Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Monday 20 September 2010

Thru Peru

Peru was the fourth South American country we visited.

Coming fourth is the just about worst position in any competition and so it was for Peru.

It suffered. It suffered from our inevitable state of comparison. It suffered from being, in our minds, either more or less.

Its roadside shops were more ordered than those in Bolivia, but less so than those in Argentina or Chile. Its road surfaces were more consistently bike-able than most of those in Bolivia but less so than those there that had been flash and new. It had more agreeable sanitation than Bolivia but much less so than Chile. When it was deserted it was more deserted than Argentina but its outposts when you came across them felt pleasantly less remote. It had more ATM machines than we had seen for an age but many fewer than we had been used to when we had started. There was a much more cosmopolitan and abundant feeling than in the remote Andes but then when people had less they seemed to have much, much less.

More or less, it was more or less.
What made forming an impression of the country even harder was the speed with which we gobbled it up and the route we chose to take. We fairly pegged it through Peru and we did so clinging dramatically to its coastal fringes. On occasion we were so close to the edge that we felt we were hardly in Peru at all!

It seemed we had skimmed the surface and whilst there was a real pleasure in watching those kilometres whizz by, whilst the wind prevailed generally at our back, it felt like we were doing it a disservice.

But we needn't have worried.

Peru had more power over us than we realised and with distance we could see with less bike-fuddled occlusion what made it unique.

Principally there was a strong feeling of nationhood. Peru seems very comfortable with being Peru. Perhaps that is a reflection of its relative maturity in the South American country game. Peru was at the coalface of the clash of indigenous and colonial worlds and it is the oldest 'new' country in the Americas. It is where Imperial Spain set out its stall and made the 'mountain of silver' in Potosi (now in modern day Bolivia) its bank for three centuries. Everything that was wrenched from the mineral rich mountains and the verdant plains and sent to Europe, was sent there through Lima which held sway over all other trade routes until shortly before the spate of revolutions that led to the forming of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and the rest. Peru was the 'land of abundance' that spawned all the others.

As a 'Modern state' it feels old and well established. The European influence has been around for a long time. This was very evident in the beautiful colonial hearts of the towns we visited. The architecture, the church and the culture of Spain spread as quickly through the region as the germs and diseases which the Conquistadors also brought. There are some magnificent buildings and some proper relics, both literally and metaphorically. In Lima we crawled through the catacombs of the San Francisco monastry, giggling nervously at the femurs and rib bones, piled high next to horribly theatrical 'Poor Yorrick' skulls, of centuries of god serving folk who were the spiritual guides of their imperial masters. Then we ascended into the sun and to the gloriously restored centre, all wide boulevards and grand edifices. Perfectly manicured white and red flowerbeds all spoke of a deep rooted sense of permanence.

But perhaps Peru's sense of stability comes from its long history of regional mastery. It had a impressive record of political capital for centuries before the Spanish appeared. The invading Europeans superceded the last home grown imperial power, that of the Inca Empire whose centre of operations was also in Peru at Cusco. Despite folding fast in the face of the gun-toting cunning and tribe-deviding deviousness of the invaders, the Incas were ruthless publicists who wiped out any history of those who had preceded them, leaving the impression that they were the only really significant civilisation to have graced those shores. However, generations of archeologists have unravelled the truth and the fantastic museums of Lima and an overwhelming number of fascinating regional sites articulate a magnificent progression of powerful humans of which Peruvians are very proud.

We learnt about the Wari and the Paracas and the Chavin. We gawped at their pots and jewellery and gulped at the odd shaped skulls, elongated like characters from Star Trek, cultivated to show power and rank. And we saw the extraordinary Nazca lines. Laid out by the Nazca civilisation these are a befuddling floorplan of lines, geometric shapes and animal images which can only really be appreciated from the sky. The Nazcas had to have a lot of time on their hands and a lot of controlled organisation to set about such a mammoth earth moving task. No one knows why they did it or what on earth it all means, although most theories revolve around the spiritual forces they imgaine the Nazca were appealing to.
And so, hand in hand with associations of power, come long associations with religious activity. The truth of this was borne out in Moquegua where we met a visiting Canadian Buddhist monk. Once he had finished explaining to us that since we were 'only ordinary' and not 'spiritual' people he was unlikely to be able to have any sort of meaningful conversation with us, he revealed that his presence in Peru was due to being called there by ancient spiritual voices. He was off to meditate on a mountain nearby, well known to have been the burial ground of the Wari and long worshipped by successive cultures, because it had appeared to him in a vision. He had set off on his journey to find it rather unsure of where he was heading. However, heresay and investigation had led him there and now he felt sure he had arrived in the place he was meant to be. He wondered if we knew whether or not there was a bus he could catch up to the summit. We did, as it happened, and so in spite of not really being able to grasp the magnitude of the event we could at least supply the means of fascilitating it. We also knew where the internet cafe was and where one could get food late on a Sunday night. How useful 'ordinary' people can be.

Succesive generations have worshipped these extraordinary mountains. I suppose they had little choice. They are everywhere. We never escaped them in Peru. Whilst we are well aware that there is plenty of jungle lowland on their eastern side, travelling along the West we could simply couldn't shake them off.

Peru has an impressive geological record. Whilst you're sweating up one desert mountain after another your mind rarely wanders to the delights of Plate Tectonics. But when one has the leisure to think about two gigantic Pacific ocean bits of earth-crust jigsaw sliding inexorably beneath a massive South American piece, the sheer enormity of what is going on is a bit mind blowing. The Andes are growing. Every year the land is being pushed up a bit more and they get higher and higher. And all this movement is causing all sorts of slow geological chaos. We saw evidence of these gigantic environmental upheavals when we saw swathes of dead coral and great layers of crushed sea shells folded in angel cake hillsides 400 metres above the sea they were once under. The volcanic eruptions and huge earth splits that get caused have left lava hanging around everywhere and the resultant Tsunamis have left coastal towns like Camana regularly shredded of all their glory.
And so for all the Peruvian permance their is also Peruvian transience. A lot of cultures have been and gone, a lot of places have been and gone and a lot of stuff has been and gone.
Plenty of stuff is still being produced though. Cor' dear, Peru is abundant. From the ludicrously fruitful orange groves of the coastal valley (the air positively stank of orange) to the outrageously large Natural Gas Plant an hour or two from Lima, Peru is producing and producing and producing. Rather unfortunately it has also just entered the number one spot for cocaine production, a horrible blight on the lives of its population who suffer from the associated crime and dangers.
Because, whilst so much in Peru felt positive, there is a dark side that cannot be ignored. There were places we passed through on the coach we took north from Lima that we were delighted not to be staying in. We had heard some sad stories too from this region that meant we chose not to cycle through that part. It is a huge challenge for the political forces to deal with and one that will be high on the agenda in the national elections next year.

Everywhere, as in all the other South American countries we visited, the campaigns of those hoping to take the mantel in 2011 are displayed in massive posters and in big letter wall paintings. There is the daughter of the former president (now in jail for corruption), there is the radical socialist reformer modelled in the style of Chavez and Morales and there is the old president who wants to come back for another go. Those we spoke to had varying hopes but all hoped that whoever wins does not turn the clock back on current Peruvian progress.
Because to a man (no ladies were drawn out sadly) they felt that Peru has been having a good time of late. That it is on the up. It has well and truly experienced all the mire-filled political horrors that have beleagured so many South American countries, but it seems to have turned a corner. People were very confident that challenges would be faced. In Moquegua, our friend Beto sung the praises of successful political campaigns to ensure the wearing of seatbelts to reduce road deaths and the clearing up of litter to stop the Bolivia stylee feeling of living in a permanent rubbish dump.
Nowhere were these improvements more apparent than in Lima. No one got us excited about Lima in advance of our visit. The guidebook wasn't very encouraging and lots of people told us it was dirty and horrid. And yet we were very impressed by it. There were large posters showing 'before and after' images of big scale public works. There is a new bus metro system, huge regenerated zones and a fantastic fountain park. This park has over 20 fountains that do acrobatic water things to lights and music. We loved it. We want on a warm Saturday evening and shared this great public space with hundreds of delighted locals. Families were out together, groups of friends were messing about together and couples on dates were canoodling fountainside together, all to tunes as varied as Abba and Swan Lake.
We were also treated to a night out on the town with one of Phil's friends. Roberto treated us to a fabulous tour of waterfront Lima (what a magnificent site for a city - where surfers can hang out in the shadow of the high rises) and drinks on the pier before a great Italian meal in a very classy part of town. It was as swanky as anywhere in the world.

And the Food. Wow the food. In the last ten years Peru has made some serious waves on the food front and boy is it good. Every Peruvian positively bursts with pride over the food. After the privations of some parts of our South American adventure the abundance of some great meals was music to our taste buds. We had Ceviche, Cuy and Causa and they were all great. The seafood was particularly wonderful, so wonderful in fact that when the Inca empire was in full force lobsters would be run by successive messengers up the mountains to be enjoyed in Cusco. And all these delights were washed down with a Pisco sour.

Ahhhh...Pisco sours....perhaps our best discovery of all. A fine, fine drink that leads to a great feeling of satisfaction and delight.
And so as we guzzled and tippled away we truly entered into an important tradition and so despite our speed felt we didn't pass too quickly through Peru at all.

And as for our comparisons, that was another Peruvian tradition it seemed. Fuelled by the Pisco sours there was a lot of local levelling going on. People would look us deep in the eye and thank God they weren't in as much trouble as Argentina, or governed by a government as crazy as that in Bolivia. And don't start any of them on Chile!! They were more or less very much into their more or less.

Any by the way....they VERY definitely didn't consider themselves to be the fourth country on any South American podium at all!

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