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.