A Traveller in Peru
Jackson, Sara, Contemporary Review
I hadn't even heard of the Sendero Luminoso until our flight to Peru was booked and paid for. From that moment on every acquaintance had a story to regale us with. Each story was a catalogue of atrocities committed by the Senderos on innocent tourists. Each day the stories grew more gory, more fabulous. We received the worst of them the morning before our departure. This one was bad because it came directly from the Foreign Office, straight from the mouth of a friend of a friend.
The Sendero situation was as bad as it had ever been and was worsening daily. It was affecting tourism badly. The train to Macchu Picchu, Peru's best preserved Inca city, had already been blown up three times that year. Don't travel overland. Take flights everywhere. Only last week a young British couple travelling through Peru had walked into a village for the night. The Senderos happened to be in town. The bloke got cudgeled to death. What happened to the girl the chap was too polite to say. At home, on the other end of the telephone, this story merely irritated me. Typical armchair over-reaction. I could guarantee that when we actually arrived there would be nothing to it. I was more likely to get blown up on the London Underground. Secretly, I despised those older, fatter, lesser tourists who hadn't the nerve to go. The Senderos meant no more to me than all the other unknowns I was about to embrace. After all, it was precisely for adventure that I was leaving London.
Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital rebuilt by the Spanish, was sleepier than even I had expected. We arrived on a Sunday morning to a small, empty colonial town. There was no traffic, only wide cobbled streets still lined by perfect Inca masonry. On the benches round the central square sat huddles of brightly dressed Quecha Indians. Women, rich in their woven blankets, flared skirts and pork-pie hats stood around in groups, each with a baby strapped squarely to her back. Inside a church we oggled gold altars and teenage-doll effigies of the Virgin draped in ribbons, satin dresses and flowers both real and fake. To the right of the altar there loomed another statue, its plastic face darker than an Indian's. The figure stood on a pedestal, against a background of coloured paper. It wore rough Indian leggings, its wings were of silver foil, and on its head there shone a Conquistador's helmet. Later that afternoon we saw these two figures paraded round the Plaza de Armas. Their escorts were a convoy of 'priests' and 'priestesses' moving demurely and dressed in white. Around these gliding men and women Indians danced, bright in their traditional dress. Cuzco's inhabitants followed on behind, clapping to the music provided by a motley band of musicians dressed in mackintoshes, anoraks and woolly jumpers.
It wasn't until the following day that we realised we had seen no other Westerners. The fact only struck us when we spotted a couple of backpackers on the opposite side of the square. The four of us stopped in our tracks and stared suspiciously at each other across the throng of locals, too surprised to even smile a salutation. That night we drank Pisco Sours together in a bar full of friendly Peruvian faces. Yet Peru, these two strangers were telling us, was dangerous and getting worse. The Senderos killed tourists to gain publicity for their cause. That was why all Cuzco's hotels were empty.
I wanted to get into the Jungle. I wanted to spend a few days suffering the mosquitoes, the humidity, the bursting life of a primary rainforest. Pongo de Maiqinisa appealed. It is reached from the town of Quillabamba which lies six hours by train from Cuzco. It is three hours further on from Macchu Picchu, along the same line the Senderos like blowing up. From Quillabamba you take a lorry and then a boat out to the Pongo. We decided to go. Quillabamba is wide, dusty, hot and empty, A town full of closed banks and derelict cafes. I found it almost impossible to make even my Spanish understood. …