Is That My Reflection in the Sand?

Trip Start Nov 13, 2010
Trip End Jul 20, 2011

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Where I stayed
Hotel San Jose Piura
Read my review - 5/5 stars

Flag of Peru  ,
Monday, March 28, 2011

Time for reflection
Long bus rides are the best time for reflection. The ride from Vilcabamba, or Loja to be exact, to Piura Peru was to be eight hours….or so… never knows what type of bus you might be getting and how long the journey might actually take.  I have come to love that randomness.  Waiting in the early morning at the Loja station, I hoped I was in the right place as there seemed to be very few gringos around and that both worried and delighted me.  I had just spent a few weeks, actually most of my time in Ecuador, surrounded by gringos, and I missed the fun of meeting locals – the kind you spend hours with and although you don't speak the same language, the exchanges are often the richest and most sincere.  It was this kind of day I was looking forward to and if I couldn’t have that, I wished for an empty bus for a day of solitude and thoughtfulness.  Wow – Vilcabamba made me deep…… maybe it was those sound bowls…..

The bus pulled in – all good:  tires had some traction left…no joke – I watched a news report from Quito where a number of city buses crashed into each other – multiple injuries,  and they then zoomed in the camera on the tires……tread?  Nope.  Nada.  Seriously – just worn down to skids, balloons with metal webbing!  Now I look.  Why?  I don’t know – it is not like I am going to wait another day for a better chance at a bus with treads….anyway, the bus looked fine and the windows opened, which I like.  It means no air con:  no freezing for sure and maybe just a little hot.  And it wasn’t full.  Perfect.  Every bum had a seat and that is my measure of a perfect bus.  Two bums per seat is ok sometimes, but three and six bums – not fun over 8 hours……and I know this to be true.

Off we went – pulled out on time at 7 am headed for Peru.  Funny though, the people on the bus didn’t look like international travellers.  Why?  Because this freakin bus was just a bus that was going to the border but before it got there, it was going to stop in every town and pick up and drop off every Juan, Miguel and Juanita!!  Within a few minutes, before even leaving Loja, we were loaded and chugging up the first of many beautiful mountain passes.  I settled in, clutching my pack because my friends had had one of their bags stolen on this same route a few days prior. 

The scenery was beautiful:  lush and green and velvety like Vilcabamba and it was pure bliss to just sit and soak it in.  I thought about how lucky I am to have these opportunities, to be able to have so many choices – as the farm families hopped on in the middle of the mountain passes  and then hopped off in towns – maybe taking kids to the doctor or going to see teachers or a myriad of reasons to have gotten up so early, hiked to the roadway, stood there waiting in the hot sun and then transported to a completely different world in town.  Some looked excited, some apprehensive, most looked exhausted and I just felt so fortunate just to be there.  The crowd continued to thin and I moved up into the front seat and continued my exercise in reflection – this time taking pictures of myself in the window ahead of me. 

After a few hours  and a landscape that had changed from mountains to rolling hills to the flat, and now with a nearly empty bus, we arrived at the border.  No muss, no fuss – got off the bus, was stamped out of Ecuador and then walked across a bridge and about 100 m to the Peru side – I asked for 90 days – got it and then back on the bus.  Almost immediately the landscape changed.  It had been soft in Ecuador and here in Peru it got hard – fast.  Ecuador had been rich and Peru was showing poor – shockingly poor.  As the desert continued, small little hardscrabble towns built from found materials dotted the roadside in between hoards of rubbish.  Families sat outside of houses made from bamboo matting and twigs and the few streets were simply dusty trails.  The vehicle of choice had gone from suv’s to three wheeled 'tuk tuks’, so popular in Southeast Asia.    As suddenly as the landscape and the living conditions changed, so did my mood and thoughts.  I felt like I had been slapped upside the head – physically.  What the hell was I doing sitting on a bus thinking about how little the complainers were doing in Vilcabamba, running around like Chicken Little, proclaiming that the sky was falling?  What was I doing?  I saw one stretch of, maybe 60 kms, where each little collection of shacks had a new outhouse – well constructed on a cement base with corrugated fibreglass sides.  Who built those?  What could I do to help these people living in conditions worse than I had seen, even in Cambodia and in India?  How could it be so different in just a few hundred kilometers and who actually needs or deserves to live in a 5000 square foot house in a gated community away from people who actually built it with their own hands?  Yikes – I have to tell you that if that bus had had any stops between the border and Piura, I just might have be out in that desert with the little garbage stick, with the nail on the end, I used to use every Saturday morning in my old neighbourhood park.  I could do my little bit to at least make their hard dusty life a little prettier…… not sure I am capturing my roller-coaster of emotions on that bus ride, but they were profound.    Life in northern Peru is as harsh as I have seen.  Brutally hot, dirty and bleak.  Like the Sinai desert but with villages, and goats…lots of goats.  Don’t remember even seeing one goat in all of Ecuador.  I was just not prepared to be hurled against the wall of reality after living so long in lush lala land.  It felt as harsh as the desolate surroundings I was trying to capture on film from the open bus window.  I had long taken to hanging my head out the open window like a dog on a Sunday drive.  I had 60 sunscreen on and hoped it wasn’t fake, counterfeit stuff.  If so, I was going to be hurting tomorrow for my next 15 hour bus trip from Piura to Lima.

The city of Piura started to emerge out of the desert in the form of a few little green patches of fruits and vegetables, scratched out of nothing and each plant, lovinging pampered with hand watering and hope.  

When you see how hard it is for people to grow food, produce food, transport food:  you really see how much work it is to have supermarkets brimming with every color of every type, every day, in season or not and you feel like shit for complaining about the price of that Papaya in January……I had a lot of rants going in my head that day…….. Thank God it wasn’t a 20 hour bus ride!!!!

The chaos of 5 pm Piura on market day…maybe every day is market day, was also overwhelming.  It truly looked like downtown Jaipur, Rajasthan.  More India than India had looked….except for the cows of course.  I wondered if this is what all of Peru might look like…….and why were there no gringos around?  I knew that I was not the only one quite overwhelmed by the heat, the garbage, the crowds and the bad smells when the only other white kid who had been on the bus – an American who had been very snippy and unfriendly – hurried over to me once I collected my bag and asked me if I wanted to go with him.  He needed to go to a bank and then find a different bus station as he wanted to get out of town on a night bus.  He was clearly nervous about what he was seeing and feeling.  We hauled our stuff up the street, through the gawking crowd, to a bank we had passed on our way in.  I had a hostal reservation but had no idea where it was and I thought that Piura was going to be a sleepy little place.  The American kid spoke fluent Spanish, got some money, advice and a plan.  I used his guidebook to locate my Hostal and he headed out as I sat in the Bank waiting for a teller to change some US dollars for me.  The first little lady beside me started telling me a story in Spanish.  I listened intently, nodded appropriately, hoping I was agreeing in the right places….damn those Spanish lessons….then she realized I had no idea what she was taking about.  Then she started to worry about me.  I showed her the address of where I wanted to go…..more worry…….hmmmm……I really need a shower and to detangle my new ‘hang out the window for 6 hours in 35 degree heat and wind’ dreadlocks…….I didn’t care where this place was – I was going to it.  She insisted I only travel in a ‘secure’ taxi.  For sure,  NO motos!  But I love motos – those 3 wheeled things.  The bank, as are all banks everywhere now, was filled with Police with big guns.  This lady tells me – all in Spanish – to make the Police guy call me a taxi.  I will have to pay more but I might have a chance to not die in this dustbowl on the prairie.

 Ok – I show Cop #1 my tiny paper with the name and address of my Hostal.  Good call – what is he supposed to do about it?  Cop #2 – biggest guy.  I point at the lady – she made me tell you to take my life in your hands and find me a bed and a shower.  She gives him the hairy eyeball from the front of the bank…….we go out into the chaos of the street.  I point towards a moto……for God sake I am with a gigantic cop with a big gun and I am the only white woman with bleach blond dreadlocks, soaking wet clothing, a burned face and neck and my lovely compact pack.  How could he not hunt down the moto guy if I go missing in a few minutes????  Big Cop #2 lurches back in horror.  Moto???  NO!!!!  NO!!!!  Wow – the rest of Peru are zipping around in motos but apparently they are chariots of the devil…..who knew???

Cop #2 steps out into the street which is crowded with taxis, and flags one down.  The driver looks horrified that he might have to take me somewhere.  The cop asks the price…..10 soles.  The lady in the bank told me not to pay more than 3 soles because the place was very close.  Close enough to walk, I had asked?  Walking in my Pictionary language is two fingers walking like in the yellow pages ads… everywhere but in China where no Pictionary actions translated – ever……the nice lady had reeled back like the cop did about the moto….You?  Walk? No.  you.  walk.

So Cop #2 thinks for a moment about pushing me in this taxi and getting on with his career which consists of with standing around inside the aircon bank,  when the nice lady arrives and hears the ‘10’.  No no no.  Cop bangs on the taxi and sends him away.  Second try.  Driver looks at me and says ‘10’, Cop yells at him…..’8’?……Lady yells at him.  He drives away.  I am starting to not like Piura even though I do like this lady…..maybe I could go home with her????  Third try.  Cop now really angry.  Driver says ‘7’, but without vigour.  Cop and Lady yell at him about ripping off tourists……he drives away.  Fourth try – everybody angry.  Cop stops a taxi, opens the passenger door and tells the driver he will take me to this address for  3 soles and he will not steal my bag, rape or pillage (what is a pillage?) me and the angry big Cop is writing down his taxi number in his notebook just in case a theft or rape or pillage report is filed.  Now I am in an angry taxi……….I win him over by using all my Spanglish in a few sentences.  He drives me around for an inordinate amount of time for a short distance but I don’t care because I already have my three sweaty soles in my hand and that is all he is getting and although I don’t think the cop will look for him if this goes sideways, I know that the nice lady will. 

It has been a long, hot and bothered kind of day.  From tranquil to troubling.  I am glad I didn’t get off the bus to pick garbage in the desert because my Hostal has Movie channels and really hot water.  Hmmm, I need now to reflect on that……
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