive.

Will it be a coach?” I asked.

“…Almost,” the guy said.

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I imagined a scrapper with four bald tyres and seats like park benches and filthy windows taped shut; and it was easy to picture, because most of the buses in Lima had been like that. I expected to arrive in the sort of discomfort you feel when you commute on British trains.

It was not so bad, though. The bus cannot have been more than thirty years old – not much more, at any rate – and although it pumped out black smoke and wallowed over bumps, it looked capable of getting to Puno. The buses in Lima never looked as if they would make the next traffic lights.

The single track road stretched for hours ahead on its serpentine way through an endless landscape of plains reaching out to distant mountains in front of mountains in front of still more mountains, chaperoned by a river and flocks of sheep and herds of llamas which grazed beside and blundered right onto the road, forcing the driver to stop. Sometimes, in the middle of miles of nothing, there was an adobe hut with a collapsing thatched roof which looked like a relic from decades ago, but nearby there was a Quechua herdsman who could surely have lived nowhere else. There were the ruins of an ancient stone village, with a new adobe village abutting it; there were charming little towns, a long way from the Gringo Trail; and then there was Juliaca.

All the gringos stared out the window as we passed through, much as they might at a car smash. It is the scariest city I have ever seen, despite growing up in West Yorkshire. The roads were just mud and boating lake puddles in the bit that I saw: no surface, no pavements at all. Dangerous-looking young men lounged in doorways, scowling from under hoods. My guidebook warned that daytime muggings were common enough, and at night were too frequent to mention.

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But Puno is better, in parts. It has a nice Baroque cathedral, photogenic decay and indigenous markets selling colourful fabrics and sandals made from car tyres. It is worth a day of your time.

I arrived, by chance, the day before the festival of La Virgen de la Candelaria and the party erupted all over town next morning. There were street food vendors on every corner and I bought an anticucho (marinated beef heart skewer) outside my hotel and tried to eat it while I threaded my way through the crowds. Scuse me! Scuse… err… ¡Permesso! There were brass bands and flautists and men with big drums they call wankaras. Aymara dancers trooped down the street whirling batons. I wanted to cross but there was never a gap, so I joined the parade and slipped out further down the road. Wankara, someone said.

A very drunk man leaned against a wall in a lane, with his head lolling a few centimetres from speeding mototaxis. Another happily pissed in the middle of the road and people pretended not to notice.

It was like a Saturday night back home.

© Richard Senior 2015

A Perspective on Lima

Lima is a pretty city,” reckoned Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. “Lima is an atrocity,” insisted Matthew Parris in Inca Kola.

Parris’s impression is the one generally held, especially by those who have never been. Lima has a shocking reputation. It is ugly, they say; it is dangerous. There is nothing much to look at while you are being mugged at gunpoint. Parris noticed concrete and tin, dead dogs and cars without windscreens.

The city is smothered in fog for much of the year, which cannot help to endear it. “The white veil,” Melville called it in Moby Dick. But I was there in late January, when the sky was blue more often than not, and the sun was hot enough to redden my neck. The fogs came, all right; but ephemerally, like dry ice from a smoke machine.

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I think Lima must, in any case, have smartened itself up in the twenty-four years since Parris was there. I never saw a dead dog – although strays were everywhere – and saw only one car that was missing a windscreen. Most were in a lot better fettle than the minibuses, which roared along with blowing exhausts, great gashes down their sides and several important bits missing.

Hotel development in the Miraflores district has been about as unsympathetic as it could be (Guevara would have been spared that in 1952); but next door Barranco is full of character with its shabby-gentile colonial buildings in jaunty, contrasting colours like forest green and lilac, anorak blue and orange, and dogshit brown and dayglo pink. It would be a stretch, though, to call it pretty.

The Centro Historico is genuinely pretty with its plazas, its fountains, its grand public buildings and a cathedral to which Guevara devoted a long and exuberant paragraph. You might, for a moment, imagine yourself in an important city in Spain; but the illusion cannot last for long. A shanty town spreads round and up the surrounding mountains, painfully visible from all over town; and just a few blocks from the grandest plaza are workaday districts with litter in the doorways and broken chairs slung onto roofs.

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In short, it is not as irredeemably ugly as popularly believed, but it is hardly Cuzco either. The danger is apparently real, but even at night it feels a lot less edgy than somewhere like La Paz.

My guidebook – never knowingly underwhelmed – reckoned Lima “the gastronomic capital of the continent”. That sounds like windy exaggeration, but two of its restaurants are listed among the World’s 50 Best: equal with London, one fewer than Paris. It is the place to go to eat ceviche, Peru’s most famous dish: a buzzword, now, on fine-dining menus in the English-speaking world.

The chef squirts lime juice over sliced raw fish, and then flavours it with garlic, chilli, coriander and red onion and leaves it to marinate so that the acid in the juice “cooks” the fish. “Better than it sounds,” said Parris, who seems to have the classical Englishman’s approach to food and usually only mentioned it when it upset somebody’s stomach.

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The version I had at a smart restaurant overlooking the sea in Miraflores used chunks of sea bass, crab claws and scallops, and came with the Peruvian staples, sweet potato and corn. “Una experencia incomparable,” the menu declared with a good pinch of hyperbole, but it was very good.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Cuzco: Shadows of the Incas

“The word that most perfectly describes the city of Cuzco is evocative,” said Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. “Intangible dust of another era settles on its streets, rising like the disturbed sediment of a muddy lake when you touch its bottom”.

Even Matthew Parris admitted in his often curmudgeonly book, Inca Kola, that it is “worth seeing”.

It has the same raffish charm, the same flyblown pomp as the ancient towns of Sicily. Smarter, grander around the Plaza de Armas in the middle of town, tattier, poorer the further away you go from it; but all of central Cuzco has character. Few walls are freshly painted, few have their stucco intact; many are plastered with the tattered remains of several generations of fly poster. But you will want to walk those cobbled streets for hours, for days, forever.

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There is a bustle in the streets surrounding Mercado San Pedro, and an indifference to outsiders.  Sacks of beans are piled to the top of doorways, chicken’s feet claw out of windows. The butcher hacks up a carcass to order on a slab right out on the street front. Andean ladies with dirty fingernails squat on corners selling fruit. One has a basket filled with whole roast guinea pigs, a delicacy in Peru. Honking cars burst from every side street and converge in the stalemate of a main road. Mangy dogs quietly thread between them. A policewoman blows a whistle, more in frustration, I think, than in hope of bringing order.

The street food is good and cheap, and every few steps there are ladies grilling sausages and anticuchos*, or else kneeling with a bundle of empanadas.

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Cuzco was the Inca capital once, and it is an important centre for their modern descendants, the Quechua people. Ladies in fedora-like hats, voluminous skirts and Nora Batty stockings carry their babies in rainbow papooses and walk their llamas on leads. Some are there touting for business – “fotto, amigo, fotto please” – but most keep to themselves, huddle in the shade and chat.

The Spanish built on top of the structures they found, and often you spot the big, interlocking stones of the Incas at the base of colonial buildings. The Andean people adopted Christianity in much the same way, superimposing it onto, incorporating it into their traditional beliefs. While eighty per cent of modern Peruvians declare themselves Catholic, many nonetheless worship Pachamama** much as the Incas did.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014

*marinated beef heart kebabs

**mother earth

La Paz: Effigies, Offerings and Rebar

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The road from Peru meanders through a poetic landscape, along Lake Titicaca, up and over the mountains, past rivers and plains and glorious eruptions of wildflower. Then all at once you are in honking traffic in the apocalyptic satellite town of El Alto.

A smothering dust covers everything. Every building remains unfinished, and will forever, with rebar sprouting from the floors of notional upper storeys. Aymara ladies buy fruit through the bars on the doors of the shops. Legs protrude from old cars up on jacks on the pavement. Life-sized effigies hang from the lampposts with notices pinned to their chests reading, “This is what we do to thieves”. They do, as well. The 30 lynchings in the first 10 months of 2011 represented “a notable decrease,” according to an upbeat UN.

La Paz is picturesque in spite of itself. The first view from El Alto is a sea of ochre buildings embraced by high peaks, and there is a paradoxical beauty in what seems to be nothing but tower blocks. There is, as you see when you roll into town, more heritage than appears from above. The steep streets of sunken cobbles are lined with colonial buildings, crumbling, faded, covered with graffiti and torn fly-posters, but nonetheless photogenic.

There are numberless markets, but they can’t contain the Aymara vendors who spill out down the pavements and into the road. Stocky ladies in bowler hats kneel on sheets laid anywhere they find a space, selling fruit and veg, meat and fish, clothes and shoes, stolen electronics, herbs and potions, figurines and amulets, and llama foetuses to offer to Pachamama.

Oh, thanks for that,” I imagine her saying, in the tone you use when your cat lays a mouse at your feet.

(c) Richard Senior 2014