Wednesday, September 07, 2016

White clouds, dark skins

'Daniel is travelling tonight on a plane*
I can see the red tail lights heading for Spain
Oh and I can see Daniel waving goodbye
God it looks like Daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes

They say Spain is pretty though I've never been
Well Daniel says it's the best place that he's ever seen
Oh and he should know, he's been there enough
Lord I miss Daniel, oh I miss him so much**

Daniel my brother you are older than me***
Do you still feel the pain of the scars that won't heal
Your eyes have died but you see more than I
Daniel you're a star in the face of the sky'

– Elton John, Daniel

**Let's not get carried away
***Actually he's younger

The opening sequence of Werner Herzog's classic film Aguirre, Wrath of God (in my recent top ten dialogue-free opening film sequences) has always beguiled me, with its moodily misty mountains shrouded in clouds, and the camera cutting closer and closer until it reveals a motley band of conquistadors descending the mountain. The soundtrack by Popol Vuh adds to the mystery of the scene and the sense of man dwarfed by nature. I recognised the mountain, Huayna Picchu, from opposite Macchu Picchu (but not until I got home and watched the film again). We were meant to see another classic Herzog location – the 340 ton steam boat from Fitzcarraldo that gets dragged over the hill in the Peruvian jungle, but could only find on maps the boat of the actual rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald that the film was inspired by, which wasn't the same at all, and isn't much to look at anymore.

On the long flight over to Lima (which was delayed for an hour at Heathrow, a foretaste of all internal flights in Peru, of which there were numerous), I was able to catch up on films I'd been meaning to see for six months: The Jungle Book, Miles Ahead, Midnight Special, The Revenant, Everybody Wants Some!! and Anomalisa – if you've ever wanted to see a Plasticine man perform cunnilingus to a Plasticine woman, this is the film for you.

All I knew about Peru was Paddington bear, pan pipes and 4,000 varieties of potato (apparently true). My main observation on arriving in Peru: no one smokes. Anywhere. I couldn't believe it. After a few days in Lima, where we searched endlessly for meals that weren't chicken and chips, and my mum got robbed of her handbag on a crowded bus (and we spent an hour looking at CCTV footage, communicating with the security guards via Google translation, and eventually identifying the thief), we took a taxi to the airport. Halfway there, my dad suddenly thinks he's left his raincoat at the hotel. He tells the taxi driver to stop, who takes him as his word, and stops in the middle of the motorway. "Well, I didn't mean here", dad mumbles. But he gets out, checks in his bag in the boot; his raincoat is there. He seemed more concerned about leaving his budget raincoat in the hotel than my mum being robbed.

My parents and I flew to Cusco to meet my brother Daniel, who I hadn't seen for three years. It was to be our first family holiday together for many years. Cusco, centre of Inca civilisation (though the Spanish demolished most of it, using Inca temples as quarries for the stone for their churches) is 3,399 metres above sea level – the high altitude means it's chilly in the mornings and nights but lovely and sunny during the day. Altitude sickness affects many people – not me or my brother – but quite definitely my parents, who staggered around the city like drunkards when they weren't in bed trying to recuperate. So Daniel and I wondered around drinking coffee and eating brownies in the hip San Blas district, with its narrow alleyways, white-washed walls and blue shutters, hippies selling their jewellery. Daniel has cycled halfway across the world in the last few years, before settling in New Zealand to live and work. When his seasonal work ends, he sets off again cycling around the globe – this time Peru.

I sometimes envied Daniel's freedom; the places he's been and amazing sights he'd seen, but it comes with a price – loneliness, lack of a family, friends and community. I'm certain he didn't envy me – mortgage, dull office job and horrendous commute every day (though I have my plus points – a fantastic daughter, girlfriend and flat). I've been looking for a balance between travel and real life for about twenty years but never found one. In fact, I haven't been a traveller for about twenty years – I've been a tourist whenever I've been abroad.

Cusco is full of tourists (some hippies, but most wearing cool, expensive hiking brands like Haflofs and RAB; my brother successfully straddled both looks), stray dogs, and constant hassles from hawkers selling alpaca hats and socks, tacky paintings and souvenirs, women in brightly-coloured traditional garb, holding lambs or beautiful children (Peruvians are generally quite beautiful; strong features and dark skin: beside them tourists look pasty and overweight) for stupid tourists to take photos of with. Massive whole roasted guinea pigs were to be found in the market and we heard pan pipe versions of The Sounds of Silence all the time – and prayed for silence after hearing it one too many times. Loud disco music thudded through the hotel walls until 4am. I lay there, unable to sleep, imagined myself getting up, stomping next door, turning off the sound system, and exclaiming ‘It’s a week night!’ but I didn’t.

After being a month in Peru already, Daniel would walk around like a local, speaking Spanish, buying street food (which obviously we were suspect of) and drinks, in particular the tasty chicha morada, made from purple corn and herbs (which also we're suspect of – what if it's made from tap water? No, it's boiled. Even so... oh, okay), sort of a spicy Ribena. We indulge and are soon eating cakes, pasties and ice creams (made with ice, but, oh sod it) from street stalls. I'd had one taste of the famous Inca Kola (owned by Coca-Cola; tastes of cream soda) and that was enough. Daniel was hooked on a Nestle chocolate bar, Sublime, which pretty much tasted as its name suggests.

Jungle Brothers/Monkeys in the Mist
The view from the plane changes abruptly from mountains to jungle – green everywhere like forests of florets of broccoli, with small brown snakes, the silty rivers, winding their way through the landscape. We land in Puerto Maldonado, the town founded by Carlos Fitzcarrald in the Madre de Dios region.

Chris, from Brighton, travelling with his sister, asks me for a light, then we board a boat along the river, stopping along the way to look at the numerous caimans (similar to alligators) on the muddy banks, including a rare black caiman (a massive thing), and the beautiful butterflies licking the salt from their tears (they 'cry' because they need to lubricate their eyes after being out of water for long periods).

In the evening, we all settled down to a gin and tonic on the chairs outside the bar. My brother and I both had the same thought at the same time – George Orwell's Burmese Days, with the colonialists being served gin and tonics by the natives in the balmy evenings of the last days of the Empire. W Somerset Maugham's short stories, which I'd been reading, covers similar territory in the South Seas and Borneo, and I wonder if colonalism still continues. The Tambopata Eco Lodge, where we are staying, is owned by Canadians. Peru is poor yet abundant with natural resources (gold has recently taken over from cocaine as its biggest export), most of which get exported and used by the west.

The itinerary advised to bring raincoats, so I did and was wearing it on our first walk in the jungle, which involved a boat ride on a lake, and feeding crackers to the piranhas. It was hot, I had no hat. Only just making it back to the lodge, I collapsed in a cold sweat for the rest of the day, unable to walk or eat. By the next day I was better – my brother's fail-safe Moroccan recipe of a hot oregano drink may have had something to do with it, but my usual diet of coffee and cigarettes was never a good idea in the tropics (I started drinking herbal tea for a few days). Having only just recovered from altitude sickness, the parent's got jungle fever and were bed-ridden once again.

Our guide, Joselo, is with us all the time – breakfast, lunch, dinner, all day, and talks non-stop about the jungle. He knows his stuff – the wildlife, plants, trees. I remember nothing he said. The days start early at 6, when the mist is still over the river, and it gets dark at 9, so we go to bed. Though we were promised much – in terms of wildlife – we were delivered relatively little. There were fleeting glimpses of small owl and squirrel monkeys, parrots, parakeets (we see more in South London), macaws, toucans and humming birds. There were footprints of a tapir. There was no jaguar. But there were caimans, beautiful butterflies, lizards, tarantulas (teased out by the guides), weaver birds and more besides. There were plenty of shy capybaras (large rodents, similar to guinea pigs) around the lodge, often monkeys in the trees and birds flying around. In fact, being right in the jungle, there was little need to walk at all. The parents spent a day sitting on the veranda of their lodge and probably saw more than Daniel and I walking all day.

Just being in the jungle is an amazing experience, the sights, smells and sounds. The morning jungle feels different to the evening jungle; sounds and smells differ. Some birds sound like car alarms, video games and mobile phone rings. Early one morning a gigantic crashing sound punctuated the silence; I imagined it was an elephant stomping through the jungle (or the eerie sound the black mist made in the TV series Lost). Apparently it was a tree falling down.

We go on walks with fellow tourists; Chris and his quiet sister; a Dutch couple who engage in conversation with us on the seats outside the bar. What starts off being light and superficial ends with them walking off when Daniel starts talking of Islam and freedom. I don't think we spoke to them again. Most of the conversation on walks or in the bar revolve around Brexit and Donald Trump. Other people come to stay, including a laid back, bland American from North Carolina, who everyone instantly likes. Within five minutes he's high-fiving the guides, joking and playing football with them.

Next to us outside the bar a black domestic cat was always laying asleep on a chair. It didn't move for days. It was an odd sight in the jungle. It looked too lazy to hunt, but in a place filled with far bigger cats than him – jaguars were a common sight – it looked far too relaxed seeing as it would be the hunted rather than the hunter. Each day it would be a fascinating subject of conversation: "Look, the cat hasn't moved for one/two/three/four days." I saw it move seat once.

One night we go for a boat ride along the river, searching for caimans with a spotlight – the guides know exactly where they'll be and spot them from fifty metres away. But the best thing was the stars. At one point, they cut the engine of the boat and turn off the torches and we all look up and stare at them.

It was the bland American's last day and the guides wanted to know what he wanted to see. On the 13km walk it was just myself, Daniel, the American and two guides, Joselo and Louis. We stopped at a big lake and got on a small boat. We rowed past bats who live on the lake; tiny little things who line up next to each other when they sleep to make them look bigger. Then we rowed to a swampy part of the lake where there was a narrow stretch. Another boat with tourists appeared, there was some talk between the guides on both boats; suddenly it looked like a race to get through the narrow part of the lake. We couldn't understand why the two boats were both trying to get through at the same time. Then suddenly we did; our boat got through first and we stopped. Louis pointed to something in some foiage – and there it was, a seven metre long anaconda, yellow with a brown pattern on it, coiled up. It uncoiled itself and slid under the water. Then it was gone – the other boat hadn't seen a thing. We stopped for lunch just a few metres away. "It's not like the film" said Louis. There was a young guy from near Glasgow who'd only seen the trail where an anaconda had been – and that had scared him enough. He had the piss taken out of him for days afterwards.

The bland American quotes Churchill to me: 'The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter', and I quote Twain back at him (which I'd heard from Chris): 'If voting made any difference they wouldn't let us do it'. The guides had taken us to the anaconda because it was what the American most wanted to see. I liked the bland American, but obviously I didn't want to.

At the airport, the flight was delayed, we had a few hours spare. Daniel and I ventured out the airport and found a restaurant full of tuk-tuk drivers where we ate and drank heartily. Next to us was one of the guides (not ours) who sat on his own, saw us but ignored us. This was someone who, when in guide mode, was the life and soul of the party, always laughing and joking with the white people. Fair enough, we figured, he's not at work now so why would he say a word to us?

The Cisco (Sour) Kid
Back in the same hotel in Cusco, I started chatting to the pleasant hotel receptionist, who informed me that, to her, Inca and Spanish culture were as important as each other. It's hard to believe. Daniel reminded me of the story in the book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, which I'd read years ago, of conquistador Francisco Pizarro who, in 1532, and with just 150 men massacred thousands of unarmed and unsuspecting Incas. After that he caught and executed the Inca ruler Atahualpa, took as his mistress Atahualpa's ten year-old wife, Cuxirimay Ocllo, and had two children with her. That was just the start of the Spanish conquest of Peru.

When antelopes are attached by a lion, they all run away together in a herd rather than overwhelm the lion with their numbers. Herd mentality also kicks in with humans in times of fear or ignorance, for example, and especially when being a tourist. There's something about tourists, in an alien country for the first time, that is totally moronic.

I'd been worried that we'd been in Peru almost a fortnight and hadn't seen an Inca stone let alone a citadel. This changed when we saw Sacsayhuaman (big citadel; more or less pronounced 'sexy woman'), and I'd inwardly scoffed at all the tours there; we'd made it there on our own (with a taxi but without a guide), and Daniel and I walked back – I'd noticed a shortcut back to town; understandably Daniel was weary (my shortcuts have often ended in disaster) but after he confirmed my instincts by asking two locals for directions, we walked down into town via a designated bike route (strange for a bike route as it was all cobbles, until Daniel said it was a no bikes allowed route). Along this path we bumped into Chris from the jungle, looking the Cusco hippie with his yoga mat and guitar; having ditched his sister he wisely had a dishy Italian in her place, who he didn't introduce us to.

We got our taste of tour guides the following day, when we went on an all-day tour of some Inca ruins, including Picac and Ollantaytambo, along the Sacred Valley. It was so ludicrous it was funny. On the tour bus our guide would blare over the microphone a minute-by-minute account of our itinerary: "In three minutes time we will be stopping at a market where you can purchase souvenirs. We will stop for 20 minutes. You will have two minutes to use the toilet facilities." And: "In nine to nine and a half minutes we will be arriving at Picac, where we will look around for thirty minutes. There will then be an opportunity for purchasing silver jewellery afterwards, for which you will have twenty minutes." It was like this all day. Is this what guided tours were like? I may have been on one or two in my time but none as regimented as this. Everyone seemed to be on guided tours; I was amazed tourists could step out of their hotels without a guide at hand.

The tours only show you what they want you to see, which is obvious, as we'd paid to see the Inca temples, but it's like everything else is blotted out, doesn't exist. I was actually more interested in hand-painted signs on shops and brightly-coloured churches, but there was no tour for those. I would have liked a day in a small town in the mountains in the middle of nowhere, with no tourist attractions or tourists, no Inca temples, and wander around, drinking coffee, chatting, taking photos of doorways (which Daniel and I both fond of doing).

The train journey from Cusco to Machu Picchu “provides one of the finest mountain train journeys in the world” according to the Rough Guide to Peru, going through jungle and following the river through the Sacred Valley. We had to take their word for it, as we travelled by night on the way there from Ollantaytambo to the town of Machu Picchu, only built in the 1950s. However, it ran on time, unlike my daily commute, and the smart women in uniform served us free drinks and muffins.

Every evening at 9pm, channel 30 showed an American film not dubbed into Spanish. Usually a Tom Hanks film, so over a week I watched a bit of Groundhog Day, a bit of The Terminal, and some of the truly terrible You’ve Got Mail. The film neatly highlights everything wrong with modern life. Watching it now, it’s like being at the birth of everything terrible we now take for granted: multinationals taking over independents; people staring into laptops in coffee shops, email, faceless relationships and falling in love over the internet, which usually involves lying and deception. The seeds of our destruction, it's all there. I wish it would all go away.

Lost in Machu Picchu
We woke at a hideous hour to stand in a queue in the dark for hours to get a bus up the mountain to the entrance of Machu Picchu to witness the glorious sunrise. Only there was no sun but lots of clouds and a smattering of rain. We had a guided tour for a few hours then we were left to our own devices. The guide talked non-stop and it goes in one ear and out the other (usually when it's trying to convince us that a rock is in the shape of an Inca Priest, or an eagle, or a puma). At least I stand there pretending to listen, Daniel just walks off. The rain was getting heavier. We had left our suitcases at the hotel in Cusco and been advised to bring a small rucksack for an overnight stay at Machu Picchu. I put in the rucksack a change of pants, toothbrush and book, and that's it. So, in the jungle I had my raincoat, and on Machu Picchu, I didn't. And it started raining, lightly at first, then torrentially, and the clouds and mist closed in.

The parents went back to town; Daniel and I wanted to walk to the famous Sun Gate for the classic view of Machu Picchu. By now I was soaked; I toyed with getting a poncho for a dollar but I couldn't really get any wetter – or so I thought – and besides they looked uncool. So we walked the narrow, uneven, stony path to the Sun Gate, as the rain grew heavier, the mist and cloud heavier and the view became non-existent.

We arrive at the Sun Gate and all we can see is white. We stand around in the rain for a bit, then as we're walking back, there's a shift in the clouds and Machu Picchu can be glimpsed. I tell Daniel I'm going back to the Sun Gate; he goes on ahead. By the time I get back it's gone again. Daniel's way ahead. I race back, overtaking about a hundred hobbling tourists and slipping over once. Even with a map, I'm lost back in Machu Picchu; all I can see is brightly coloured ponchos and white mist. After asking two people the way to the exit I eventually get out of Machu Picchu and find Daniel – and a mile long queue for the bus. If I thought I couldn't get any wetter, I was wrong. We wait an hour in the pouring rain for a bus back to town. Back in town neither of us have any clothes to change into, dad kindly lent me his budget raincoat, and we dry ourselves next to a pizza oven in a restaurant, shivering and clutching hot chocolates.

On the train on the way back to Ollantaytambo it was actually daylight so we enjoyed the scenery of jungles and mountains whilst enjoying the free drinks and snacks. I'd seen a tourist teenage girl had taken a selfie of herself walking along the train platform; on the train journey she didn’t look up from her mobile once. I wanted to get up and tell her this is one of the finest mountain train journeys in the world! At Ollantaytambo, a pretty town surrounded by mountains and Inca temples, we get on a bus back to Cusco; we arrive back when it's late and dark. Daniel and I are still cold and wet. The parents get the altitude sickness again.

Next morning we're up at 4am to go to Cusco aiport. But due to bad weather – though to us it looks like a clear, sunny day – Cusco airport is closed; all planes are delayed and we'll miss our connection at Lima to Quito. So we have to take a later flight to Lima, wait hours, get a plane to Bogata, wait hours, then a plane to Quito. We leave Daniel at Cusco; we were spending another week on the Galapagos Islands; Daniel disapproved of the environmental impact of tourism on the islands, and besides hated organised tours. He goes off to cycle the dirt tracks of Peru for another few months.

After a long taxi ride from Quito airport, we arrive at the Hilton Colon at about 1am. There's not much time to enjoy it and relax – we wake up at 5am, shattered, to get a shuttle bus back to Quito airport. (Travelling – like working in professions such as film, photography, music and fashion – seems impossibly glamorous and exotic but is in fact mostly boring, with probably 80% waiting around, and 20% exhilaration. It's almost worth it.)

At least we see a bit of Quito during the day: mountains surround the city, including the famous Cotopaxi volcano, usually shrouded in mist and only clearly visible July to August. We stopped on the side of the motorway to take photos of it and it looked like the Paramount film logo.

Finally, after five flights (including two from Quito) and three hours sleep in the Hilton Colon in Quito, we reach the Galapagos Islands, "A little world within itself", according to Darwin, who only spent a few weeks there in his five-year voyage around the world.

It wasn’t until the evening in the town along the promenade: the evening, balmy and romantic, and then the following day, on the clear turquoise sea and golden white sand beach, absolute paradise (for 40 minutes only, though) – that I realised how much I missed my girlfriend and daughter, and how I wished they were here with us. Paradise is a person, not a place. And after two weeks with various illnesses – altitude sickness, jungle fever, diarrhea – we are all feeling pretty healthy at last.

Luckily we're shepherded around like children by various guides, so we don't have to think for ourselves at all, but with Daniel gone we still feel a bit lost and helpless. Indeed, we actually get lost in the two-street town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (which reminds me of Havana, though I've never been there) on San Cristóbal island and have to get a taxi back to our hotel ($1 to go anywhere in town). Well, it was night and looks different. In the morning we realise we were two minutes' walk from the hotel. I thought we were staying on a road called 'una dia'; only days later, in Quito, did it dawn upon me that 'una dia' meant 'one way'. (Worryingly, with no Daniel I had become the main map reader. I get lost with Google Maps. I get lost coming back from Sainsbury's. When I was young I remember holidays with the parents driving all over France with an actual physical map; they made it look so easy. They're older now, and have lost their bearings a bit.)

In the morning we board the boat – the Xavier – we're to spend the next four days on, with the tourists we're to spend the next four days with. There's Tony and his daughter Madeleine, who we've already bumped into a few times, and a young Dutch couple, Jens and Marie. Later a bunch of other people come on board; an older Irish couple, a lesbian couple, some others. Around sixteen altogether.

The guide is a pirate called Alberto. On the first evening there's an awkward introduction of all the men working on the boat, from captain to cook, all in their sailor whites, about a dozen of them. They all introduce themselves in Spanish. Then we have to do the same (in English). My dad goes first and says virtually nothing except grumbling he's from London. The Dutch couple go just before me. They announce they'd got engaged on Machu Picchu, and there's smiles and claps. A hard act to follow. In this kind of situation (ie feels like school) I'd usually stutter and mumble – this time I rambled a kind of monologue. I was quite pleased with myself.

In the Peruvian jungle there were glimpses of wildlife in the distance, footprints and tracks – but here it's all on a plate, often literally (there were some lovely fish dinners on board). It soon becomes commonplace to see sea lions everywhere we look – on the dock, on the deck of our boat, on the beach, and even in the sea. We're constantly told about the amount of endemic species on the islands. There are giant tortoises (Galapagos means tortoise), marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, penguins and Sally lightfoot crabs (my personal favourite). And that's just above the ocean.

The days pass as if in a dream. We relax on deckchairs on the deck as our boat meanders through the ocean, slowly passing islands as frigate birds follow us, forever floating overhead. The volcanic archipelago is like a tropical version of the Scilly Isles (once you reach a certain age, and you've been around a bit, everywhere reminds you of somewhere else).

On the arid, desolate North Seymour island live the blue-footed boobies and the male frigate birds who blow up their chests to reveal bright red pouches, like balloons, to attract females. The biggest, boldest, brightest pouch gets the female of the species. No different to humans then. The males sit on the ground, displaying their pouch, awaiting a female to swoop down. It looks very clown-like and uncomfortable. Everything is about reproduction, attraction, continuing the species. The fittest survive, adapt or die. Oh yes, The Origin of Species, I make a mental note to read it one day. And learn to swim and speak Spanish. There are birds nests dotted all over the island with mother's sitting on their eggs; and eggs just hatched; and fluffy baby birds. There are no predators on the islands, so the animals have no fear, not even us, as we walk up to them and shove a zoom lens in their beaks.

At breakfast and dinner times on the Xavier, there's never-ending stilted and awkward small talk with the other guests – flight times, routes, jobs (never lasts long), where we’re from, where we’re going.

Endless talks about flight times is so dreary
Oh, if only she was near me.

We spend days with each other seeing amazing sights and sounds and yet it counts for nothing – no emotional or collective bond or attachment is formed; just days of small talk. Of course it’s great if couples or friends are on the boat but when it’s strangers it’s hard to get beyond the superficial. I get on well with Madeline; both of us here with parents. Her father, Tony, is rather stern and sullen, but Madeleine, who was going to be named Isis, is cheerful and open. Though from Brisbane, she was born in Camden Town, where Tony was a doctor. I've never seen so close a relationship between a father and a daughter in her twenties. She adored him – I can only hope my daughter feels the same about me at that age.

I'm up early at six to take photos of the sunrise. Two women are doing tai-chi on deck. I spot the dark and unmistakable silhouette of a shark circling us in the water. Some islands are lush and fertile, others are like the moon or Mars, desolate and locations for a sci-fi film. We go to see some penguins first, then explore the lunar, black lava landscape of Santiago island. The names for the lava types are Hawaiian: a'a has rough, broken surface, and pahoehoe is smooth and unbroken and looks like ropes. On the lunar landscape, I have the conversation I have with every Irish man: how much better Guinness tastes in Ireland. He tells me about the tour he went on around the Guinness brewery.

Later we climb the 400 steps on the island of Bartolomé to one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. A huge school of fish rise to the top of the ocean to feed, forming a big white circle, then vanish again, only to rise in a line, vanish and rise again and again, forming either a circle or a line.

On our last evening, the crew came to us again in their full whites, but it's even more awkward this time: we are given two envelopes each (one for the guide, one for the rest of the crew) to put tips in (a handy printed guide tells us $20 a day is the average). We had a break for ten minutes, not realising we were meant to fill the envelopes. We regroup in the lounge and bar – everyone else has filled up their envelopes but us. We hastily do so.

Sitting on the deck, looking out to an island in the distance, lost in thoughts of a convoluted sexual fantasy, my mother jogs me out of my reverie. The sun sets fast at six, plunging the islands into silhouettes. The clouds and sky are vast; the sea turns an inky dark blue. Mosquitos start to appear. The moon is upside down and I see a shooting star.

We leave early to go on a short trip to see some giant tortoises. Wisely, most of them are still asleep. Then it's bus–boat–bus–plane to Quito. These tours, whether in the jungle or on the islands, advertise themselves as adventures and pitch us as travellers – as if there’s danger and independence involved but there’s not. It's all on a plate. I have more adventure and sense of danger trying to cross a road in London.

If it's quite a shock to be back in the city after days in the islands, I don’t dislike it. If the actual jungle reminded me of the urban jungle, now it's the opposite – the urban jungle reminded me of the actual jungle; the sound of the traffic lights reminded me of a bird from the jungle. We still bumped into our fellow travellers from time to time; mainly Tony and Madeleine – in a lift, a restaurant, outside a gift shop. It happened so much she called out to me: "You're chasing us!" and I quipped back, "No, you're chasing us!" We never met again after that; I never said goodbye to any of the people we spent days with in paradise.

I had a late breakfast in the Hilton. The buffet had enough food to feed an Ecuadorian family for a month. Middle-aged American males were sitting around me, wearing brightly-coloured polo shirts and smart haircuts, talking into their phones in American Spanish. I was trying to listen to the Elton John song playing, the classic Your Song:

I hope you don't mind
I hope you don't mind
That I put down in words
How wonderful life is while you're in the world

Inexplicably, tears welled up in my eyes. I was a traveller, not a tourist. It was a state of mind. I rushed out of the hotel and into the busy street. We wondered the old town until early afternoon – the churches, the tumbling down colonial buildings, the shock of garish modern architecture sitting next to the old, the street hawkers, the black pollution of the buses, the shoe shiners, the prostitutes brazen in broad daylight, the babies always wrapped up on their mother's backs (we didn't see any pushchairs), and a juggler, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator and a man with two life-size skeletons attached to himself with a sound system, all performing in the traffic to make a few coins from the driver's waiting at the traffic lights.

Wandering around Quito actually felt more like travelling than the jungle, Inca ruins or island tours, which are as far removed from understanding a country as is possible (okay, it’s understanding a certain part of the country: tourism). From the plane we're picked up at airport, shuttlebussed to our hotels, eating in 'recommended' restaurants, then taken on the tours by the guides. It’s like we’re children being mollycoddled. And only shown what they want us to see. (I know there are alternative tours – the favelas in Brazil, say, or the communist bloc council estates in Poland). Still, it had been amazing, and I mean that. A trip of a lifetime, or, as my mum corrected me, one of many trips of a lifetime.

In the three weeks we were away there's a new PM in the UK, Boris is foreign secretary (apparently without irony), Wimbledon tennis, the Nice massacres, military coup in Turkey, Brexit stuff, a new Avalanches album (their first for 16 years)... life goes on without us; I didn't care about any of it.

Further viewing: Film
Embrace of the Serpent Beautiful film shot in black and white, with nods to Herzog and Apocalypse Now. Filmed in Colombia in 2015. 
Aguirre, Wrath of God The Herzog classic #1.
Fitzcarraldo The Herzog classic #2.
Touching the Void Took place in the Andes, near Huarez. I've videotaped Joe Simpson doing a motivational speech.
The Motorcycle Diaries Has a scene on Machu Picchu.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Partly takes place in Peru.
Anaconda Mostly filmed in Brazil; directed by a Peruvian.
Piranha Joe Dante's 1978 horror comedy.
Romancing the Stone Filmed in Colombia.
Apocalyso Mel Gibson's thrilling adventure film; the dialogue is entirely in Yucatec Maya. Set in 16th century Mexico, just before the arrival of Europeans.
Avatar Apparently inspired by James Cameron going on a jungle trek in Columbia.
Master and Commander Was partly filmed on the Galapagos Islands.

Further viewing: Photography
Daniel's Flickr photos
My Flickr photos: Peru, Galapagos Islands, Quito, Ecuador

Further reading
Tintin Prisoner of the Sun

White Sands by Geoff Dyer Not really related to Peru at all, except mentioning in the first story, where he tracks the footsteps of Paul Gaugain in French Polynesia, that Gaugain's father was Peruvian and the family moved there when Paul was young; he lived in Lima until he was seven and the culture influenced some of his later paintings.

The book came out when I was in Peru and I got it from the library when I came back. I'd been reading the short stories of W Somerset Maugham at the time, where, coincidentally, many of the stories are also set in the Pacific Islands. I'd been wondering what a Mother Hubbard was, and, repeatedly forgetting to Google it, Geoff Dyer explains it in White Sands: "a shapeless and not very flattering frock", introduced, naturally (but unnaturally), by missionaries appalled by the natives' skimpy clothing. Maugham's famous book the Moon and Sixpence is based on the life of Paul Gaugain.

The book explores the idea of why we travel. Years ago, I'd loved his book Yoga for People who Don't Know How to do it (of which White Sands is a follow up to), been to a talk by him, and given him a copy of my travel book. I never heard back from him. I like Geoff Dyer because his travel books are full of mishaps and stuff he didn't do rather than did do. I like him because his writing is funny and smart, he's been to some places I've been to, lived in Brixton like I have, missed seeing the Northern Lights like I did, and now lives in California, like I always wanted to. Like David Mitchell (the writer), Geoff Dyer looks a bit like me – that's probably the real reason I like them both.

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Daniel's account of the trip: The Attwell's do Peru

1 comment :

Tailwind said...

"Paradise is a person not a place"
But Paradise comes from the Persian word meaning walled garden, ie a human design and form managed the way you want it?