Sunday, July 1, 2007

Lima

What could get me, a famously late riser, out of bed and walking down the wet, glistening, pre-dawn streets of Lima at five past six in the morning? It was the misplaced confidence that I could walk up and get a seat on the 7am bus to Nazca.

Getting to Lima was uneventful. In fact it was pretty tedious, but I was all in favour of some tedium after the frantic pace of the days leading up to to my departure. In addition to setting my practice review work in order and handing over the waiting-for-a-reply files to Tim Shaw (Thanks, Tim), I had agreed to write some technical material and deliver it before I left. And my last seminar was only 5 days before I flew out. On top of that I was moving right out of the house in Willcott Street and had to see dozens of boxes and masses of household ´stuff´ into storage.

The drive to the airport included posting two last-minute insurance cheques, but eventually I was checked in, through customs and what wasn´t done wouldn´t get done, so I could sit back in LAN Chile´s Boeing and relax.

Relax I did but little sleep came. We flew through the short night and shorter morning heading about due East and arriving in Santiago at lunch time of the same day I left Auckland. South America welcomed me with brilliant sunshine and a dry heat that reminded me of California. The dusty plain contrasted with the snow-capped mass of the Andes. Photos had to be taken through the glass of the airport terminal because I was in transit and have not yet officially entered Chile.


The view from Santiago Airport



Sleep finally came at the relatively deserted end of the terminal building until a zealous cleaner started work with a powerful and noisy vacuum cleaner. It was a struggle to stay awake long enough to board the flight to Lima and eat the dinner provided. You have to appreciate that backpackers never ignore a meal that has been paid for.

Lima airport was fairly humming even though it was 11pm when I was released into Peru. The promised pick-up worked like clockwork and my greeter ushered me into a pre-arranged taxi. Despite the time, the main thoroughfares were busy as we accelerated, braked, swerved and tooted our way to the Machu Picchu Suites.

For my US$20 I was given a double bed, an equipped kitchen and an ensuite bathroom. The shower was not very powerful, but it delivered genuinely hot water, which is not universal in Peruvian accommodation.

My guide book and several encouraging friends have pointed out that Lima has many poor and unemployed, and theft is common. As my clean body lay between clean sheets strange whistles sounded. Were they traffic police or were they coded messages between sinister figures lurking in the shadows?

Daylight revealed a tidy morsel of park in front of the accommodation and my first S. American birds - pigeons. The nature notes can only get better from here. And it was ´tomorrow´at last.

My plan for the day started at the South American Explorers club house. The taxi ride, one that seemed to go 3/4 of the way across Lima, cost only S/.10 (just over $4), hardly more than the flag fall in Auckland. The route included a generous stretch of coastline. Cormorants I have seen before, but never scores of them perched in rows on the telephone lines.

South American Explorers (SAE) provides masses of information for travellers round the continent. I was particularly in search of information on buses to Nazca. Internet searches provided some data and I even managed a telephone call to check on another company. This was a major achivement for my primitive Spanish - and doubtless a trial for la seƱora at the bus company. My choice was a 7am departure to take advantage of a lower fare.

"Registered taxis have a blue, diamond-shaped sticker in the windscreen and are usually yellow. They are a bit more expensive but they´re safer." This is the kind of information I joined SAE for. Observation on nearby main roads showed no correlation at all between sticker-bearing and colour. So I simply made sure that my cab had a sticker and set off for the gold museum.

"Aggressive" is hardly adequate to describe the technique of this driver. His judgement of a space was refined to millimetres and turning across lanes of moving traffic a part of the sport. Lane discipline is clearly something that happens to other people. If you are familiar with the Knight Bus from the Harry Potter stories you will have an excellent idea of the sensations I experienced on this journey.

When I wasn´t mesmerised by the manouvres of my cabbie I studied the passing buildings. It seems that everyone lives behind bars and railings. Every building was a fortress of ironwork. To get in to the SAE clubhouse I had to press the bell and wait for the gate to be opened once I passed muster as harmless. Clearly, security is not just an issue for tourists.

Traffic is dominated by public transport. Taxis, buses and "collectivos" crowd the main streets. The "collectivos" are minibuses that follow a fixed route, but they pick up and put down anywhere for a flat fare of S/.1.50 (NZ$0.66).

The hair-raising ride ended tamely in a quiet street in front of the gold museum.

The collection of pre-columbian artefacts includes pottery, featherwork, copper and silver as well as the gold. Nearly all of it pre-dates the Incas, because the conquistadors looted everything above ground when they arrived and the exhibits have mainly been retrieved from graves. The audio guide made many references to exhibits that were missing from their cases. Since the place was not crawling with police I presume they were away for some legitimate reason. Mostly it seemed that they were the most impressive pieces that were having a holiday - just my luck.

The exit was attended by human raptors hoping to prey on foolish visitors. The first crooked smile offered the return taxi ride for S/.25. His audacity in demanding triple the regular fare earned him a curt "No". Another optimist offered S/.15 and wouldn´t budge when I tried to haggle. So I flagged down a passing cab and paid only S/.10 to return to SAE and recover my pack.

The youth hostel was cheap but not very welcoming. Maybe management was distracted by preparations for a party. One of the helium balloons announced a baby shower. I fell into comversation with Mike, a Dutch backpacker even older than I am. Observing the uniformed waiter and the live band for a mere baby shower, Mike speculated on the splendour of the wedding. Outside, brightly polished, late model cars crowded the kerb and a young man in a peaked cap and hi-vis jacket blew an officious whistle at anyone who cast a covetous eye on his valuable charges. These party-goers were not collectivo riders!

I took a lukewarm shower and set my new travelling alarm for 5:30 to the sound of amplified Andean pop music. I needn´t have bothered with the alarm. I slept very badly, probably due to the effects of jet lag.

Taxis are so ubiquitous in Lima that, even at six in the morning, I hailed a blue-diamond cab before I´d walked two short blocks.

The fellow SAE member who theorised that it was not necesary to book ahead for buses was WRONG. "Nada hoy (nothing today)" was the message from the ticket counter. However, further research discovered a seat available to Nazca on the 2pm service to Cusco. Cruz del Sur is the most expensive of the bus companies, but if the most expensive buses are full what is the probability of finding a seat on any other bus? I paid up.

So now all I have to do is kill the time between 6:30 and 2:00pm.

The bus station is in a particularly "bad" part of the city and there appear to be no left luggage lockers. Going for a stroll in the drizzle is possibly not a wise option. My pocket diary notes 29 June as St. Peter and St. Paul´s Day. That´s a holiday in Peru. Any attraction I visit risks being closed. The bus station has a tiny, unimaginative cafeteria within its railing-protected estate so I can sit at a table, sip instant coffee and draft this post pending arrival at an Internet cafe with a working, available terminal.

I can also take photos of the view from the cafe. My camera´s duty free memory card has a capacity of 2Gb. I can take another 1,600 photos before I run out of space.

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