I'm being "taken care of"
I don’t think I can claim to be seeing the “real” Peru. I took off from Lima on Sunday morning with a bus company called Peru Hop, which is based on a really great idea. The bus follows a fixed itinerary with a fixed timetable, from Lima to Cusco (and Bolivia) and you can hop off and back on whenever you like, for a year. I decided to go stop at every stop, spend a night at Paracas and Huacachina and stop at Arequipa for a week or more then hop back on to go to Cusco. (heer's a picture of my map. Everyone is surprised to see a REAL map but once they're in front of it, they're hypnotised :))
The only Peruvians on the bus are the driver and our sweet guide, Natalia. All the others are Irish, Spanish, Polish, American and there are two Columbians. There is a couple whose son is one of the three owners of Peru Hop and the guy is a Robert de Niro look-alike. It’s bewildering. We all started to talk after arriving in Paracas the first day. There had already been a few exchanges until then, but we still a bit shy. Especially at our first stop, the monument to the unknown soldier (during the Peru-Chile war in 18810 or so) we weren't even looking at each other yet. I must show you some photos. There are a few monumental statues in this spot, high above Lima, including a Jesus who was supposed to be as big as the one in Rio but then they realized they didn't have enough money and did away with poor Jesus's legs. He is known as "Fat Jesus," in honor of the fat, corrupt, hated President who commissioned the statue. The statue is a bit lost in the photo, grey upon grey...
We had stopped for a great breakfast of freshly cooked bread filled with things, in the middle of nowhere, and at a 17th century hacienda in a town where they eat cats, called Chincha (we didn’t eat there). The hacienda has been transformed into a luxury hotel (with the tiniest luxury pool I’ve ever seen). It’s best known for its underground tunnels where the owners used to hide the 900 slaves they weren’t supposed to own, as they were allowed only 100 and didn’t want to pay extra taxes on the others. They would bring in their slaves secretly, from the port until the hacienda, through the tunnels. Everyone went down except for me. I was going to go down, none too enthusiastically, but when Natalia gave us all flashlights, and told us to mind our heads because the tunnels were very low, and to watch out feet because it was uneven ground. And to walk gently because it was very dusty, I asked myself why on earth I would want to go down into a crowded, dark, tiny, dusty tunnel. WHY??? So I handed back the flashlight and went out to explore the gorgeous gardens, the church and the hacienda’s living rooms which still had their original furniture. And the sun came out for the first time!!! I thought of my poor co-tourists suffocating down in the dark with pity. When they came out, some came to say I had made the right decision, and that was when we started to talk a bit.
The towns we passed through were all horrific. Few trees, horrible houses, shantytowns, too, dusty... There was a terrible earthquake of 8,5 a few years ago and it was all destroyed. The government is supposed to give financial help to the population in case of an earthquake above 8 Richter, but the (as always) corrupt President convinced the media to say that it was only a 7,5 Richter earthquake so that the state wouldn’t have to empty its coffers. The people were forced rebuild the cities with their own resources and refused to finish their houses so they wouldn’t have to pay taxes on the finished product. Hence the visual disgrace.
Paracas is just as ugly, but at least it’s by the ocean. It relies exclusively on tourism.
Everybody comes to visit the islands by speedboat to see the pelicans, cormorants, penguins, sea lions, dolphins, and many many other birds. It’s absolutely wonderful but there were around ten speedboats irritating the sea lions and polluting the air... I don’t know...
We had lunch all together and met everyone yesterday. Then we just went on drinking by the sea side then in the hostel’s nice garden until we went to bed. I like everyone but of course there are a couple of insufferable people, especially one girl, and I saw they were set to drink all night and talk without listening to each other and when the subject stayed on Brad Pitt’s marriages, I said good night. I should have stayed with the Robert de Niro look-alike, the Spaniards and Polish Adam, who all went to a restaurant with Natalia.
The morning we went to the islands at 8AM, got back and then drove off to the desert, the National Park of Paracas. You drive and drive and arrive by the ocean – where the sea meets the ocean!!! It’s mind blowing, You’re high up on the cliffs, with the waves crashing onto the cliffs beneath you and condors flying just above your head!!!! A 20 year-old guy named Brian joined me in the bus and we had a great time talking about his projects and school and my work etc. He’s much more interesting than the 30 year olds I was with at the bar last night!
One funny thing about Peru Hop: All the people who work here act as if the main purpose of travelling is to drive somewhere, stop, get out for 15 minutes and to take photos. Repeat. They keep talking about “we’ll go there, and you can take pictures.” Argh. I don’t want to take pictures anymore!!! People have selfie sticks. The Columbians have a DRONE which they fly over us all, videotaping and I will end up shooting it down.
Then we drove to Huacachina, an oasis, a real true oasis in the desert! With a lake and palm trees!!!
Again, I had that terrible FOMO, the fear/feeling of missing out on “real” Peru. Here I was, in a tiny oasis where only 97 people live but there are perhaps 100 tourists, all come to do something totally unnatural: ride through the desert on a buggy and sand surf... So, yes, we were piled into “buggies,” totally open jeeps for 8 people plus the crazy Peruvian driver. I was up front with the Columbian girl. We went up into the desert, as fast as possible and the joy ride began.... Our chauffeur drove to frighten us into screaming going fast against huge dunes, like mountains, you’re wondering, did he see there’s a hill in front of him??? And he doesn’t care, BAM you run into the hill and WOOSH you’re climbing the hill, you arrive at a precipice, OMG WE’RE GOING TO DIE!!! You think and WOOSH you go dooowwwwn the precipice. Sharp turnings, bumps you fly through jeep which has neither doors, nor windows, just belts... We did this for a long time, then arrived at the tip of a hill, where he braked sharply again at the edge of a precipice which surely we couldn’t have gone down. It was difficult to get out of a buggy standing at nearly 90 degrees! Then we lay down on a small surf, our driver told us what to do and WOOOOOOOSH we slid down the steep, steep hill!!! If you want to repeat the experience, you have to walk up the hill... Which I did, three times, dying of exhaustion... Then we got back in the buggy, already dreaming of a shower, the roller coaster drive started again, we’re like, yeah great, we’ll be at the hotel soon, when he stops! At an even longer, steeper drop! And says we’re going to slide again!! Nooo, not again, I said... Then we again got in the buggy, again screamed and yelled and hooted our way round the desert, seeing and hearing many other buggy-full of tourists do the same... And stopped AGAIN at and EVEN WORSE, even steeper, even higher hill!!!! And I slid again, we all slid again, even our 60 year-old Irısh Robert de Niro look-alike slid again. The sun was setting by this time. We got back in the buggy, and this time he scared the life out of me. I was so scared I couldn’t even laugh anymore, I was paralyzed. I thought, what if a wheel drops off, what if a tire explodes, what if anything happens??? But our driver seemed very much in control, I opened my eyes again, breathed, and took pleasure from the extreme views... until we stopped again and I groaned vocally... But it was just to enjoy the sunset from the top! Yaayyyy... My driver and I had been having conversations since the beginning, he admiring my brand new Spanish, fresh out of the oven, so he proposed we sit down, so we sat companionably together and talked about his town and his life, until I asked whether he drove like this in town as well... He told me he didn’t have a license!!!!!!
We got back in the buggy and stopped again to see the oasis from up high. And there I said goodbye to him and left on foot. It was so fun to run down the dunes! Even nicer than surfing, the sand so soft, like cotton, like springy cotton beneath my feet, the sun had set, the sky was beautiful... And the oasis is spectacular. I walked all around and sat at a bench where I was joined by a Peruvian man with his one-year-old daughter. We talked. He was there on a one-week vacation with his family and they came from Cusco: “Do you know Cusco? Machu Picchu? I come from Machu Picchu.”
I walked all around the lake, visited a beautiful old colonial mansion-turned (of course)-hotel, talked with another guy, and went to my hotel for a long, hot shower. There was sand EVERYWHERE.
And at night we had a huge barbecue in the garden of another hotel, with free drinks. There were Peru Hoppers going in both directions (to Cusco and to Lima) so it was a very big group. Robert de Niro and his wife feel sorry for me because I’m alone (but so’s half the bus!!) so they keep on asking me to join them. Everyone loves them. I tried to explain that I’m not alone and even so, I invite it; I want to be alone, I’m fine with it – and when she called me over I was just in deep conversation with one of my favorites from the bus, 44-year-old Spanish Juan, who is also travelling alone and who laughed when I told him they felt sorry for me :)
Then I got tired of the loud music, the screaming to be heard, the drinking ( I had a delicious non-alcoholic cocktail, because if I don’t sleep tonight I’ll die), so I went for a tour around the lake and came home to write to y’all.
Tomorrow we leave late. The hotel where we bbq’d tonight said we could come and swim in the nice, big, clean pool tomorrow. Very tempting. But there’s also a beautiful art deco café I want to try out, by the lake. It must be possible to do both, no? Then we’ll go to the Nazca Lines. Then to a vineyard to taste pisco (none of us liked it pure, in shots, tonight), then the 11-hour drive to Arequipa..... Where I will no longer be part of a group, where I’ll feel I’m in “real” Peru again... One hopes...