Sometimes travel is all about the journey; a solo traveller proves a hit on the Peru-Colombia bus route
When you go travelling, you learn very quickly that people have very honest faces. As we all sat on the rooftop of our hostel in Lima, onto the eighth bottle of the accommodation’s low-rent lager, I was asked about where my next stop would be. After saying goodbye to my friend the day before as she flew back to the UK, the prospect of movement was daunting, but I knew I was becoming as much of a feature of the hostel as 56-year-old Ricardo.
The eccentric Brazilian spent his nights wandering into the corners of our room shirtless, declaring in Portuspanglish that he had 16 children by 16 different women, so he understood if we were so seized by the fervour of passion that we might need to have sex while in his presence. Offering to make a questionable sheet canopy out of one of his shirts and a spare bedroom sheet, Ricardo’s efforts, alongside his egg-shaped head and fervent bronchitis attacks, made him the ultimate antichrist of carnal relations.
“I’m getting a coach,” I said. “To Cali.”
I don’t think I was scared until I saw everyone’s faces. The trip, a 50-hour, three-day special, would see me leave the capital city of Peru on a bus that would ferry up to the northern boundaries of the country, then through Ecuador, to finally get to the North West of Colombia paradiso. True to South American transport, and my questionable limitations in Spanish in spite of studying the bastard thing for seven years, I didn’t even know if there would be stops.
I’d survived coach journeys in which Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing video was declared viable 7am listening as children sashayed up and down the aisle, vestibules in Bolivia where travellers were banned from the bus if they dared take a poo in the onboard facilities, as well as one coach to the Atacama that played the same seven-minute salsa track on a loop for five and a half hours. On top of it all, I would be doing the entire thing on my own, with not even the sardonic ping of an iPhone bleating in the heat of WiFi for company.
Ignoring everyone’s pleas to consider the luxury of a plane, a car share, or even a cargo boat in which I would share some time with South America’s most hostile crustaceans, I took myself an hour outside of the city to get to the coach terminal, where my last Soles were declared fake by the only stall selling bottled water.
Struggling to place a flailing expat voice in the crowd of humans waiting to board the coach, I flung myself onto the vehicle to try and find a viable resting space. Unlike the cruelties of coaches that the UK is encumbered with (urine flying down the gangway of London Victoria – Leeds, anyone?), South America really means relative luxury when you pay for it. Nestling into a 180-degree reclining chair and twiddling with the excessively bright lights of inbuilt TV screen, I smirked as I stretched my legs over the seat next to me. There’s something inherently British about privacy – even though we are in the naked midst of company, normally dribbling down our jumper when we get the chance – we make private palaces, ridden with bad sweets, playlists, Harry Potter...
It was about this point in my existentialism that I realised the two heads in front of me had turned around, and were starting to tap my shoulder.
“Hi,” said the elder of the two girls, both so young that they would have worn jelly shoes without complaint.
“Hi,” I said, hoping that my Spanish wouldn’t be outwitted by a seven-year-old’s.
“Why do you speak funny?” said the other.
Reliving 13 years of remarks about my strong, nasal northern accent, I muttered: “Because I have a cold.”
They looked at each other and giggled. Moron.
“Oh no, sorry,” I said. “It’s because I’m English.”
As the coach driver prayed to God in thirteen different formats to protect us on our three-day bonanza, my eyes were torn from the Virgin Mary regalia that littered the bus by the other girl tapping me on the shoulder. Simply replying to a child marks you as their prime source of entertainment, and considering I’d already tried and failed to answer a simple question I knew that my Harry Potter Kindle collection was already going to join Sirius Black somewhere in the sky.
The barrage included, but is not limited to:
“Why is your skin really white?”
“Why can’t you understand me?”
“Can I play with your headphones?”
“You have grey circles under your eyes”
“Why are your teeth yellow?”
It was at that last remark that I decided to say goodbye to eight hours of clown Jasmine. Jamming a sleeping mask over my eyes and curling up into the foetal position, no more than two hours had passed before another passenger was jabbing me in the arm.
“Why, please why,” I groaned.
“It’s breakfast time!” said the 7.30am voice, with a beer in hand. “IT’S BREAKFAST TIME!”
Used to the fact that every human in South America seemed to have little or no concept of morning ineptitude, I found myself shunted off the bus, challenged with the issue of spending about three pound’s worth of money in a restaurant where the average dish was 30. The soggy bread of that restaurant still clings to my heart in the way that bacon only dreams of.
It was during this stop, this stop that I knew nothing about, that my anonymity started to slip away. As an incredibly pale, blue-eyed, blonde-haired woman, I was already marked as the person who would burn in the evening sun, wear really heinous travelling pants, and would be the ideal person to rip off with a bad exchange rate when we crossed the border. I think these thoughts must have entered the minds of the Colombian lads as they ambushed me when I lay comatose under a palm tree.
Throwing rapid-fire questions my way, these 15 guys had just been on a trip to Peru for a decent party and were getting back to their home town of Cali the cheapest way possible. Realising that all I could understand was the fact that they said my next stop was incredibly dangerous, they tried to soothe me with selfies. Yes, selfies. About 162 of them.
Mohawks, baseball tops and tribal tattooed men in their twenties rotated around me, who would have been little out of place in Wetherspoons for pre-drinks. Rolled out of position, I sat and gurned on a brick wall as each of the lads got a picture with me, rolling me back onto the bus with a can of lager as compensation.
With a can in my hand, I had marked myself out as sociable. Various members of the bus started taking turns to move to the back to speak to me. Like an electrocuted cat hauled into a cage at the vet’s, I smiled and gesticulated as these guys fed me, waxed lyrical about their hazy tropical paradises and the salsa that had taken over their city.
Taking about seven minutes to conjugate each verb, I relaxed into drink as I told them about taking this trip on my own, not understanding when we would stop, if ever again, and that my teeth were not yellow, especially as I insisted on brushing them 12 times a day. While I did this, people would touch my skin, play with my hair, and ply me with more snacks and alcohol. Somehow, my weak, lone travelling self had become the vehicle’s prime entertainment, and I only hated about 28% of the performance.
When the Colombian lads eventually bungled me into a taxi to the chorus of ‘oi, oi, oi!’ I realised that I had survived the trip without even a minor lapse of anxiety. I might have even acted as a real-life, functioning adult.
It was only when I looked up to the meter that I realised that 50 hours, three countries and two sleepless nights later, I still didn’t have a single sodding peso in my purse.