rail trip

Milk Magazine (English) - - CONTENTS - Text : Jérôme and Émile Bec­quet – Pho­tos : Karel Balas

Peru. Émile hadn’t been able to talk of any­thing else for three months. He’d even done a pre­sen­ta­tion about it in front of his class. So, with­out telling him, I booked two tick­ets. And off we went on a trip that in­cluded coca on Lake Tit­i­caca, a llama fight and sleep­ing aboard an An­dean train. When he got back to Paris, he had so many things to say that he had to do an­other pre­sen­ta­tion.

Be­fore we left, I had to do a bit of ground­work, of course. The itin­er­ary? No sweat. I just picked all the places young Émile had men­tioned in his pre­sen­ta­tion: Lake Tit­i­caca, Cuzco and Machu Pic­chu. That way, he’d be the guide. But I did watch the series Chef ’s Ta­ble on Net­flix, at least the episode about Vir­gilio Mar­tinez, Peru’s su­per­star chef. His ap­proach to cook­ing be­came the key to our trav­els: we had to live our ad­ven­ture from the bot­tom of the sea to the top of the moun­tains, dis­cov­er­ing land­scapes, com­mu­ni­ties and gas­tron­omy at all the dif­fer­ent al­ti­tudes we were go­ing to en­counter… Puno, 3,827 me­tres above sea level The first word ut­tered on ap­proach­ing Puno, the city beside Lake Tit­i­caca, was “im­mense” – for the unim­peded view over the largest lake in South Amer­ica – 8,000 km2! (thank you Émile) – and for the pain in our head on wak­ing up in the morn­ing, after a cosy and com­fort­able night aboard the Bel­mond An­dean Ex­plorer, an ul­tra-chic sleeper train that runs be­tween Are­quipa and Cuzco in two nights. Al­ti­tude sick­ness… had crept up on us while we slept. For­tu­nately, after in­hal­ing a few lung­fuls of pure oxy­gen, we’d recharged our air­ways, and, by 9am, were al­ready stand­ing on the top deck of a boat en­joy­ing the some­what chilly sun­shine, ready to visit the float­ing vil­lages of the Uru peo­ple. “I read that the Uru were the first in­hab­i­tants of the re­gion and, ac­cord­ing to leg­end, they had six fingers…” The won­ders of school pre­sen­ta­tions… After check­ing, we found they had

hands like ours, but that they used them not only to weave reeds into rafts with lynx fig­ure­heads – one of the three sa­cred an­i­mals to­gether with the con­dor and the ser­pent – but also float­ing is­lands, on which they live, fish and wait for tourists to visit. Sit­ting on our bot­toms, we learnt that the lake was the birth­place of the first Inca, who rose out of the wa­ters.

An­other hour’s boat ride, an­other con­quest: Taquile Is­land. Un­spoilt by moder­nity, this tiny par­adise has nei­ther cars nor ho­tels and is known for its hand­wo­ven tex­tiles. We at­tended a ritual ded­i­cated to the Pachamama, or mother earth, dur­ing which we learnt that one should al­ways keep three coca leaves close to one’s heart (it is not to be sniffed, has noth­ing to do with the fizzy drink and can be chewed to ward off al­ti­tude sick­ness), one should thank the Pachamama for ev­ery­thing she does for us, make a wish and slip the coca un­der a lit­tle rock. Funny how, sit­ting there with Émile – “That’s Bo­livia over there…” yes, dear –, well I re­ally be­lieved my wish would come true and hugged my son tight. Cuzco, 3,400 me­tres above sea level After a sec­ond night aboard the Bel­mond An­dean Ex­plorer, spent watch­ing the plains one sees in westerns change into corn­fields, then into sugar loaves cov­ered in veg­e­ta­tion, we stopped at Cuzco, in the midst of the An­dean Moun­tains. Cuzco, the Inca cap­i­tal which means “navel” in Quechua. Well, it’s al­ready eas­ier to breathe, which is good news for two French­men like us who are do­ing a tour of Peru in a week… But, above all, there’s a pleas­ant at­mos­phere in this city with its colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture, the legacy of the Span­ish con­quis­ta­dores. Churches, con­vents and cathe­drals hap­pily co­ex­ist with Inca ruins, in­clud­ing the great Tem­ple of the Sun and, a few kilo­me­tres fur­ther up the hill, the fortress of Sac­say­hua­man, with its huge, smooth – “six-me­tre-thick” – in­ter­lock­ing stone walls that sur­vived earth­quakes which dev­as­tated the city sev­eral times. “You didn’t know that, did

you Émile?” Huh?

We soon got the idea of what we had to do. For a bird’s-eye view, it was best to clam­ber up to the bal­conies of the cafés around the squares. And to re­ally en­joy the show, the Plaza de Ar­mas, in front of the cathe­dral, was where it all hap­pened. Émile couldn’t be­lieve the crowds of school­child­ren in uni­form or the num­ber of street hawk­ers, like the shoe-shine stand, where men in suits get their lace-ups pol­ished for five soles (just over a euro). What re­ally made Émile’s trip worth­while, how­ever, was the man sell­ing in­di­vid­ual Panini stick­ers for the World Cup in Rus­sia. He spent an hour fill­ing up his al­bum and tripling his Griez­mann pics.

Lastly, to re­ally get the feel of the place, we headed for San Pe­dro mar­ket early in the morn­ing. There, amidst the stands sell­ing hot bread rolls, trop­i­cal flow­ers and gi­ant sweet­corn still in its husks, we treated our­selves to fresh pas­sion fruit and strawberry juice and watched the lo­cals down­ing ce­viche (raw mar­i­nated fish) and chicken soup, sit­ting at the counter of th­ese ap­petis­ing stalls… For con­nois­seurs, they also serve

cuy (pro­nounced like the French word for tes­ti­cles, which kept us laugh­ing all week), which is, in fact, guinea pig, a dish usu­ally re­served for special oc­ca­sions. Ap­par­ently, it’s very del­i­cate… Machu Pic­chu, 2,438 me­tres above sea level – Papa, when are we go­ing to see the lla­mas? – But look over there, there are loads of them! There, and the white one, there, with dread­locks! – No, those are al­pacas, they’re smaller… – Oh yes, but don’t worry, you’ll see plenty at Machu Pic­chu. They mow the lawn. And sure enough, as we reached the gran­ite steps, be­fore we even caught a glimpse of the site, we came face to face with this an­i­mal that looks like a cross be­tween a sheep and a gi­raffe. Raoul, our guide, told us they were there to make the place

look pretty, but I’m con­vinced that they are the guardians of the Inca site, that they are wait­ing for their masters to re­turn, after the Span­ish in­va­sion in the 16th cen­tury forced them to flee. There are at least fif­teen lla­mas here, and be­lieve me or not, one of them is called Serge. I swear. We con­tinue our steep climb and fi­nally reach the “post­card promon­tory”, where, apart from the oc­ca­sional “wow”, every­body is speech­less. The moun­tain, the mist, the ruins, the perfectly ar­ranged ter­races; the Tem­ple of the Sun, where sac­ri­fices took place… such a pres­ence em­anates from this site that one could imag­ine the city is still alive. Émile is gog­gle-eyed. I look at my young Peru­vian, in his pon­cho and felt hat, gaz­ing at the hori­zon.

We start mov­ing again, around this site where 800 peo­ple once lived, and whose rea­son for be­ing there is still un­known, when, sud­denly, an Amer­i­can woman starts scream­ing! She’d hardly had time to get out of the way when two lla­mas surged forth out of nowhere, one chas­ing the other. They rushed by us, spread­ing panic. “Ah, the stronger one is mark­ing his ter­ri­tory,” laughed Raoul. The Tintin story Pris­on­ers of the Sun came to mind… “When llama is an­gry…”

At 5pm, I take a fi­nal photo. Night be­gins to fall, we feel as if we’ve been sucked up by na­ture, ready to be turned into stone. It’s time to go. Be­fore board­ing the Bel­mond Hi­ram Bing­ham train again, in which a good iced tea and a Pisco Sour – the lo­cal mo­jito – await us, we have our pass­ports stamped with the seal of this sa­cred place. To swag­ger a lit­tle once back in Paris, but also to prove to our­selves that it wasn’t all a dream.

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