Sunday, June 21, 2009

Catching Up and Travelling in Circles

Because I'm so long-winded and becuase there's always a tension between doing and writing, I tend to find that when I'm travelling my blogs are always catching up with one another, and often get out of order.

So it is that although I had started a more narrative-style piece from my time in the Colca, that's only going to get finished if I have time tomorrow, while in the interim I'm dashing off a quick 'planned movements' post.

Right now I'm back in Lima. It was Lizbeth's birthday yesterday, and Hugo had two returning Swiss clients to pick up from the airport, so it was decided to have the celebrations in Lima at the house of Lizbeth's uncle Antonio, attended by numerous members of her labrynthine family.

I've just bought myself a bus ticket to Ayacucho So far on this trip I've travelled Lima-Arequipa-Cuzco-Santa Teresa-Cuzco-Arequipa-Colca-Arequipa-Lima. I'm currently planning on working my way from Ayacucho through Andahuaylas and Abancay (check the map) to Cuzco and from there back to Arequipa. I will have described a big circle.

From there, I plan to head back to the Colca for a few days, and will also try to fit in some trekking and climbing. Hugo has offered to go with me to Ampato, but you can never tell if he's serious, and in any case I insist on doing a 'warm-up' trek or climb. At this stage, a likely possibility is the Salkantay trek in Cuzco, which is a more gruelling and remote alternative to the Inca Trail, with ascents up to 4,600 metres.

It's ironic. Most travellers who arrive in Lima are eager to escape the crowds, the pollution, the insecurity, and, in winter, the grey overcast skies. Sunshine, laid back villages, and picturesque landscapes beckon in the Peruvian interior. Yet, after nearly four weeks in the more tourist-favoured regions, coming back to Lima is a relief in a number of ways. Most prominent, surprisingly is the climate. June skies might be unremittingly dull, but the moist air feels like a balm after the rock-bottom humidity and ever present dust of the sierra in the dry season. In Arequipa, I've always got mild nosebleeds and lingering snuffliness, and in the past used to think that smoking was partly to blame, but it's been the same this time and I haven't been smoking. Yet, a couple of hours after arriving in Lima, all my cold-like symptoms had disappeared.

Another nice change in Lima is the food. There's certainly plenty of tasty eating to be had in the sierra, but you have to shop around a bit, and the food can be plain and stodgy at times. Lima is home of comida criolla, the cuisine developed in Peru with strong influences from Andalucia, and it is also where Chinese, Italian African, and Japanese touches have made the greatest impact. Seafood is generally delicious, and while chili, coriander and other spices add zing to most dishes and even in the cheap places, food is normally presented with flair.

Although I'm biased by the fact that questions of traffic and transport are a bit of an obsession of mine, I think I'm on reasonably firm ground on saying that they are among the most important issues facing Lima at the moment. The surge in economic activity over the past few years is a generally good thing, but the greater disposable income has meant more more people on the move, and more vehicles on the road. Traffic in the past was chaotic and dangerous, but usually flowed to some degree. The last couple of nights, we have found ourselves in Hugo's hired 4x4, absolutely stuck in crawling traffic, smoke-belching kombis mixing with the newer vehicles of the aspirational middle class. It is starting to resemble Bangkok.

To be fair, there are a lot of public works projects underway, some of which have already delivered sweeping new freeways and interchanges. Luis Castañeda is making a big legacy push before his term as mayor expires, and a number of projects are to be inaugurated on January 18 2010, including a bus way and the ill-fated electric train that was begun in the 1980s. It will be interesting to see what improvements occur, but Lima remains unique among large South American cities in not having a mass public transit system. If it wants to become a truly world class city, it desparately needs either a proper metro or a fully integrated busway system like Bogotá's Transmilenio.

With its football team at an all-time low, Peru is in need of sporting heroes. Fortunately, it has found one in the impressively-named Kina Malpartida, current women's world heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Last night, almost everyone in Lima was glued to the nearest TV screen watching Kina defend her world title against a Brazilian opponent. There was even a big screen attracting a large crowd in the Plaza Mayor. Kina's defense was comprehensive, totally dominating the fight and unleashing a massive straight right in the third round that convinced the referee to end the bout early. The crowds clapped and cheered wildly. In an ironic twist in this macho society, a tough woman has restored some of the deflated national pride and self-belief.

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