A month after my trip to the 'eyebrow of the jungle,' as it is called, I came down with hepatitis, it might well have been contracted drinking contaminated water in the mountains or even, perhaps, swimming in the hotel pool at Tarma which, as it had been winter, was not in official use. I had never felt so sick. I turned bright yellow and had a fever. Until the disease was diagnosed and I was despatched to hospital I saw the world through a yellowish haze of depression characteristic of the virus. Paranoid, I thought 1 was actually dying and lay simmering with rage against this alien country that I held responsible.
The Hospital de Empleados in Lince was a splendid building, fourteen storeys high, with excellent facilities. I spent a month in the isolation ward on the fourteenth storey. My room was clean and comfortable with its own bathroom and toilet. Originally the hospital had been built for government employees, but now anyone who paid contributions to the national health scheme, as I did, was entitled to treatment there. This meant that it was, in effect, for the middle-classes, not for the Indians, the shanty-dwellers and the very poor, working as itinerant labourers on a daily basis or as domestic-servants, or self-employed as bootblacks and flower-sellers who would not have, been paying any contributions.
I was immediately placed on a fat-free diet. Despite such a limitation it was the best institutional food I've ever had. I was given a thorough medical check - urine, blood, heart, lungs, liver. I was treated with vitamins and antibiotics. Within a week I was feeling better and my depression had fitted Once the jaundice disappeared I was virtually left alone to enjoy three weeks of convalescence. Although I wasn't allowed visitors I never felt lonely, for the nurses, who had to wear masks when they treated me, were friendly. One of them, a petite Chinese, whose parents had originally emigrated from Hong Kong, spoke English. Jabbing needles into my buttocks first thing in the morning seemed to amuse her and she was sweetly ironic when I got alarmed at the idea of having a liver biopsy. She assisted the doctor who gave me a local anaesthetic then pushed a needle into my right side just below the ribs. The black viscous stuff of my liver felt as if it were being sucked out.
While in hospital, with a view of Lima from the window and on clear days the metallic-blue Pacific with the mauve outline of San Lorenzo out in the bay, I was forced into myself but enjoyed the solitude and introspection. I went over the last few months and tried to analyse my reasons for returning to South America to teach English in a private college. I wondered whether I shouldn't have stayed in England and pursued my twin career as a teacher and writer rather than seeking the excitement of travel and adventure Of course, the answer eluded me.
We had left Liverpool on the 1st March 1964 in SS Salamanca, a PSNC cargo-boat. The Atlantic crossing had taken ten days and we'd encountered really rough seas, waves washing across the deck, sluicing the scuppers. Our first port-of-call was Bermuda. We stayed there for several days, exploring the island, Hamilton and the old capital of St George's, before sailing south to Nassau.
Another five or six days there, exploring the town and swimming at Paradise Beach before sailing on to Santo Domingo, capital of Dominica. We spent a day at Curacao to refuel then sailed along the Colombian coast to Cristobal-Colon on the Caribbean side of the Panama isthmus. We were a week in Panama, spending our evenings in the seedy but exciting town of Colon where the rats waddled down the dirt sidewalks and the bars were full of whores. While we were there I crossed the isthmus by bus to Panama City and the ruins of old Panama.
Finally we left, negotiating the Panama Canal and following the route of those early Spanish explorers. I can clearly recall the evening as we emerged from the Canal, out into the Bay of Bilbao, heading for the Pacific Ocean. Behind us was a view of the mountainous headland, a suspension bridge across the mouth of the Canal, a breakwater lined with palms and the sweep of Panama City, its white buildings amber in the setting sun. Once we were a mile or so out at sea the whole scene blurred into mauve haze - land, sea and sky merging into shades of blue, the water like an undulating sheet of glass. And following the ship were thousands of frigates, cormorants, gulls and pelicans.
A couple of days later we entered the brackish water of the bay at Buenaventura in Colombia. Along the banks were stilted shacks, spidery above the white beaches. Two sharks shot away like speedboats from our bows as we cut through the floating debris. The port itself on a neck of land that jutted into the bay seemed almost like an island. All we could see were lines of corrugated-iron roofs climbing the slopes above the docks. The Spanish explorer, Andagoya, had landed here
in 1522 He was the first Spaniard to hear of a land called Viru or Biru, where it was said there was an advanced Indian civilisation. When it reached Panama this rumour was to inspire Pizarro to voyage south.
Buenaventura was a hot sweaty place. That night, after we'd experienced a tremendous tropical storm with blue and purple flashes of lightning illuminating the whole place, we went ashore. The seamen had advised us against doing so at night as one of the crew had been mugged on their last trip. Armed with knives and a beautiful but lethal swordstick owned by one of the passengers we found the town tranquil. Wooden-balconied shacks painted blue or red lined the steep narrow streets. Adverts in gaudy colours jutted evenly across. Feeling a bit like buccaneers we drank beer at a number of bars. The whores in each were provocative and vivacious, an attractive blend of races - Indian, African and European. They swarmed around us but were rather resentful of the two English women who had accompanied us. Towards midnight, sipping a last beer at a pavement cafe, we saw a black kid crossing the street on all fours. Like some grotesque creature, his legs and hips withered and useless, he crawled painfully towards us. Making inarticulate groans he held his hand out for money. We tossed him a few coins and felt guilty about the knives we had armed ourselves with. Mine was pressing a little uncomfortably into the pad of flesh around my waist.
The beggars were numerous. The following morning a woman with an inflamed stump of an arm, about which the flies were buzzing, followed us, pleading for dollars. In the hot sticky atmosphere we climbed to the top of the hill to see the statue of Andagoya. Beneath us was a palm-fringed beach covered in detritus - empty tin-cans, old car tyres and rotting fish. Dozens of small huts nestled on stilts above the mud. Along the main street fruit-stalls sold mangoes, pineapple and papaya. Washing was stretched out drying on bushes. Hundreds of people were milling around the market. The occasional brilliant sky-blue or pink car bounced down the rubble-strewn street. At sunset when we strolled up the hill once more, the stilted huts with their blackened thatch no longer appeared squalid. Puce-coloured water lapped the pale beach and from the darkness came the stray sound of a guitar and the soft murmur of children's voices.
As the SS Salamanca steamed out of Buenaventura I went forward into the bows. The sun was hot, the sea a rusty brown, while a porpoise scratched itself against the rusty hull of the ship and the powerful land-smell lingered in the tepid breeze. That night we must have passed the Isle of Galto where Pizarro was stranded in 1527. It was the scene of one of the most dramatic incidents of the Conquest. When most of his men were on the point of mutiny, clamouring to return to Panama, Pizarro drew his sword and traced a line in the sand. Turning towards the south he said: "Friends and comrades, on that side are toil, hunger, nakedness, the drenching storm, desertion and death; on this side, ease and pleasure. There lies Peru with its riches; here, Panama and its poverty. Choose, each man, what best becomes a brave Castilien For my part, I go to the south." He then crossed the line and was followed by thirteen others. These men were to form the nucleus of the later successful expedition. Their loyalty to Pizarro was to be hugely rewarded.
During the night we anchored off La Libertad at the mouth of the Guayas River. Cargo was unloaded onto rafts which were tugged away by small boats. While this was going on the Ecuadorian customs officials came aboard with a dozen well-armed soldiers. To our astonishment they began going through every cabin, removing radios, cigarettes, cameras, binoculars, watches and anything else that took their fancy. This loot was piled on the forward-deck and guarded by the soldiers. A heavy-duty was placed on the goods and the Captain refused to pay it. Confiscation was threatened. As personal goods on a ship are considered sacrosanct, the raid seemed tantamount to an act of piracy. For an hour the argument continued. The crew were getting restive. They swore they would never allow their things to be removed. Eventually the purser bribed the Ecuadorian soldiers with cartons of cigarettes and a bottle of whiskey each. Full of phoney apologies they returned the stuff to its owners.
At first light we were steaming down the Estero Saltado to the north of Puna Island. It was here off the Ecuadorian coast that Pizarro on one of his earlier expeditions had captured an Inca balsa raft with cotton sails. It was carrying silver, gold, rubies besides woollen and cotton fabrics with intricate embroideries of birds, fish and animals. It was the first concrete intimation of a rich civilisation to the south. He also captured three Indians who were taken to Panama and taught Spanish. As interpreters they were to prove invaluable later. It was here, too, that Pizarro's priest, Father Valverde, who was made the first Bishop of Cuzco, was captured and eaten by a tribe of cannibals who inhabited the island.
As we sailed up the estuary we could see bluish mountains in the distance. Small skiffs with lateen sails hugged the shore. The banks were jungled with mangrove swamp. At intervals the vegetation was broken by clusters of stilted huts. When we docked at Guayaquil dozens of Indians swarmed aboard setting parrots, monkeys, ponchos, guitars and bows and arrows. Big green and black butterflies flew round the deck. An Indian with an anteater on a lead strolled up and down the jetty. Once ashore we took a taxi down a rutted red dirt-road to the city itself. There we strolled along the Malecon, passed the statue commemorating the famous meeting between the liberators Bolivar and San Martin, in July 1822. No one knows precisely what happened on this occasion but clearly the two leaders were incompatible. After their meeting San Martin slipped quietly away, returning to Lima, then to Buenos Aires and finally to Europe and exile, taking no further part in the struggle for liberation. This was left to Bolivar and his 'International Army’. He went on to defeat the Spanish in the Andes and bring colonial rule to an end in South America.
We walked to Cerro de las Penas in the old part of the city. Bustling with people the streets round the hill were a labyrinth of rickety and rambling houses. In the heart of this area we came across a statue of Crellana, the founder of the city, famous for his incredible descent down the entire length of the Amazon. From the top of the hill Guayaquil appeared to be surrounded by inlets of the Guayas River, the jungle extending to the first ridge of blue hills. Towering beyond and above were the snowcapped Andes. I was reminded of Conrad's Nostromo. It was probably his visits to Guayaquil as a merchant seaman that had inspired his novel.
We left the Gulf the following day. As the Salamanca emerged into the open sea it ploughed through a school of manta rays that flapped from its bows like brown blankets. That afternoon we were off the coast of Peru, the foothills yellowish pink at sunset. During the night we passed Tumbez where Pizarro first landed on his successful expedition in 1532 with a mere sixty-two horsemen and a hundred-and-six foot-soldiers.
Next day we anchored in the bay at Paita, a small somnolent town pungent with the smell of fishmeal from a nearby factory. Here there was also a whaling-station and a tuna-refrigeration plant. We bought some whale-teeth which were sold as souvenirs in the dusty fly-infested town. Five or six inches long they were carved into penguins. Over the next couple of days we called at every little port along the coast: Eten, Pimentel, Salaverry and Chimbote. The scenery which we were to grow accustomed to remained constant: stark mountainous desert in various shades of grey and ochre. From the ship it looked ethereal like a lunar landscape. That evening anchored off the Guano Islands their steep rocky pinnacles dwarfing the ship, thousands of seabirds strung out in almost geometrical formation, the town of Chimbote insignificant against the foothills, there was a memorable sunset full of smouldering reds and oranges.
Finally we sailed into the port of Callao. Once again we encountered the smell of fish-meal from the factories. The water of the bay was olive-green and San Lorenzo Island like a whale's back beyond. Our taxi swept out of port, passing vendors of fruit, llama rugs and ponchos. At the roadside were squat adobe huts on the edge of fields of maize and cotton. Always in the background were the arid foothills. Suddenly we had our first glimpse of Lima. Snug against the hilts it looked pink and hazy at this distance.
That voyage took us six weeks. We had now been in Lima six months but my impressions were still vivid. While in the hospital I began to study Spanish in more depth and read whatever books I could get about Peru. I re-read Prescott’s History of the Conquest some of the Chronicles which were available in Spanish, novels by Vargas Llosa and Giro Alegria as well as some anthologies of contemporary Peruvian poetry. I was keen to find out as much as I could about the place. About this time I read in the papers that an American explorer, Gene Savoy, had discovered the lost Inca city of Vilcabamba and believed he had sighted the ruins of Espiritu Pampa. He was sure that these ruins and not Machu Picchu, as the earlier American explorer, Hiram Bingham, had assumed, were Manco's capital after the 1536 rebellion. My sojourn in hospital was a period of solitary confinement that I'd probably needed for ages. Out of self-disgust engendered by the depression jaundice can cause I recalled an incident that somehow symbolised the superficial way I had been drifting along. It was our last night aboard the Salamanca before reaching Callao. Drunk I had climbed down the gang-plank left dangling over the side as were hopping ports along the coast and executed a series of gymnastic tricks. Holding on with one hand I gazed into the phosphorous-flecked foam of the wash. The distant coastline looked about five miles away, but was more likely fifteen. For one absurd moment I contemplated plunging in and swimming ashore. I would almost certainly have drowned or been attacked by blue sharks. That memory appalled me. With my diseased liver I'd come close enough to catch a whiff of death. It was a rancid smell I associated with the smell and taste of blood and bile; the hangover taste of nicotine and alcohol; the smell of a brothel I'd visited in Lima, a combination of disinfectant, urine, sperm and peardrops; the smell of dried phlegm and dead cockroaches crushed underfoot in a mess of DDT powder in a hotel bedroom in Mendoza; or the stale smell of the man in the ward next to mine. He was stretched out in bed with tubular apparatus all round him, having constant transfusions and glucose drips, the blood trickling into him through tubes. And I could hear him coughing it up again at night.
When I was finally discharged from hospital I was met by Guillermo Descalzi, son of the Director of the College where I taught. We drove in his Volkswagen down Calle Arenales into San Isidro. The roar and tumult of the traffic made me jumpy -I was so unused to it. And having almost stopped smoking I noticed the fragrant or pungent aromas of the street: eucalyptus and bad drains, garlic and spices from restaurants. It was a heady smell after four weeks of hospital hygiene. The jacaranda trees were spilling their purple blossom along the pavements and the Bosque, a gnarled olive grove planted by a 17th century Viceroy, was shimmering and green. It was the southern spring and I felt glad to be there.
I had written or telephoned Ena, my wife, nearly everyday while I was in isolation and it was during this time that we decided to have a baby. Micaela was born in June the following year. Ena went into a Catholic-run clinic so I wasn't able to watch the birth but I remember the kindness and help we received from our Peruvian friends, in general Peruvians are extremely fond of children, often to the point of what the English would regard as indulgence, and they were pleased that we, gringos should have a child in their country in their eyes it seemed to establish us as honorary Peruvians ourselves. Micaela's birth, then, was both associated with our delight in the country and also, in a certain way, a reflection of it.