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
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
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
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.