Lima and it’s fifty words for mist.


As the southern suburbs of Lima appeared on the hillsides to my right my first reaction was to flee. The vast blue sky and desert landscapes that had tumbled down towards the waves of the Pacific Ocean had now been replaced with grey tumble down cinderblock sheds going on for as far as the eye could see which would with every kilometer be enveloped further into a mysterious fog. Just as I had been awestruck at my first sight of Machu Picchu this too was striking but in ways that were far from picture postcard pretty. Imagine deserted shanty towns on a cloudy Mars devoid of vegetation or asphalt where the only signs of life were scruffy dogs, chimney smoke and clumps of tumbleweed while the only signs of color were brash political propoganda smeared across walls and doors screaming out candidates names like Alan! and Keiko!

As the bus travelled over dreary flyovers and into the morning rush hour I stared out into the colectivos and trucks towards the Peruvians with their expressions of severity as they did their best to ignore the clouds of carbon monoxide that swirled around and in them. I flicked through the pages of the book on my lap and opening the chapter on the city and environs sought salvation in it’s black typeset only after a few minutes to sigh in a defeated sort of way before closing the book the way you would a newspaper after reading a disturbing headline. There would be no rolling meadows or vivid singing birds here, no, not on this patch of Earth. I mentally rolled up my sleeves and reminded myself that some of my best experiences had been in the shadows of towering factories and along stark alleyways with their flickering street lamps and leaking drains. “Aim low” I whispered to myself. In doing so I would notice the treasures that would forever lie discarded in a place that was visually more pleasing. While all others would make a bolt for the airport and fly out I would remain. Like two strangers in an arranged marriage I would stick it out for the long run and waiting for the reveal, whether it be good or bad, would linger until I had uncovered the inner Lima.

Lima Love

true love near the steps of Convento San Francisco

Every evening as I had fell asleep in the city I had been serenaded by a legless blind man who would appear during the evening rush hour and taking his spot right below my hotel window would stay until every last shopper had gone home. I’m sure he had never been aware of my existence one floor above and how, eventually, it had been a ritual of mine to sit at the window and wait for his arrival. How, after making sure his faithful companion, a small limping white mongrel, had curled up amongst the spokes of his wheelchair I would throw open the windows to let his compositions fill the room and slipping into a bubble bath would ponder love and it’s futility. Most nights I would eventually doze off to the musician and his grand finale, the theme from The Godfather and marvelling at the irony would by transported back to a summer’s day in Amsterdam when my former lover had drove along in his new status symbol while that theme tune, of of his favorites, had played from the car stereo.

Religion in Peru

Santo Domingo Lima

Santo Domingo

Every morning I would awaken to concrete and fog and in particular the color grey and marvel at it’s abundance of tones. Lima stirs under the monochrome landscapes like a vast ashen Pompeii brought to life again in the modern era. Like the bow of a ship jutting out into the Pacific it’s passengers seem to stare out aimlessly in search of greener pastures. Below the waves the sealions are at home here as millions of sardines are dragged by the upswell created by the Humboldt current where cold water creates the endless mist which the Limeños call the garua. I didn’t much care for scientific explanations prefering to gaze at the sky and agree with the other Limeños who fondly call the sky the donkey’s belly and how the city seemed trapped under it’s stubborn hooves. I often wondered how the world’s second largest desert city after Cairo could be so dismal and would often picture Edvard Munch’s The Scream to a Peruvian backdrop only this time as a charcoal imitation as it’s sodden kohl slipped off the paper into droplets of drizzle before eventually fading into the ocean itself. Remembering the people of the hills and how they complain it takes ten days for their washing to dry I wondered if they had 50 words for mist.

After dressing breakfasts were always the same sitting amongst Chinese atheletes visiting Peru for a sporting event I was always struck by the feelings of abstract strangeness to be the only non-Asian guest in a huge chandelier filled room on the fringes of South America. Abstract strangeness in an abstract city.

Lima Centro Historico

Old Lima

Lima Convent

At ten Roberto would wait for me in the lobby. At first I had dreamed of being like the Limeños and holding on for dear life I had traveled along Avenida Arequipa by dented combi while admiring their dashboard shrines to Mary and christened with names like Jesús Mi Salvador I would feel invigorated before the chaos of the Centro Historico would drag my moods down into something more humdrum. After a few days of doing this the crush and exhaust fumes became tiresome and always ending up beyond where I was trying to get to I would have to wander around trying to explain my predicament in broken Spanish. I had been warned of the abundance of express kidnappings by taxi drivers and how an Australian tourist had fought back before being shot in the stomach for her efforts. In a city where taxis were a dime a dozen how odd it seemed that they should be avoided. Some days I would get into the Centro Historico by combi and at the end of my jaunts would walk over to the Marriot where the doorman would arrange a safe taxi for me to get back to my hotel. In the end however Roberto was always the best option. A friend of the concierge he was always punctual and spoke immaculate English. Often I would hire him for the day in doing so keeping my stress levels and grey hairs to the absolute minimum.

Guard in Lima

guard outside the government building

Lima ptotests

unhappy pensioners protesting along Jirón Carabaya

Some travelers to Lima seem to think that the city is Miraflores, a wealthy glass and chrome district looking out onto the Pacific full of home comforts and levels of safety more on par with home. I knew for one that I had no interest in visiting Miraflores and had only mild interest in visiting the bohemian quarter of Barranco instead gravitating towards the Centro Historico to the north. The cities original core and once the most powerful city of the Americas, The City of Kings as it was known in it’s heyday was now reduced to crumbling colonial buildings where beggars, thieves and machine gun toting soldiers loitered on the street corners while sad florists stared into the petals they were trying to sell. A place choked with car fumes and shouting protestors an air of deep religious devotion hung in the air where it’s citizens between shopping for distressed jeans and cheap Chinese appliances would throw letters full of dreams into the well at Santa Rosa or clutching rosemary beads would light candles infront of the image of Jesus painted by a slave while nearby from illuminated glass boxes stuffed with money laughing dolls would stare out at the downtrodden reminding them that there was indeed something called happiness. A city straddling a fault line destroyed many times over I often wondered what the people saw in the foresaken arid landscapes and why they hadn’t abandoned the former City of Kings centuries ago.

Plaza Mayor Lima

Archbishop’s Palace and the Cathedral

Peruvian schoolgirls

interviewed about my trip to Peru

Plaza San Martin

walking through Plaza San Martín

Life revolves between and on the two main squares San Martín and Plaza Mayor and the Limeños will often ask you which one you prefer. At first glance I liked the mango-colored Plaza Mayor with it’s wonky brass band at 11am, it’s trimmed palm trees and beautiful squat Cathedral where one afternoon I sat on it’s steps looking on bemused as El Presidente and his convoy of bodyguards (plus one ambulance) snaked it’s way around the square before driving into the government’s compound. This square was full of life but later I decided I liked the ivory-colored Plaza San Martín more. Understated and quite European with it’s elegant alcoves and naked sanguine nymphs who danced under the statue of José de San Martín who was portrayed on horseback while he crossed the Andes. I spent a good deal of time on this square sipping tea and enjoying the feeling of almost being in a southern Europe of the Seventies or with the amount of soldiers a fascist dictatorship in turmoil. Amongst all of this were dilapidated skyscrapers tagged in grafitti and sixties office blocks cloaked in layers of grime, hole-in-the-wall shops selling religious icons, beggars, posh cars, beat-up cars, nuns, monks and ofcourse the loiterers.

Best smiles in Lima

give me your best smiles!

Across a trash strewn stream called the Rimac River is an area called Rimac where I walked around one day unable to decide if it could be beautiful or would forever remain a rundown ghetto. Climbing to the top of the hill in Rimac called San Cristobal I looked down onto the slums of Rimac and across to the Centro Historico. Behind it loomed the massive sprawl of Lima itself fading off into a haze of smog, dust, sand and mist from the ocean and realising it could never be loved I had felt defeated by the city.

One afternoon while waiting at traffic lights a scary looking man appeared and while waving a grimy rag over Roberto’s car had tried to peer into the tinted windows looking at me and for the valuables I had. He knew that I knew we were both thinking the same thing. Smash and grab. Luckily I had followed advice and hid my bag and camera under the passenger seat infront. Almost getting arrested with Roberto added to the drama of Lima and another time when he almost hit and knocked down an old lady who was jaywalking, luckily she stumbled and managed to regain her balance. I can’t say that I loved Lima or even liked it but it was anything but boring. My top recommendation for Lima is to go into the underground vault of the Archaeology and History Museum and marvel at the gold. There in that moment confronted with it’s glistening jewels Peru and everything I had experienced fell into place as something incredibly special, truly the Land of Gold.

Policia Lima

at the Palacio on Plaza Mayor

At first I didn’t like Peruvians but it’s because I didn’t understand them. I’m reserved, they are reserved so there was no balance. I could hear whispers of “gringa” while walking around, this word supposedly derogatory meaning foreigner or stranger I wanted them to see me only as human. After much thought one morning I realised the only way to overcome the stigma was to step out of my comfort zone and to own this label, to be like they expected, an excited lost traveler. That day and everyday until I left I unlocked their shyness and rocked what it means to be a stranger in Peru, laughing and talking to anyone who would bother I bathed in their smiles, their frustrations and dreams.

Letters to Santa Rosa Lima

letters to Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa

You are still wondering about that time Roberto and I were almost arrested. Okay, I will tell you. Even towards my last moments in Lima it was dramatic. Staring into Roberto’s eyes he pleaded with me in that silent sort of way not to blow his cover after we had been stopped by a rogue motorbike cop while on the way to the airport. It became quite evident that Roberto didn’t have a license to be a guide or to even drive tourists around. The agent was everything you would imagine a clichéd South American policeman to be; chewing gum, obnoxious and wearing mirrored sunglasses he sauntered around us now and again adjusting his groin area demanding to know my relationship with Roberto. Threatening me with jail if he found out I was lying he demanded to know Roberto’s surname to prove I knew him more than on a business level. It was Roberto’s silent expressions of fear that signalled to me that he was in grave danger so racking my brains, shaking and feeling quite faint I blurted out “Goya!” That artist saved me from missing my flight, from being arrested, from the police finding out that Roberto was on the run after absconding from military service and that he didn’t have a license to drive tourists around. It’s strange, days before Roberto had handed me his business card and nonchalantly noticing his surname was the same as the Spanish artist without much thought I had stuffed it away in my purse.

Walking into the airport terminal with Roberto I realised we had in some way bonded, that we had been vulnerable and at the mercy of what Roberto later told me was an agent looking for a bribe. I noticed that about Peru. After getting through the closed façades people were in general immensely open and rarely afraid to talk about their dreams and faults and what’s most important that it felt real, not like in other places where everything seems like alterior motives to get money.

Somewhere over the north Atlantic the French group I was sitting amongst were upset, repeating the word “Paris” over and over again. Walking with my luggage across Amsterdam I noticed that the city seemed different, more uptight and deserted. It wasn’t until I was home after switching on my television I realised there had been a major incident in Paris and that it had been happening while I was boarding my flight home. Everything changed that day. Before the world had been a place to size up, with various degrees of safety it had been easy to cross off the risky places but after Paris I realised that many places have now levelled out. At the start of my journey Peru had seemed a far riskier place than home but now I realised I lived in the danger zone.

Reminiscing about Peru now it seems distant and cherished, away up there above the cloud cover where sleepy villagers watch sunlight dance across mountain peaks and people tend to their animals as they always have done while remaining forever soft spoken and gentle. That’s what I love about that country. Almost innocent, Peru seems lost in time but at the same time forthright traveling at it’s own pace far removed from the turbulence of the modern world.

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Creeped out in Cusco


It must have been on one of those mornings while walking along the trecherously steep lanes of San Blas with their speeding rusty deathtraps and lack of sidewalk that I began to realise all was not well with this great Andean city. It could have been the scene of a backpacker ogling the plain, grey Incan walls on Hatunrumiyoc or the tortured expressions of a toothless beggar lurking in the shadow of the Templo de la Compañia de Jesús. Maybe it was the brightly colored pebbles and voodoo dolls on sale at the Witch Market or the advertisement for a lobotomized skeleton being displayed at the Inka Museum. It could have been while brushing off agressive-looking girls handing out flyers for massage or staring up at the twisted statues of Christs-in-agony clad in makeup and bouffant wigs that first sent a shiver down my spine. Like all great tales this imperial city too has a darkside and while trying your best to avoid it, in the end it will draw you in adding to the mystique that is Cusco.

Lovers in Cusco

lovers infront of the Sagrada Familia

The city is a paradox. Crumbling away in it’s pained beauty it’s impossible not to fall in love with it; like Isfahan, Delhi, Lisbon and New York easily joining the list of my greatest cities on Earth. If you ever walk through the main square Plaza de Armas sit on a bench and absorb the incredible Latin American streetscapes going on around you to a backdrop of church bells and hawkers, shoeshiners and beady-eyed cops, monks, nuns and struggling artists with their briefcases of tumbling canvases their watercolours seem to contrast sharply against the mammoth grey stones the relics of the Inca and the foundations of every building. Look around you and realise you are in the Bamiyan, the Palmyra of the 16th Century. A city blown to pieces by an incoming people with a surreal ideology and a concept called Christianity these invaders had a penchant for gold. Later Raqqa-esque horrors were played out on this very square when the rebel leader Túpac Amaru II was tied to four horses before being ripped apart and later beheaded his limbs sent to the four corners of the empire as a warning. The fort looming in the distance, Saksaywaman, was stormed and destroyed too by the marauding carriers of the strange flag. It was easier for them to destroy it claiming such megalithic wonders could never have been constructed by the peoples of the Andes but had obviously been made by the hands of demons. That glint of gold above the fountain blinding you on the main square, that is a recent addition, a statue of the Incan Sapi Pachacuti and a source of friction within the city of now. Some say it ruins the Colonial vista of the Plaza de Armas while their opponents argue the statue has a right to be there a representation of the Incan history and the former city. Then there is the Iglesia de El Triunfo, named in celebration by the Spanish of Incan defeat. Walk the other way along Mantas towards La Merced and stare in awe at it’s 25 kilo sparkling jem encrusted monstrance then wonder about the origins of it’s gold which seem rather conveniently shrouded in mystery. You might leave with a sour taste in your mouth.

Cusco statue

I was born like a lily in the garden

and like the lily I grew

and like the lily I will wither and die.

– Pachacutec

Sagrada Familia Cusco

detail of the Sagrada Familia

Priest in Cusco

walking in Cusco

Street sign Cusco

award for the world’s most beautiful street signs goes to Cusco

Street Cusco

typical Cusco, just beautiful, Incan foundations under Spanish buildings

Cusco was already a legend before the Conquistadors arrived. A mystical place full of palaces and gold the streets were planned out in the shape of a puma, an animal sacred to the Inca. Even today climb to the top of Pukamuqu and stare down towards the roofs of the old city and tilting your head you might be able to make out the shape of the predatory mammal. The view from here is incredible with it’s sea of sloping roofs of glistening ochre that seem tangled up in the wires of telecommunications and electricity of exhaust fumes and neon, the redstone church towers act like lighthouses to guide the lost and the pretty squares the islands of life. There in the space the reserved Peruvians move carefully like yachts on a stormy ocean their sails are bright, rainbow coloured and vibrant the souls they confine distant and mysterious.

Quechua and Colonial

Quechua and Colonial

Cusco Cathedral

Cusco Cathedral and a section of Iglesia El Triunfo

One morning I walked across Cusco invigorated by the fact that I was finally over altitude sickness. As I walked while listening to Gato Barbieri’s song “Túpac Amaru” on my iphone I felt both so far from home yet relaxed as if I was lounging through my own neighbourhood on a summers day. Infront of the Cathedral there was a hive of activity. It’s huge sluis-like seaweed-colored doors were thrown open and awash with humanity flowing out into the square while others worked their way upstream and towards the shimmering cove of candlelight and perfume while a sermon blared out from huge speakers. A beggar with pleading eyes knelt at the door and tried her best to block the pious flow but seemed to spend most of her time trying to conceal the coins that were being tossed into her lap literally by the second. To the congregation it seemed she had nothing when infact I worked out she was probably earning more than the parishers. Cusco Cathedral was quite simply gorgeous. Often described as less ornate that the other great church on the square it was the theatricals of the Cathedral that had me in awe. Definitely my favorite church in Peru with it’s blackened Christ cloaked in centuries of soot from burning rose petals it in turn was being watched by large doll-like statues like Barbies from the dark ages turned out in kaleidescopic colors and costly textiles adorned with flowers, jewels and dripping with rosemary beads reminding me of the cities flamboyant style of art, the Cusco School, or from modern times like a drunk Liberace who had haphazardly got caught up in a display at the Vatican. A sucker for the camp, movies of the thirties and the repartee of Quentin Crisp with his fleeting fads it was only destiny that I would be drawn to the high drama of the Cathedral like a moth to a flame.

Iglesia Compania de Jesus

Iglesia Compania de Jesus

Cusco altar

Martin de Porres

Across the square on the steps of the Andean baroque Templo de la Compañia de Jesús an angelic cloud of white cloth hovered. A group of girls in Communion dresses milled around looking bored the way you would waiting for a delayed train a Clapham Junction. The girls seemed oblivious to the pride that surrounded them, their family and friends wiping away tears of joy. The perplexed expressions of the girls is one of the things that remains with me the most from Peru. Like a Punjabi girl leaving her parents home for the last time on her wedding day I wondered if here too these girls too were expected to portray expressions of heartbreak or maybe they just wanted to be at home dressed in jeans while scrolling on Facebook I’m not quite sure. As mysterious to me as ancient Andean rituals those bored girls will be a conundrum forever unbroken. Nearby was an altar of Martin de Porres, a Saint who had lived in Peru and was said to have performed miracles. Even a quarter of a decade after death the legend goes that his corpse still smelled of sweet flowers. Devoted he had suggested his elders sell him when their monastery was experiencing financial difficulties describing himself as nothing but a “simple mulatto”. Today he is the patron saint of the mixed races. A lesson in humility for us all.

Cusco Communion

sad girls and crying relatives at Communion

Company of Jesus

the 8.57 delayed again…!

My favorite square was the Plaza Regocijo with it’s lush greenery it seemed quieter than the Plaza de Armas but just as magnificent. I walked into the nearby Convento de San Francisco and seeming like the only visitor there wandered around impressed by the cedar altar and stone cloister while marvelling at the ornate paintings from the Cusco School, those ornate garments and floating angels taking me to the ethereal. In a far-flung corner of the Convent I noticed stone steps leading down through a hole in the floor into what could only be described as the pits of hell; nothing but an eerie black void you would expect more in line with Amityville than a religious building. I decided to walk down the steps anyway just to flash my camera to see what was down there and to my horror while fumbling with my camera settings in the dark I could hear something shuffling around me scraping metal on stone. The hairs on my neck stood up and I ran back upstairs questioning my sanity for even wanting to go down there in the first place. It didn’t help that I then stumbled into an alcove to be confronted by a skeleton peering out of an open coffin with bones decorating the wall. I half expected the mummified grandma on a rocking chair like that scene out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I wondered what sort of weird rituals were going on there at night as the bones had candles around them but decided I didn’t want to hang around to find out. It reminded me of the last time I was that scared while walking alone around an empty Auschwitz in the middle of winter (I know, what was I thinking?) when approaching the small wooded area where the ashes from the crematorium were thrown into the grey pool of water I could sense children whispering and giggling as if playing hide and seek behind the trees and the feeling of eyes watching me filled me with dread. Auschwitz is huge but as I walked and sometimes ran to find the exit I never looked back once.

Skeleton Cusco

Convent of San Francisco

beyond the creep factor – it was time to leave

I had once read somewhere that in Latin America images of the suffering of Jesus are to our eyes disturbing, mangled, crushed and over-the-top and the reason being that there the people suffered more than we could ever imagine, their depictions of suffering increasing tenfold. In Europe we suffered too but still there in Cusco the churches did have an intensity and the people a religious fervor far more than where I live. As if struggling for answers and reassurance they seemed to hold onto God more than what we do. These days in Europe churches are closing at an unprecedented rate and sadly children are being tucked into bed with ipads instead of prayers.

Suffering. As the bus climbed up into the shanty towns and made it’s way out of the city I peered out from the window down towards the Centro Histórico absorbing my last glimpses knowing I would never see it again. Suddenly like being struck by a bolt of lightning I saw a middle-aged man squatting down in the busy street using the gutter as a toilet while looking broken, ashamed and helpless. There is something really sobering and upsetting about such a scene. As if seeing your dad cry for the first time my raw instinct was to burst into tears, for him, for humanity.

I had felt so gullable believing a local who told me people had it good living in the houses on the hill. I had slept well on my boxspring mattrass in a protected bubble living the life of a gringa believing that the Peruvians had it good. How ignorant I had been. As the city slipped away behind the snowcapped mountains I realised I knew nothing of those beautifully soft spoken people, of their suffering and of Cusco itself.

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The little warrior of the Altiplano.


As the side of the mountain began to collapse that same primal, inner voice that I had last heard during the Northridge earthquake began to scream through my mind repeating the same word over and over: “Reverse! Reverse! Reverse!”

I had been staring from the window of the colectivo at the wingspans of two birds circling in a serpentine sliver of blue above the gorge trying to work out if they were condors when I began to notice small dust particles slipping away from the rock face before large sections began to break off in chunks crashing onto the road below, the road that I was travelling along. My iphone which I had tried to grab to record the scene suddenly became irrelevant as I realised I was in a life threatening situation. I managed to scan the area quickly realising the inauspiciousness of my location, the road hemmed in between a river and cliff before the bus was suddenly enveloped in a thick, acrid dust cloud. The other passengers some who had at first laughed when the mountain side gave way were now eerily silent waiting for fate to reveal itself. I’m sure that when the man sitting beside me began to mumble to himself he must have been praying. When the dust eventually cleared another man, a mestizo, stood outside my window pointing to the mountain waving his finger angrily at it, at Pachamama, the Quechua Mother Earth. The most disturbing thing about what I had witnessed was not the landslide itself but realising after the road had been cleared that we, the passengers on the bus, were deemed as human beings a less valuable cargo than the contents of two trucks which were now reversing back down the road away from the danger zone.

Andes Mountains

at the colectivo stop

As the bus climbed further across the face of danger my thoughts were now consumed by geology, eyeing rocks and stones only breathing a sigh of relief when approaching rolling farmland. The landscapes eventually changed altogether as we travelled across a vast steppe, the Altiplano, which seemed to slope downwards at a slight angle away from the road suddenly ending at a mountain range far off in the distance. This mountain range, Urupampa, was topped off by Sawasiray, at almost six thousand metres it loomed majestically above all other mountains like a blackened quartz crystal being thrust out from the inner core of the Earth reaching high into the stars and towards the heavens. I looked in awe at it’s snow covered peak and was aware that this was the last great bulk of the Andes and the only thing seperating me from the malaria infested swamps of the Amazon basin behind the mountain thousands of feet below.




Andean village life

Maras Peru

Maras village

photos of sleepy Maras

The colectivo dropped me off in the main square of a village where I had planned to stay, my main plan being to walk to Salinas, ancient salt mines some distance away in use since the time of the Inca. Sitting in the silence of Maras’ main square I was reminded of the rundown towns of the indigenous North Americans I had travelled through in Arizona and New Mexico with their tumbleweed and the same oblivion to the outer world which here felt very faraway. The main square would have been quite unremarkable had it not been for the sobering image of the mangled shell of a colectivo which must have somersaulted at high speed somewhere else only for the wreckage to be dragged into the village and left to rust infront of the steps of a small red stone church not that much larger than a garden shed. I realised with Maras that it was what I had been searching for, rather forgotten, authentic, and most of all Quechuan it seemed a million miles from the other more colorful towns like Pisac and Ollantaytambo I had visited, unfortunately all firmly on the tourist trail.

Andean wildlife

inhabitant of Maras

Walking through narrow lanes of simple homes some at the point of collapse I sneakily peeked through the shutters of windows, some without glazing, to homesteads of rickety furniture like something out of Little House on the Prairie, the dwellings rudimentary without even floorboards nevermind rugs. Along one lane I could hear music, a quivering solitary voice and his sad lament, the tin string notes of what could have been a lute quite alien to my ears. I didn’t sense any danger in the village but at the same time it didn’t seem very friendly either, just resigned to it’s sleepy fate. I could sense the people behind the walls, venerating their mountain spirits the apu and mysterious in their silence, steeped in superstition and witchcraft.


gracias amiga … gracias!

I passed a woman who had set up a metal barbecue frame on her doorstep where she was selling what I thought were large rats, she told me their name which I noted as q-oui later when accessing wifi I realised it was spelt cuy translated as guinea pig. On another doorway I noticed a red rag tied to the end of a wooden pole, the regions advertising for chicha, a red corn-based alcohol-free beverage that at first tastes remotely like strawberry but with a sour aftertaste that is impossible to describe and in the end I found unbearable to drink.

Along one lane I became quite startled at the face of an old woman carrying a bundle on her back. She was dressed in the traditional clothes of the Quechua but not as vivid or clean like the ones you would see in Cusco. I was instantly reminded of an old man I had once saw in Vrindavan. Like him the lines on her face seemed intense and windswept unable to conceal a life lived of love and loss. Hestitantly staring into her piercing, deepset black eyes I tried to explain that I would like to photograph her. I somehow expected her to be mad feeling I might be overstepping the customs of the villagers but in the softest voice of staggering beauty she said in Spanish “Yes my girlfriend, you are most welcome to photograph me.” Afterwards I slipped some silver coins into her hands which she took one by one and kissed saying “Gracias amiga, gracias.” I couldn’t help but admire her with the deepest respect as she walked away towards the town square under her bundles of cloth and life.

A little later a young boy of about ten saw me from an upper window of one of the houses and quickly disappearing excitedly reappeared running out of the doorway below carrying a small bundle of jangling metal. Suddenly he stopped running and stared down at the ground shuffling his shoes in the dust. Realising he must have been overcome with shyness I approached him and asked what he was holding. He showed me simple keyrings, just a square of silver metal with the word Peru inscribed; I bought some from him. Although I didn’t want the keyrings in particular the real happiness came watching him run back to his house shouting with joy and waving the green ten soles banknote in the air.


barbecued guinea pig anyone…?

Salinas Peru

salt mines at Salinas, find the man wearing red trousers!

Salt mines Peru


Walking to Salinas along a dusty trail that a villager had advised me to follow as the homes faded I walked across cultivated land the magnitude of the landscapes quite remarkable. Althought the vastness made me think of farmland more at sea level gasping for oxygen reminded me that I was thousands of metres above. Sometime later I became startled at something moving behind a wall giving me thoughts of dread as I had never researched the possibility of carnivores like mountain cats in Peru. Thankfully a small smiling face appeared under an indigo blue woolly hat. The girl appeared excited as she rushed over to me speaking in an unfamiliar language as happy to see me as I her. Although young she seemed to have a firm dislike of Spanish words pointing repeatedly to herself and saying the word Quechua proudly over and over. This simple interaction across cultures, languages and generations was my greatest moment in Peru. Laughing I tried to explain that she must try to speak Spanish or English for the ways of the world but to always remember she is Quechua first and foremost. Like the other Quechua I had spoke to I could understand their pain myself coming from a country where our own mother tongue had been obliterated. I felt an intense bond with the indigenous peoples and their struggles against the Spanish whom after invasion killed their Emperor, Atawallpa, looted their wealth while destroying their infrastructure and even their Imperial capital, Qosqo. Bringing smallpox which killed millions these seismic facts are often brushed away as distant history but it is evident that this pain and the consequences of a foreign, parasitic society is not distant history but live on in the people today. Recently under the Fujimori government the Quechua were targeted again only this time under a forced sterilization program and had the highest number of casualities in the Peruvian civil war of the Eighties. I thought Peru would have been an incredible introduction to South America which it was but I left with a heart far heavier than when I had arrived. If I ever pass through the great European cities again with their elegant restaurants, fine architecture and wealth I will forever remember the face of that little girl living on the Altiplano with pride burning in her eyes and of all the Quechua, one of the greatest peoples I have ever known.


the proud Quechua girl outside Maras

Caught up in thoughts of life and heartbreak I realised how much I was in my element being alone in those vast alien spaces, the silence only broken by random interactions with random people. History was cruel I decided. People were better to photograph, to be amazed at, to laugh with but my greatest love from now on could never be a person, never again. That sort of love was too fleeting, too painful, too primative, too unstable.

While sitting on a wall in what seemed like the middle of nowhere staring across golden patchwork fields of swaying barley caught in the breeze I noticed tiny black specks far off in the distance. Unable to work out if they were people or animals I realised I didn’t need to find out. I had my answers in the mountains and their forbode, in the rain and light and only from time to time in the eyes of strangers.

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Enduring Machu Picchu.


Cusco from Plaza San Blas

Bleary eyed and muddled after an overnight journey from the capital Abril and I grabbed each other as we made our way through Cusco’s bus station disturbed by the image that lay infront of us. Cusco bus station, Terminal Terrestre, was not a forgotten backwater like I had expected but a chaotic jumble of long distance coaches, some with complementary smashed windscreens to a backdrop of burning trash, stray dogs and red brick walls topped off with upright broken bottles acting as a deterrent. Inside, the windowless terminal was no better. A drunk man made his way through the waiting passengers insulting anyone who made eye contact with him while others (who set off alarm bells in me) lurked, their only interest the luggage of others. In the middle of all of this a young woman with expressions of suffering and silence lovingly pushed one of her breasts into the mouth of a wailing infant, like two fallen angels the scene and it’s beauty seemed out of place in the battered bus station. On a large flatscreen television above their heads Peruvian music blared out, the singer rapping while pointing to a naked woman, the person behind the camera focusing on her twerking plump bottom immodestly covered by the most miniscule strip of cloth. On a balcony above all of this police watched the passengers below, now and again blowing on whistles and shouting at the unruly, giving the bus station the feeling of being a prison that was on the verge of a riot.

Although we were practically strangers who had met during the journey from Lima, passing through the bus station it was comforting to have Abril. An Economics student in her early twenties, bookish and insecure she was typically the type of woman who had in the past latched onto me while travelling solo. Sometime in the night Abril had blurted out her life story while sobbing into a hankerchief, how her youth had been ruined by an overdomineering mother whom she had suspected of being a nymphomaniac and how, feeling insignificant in her mother’s shadow, she had decided to escape, to flee Mexico City overland to Bolivia where she heard that her father, one of her mother’s quick flings and whom she had never met, was working in a mine. I decided not long after meeting Abril that she was not neurotic or unbalanced but had simply snapped due to the endurance demanded of long distance bus journeys, this chance encounter giving her a moment to unload her emotional baggage. Feeling protective and putting her under my wing I suggested we share a taxi up to the neighbourhood of San Blas where I had booked a hotel, maybe she could find a room there we decided.

My first moments driving through downtown Cusco were not staring dreamily out at streetscapes of llamas and cobbled lanes but having a glossy brochure for daytrips to the Sacred Valley rammed in my face by an dangerous looking man dressed sinisterly in a black leather jacket who must have been unsure whether he was a tour guide or a taxi driver. After I politely declined he had continued with his hard sell when (as I was employing him to drive me) I had labelled him as rude and ignored him altogether. Abril on the other hand seemed upbeat and unburdened and began blurting out again, this time promises and enthusiasm her expressions changing to momentary confusion when I told the taxi driver vaguely that I didn’t know where I was staying. Later I advised Abril not to tell so much personal information to people who obviously had alterior motives.


Carmen Alto Street, my hotel has the white flags


View of Saksayhuaman from my hotel room.

San Blas was everything I had hoped for. Bohemian, colourful, eccentric and not quite hippie or hipster. Artisan galleries and artsy eateries seemed to thrive on every street corner, hole-in-the-wall travel agencies offered trips to the Amazon jungle, deserts and mountain peaks while small grocery stores were thankfully targeting the foreign traveller with Western and European products. It had a transient, exciting feel like one of my favorite neighbourhoods, Paharganj, only without the Delhi-belly and food poisoning. Abril had decided at first glance that my hotel was out of her price range and we decided to meet later that night. I never saw her again.

San Blas Church

On the steps of San Blas Church

Most travellers advise taking it easy when arriving in Cusco with it’s high altitudes and spend the first day lounging around the hotel. I knew that I still had enough oxygen in my blood to keep going for a few more hours. I decided I must attempt to get to Machu Picchu, the infamous Incan citadel. Being a thousand metres lower than Cusco it would be an ideal remedy should I be struck with altitude sickness.

Some travellers book a trip to Machu Picchu months ahead worried entrance and train tickets sell out which they often do. Following my intuition and hesitance about what the “World Wonder” was really like I realised I was not so keen on visiting myself. I had decided to leave it in the hands of fate and resigned myself to the fact that if I did indeed find an entry ticket then I must go or forever wonder if I had missed out. I walked into the first travel agency I found and announced that I wanted to visit Machu Picchu the following day. Typing into the computer quite manically the woman working behind the desk looked worried and told me to give her $250 before saying something in Spanish that I couldn’t quite understand and bolting out the door. The travel agency was little more than a desk in a room, the tiny space shared by a currency exchange and another counter selling cigarettes, postcards and other knik-knaks. After seeing the scams in Delhi I did wonder if it was all some sort of elaborate hoax but the woman selling cigarettes assured me everything would be okay. Half an hour later the woman who had my money appeared with a grin from ear to ear proudly waving my train and entry tickets in the air. She told me I had got the last train seat available for the following day and that I should set my alarm for 3am.

1am. I never panic but I did when I woke in my hotel room. The day before had been a daze due to lack of sleep so I don’t think I really had time to process where I was. I remember waking confused, all I knew was that I was in a dark room unable to breathe properly and worried that I might have been in a bar sometime the previous evening where my drink had been spiked. I was aware of lying on a mattrass half naked and unsure if someone else was in the room. Panicking I stumbled around the swaying room trying to find a light switch unable to remember anything about the layout of the room, stubbing a toe on furniture increased my panic even more so. As the memories of the day before began to seep back into my consciousness I realised that the pounding noise was actually a headache, a symptom of altitude sickness along with disorientation and breathlessness. I realised while brushing my hair lethargically that my arms were unnaturally heavy, weakness being another symptom.

6.30am. After a two hour drive in the back of a freezing minibus through charming Peruvian villages on the cusp of dawn the other tourists and I arrived at a town called Ollantaytambo where we would catch the tourist train to Machu Picchu. The trip from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu village is billed as one of the world’s most incredible train journeys but the two German speaking women arguing in the carriage were distracting me from the scenery which was from what I noticed pretty but could not compare to the landscapes the bus had travelled through the day before. At the railway terminus we were led through a tourist market, the stalls stacked high with rainbow-colored textiles to a backdrop of bright Quechua smiles before crossing a rickety bridge and into the village itself. The location of the village, Machu Picchu Pueblo, was stunning. Nestled like a sleeping baby protected in the arms of small but steep sugarloaf mountains the village seemed to exist without a care in the world only now and again stirring to gaze towards it’s magnificent river which was too busy tumbling down from the High Andes to notice anything at all. The barrage of water sped around the rocks like salmon, rushing and glistening like a bolt of lightning determined to follow it’s own course before disappearing dramatically around the base of a mountain. Although the village looked modern I wished I had opted to stay just for the location itself. The bus drive up towards the ruins was one of the most memorable drives I have ever taken in my life. At every turn in the steep switckback road the bus climbed higher before the pueblo and river were enveloped in a thick blanket of mist which was travelling quickly through the valley. My attention was now drawn towards the emerald green birds, swooping through the dense vegetation they would meet on branches chirping no doubt about the latest gossip that was sweeping the jungle and it’s fauna.


Llama Machu

Llama mist

My photos of Machu Picchu

I decided my first view of the ruins would be from the vantage point high above the site with the complete complex below like you see in all the tourism photos so after passing the entrance area I broke away from the crowds and took the narrow pathway immediately to the left slightly concealed between bushes where I started the steep climb. Gasping for air I would pause, clutching onto walls and bushes at one point letting a llama with her cria pass by. At the end of the trail I came out into an area which can only be described as the innards of a cloud, nothing but thick white mist in all directions my only connection to Earth the path on which I was standing. I found a large boulder and sat for quite a while eating a breakfast of apples, Dutch cheese and some Dutch chocolate like an excited child waiting for a pantomine show to start unsure whether the whims of Mother Nature would let it begin at all. Slowly Machu Picchu began to appear like the most incredible theatre production imaginable. Full of suspence a tug-of-war played out between man and nature, mist and stone, before the clouds were shooed off stage and behind the high ridge of Huanya Picchu giving the citadel, a treasure of our world, a chance to bathe in the spotlights. The three excited girls from Uruguay who were sitting near me for once stopped talking and just stared down towards the site. I was aware that we were all taken aback, unsure, awestruck, speechless. Before I could fully process what I was seeing one of the Uruguyans laughed nervously, squealed, jumped up and grabbed her phone with selfie stick. Earlier I thought her quite pretty but now she distorted her face and pouted like a grimmacing, psychotic serial killer, jostling through a French tour group she flipped her hair to the side adamant to show that she was the real star of the show. My view was blocked by the tour group and I knew that the moment was over. Stepping over plastic trash and through rude school groups I made my way down to the site’s central area where a woman lay crumpled on the ground with blood streaming from her nose. Her companion, a middle aged man, helped her to her feet while reminding the unfortunate woman that it was all her idea to come to what he described as “this God forsaken country” and that he would have been happier staying at home in Boise.

I realised with World Wonders that my experience has little to do with seeing them (as their images are repeated everywhere) but has more to do with the experience of being there which often, unfortunately, is like being at a circus full of boisterous testosterone-fueled spectators. As I  passed wardens blowing on whistles and shouting at people who were climbing on the ruins I couldn’t help but admire some of the elder travellers, the ones who oozed elegance dressed sensibly in khaki. Like something out of an old Katharine Hepburn movie they seemed to appreciate and understand the site far more, surveying what our ancestors had left us most probably aware that they were themselves about to bow out of life, leaving everything in the hands of the Instagrammers. Machu Picchu not only has to do with the past but has everything to do with the present. There you begin to understand that it acts like a viewing platform into the society of now whether you like it or not.

I realised that it was time to leave and pausing at the Sun Temple I touched the grey walls one last time remembering that first awestruck, silent, moment I had witnessed earlier in the day. Clutching onto those thoughts like a precious jewel forever saved as a golden moment in my memory, in the timeline of my life, I followed the crowds towards the exit.

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Miracle on the Pan-American Highway.


Roadside south of Lima

It was just after dawn as I walked along the street to a wonky symphony of car klaxons. Inhaling exhaust fumes and dodging the cars stuck on Avenida Javier Prado my knees buckled under the weight of my overpacked backpack. Glancing at the facial features of the drivers I realised I really was in South America, thousands of miles from home and everything familiar and that I was alone, my only companion being Kermis, my beloved goodluck mascot.

So far Lima had been a blur. Arriving the evening before the cab had made it’s way along scary ill-lit grafitti-covered streets, mostly abandoned except for the odd pile of burning trash and sinister shadows lurking unnaturally in doorways. I would return to Lima and mentally made a note to myself never to walk in that area, day or night. I had only glimpsed the cities historical heart, Centro, from the cab window as we made our way along Avenida Wilson and around Paseo de la República and already it had seemed fascinating, Latin American, the smell of fried food from the street stalls had wafted it’s way through the car’s ventilation system sending my appetite into overdrive.

I had opted to stay in the shiny new business district of San Isidro purely because it was near to the bus company terminal. Due to excitement and possibly the different timezones it was around 4am when I managed to doze off when a drunk man woke me up after five. I couldn’t help but giggle as I watched him stagger along the empty street six floors below, his tipsy song sung in Spanish directed at a lamppost which he had kissed a number of times before he stumbled on, his melody booming around the canyons created by the glass skyscrapers for quite a while. In a way he had seemed fantastically rebellious amongst those posh buildings and expensive cars, as if he had just stepped out of another era adamant to show that even though the buildings change and may be futuristic the image of a drunk man will forever remain. I can’t remember the last time I had witnessed such a scene but knew it must have been in the 20th Century. I wondered where he was going and hoped for his sake he was not off to work.

I realised there was no point in trying to sleep anymore as the traffic would start soon. In my mind swirled snow covered peaks and shy Quechua women dressed in bright clothes, steep cobbled streets and alpacas, thoughts that had made me restless for weeks. No I thought, I could always sleep when I got back home. I was so near to the Andes mountain range now and felt an overwhelming need to push on.

I followed all the safety advice I had been given about travelling in Peru and bought a ticket from the countries second best bus company. Second best because the buses owned by the top company had been robbed a number of times often in remote areas. Expensive and mostly used by groups of tourists they had been an easy target, I would slip past under the bandit’s radar surrounded by Peruvians. I felt safe as all of the bus passengers had been photographed, fingerprinted (except me) and scanned by metal detectors, this was bus travel like I had never experienced before. The bus was brand new with television screens, earphones, WIFI, seats that reclined into beds and a steward handing out complementary meals, snacks and drinks. I was already starting to like Peru and couldn’t believe I had been influenced by horror stories from hysterical travellers on internet forums who portrayed Peru as all pickpockets, doom and gloom. The airport cab driver had looked at me shocked and asked if it was my first time in Peru when I had asked him to lock all of the doors and close all of the windows, he assured me I had nothing to worry about and from that moment on I had felt nothing but calm.

The bus snailed along traffic-clogged avenues and past hillsides crammed with brightly coloured cinderblock houses reminding me of Brazilian favelas before Lima began to fade away cloaked in it’s infamous grey mist. The homes lining the Pan-American Highway were sparser now, the odd dwelling built randomly in areas with no roads. What struck me was Peruvian pride. Some of these basic shacks were built on or near trash sites but still the occupants had took the time to plant flowers in their tiny gardens and paint their doors and window frames bright colours, I found this immensely touching. Maybe they didn’t have much but what they did have they would make it the best they possibly could. I decided from that moment on I liked Peruvians.


Andes mountain range begins to appear across the desert

We were not even out of the region of Lima before the landscape changed dramatically. I imagined Peru as green but these were huge sand dunes at heights I had never saw before. Some dunes had what seemed like military lookout towers built on them. I wondered if this natural landscape had been put to good use by the army becoming in someway the capital’s natural defence. The further south we drove the weather began to improve, mountains began to appear far off on the left backed by blue skies and wispy clouds, on the right a murky Pacific Ocean hugged the road but I decided not to look at it. I had last saw that ocean thirteen months earlier from the window of a Japanese bullet train as I had travelled with my ex boyfriend. I didn’t want to remember those days, the Pacific Ocean or Japan. I was not quite ready yet.

After a while it became apparent that I was on a non-stop bus for twenty hours with no food. The steward had come around with lunch which had been chicken and rice. I explained that I was vegetarian and asked if I could have the non-meat option. He looked at me bewildered as they do in many countries when you explain that you don’t eat meat. He apologized and said that was all they had. I  thanked God when I managed to find a granola bar in my bag and the steward handed me part of his personal stash, a banana! In a way it didn’t bother me though, people were starving the world over and I should be nothing but grateful that I had a chance to go to Peru.

The landscapes slipped by like a watercolour, light and shade mixing with one another, bright towns would appear bathed in a desert glow as light reflected onto walls from golden sand. Peruvian life appeared in all it’s glory, markets brimming with vegetables and gossip, a small boy standing in a red basin as his mother washed him, a girl struggling against the wind as she tried to put wet clothes over a washing line, an old woman whiling away the hours had set up a table on her doorstep selling a yellow drink called Inca Kola, stray dogs sleeping on garbage tips without a care in the world, a group of men black from oil stood bent over the engine of a moto-taxi looking puzzled, a group of boys playing marbles cheered, dreadlocked newage travellers whom I guessed were Israelis swung on a rope tied between two trees looking lost and far from home.

Suddenly the bus screeched to a halt and I like the other passengers were thrown towards the chairs in front, thankful that the steward had insisted we wear seatbelts. I managed to glance out of the window deciding we must have crashed when a miracle unfolded right in front of my eyes. It was a beige coloured pup, it must have run out into the highway infront of our bus, terrified it kept running and to my horror into the other lane full of oncoming traffic and right out infront of a speeding truck. The truck driver didn’t brake, I gasped as I watched the dog’s hind legs get clipped from the front left tyre before it dissappeared under the truck miraculously appearing on the other side scampering to safety after it’s game of rubber and asphalt Russian roulette. A spilt second earlier and that dog would have been killed joining the other carcasses that seemed to line this section of the highway. As the dog ran along a sandy lane between houses it looked back terrified towards the road and in that moment I could do nothing but wish that animal well and hope in the future it stays well away from danger.

I remember Nazca as the last town with any sort of life before our bus pulled away and into the mountains and darkness. I put the chair right back into it’s bed position and covered myself with a blanket, after a while the lights were put out inside the bus and I stared out at the night, the luminous sky crowded with stars in a way that I can only ever remember seeing once before one winters night in Scotland. It was impossible to sleep because of the steep switchback roads throwing the bus from left to right. In a way I felt like I was lying on an old LP record as it rotated on a turntable, every few minutes the moon and stars would sway to the left before swinging to the right, giving me umpteen chances to try and figure out the names of the constellations. In the middle of the night I became aware of my breathing, or more correctly lack of oxygen. Now the air seemed dry, thin and sharp. I could hear the steward inflating balloons from an oxygen tank in the back of the bus and hoped I wouldn’t need them.

Andes above the clouds

Andes snow

These photos were just after sunrise somewhere between Abancay and Cusco

I think I must have slept but for how long I don’t know. When in transit I never sleep but nap, maybe I was gone for a few hours or a few minutes i’m not sure but as I awoke I noticed a blanket of clouds in a valley far below amazement diminishing any tiredness I might have had.  Towering mountain ranges topped off with snow appeared above the ridges, melting snow creating narrow waterfalls hundreds of metres high, cactii clung precariously to the sides of otherwise barren cliffs and below were green valleys and muddy rivers and tiny dots which I later figured out were houses. At the side of the road sometimes a sheer drop would appear and the spaces between the side of the bus and edge of the road began to consume me, at one point I remember counting 12 memorials to road accident victims huddled in a space of three metres.

I will never forget the first time I saw a Quechua woman. Even though the mountain peaks were illuminated by sunlight far below in the shadows this hamlet still seemed to linger in the last traces of night. She appeared out of the shadows of a narrow lane wearing a typical Andean bowler hat and carrying rainbow coloured bundles of cloth on her back as she led a donkey tied to a rope. I felt a rush of excitement as I realised of all my thoughts of South America those people are to me the most alluring, the most exotic.

To my dismay breakfast was served to the passengers, chicken and rice. A little while later the bus ground to a halt beside a roadside food stall where the steward rushed out and brought back bread and cheese and a pastry wrapped in plastic foil…just for me. See, I told you, Peruvians are lovely.

Cusco first glimpse

First glimpse of Cusco

Cusco, the Imperial City and great capital of the Inca empire appeared quite suddenly as we passed a bend on the road, spread out into the distance under a blue sky it’s red tiled roofs seemed to go on for miles, the city growth cut off by steep hills it had decided to stretch far off along the valley. I had wanted to visit Cusco for years, attracted to it’s architecture, history and surrounding landscapes and in a way I couldn’t believe I was really there and thankful that I had made it at all.

There had been so many obstacles on my journey to South America, a mix up with leave from work, cancelled flights, delays, chaotic Lima and dangerous roads so in a way just being in Cusco I decided was the highlight of my trip. Little did I know that Cusco was just the beginning of a series of moments ingrained into my memory that I will forever cherish and look back with nothing but awe.

Next up: Enduring Machu Picchu