Sunday, 18 February 2007

Peruvians are pretty short

I'm not disrespecting the race or anything, I'm just pointing out that there's a short@rse gene around here somewhere and they're all carrying it. Or maybe it's diet related - they seem to survive on chicken, rice and chips, possibly there's something lacking there. Like vegetables, perhaps. Whatever the reason, it does tend to affect the way they approach things like bus design. I'm not exactly a giant, but I can't fit my legs in a lot of the buses round here without contortion.

Their approach to timetables can be a little bewildering to a foreigner, too. I was sitting on a bus the other day and I asked when it was going to leave. "When it's full, of course" I was told, with a patronising look.

Which reminds me that I forgot to tell you the story of the time I caught a bus that was going in completely the wrong direction.

Well, I caught a bus, and the funny thing was, it was going in completely the wrong direction.

In my defence, I did know that it was heading in the wrong direction when I caught it. However, it had the name of my destination written on it and I assumed it had just come from there. I asked the driver where to catch the bus I wanted, expecting him to point out somewhere on the other side of the road, and he said (as far as I could tell) "Yeah, hop on" so I did. I was surprised, but pretty sure we'd understood each other, so I thought we were possibly going to loop round and head back.

It wasn't until we hit the edge of the city, on the wrong side, and hurtled out into the middle of nowhere that I began to wonder if I'd made a mistake. By this point the sun was setting, we were out in the countryside, I was still heading in the wrong direction and getting further away from where I started, let alone where I wanted to be, by the minute. Even the conductor was starting to look at me as if he was thinking "where the hell is this gringo going?"

The buses tend to have set routes that they follow, but they'll stop whenever anyone shouts, or whistles, or bangs the side of the bus. Wherever the buses stop regularly little oases of trade spring up, with some form of refreshments (which may be an actual shop, it may be an old guy sitting on a crate of Inca Cola), the obligatory genuine ethnic photo opportunist and old ladies selling traditional handicrafts. This is equally true out in the mountains, but whereas those in the city are bustling and vibrant, those out in the sticks have an air of desperation to them, as if these places are just hanging on to life.

As you know I have nothing against poor people, as long as they're photogenic, but I would have rather walked into a US embassy wearing a fizzing padded waistcoat and burning the stars and stripes than get off the bus at any of these stops, so I wanted to wait until we reached somewhere I wouldn't have felt so exposed - like Bolivia.

Then, just as I was mentally composing a letter to my loved to be discovered with my body (I've always been a secret Spice Girls fan, please pay off my credit cards, I want my body to be cast out to sea in a burning canoe with a can of guinness in each hand, that sort of thing), I saw another bus up ahead with the city written on the front, banged on the side of the bus I was on, leapt off and ran across the desert to wave down my saviours.

On the way back, retracing my route through the mountains, I was able to relax and enjoy the evening landscape for the first time, and by the time I got back into the city I fell in love with the place all over again.

No movement on the flathunting front. In 1541 the conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro heard rumours of a golden king and his city of gold, went out on a wild goose chase and almost went mad trying to find it. That's what flat-hunting here is like. I keep hearing rumours of a one bedroom flat in a decent location for a reasonable price, but when I investigate further it turns out to be a two bedroom place in the seedy end of town and the price has doubled.

It's almost as frustrating as shopping here, for which I'm temperamentally unsuited. Like any true born Englishman, I like to get the whole business of shopping out of the way with the minimum of human interaction. I've been known to leave shops if a salesperson politely enquires if he or she can help me. That's simply not possible here, the whole system seems geared towards the customer having a six month relationship with the storekeeper before a purchase can be made. Here there are no prices on anything, you see what you want and have to ask for it. When you do you can see them adding the special gringo tax in their head, plucking a random number out of the air and seeing if they can get away with it. Then you have to haggle, despite the fact that the ridiculously inflated price they've quoted you is still a pittance. After a few rounds of intense negotiation you will have knocked about 15p off the original price, found yourself a bargain but paid twice what the locals pay, and walked out of the shop feeling both exploited and exploiting at the same time.

Best shops for random impediments to the shopping process are the chemists. You can't just pick an item off the shelf and go and pay for it in most of them. You have to ask someone for what you want and someone will rush off to get it. Another person will give you a slip of paper with a price on it. You take this to another counter where you hand over the cash and your paper is authorised, then you go to another side of the shop to collect your purchase, which another person has wrapped and will give you on production of an authorised slip.

It's an awful lot of effort for a tube of toothpaste.

I tried the coca leaf tea the other day. It was foul. It's supposed to have a mild stimulant effect (roughly equivalent to, say, a cup of tea or coffee) but all it did was give me gut-rot. Someone I know tried chewing the leaves. I don't know if he got a high from it, but it turned his teeth green. The same guy also tried San Pedro, a cactus with hallucinagenic properties that you crush into water to create a disgusting green mulch.

As any designated driver will tell you, being the only sober person with a load of drunks can be pretty boring, but I think the award for most tedious person to be around has to go to someone whose trying a drug for the first time. They'll spend two hours saying "It's not having any effect, I've been ripped off, I'm getting nothing, it's not having any effect ..." etc, then they'll spend a further six hours saying "Wow, this is amazing, you've got to try this, it's incredible ...". Yes, go to bed now please.

I'm not sure I can be bothered to try drinking liquified cactus. God it makes me feel old to write that. I'll let you know if I change my mind and suddenly become funky.

The thing that's always put me off expanding my consciousness with hallucinagenic drugs is that, to judge by the people I've known that have gone down that route, when you become one with the universal consciousness and discover the distilled wisdom of the cosmos, the message from the spiritual centre seems to be 1) don't wash and 2) it's okay to wear tie-dye.

If that really is what consciousness expansion is all about, I'll have a cup of tea, thanks.

And maybe a slice of cheesecake.

Anyway, more news from the cutting edge of international travel soon

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