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.