Conversation stops midstream. I’m the only fair-haired Gringo on the bus.
A gust of air smelling of garlic caresses my face. An elderly woman shifts on her seat and motions for me to sit. Her wrinkled face savaged by the elements, splits in half as she smiles.
I perch a buttock on the proffered seat. A youth with eyes the colour of ink stares at me. Women are dressed in bright skirts, multi-layered petticoats; bead encrusted cardigans and woollen stockings. Long dark plaits, flowers and ornate hair clips compliment tall felt hats.
At this hour the earth oozes pink and ochre hues – Autumnal and raw. My mind twitches like an old movie projector – I’m lost in Peru – exhausted, heavy. I can’t understand the language, the customs. I don’t belong here.
The shrill ring of a mobile phone interrupts phlegmy coughing. I’m speechless – “Mama” is deep in conversation.
A plastic Jesus swings from the mirror. I close my eyes against a sensory overload of sun-bleached roads, decaying shantytowns, mangy dogs and chickens. The vanilla scent of yellow broom seductively flirts with the morning breeze.
We stop in the centre of town at the Plaza de Armas. Mama links her arm in mine.
“Vamonos” – come on!
God has placed his hand here – “Carhuaz” is a kaleidoscope of colour. Snow capped mountains majestically border the small Peruvian town. The “Cordillera Blanca” mountains - pristine white and jagged; remind me of my grandson’s incisors.
Children splash in the tall mosaic fountain and purple Bougainvillea runs riot over whitewashed fences and colonial buildings.
The church is awash with murmured prayers, blood red Roses and the smell of musk. Mama’s excited to introduce me to the local Priest and the rest of the congregation.
The market is a maze of screeching vendors and gossiping neighbours. I follow along dusty streets. Underfed dogs scavenge through piles of rotting vegetables and the sweet fragrance of crushed sugar cane tantalizes.
Sleeping babies lie contently in multi-coloured slings. Families sell lottery tickets, peaches and jungle potatoes. With a flick of her long plait Mama greets a shy mother breastfeeding her son.
We join a group of elderly men – cards are tabled alongside glasses of bitter Coca tea. Wizened fingers roll rosary beads. As we feast on empanadas, the aroma of curry spices and sizzling oil floats alongside market cries.
Rows of lily-white chickens hang from metal hooks - beady, dead eyes. Stacks of yellow talons point irreverently to heaven. Flies settle on slabs of salty goat’s cheese. Delicacies abound – guinea pigs the colour of corpses lie naked alongside wrinkled Pigs’ feet. The ground is a mess of shucked corn, ice cream sticks and puddles of sticky red blood.
Small fingers tug at mine. Mama points towards the bus station and nods. It’s time for me to leave.
“Gracias, Adios” I shout – thank you, goodbye.
Hours later I feel a weight has lifted from my shoulders. The Andean sky’s a canopy of glittering stars - I’m found in Peru.