When my passionfruit pisco sours arrives, it is a foot tall. Jamie looks at it with horror and embarrassment. I look at the 12 inches of yellow, icy, alcoholic glory with a philosophical smile. It is here now, so it must be enjoyed. The long, bulbous glass is propped in a wooden structure designed by people who like making an impression but have never had to sit in a restaurant and use one. To take a sip, the whole thing must be lifted from the table and taken to table level then supped awkwardly from a hunched position. It’s delicious but inevitably I end up wiping it away as it dribbles down my chin and forearm before passing it as one would pass a live hand grenade to Jamie. He takes it carefully, struggling not to spill any and furtively looks around. No one else in the place has been daft enough to order one so he unhesitatingly tips a load straight in to his glass, passes the infernal jig back to me and drinks his with dignity and the raised eyebrows of someone in a superior imbibing position.
A waiter, noting the passionfruit dripping off my face comes heroically to my aid with a giant straw he has made by wedging five small together. It seems to solve the problem when the straw reaches from the top of the glass towering above me on the table, all the way to my mouth several metres below. It’s only when I stop drinking and sit back that I realise there is a design flaw and five straws worth of cocktail leak out all over my lap.
Nothing can dampen my mood, however. We have come to a highly recommended cevicheria in La Victoria, a sketchy area of Lima we have been told to take care in and taxi in and out of. Crime statistics will not get in between me and a good bowl of ceviche so we walk half way until the streets turn crumby and drab then hop in a passing cab and offer a variety of places and street names as destinations until I venture the name of the restaurant.
Ah Mi Barrunto! Yes!
Says the taxi driver picking up the pace with a renewed confidence. The place is obviously well known in these parts and we can see why when we arrive. A huge, cheerful bamboo clad building rests with great bonhomie amongst the slabs of concrete and grubby pavements. The place is thronging with taxis and people as we are shown in by a smiling man who hands us to a waiter and we are seated. Inside is dressed all in bamboo and is full of chatting diners, hanging seashells and pictures of fish. We are immediately offered booze and the suggestion of supersizing our cocktails which is why I am already a little drunk when our starters arrive.
Jamie has a beautiful, big bowl of translucent fish ceviche scattered with pale yellow maize kernels and flashes of purple onion from which he scoops forkfuls and posts them in to his mouth with the look of concerned delight he always makes when something is really good. I follow suit with my platter of tiradito; slices of raw pearly fish bathed in a soft dreamy sauce of cream, limes and yellow chillies. Once I start, I can’t stop eating and no one mouthful is ever enough. More! Shouts my brain when I pause for a moment. Give it! I want more! And so I resume eating the cool, creamy slivers and before I know it, I have finished every scrap and my spoon is scooping at thin air.
Not to worry, I think scraping the platter free of the sauce and sucking my spoon, there’ more on the way. In characteristic Latin style, the main course arrives immediately and popped down practically on top of the starter. The plate still has tiradito sauce on it and has to be gently wrestled from my grip. Fortunately the main courses are excessively pretty and colourful and I am soon distracted by the bright green of Jamie’s pesto tagliolini with prawns and the arresting saffron yellow of the buttery sauce pooling underneath my tumble of fried seafood. We widen our eyes at each other and say ooh, unused to dolled up dinners months of no frills plates of stewed meat and rice. As we eat, the restaurant continues to fill and fill with customers and we eat in a cheerful bubble of clattering conversation amid the scent of limes and fried fish.
Occasionally, the waiters will crowd around a table, popping an open mouthed shark hat on the head of a customer and burst in to a heavily accented rendition of Happy Birthday. Rather than the cringing mortification and teeth clenching false smiles this tends to elicit in the British, the birthday boys and girls sit up a bit taller and burst in to enthused grins. They look slowly around the table, the shark mimicking their toothy smiles, and soaking up the attention. There are three, maybe four rounds of this during the time we are there and each time, the waiters look as pleased to be singing as the last. When they have finished they pluck the shark from the head of the lucky man or women and clap and everyone loves it. It’s weird and wonderful and lends a festive atmosphere to the already lively place which is no doubt augmented by the pisco but real enough nonenthless.
By the time we have finished our main courses, we are extraordinarily full and disappointingly unable to even consider dessert. I slurp down the last sips of passionfruit sours from the small glass I have finally conceded to use and we make our way unsteadily back out to the drab streets of La Victoria to be whisked away by a taxi driver who laughs when I tell him we drank too much booze to go to the museums he recommends. It’s true though, the heady, redolent cocktail has gone straight to my head and when we return to our hostel I am unable to perform even the most basic task without first taking a two hour nap. It is a delicious sleep, full of dramatic snippets of bizarre dreams from which I wake thinking about tiradito and wishing I could eat more. Can one become a tiradito addict as one can become hooked on narcotics? I wonder. The nagging feeling that I want to eat some more persists through the rest of Peru and two more countries so I have to concede that perhaps you can. Can I get treatment? I ponder? Can’t I just have more tiradito? Says my brain repeatedly.
Roused from my post sleep torpor by a brisk walk to the cinema I am almost awake enough to engage with Spectre which is full of enormous explosions and pert bottomed ladies failing to resist James Bond’s besuited charms. The plotline is pretty vintage by Daniel Craig’s standards with much jostling about on ski slopes and the writing off of enormously expensive cars. The feminist angle is pretty vintage too. Jamie and I leave the cinema clutching an empty fizzy drinks cup while politely protesting one anothers opinions on the matter. I roll my eyes, gesticulating and saying urghh to Jamie’s points to which he throws up his hands and sighs.
I just wish that FOR ONCE the woman wasn’t popped in to a pretty, bum hugging dress and made to wiggle about for no reason!
I say, exasperated.
But she was smart!
They made a point of that, how smart and brilliant she was! Isn’t that a good thing?!
And she still has to bloody wiggle it! It’s so boring!
We fail to agree on the sexism of James Bond and are still mulling the particulars over when we arrive at the whiskered glory that is Kennedy Park. It is, as usual, full of cats in various degrees of ridiculous repose and sexism on the big screen is dropped like a stone. There is a cat assigned to each group of people, hoovering scraps dropped on the floor and ensuring the well being of the citizens. Some lie in the busy path while passersby step carefully over their sleeping forms. Others curl in the thick grass, heads held in weird positions to avoid being spiked in the eye by the tough blades. One cat hangs about next to the sandwich stall maintaining the orderly queue and licking the pavement where meat is accidentally dropped from the counter.
By the time we make it back to the hostel, quite a long time has passed and the streets are dark. We have one more day left in Lima before we head south towards Cusco which just leaves us time to see Simon and Josephine, a lovely Swiss couple who we met aboard the Stahlratte. They have ridden in to Lima on their shiny Honda Transalp, who is very clean and shiny and makes the filth crusted, bestickered Robin a little insecure. We decide to meet in Barranco, a beautiful though slightly faded corner of Lima south of Miraflores for a coffee. We are heading down for a quick gaze at the murky looking Pacific when bump in to them a little early, clutching an air filter for their bike. We greet them happily and decide that coffee is too tame, it’s beer o’clock. We are bikers after all.
We find a table at a trendy craft brewery with rusty cogs all over the walls and try to catch up on each others journeys.
Says Jospehine referring to my blog post describing their apparent ease and calm in every situation aboard the Stahlratte.
Yes! You are! Though I mean it in the best possible way of course.
I reply smiling.
You do make it look like everything is much easier than it is.
Which they then confirm by telling us that they have been wild camping in the desert and have just spent a week in one of Lima ‘s slums with a family they know. There they have been happily collating information for an NGO Josephine works for and having a wonderful time being fed and generally made to feel right at home.
I drink my hipster ale and think about their beautiful, billowing photos of their tent under a map of peach tinted clouds in the Peruvian desert. We posted our tent and camping equipment home months ago when it leaked in Yosemite and haven’t done anything about getting a new one. We haven’t been to the slums either. Or worked for an NGO. I listen to them chatting cheerfully to Jamie for a while and wonder if we have been making the most of our time or tarrying it away on emailing and expensive tiradito.
Later, we walk to Miraflores and have coffee and dense little tres leches cakes with them in a busy pavement cafe thronging with passers by. The light is dimming and as we scrape the crumbs off the plates, we all smile. Time to call it a day. We exchange hugs and wish them well in their next effortlessly adventurous situation and watch them disappear in to the crowds.
It was nice to see them!
I say, feeling staid and dumpy after hearing their exciting tales of adventure on the road. Jamie takes me by the hand, leads me to a small street full of antique shops and buys me a small opal from a gem shop we found the previous day. It’s not very adventurous, it’s not a tent and a compass, it’s not off road riding in to the desert, but it is very shiny. Little licks of blue and red flicker in its milky depths as I turn it in the light. That’ll probably do in lieu of all that other stuff, I think, and we step back in to the deep blue Lima evening, walking back in the glow of gilded antiques and a day well spent.
The outskirts of Lima are a shock again after five days of Miraflores gleam. We leave at six thirty just as the traffic is getting warmed up but miss the filthy snarl that will block the streets later. We have new tyres, big rock solid, knobbly, manly ones we had fitted at the Touratech shop in Lima. They track differently on the road and as we lean around corners, they are calling the shots, not Jamie. We weave a little and wobble through the streets trying to get used to the new treads. Tumble down buildings coated in a layer of dirt line the roads and paint peels from every available surface. These are the areas you are warned to stay out of with your milky white skin, expensive new tyres and your fat wallets. It feels uncomfortable to have enjoyed the kemp, cliff top parks and clamouring restaurants of Miraflores and know that all that time you have been surrounded by thousands of houses, millions of people without two Sol to rub together. I suddenly feel like flinging our wallet in to the nearest open window but Robin whisks us on, anxious to try out her new shoes on the open road and leave the sad, grimy neighbourhoods behind her.
An hour or so further south after open fields and scrubby villages have replaced the Lima suburbs we drive past a bus driver being held at knife point for his wallet by two young men who tear away across the road behind us as soon as they have what they want. The bus driver stands in the dust with his hand raised, clothes askew in front of his parked bus and I realise that perhaps if I don’t throw our wallet away, we will be relieved of it anyway. Looking around the village the men have disappeared in to, it’s not hard to see how they end up with a blade pushed to someone’s stomach and a fistful of stolen money. There is nothing here but huge, bleached skies and poverty.
We should have helped him...
I say in a small voice to Jamie, realising we have just driven straight past an armed robbery.
We should….but how do we know they didn’t have a gun? What would we have done?
And I realise it is just an assumption that they only had a knife. A ridiculous image of us zooming in to the scene on Robin with the plastic prawn, toy motorbike and tiny fighter jet cable tied to the front runs through my mind. We would most likely have made an enormous scene out of one that was otherwise over quickly and pain free but it doesn’t stop me thinking about it for a long time as the sand strewn road whips by beneath us.
The Pan American Highway upon which we are riding takes us the all the through the desert, nipping inland, away from the Pacific Ocean occasionally, all the way to Nazca. We stop briefly in the strange seaside town of Paracas to look at a seal basking in human attention beneath a streetlight on the beach and to sleep for a night in a comfortable wooden shed guarded by a ridiculous dog then we are streaming through the heat of the desert again. A hot wind whistles through the metal staircase we climb to view some of the more obscure of the Nazca lines half an hour outside the town.
The sky bulges above us, stretching itself taut and white at the edges where it meets the endless, stoney sand some twenty feet below us. It’s not totally clear what the ancient pictograms cleaved in to the ground are meant to be but we gaze down at them, impressed by their exciting mystery. In true, Peruvian style, the edges of the larger image have been blurred by four by four wheels running back and fourth, gleefully erasing history in favour of Toyota. Amazingly though, the clarity of the rest of the lines is still mostly intact making Jamie wonder if they maybe lead covert missions to reinscribe them from time to time to keep the tourists flooding in. For flood they do in droves, handing over wodges of dollars and clambering in to light aircraft to swoop over the desert and admire the ancient drawings.
Quite who the artists intended these images for is a mystery. There weren’t any tourists in aeroplanes, only vengeful, bloodthirsty Gods who required constant human sacrifice in return for a fine harvest. Apparently the images can be seen from the surrounding hills so perhaps the industrious Nazca people, if not amusing the Gods, were simply heaving thousands of kilos of top stone out the way by hand to make pictures to keep their children happy. It was all done two thousand years ago so I suppose we will never know. As I stare down at an upside down eagles foot or something like that, I am put in mind of the African Cargo Cults who, having no contact with the outside world, came to worship passing aeroplanes as beautiful, sleek, winged Gods. It’s a nice thought that the Nazca people looked up to a sky empty of God Planes, squinted their eyes and thought, one day…one day….
We spend one night in Nazca during which a momentous event occurs; we find and purchase a small, blue and dangerously crap kettle in a supermarket. We leave with it triumphantly stuffed in a pannier before turning off the Pan American Highway and heading east. The road will bounce us up and down over the Southern Sierra and finally set us gently down, nine hours later, in Abancay the desert a distant memory. We crawl up the road, bristling with tight switchbacks, cautiously overtaking early morning lorries until we find ourselves on top on the whole universe. The mountainscape stretches away below us, lit soft and pillowy by the rising sun. The mustardy stubble of dry grass glows softly and we stop to take photos in the cool, new air. The road slowly takes us higher and higher on a great wedge of rock until we are shivering with cold and great herds of llama stop to watch us pass, chewing crossly then nervously stepping back from the road as Jamie beeps the horn and waves at them.
Soon, the hills take on a deep blush as iron deposits spill from the rocks and who valleys glow in a sanguinous blaze. The mountainsides are quilted in impossibly steep, neatly planted fields of potatos and beans and we pass villages populated by happy, laid back looking people chatting under the eucalyptus trees that scent the air leaking in through our helmets. The men wear thickly woven, black shawls and fedoras, the women sport stripey blankets tied around their shoulders in which they carry babies or other precious cargo. Little groups of teenagers stop talking to gaze mildly at us as we pass, sometimes raising a hand to wave.
We stop for lunch and dine on fried trout, soup and rice with steaming cups of mate to wrap our chilly, red hands around. I crunch down every last morsel of my trout under the intense scrutiny of a small boy in a woollen hat who proves that even at one year old, we know that foreigners are different from us. He is wearing a little, knitted hat and sits in a push chair next to his brother who sticks his fingers in his mouth and stares up at a variety of explosions on the tv, unaware of his younger siblings distraction. We wave goodbye when we leave but the wave isn’t returned, simply a cheerful bunching of his cheeks and his beady gaze following us out of the building.
Back on the bike, the landscape slowly descends out of the clouds and the sun fills the air with a boiling heat. Abancay appears like an architect’s nightmare in front of us and we pass two nights there in a strange hotel made up of little one bedroom apartments. The town is full of terrible, shoddy constructions clad in faux marble fascias and uneven concrete slabs upon which we walk to the main square when we get hungry. Backed by huge, beautiful and sweeping hills and crowned by a sculpture of a couple holding hands, the square is a little pocket of loveliness amongst the lurking ugliness of the surrounding buildings.
Lining one side of the square are tiny eateries run invariably by women. You get what you are given but fortunately these women can cook. Two huge plates of barbequed chicken with rice, salad and potatoes which is topped, unnecessarily with a dollop of noodles arrive in front of us and a bottle of Inca Kola with two glasses . We tackle the massive meal quietly while watching a Disney animation and dousing the delicious chicken in chilli and mayonnaise. Sipping the last of our tooth fairy’s delight down and totally defeated by the food, we drag ourselves over to pay and are relieved of all of £3 for the pleasure. We circle the square watching women packing away the Sunday market stalls and waddle back to our apartment knowing we will miss all this strangeness when we are gone but feeling strangely empty, a little bereft.
Cusco greets us cheerfully the following day. We have both been here before and point out our respective snippets of memory to one another as we stroll the handsome, cobbled streets. We weave through the stalls of the huge central market, poking at textiles and unfamiliar foodstuffs teetering in piles. Two plates of ceviche draped in a delicate embroidery of briney tasting seaweed arrive and we dutifully chow it down staring at the rows of other people bowed over their food in the clattering simmer of the market. We don’t say much as we crunch down the deep golden niblets of fried cancha corn and scooping the marinade with our spoons. We won’t admit it to one another for a couple more days but the empty feeling has followed us here to Cusco, in to the market and sits beside us watching us eat.
We are both perfectly content walking the lovely streets, squinting in through the ancient doors to peep at tiny, hidden vistas beyond or sit in a square listening to the chortle of another beautiful fountain but neither can summon the requisite interest in a museum. We walk right past the cathedral too and instead I find myself disconcertingly leading Jamie in to The Norton Rat, an English pub that overlooks the main square. There are flags of every nation covering the ceiling and I look for the Union Jack as I order two glasses of lager. Brasil, Argentina, France, Spain..UK. There it is, a little smaller than the others, I smile a small smile and hand over the cash. We settle in the warm, low lighting and sip our beer thoughtfully.
My general stance on English or Irish pubs in any other country than England or Ireland is normally one of scorn. Why bother? Can’t you wait until you get home? I always say, dismayed as tousle haired backpackers lead their gleeful way to sit with a pint of lager and play darts. But here we are, gratefully sitting with pints of lager and staring at the ceiling. Jamie’s gaze wanders over to the darts boards and the inevitable happens.
Want to play darts?
He says. And I find I do. Or if not ‘play’ darts exactly, then at least haphazardly throw darts at the floor for a spell.
It is only later when we return to our funny, cozy, shabby little hostel when we guiltily admit to each other what we are feeling. Like two balloons left taped to the ceiling after the party, a little deflated, a little droopy about the edges. Here, in this glorious old city, centre of the Inca Empire, we just want a cup of tea and a sit down. Will we walk past every fountain? Hurry through every church, museum? Have we stopped appreciating our good fortune to be here? Will it come back, that excitement of just being somewhere exotic and far, far from home?
We are indecisive with our shared thoughts, anxious to make the right decisions and the conversation peeters out without much resolve. Cusco, at least, is gorgeous as ever and makes it easy for us to forget the niggling anxieties amongst the bustle of the craft markets and beckoning cries of the traders.
Señora! What are you looking for?…baby alpaca shawl only 150…130 for you, special price..120?
We mill about prodding the soft piles of jumpers and scarves and shaking our heads as all sorts of tat is proffered. Beaded braids, belts and bags hang above us surrounded by knitted items hung on cheap hangers. Some are beautiful hand knitted alpaca, cool and dense to touch but most are fibs sold to gullible tourists.
Is this alpaca?
Yes yes 100% alpaca! Baby alpaca!
But it’s just synthetic fluff knitted into hooded jumpers, emblazoned with llamas and condors. I should know, they got me last time. Two soft, bright sweaters in real alpaca that crackled and sparked alarmingly at night. Two warm, draw stringed sweaters in alpaca as authentic as a Tory party promise. I won’t make the same mistake this time.
Instead I buy metres of woollen braid from a snatchy man in the market followed by lengths of beautiful striped fabric from a dimly lit shop heaped to the ceiling with rolls upon rolls of the stuff. The colours zap and flip against one another as I stare and stare, trying to decide which ones to buy. Eventually, the proprietor, a woman with immensely patient eyes and a wry smile hefts down a great warp of deep blue and grey followed by an eye popping reel of myriad colours dominated by a luscious emerald green. The cut sections are folded and heaped heavily in to a bag and handed over to us. Jamie dutifully takes it and tightens his jaw a little at the thought of how we will fit this stuff in to Robin’s overstuffed panniers. I send him a glance that says What? I need it. Sorry. All in one go. To be honest, I don’t know what I have bought it for, it just looked nice and cost very little. I don’t mention that and later when he asks, I shrug and murmur things about cushions which seems to satisfy him.
When we step back on the street, the silly purchases and the glass of beer, the time out in a faux England, seem to have lightened the mood and we find ourselves meandering back to the hostel to dump our bags, chatting breezily. The evenings in Cusco are delightfully chilly so I put on a bobbly, hand knitted hat I have picked out at the market and dig out the shonky kettle. It has no switch and boils at different speeds according to what room it is in. When it is ready, it gives no indication of being so other than the quiet rumble of water bubbling within it. To switch it off you just yank the plug from the socket. The noise of the water coming to the boil fills the room comfortingly and I make us both a cup of Yorkshire tea with Gloria evaporated milk. We sit with our steaming cups in the orange light of the little table lamp and read quietly. We still have more than a month until we go to Bolivia for Christmas with our friends. After that we head all the way back here to Cusco for a month with Jamie’s parents. We may be a little tired of sightseeing and homesick enough to shamelessly play darts in The Norton Rat but we have a kettle and we have Yorkshire teabags and if that’s not enough England right there, then I don’t know what is. Chin up, the adventure’s not over yet.