A Risky Ride to Lima
“No bus to Lima today,” the ticket handler responded. “There is a strike.” My heart plummeted along with any hope of catching our flight back to the States. From the town of Pisco, the capital city of Peru was just four hours by bus, but with no public transportation available, the airport seemed more like worlds away. We stood baffled, with bus tickets to Lima in our hands, and wondered why this would happen on our last day in South America.
These kinds of obstacles are unavoidable when traveling. Even in our best moments we show up late for plane flights; when we’re two hours early that flight will inevitably be delayed. Buses break down on the road, ferries hit bad weather, and trains never stay on schedule. Our only guarantee when traveling is that obstacles will arise. But isn’t it the challenges that we always remember most?
The only highway to the capital city of Peru was being blocked in the town of Chincha. Late in the night, dump trucks had deposited immense boulders in the highway and set fire to tires that would burn for hours. Their goal was to cut off transportation between major cities and gain an advantage over the government. Though I was sensitive to their plight, this time we were getting through no matter what it took.
Travel allows us to exercise spontaneous decisions that people might otherwise avoid. There’s a new set of rules on the road and good judgment goes a long way to ensure success and more importantly, safety. Taking risks is part of traveling. If there wasn’t some sort of risk involved, we would call it vacation. But each of us must measure our threshold for risk and make appropriate decisions. Unfortunately, it’s in the most desperate situations that we often end up taking the greatest risks.
A friend guaranteed that for $150 “his man” could take us around the strike and directly to the airport in Lima. We would even be riding in an air-conditioned van, he said. The price was exorbitant, but desperate situations sometimes call for expensive solutions and we just wanted to get home. Reluctantly, we agreed.
When our “taxi” arrived, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The vehicle was a brand new Dodge van, sparkling black with tinted windows and stylish rims, and the driver was right out of the Sopranos. A black polo shirt struggled to conceal his bulky chest and he wore his pressed pants high above his waist. His hulking size, short black hair and mobster-demeanor earned him the nickname “Big Pussy,” a character to whom he held an eerie resemblance.
Big Pussy greeted us with a cordial smile, opened the doors and hoisted our bags effortlessly into the van. We climbed into the leather benches and observing the surround-sound stereo and air conditioning, we exchanged curious glances and wondered how our friend had such affluent connections. This vehicle certainly wasn’t a taxi; and Big Pussy was not your typical cab driver.
Our driver barely spoke a word as we pulled out of Pisco. He seemed relaxed and confident which eased our tension. After riding in so many crowded taxis and lumbering buses without bathrooms, we couldn’t have been more comfortable. We relaxed in the leather benches and asked the driver to turn up the radio’s volume. Now, getting back to the States was in his hands.
We saw the smoke long before we reached Chincha. We were traveling through a vast coastal desert in which only scatterings of buildings could be seen throughout arid farmlands. A long line of planted trees marked the boundary of Chincha in the distance. A conglomeration of dusty roads and buildings lay beyond the arboreal wall and plumes of smoke billowed into the sky from within the town. Traffic on the highway was thinning and had altogether ceased going southbound. When we spotted a man blocking traffic along the highway, I began to wonder if our driver even had a plan.
The man signaled us to detour onto a rough and dusty farming road. Big Pussy mumbled something reassuring, but we knew this was just the beginning. Our van was the only vehicle on the road, but luckily we were headed in the right direction. The plumes of smoke allowed us to know the exact location of town, and with farmlands stretching to the sea, it seemed likely there was a road around Chincha. But when we reached our first intersection, our driver didn’t know which road to choose; so he made a guess.
This new road took us back to the Pan-American Highway and directly into the chaos. Upon reaching the highway we got our first view of the strike that was blocking our way to Lima, and ultimately back to the States. There were no cars along the highway; only people walking, most of them carrying baggage. They walked because they too could not drive through Chincha. Instead they walked for miles until they reached the end of the strike where buses and taxis would be waiting to carry passengers.
At each block along the highway several tires lay burning in the road. Placed strategically for as far as the eye could see, these tires filled the air with dark, rancid smoke and served their purpose of deterring traffic. Along with the tires were piles of massive boulders which proved even more effective at stopping vehicles.
Our driver tried to appear confident, but his apprehension was difficult to conceal. Even the locals seemed unsure there was an open road to Lima and though the dirt roads would take us a good distance, they wouldn’t last forever. So our driver decided to cross the highway and venture into the neighborhoods. We felt hopeful at first, but seeing lines of people along the road, I felt discouraged, even fearful. It seemed that all of the kids were out of school and none of the parents were at work. The streets were filled with people, most who seemed to just be enjoying a day off.
Our first obstacle arose when we found a line of small rocks and twisted metal blocking the road. A group of children began to shout when our driver attempted to drive over a section of the barricade. Several young girls only six or seven years old grabbed rocks and ran to block our path. One girl who seemed to be the ringleader yelled to our driver that he could not pass. She threatened to throw a rock through his window and not a person in our van doubted her. Big Pussy did the only thing one can do when threatened by an outraged eight-year-old with a sizable rock in hand – he backed up.
Small blockades such as this one would challenge us many times as we tried to maneuver our way safely through Chincha. Roads were blocked with whatever materials could be found and usually guarded by a few townspeople. It was intriguing to watch because in many cases, such as our angry rock-wielding eight-year-old, they had built this blockade for just one reason – to profit from the strike.
It only took two soles (about sixty cents) to persuade the furious girl to let us pass. She turned on her younger peers and commanded them to move the rocks and metal that blocked our way. With a big smile, she waved us on as we continued our journey. The town was larger than I had remembered and the strike was more spread out than we had expected. The roads became more difficult to pass and our chances were growing slimmer. People said that were was no way through to Lima; even the police agreed.
Our driver returned with bad news. “There is no way through to Lima,” he mumbled. The strike had blocked all the roads and no vehicles could pass until after six o’clock. “But the strike ends in just two kilometers,” he said, “so you could just walk through and catch a taxi.” As I had feared, now that we’re in the heart of this mess, our driver is telling us our best bet is to get out and walk.
In desperate situations, people often make horrible mistakes. Greg and I looked at each other and shrugged. Just two kilometers, we thought. Though not necessarily the enemy, we were certainly going to stand out. The highway was crowded with protestors who shouted slogans to the opposition as they marched with signs in hand. Though we couldn’t understand every word, we realized that this could easily become a violent protest. Now here we were climbing out of the safety of our van, shouldering our loaded backpacks and preparing to march into the crowd.
I looked at my friend and asked the question that we ultimately must consider in this situation: Is this safe? The answer was overwhelmingly in favor of staying in Big Pussy’s van, but having grown desperate, we were willing to make a risky and dangerous decision. Then suddenly the crowd of protestors began to shout obscenities and hurl rocks at a pickup truck attempting to maneuver pass the march. It was at that moment that I expressed the greatest fear for our safety. Now sure that danger existed along those streets, I still wanted to be brave and ultimately stupid. Luckily, that’s when Big Pussy yelled for us to hurry and throw our bags back in the van.
“Back in the van?” I yelled to Greg with a mix of gratitude and hesitation. Things were unfolding quickly and a decision had to be made immediately. So we did the only sensible thing – we got back in the van. Accompanied by a new passenger, our van sped through alleys and veered across driveways, crossed main streets and ended up on country roads again as the man shouted directions. We were passing through another field and once again all alone on a dirt road. Our driver had regained his confidence and our anonymous passenger was laughing as we coasted down the two-track farm road.
Then we spotted one of many miracles of the day. A large, white van decorated with red letters was approaching and even from a distance, one could see it was a tourist vehicle. When the elder Peruvian driver came broadside with us, we had one immediate question: Where are you coming from? His only passenger, a young Japanese man, appeared unnerved and jumpy and it was almost comforting to see someone more frightened than ourselves. We looked on hopefully as Big Pussy spoke with the driver. “From Lima,” the old man muttered. “We are coming from Lima.”
A cloud of dust erupted behind our van as Big Pussy sped forward. If the tourist van had come from Lima, then there was certainly a way. Our driver turned to offer an exuberant smile and as our vehicle lurched from the rural road and onto a lonely Pan-American Highway, even I had to cheer. Behind us were columns of smoke and the edge of town. We had successfully made it through Chincha, but as our driver sped north along the highway, I realized that there were still people walking south. There had to be more.
My suspicions were quickly confirmed. Only a few kilometers outside of Chincha, we encountered a line of debris across the road. A guard rail prevented us from going around the blockade on one side; and the ocean served its purpose on the other. The van came to a stop only five feet from a line of angry women who stood like soldiers behind their barricade of twisted metal and rock. Big Pussy wasted no time. He was out of the van as quick as it came to a halt showing a new determination for this endeavor. Our passenger also exited the van and we looked on hopefully as the two men began to plead with the women. Then I saw Big Pussy reach into his back pocket and bring forth the solution.
Like the young girl who had so angrily defended the road and then relinquished her stance for a couple of soles, the women began to clear the rubble from the highway. Their malice was replaced by delight and their bitterness turned to gratitude. Big Pussy didn’t even wait for them to finish. Only a few soles short and three hours later, he charged the vehicle over the few remaining rocks and pushed the van to over 100 km/h. “One hour to Lima,” he said, and then he cranked the stereo and never said another word until we reached the airport.