Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Shake, Rattle and Roll

By Alex Mehlin

We went to sleep under pink mountains and awoke to sun-stroked white capped peaks crowning the alleged second deepest canyon in the world, Colca Canyon.

Our goal was to wake up have breakfast and get on the road bound for Arequipa. Like always we had no idea how long it would take to get there but we decided to go the unknown and less traveled route.

Two hours later after leaving the quaint town of Cabanaconac we found ourselves frightenly low on fuel. I parked the bus in the shade of a quite square in an unconcerning town. Alaena and Zach set off to find some info on where exactly we were and how far it would be to Arequipa.

They came back with scary news. We were 4 hours by gravel road away from the Pan-American and once safely on the pavement we still had 2 hours of driving to get to Arequipa. On top of that the only diesel in town was a stagering 15 soles a gallon.

Seven gallons of gas later and a happy send off from the locals we rumbled down the gravel road.

We drove and drove and drove. We passed one other car and saw one person as we drove through red rock country. The kilometer markers on the side of the road were a constant reminder of how far away from civilizaton  we were.

At one point the stone washed marker read 67 kilometers. At this point we were 67km away from any town or person. We had no working jack and tires worn well beyond their retirement age. I was in a state of constant terror.

Contingency plans rickoshaded through my brain. I pictured building a pyramid like structure out of rock and driving the bus´s limp wheel up onto the structure. I then would place a larger support rock under the frame and proceeding to violently knock the pyramid from under the wheel. With a crash I would drive the bus off the rock hoping to not brake anything. Another far fetched idea consisted of a titer totter made of fire wood and rocks.

We breathed in red dust and kicked out a constant stream of exhaust. The bus drove on and on. Our teeth chattered through each section of wash board, up and down we went, banked turns sucked the bus in and spit her out with ferocious velocity as we cruised through no mans land.   

The radio blasted to hide the choir of new mystery noises. When the Gypsies were not making up dances for the impending big night out they were sleeping. We drove and drove.

I have never looked forward to pavement more in my life. As we passed awkwardly irrigated desert farms our salvation laid in a stream of black asphalt just out of eye sight.

The locals were right, once on the Pan-American it was two hours to Arequipa. We arrived to the bustling city of 800,000 on a Friday night. If there is anything I hate it is driving into a foreign city at night. After our last foray into Guayaquil through the dark cover of night I vowed never to drive into a city at night again. Here I was once again braking a vow to myself.

The city lights ominously spread out as far as we could see. We drove into the cayous. Like always we just started to ask the locals for directions. The day was special, the road was kind to us, with the help of a cab driver who parted violent clashes of bus and taxi to immerged from the smog directing us in the right direction. We followed the drections and asked a bus driver to help as we waited for the light to turn green the bus driver asked all his passengers for a playa, he got an answer and let us cut him off to make the irrational turn across three lanes onto our road to safety.

Once parked I stood up stretched looked at our dusty and dirty steed and hugged Alaena. We all were highly relieved that the bus survived such a grueling foray into the wilderness and emerged into the city night seemingly unskaved. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My Forest Green Bench

By Zach W. Watson

The dark Peruvian man just asked me if I wanted my shoes shined as I put my backpack and ass down on this forest green bench in the center of the Plaza de Armas. Every Peruvian city has a Plaza de Armas, but the Cusco plaza is special. It is the only plaza in Peru where I can look over my shoulder and see a young kid with a computer in his lap after the sun has gone down. I guess it’s because when I look over my other shoulder I can see a group of tourist police standing in a circle chatting.

There is a beautifully clean McDonalds here, right next to some dirty old church with big green doors and two symmetrical steeples with big brass bells.

Lots of cars drive around the square; it seems continual, like they are driving around in circles. I know that they turn off of the plaza on some dark side street that leads to some end of town where the prostitutes crawl and the crack dealers peddle. No Gringo dares to go there, unless they’re looking for the wrong kind of kicks, the kind that end in bribing the tourist police at four o’clock in the morning.

Some Australian hippy girl looks at me and said, “Hola.”

Then, a Peruvian guy with a blue sweater just whistled, piercing the drums of my ears, you know, the kind of whistle where you don’t pucker your lips. I guess his friend was on the other side of the park. And now no one is around and I look up and see the changing neon lights of the fountain. Wow. No wonder people come here from around the world.

A tour bus just stopped across the street to drop a group of tired white tourists off. In the distance, from somewhere behind, I hear the Super Mario Bros. song, but it’s not polyphonic. It’s coming from a Peruvian instrument, the kind that looks like an upside down organ, but it’s not an organ because it’s small; it´s wooden; and it’s a flute.

This bench is dark green, and it’s next to some grass. Oh, there is the lady with a rolling garbage can. She’s wearing a blue uniform with yellow writing on the back that says, “Municipilidadldad de Cusco.” Now, my bench is by a garbage can that’s by a post with a standard street light on top.

There’s an older blonde lady with her arms full of shopping bags. Thank God, she has a pair of one hundred and twenty dollar Merrels because I don’t think a no-name brand would be able to support the weight of her bag full of South American handicrafts.

A backpacker wearing shorts walks by. He has a beanie on. He obviously acknowledged the weather by putting on a beanie, come on kid, put some pants on.

The shoe shine guy is back. He points at my Doc Martens.

“Un Sol,” he said

“No, Gracias,”

“Es necesario, ochenta centimos?”

“No tengo nada”

“Okay, my friend”

There are some flowers with long green stems all in a circular bunch. They are purple flowers and they are close to my bench.

This tall guy has a cigarette. I want one, but I have no money. I wasn’t lying to the shoe shine guy. I would have gotten a shoe shine for eighty centimos. It’s only twenty five cents.

The stores are open on the bottom floors of the old colonial buildings that line the square, bright fluorescent inside lights meet the dull yellow light from the streets.

Three older Americans talking about outfits and clothes.

A couple of guys with guitars.

A little girl with light up shoes.

An Argentinean couple on another green bench that’s not mine sits and kisses. I know he’s Argentinean because he has a good beard. They all have good beards.

Blonde French people just walked by, sounded like French, but they could have been Scandinavian.

Remember the street light? It just went out leaving me to write in darkness. I just can´t imagine this little lonely green bench with its twirly, viny arm rests and it´s forest green lacquered finish sitting here in the dark of the square alone when the people speaking funny languages go back to their finely pressed hotel linens and warm heat from vents to dream of airport stresses, and the guy selling watches goes home to a warm soup prepared by his slightly overweight wife, who always wanted to go to Lima to get a job on a cruise ship but couldn´t because the watch guy got her pregnant when she was sixteen, again at eighteen, and again at twenty-one.

Some blonde guy threw a water bottle in a rolling trashcan. He has tight pants that are too short, a Hawaiian shirt, and an average looking middle-aged girlfriend with a sweater tied around her neck. He must have money.

This thirty eight year old man with a hand full of watches, sits down next to me and I have to put my journal down.

I tell him I do not have money.

He simply wants a conversation.

I speak in Spanish.

He asks where I will be for Christmas and I say, “Chile”. Then he asks about my family. I say that right now I am only a traveler and in the future, when I have a family of my own, that I want to live by my parents. I do not know if this is true, but I can say it in Spanish.

He has a brother in Chile. He is from Lima, in Cusco for business. His business is selling fake watches.

Now, two dirty kids are rolling around on the ground as their two sisters laugh. Their mother with a multi- colored blanket tied around her neck, which is full of a baby, reaches down to pick her misbehaving children from the ground.

A beautiful young fair-skinned military woman with a green navy cap walks by; a fat guy with a grey wool sweater follows. I can hear a police whistle in the background, periodically, an annoying traffic tool, unnecessary for its use, only a constant reminder to the people of the power of the whistle, and unfortunately the person´s mouth it resides in.

Trash ladies back. She´s sweeping at my feet.

The light turns on.

A guy asks if I want Cocaine.

“Not tonight. Not tonight.”

Oh no. The street dogs are on the prowl looking for trouble. The spotted white dog pees on the lamp post by my bench.

A Peruvian street vendor walks by with a bag on her back full of useless toys or dolls, probably made in China, that will end up in some grand-daughters toy chest amongst mismatched legos and mutilated Barbie heads.

What happens to this bench, this muse, after I leave? Whose ass cheeks will be squeezed between the green wooden slats tomorrow, what dog will pee on the viny legs, and what pigeon will mark this beautiful forest green bench with a dirty white blob of shit.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Bebe the Dancing Lama

By Alaena

We sat eating French toast and fruit in our campsite by an Incan carved rock in the middle of nowhere, Peru. A middle aged Quechuan lady approached us. She was wearing the traditional, puffy layered, petticoated skirt and all-important hat.  She offered us freshly cooked corn on the cob and cheese which we greedily accepted. She introduced us to her alpacca, Bebe and fed him some corn. "He eats anything" she explained. "He drinks anything too; fizzy drinks, beer, rhum. When he gets drunk he dances".
We laughed and wished that we had met Bebe the night before so that we could have shared our rhum with him.

As I sit in the airport preparing to return to Europe for three weeks away from the Gypsy train, I realise what an odd life we lead. Our day to day life is a string of strange and wonderful events that have become almost normal in our eyes.

I eat my processed ham and cheese sandwich with no crusts, in a cafe in the oddly foreign and sterilised, white airport.  It's surreal to think that just a week ago I sat with Alex eating outside the battery repair shop in Puno, breakfasting on lomo saltado, a combination of chips, meat, fried tomatoes and onions and rice. Passers by stared, wondering what two gringos were doing in this part of town eating on the pavement. These parts of towns, where the maestros dwell, have become a little too familiar. Flat tires, amongst a host of other problems, are an unfortunately regular occurence on Peru's bumpy dirt roads. When they do occur we spring into action. We'll look to borrow a jack -ours is broken- or two of us jump on a mototaxi to the nearest town or village to find the local llantero. If they refuse to come to us, Alex sets to work replacing the flat tire with the bald spare and we take it to the maestro to be patched. The whole process has taken anywhere between six minutes and three hours.

It's time to go through immigration and the guard grumpily stamps my passport. Out of habbit I almost want to assure him that I am not Ecuadorian. Every time the police stop us, I get a small tummy turn of nervousness. Will they want bribes? Are they going to find something wrong with our insurance/ driving/ seatbelts that I will have to argue about? Will we actually have to pay this time? Most of the time as soon as we explain that we are not Ecuadorian we are allowed on our way. To most people it would be pretty obvious that the group of white english-speaking people on our bus are not Ecuadorian, but the number plates cause much confusion for the police.

Once on the plane I can't help but be exited about the meal. Although it's always pretty rubbish there is just something about the little packages hidding a surprise mush that awakens a hungry curiosity in me. Warm saucy 'meat' accompanied by salad, stale bread, cream cheese and flan. We often eat mush on the Gypsy Train but it is of uncomparably higher quality. Zach and Mike return from the market with kilogram upon kilogram of fresh produce, meat or fish, potatoes, rice for a delicious and almost  always new meal every night. The bus sometimes looks like a mini market overflowing with fruit and veg.  When we arrive at camp, everyone helps chop up the ingredients and the chefs then sit over the stove - sometimes for hours - preparing our nightly feast and softly bickering like an old couple. If we are lucky enough to have leftovers, they are devoured in the morning, topped with eggs.

The Ecuadorian business man next to me finds a better seat on the exit row, so on a full plane I have two seats to myself. I curl up into a ball and although the air hostesses kick my feet every time they walk past, I drift off to sleep. Every night on the Gypsy Train everyone at some point sets up their beds. Matthias always sleeps on the bus and others variously join him, sleep outside or set up tents according to the weather and mood. Alex and I set up his suite of a tent every night like a well oiled machine. Poles, rainfly and pegs go in and then I arrange the assortment of sleeping mats, sleeping bags and blankets we have aquired into a warm and comfortable bed. It's definitely luxury camping and I miss this bed now on the cramped airplane seats.

We often ask local farmers if we can stay on their property and people have almost always been extremely welcoming and happy to have us. This is especially so on the remote Quechuan farms where they have shown us great generosity. The Quechuan people are an indiginous population who live accross the Andes. They speak their own language, Quechuan, although in most places they also speak Castellano. The traditional clothing, still popularly worn, is of great importance. The women wear often vibrantly coloured, layered skirts with wrap around patterned belts. For both men and women the tall, wide brimmed hat is vital. When we once stayed on a farm belonging to a welcoming Quechuan family, Marta asked them, as they sat around our campfire, how much they paid for their hats. They said 300 soles, which is approxamately 100 dollars or nearly a third of a cow.

They stayed around the fire laughing at us cooking with peppers we believed not to be spicy and at Kate's attempts to learn how to spin wool. In the morning, the old man managed to explain to Mike that he needed a bottle of some kind. Mike walked with him with a two litre plastic bottle to the field where his wife was milking a cow. She filled up the whole bottle of fresh milk. It was such a treat in a country where it is only possible to buy bags of UHT processed milk. We drank glass after glass and still didn't finish it all.

I wait for the seatbelt sign to go off and make my way over to the bathroom complete with flushing toilet, water and soap. I think of stumbling out of the tent in the middle of the night to pee, looking up at a full sky of stars, the milky way running brightly through it. Or less enjoyably, of asking Alex for an emergency stop in desolate, rocky mountain plains, running round the corner and staring out at the nothingness whilst my insides explode.

We gypsy showers as we go using rivers or lakes or buckets and wells. In the desert in northern Peru we camped by some pyramid ruins and Marta quickly made friends with the people in the village. She came back to camp with clean wet hair and told Kate and I to follow her. A friendly family took us to the small rectangle that served as their back yard and, as a pig and puppy watched on, the two little girls poured freezing water over our heads and laughed as we gasped.

Some of the most rewarding places we have been are the ones we never would have seen without the Gypsy Train. We decided to follow a sign off the main road to Puno and lake Titicaca, pointing to the Peninsula. We drove along a dirt road for a couple of hours passing several villages where locals looked at us somewhat quizically when we asked for directions but sent us on with vague instructions. We continued, a little nervous that the road lead nowhere, until we arrived at a long stretch of white sand beach with a couple of moored fishing boats bobbing up and down. After frolicking on the beach we followed the road up the hill to get some shelter from the cold wind. We reached a small house and I asked to speak to the owner. A kindly old man came out and assured us we could camp anywhere on his land; "A fire? Claro! Do you need wood? Do you need water? Let me know if I can do anything to help". We cooked our dinner of gypsy dahl, set up our tents, and drank our rhum around the fire. The morning greeted us with a spectacular view over the sparkling, clear lake Titicaca.

We have passed through countless amounts of dazzling landscapes, from mountains to beaches and jungles to desserts; sometimes all in the same day. One of the sights I will never forget was as we drove through mountain plains over 4000m in altitude towards Puno. A Quechuan lady walked through the grassy planes hearding a hundred lamas. Behind her, standing out in the arid landscape was a huge turquoise lake filled with thousands of flamingos.

As I prepare to disembark from the plane in a completely different world, I wander what landscapes, adventures and challenges the gypsies will be facing now, as they head towards Chile.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Small Things

By Alex Mehlin

In a giant breath I released a cloud of stress; I stepped out of the bus and into the drizzle, reached towards Apu and looked at my travel companions. They returned stale stares as if they had no idea that their first leg of Machupichu was a 4 hour hike into the lingering green mountains.

In order to reach Santa Teresa we drove an hour and a half down a one lane rock and dirt road, fording streams while narrowing squeezing over tattered wooden planks fitted together to form a bridge. In the United States there would have been a sign warning of the dangers of the road and suggesting, if not requiring, 4-wheel-drive vehicles. At times the road became no more then a strip of crushed rock cut out of the mountain side. A tire width to the left a deadly gorge dropped straight down thousands of feet. If that was not enough, razor rocks terrorized my psyche, threatening to rip our well worn tires apart.

As I stood outside a cool drizzle ran down my neck calming me as I began to reclaim my nerves. I took another look at The Gypsies and wondered if I had become a tour leader again? Nobody was moving, they were uncertain what to do for lunch where the hike began and when to leave. I didn’t have the answers, I like them just arrived in a new town however, I had no intentions of hiking to Machupichu.

When the Gypsy Train was only a brain child we were certain that we were not going to be a tour company. We wanted only to be a moving hostel and offer people a chance to get off the Gringo Trail. For the most part that’s what we do. We wake up with little to no idea where we are going to sleep, we have only a slight idea how long it takes to get any where and we don’t run on a time schedule.

Lately, I have been feeling unwanted stress. A few of our passengers have come with a time line. As the driver it is extremely hard to deal with this. I truly want to get people to set destinations on time, but it gets tricky. Roads are unpredictable, breakdowns are unavoidable, hangovers are incurable and illness is inevitable.

I understand how we began to fringe on being a tour company.

The Gypsy Train is now a well oiled machine. Pulling the parking brake each night triggers a series of events. Matthias takes out our box speakers and places them on the roof, Mike and Zach begin chopping up produce, Alaena butchers the meat, I set up the stove, take the chairs and bags off the roof, then go to gather fire wood while the rest of the crew takes on various assigned tasks. After dinner we relax next to a warm fire sipping tipped rum and listening to cool tunes.

In a sense we are much more like a commune of travelers rather then a tour group. To new members I can see how it feels like they are on a tour. As a result, questions like were we are going, what we are going to do and where we are going to sleep have become more of the norm. As people stay longer they begin to understand the working of the bus.

As Alaena, Matthais and I sat in Santa Terresa waiting for the others to get back from Machupichu we watched tour companies come and go. They were always the same. The guides put up tents then proceeded to start cooking dinner while the passengers sat around drinking beer or wine and discussing the days activities. They seemed happy to be paying the exuberant fees and in return being waited on hand and foot. I watched the tour leaders give their nightly talks, informing everyone what the next day entailed. The passengers listened intently while my brain erupted with laughter.

Watching the tour companies gave me great satisfaction in what the Gypsy Train has become. It opened my eyes to the fact that without the Gypsy Train we all would be just like every other gringo touring South America.

With a cold beer in hand, thirteen thousand gnats getting drunk off my flesh, while answering questions about The Gypsy Train delivered by curious travelers, I realized that a few deadlines and a hand full of stupid questions is a small price to pay for getting to live a life on the endless road to freedom.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Road Warriors...The Saga Continues

By Alex Mehlin

We were driving down the main drag of Juliaca, it looked like every other Peruvian shit hole. Smog filled the bus as we passed decrepid buildings, a square with a large ancient church, a thousand bodegas, a hand full of chifa restaurants and the token pollerias.

We were approaching the end of town when I pulled through a busy intersection, the cabs in front of me zoomed through the intersection and I followed suit. A large dump truck was making some sort of rash moneuver forcing the traffic to get backed up. I waited for the dump truck to move as the sounds of police whistles shrieked over the sounds of a hundred engines.

I thought nothing of it and drove down the 3 lane road to Puno. As I passed through a green light a taxi suddenly emerged in front of me. He began to slow down and put his flashers on. He did so in such a way that there was no way for me to pass him. My first thought was that he ran out of gas.

I realized that this was not the case as a police man exited from the front of the car and approached the bus. He immediately began to yell at me and make crude gestures. I smiled and nodded my head. I had no idea what the fuck he was saying but I knew it was not good.

Alaena quickly jumped up front and began to talk to the irate traffic authority. She apologized profusely for my criminal activity and he just kept on telling her that I broke the law and crossed the intersection without his consent.

Apparently it is illegal to cross a policed intersection if the officers back is turned to you. I had no idea and was only following the flow of traffic. He took out the ever to familiar police hand book and flipped to rule number 432, which explain that if a driver disobeys a signal from a police officer he has committed an infraction against Peruvian law. The police officer kept informing Alaena that he was indeed a police officer as if his ridiculous hat, large pistol and hand book were not evidence enough.

She sat and gave him the typical spiel, ¨please don´t do this to us, we love the police of Peru and want no trouble¨. This was not enough for him, he was out for revenge. He informed Alaena that we were no longer going to Puno and would spend the day at the police station paying the allotted fine.

At one point he entered the bus and told us that the fine would be 432 soles. The equivalent to $140, this was solely the number of the infraction in the book, we looked at him with dumb looks as if we knew zero Spanish, Alaena told him we did not have this sort of money. After more deliberation he finally put his infraction hand book back in his pocket and warned Alaena that this had better be the first and last time we ever disobey a traffic guard.

We were pulled over for the same infraction 2 hours later in Puno. So it goes.