The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

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The train rattled alongside a furious river hemmed in by mountains as Andean flute music wafted from speakers above. Then it stopped, nowhere, just like a British train…except that this one was meant to.

Excuse me, sir, you need for to get off

What?”

You do the Inca Trail, no?”

Oh, yeah.

There was no station, no platform: we just opened the door, dropped to the track and crunched through the gravel until we got to a bridge more rickety even than any I saw in Laos. It swayed and creaked as I hurried across the rotten slats, expecting, any minute, that one would give way and leave me dangling over the river.

It takes three or four days to walk the length of the Inca Trail, but we were cheating and starting two thirds of the way in. That still left a long day’s hike. The trail led relentlessly upwards, snaked round the mountain, and continued upwards, until we had left the valley we started from way below and the river was but a scribble and the train track a toy shop display. We scrambled up Incan terraces, passed waterfalls which plunged gorgeously down the face of the rock, and looked across at the neighbour mountains carpeted with trees, and paused to contemplate flowers which erupted from the ledge in shocks of yellow and orange, and pink and red. Once we saw porters from the four day trail, running down the mountain with mules-worth of weight on their backs. They carry the tents, the chairs, the stoves, the gas bottles and food so the tourists need not worry about weight.

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It started to rain and the clouds slipped down and filled the valley like expanding foam and, for an hour or two, we were walking above them.

Bepe, the guide, kept stopping so we had a chance to catch our breath and he had a chance to share his passion for orchids; but I wanted to press on and did, until I came to a sign with a picture of a bear and some text I did not understand and jumped to the wrong conclusion. I had just read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, in which he worries his way along the Appalachian Trail thinking about bear attacks. But there are no grizzlies in Peru, it turns out, just the spectacled bear: a shy little thing you would expect to have petite-bourgeois manners from the fifties and a bag full of marmalade sandwiches. The sign was urging the walkers not to bother the bears, not warning the walkers that the bears might bother them.

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I went ahead again, and passed a hard-looking man who glared from a step, and I remembered something I had read in a guidebook about muggings along the trail. Three more men emerged from shelter when I climbed up the steps of Inti Punku, the last but one of the ruins on the trail. “Buen’ dias,” one growled and I looked back with relief to see Bepe and the others at the foot of the steps.

Who were those dodgy buggers?” I asked after we turned the corner.

“The rangers,” Bepe said.

“Oh.”

“They’re making sure that nobody is still walking when the trail closes.”

“Ah.”

We would, he said, have had a good view of Machu Picchu by then, if it were not for the clouds. I thought he might have kept that to himself. But as we walked on, the clouds dissolved and the iconic image materialised before us, just as it is in the brochures. It was a magical effect.

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© Richard Senior 2015

Of Poop and Parties: San Pedro de Atacama

They were full of shit.

The islands to the south of Peru were thick with seabird guano. It made excellent fertiliser, and Peru millions. They exported it all over the world. In 1864, the Spanish used a flimsy excuse to occupy the islands, and Peru, Bolivia and Chile went to war with them and won. It was the first time that nations had fought over bird shit.

Then, when saltpetre from the Bolivian desert became even more marketable than seabird crap, a Chilean company secured the right to mine it free of tax. But Bolivia reneged. Talks went nowhere, and they ended up at war. Peru joined in on the Bolivian side. But Chile resoundingly won and shifted its border hundreds of miles north through Bolivia and into Peru. Bolivia lost its saltpetre deposits and coastline; Peru lost some of its guano. There is bitterness about it still, 130 years later.

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The Chilean army marched on San Pedro de Atacama in 1879 and Bolivia never saw it again. It is an arty, bohemian enclave now, a charming place. Adobe shoeboxes with peeling whitewash and beaten up doors line the main road and half a dozen side streets. The shops sell copper jewellery, textiles and indigenous art. Alternative types sit in the plaza in the shade of the trees overlooking a cute little colonial church.

Two jeeploads of us arrived from Bolivia and, whether it was the waves of positive energy the hippies claim to feel, or the stupefying sun, or just a sense of release after three days driving across the altiplano, everyone seemed to be in a party mood. We went out en masse to eat, swapped stories about scams and overnight buses, and stayed on until late for cocktails.  Some peeled off to their hostels, and the rest of us went looking for a club.

But San Pedro is not as liberal as it seems. There are no clubs, no late bars; in fact, no bars at all outside of the restaurants. There is nowhere to drink legally after one in the morning, and nowhere where it is legal to dance. I discovered that later, though.

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Some locals invited us to a beach party, which was a puzzle because San Pedro is a long way from the coast. Or at least it would have been a puzzle if any of us had been sober. I was not happy with the idea of following them out of town and down a dark lane and away from any houses; but dozens of gringos joined the procession, travellers who had stopped off on their way north or south. We bought beer from a guy who had stockpiled a few crates and was selling it off can by can, and we plodded up and down the dusty hills, shouting and giggling and talking crap, and the drunkest of our crowd fell over a lot, until we eventually got to the ‘beach’. It was a quarry. The party was a hippie with a Spanish guitar and a bunch of his mates quietly singing along. It was hardly Ko Pha Ngan. But it was all there was in San Pedro.

There was an earthquake next morning which shook the town and knocked things off shelves, but no one who had been to the party noticed. I stumbled out into the blinding sun and trudged in agony to the restobar on the corner, where I ordered two cafés con leche and a medium-sized pizza for breakfast.

My head throbbed, my stomach churned and my mouth felt lined with guano.

© Richard Senior 2015

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

The Tyranny of the Bucket List

My alarm went off at 3.30am. I got dressed and went out and tagged along with the procession of half-asleep travellers crowded into tuk-tuks or furiously pedalling unlit hire bikes through the crepuscular gloom.  At Angkor Wat, the hawkers were patrolling the car park with torches,

“You wan’ coffee-breakfast?”

“Not now, thanks.”

I joined the concert crowd assembling in front of the temple and sat and waited with increasing impatience for an hour or so until the sun struggled over the horizon. Is that it? I thought and went to get coffee-breakfast.

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It occurred to me later that I had seen dozens of landmarks, just as iconic, but had never before felt the need to get up in the middle of the night and watch the sun rise behind them. But it had never before been a Thing You Must Do before You Die.

It is always a must: a sternly-worded injunction, a must try … do not miss … essential … cannot leave without: never a friendly, you could do this if you want. It is like working for a manager proud of being difficult.  I have been white water rafting, but that was in Thailand which doesn’t seem to count. You have to raft the Lower Zambezi or nothing. I have been to Ibiza several times – I was there for the openings once – but I have never been to a closing party, and that is all the authors of bucket lists recognise. I am not doing very well.

I have no chance of getting to all of the 1000 places in Patricia Schultz’s book, especially if I have to find time to read the 1001 books and see the 1001 movies listed in the Quintessence Editions. And I have not even looked at 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Before You Die. There are still things outstanding which I should have done before I was 25.

Come to think of it, though, it is hard to see how any one person will ever do all the things which routinely appear on bucket lists. The sort who dream of making a million, meeting the president and having things named after themselves are never going to live out of a van. Someone putting in the work to get a book published and have an artwork in an exhibition, while becoming fluent in a foreign language, inventing something and running his or her own business, will not have the time to visit every country in the world. He or she will be hard pressed to fit in milking a cow and skinny dipping at midnight.

In truth, I am not fussed if I never see A Clockwork Orange, and I have wrestled with Finnegans Wake before and been beaten and I am not likely to try again, and while I had the chance to go to the Golden Triangle when I was in Southeast Asia, I decided not to bother. I have no intention of doing a runner from a fancy restaurant, and I certainly don’t want to get arrested. I cannot see the point of shouting “the drinks are on me” in a crowded bar, even if (which I don’t) you have pots of money; and I am not sure there is anything to forgive my parents for.

There are, as well, a load of things I have done and want to do which I have never seen on any bucket list but which will stay in my memory long after that early morning at Angkor Wat has faded.

So when I went to Peru and they told me I had to see Machu Picchu at sunrise, I ignored them and spent longer in bed.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014

“It is the Journey that Matters in the End…” as Hemingway DIDN’T Say

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It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end,” wrote Ursula K Le Guin in her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, although the internet tends to credit it to Hemingway.

The idea is baffling to regular fortnight a year vacationers, for whom journeys mean getting up early, battling across town, standing in line, getting half undressed, being scanned and frisked, having bits of their hand luggage confiscated, being bullied by cabin staff, sitting for hours between an old lady who thinks out loud and a fat man who snores very loudly, and watching the drinks trolley creep up the aisle to the row before theirs, then shoot back up the other end of the plane and behind the curtain for the rest of the flight, then bowing to pressure from the crowd to stand up the second the plane has come to a stop, even though they know that the doors will not open for ages; then standing in line again and again and again until they have stamps in their passports, cases in their hands and taxis to take them to hotels.

If this is what matters, might as well stay at home.

But on a longer trip, when you are dotting about from place to place, by train, by bus, by car by bike, what you see as you travel between the big sights will lodge in your mind as firmly as the sights themselves. You can get as much from the journey as you can from the end.

When I think of Cambodia, I think of the bus ride to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap, through rural villages of wooden houses balanced on stilts, of hayricks, pitchforks and ox carts, of broods of chicks jogging after hens. In the bank of memories from Vietnam are the journeys on overnight trains, waking and looking out of the window at villagers kneeling in conical hats to harvest the rice in the half-light of the early morning. I remember long road trips in South America through epic landscapes of mountains and plains which stretched for ever, and the occasional Andean herdsman tending llamas an hour from the smallest town.

In New Zealand it was the journeys I enjoyed the most. There is not much to Picton and little more to Nelson but the Inter City bus took a glorious route between them, through the Marlborough wine region where the vines had turned and flooded the fields with an ocean of yellow on either side of the single track road, where the mountains were stacked three deep: green then grey then blue. The Tranz Alpine Express train threaded its way from coast to coast, from the ruins of Christchurch to the thrift stores of Greymouth with me gazing up at endless mountains, and into the depths of a gorge at a fast-flowing river, and out across the expanse of a pine forest with splashes of yellow and brown among the deep dark green.

I rarely plan a trip in detail, sometimes hardly at all. But I always know where I am going to end up. I need that to give it some kind of structure, and to focus on when things go wrong and half of me wants to jack it all in and go home. There is always an end, and it is always a destination; but there is always a whole lot more to the trip. There are all the intermediate ends, the UNESCO sites, the bucket list staples, the Must Sees, the Wonders of the World and – more mundanely – the towns where the ferries dock, the cities where the buses stop; the stations at the ends of the lines. And there are the landscapes and townships and villages I pass through as I travel between them.

It is good to have an end to journey towards; but, yes, it is the journey that matters in the end.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

How the Llama Didn’t Get Its Name

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Llamas: larm-errs to the English-speaking world, but yam-ass in Spanish or  jam-ass as it is spoken in Peru. They say that a conquistador approached an Andean herdsman and asked: ¿Como se llama?  (What is this called?) ¿Llama? said the baffled man, who spoke only Quechua. It is strikingly similar to the story told in Britain and Australia of how the kangaroo got its name. And there is just as little truth in it.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014

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