I can, I do, I travel

Or, why I’m doing this.

I have spoken before about why I’ve set off to South America, but people have pressed me further and so I’ve thought hard for some more answers.

I am a traveller. I have the bug. The itch.

Why? I think it’s greatly thanks to my mum. Virtually a single mother, she scrimped and saved all year when my brother and I were growing up, but we always, always had holidays and day trips. Weekends were spent in the museums of London, or on country excursions; summers were spent on the beach, swimming in the sea, climbing rocks or walking through the meadows of Essex and Suffolk. Our first holidays were in the UK; then as we grew older and mum felt braver, she got us abroad – to Austria, Switzerland, and Italy a few times.

Her providing me these diverse opportunities gave me the invaluable traveller’s skill of being able to adapt. I can talk with people from any background or viewpoint, I can sleep anywhere I need to – a bus floor, the deck of a boat, under a tree, with rats crawling nearby; I don’t care. I enjoy experiences, good and bad. In cities, I love the excitement and possibilities; in the countryside I love the peace and the beauty of nature.

My mum’s passion for seeing places and doing things became instilled in me. I remember poring over pictures in holiday brochures and maps of unknown lands with her, and feeling a sense of urgency to be out there in the world, and that time is precious.

There was another significant influence, again thanks to my mum. She took me several times to the sadly now defunct Commonwealth Institute in London’s Kensington. This massive auditorium-style 1960s building on the edge of Holland Park had fantastic displays and exhibitions on the countries of the British Commonwealth. I remember looking at food packaging from Cameroon, costumes of Rajasthan, taking a helicopter simulator over Kuala Lumpur; and thinking “I want to go and see this for myself, for real.” My mind was opened wide to the world.

So now, some 20 years later, and with many of the places I wanted to see seen – and many more to come – I can only say thank you mum, because if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this in a mountain valley in Peru.

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The walk that didn’t know it was happening until it did

Originally written by hand at 3.35pm, sitting by a stream at the side of a field.

It’s Friday night back in London. My friends there are heading out to pubs in the city for a night of drinking. I headed out with my book and notebook to sit somewhere quiet in the afternoon sunshine to read and write.

Urubamba doesn’t have many quiet or green spaces – apart from the cemetery – which, nice as it is and as comfortable as I am being around the dead, I fancied being around life on this glorious day.

So I started walking.

I walked to the edge of town, past the cemetery; the road turns to dust here. I walked past the foot of the first mountain outside the town. I walked past schoolchildren on their long trudges home. I walked through the next village. I walked ever upwards past farmers’ fields and nearer the snow-capped peaks and glaciers of the Cordillera Urubamba that cut off the end of this valley.

I stopped to sit down in the shade by the roadside and a curious bull appeared on the other side of the road to look at me. I carried on, ever upwards. I stopped to eat the bread and cheese I’d bought in Urubamba. I stopped in another village to buy a 70c bottle of Kola Real. I stopped to write this.

Somehow the mountains have lured me to keep walking along the dusty, stony road in the beating sun, with quite a heavy rucksack full of books. I don’t know for how long or how far I will go, but I do know this must be complete and true freedom as any human being can expect to obtain in this life.

No one knows where I am or what I’m doing, apart from the country folk I pass. I can walk at the exact speed I wish. I can stop when I want. I can smile and greet anyone I care to. I can go on walking as long as I feel like it. I can return home and no one will ever know what I did and what I saw unless I want them to.

Unless I type this up and share it with you.

Urubamba's cemetery

Urubamba’s cemetery

The bull that looked into my soul

The bull that looked into my soul

The mountain valley with children on swing

The mountain valley with children on swing

Walking back

Walking back

Me

Me

Inca japery

With all this philosophising, you might be wondering where I actually am and what I’ve been doing. No? Well I’m going to tell you anyway.

Cusco legwarmers

Cusco legwarmers and holey trainers

I’m currently in the town of funny woollen hats with alpaca patterns, ear flaps and bobbles. I’m in Cusco, the only city in the world where people – tourists and locals alike – are quite happy to look as ridiculous as possible. Every street, cafe and shop you see them bobbing around. Don’t get me wrong, I love a silly hat and I have partaken in the alpaca craze with a rather smashing jumper that will blast this Christmas out the window, some knitted legwarmers and a poncho. I just can’t help but wonder how it became acceptable for grown adults to dress in multicoloured wool and think they look cool.

Me in Cusco

Me and poncho in Cusco

Other than that, Cusco is not as tourist-battered as I had been fearing. Shops and cafes sit subtly among the colonial architecture and narrow cobbled streets. I’ve spent the past week and a half or so down in the Sacred Valley, staying with Peruvians in Urubamba, a small town where only one or two tourists stray for lunch inbetween treks in the surrounding mountains or sightseeing tours of the Inca sites that abound. So I was prepared for the worst coming up into such a tourist hub as Cusco – the centre for visiting the world wonder Machu Picchu.

Woman asleep in knitwear shop, Cusco

Spot the sleeping woman in knitwear shop, Cusco

It feels less intrepid to see parent-look-a-likes on their two-week adventure package holidays; it’s a shame that everything here is twice the price; and it’s a bit annoying when trying to learn Spanish that every shop and restaurant shouts out in English; but what I find most ridiculous is my fellow travellers in their gaudy knitwear who don’t make eye contact. Hello? We’re having an amazing time somewhere wonderful, can we not at least acknowledge each other with a smile of recognition, or do we have to pretend we’re not the only two Europeans standing in this queue?

I’m heading back down to the valley, where I can build some proper relationships with people who are here a bit longer than it takes the dust from the Inca Trail to blow off their boots.

Lima – misunderstood city

Peru’s capital, Lima, is often presented as a dangerous and generally unappealing city. Here’s my take on it, published on Stanfords’ blog.

And here are some of my favourite pictures I took of the city:

Three Irish girls and a church in Barranco, Lima

Three Irish girls and a church in Barranco, Lima

Kissing the silver cross of Padre Urraca in the Iglesia de La Merced in Lima, Peru

Kissing the silver cross of Padre Urraca in the Iglesia de La Merced in Lima, Peru

Lima's Plaza de Armas with taxis

Lima’s Plaza de Armas with taxis

Lima's Plaza de Armas by night

Lima’s Plaza de Armas by night

Mujer mural in Lima

Mujer (woman) mural in Lima

Piano player in Tram cafe, Miraflores, Lima

Piano player in Tram cafe, Miraflores, Lima