I decided if I was going to get out of riot plagued Chala, I was going to need to form an alliance. After the previous night’s faux hijacking, which turned out to be a passenger in first class sleep fighting, there was no way I was spending another night in this sun baked dust town. But with the Pan American Highway blocked in both directions, an Axl/Slash reunion* seemed more likely to happen than me getting out to enjoy the rest of my time in Peru.
I noticed that groups were beginning to form based on how long one was traveling through Peru. If you were in the group that hung out with the locals and drank whiskey, time was not an issue for you. The people in this group were often overheard saying things like, “Welcome to South America!” or “How’s this for an authentic travel experience?” If you were sitting with the people who were crying and freaking out, you were probably on a tighter travel schedule that centered around a series of non refundable flights or a spot on the Inca Trail. As for me, I only had a week and a half left and was re-structuring my trip every hour we were stationary.
“If we get to Arequipa tonight, maybe I could do one day in Colca Canyon, half day in Arequipa and go to Lake Titicaca on Friday.”
“Okay, not getting there tonight. Sooo, no Colca Canyon, and 2 days at Lake Titicaca.”
“Maybe I should just go to Cusco for a couple of days.”
“I know. I’ll go to Bolivia instead. That’ll be fun.”
“I’m never getting out of here.”
As one of the few solo travelers on the bus, I had my choice of which group to align myself with. I started to evaluate my options.
There was the French Brigade, made of two couples from France. They came up with the plan to walk through the desert to the next town over, about 10 kilometers away and catch a ride to Arequipa from there. From who? They didn’t know but they were confident someone would give them a ride. This seemed exceptionally crazy to me and destined to end with vultures nibbling on their sun cooked remains. As they slapped wet towels over their heads, we all wished them luck and they left, the first defectors from the Cruz Del Sur bus.
Then there was the group of people I met in Huacachina. I knew I could have fun with them as my time in Peru dwindled but they lacked any sort of urgency about the situation. We could stay here till the end of time and they’d be okay with it, content to shoot the shit with the locals forever. I needed to get out today if I were to have any hope in salvaging my trip. Perhaps if I also had 3 months in South America, I would have stayed with them and done the same. Instead, since they were so chummy with the locals, they were the first people I went to when I needed to get insider information.
The first person I selected for my alliance was Keren, a 23 year old solo traveler from Israel. I liked that she was young and traveling by herself, embarking on her own five month trip through South America. Another reason I picked her was because her Spanish was much better than mine and being from Israel, I knew she could hang. Also, she was one of the only people that expressed the appropriate reaction to last night’s faux hijacking. Which was, admitting that she was terrified (like me) and was not staying another night (also like me).
After the French Brigade made their exit, the bored frustration felt amongst the remaining passengers quickly turned into heated blame toward Cruz Del Sur’s inability to give us any information about our situation. Why did they get to leave and we were still here? Angry phone calls to tour companies were being made and ridiculous rumors surfaced claiming that a military jet was on its way and would be airlifting us out of Chala.
Passengers from the adjacent buses came over to share their theories on when we might be getting out of here. A trio of Americans teaching in Arequipa optimistically predicted we would be moving within the day. One of the Americans, Chad, a SoCal expat and the voluntary pied piper of Chala, played games with the kids that lived in the village. He spoke perfect Spanish to them and offered food instead when they asked him for money. He also displayed a solid knowledge of the area, sharing geographical details about the desert mountains and coastal highway. All of that combined with a wicked sense of humor made him the obvious choice for leader of my alliance.
I looked over to Neil, who had traveled to Peru from Australia and was on his honeymoon. “He should be the leader of our alliance.”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
I approached Neil and Laura about forming an alliance when I discovered their desire to get out was on par with mine. I asked them, if they were to join my alliance, what skills they had to offer. Neil said I would benefit from his conversion abilities since I was from America and didn’t know how use the metric system. Laura confessed she didn’t have much to contribute to the alliance expect being someone I could talk to. Like a sister, she said. Laura very much underestimated her worth to the alliance. Her long shiny blond hair was the perfect bartering tool if we happened to get caught in a sticky situation. A couple from Holland was sort of in the alliance but only because they said their tour company might be sending a car over to pick them up and take them back to Nazca. While this seemed somewhat promising, it could not be counted on, since very few cars were allowed through the roadblocks and only if they were hanging a white flag from their back window.
As Neil and I prepared to offer Chad the position of alliance leader, a black helicopter flying low to the ground approached. Initially we thought this was the beginning of the end, a signal that the government was now getting involved and we would soon be on our way.
As the helicopter flew over us, we could see a man hanging out of an open door, a giant machine gun resting in the crook of his arm. He opened fire on the rioters who were a stationed a few kilometers away. The children continued to sing and dance around us, oblivious to the gunfire. Unfortunately, not only did this spark another round of intense fighting it caused Chad and his group to have to go back to their bus. Our leader was gone and the alliance deteriorated.
It was getting to be late in the afternoon and spending another night in Chala seemed inevitable. I mulled over this depressing thought as I sat on the steps of the bus. I had already decided since I wouldn’t be able to properly do Peru, I would go Bolivia for the rest of my trip and take it easy. I’d heard good things about Bolivia. It’s supposed to be nice this time of year. But by the way things were going, I’d never get there either! I kicked a patch of dirt to release some pent up frustration. And then I kicked it again. It was so satisfying, kicking this patch of dirt, I almost missed the vehicular unicorn passing through the crowd of tourists.
A white station wagon with a white flag hanging in its back window, packed with a family of four and their belongings heading to Nazca had materialized seemingly out of nowhere. I almost pinched myself. This was the first time in 3 days I saw anything that looked like it could be a legitimate way out of town.
Must. Do. Something. Now.
Keren was already on it. She chased the station wagon down and negotiated a price of 30 soles for a ride back to Nazca. I grabbed my stuff, hastily signed away any responsibility to Cruz Del Sur on an unused coffee filter, hopped into the station wagon with Keren and rode with a small Chilean boy on my lap the whole way back to Nazca.
After checking into a 3 dollar a night hostel and having best shower of my life, I went to eat dinner in a three walled pizzeria with Keren and two other travelers. We talked long into the night about traveling in Peru and whether or not we would visit Nazca’s desert cemeteries tomorrow. And wouldn’t you know it, I was really enjoying myself!
So the plan for the rest of my trip would be to take an overnight bus to Cusco the following day, hang out in Cusco for two days then take another overnight bus to Copacabana, Bolivia and stay there through the weekend, visiting the ruins located on the Isla del Sol. Then I would return to Cusco to catch my flight back to Lima/NYC. Okay, so this was drastically different from my original trip itinerary but hey, sometimes that happens when you travel.
Of course, sometimes you have to make a new itinerary from your first new itinerary, which is what I had to do once I arrived in Cusco.
* Guns ‘N Roses were touring in South America at the time so I thought this was a suitable comparison.