Danny in the Andes: Another One Rides the Bus

When talking about being on a tour-style vacation, the least glamorous thing you can mention is buses. Being bussed around a country doesn’t sound appealing at all. Slower than flying and none of the space, amenities, or being on a boat of a cruise ship. But here’s the thing…

Peru is a big country. Quite big.

You might not think so, looking at a map, but you should know that your map is almost certainly a dirty, dirty, liar. Why don’t we let the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality explain?

For those who didn’t watch… for nearly six centuries we’ve been using maps that distort the relative size of countries in the north vs. south. In short, if your map claims that Alaska is larger than Mexico, or that Greenland is remotely the same size as Africa, your map is lying to you. Sadly, being on a West Wing episode does not make something common knowledge. We know this because “the bible says being gay is wrong” is still being thrown around as an argument after President Bartlet thoroughly, hilariously destroyed it waaaaaaay back in the fall of 2000.

Okay, really getting sucked into a pit of West Wing clips here. Shake it off, back on topic…

The point is, the areas of interest in Peru are pretty far apart. And when your tour has “on a shoestring” in the name, there’s no quick and easy way from one to the other. In fact, I’m not even certain there are regular commuter flights to Nazca. It is a small town in the middle of a desert that happens to be next to a world heritage site. It does have an airport, but I’m pretty sure you’d need to charter a plane there. At that point, you’re not doing “Peru on a shoestring,” you’re doing “Peru with the sort of opulence that makes people resent you.”

And so you need a bus.

We’ll now break from covering the trip sequentially in order to talk about the buses I was on. Because they get a little samey and we may as well do it all in a row.

The Bus Experience

Aside from the private vans G Adventures provided for shorter jaunts, there were three buses, all from the same company. The honest truth is that comfort-wise, there isn’t a big difference between an economy-class bus and an economy-class flight. Your leg room isn’t ideal, your seat isn’t going to recline much (at least it shouldn’t), the seat is moderately comfortable but gets old after seven hours… the food/beverage service isn’t what you’d get on a plane, sure, especially overnight, but that matters less than you’d think. In the end, you’re on a vehicle for a long time, hoping you’re near a window and that there’s something worth seeing on the other side of it. Because the in-drive movie options are probably going to let you down.

There were two types of movies on my various buses. Either they’d show something I was somewhat interested in, but dubbed into Spanish and subtitled in English (diminishing its appeal), or something in English with Spanish subtitles that I had no interest in. Interest was especially low when we were on a night bus and trying to sleep, but we’ll get to the greatest offender on that. Weirdly, nothing Peruvian. Or even from somewhere outside the States. Only Hollywood.

Bus One: Lima to Nazca, seven hours

After a morning exploring a section of Lima’s coastline (not, ultimately, a section with a beach… I did not do well there), we left for the bus station for our seven hour drive to Nazca. It was at this point I realized the size of the country, because on a map of South America they do not seem that far apart. But I suppose if you look at a map of North America, Calgary and Golden don’t seem that far apart, and yet it’s six hours if you drive like you mean it. And I’d like to think passenger buses drive more conservatively than my friends do when trying to get to the houseboat by noon.

This the only bus we took that left during the day, as well as the only bus we took that had a stop along the way. And as it turned out, that town (whose name I never caught) was where just about everyone on the bus was trying to go. Once we were back on the road, we learned that the six of us were now the only passengers on the entire bus.

“Really?” asked Tayla, after Ellard broke the news. “It’s just the four of us?”

“Um,” I replied, from the row behind. “Five. There’s… I am also here.” It was that kinda day.

The potential perk of this was that since it was now just us, we were told to feel free to move to whatever seats we liked, even the nicer lower-floor seats. However, the ladies had all scored front row seats: it was just them and the windshield, with an unparalleled view of the landscape and bonus legroom. So they weren’t in a hurry to move, and I wasn’t so in need of a slightly comfier seat that I wanted to split off from the group. (Tayla having briefly forgotten I existed might, might have had something to do with that choice.)

Movies? We had two, one from each category. Our “dubbed into English” selection was The Walk, from Robert Zemekis and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I kind of got the impression that I might like this movie… the visuals seemed impressive, and what isn’t Joseph Gordon-Levitt good in, but the dubbing was annoying and the small screen wasn’t doing the story of a wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center justice, so I only caught bits and pieces.

Prior to that was 12 Rounds 3: Lockdown, our Spanish-subtitle option. I paid vague at best attention to this one, which the “WWE Studios” logo indicated was all it would require or deserve. I feel I can be forgiven for thinking I might have to figure out the previous two movies’ history and character relationships, since it had the number three in the title and was about a cop’s first day back to work after an injury (and something about a dead rookie, but maybe that wasn’t backstory? Maybe it was something that happened when I wasn’t looking?). Turns out, no, the “12 Rounds” movies are just a set of unrelated action vehicles for WWE performers. Different leads, different characters, different stories, because John Cena apparently felt doing a second one was beneath him. And the one they chose to show us was the one John Cena’s replacement felt was beneath him. Let that tell you the level of quality we were dealing with here.

So what did you do? I read things and watched Dr. Who on my iPod. Turns out, in airplane mode and when not left in a cold car, the battery on my iPod lasts impressively long. So I burned through some combination of Time and the Rani (the newly regenerated 7th Doctor takes on rogue Time Lady the Rani, aided by a local forced to collaborate who ultimately sacrifices himself), The Green Death (the 3rd Doctor and departing companion Jo Grant face an evil computer and its human collaborator who ultimately sacrifices himself), and Seeds of Death (the 2nd Doctor faces the Ice Warriors and the human collaborator… who… sacrifices… hey…).

Bus Two: Secret of the Ooze Nazca to Arequipa, ten hours

Our first night bus. Leaving around 10 PM from Nazca and driving through the night.

Night buses and red eye flights are, to me, a mixed bag. Since I can rarely, if ever, afford business class or better, I don’t have the best sleep on planes or buses. Hence needing that nap in Lima. It’s also tricky to brush your teeth and there’s no guarantee of a shower on the far side, since you’re often arriving prior to check-in time.

That said… the drive to Nazca took up half of day two of the tour. By the time we reached our hotel, there wasn’t time for anything but having chicken dinners delivered and discussing our game plan for the next day. If it’s going to take ten hours to reach Arequipa, why not put those ten hours in a part of the day you weren’t using?

Our seats were not as good this time, as a second, larger G Adventures group was on the bus with us. We also learned that the seats reclined fairly far back, or maybe one was just broken, because Maria spent the night squashed under the seat of the guy in front of us, who either allowed or didn’t prevent his seat from tilting all the way back.

Reclining seats are a zero-sum game of comfort, people. Tilting back gains comfort for you at the cost of taking it from someone else.

Movies? Just the one before lights out: Life as a House, starring Kevin Kline as a former house model designer who, if I followed what was happening correctly, got a terminal disease and decided to spend his last summer attempting to build his dream house with his antisocial son. If you came out of the Star Wars prequels thinking “That was okay, but is there an even whinier character Hayden Christensen could be playing?” this is the movie for you. It was not, I felt, the movie for me, as within fifteen minutes I decided I hated everyone in it and had no desire to spend the next hour and a half witnessing them learn to live and love or whatever it is they were going to do.

So what did you do? Tried to sleep. It was… somewhat successful? Must have been. At some point, at least. I feel like that was the night I had dreams about an unwanted reunion at the Calgary Comic Expo that messed with my head for the next day. Also the drive didn’t feel ten hours long, so I must have nodded off at least once?

Bus Three: The Busening Arequipa to Cusco, ten hours

Cusco is about as close to Lima as Vancouver is to Calgary, or so I assume from how long it would later take to fly the distance. However, to better see the country, we’d gone the long way, and required a second night bus. This one left earlier in the evening… and there our problems begin.

Like every other problematic sleep night, I took a couple of Gravol to try and knock myself out for the drive. The bus and its employees, however, clearly felt I was missing prime bus-party time, and did everything they could to keep sleep from happening.

I expected a certain amount of announcements from the bus staff. There are always initial announcements. Approximate arrival time, reminders that the toilet can’t handle solids, that sort of thing. But then there were just… numbers. Lots of numbers, each proceeded by something I hadn’t been paying attention to. But it just kept going and going, and then the five of us began to put it together, each on our own… before each number was a letter. They were playing bingo.

Somewhere on this bus people were playing goddamned bingo, and apparently we all had to hear about it.

I would later learn that the reason we hadn’t been informed this was an option was that the prize was a free return ticket, and that wasn’t something we needed or could conceivably use. Which made it all the more annoying that everyone had to hear the game over the loud PA system. Once the game was over… she kept talking. And talking. And talking. Only in Spanish. I was tempted to ask Ellard what the hell she was going on about, since it seemed “We’ll be in Cusco in nine hours” isn’t a statement that would require this level of detail, but somehow he (and only he) was already asleep. Finally she gave the mic a rest, and it seemed sleep might be in sight…

Then the movie started.

Movies? Pitch Perfect 2, dubbed into Spanish. Well, the dialogue was, anyway, and therein lay the rub. The volume of the dubbed dialogue (I had even less interest in hearing someone else talk over Anna Kendrick than I did Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the (frequent) un-dubbed musical numbers was jarringly different. Basically, we’d start to nod off, then a song would kick in and the volume would jump and BAM, Gravol or no Gravol, I was awake again… wondering how much movie there was left.

So what did you do? Tried, in vain, to sleep. This time I had a front seat (although there was way too much condensation on the windows for any sort of view, even if we hadn’t drawn the curtains) so leg room wasn’t a big issue, but I was right in front of Maria and didn’t want to recline too far. Also I was paranoid about “manspreading” into Tayla, so I spent the night trying to huddle into the barely-reclined left side of my seat as much as humanly possible to stay out of her space. Between the less-than-ideal seat, trying to make myself as small as possible, and the stewardess talking through the half hour when my Gravol was trying to kick in, I barely slept at all. Which would have a cost the next night, but that’s another story.

Again… ultimately it was better this way. No matter the discomfort, sleeplessness, or ending up knowing that the 12 Rounds movies exist, at least we didn’t lose two entire days of our tour to driving through the Peruvian countryside.

Next time… less about buses and more about sand dunes, as the gang arrives in Nazca.

Danny in the Andes: Arrival

…Or, the Peruvian Whovian.

Or not that? If you like…

It suddenly occurred to me on a Friday evening in late February that, in less than 48 hours, I would be in South America for the first time. Now, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. I booked the trip last June, after all. So that should have been plenty of time to come to terms with the fact that I would, come the end of February, be in Peru for a tour ending in a four-day hike to Machu Picchu.

Yes, okay, elephant in the room… four days of mountain hiking and three nights of camping normally aren’t things I do for fun, so much as things someone would subject me to as some form of enhanced interrogation. But I did just tell a friend that adventure lies outside your comfort zone, and I try to limit my hypocrisy to things like complaining how overexposed Wolverine is while buying every comic about Batman I can get my hands on.

But that’s later. When my plane landed in Lima, Peru, the four-day hike was still a far-away thing. For now, I was in another country, another continent, another culture for the first time, and once I found the hostel where my tour would begin, there was only one thing to be done…

What's your second guess?
What’s your second guess?

A nap.

Don’t get all judgey, with your judging and whatnot. I arrived in Lima at 8 AM (two hours behind schedule, thanks so, Dallas airport, but whatevs), I didn’t sleep great on the flight to Lima. Either of them. I’ve done two overnight flights to London in recent years, and in both cases, a mid-day nap turned out to be necessary in order to avoid falling asleep in the middle of the city. Sometimes while standing up. So, I decided to head that off at the pass, grab a 90 minute nap, and then head out into the city to see what I could see… and maybe buy some toothpaste and conditioner because I kinda forgot to pack those.

Found the touristy spot.
Found the touristy spot.

The hostel was a short walk from the both the beach and Miraflores, Lima’s (and possibly the country’s) most upscale, touristy area. Seemed a good place to try and find some ceviche for lunch. Through some sort of providence, I not only found it, but found a place that made a trio of ceviches similar to the versions I came to love in Belize and Mexico. Not as easy as you’d think, since in Peru it involves much larger chunks of fish (often tuna) on a bed of onions, rather than the smaller-chunk seafood-salsa version I know and love.

I was less successful in finding the beach.

Yes, that one.
Yes, that one.

Yes, obviously I could see it, and there were people on it, but the coast of Lima (at least next to Miraflores and Barranco, where the hostel was) is waaaaaay downhill from the rest of the city, finding a way down wasn’t super easy, and it was really beginning to sink in that I’d completely forgotten to put on sunscreen before heading out for the day, so “inside” felt like my friend.

And to enjoy the fact that as the only guy in my group, I got a room to myself without having to pay for the upgrade. Score.

7:00… time to meet the group. The five people I’d be spending the next two weeks with: our guide and four younger, fitter, and far prettier ladies of my Peru on a Shoestring adventure.

My new peeps.
My new peeps.

Kate and Amy, both from Ontario… despite living in the same province, they met on the far side of the planet, backpacking through Australia, New Zealand, and southeast Asia, and are now travel pals. Which is the sort of friendship I find fascinating.

Tayla from South Africa. Youngest of the group, taking a year to wander the Earth in between school and starting work in accounting. I’ve liked the idea of a “gap year” ever since I heard of it. Which, sadly, was too late to actually have one myself. Although it wouldn’t have helped that the idea of having a job while going to school seemed, like, way too stressful to my addled teenaged mind. My addled teenaged mind had, as I’ve stated in the past, some powerfully stupid and self-destructive notions. Moving on.

Maria, originally from Russia, currently living in Brooklyn and bartending in New Jersey. At first, the quietest member of the group (a group that includes me, a notorious introvert with habitual difficulty entering conversations), but we would learn that those still waters ran deep.

And last but hardly least, Elard, photographer and our guide from here to the start of the Inca Trail. A guide who handily doesn’t just know the historical facts about churches, but also where to find dinner, crepes, and cheap happy hour drinks.

For night one, we grabbed dinner by the hostel, a “getting to know you” style of thing. We were introduced to one of the national drinks of choice, the pisco sour, made from a type of brandy (pisco) produced in Peru and Chile. I also ordered a dish made from strips of beef heart, because I cling to my belief that if I eat enough odd things while on vacation, I will somehow find redemption for eating McDonald’s in Greece instead of discovering souvlaki and flaming saganaki a decade early.

Damn you, Past Dan! Think how many more of these we could have eaten!
Damn you, Past Dan! Think how many more of these we could have eaten!

It was, overall, a simple day. The Lima airport isn’t in the best neighbourhood, and my drive to the hostel felt reminiscent of every movie set in Brazil’s favelas. Miraflores, however, took the edge off the culture shock. Ocean and heat aside, Miraflores now felt like most major cities I’ve been to. Most of them are alike, in their ways.

That… would not last. I would learn that Lima is in a part of the country still heavily influenced by the former Spanish occupation, whereas the areas we’d be travelling to are still influenced by the Incas, some people even still speaking the local languages from before Spanish occupation. Perhaps that’s why Lima was the one major city we visited whose restaurants tended not to carry guinea pig.

But the smaller-town, less affluent, tiny winding streets of inland Peru would have to wait. Tonight, there was just meeting the crew, a brief and unsuccessful attempt to watch some of the Oscars (the Spanish dubbing really drowned out the English, it was annoying to try and follow), and a spectacularly bad night of sleep in my single hottest hotel room.

Next time… buses.