Mark has remarked on the extensive pre-planning that went into my year in South America. Looking back I hardly recognise myself: the intense and focused excitement was almost innocent; a hereditary compulsion to be prepared for every eventuality; a level of research that put most of my fellow travellers to shame; a thoroughness that was only rivalled by the knowledge that absolutely anything could happen.
Ten months down the line, as I waited in Cusco for Alex from Santiago to say hello (whose trip sadly got cut short), things had changed. Somewhere in Bolivia I had given up on knowing way ahead of time what my next three destinations would be. I was vaguely aware of my hitlist, but not at all driven anymore to tick off those items. I felt no anxiety in the release from that responsibility. The road had transcended my catalogue of tourist attractions, it was something abstract now, and idea, a feeling.
You could also say that I had become lazy, maybe even tired of the forced tension of travelling. There is a specific kind of exhaustion associated with seeing everything for the first time. Backpacks and buses and hostels, losing your possessions one by one (while your backpack inexplicably gets heavier) even though you concentrate so very hard on keeping everything organised. The process is draining and, in hindsight, also jading – a commitment like this to nothing changes everything because it alters every expectation you’ve ever had, present and future. You become dependent on novelty and foreign languages and daily life’s inherent struggle. Is this a good thing? The jury is out on that. I can say that it is too late to go back now.
Plans are funny things. I had planned to do and see a lot in Peru. It’s supposed to be the country for travellers in South America. Instead I spent a largely unproductive week or so in Cusco (barring magnificent Machu Picchu), three idle days at a desert oasis and then I hightailed it to the north-western corner of the country, in part to be back with the ocean, but mostly in pursuit of an idea of a person who had unwittingly thwarted the last of my still-intact plans – that is, to be alone.
Around this same time I thought I decided not to return to South Africa. I recall the debilitating dread associated with thoughts of “going back” – it’s not that I didn’t want to see my family and friends, it’s not that I didn’t love South Africa anymore. It’s simply that I now fully understood the extent of the addiction, the depth of the attachment I’ve formed to not having attachments, the profound awareness that nothing could ever be like the freedom I had forged for myself here. The thought of losing all of this was frightening, and I relate 100% to those who leave and never return. The truth is that you can go back in body at any point, but the other journey will continue.
I formed a vague new plan – get a paying job in Ecuador somewhere, or at least free board and food by volunteering, save a little bit then move on and repeat. I could be a few months more, or a few years. I had no obligations whatsoever – an alternative reality that is at once bewildering and seductive. Only a Cape Town job opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, as well as a severe lack of money, eventually dragged me back. And in the end I didn’t get that job, so I’m once again is this familiar, favoured place – what will the new plan be?
“Huacahina” is a delicious word, like guacamole, and I repeated it again and again in my head as I left Cusco for Ica late in October (or was it early November?). The place is really no more than a handful of hostels and restaurants around a stagnant green palm-lined lake in the middle of the Peruvian desert. It’s even smaller than you’d think and as surreal as they say. It’s an easy 12 soles, 10-minute ride from Ica’s bus station, any taxi driver will happily bring you here.
The dunes that surround Huacahina are infinite in their golden uniformity, folding and unfolding in the wind. The sand cuts through clothing and sunblock and determination. I had massive respect for the brave ones who climbed those towering mountains of sand.
The lockers in our hostel got broken into over that weekend, and a bunch of guests’ money and passports went missing. It had to be an inside job as the digital locks could only be overridden by the master key. While I still had my passport and cards, I thought some money had gone missing but I couldn’t be sure – it is entirely possible that I was careless with that 100 soles note or that it never existed at all. “The desert is a place of madness.”
Unless you are drinking heavily, sandboarding obsessively or both, Huacachina gets boring quickly. I do recommend you stop here for the eye-popping strangeness.
I was totally going to stay in Chiclayo for at least a day or two but Mark happened to be online when I was when I arrived there in the morning and our brief exchange convinced me to get straight back onto the bus for the fast five hours to Mancora – coastal paradise with lukewarm water, whitest beaches and a Loki hostel thrown in for familiarity. Or case you suffered from, as Mark put it, a lack of originality.
The almuerzos in Mancora are something else. For about 35 bucks you get a starter and a main and juice, as you do everywhere else, but the marvellous difference is that the starters here are plates of ceviche, fresh and tangy and light and … my mouth waters even now. Our daily ritual involved a late breakfast, a dip in a pool, then a 200m walk for a late lunch of ceviche, fish for mains and beer if you’re feeling flush.
The parties continued late into the night as they do at Loki. The roar of the waves could only be appreciated in the early hours of the morning, once the music had gone to bed.
Mancora is a happy week-long blur of reading and maintaining our prone position on the sunbeds. Loki is literally on the beach, but that rarely prevented us from just lying next to the pool as we wallowed in sunburn and that unique haze of a new togetherness.
My all-time favourite travel quote is from Paul Theroux: “Travel is a vanishing act, a solitary trip down a pinched line of geography to oblivion.” I’m not sure that Theroux ever discovered the exquisite beauty of being able to undertake this solitary trip in the company of someone with whom you can be alone.