The dogs have us up against an unfinished house, all bared fangs and throaty growls, until with a shout Mike throws his piece of spit-roast pig at them and we turn and flee past the alpaca having a siesta under the ATM and round the corner by the meat market where wizened women are smashing goats’ heads with cleavers in time to frantic panpipes, a rainbow of primary colours splattered with blood and bones. We dodge the naked chickens strung up like laundry, the reeking towers of animal teeth, and the small furry guinea pigs splayed open on plate after plate, a ghoulish banquet of snouts and claws. There’s barking from behind: we jump over buckets of guts, past twins playing chess and a tiny old man weeing like a garden ornament into the gutter. We fly by the boy selling oversized snails and the black-hatted girl roasting a hot glazed pig on a spit. We dart across the main square, through shrieking whistles and clashing car horns, dodging a toddler dancing in a feather headdress and – Mike yanks me back – a tuk-tuk streaking by like a meteor, spraying steady Latin beats, and then we make a final break for it up the dry, cracked hill in the thin mountain air, past the shaman at his stall, doing nothing, the flickering candles at the Madonna shrine, and a small monkey on a pole dressed in red and juggling nectarines which aren’t nectarines at all. A man sitting on a stool holding a euphonium plays a few low notes as we run by.
I have to stop halfway up the hill, and lean against a flaky wall, unable to breathe. The dogs must have tailed off a while back. A police woman is sitting on a broken bench nearby, doing nothing. She has more than one gun, and watches us.
“I want to go back to Chile,” I tell Mike in between breaths. Down there in the icy, fiery tail of Patagonia, the atmosphere was richer, quite literally: we weren’t built for this thin Andean altitude. Right now, Mike and I are twice as high as Ben Nevis. We’re also closer to the sun than ever before but that looks different, too, sliding across the sky in a shifty arc.
“Don’t let the buggers get you down,” says Mike, after a coughing fit. He is Australian.
“The dogs are different in Chile,” I manage. “They cross the street on the crossings and wait for the lights.” They also bark with decorum, and nod politely as they go by in the streets.
“Short-arses anyway here, the lot of them,” adds Mike, nodding at a local dressed in blue bird feathers who is trailing a length of cable behind him. Not far away, against a wall spray-painted with “Peru says No to drugs!” a dull-eyed donkey is chewing what may or may not be coca leaves.
“Haven’t got a clue, this lot,” adds Mike brightly, glancing at an elderly, sun-worn Quechuan woman in scarlet skirts on the kerb opposite, doing nothing, “Buggers wouldn’t know real work if it hit them in the bloody face.”
Mike has been here four weeks longer than me, although not by choice. I only got here yesterday.
“Hola vecinos,” says the blue bird feather man, walking on and neatly avoiding a shower of rubble.
“What’s that?” asks Mike over his shoulder, unlocking the several padlocks on our front door one by one.
“He was saying hello neighbours,” I say, looking round. On an unfinished wall behind the sun-worn Quechuan woman, someone has painted: “Peru says No to terrorism!” A black-haired boy walks by playing an ocarina.
There are voices from inside, other volunteer voices, floating from the kitchen with the muted smell of coca tea. The TV is showing half a picture of “The Voice: Peru” – the other half is a mishmash of brightly-coloured flashing lines.
“…so I said, why the hell didn’t you tell me, and – Mike!” Ben, the Aussie gap year student, leaps up, “They only bloody went and had another strike this morning – “
A small black cat flies through the air, lands on my shoe, and starts attempting to unpick my laces rapidly with its tiny claws. I think this is its way of saying hola.
“Didn’t the buggers go on strike last week?” asks Mike, and is kissing his wife Serena, all big eyes and Zen earrings, when the lights and the TV suddenly clunk off, leaving us in shady silence. The only sound is the frantic picking of the cat. Ben sinks his head onto the table with a groan.
“The electric’s out again?” asks Serena, “I wanted to wash my underwear.”
“Me too,” says Mike, “Got chased by dogs up the street again.”
“How do they stand it?” asks Ben from somewhere in the crook of his arms.
“Stand what?” asks Mike, banging the TV hopefully, “Being Peruvian?”
“How do they stand – living here?” Ben asks the cracked ceiling. “When every single day there’s a strike or a power cut or a shooting or a bloody – “
“Easy life! There’s only one rule in Peru,” says Mike, “Whenever you start something, make damn sure you never finish it. Look at the houses, for a start.”
Our own house has no roof.
“Ben means the visitors,” says Serena, shaking her head and lifting a disappointed ginger kitten down from the kitchen table. My black cat instantly turns and flies at him. “The Brits, the Americans…”
“Americans! Bloody waste of space,” says Mike, sweeping the ginger kitten up on top of the lampshade where he dangles precariously, miaowing. “Never met such a bunch of whingers! Ha!” He turns to me. “We thought you Poms were bad – “
“That American guy at your school is pretty upbeat though, eh?” Serena asks Ben, watching the black cat who has scrambled onto a kitchen chair and is gazing at his swinging ginger prey with naked hunger.
“Him?” says Ben, “That’s because gets his cocaine fix in town every weekend. That’s the only reason he’s here.”
“Can’t say I blame him,” says Mike. “Place is utter chaos. Nothing ever gets done.”
“Oh, and did you know,” says Ben, brandishing the newspaper on the kitchen table. “We’re now living in the murder capital of the entire country?”
“Eduardo kept pretty quiet about that one,” says Serena, rescuing the ginger kitten, who sits on her shoulder like a parrot.
A car goes past on the street outside, blaring a sing-song message on a loop.
“What’s that?” asks Serena, straining to hear.
“They’re announcing another strike,” he says.
Not long after, the sun melts away behind the mountains, and upstairs – I have to stop halfway, my breath like wisps of steam – it’s very cold. The black cat trots ahead making nefarious plans. There’s no hot water, no light, and no heat, and I sit on the hard, monk-like bed in the inky blackness wrapped in gloves, a scarf, and a woolly hat.
“I want to go back to Chile,” I say to the cat, wherever he is. We had a good time in Chile, all sunshine and wine under the jacaranda trees. I open my guidebook and scan the first line again with a tiny torch.
“Hazards of Peru,” says the book briskly, “Ensure you are vaccinated against at least: hepatitis A, hepatitis B, tetanus, typhoid, rabies, and yellow fever. Beware of: altitude sickness (deadly), the sun (noxious), mosquitoes (toxic), wild dogs (rabid), and the botfly (lethal, and usually only spotted too late when its larvae start hatching under the skin). Under no circumstances drink water from the tap. Avoid salads, meat, dairy, and seafood. Never take: unmarked paths (bandits), unsolicited packages (prison), unfamiliar substances (hospital), police advice (corrupt), timetables seriously (strikes), or invitations out (potential assault). Also think twice before stepping outside: Peru’s roads are among the most dangerous in the world.”
I ask the cat what my odds are of surviving Peru, but all I get in response is the quiet shredding of shoelaces. Then I fall asleep, thirsty, dreaming I’m back on the dawn flight from Santiago to Lima, star-peppered and surreal. I left Chile unfinished, left my glass of Carmenera under a palm tree saying, “Back later, amigos!” to my friends. When we landed yesterday in a yellow desert I set my watch to Peru Time: an hour behind on the clocks. I hadn’t realized it was a century behind on the streets.
In the night the dogs go wild and there are sirens. At six, the goats start bleating. At seven, ice falls off a mountain somewhere, and at eight, someone next door starts playing what sounds like the Peruvian national anthem on a saxophone. At nine, Eduardo, the local teacher, knocks on the door with a cup of coca tea. He is taking me to school today.
“Don’t be afraid,” is the first thing he intones as we step out into the cool morning air. It has rained in the night and the streets are tinkling softly with glacial mountain water.
“It’s not like England,” continues Eduardo, almost to himself, “The children will mob you, and rob you, and attack. They are – what is the word…”
Eduardo shakes his head as I follow him down the hill, breathless. We pass a pile of rubble crowned with a dead dog, quite a hefty one, his legs stiff and his eyes crawling with beetles.
“…Feral? Yes,” says Eduardo confidently, “They are feral.”
I look at him wide-eyed. Last night, when Serena found out which school I was going to, she looked at me for a while and then said, “Have you ever done meditation?”
“But don’t be afraid,” repeats Eduardo, upbeat, as a man in black leaning against the Madonna statue, doing nothing, raises a hand, “It’s a – ¡hola vecino! – good Christian school. When things get very bad, Carmen beats the children with a stick.”
We scramble over a kind of no man’s land towards a bomb shelter of a building resplendent with broken windows. There are children everywhere, pouring through dank corridors, skipping over stagnant puddles, flooding the bare shell of a classroom which lacks almost everything, even a light switch. Carmen, forty-odd, formidable, and leaning on a stick, gently fuses together the naked wires hanging from the wall. White light glares down on the rows of inkwell desks, the taped-up board, and the small pile of rubble on the teacher’s chair. The walls are stripped except for a hand-drawn poster that says, “Peru says No to drugs!”, a painting of the Pope, and a large blown-up photograph of an aborted foetus, but there’s no time to look: there are rows of eyes, black and burning, full of questions: “Are you married, miss? How old are you? Where is your enamorado?”
A football flies through one of the broken windows, two of the boys begin fisticuffs and another two begin a covert jousting match with the lengths of cable that are scattered about, inexplicably, on the floor. Carmen hits the offenders once or twice with her stick. The questions continue: “In English!” yells Carmen.
“Do you America? Have childs? Know Rapido Y Furioso?”
A book-throwing competition begins on the left. Two girls in the corner start giving make-up lessons, and the two boys on the front row are cutting up and passing round cream cakes. Carmen, magnificent in orange, yells, “More questions! More questions for La Juana!”
“Miss, miss, miss!” asks one boy, “You like Adele? Amy Wine House?” and suddenly I am singing Rehab to a classroom of silent, staring teenagers deep in the heart of the biggest cocaine-producing country in the world.
Halfway through, la profesora joins in, and so do the class. There’s dancing, drumming on desks, and then Carmen shrugs over the din, “They want to play basketball with you – there’s nothing I can do,” and the children sweep me out through the huge wooden door to freedom.
“What are you going to do now?” I shout back over my shoulder. Carmen replies by dragging out a chair onto the spectators’ balcony. We spill onto the war zone of a playground, bouncing a ball back and forth with screams and shouts, spins and shots, in fast and furious fun. I haven’t played basketball for twenty years. It’s breath-taking, in several ways: behind us, the view drops away, spectacular and shimmering like a stage backdrop. Now I can see long-distance, past the jerry-built houses and jilted bricks to the jagged crags stretching upwards in every direction. And the furthest distance is dominated by the cold, charismatic Huascarán, tallest peak in the Andes, an immense icy triangle piercing the sky.
Carmen is waving from the verandah where she’s been sitting, doing nothing, for the past hour. Her family kiss me warmly, unexpectedly, tearing off pieces of hot bread to share as they walk me home. The air is heady with the smell of unfamiliar flowers. Someone cycles by pulling a cart full of unrecognisable yellow fruit, with a small dog sitting on top, ears flying, enjoying the ride.
“While you’re here, amiga, are you going to – ¡hola vecino!” – at a young boy, walking past holding a trumpet, “ – are you going to visit the hot springs at Monterrey?”
“And and and the lakes at Llanganuco?”
And, from Carmen: “Are you going out to Yungay?”
Yes, we are going out to Yungay, Serena and me and a local tour guide called Hector, in a small bus packed with Quechuan hats and crying babies and no seatbelts. We wind uphill like a drunken moth, hitting heads and jolting knees as the vast valley drops away. The woman squashed in next to me is holding what looks like a sprig of coca leaves, and inhales their scent deeply every few minutes. We drop off passengers as we ascend, stopping to let a herd of alpacas with tiny ringing bells clamber out of our path. We pass a wordless donkey, an oddly-placed boulder, two small children washing dishes in a stream, a brightly-coloured woman carrying sticks. After a while, we pass nobody.
The air feels thinner than ever up here, and it’s oddly calm. Serena and I follow Hector, picking our way through a meadow and over a bridge to a flight of unexpected marble steps, quietly decked with lilies. At the top, we turn and look back at the view. The majestic peak of Huascarán faces us head on, brazen in its beauty.
“It happened here,” says Hector, waving at the wide fields ahead of us, dotted incongruously with palm trees, “In a matter of minutes. Everyone was inside, watching the World Cup. Look at the mountain…“
Serena and I look at the sharp lines of brashly innocent white.
“ …you see a part of the mountain is missing? When the earthquake happened, that’s the part that fell.”
“A piece of the mountain fell and began to roll down toward Yungay. An avalanche, a landslide, rocks and ice and boulders travelling very, very fast. You can imagine it.” The noise. “The whole town – buried alive in a matter of minutes. Nothing left, except the palm trees.”
He points at them sticking up spiky and defiant, X’s marking the spot, reminiscent of other losses, other catastrophes elsewhere, before and to come.
“When was this?” I ask again, weakly.
“Forty-three years ago,” he says, and adds, “Your town too. Huaraz. That fell down in the earthquake. Everything gone. Vanished! There was nothing left. They had to start all over again, off scratch.”
I didn’t know this. Did the others know this?
“How many people…?” asks Serena.
Hector doesn’t look at us.
“Seventy thousand,” he says, still looking at the mountain.
We stay there for a long while, listening to the silence.
On the bus back, Serena looks out of the window, watching the occasional flash of colour as we pass through a mountain village. There’s a twirl of Peruvian blue here, a swirl of scarlet there, among the unfinished, incomplete, makeshift homes, each one ready and waiting to collapse like a house of cards. It makes more sense now.
A little boy climbs aboard clutching a bottle of yellow Inca Kola so lurid it would send EU regulators into a tailspin, and falls asleep against me as we curve round the rough mountain roads. I let him be, his weight keeping me warm. At one point we screech to a halt inches from a grazing goat to avoid an oncoming truck, but he doesn’t stir. And then the bus won’t start up again and the remaining lights flicker out.
Serena and I leave the sleeping boy to stretch our legs in the stillness, and stand around in the chill of the evening, doing nothing, while the hatted driver tinkers with the engine. Hector, who is significantly older than me with twinkling eyes, is asking me what I am doing here in darkest Peru.
“I can take you places, señorita,” he adds mischievously, looking at me sideways, “I can take you to where they were Touching the Void. You know? You know the movie?”
I suspect he has ambitions to touch all sorts of voids, but smile at him anyway.
“I’ll ask my friend Carmen what she thinks,” I say, “When we get back to Huaraz.”
“Don’t you want to go back to Chile?” asks Serena, knowingly.
“Chile?” says Hector, and spits on the stony ground. “Who wants to go back to Chile? When we get back, I’ll get you a proper Peruvian Pisco sour and we’ll go for Pachamanca with roast guinea pig. Then you can think about whether or not you want to go back to Chile.”
“If we get back,” points out Serena, as the last rays of sun slide coquettishly over a nearby nevado.
Then there’s a revving sound, a cheer, and someone strikes up a triumphant chord on a guitar.
“Have faith, amiga!” says Hector, looking at my face as we clamber aboard, “This is Peru, not the middle of nowhere.”
“Sounds like a good plan to me!” I say, winking at Serena, who smiles back. I think I might get to like it here after all.
© Joanna Rubery 2017