From the time we leave San Pedro until we land in Arequipa, 20 hours later, we scan only desert scenery, the Atacama Desert stretching from northern Chile all the way to southern Peru, hugging the coastline with its stark scenery and scarce vegetation, oasis of green popping up occasionally to signal an attempt at human life, otherwise, shanty shacks of corrugated metal brave the elements and mark squares of land for future occupation, ownership we don’t entirely comprehend.
Driving the distance hammers home the enormity of this place, that a land so void of moisture exists on Planet Earth, and that we, flecks in contrast to its grandeur and magnitude, have no business being here, for this place is unforgiving, the minor escalating to life-or-death in a matter of seconds.
Because border crossings are notoriously rife with bureaucratic labyrinths and because bus companies here are inherently nationalistic, not transnational, we disembark in Arica, Chile’s northernmost town. Someone in San Pedro tells us that Arica is actually quite nice, and being here, we think she must be out of her mind, for Arica is nothing more than a transitory town of empty warehouse buildings. Perhaps the past decade has been unkind to this port city, or perhaps, simply, no town wears 6:15 AM well.
We join forces with Alex, the British Pole, and Robin, from The Netherlands, and figure four is better than two in trying to navigate the various choose-your-own-adventures available at this particular border crossing. Lucky for us, the local option seems quite straight-forward and puts us out only CP$2,000, exactly the amount of change left in our wallets, and it’s off we go to no man’s land.
At the border, the Peruvian officials kindly confiscate my grapefruit breakfast and promise me that la comida de Peru es muy rica! and send me off to join my bus onward. We land in Arica’s sister city, a mirror location across the Peruvian border, and here, Tacna is somehow a whole 2 hours behind in timezones despite our super linear trajectory north.
We give a nano-second consideration to staying in Tacna, but a quick glance to the concrete desert town, walls the same color as the barren hills, urges us to press forward, turning this day into our mega travel day as we hunt for our third bus, the final leg to our resting place, which, we hope, provides us with more ambiance than what we currently survey.
Now, we leave behind the peso in lieu of the sole, halving the currency for its US equivalent instead of doubling and removing all zeros, and for 25 soles, we catch the Flores bus north to Arequipa, departure in over an hour, just the time to grab a sandwich desayuno and cafe negra at bus terminal número dos.
Barely five minutes left to go to departure, we hoof it to the actual departure station across the way, and upstairs in our side-by-side cama seats, I am transported to the karaoke buses of Southeast Asia, except that for now, the songs are straight out of 1980s Latino love croons, high-necks, big hair, and entirely too much volume.
Only six hours to go, we know, and already, Peru feels more like another country, another place, much more foreign to my sensibilities than Brazil or Argentina or Chile. This is a place caught between an official promise of modernity and the people’s reluctance to whole-heartedly accept its claims, preferring, instead, to dance the tease between ancient ways of life, good to them until now, when their land is suddenly sold for statewide prosperity, the Kwan going into the hands of a few well-oiled politicians.
More than anywhere else we’ve been in South America, this stretch of road recalls the heartache of poverty and destitution, a difficult wound to reopen, one that throbs with the recollection of starving Indian animals and swollen belly babes in Swaziland, one I am, admittedly, not eager to revisit, one that helps me understand how and why people prefer to vacation in pretty places instead of play photojournalist face-front with some of life’s most crushing scenes.
But, here we are, and like every place where people live from need to need, not wants, desperation hangs in the air like a backdrop, and more than anywhere else, this is a place for vigilance and compassion, for the human experience is quite raw.
And, just like that, a sexual hero in a burgundy velvet suit takes the screen, make up caked ghostly white while sweat pours shiny streaks from his forehead, tuxedo collar meant to signal elegance, his pedophiliac eyes invite his leading ladies and fans to bed, where, I’m sure, he fantasizes himself a sex god, and eeeewww, it’s a total creepfest, especially knowing that once upon a time, a gaggle of women surely found him irresistible.
Today, though, Graham and I sit glued to the train wreck, horrified when lover boy comes on for an encore.