The menú, a Peruvian institution, is a multi-course, set meal offered at many restaurants mainly for lunch and sometimes for supper. It is always good value, costing as little as 30-50% of à la carte prices. Most of the time, one menú is easily enough food for the both of us. Hungry for traveling? Peru itself presents to a visitor an incredibly varied menú of high quality attractions.
As a tasty appetizer, sea lions dive into the waters off the Islas Ballestas and condors soar elegantly and effortlessly on the winds rising from the Cañón del Colca. This is followed by a terrific soup of ruins in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The main courses are out of this world: Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines, and the ice mummy "Juanita". As delicious desserts, towering sand dunes at Huacachina and excellent cuisine in Arequipa and Cuzco are served. The right ambiance is guaranteed by altiplano scenery with grazing llamas, vicuñas, and alpacas, plus 6000m high volcanoes, and the beautiful Lake Titicaca. Icing on the cake are the colonial centers of Arequipa and Cuzco.
Every now and then, these set meals include foods that are not to our liking, but are still served on our plates. The same did happen for Peru itself, and it left a
a very strong and bitter aftertaste. At Cañón del Colca, we witness a severe case of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). A traveler in our group collapses, terrifyingly gasping for air, does not respond to dry oxygen, and must be rushed to hospital for wet oxygen and an injection to increase the body's ability to transport oxygen.
On the way to Nazca, we pass the scene of a horrific traffic accident, a head-on collision of two buses of the same bus company, which has left a long trail of devastation on the road. In addition to the half sheared buses themselves, there are glass and debris everywhere. Seats are lying in the middle of the road, some of them still seating dead passengers - half-covered bodies. A foot is sticking out of the side of one bus. There is a hand, its fingers clutch the ledge of a shattered window. Motionless. We also freeze. We involuntarily get a full, close-up view when our minibus must drive right through the field of debris and in front of survivors standing in shock at the side of the road. Some people on our minibus start to cry, some turn their heads, and we look at the expressions of horror on each other's faces. Then, all on the minibus become very quiet as our driver continues on to Nazca. We were to have used that same bus company that morning.
Two days before leaving Cuzco by bus for Puno, the evening's national news reports on a bus accident near Cuzco. The bus of a company we had considered taking missed a bridge, and plunged into a dry riverbed. The television pictures show the rescue crew rummaging through the wreckage, carrying out dead bodies, and covering them with pieces of cloth. As if this were not enough, this report is followed by an unedited decapitation of a hostage in Iraq, shown in explict and gory detail. Then, reports of two suicides: a man hanged himself - he is shown swinging in his house; another man let exhaust into his car - he is shown lying in his car, the camera zooming in on his face and on the signature on the letter that he has written and placed on the passenger seat. All these scenes are "as is", unadulterated. At this very moment, I did not want to be in Peru any longer, but of course, the next day things felt different and we stayed.
The boat ride from Isla Amantaní to the mainland at Puno is rough. It begins with most of the passengers being nervous from the get-go because the previous day's boat ride from the mainland to Isla Amantaní was rough, emetically so. Now, we are leaving the island, late because the captain, crew, and island locals debate both the merits of leaving itself and of continuing to Isla Taquile vs returning directly to the mainland. It is a beautifully sunny, but very windy day. Because of the wind, it turns out that the waves are too high to moor the boat on Isla Taquile, a scheduled sightseeing stop en route to the mainland. We try, but the boat rocks heavily, and is thrown towards the concrete jetty much too quickly. It is a narrow miss, and the captain decisively shouts to head straight back to the mainland. I never thought that I would be writing this story, not even after the second bus accident. But now as the boat reaches calmer waters and the life jackets are beginning to come off, the kids of the German family have stopped crying, and no one looks seasick and scared anymore, I realize that I have to write this story.
I have had closer calls in my life. I fell asleep for a split second while driving a friend's car by myself on the autobahn at 130 km/h. Luckily, there was no traffic and the road was wide enough. At the Pacific coast of Mexico, I misjudged the force of the ocean's current, was pushed under and swirled around like clothes in a washing machine. By fluke, I could come up for one breath of air before being pulled down for a second time. After the second round, I somehow made it to shore. Totally exhausted, I dragged myself up the beach to where the waves could not reach me anymore .... Change of scene to a pitch-black street in a small town in Myanmar. kN's waist-high fall into a dried-up sewage canal on the side of this street was both a greater scare, and then a greater relief when we realized that she was unhurt, than anything that happened in Peru. So why do I need to write this story about Peru?
The incidents in Peru were too frequent and transportation-related, attacking traveling at its core. I am concerned that if I do not write this story, the unpalatable aftertastes will linger for too long and begin to define my time in Peru, and unfairly begin to define Peru itself. Peru does not deserve this. Once, however, irrational fear overtakes healthy cautiousness, exploration - and traveling is exploring - comes to a halt. This may not even be confined to Peru, but may impact traveling anywhere. Writing this story keeps the irrational fear created by the incidents in Peru at a prudent and sensible level. I can look at them as what they are: very regrettable, reasonably unlikely events which unfortunately do happen sometimes somewhere. I know that the bitter aftertastes of the few bad apples which come with set meals do not spoil the entire menú.
And, I am on the road again ...