23 May 2003, Majes Valley, near Arequipa
This is all a bit of a contrast. From hobnobbing with New Romantics to being eaten alive by mosquitoes in one of the remoter parts of southern Peru. Never a dull moment.
I'm now in the Majes Valley, a green oasis surrounded by huge dusty mountains, to study petroglyphs (carved pictures on great big lumps of rock, to the uninitiated). My host, Julio Zunigo, has a small lodge here, and is very generously giving me board and lodging in return for me helping him to document his interpretations of the images, created by the Wari tribe about 1000 years ago.
Had my first encounter with a mummy the other day (if you exclude the badly dubbed version of The Mummy Returns they were showing on the bus from Arequipa). Julio pulled up at the side of the road, and pointed down the embankment towards a field. 'Look there'. I clambered down, and (after an understandable hesitation) picked up the small skull and upper torso of a mummified child. The back of the skull was covered with short, coarse hair (hair conditioner presumably in short supply in the aferlife), and scraps of cloth wrappings had more or less melded into the bone over the years, covering the mouth. Some substance I didn't want to examine too closely lurked in the eye sockets. I couldn't quite believe what I was holding in my hand. And when I did believe it, I put it down in a hurry.
These bones are lying around everywhere here, like so much roadside rubbish. They recently built a new road along the valley, uncovering a whole load more bones, which just lie exposed to the bleaching sun. It's unusual, you could say.
I really feel like I'm living in the real Peru now. I've just taken public transport down to the seething metropolis (pop 3,000) of Aplao - the transport consisting of 9 of us crammed into a very small car, 2 people in the driver's seat alone. And can you believe it, they have speed bumps here - vague concern that the overloaded car wouldn't quite make it.
So lots of dust, bugs and bones. It's been a steep learning curve of adaptation, shall we say, but it's been really fascinating to switch into a different lifestyle. Or maybe not SO different.... Julio has a small vineyard, and makes his own wine and pisco!
(Photos to follow, but not sure when....)
17 May 2003, Cusco
Above: I get matey with Tony Hadley
Our end of expedition party was a huge and somewhat surreal night, featuring two roast guinea pigs, a total eclipse of the moon, and Tony Hadley, the lead singer of Spandau Ballet.
Roast cuy, or guinea pig, is a Peruvian speciality, so it seemed an appropriate menu choice for our celebratory dinner. When we arrived at the restaurant on the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, Antonia nudged me and hissed, 'That's Tony Hadley over there'. And sure enough, there he was, large as life, and barely changed from the New Romantic days of 'True' and 'Gold'.
Fuelled by a bit of dutch courage and a dinner of roasted rodents (dished up intact, complete with feet and ratty little teeth, not a lot of meat but quite tasty), she and I wandered over in starstruck manner to introduce ourselves. And Tony (first name terms, note!) could not have been nicer. He was in the restaurant with a huge bunch of people who had just completed the Inca Trail in aid of the cancer charity Action Research, a change of plan after his celebrity bout with political reporter John Pienaar had been vetoed by the boxing regulators.
We got chatting about our expedition, and he seemed genuinely interested in what we'd been up to, asking lots of questions about what we'd done, seen and discovered. He introduced us to his friends, and we all got very matey.
Several glasses of wine, a couple of cigars, and one lunar eclipse later, the charity organisers had finally finished presenting awards to all the trekkers for everthing under the sun, from the basic well-done-for-finishing award, to most glamorous hiker and celebrity lookalikes (Tony Hadley nominated for his striking resemblance to Tony Hadley).
Tony rounded off the proceedings by getting up to sing - a hilariously under-rehearsed rendition of 'YMCA', followed by a faultless version of 'True', the voice sounding as good as ever. And despite his trekking war wounds (a bleeding blister on his heel) he still made it to Ukuku's, the nightclub round the corner, where the party continued until the wee small hours.
Woke up the next morning wondering if I'd dreamed it all in some bizarre altitude-induced state. Not every day you get to boogie on down in Peru with a 1980's pop idol...
15 May 2003, Cusco
Above: My Timotei moment
Wow, wow, wow. The last two weeks, on the archaeological expedition, have been just amazing. We had one week at base camp, followed by a week´s trekking our way across the Vilcabamba, and every single day brought new challenges and achievements. It´s been special.
For the archaeological bits, check out the expedition website at www.x-journal.com/journal/inca. You´ll see that we were absolutely gobsmacked by the extent of our success. Almost too much of a good thing.
The trek was pretty gobsmacking too, through some of the most spectacular scenery the Andes can offer. It was physically quite tough, involving lots of steep uphill walking, but we had a fantastic team of arrieros, who would go ahead with the mules and set up camp so that by the time we trailed in, footsore and weary, the tents would be up and the kettle on.
It was quite alarming how quickly I went feral and adapted to life in camp. Normal concerns with trivial things like body odour disappeared very early on. Day 1, our mules couldn´t make it across a narrow rope bridge, so we had to shoulder our baggage and carry it a mile or so - instant sweat saturation. Then the next day it rained - total mudbath. Mud became the new black.
It wasn´t all that easy to get clean, just a small bowl of hot water twice a day, for a flannel bath starting at the top and working down. The best wash I had was when I had a Timotei moment and jumped into a pool under a three-tier waterfall. Seemed like a good idea for the first 3 seconds, until I realised just how freezing cold the water was. Staggered out considerably less smelly, but with an achingly cold head.
But it wasn´t all back to earthy basics. We did still have life´s bare necessities, like the morning cuppa of coca tea brought to our tents, and vodka martinis before dinner every evening.
Speaking of coca, I got quite into coca-chewing, which is meant to ward off fatigue and hunger. I remain to be convinced, as all the fresh air and exercise totally cured my insomnia and gave me a raging appetite, but maybe I just wasn´t chewing enough, my ladylike little wad looking rather amateurish compared with the hamster-cheeks of some of our arrieros.
Now back in Cusco, attempting to readjust to civilisation and hot & cold running water. Took my dirty washing to the laundry this morning - they deserve danger money for going anywhere near that vile-smelling pile.
02 May 2003, Cusco
The view from my hostel in Cusco. I don´t even want to talk about how many steps I have to go up to get there... at altitude, too.
This may be my last journal update for a little while - tomorrow I start the expedition proper, heading off into the Sacred Valley, and I don´t know where or when I will next find an internet cafe.
Some of my team are up in a plane today, doing a recce of our research area with the thermal imaging camera. I would have loved to be up there too, although it might be a bit hair-raising.
I don´t think our cameraman was entirely happy at the prospect of going up in a single-engine plane with no door, flying very low over mountains at absolutely the minimum speed it can do without stalling, while being buffeted around by swirling winds and thermal updraughts. Funny, that.
Those of you who know them may be interested to know that I´m seeing Julian and Celina Hamm for a quiet beverage or two this evening. They´ve just arrived in Cusco on their trip around the world. One of the expedition guys bumped into them in Miami airport yesterday. They got talking and found out they all knew me. Small world.