|1987, April: Machu Picchu, Peru|
fter a month in Ecuador I continued my journey, working my way south through South America towards Argentina. My girlfriend took some time away from her anthropology research and together the two of us took a series of crowded buses to Peru: first Lima, and then on to Cuzco, once the capital of the ancient Incan empire.
At that time the train from Cuzco to Machu Picchu was a rather primitive affair: today there are more luxurious options for well-heeled gringo tourists. But that train ride provided some of my most vivid memories of Peru...
Departing Cuzco in early morning darkness, the rails lifting the train up from Cuzco in a series of upward zigs and zags, then over a ridge and down into the valley of the Urubamba River. On bends the engine was visible ahead, red flames shooting from the funnel. Inside the carriage all was bedlam: baskets rocking back and forth on coathooks, everyone synchronized and swaying to the irresistible rhythm. The aisle was a constantly mutating smorgasbord: a battered white enamel pan containing slabs of pork, crowned by a pig's head, the dull white teeth bared in an embarrassed grin; "Peras, peras, peras" announcing pears offered in bags of four; "Tamales, tamales" and for 5 intis we bought ourselves a fresh, hot pair, each in its own leaf of corn husk folded over the coarse corn meal. Unrolled and unfolded, the leaf's fine ridges are embossed upon the surface, and sunlight through the window illuminates the faint rising steam.
We stayed two nights at Gringo Bill's in Aguas Calientes, with Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu presiding over all. And it was here, in conversation with a fellow traveller, that I first heard about Ladakh: the Tibetan gompas, the demanding, but doable, cycling route into the Himalayas from Srinigar to Leh. I made a mental note then and there to somehow fit it in. Funny how such a casual encounter can lead to such potent memories.
From Machu Picchu we backtracked to Arequipa and Puno, crossing into Bolivia at Lake Titicaca: the highest navigable lake in the world. We parted ways in La Paz for what we both knew was the final time. She heading back to Ecuador by bus; me clattering by rail across Bolivia's high-altitude desert of glittering minerals. What can you do in such circumstances but carry on?