After the bus ride from hell, fourteen hours of switchbacks, gear changes that would make Jeremy Clarkson weep and speeds that could see the driver win the Dakar (perhaps that is what he was practising for now that it is held in these parts) we arrived alive into Abancay (2,378m). Abancay is the most important city in the Apurimac Region. With a population nearing 70,000, it is equipped with all of the necessities of modern living but still holds on to many of the traditional elements of life in the mountains. The people are warm, friendly and helpful suggesting places to visit and how to get there using the local public transport – an experience in itself. Perhaps their friendly disposition has something to do with their city’s famous year round warm weather, Abancay is fondly referred to as ‘the eternal springtime valley’ and the beautiful Pachachaca river provides fresh fish, water and even links to some pretty special hot springs not too far from town.
Something interesting I have noticed since arriving in Peru is the number of environmental murals adorning, mostly, the outer walls of schools. It is very encouraging to see that th local government and educational institutions take looking aft the environment seriously. Some of the murals are comical and easy to understand showing before and after pictures. Others are quite confronting, almost threatening. I guess it’s another way to get the message across if the warmer fuzzier messages didn’t hit the spot. Perhaps a trip to Peru should be on the agenda for Australia’s newest Prime Minister and his team… Despite the apparent environmental awareness, the petrol here seems to contain levels of sulphur the last of which I experienced in Waiotapo in New Zealand. Catalytic converters are clearly not regulated or possibly even required. At altitude, this makes for pretty dismal air quality and any attempt to go for a run results in chest pain and a kind of wheezing that sits in your throat (a bloody good excuse to hang about drinking pisco sours and eating these incredible shallow fried potato stuffed capsicums far as I’m concerned).
Abancay was a rest stop, for me in particular, an opportunity to begin to acclimatise to the altitude in preparation for Cusco and the Inca Trail. Most days were spent wandering, eating and drinking. But like in every Latin American town I have spent time in, there was always something going on. On our first night there was a street parade of sorts honouring ‘El Señor de los Milagros’ (Lord of miracles). Dutiful priests and alter men carried a cumbersome, magnificently adorned glass casket of Jesus through the streets followed by a band and a man pushing the required generator to power the lights and microphone of the head priest. Every once in a while the whole group stopped and performed a two-step type dance movement turning the whole parade to face an alter that had been set up by one of the shop keepers along the street. Earlier in the afternoon I’d spent time watching a group of school kids – they looked like year 9s – dutifully creating a brightly coloured mural in sand on the street. The teacher had blocked off passing traffic to allow this and no one seemed to mind, clearly they knew more than I at the time. As the procession moved closer and closer to the students work (more the 6 hours worth) I watched as the kids hung from the school fence overlooking their work. Some looked excited to see the damage that would be done (yes, they were largely the boys) others seemed a little sad. When the procession had moved past the school and further up the street I hung back to take a few photos of the aftermath. A couple of the kids approached, interested in my choice of taking a photo of their now ruined efforts. As we chatted about their hard work and dedication, I explained that I was teacher and I couldn’t imagine too many of my year nines giving up their Sunday afternoon to create something that would be destroyed within an hour of being completed. The boys explained that their efforts were part of a bigger tradition, a service that they willingly (although one of the two mentioned that his parents were rather insistent that he help out) performed. In the absence of such religious traditions in our public schools I found myself considering the other traditions and community interactions we create with our students. Tree Day, Harmony Day and Clean-up Australia Day were a few that instantly came to mind. Then there are the ANZAC day parades and Remembrance Day services, all of which many of our students give up their own time to participate in or even organise with equally little reward other than the knowledge that they have participated and served. It seems to me that our kids have plenty of community after all – if they choose it of course.