The Ruins of Cajamarca at Easter, a Word on Religion, and Where Next

IMG_0583 (Edited)

Everything seems to have moved in the last week or two. We went to Cajamarca over the weekend which plays base camp to some interesting sites. The town has a brilliant mountain-town feel to it – I’ve never visited a mountain town I haven’t liked. Sitting around with other travelers posing questions like “where was the best place you’ve had a beer” or “where was the best place you’ve smoked a cigarette” (the two are almost mutually inclusive) I can always think of amazing settings but I always come back to The Alps as an answer. I might think Botswana in front of an orange moon, Ethiopia looking over the Great African Rift Valley, atop Ayres Rock or a New York roof bar… I don’t know, there’s something about the Alps on a clear day, skiing and drinking with mates which comes very close to perfection. That’s not to say the aforementioned places are any lesser, but the feeling of bliss and fun and happiness in a specific moment are often derived by very different means to their more elongated counterparts.


We had four days of great fun in Cajamarca switching between drunken evenings and high days on some pretty strong painkillers a pharmacist wast nice enough to provide. Random ventures on buses to local dairy farms, waterfalls, cliffs with windows cut where these ancient societies apparently potted their dead (uncremated). And Cumbe Mayo, on the Pacific side of the Andean continental divide where a pre-Incan society built an aqueduct to channel water to Cajamarca on the Atlantic side.


Though the most striking day was still the first. Cajamarca was the town where the Spanish lured the then – and last – Incan king to strike a deal. The room in which they met is known as The Ransom Room locally, although we sort of slipped into referring it to “the room where the bad thing happened”. Once the Spanish had the unaccompanied Incan king in their room they measured him with one arm stretched above his head. You can still see the mark he reached and it is perhaps the same height as me without a raised arm. Having measured him the Spanish decided he was too short and not nearly white enough to be king, and burnt him at the stake.


The Spanish empire seems in many ways more brutal than a lot of latter empires (I’m not pitting them against Genghis Khan) . Most were built on trade and, especially the initial British empire, while certainly guilty of its fair share of atrocities, seemed to own countries almost by natural extension having happened upon no trading power presiding over a given land. Having said that The Crusades had taken place long before and are part of the imperial sentiment. The Spanish had their empire and crusades – or The Inquisition – basically folded into the same endeavour, so the spread of their religion – and therefore ownership – and trade was all the same thing. People of a Catholic bent might be pleased to hear that it worked, most of South America shares their religion to this day.

Burning the Incan king at the stake was (almost) a sign of respect, it was also – you may note – how witches were treated, and was the default “remedy” at the time for anyone who was suspected of holding supernatural powers. The first place we visited was a church, it was grand and ornate and beautiful. I usually get a strange feeling in churches, an emotion which almost deserves its own name.

There is a Mormon church between Huanchaco and Trujillo which we always pass on the bus between the two. We have heard the American accents which alight outside it. The buildings in this area, even those owned by the affluent, would not fit in any developed country. The brickwork is exposed in an unfinished, rather than shabby-chic, way. The grouting and cementing is lazy, most are without foundations and most have their iron reinforcements sticking out the top in case the owner wants to add another floor at some point. The affluent form a tiny portion of the total inhabitants who, as I’ve said before, live in mud constructions which can’t stand a semi-concerted downpour, plenty of which have been washed away by the recent flooding. But here this Mormon church stands, big and bold and modern. Clean and crisp. Taller and wider and grander than any building for fucking miles. The lawns lush and green and trimmed when no one else can afford water, let alone afford a garden to waste it on, let alone afford a gardener or groundskeeper who can waste their water on their non-existent garden. This building would happily sit next to London’s or Washington’s grandest structures. Except it’s surrounded by utter abjection. But happy of it’s setting, all the better to evangelise to.

This church in Cajamarca was more old school. I was struck with the scale and grandeur and the unbelievable craftsmanship which must’ve gone into it. This crossed with a melancholy which, being melancholy, can’t quite be pinned – or perhaps I just haven’t yet been able to pin it. The opulence is at once striking in all the ways it was designed to be striking, but also inherently pernicious. And then ‘pernicious’ seems like the wrong word. The effect of religion on the world is bold and vast and abhorrent, but its effects have been revealed (lol) by enlightenment thinking over a long stretch of time so it’s almost as though the fact of its perniciousness or insidiousness has been felt in reverse: receding rather than advancing.

Once we had stepped outside one of the people I was with said of churches, “they make me feel sad”. And I guess that’s about it, in a complicated nutshell. That if a cartoonist from Denmark releases the wrong sketch or a government in America wants to introduce gay marriage or a writer from Britain wants to explore the allegorical significance of a sub-plot of the Koran… this – this building, in all its glory – is the history and the epitome and the scale of the forces they are up against. And that’s only to mention the recent collisions between progress and religion, to say nothing of the rape and genocide and torture which the pages of religious texts almost invariably condone and attempt to incite.

A Spaniard we were with asked us how we celebrate Easter in the UK. We replied with various tales of chocolate eggs and a bigger version of a Sunday roast and axiomatically getting pissed. She seemed surprised that religion didn’t really play a part. I’m pleased that religious festivals can become secular, and a reason to drink and be merry with the people to whom one is closest. In Cajamarca they reenacted the crucifixion. Of course I knew this was “a thing” that happened in many places, but I’ve never borne witness to it. Watching people cheer the whipping of a crumpled figure on the floor bearing a cross, so that he might be put to death in one of the most painful ways imaginable. This wasn’t the real thing but to my mind – if not to the mind of most of the spectators – it was quite enough.


I have since revisited the old debates I used to watch years ago on YouTube, where Hitchens or Dawkins or Harris or Dennett take on the brightest and best and boldest the religious sphere has to offer. It’s not just a case of being unconvinced of the arguments for religion, but being utterly gobsmacked at the contortions these people will put themselves through in order to justify sins which no morally or intellectually serious person could possible bring themselves to define as anything other than utterly and insufferably vile.

That being said I don’t mean to sound as though I didn’t have a fucking brilliant time. As with any travels the thoughts and memories will stay with me forever and it was so, so, so much fun. But it’s been these thoughts of religion that have lingered – festered, perhaps – and which I needed to set down.

Then Theresa May announced a general election, and I became all the happier that I’m traveling. After all, who wants to be at home right now facing down a choice between the most hilariously awful set of politicians the country has ever faced. Foot vs Thatcher might come close, and many people (probably including most of my friends and family) hate(d) Thatcher. But she was undeniably skilled. May, Corbyn and Farron are, even if you collect their best traits into one whole, as inept and they are incorrect, and as ignorant as they are selfish.

And with that the buses have opened their routes north after the flooding. They are available to book. Probably at the end of next week I will leave Huanchaco, which will be difficult, and head north to Mancora. Then Ecuador which I think I should blitz: Montanita, down to Guayaquil to fly to the Galapagos and back, to Quito, off to stay in Baños, each for just a few days and then to Columbia. In Columbia I think I should work. Work enough to get my writing profile up to a point where I can earn enough to travel on it. I can teach English there. I might stay in Medellin for a month or so. I can’t imagine staying in Bogota for long, no traveler is a huge fan of big cities. Then Cartagena. Ideally I’d find a teaching job in Cartagena, it’s on the northern coast and the first proper pirate port: fucking perfect. But if it’s not big enough Medellin may have to suffice. Of course, all of this is up for comprehensive revision. The best way to make plans is to speak to travelers as you go and make no decisions until it’s time to move to the next place. Nothing set in stone, no commitments, no responsibilities.

Entering the Aftermath, and That Puppy


I took this photo… I took it. Me. I think it might be the best photo I’ve ever taken. We were at the end of the pier fishing one evening, there is a break just out from the pier which some of the more confident surfers visit. I zoomed in to catch a couple of them and just kept hitting the button to take more photos as this surfer made his way along the wave. This was the best of the resultant snaps. I love it. Especially as it came a few weeks after the floods had come through, and this was really Huanchaco getting back to Huanchaco again.

The locals call the floods “huaicos” which Google Translate says means “avalanche”. But really it’s something halfway between a flash flood and a mudslide. Though I have seem some US news reports referring to “an avalanche of mud”, which made me chuckle.

You may or may not be pleased to hear that the pace has slowed since I last wrote. It is an ultimately positive tone to the week: the number of people required having decreased being a healthy symptom of the increased efficiency of the aid operation. Normality is a more palpable objective, if not yet a more tangible one. We are trying to get the beat of our projects into some form of a rhythm again – and getting close to it with the schools reopening in a week or two. In any event, the number made homeless is close to 1,000 and they’re living in what are being referred to as “camps”, six of them dotted throughout the backstreets of the shanty towns.

Huanchaco proper is almost back to itself again. Even the worst hit of the bars and restaurants and bakeries have reopened, though the town is less busy. The high-tide mark is still very much marked by a line of branches, stripped of their bark by the waves and rocks, which serve as plentiful fuel for beach bonfires at night. The temperature has dropped in quite a matter-of-fact way, there’s no toying around or fluctuating like there is back home. Over the course of three days it just got lower and lower which has had a positive effect on being able to do things without sweating, like sleeping. Jumpers and potentially jeans are now for nights, and the tendency during the day is away from shade rather than towards it.

So we get back to work, though most of the volunteers teaching English have been putting on classes at a local soup kitchen/youth club to keep the kids busy and learning English. On environment we’ve been collecting what we need to set up composting and hydroponic gardens in the schools once they return. As this goes on the assistant managers have been visiting the camps to see what they need and plug holes in the municipalities funding with our disaster relief fund; water seems to be one area they need help with.

Many of us are itching to be where we are most required though this isn’t particularly simple. The main camp in El Milagro is properly set up with security etc, the other more needy camps are not, which means cars full of gringos with iPhones turning up each day will potentially become a target. The camps are open, hardly even camps by the sound of it, and the people there are facing a desperate existence. Some are just in small camping tents donated by a neighbouring council because Huanchaco council was too slow to act. But some volunteers are now visiting the biggest camp to run activities for the kids to keep them occupied and their parents less occupied.

I know you’ve been asking a lot about the puppy, Vaquita, but you can understand why I haven’t written about her sooner. She was found outside La Rampa abandoned, maybe two months old, and seemed to have embarked on the process of dying. Some of the volunteers, unsure of what to do with her, brought her back to the Volunteer House to see if they could get hold of a vet. They couldn’t (it being late) and left her safely in box in a nearby green until the morning when the vet would be working again. Another volunteer who use to live in the same house as me picked her up and brought her home. They picked 25 tics off her and took her to the vet the next day.


When she was taken in she barely moved. She didn’t even have enough energy to move her limbs into a comfortable lying position, and she’d yelp every time she was picked up because her joints were so weak. She was worryingly thin, her spine protruded so much she wasn’t particularly nice to stroke and her belly was distended to the point of resembling a balloon. Her hips had that absurdly skinny look some cows in Africa get and she had one cloudy eye. The pet gave her plenty of medicine, antibiotics etc. She shat out some sizable worms and after a few days was beginning to eat, drink toilet in fairly healthy rhythms and quantities. Within a weeks she was trying to be a normal dog, sniffing things and walking around, albeit at a slightly odd angle.

The full transformation has been the stuff of remarks and laughter and any other reason one would own a pet or, better, rescue one. Within two weeks she was running around and had entered the puppy phase of biting everything. She is now I think three weeks on and is hyperactive at her quietest moments, in less quiet moments she’s positively manic. She will happily run from room to room finding things to grab and take with her, this will be repeated for hours on end if – as it seems to be – necessary. When you come downstairs in the morning or back home after a long day she will, having not seen you for a while, run towards you with all the enthusiasm she can muster and upon arriving at your feet do a little wee, such is her excitement. Alas, she no longer lives in the Yellow House. Her parents found work in town and have moved, so she’s still around, just not at home.

The next trick for me is to head north, hopefully to Mancora and then Ecuador, but Mancora is in the Piura region which sounds like it’s pretty much the worst hit. Stories of people still up to their waist in water. The other option is flying which will be at least £200 – so expensive given that the bus would probably be around £50. We have buses to Cajamarca booked which we need to move dates, we were originally supposed to leave the weekend of the huaico and we can’t refund them. So I’ll go there in a week or two and then shall have to make a cost calculation about whether it’s cheaper to fly ASAP or to stay in Huanchaco until the bus routes maybe open up. A quandary.

Disaster Relief: How Good, to be in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time


Wherever we drive through the shanty towns the groups of people and families we pass all call out to us “aaaagua, aaaaaagua”. The floods have destroyed the water pipes in the shanty towns which have them, which means the water trucks which usually serve the other shanty towns are stretched pretty thin. Trujillo is the nearest big city, about 30 minutes away by bus, and for a few days was completely cut off from us. We visited one day later this week to pick up supplies from the market to take back to the shanty towns – houses need mold cleaning out and roofs refitting. Driving back the stench was potent with piles of rubbish against the side of the street left and for the bin lorries which aren’t running. Up in El Milagro huge sections of houses and road have been ripped away and sewage flows down the roadside. And worst of all is Victor Raul which has been turned into a wasteland, the whole area is now clearly an ex-riverbed with clean rocks lying around and patches of sand have been given that undulating texture from the water. A few random walls and doors pepper the landscape with most stuff having been washed away, it puts one in mind of the more barren scenes of Full Metal Jacket. I picked up a brick from a collapsed wall which I could snap and crumble in my hand, they’re just mud which has been baked in the sun.


El Milagro and Victor Raul are the hardest hit, they sit below the quarry which burst to release the torrent, but the water has to go through them before it makes it to the dry river which guides it past El Cerrito, Las Lomas and Huanchaco. They are areas not fit for buildings of any sort, except that it’s the only spot affordable for some. Families have put up some form of shelter since the flood in the form of branches holding up tarpaulin, that’s where they spend their time now. A lot of the rubbish lying around was very similar to the type of stuff we were clearing off the beach down in Huanchaco.

We started the week shoveling a lot of mud from the seafront, and diggers came in to clear up the beach properly. The businesses are approaching the point where they might be able to open but no one is using the beach and the seafront in general is very low on activity compared to its usual self. We reopened La Rampa, a small skate park in El Cerrito which is open during the summer holidays to keep the kids busy so they don’t fall into crime and the parents can go to work. I put in a couple of shifts there in the morning, just keeping an eye on the kids.

Later in the week one of the teachers in Las Lomas had managed to get in touch with other families in the area and find out their needs. We took up three big rolls of tarpaulin and cut it into 10 meter strips, one for each family. They told us what was going on and we wrote down a list of what we’d need to buy from the disaster relief fund to help them out. A lot of houses needed cleaning and a lot of roofs rebuilding. Seven families had crowded into one house because their own house is no longer adequate for even the most basic form of living.


The next day a couple of us jumped into a car with some of the guys who run one of the surf schools down on the front. We got whisked up to El Milagro where we helped a family move house. Behind the stuff we moved there was a lot of damp, and huge cockroaches running around. We piled their stuff into a truck which had arrived, then opened up the side of the truck where there were maybe 100 2.5 litre water bottles which we dished out. That was some of the best work I’ve ever done. It felt pretty incredible to just be able to pick up something of high value and hand it out for free. The families were all so grateful and as soon as we started handing them out people started running towards the truck from all the surrounding roads (‘roads’ in the loosest possible sense of the word).



The truck drove around the corner and down the road to another house where the family was going to stay. As we moved their stuff in the kids were running round exploring their new space, which gave the whole thing a faintly “new home” feeling to it. The next stop was to a restaurant on the outskirts of Trujillo where we marched straight to the kitchen and started packing boxes of food: three scoops of rice, two of lentils and one piece of chicken. The plan was to take these up to Victor Raul to hand them out. We were a bit late for lunch from previous work and I was surprised to find that a lot of the people had already eaten. The aid operations were now getting enough money and enough people to make a serious dent in these people’s requirements. But this could not be guaranteed for the next day or the day after, nor could it be guaranteed for water and clothing. Getting everything back to normal could take months or years, so we need to keep the operation flowing.

We never really knew what was going on, people just started doing stuff and we joined in. And we never really knew what was coming next, we just got driven somewhere and the same thing happened again. It reminded me a lot of working on a festival I used to help construct during summers. Don’t ask too many questions just get stuck in: pick that up, move that over there, hammer that nail in, fix that thing, help them do that. People are willing and dedicated and enjoy being able to help and patient and kind and it’s all, all, all simply because that’s what’s required. Having worked in “business” for five years I don’t think I could point to a single time when someone decided to be decent or kind simply for it’s own sake, the environment is driven by and for self-interest. There might be the exception of some acts during one or two redundancy processes but that’s about it, and that’s hardly a situation which occurs regularly or is to be aspired to. Here feels like working with the best of the best; not necessarily the best people from among the best people since no one was selected for this work; but the best traits of the best people.

On Sunday we gave ourselves a lie-in, everyone had been working all week – very hot and very manual work and one or two had become ill through exhaustion. In the afternoon we jumped back into a car with the guys from the surf shop, they had filled 20-30 20 litre bidons of water, and had a huge 2500 litre tank on their truck which we took to be filled up. The water in the bidons was for drinking and the water in the tank for washing since it wasn’t clean enough to drink. We drove around to a few different spots in Victor Raul and poured it into whatever receptacle people handed us, then helped people carry their full buckets of water to wherever they were living. Some of the mothers wanted to take pictures of their babies with us. We filled up the tank again to deliver to a couple of other spots, and then joined another group of volunteers as the sun set to hand out the food and drinking water they had brought.


It will be a transition back to normality, and seemingly over a long stretch of time. The buses aren’t running between cities. I am set to head north to Mancora and then Ecuador on 10th April but if that’s not possible I’ll be happy to stay and help for a few more weeks. We know of more houses which need roofs and have plenty of tarpaulin to help fix them. But news can travel slowly so it may take a while for us to find out everything that needs doing. At the same time water and food and clothes are still required daily in the shanty towns.

We had a session with the assistant managers on disaster relief and the psychological and physical effects of being involved in this kind of thing. What struck is how long this will last: after a disaster hits comes the heroic phase, where everyone rushes to save lives, then there’s the honeymoon period where aid and altruism are still high. After that comes the long hard months and years of readjustment, rebuilding and accepting a new reality. None of us will be here long enough to see this all through and Otra Cosa has a good supply of volunteers all year round. So we must do our bit and hand over the baton. We’re currently in the honeymoon phase: long, hard work and lots of it, but these shanty towns will be in ruin for a long time to come. We have to keep an eye on ourselves to watch for signs of stress, exhaustion and much else. We’ve already done a pretty bad job of that in the last week so now is time to settle into a routine of helping inch things closer to a new normality, though we don’t know what that will look like.

Flooding and Civic Duty in Small-Town Peru


Written at 3pm Sunday 19th March

You might’ve heard about it on the news, the death toll is now in the 60-70 region. It rained slightly the first night I arrived here and my host commented on how rare rain is in Huanchaco. Here is basically a desert, the rain is supposed to happen on the other side of the Andes; except in El Niño years. The rain that first night was gentle, “spitting” we might call it in Britain, and it’s raining in the same way now though it seems to be getting stronger.

El Niño is – if this doesn’t sound too much – a meteorological phenomenon. The water which sits off the north eastern coast of Australia just below the Philippines is the warmest in the world and it’s kept there by winds which sweep across the pacific from South America. Every four years (though somewhat unreliably) these winds die down which causes the warm water to dissipate across the Pacific to the South American coast which has two major effects. The first is that it’s a very bad time to fish, nutrients tends to inhabit cooler waters so the warm water pushes the nutrients down and out of the reach of the fishermen and their livelihood. The second is rain. The warm water evaporates into clouds which push up against the western side of the Andes and unload their cargo in areas not accustomed to such weather. Apparently the Incas used to sacrifice humans in an attempt to prevent El Niño.

When I say ‘not accustomed’ I do mean it. The pathetic annual arguments on Question Time about whether or not Britain’s roadways and airports and railways should be better equipped for snow sound boorish in comparison. (As though the government should be spending money on something which may or may not happen, and even if it does only impacts a day or two each year. Money which could be paid to any number of more useful funds. One wonders if sometimes governing politicians should reply to Dimbleby’s audience “we’re not fucking made of money!”)

Was it Wednesday or Thursday night? It rained for a few hours – what we might call “a bit of a downpour” – much more than “drizzle” but not quite “chucking it down”. Usually when it rains the host of the house we stay in cuts the electricity and begins frantically sweeping water from where it will definitely be a problem to somewhere it might be slightly less of an issue. The night started like this but escalated. I was in bed and starting to nod off, I pulled up my dangling phone charger to plug it in and found it was wet. All around my bed there was a centimeter or two of water, walking round half my room resulted in a slightly hilarious splish-splash sound. I hadn’t left anything else on the floor so there being no causalities I opened my door to see my housemates busy tooing and froing. The water seemed to be coming from behind my bed and quite a lot of it, there was some burbling somewhere which I ignored for the moment.

Downstairs two of my housemates had unplugged the WiFi router and pulled it away from the wall. There was a bucket underneath the wall fitting into which water was streaming down the cable. I revisited my room and pulled my bed away from the wall to reveal another fitting and water came pissing out of it – I think that’s probably the most accurate description. I put a bucket underneath it which I was convinced would be full in 5-10 minutes and headed for the roof terrace. Here the problem made itself known. There was a good couple of inches of standing water up there. The houses have drains but no care has been taken to situate them at the lowest point of the roof or courtyard. I don’t know where we got all the brooms from but they materialised and we started sweeping.

A pipe which hosted the internet cable down through the house had been cut too low so once the water level on the roof was above it water flowed down the pipe and, apparently, into my room and the sitting room. The next few hours were taken up sweeping and sweeping and sweeping, eventually the rain eased and we managed to cajole most of the water into the drains and mop up inside. The street outside turned back into itself having previously served as a modest river.

The next day the schools were closed so everyone teaching English had a day off, and those of us with an office shift went to a nearby restaurant to use the WiFi since there didn’t seem to be internet in the volunteer house. The following day we had a day off entirely as the WiFi in the whole of Huanchaco had, I think, been turned off (as it has now, I’m writing this in Notepad to post when the internet returns). We were told to stock up on food and water.

When it rains too much the water flows wherever it can, rivers haven’t been formed since it doesn’t rain often enough. Roads are blocked, and streets submerged – there aren’t any drains to speak of. The trucks delivering produce weren’t able to make it to Huanchaco and a lot of the stores were out of vegetables and, worryingly, beer. Later that day, on our way to the beach to watch the sunset, we were stopped by one of the assistant managers and told “the water is coming”, and we should put on trainers and head to the volunteer house for further instructions.

“The water is coming” is a phrase that’s been uttered plenty in the last few days. It means something between a flash-flood and a mudslide is on its way down from a quarry north of the town. This then flows down a dry river built a few years ago for such an event, but we don’t yet know if it works or if it will take the volume of water. The shanty towns surrounding Huanchaco are left to fend for themselves and we thought may be swept away. Our job that evening would have been to go to the shanty towns and help families evacuate. We were told the venture was both dangerous and optional, none opted out.


In the end the water didn’t come and while some families had evacuated others were refusing. From that point, and I guess to some extent this is still true, we were on alert and were to be ready to leave for the shanty towns should the water materlialise. Nothing has yet happened though we were kicked out of the club early last night (a sort of club, and sort of early) because apparently the water was coming, but it didn’t.

It has been raining not too determinedly for an hour or so now, that being said it matters not whether it rains here, rain in the mountains is both more likely and more concerning. The quarry above us is holding for the moment but if it bursts its banks will become the character of our time for a few days. Further north malaria and dengue fever have spread to coastal regions where they don’t usually belong brought their by the standing water.

Trujillo, Chanchan and the airport are all nearby and have to greater or lesser extent felt the effects of flooding. We are in a holding pattern, unable to really do much, a waiting game with only points to be lost. Perhaps tonight we will be required, perhaps another night, or not at all. It’s impossible to tell whether the worst has passed or not with rumours, personal theories and fact being presented in the same way and almost no ability to forecast.

7pm Monday 20th March

Shortly after I finished writing that last entry the rain heavied. We were having a sort of hungover post-lunch lunch at a local restaurant and were informed fair excitedly by the waitress that the water had come. We immediately left for the dry river to observe that the water was indeed flowing. The dry river is probably 40 meters across and we estimated the water to be about a meter deep, the flow was very fast and all manner of ex-tree roots and other heavy looking objects were being carried by its strength.


There is a muddy cliff on one side of the dry (now wet) river, above this is Las Lomas one of the shanty towns, and on the Huanchaco side there is a sizable landscaped bank. But further downstream this bank which we stood on to watch the water morphed into a lower brick wall which the river had already breached. The flow of the river was eating away at both the bank we stood on and the cliff opposite and enormous chunks of earth were being eroded. The Peruvians on either side of the river were shouting at each other to get back.

For the most part it seemed as though the dry river had done its job, if it hadn’t been there water would have come straight through Huanchaco itself causing god knows how much damage. The river had breached the wall lower down which cause some flooding near to where I live. The second issue was that the river ends at the road leading into Huanchaco which crosses it, on the other side of the road is the sea into which it must flow. The road is actually slightly sloped upwards as the river runs down which caused huge amount of water to flow down the road and flood the main coastal road through the town, together with its shops and restaurants.

We were all slightly lost, caught between marveling at the river and knowing we needed to be somewhere to organise ourselves to help. We agreed to me at the Yellow House, which is where I stay. It’s two doors down from a sushi restaurant and both are owned by the same hosts, both housing a group of volunteers. The street it’s on is only one back from the road running next to the beach and water had started gently getting higher up the street. We arrived to everyone having either grabbed a bucket to take water up to the other side of the street or a broom to sweep it away from the houses. Sandbags had been laid and we spent a while there sweeping and bailing water away from where it might do damage. The sushi place had been infiltrated but not the Yellow House.


After this was complete we went down to the front. The water had begun to subside but was still running strong, the scene as it entered the sea was indeed a sight. The water had carved the beach deep into its chosen shape and looked to have ripped parts of the pavement to one side. The main road along the beach was almost completely flooded and the parts that weren’t were caked in a thick layer of silt which formed a slippy footing. The dry river is usually a bit of a dumping ground and the river had washed miles of rubbish into the sea. The high-tide mark was now lined with branches, polystyrene, shoes, needles and all other manner of ex-belongings. The white break of the waves had turned brown closest to the river mouth.


That night those of us in houses which were more at risk of flooding were assigned other beds we could stay in should the water get worse, but it having subsided those of us in the Yellow House decided to risk it.

The next day, today, we woke up and the river had dried. We were meeting at the volunteer house early to assign groups to various ventures. The morning would be spent scouting the surrounding shanty towns and helping out where we could, then we would meet before the afternoon shift to collect reports and go to where we were most needed. Three of us were dispatched to Las Lomas to visit one of the local schools where some of the volunteers teach, ask around and generally see what we could see. The school was closed and deserted, the whole town seemed very quiet and we couldn’t see any real signs of destruction. We asked some of the locals who said the only problem was sweeping the rain, none of the flooding had come through and the only real problem today was that the buses weren’t running.

Having satisfied ourselves that we weren’t needed we headed back down to the dry river (which was actually dry again) and walked up it to the point where it carves between El Cerito (another shanty town) and Las Lomas. We walked up to find some of the others, they had located a well which needed fixing in the afternoon and were now on a general quest to see where they could help. As we walked up we saw some of the houses which had been partly collapsed, the river having cut away underneath their floors. Luckily this was only a few and the inhabitants told us they didn’t need much help, they were just finishing up.


We returned back to the beach where we knew we’d be needed in trying to make a dent in the sheer quantity of rubbish which was piled up for a good mile just in one direction. It felt pretty futile but between us and some of the locals we must’ve collected nearly 100 bin liner’s worth, not that you’d think we’d made an impact from the look of the beach. After a brief rest we returned to the beach in the afternoon, this time to help fill sandbags and build a wall with them across the road. It took us a while to cut off the road completely but eventually the little wall was built up enough to prevent the town from flooding since apparently more water was on it’s way.


The water has now come but it’s flow is reportedly much slower and it’s quantity much less than yesterday. I’m sure the piles of sandbags around the town will hold. For the moment no supplies can get through, the WiFi seems to have returned though we know not for how long, the cash machine is off or empty or both and the tap water is still turned off. The locals don’t have many resources to deal with the flooding but they are resourceful and act quickly when necessary. If no more water comes it might be a week or so before things are approaching normality. In the meantime we’ll help where we can. This is supposedly the worst for over 20 years, surely it can’t get worse?

Bad Travelers, Pronouncing Quinoa and Machu Picchu


It’s been weeks since my last letter, weeks since I was supposed to have got back to you. I’ll provide some of the reason behind that – in short a week long trip to the Andes coupled with a sort of omni-illness – in any case I hope you won’t hold it against me. It has been one of those traveling sub-trips which instantly deserves a spot among the top five. Since you requested elaborations on such experiences I shall expand fully.

I was joined by The Dutchman (left of the pic, the guy on the right is some random American… or German, he seemed unclear on the point). We had met a year or so ago in Split on the coast of Croatia with other friends and become acquainted over many drinks and – surrounded by Americans – swapping tales of each other’s colonies. On my short stop over in Amsterdam en route out here we had dined one evening and, in parting, I told him that if he had a gap in his hospital shifts and fancied a holiday he should hit me up. A couple of weeks later the text came though “Hit! Hit!”

A couple of weeks after that he landed and after an agreeably alcoholic night in Huanchaco we headed back south by bus. Keen not to spend too much time in Lima we flew out a few hours after we arrived. I regret that I did not catch the landing into Cuzco on video, it’s worth the price of the ticket on its own. The plane winds up and through the Andes, the peaks gaining height, some in the distance eventually level with the plane. Over a brow Cuzco appears in a wide valley with suburbs and shanty towns shooting off up each conjoining valley. The pilot crosses Cuzco perpendicular to the foot of the runway, which appears to lay slap down the middle of the city, and then begins a steep turn. At first the turn brings the plane up over a couple of small valleys running down into Cuzco with the plane flying parallel to the runway before the pilot descends into the final valley keeping his turn and losing altitude until we flew out the bottom of the valley and over Cuzco. The aircraft then levels leaving us low and in line with the runway for landing. If you feel sorry that you haven’t seen it you might spare a thought for my Dutch counterpart who slept throughout.


Cuzco itself is one of those cities with immediate charm. It’s at 3,400m so it makes its presence felt, inhaling the air there is like drinking a cup of tea which has had its teabag taken out too soon; there’s something in it, just not enough of it. But it is gorgeous as a settlement. And the thin air makes sense in the context of the travelers wondering the street in hiking gear having just got back from a trail, or maybe about to leave for one, or maybe betwixt plans. We were leaving the following day on a four day hike – the Dutchman having arrived from below sea-level just a few days earlier.

Bad Travelers

We had chosen the ‘Jungle Trail’, not a pure hike – it being rainy season simply hiking would potentially mean being wet, with many miles to cover, and clouds too low to see much. The first day we drove to 4,600m and biked down a 60k stretch of mountain pass. The second day we hiked to hot springs. The third was zip-lining and more hiking with the final day being Machu Picchu itself. It was all captivating and exhausting and brilliant. The biking was treacherous and fast. The hiking took us over dodgy bridges, weird cable cars, creepy tunnels and in-use train tracks. The zip lining was more exhilarating than you’d expect. And Machu Picchu made all the more sense having earned it.

Our group was made up of the two of us, our guide and the unfortunate addition of a British couple. I take a fairly laid back view towards those whose idea of traveling is not similar to my own. I generally try to avoid the hippies because they tend to be pretty judgmental and narrow-minded, not to mention complete bores. But I’m happy enough to have them around, over there somewhere. The same goes for the American Bros though they usually make their presence more forcefully felt. The type this British couple adhered to I could cheerfully run out of town with a pitch fork. They had been to a wedding in Lima and were to ‘do Machu Picchu’ while they were around. It became apparent quite quickly how provincial they were: ‘a bit ITV’ – if I can put it like that. Both boasted of having done plenty of hiking and She was even some senior member of a Girl Guides outfit somewhere north of the M4. Fine, I thought, as long as they can keep up.


There were some minor gripes and grumbles after the mountain biking (something about the streams being too wet) but nothing to raise a major flag just yet. The problems came on the second day. The Dutchman and I had both grown up engaged in plenty of hiking and while we didn’t do much anymore we discussed how one never quite loses one’s touch for it. Whether it’s because you have a default fitness it’s relatively easy to return to, or because you know the feeling of being a bit knackered and to simply push through, or for some other reason. (Even any journey in London, if under an hour on foot, I’d much rather walk than hop on some humid and socially-awkward bus or tube). In any case, within twenty minutes of the second day it was clear these swine were going to be a problem. We had set a steady pace, there wasn’t much by the way of uphill, but we turned around to find my fucking country folk a good few hundred meters behind and in need of a rest.

This stopping for a rest business turned out to be a habit of theirs and a pattern of our morning, holding us up and offending our ears until lunch – which is not an inconsiderable stretch of time when your day begins at 6:30am. We were late, which meant we were hungrier than we needed to be, and on the way we had learned about the truly vast array of food She wouldn’t eat coupled with her distaste for not having a wardrobe in her room at the lodge. At one point she blurted out that she didn’t like soup, I jokingly replied that that was ridiculous and akin to not liking sandwiches, “I don’t like sandwiches either”, she could at least deliver a line deadpan. At the lunch stop my respect for them completely collapsed when they announced that they were ‘not feeling well’ and would get a taxi to the hot springs which marked the end of the day’s hiking (an end which one feels one should earn).

The stint after lunch was supposed to be a two and a half hour walk but without The Complainers we marched through it in one hour dead, meeting them at the hot springs only five minutes after they’d arrived by taxi. It was a brisk and enjoyable pace, we overtook pretty much all the other groups (The Scandis, The Spanish, The Americans, etc). Once in the spa a conversation began which really summed them up. They mentioned they’d also been to Reykjavik for a wedding, I enviously plied them with questions given how high up Iceland is on my ‘Must Visit’ list. She chipped in “the bride was wearing hiking boots in her wedding photo” accompanied by her best must-let-the-Jeremy-Kyle-audience-know-I’m-not-impressed face. And – in the words of Forrest Gump – that was all she had to say about that. He then begrudgingly volunteered that they’d also been to Miami for a wedding at which point her face lit up. There was nothing either of them could say about the holiday, nothing of note whatever, because it’s fucking Miami. No matter, “that was my kind of holiday!” she chirped. If she wasn’t already there, and requiring no further evidence at all, she’d have immediately been thrust into the bucket in my head marked “Uninteresting and Uninterested” – as does anyone who mentions Miami, Abu Dhabi or Dubai not in the pejorative.

Pronouncing Quinoa

Contrasting with their complaints about food was the array of food in the jungle, there was always something edible (or occasionally something poisonous) hanging in front of you. Passion fruit, mangoes, avocados, papayas, potatoes, corn, limes. And they are all far bigger and far riper than anything you’d get on the home front – some of the avocados were the size of small melons and still not ready to be picked. At one stop we were treated to an array of local stuff to try, including cacao which might be very good for you but really is an incredibly shit substitute for chocolate, don’t get dragged in. The Inca Tequila on the other hand was marvelous and came with a snake in it. We spent plenty of time chewing coca leaves in the hope it’d make us good and high, but aside from a certain numbness of the tongue – with which I’m sure you are familiar – I’m not convinced they do much. Trekking through the jungle I shall never forget, the shape of the Andes is unlike any mountain range I’ve seen and there’s always the ability to stop and remind yourself “I’m in the fucking jungle.” Everything was new and interesting and different and sometimes slightly scary.

One of the other fruits our guide introduced us to was a weird little pod containing seeds which burst into a bright orange paste which could be used as a dye. This is the little pod from which the fantastic Peruvian textiles get their colour. Amidst the face painting I took the time to ask the guide – of Incan blood, and fluent in Quechuan, Spanish and English – for the proper pronunciation of ‘quinoa’. I have always sided with the anglicised “kwin-oh-ah” pronunciation since I don’t think there’s any problem with anglicising pronunciations and because those who insist on “keenwah” are clear morons. I’m willing to bet most of the Keenwahs (who are probably busy wearing one of those gimp outfits which sports brands market as gym wear) aren’t aware that quinoa is a Qeuchuan word and they assert their belief with a sort of ‘it just is’ mentality which assaults one as portentous rather than knowing. I once knew a chap who insisted on pronouncing paella “payeya”. In Spanish, with it’s Latin flow and abundance of vowels, this pronunciation is beautiful and fitting. But in an English sentence it sounds like a Harry Enfield spoof of a South London accent. These fuckers are always floored when you request from them their pronunciation of the capital of France.


At any rate my guide informed me that the correct pronunciation is “kin-oh-ah”, which makes perfect sense. The “-wah” pronunciation is used in the final syllable of “Quechua” but this is spelled, you’ll notice, ‘-ua’ as opposed to the ‘-oa’ of quinoa. I still think the anglicised version is valid but the phonemes of the Quechuan pronunciation also seem perfectly fitting in all three languages. So you must now firmly inform the Keenwahs that neither they nor the anglicised version are strictly correct – though their pronunciation is a comprehensive fabrication – and “kin-oh-ah” it is. Seeing unctuous and superficial attempts to come across as worldly and wise falling flat on their face will never cease to entertain me.

The Steps to Machu Picchu

The town at the foot of Machu Picchu has something of an alpine feel to it, in as much as it’s a mountain town and people are busy preparing or relaxing. The start of the next day was early, our earliest yet: 4:10am. We had to wake up to get down to the gates at the foot of the mountain in good time. The gate opened at 5am but we had to be there earlier because, as we found out, a queue of around 200 would ultimately form. We made it for about 4:35am, and there was a quiet tension to the atmosphere. Still dark, floodlights around and people tucking in to their hastily packed and probably not-too-nutritious breakfast bags. Once the gates opened the race was on.


There must have been 30-40 people ahead of us so as soon as we had our passports and tickets checked we marched straight past as many as we could, we only had a three or four minute walk before the steps began. 1720 misshapen, jungle, tomb-raider style steps. The guides said it was an hour of steps, and there wasn’t always room to pass slow people. We managed to pass a good 20-25 by the foot of the steps, for the first section where everyone was finding their feet and exhausting their lungs. People had head torches and iPhones out to see the way, I gave up on the torch someone lent me because it was being difficult and I had decided to stick close to other people ahead.

The worst part of any of it was that none of us had any idea what 1720 looked like or felt like. We had no idea whether we were halfway up or just halfway to the next stop point. Not that we were going to stop, of course, this had to be done in one: a fact which only became more apparent as the march continued. About a quarter of the way up I came up behind a couple walking side-by-side and holding everyone up, I took the opportunity at some steeper steps to barge past them wordlessly. By the time we were about a third of the way up we must have been among the leaders, there were only the two of us and a few others around. The steps disappeared in favour of a ten meter flat stretch to cross the road where we and two Frenchmen caught our breath. The Dutchman had done a marathon last year and, in his good shape, dismissed the stop to carry on up. We didn’t hang around long, 90 seconds maybe. “Nous allons” I panted to the two Frenchman next to me, and we continued.

I went first and we must have been about three quarters of the way up by the time one of them was way ahead of me and the other way behind. It was starting to get light and every so often I’d walk under a gap in the trees which would open out to a motivating view of the Andes. By this point my legs felt empty and my lungs couldn’t be full enough. But I had got into my stride, the point where you don’t really know or care what fuel your body is running on, but running it is and running it shall be for the foreseeable.


In the final stretch two people passed me, which I thought no great shame considering I must’ve overtaken about 30. And they were British which seemed reassuring. “Come on Frenchman!” I shouted down. He was nowhere. I was OK towing him along but I didn’t want to be beaten by two of the French. Worryingly from below a German accent wafted up with the deeply ironic “Come on England!” They were closing, but slowly. No way were the Germans coming past. They closed and closed on me but it took them ten minutes to close by ten meters and there was still another five to go.

It was at this point that the trees opened, the path flattened, and in front of me were the crafted concrete steps leading up to the ticket office. I regret that I felt as though I still had something left in the tank. At the top I found four Englishmen, The Dutchman and the Frenchman who had passed me. I was 7th and had completed the steps in 45 minutes: not bad for someone with an alcohol and nicotine intake which has floored navy men, and an exercise regime which would charitably be described sporadic. The Dutchman had made it in 5th at 41 minutes. The seven of us congratulated ourselves once for having made it to the top in good time, and again for not letting any Americans past. Then the first bus arrived, which received a volley of “well done everyone, you really earned it!” and “remember to stretch when you get off the bus, don’t let that lactic acid build up!”

Machu Picchu


Machu Picchu itself is – if you’ll allow me such a remark – a big, open-air, unorganised and scantly signed museum. Our guide made us wait just inside the gates for the British couple we were with who had taken the bus, obviously. This ruined our early arrival. If you go to Machu Picchu tell your guide you’ll meet them at 6:30/7am, half an hour after the gates at the top open so you can dive in and get The Picture with no tourists in view and come back to meet your group. We trudged around an incredibly clouded site for two hours while our guide told us all he knew about the Incas. I have never been that good at standing around listening to tour guides, I’m interested and intend to listen but end up bored and itching to explore.

I have also always found it slightly fascinating the way tour guides wherever you are in the world pick up a strange form of English. As though they once had a script which was badly translated and they keep referring to “private” rather than “illegal”, for example, which is quite amusing when they’re talking about cocaine (“very private”). It’s also interesting the way they always claim their society was the first and best at something which seems to have developed independently in a number of different locations. The way the Incas sculpted their stones, for example, seemed to me remarkably similar to the explanation I once read of how the Egyptians built the pyramids.

After the tour our guide left us and it started raining really rather emphatically. This caused all of us to seek shelter in the open-air bar just outside the gates of Machu Picchu. Before long it became apparent that most of the tables were taken up with backpackers: a bluetooth speaker was produced, a deck of cards for Shit Head, and beers began even if it was only 8am. This continued for three hours as we all relaxed into the usual opening sentences of traveler conversation (how long have you been away for? Where are you going? Where have you been? How long have you got left? Are you on a gap year/holiday/sabbatical?) and then on into swapping stories and tips of where to go and how to go about it.

Eventually the rain subsided, the cloud parted and we took the opportunity to get back up to the ruins. We walked round to The Sun Gate which gave us a fantastic view of our ascent, and returned to get the various obligatory pictures of Machu Picchu itself. There were hordes of selfie-takers. I have never had too much of a problem with selfies. For the people who take them all the time there must be a fairly sizable ego at work, but I have absolutely no problem with the group selfies which always look like everyone is having a good time, or the odd personal one (I think I may have taken maybe five in my entire life). The ones I really can’t stand are the people by themselves, with a selfie stick posing and pouting endlessly to get their perfect shot. For these people there seems to be a confusing vicarious solipsism at work. Though I did once take the piss out of a girl for taking too many selfies and she retorted that self-portrait has been a means of self expression and examination through many an artistic movement. I guess this argument is probably weak but is at least a good way to make a dull conversation interesting.

We wondered the ruins for a good few hours pratting about, trying out various shots of us and the scenery and being shouted at by the guards every now and then. For the people who take the train and bus all the way to Machu Picchu and do the whole trip in one day having expended almost no effort, I felt sorry. The site is unbelievable and nestled in a setting which one couldn’t design. But having truly worked for it with all day exertion and early starts, fantastic scenery and weird experiences for four days the final day seemed to make all the sense in the world. We finished sitting on the wall outside the park with a beer and a cigar each, pondering the traveling types we’d met and the various ways others seemed to do it better or worse than us. The final stretch was back down the steps which wasn’t much of a hardship, to a quick shower and onto the glass-ceiling train back through the Andes and to Cuzco.


Back to Cuzco

The next three days I cannot claim were the most enlightened of my life. We stayed in one of the most party of party hostels I’ve ever been to. We walked around town, visited the market which was absolutely fantastic, and tried guinea pig which was wholly underwhelming. But mostly we drank and danced. I can’t count how many games of beer pong we played. And we tried to hold our own with the South Americans for dancing which is not easy. Though we did get told by a Chilean girl that we were the best European dancers she’d seen, and some guy dancing on the bar next to me stopped to say “woah! You move better than a Latin!” which will remain with me as a phrase for some time. Though it turns out both were trying to sleep with me so I know not from whence their praise came.

The flight and bus back to Huanchaco provided good time to move as little as possible. By the end it felt like a full month had passed since I was on top of an Ande, on a bike, gliding round corners fully convinced I was Valentino Rossi. There is a sense on these trips that the travelers trail is too worn, too obvious, too guided. You are engineered from one place to the next by a system which suddenly drops its Latin lateness and gains all the efficiency it needs to deal with thousands of people a day. This may all be true, and certainly makes itself apparent when the American Bros turn up (“I jus’ wanna pardy, bro”). But I like to think we took our chances to do it right, hiking properly, choosing the steps rather than the bus, taking all the complaints as characterful foibles and not letting an early start get in the way of a good drink. The one thing that can always be said of these well-worn trails is that they never fail to provide the best possible mix of scenery, culture, new experiences, friendly fellow travelers and a bloody good piss-up in an unexpected setting.

Learning Spanish and Catching fish

Los PInos.jpg

Time to become more bedded in. A hostel up the beach wanted work in exchange for a free bed and free lunch, this is relatively common deal. I moved in on Wednesday and it’s pretty fucking spartan, the showers and toilets work sporadically and there isn’t much more than a few beds in the dorms to-be – but then again the beds are free which provides a significant extension to the ‘cash runway’ (as my friends in business like to refer to it) and I am currently sitting on the balcony of my dorm with a glass of whisky overlooking the pacific. Could obtain a diving license further north which will open up more opportunities to work for a bed through Central America.

Spanish lessons are the next thing. There’s an inescapable arrogance to being an English speaker, one which makes us defensive when being accused of it, but must be confronted lest it become truer and truer. The fact is that you can get by without knowing any other languages, it isn’t common to arrive somewhere where no one speak any English. But at the same time one feels a nagging sense of impotence when watching others breathlessly switch between languages to converse with locals and their fellow travellers. This feeling arrives shortly before an awareness of the exponential increase in experience possible from learning just one more tongue, especially one as prolific as Spanish.

To remedy this is to embark on a ‘back to school’ philosophy, at which point the sheer work required makes itself apparent. The long months ahead of not knowing even enough to practice in conversation, followed by fumbling around for words pronounced incorrectly and probably in the wrong tense, and the final stop before fluency of exhausting levels of cognition to hold basic conversation. So often comment is made of how amazing the speed at which kids pick up language is. But then it does take years before they could be considered as fluent as an adult, and even learning a second language beyond the ‘magic age’ of 11 (or whatever it is), with complete immersion, fluency seems possible within months.

There is a small community of volunteers here, most of whom are at least bilingual. But the road north will be without these folk and potentially slightly more treacherous without at least some basic Spanish as well. Anyway, it shall be done. And my preference has always been for a more ‘in at the deep end’ approach to learning. The need was made all the more potent to me reading Christopher Hitchens’ autobiography where he cites not having learned another language as being a lifelong regret; even after an existence as – I’m sorry to use a cliché – distinguished as his.

We went to the pier on one of the days this week – I forget which – and caught a couple of fish. Looked up a quick YouTube video to learn how to gut them before frying and eating them. The word seems strong, but it’s always been something of an ambition of mine to be able to take food from alive, in the wild, to my plate without any modern mechanisms designed for such things. To do it by myself.

I’m unsure why but there’s something to the snowballing of one’s life, that certain things are required, perhaps to justify to oneself that it’s all been worthwhile. A decent store of education and knowledge which stretches beyond the general; a personal, rather than a received, take on circumstances; a decent set of anecdotes and stories; a range of skills and know-how, which is where preparing food sits; and, the Holy Grail, the ability to get someone to pay you to do something you’d gladly pay them for the pleasure of doing.

These must all be done properly, if I can put it like that, as opposed to accomplished for the sake of themselves. And are not actually any sort of goal in themselves either, since it’s the present which must always take precedent. But these are the things which will result from time spent exploring, whether it be the exploration of books or countries or other people’s views or new experiences or whatever. And that is the way to be.

Every time my phone connects to WiFi more notifications appear from the Trump and Brexit fiascos. The only thing which seems aggravatingly clear is how little the left understand their opponents right now. Mere anger and marches and incredulity won’t suffice. Personal politics – or the politics of identity – has backfired. As the left have demanded platforms and concessions on the basis of simply feeling a certain way, so the right have dropped value-based lines and turned feelings into votes on hard issues. And the politicians we all hate provide straw men which we can  – and will, it seems – beat mercilessly while ignoring the meek and mild people who voted for them because we were nowhere to be found on their issues. And still aren’t.

Volunteering: To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

You won’t find a mango or an avocado in Peru that will put up a fight in having its flesh removed. And the tomatoes have that foreign ability to be both ripe and firm. All are inexplicably better in a way that suggests they are simply of a different league to home produce (I remain suitably suspicious of the asparagus).

Although only one session in, teaching kids is turning out to be better even than I expected. We conducted a session  on the water cycle and already it was interesting to see the classroom characters come through. The bully, the mischief-maker, the overly-friendly cry-baby. The younger, at about three to five years old, are invariably sweet and happy. And, though the slightly older kids – of maybe ten years – can make things difficult at times, I harbour a kinship with their approach to learning. Especially the mischief-maker who, perhaps a little led by the bully at times, absorbed all the information and was able to respond correctly to questions despite having displayed no previous behaviours which might imply he had been paying attention. Having watched the lesson unfold I don’t think I can claim to have grown up at all – to which all my previous bosses would probably, and hopefully nostalgically, testify.

On the way to the beach the younger of the class had an endlessly adorable and endearing habit of clasping your hand in order the cross the road, or for no reason at all.

This was my fourth day volunteering, I was ready for a beer. I and a couple of others went to a nearby restaurant to be joined after a short while by another volunteer who’d had a rough day. A medical student from Holland, she was working at the local clinic and that day, Thursday, was also her fourth day volunteering. The previous day she had come back from work delighted at having witnessed a birth – this day looked set to outperform the previous for memorability from the off.

That day, Thursday, she played a more involved role in delivering a baby, whilst washing the newborn she was taken from her post and shoved into a room with a German man unavailingly flicking through a Spanish phrasebook. Being Dutch she is probably able to speak most languages, the Peruvian doctors had semi-correctly assumed she’d be better able to communicate with the pensioner and his little book.

His wife had died. While on the third or fourth of their six-month world tour trips in their camper-van she had started to cough and fell, as he came to her aid she died in his arms. Pulmonary oedema.

His wife spoke Spanish, she was the key which unlocked this area of the world for both of them. And he had been thrust from traveling with her to the task of repatriating her body – which is, one assumes, a grim task even in a developed country whose language you speak. Word was sent for one of the German volunteers to join them, everything would be translated from Spanish to English, from English to German, and back again. They left for Trujillo, her uniform still stained with blood from the newborn’s arrival, where they answered and re-answered questions, took pictures of “documents”, and were friends to one another during a “process” which was to last all day.

As me and a couple of other volunteers pondered plans for the evening (perhaps we should go to one of the hostel bars with a deck of cards and fill some hours with beer and Shit Head) we spotted our Dutch counterpart from across the road. We’d heard of something having happened and were keen for a report but knew too little to know what to expect. She sat down and begun a sentence or two before apologising and breaking into tears. The day had been dispatched with stoicism from all, but she had just waved goodbye to the German pensioner, seeing him off into the night after a heartbreaking event and a busy day, back to a quiet camper-van which was host to both the initial event and an empty bed. After walking away from one another other each turned back to look and find the other having done the same.

Over the course of dinner she relayed the story, he was going to get in touch with the German embassy tomorrow to further the process. Having spent the day dealing with local officials and hospital staff our Dutch colleague left the story with one piece of advice: don’t die in Peru.

Next week we will host the Yo Cuido mi Playa event on the beach to teach the kids about renewable energy and the importance of keeping their beach clean – and our Dutch friend will report back to the clinic for duty.

From the Office, Back to Traveling


There isn’t much here that’s similar to London, whether you’d like it would be for you to decide but for me it’s near perfect. My stopover in Amsterdam was supposed to be an hour and a half but fog turned it into two days which was no hardship (both nights in a hotel paid for by the airline, and checked into the next flight soon enough to bag a seat with extra leg room). A friend from previous travels was free so we had dinner across the water (Pllek – go if you can). Before that I had been to the well curated and revisitable Rijksmuseum though time was tight so I swept through the Dutch empire, Van Gogh and Rembrandt. You remember how little we were taught in school about our own empire?

(Just spilled beer on my computer. Applied a hairdryer on the advice of a surfer from Florida. Seems to be OK now. Or for now.)

I arrived in Huanchaco late so didn’t see anything until my jet lagged early awakening the following morning. It did not disappoint in any regard; not in culture, size, backpackerishness or aesthetics. It’s big enough to be a verifiable town, and a laid pack surfer town at that. The people here are all very friendly, much more so than cities like London or New York. But then people from cities like those always comment on how friendly people are in places like this – in places like this other people are primarily people rather than other. In London other people are mere constituents of your surroundings and the fact they move about, unlike buildings, only makes them more irritating. There’s a strong backpacker contingent here which seems well woven into the community. The town is big enough that it doesn’t function from backpacker tourism alone like those east-coast Australian settlements.

Spoke to a suitably cool chap at the surf shop named Tito. He agreed to let me try a board at rental price if I didn’t want to buy it. I’m going to take it back, it’s too short, I’ll get a fun-board which will come in at the equivalent of £100. It’s just over 7ft which should be about right to have some laughs on. I assume I can sell it back to him when I leave, or I could take it north to Ecuador – where there is reportedly surfing of the white sandy beach and turquoise sea variety – and sell it there. Applied some surfboard wax to the grip on one of my bracelets to stop is loosening.

Important to get a handle on the situation fast. This isn’t a gap year, a year is a long time but it has an end. Slow spending as much as possible, though eating in a cheap restaurant seems to cost a similar amount to cooking for yourself. I’ve found my feet quickly which, you’ll remember, is the backpacker way. There is the cliché observation that life is slower here, already I don’t walk as fast as I used to.

Volunteering for Otra Cosa Network who run many and varied projects: women’s empowerment, literature, English, environmentalism and more. The projects are run in the surrounding shanty towns born of flooding in the mountains one El Niño year. Fundraising coordinator will be my main role with some time spent teaching kids how to look after their environment. I think I can be of use here and learn plenty.

Brexit and Trump rumble on. We seem to have crossed The Rubicon into a new age. Aspiration, globalisation and the like were ideas which blossomed after Thatcher, but now seem of a different time. The people who seemed to be members of a reactionary bubble turned out to be the majority. Important to come to terms with the idea that winning their votes is a prerequisite to the formation of a progressive government. Well, I leave that to you. My inglorious departure is in its infancy.