The Circles In Which We Travel

South America
November 23rd 2015
Published: November 23rd 2015
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It has been over 2000 miles since we left La Paz, traversing back and forth along the same route like lost goldfish. As we are reminded by each bus journey taken, the scale of distances in the Americas don't cease to be both impressive and tiring. The three hour Megabus between Norwich and London, once enough of a time to warrant paying extra for a two hour train, now seems luxuriously quick. Eight to 10 hour buses are now my norm, with anything up to 12 being fairly comfortable. Whilst my tolerance for a single journey has expanded, however, the frequency of journeys required to bus across a country has become tedious. Beginning with the moment we left Cuenca, Ecuador, it seems like life has been a series of bus journeys occasionally punctuated by stop offs. Since we left La Paz at the beginning of November we travelled to and spent a few days in Puno before taking an eight hour bus to Arequipa, having an hour and a half break at the bus station there, before hopping onto a 15 hour overnight bus to Lima. A thousand miles done. This was our second time on the stretch of highway between Lima and Arequipa, but it wouldn't be our last.

Arriving into Lima, we made a beeline for the Barranco district where we sat in the central square and drank coffee until 3pm. Then it was time. Nearby the plaza was an AirBnB location booked by R&D, E's mum and step-dad respectively, where we were to be staying for the next three nights. Arranged back in May when E and I were in San Cristóbal, Mexico, and had yet barely learned Spanish, R&D had organised their annual fortnight's holiday to spend two weeks with us in southern Peru. Their plane didn't land in Lima until night so we spent the remaining afternoon hours soaking in the most comfortable accomodation we had been in for months and buying some local Peruvian snacks for the arriving guests. E is close to her mum and these two weeks were something that she had been looking forward towards for a long time now, so when the buzzer into the gated apartment complex rang at about 8pm the delight on her face exploded.

Meeting familiar faces in unfamiliar locations has been an essential part of our travels. Though not as tied to friends and family as E is, being apart from Norwich and my social circles there has been like a slowly widening gap. The opportunity to see Jenn and Niall in New York, L in Colombia, Alfredo in Bolivia, and now R&D in Peru have been important lessons in the value of non-transient relationships. Not only have they been good times but also sources of energy from which to refill. So, although E had been looking forward to these two weeks much more than me, I had also placed a lot of value in this fortnight.

Our first night as a four was simple: eating snacks, drinking wine, and chatting. The bread and butter of all human existence, no doubt. We had all had a long day of travelling so an early night was in order and we retreated to comfortable double beds big enough for two people to sleep side by side, rather than partially propped against one another - a novelty for E and I. The next day we took it easy by wandering through the Miraflores district and pestering the semi-feral cats of Parque Kennedy. I think R and I have an equally profound desire to make interspecies contact with any cats we see so E and D looked on hopelessly as we put our hands to seven million different bundles of fur. Later we had lunch at a restaurant, the first of many excellent meals with R&D, before some casual sauntering eventually led us back to apartment. That evening I headed up north for a punk show in somebody's garage; I met with a guy named Jorge at the nearest bus stop and together with his girlfriend Pamela we headed right out into a quiet residential estate. For the next few hours a bunch of screamo and noise rock bands created a bloody racket in the street without a single noise complaint from neighbours. I returned to the apartment by taxi well into the early hours of the morning. The next couple of days in Lima were fairly well defined by the first day: casual sauntering about the attractions of the capital that was interpolated by great cafes and restaurants.

At every stage of our journey, choices for E and I have been heavily defined by cost. Though there have been almost no points at which I had wished for more money in order to be able to drink this or go to that, money has been a major factor in the places we've stayed and the food we have eaten. For R&D this visit to Peru was intended as their holiday and so, understandably, there was no way they were going to scrimp on things like accomodation and food when they had the ability to pay an extra S/.10 (£2) for a significant quality upgrade. For E and I, this meant the following two weeks were very unlike our previous 11 months.

After an easy few days in Lima, we took a day bus back down the Panamericana (third time) to the town of Nazca. This route was the beginning of what is known as The Gringo Trail, a series of towns each about eight hours apart by bus that passes some of the most famous Peruvian - and indeed world - archaeological sites. Nazca is of course famous for its pre-Incan lines. As a child I had been fascinated by mysteries and the paranormal and in the post-Däniken, post-Cold War era of the 90s everybody knew that these lines had been created by the locals as signals to extraterrestrial aliens that had previously landed in the desert. Excited to visit this relic of childhood, we made our way out to a lookout tower that cost just S/. 2 per person, choosing that over the expensive $85pp 30 minute bi-plane flight. I don't know whether the latter option is worth it but I can say with certainty that the tower is a disappointng experience. Only giving enough height to see two of the depictions, the most interesting aspect is the brief speech given by one of the men that explained the lines were created as cultural and religious rituals to honour the symbols of their ancestry. Apparently the current theory does not involve aliens.

We had only planned one full day in Nazca and our afternoon was set to involve a drive out to see some local ruins on the desert. When we booked this via our hotel I was a bit skeptical: I've seen loads of ruins already, how much more interesting could this be? VERY, it turned out. The four of us waited outside the hotel to be picked up at 2.30pm and were pretty impressed when a dune buggy pulled up. Comprised of eight seats and zero walls or windows, we were whisked away from our hotel in Nazca (technically Vista Alegre, an adjoining suburb) and into the surrounding desert. We visited some interesting artefacts such as an ingenious well and irrigation system built by pre-Inca communities, and the remains of a temple complex used for rituals and sacrifice that had in part been destroyed by the Latin American telecommunications company Claro in order to build some mobile phone towers. There were also some unearthed skeletons and pottery that we stopped to point at before we headed into the desert itself. Until this point the driving had been something of a marvel as our driver David drifted around tight corners and jumped off sandy ramps like an excited teenage BMXer but we had seen nothing yet.

The final portion of the excursion was to try some sandboarding but in order to do this we had to go right out into the Usaka Dunes. These dunes are really, really big and look a bit like all those stereotypical photos of the lifeless Sahara. This gave David ample opportunity to put pedal to the floor and take us on a rollercoaster ride up, down, and across hundred foot high piles of sand with jumps from the crest that made the German woman sat beside me scream quite loudly. Eventually we reached the top of the highest range of dunes and prepared ourselves to sandboard. This wasn't proper sandboarding where you are strapped upright onto a board; instead we laid down on the board and went face first. A bit like hot tabogganing. Somehow I managed to be the only person that bailed, rolling half way down the dune in a dreamy haze, but still had an unexpectedly great afternoon anyway. After the sandboarding we made the long drive back to our hotel, stopping briefly to view a beautiful sunset across the desert, and spending most of the hour utterly freezing due to not having brought a coat for the desert night air. We paid just S/. 100 for the four hour trip and honestly I would have paid it just for the driving.

The next day we were on the move again. Another eight hour physically comfortable but emotionally uncomfortable bus journey took us the remainder of our third time along the Panamericana to Arequipa. It was gone midnight by the time we arrived so we headed straight to our hostel and slept. The next morning, after E and I had apparently been ignored by some youthful foreigners on the next breakfast table over, we headed out with R&D to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. This Spanish-built monastery was essentially its own village within the centre of Arequipa. Taking up a whole city block, it is a maze of Catholic altars, gardens, and residences for nuns that is exemplary of beautiful colonial architecture. Nuns still live and practice at the site today but in a smaller section unavailable to tourists so that they don't have to put up with cameras and inane comments distracting them from God's work. We left the monastery in the hot afternoon sun, stopped off at a cathedral, then had dinner on a balcony overlooking the central Plaza de Armas.

The next morning and back on a bus again, this time to the town of Puno located on Lake Titicaca. E and I had stayed here for several days before making our way to Lima and during that time done approximately nothing. Part of this is because we knew that we'd return to the city with R&D and wanted to share the experiences with them, but it was also because we were tired. Not just physically drained, though after five weeks of buses from Ecuador through Peru and Chile and Bolivia we were, but mentally and emotionally tired of travelling.

Before coming away we had no precise return date and estimated being away from the UK for anywhere between nine and 18 months, largely to be determined by the amount of money we had. What I didn't expect to be as great of a determining factor, if not more so, is the ennui that has developed out of being so rootless and transient over such a period of time. The familiar faces met in unfamiliar locations have been strong wells of determination but even those times together couldn't help maintain a high level of desire for travelling beyond a year. I think it was the 22 hour bus journey along the Panamericana from Lima to Tacna that broke me. This was followed by weeks of moving as fast as we did in India, resulting in an irreversible burnout that has left me averse to coaches and thoroughly neutral with regards to "doing things" or "visiting stuff". E and I spent our first five days in beautiful Puno dealing with the effects of altitude and ennui by either reading in coffee shops, eating in restaurants, and laying in bed watching films or TV series. No regrets.

Returning here with R&D was definitely a different experience, most marked by our accomodation. Our first place had been a cheap hospedaje with damp on the ceilings and seperate single beds. With R&D we stayed in a relatively cheap yet remarkably deluxe hotel complete with a double bed that E and I could share without irritating each other; in the morning it served a grand breakfast buffet complete with optional quinoa pancakes, and an oxygen tank for huffing if the altitude was getting the better of you. Sadly I didn't give the oxygen a go despite my shortness of breath but the breakfast was definitely top dollar. It was arriving at this hotel that I realised how easy the past week with R&D had been compared to our previous travels.

When I say "easy", it is not meant disparagingly or disrespectfully. R&D brought with them enough money to have an enjoyable time but, unexpectedly, they had also brought enough money for all four of us to have an enjoyable time. This meant not just hotels with double beds and breakfast spreads but the ability to jump in a taxi when arriving into a city after dark, for example. The idea of taking a taxi anywhere unless there was absolutely no other options would have been unnerving to E and I alone. It meant good food in vegan restaurants rather than attempting to veganise food in cheap restaurants. It meant, for me, the almost complete evaporation of the weight of money from the equation for a couple of weeks - though I say "almost" because the first week saw me carrying a tentative sense of guilt about wining and dining off someone else's hard-earned cash.

Of all the places we have been to in Peru, which admittedly is not many, Puno is probably my favourite. It is a small lakeside town with a distinct indigenous population and a great selection of restaurants and coffee shops. Despite its height giving rise to shortness of breath and other slights of altitude, the town itself is flat and requires no climbing so meandering is a pleasant experience. After arriving we spent the evening doing little due to a difficult ten hour busride and the next day saw us doing little more. We drank coffee and shopped, enjoying the pleasant streets of Puno and the surprisingly cheap artisan markets there. In the evening we went to a "molecular cocktail bar" (whatever that means) and enjoyed all sorts of brightly coloured alcoholic drinks whilst having great conversation that can only really be had with friends and family.

The next day our plan had been for the four of us to take a trip on the lake itself but unfortunately, probably due to some combination of altitude and alcohol, R came down with something overnight and by the morning was both too tired and too full of sickness to go anywhere except bed. We have all been there whilst travelling. D, also full of tired after a restless night, also decided to take the day to rest and recuperate, so it was left to E and I to make use of boat tickets bought on the previous day.

We arrived at the dock nice and early, climbed aboard a motorboat, and eventually set sail through the grassy border that seperated Puno's inlet from the body of the lake. Our first stop are the Islas de Uros, a series of 80-something islands created entirely out of dried reeds and permanently home to a community of Quechua people. We dismebarked at one such island to listen to a short presentation given by a man that lived on the islands, where he explained that each island needs to lay down a new layer of reeds every ten days and that each house - also made entirely from reeds - take two days for the walls to be built and two months for the roof to be built. The island itself is a strange feeling at first as the floor is spongey and it moves gently up and down with the tide, a bit what I imagine it would be like to stand inside someone's guts. Nonetheless several thousand people live permanently on this island, battling through heavy downpours that often flood houses, and living a life permeated by tourists.

From the Uros Islands we motored on a bit more to reach the island of Taquile. The two kilometre wide island is home to a collection of communities totalling about 2500 people also of Quechua ethnicity and has in recent years become a popular alternative to Isla del Sol, located in Bolivian waters. The people on the island still live a relatively traditional life that we were told about before lunch by a young man from the island. He explained the tall hats worn by the male residents indicated their age, with different years represented by different angles, and that the cumerbund-like belts were designed by images representing the family they belonged to. The island is entirely self-sustaining in terms of agriculture, with three of the six villages at any one time taking turns to grow, whilst alcohol is generally only available for fiestas and weddings. On the way back down to the boat I did see a local man stumbling along the path in a drunken slur, though, so it's not completely unavailable. He also explained that there are only three community rules: no lying, no stealing, and no laziness. Seems fair. We left the island after lunch and spent the next three hours sailing through the sunset and eventual storm that had overtaken Puno where R&D, apparently recovered, met us at the dock. That night we treated them for once at the delicious but very affordable Colors restaurant.

The next morning we got on a bus once again, for an eight hour journey once again, through beautiful mountains that reminded me of Bolivia and eventually to Cusco. If you haven't heard of Cusco you have probably heard of the reason people flock to this city: Machu Picchu. The crowning moment of R&D's two week holiday was to visit one of the most famous and praised historic sites in the world. R&D had arranged to take the train from nearby Ollantaytambo the following afternoon so we spent the another satisfying evening together eating large pizzas on Plaza de Armas then the next morning visiting the Museo Inka, where there was really a surpring amount of recovered pottery. Seriously, there was loads of it and it all seemed flawless. Soon they hopped in a colectivo to Ollantaytambo and left E and I to find the couchsurfer we were to stay with.

It was located in Plazaleto de San Blas, a small square surrounded by quaint colonial streets and loads of great cafes. Turns out our CS hosting was in an actual functioning hostal and also about 100m from where R&D would be staying for the night after returning from Machu Picchu, a pleasant surprise that meant we were able to meet up with them almost immediately after their return from the Incan ruin in one of the aforementioned coffee shops, Laggart Cafe. During their night away I managed to make the first major mistake of our trip: when getting money out of an ATM I forgot to retrieve my card. It was eaten by the machine and now has permanent residency somewhere in the aether. Nonetheless, across wine at Laggart and dinner at a vegan restaurant called Green Point, R&D told us about their Machu Picchu experience that involved a bit of a shit time at the town but an amazing time in the ruin itself. Then we talked more, ate too much food, and generally had a great last night together.

Our parting that night was brief. I think E and R didn't want too emotional a goodbye so kept it short before we split off to our respective domiciles. The next morming R&D flew to Lima for their return flight to the UK whilst E and I have remained in Cusco since.

We haven't done much because we are done with travelling. After moving to another hostal across town, our days have been pretty quiet. Yesterday we travelling to an animal sanctuary about 30 minutes outside of Cusco that is home to vicuñas, alpacas, Andean condors, pumas, parrots, eagles, monkeys, turtles, and hairless Peruvian wild dogs. Have you ever seen a condor up close before? Jesus Christ they are bloody MASSIVE and look mean enough to knock a person out with little more than the spread of their wings. Though we will have spent over a week in Cusco by the time we leave, at no point will we attempt Machu Picchu. Partly because we have little money left and partly - without wanting to sound too spoiled - because we are too tired to appreciate it.

We will be finished with our travels soon. On 2nd December we will be standing in Lima airport awaiting a flight, though before that we still have to make our way - on yet more lengthy bus journeys - via Abancay (this will be bed #100 - a century of beds!) and Nazca, then our fourth and final time along the Panamericana back to the capital. Once there though the tangible feeling of excitement will begin to rise, I am sure. Finished. Finally.

Sort of. We are not flying back to the UK. Way back in May we decided that we wanted to return to the US, to the West Coast, a place that we enjoyed but did not have enough time to fully experience, and a place where we have contacts and friends that we want to spend time with. From Lima we will fly to San Francisco and a few days later E will hop on another plane to Tacoma, where she will spend the next few months helping and supporting a budding meditation community in the city. I will remain in the Bay Area, for the following few weeks at least, looking to spend my time with community projects and other activities there. The precise details of the near future remain, as they have been for the past year, dim and unknowable but I believe the time will be as valuable as every other day, week, and month we have spent away from Norwich.

This has been a long entry so if you've read until here, thank you. Your efforts are, I hope, rewarded by knowing that this will be my last blog post - at least until I return to the UK sometime next year. If you have stayed with us this entire time, I hope reading has been as rewarding for you as our travels have been for us.

Adios amigos.


24th November 2015

Yep, this was a long blog...
and I've enjoyed every minute of your journey.
25th November 2015

That's lovely to hear, thank you! The funny thing with a blog is we rarely know who reads it or how it's received, so it's a real joy to hear when people far and wide have enjoyed it.

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