Peru: bus travel reveals stark class divisions

This reporter ran into his first bit of trouble since arriving in Peru two weeks ago while leaving Arequipa for Lima the morning of Sept. 1. The only bus that left at the time I needed to go was also the cheapest—which I knew meant it would stop at every village and crossroads to pick up passengers. It was rickety, dirty and cramped, and packed full of Peruvian budget travellers—including three middle-aged Quechua women in traditional dress. One of them was openly sobbing as she hugged a relative good-bye at the station; being away from home and family was obviously a frightening prospect for her. We finally departed an hour late, after every seat had been sold. Then, to my dismay, we were halted at a checkpoint just outside the city by agents of the Fiscalía—the special investigative police...

The agents seemed to be convinced the bus was carrying contraband, and started ruffling through the carry-on luggage—finally honing in on the Quechua women, who were sitting in the back of the bus. One of them was in tears again as the agents passed the women's packages out the window to their cohorts on the roadside. Next—to my growing alarm—the agents commandeered the bus, demanding the driver take it to an isolated spot on the outskirts of the city. We weren't being brought to a police station, so it was pretty clear something irregular was going on.

Once at the designated location—where we were invisible and therefore vulnerable—the agents really started getting tough with the Quechua women, threatening them and briefly manhandling one who continued to protest. The other passengers started geting impatient, whistling and slapping the side of the bus aggresively, and shouting "¡Vamanos!" In what I'm convinced was a reckless act of protest, the guy who was in control of the bus' onboard video player (every long-distance bus in Latin America has one) put on a very partisan documentary DVD about the Bagua massacre—in which the National Police opened fire on indigenous protesters in the Amazon back in June. So with police agents in control of the bus, we were treated to footage of the National Police brutalizing Indians, with a voice-over accusing the Peruvian security forces of being assassins.

After some 20 minutes of mounting tension, it was abruptly over. The agents released the bus and sent us on our way—without arresting anyone. I have no idea if they had really found contraband or not, but it was entirely obvious what had happened: they had intimidated the Quechua women into a bribe. The blatancy of it—in front of a bus full of witnesses—amazed me. And the fact that they had targeted the indigenous women—almost certainly those least able to afford a bribe—made me sick. But it was obvious why: they were the easiest hit. As the only gringo on the bus, I was the most likely to have any money to speak of. But I could have contacted the embassy, made an international stink. The Quechuas could probably barely even speak Spanish. They could be exploited with perfect impunity.

Once we were moving again, I wondered if we shouldn't try to report the incident to some higher authority, but everyone seemed to accept what had happened as an inevitability. "The police in this country are rats," the ederly man sitting next to me said when I expressed my shock at what we had seen.

Yet having started the trip with this ugliness created a sense of bonding and camaraderie among the passengers. The video guy who had put on the Bagua documentary was very sharp. Instead of the usual Z-movie shoot-'em-up fare, he followed it up with two of my favorite films—Monty Python's Life of Brian and Mongol, Sergei Bodrov's biopic about Genghis Khan. After this was a Thai martial arts flick with an ecological theme, in which the bad guys were traffickers in endangered species. We stopped for dinner at a low-priced Chinese-run seafood joint out out in the desert with giant sea turtle shells hanging off the walls. At every stop, local women came on board to hawk chicharrones.

However, by the time we got to Nazca—about the half-way point—it was almost midnight and my legs were cramping, and I decided to spend the night there and see the famous Nazca Lines in the morning. My next leg of the journey would be a study in contrasts...

Paying a whole lot more to avoid seeing Peru
It turned out that there was only one company that offered direct bus service from Nazca to Lima (without the potential chaos of having to change in Ica), and it was the most high-class and expensive line. Wanting to get back to Lima before too late, I decided to go for it.

The bus was a gigantic double-decker affair, a Queen Mary of the highway, sparkling new, immaculate, and with enough leg room for Wilt Chamberlain. It was hermetically sealed, air-conditioned, and an airline-style welcome-aboard video informed us that there was wireless Internet access. Rather than stopping at a local eatery or having local women ply us with home-made chicharrones, stewardesses came around with trays of pre-packaged micro-waved pseudo-food, as on an airplane. Just to drive home the point that this was the terrestrial equivalent of air travel, when we got to Lima the company's private terminal was called the "Terrapuerto." Most of the passengers were tourists. Instead of stopping at villages and crossroads to pick up local travellers, we drove off the main road to stop at tourist resorts and pick up sunburned jet-setters. Every seat was reserved ahead of time through a computerized system. For entertainment, I had to suffer through Dr. Doolittle 2 and PS I Love You. We were waved through every police checkpoint.

For these privileges I paid almost three times as much as I had for the Arequipa-Nazca leg the previous day (which would have taken me all the way to Lima for the same 30 soles—about 12 bucks—if I had stayed on the bus).

The tourist bus may have been more secure, but it was completely insulated from local realities. The sunburned jet-setters were really paying a whole lot more for just one thing: to avoid experiencing Peru. The usual scenes of oppressive poverty—little villages of desperate campesinos scratching the dirt, improvised houses of mud and balsa with no indoor plumbing—went by like the towns far below for an air traveller. We were in an air-conditioned land-ship designed to deliver tourists from one air-conditioned resort to another. The sights that the promotional tourism video boasted between the atrocious movies—Machu Picchu, etc.—were just commodified spectacles, completely divorced from any cultural context.

It is easy to understand why this kind of tourism is encourged. Peru is a poor country, and the marketing of its spectacular scenery and archaeology to those with money to burn is almost inevitable. But for the local poor, it can only be seen as adding an extra layer of humiliation to their already agonizing economic condition.

On my next excursion, I'll risk the cheap bus.

World War 4 Report on the scene in Lima

See our last post on Peru.

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