She was the Scarlett Johansson of buses, glamorous, curvaceous and beautiful. Her silver skin glimmered in the high Andean sunshine, the interior oozed opulence, from the fully reclining leather seats to the over stocked bar. So as this Orient Express of the road purrs away from the bus stop and our dilapidated, rust strewn wagon coughs and splutters into view, I know I’ve been had. They say that when travelling you learn about yourself and your relationships. Well clearly today’s lesson teaches that I can’t haggle for toffee, particularly when my competence in Spanish is little better than a game of charades. In relationship terms the look I receive from my girlfriend as our comfy and hassle free journey drops below the skyline, signals a change, from equal partnership to a more structured arrangement. An arrangement where I am most definitely not trusted to book any further stints of travel. This moment is in stark contrast to the previous morning, strolling the shore of Lake Titicaca, smug in my mistaken belief that by playing two rival companies off against each other, using only the medium of mime, I had secured a great discount on the QE2 of buses. It turns out what I had actually done was pay over the odds for the harbour tug.
We have little time to dwell on our predicament, as the bus comes to rest the crowd surges forward like when your favourite band walks on stage. We are swept along in this tsunami of humanity, only instead of water there is a kaleidoscope of vividly coloured sacks, cloth and ponchos. Reds, lilacs, greens and whites all jostle and swirl, occasionally a little black bowler hat bobs along on top. Through this chaos we locate our seats, accumulated dirt is smeared into the fabric, like old chewing gum, a grey amorphous gunge, hard yet oily to the touch. Small white oval specks that punctuate the grimy headrest may or may not be insect eggs. We retrieve our waterproofs and cover the seats hoping they provide a barrier. Our travelling companions are primarily local women and children moving produce to market. I marvel as one small robust lady deftly navigates the narrow aisle balancing her bowler hat with two huge red sacks draped over her shoulders and herding three small children ahead of her. The entire family squeeze onto a single bus seat. Like Russian dolls they sit in ascending order, mum at the bottom with children graduated by size on top. Huge over-stuffed and occasionally moving packages soon occupy all available space, under the seats, overhead and down the aisles. The morning sun pours through the windows and despite the altitude the thin air starts to thicken with the pungent aroma of unwashed bodies coupled with a farmyard medley.
Finally we begin, jarring along dirt roads past mud brick houses and tin roofs and out onto the Peruvian mountain plains. After eight hours we have lurched from one calamity to the next. Barely halfway we have endured police searches, demented salesmen peddling sachets of powdered ‘herbal remedies’ that pertain to cure everything from piles to cancer and now hunger. Expecting to be enjoying lovingly prepared hot meals on board our cruise liner like novices we had failed to bring any provisions! Now somewhere in deepest darkest Peru the chance of even a marmalade sandwich is looking remote. Then salvation, an old lady, clearly a seasoned veteran of these journeys, rummages in her poncho and congers a leg of lama followed by an alarmingly large meat cleaver. The cleaver flashes, bone and sinew fly and dinner is served! For a small charge bags of hackings are passed around. I watch the child opposite delicately unwrap her paper covered meat parcel as it were the most precious bar of chocolate. She carefully nibbles each tender area of flesh until just the sinews are left, and then like meat flavoured floss pulls these between the gap in her front teeth to remove any last vestiges of meat. There is a look of utter happiness on her face and its at this point we realise the journey is turning from ordeal to experience. We arrive after fifteen hours, tired, hungry but a little more enlightened. It’s not a journey I would wish on anyone but in a strange way it’s one we both look back on fondly. Next time however we did pay for the QE2. And no, I wasn't trusted to book it.