The mini-bus forgot me for the Colca Canyon tour, leaving me stranded in the reception at 3:30am in the morning with just the receptionist to talk to. I still hadn’t really practiced talking since leaving Buenos Aires so we mostly exchanged looks that said ‘this is an awkward silence so I hope the bus turns up about now’. Fortunately it did, and I was deposited in the front seat of the minibus, with ample space for my legs and more than enough room to turn back and make out the shapes of other gringos slumped over in various positions, eyes closed or lids half-drooping like zombies, squeezed in between the lines of chairs.
Feeling rather self-satisfied, I decide to chat with the tour guide, lodged into the space between me and the gear stick, in the hope that if we can become best friends she’ll be loathe to give up my seat to anyone else in subsequent journeys. And to see if I can still talk.
She’s called Patricia and is about half my size. We talk in Spanish and I’m not sure she understands everything I say, but gives the impression of doing so by smiling widely and warmly, especially in the moments when the conversation threatens to break down. She’s only been a tourist guide since March, which explains why she still bubbles with energy and happily opens up about her family and her fears and her dreams; not at all like the somewhat jaded, always guarded guides who I will later encounter.
It’s a 3-year course to become a tourist guide, obviously a serious undertaking, although I can’t help wondering what exactly they teach on the course. Do they teach practical skills like first aid? Rope skills? Must you be able to tell the difference between a male and a female Blue-footed Booby? And of course you must know the very detailed history of Machu Picchu, the funny stories, the Inca culture, the controversies, the name of Hiram Bingham’s dog. After a short while I realise that the Tourism degree must be about the broadest and most detailed course one could possibly do.
Patricia’s whole family is from Arequipa and she has no immediate plans to move; although she does confess that one day she could see herself in another part of Peru, maybe even in another country, maybe even… but she cut herself off before she could get too far away: “probablemente en Peru, no más”. I teach her some Argentine expressions and she teaches me some Peruvian expression involving avocado that I’ve subsequently forgotten. No other Peruvians seemed to know anything about it, so it may be something that only exists in Arequipa, or in Patricia’s head.
Eventually she advises me to sleep and talks to the driver, who it turns out lived and worked for a decade in Italy and speaks the language fluently. I wonder if all my drivers up till now have secretly been multilingual long-term travellers, and if it’s a common step to go from long-term traveller to bus driver. My future flashes before my eyes – the big steering wheel, the beer belly, the harassing of waitresses in the soulless stop-off restaurants, the bright lights passing through the night…