Stuck in Llamac, Peru

grey Stuck in Llamac, Peru

 

While we were out of Huaraz continual protests have escalated, people have been killed, the central business district is in tatters and all roads have been blocked for days. Realising that we will have to wait in Llamac Joaquin arranges free beds for us in another friend’s house. The man owns five donkeys and is considered wealthy. His mud brick compound which encompasses the donkeys’ pen is home to his family of six, a mother in law, a few stray cousins, an old man (who constantly demands I take his toothy portrait), five donkeys and twelve nervous guinea pigs. The guinea pigs are caged right outside the kitchen where they have a front row seat to their friend’s slaughter.

I sit down to thank my donkeys for their hard work and realise that I have unwittingly stumbled onto another cultural home stay. This time I help to kill the food and spend much time teaching English to dirty kneed school kids. Made to feel like a long lost friend by the gaggle of people living here I thoroughly enjoy my stay.

I find a local guide in my host’s ten year old son David, a bright lad keen to practise his English. grey Stuck in Llamac, Peru

“You like a town tour Ben”

“Si, how much?”

He ponders for a while then looking at our uneaten food cache,

“Oh, five chocolate bars”

“Three?”

“Ok”

David shows me around his town, shares knowledge of his secret trout fishing spot, helps me dry and clean my tent and proudly introduces me to his friends, all for the hefty price of three chocolate bars. I take some joke photos of David playing with the guinea pigs saying, “Don’t play with your food David.”

grey Stuck in Llamac, PeruIt is lovely to spend the day exploring town through ten year old eyes. Later that evening I give David my waterproof, shockproof camera to play with. He gleefully runs off in the night to show his friends. I settle in the kitchen with the men and slowly drink beer by the fading fire and talk (with enormous help from my dictionary) about local life and bandits.

Bandits still active are stragglers from the once strong Shining Path Maoist organisation. In the 80‘s they had many strongholds in the Andean highlands and held a firm belief that by imposing a proper dictatorship they could induce cultural change and arrive at pure communism. The shining path gained local peasant support by providing popular justice, ie a farmer stealing a neighbour’s sheep would be swiftly and brutally dealt with. Nowadays the group is greatly diminished and are a few raggedy bands hiding in the highlands terrorising tourists and locals alike.

David returns and shows me the photos he has snapped. From his less intimidating stance he has managed to unveil a side of this town I would never have see. I am shown photos of friends playing in the dirty streets, adolescents acting tough, curious adults who have unwittingly taken self portraits and girls pretending to be shy. I feel like a voyeur reviewing security footage.

Two days later and still stuck in Llamac. I have explored the town to exhaustion, burnt my little friend David’s brain out with English lessons and made an iodine throat gargle for a woman with severe tonsillitis. I have also spent three hours sitting by the river in the sun, my mind stilled by the glinting water. I would highly recommend this to anyone, find a quiet stream somewhere and do it.

grey Stuck in Llamac, PeruThere is nothing more to do. Despite Joaquin’s safety concerns I decide that we need to push on regardless. There are still no busses running to Huaraz as the civil tensions have escalated with more citizens dead. I ask around and find a potato truck driver going to the halfway point of Chiquian. We secure a ride for a very reasonable price and run to get our bags. What follows is a four hour, nail biting bounce along impossibly slippery mountain roads in the front seat. With bald tyres and a driver who puts his entire faith in God, not mechanics or driving skill, we somehow navigate these precarious roads towards Chiquian. We have to reverse twice to let other trucks by. Reversing is terrifying, the second time, just as the back wheels start scrabbling for purchase over a gravel bank I jump out convinced that we are going over.

Michael the driver is more interested in my camera than the road. Twice he leans over to look at it whilst driving. Twice I search my panicked brain for the words meaning,

“Watch the bloody road! Geez, he is going to kill us!”

“Tranquilo Ben”

“No es Tranquilo amigo!”

I am enjoying one of the rare flat sections on our trip when Michael stomps on the brakes bringing the truck to a skewed standstill in the middle of the road, he starts pointing excitedly at a bush while reaching for my camera,

“Zorro, Zorro, Ben, este!”

“QUE?”

“Zorro!”

The fox that Michael spots is a small twitchy creature, I am just able to remove the lens cap and take a few long distance photos before the shy creature melts back into the shrub. Just as we get to our side of the road a car comes dashing around the corner. This forces Michael to swerve violently before laughing and miming the crash we could just have been involved in.

Thanking God, Christ, Buddha, Cesar, The Holy Frog, Sacred Llamas, the sun and the moon all of whom I am sure had a helping hand in my safe passage I jump out of the truck at Chiquian and kiss the ground with biblical fervour.

Sitting on my pack I wait for Joaquin to find accommodation, passage to Huaraz is still not an option. Joaquin returns grinning as always with good news,

grey Stuck in Llamac, Peru“I have a room for us”

“How much”

“Dos cincuenta”

“Dos cincuenta! Bueno!”

He has found accommodation for us both at a rate of $2.50 Australian dollars a night. We move to the hotel which seems consciously aware of what the low rates imply. I open the door to be mocked by a mould spotted print of Siula Grande hanging aslant on the wall. Joaquin and I dump our bags on the worn carpet and stretch out on lice ridden mattresses to wait under a bare globe.

We have a slight money issue.

I have left my credit cards and passport safely with Chris in Huaraz. Joaquin and I have one hundred soles (around $35 US) for food and accommodation, this needs to last until we can leave safely…whenever that will be.

The following day there are protests in the town square, watching this passionate protest I realise that Joaquin and I will simply have to wait. Despite the demonstrations being peaceful tension is palpable in the air. It feels as though things could easily turn nasty here as well. Joaquin reports that he saw a plane this morning bringing in more police from the capital, television news crews report breathlessly from the carnage in Huaraz.

There are security guards everywhere as police move out towards Huaraz. We hear reports of more dead two police officers and that authorities have started flinging tear gas canisters around the place. We could be in for a long wait.

Never have I faced the issue of finding money for accommodation and food. Camping is not an option, robbers would descend on our tent like flies to the proverbial. Thinking the problem would be resolved quickly I gave away most of the leftover food when leaving Llamac. We have a few chocolate and muesli bars and that is all.

Chiquian is a not as much a sleeping but comatose farming town on the edge of the Andes, many elderly here speak Quechua, younger people speak Spanish and nobody speaks English. Spending the afternoon in the tiny town square I dodge llamas and sheep to wander past mud brick homes while wielding my English/Spanish dictionary searching for news from Huaraz. My situation is looking very grim.

Enter Betty. She calls herself Betty Feo or Ugly Betty after the American television series,

“Hi”

“Hola’

“Are you stuck here?”

“Yup, really stuck.

“Oh well, nice town to stay”

“For sure but I’m starting to get really worried about money, no money for food or accommodation! How long will this last do you think?”

“No lo se’ Could be a long time”

“Damn”

“Hey, I have a new restaurant, come for dinner tonight”

“But I have no money for food”

“That is fine, I would be honoured to have a Westerner test my new menu”

“Truly!”

“Yes, It would be my pleasure”

“Wow, thanks heaps”

I do not want to impose but being desperate I gratefully accept the offer. I leave Betty, find Joaquin and tell him I have a dinner invite then give him some money for his meal. That night I knock on the door of Betty’s newly set up restaurant to be greeted by an imposing man with a grumbling bear-like voice,

“You must be Ben-ten”

“Si, Is this Betty Feo’s restaurant?”

Laughing he waves me inside. Betty bounces out of the kitchen wearing a dirty apron, she hands me a glass of red wine saying that dinner will be ready in a few minutes.

Betty and her friend produce a feast of delicious local food which is easily enough to sustain me throughout the next day. We spend the night drinking red wine and passing around my English/Spanish dictionary, laughing, we take turns telling stories and jokes in unfamiliar tongues. My new friends and I go on to share two dinners as I wait for the riots to abate. They make it possible for Joaquin and I to stretch our budget through the riots without asking for a penny.

Ugly Betty deserves a name change. She is one of the most sharing people I have met in my travels. I will always be thankful for the generosity and kindness of these strangers who welcomed me into their home without asking for a thing in return.

Saving our money for accommodation Joaquin and I only eat dinner, he buys food from a cheap food hall and I knock on Betty’s door both nights clutching my hat with a Dickenson stoop. It is day three in Chiquan and we are down to sixty soles and three chocolate bars. I am sure this experience will make me more sympathetic to beggars in the future.

Despite our grim money situation I decide to spoil myself and find an internet cafe, they charge five soles for half an hour on a dusty old computer with a rattly fan and dubious connection speeds. I am sure my ever vigilant mum will be following news of this situation and may need reassurance of my continual survival. A new email catches my attention. Jette has sent me a message assuring me that she will definitely meet me in La Paz for Christmas. After leaving Ecuador Jette started a new job in Denmark drawing up contracts for Vestas, a big wind turbine manufacturer. She still plans to make the most of her short festive holiday by, “Popping over to visit” I am relieved to hear she has not yet gotten cold feet. I will have to get out of this pickle and definitely be at La Paz Airport at 4:40pm on the 23rd of December.

More reports of escalating violence in Huaraz. I desperately hope my passport and credit card are safe. I have a funny mental image pop into my worried brain of spending Christmas on one side of the Peru/Bolivia border fence with Jette on the other passing food to me through the wire.

It will not come to that.

 

On top of accommodation and food the other problem about being poor is boredom. Chiquian is a tiny, quiet rural village, it is possible to see all the sights in three minutes with a two minute intermission. Chiquian is even more quiet at the moment as nine of the ten shops are closed in sympathy with protestors.  I have read everything I can find in English. I know the washing instructions for all my clothes by heart; Merino top = cool water and no spin, polyester shirt = warm wash, my boots are Pola-tech lined and Gore-tek waterproof. On the plus side being the only non-Hispanic person in the town has vastly improved my Spanish.

On the afternoon of our third day I have run out of patience with being stuck and broke and want to get to Huaraz even if the riots are continuing, at least this will provide some entertainment. I question Joaquin at depth about any possibility of sneaking past the road blocks, even mooting the possibility of skirting the danger on foot. Joaquin is also highly motivated to return to Huaraz as he is concerned about the safety of family. He leaves to ask around town again but cannot make any promises.

Nighttime arrives and I go to bed early with nothing else to do. At 4am in the morning I hear Joaquin get up and assume he is just going to the toilet. Just as sleep is taking me away he crashes back into the room and flicks on the light. Stands in the doorway, a boxer short clad apparition framed by the light he is clearly agitated. I immediately think that a rioter has chased him but once my bleary eyes adjust I can see that Joaquin is just excited,

“boos a bus! BOOS bus, BUS BOOS, vamoos!!”

“Now!”

“Yes, sneak bus, vamoos!”

Joaquin has snuck out to the town square to secure passage on a night bus he earlier heard rumours of, not wanting to raise my hopes he did not tell me. Protestors have given the government a two day reprieve to reconsider their stand on the mines. Someone has decided to cash in on peoples’ desperation by sneaking a bus full of passengers back to Huaraz, no tickets are sold you just have to barter a price at the door and force your way on.

There is something about extreme boredom that makes one slobbish and nonchalant. We are forced to excitedly retrieve trekking gear slewn all around the room. Hurriedly packing our bags we leave. In the predawn light we push our remaining Soles into the drivers palm and just shove ourselves and our packs onboard before he can ask for more money. Sadly, I never got to thank Betty for her immense generosity.

 

Four hours later I am back in Huaraz. Everywhere people are sweeping glass off the streets and hammering up boards over broken shop facades. The central business district looks like Bagdad after Dub-ya’s army paid a visit. I cannot figure out why the citizens of Huaraz smashed up their own town in protest of a remote mine, mob mentality perhaps. This is akin to an angry toddler bashing his head on the floor until he gets lollies, you would think that using words like a ‘big boy’ would be more effective. Sadly I am told that words do not make officials so much as look up from their wallet filling and that citizens must take extreme measures such as these to open a dialogue with the government.

My wallet is full and I am drinking excellent coffee at the cafe Andino.

I use the free wi-fi to broadcast news of my survival then chat with Chris. Chris is very apologetic about my trek being cut short but I am philosophical, after all I have trekked in the Andes and who many people do you know that has begged food and accommodation in remote Andean towns?

I have a bus ticket for Lima tomorrow in my back pocket and am preparing to make my way towards La Paz to meet a very enthusiastic explorer for Christmas. Jette has sent me  another excited email to ensure that I will be at the La Paz Airport at 4:40pm on the 23rd. She mentions in passing that her father is totally freaking out. Leaving my hostel in Huaraz on my way to the bus station I pass a beggar in the street.

You can guess the rest.

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