It was in the very early 1970s that I read ‘Papillon’, the alleged memoirs of Henri Charrière, the French convict, who escaped from Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guinea, and who ended up, years later, in Caracas. I once went to his restaurant in Baruta, just outside Caracas, but by then he had died.
In his memoirs, he wrote of his experiences in escaping from the notorious prison on a raft built of coconut shells, eventually landing on the Guajira Peninsula on the coast of Colombia. There, for some time, he lived with two Indian women. Whether factual or not, the account had no small part in my desire to travel and to experience something of Central and South America.
In 1976, I travelled across the Pacific on a Greek passenger ship, from Sydney to Panamá, via Auckland and Paapete (Tahiti), and eventually on bus, country by country, through the plethora of Central American countries, to the US, eventually ending up living by the beach at Marina del Rey in Los Angeles. There I was able to rebuild my savings by working at odd jobs, mostly dirty tasks that were uninteresting to the local unemployed.
But the great consumer society held little attraction for me, and a few months later I headed back south, intent on going as far as my meagre savings would allow. In those days, local bus travel was relatively inexpensive and basic accommodation was easy to find.
When I reached Panamá, I was unaware that the roads ended there, and that there were none south through the Darien Peninsula; there was, and still is, a 160 km gap in the 48,000 km Pan-American highway, that runs from northern Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina. The only way of crossing from Panamá to Colombia was by plane, or by boat, east along the Caribbean coast, or south along the Pacific. I flew to Medellín and from there continued on by local buses, hopping from place to place through Colombia and Ecuador to Perú. Early Christmas day found me on a bus heading south from Lima.
With its colonial walls built from white volcanic stone, I found Arequipa to be a most impressive city, especially in the Convent of Santa Catalina. And in Puno and Lake Titicaca, at 3827 m, with its floating islands and colourful Indian culture, I felt as if I was in a completely different world. But sadly, my funds were running low, and as much as I wanted to continue into Bolivia, I had to turn back north.
Unfortunately, the next morning my funds became more depleted. As I was boarding the train to Cuzco, I became involved in a scuffle between some men trying to leave the train and as others trying to board. It was eventually resolved, but fifteen minutes later, I realized that the money that I had had in my pocket was no longer there. I had been robbed. Fortunately, I had money in a dirty sock in my bag and some more in the sole of my shoes, about enough to get me back to California.
I loved Cuzco and I would have stayed there much longer if I could. The Inca history, with the Spanish culture imposed upon it, I found most fascinating. During my first morning there, I went to a bookshop to thumb through a local history book – I could not afford to buy it. I overheard an elder American tourist asking if they had any postcards of sexy women. I was all ears, for the man looked as if he would have had apoplexy if an attractive woman passed within 100 m of him. It turned out that he was referring to the ruins of Sacsahuaman, a fortress just outside Cuzco.
The next day I went there and what an impressive monument it turned out to be, with its massive walls built with huge multi-sided stones, all fitting together as in a jig-saw puzzle, so tightly fitting that a thin knife could not be inserted between them.
Few people go to Cuzco without also taking the day-trip to Machu Picchu, and I was no exception. The train was heavily fortified, with many armed soldiers. Once there, I ignored the buses that traveled the zig-zag road to the ridge, but climbed up the old Inca trail. After wandering the impressive ruins, I tried to climb up to the peak that overlooks Machu Picchu, but a heavy thunderstorm cut it short, otherwise I could have easily slipped and slipped on the greasy stones and ended up in the Urubamba River a long way below.
With regret, I left Cuzco on a ramshackle old bus, destination Lima. I was the only ‘gringo’ on the bus, but I had the consolation of a seat beside a beautiful young Indian girl. Unfortunately, she spoke little Spanish and I spoke even less. All day we seemed to be descending into a valley with a steep ascent on the other side. The bus coughed and wheezed and seemed to be on its last legs. It was dark when progress ground to a halt. For a while we all sat and waited, while the driver fiddled with the engine. Eventually, one by one, we all descended to stretch our legs and empty our bladders. The sky was clear and the stars were crystal clear, but it was very cold.
I was wearing only shorts and shirt and I was not prepared for cold. But the lovely little Indian girl offered to share her blanket with me, and I gratefully accepted. I eventually understood that she was a maid in a house near Lima and that she was returning from a short holiday with her family in Cuzco.
As the night wore on and the bus remained stationary, the occupants slept, and the driver and his assistant continued to fiddle with the engine. It was more comfortable if I put my arm around the girl, and she soon slept with my other arm around her waist. Eventually at some time in the night, the engine roared into life and we jolted and jerked our way closer to Lima. And we kissed in the dense night light.
The morning came too soon; I felt as if I could have spent the rest of my life with my arms wrapped around that little Indian girl, but it was not to be. Her destination arrived, she descended, we kissed a long time and she walked away. She never looked back. As she turned a corner, I wanted to run after her, but my courage failed me. I climbed back on board the bus.
I have often wondered if Henri Charrière ever had the same regret when he left the Indian sisters on the Colombian coast.