PERU - Riding the buses

Over the next few days we would spend nearly twenty-seven hours on buses to get to Tingo, the small mountain town from where we would start another trek up into the Andes.

It was also over these days that it became clear that a great percentage of the South American character would be shed on our transport, our journeys. Some of the rides themselves were as interesting and eventful as the destinations.

The scenery from those rides was a real mix. I would often find myself sitting there with a smile beaming across my whole persona. I would try and absorb everything around me, to squeeze every last moment of enjoyment into my body.

Now was a part of the Andes repertoire that we had not yet encountered. Here the land was much greener with large cultivated areas, and small communities scattered all over. We found ourselves going over a very narrow mountain pass and could look down on the clouds below us. Occasionally, there was a break in the cloud which would open up a view which was the green version of patchwork quilting. Endless terracing. The results of hard labour, primitive bullock drawn ploughs, back breaking planting of the endless mountain side fields. Then some light rain would reveal fresh mountain air to supply my addiction. It also presented the world premiere hand-operated windscreen wipers' performance. It was, however, a relief to know that there was an offsider to operate the wipers because, even though I couldn't see the depth of the valleys below, I knew that a slide to one thousand feet below wouldn't be out of the question.

I had secured the middle back seat, so as to allow myself time to regroup from the sardine-feeling syndrome so often felt by oversized (or even normal sized) westerners. It was three a.m. and I had eventually rocked off to sleep. The thought of light rain outside was a feeling I savoured and there was no alternative but to put my full faith in the bus driver. And, besides, he had a little religious concoction, a statue of Mary and a candle, just near where his rear view mirror should have been. We were in safe hands?

Rounding in and out, up and down, high on Andean passes and drowsy on the thin air and continual rocking of the bus. Continuing drowsy stupor. It was safer to be travelling at night in this area, because the driver could always see oncoming traffic, due to their probing headlights. The problem of daytime driving in an area of endless blind corners and switchbacks was one which we all new well. Head on collisions were one of the greatest causes of death on Andean roads. I'm sure passenger shock must have been up there as well.

I must have been in a deep sleep and was slow to react, the old Indian man tapping my shoulder to try and wake me. Once I knew that I wasn't starring in yet another dream, I woke quickly. Everybody was getting out of the bus. It was very dark and still drizzling outside. The bus was alive, people pulling at bags from the overhead carriers, calling to each other. No panic, just concern!

Half asleep I waddled down to the front, dodging the mass of packages and goods on the floor and filed outside; stood very still. I was allowing myself to regain my senses before trying to work out why, at three in the morning, way up on the side of a mountain, with light drizzling rain falling, the only visability being the metres in front of the bus where the lights were trying to do their job, why it was that we were getting out. I looked at Brad and saw the same tired sense of bewilderment masking his face. Now fully emptied, except for the driver and his windscreen wiper-operator, the bus sludged forward slowly, everybody making their way behind it. A funeral procession. Then I started to put the scenario together, the bus cautiously making its way across an old bridge. Narrow and made of the trees that stood beside us on either side, it seemed quite rickety. The bus made its way across, and eventually the driver made it clear that the bridge had been a bit suspect for some time. This was the cheapest insurance policy available.

Once back inside, my tiredness took complete control and I fell to the heavens, leaving this little adventure to turn over in my head. Substance for my next letter home, as subject matter of another dream.

Next day, in the afternoon, the rain had subsided, but thick grey clouds continued to threaten us. It seemed just a matter of time before they burst their buttons.

The sun broke through, the ground steaming as if smouldering from fire. After quite a chilly night where we had pulled out all our available layers, we now found ourselves slowly shedding those same layers. Reaching up from my slouched position, I tried to open the window. It felt a little tight so I straightened a little and gave it a short, sharp push. The whole window, frame and all, started to cave outward, and with the reflexes and skill of any slips fielder, I lunged and caught the edge of it. Grasping the whole thing, I pulled it back towards me and wedged it back into place. The shock was sudden, my sudden splurge of adrenalin shocking me from that half-sleep that accompanies long hours of travel. I held on to it for quite a while, but it now seemed as if nothing had ever happened and that nothing ever would. Maybe it had been nothing but a sub-plot in a dream. After quite some time my sluggish travelling state soon returned and my hand slipped back into my lap, not really caring if it decided to leap out again. We had stopped overnight at Cajarmarca, and now had a hotel in the small town of Celendin. It was our place of rest, but from where we would catch our next bus at three a.m. next morning. We set our alarms and tried to sleep. Brad hadn't been feeling "together" that afternoon, and in the wee hours he started feeling worse. He vomited several times and didn't look well as he lay pale and pained on his bed. It didn't look good for catching our bus.

But as all hardened travellers are, the decision to press forward overcame the situation. At the last possible moment, at ten minutes to three, we threw our packs on our backs and made our way down a deserted cold street to the address where we had been told the bus would stop. It was pitch black, the only noise being the occasional howling of some hungry dog. Brad slumped, energyless, on to the pavement and, using his pack as a pillow, tried to rest. We knew that the next leg of travel would be exhausting.

It was a time when we didn't need PT to go to work, and were quite happy, if not surprised, to hear the bus engine roaring through narrow streets in the city below us. Although Brad was weak and not altogether sure what had made him sick, he was glad to be leaving. The next bus out would be in four days' time.

World champion sleeper, Mr Brad-anywhere-any hour-any way-Fowler was soon oblivious to his previous hours of ill-health. Although a little late off the blocks, I soon succumbed to the rock-a-bye motion of the bus. A deep sleep set in. The hours dissolved.

I could hear shouting and knew by the lack of rocking and vibrating noises that we were not moving. Maybe gaining some passengers; someone is shaking me! Half dazed, I open one eye. I can smell smoke. I jut my head upward like an ostrich, and can see flames at the front of the bus, near the engine. Everybody quickly evacuates the bus as the driver works frantically, beating the flames with a wet hessian bag. Brad is still feeling nauseous and, as I am, very tired, but still manages a big smile which says, "Oh, my God, I can't believe it!" It seemed as if the past days had been more than we had both expected, even having read several accounts of other people's dramatic travels, and of the possibility that anything can happen in South America.

I find myself a nice fat rock to pause on, propping my head up with my hands and elbows supported by my knees. It's comfortable. My eyes flicker about, taking in all the action, seeing that everything is like some large abstract painting. I'm pooped and feeling a bit of movement within home base. I reach inside the window of the bus and lift my small day pack. I extract the toilet paper and wander off down the road a little way to discover that my first dose of "Inca-quickstep" has set upon me. I'm so proud. My first time .... ugh! Returning to my seat beside the road I watch beams of flashlights flickering between the engine and someone who has slithered underneath the bus. The clinking and tapping of spanners assure that some steps are being taken to negate the problem. Driver, fireman, mechanic .... what a talent!

Back on board the bus and nearing the end of this leg of the journey, I come to grips with the fact that I now have moved into some new mode of recognition for time and reality.

It seems as unimportant as it is important. I wonder how these people would judge time, as most of them wouldn't use watches. It was a thought that I would expand upon throughout the coming months. Time.