The joy of writing and receiving multipage handwritten letters is a lost pleasure. My letter output now is no better than the average 21st century yahoo, but I was a prodigious letter writer in the 1980s while doing extensive travel (financed by working in Asian animation studios). In the pre-internet/SmartPhone era, travel abroad might mean weeks with no real conversation in your own language, and getting a long letter from home was a lifeline to sanity. To pass time spent in airports, planes, buses, ferries and trains, I’d pen long letters to friends and family (often including illustrations of my adventures, photographs, and travel bric-a-brac) and this investment reaped dividends when I received letters from back home.
My childhood friend PETER was getting his degree in metallurgy in the mid 1980s but would reliably pause his studies to write me back, sometimes expressing frustration that my missives distracted his mind from its studies.. Rather than meander through textbooks, he wanted to wander faraway places instead… I answered that we should pledge to meet when he’d graduated and travel together.
And so we did.
Via letter writing to and fro in 1988, we hatched a plan to meet the following year in LIMA, PERU. I can’t remember who chose this meeting place (I suspect it was Peter) but my memory of the selection process was that it had to be somewhere ‘exotic‘ that we’d never been to before. I knew nothing about Peru (wasn’t Paddington Bear from there?) but it seemed fun to meet a childhood friend in a faraway place that we knew nothing about. 1989 being long before the days of internet search engines (for planning) and cellphones (for easy communication) we had to carefully arrange our meeting. From a travel guidebook we chose a budget hotel in central Lima where we’d meet on the appointed day. My experience with such books was that even the most recent edition was researched long before publishing, and could be out of date when you needed its info, so we had Plan-B, C, & D options, in case our chosen hotel was out of business when we arrived.
I’d enter Peru from North America, after backpacking (in Canada, USA and Mexico) and doing animation work (in Chicago) whereas Peter entered South America a few months earlier, to wander about Chile and Argentina. We were unaware that Peru had widespread civil unrest that year, and much of the country had been taken over by the SENDERO LUMINOSO (AKA the “Shining Path”). My first inkling of this particularly toxic Maoist guerrilla group came while getting immunised and looking into the specifics of entering Peru while in Los Angeles. The American State Department travel-hotline had a scary advisory (which can be summarised as “Bro! Don’t go!“) but by then I’d bought an airline ticket and Peter was incommunicado anyway, so I was soon on a VARIG flight from Los Angeles to Lima.
Arriving past midnight APRIL 13 1989, the other passengers grabbed their bags and quickly disappeared into the night. LIMA‘s Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez was strangely quiet and understaffed, and when the driver of a hotel shuttle-bus assumed I was an American business traveler and waved me aboard I complied, not having any better idea for getting to the city. The hotel was probably the height of cool in 1941 but seemed a relic of the past in 1989, yet its prices were futuristic. My guidebook listed $2 or $3 dollars for hostel/guesthouses, whereas this beyond-its-prime establishment was over a hundred, meaning that I spent as much on that first night’s accommodation as for the subsequent 6 weeks. (My trip notebook shows all meals, accomodation, & transport in Peru & Bolivia – including a domestic flight – cost US$840). I opted to stay anyway, too shagged to find anything else at 1-2AM. The next day, I checked in to the cheap hotel chosen for the ‘rendezvous’, pinned a message for Peter on the lobby message board and looked around Lima till his arrival.
While eating in a nearby cafe, posters & calendars of Japan caught my eye, and I wondered if they perhaps identified the owner’s Japanese heritage. In 1989, my shitty Japanese was at its least shitty (having spent the previous year in Japan) and I enquired in craptacular Nihongo if the family running the cafe spoke any themselves. They didn’t (being 2nd or 3rd generation Peruvian) but soon presented an ancient patriarch from the back room who I communicated with in a pidgin of Japanese, my few Spanish words and his few English phrases. I ate exclusively in this family’s cafe for the next few days and regret that photos of these lovely people have not survived (as my camera and rolls of film were soon stolen).
On the appointed day (APRIL 15, 1989) I looked for Peter’s message on the hotel noticeboard. Although there was no message for me from him, someone named STUART had left me a note, explaining that Peter was delayed but on his way. Stuart had travelled with Peter in Argentina & Chile and having no plan thereafter was only too happy to meet me in Peru to pass on Peter’s message (such was the way of communication before email & mobile phones). I’m so glad that Stuart joined our reunion-party, as he and I are friends to this day.
When Peter arrived a few days later we three hit the road as quickly as possible, heading south on a night bus arriving early in NAZCA early next morning. Reading up on the area around Nazca now, there are many interesting archeological sites to see but in 1989 those excavations were not yet complete. Nazca was a flyblown little dustbowl and the only draw was the famous NAZCA LINES pictographs. Some can be seen from a tower erected near the road overlooking the desert, but we opted for a better view than can be seen from the cheap seats. The lines are best seen by plane (or spaceship, according to Erich Von Daniken) and through our hostel we arranged a driver to take us to the airfield. He showed up in a beat up old American 1950s car.
We planned to fly over the lines that very morning, sleep during the day, catching another night bus out that same night. At the tiny airstrip we climbed into a Piper Cub and flew over those huge cartoons etched into the desert. These lines were etched into a 280 square mile area of desert about 2000 years ago, depicting geometric patterns & animals by revealing a yellow layer of subsoil beneath the reddish surface. Virtually invisible from the ground, these mysterious cartoons were not properly studied until people had the ability to fly over them in the 1920s.
Upon landing, our driver wanted to show us something ‘interesting’ and drove us out across open desert to see a pile of human bones & hair in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by recently smashed potshards. A very unsettling sight. The driver claimed that these were remains of ‘los Incas’ but 1989 guidebooks made no mention of any such site. We’d already heard stories of the SENDERO LUMINOSO ‘disappearing’ folks they didn’t like (small town mayors, police chiefs, and teachers mostly) so that’s where my fevered imagination immediately led, wondering if somebody sprinkled potshards over recent human remains simply to make it look more ‘archeologogical’. By the end of that trip though, we’d learned that in addition to bloodthirsty Maoist guerrillas, 1980s Peru had a problem with archeological theft, and recent reading makes me think that what we saw in 1989 was a legit archeological site that had been pillaged. Such grave remains were reassembled in the 1990s into a recreation of a traditional Nazca pit-style burial grounds, the CHAUCHILLA CEMETERY.
After the creepy bones, the driver drove us back to our hostel for our siesta, while telling us about a new archaeological dig being conducted by Italian archaeologists, unmentioned in any guidebook. The driver arranged to pick us up before sunset so we could have a look, and after our snooze the old car returned but driven by a replacement, as our original driver had taken sick. Directions to the dig site hadn’t been made clear to this new fellow, who was vague about where we were supposed to go, stopping frequently to ask questions of peasants gathering firewood. Finally, he drove us across the desert and gestured at some huge mounds that we scaled. With nothing much to see at the top except more dunes, we posed for a photograph against the backdrop of a sunset on the dunes (I can’t find this ‘album cover’ pic at present). Recent reading makes me think that the site was the CAHUACHI ARCHEOLOGICAL DIG which was excavated in the 1980s (an Italian-led dig too).
From atop the dunes we saw our driver frantically gesturing far below and figured our time was up. When we descended however, the driver was beside himself with fear. He’d been warned by a peasant who’d just wandered by that the Italian archaeologists had been beaten up and chased from their dig by none other than the SENDERO LUMINOSO that very day. Yikes. Our drive back to Nazca took much longer than the drive to the dig, because we were driving in the dark and the driver refused to use headlights, presumably to be less visible to murderous Maoists. He frequently stopped the car & listened carefully, giving every impression of a man in fear of his life. It’s hard to say if there was any truth to what he’d heard, but it was clear that he believed it and was scared shitless. I remember being grateful that this man, who obviously feared that bloodthirsty thugs might kill him for associating with lick-spittle running dog imperialist foreigners, nevertheless didn’t leave us stranded in the desert and flee to save his own skin. Even at this very early stage of the trip, Peru was feeling pretty stressful.
We caught our late night bus for the 9 hour trip to AREQUIPA. Having been told that the bus journey itself and our destination bus station were both hotbeds of pickpockets, we resolved to stay awake for the entire journey and watch each other’s bags. Arriving at Arequipa bus station very early in the morning, we hit the ground like a SWAT team, ignoring all the touts, tricks and traps that we’d heard about, making a beeline for the flophouse we’d chosen in advance. We hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep for 48 hours, combined with the stresses of the previous day, and were shattered with exhaustion when we finally checked into our hostel, found our room, and fell into our beds like stones. As we slept like corpses a cheeky sleazebag entered our room as we slept and..
..nicked my bag.
Each of us had distinctly different approaches to packing. One extreme was Stuart’s huge backpack, that contained more stuff than even such an enormous bag should possibly hold (like Mary Poppins, Stuart was always pulling supplies out of his magic bag). At the other extreme were my two tiny day backpacks; one (worn on my back) containing clothes and toiletries and the other (worn on my front) containing camera and sketchbooks. Peter was Goldilocks of our trio, with a backpack size in the middle. The contrast between my approach and Stuart’s became more pronounced as my two tiny bags were reduced to one by the theft of my camera/sketchbook bag. It was a sickening feeling to realise that I’d lost my beloved Nikon FG20 camera (which I’d taken across Asia and North America). Also lost were many rolls of exposed film, notebooks of my travels, addresses of people met on my journeys (never contacted again) and several travel sketchbooks. The thieves were definitely elated to snaffle a camera, but these personal treasures were undoubtedly tossed in the trash, even though they were to me the most valuable loss by far. Locking hostel doors had not yet become second nature, but certainly became a habit thereafter.
Thankfully, this devastating theft didn’t render me utterly destitute. In those bygone days when you couldn’t rely on foreign ATMs to spit out cash on command, globe trotters had to carry cash and/or travellers cheques everywhere they went. Having been away from home for 3 years in 1989, I had travellers cheques and US dollars stashed throughout my luggage and secreted in various places upon my still-scrawny person, and in baggage left with friends in other cities, lest I lose it all in just such a calamity. The failsafe, the redoubt, The Keep if all else were lost, was an emergency stash in the lining of my shoes, which survived the attentions of Peruvian pick pockets (perhaps camouflaged by the odiousness of my socks). Our plan for that day was to see a nearby canyon, but on discovering the theft, Peter was my Spanish interpreter, escorting my pouty self to report the theft.
The fact that stereotypes and cultural cliches are to be avoided in fiction, doesn’t mean that living breathing cliches can’t be encountered in real life, an example being the cartoonish cop at Arequipa police station. With ornately tooled cowboy boots propped nonchalantly on his desk, his uniform a mosaic of braid & medals, broad grin revealing a golden tooth, mirrored sunglasses and high crested fascistic cap favoured by South American police, he gave me an expressive ‘there’s nothing we can do senor‘ shrug – like Peter Sellers playing a tin pot South American cop in a 1960s comedy, instead of the 1980s real article. He advised me to visit the BLACK MARKET where I might find my camera and buy it back. I was aghast at this casually amused pragmatism (though I must admit it was handy info).
We left the police station to go see one of the highlights of the Arequipa region; the COLCA CANYON. Sadly, I barely have any memories of this magnificent place as I was glowering about the theft of my camera, sketchbooks and journals. As Peter & Stu snapped photos of majestic condors whirling within one of the deepest canyons in the world, I stewed in my own thoughts, and I’m amazed that I have barely any memory of the stunning vistas I was standing in that day. My one takeaway from that trip to one of the most magnificent sites in the world was that if Peru was going to serve up such sites, I’d definitely need to replace my camera.. Back in Arequipa, I had no luck in finding my camera at the Black Market, so bought a replacement at a nearby camera store. The name & address written on the strap, hinted that this replacement was probably stolen too (I later sent a letter to a SWISS address but I never heard back). I own that camera to this day; a NIKON FM2. These photos of Arequipa’s SANTA CATALINA CONVENT are the first pictures I ever took with it:
In a cafe in Arequipa’s Plaza De Armas, we met two ex-military Israelis who’d recently lost almost all their bags in a distract-snatch-and-dash. In an attempt to lure and trap their thief, they later filled their remaining backpack with rocks and left it in the plaza as bait. Several thieves snatched the bag, but were slowed by its unexpected weight.. allowing the Israelis to catch up and unload a whirlwind of Krav Marga, translating their frustration into a world of hurt for the bag-snatchers. Though never finding the ratero who had taken their stuff, the Israelis explained that bashing the bone-marrow out of random thieves was therapeutic nonetheless. Hearing such street-wise guys were also taken in by thieves made me feel less stupid.
After flying in to our next destination of CUZCO I was light headed; ‘Oh yeah, high altitude sickness is a real thing‘. We spent a few days getting used to the 3,400 metre altitude (11,200 feet) certainly the highest I’d yet been to. Cuzco was the historical capital of the Inca empire, the gateway to many Inca ruins and an interesting city itself, with architecture a combination of original Incan buildings overlaid with Spanish colonial architecture from the early 16th century. The Spanish had the good luck to invade just as an Incan Civil War was underway, and were thus able to divide and conquer relatively easily. Cuzco Cathedral is half Inca stonework (the temple of Kiswarkancha) with Spanish trimmings, and the altar too is a Inca/Spanish hybrid; pilfered Inca silver reworked into a priceless altar piece (‘pilfering’ is a common theme in many of my memories of Peru.)
When altitude no longer gave us headaches or shortness of breath, we took buses onward to several Inca ruins. Those at PISAQ had spectacular views out across the valley, as an American hippie guy wandered through the ruins doing mystical mumbo jumbo with a water divining rod. From Pisaq village we rode another ‘bus’, which turned out to be the back of a flatbed truck. Standing crowded into this jalopy like a herd of llamas taken to market, a nearby peasant stared at me intently, as if to say; ‘I have to be here, but why the hell are YOU here, gringo?’ After a bouncy ‘bus’ ride, we stayed overnight at URABAMBA and ate at a cafe run by a small family where the wife was Inca and the husband was Peruvian-Japanese. They had two cheeky little girls who kept calling us ‘gringo’ throughout dinner, to much hilarity from the girls, chiding from Mum & Dad, and laughter from us.
After an early breakfast with them next morning we caught another ‘back of the ute express’ to the ruins of OLLANTAYTAMBO, and we had our lunch amongst fantastic examples of the distinctive intricate Incan stonework.
Next, we connected to the train to AGUAS CALIENTES; a distinctive little village, in that its main street is actually the railway, with restaurants and cafes opening directly onto the tracks (as far as I could tell, the only way to access this town was by rail). After staying the night, we rose before sunrise to hike up to MACHU PICCHU and be there when it opened at 6AM. Our pre-dawn walk up that hill was where I saw my first humming bird, which seemed an otherworldly fairy to me; a magical bejewelled creature flitting through the jungle. On entering Machu Picchu, we had the place to ourselves for a few serene hours.
Machu Picchu is one of the few tourist destinations I’ve visited that was much better than any photograph can convey. The weather and lighting constantly changes; one minute mysterious & misty, and brilliantly sunlit the next. The 360° experience of the place defies capture within the borders of any picture. We were very lucky to have seen Machu Picchu that particular year. Everyone I’ve spoken to who’s been there since describes it as inundated with tourists, but even at its busiest in 1989, Machu Picchu wasn’t busy at all (thanks perhaps to the bad PR of the Sendero Luminoso) and remote areas of the site were empty.
A gruelling hike up Huayna Picchu allowed us to look back down on the entire site; it was was spectacular and completely empty, but for a few llamas munching the grass. After a full day exploring this wonderful place, we walked back down the winding path to dinner by the tracks at Aqua Calientes, and to write and post letters.
In 1989 it was still possible to ride a local train all the way back to Cuzco, which we did the next day. In many of my travel adventures I rode trains, and I regret not taking more photos of those wonderful old machines, the engine and smokestacks of steam trains I rode in particular (in Burma and China). When looking through my old photographs I’m aghast at what I’ve no record of, but in those days of analog photography I had to be frugal, often down to the last few exposures on a roll of film. Replacements were not readily available in remote areas, so I had to be choosy. But I did get a few shots of riding the trains in Peru.
Back in Cuzco, I bought an exercise book for notes and scribbles (the sketches were all work related, sadly) but some notes survive:
notebook entry, May 2nd 1989 – Cuzco Peru: “The start of a new diary as my last one, along with my camera, was stolen two weeks ago from my hostel room in Arequipa while I was sleeping. I’ve more or less replaced the camera already with an (obviously stolen) Nikon I bought at a camera store two days after the theft. The diary will be harder to replace of course. I’ve seen the highlights sites of Peru with Peter and his friend Stuart. All we’ve got left is to visit Lake Titicaca and then head on to La Paz in Bolivia”
On a 6 hour bus trip to lake Titicaca, I sat next to a very cute child that reeked like a very smelly llama. Mind you, I was no fragrant rose myself at the time. In a region where water was still carried to your basin, a bath was the last thing you’d waste it on. Thankfully, this funk was offset by something refreshing; as the bus jounced up winding dirt roads fragrant eucalyptus forests reminded me of Australia. These trees, native to my homeland, were planted in the early 20th century in arid regions of North and South America. Growing well in dry soil, they stabilise it from erosion and flourish in the conditions of the Peruvian altiplano. Recently there have been efforts to replace the eucalyptus forests with native trees, but in 1989 there were still many such forests near Lake Titicaca, and the smell of gum trees brought on a wave of nostalgia for a certain Australian who’d not been home for 3 years.
In PUNO we met a big Kiwi bloke & his girlfriend, anxious because he’d been bitten by what might’ve been a rabid dog, and the local clinic didn’t have specialised needles for the procedure. Stuart dived into his bottomless blue Tardis (cloaked as a blue backpack) and pulled out a full set of rabies needles. Stuart really outdid himself that day! The Kiwi scurried off to begin his course of injections. Later, we 3 were in a restaurant eating our regular of ‘pollo con arroz & Inca Cola‘ when a gaggle of happy kids walked by outside. They noticed 3 gringos, and reflexively went into an elaborate pantomime of abject misery, asking for money. We’d seen such zombie beggar performances before all across Peru, often prompted by the kids’ own parents, but this time the theatricality of the routine was so plain that we called the kids on the artifice. They gave some “you got me” shrugs, laughed, and went back to being natural kids again..
From Puno we rode a boat across LAKE TITICACA, stopping briefly at one of the famous ‘reed islands’, a huge raft woven from reeds and caked dirt. It seemed a very grim existence to live there. The children were all beggars hassling for sweets and pencils. Our eventual destination though was AMANTANI, a beautiful island with no electricity, plumbing, or tourist amenities of any kind. Local families came down to the little jetty to offer accomodation to travellers in their own homes.
notebook entry, May 6th 1989 – Amantani, Peru: “Stuart Peter and I just arrived on this (Amantani) island about an hour ago after a 4 hour boat ride across the lake from Puno. The altitude (12,000 feet) means that the sky is deep blue and the atmosphere is clear, almost to the point of suggesting that there is no atmosphere at all. Upon arrival we arranged to stay in two separate homesteads. Peter and I in one, and Stuart in the other. The place we are in is probably little different to a peasant cottage of Middle Ages Europe. This island seems untouched by the rampant begging that one can see in frequented areas of Peru.”
On Amantani people had a weather beaten look, and even young children often had noticeably old looking hands. I took this to be the effects of the strong sun at high altitude and a life spent working out of doors. We stayed in a little stone farmhouse with a young family, and the courtyard was teeming with guinea pigs scurrying this way and that. How cute! As we were taken to our room I heard a distant SQUEE! and soon our hosts served a dinner of something scrawny; ‘Ah, Guinea Pig! Magnifique!‘ (it had about as much meat on it as a baby’s hand). Après pig, Peter and I went out on the roof, only to witness the most beautiful night sky I’ve ever seen. The view of the Milky Way is much more spectacular in the Southern Sky but is utterly magnificent when seen from 12,000 feet in an area with no pollution & no electricity (and thus zero light pollution). I’ll remember that sight for the rest of my life.
Back in Puno, we met the Kiwi (rescued earlier by Stuart’s needles) and a likeable scrappy Aussie, and all traded travel tales over a meal. I have many memories of such conversations while travelling, where people shared personal disasters to comedic effect. The Kiwi told a cringe-ably hilarious story of being mugged by caca on Titicaca; diarrhoea on his own trip across the lake. Oh no… The boat was merely a big dinghy and had no ammenities. With no choice but to hang his huge white arse over the side, he was given a bucket by the captain to uses as a loo. This added an amplified WAH WAH acoustical effect to an already mortifying predicament, much to the horror of a captive audience of locals also riding the boat (and the hilarity of us listening later). I commiserated with my own similar terror toilet tale. We all traded Peru ripoff horror stories, and again, I remember thinking that if so many others had been ripped off too, then perhaps I was in good company.
At COPACABANA we crossed the border into BOLIVIA, and onward to LA PAZ. In 1989, Bolivia was so much more relaxed than Peru. A multilingual Canadian at our hostel (who’d traveled repeatedly to the region) said the reverse was true just a few years prior, when Bolivia had been tense and Peru had been easy going. When reading about La Paz today, it seems to be crime-ridden again, so perhaps it has taken its traditional position ahead of Peru in the pick-pocket pecking order. For many years I had a few trinkets I bought at the Witches Market in La Paz, from a charming old lady. I’ve lost them now sadly (whatever they were they were, they clearly weren’t LOSS charms).
The ‘witches’ market’ in La Paz.
notebook entry, 16th May 1989 – La Paz, Bolivia: “I have had my first ever game of golf at the highest golf course in the world here in La Paz; 9 over par on just about every hole. Another sport I can add to the long list of games that I don’t particularly enjoy. Stuart has gone back to England, in fact he’s probably just about touching down now as I write.. as we head off to Cochabamba. Today we went up to 4,800 meters (15,700 feet) to visit a beautiful ice cave. We shared a taxi cab out there with a few English people, a Scots lady & her Spanish boyfriend. “
My first ever game of golf, at the highest course in the world.
The US$/Peruvian INTI exchange rate almost doubled to our advantage while in Peru, so the free-falling economy wasn’t all bad news (says the foreign carpet bagger). Before his departure, Stuart bought an obscene amount of almost worthless devalued INTIS, to use as business cards when he got home to the UK.
The ice cave visited outside La Paz is a non event now, melted due to global warming. I cannot remember the name of that cave, so I can’t be totally sure, but it appears that you must go much further and mount quite a strenuous hike these days to see such a sight, whereas in 1989, a bloke was able to drive us practically all the way there, and it was only a brief hike from the road. Next, was a 7 hour bus ride to COCHABAMBA.
notebook entry, 18th may 1989 – Cochabamba Bolivia: “Sitting in a kind of cake shop in the (Cochabamba) town square. Caught a bus ride from La Paz day before yesterday, an overnight trip of about 7 hours that arrived at about 4 in the morning. The bus station area was very busy until daybreak with buses arriving and unloading the huge high stacked piles of luggage from atop their roof racks. Peter and I ate at a street stall table till daylight. It reminded me of a similar stall I spent a few minutes at while changing buses in Dali, in China; a blue black sky and a full clear moon and the little halfway village ringed with mountains, (and in the similar memory) old Chinese people doing Tai Chi in the streets already hustling and bustling a 4 or 5 in the morning.”
After a brief visit to Cochabamba, Peter & I went back to La Paz briefly, before heading back to Peru. La Paz back to Lima was done in two MEGA BUS TRIPS. Firstly, La Paz-Puno-Arequipa, a route with particularly steep and windy roads. One time it was Pete’s turn to act as luggage-guard in the aisle seat as I slept. I awoke with my head against the window to an utterly heart stopping view out my side of the bus; a precipitous sheer drop, falling away thousands of feet from the road as the bus wobbled along a windy mountain trail. Peru’s winding hillside roads were frequently dotted with little crucifixes, each representing a traffic accident, and it was a sobering thought that each of those crucifixes thus represented about 60 people, if each bus was as crowded as the one we rode in.
After a night in Arequipa beat kinks from our spines, yet another MEGA BUS TRIP took us all the way back to Lima. Having had experience with the dodginess of Peruvian bus travel in general, and Arequipa in particular, we decided not to budge from our seats on this last marathon bus ride. If one of us went to the loo or buy snacks at a rest stop, the other guarded the bags. This worked well for the first 15 hours of the gruelling 16 hour trip, but was thwarted when the bus driver kicked us off the bus, just outside of Lima. We made a fuss but he shooed us off anyway. Grabbing our luggage, we grudgingly got off and had a proper sit down meal together. When the signal came to re-board, Pete went to the loo in the restaurant and I was the first at the door when the driver unlocked the bus. As I took my assigned seat there was already a dude already sitting behind me, which struck me me as weird, but I didn’t think too much about it at the time. Peter rejoined the bus from his potty stop, the bus filled up with the rest of the passengers, and we were on our way again.
Not far from Lima, the bus went through a security checkpoint. A posse of soldiers came aboard, bristling with weaponry, checked IDs, searched here and there, then got off and waved us on. About 10 minutes further down the road to Lima, the bus inexplicably stopped again, out in the desert near a few cars parked by the side of the road. I felt a weird sensation under my arse; “What the?” and turned to see two shady characters behind us, pulling about 8 bags of coke (or heroin, or god knows what) from slits under our seat cushions, flashing we two gringo patsies shit-eating grins as they left the bus… It was a sobering moment when we realised what had just gone down, and what would have happened had the soldiers found the illicit stuff, whatever it was, under our seats. The bus driver must have been ‘persuaded’ by these goons to vacate the bus, giving them time to plant whatever they didn’t want the soldiers to see. Out of 60 seats, they’d chosen the two young gringos as fall guys. I was fed up with such nonstop shady shenanigans, and was looking forward to getting the fuck out of Peru by this point.
notebook entry, 28th May 1989 – Lima Peru: “Other than the possibility of having been the unwitting accomplices to drug smuggling operation, the trip from AREQUIPA to Lima by bus went smoothly. Hopefully only a few days away from departure to LA. At present I’m wait listed for next Tuesday evening’s flight. Hopefully by Monday I’ll get onto the reservation list.”
In a neighbourhood out by the beach (that could have been LA if you squinted your eyes) we visited Lima’s MUSEO de ANTROPOLOGIA. It was meaningful to see its archeological artefacts after visiting the sites where they’d actually come from. Display after display mentioned the by-now common theme of theft, with a new angle; foreigners (sometimes galleries & museums) stealing priceless artefacts from Peru. Not long after this trip, perhaps sometime in 1990, I saw one of the INDIANA JONES sequels. The famous adventurer archeologist struck me as a monumental dick this time around, as he galavanted about the 3rd world nicking cool shit from the various peoples of remote planet Earth. That fact was completely lost on me the first time, when I enjoyed Indy’s derring-do along with everyone else, so this understanding of the ramifications of his actions was something acquired on this Peru/Bolivia trip.
Not long before we left Peru, I was helping Peter take a long exposure nighttime photo of Lima’s Government Palace, not far from our hostel. As we hunkered down and fussed about with cameras and tripods, our equipment drew the attention of jumpy palace security guards, armed to the teeth as usual. It was startling to be engrossed in something so mundane as setting up a tripod to take a photo, only to be eyeball-to-muzzle with machine guns wielded by grim-faced, leathernecks with eager imaginations..
notebook entry, 30th May 1989 – Lima Peru: “Sitting in the Japanese cafe across from the hostel. These are some of the friendliest people I’ve met in Peru. It’s quite a laugh communicating in a mix of Japanese and Spanish. I first met them 6 weeks ago, on my first or second evening in Lima. Just saw Peter off on his bus to Ecuador, it turned out to be an enjoyable trip. My flight leaves tonight. Judging from the number of entries in here about my flight, it’s easy to see that I’m keen to leave this country!”
I had envied Stuart’s beautiful Fedora, and decided to splurge on one of my own in my last few days in Lima. I arranged a ride to the airport via a connection at the hostel, for a very late departure, at around 1AM. My passport departure stamp says; MAY 31 1989, arriving in Los Angeles around lunch o’clock.
I soon forgot that Fedora on a Greyhound bus. I bought myself a lovely hat a few times in my travels, but lost them very soon after (the first hat was bought in Korea and lost in China, the second hat was bought in Peru and lost somewhere between Los Angeles and San Francisco). I can keep a crummy $5 ball cap for 15 years, but will probably lose a lovely Fedora within a week.
Mostly I went travelling by myself. I’d meet people along the way, travel side-by-side for a day or a week, but inevitably separated ways. The trip to Peru & Bolivia was the only time I traveled the length and breadth of a country with companions, and I’m glad of that, because traveling through Peru in 1989 on my own wouldn’t have been enjoyable. It was a very tense time, with politics topsy turvy and the economy in free fall. My trip to Peru at times harrowing, and the fondness I have for the adventure is because I did it in the company of two fine friends, one had since childhood and the other made on this trip.
12 thoughts on “‘in darkest PERU..’”
I particularly like the photo of the Peruvian musicians leaning against a wall so ancient it’s method of construction and date of origin are a mystery. The stones are cut in such a way and fit so finely together that it baffles the mind to think someone did that with primitive tools. Were you aware that as you traveled across Lake Titicaca you were passing over the place where local legend has it that the world began? Did you see any elongated skulls in your travels there? Thanks for posting this fascinating story!
Hey Dave! It was a fascinating trip but grueling and stressful at the time. Those musicians you mentioned were in CUZCO, and much of the city is Inca foundations, overlaid with European buildings, making for a very interesting effect. Saw much more of that intricate stonework at other ruins. I have many more photos not posted here. Saw no pointy skulls, but heard/read about them. I do not remember the details exactly, but remember that Titicaca was thought to be a powerful place. Thanks for reading!
Thanks James for sharing your story . I so enjoyed reading it . Took me back to what I was doing at the same time . Not nearly that stressful or fun I might add . Hope you are well . Should really try and do a class reunion again sometime if you are back in Australia. Take care 😊
Wendy, thanks for dropping by to read and comment! Not sure when I’ll be back in OZ. 16 hours on a plane fills me with dread these days, but on the other hand it has been 10 years. I’ve seen many of my family in that time (when they came here) but there are many I’d still like to see…
I swear everytime I’m lucky enough to read one of your stories I feel like I’m reading a treatment for a film. Have you considered an animated feature where A capuchin monkey plays you, and you travel with three bolivian speaking chihuahua who think they’re the marx brothers? I for one, would watch a film like that.
Deane, you nut!
Thanks as ever, dear Boy, for such an evocative read. Your nostalgic gumtrees near Lake Tititaca story brought to mind a similar experience in minor key – also involving a younger yourself – that I shared with you dear Mother in Edinburgh. Our friendly neighbourhood pharmacist lady had given us some soothing balm for your poor little nappy-rashed jaxie, and we found ourselves joined in a session of dewy-eyed homesickness as we applied it; a major constituent was eucalyptus oil. Keep these gems rolling. Love, Dad
Smells are very evocative of years gone by. On the subject again of Mum, I remember being transported back to circa 1978 upon smelling some “Woodley’s green apple shampoo” at a mate’s place on my last trip to OZ in 2008. I’d not smelled that fragrance in many years, and it reminded me of her very vividly.
Have a mate flying out to Peru next year… I gave him a link to your piece to give him the low down… The low-down is a page turner! I hope he has as much fun (and luck of bo9th kinds) as you did!
Hey Martin! I’ve had friends who’ve done a similar trip very recently, and Peru is much changed, I think. Much easier to travel in, with better ammenities and so on, and I think the political situation is much better. Probably still have to look out for pick pockets, but that is the norm in most places now.
Wow, sitting here in Melbourne with COVID lockdown 2020, I find myself catching up on internet things. Sure it currently feels like an endless series of rotating ground hog days. BUT then I shudder at just how close we came to ending up in a Peruvian prison for twenty years on drugs or explosives charges. Ya know, my morning sunrise walks seem much brighter and the home office lockdown a true joy. Phew, that was frightfully close buddy.
I reminisce and can still dig up fury and anger when you camera AND the sketch book disappeared and we knew the bloody inn keeper was in on the gig. Still I’m ever so glad those Israeli dudes evened up some of the bad karma on our behalf.
Hey and thanks for the pic of me with golf clubs AND hair, who would have thought I could do either. I agree with Deanne, your turn of phrase and reveal style reads more like a film Treatment than a blog. Great stuff Jimbo and I’m so absolutely glad we did this trip before we knew better.
Thanks for cataloguing our wonderful time together.
Glad you enjoyed this chronicle of our adventure together. Like you, I’m very glad I did this trip, and had many other adventures in my 20s & 30s, when I still had youth and gumption in me. My beaten old body couldn’t manage any adventure travel now (it’s an adventure walking up a flight of stairs!) Plus, many of the areas we saw were virtually unspoiled by tourism back then, whereas they are all thoroughly crowded travel spots today.
I’ve got a few more trips from that era that I plan to write about later, for now though (if you want more stuff to read in lockdown) whatever travel stories I’ve written so far are HERE:
Thanks for reading!