7 June 2014

Africa to Brazil Week 27 - Through the Inca Land


11pm, it is freezing cold and I am sitting in an internet cafe on the Plaza Central, battling with agonising internet speed. We are in Puquio, a tiny village which sits high up at 3,400 metres in a remote part of the Andes in Southern Peru.

We had planned to drive to the next town today but decided to stop here as darkness set in. As it turns out, today is the climax of the annual village fiesta -- the square outside is full of people dancing and cheering to a band playing local Andean tunes at ear-splitting volume.

After finally managing to send my email, I join the jubilant crowd. As I pass a group of men they spontaneously invite me to have a drink with them -- a bottle of Pisco, the Peruvian national drink, is circling between them.

I take a sip and I am surprised that the liquid is hot -- it tastes more like spiced tea than alcohol. Frozen as I am after two hours in the refrigerated internet café, I am thankful for the warm liquid and don't decline when the bottle reaches me on its next round.

A couple of bottles later I don't feel the cold anymore, but too late it dawns on me that this is not spiced tea! I better keep quiet about the end of this story.

The next morning, we have very late and relaxed breakfast in a street café. Afterwards, we continue our journey, a spectacular drive across several mountain ranges of up to 4,600 metres, dotted with stunning high altitude lakes.

Some 24 flags of the countries we have passed through on our journey are flying from the roof rack -- Pele has turned into a multi-country flag pole!

In his colourful garb of a myriad hues billowing in the wind, Pele is a sure shot attention grabber and receives curious stares from people we pass. The stares shift slowly from Pele to the equally colourful occupants hailing from all corners of the globe.

Again and again, we explain where we come from -- Africa, Europe, Asia, South America -- and where we are going. As we are viewed with disbelief, we realise once more how fortunate we are to be able to experience this journey.

Encounters with the police are also plentiful, ranging from pure curiosity and friendly chats about Pele and our journey to more challenging ones, where policemen are trying to find a reason to threaten us with a fine in search of a bribe.

As our papers are in perfect order, no reason seems to be too absurd -- the most hilarious example is a policeman who admonishes us for having tinted windows.

Luckily, year-long experience with Kenyan police has taught me how to sweet-talk us out of this and at the end we are waved on. Thereafter, we quickly roll down the windows whenever we see a police man in the distance.

One of the simpler yet charming highlights of our journey are the small towns where we break our journey, far away from any tourist attraction. At first sight, these are often rather nondescript but they offer us a glimpse into everyday life untouched by tourism.

Particularly delightful is our evening in the small town of Talara where locals of all ages mix on the lively Plaza -- observed by their parents, young kids chase each other around the square, teenagers display their skateboarding skills, young women stroll over the Plaza accompanied by their mothers -- possibly in search for a prospective husband -- and elderly people sit in groups and chat while drinking tea.

After several days of driving through remote mountains, we reach Cusco, the heart of the once mighty Inca Empire. We are immediately enchanted by the city's cobbled streets and its colonial and religious splendor built on the meticulously puzzled stone foundations of the Incas.

From here, we explore Machu Picchu, the 'lost' city of the Incas, a lofty citadel perched high on an isolated mountain top. I have been here before, 18 years ago when I first travelled through South America.

As a young backpacker, I spent a night in a tent in the Puerta del Sol, at Inca times the entrance gate to Machu Picchu. Then as now, it was highly illegal to sleep in the ruins, but I wanted to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu and therefore went hiding in the bushes when the guards came at the end of the day.

After they left, we pitched a tent in the ruins. The Inca Gods, however, punished us for our unruliness and the floodgates of heaven literally opened that night and completely drenched us.

The rain and mist created zero visibility the next day and since then, I have been dreaming of returning to Machu Picchu to see its glory. The Inca gods have forgiven me!

We climb a mountain that thrones several hundred metres above Machu Picchu -- on top, I can't tear myself away from the view and my eyes gaze in disbelief and wonder at the ingenuity of humans and the magnificence of creation.

I want to keep this image in my heart -- the deep gorges with gushing rivers flanked by near vertical mountain faces far below, snow-covered 6,000-metre peaks all around us and right in the middle of it all the majestic ruins of Machu Picchu.

A woman reaches the top and breaks into tears -- such is the beauty of this truly magical place! The next day, we embark on the last part of our journey, heading to Bolivia, the only country between us and Brazil.

Some 4,000km to go to Rio de Janeiro and 10 days until the start of the World Cup! During our lunch break, Fernando, our Brazilian travel companion, suddenly starts to frantically search Pele's back seats.

With deep frustration, he explains to us that he is looking for his camera battery but can't find it -- it must have fallen out at our previous stop. As we are planning to pass some time here to explore another Inca site, Fernando asks me if he could have Pele and drive back to the place where he believes the battery has fallen out. With some trepidation, I agree to his request and Fernando promises to be back at 4pm, in three hours.

At 4pm, we arrive at our agreed meeting place but Fernando is not there. An hour later, there is still no sign of him and Pele, and I am starting to get anxious. Half an hour later, still nothing.

My imagination is running wild -- what has happened? Has there been an accident? It is getting dark and chilly and we don't have any warm clothes. We wonder what we should do next. Will Fernando come back with Pele? What if he doesn't?

Florian Keller, MD of Enchanting-Africa, is currently driving from Nairobi to the Football World Cup in Brazil. For ongoing updates from the journey, check www.africatobrazil.com and www.facebook.com/Africa2Brazil.

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