Peruvian family crossing the Altiplano
As I previously mentioned, there wasn’t much about Perú that I didn’t enjoy. At times, navigating the country made that list. With narrow two lane roads serving as the country’s highways, potholes outlined in white spray paint, drivers with right feet made from lead, vans retrofitted into “sanctioned” modes of transit filling the space intended for six with at least double and apparent lack of transit law and signage, it is quite easy to say that getting between destinations was one of the more precarious aspects of our journey. The long distance bus, the boat, the combi and the taxi were all places that caution seemed to be thrown to the wind making Perú ’s ballet of chaos overtly apparent.
Transit of any form in Perú is like playing craps. For a while you might win, but in the end chances are you’re going to loose in one way or another regardless of how it is being done. Let it be known that I love the open road. I love viewing the country-side of the places I visit through the window of a car, bus or train. Let it also be know that I’ve been on some interesting rides in my life; from the packed to the brim rides up and down the two lane road which winds like a snake across the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast to the “what seemed like a great idea at the time” trek to Tijuana, I have a lot of journeys between destinations that I look back on and chuckle at. I’ll now add the hours spent in one vehicle or another spanning the relatively short distances of Perú which we crossed to that list.
Transporting reeds across Lake Titcaca
How does one win on these rides? The easiest answer is the glimpse transit time provided into the way of life that can’t be seen in city life or even what is found in small towns. Many times I found myself in awe of what we saw speeding by our window at 90 kilometers per hour on Perú’s rudimentary highway system or while meandering across lake or ocean at a fraction of that speed. Confined to the diesel odor infused cabins of buses we passed men and women tending to their flocks of sheep, alpaca and llama in the midst of the vast expanses of the Altiplano which at times seemed inhospitable to even the toughest of souls. As we allowed the color to return to our knuckles while our bus attendant tended to an overheated engine halted at 14,000 feet seemingly oblivious to the Peruvian passengers yelling “VAMANOS!”, pounding on the windows and stomping on the floor, we found brief enjoyment simply staring at the volcano El Misti looming five thousand additional feet over all of us a short distance away. A day prior, we took in the vistas of Lake Titicaca and the 360° panorama of Peruvian and Bolivian snow capped mountains as we traveled at a rate that would have been faster to walk had any of us possessed the powers of Jesus to walk on water. After a few additional hair raising bus rides we found ourselves on another boat, not nearly as slow as the first one, circling Islas Ballestas viewing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of penguins, pelicans and boobies amongst other species of birds and hundreds of sea lions living their lives in isolation and protection from the chaos of the mainland. Getting to the next destination continually solidified what an incredible country Perú really is.
Peruvian road side memorials
With all that said, eventually any winning streak comes to an end at some point or another. Aside from our boat breaking down in the middle of Lake Titicaca and our train from Aguas Calientes being delayed for four hours as a result of a rock slide, we faired quite decently on vehicles that were not buses. The buses were where the house claimed stake to our money. Whether it was the fact that 16 people died along the same road from Puno to Arequipa the same day we took that journey. Maybe it was not being able to count to 50 while traveling on a Peruvian highway without seeing another cross or memorial dedicated to the lives the roads claimed. Or perhaps the desire of Perúvian bus drivers to travel the max speed their bus can go despite being on roads so curvy only an insane person would want to drive a break neck speeds. Add those factors to a travel buddy that does not have the stomach for extreme motion along with additional quirks we encountered and it can be gathered that I did not look forward to our time on the bus nor was it a leisurely experience.
For some strange reason the shit of American culture is even present on the buses that crisscross the sun worn desert and mountainous highways of Perú. Why on earth any Peruvian, or human being for that matter, would find comfort or enjoyment in watching Rob Schneider in Hot Chick or Hilary Duff in Cadet Kelly is beyond me. Furthermore, what for us was just puzzling, was the prevalence of b-rate (if that) kung-fu movies dubbed into Spanish on these rides. One we were subjected to featured a cow with a tongue which had it’s own conscience and ability to speak. Somewhere in the world this is perfectly normal. Regardless of subject matter, these movies would be played at a volume level that could restore hearing to the deaf, at least for the duration of the ride.
Another peculiar annoyance we encountered on the Peruvian bus system was the bus attendant on our ride from Arequipa to Camana. Briefly after the attendant performed his mandatory duties of helping load luggage into the luggage compartments, pointing to the emergency exits and taking tickets he emerged from the front cabin and launched into some sort of sermon that would last over an hour. The way this man spoke, or at least attempted to speak, and judging by the way he captivated the packed Flores bus, one with little grasp of the language could begin to believe that we were potentially listening to the next Che of South America. A bit older. Quite a bit fatter. A bus attendant instead of physician. Superficial parallels lacking, the beginning of his speech seemed to be about the environment and all the horrible things polluting it and ruining what we consume. When someone speaks slow enough, with enough hand gestures or with a general context of the conversation I can normally understand what is going on when Spanish is being spoken. When someone yells for as long as he did and does so at such a rapid rate, it is hard to want to do anything other than tune it out since I was only grasping few words let alone ideas and thoughts. An hour or so later while still yelling with a newly revealed package in hand, the blatant realization became apparent that he was nothing more than a traveling infomercial. His “oration” was a mere pitch for the wears he was pushing to his subjects of the 3½ hour bus ride. Surprisingly, many purchased what seemed to be a dietary supplement or tea made from the omnipotent coca leaves. Perhaps I would have been convinced as well had I known how to understand Spanish better. Silly me, there can only be one Che, but rest assured Billy Mays is smiling down on this man from heaven.
A taxi waits in the Plaza de Armas of Cusco
To limit the story of Peruvian transit to what we experienced between destinations or to the long distance buses would have meant only telling a fraction of this particular narrative. Whether via foot, taxi, colectivo or combi, the situation of navigating the smallest Peruvian town to the metropolitan capital Lima rarely varied and was often a treacherous endeavor. Walking is not a pedestrian event and rarely do those traveling by foot get the right-a-way. With few traffic signals, stop sighs and other effective means of controlling the flow of vehicle and pedestrian movement, soon does one realize that diligent attention is required of every step and turn of the wheel as traffic laws, if they exist, are approached as suggestions. Need to make a left turn but are in the right lane five lanes separated from the left? No problem at all. Make eight lanes of traffic from the space intended for four? Go right ahead, why not make it nine? What better to do than speed up when approaching a busy intersection with no stop signals or signs. For some strange reason, unbeknownst to me, all of this works. Perhaps it is just the fact that in order to be navigating city streets, one must pay dutiful attention to what they are doing and as a result the streets are filled with vigilant, albeit crazy, drivers.
My joke throughout our travels was that 95% of all automobile traffic in cities and towns was taxis. While no where near that number, they are everywhere and it seems that if you have the simple ambition of becoming a taxi driver it is as easy as applying the proper decals to your car. This is as simple as displaying the word “taxi” written somewhere on it in duct-tape. Despite the abundance of the taxi in Perú, every single one of the what had to be millions felt the need to advertise their presence and service by honking at you, either with the car’s horn or with a retrofitted car alarm rigged to go off and on at the press of a button on the dashboard. In Nasca, this behavior was extrapolated to five or so taxis stopped near a corner all honking their horns continually to gain business. Needless to say, after three weeks of hearing taxis honk, I was quite relieved to leave that behind.
Combi/Colectivo attendant in Cusco
The combi and colectivos were the most intriguing mode of transit that we used during our voyage. While a standard definition of each and their differences, if any, are not necessary discernible to the outsider, their premise is simple. Ranging from retrofitted minivans, as aforementioned, to what could be recognized as a city buses, for a flat fare determined by distance one rides these as a means to locally transverse towns and cities. In both cases, both a driver and attendant is present on the vehicle and more often than not are packed to the brim with passengers. The attendants job is to collect fares in addition to also hanging out the side door/window yelling out the route and destinations offered. When stopping at an official stop, the attendant often walks up and down the street advertising the route of the particular combi/colectivo. Situated five of these vehicles on the same street, stopping at the same spot and it is a wonder that anyone can find their way with all the yelling, transferring of people and continually moving traffic.
A motorbike awaits its owner in Paracas
In the end, to say I didn’t enjoy getting around Perú obviously doesn’t paint the whole picture or tell the entire story of what the experience was truly like. While I will say that I never really looked forward to being on the marathon bus rides, no matter how we did it, getting from point A to point B and around point B made for one hell of an experience and as we continue to explore the world, it will be interesting to see where in the grand scheme of it all this stands.