Another travelogue from one of our skills exchange members who is currently seeking out culture on his travels through Peru
You could call Cajamarca the lull after the storm. It`s a sleepy little city perched 2,700 metres high in the lower Andes, in northern Peru. The rolling green landscape around it, the obvious dearth of tourists and the trickling pace of the town just bring into sharper contrast the mayhem that preceded here. There are even faint echoes of home. Each morning`s bright skies are followed by clouds that file in from the mountains, which gives way to a constant flow of evening rain.
It`s around that time that the phone at the centre where Iam volunteering will cut out, you take your chances through the streets that have become rivers and go to stock up at one of the local restaurants. Argentine steak and chips seem a long ways away, though. The routine now is normal and earthy. There is too little money to spend money and too much time. Ideal conditions in which to save on cash and lose on weight.
I wouldn`t have allowed these sedate set of circumstances to get in the way of a Grand Slam, however. No, I was on my own little crest of a wave in Cajamarca last weekend. In the plushest hotel bar on the main square – the only plush hotel in Cajamarca, mind you – there was me, in a large modern hotel bar, one kind waitress with whom I would have to share the joy, and one of the most outstanding large flat-screen TVs I have ever seen. What a waste, I thought, but thank god for ESPN. I had 30 cosy chairs to choose from, sat down in the middle of the room, not too near, not too far, ordered guacamole and coffee, and thought about all the lads filling the bars in Lima, and in Cork. One thing was for sure, there were no Paddies within an arse`s roar of this place.
I suppose she figured it meant a lot to me when Tommy Bowe ran in for that second try. Yes, now it was ours to lose, and I bloody roared that hotel down. I went potty, in fact. I was lost in myself, and lost to the sadness that there was no one to bond with, except herself, and she wore a half-amused, half-scared look. In owing her some kind of explanation I just spouted out, “Es mi país”, tis my country love, over and over. “Es mi país”, and we`re bloody winning. She came round in the end, almost felt involved. How could she not, with me, second by second, imploding in front of her! On the final whistle I stood up, stretched, wiped my face, inhaled that victorious breath, and that deep smile of hers knew it too. The two of us, we were home and dry.
And what of the storm? Well the storm was Bolivia. Oh deary me, Bolivia. Few places polarises visitor opinion quite like Bolivia. Whether you end up grovelling over the dirt and the difficulties, the lack of proper infrastructure, or instead chose to admire its rawness and unique character as a country, tapping away to its own otherworldly pace, you know at least that here, you are in for a different kind of experience.
I had regrouped in Salta, northern Argentina, got back my debit card that I had left at an ATM in that mountain village near Mendoza. The choice was to reach Peru via northern Chile, and the Atacama desert, or via Bolivia. In South America, unless you have been lavished with copius amounts of time, you simply cannot do everything. I had been bent all along on reaching Arequipa, and ultimately Cajamarca, via the Atacama and the Pacific coast. But at the last minute, a conversation with an English girl swayed my gut. If there is one place you must see, she implored me, it is Bolivia. If there is one person I wish I had never spoken to, it is that English girl.
The 2km walk across the border into Villazon was as I would have expected. It was early morning, a new country, and having got my passport stamped I strayed towards the bus station a few blocks yonder. My destination would be Uyuni, the base to explore Bolivia`s magnificent salt lake flats, which I understood to be a 3-5 hour bus journey.
But Bolivia`s rural bus stations don`t serve merely as transport hubs. They also give a wonderful glimpse into the utter incompetence of the country. You just can`t depend on anything, from the most meaningless aspect of your day, to something more substantial – such as the departure of a bus – to operate smoothly. Bolivians don`t plan for likely eventualities, they make life up as it hits them, or more typically a good while after it hits them.
There would be no bus to take me to Uyuni that morning. Much of the route along the eight-hour stretch had been cut of by a downpour the previous night. I wasn`t too downbeat about that, though the thought that I needed to make time was starting to eat into me a little more urgently now. What was on offer was a three-hour trip to Tupiza, and I could make my way to Uyuni, fingers crossed, from there the following day.
My first act, the purchase of a ticket for Tupiza, was a struggle. Having bought it, I was told my ticket wouldn`t take me into the centre of Tupiza, then I was told it would be leaving at 10am, not 9.30am, then at 10.30am, not 10am. Then a random lady came and told me the original spoil sport had been winding me up all along, that my ticket was good to go. Nobody knew which bus would leave when, so I resolved to take a chance and jump on the first one that came. A bunch of Isreali backpackers were all headed to Tupiza, so I just used them as guides. Bolivians carry their life`s possessions with them when boarding buses, so bundles of food, clothes and animals must be moved to find room for luggage. Three hours of bobbling dirt track later, I withdrew my filthy ruck sack from the bus in beautiful Tupiza.
My second act, determining at Tupiza bus station how quickly I could get to Uyuni, also ended in failure. There would be no buses to Uyuni today or tomorrow, the road (track) was still cut off. So having booked into the nearest hostel, it was time to choose. Wait for the route to become navigatable again, do a four-day tour of the salt flats from the hostel in Tupiza, or skip the lot and head for La Paz.
If impatience is one of your vices, think twice about Bolivia. I couldn`t afford the wait around, nor a four-day trek to the flats. I didn`t have that time, and knew I`d have to pick and choose, so the salt flats, agonisingly, had to go. It would be a bee-line for La Paz, make up some time, regroup, close in on some better roads, then whirl towards Lake Titicaca and Peru.
That Thursday, of course, the La Paz bus was delayed en route to Tupiza. It was like listening into a weather report, wondering if the bus would ever arrive, but eventually it did. In the meantime I passed by a few market stalls to eat something ahead of the journey. I spotted some good looking chips frying away at one, and felt a taste for carbohydrates coming on, but the lady wouldn`t sell the chips without selling chicken to go with it. And that was the moment I stepped back and thought for the first time: “What are they like in this place!” Now I might be condescending, or harsh, but that typified so much. The lack of sense. Woman, I thought, don`t you want to make a living here! So I strolled to the adjacent stall to buy some Pringles, before heading over to the bus, and a half-hour debate on how, and where, passengers would find space for their luggage. Jesus it was madness, like a scene from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and all at stake passengers boarding a bus. It`s like they had a secret language, the language of mayhem, that only Bolivians could tap into. In the end Panamericana would make tracks for La Paz, five hours late, but I was right there, swivelling along with her.
Daylight came and with it a freshly paved road from Oruro into La Paz. Bless Evo Morales and his socialism, I thought, he has provided us with a real road! But on the fringes of La Paz our progress was stalling. Suburban marches clogged up the streets and our red Panamericana was forced to detour, first over pavements, then onto grass and gravelled patches alongside the streets, before eventually separating from the main thrust of the march again. I later found out it was a day of local fiestas, not in fact a peasants´ red trumpeting of Evo`s revolución. Whatever the case, our respite was short-lived, and in El Alto – La Paz`s new city, built spectacularly on a cliff edge 400 metres above the city`s main downtown – we finally ground to a complete halt.
With no budging of Panamericana, the entire busload, with its lone ignorant foreigner, were told to dismount there and then. I was tired, obviously lost, with no sure notion of the remaining distance to the centre. I didn`t realise it immediately, but I was in a seriously vulnerable spot. I was ripe for picking. I could sense that El Alto wasn`t the safest part of town, so went with my instinct to jump in the nearest cab.
He called out the second my feet connected with the pavement. Usually I would take time to suck in some air, look about, consider the options, but I was tired and stranded. “Taxi, taxi!” I looked up, saw a genial face, saw what I thought was an offical looking taxi, and made the call. My ruck sack secured safely in the boot, I slumped with relief into the back seat. “El centro, por favor.”
He was the perfect gentleman of a taxi driver. He even picked up another female passenger around the second corner, also bound for downtown, also from my bus, though I didn`t remember her face. A little odd, but I was new to the city, I didn`t think twice. And I was just, well, tired. We had a great chat through four or five blocks. They engaged me beautifully. She was en route to Ecuador. I was so content to have secured my passage to the centre.
Then the taxi pulled up on a quiet street corner. The driver rolled down the window, enquired as to the interruption, before regularly dressed man opened the passenger door and flashed security ID at me. At both passengers seated in the back, in fact. He then sat in the passenger seat and informed us we needed to be security checked. The driver was told to carry on, but in the direction of the police station, where everything we told him would be verified.
Foreigners were entering Bolivia with fake bank cards. That was his tack. I was truly lost as to what to make of it all, but in a short period of time I still had to design a concrete approach of my own. There was no time to think, because questions were being fired at both of us – initially her, and mostly after that, me – but what moulded my decision making then, more than anything, was the idea that here, in socialist over-policed Bolivia, this could possibly be a regular thing. And I was in no position to take any chances. In almost any other situation, with more energy, and more time to think, I would have responded differently, but here, today, my judgment was primed to be blunted. For them, the bastards, it was the perfect storm.
My interrogator wanted to go through the lot. Declare the lot, I thought. So from underneath my pouch in my hoody, I declared my camera. I was all up front, I just wanted it to end. He took out her bank card, he took out both of mine from my wallet. We were still driving along, slowly. He remarked on the rough edges of her card, the curved edges of mine. So strange, he said. He was frazzling us, and doing a great job. The questions were still coming thick and fast. At this stage, of course, I still believed it was for real, and convinced the driver and passenger were on my side.
When was the last time I withdrew money? Where? How much? He was on the phone to “El capitán”, to check if I had really withdrawn 1,000 Bolivianos in Tupiza the Wednesday just gone. And your pin number, what is your pin number? “El código, no queiro darte el código.” I can`t give you my pin. His capitan was still on the buzzer, it`s important to give us the pin, only for security reasons. Give it to me.
“Uno, dos, cinco, zero.” I didn`t want conflict. The back of my mind that now knew this was not right, had no space to breath. What if this was genuine? Logically it couldn`t be, but logic was out the window now, and I didn`t want conflict.
“Capitan! Uno, dos, cinco, seis.” No, no, I said, “…cinco, zero!” That`s not your pin number, he retorted. That`s not it. It is, I replied, yes it is. He took my credit card in hand then, but I lied him that I didn`t have a pin because I never withdrew money with it. Amid the horror of bad decision making, that was the one thing I got right.
Then the taxi came to a halt, down a deserted street in some desolate corner of El Alto. It must have been 20 to 25 minutes since I first saw that deceptively genial smile, and Mr security was just about through with the interrogation. He showed me my wallet, my cash, my cards, threw the lot in my small back pack, tied a knot, went through with me once more what was in the ruck sack, then told the driver to help me out with my stuff. Apparently we were at the station.
As the taxi driver reached for my rucksack in the boot, I was still convinced he was with me in all this. I used the chance to ask him if I was safe. “Estoy seguro aquí?” Yes, he said, the police station is the green building over there. He put my stuff down, and as I went to reach into my back pack, which was tied good and tight, my back to the taxi, all of a sudden they were gone. They did a good job on me alright. They were very very good. Hats off to them.
The knot opened, it only tood a second or two to realise the camera – with 500 pics – my bank card, and about 100 euro in cash were all gone. Mild panic quickly became crazed panic. I was completely lost. One young girl walking on the street pointed to the nearest main street, so I ran there and jumped into the first cab. The driver had his wife in the passenger seat and his son in the back. Jesus, another stitch-up? Well I had to move, invest trust in the unknown. I`ve been robbed I told them. First I need a phone to call home, then get to the centre as quickly as possible. The final wrong decision was to call my family at home, instead of trying to get through direct to the bank. They were unable to cancel the card on my behalf, and by the time I reached the centre, 40 minutes later, an extra 500 euros was gone from my account. I´m almost certain, however, that my posse of abductors – which possibly included the Panamericana bus driver – would have been swift enough to get to an ATM before I found a phone.
I was so frail now, tired and lethargic, stunned by it I suppose. At the hostel I made a call to Halifax to cancel the card, the local proprietors seemed properly unmoved by the whole saga, like it was par for the course. And in Bolivia, the most edgy and corrupt place I`ve ever been, it surely is.
It`s amazing how often we presume to know a place, and how we`ll react to it, and how often we are wrong. As I stepped out from the hostel to go in search of an ATM, with my credit card fastened inside my jeans mini pocket, I walked as the man I swore I`d never become. There I was in the most spectacular setting of any city I`d seen, 3,600 metres above sea level, the highest capital in the world, looking back up towards walls of suburbs on the hills, with El Alto set on top, scene of the crime, and me, wary, scattered, untrusting of anybody, afraid to engage. A bit like Indiana Jones in the Indian slums, not knowing who among the crowds might be after him. At the ATMs there were army clad officers standing by, watching out with sub-machine guns at their sides. I was still sweating profusely, and my only thought on approaching was “What now, are these guys with me, or against me?”
Stepping across that border into Peru was about as efficient as Bolivia got. Maybe it`s the altitude that gets to them, but honestly, even before the chaos of El Alto, I found myself struggling to have regard for the place. Struggling to find empathy for the people, and their poverty, struggling to get something back from them. They were so passive, so muted about things, I thought, well no wonder this country can`t find the time, even with cash from those freed up gas reserves now flowing in, to build a few decent bloody roads. If they ever got round to it, I couldn`t imagine them agreeing a route, in any case. Socialism is all well and good, I`m all up for power to the masses, but what for good character, and good intent? And common bloody sense.
Between the robbery and the rugby, I trekked for four days to Machu Pichu from Cusco, and drowned my financial sorrows with some great backpacking company. The landscapes lived up to all expectations, but more than that it was just fun. Ultimately the scenery tends to fade away, and it`s the camaraderie that stays with you. Bonding over a beer and poker with the best intended of English and Irish piss-taking. Just the ticket to wipe the sweat from your brows. To clear out a little of the chaos.
I still curse that English girl in Salta, and my own luck, naturally. Would I go back and swap it all now, head for the Atacama instead? The more time passes, the more I`m thinking, probably not.
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