I must apologise, dear readers, for leaving you stranded in Arequipa. I finally feel able to put fingers to keyboard to relate what happened next. By Friday morning it was clear that my body could not cope at 2000 metres above sea level. All the remainder of our trip was to be at this level or considerably higher, so the common sense thing to do was to go home. We bade a fond farewell to our fellow travellers and got a taxi to Arequipa airport. It was all a bit manyana but eventually we took off, heading back to Lima. I start to feel a bit better, which was a relief. This was the easy part. We reclaimed our baggage and my case appeared wrapped in a polythene bag. The zip had come apart a little but it seems nothing was lost. We spent half an hour queuing and another half an hour at Lima airport’s Latam desk, trying to rearrange our flights home. There were no spaces before Monday. We needed to find somewhere to stay until then. Our guide had given us the name of a suitable hotel in case of this eventuality but neither of us could remember it. My internet security refused to let me access the airport wifi so I could look for something. A random taxi driver offered to take us to a hotel. It transpired he was one of the unofficial drivers we had been warned about, although not as unofficial as one we encountered later. He did at least have an ID badge and a certificate of something or other in his car. His choice of hotel would not have been ours but we were exhausted by this time and couldn’t think how else to find a hotel with vacancies. He also charged us significantly over the odds for the journey.
The one advantage of the hotel was that was cheap; our stock of sols was running low. We did have a travel card with US $ on but access to funds relied on us finding a reliable ATM, unlikely in this decidedly dodgy part of the city. Yuri’s comment that 9% of Lima’s population are criminals was ringing in our ears. Have we been sold into white slavery? Are we staying in a crack den? We have three days to spend skulking here. There is an on site ‘restaurant’. We do eat there on the first evening. Once was probably enough. No one spoke English and the menu seemed to be chicken, chicken or chicken. We had chicken. We feel it was probably purchased from a market similar to the one in Nazca. The hotel seems to be used by Peruvians on their way to and from the airport. They arrive and depart at all hours of the day and night, loudly. Some are unpleasantly unwell during their stay; those are the ones in the neighbouring room. Soundproofing is not a strong point.
We are by a main road and the hooting from the cars is constant. It is 32 degrees outside. We could at least open the window and the air conditioning was noisy but efficient. The hot water was slightly more reliable than in some of the more up-market hotels we had stayed in. We knew we needed water and food. We weighed up the twin hazards of braving the back streets and abandoning our belongings in our room. We hastily sneaked round the block and found a small food store. We were looking for things that were recognisable and not likely to give us food poisoning. We purchased a stash of water, Ritz crackers, cereal bars and wrapped cake. There was no fruit in sight. We lived on these for three days of our incarceration. Sufficient to say I probably don’t want any more Ritz crackers any time soon. Night three in this ‘delightful’ hotel and there was a distinct smell of burning. We were on the fifth floor. The chances of there being any kind of fire escape were somewhat less than nil. The hotel did not seem to be on fire.
I played endless games of patience, did a bit of proof reading and sorted out my holiday photos. There was intermittent internet access but the single plug socket was too far from the bed, which was the only place to sit. The plug socket also sparked alarmingly when it was used. There was a seriously unpleasant smell at night. Our room was not cleaned during our stay, remember what we are doing with our toilet paper in a windowless, fanless ensuite. To be fair, the smell probably wasn’t coming from our room. I am glad that the miasmic theory of disease has been discredited. We dream of Hotel Antigua Miraflores and realise how dependant we have been on our wonderful tour guide Yuri for keeping us safe.
I tried to check in for our rearranged flights online. It seemed that there was a problem. We have been recorded as US citizens. This despite my handing over our clearly UK passports. We hoped that this wouldn’t lead to yet more days stranded in Lima. Finally, Monday arrived. I must say that, for all its faults, this establishment did seem to have a more reliable hot water system than some we have stayed in and the towels were slightly larger. ‘Larger’ is a relative term. All the towels we have been provided with in the hotels here barely reach round me and I am hardly huge. In our haste to escape I forgot to apply deodorant. Not the best idea when I had 48 hours in these clothes and the first twelve were in a hot country. We mimed ‘taxi to airport’ at the front desk. This resulted in some passing chap off the street loading our cases in his car. Fortunately the zip on my case seemed to be fixed. We arrived at the airport in one piece and began the ten hour wait for our flight. We decided the airport was preferable to yet more time in the dodgy hotel and we also had the check in problem to sort out. Thankfully the mistaken nationality was not an insuperable problem and we watched the world go by, playing yet more games of patience. Our day was enlivened by the appearance of the bomb squad and explosives dogs. We were herded to one side of the airport and a fuse was laid in case the suspect package needed to be blown up. The dog gave it the all clear and we managed to retain our hard one seats, which are in short supply.
7pm and with great relief, we watched the lights of Lima recede into the distance. One skill I have acquired on this trip is the ability to get at least a little sleep on a long haul flight. This time our enforced sleep began at 10pm Lima time. Seven hours later we were allowed to wake up. A lady a couple of rows in front of us had problems with her Latam breakfast. She hadn’t worked out that she had been given a packet containing what passes for cutlery. She was using her fingers. That worked well for her toasted sandwich thingy but yoghurt – more tricky. Ah, she solved it by using the little stirry stick thing that she had been given for her coffee. Numerous games of Bejewelled later and we were at Madrid airport. The pilot said it was 45 degrees outside but it certainly wasn’t.
Then the joys of automated passport control. I have to take my glasses off to be recognised by the machine. This means that I then can’t read the instructions but we passed through unscathed. It was then time to get on the coach from Heathrow. I had rebooked this using the erratic hotel internet. I had no way of printing the ticket so I precariously waved my laptop under the nose of the driver. He peered at the teeny tiny print and informed me that in my stress I have booked us on a coach that goes …… tomorrow. I looked pathetic, I begged. He has room, he took pity on us, we were on our way. 1am and we were at home at last, five days after we left Arequipa. I slept until 9.45am! 9.45am! This is unheard of, I also slept through the night without waking, something I have only ever done a handful of times in my life. I did still have falling bejewelled jewels before my eyes but it was good to be home.
Intellectually and as a spurious geography teacher, I knew what I thought Peru would be like but you really do need to see it to comprehend just how different it is. Our tour was designed to give us an impression of the real Peru and was endorsed by National Geographic, as it supported local communities and industries and it was interesting and informative. Now I am home I am truly thankful for many things: a clean water supply, living somewhere where air con is not necessary, being able to understand what I am hearing/reading, rain, being able to cross the road in relative safety, the fact that I no longer need to continually apply hand sanitizer, silence! Do I wish I’d stayed at home? No. Would I go somewhere ‘adventurous’ again? Probably also no but it has been an experience. Next stop New Zealand!