Friday, 19 January 2007

Another country, another keyboard layout to learn

The letters are all pretty much in the same places ¿ it{s just the punctuation] which seems to be littered around the keyboard at random_

Such is the lot of the modern intercontinental traveller.

Anyway, brace yourselves, I think it's gonna be a long one, as the bishop ... etc

I'm currently in Huancavelica, 128km into the Andes from Huancuyo, which was my first stop after Lima. This region is known as the Na çion Wanca, and I got the train here with a German guy I met called Pieter Helm. That's right, I've been exploring the Wanca region with Peter Helmet. You just can't buy that kind of joy in a travel agent, you have to discover it for yourself.

We had some interesting conversations, Mr Helmet and me, because we each had a small amount of various languages in common, so we communicated in a kind of esperanto composed of fragments of poor Spanish, English, German and French. It was quite funky.

I've met a few Germans so far, which I find quite comforting. I regard die Deutschen as the most reliable mining canaries of safe international travel. I mean, the English will go everywhere because we think we own the place. The Yanks are the same because they actually do, via a complicated series of credit arrangements, and heck, if there isn't a war going on when they get there, they'll sure as tootin' start one, darn it.

The Aussies and Kiwis will go anywhere because they regard the entire world as one giant party and no-one told them they weren't invited. The French don't go anywhere, so if you meet anyone claiming to be French they'll actually be a Belgian in disguise. The Spanish will go everywhere, but mañana.

But the Germans - if the Germans will travel somewhere, you know to expect at least a certain semblance of order.

I'm having a fantastic time, though every time I go away I encounter a new and unforeseen problem, something I really hadn't planned for and with which I'm in no position to cope. This trip has been no exception.

Can you imagine how intimidating it is to be surrounded by this many people that can dance? I mean, really dance? Somewhere outside this cybercafe is a one legged beggar with a wasting disease that cuts a better shape on the dance floor than I do. I'm tying my feet in knots under the desk just thinking about it. Damn my rhythmic dyslexia.

Especially since I was exploring the village this morning and discovered they were in the middle of their annual Impede a Tourist festival, when it seems that the entire town divides itself between various bands and dances through the streets - they were literally full of Wancas. On the one hand I felt privileged to see such fun, especially since I have no idea what it was and wasn't expecting it, but on the other I found myself saying "Yes, but they're in my way".

It doesn't make it any easier that the Peruvians don't like to label their streets as it makes it too easy for the tourists, so almost every second turn I took led me straight back to the snake of dancers.

On the plus side, the basics of life are pretty cheap once you get out of the major tourist cities - for instance, I'm currently paying about one pound eighty a night for my room. True, the mattress has roughly the consistency of pizza dough and I'm expected to share it with a few bed bugs and half the mosquito population of the southern hemisphere, but you can't argue with prices like that.

You can also get a reasonable meal for under a pound, too, though the service tends to be on the express side. I mean, I'm not reknowned as a slow and dainty eater - in fact I believe word has gone round the canine population that under no circumstances should they ever mess with me while I'm eating - and I regard the real reason we eat with a knife and fork is so we can shovel food into our mouths with the fork and use the knife to jab the hands of anyone that gets too close. So when I find the next course arriving before I've finished the previous, I know the service is perhaps a trifle rushed. They seem to have a very egalitarian approach to coffee, too - giving you a cup of hot water and a jar of nescafe so you can prepare it to your own liking.

They also do good desserts here, which surprises me, I don't know why. I have dessert magic words, though (like cheesecake and tiramisu) and the Peruvians seem to know them well.

As you can see, I'm roughing it to my usual extent. ;-)

Travel, too, is cheap, depending how much of your personal space you're willing to share with domestic animals and farm produce. I paid about two quid twenty to get to Huancavelica (first class), then an extra quid for a meal on-board. I felt good about it, too, till I looked at my ticket and realised I'd been shortchanged by about 3p. Damn those thieving Peruaños! Mr Helmet believes that the change you're given is pretty random because they don't learn too much maths at school, but I've not been given too much change yet, see what I'm saying?

We also managed to get about half an hour up the track before the engine broke down and we had to get towed back to town to wait for a replacement engine. When we were finally underway we also had to reverse twice because we'd forgotten something. The first time I thought it was cute (can you imagine a train going back because they've forgotten something?) but the second time, when they went back for a couple of sacks of onions - well, they'd better have been good onions is all I'm saying.

Anyway, much love, all the best, (sorry I haven't replied personally to anyone yet, I've wasted all my time typing this nonsense)

Take it easy


ps Below this point is more detail for them's what can be bothered:

I arrived at Lima airport about midnight, and had the traditional white-knuckle cab-ride from the airport. I'm sure they do this deliberately, knowing you're so numb from the plane, frightened out of your wits by the crazy driving and grateful to arrive at the hostel in one piece that you'll pay whatever ridiculous sum they choose to overcharge you, just to be let out of the cab. Taxi drivers in Lima are pretty bad, and there's one firm called Manos de Dios, which (I believe) means that when you step inside you really are putting yourself in the Hands of God - fair enough, but I'd rather rely on safe driving and a well maintained vehicle, given the choice.

Compared to the collectivo minibuses however, the cabs are serenity itself. The buses, already crammed to the aisles with someone sitting on the driver's lap (they seem to be strangers to Mr Max Capacity here), actually race each other to be first to the next stop, corners be damned.

There are traffic cops on almost every street corner in Lima too, so I have no idea what kind of crazy stunt you'd need to pull to attract the attention of one of these guys, given the standard of driving they're perfectly happy to let pass.

My favourite traffic cop moment was in Huancuyo, where they all dressed up as mimes and held 'silencio' signs up in an attempt to get the cars to quieten their horns, which they use constantly. I applaud the sentiment, but think it a quite risky strategy - I think for most sane people the sight of a mime in the middle of the road would be too much temptation for the ol' accelerator foot, and I think most judges would consider it a justifiable homicide.

Anyway, Lima Centro, the part of town where they keep the backpackers, can only adequately be described as un orificio de cack (as you can see, mi spanglés va muy bien). It's also very humid. If you can imagine up-ending a bath and walking into it, and then someone turning a hose on you, then you're somewhere close to getting an idea of how much moisture is in the air.

There are some nice suburbs in Lima, but generally the best thing about it was meeting some top friends of Shane's that he put me in touch with - Shaun and Clair. (Cheers, mate) I also met their equally cool friends Sharne and J ésus. Clair is from the States, and to my ears it sounded like she was saying Shaun when she meant Sharne, but unfortunately there were no predictably hilarious consequences.

However, this is where I discovered the second unforeseen problem of the trip - now I've cut all my hair off, it's a lot more difficult to describe how I look to someone that doesn't know me. Shaun and I arranged to meet over the phone, and when he asked for a description so he could recognise me I was stumped, when normally I'd just say "I'll be the scruffy b*stard with a thick mop of black hair". I restrained myself from saying "I'll be the sad f*cker sitting on his own sin ning ún amigo" and attempted to describe myself. The look on the face of the girl at the phone next to me, what with the breathing problems I was having with all the smog and humidity, as I launched into "I'm wearing a green t-shirt ..." was priceless.

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