Monday, 28 March 2011

Peru-sing South America's most unexpected gem...

With the poverty and scenery of Bolivia behind me, I was anticipating good times and great experiences to be had in Peru, South America's 3rd largest country by area. I was flying from La Paz to Cusco, the traditional jumping-off point for people going to the world-famous Machu Picchu. This may not sound remarkable in itself, but on my flight there, I was accompanied by only 14 other people on the plane (an Airbus A319 painted to look like a crocodile - a plane that can supposedly carry around 134 passengers). This made me feel especially guilty about my carbon footprint, which is more of a 'carbon trench' being carved out in South America's lovely landscape.

This wasn't the only air travel-related incident of note. On arrival in Cusco 'International' Airport, all 15 passengers were forced to wait while the immigration official ambled slowly to his desk from goodness knows where. When he had finally arrived, he had a look on his face as though the passengers had asked him to wipe their arses one by one.

Once I had finally made it into Peru, the patriotism was almost tangible. Every single Peruvian with whom I came in contact informed me of the great joys of Peru and how much of a wondrous place it is. A typical line was "Peruvian women are fantastic". This turned out to be mostly codswallop. Despite their false promises, I was made to feel very welcome in Peru. One incident that springs to mind is my first lunch in Lima, when a local chap, having spotted my map of Lima, shook my hand and said "welcome to Peru, amigo". I was touched. But my sexual assault case is a story for another day, Peruvians were simply incredibly welcoming.

I must say, I wouldn't remain quite so friendly if my home had been overrun by 'gringos' (a South American term for backpackers). Cusco was full of them. And this was the low season allegedly. This in itself wasn't a major issue for me, it was more the general ignorance of all of these gringos. Whilst sitting in a café (named Inka-fé - geddit?) enjoying a cup of maté, a group of 4 English gap year girls sat on the table next to me. When they ordered, not once did they attempt a word in Spanish. Surely everyone knows at least the words 'gracias' or 'por favor'? Alas, no. The English had managed to embarrass a whole nation once again just through sheer ignorance and laziness.

So from Cusco, off I went to arguably South America's best-known tourist attraction. Machu Picchu. For those ignoramuses (ignoramus of course being derived from a latin verb form, not a noun, thus rendering the pluralisation 'ignorami' ironically incorrect. But I digress.) who don't know, Machu Picchu is basically a city of ruins high up in the Peruvian mountains. I must say, the whole day was a pleasure, right down to the transportation to and from the site. Getting there involved a train. Not any old train though: this was train travel as it should be. The carriages were large and spacious with plenty of light and just before departure, the whole platform was a chaotic scene of passengers, conductors and catering staff. It was the most enjoyable chaos I've seen in a while. When we finally got under way, there was a trolley service with delicious and thoughtful meals provided. I was indeed a happy bunny.

When I had finally reached the site itself, my first thought (other than 'wow' of course) was "why the Dickens did someone decide to build a town here?". To put this in perspective, it took us 25 minutes in a bus to get up the mountain. That was in modern times, how did they manage it in the 15th century? Either way, the journey was worth it. Despite being riddled with tourists and the driving rain, I had a thoroughly interesting time at Machu Picchu, and would recommend it to anyone.

Back to Cusco. A fairly unremarkable colonial town with a pleasant central plaza and some nice architecture. The city itself has more-or-less 400,000 inhabitants, which puts it on a par with Liverpool. "This all sounds wonderful" you may be saying, "but why the hell should I care?". I'll tell you why: every night at 10 p.m., the city of Cusco turns off the water supply. No running water. At all. Until 5 a.m. In a city the size of Liverpool. Insane.

So I left Cusco (smelling terrible) and headed to the capital, Lima. A city of some 9 million people and one of the former capitals of the Spanish South American Empire. Yet sadly, Lima seems to be omitted from most people's itineraries. I must say I was surprised by Lima: many people had warned me I'd be bored and that there was nothing to do there. With this in mind, I turned up with low expectations.

I was staying in 'Gringo Central', an area of the city called Miraflores. This just so happened to be the wealthiest part of the city, and thus was filled with shops, pleasant parks and fewer homeless people than elsewhere in Lima. In fact, Miraflores was the richest place I had been to on my trip so far. I saw people driving around in Hummers, Mercedeseseseseses, BMWs and a host of other luxury cars. All of which seemed rather pointless. I'm not going to criticise the capitalist system at this point, merely point out how Limeños are the worst drivers I have ever seen. They made Romans look like careful, considerate motorists. Lanes were painted on the roads, but the local government may as well have painted pictures of frogs spinning plates whilst playing billiards with a seahorse. This probably would have made more sense than trying to persuade Limeños to stay in their respective lanes.

And for those of you wondering if the standards of the women had improved since Bolivia, they certainly had in Miraflores. This was Peruvian rah central. I hadn't seen so many Ugg boots since my time at Durham. This was truly a beautiful place filled with beautiful people.

The city centre was a different proposition, however. On my one day (it'll become clear why I didn't go back) in the town centre exploring the sights, I was accosted by a German. Now, being British and a bit of a Germanophone, I was too polite to simply ignore the man, so I humoured him and engaged him in conversation. He fed me some cock-and-bull story about how he was attacked and mugged, and how the German Embassy had told him he needed to travel to another one of their consulates to get hold of a new passport. At first I refused because I clearly didn't believe his story, but in order just to get him away from me, I offered to give him 2 Soles (about 50 Pence). As I was rummaging around in the coin section of my wallet, he somehow managed to take a 100 Soles note out without me noticing at the time. He left me alone, seemingly content with the 2 Soles and I was happy to escape. Only later did I discover the missing monies and curse myself for my naiveté. I felt like the Allies in 1939: completely betrayed by the Germans following various unkept promises.

This German wasn't the only unpleasant person I encountered in Lima: the service in restaurants was almost as bad as the driving on the roads to get to the restaurants. Staff were slow, inattentive and rude. The worst part was when they had the audacity to ask for a tip at the end. No chance. I nearly spat out my Inca Kola. But Peruvian dining wasn't all bad: they have both the aforementioned Inca Kola - a new favourite soft drink of mine - and Pisco sour - a new favourite alcoholic drink of mine. Inca Kola is a bubblegum-flavoured fizzy drink, occupying the same market as Coca-Cola or Sprite. Except Inca Kola is a lot more popular than these two pretenders. A lot more popular. In fact, Coca-Cola was so worried about its dominance on the Peruvian market, that instead of trying to compete, it just bought the Inca Kola company.

Pisco sour is an alcoholic cocktail made from lime juice, egg whites and a local spirit called Pisco, a sort of grape-derived brandy. Again, this was delicious and certainly did the trick.

Besides its drinks, Lima is home to a great number of surfers' beaches. However, these are all named after other famous beaches: there was a Redondo Beach and a Waikiki Beach, all of which led me to think: do they really want to name parts of their country afters places traditionally filled with Americans..?

So after a few days enjoying the hidden delights of Lima, I was off to Colombia. But that's a story for another day.

So long for now, and remember: never trust an injured German.

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