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First published in the Lafayette Journal and Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, March 8, 1977

POSTMARK:  Peru

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

It was 8:00 am and and I was the first in line to pay Ecuador’s $2 exit fee to leave the country. With my passport stamped, papers all in order, I crossed the sizable bridge and walked into Peru, the land of the lncas.

This northwestern border seems a logical geographical division for the two countries. From the dense green tropics of Ecuador, one finds in Peru a dry, sandy climate. From the bordertown of Tumbes to Peru’s capital of Lima it is 1,300 solid kilometers of arid desert as one follows the Pan American highway that hugs the Pacific Ocean the entire length of Peru’s western coast.

To me, this stretch of road was the ugliest land I’d seen in South America. It was barren and desolate, a perpetual monotone of brown earth.

The adobe mud huts were almost camouflaged, for they, too, were an ugly, dreary brown. Poorer people reside in structures whose walls and roofs are yellowish woven mats (petates) that I’d normally seen as floor coverings, and the petates appeared so fragile that a flick of the finger might cave in the walls.

In fact, all along the route battered petates were scattered in the rough sand, victims of the fierce winds. The winds whistle eerily and blow continually, turning every village into a miniature dust bowl. Laundry drying in the dusty air seemed such a futile chore for the women. You would have to seclude yourself indoors perpetually to stay clean. Every person in every village wore dirty clothes.

The roadside was marred by scattered mounds of garbage, half buried in the sand like tombstones of civilization. A deserted dead animal would attract a flock of hovering vultures, intensifying the morbid lifelessness of the empty area. Occasionally a solitary red-flowered tree would brilliantly illuminate the otherwise drab environment..

Perhaps the land is different in the winter, but in their present summer season, I confronted miles and miles of brown bleakness dotted by pitifully dirty and dull villages.

I tried to imagine what the word “beauty” means to the Peruvians who’ve lived in this dismal environment all their lives. The poverty, the boredom shone in the people’s eyes, and the winds constantly rearranging the dust and the colorless terrain made the two-day trip from Tumbes to Lima one of the most depressing rides of my travels.

Basically, I was unimpressed with Lima. There were several lovely plazas and various enchanting buildings, but for a big city there’s nothing very intriguing in Lima that would lure me back to the capital. It’s a poorly organized city, especially in the inadequately planned newer suburbs.

Not only was Lima highly expensive for such a poor country, but the capital’s night life peters out around 11 p.m. Toque de quida, which means “curfew,” was announced by a loud gong at 1 a.m., and after that hour absolutely no one was allowed on the streets except for the patroling Peruvian police. Graffiti on the walls indicated that most citizens resent this inhibiting law, which has been in effect since July.

I met a sophisticated Peruvian named Abraham who filled me in on the state of the government and the mentality of the people, and who showed me around the city. He was enjoyable company compared to many Latins who befriend you as a status symbol just so they can be seen strolling with a gringo.

Abraham showed me the super rich areas of Lima as well as the super poor areas. The people refer to their ghettos as pueblos jovenes, which translates as “young towns.” He also took me to a highly tight-knit gypsy section of Lima, and peering into an open door I saw very little furniture but many brightly clothed people sitting on the floor playing some sort of card game.

I saw a totally gruesome sight in downtown Lima — a man who was so poor that he literally had no clothes.  He was covering his torso with newspapers and scraps of plastic to protect what little privacy he had left.  Barefoot, he walked with a daze as if he had just come from primitive jungleland and couldn’t understand how he landed in an urban jungleland.

Another unusual place Abraham took me to was a little restaurant that was the only place in Lima where you could buy camu camu — a nourishing drink made from a fruit found only around Iquitos, a jungle city on the Amazon River in northwestern Peru. The juice is pink and is said to have 30 times more Vitamin C than the equivalent amount of orange juice.

During the 1800s many Chinese were brought to Peru to build the railroads. The result was that Lima now has some  of the finest Chinese cuisine this side of the Pacific.

Twenty miles from Lima are the l4th century Indian ruins called Pachacamac which looked identical to all those depressing looking adobe mud homes I already had seen on the Tumbes-Lima route.

I took a surprisingly comfortable train ride from Lima to Huancayo, climbing upwards into the high Andes Mountains. At one point the train was at an elevation of 15,000 feet, supposedly the world’s highest train ride. Herds of llamas were grazing on the grassy slopes. Their long, erect necks give these animals a noble appearance.

The Indian women wore stovepipe hats and cumbersome skirts which surely must hide several woolen petticoats to give them their bulky effect. A beautiful looking race of people with high cheekbones, and dark eyes very Oriental in shape, they speak Quechua, the same language their Inca ancestors spoke. The rhythm of their music and the Quechua words sound astonishingly similar to Vietnamese.

At the market in Huancayo I came across an Indian woman sifting through her daughter’s hair, which was a nest of lice eggs. This I did not find unusual, but what totally shocked me was that when the woman found a louse, she hurriedly popped the insect into her mouth as if it were a live pill. And in fact, she told me that she was eating them to cure whatever was ailing her. I grimaced when she offered me her warped medicine.

From Huancayo, I took what had to be the most precarious bus ride of my entire life to the next isolated city called Ayacucho. The train terminates in Huancayo, so one must travel on the dubious road that passes through the untamed Andes to reach Ayacucho.

Peruvian buses are ancient monstrosities that could very well collapse at any time. Andes roads are ridiculously narrow, totally unpaved and wind dangerously around sharp curves that desperately need some sort of guard rail. The bus path was so high that when I got the nerve to look down, the river was a mere thread of water. All these dangers were compounded by the reality that at any moment falling rocks could come crashing down on our dilapidated vehicle.

To make matters worse, I took this 15-hour bus trip at night, and by 1 a.m. we were in the midst of the snowy altitudes of the Andes. Sure enough, the bus broke down in the most freezing portion of the route and, naturally, the bus lacked heating. Fortunately, we were only stalled for an hour, I’ll never regret dragging my down sleeping bag through South America specifically for, those freezing hours. The Indians came prepared also, piling blankets of warm alpaca wool on top of themselves.

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