Travel Solo, Not Alone: Part 2
Peru and Beyond
Hilary Bryn Thomas
© Copyright 2021 by Hilary Bryn Thomas
Hilary's journals, guidebook,
and maps. Photo by Hilary
In this essay, Hilary Bryn Thomas captures memories of the second part of a journey she took fifty years ago, traveling from Canada to Argentina by land and a little by sea The first part can be found at http://www.storyhouse.org/hilaryt.html. She traveled solo, but not alone.PERU – I MADE IT!
After 14 years of dreaming and planning, and over a year on the road, I have arrived in Peru! I am 28 years old and on the journey of a lifetime. In the past 15 months I have traveled by land and sea from British Columbia to Colombia. Then after a memorable Christmas in Ecuador I walked across the “Puente del Amistad” into Peru.
My final destination? Not exactly. My journey has taught me that to travel is better than to arrive. When I started out from Victoria, B.C. in October 1970, I set a goal of being in Rio de Janeiro for Carnaval in February 1971. I didn’t make it. Nor in 1972!
I have shared meals in remote indigenous communities, lived the “good life” in sophisticated cities, become fluent in Spanish and learned more about myself than in 18 years of formal education. I have also confirmed that traveling solo is most rewarding. It’s much easier to engage with the local people. However, I have a companion - my tiny teddy bear, Wee Kiwi, as described in Part 1 of this saga.
From its northern border to Peru’s capital, Lima, I rode in fast cars and slow buses for more than two days. The buses chugged along, sometimes with a view of the cold, dark Southern Pacific waters and sometimes through miles of unchanging desert. The Humboldt current is responsible for both the cold water and the dry land, and for the abundance of sardines and anchovies that are harvested along this coast.
fast cars included a Mustang driven by a fast young Italian traveling
home with his wife and baby to Chiclayo. I was invited to stay for
the New Year’s celebrations. These consisted of an excess of
eating, drinking pisco, and searching the town with the other girls,
looking for dances and men with whom to dance. We found plenty of
both – and more pisco. The next day my friends drove me to the
port of Santa Rosa. The entire city smelled of fish. From here I took
an overnight bus to Lima.
LIMA: NEW CITY, NEW FRIENDS
After calling at the British Embassy to pick up mail and money, I headed for the address of “friends of friends” where I might stay. I telephoned from a small café but had no luck. As I ate a cheese sandwich and drank a glass of milk, the owner and his wife asked if they could help me. They ended up offering me a room in their apartment above the café. So began my next friendship. Since they would not let me pay for the room, I served in the café every morning to give the Senora a break. In the afternoons I explored the city.
The Archeological Museum was most interesting and helped me put in context the historical sites I later visited. One afternoon I took a bus to the beach at La Herraduras, and to the port of Callao. Here in the harbor were huge fleets of fishing boats and all kinds of other craft from pleasure boats to destroyers. Symbols of a sea-going nation.
After two weeks, I was ready to move on, but there was a problem. When I told the Senora that I planned to leave Lima, she was very upset. She had become rather possessive of me, calling me “mi hijita”, my little daughter. I became upset too. La Senora had taken my passport. She had decided that that I should stay with them and marry her son. A bit of a predicament! The next day I confronted the family, politely suggesting that I needed my passport so that I could finish my travels and go home to my family. The men agreed with me – including the son. Reluctantly, she returned my passport.
Despite my preference for the country over cities, I have found that, if a stay a while in a city I become attached and am sad to leave. My first priority when traveling is the people, my second the landscape, and third history, architecture, and museums. In Lima, as in Bogota and Mexico City, I became attached to family and friends. I am so fortunate in the people I have met and the warm reception that I have received almost everywhere. So, once again I said goodbye to dear, generous friends and began the next stage of my journey - “Destination Cuzco”.
FOUR DAYS ON THE TOP OF THE WORLD
The first stage of my journey to Cuzco, from Lima to Huancayo, involved an incredible climb by train up into the Andes. The railway follows steep sided valleys with precipitous slopes below. It crosses gorges on flying bridges high above the river and zigzags up the slopes. At 13,000 feet it was very cold and the altitude made me slightly dizzy.
The landscape on the dry side of the mountains reminded me of Scotland, with small stone ‘crofts’, each surrounded by a drystone wall to enclose a few sheep, goats and donkeys at night. In the daytime the small herds were taken out on the moor by the women, who walked and watched while spinning wool constantly on their handheld spindles. The women wore colorful shawls and huge white hats with ribbons on them that made them very impressive.
I woke in Huancayo on a Tuesday. Luckily there was a bus to Ayacucho today. The road is so narrow and tortuous that the buses go south on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and north on Monday and Friday. Don’t travel on Sunday. The traffic goes both ways! As it was, we had to pull off onto the roadside, sometimes at an overhanging cliff, to allow opposing traffic to pass. So much for the one-way system!
We arrived safely in Ayacucho in time for supper, during which I learned from local diners some history of the city. It was the site of the last, very bloody battle of the Incas during the Spanish conquest, hence its Quechua name, which means “the place of the dead”. A charming little girl sang songs to us in Quechua.
Onward to Andahuaylas, I had a front seat in an ancient bus that was packed to the roof – and on the roof – with people and baggage. The dirt road was dry and bumpy and we rattled along at a fair speed. Soon we were climbing a zigzag road into the high sierras. Towards evening we began to see the impressive snow-capped peaks of the high Andes and we entered more densely populated territory with pretty pueblos and fields of potatoes, herds of horses, sheep and cows, but still no llamas.
The bus for Abancay left Andahuaylas at 7 a.m. “Bus” turned out to be a loose description. The only vehicle at the bus stop was an old open-backed truck. I squeezed into the bed of this antique vehicle with as many people and as much baggage as it would hold. Despite the crowding, we picked up more travelers at frequent roadside stops. Again, we climbed steeply to a bleak, rocky altiplano, but now we saw herds of llamas and alpacas trying to scrape sustenance from among the stones. At lunch time we could see our destination, still over 20 miles and two and a half hours away below us. The road down was the most tortuous yet, literally hanging from the edge of the valley. Once descended into the valley we crossed the river on the first bridge to have been built by the Spaniards in Peru, and arrived in Abancay.
Four exciting and sometimes hair-raising days since we left Huancayo, and still not in Cuzco! Good for those who travel for the sake of traveling. Not so good for those who travel to arrive!
The last stage of the journey continued in a much more modern bus. Nearing Cuzco, we began to see evidence of “desarollo” (development). Advertisements for fertilizers, cars from Cuzco, and signs of political awareness; “Tierra, Trabajo, Revolucion”, painted in huge letters on a barn wall. Crossing a ridge, we looked down on the red-tiled roofs of Cuzco below.
CUZCO: THE OLDEST CONTINUOUSLY INHABITED CITY IN THE AMERICAS.
Once the capital of the Inca Empire, Cuzco presents a palimpsest of Andean history from the 11th century to today. Topping the green hills that surround the city are Inca ruins, a statue of Jesus Christ and “Viva Peru” carved in huge letters into the turf.
Almost every street is bounded by stone walls, the bases of which are Incaic stonework on which the conquistadores constructed their colonial edifices and today’s dwellers build their adobe huts. The precise Incan “battered” stonemasonry, (with each corner rounded, and with a slope towards the center from bottom to top), can be seen underpinning the city’s history and its modern-day life. So well did the Incas build that their structures have stood the test of time better than more recent ones, even surviving two earthquakes, that destroyed much of the town in 1650 and 1950 respectively.
This awe-inspiring backdrop Is the theatre for a vibrant modern Cuzceno life. The streets bustle with Indians in colorful ponchos, and hundreds of tourists from all over the world – some wearing the ponchos that can be bought on every corner. I couldn’t find a hotel that fit my low budget but ended up in a very fancy one by dint of the friendliness of the hotel staff. For a ‘precio especial’ I was shown to the first room with private bath that I had slept in for a long time. It was a tiny bathroom into which a bed had been placed, - just for me? A little cramped but comfortable, and convenient when one wanted a hot bath. A perfect room but I felt a bit out of place clumping around the posh red carpeted hallways in my boots.
The first day in Cuzco I left early for the famous Sunday market in Pisaq. I rode in the back of a pick-up truck full of people going to sell their wares at the market. The scenery along the 30-kilometer trip was spectacular. We followed a high pastoral valley with green fields, sheep and llamas, and a clean bubbling stream. Small groups of thatched mud huts were inhabited by colorfully dressed “indigiens”. (I created this new word to replace the difficult word “indians”.) Many of them were trotting along the road carrying sacks or baskets. Some waved the truck down, and piled in on top of us, while others just kept on trotting. Apparently trotting while chewing coca leaves is the key to getting about at these high altitudes. We descended to the Rio Urubamba, as it meandered along the wide green valley. A neat block of thatched roof buildings straddling the river was the village of Pisaq. The town was dominated by four flights of ‘andenes’ - Incan terraces - above which were perched the ruins of the ancient village. We climbed up to the ruins on the steep steps that connected the andenes.
The view was incredible and so were the ruins. A central sun temple was surrounded by precisely carved pinky-red stone walls, doors, and niches – the remains of the original village. Returning to the ‘new’ village, we attended mass in the church, which was packed with indigenous families. The men stood on one side of the aisle, the women and babies sat on the other. I sat among the women watching them unwrap the babies from their swaddling bundles so that they could move their little arms and legs. The mass was said half in Spanish and half in Quechua and the chanting was Quechuan. A ‘banda’ blew their conch shells at intervals. Everyone left the church in a procession and ended up in the main plaza where the busy Sunday market was now in full swing. I couldn’t afford a poncho so I bought a typical antique knitted hat.
Now to Machu Picchu! I chose to go on the “Indian Train” as opposed to the “Tourist Train”, so rose early for the 7 a.m. departure. At 6.30 a.m. the second-class carriage was already full so I sat in first-class for the slow, five-hour journey, The track followed the rushing, red, muddy waters of Rio Urubamba. As usual. at each small village, vendors rushed at the train to sell their wares. A common offering here was mustard, sold fresh with yellow flowers or boiled and looking like over-cooked cabbage. The locals on the train ate continuously as usual.
When we arrived at the station for Machu Picchu, I began the five-kilometer hike to the top. There was a bus that took the slightly longer road, but it cost 30 soles. Following the shorter, steeper path involved scrambling up screes of large boulders and, in parts, climbing an almost vertical, rocky track. And it poured with rain! Halfway up – soaked and exhausted – I hitched a ride on a hotel bus. The kindly driver dropped me off before the last curve so that no one would see me on the bus.
The Machu Picchu Hotel had been recently completed by the Peruvian Tourist Board, and they were busy showing it off to local dignitaries and international journalists. I became friends with two of these guests when I tried to book a room and was refused. There were rooms available but not to backpackers like me and the half a dozen others like me. We were not welcome. We snuck in to use the bathrooms and were unceremoniously thrown out. There was nothing for us to eat. My journalist friends, who were from Argentina, took pity on me and, much to the disgust of the hotel staff, invited me to eat dinner with them. I had to take my boots off to enter the dining room. My socks were wet so I took them off as well. I consumed the best dinner in months in the company of two handsome and charming gay gentlemen. They offered me to sleep in their room but I didn’t want to get them in trouble since they were staying courtesy of the Peruvian Government. So, with the other packers, I went off in the dark to find “the shacks”; the only other place to sleep. The shacks turned out to disused pigsties. It was wet and cold and miserable. The ruins better be spectacular to make this worthwhile!
The ruins were spectacular, of course, although a little eerie as they were shrouded in clouds. So foggy was it that I never saw the full vista of the ancient settlement nestled high in the saddle of the mountain. But wandering among the grey stones and peering into all the nooks and crannies was awe-inspiring. The temples and important buildings were of very fine battered construction, with rounded corners and closely interlocking stones such as those seen in Cuzco. The homes of the ordinary people were less carefully built. I climbed up to the “Hitching Post of the Sun”, and on through the cemetery to the highest watchtower. I could see the mountains of the Sierra through and above the clouds, and, when the clouds lifted a bit, the Urubamba valley. But clouds still lingered among the buildings of the Incan city. By the evening the site was eerily quiet except for the sound of the rushing river in the valley below. What incredible placement for an ancient city! Surrounded by such inspiring scenery and on such a high, isolated, and defensible peak. No wonder it wasn’t found by modern society until 1911.
The next morning It was still raining and the clouds were low, so I decided to go back to Cuzco. Who knows how long one would wait for the sky to clear? I rode back on the train, again second class and packed in with the local families and their produce, mostly bananas.
THOUGHTS FROM CUZCO
For the next few days, I explored Cuzco, visiting the five Inca temples and the many other Incaic wonders that remain in various states of preservation. The ruins of the main colonial church and convent of La Merced (1534) stand near one of the largest known Incan stones, which has seven facets and was part of the Incan Templo del Sol.
After a week at this altitude, I began to feel lethargic and to have a headache. Chewing coca or drinking coca tea helped but I couldn’t chew constantly as the locals do – it made my jaw ache! I also recorded in my journal that I was feeling old. It was my 29th birthday! I bought myself a beautiful poncho as a birthday present.
Feeling in rather low spirits I wrote philosophically in my journal about traveling.
“In what other mode of life, can one encounter new things, new people, new experiences, every day?” I asked myself. “I wake up every morning free to live this day as I please. Free to sleep or wake, free to come or go. I am the only one who makes the day good or bad, who determines whether I am happy or sad. Sometimes I blame people or circumstances but I know that it is my mood that really determines all that happens. Some days I feel like communicating with people, riding on dirty buses, and chattering away with everyone. On those days my Spanish flows. Then there are days like today, when I don’t feel like being friendly. I am rude to men who try to chat me up. Even the most well-meaning gestures are unwelcome. On these days poverty is squalor, dirt is filth, and the easy-going Latin attitude is insincere. On these days, the abundance of stimulants around me only bore me and I feeling like hiding in my room alone.”
My conclusion to this little soliloquy is this. “This is a reaction to a life that is ALL stimulus, all new. Sometimes I need a taste of the ordinary, a routine of everyday things to do, to make me appreciate the excitement.” A strange kind of boredom sets in - boredom with novelty. I can be a tourist for a while, seeing the sights and having new experiences. Then despite the fact that I know there is a lot more to see , the desire suddenly leaves. At this point I feel the need to relax and become part of the scenery rather than looking at it.
ONWARD AND UPWARD
The next morning at 5.30, I boarded the train for Puno. The second-class cabin was packed with Quechua-speakers who talked all the way. One friendly woman with a seven-year-old daughter, spoke with me in Spanish. There were fewer vendors at the stations along this route and the locals all stocked up with bread at the start. Later I discovered this was to be eaten with delicious roast lamb that was served for almuerzo along the way. I shared a big meaty bone with my friend and her little girl. We climbed higher into the altiplano. Here the women wear layers of full, embroidered skirts and tightly fitting red jackets. The hats vary tremendously from place to place. I was told that this is because the Conquistadores made each village adopt a different style so that they could distinguish where each Incan came from. Here they wore “mortarboards” with a square of colorful embroidered or silver-braided cloth that hung over at each corner. Children wore bowlers and shirts but often nothing from the waist down. This makes it easy to squat in the street when they need to relieve themselves. Hygiene was pretty bad here and the streets of the villages smelled terrible. Men would just ‘take a leak’ in the street with no shame and no effort to turn away.
We climbed higher and higher until we were surrounded by snow-capped peaks and glaciers. I began to see “Puno” hats, the tall, embroidered bowlers. The women sold alpaca rugs and hats on the train and bare-bottomed boys tended the herds, boys and animals wading thigh high among the marsh grasses.
THE LAKE AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD
In the final hour of our journey to Puno the flat open altiplano was very wet, and soon we were able to see the shallow reed beds that marked the edge of Lake Titicaca. Here the cut reeds or totoras were piled into stooks to dry so that they could be fashioned into the sailing balsas and canoas that were the major form of transportation on the lake, or into rude houses on the islands.
At 12,800 feet above sea level, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world. It gave the impression of being balanced on the top of the mountains, a large flat expanse shining in greys and purples in the evening light. Partly in Peru and partly in Bolivia it provides the latter, land-locked country with its only excuse to have a navy!
Puno sits on the lake’s northern edge. The wind from the lake was piercing and cold and it drizzled constantly making everything cold and damp. It was hard to find a hotel room and when I did, it had water supply only three hours a day and that water was freezing cold. Add to that the effect of the altitude and, despite the coca leaves, life seemed miserable.
My lot seemed relatively comfortable compared with that of the Uru Indians who lived on floating islands of totora. These reed islands rise less than a foot above the lake and in some places sink below water level. Some islands were inhabited by cows, sheep and llamas that had been transported there in reed boats by the Uru people, who themselves lived on some of the larger islands. Their dwellings were constructed of reeds, as were their boats. They eat the totora shoots with fish and birds that they catch.
A small launch took a group of us to visit the islands. We landed on the main island where some children took us to see the school, a metal building floating alongside the island. The solid nature of this structure contrasted starkly with the frail reed islands. It had been built by Adventists ten years earlier and had 70 students in five grades. The students came from about 40 inhabited islands, the total Uru population being about 500.
All the buildings except the school and the cooperative were built of reeds and looked almost as though they were a living part of the environment. The habitation was concentrated on one corner of this island and the constant trampling of the residents has exposed a dark, wet peaty layer below. Completely waterlogged and salt-laden, nothing can be grown on the islands, so the people trade fish for ‘papas hervidas’ (freeze-dried potatoes), maize, flour, and matches. Outside waterlogged homes, women sat on low reed “stools” with skirts trailing on the soggy ground.
As usual, I felt uncomfortable staring at the people like the tourist that I was, so I chatted with one of the families. Our conversation focused first on my buying their poorly woven belts and my giving them bread. The senor suggested that I help the senora prepare the potatoes, so I did but I was very slow and did not understand that when the senora put each potato in her mouth, she was ‘cracking’ them. Then they went in the pot with the fish which was being boiled in lake water over the reed fire with a lake coot that a boy had just caught. I was asked to stoke the fire with another reed. My activities caused some amusement!
Back on dry land, there was a big folkloric festival in Puno that weekend, which explained the crowds and full hotel rooms. I went to the stadium on Saturday, and after getting too hot and sunburned in the stands, walked onto the field among the bands and dancers. There were professional dance groups from all over Peru and the dances included La Diablada and homage Virgin of Candelária, whose festival was being celebrated. For this ritual, the men ride horses dressed up as llamas. The virgin’s statue is enthroned in a balsa boat on a pedestal in the church of San Juan in Puno. Back in town men were dancing and letting off fireworks in front of the church. It was very colorful and noisy.
BY TRUCK AND BY FOOT TO BOLIVIA
The trip to the Bolivian border involved a yet another dilapidated truck with too many passengers and, this time, pigs. We passed through the attractive, ancient lakeside towns of Ilave and Pomata and finally crossed the border at Yunguyo. Some of the passengers slept in the truck. I was happy to have found a place for my sleeping bag on the luggage rack as the floor was packed with men sleeping on uncured llama skins and urinating on the floor when they felt like it. It was incredibly cold and clear. I had never seen so many stars. Come to think of it, I’ve never been so near to the stars!
I learned from a kindly senora who gave me a hot drink at 5 a.m., that papers for Bolivia must be acquired in Yunguyo, so I headed to the immigration office. The officer’s son woke him up so he could stamp my passport. There was no transport to the border crossing so I decided to walk. It was 5 or 8 kilometers and 1 -2 hours depending on whom you asked.
So, I set off for Bolivia, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with a young Argentinian who was also going to La Paz. The walk was incredibly beautiful, the path going up and down hills as it skirted the lake. The sun shining and the sky an unbelievable blue, the flowers and herbs smelled lovely as we walked along. At the police posts along the route, they looked at our passports but did nothing. We asked how far it was and each time it got further. Were we going backwards? Eventually, after two and a half hours of walking, we arrived in Copacabana. This small town rivals its Brazilian namesake for beauty. It sits on the edge of the deep blue lake, so large that one cannot see the other side. The pueblo had pretty cobbled streets and small colonial-style houses. It was noticeably cleaner than the nearby towns in Peru.
There being no bus to La Paz on Monday, we shared a taxi each paying the equivalent of the bus fare. The scenery as we drove around Lake Titicaca was stupendous. The picture postcard beauty was enhanced by the clear, clear air and blue, blue sky. All the colors were deep and bright. We could see the snow-capped peaks of the Eastern Cordillera rising to over 20,000 feet on the far side of the lake. Descending to lake level, we crossed the narrowest neck of the lake by boat - the cars on the ferry and the people on a launch. Back up on the altiplano and leaving the lakeside, the sunset closed around us. The bright pink, orange and purple light was reflected for 360 degrees on the snow-capped mountains. Magical!
It was the perfect time to arrive in La Paz. We descended as the sunlight dimmed on the surrounding mountains and the lights of the city below us began to sparkle. The city is set in a perfect hollow in the mountains and dominated all around by the nearby peaks of the Cordillera.
La Paz is widely known as the capital of Bolivia, but this is not exactly the case. The first, and still the official, capital is Sucre, where many government functions are located. La Paz was made the judicial capital when tin mining around the area became important to the economy. Once again, I was lucky to find free accommodation in La Paz. With my Argentinian traveling companion, we sat in a church listening to an organ recital and were invited to stay in a schoolroom by the priest. No beds and a very cold floor on which my space blanket was a lifesaver, but a lovely hot shower! Touring the vertiginous streets of La Paz we saw evidence of revolution and bloodshed. At the university, windows were shattered and many walls were peppered with bullet holes – it had been fired on from the air in an uprising not more than six months earlier. The markets were interesting, especially the “mercado de brujas”. The witches looked very much like any of the other senoras, but their goods were distinctive. They sold things that looked like boiled sweets that they said made plants grow. They had multitudes of herbs and potions, dyed wool and animal skins, but strangest of all were the mummified fetal llamas. These are put under houses to keep the demons away. There was also a huge-covered food market with many varieties of fruit and vegetables. Bought my lunch and ate it in Parque Central, where there was a small zoo with monkeys, a lion, an enormous condor, and some golden eagles.
Despite its dramatic topography and red-roofed colonial style buildings, I was not charmed by La Paz and was happy to leave in the front seat of a smart modern bus. For three and a half hours we crossed the unchanging altiplano – flat and scrubby, grazed by sheep, goats and llamas shepherded by spinning women. Low brown adobe houses sank into the landscape; only the churches rose more than ten feet above the brown plain. The cordillera gave way to low purple hills in the distance.
MARDI GRAS IN ORURO
First sightings of Oruro were disappointing. A dry, dusty frontier town set in the middle of a dry plain. This was where I was to spend Mardi Gras? The streets were crowded with people preparing for the carnival, but they were not relaxed and festive but rowdy and drunken. There was a palpable tension in the air. Not wanting to make an instant judgement, I began to look around. In the main square a crowd was gathering, anticipating a procession that was about to happen. This turned out to be a ‘march-past’, a show of force for the President of Bolivia, who was right there in person standing on a dais with his military henchmen. The march went on so long that I decided that the troops were going around and around the square. Each time they passed the president they saluted, waved, and made peace signals. He and his honchos did the same in response. At the end, the President made a long “viva Bolivia” speech to loud cheers.
I wasn’t entirely comfortable being among all the weaponry but I decided to let my decision to stay depend upon whom I met. And it did. I met a wonderful woman who had a lovely delicatessen. She invited me to stay at her home with her family. She had seven children, had traveled widely in Europe, and spoke three languages, including English. Her eldest daughters, 15-year-old twins, entertained me with classical music and very mature discussion. Both attended the Colegio Aleman in Oruro and planned to go to University in Germany.
There were three younger girls and two small boys, the youngest of whom was a chubby cherub with long, curly blonde hair. The father was a pediatrician and was studying in Rio de Janeiro. The house was pleasant, with living areas around a courtyard that was the warmest place, the sun being hot. In the shade it was rather cool. I slept in the cozy spare room. The Senora insisted that I eat with the family in the house, so I looked forward to a pleasant weekend, despite the military tone of the fiesta.
The twins told me about the recent revolution, during which the universities were sacked and 500 students killed. The new President was popular in Oruro judging by the turn out….but later I learned that he had paid his ‘supporters’ to be bussed in from the countryside.
The next morning, we all went out to watch “the Entrada”, the official beginning of Carnaval. This was a lively and colorful affair with lots of very good dancing and fantastic costumes. The main dance was the Diablada, led by the Condor and the bears and hundreds of devils, followed by the angels (dressed like wedding cakes) and the temptresses, (dressed like gaudy whores, and sometimes male). There were marching brass bands each followed by three sousaphones. Behind all this were cars, loaded with silver, taking the family treasure to be blessed. There were Negritos with blackened faces and bright clothes and Indians in various regional costumes with flute and quena bands. Last were the feathered “Tobas”, a tribe of warriors who lived in the Chaco region of Bolivia. The Tobas dance is a special representation of energy with impressive jumps performed by the dancers.
I had been so fortunate to meet ‘my family’ in Oruro. They were so kind and so worldly. The way they lived surprised me, for people who could afford to travel to Europe. The family shared two bedrooms while the room I slept in was kept for guests. In one room there were two beds for children (two in each) and one for the uncle who lived with them. As usual, there was a maid. A young girl who was like a sister to the younger children, a mother to the baby, and a servant to the twins, who never offered her a please or thank you.
BY BUS AND TRAIN ACROSS BOLIVIA
I left for Potosi on Valentine’s Day. The bus ride wasn’t very interesting apart from the huge number of llamas and alpacas of various shades of white, brown, and black with sweet, darker babies. It was very cold and the rain was frozen.
Potosi had been the center of the silver-mining industry and much of the landscape was covered with abandoned mines. The town is ‘run-down colonial’ with not a lot going on. I bought half a kilo of cheese from a large senora with a tall black hat. She weighed it on her scales, putting everything including a knife on the scale to balance it. Who could tell what the knife weighed! All the women looked large with their multiple layers of full skirts, many shawls, and tall hats. In the market I bought bread and figs and chocolate - back to my old diet. At a café we drank hot chocolate and danced to keep warm. I am getting a bit tired of being cold.
The next day, another bumpy bus ride to Sucre. This area of Bolivia is a bit greener and seems a bit more prosperous than that we have seen in the past few days. Mercifully, it became warmer as we lost height. Sucre sits at 8,500 feet. The city was founded in 1538 and is the original and official capital of Bolivia. It has impressive colonial public buildings and whitewashed churches. San Miguel is the oldest church in use in South America. It was shut for 120 years but has been lovingly restored and is very beautiful, with painted ceilings, white walls and gold and silver altar. It holds paintings by Viti, the first great painter of the New World, who studied under Raphael. I was shown around the beautifully preserved buildings by a friendly padre.
It still being the week of Carnaval, there were bands playing in the main plaza and a lot of dancers. It was happy, if a bit drunken, and there was a lot of water-throwing by boys and men old enough to know better! I slept on a concrete floor at the home of Monica, whom I had met on the bus to Oruro. I took the list that Monica had given me and worked my way around the main attractions. I visited the cathedral and its museum, which had some paintings said to be by Van Dyke. I spent some time in the Casa de la Libertad, which had many documents about the liberation of Bolivia and everything concerning Simon Bolivar, the liberator. A four-ton wooded carving of his head showed him with a rather strange smile. Here, preserved in all its red plushness, the room where Bolivar signed the declaration of independence of Bolivia in 1825.
After absorbing some of the history of Bolivar’s eponymous country, I visited the lively markets and resisted buying a charango, the guitar-like instrument with 12 strings and an armadillo back that was played ubiquitously. I climbed up the hill to La Recoleta, a simple church with a fantastic view over the city. It had beautifully carved wooden choir stalls around one huge lectern on which there were three enormous books of chants from which the whole choir read. Being a chorister myself, I wondered how they turned the pages. At dinner, Monica introduced us to a dish she said was typical of Sucre. It turned out to be ham, egg, and chips! Typico Boliviano?
The next day, another unpredictable journey, by bus to Cochabamba. The bus left late and broke down mor than once. The road had been washed out in places by the heavy rain, and we had to ford the Rio Chica - no longer eponymous, but with swollen banks and four separate, large streams. We were preceded across by a caterpillar vehicle that cleared a path for us. We proceeded at cat’s pace for many miles. Climbing up from the river valley the road was steep and slippery with a precipitous drop to the river below. The next river, the Rio Grande was crossed by a bridge. As dusk fell, we were still winding through the mountains and bus broke down again. The driver fixed it while we walked around and admired the tiny crescent moon and millions of stars that appeared as it got dark.
Cochabamba was grey and wet and I decided to catch the overnight bus to Santa Cruz where I would board the train to Brazil. I was beginning to get a bit tired of buses. I visited an interesting Municipal Museum in Cochabamba, with excellent displays of local geology and natural history. A small gallery displayed some unusual modern sculptures and there was a large library. A bookshop had been recommended to me, and I found it to have hundreds of books in English. I browsed for ages and left with three. I felt very “gringo” and had a lovely, expensive gringo lunch.
The bus left for Santa Cruz promptly at 7 p.m. It was very uncomfortable. There wasn’t room between the seats for a tall gringo’s knees. We arrived in Santa Cruz early in the morning in desperate need of coffee. From here I planned to take the ferrocarril, a modern, expensive train that crossed the Mato Grosso to the Brazilian border in less than 15 hours. I soon learned that this service had been suspended, leaving two options; the original local train that took somewhere between 24 and 48 hours, or to fly.
I found a peaceful 10-peso hotel with a comfortable bed and a hot shower, both of which I took advantage of immediately. I hadn’t had a shower since La Paz! Rested and with clean hair, I explored the city, which was rather attractive, the streets cobbled with hexagonal stones and sidewalks under the eaves of the pillared houses. It was warm with a nice breeze and the sweet, summery smell of frangipani in the air. I took a bus to the Botanic Gardens that went through areas of large homes with cars and land rovers, and nice gardens, into contrasting countryside with solid wooden oxcarts with roofs of ox-hides being pulled by six enormous beasts. Back in town I passed a sad procession of a few masked dancers carrying a dummy on a stretcher, going to “bury” the carnival.
CROSSING THE MATO GROSSO - 400 MILES BY TRAIN
Frugality and the adventure of traveling won, and I decided to continue onward by train. This decision was despite the warnings in my travel guide, which calls the train ‘primitive’ and, lacking diner or proper restroom. ‘Not a line for Europeans or Americans’, it warned.
The crowd waiting to buy a ticket was large and disorganized and they ran out of seats before I reached the ticket office. I was lucky that a woman pushed in front of me who wanted to sell her ticket, so I procured my seat, a wooden bench with a non-reclining back. I sat down on my blanket, with my pack in the aisle next to me. A pleasant woman next to me had a cargo of baby chicks. Most people had sacks of food and stalks of green platanos. Why? Surely there must be plantains where we are going? There were two second-class coaches like mine, one first class that didn’t look much better but cost more, and a luggage van caboose. The carriages were Victorian in style, wooden with small louvred windows. Why was I humming “Raindrops keep falling on my head” as we left the station?
The 400-mile railway journey crossed the entire eastern half of Bolivia, much of which was uninhabited. The track passed through small groups of huts and stopped to pick up or drop off passengers and for the inevitable market of snacks – different types at each stop. I had brought bread and cheese, nuts and raisins and a bottle of wine, so I ate my dinner and tried unsuccessfully to go to sleep. There were no lights in the train. Everyone around me slept. I got out and drank hot sweet coffee and the stops, which didn’t help my rest. Finally, I procured a window seat and slept for a while with my head almost out of the window.
We traveled through miles of jungle, with clearings made for grazing cattle and growing corn. When it got light there were huge red ‘cerros’ (needle-like rock formations) sticking up out of the jungle in the dawning sun. There was little clearing now, except for the occasional football pitch among a group of mud and thatch huts. At Robare, a pretty, green village with tiled houses, mud streets and lots of flowers, the entire population turned out to greet the train. The grassy square was a hive of activity, with men in large straw hats and western-style dress on horses and mules. I looked for Butch and Sundance! There is a German community here, running a large school with a lot of blonde children.
We continued to make our way east with many stops for villages that were interesting for their variety. There were longer stops in sidings while we waited for trains to pass the other way on the single line track. It was very hot and humid, which was a problem when we were stationary, especially when we could not alight. The vegetation near the track was attractive, with colorful and aromatic flowers such as wild roses and wild red geraniums. It was like passing through a garden although most of the region was uninhabited. We were very far from civilization. We crossed red and black rivers and finally the wide, braided Rio Grande, which was spanned by a large bridge. Sunset came with marvelous orange and purple hues everywhere, and then luminous grey under the approaching rainclouds.
We arrived in Puerto Suarez at 11.45 p.m., 35 hours after leaving Santa Cruz. The first thing we visitors did was to go in search of our passports, which had been taken from us on the train. Being separated from my passport made me very anxious. We found them in a wooden hut lit by a storm lantern, where our names were being listed by a ponderous official. Back on the train we moved to the first-class carriage that was the only one to cross the frontier into Brazil.
BRAZIL. WHAT A DIFFERENCE A COUNTRY MAKES!
Later the same day, I left Corumba on the train bound for Sao Paulo. What a difference a day – and a country - makes! This was a comfortable train with food service and flush toilets. We crossed the large expanse of the Province of Mato Grosso, much of which was owned by the Rockefellers and had been cleared for cattle and sugar cane. The villages had palm-roofed huts in small areas of cleared land, but the stations were modern and built of brick. It took me a while to adjust to hearing Portuguese around me and I was happy to meet a German who preferred to speak English. We arrived in Sao Paulo at 11 p.m. and spent the night at the Policia Feminina – the women’s flop house. It didn’t matter that two of our group were men. We slept on straw bundles among a lot of black women and their children. It was a bit sordid, but friendly and free!
Sao Paulo was the first western-style city I had been in for 18 months. Very busy and bustling, with none of the Latin air of timelessness. The next day I caught a very modern bus from the very efficient bus station. All of a sudden, I am in the modern world. Where is the Latin ambiente; the bus driver laughing and singing, the ‘secretario’ leaping in the door as the bus drives away? Where are the pigs, chickens, and bananas? And where are the lively, colorful people, and dirty, human Latin America? Civilization sure has knocked the ginger out of people!
I was excited to arrive in Rio and to see the famous sights – the beaches, the Sugar Loaf and the huge statue of Christ dominating it all. And Copacabana, where I was invited to stay with a friend of a friend, in an apartment right next to the beach. I walked on the zebra-striped sidewalks and watched voodoo ceremonies on the beach. There were still lots of people in carnival costumes and a couple of Samba Schools with hundreds of dancers.
After a week of much-needed rest and recuperation, much of it spent on the beach, I was ready to travel again. I took a comfortable, overnight bus to Curitiba, the journey taking 15 hours. Curitiba was an attractive, modern city, the older central area of which had a European flavor, harking back to the city’s founders who were mostly German, Italian, and Polish. Skyscrapers were set among lovely parks. In one of these I visited a small zoo and enjoyed the antics of monkeys and chimps and admired a beautiful, shiny black puma.
My next destination was Iguacu Falls, another 14-hour, overnight bus ride. The Falls are situated in a national park, very densely vegetated and green with jungle plants - palms, bamboo, and lovely flowering trees. We alighted at the large pink building of the Hotel Cataratas that commanded a fantastic view of the spectacular falls! One of the wonders of the world. At high flood more than 46,000 cubic meters flow through per second. There are 275 different falls across the 2-mile front of the drop, which is 200 – 260 feet – beating Niagara by 20 feet. Across the entire 2 miles of the falls, cascades of yellowish-white water thunder ceaselessly down to the lower level of the river shrouding the entire scene in a permanent haze of spray. I walked across the catwalk below the falls and got soaking wet. There were good vantage points created to allow various angles to be viewed. I climbed a tower to look down on them and walked down a path toward the lower river level. There was an elevator but it was out-of-order.
From Foz de Iguacu, I headed for Asuncion. We crossed river Parana into Paraguay. The road was well-surfaced and straight, through rolling jungle. There was evidence of recent slash-and-burn, clearing the land for cultivation of jucca (tapioca or manioc), maize, soybeans, and castor oil. Some plantations of spruce and fir suggested an organized forestry policy. The houses are small, wooden structures often with two separate rooms connected by a thatched patio on which the daily life of the family takes place. In one pueblo, the famous spider’s web lace was to be seen stretched out on frames outside many of the homes.
In the daytime, Asuncion was bustling with people and cars. The cars here caught my attention. There are two kinds: 1) Mercedes, Alfa Romeos, and Jaguars, 2) Old bangers – 1930s Fords, trucks and windowless wooden buses, that rattled their way down the streets. Driving was interesting. The city has a block pattern but no traffic lights and, it seems, no rules either. The way to cross an intersection is to blast your horn and speed up so as to reduce the chance of hitting what is coming the other way. Pedestrians take their lives in their hands.
It was very hot here in the day but the evenings were cool and breezy. In the evening, the city had the atmosphere of a pueblo; very tranquil and friendly. People sat outside the cafes at tables in the road.
In Paraguay bus trips reverted to the old-style, rattling vehicles, unreliable engines, and lots of passengers. The men carried nothing but the women were loaded down, looking as though they had done a month’s worth of shopping. When a family alighted, many bags were thrown down from the roof of the bus; what looked like hundredweight sacks of sugar, flour, yerba (yerba mate, drunk like tea); drinks, candles, somberos, and gallon wine bottles, some filled with kerosene. Many of the people are light-skinned and blond – probably of Germanic heritage. They speak to each other in Guarani, the local language, as well as in Spanish.
The small town of Yaguaron, on the Paraguay River, is surrounded by rolling, green countryside that has been likened to parts of England. It has a famous church that looks like a huge barn in the middle of a field. It is an example of the type of church built here by the Jesuits; this one took from 1640 to 1720 to complete. The ceiling and walls were painted using tints made by the Guarani Indians. The colors are still very bright considering they were painted over 400 years ago. There is gold leaf on the altar and the wooden pulpit is most unusual, supported by a carved Roman legion soldier and topped by a dove of peace. In the evening the bell tolled and the people came to mass, women dressed in black with lace mantas over their heads. There is a wide veranda all around the building supported by exterior pillars. This proved shelter for the local people and a place to tie their horses.
The scenery enroute to Encarnacion was very European-looking, with farms that might have been Amish. The soil became redder and the cattle larger – brahmins with huge horns – as we approached our destination. While I was in Encarnacion the long drought broke and torrential rain fell, washing out roads and bridges and turning everything to red mud.
From Encarnacion a ferry crosses the River Parana to Argentina. It took ten minutes. Customs was easy, and I hitch-hiked to Corrientes with an Argentinian I had met on the ferry. We traveled through the Pampas – huge fields full of huge cattle, gauchos and clumps of trees sheltering barns, cattle yards, or farmhouses. From Corrientes, there being no buses, I continued to hitchhike – alone. This led to one of the few really bad experiences of my whole trip, when a policeman tried to rape me. I always said that my voice would be my best weapon. I was lucky that my cries were heard by another officer.
I decided to continue by bus. We left before dawn, which rose in spectacular fashion over the pampas. At Parana there was a tunnel that had just been completed to replace a series of bridges over the Parana River. The tunnel led from one ugly town (Parana) to another even uglier (Santa Fe). From here it was an eight-hour bus ride to Buenos Aires. It was March 17th. Unbeknownst to me I was to stay here for two-and-a-half months. But so it was to be.
One of the remarkable things about my entire journey was the kindness of the people I met. I must have spent about half the time during my travels staying with strangers whom I met along the way. I often received invitations to stay with people who lived in places that I might be visiting in future. Sometimes they worked out, sometimes not. In Buenos Aires, my invitation worked out with a vengeance!
BASKING IN BUENOS AIRES
Remember the lovely journalist and his partner whom I met in Machu Picchu? They rescued me from cold and starvation! And they insisted that when I arrived in B.A. I would contact them immediately and stay with them. As a result, I was welcomed into the society of B.A.’s “beautiful people.” Right off the bus, with my backpack, my dirty hair, and my scruffy clothes, I moved into a luxurious apartment in an elegant section of the city. I had my own cozy room, a warm, comfortable bed, a hot bath, and exquisite food cooked and served by the housekeeper. Better still, I had an amazing welcome! The couple had been waiting for me. They had told their friends about me, and soon I met them; attractive twenty-somethings, most of them handsome gay men. I basked in their love and attention. They spoiled me, pampered me, flattered me…what more can a girl ask for. They took me for boat excursions on the delta, a huge area of branched channels formed by the River Plate as it flows out to sea. We picnicked al fresco, ate at the best restaurants, had elegant dinners at home and at others’ homes, and generally lived like kings – and queens.
Being homosexual in Argentina at this time was illegal and unmentionable, so these young men lived their lives “in the closet”. There were a number of beautiful girls in the circle of friends, and with them, I became popular as an ‘escort’ or ‘decoy’. This became evident when we were invited to a ball at the Opera House. I didn’t have an elegant enough dress, so my friends took me out and bought me fabric and had an aunt make me a simple, but beautiful gown. We all got dressed up and floated around drinking champagne among the rich and famous of Argentina! What a contrast with the past 18 months!
In this cosseting environment, it took very little time for me to stop feeling as though I was traveling and to feel at home. I was concerned about overstaying my welcome, but my hosts said they would kidnap me and keep me forever. It was so nice to be wanted and to make some deeper friendships.
Despite this, I began to feel ready to go home to England. I’d been traveling for close to two years, and away from home for five. I was looking forward to being with my family for a while. I was also concerned about overstaying my welcome with my dear friends in BA. I knew it would be hard to leave, so I steeled myself and got myself onto the aliscafo (hovercraft) back to Uruguay. We all promised each other we would meet again. I am deeply saddened that we haven’t.
The hour-long trip across the River Plate was like a cross between a speedboat and an airplane. Fast and smooth. We arrived in Colonia, where I took a bus north on my way back to Rio. I stopped in Montevideo, capital of Uruguay, a city of contrasts. Attractive old buildings and rather dirty plazas flanked by some modern buildings and quite a few construction sites. After another change of bus in Porto Alegre, I was on my last bus trip – back to Rio. I wonder how many hours I have spent on buses on this journey.
At the British Consulate in Rio, I was repatriated by the friendly officials. I arranged for my transit home on a Spanish passenger ship, the Cabo San Roque of the Ibarra line. This was the least expensive way I could find to get to Europe. It’s first port of call was Tenerife, then Portugal; Lisbon and Vigo, and finally Bilboa in northern Spain. It took eight days.
The ship carried 800 passengers. I was the only native English speaker. I shared a small, below-decks cabin in tourist class with a 70-year-old Portuguese woman and a mother with a three-year-old boy.
I started the voyage with enthusiasm, befriending passengers and crew, and eating a lot. Then we entered the doldrums, and so did I. I had heard that people get sick crossing the equator; I did just that. For two days I felt physically and mentally lethargic and just wanted to sleep.
At Tenerife I took a walk across the island with some of the crew and explored Puerto La Cruz. During the day that we spent in Lisbon I rushed around to see as much of this lovely city as I could. At Vigo most of the passengers disembarked. Customs was a shambles with bags and vehicles and people everywhere. At Bilboa I had a great send-off by my friends in the crew of Cabo San Roque and I was soon aboard the Patricia, sailing for Southampton and home.
I felt foreign among English people again. And there was “New Money”. Britain had converted to the decimal system in early 1972 so I was arriving to an unknown currency after years of dollars, pesos, cruzeiros etc. No more pounds, shillings, and pence! I am beginning to feel a bit anxious; I may find it a bit difficult to be an “ordinary English girl” again. I entered a state of blank-minded anticipation; it’s really happening. I am going home.
We docked in Southampton and I disembarked with my luggage. I’d accumulated quite a bit more than the single backpack with which I started out. I was so excited to see my mother and sister at the bottom of the gangplank, we had to be told to keep walking by the officials. We walked on, right out of customs. So much for the strict import policies of Britain.
On the ride home through the English countryside, everything was green and the villages seemed small and very quaint. There have been a lot of changes since I left here five years ago. Was it only five years! It seems like a lifetime. And I was coming to a new home. My parents had moved while I was traveling. I had experienced repeated dreams about trying to come home and not being able to find the house or finding it and not being able to reach it for mudslides and other obstacles. So, it was a relief to see the place Mum and Dad now inhabited. I could see that they would be happy here. I will be happy here too, for a while, while I readjust, but I will not stay long. It’s not my home and it is time I made one for myself.
When friends asked me if I had “nice holiday”, I would reply, “Would you like the short version or the long one?” The short one was something like, “Amazing, thank you.” The long one explained that it really wasn’t a holiday but the journey of a lifetime. I had lived my dream. I had learned so much about the world and about myself. I knew I was responsible for my own happiness. I could do what I wanted to do. But what was that? I had completed the experience of which I had dreamed and planned for over half my life. I am 30 years old. I am no longer that English girl with a dream. What next? THE END
The primary source of reference for this essay was my journal. Seven books filled with tiny handwriting to save space as I traveled.
The much-thumbed guidebook that I have
preserved from the trip is a source of verification for me when I have
forgotten details. Ref: The 1970 South American Handbook, 46th
Edition. Edited by Andrew Marshall. Trade and Travel Publications, UK.
Hilary Bryn Thomas hails from Wales. She loves to travel, and she loves to write and take photographs. On her return to the United Kingdom from South America, she found a job in London working for a University Research Unit. Not geography, but communications. Over the next twenty- five years she pioneered, and became an expert in, the communications technologies that preceded the Internet. If you want to become an expert, she claims, you need to find something that nobody else knows about.
Her work in the field of telecommunications enabled her to travel the world. And in her spare time, she has traveled the world. She has written extensively but has rarely been published, and even more rarely been paid for her writing. Now retired and living in New Jersey, United States, she has opened her journals and is writing about her life. The memoir is on the way!
Hilary Bryn Thomas hails from Wales. She loves to travel, and she loves to write and take photographs. On her return to the United Kingdom from South America, she found a job in London working for a University Research Unit. Not geography, but communications. Over the next twenty- five years she pioneered, and became an expert in, the communications technologies that preceded the Internet. If you want to become an expert, she claims, you need to find something that nobody else knows about.
Her work in the field of telecommunications enabled her to travel the world. And in her spare time, she has continued to travel the world. She has written extensively but rarely been published. Now retired and living in New Jersey, United States, she has opened her journals and is writing about her life. The memoir is on the way!