Matthew Parris

You can sell an awful lot of worm medicine on a bus in the Andes

You can sell an awful lot of worm medicine on a bus in the Andes

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At Cerro de Pasco, we found a bus for Huànuco. Cerro is a mining town in the high Andean plain, and feels like it: stark, cold and treeless, thin air, thin dogs, thin people. But busy: it was dusk and half the town seemed to be milling around the bus station contemplating the same journey as us. Huànuco is three hours’ winding ride away, halfway down into the Amazon and renowned for its rich harvests, its tropical breezes and its exuberant nightlife.

And it was Saturday night. The bus fare was only $3 and our bus was full, or so we thought until the driver began what all bus-travellers in Peru learn to expect: a series of honks, engine-revs and small lunges forward designed simultaneously to impress existing and intending passengers with the imminence of our departure (so nobody defects to another bus) while stopping short of an actual departure (leaving time for a last-minute complement of standing-room-only passengers).

This went on for half an hour, allowing three strapping young miners with bright eyes, no luggage and their week’s wages (no doubt) in their back pockets to deliberate whether or not to blow it all on a night out in Huànuco. They boarded, keeping on (and wearing throughout) their plastic miners’ helmets. To be a miner is something, in rural Peru.

It was dark when we pulled away. A baby was crying. A man I took to be employed by the bus company went over to pat and calm the baby. He had checked that all seats were taken and hailed the driver with a cheery Vamos (‘Let’s go’) before we left. He was thirtysomething with a bright red PVC travelling bag and a bit of a belly, dressed Peruvian-cool in dark trousers and a white polyester polo-neck sweatshirt with a map of Chile on the chest and the gibberish logo DESIG CHILE calculated to impress passengers with his globe-trotting credentials.

But he did not turn out to be the conductor, who was a rather pinched and put-upon-looking youth they called Chino, who did, I slowly realised, all the work. Our friend just chatted amiably and confidently through three hours of twisting, diving, braking and accelerating while the moon swung wildly across the sky and huge dark mountains between which we were descending loomed outside. It was a very dark night and we had 7,000 feet to descend, the baby yelling intermittently.

I overheard our friend talking, as a man of the world might, about the relativities of Latin American currencies. ‘In Venezuela houses are incredibly expensive, but of course the cheese is cheaper.’ Many passengers looked impressed. The baby was not impressed. Sometimes our friend would assist a boarding passenger with advice on where a perch might be found.

And it was not until we were only half an hour out of Huànuco that I realised our friend had nothing at all to do with the bus company. He positioned himself at the front of the bus and, turning to face the whole complement of us, cleared his throat. My Spanish is poor but I was able to note down the gist of what he said.

‘Some of us on this bus are richer, some poorer, but none of us is very rich or we would ride in our own car. [Laughter.]

‘The rich are unlike us. But are they happier than you or I? Friends, they are often miserable. For they may lack the good health most of you enjoy. Poor as you may be, if you are healthy you are rich.’

The passengers liked this. A bond had been established, except with the baby.

‘I know this continent. The scourge of disease is everywhere. Aids, for example. Not just among the maricones’ (‘butterflies’, which is to say homosexuals) [chuckles] ‘but to anyone who is careless’ (the young miners stared at their feet). He went on to talk at length about the scourge of Aids, and I wondered whether he might be one of the protestant Christian evangelists who are feasting on the carcass of the Catholic Church in South America these days.

But no. Our friend turned, a propos of little, to cancer, and described many of the organs in which you can have it. Spirits in the bus were lowering. Then, for no evident reason, he reached into his neat scarlet bag, unzipping one of what looked like many compartments. The baby stopped grizzling and watched.

Out came a super-duper sort of toothbrush, new in its packet. ‘How many teeth does an adult human being possess?’ he asked the bus. Various answers were offered, one young woman saying, ‘Thirty-two?’

‘Yes! A well-educated se