Update 8: 21st May 2000

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This week I covered another 50 miles of the Royal Road and saw modern Peruvians at their best and worst. Climbing out of the Yanahuanca Gorge, I arrived rather breathlessly at a collection of adobe huts called Tambopampa and poked my head inside the village shop, hoping to buy some bread and cheese. The place seemed empty, but as I was about to leave there emerged from a back room a bespectacled young man. “Hello gringo friend, you’re the answer to my prayers. I’m the schoolmaster here and I desperately need someone to open our sports day and judge the teams.”

There was no time to protest. I was hauled over to the school, given a chair on a platform and handed a microphone. After a hurried consultation as to the name of the school, I declared the day well and truly open and as the teams filed past I had to assess them for presentation, deportment and martiality. The last of these, a new one for me, involved each team addressing the platform with a kind of military salute and battlecry. It made me feel like Winston Churchill inspecting the troops. I totted up the scores, announced the winners and made some consoling remarks to the losers. Then, with great ceremony, the schoolmaster’s wife – who also ran the village shop – presented me with a bag of bread, cheese and roasted maize and the whole school clapped. How satisfying to be a VIP without having lifted a finger to deserve it!

My next two days lay across the vast and mournful Plateau of Bombón. Imagine the remotest of moorlands, dissected by a thousand peaty streams and grazed by occasional sulky llamas and grimy sheep. Then add hour after hour of rain turning to snow. The Royal Road rose and fell across this plain, heading for the Inca city of Bombón on the shores of Lake Junín; but two-thirds of the way across I was confronted by a huge, unfordable river and had to divert to a road.

A car came along and I accepted a lift, crammed with two other people into the rear luggage space. Facing backwards, I was idly watching a bus following us (and rather wishing I was on it), when without warning the bus careered off the road, jumped a ditch and turned with a horrible crunch onto its side. We skidded to a halt and ran back fearing the worst. The bus was a mangled wreck, but miraculously I found myself helping passenger after passenger climb out through the skylight with only bruises and scratches to show for their ordeal. There were dozens of them, from babies wrapped in blankets to old women in their bustling skirts and shawls. After about twenty had come through the hatch I stopped to catch my breath, and turned round just in time to see my car speeding away – with my belongings still inside!

I stared in disbelief; then came to my senses and ran to another car that had just pulled up. “Follow that car!” I cried at the driver (or something to this effect). He looked me up and down; then, agonisingly slowly, said “I’m full.” This was true. On the other hand my cameras, recording equipment and precious films and tapes – not to mention the tent, sleeping bag and all my clothes – were receding rapidly over the horizon. “I’ll pay you 10 soles if you catch it,” I pleaded. “Done,” he grinned; and out tumbled his unfortunate front-seat passenger, to be left open-mouthed by the roadside as we raced off in pursuit.

After about five miles we came level with the speeding car, and my new driver, using skills learned from a hundred video movies, made a smart but very dangerous manoeuvre and practically drove the other off the road. I tumbled out amid the settling dust and the other driver wound down his window. “Oh, I forgot about you,” he smirked. Luckily my things were untouched. I paid off my rescuer. “Shall I take you back?” he offered; but somehow I felt this was tempting fate. “No thanks,” I replied, “I’d rather walk.”

Back at the crashed bus, two passengers had been taken to hospital and the rest were sitting disconsolately on the verge. I explained my hasty departure. Nobody seemed surprised. Apparently no one ever stops at an accident for fear of being accused of having caused it. But the cause of this one wasn’t hard to find. Underneath the bus’s chassis, the joint linking the steering column to the front wheels had been bound by a pathetic bandage of rubber strips. The link was dangling in the breeze.

Which just goes to show that even on the Plateau of Bombón, you’re better off in the wilderness than in the modern world.

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