How it happens

I have been in Peru for two months now, and for more or less most of that time I have been hanging out in a small, non-descript town in the Sacred Valley below Cusco. Bystanders might wonder why. I’m supposed to be travelling round South America, aren’t I?

While I was in Lima after my arrival from the UK, I was in a certain amount of turmoil as to how to start my trip. I had made no plans; in fact I’d not particularly given South America much thought in the months since I booked the ticket – I just had too many good things going on in London.

I was still at work right up to the day before my flight, so every minute of lunchtimes, evenings and weekends was spent in the good company of my lovely friends and family. I didn’t even pack until the morning before my flight.

It meant that when I finally arrived at a quiet hostel in a refined neighbourhood of Lima, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I knew I needed to catch up on lots of sleep. But I was still running on London adrenaline, plus I had the system of budget travel long installed in me: get going! See stuff! Do stuff! Don’t hang around wasting money on accommodation!

And I nearly did go after a couple of days of long lie-ins, languorous breakfasts at noon, and hours reclining on the hostel’s sofa with my laptop. I nearly stepped onto the backpacker conveyer belt. But something made me wait.

Somehow I calmed down, somehow I realised there was no rush; I needed to work out what it was that I truly wanted to do. And sure enough, good things happened.

I’m looking forward to discussing with you another time about the modern-day backpacker, sitting with their laptops connecting to WiFi but not to each other. And although I’m guilty as charged for being relieved that I brought my Netbook – after spending nine hours of every day of the past seven years as a web editor, I simply couldn’t unplug cold turkey – but I know when to put the machine down, to look up and smile at a real live person in my vicinity.

And this is how I met Johannes, who with a similar opinion, we got talking. He was heading to the Sacred Valley and I knew that’s where I was really craving to get to, too. So after nearly a week in Lima we flew to Cusco, then he generously encouraged me to join him to Urubamba, down in the valley, where he’d spent many times before.

It was hard at first – I knew no one, spoke no Spanish; in truth, I didn’t really know where I was or what I was doing. And Urubamba is not a tourist hub – it’s a real-life, hard-working town, so there are no hostels full of fellow backpackers, or cafes with WiFi to comfort and reassure in times of need.

I nearly left. Many times. But again, something made me wait. And that’s the one big dilemma of travel. I considered that if I move on, I’ll meet other people, have new and possibly better experiences. But might I miss out on opportunities here? By constantly moving, are travellers gaining experiences or losing out on others?

I went up to Cusco to stay with a local family while I attended a Spanish course. The end of the week was my chance to move on – Lake Titicaca, just over the border in Bolivia, beckoned.

But I did something I’ve never done before while travelling – I went back. As I rode the colectivo down the winding mountain road into the valley that night, and the familiar lights of Urubamba appeared, I almost wasn’t surprised when I saw a shooting star in the sky above the town.

I didn’t know what I was going to do, where I was going to stay, if anyone would care that I was back, and if I could actually use any of the Spanish that I’d studied. But something told me to wait – it was going to be wonderful.

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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

De-backpacking

Now I’m 30 and it’s been eight years since my last proper worldwide backpacking trip, I’m noticing some changes in my approach to travel.

And it’s not just that I need – or desire – more lotions, potions and paraphernalia now; it’s not just that technology has leapt and bounded, demanding that I need to have a laptop, mobile phone, HD video camera, digital camera, tripod, iPod and orthodontic retainers with me… It’s that I just don’t need to follow the well-trodden path anymore. There’s a backpacker flow that occurs the minute you arrive in a hostel on a travellers’ trail. And it’s been hard to resist the current.

It happened to me in Vietnam – somewhere I’d not particularly researched or desired to go, but somehow ended up there during travels in Asia, and spent six weeks slogging the length of the country – without quite knowing why – and not particularly enjoying it.

This time, I vowed to only do what I really want to do; to go to places and do things that I’d always dreamt of. Yet sure enough, within hours of my arrival at HQ Villa Hostel in Lima, I was being told to go on to Huacachina. I admit, maybe I wasn’t being instructed directly, but Huacachina was in the air, the word on everyone’s lips – why, it’s the natural next step after Lima, or is the last place people had been before arriving here.

“Go if you want some sun” advised the Irish girls in my dorm, yet minutes later described how run-down and pointless the place is. Yes, the thought of soaking up some rays after the drizzly cold of Lima’s winter appeals, as does sandboarding – but I intend to do this in the Atacama Desert anyway.

My main aim of visiting Peru is, of course, Cuzco and the ancient sites and beautiful mountains of the Sacred Valley. So why am I now being persuaded to spend my time, money, and more importantly, my energy travelling up the south coast on various lengthy bus journeys inbetween destinations I have no interest in? The Nazca Lines sound boring to me; Arequipa sounds like a lovely city, there are many lovely cities in the world; and the Colca Canyon trek sounds like an absolute nightmare.

One place near Lima does appeal – the Ballestas Islands – apparently mini versions of the Galapagos. I enquired, more to make conversation than anything, at the hostel reception how I would get there, how long to spend there and so on. The British receptionist looked bemused:
“You can go from Huacachina.”
“Ok, but I can go by bus to Pisco and then stay in El Chaco to visit them?”
“Oh, can you? Well you should just go from Huacachina.”
“Hm, well you see I don’t want to go to Huacachina.”
“Oh.” With a look of utter disbelief, and nothing more to say.

I’m going to tramp my own trail.

Photographing the Dead Sea, Jordan. Photo: Mehalah Beckett

Somewhere by the Dead Sea in Jordan, in 2011