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It was the second time I’d seen the armadillo, but this time it was covered in confetti.
As I stood and pondered why there was a dead armadillo chained up outside a Cuzco internet café, a toothless man popped up next to the animal and cheerfully informed me it was the armadillo’s birthday, hence the confetti, while cackling madly.

It seemed despite being a tourist Mecca Cuzco was not without its idiosyncrasies, I couldn’t decide if I loved or loathed the place. After all the little Andean towns it was strangely comforting to see so many tourists marred only by the fact that all of them were clad in ‘activity’ trousers teamed with llama wool hats and large cameras.
The Plaza de Armas was a mob of relentless restaurant, massage and tour hustlers. But I had decided to avoid a tour and take the train to Machu Picchu in peace and without a guide, so I thought, but it seems the Bert Howie’s of Paul’s day are still around and have grown in number. The tour group surrounding me on the 4.15pm Vistadome were all already sporting Machu Picchu sun hats, one had some sort of Peruvian instrument in a hippie bag and several wore utility jackets.

The Urubamba valley was immense, its high peaks, left undisturbed by the world until Hiram Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911, towered over the river and train tracks at the bottom of the valley. I didn’t want to like the ‘Vistadome’ train, named thus for its windows in the ceiling, I wanted to prefer the locals trains I had travelled on, but I had to admit that I rather enjoyed being able to see the peaks of the mountains as the train rattled along the tracks.

The Japanese couple beside me relaxed and put on their slippers as their mulleted tour guide bleated on about the difficulties of the Inca trail and how taking the train was ‘easy peasy, lemon squeezey, Japanesey.’ Not very politically correct considering his audience.
I felt strangely alienated from these wealthy tourists and they in turn seemed not to know what to make of me, so left me alone.
Perhaps they took me for a ‘freebooting backpacker’ just like the ones Paul encountered in the seventies. The breed still exists but they now seem to spend any extra pennys they find on cheap, potentially dangerous adventure sports. I’d seen many of them busing into towns, white-water rafting, trekking and then busing out without even a glance at the local community or culture.

I felt alienated from these travellers also, with no inclination for adventure sports or buses if I could avoid them. I felt like a strange observer neither in one camp or another.
This feeling reminded me of Paul’s comment: “ I had neither a tourist badge or a rucksack. I trod a narrow implausible line between the two…” (although I do actually have a rucksack and often wonder how Paul managed this journey with a suitcase.)

The tinny pan pipe music on the train suddenly changed to an upbeat dance song and it was announced that we were to be subjected to an alpaca fashion show, unfortunately not including alpacas themselves, just embarrassed train staff in rather nasty jumpers parading up and down the carriages. As we neared Machu Picchu I wasn’t sure who felt more embarrassed, me or them.

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These words, from The Old Patagonian Express, rang in my ears as I clung to the edge of my seat and kept my eyes tightly shut as the bus negotiated the highest, narrowest and scariest ‘puna’ (high, cold plateau) I had ever encountered.
Taking a route across the Andes via Andahuaylas had seemed like an excellent idea from the comfort of a town that actually had paved roads running in and out of it.

Two bumpy, dusty hours out of Ayacucho and frightened for my life I was beginning to have my doubts. Alarm bells had started ringing when the bus driver had backed out of the station smashing his wing mirror off in the process, this was not boding well for his negotiation skills, but I tried not to worry and kept my head in my book, also trying not to think about the fact the bus looked as though most of it had been glued back together at one stage or another in its long life.
An hour out of Ayacucho the brakes started making a horrific squealing noise, further adding to my panic. It was starting to become very difficult to concentrate on reading (My book: Mario Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes – not a great choice at this point in the trip) and by the time we reached the puna I didn’t know what to do with myself.
We were as high as the highest snowy peaks and the formidable mountains surrounded us as the creaking monster of a bus struggled around the hair pin bends, looking at every moment as if it might slip off the road and down into the precipice below. At each bend the driver hit the squeaky breaks and honked his horn for the benefit of any oncoming traffic.

I alternated between staring out of the window while shrieking quietly to myself in harmony with the breaks and keeping my eyes closed and breathing deeply. Just as my thoughts of ’why, why did I choose this route?’ started to get out of control, the driver came to a screeching halt and all the passengers screamed as we nearly had a head on collision with a truck on a hairpin bend overlooking a sheer drop of 350 ft.
This had an almost cathartic effect on my mood. How much worse could this get? I thought to myself, and an hour later when we stopped for lunch I shared my fears with one of the ladies on the bus. She looked at me and burst out laughing: “This bus journey is very safe the roads are wide, they used to be a lot worse than this. There is no reason to be scared.” I felt a little bit embarrassed and laughed nervously while thinking… well its easy for you not to be scared there is no awareness of safety in this country whatsoever. Just walking down the road is a liability with uncovered drains and giant potholes everywhere you look. A simple stroll to the local shop would be an American lawyers dream.
After lunch the track became slightly more tolerable and I spent a great deal of the afternoon trying not to be covered in a bottle of oil a local woman had brought onto the bus. She was dressed in local garb with a smelly bundle on her back and a lidless bottle that kept tipping over and emptying its contents over my feet. The problem was made worse by the fact that whenever I tried to right the bottle she snatched at it, thinking I was trying to steal it and snarled at me with a toothless grimace. Just as I thought things could not get anymore uncomfortable or weird a man got on the bus and started giving the passengers some sort of sex education talk before trying to sell them posters of scientific diagrams of genitalia.
It is safe to say that the ten-hour trip from Ayacucho to Andahuaylas had been one of the worst so far and that the Lonely Planet’s description of “a tough ride on a road rarely used except by the most hard-core travellers” was not wrong, although I very much doubted that I fell into the category of ‘hard-core traveller’.

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