Peru

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.

Rock climbing in Huaraz, Peru

grey Rock climbing in Huaraz, Peru

I have been in recent email contact with Chris who is going to help with the logistics of my Huayhush trek. Along with owning the locally famous Cafe Andino Chris runs a trekking company. He is also putting my in touch with someone to take me rock climbing in Huaraz, Peru.

We discuss details and pour over a map while drinking fantastic coffee. Chris tells me that there have been some issues with trekkers being robbed on the trail,

“In 1994 one person died from blood loss after being shot for resisting banditos and rumours abound that bandits are currently active in the area.”

“Really, Gosh, in Australia the hills are safe.”

“Not so here Ben”

“I had a scare last night…”

Before my coffee is gone I am persuaded to hire a local helper to handle the donkeys and find safe camping spots.

I am slightly disappointed that my long held dream of wandering off into the sunset alone with a donkey now has a ‘plus one’ but am sure I have made the right choice. We organise logistics and set a date to leave on Saturday. I now have two days in Huaraz to fill before leaving.

Huaraz is a haven for outdoor adventuring types, every street is bristling with long European legs in trekking pants and locals selling second hand boots displayed on rugs. I spend the afternoon wandering the markets while wondering if locals find these very cheap boots high on glaciers, shake out lost toes and dry them to sell, or, if they are left behind by grateful clients. Filling two days in Huaraz will not be a problem, I go into a highly recommended climbing centre, “Ice or rock climbing sir? Would you like mountain biking or rafting with that?”

grey Rock climbing in Huaraz, PeruThe next morning I am hanging from a small ledge about ten meters up a cliff just outside Huaraz. Rosweldt my tiny but enthusiastic belay is yelling at me

“Arriba! Arriba!…Up! Up!”

I have machine gun legs, arms shaking from fatigue and am grinning like a cat in an aviary. I have only tried rock climbing a few times and have never fallen, never had to trust that rope and belay. One minute later this changes as I lunge for a hold, miss and fall.

My stomach clenches and I let out a small yip of fear falling about three metres. Rosweldt’s weight stalls my drop but he is lifted about one meter into the air by the jerk. When rock climbing you thread rope through an anchor at the top. One end is attached to the climber, the other to the belay, this is called top roping. The belay takes in or lets out slack as the climber goes up or down. When (not if) the climber falls, it is the belay’s job to lock the rope at his end and to use his weight to stop the climber from going splat.

grey Rock climbing in Huaraz, PeruTrust is essential in this game.

Due to a weight discrepancy my belay is suddenly propelled up a little way by his waist harness. Rosweldt is stuck about one meter off the ground, his legs kick hopelessly for a hold while he holds the rope locked. I am stuck considerably further up gripping nothing but a grim trust in my guide. Rosweldt slowly lets out rope and we both descend. Once his feet meet the ground Rosweldt tightens the rope and I climb again. With the benefit of adrenaline this time I bolt to the top. Despite my shaking state I am very glad to have had the experience of falling, my climbing significantly improves afterwards without the worry of “What if I fall?”.

Trusting the rope and my belay to stall the sudden shock of eighty kilograms of hairy Tasmanian I climb much harder routes than I have ever done before. I even manage to climb a little overhung section. Something I never thought I would achieve.

grey Rock climbing in Huaraz, PeruRaising a steaming mug of hot chocolate with bleeding, shaky hands I discuss the final details of my Huayhush Circuit mission with Chris. Because of my excitement it took me until 3am to sleep last night. Despite this being the rainy season describing my mood as excited would be a disgraceful understatement. The rainy season will only add to the adventure because I will have the trail to myself for the small price of wet boots.

I am especially looking forward to camping next to the lake at the base of Siula Grande. Siula Grande is a 6344 meter high mountain made famous by Joe Simpson and Simon Yates‘ climb in 1985. On the descent after a successful summit Joe slipped and fell down an ice face, on impact his leg exploded like a Christmas bonbon. Joe and Simon continued to descend the mountain until they reached a section that required Simon to lower Joe over a cliff of unknown height. Soon a knot which joined their two ropes prevented Joe from descending further. Due to badly frostbitten fingers Joe dropped a device which would have allowed him to ascend safely again. Simon held onto his friend in a whiteout for a long time not knowing what had happened. When it was clear that Simon’s stance was about to collapse he made the agonising decision to cut the rope and send his friend to certain death before descending alone with a heavy conscience. Joe fell into a deep crevasse which opened onto a glacier, he crawled back to base over many days.

grey Rock climbing in Huaraz, PeruThe drama was documented in Joe Simpson’s well known book ‘Touching the Void’ A movie of the same name was released in 2003 and won many awards, I look forward to seeing the stage where this story unfolded.

I will be happy to view the mountain from the base and can safely rule out an attempt on the summit.

Lake Titicaca home stay – Peru

grey Lake Titicaca home stay   Peru

The recently reunited intrepidos are touring the famous floating townships of Lake Titicaca. The chief of the island greets us in synthetic regalia. Chief is showing off his homemade gun and explaining how they make and maintain their homes. I am wiping my nose, sneezing with hay fever and sweating in the sun, all ready for a Lake Titicaca home stay.

Everything on the island, including the island itself is made of reeds, the flotilla resembles a megalomaniac child’s cubby house. Fresh reeds are added to the platform top every day as the lower sections rot down into the lake. The entire island needs to be completely replaced every hundred years and, as dad found out, should you wander too close to the edge the reeds sink alarmingly into the freezing waters. Feet and calves get basted in a foul smelling tea which bubbles up through rotting reeds. Despite the uniqueness of the island and the lifestyle I find the whole experience slightly disappointing. There is a strong feeling that we are seeing something of a pantomime, a Disney version of life as it once was turned synthetic by the tourist dollar. It would not have surprised me to see a small boy in traditional clothes sitting on a reed mat playing a computer game.

Safely in our seats the boat slowly put distance between us and the reed pantomime. Our boat the ‘Puno’ valiantly strikes out to the horizon and into open water,

‘chug’, chug’

grey Lake Titicaca home stay   PeruI get the weirdest sense that we are not moving at all rather we are stationary and the world is turning bringing Bolivia closer.

‘chug, chug’

This is a thoroughly rewarding way to travel. I sink into my seat and stare out the window at a deep expanse of water. In the distance the Bolivian Alps hover grey on a misty horizon. Closer by, a group of four English couples compare cameras and lenses hardly looking out the window. I launch a debate with King, a lively young Malaysian doctor sitting nearby.

“Those bullfrogs do you think they exist?”

“Well, if they were a metre long, they could not stay on the bottom and absorb oxygen through their skin as the guide says. Surface to volume ratio and all that.”

“Yeah, sounds like rubbish to me as well. Hey how long are you here for mate?”

“A few more months, making my way south, just cruising, meeting people…Hey Ben, do you want to hear about what I did in the amazon, it involves a crazy guide and an anaconda…”
“No way, I need photos for proof man!”

grey Lake Titicaca home stay   PeruTwo hours slide hypnotically by and soon our small group are huddled on a gritty shore with bags at our feet and non-perishable food items in a plastic bag looking up at a ramshackle town. We have arrived at our homestay and the last big item of our twenty-one day itinerary. This cultural exchange is one part of the itinerary which I am really looking forward to. I picture myself helping to kill llamas and pulling fresh potatoes out of the soil, maybe even practising some ‘Malo’ Spanish around a cooking fire. Once on the shore our group of four along with about thirty other tourists are paired up and ushered silently to our accommodation by shawled women. We walk past alpacas draped in fluorescent rugs with plastic ear tags and through a town consisting entirely of hostels. The whole island is one big cultural homestay business.

In two days on these islands I have given away all the bags of flour and sugar as required by the fine print. I feel like a condescending buffoon as my smiling hosts place these items onto shelves packed with various other thoughtfully gifted goods. They do not seem at all poor.

It is our last night on the island and I narrowly dodge another audience participation debacle. We are taken to a town hall which smells like a recently swept barn to watch a traditional band. Dressed in heavy shawls and the obligatory pointy hat thirty tourists sit on wooden benches. We look at each other making awkward small talk while the band sets up. My cremastus muscles contract in preparation. Confused pan pipe music starts and five local women jump to their feet to dance. They twirl under a thin veneer of enthusiasm with all the sincerity of Taiwanese prostitutes. Being a tall lanky man grey Lake Titicaca home stay   Peruwithout a fully developed slouching ability dad is procured by a short, powerful woman. Standing in the middle of the dance floor being watched by people (who like me are glad to be sitting) dad valiantly attempts to keep pace with the wild, complex dance that is engulfing him. Five women are dancing around five tourists. They alternate between grabbing hands and shoulders then form a circle to dance around their confused charges. The visitors resemble confused sheep being herded for slaughter by a well worn barrage of woollen stockings and woven skirts.

 

I spot a Peruvian woman walking my way with her hand outstretched. With painful memories from Chivay still fresh in my mind I panic and an overwhelming urge for fresh air hits me. Feeling like a deserter I look over my shoulder to see dad still stranded in the frontline, he is trying to pluck a beat out of the air as I duck outside. In the dark outside the hall I strike up a conversation with a French face that’s lit by a glowing joint. The man is beyond stoned and, like me, dodging audience participation. I cannot be sure, but between urgent puffing I think he is reflecting on how much he is enjoying this true Peru. He is speaking in a mix of English, Spanish and Bob Marley tainted with a deep French accent,

“It is great to see how these people live, so traditional man. Want a toke?”

“Yeah, it is kind of cool, no thanks, not now mate, I might start dancing if I get stoned.”

grey Lake Titicaca home stay   Peru“I came out here to avoid the dance, too embarrassing man. Hey, imagine just staying here, how amazing.”

“God, imagine, I had best go inside to see how dad is faring”

I return to the rustic nightclub to find that beer is being served, now may be a good time to get more ‘cultural’. I look at dad’s progress to find that mum has rescued him. I watch my parents trying to copy the local dance moves as they laugh and have a great time. I sit down with a fresh beer and hope that one day I will find someone who will dance with me after thirty years despite my out of time hairy legs hanging out of a llama wool dress. Sitting back down on the bench I open a beer, politely refusing Kim’s offer of a dance I slouch in my seat and avoid eye contact.

Meals throughout the homestay involve eating in very smokey kitchens which have caused my eyes to become very red, blepharitic and sore. On our last night dad and I climb a hill along with flocks of other homestayers grey Lake Titicaca home stay   Peruto watch a spectacular sunset. During the climb we are constantly harassed by vendors selling hastily knitted beanies and plastic souvenirs. A young child follows us the entire way up playing random notes on a pan pipe while waving a hat under our noses.

The whole experience is very contrived I feel like my visit to Peru has not been enriched by the time here, maybe if I had a few more beers and relaxed at the dance? The hosts are not good at disguising the fact that we are viewed simply as a wallet with legs. I get back on the boat for Puno less impressed with the local culture than I boarded. Maybe my expectations are too high. Maybe I have watched too many Pilot Guide television shows where explorers trip over remote, indigenous cultures between ad breaks. Maybe this is the real Peru?

On the boat back to Puno I overhear an Irish man describe these islands beautifully:

grey Lake Titicaca home stay   Peru‘This is the fooking Mediterranean ocean man. High up, cold, no running water, dusty, dirty and fake, but still the fooking Meds man.’

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This business partnership has expired.” Ben has no idea what adventures are in store when he sets out to discover what lies over that next mountain.

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