Juliaca

Leaving Arequipa proved more difficult than we had initially anticipated, not due to any lingering _MG_7307emotional attachment, but because, as we were at the hostel’s reception area booking a taxi to the bus station for the following morning, two Canadians informed us that Cruz del Sur might cancel its scheduled bus to Puno the following day. Apparently, miners in Juliaca were planning a strike to protest their wages, and the best method of protesting their wages was to shut down the roads, preventing vehicles from entering Juliaca.

On the surface, this might not sound like a major problem. We had no desire to see Juliaca, and Lonely Planet advises against visiting Juliaca due to the prevalence of violent crime. However, the road through Juliaca is the only way to get to Puno from Arequipa. And Puno is the only way to get to Lake Titicaca, which I very much wanted to see. And worse still, we had to be in Cuzco by a very specific date in order to make our trek to Machu Picchu. And if we couldn’t travel to Puno, we would have to retrace our steps from Arequipa to Nazca and from Nazca to Cuzco, in all something godawful like 24 hours on the bus, with nothing new to see. We could fly from Arequipa to Cuzco but it would likely cost a couple hundred dollars, and we couldn’t justify that kind of expense.

The Canadians faced the same dilemma and during our collective brainstorm in the hostel lobby they proposed that the bus might be willing to get as close as possible to Juliaca and then let us off to walk the rest of the way. We could walk through Juliaca and try to find transport to Puno on the other side. Four people are stronger than two, they figured. Of course, none of us knew whether the angry miners would be targeting tourists and Juliaca had an unsavory reputation even without the presence of outraged workers with pickaxes. The receptionist was completely indifferent to the possibility of a strike and when I asked whether this was a common occurrence he shrugged and nodded yes. The miners were to announce whether they intended to strike at midnight and the four of us went to bed with our fingers crossed that we’d wake to discover clear roads and a normal bus route.

I was up at 6 the following morning, and asked the receptionist on duty to call the bus station to determine whether they were running as scheduled. He confirmed that they were–information that made both the Canadians and Colin breathe a huge sigh of relief.

We boarded the bus and made our way to Puno, believing we had just narrowly escaped our Juliaca woes. But toward the end of the trip, the bus began to slow, bouncing from side to side on rough and non-existent roads, and inching through narrow street markets at a pace that made the people we saw walking on either side of the bus look like Jamaican sprinters. When I realized that we were passing through Juliaca, the rabble-rousing town, I couldn’t resist looking outside the window. We had been advised to keep the curtain closed for our own safety, but hadn’t really understood what that meant. Until Juliaca. Colin said you can tell how poor a city is by how many people are just sitting or standing outside on the curb or street, and by these standards–by any standards–Juliaca was poor. And windy. And isolated. And you could see something in the expressions of its residents that I hadn’t seen anywhere else, not even Belen, which looked even poorer. It wasn’t quite hate. But it was  kind of discontentment that had been simmering for far too long and was now ready to boil over into violence.

I’m not the only one who saw it. I was watching the other tourists, and their faces displayed the same panic and fear. We were crawling through a town not built to accommodate a single vehicle, much less a tour bus, while people who had wanted to close down the roads to protest their poverty stared at us. Colin described the tourists as meerkats, their bodies suddenly rigid, their eyes very focused and alert. We all felt it. And I felt badly for it. I didn’t want to be the American who visits Peru only to find herself afraid of its people. But at the same time, every instinct I possessed was telling me that I was in danger and there wasn’t really anything I could do about it.

I went into Home Alone mode. We were on the second level of the bus, accessible only by the set of stairs linking us to the tourists on the first level. If shit went down, we just had to block off those stairs, which could be accomplished by one person kicking wildly at any assailant who attempted to climb them. Unbeknownst to me, Colin was having the same thoughts. He later summed up his thought process, rather smugly, as: “There’s a buttload of Europeans downstairs. When we hear them screaming, we all just push people down the stairs.”

Fortunately, we were never given cause to put this plan into action. I did, however, witness a Juliacan man who found another way of expressing his disdain. He stood on the curb facing the bus, with his shirt lifted high above his chest and his pants down around his ankles. I saw far more of Juliaca than I ever wanted to. Colin missed this sight, somehow, and I began to think I had imagined it until we ran into the Canadians in Puno and they started laughing and asked if we’d seen the guy flashing the bus. Thank the llama gods I’m not crazy. The people in Juliaca might be, but I am not.

I still feel guilty for being afraid, for planning to kick Peruvians down the stairs of a tour bus. But I felt slightly less guilty a couple days later when Colin and I were doing a homestay on the island of Amantani. I started to explain to our host family, in a mixture of Spanish and English, that I had been afraid in Juliaca, that I wished I had left the curtains closed. The gist of what they told me was: You should be scared in Juliaca. You should keep the curtains drawn. It’s a scary, dangerous place. I felt better, both that my instincts were justified and that someone from Peru felt the same way I did.

We had to pass through Juliaca one more time on the bus ride from Puno to Cuzco, this time in the middle of the night. We discovered that the bus staff had already drawn the curtains and closed them securely so we couldn’t look out and no one could look in. I was nervous, nonetheless. There was still talk of a miner’s protest and if Juliaca had been scary in broad daylight, I wasn’t sure what to expect by night. When the bus began to slow and sway, we knew we were in Juliaca. We couldn’t see because of the curtains, but we knew. And Colin and I were tense until the bus returned to its normal speed.

We arrived in Cuzco at 4 a.m. without incident. The entire trip had felt like a countdown to Cuzco, to Machu Picchu, which is why Colin titled his video of our adventures “14 Days to Cuzco.”

Next up: the lake whose name makes teenage boys (and my boyfriend) snicker.

(PHOTO OF PUNO, THE TOWN WE WERE ALMOST THWARTED FROM VISITING, BY COLIN RIGLEY)

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