Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Last of South America

Well, I'm going solo again. After battling through the strikes along the border to get into Bolivia, I now had to get myself back into Peru. I took a 12 hour overnight bus back to La Paz and then got stuck. The buses were all on strike, no one was going anywhere. Great. A day later I was able to get on a bus that was going to Peru. It was supposed to take 12 hours to get to Arequipa, my desired destination, but it instead took 18. Our bus was stopped on the highway by a mob of protesters that had filled the street. They had thrown a blockade of dirt and rock across the highway and no one was moving. So we sat and waited . . . And waited . . .And waited. Finally we began to creep forward, as the protesters raged, ¨No gringos! No gringos!¨
Wait a minute, I'm a gringo! What did I do to deserve this! Last time I checked I didn't have much to do with mining in Peru . . . except maybe my enjoyment of their silver jewellery? Not reason enough for this! The locals on the bus advised us to duck into the aisle, and all the bus curtains were drawn closed as we inched through the strike line. I cringed, half expecting rocks and random farm implements to begin hurling through the windows. With two giant heaves our bus cleared the blockade, already mashed down by other vehicles. No foreign objects had been thrown at the bus. Freedom!
Back at the bus terminal in Puno more drama unfolded. It seemed the road between Puno and Cusco (a very popular route) had been completely closed by strikers. Everyone going to Cusco now had to go via Arequipa, a solid 20 hour detour. Sucks to be them. Chaos ensued as everyone scrambled for a place on the bus to Arequipa. I sat in my seat clutching my pre-booked ticket, listening to the distraught tourists wine. We finally rolled into Arequipa after midnight. 

Plaza de Armas, Arequipa
Arequipa is a cute little colonial town with abundant churches, museums, and monasteries. Unfortunately my eyes tend to mist over at the thought of spending several days exploring these things. Booorrr-ing. I promptly booked an overnight tour of Calca Canyon. As I handed over my soles to the tour operator and signed my name on the dotted line, I was pleased to see 13 other travellers registered as well. Unfortunately, my joy was premature. I was lumped in with 6 middle aged French people (no English), 2 retired Brazilians (no English), and a Peruvian family with 3 kids under the age of 12 (annoying and no English). Now, I think I'm being generous when I say the French aren't exactly known for their friendliness, and they made little attempt to communicate with me. The kids brought a wrestling match to our minivan that included elbowing me in the head and kicking the back of my seat repetitively, and not appearing to notice or care. They only stopped the once their parents bought them noisemakers. Oh yes. Bird chirping ones. If you blew into them really hard they would screech. The kids preferred the screeching. Did I mention how much I love kids? No? That's because I don't.        

Calca Canyon
I'd confirmed that the Calca guide could speak English before I registered for the tour. With the rest of the group oblivious to the English language, however, the guide focused his efforts. He babbled on for hours in Spanish and got around to translating about 1/20th of his descriptions. The first day it didn't bother me much, I wandered around at the stops alone, learning nothing but blissfully free to explore where I liked. From the tips of the mountain tops to the bottom of the valley Calca Canyon is supposed to be the deepest in the world. However, it's not really as dramatic as other canyons, with a wide, open valley. Except for the two month rainy season, it is also extremely dry, so everything is brownish. Still, the meandering river and pre-Inca terraces are nice to look at. My enjoyment factor might have been a tad bit higher had I not been openly ignored by everyone. Midway through the first day we arrived in Chivay and were shuttled off to lunch. I was interested to see that guinea pig stew was on offer. Here's my chance to try the traditional Peruvian dish I'd heard so much about! I stirred the spoon around in search of a good piece of meat. As it turns out, guinea pig is mostly skin, cartilage, and bone. Yum. I managed to tear a small scrap off and .  . .it tasted like chicken. The brown meat, but definitely chicken. Hmm. The stew was all right, but next time I want chicken, I'll just eat chicken!

Funky looking cactus, Calca Canyon
It seemed my budget price got me a far shittier hostel than everyone else on the tour. We dropped them all off first, so I got to see what I missing, and then promptly drove to the ghetto beyond the paved road where my hostel was located. The van could barely make it. There was a metal scrap yard across the way and the neighbourhood looked like it was about to crumble to the ground. Nice view. I was shown to my room, which actually didn't look so bad, maybe I'd even take a nap. I slid back the covers and several discarded hairs were still mashed to the pillow. Right. Doubting the bed's cleanliness I pulled out my sleeping bag and placed it on top of the covers. Maybe I'd skip the nap. I was shuttled to dinner that night with my group where I was sat with the French crew. They all talked happily in French and I stared at the ground. There was Peruvian music and traditional dance performances, which I almost enjoyed until the tip hat was shoved in my face, of course. I grumpily put in a few soles.

Flight of the Condor
The next morning we were off early for more sight seeing. After a freezing night alone and not even a 'hi' from the group as I hopped into the van, I was not as perky this day. I'd come to the conclusion that everyone on my tour was an asshole. Yes, even the children. Actually, especially the children! I missed my comrades. This would be so much better if Hayley and Jess were here. Then we could ignore everyone too, and at least enjoy each other. Travelling alone can, on occasion, suck. This was one of those times. By the time we got to the flight of the condors viewing, I was irritable. I was ready to get back to Arequipa and to some friends I'd made there. I was not excited for the condors. The guide had actually got around to mentioning to me that condors have the largest wing span of any land bird in the Western hemisphere. What that basically boils down to is there are many birds the world over that are bigger than they are. They are not all that impressive. And they eat dead stuff? That's gross. I crowded with the swarm of other tourists gathered on the platform as the birds began their flight. They weren't that big, as I'd suspected, but they were flying close and fast. I began to take pictures, and I always get more cheerful when I have something fun and challenging to take pictures of. Before long I found myself running along the mountainside trying to get the perfect shot. Yep, it was official, I was having fun. 

I arrived back in Arequipa in time to get on a bus to Lima, where I would catch my flight to Mexico. I was looking forward to the 16 hour ride in the same way I look forward to dental work. The drive straddled the ocean most of the way and got my heart rate up as the bulky bus spead full speed around sharp corners perched atop cliffs that tumbled several hundred feet directly into a violent and rocky surf. I now understand why most buses run over night, they don't want their passengers to know how close they are to a painful and soggy death. Despite my terror, I was able to evaluate the South Peruvian coastline, and I can tell you it looks frighteningly post apocalyptic. The steep chunk of land that shoulders the sea is totally barren, nothing exists there except rock and sand and rubble. There isn't a even a speck of green, no sign of a living thing. I feared an unannounced nuclear disaster had taken place as we blasted past dusty and seemingly deserted villages. Only the odd string of laundry, fluttering alone in the wind, told me that people had been there recently.                                                                                                    

Ten hours into the journey the bus was boarded by a group of cheerful American teens and their chaperones. We got to chatting and it turned out they were headed to Lima to catch the exact same flight as I was. When they discovered I planned to sleep at the airport - and take a notoriously sketchy Liman taxi to the airport alone - they were appalled. Why don't I just come and stay with them at their church, they asked, the more the merrier. I began to salivate over the prospect of a warm bed, the company of a warm tribe of comrades, and the safety of a prearranged bus. Wait a minute though . . .Church? I tensed and feared the worst. Was I about to be asked if I'd thought about my relationship with Jesus lately? I began to ponder the real cost of this 'free' bed. I inquired politely as possible what church, exactly, they were staying at. They were, in fact, missionaries, but of the Catholic sort, and not seeming at all fanatical. Well ok, I can be comfortable with that. I'm pretty sure whatever religion I am is pretty much the same thing. . .Right? I kept my religious ignorance to myself - I'm hopelessly uninformed as to who believes what these days - the point was I'd happily sit through a few prayers in return for a free bed. I'll thank the Lord for that any day! Just when I was beginning to count my lucky stars the mean pastor stepped in an vetoed the whole thing. They couldn't just invite some random girl to the church, apparently. I guess I do look pretty sketchy, and there were impressionable young minds at stake, but I thought God was accepting of everyone? These missionaries were horrible at selling their faith, I felt rejected. I was fed to a Liman taxi after all that. Luckily I have more street credentials than I'm given credit for. I picked a good taxi and arrived safely at the airport shortly after midnight. I spent the night on the hard floor under fluorescent lighting, but I wasn't the only one huddled there. I may have even gotten 4 hours of sleep before the hordes of morning travellers began stomping through my bedroom.

Girl selling alpaca wool (with her baby alpaca in tow)
How do I sum up South America? I really can't, but I can try to summarize my thoughts on Peru and Bolivia. Peruvians will probably be nice to you, Bolivians may or may not. Don't expect people from either country to speak English. Most people don't, even in travellers hostels and restaurants. I could have saved myself the culture shock and learned a little Spanish before I went, but I did not, and I regretted it. At first I was hopelessly reliant on Hayley to do most the talking, and then I had to swallow my dignity and attempt to speak for myself, at which I often failed miserably. I did eventually find I didn't need much to get by. I quickly learned proper pronunciation and grammar were not important, but getting my point across was. A few key words, numbers, and some creative sign language usually did the trick. Almost all people appreciate it if you try and they will not laugh at you if you crucify their language and fail horribly to communicate, which I did often. Although it will help if you can laugh at yourself. Believe me, it's way better to be the amusing and ignorant tourist than the frustrated and ignorant tourist.

Peru and Bolivia range from entirely traditional (and perhaps old fashioned) to verging on modern but not quite there yet. Bolivia is lagging behind Peru, and the cities are always more 'advanced' than small towns. Even so, after perusing the local markets in La Paz I came to the conclusion that everything the Western World didn't use in the 80's and 90's has now been shipped to Bolivia. Clothes, cell phones, home d├ęcor, cars, computers, you name it and it's at least ten years behind there. It is mildly amusing, except when trying to produce an online blog (or stream the NHL play-offs, in Hayley's case). Then the expired technology just becomes extremely annoying.

Me amigas, Cusco
Generally I liked both countries. Specifically, I would put Cusco, the Salkantay trek (ending with Machu Picchu), and the Salt Flats tour as my top highlights. Go there, do these things! Bring your friends, it's much more fun that way.  I've proven to myself I can embark on an extended journey alone - and I wouldn't be afraid to do it again - but what Peru and Bolivia have brought to my attention is that it's a lot more fun to travel with your friends! Plus you can combine talents, share expenses, and walk together down that sketchy road to the hostel at 3am. Way better! So if you are looking for an adventure and want to go somewhere with a unique culture, a fascinating history, regular fiestas, and outdoor activities abound, go to Peru and Bolivia! If you are reasonably intelligent (I take no responsibility for idiots), alert, and good humoured I can confidently say you will survive South America, and I bet you'll even like it too!

I am now in Central America blasting quickly through 6 countries on the last leg of my journey. My next blog will be from somewhere here.


  1. Visiting Machu Picchu and learning to speak Spanish are both on my bucket list... So in one instance, I'm very jealous of your adventures, and in another, I totally just want to pick your brain!

  2. Jordan you are definitely a chip off the old block! Cheap and bitchy! I love it. All kids are assholes...haven't I been telling you that for years? And when you're a parent you have to pretend you actually like other peoples' little bastards. Loved this one hon - laughed out loud when I got to the part about Jesus! Love, Mum

  3. Karyn, you can pick my brain any day! Anything you need or want to know! Mom, I like kids, but ones that aren't old enough to speak yet and just look cute and bounce around. After that we should stick with the tradition of shipping them off to boarding school until they are 18 :P

  4. Oh Jordan ... the ones who are cute and can't talk yet can be just as bad, trust me! ;) Your trip sounds amazing, even with the downsides .... I wish I was as brave as you are ... what an experience! Have a blast and stay soon!

  5. I know, but they're cute and helpless so you're less inclined to want to beat them with a stick! Can't you tell I'm going to make a great mother some day :P (PS to all those shocked and appalled, I AM joking about the boarding school comment....and the beating comment....and the assholes comment. For the record.) You are brave, I could never so what you do, children scare me incase you hadn't noticed!

  6. I wasn't joking. They are assholes, you do want to beat them with a stick (but you don't), and boarding school sounds like a wonderful idea. Love, Mum