12 Jul 2003, Mancora, nothern Peru
Ten weeks into my travels, and I was starting to flag... I still had my pilgrim's cough, was covered in mosquito bites from the jungle, and was yearning for a break from cheap hostels and constant decision-making. So I did what any responsible traveller would do, and headed for the beach.
Mancora is a coastal resort in northern Peru, famous for its friendly surfers. I checked into a surfers' hostel, right on the beach. Perfect location, nightmare residents. On the second night, a gang of rowdy Peruvians were getting drunk in the courtyard. All night. Loud hammering on my door in the wee small hours, and a courtyard full of urine, vomit and broken glass in the morning.
Luckily rescue was at hand. I was invited to stay in a guest cottage on the property of a successful South African businessman. It was a few kilometres away geographically, and a world away in every other respect.
Gin and tonic aperitifs, delicious food prepared by our cook, fine wines, (and that was just lunchtime)... clean comfortable beds, power showers and fluffy towels... lying in a hammock, rocked by a gentle breeze, watching the pelicans flying in formation low over the waves, hummingbirds hovering around the hibiscus, horses cantering along the beach.
My host's other guest was a famous Peruvian painter, and the three of us would sit of an evening, around the dinner table under the thatched gazebo, putting the world to rights by the light of the flickering candles.
Yup, it was tough.
But I can't write a book about lying on a beach living a decadent Happy Valley lifestyle, and my book is my primary reason for being in Peru. It was time to get back to work. So after three days, batteries fully recharged and pilgrim's cough finally gone, I had to bid my friends farewell and return to reality.
But a bit of luxury is good for the soul. If not for the liver.
(Photo at http://www.laspocitasmancora.com/mancorae.html)
30 Jun 2003, Iquitos, Amazon Basin
Just back in Iquitos, after an interesting week of heat and hallucinogenic experiences in the jungle of the Amazon Basin.
Unsurprisingly, I had a heavy cold after 4 days of sleep-deprivation and sitting on a glacier at Qoyllur Riti, so when the opportunity came up to see a shaman in the jungle, it seemed like a good way to cure my cold and at the same time try out the local medicine man. Oh, and there was also some mention of ayuhuasca, the powerful hallucinogenic drink.
I armed myself with a trustworthy guide, and we set off up the Amazon on a night boat, our hammocks slung cheek by jowl with hundreds of local passengers. There was no room for the luxury of gangways, so during the night I was occasionally woken by people skimming by underneath my hammock - a very odd sensation when you're used to a solid bed.
We arrived at Requena, and made our way to the shaman's house. He was called Jose, was 75 years old, had 28 children and no teeth. Local medicine evidently good for sperm count, not good for dental hygiene.
We had to wait until 10pm, for the spirits to be ready. Then Jose performed a strange ritual to cure my cold, involving exhaling cigarette smoke over the key energy points of my body. Not every day I have a 75-year-old blowing smoke down my cleavage.
Then we moved onto the ayuhuasca. I'd been warned that I would probably vomit. In fact, this seemed to be a desirable purgative side-effect, and a bowl was placed nearby for my convenience.
After suitable ceremony, we each drank our share of a faintly disgusting, bitter brown liquid. A bit like Winter Warmer. Then we sat in the dark to wait for the effects. The others seemed to be having a rare old time, watching whatever visions were dancing across the back of their eyelids, and regularly dashing from the room to vomit copiously.
I sat and waited. And waited. I asked for a top-up. And another one. And still I waited. After the third top-up, it was getting embarrassing to ask for more. I think I may have had a slight glimmering of a psychedelic experience, at one point, for about 2 minutes. I saw some interesting Sixties-style patterns, and the sound of a passing moto-taxi made the patterns jiggle in time to the put-put of the engine. And that was it.
So I have to conclude that my body is now used to assimilating any socially acceptable drug I choose to throw down my neck, and that the only trip I'll be going on in the near future is around the north of Peru. And I still have my cold.
(Apologies for lack of photos. Currently unable to locate lead to connect camera to PC...)
19 Jun 2003, Cusco
I have just returned from a pilgrimage to a sacred mountain called Ausangate, which involved four days of sleep-deprivation, freezing cold, squalor, non-stop noise and dreadful food. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
I went to the festival of Qollyur Riti with a troupe of traditional dancers. I was lucky to be hooked up with a band of spiritual brothers who allowed, in fact insisted, that I take part in every aspect of the event, despite my totally inept attempts to stay in step with their traditional dancing, looking like somebody who has just joined a new aerobics class and is forever skipping one way when everybody else is skipping the other say.
The festival has two levels of meaning - on the face of it, a homage to an image of Christ, which was painted onto a rock in honour of a miracle that happened here about two hundred years ago. But an alternative view is that this miracle was concocted by Spanish conquistadors determined to convert the natives. They requisitioned an ancient ritual of mountain-worship, and came up with a good miracle to give the event a Catholic veneer.
In practice, it involves a cold overnight journey in an open truck, then walking two hours up the mountain along a dusty valley, kneeling and playing music to every one of the twelve or so crosses on the way. You then spend two days in a freezing cold campsite at high altitude, enduring drums, brass bands and firecrackers making a din 24 hours a day. Add to that squalor and inedible food, followed by a steep climb in the dark up to a glacier for a night-long vigil. Not my usual idea of a fun weekend.
There´s a ban on sex and alcohol for the duration of the festival too, so there wasn't even the option of a medicinal tot of something strong to warm the blood during the night-long vigil, although the canazo that my hosts shared with me had a suspiciously strong kick, despite their insistence that it was non-alcoholic.
The physical discomforts seem to be an intrinsic part of the pilgrimage - the hair-shirtedness of it all being more purifying. But my hosts realised I hadn't signed up for the hardcore experience, and were endlessly generous and thoughtful in looking after my welfare - lending me their blankets to keep me warm, even though they were sitting there with no gloves and only the thinnest of clothes. It's small wonder that there are a few fatalities among the pilgrims each year.
The vigil over, there is the opportunity for a few hours' kip during the following day, if you can block out the still-ongoing drums, before setting out on a 20 mile hike to a neighbouring mountaintop to see Ausangate as the first rays of the sun strike its snowy peak. Of course, to get there in time, you have to walk through the night. What is it with these pilgrims and sleep deprivation?!
But in fact, the moonlit hike is something quite special, walking through the peace and calm of the night, mostly with just the sound of the tinkling bells on the dancers' traditional costumes, and only occasional outbursts of the inevitable insistent drumbeat.
And the ensuing celebrations at sunrise are unparalleled for their sheer exuberance and energy, which ends with the pilgrims streaming down the mountainside in criss-crossing lines of colourful humanity. The scale and the sound of the event are mesmerising, and I felt quite overcome. Or maybe I was just plain knackered.
I came away from the experience filthy with dust and grime, emotionally and physically drained, and in dire need of a decent meal, but feeling lucky to have been involved in a ritual that has such deep meaning for these Peruvians.
(Would love to show you some photos, but the batteries in my digital camera died in the cold...)
05 Jun 2003, Majes Valley, nr Arequipa, Peru
Above: Follow the yellow brick (Inca) road...
You know you're broke when you're trying to flog your flip-flops to a cafe owner to raise the bus fare home...
Last week, my friend Chris and I spent a couple of days in Copacabana on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, where the Isla del Sol lived up to its name and I got burned to a crisp. Then, sated with the life of comfort, we decided to do a 3-day trek along the Inca road to Taquesi, outside La Paz.
Due to a minor administrative cock-up, we set out at 4.30am on Day 1 with only 104.50 bolivianos (about GBP 10.00) to our name.
Payment for hostel room: 40 bolivianos (64.50 left)
Taxi to bus station: 15 bolivianos (49.50 left)
Find bus has already left, and hire another taxi to set off in hot pursuit (incentive scheme - the sooner our driver catches up with the bus, the faster he earns his fare): 20 bolivianos (29.50 left)
Collectivo bus fare for 2 hour ride to trail head (me squashed between wide campesino woman, and a man who falls asleep on my shoulder. Something wet and cold is soaking up into my trekking pants from the bus seat. I choose not to investigate.): 10 bolivianos (19.50 left)
Day 1: One tough day's clamber through spectacular scenery, across a high mountain pass - eagles swoop, llamas and alpacas gaze in supercilious bemusement at this sweating, red-faced gringa: free!
Wake on Day 2 to another blindingly blue sky, and a man shouting 'Buenas Dias'. Somehow we suspect he hasn't dropped by just to wish us a good day... campsite fee: 2 bolivianos (17.50 left)
Day 2: Another beautiful day's walking, down from high altitude, into lush valleys gorgeous with wildflowers and butterflies, past scattered houses with gardens full of lilies and aubretia: free!
Wake early on Day 3, and strike camp before anybody can ask us for money: free!
Day 3: Chris has a seriously bad knee, and is hobbling like an old man (it's his age, poor lamb, he's all of 24 years old). We think we only have 2 hours to go before we can catch the bus, but we get to the village only to find that the bus no longer runs on Monday afternoons, and the next one isn't until 6am the next day.
Manage to hitch rides in the back of assorted pickup trucks to get most of the way to a better-connected village: free!
Bus fare back to La Paz is rumoured to be either 11 or 12 bolivianos each... giving us a shortfall of at least 4.50. So I rummage through my rucksack. I thought I'd packed the bare minimum for our trek, but it's amazing what becomes disposable in extremis.
Our only potential purchaser, a cafe owner, looks unimpressed with my offerings of a sunhat and pair of flipflops, but perks up when he sees my combination padlock. 20 minutes later, he has almost grasped how it works, when the bus rolls up unexpectedly early.
Chris confesses our shortage of funds, the driver impatiently nods us to get in anyway, as if poverty-stricken gringos beg favours from him every day of the week. So I grab my padlock from the bemused cafe owner's hands and throw rucksack, flipflops, self, etc into the bus, and we trundle our way back to La Paz, weary, hungry and broke, but curiously elated after our 3 days in the beautiful wilderness of Bolivia.