Forrest Gump was playing on a small television above the driver’s cabin. As Forrest met Jenny, there were heavy thuds that, in my groggy state, I confused for rainfall. When a window on the other side of the aisle bowed inward, a rectangular spider’s web, I sat up just as a fist-sized rock burst through the glass and grazed the hair of the man sitting opposite me.
Passengers dived into the foot wells as rocks continued to clatter the coach that was gathering speed, swerving across the highway. The wheels bounded in and out of the large potholes that scar many Peruvian roads. The stewardess burst through the door from the driver’s cabin screeching “Abajo! Abajo!” before dropping to the glass-covered floor.
After five frantic minutes, we were forced to stop on a stretch of road clogged with trucks and coaches. The religious contingent crossed themselves. The man who had almost been hit, placed the rock in his rucksack. “Un memento,” he told me, smiling. The driver kicked out the remaining daggers of glass. Each seat on the left-hand side was coated with glass diamonds.
We passed the night in that spot. The curtains billowed inward with the sound of the stream that ran parallel to the road. Coincidence had put me on the same journey with Rebecca, a Canadian I’d met on a wine tour in Mendoza. We huddled together for warmth through the cold night, sharing an alpaca hoodie for a blanket. The passenger behind us snored as though he was curled up on his own bed, rather than semi-cama decadence.
At daybreak, no vehicle had moved. Occasionally, businesses men were ferried on mopeds through the motionless behemoths. Against the advice of our stewardess, Rebecca and I gathered our backpacks and instigated an exodus.
As the pre-dawn mist burned away, the lifeless half-desert emerged as verdant agricultural landscapes, reminiscent of rural England, flat, expansive, the colour of billiard cloth. The prevalent smell was a mixture of dewy grass and bonfire smoke. The group’s mood, accentuated by the sleepless night in the exposed coach, was anxiety.
We rested at a roadside store and bought a paltry breakfast of Oreos and overripe bananas. I dropped my backpack onto the broken concrete. Two hours’ walking had worn painful grooves into my shoulders; my lower back ached. Shortly after that mid-morning glucose hit, we were approached by an enterprising rickshaw driver who deposited Rebecca and I at the protest’s nucleus, the cause of the highway-long congestion.
Hundreds of enraged cotton farmers, were lofting home-made signs. An emotive man impeached to his congregation from atop a pickup truck, his rasping Spanish enlarged through a crackling megaphone. Black smoke billowed skyward from fires burning inside upturned metal barrels. Soldiers sat reading newspapers, their guns resting by their sides like movie-set props.
My green backpack, almost the length of my six-foot-two frame, felt as inconspicuous as a neon sign in the desert night. With all my possessions on my back, the essential and the superfluous, I walked quickly with my head down. Despite the urge to record the scene, I left my camera deep in my trouser pocket. I didn’t feel comfortable until the uproar had diminished and we were passing vehicles stalled on the opposite shoulder to our long-forgotten Tepsa coach.
Still hours away from Lima, we reached Chinca. At the bus terminal, people jostled in long queues, desperate to secure passage to Lima. The muddy streets were flooded with travellers and Peruvians alike. The only people who remained still in that insect-like mass, were men smoking in doorways, watching the crowds with a speculative eye.
The next stage of the journey was spent on twelve-seat minibus; I counted sixteen fatigued passengers. The extortionate journey orchestrated by two callous rogues had us speeding down zombie apocalypse highways, Hollywood-style: abandoned cars and the disorientating lack of familiar sounds and shapes until we were deposited in the outskirts of Lima.
I taxied to Miraflores. Relieved and exhausted, I stood on the city’s cliff top, enjoying the scent of the metallic ocean that was pot-marked with surfers. I’d reached my destination, whereas the surfers were waiting for the perfect wave to reach theirs, the thin shoreline, a journey that lasted seconds, a fleeting adrenaline hit. My tale of a forty-eight hour trip from Cusco to Lima would grow through the retelling, soldering itself to the sheet of my memory.
When it comes to travel, the journey is the destination.