Posts Tagged ‘Peru’

camp 2

A sub-zero wakeup call pushes me out of the tent at a fumbling shuffle, trying to get the gas stove working from inside thick gloves.  As I knock ice off the breakfast bowls, I take in my surroundings; a wide meadow, thick with grasses and a stream bubbling through the centre, all shaded in the early morning with the sun still awaiting its entrance over the crest of the high mountain peaks surrounding us.  It is breath-taking.

A brisk walk  brings us quickly down to the road which we rumbled up two days previous, a twenty-minute wait presenting a combi stuffed with Peruvians that begrudgingly make space for us.  The windows are open as we teeter over hairpin bends on the high switchbacks and our noses steadily fill with the dust thrown up by the wheels of the combi.  By the time we arrive in Vaqueria I’m in possession of a thumping headache and retire to the shadows to swallow an ibuprofen.

washing day
Washing day, Vaqueria

This is the start of the Santa Cruz trek, Peru’s second most famous route after the Inca Trail.  We’re doing it backwards, for no clear reason.  After a while watching the bustling arrival and departure of trekking groups with their telescopic walking poles and mules trains laden with supplies, we decide to hit the trail and leave the tiny village behind.  The path twists and turns across hillsides and past adobe cottages which contain children that sit with mucus running from both nostrils, hands outstretched asking in single words for candies, biscuits, money.  Eventually we break free of the scattered houses and push forward through shaded woodland and wide open pasture, all funneled in the same inevitable direction by the steep-sided Huaripampa valley, the straps of our packs biting with aching insistence into our shoulders.

the beast

Camp is eventually made a ten minute walk up from one of the main camping grounds in an attempt to enjoy the solitude and heavy silence of the wide open spaces.  An early night and  morning present a strong uphill climb for a few hours through ice-flecked peaks that sit so close you could almost reach out and touch them.  We finally arrive at the imposing steep path to the Punta Union pass, at a lung-bursting altitude of 4750 metres.  We sit on our packs at the base of the climb, contemplating it for a while as a stream of heavily armed Peruvian military stomp past us, occasionally relishing the opportunity to break their pace and make polite conversation with us.  They are all delighted that we’ve chosen to come to Peru, and give us a cheery farewell.

mule train

We can only delay the inevitable for so long.  The climb is hard, and we take tiny steps with lungs sucking hard on the thin air.  A few thousand steps later, we zig-zag the man-made stairs that bring us up the near-vertical final few metres to the welcome sight of the saddle of the pass, and for the first time we can look into the Santa Cruz valley.  Other trekkers begin to pile up onto the pass, wandering around with their cameras clicking, occasionally making loud comments about how it really wasn’t as difficult as the Colca Canyon.  We stay long enough to enjoy our achievement and head swiftly down to a more solitary spot for a break, enjoying a rolling downhill at a plod as the rigours of exercise at altitude set in.

high life


We make camp for what turns out to be the final night a couple of hour’s walk from the pass and I endure a long night staring at the roof of the tent in the darkness, my mind turning frantically over the same subject matter presumably short-circuited by the fierce ups and downs of the last few days.  In the morning we rise blearily and continue on our steady path down towards Cochapampa, passing through glorious wide pastures, lakes that shimmer in the sun, eerie rock forests, whole hillsides covered by giant boulders torn from the heights by rock slides.

We pass the final campsite at lunchtime and realize that this is our last day.  After a break we continue and the path drops away even steeper, continuing one turn after another.  We realize that our choice of route has presented us with by far the easiest option for Santa Cruz; the other direction would involve a stiff climb for at least two full days.  Helpful mule-drivers passing uphill at an impossible trot offer us a series of completely inaccurate suggestions of the time remaining down to Cochapampa, and when we exit the valley we are beyond exhausted, led by false expectation.

Looking back through the dust from the window of the taxi that carries us towards Caraz, the exit to the trail sits in the deep and imposing crack in the rolling foothills.  Cochapampa is a tiny village about to be swallowed up by the creeping shadows from the exit to the Santa Cruz valley.  I don’t want to go back to civilization.


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I walk across the plaza of Huaraz with excitement chasing my heels.  Across the square under the orange street light I can see Mary and Nigel wandering in no particular direction, awaiting our meeting with unsuspecting punctuality.  It has been two years since I last saw them prior to leaving the United Kingdom, and I’m eager to find out how or if we relate across the differences of the last two years of our lives.

Mary and Nige are much as I remember them, all smiles, enthusiastic energy and incredibly well matched despite almost comical height difference.  We relate experiences, thoughts, opinions and plans about the last two years in a fluid, intense stream of discussion at high volume to drown out the purposeful sound system in the bar which is hosting our catch-up.  All other company, discussions, distractions and existences fades into the background and I’m desperate to find out as much about them as possible in the limited time before we part ways,  pounding  separate routes and schedules.


Mary, Nige and Me. And Frank.

Their hostel is just up the road from ours, and we end things standing in the late-night chill of thin, high-altitude air.  I don’t know when I’ll see them again, or where.

One thing from the whirlwind of conversation sticks in my mind like a thorn in tyre.  “We’re trying to figure out what we want to do when we get back,” Nige explains, “But we haven’t really come to any conclusions.”  “We’ll probably just end up getting enticed back into the same jobs by a nice salary,” jokes Mary.

I hope that it is a joke, but I suspect that there’s a little too much seriousness to it.  After leaving everything behind to go in search of an alternative, it seems like a great shame that my dear friends would end up back where they started.

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“We’re going over there,” pronounces Miri, pointing to the distant hill that rises from the mist.  Four days later,  we set off from Huanchaco towards the looming rise in the distance with Tomasa trotting behind us, unaware that we are destined for a long walk.  “We’ll be done in four hours,” I predict, “One hour there, two to climb it, and an hour back.”  Shortly after leaving, it becomes clear that this is another example of why no-one should trust in my abilities in the great outdoors.  The path to the summit across the yawning stretch of barren sand-scape is blocked, firstly by huge pits torn out for the apparent purpose of extracting rocks, and secondly by a selection of squat but long battery-farming chicken barns.  Between navigating man-made cliffs, fetid drains that shat out the waste water from the barns and the barbed wire fences that surrounded them, we arrived within straight shot of the hill after a solid two hours walk.

“This isn’t the delightful walk that I expected,” I admit as we stomp up the steadily increasing incline.  We decide to cut our summit attempt short with the prospect of a long return journey, mildly irritated with Tomasa’s still-present abundance of energy despite our fatigue.  Looking back, the speck of Huanchaco appears very small set into the coastline amidst the vast expanse of the flat Northern coast of Peru.  I realize for a split second that if I don’t get out of it for a break soon, I’ll go crazy in a suffocating bubble.

A couple of photos later we descend, heading for the ragged outskirts of Trujillo which seem to be more direct than our previous maze of chicken industry.  Our brief attempts to hitch-hike back to Huanchaco prove unsuccessful as Tomasa laps water from greasy puddles and we decide to move further into town to pick up a combi.  A dusty trio viewed with curiosity as we traverse the ragged suburb, we are accosted by a cheerful selection of chubby women playing volleyball.  “You should get home before dark,” they cheerfully explain after posing for a self-requested photo, “Or you could get shot or raped.”  With a building sense of urgency in the gathering darkness, we board the bus and begin the wide circumnavigation of Trujillo to return back to the bubble some six hours after leaving.

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Monday was an important day for me. After trawling the internet for examples of good organizations in the hope of finding a project in Latin America with which to involve myself, I’d come across Fairmail, a non-profit that was based practically on my door step.  Needless to say, they’re a fantastic organization and I was delighted when an email to them to try and organize a meeting to discuss working together was replied to by the Peruvian country manager, Renato.  He set a meeting date for Monday at 10am, and I cheerfully agreed.

Monday arrived and I bounced from the spare bed at a friend’s house in Trujillo, ready to brush up my preparatory notes for the meeting and read some more of the inspiring book about social entrepreneurship that I had recently stumbled into on the bookshelf at my borrowed Huachaco pad.  My mate bid me farewell to go out to a job, leaving me home alone to read, prepare and become lost in my thoughts.  My head was buzzing with daydreams of social businesses by the time I slung my backpack on my back and strode out of the front door of the house in a fresh shirt with my laptop dangling purposefully by my side.  I closed the front door behind me, and as I turned I realized my fatal error.


The front door to my friend’s house has an outer metal gate, a foreboding twelve foot high black iron structure with spikes sticking out of it from all directions, bordered by smooth featureless concrete wall of equal height.  The Gate sends a strong message that the only way you will cross the threshold is by the permission of the person buzzing you through it.  The person pressing the door release button on the other side of the front door, inside the house.

I was trapped between the locked front door and the outer gate, and I knew from past experience that there was no way to scale the gate or walls to the outside world.  There was certainly no way back through the locked front door and I briefly marvelled at the architect’s talent in ensuring that anyone caught in my predicament without house keys would be stuck without mercy.

Hoping that one of the numerous house mates would be in, I tried hammering on the door, reaching a crooked arm through the gate to pound the buzzer and throwing pebbles at windows from within my temporary prison.  No response.  I tried to call my friend with my cell phone in the hope that they could return home to let me out, only to find that my battery was conveniently well and truly flat.  After twenty minutes, my cries turned more desperate, attracting the attention of a neighbour.  She approached the outer gate and eyed the trapped Gringo warily through the bars.  I felt like a zoo exhibit, tricked into captivity by my own stupidity.

“Que paso?” She asked.  In uptight burbling Spanish I flustered an explanation of my predicament.  “Tienes el numero del telefono de la casa?  Puedo llamar,” she offered.  No, I didn’t have the number for the house, and there was no-one inside anyway.

The time was slipping away; the ten o’clock meeting time was already passed, still a quarter hour bus ride across town.  The baleful stare of the neighbour upon me, I turned my attention to the lock of the gate, my nemesis.  It goaded me, the black metal easily relenting when encouraged by the jolt of electricity from the buzzer.  But there was no buzz to save me.

I bent down and examined the lock, reaching my fingers into the gap between the bolt casing and the housing on the gate in a last desperate attempt to see if there was space to slide a credit card up and force the bolt.  Something clunked, the bolt shot back and the gate cheekily swung open to afford me an unimpeded view of the neighbour’s incredulous face.  “Asegura la puerta cuando salgas,” she deadpanned.  Make sure the gate is secure when you leave.

Feeling my cheeks starting to burn, I grabbed my bags from the floor where I’d tossed them in a hissy fit half an hour ago.  Making sure the gate was firmly closed I accelerated away from the shaking head of the neighbour, already rehearsing the apology to Renato.

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I’ve noticed that my canine sidekick has been smelling a little less than fresh lately, so after deliberation decided that it was time to give Tomasa a bath. I’ve never given a dog a bath before, but the instructions on the back of the anti-flea shampoo seemed simple enough so I locked myself in the bathroom with the essential ingredients of dog, towel and shampoo and vowed not to leave until the job was complete.

Things started off easily enough, with Tomasa sitting dejectedly in the shower as I scooped buckets of water over her head. Shivering set in as I rubbed the shampoo into her coat, but any sympathy dissipated when I turned around to grab my camera in the hope of taking a picture of progress. My doe-eyed doggy comrade leapt like a foamy streak of lightning from the tiled shower base and vigorously shook herself, coating all and sundry with water and bubbles.

Doggy Bathtime

Undeterred, I re-instated her in the shower, turned around to get the camera again and took another face-full of dog-shake as the escape repeated itself. This physical comedy skit ran a few times more like a broken record until I realized we could go like this until the end of time. Camera in one hand and soapy dog in the other, I deposited the beast in the bath and snapped a picture whilst leaving my free hand hovering out of shot ready to grab her if she should plan a seventh or eighth escape.

Doggy Bathtime

Escape attempt #6

Having captured the moment, I washed off the suds with a few more buckets of water. More shivering. Triumphantly I lifted my soggy four legged friend from the shower and turned around to get a towel to dry her with, only to hear the all predictable sound of a thousand water droplets shot at every angle across the bathroom and feel the moisture seep into the fabric of the back of my t-shirt.

After a vigorous towelling the mission was deemed a success. Below is the team photo. All that was left was to mop the large quantities of water from the bathroom floor in an impromptu cleaning session.

Doggy Bathtime

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I try to derive insight and learn from my experiences out here, reflecting on things via this blog.  However, sometimes I get distracted by juvenile stuff.  Give me a break, I’m a boy…

Jam for the ladies

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Finally, a spot of culture
I’ve felt very proud of myself in the last couple of days having pro-actively gone to a local art exhibition at the Alianza Francesa in Trujillo. Not a grand show by any means, the gallery consisted of about twenty canvases spread over two rooms, but the event was a gem. I’m the first to admit that I have more chance of giving birth to twins than interpreting a piece of art without the help of an audio guide, but I had the benefit in this case of knowing one of the artists presenting his work.

Sidling up to him after a quick circuit of the gallery, I asked him to give me a bit of an explanation about the different elements of his composition. The answer was affecting, to say the least.

“Well,” he began, “The elements in these pictures represent my family.” I nodded encouragingly and he continued. “The bird that you see here,” he said, pointing out the clear shape, “Represents my father, who died when I was five. I’ve always had very respectful memories of him, which is why I choose to paint his form this way.”

“So, the reason the bird is always on the edge of the paintings, facing away from the rest of the picture is because…” I began.

“…yes, he’s gone.” My friend finished. “The bed in the centre of the painting here represents my mother; my brother and I used to share the bed with her when my father died, so this symbol for me strongly reminds me of her.”

I paused, wondering if I should continue. “And…what about the forms of the houses in the background?”

“Those two houses are my brother and I.” He explained. “My mother passed away when I was ten, and now we have to live our own independent lives.”

The details of the painting slowly unfolded as grass islands, smoky white clouds gliding across serene blue skies and leaning white doors standing crookedly alone were discussed, one by one. I didn’t know what to say; within five minutes, my friend had just laid bare for me a family history burdened with sorrow and loss that few of us could even imagine. I felt privileged to understand the interpretation behind the painting but, stronger than that, deeply impressed that he was able to talk with such ease about aspects of his life that had no doubt shaken him to his core. On reflection however, this made sense.

I’ve always held in the highest regard people able to express themselves through a creative medium, and that night that respect hopped up a notch as I realized how the parts of a life steeped in turbulence, sorrow and the greatest trials one could expect to face could be so candidly and fearlessly demonstrated through the canvas that hung spotlit on the wall in front of me.

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