Sunday, April 09, 2006

Peru: Whale in the Desert

I spent the last two weeks in Peru, where I saw a whale in the desert, spotted condors flying over a canyon 3 kilometres deep with ancient terraced slopes, and visited a village situated on man-made islands that float around Lake Titicaca.

The whale in the desert was one of the Nasca Lines, ancient carvings each about 100 metres long, that can't be identified from the earth. When seen from an airplane you easily spot carvings of animals, birds, and people. Why these figures were carved hundreds of years before the technology to view them existed is one of those mysteries which nutcases love. Some claim the figures were made by or for aliens.

I took a 30 minute flight to see the Nasca Lines in an airplane that has room for only 5 passengers. The first 2 minutes were fun. Then as the first figure came into sight, the pilot banked sharply so the passengers on the left could see the figure. Then he banked the other way, which allowed the other passengers to see the figure, and allowed my recently-eaten breakfast to try to escape my stomach prematurely. With each new figure came two more violent turns by the pilot, and more opportunities for my stomach to knot and twist and attempt to release its contents. I fidgeted with the white paper bag supplied for each passenger, and counted down the minutes until landing. 25 minutes left...20 minutes left...15 minutes (that's halfway!)...14 minutes (less than halfway)... 13 minutes (I hope this flight lands on time)...12 minutes (maybe it lands early)... 11 minutes (I should have stayed on the ground and watched the BBC documentary about the lines)... 10 minutes (I'm never flying again - hey, only a third to go!) and so on. When I got off the plane I involuntarily imitated the pope, kneeling and kissing the ground. I then spent the near couple of hours in my hotel room, letting my intestines unknot. By some miracle my breakfast left my stomach the normal way at the normal time.

Seeing the Nasca Lines from the sky definitely was not worth it.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Tears of Pain and Joy on the Pan American Highway

Yesterday I met Anna from England, one of the most interesting travellers I've ever encountered. She was born in Austria because her parents worked there briefly, she spent five years in Saudi Arabia, is currently living in Colombia, and soon she begins a three-year stint in Ukraine. She once cruised down the Amazon River where her father had his fingertip bitten off by a piranha, recently visited New Zealand (which she loved) and when I met her, she was travelling by train through Peru's Sacred Valley of the Incas, about to walk the ancient Inca Trail through the Andes. I got talking to her when we both started gazing at the chocolate-coloured rapids flowing beside the train. She eloquently told me how she did a white-water rafting expedition on such a river a few days ago. She writes detailed accounts of all her journeys, which she illustrates with drawings of what she sees. She also speaks fluent Spanish. But what is most remarkable about Anna is that she is only 8 years old.

Of course, her adventurous parents accompany her on all these voyages!

Last time I wrote, I was stuck in Ecuador, trying to get to Quito to catch a plane but unable to, due to marauding hordes who were blockading the major roads. The day of my flight, I turned on the television in my hotel room to find that the government had declared a state of emergency and had sent in the army to clear the roads. I went to the bus station with hope, sure I could still make my flight. The bus people told me that a direct bus to Quito would leave at 1pm, just in time for my flight. However when 1pm came around, the roads were still blocked, due to a combination of the army being instructed not to hurt anyone, and the determined protesters' new tactic of throwing dynamite around.

The next morning I joined forces with Victor, a 78-year-old Swiss man, who lives in Ecuador with his child bride, an Ecuadorean woman only 40 years old. Together Victor and I decided we would get to Quito no matter what it took - me to catch my plane, and him to be with his lovesick wife. We got a bus to take us 20 kilometres, before a police blockade cut our progress short. Getting out of the bus, we befriended a couple of Ecuadorean girls for company and protection, and together the four of us walked around the blockade and began walking along the car-less Pan American Highway, through Andean villages, with a background of mountain lakes and extinct volcanoes. Many people were also walking in an attempt to get to Quito for work or study, and in numbers we resembled a refugee group fleeing a war zone. I had to carry my backpack, and as my shoulders became numb with pain, I wish I hadn't been carrying those optional extras, such as 5 novels, a guide book, sleeping bag, mosquito net, and clean underwear. I walked for a painful couple of hours, always going around the protesters' blockades, whose numbers were now dwindling. We hitched a short ride with a police transport truck, then another ride with an empty army transport truck, before reaching the final blockade.

The army was trying to get a convoy of supply vehicles through the final blockade and were using tear gas to clear protesters from the road and the nearby fields. The tear gas was effective, but with a strong wind, the tear gas blew over to us, and I learnt why tear gas is called as such. First my nose developed a burning sensation, soon followed by my mouth. Then the gas got stronger and my eyes also burned and I wept like a baby. It was extremely unpleasant and there was nothing I could do expect keep walking, weeping, and hoping to get to some cleaner air.

Some 15 more minutes of walking, I found myself within range of operating buses. I can't adequately describe the relief I felt when I realised I wouldn't need to walk any more. It was like the time when for hours you've had a desperate need to go to the toilet, but can't, and then finally get the chance to go. Nothing could be sweeter. I almost shed more tears than I did with the tear gas.

Amazingly, despite the setbacks I got to Quito in time for my rescheduled flight to Lima, Peru, arriving only 24 hours late. To cover the 100 kilometres or so, I had taken 2 taxis, 4 buses, hitched 3 rides, and walked for 2 hours.

I've spent the last two weeks in Peru, where I saw a whale in the desert, spotted condors flying over a canyon 3 kilometres deep, and visited a village situated on man-made islands that float around Lake Titicaca. If I get inspired, I'll write a detailed update in the next day or two.