In and out of Lima

IMG_7752Lima. 5 a.m. But first I need to pick up my luggage, which causes me a bit of a stress. Before I get off the plane, a Peruvian lady gives extensive explanations to her relatives travelling from Europe that it is rather common for the luggage to be stolen at the airport. She focuses on this topic for a while until I remain convinced, same as she seems to be, that I must kiss my luggage good bye. She’s a local, so I am inclined to believe that her knowledge of the place and customs is genuine. Besides, she is not the only one who expresses concern about the luggage situation, several people join the conversation. I struggle to dismiss the sound of Murphy’s law whispering in my ear “If anything can go wrong, it will” and wait patiently for my luggage to slide down to me on the conveyor belt. I enter the first phase that leads to sheer panic: be trustful and hopeful. Be desperate is patiently waiting in line.

Long, very long minutes pass by during which many people take the conveyor belt  by assault. It’s a human fortress that prevents me from even having a sneak preview of what comes on that belt. Approaching that area does not seem realistic unless I start distributing punches which I am too jet lagged to do. I have never seen so many people in an airport reluctant to keep a reasonable distance from that belt and allow other travellers to keep an eye on their belongings as well. Peruvians seemed to  have a strong attachment  to the airport conveyor belt and everything on it. It’s a space they are not willing to share, as if they’re all suffering from some long-instilled national trauma: the airport luggage theft.

Even if I had managed to catch sight of my luggage (which was still not the case), I would not have been able to collect it without a fist fight. First early morning cultural shock happens. After a while, there’s only me and very few people left to stare at the conveyor belt.  It is therefore logically the appropriate moment to start to panic: the Peruvian lady must have been right. This time I was sensible enough to carry half of the important belongings in my day pack which I hug dearly. At long last, critically drained of patience and energy, I spot my luggage and collect it happily. It weighs about 23 kilos, which adds to the 10 kilos that make my hand luggage. I load the whole on my 52 kilo frame and start doing the funny walk towards the exit.

There’s a taxi driver waiting for me. I “booked” him and his driving skills, so I feel  slightly VIP-ish. I’m sure he must have had a name, too, but I forgot it completely. I’m deep in evolving jet lag symptoms and I know I will not be concentrating much. The guy looks reliable for a 5 a.m. airport encounter, but hey, doesn’t everyone? I launch a superfluous conversation in Spanish to test his degree of friendliness. He drives me past a deserted and gloomy beach, going through some unwelcoming landscape of a country which doesn’t seem to know what to build where. We reach Miraflores, one the best neighbourhoods by Lima standards, specifically dressed up for tourists – a hub for anyone who can afford it, which technically means no locals. I’m decidedly not impressed by the accumulation of constructions and pray that a strong coffee will fix that. But I arrived in the garúa period, a greyish unfriendly mist which hovers over Lima during winter time, making it look sad and…painfully grey. I am intimately convinced that the city is much prettier under a different light.

The driver is being very kind: he drops me off right in front of my bed & breakfast even though the Police wanted to block his way and declare the road inaccessible. The place I’ll be sleeping in is equipped with a sort of bunker-like security system. Also, hello shabbiness! Yet, the driver insists that this is one of the most luxurious neighbourhoods in Lima. I raise an eyebrow and try not to look overly concerned. It’s 7 o’clock in the morning local time, so I only have the strength to accept things as they come. I go and have breakfast with the intention to rest a bit and explore the city afterwards. But someone is in the mood for engaging me in a conversation: a tour guide; he’s leaving with his group in one hour and thinks I’m one of his. He explains to me loads about the beauties I am about to see and gives me a warm hug: he’s a Quechua – no, not the brand name for the sport clothes, he’s the actual thing, the descendant of the Inca people who occupied that land in the first place. At that early hour and in my semi-conscious condition, I can’t oppose much to this bit of Quechua affection. We would meet about 10 days later and he’d still know my name. Fantastic person.

My room is much less welcoming however: the air is cold and damp and the windows are made in such an original way that they won’t close properly. You can easily push them to open by pressing the upper or lower part, but you will never be able to make them close fully. So I put on some of my warmest clothes (I could have put all of them on, really) and plunge under the blanket, hoping to warm up and have a good sleep that would make me forget I was there.

Lima is not the best place to be jet lagged in. If you are, the chances that you actually see any beauty in it are rather limited. I can reach high peaks of grumpiness when I lack sleep. Or when I wake up after only one hour of sleep and realize it’s still cold and grey. But I pile up my bits of broken motivation and decide to get out of the B&B and go to the city centre: I’m a traveller, my role is to visit. My initial thoughts were to walk there until the receptionist stopped me from doing so.

“No. Taxi,” she said, in a tone that left little room for contradiction.

Taxi it is. She calls one for me that picks me up right in front of the gate and tells me to only take a yellow one to come back. I’m afraid I did not have enough time to accommodate to the reality of the place: these people know what they are doing, hopefully. I’m all about freedom and when I’m given indicators that I can’t openly practice it, I need to take a moment to digest the news. The taxi driver seems to be confused as to why I find myself alone in his car. He repeats “Alone in the city center?” as if he is deaf and not sure he heard the instructions correctly. “Take the boy with you!” and he points to the young man guarding the door to the B&B. “Hum…I think he’s on duty. And I do travel by myself, so this is how it is.” We drive. Before reaching the end of the destination he also points to my camera: “No pictures! Steal camera in city center.” And when he sees other white European tourists walking around the main square, he yells: “Look, go with them! Go!” I’m puzzled as to how to react to this behaviour. Where am I and what have I done?

The first thing I notice while holding on to the bag in which I “hide” my big camera is that everyone else but the few tourists and me looks different: Peruvians are shorter (than me), dark-haired, look strangely similar to one another as if a big family went out for a walk and are modestly dressed. And this is enough conclusions to make me suspect each and every one of them of wanting to rob me of my camera. Talk about standing out of the crowd: I’m the female version of Gulliver and I’ve been stranded in Lilliput!

IMG_7706If I were to be honest with myself, I don’t think that Lima is a nice place to wake up to at all. But then again, it’s easy to get the wrong impression on a place when you’ve only been there for few hours. Maybe Lima did not reveal itself to me at its right value. I won’t be giving the city much credit that day. I am happy to get out of the crowd and look for the taxi place. Yellow they said. My head is too much the mess for me to concentrate on the plate number, so I truly hope the driver I pick is exactly what he pretends to be. I’m lucky, he decides not to kidnap me that day. I run back into my gloomy room (in August, Lima looks worse than Brussels at its greyest) to try and kill my jet lag, which, I end up admitting, is the root cause of the distorted image I have of this very new environment.

Still, I cannot be blamed for my confusion. Imagine this: there are roughly 9 million inhabitants in Lima and there is no metro, subway or train. There’s an estimated number of 300.000 taxis. Which do not really use what is called a taximeter – the price is usually negotiated before you jump in. The yellow one seems to be the most reliable (says a report based on the number of people who actually made it back safe and sound, maybe?). The yellow taxis are the metropolitan ones and are (supposed to be ) licensed. San Isidro, the “chic” district that to me looked like just another pile of buildings, proudly exhibits a 120-metre-high one which Peruvians refer to as a “skyscraper”. Because of the tectonic friction caused by the Nazca Plate working its way underneath the South American Plate, the reasons we have the Andes, Peru is rather exposed to potential devastating seismic activity.  This is not a place to compete for the tallest architectural achievement.

The real problem with Lima is that there aren’t an awful lot of things to do. Because the weather improved, I decided to give the Larco Museum a miss, in spite of it being one of the main attractions on account of a collection of Kama Sutra visuals on ceramic pots. What I did is eat (food is exquisitely tasty in Lima – and nothing beats a ceviche) and hang out in El Parque del Amor, for its merit of being close to the (Pacific) Ocean. And this is where I found the one thing that seduced me in Lima: paragliding.

IMG_7721IMG_7735I watched people flying around for few hours until I decided to queue up and try it for myself. But it was not in the cards for me that day (or the very last day when I returned to Lima either) because the wind changed so I was stuck on solid ground. High and dry.

Lima was easy to leave behind. But Peru was only just starting to unveil its true precious self.

Two planes till Peru

Lima, PeruKeys, money, passport, credit cards, flight ticket…I use all my powers of concentration to do the final check ritual and make sure I have all the vital belongings with me, preferably before I lock the door behind. Previous experiences have shown that, thorough though I may be in some circumstances, when it so happens that I lose my head, I usually go for a remarkable mistake, not just a small, insignificant one.

Before I left to South Africa, for instance, after some hectic days spent in-between work, work-related travels, packing and everything else, I did manage to lock myself out of the apartment with the keys on the inside. Luckily, every time I screw up massively, my guardian angel steps in to save the day. My landlord, who is strategically located three blocks away from me, had a third key (you would have guessed, I had duplicates, but they were on the other side of the door as well). He only answered my calls two hours later, so I had plenty of time to simmer gently in my own guilty consciousness and the extent of my stupidity. Can’t say I’ve learnt my lesson.

Before I board the plane from Brussels to Lima with a first stop in Madrid, I grab the fresh-of-the-day edition of El Pais. My Spanish is not great, but like every decent Romanian who grew up watching telenovelas, I have a passive knowledge of the language, good enough for me to grasp the overall message.

One article in particular gets my attention: it says something about a meeting involving several Latin American countries and taking steps towards an agreement to loosen abortion laws, etc. Here I am, up in the air, finding out that five of the seven remaining countries in the world which ban abortion in all circumstances are in Latin America: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, Honduras, Dominican Republic (the other two being Vatican City – no surprise here- and Malta). Here, banned means that the mother is forced by law to deliver her baby even if: 1. The pregnancy is the result of a rape. 2. The pregnancy threatens her own life and 3. It is medically proven that the foetus cannot survive after birth. I’ll be damn!

“You can judge a country by how they treat their women”? If so, then many should hurry into respecting theirs and considering them more than just walking incubators programmed to deliver babies at the expense of their own lives.

To put things into context, I grew up in a country where communism has taken the best part of being a woman: in my mother’s time and way before, there was no access to contraception. Could anyone in developed countries imagine sexual life without pills and condoms nowadays? On top of that, abortion was illegal and consequently practiced illegally on a large scale in dodgy conditions, jeopardising thousands of women’s lives. How many children could a woman breed after all, and what to put on the table? Sex must have been a real nightmare for them. So yes, reading stuff like this does get me out of my system.

I am steaming on the inside, going through paragraphs that take me into how little rights Latin America’s women have over their bodies, lives, health, fate. I turn towards the lady next to me: she’s dozing off peacefully. How can she sleep so carelessly, did she even read this, does she understand that the low consideration of these women makes human rights look like a shameful joke? Is no one up in arms about this? Peace and quiet on the plane. People travel in a relaxed holiday mood.

I, on the contrary, set myself in war mode. I mentally prepare some nice letters intended to the brilliant law- and decision-makers and wish I were granted permission to rewrite some of the Pope’s public speeches. In the Middle Ages, I would have probably been burnt at the stake. But there I was, in this 21st century crippled by underdeveloped mentalities, landing in Madrid.

At the Madrid airport I have 2 hours to kill. To make time pass quicker, I inadvertently exit a door that takes me out of the airport. I didn’t realize this until I wanted to come back and saw that the only possibility to do so was to go through customs again. I only thought I was doing a tour of the airport but was absent minded and followed the wrong crowd. I must pass through the security check again, only this time I also have to take off my shoes as a bonus.

Luckily, I still have time before catching my connecting flight, so I spend it wondering aimlessly in the duty free shops. I never buy anything, but then I was bored and needed something to entertain myself with. Have you ever noticed just how dull everyone looks in an airport? But my steps and perhaps some subconscious desire lead me to where those small, cute bottles of alcohol are exhibited. It’s my lucky day: there a special promotion, 3 little bottles for the price of two.

I’m usually very bad at striking deals in all aspects of life, but I estimated that I could not go terribly wrong on this one. So there and then I decided to do what any reasonable human being who has an 11-hour night flight ahead should do: get drunk. I therefore acquire the small exhibits, buy a bottle of coke and empty some of the Johnny Walker magic into it.

This marked the first time I have ever stepped into a plane after having a drink. It was a very bumpy ride, I could feel the whole frame shacking from all over, but it didn’t manage to wake me up. From Madrid to Lima, I was sound asleep, the world’s problems hanging somewhere beyond me. Holidays, at last!

Peru: Preps ‘n’ Early Beginnings

Lake DistrictThe idea of going to Peru has stressed the life out of me. For two full months I roamed in circles like a lion in a cage before I finally did the irreversible and booked. Root of the problem: I wasn’t perfectly sure whether I was fit enough to tackle the Inca Trail. In my head, I was picturing this to be a sort of survival hike and was really conflicted as to why on Earth I would put myself to such a test. There was also the altitude, the cold on the mountain plus my apparent frail physical structure that made me deeply weigh the level of trouble I was getting myself into. It was the Amazon that I had always wanted to see, and the Inca was included in the package. All these fear factors accumulated, truth be told, I do not mind a good challenge. Still, once in a lifetime experience though it promised to be, I was still counting on coming back.

I submissively received a shot against yellow fever (supposedly compulsory if you enter the Amazon, but no one asked for proof of evidence there) and thus added one more to the collection of vaccines I had already acquired prior to my departure to South Africa. The travel doc waves about five prescriptions at me on which he scribbled medicines intended to help me go through a variety of ills. I was to become broke after buying them. Luckily, I brought all of them back untouched and while tablets against altitude sickness and diarrhoea (thank God for the spelling corrector for this one!) have been reported to come in handy, you do not need water purifying tablets and these are actually the most expensive in the lot.

At that stage I was not concerned about the gear. But I decided I had to deal with the training part. Reaching a new level of my spontaneity, I booked a flight to Manchester from one week to the other to follow a two-day wild camping crash course in the Lake District. I had no idea what I was doing. Saying that I was absolutely not prepared for spending happy times in the mountains would be drastically reducing the reality of the situation. I had imagined this to be more of a leisure hike in an area that for me did not have anything to do with mountains: since when do 978 m tops are spoken of as “mountain”? Belgian and British people have a funny sense of what mountains look like, I thought. They’re trying to boycott geography. Dutch people might actually get altitude sickness there. But while I was poking fun in my head at the others, the Gods of righteousness were getting ready to punish me double-fold for real.

I must have looked like the biggest idiot ever to the two mountain guides when they asked me if I had everything I needed for the trek and opened my luggage in front of them. They looked at one another and silently started to bring me long ski trousers, gloves, winter cap, plenty of long-sleeve items, some of which were really thick and warm. They also got rid of my sleeping bag and replaced it with a polar one, capable of keeping someone alive at -30° C. Did I book for the right trip or were we all being sent to the North Pole? Where were they taking me? It was nicely sunny and I was perfectly content in my T-Shirt on that lovely May day 2013.

See, that changed around 7 p.m., after we set up our tents and decided to go for the peak. Nature has a very funny way to make one feel insignificant when it sets its mind on it. With suddenness that no one would have predicted, heavy clouds, mist and a terrible cold encircled us. We met people who were still looking for the peak after having literally passed inches away from it. They hadn’t been able to see it, so dense was the fog.

We, on the contrary, make it to the top, but we lose our way back. At midnight, unsteady on our feet and barely seeing each other, we were still looking for our lost tents in a paralysing cold and with no one else around. Jamie, our guide, and my personal protector and saviour (God bless him), was running in all directions searching for the lost tents, checking my pulse once in a while to see if I was still part of this world. It would all have been a funny spectacle, had I not reached a stage in which my senses had become stubbornly numb. It was eerie dark, my legs were not listening to my brain instructions anymore and it’s a miracle I did not sprinkle any ankle on those slippery rocks. I had passed the “frozen” level and under a wind-proof bivy tent that Jamie fetched for us as a protection means while he was away scouting for our shelter, my will to move had given up on me. But Jamie is a wizard and brought us back safe and sound.

You would have understood: having the right gear is crucial. The two-day hike in the Lake District marked my understanding of this forever. With my T-Shirt and light rain jacket, fully unprepared for the mighty cold that almost got me into hypothermia in spite of wearing 5 layers of very warm pullovers and jackets (and ski gloves) that Jamie had carefully provided me with, I would have learned my lesson.

Having survived Lake District and Scafell Pike, one doubtful question was still hovering over my head: how will my body react at 4200m altitude? This no one can tell, really – you might be a highly-trained sportsperson and still be rushed down the mountain in an emergency if your very personal genes do not adapt quickly to that.

If you intend to do the journey to Peru, here are some things that I would have liked someone to tell me. And let me reassure you: you’ll be just fine!

  • The Inca trail is not a very difficult one (I had a 71 year-old lady in the group and she did perfectly well – don’t know what happened once she went back to her country, though). It is not a walk in a park either, but it does not require a professional fitness level. Anyone can do it. The most important thing is to establish your own rhythm and not run after the people in front of you. Take it nice and slow, and you might just enjoy the surroundings even more. After all, this may be your only chance in life to see this place. There is no point in walking quickly also because if you make it to the camp at 3 pm, there will be nothing there for you to do: you’ll just have plenty of time to try to deal with the cold.
  • Peru is not a country where you would want to just go and be spontaneous, but one you need to prepare for. If you want to do the Inca, you need to book permits way in advance (read some 5 months in advance) – there are only 250 permits a day and in high season the trek is sold out rapidly. The dry season (May to September) is the best to do the Inca trail (less chances of rain).
  • The difficulty with Peru is how to dress up: for the record, the country has no less than 28 climates (there are 32 in the world), meaning that no matter the season, you will alternate between cold and hot. So instead of taking thick pullovers, what you want is layers: sweat-proof T-Shirts, thermal underwear, long sleeve shirts, polar fleece, wind/water proof jacket, etc. (some useful reading from G Adventures: http://www.gadventures.com/trips/absolute-peru/PHPT/2014/details/).
  • During the hike, do wear the trekking shoes you are the most comfortable with. After having carried across Peru two pairs of trekking shoes, I finally opted for the one without ankle support. Personally, I’d much rather be able to move my feet and not walk like Robocop, but this is totally a matter of preference.
  • If you don’t book with a tour operator, make sure you acclimatize correctly. The best approach is to go up gradually, spend some nights in the altitude, then go lower and then high up again. Hopefully, your body adjusts.
  • The currency is the Peruvian Nuevo Sol (the sun, of course, that the Incas worshiped so much) but locals gladly accept the US dollar, too. The only trick is that you will be given the change in soles, so having a minimum knowledge of the currency exchange is useful, although Peruvians proved to be quite honest people.

Time was ticking away and I was finally almost ready for my adventure, because despite all my minute preparations (I even iron my trekking clothes) this is as close as I would ever get to feeling prepared for the take-off. Ready or not, it was time for me to hit the road. Peru