Having finished investigating the Inca in the southern climes of Peru, I am ready to continue my journey to explore the Andean cultures from other parts of the country. These earlier cultures would be the inspiration for the Inca to extend their empire. The first stop is the Wari who built their epicentre high in the Andes Mountains near the humble town of modern day Ayacucho. But getting there from Cusco was the worst bus ride ever!
Cusco to Ayacucho is not high on the list of most visitors to Peru, and thus not covered by the bus companies that cater for tourists. The only bus company that takes the route is Expreso Los Chankas and I wasn´t sure what to expect.
To my relief, the double-decker coach from Cusco terminal is fitted with soft seats, a reasonable amount of leg room and an on-board toilet. For a 27-hour journey it had all the essentials. There is no TV but given the poor standard of films they show on these buses that is no great loss.
We stop for lunch in a Peruvian road side diner, a strange little place that to me is a cross between a British cafe and an office canteen from the 1970´s. The tables are wooden with metal legs, the pale decor needs another lick of paint and a waitress collects food orders from a serving hatch connected to the kitchen.
I am not sure what to do so hold back and watch what the others do. Several well-dressed locals riding on the same bus as me queue at a cash register and pay for their meal. I join the queue and look round what people are eating. A woman on the table next to me has a bowl of what appears to be chicken soup with potatoes, onions and herbs. That´s what I´ll have!
I point to the woman’s dish and I say, “Pollo.” Then I pay four soles to the woman behind the cash register. The waitress gestures for me to sit down and went scurrying off to shout my order through the serving hatch. Several moments later my food arrived. It was beef – or maybe llama. I am not sure which because the taste is mostly gristle. What I do know, it isn’t chicken! Admittedly, my Spanish is not great, but I know the word for chicken is pollo and the word for meat is carne – not two words I am going to confuse anybody with. Fair enough I don’t know what the word for llama fat is, but I doubt it sounds like pollo. This is definitely not what I ordered! But I don’t know how to complain so eat it anyway.
We are only back on the bus a couple of hours when it stops at a service station where locals pile off and buy biscuits, bread and water. I decide I should do the same and buy a sandwich, a bag of crisps and a packet of biscuits. I have water with me, but grab another little bottle anyway.
I return to the bus and settle into my seat. Nobody else in on-board. The driver is nowhere to be seen. Nor his is assistant. I get off the bus. People are mostly loitering around chatting. Others have taken a long stroll up the road and do not at this point look to be returning. I see the driver emerge from the toilet and light a cigarette. I guess we won´t be moving for a while!
I find this situation somewhat strange. We had stopped for a forty minute lunch break just two hours or so ago and I could not understand why we have made another lengthy stop. It must be to give our legs one last stretch before we head into the mountains. I assume it will be a while before we stop again to eat. And I was partly right – it was to give our legs one last stretch!
Another bus pulls up and I see the driver´s assistant off-loading my bag. “Ayacucho,” he says to me.
He babbles something in quick-fire Spanish and points towards another ride. Looks like I am changing buses. I dash back on to the bus to collect my belongings and scuttle over to where the other bus is waiting. I am joined by several groups of local mountain people dressed in the indigenous textiles with patterns that date back thousands of years. Given the smell, I wondered whether the textile dated back thousands of years as well! They load great big shopping bags into the under carriage of the bus and strap woven bamboo chairs to the roof. It takes a while to load everybody up!
Given we are only eight hours into a gruelling 27-hour bus journey I am little concerned there is no toilet on-board this new bus. In fact, in comparison to the bus I boarded in Cusco, the facilities are were very scarce. I hope it has got brakes! There is barely any cushioning stuffed into the seat´s fabric. They are just covers for the plastic chairs. The time was just gone three in the afternoon. We were due to arrive in Ayacucho at around nine O´clock the next morning. I wasn´t sure how I was going to cope with this trip! To make things worse, there was an old mountain couple in front of me that smelled of fire smoke and body odour. I would later find out the bus I had just got off was a tourist wagon on the way to the popular stop-off of Andahuaylas.
The windy mountain road to Ayacucho is stunningly scenic albeit somewhat treacherous in places. The road is not big enough for two vehicles to pass each other so somebody has to tuck in to allow the other to pass. At times we come so close to the edge I find myself staring down the mountain edge.
We climb so high we go above the wispy clouds and in amongst the thin lair of snow that shrouded the rugged terrain. As the bus twisted round the mountain we occasionally get a glimpse of the sun setting between two distant peaks and spreading a golden carpet between the mountain valleys.
Just before nightfall we stop for our first toilet break. After four hours since boarding there are a lot of people bursting a gasket and we waddle off the coach like a gaggle of ducks. For the men, it is easier to relieve ourselves – pretty much anywhere really – but for the women it is more difficult to find privacy, especially the younger generation dressed in jeans. They only have one solitary rock to hide behind and had to form a queue for the toilet even in the middle of nowhere! The less timid ladies scurry across the other side of the road away from the men. The women who maintained ancient traditions squatted near the bus and hid under their bulky dresses.
There are not many people on the bus and there are plenty of free seats so I take the opportunity to escape my designated seat behind the smoky folk and move to the back seat where I envisaged I could have more space and comfort and perhaps get a bit of sleep.
It turned out to be a bad move!
The plastic seats dig into my legs, hips, and ribs when I lay down. Slipping my fleece under my hip is a little more comfortable until it gets too cold not to wear it.
The landscape at this height is barren, but we occasionally pass a small wooden hut or adobe-brick farmhouse with chickens and goats wandering lazily around the front yard. This is where mountain people live, simple folk with simple means. It seems like a difficult choice of lifestyle, but by and large they seem happy enough.
The bus stops and picks up an elderly woman and two teenage siblings up from the side of the road. They make their way right to the back of the bus and sit in the seat right in front of me. They smell of fire smoke – and it´s pretty fresh! It is even stronger than the old smoky folk I was sat behind earlier.
Little did I know it would get worse!
But not before I pissed down my leg. It had been a while since we last stopped for the toilet and due to the altitude constantly drying out my mouth I had consumed quite a lot of water. When we pull up to let a couple of locals off the bus I ceased the opportunity to go to the toilet whilst they unloaded their things.
“If you´re quick,” the driver tells me.
I run into a restaurant type shop and ask where the toilet is: “Donde es el Baño?” I pronounce the word Baño how I had been taught it in Cusco – baynio.
I repeat myself.
I haven’t time for this and rush outside. There is a leafy bush growing up the wall so I shuffle in a little and urinate up the wall. The woman came out to the doorway, and in a moment of revelation says: “ohhh, baño!” Her pronunciation – banyo – was very slightly different.
“Bainyo – banyo,” I thought. “Can´t you work that out!”
Behind me the bus driver is revving the engine and starts to pull away. In something of a panic I rush to finish my business and tuck myself back in – but in my haste have not drained properly and a little trickle dribbles down my leg. I run for the bus and leap on. This is not a service where you have the luxury of leisure!
And it got worse. Around mid-morning, as the bus jostles through the pitch darkness, I see a shadow moving in front of me. The teenage girl in front climbs over her mother muttering something and stands in the aisle of the bus. It is too dark to see anything other than the outline of a figure. I hear the rustle of a carrier bag. Then a dreadful smell wafts into my face. She’d only gone and shat in the bag!
First my eyes start stinging, then I gag and have an overwhelming urge to vomit. I throw the window open and stick my head out to gasp for air. There is snow on the peaks and it is freezing cold, but I give it time for the smell to die down. Just not enough! When I pull my head back in the stench is still clinging to the air like industrial strength smog. Ten minutes I hang my head out the window – it´s minus bloody zero degrees outside. My face is frozen!
It is difficult to say whether I actually get any sleep, but at the very least I dose. Peering through the curtain later that morning I see the sun creeping above the mountain peaks. We pass steep cliffs towering over the roadside as we wind down the side of the mountain towards Ayacucho. By the time we arrive the sun is in full show, surprisingly hot considering it´s still only 9.30am.
Tired and sweaty, I yearn for a shower and sleep.