As a lone traveller armed linguistically with but a mere Spanish phrasebook my anxiety levels were already hovering around substantial, but when our flight was unexpectedly diverted 250 miles west to a city on the coast they bypassed severe and frantically breached critical.
Our arrival, you see, had been impeded by geography: a plateaued city flanked by volcanoes and decorated with fog – a perfect shitstorm of topographic and atmospheric proportions that rendered ineffectual both the weather radar of our plane and the depth of vision of the pilots.
Fortunately, there was scant time to fret further as it was just seven short hours before air traffic control detected the curtain of gloom being drawn long enough for us to be herded aboard and evacuated back to our original destination.
Arriving under the witching hour moonlight to an eerily deserted airport – our flight evidently the last to drop its cargo of refugees – I waved ten dollars to an eager taxi driver, pointed to an address in my diary and ten minutes later I was in the reassuring (relatively) safety of a hostel bed.
The next morning (in theory it was morning but having crossed various time zones my body was in denial and time itself was an irrelevance), I memorised a route to the old town from a suspiciously minimalist looking map at reception and bravely stepped out onto the main road and into the morning rush hour.
First up, a bus with honk of a clown’s horn and accessorised with psychedelic flowering, a sight only made more surreal by the fact that a young child clung from the door clutching a basket of fruit. The full sensory experience was not completed however until having passed me by the exhaust farted a thick black plume of oily diesel straight into my face.
From there on, the next ten minutes (I think) were very much a blur of shapes, colours, smells and sounds that my brain refused to process as being recognisable from any previously lived experience. Numbed, and my mental map of the town discarded to the Recycle Bin of my short-term memory, I stumbled aimlessly towards an unknown destination – think Tom Hanks on Omaha Beach at the start of Saving Private Ryan but with the incoming projectiles being cars and buses as opposed to bombs and bullets.
In the end, it was the inquisitiveness of a passing drunk who finally broke my trance: “¿De dónde eres?”
Snapped back to life, I retraced my steps and retreated to my hostel where I cowered in my room and wondered what the hell I was doing in this inferno. When was the next flight home?
Given my recent move to Trujillo, you’d be given for thinking that the above was an account of my arrival here in Perú. In fact, it was actually that of my first day in South America in Quito in 2007 – also my trip first outside of Europe.
What I hope it goes to show though, is that it is often the first moments one spends in a faraway city, country or continent that often imprint the most enduring impressions upon the psyche. Cognitive dissonance no doubt plays a part, with such moments caught up with raw emotion: the excitement and/or of diving into the unknown, but also that of leaving behind the stability (sterility?) of home, friends and family.
Fortunately, back in 2007 I swam rather than sank. No flight was booked home and after meeting my best friend in Quito a few days later I went on to have perhaps the most enjoyable six months of my life – as well as meeting my future wife.
And so, it was with the trauma of Quito in mind that I purposefully set off for Perú with a notebook at my side, ready to record whatever might come along the way.
What sold me about moving to Trujillo was the opportunity of a paid social work position (one of the few things São Paulo had sadly failed to offer me). And, of course, there was the added bonus of being able to eke out a few more months in South America and explore a part of Perú that I’d neglected in 2007 when I dashed through the north in order to head south and join the gringo trail to Machu Picchu.
As my departure approached though, my old friend ‘anxious apprehension’ made a unwelcome return – a stomach churn of thoughts which intensified en route and wasn’t helped by a five hour changeover in Lima: Am I doing the right thing?; Why am I leaving my wife behind?; Why not just stay in São Paulo until the World Cup?; Why throw myself into an uncomfortable situation all over again?; Why go to Perú and struggle with Spanish now I’ve finally got my head around Portuguese?
Those five hours in Lima started to feel like Quito all over again.
Taking off from Lima, a beautifully crisp afternoon offered a perfect view of Lima’s epic sprawl – although a vertically challenged one in comparison to São Paulo.
The hour flight north – an annoying flight time in which there is too little time to sleep but plenty enough to ponder what lies ahead – actually only took forty five minutes and as we came into land in Huanchaco, a small coastal village 10km northwest of Trujillo, the initial impression was of a vast beige emptiness.
It was an impression that was reinforced at ground level a short time later, as within 5 minutes of touching down I was already in a cab heading down the highway to Trujillo – a feat made possible by the fact that us fifty or so arrivals were significantly outnumbered by the enthusiastic taxi drivers awaiting us in Huanchaco’s modest arrivals hall.
Beige everywhere, although unlike in São Paulo where it takes the form of bland condominiums, in Trujillo it is merely a decorative device, with every open space apparently a bone dry vacuum of life and every man-made surface seemingly finished with a sprinkle of sand and dust.
This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise I guess, given that Trujillo is set in a desert. More surprising is the fact that the city is affectionately referred to as Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera (City of the Eternal Spring). Clearly, Peruvians are not a well travelled bunch because desert cities by the sea with an average annual rainfall of 20mm per year and temperatures of between 20-25c sound like the kind of places Britons go to on holiday each year.
What else? Ah, the sky, such a rare commodity in São Paulo. Even in open spaces where Sampa’s dense canopy of high-rises are prevented from blocking out the light at jungle floor level, there is always the cloud cover and smog to offer an Instagram filter through which to view the heavens above.
Driving into the belly of the Trujillo though, we barely passed a building of more than two storeys. A precaution against earthquakes in a country where they’ve been lethal as recently as ten years ago? Perhaps, although maybe just the less urgent need for high density development given the city’s relatively small population (just under one million) and the vast space in which it has to expand into.
Unfortunately, the window gazing – a pleasant distraction from the thought of what and who awaited me at the staff house – ended, without much warning, to an abrupt halt. For now, further explorations of the city would have to wait.
The knot in my stomach returned.
I rang the buzzer.
Spiral out, I told myself. Keep going.