"Until you stop travelling, you can never really say that you have been travelling." , writes Ian Barfield on his first major trip abroad.
The alarm went off at 5am. Pity I didn't hear it. I should have known at that point that I was in for an adventure. Thankfully Seamus , who I had talked into delivering me to the airport , bustled in bright and cheery fifteen minutes later. The beer I'd consumed the previous evening was a mistake and that's the great thing about hindsight - It's always too late to do anything about it. Still groggy from lack of sleep and the after-effects of too much alcohol I climbed out of bed.
"You're either mad or brave." The all too familiar phrase reared its head once again. I'd heard this statement from many people since I announced nearly five months ago that I planned to travel. Well that's not strictly true. When I announce that I was going to travel everyone said, ‘That's nice', or, 'where are you planning to go'. I quickly mentioned Peru and that got a quizzical look, and that I was travelling alone. Then they said, "You're either mad or
brave". In the global scope of things I had not travelled. The problem with the ‘global scale' is that it is far too big I had travelled a little in Europe, with my last trip causing me to fracture my ankle. It still ached now, nearly nine-months after that fateful trip. I hoped that this journey would not end so dramatically.
As I shuffled half-heartedly to the bathroom (toothbrush in hand) I had to admit that the first category felt just fine. Bravery is not one of those attributes that even rate in my top ten. At any rate it took longer to get ready than I had anticipated. I gulped down a mug of hot tea that Seamus had made; a mistake. Tea should never be rushed. With dusk still thinking about arriving, I dashed about making sure that I had not forgotten anything.
Seamus was already waiting in the car, and I am sure he would have tooted the horn, except for the hour. Certain that I had forgotten something I joined him. I was already into the two-hour check-in period. My frantic requests for Seamus to drive faster where met with an assured calmness that I would arrive in plenty of time.
He was right. With less than an hour and a half remaining I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 4. Seamus saw me as far as the passport control. We said our farewells and I exclaimed in my best Arnie voice, "I'll be back!" It too was early for humour and it didn't get the response that I had hoped for. I hate goodbyes so I walked, without looking back, into the unknown.
The unknown lasted thirty-seconds as I discovered the shiny and laboratory clean expanse of the Duty Free shopping area. The neon strip lights reflected off the Black and White marble flooring. I wondered if I had taking a wrong turn. I glanced round expecting to be ushered from here. All was quiet, and so I stepped with a squeak onto the polished floor. My first mission: to arm myself with enough film for the duration of my trip. Eighteen rolls later, I sought my next objective. Breakfast. Unfortunately I could only find a McDonalds. So breakfast was out. I was still hungry and loath as I was a McDonalds seemed strangely fitting. My final meal in the UK was a Sausage and Egg McMuffin. There is no justice in the World. As I handed over my money an unremarkable female voice calmly announced that flight 174 at gate 22 was boarding. This seemed strangely familiar, and I checked my boarding ticket.
"Oh, no" I muttered to myself. Well actually it was a lot more colourful than that, but there is only so much you can expect to get printed. I scooped up my purchases and lumbered towards the gate. Stuffing my McMuffin in the first available pocket; I waved my boarding pass at the stewardess at the desk, who politely suggested that I hurry.
From my window seat I glanced out at the Friday morning dawn. There was nothing to see. As the sky lightened it revealed grey overcast clouds. In great British tradition the weather was seeing me off in true style - it started to rain. Bloody typical. I sat back and waited. My first destination was Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is flat, really flat. This was more than evident as we approached the airport. We bumped down on the runway and I gave it a landing factor of 4. From previous flights I had created a scale of appreciation for landings with 1 indicating that the pilot was trying to leave tracks in the runway, through to 10 where you hardly noticed that the plane had landed. It was well past nine in the morning when I stepped from the plane. Amsterdam is one hour away by plane, and an hour ahead of Greenwich-mean-time. In my planning for this trip I had discovered that you could not get a single flight from London to Lima, Peru. It was either via Amsterdam or Buenos Aires, Argentina. Strangely Amsterdam won. I found my flight and the half-full departure lounge. One side of it was a glass wall, the view dominated by our plane. I was disappointed to see that it wasn't a 747, just it's little brother the 737. There was an hour to wait before they let us in the plane and it seemed the same again before we finally got airborne. I watched as the Dutch countryside dwindled to patches of green and brown as the plane sought its cruising altitude. Monitors dotted around the plane helpfully gave statistics on airspeed, altitude, time into the journey and the time to our destination, a mere eleven hours away. Eleven hours. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Eleven hours. What can your do for eleven hours when you are at 35,000 feet: talk, read, sleep, watch movies, and drink as much as possible. I did all of these, though not in any particular order. In the seat next to me sat Dianne who as it turned out was planning on travelling round Peru with her boyfriend Robert. Unfortunately he was seated in the central column about two rows forward. She explained that the tour operator had got the seating arrangements wrong, and that the airline was not going to do anything about it. She was friendly and we chatted on and off for much of the flight. A third of the way through the flight they showed the movie Twister, it has got great special effects, later they showed Babe and at some point through this I slept.
A pocket of turbulence rocked the plane and nudged me awake. We were descending towards Aruba. I hadn't a clue where Aruba was and I only found out when a map appeared on the Monitor. Aruba is one of the Dutch Caribbean islands. With a LF of 6 we arrived only to be told that all those going on to Lima, Peru where not to get off the plane. The pandemonium that followed almost escalated to a riot as the toll of an Eleven-hour flight
fuelled dozens of pockets of rebellion. The cabin crew patiently and politely requested that everyone return to his or her seats. This, as it turned out, was a fruitless exercise as it only fanned the flames of rebellion. Finally the cabin crew accepted that we were not going to do what we were told.
I do not know what they promised the ground crew, because they turned the plane around in record time and it was only when all the doors where closed that we all begrudgingly returned to our seats. Next stop Peru. I wanted to feel excited at the prospect of finally reaching my destination, but I could only manage feed up. It's roughly four hours to Lima, Peru and a flight that crossed the Amazon rain forest and the Andes mountain range. I saw the former and was content to sleep through the latter.
I was awaken some hours later by the stewardess thrusting two slips of paper into my hand. When I could focus properly I found that she had handed me two blue forms, each no bigger than a single piece of A5 paper. Still half asleep I attempted to make sense of them. It wasn't helped by the fact that whoever had written them had only Loosely grasped the concept of English, and I mean loosely with a capital L. After my third attempt understanding blossomed. Then I laughed. The first was to declare that I would in fact be staying in Peru, the other was to declare any items of an electrical nature, to which I would be required to pay a 20% tax. I was relieved to find a list of exceptions, which covered everything I was carrying.
The last rays of sunlight splashed over a sea of dark grey clouds and were gone. We were approaching Lima International Airport. The light outside seemed to evaporate away so it was dark when we touched down. I gave it a LF of 6 and even though I felt nervous I was glad to get off the plane. With Dianne and Robert in tow, we went in search of our luggage. Peruvian customs had to be negotiated first and it has to be seen to be believed. A dimly lit enclosure with guards (and guns, big guns) and bored looking officials behind big imposing desks. They took my two forms; saw I was English and promptly ignored them, after stamping my passport they ignored me as well. Uncertain if all the formalities had been taken care of, I followed the others. The bright lights of baggage reclaim were dazzling in comparison to passport control. Now, for the moment of angst, had my luggage actually made it to Peru with me? After what seemed like an eternity, and well after my Dianne and Robert had collected their gear, my very own blue pack appeared. The relief is hard to describe, but I know for a small while I completely forgot the journey here.
I found Dianne and Robert counting the local currency, and went in search for some of my own. I returned armed with 100 Sol's , this decades-local currency , and we all went in search of a taxi. The Peruvians may not be at the cutting edge of the social and technological knife but they know how to get money out of the unsuspecting traveller, especially one that just stepped off a plane. Once you step from the protection of the Terminal you enter what I can only describe as an arena. Peruvians lined a metal barrier like a human wall, their shouts drowning out the sounds of the airport. The metaphorical lion turned out to be the Taxi administrator. A serious looking chap quickly explained that we could only get to central Lima by taxi - one of his taxies. Not so bad I thought. Then he explained that it would cost 18 dollars. I looked round for a sympathetic driver and found only hard-nosed taxi drivers, all desperate to share in our money. Resigned to the inevitability of the situation we handed over the money, where we were guided to a taxi.
Taxi. This is possibly the most ambitious term I have heard for the vehicle that we finally
travelled in. It was an old American gas-guzzler - which put me in mind of Starsky and Hutch , circa 1965-75. This particular model came with all the features of a car (did I say car, sorry) which had never seen a days maintenance. Broken lights; an uncomfortable seat; an engine that had an interesting death rattle, and a Speedo that said 30 miles an hour. A little worrying considering it wasn't moving. These were but a few of the things that concerned me about his vehicle. Clasping the St. Christopher my mother had bought me specifically for this trip, I hopped he was paying attention. With Dianne and Robert in the back I took the front seat. The taxi wheezed away.
What happened next was... No I shall not spoil it for you by telling you how it ended. Here is how it began.
... Lima International Airport is surrounded by car park and it took all of our driver's skill to get us to the exit. On the other side of the barrier, cars crowded together on an already packed highway. The cacophony of sound was unexpected. Not from the expected engine noise, which was still a factor, but from hundred of horns being used continuously. As me we moved to join this anti-melodious body our driver, obviously feeling left out, let off a long flat blast on the horn, Well at least that worked.
I'm uncertain how me managed it, but we drove straight across two lanes of traffic and merged with a third. There was no signal, no use of any obvious gesture, just a toot on the horn and that was it. I was fast learning the first principle of Peruvian driving. The car-horn. This uninspiring device only used in frustration and anger back in England seemed to be the fundamental requirement for driving here. I watched, agog with terror as our driver, without looking, hooted his horn and changed lane. I had looked and I could see the whites of the eyes of the driver of the battered and patched car that was matching our speed. And as if by a kind of magic, it just made room. How was soon forgotten as I saw the red traffic lights ahead. Our driver hadn't - ‘What to do at Traffic Signals' obviously weren't part of the driving test here - he passed happily through them, his hand firmly jammed on the car-horn.
By this time I had gripped the front dash with both hands, my white knuckles clearly visible in the soft orange glow of the streetlights. The greater part of this journey was spent in this manner. And when I though that it could get no worse, it did.
The road indicated two lanes for traffic, but the three and sometimes four lanes of cars didn't seem to notice. Up until now I had not paid much attention to traffic going the other way. The two flows had been separated by a wide shrubby wasteland. Up until now, I hadn't needed too. Without warning the shrubbery vanished and only a solid white line painted down the middle separated us from the screaming cars heading the other way. It was soon after this that my fears were proved. The traffic slowed to a stop, the cause unknown. Our driver had other plans. Spotting a gap in the traffic on the other side of the road he pulled out. Oncoming cars tooted there horn, I wanted to scream. My fingers were starting to leave marks in the front dashboard when I noticed a pair of headlights move into the lane we were racing along. A voice in my head was screaming, "This is it we are going to die." I ignored it and watched transfixed as the lights drew closer. Finally I closed my eyes and waited for the imminent collision.
I waited and nothing happened. I waited some more, and still nothing happened. Reluctantly I took a look. We were now travelling on the right side of the road, in the now moving traffic. I wish I had had my eyes open so I could have seen how he managed it.
It wasn't long before the bright lights of Lima appeared. Our driver seemed to be soothed by this and his erratic style calmed enough for me to release my vice-like grip on the dashboard. The trip from the airport appeared to take as long as the flight from Aruba. The big colonial buildings looked tired and washed out in the unnatural street lighting. There was a meeting of two cultures: the original colonial and the pre-modernism of western society. It made for an interesting and often surprising journey. Not as surprising or surprised as the two pedestrians that our driver narrowly avoided. The car-horn blocked out the drivers exclamations which I'm certain weren't complimentary.
Before we (that is Dianne, Robert and I) began this journey we agreed that the Plaza San Martin would be the best starting point. It is the most central of the dozen or so Plaza's in Lima. They had already pre-booked a reservation in one of the more expensive hotels in Lima. My task when I arrived was to find more modest accommodation. It was with much relief that the three of us climbed from the taxi and retrieved our packs. The driver hovered expectantly for a tip. As one person we walked away. None of us looked back to see if he was still there. The Plaza San Martin is a large open area with statues and trees lining the many paved pathways. It harked back to a period of colonial expansion. Now as it neared ten o'clock it looked menacing and forbidding.
Seamus had suggested that I pamper myself on my first night in a Peru. And at this time it sounded like a good idea. With this in mind I picked out the Hostel San Martin. All I had to do was find it. I was expecting a large banner or an illuminated sign; nothing. I consulted the 'Planet, the road name and a map. I was in the right street, in the right place, just no hostel. I was about to go in search of my second choice when I found it. The name was pasted to a half-open glass door. On the other side of the door a staircase lead up. The chap behind the desk was very helpful, and it was at this point that I realised that I didn't understand a word he was saying. The four months I had spent rapidly learning Spanish hadn't prepared me for this. They spoke so quickly I think I understood one word in four. I was able to ask questions , after a fashion , I just didn't know what the answer was. Between his broken English and my fractured Spanish I was able to get a room and convey that I needed to find a way to Nazca the next day. There was much nodding, smiling and signs of reassurance. When he had finished, he called someone's name and a teenager dressed in yellow and black came and collected the room key. As I left the check-in desk the male receptionist called to me saying that he would get his friend from Rodregeze travel to call me regarding my travel arrangements. I nodded and followed my guide to Room 41 at the top of the hostel. It was a basics room with a simple bed and more importantly a shower. I was told that breakfast was at 8:30am as he handed me the key and left.
A little while later I was considering the shower when the phone in my room rang. Hesitantly I answered. A soft-spoken male voice introduced himself as Michael a representative from transporta Rodregeze. He told me that he wanted to he wanted to meet tomorrow at 11am to discuss my travel arrangements. Good, I thought. "So how do I find your offices?" I asked. A hesitation , then a suggestion that it would be better and easier if he met me here. "Sure, Okay!" I reply and the phone was hung up.
I thought about the conversation I'd just had. I didn't like the way he had shied away from a meeting at his office. Now call me Paranoid, but I decided that I wouldn't be able to make the appointment.
It was late, I was tired and the shower was calling. All in all it had been a very long day.