Joe Viner, adventurer extraordinaire, takes us on a journey off the beaten path to a dark and daring moment in Peru. This is Part 1.
March 10th, Darkest Peru.
The rain beat down on the roof of the bus as it rolled through the night. Withered stumps of rubber trees were peppered against the sky, occasionally thrown into striking relief by Old Testament flashes of forked lightning. The bus rattled. I sat alone – forehead resting against the window, eyes despondently following the rivulets of rainwater down the pane – and reflected on matters of the soul.
With every pothole I was jerked lower in my seat; with every lurch I descended further into the depths my spiritual atrophy.
I had failed in Argentina. I had failed in Bolivia. My quest to connect had been thwarted at every turn. With every step forward in the name of personal betterment and intercultural understanding, there were two steps back. I felt like Lewis, or Clark, cast adrift in the North American wild, trying to fit in with the Great Sioux Nation without Sacagawea’s help, and coming away embittered, disillusioned and without any souvenirs bar a poisoned arrow head lodged in my backside. Wherever I went, my advances fell flat. It was as if my endless sympathy and appreciation for different cultures did not register in the minds of the natives. Even my Aztec bracelet went unnoticed. Or do I mean Incan? Whatever, same difference.
But even in my darkest hour, I never gave up hope. I can’t recall what it was exactly, but something on that bus ride made me twig. Something on that bleak journey gave me an insight, a foot-up onto the shoulders of fate enabling me to look ahead, not only past the jungles of adversary but on, on to the mysterious hinterland of pure, unalloyed understanding. I was never going to have a true cultural experience on the well-trodden tourist trail of central Peru. I needed to find someplace off the grid, someplace unpolluted by sixty-year-old holidaymakers and top-knotted hipsters, someplace new. Did such a place exist? I sat upright in my seat and began pouring over my travel guide, desperate for some hidden gem. Then I saw it. It barely had its own entry. It was just a tiny footnote at the bottom of the page, information on a town 150 miles north of Trujillo, a town called Huancabamba. Even now I find it hard to speak the name.
When I arrived at the bus station in Trujillo, I enquired in the nearest tourist office about Huancabamba. A wizened old woman pursed her lips. ‘The Town that Moves’ she told me, ‘is hard to get to, and once there, only the shamans in the mountains will show you any hospitality’.
‘The Town that Moves’, I thought, to myself. What a curious title. Perhaps landslides plague the streets, or maybe Incan lore holds that the town is sinking into the ground to be reclaimed by Pachamama? (In fact, the nickname derives from some legislative complications involving local planning permission) But whatever the case, the place intrigued me. Here I would find meaning, here I would find acceptance.