Saturday, June 26, 2010

An oasis in the desert

For only the fourth time on our trip, we decided to take a night bus onward from Arequipa.  We were loathe to miss the amazing coastal desert scenery that we had enjoyed so much on the way in, but we were anticipating close to a 15 hour bus ride, and we hate arriving in new cities late at night, when things are more dangerous, more expensive, and hostels have a way of being already full.  So at 6:45pm we were all ready to go, even though the bus didn´t even arrive until a half hour after we were supposed to leave.

One thing I don´t think I´ve mentioned about the busses in Peru.  Just before they leave the station, a guy goes around with a video camera and makes a record of everyone on board.  This is sold as a safety measure, but when you start thinking about the implications it gets a little macabre.  We had, on the way to Colca Canyon, passed the beat up remains of a bus that had gone over the edge of the road, coming to rest on a switchback far below, conveniently in total view of traffic.  As we all craned our necks to see the twisted wreckage, our tour guide had been dismissive.  "Don´t worry, they were very lucky.  Only four people died."

So, all safe now that our faces were identifiable on video, our bus finally set off.  The busses in Peru are also kind enough to show movies, usually in Spanish but if they notice a gringo they will turn on the English subtitles.  The first movie they showed starred John Travolta and Robin Williams taking care of a couple of kids for a week.  Or something like that, it was hard to tell because though she did turn on the subtitles, and they were even in English, they were actually for the directors commentary.  So while we are listening to the spanish trying to figure out what is going on, the subtitles, which were impossible to ignore, are saying things like "Oh, I remember the day we shot this scene, Rita Wilson came up to me and asked if her character could have a lazy eye!".  It was generic enough we could sort of follow it, but eventually we just gave up and I started reading "Captains Courageous", which I picked up in Costa Rica for a moment just as this.  When the next movie started, I guess she felt we weren´t paying attention anyway, so she didn´t even bother to turn on the subtitles.  By now I was tired of reading, so tried in vain to watch a super weird movie where Steve Zahn and his girlfriend go camping on some Hawaiian island with several groups of people who may or may not be nefarious killers.  It was all very ominous, but in spanish kind of ridiculous, and the "twist ending" that I was able to grasp in two seconds not understanding a word played out for another fifteen minutes.  But I will be thankful that we weren´t treated with a repeat viewing of "Mandy and the Secret Tunnel" or "Cheetah Girls II", both of which we´ve seen on other busses.

Amazingly, we both slept, something we´ve been unable to do on other night busses.  Figures that just as we figure out the trick we are ready to head home.  In any case, we were shaken awake at about 6:00 am, a good three or four hours earlier than we had been expecting.  We sleepily grabbed our stuff and stumbled off the bus into the waiting arms of a trio of taximen, all desperate for our fare.  We just followed the first guy we saw, even as the others tried to undercut his price to steal us away, something I haven´t seen anywhere else.  We took us right to the hotel we wanted to stay in, and luckily they had a room open for us, and we fell back into bed for a few more hours.

We had arrived in Huacachina, an oasis surrounded by gigantic sand dunes.  The small lake (large pond?) used to be a resort town for the well to do Peruvians, but these days it serves local Peruvians and backpackers alike.  (It is even featured on the back of the S/50 bill.)  We first, of course, had to hike the big hill beside us, which was already spilling into the back of the property.  I really don´t understand how the town hasn´t just been covered by the sand several times over.  The wind blows, and the nature of sand dunes is to move with the wind.  The town is completely surrounded by the dunes, which on two sides come literally to and even over the edge of fences and roads, then climb steeply to the peak.  There is no way even a team of bulldozers could do anything about moving that much sand even if they wanted to.  But such is the nature of existence in countries like this.  You do what you can until you finally just can´t anymore.  No sense worrying about the inevitable, it will come when it comes.

We climbed up to the first peak, which even back at sea level was exhausting in the slippery sand, one step back for every two steps forward.  But what a view we were rewarded with, an endless sea of sand in one direction, the large city of Ica peeking out over the dunes in the other.  There were dune buggies full of tourists in the distance skidding madly over the sand, and what seemed mostly like local kids trekking up to the top to ride down again on modified snow boards.  We just sat and watched for a while, because children tumbling down steep sandy inclines is surprisingly entertaining.

We had two full days in Huacachina, and mostly we just chilled out.  While we have loved every second of the adventure we´ve been having, there also comes a time when it is nice to just rest!  We did take a tour of a couple of wineries, as this is a large wine center for Peru.  The grapes were not in season, but still it was interesting to see the old time wine presses, and hear about the technology used to make the wine.  I´m just a not-so-closeted nerd, and I´m always fascinated by how things get made.  Our cab driver who took us out kept up a steady stream of random conversation, and though it took great effort I was glad I was able to keep up with him.  We also both got massages.  I´ve been trying to do this since Guatemala, but there was always a reason not to, either it was too expensive or there was something else I wanted to do more.  Or, in the case of Cusco, it seemed like accepting an invitation for a massage might lead you to a whorehouse.  See, my very first massage was by an old, fat woman who might as well been named Olga.  She was no-nonsense and strong and gave me an incredible massage.  So when companies hire anemic looking skinny model waifs to advertise for them, well, lets just say that does not send the kind of message I want to hear.  But I took the plunge here, and my masseur turned out to be a big burly man, a pile of greasy curls tied into a ponytail.  He spoke English though, and though he looked like Rambo it turned out he had been trained at an Elizabeth Arden spa in Virginia.  It was terrific, and even though I tipped him 40%, the hour massage only cost me about $12.  Perfect.

Something to mention, in Central America I think most people assumed we were Americans.  Here though, everyone thinks we are Dutch.  The blonde hair I guess?  When we correct them they are always very surprised, which is confusing because we´ve met far more tourists here from the US than we ever did in Central America.  I assume it has something to do with our backpacks, that we are clearly not just here for a week as are most Americans.  Still it cracks me up.

The other thing is the fútbol, or soccer.  It is all anyone talks about here, and as soon as I do tell people I´m from the US they go into some big monologue about our soccer team.  The only reason I have any awareness of it at all is due to people´s status updates I keep seeing on Facebook talking about the games (and bad referees), but I don´t have any real understanding of how well we are actually doing.  So I just smile and let them go on, not really understanding but they seem to enjoy having a little bonding moment with a real live American.  Amazing how cross-culturally universal sport is.

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