‘Have Chalk, Will Travel’, ran a colleague’s doggerel poem at my farewell do.
“What sort of people do you think you will meet in Peru?” one of the dozen British Council officials on the interview panel had asked. The interview was held at Davies Street, where my mother had worked during the war. “I don’t know; people like me?” I had answered, seeking to play the cheeky comedian.
There were three posts and six applicants. Three dropped out. Even with my level of maths skills, I could tell I had a chance of getting this job! Only once I had been offered the English teaching post at San Savior School, Lima, did I realise that I didn’t actually know where Peru was. I believed it was somewhere not far from California, where I could visit my brother at weekends. Only on perusing an atlas did I see for certain that there was a rather large southern continent of America too. I had learned about Argentina and the Pampas and gauchos and their bolas at school, had drawn and coloured them in beautifully, but I used to come last in Geography. They lost me at copra and dung, and sheets with mysterious stuff drying on them in front of huts, and statistics that bored me.
At Heathrow airport in March 1982, my pale mother sat with my silent father, and friends, Colin and Cath. Ahead of me in the queue for the Viasa flight, were two knowledgeable Scottish girls who had worked abroad before. June had lived in Spain for fifteen years and Doris had been in the Caribbean. Both smoked and talked laconically, whilst I told my father I was going to stop off somewhere called Bog-goat-ta. I passed through to the other side at Terminal Three and Colin shrieked, “And don’t come back!”, which made me laugh but saddened me for the familiar friends I was leaving.
On the plane, I sat beside a depressed future colleague who informed me that if I stayed away from Britain for more than three years, I would have no friends left there. After three weeks, he abandoned his sandals and his “Guia Lima” map under his flatmate’s bed and was not heard from again. A cheerful PE teacher returning for a second contract told us we should all “Keep smiling!” advice I was never good at following and found irritating. After many delays and stopovers, during which we pestered the life out of June to translate for us, we arrived at Jorge Chavez airport. We were met by Bunny, Head of San Savior, who had briefed the new staff on our jobs way back in January saying, “I bet you’re wondering, who is this woman and why is she wearing a fur coat?”
Bunny thought she had hired a bus for our luggage and us but it proceeded to pick up other passengers and rattled its way wherever they fancied. It took hours to deliver us to the school. We passed shanties and partly built houses with metal rods poking from concrete and wretched, rushing brown water pouring through deep banks of sandy dirt, peppered with rubbish. We entered the yellow-washed school building through a door in a wall watched over by a guard and sat in Bunny’s office with the owner of the school, Trixie, one of those wizened, coiffed red-headed upper class Latin ladies, a type I would learn to recognise. San Savior had been founded in the 1940s for the daughters of Shell executives by one Nora Kelly, whose name still appeared on all the stationery. We were given a beer and a handful of 'Smellies', as the local currency, the Soles, soon became known. It was not enough of a handful and rampant inflation became something that affected me in particular.
We three new teachers were to be put up in a hotel, if one could call it that, for the time it took us to find somewhere to live. The Scottish girls disappeared to a school flat that was part of their contract. The idea of different contracts for different teachers was new to me. I had an allowance for my accommodation, which was not nearly enough, nor was I bright enough to accept advice to seek out someone to lodge with, but was determined to live on my own. The first flat I took was close to school in the Avenida Piura. It had a little inner courtyard of a garden, no bar in the wardrobe on which to hang my clothes, and no hose to connect the gas bottle to the cooker. ‘Manguera’, or hose, became one of my first Spanish words, along with ‘mantequilla’, which I learned to say for butter, instead of the tempting ‘burro’, meaning donkey. The lack of these items was serious as the landlord already had my deposit of four hundred dollars, approximately every penny I had ever saved.
One morning I noticed a small wet patch on my bed which I could not fathom. That night, I came home from eating out. I was living on tostadas as there was often just rice and tuna in the supermarkets. I suspiciously watched my toilet bowl overfill as it flushed, thinking I had better get used to sorting things like that out. A black thing tumbled upwards and jumped out, running into my bedroom. I ran into the street screaming that there was a rat in my bathroom. The two young people from upstairs took pity on me and offered me a cigarette, whilst the boy "watchiman" went into the flat with a broom and came out shouting "Dos ratas, como gatas!”. Now I understood what had been peeing on my bed. I hammered hysterically at the metal grid of the entry door to the school flats, still distraught at who my bedmates had been for the last week, and begged a room for the night from the comfortable old-timers. Next day, I refused to have anything more to do with the Avenida Piura. Bunny and my head of department packed my bags as I waited in the car, like the child I was, to be taken to the safety of Bunny’s spare room on the tenth floor.
Peru was challenging for someone as sheltered as I. Poor people sat dourly on pavements offering to polish shoes, or to sell you a Sublime, pronounced "Subleemee", the local chocolate bar, rumoured to harbour maggots. Street sellers were called ‘ambulantes’, the equivalent of costermongers in 19th century London. They sold fresh fruit from stalls outside the school gates: kiwi, cherimoya, papaya. There was also a candy floss man and the sweet little San Savior girls, dressed in the egalitarian, countrywide uniform of grey skirt with “H” straps and a white undershirt, queued happily each afternoon by his ancient cart. If anything broke down, you would despair of its ever being mended. The water pump broke in another flat I moved to and was out of order for ten weeks. This was not pleasant in a place full of menstruating women. We used to go straight from school to the sports club and shower there. Poor June, we kept bothering her to find out about ‘la bomba’ but all she got from the 'watchiman' was nonsense.
Wages were another problem due to hyper-inflation. As soon as we were paid, we'd rush to join the scrum in the bank. There was no system for queuing. You pushed your way to the front and, amidst great poverty, received piles of grimy notes, hoping no one had marked your back with chalk to indicate you were loaded. I would make off guiltily with my literally filthy luctre, hurrying to the Cambio as fast as my little legs could carry me; for every moment you delayed, your Soles were diminishing in value. Moreover, the amount of Dollars you could buy was restricted. It was a barely functioning economy.
Despite my rocky start, I was very happy at San Savior. The classes were large so I had a huge amount of marking, but compared to teacher training or my first post in the UK, I was in heaven. Looking back on it, the girls were not particularly well-behaved and regarded the teachers as no better than their maids but for me it was a princely life. There were hummingbirds in the blossoming hedges and we were served cups of tea at break time. The parents’ committee periodically treated us to Pisco Sours, Anticuchos (heart on sticks) and Chicken a la Huanquaino served from silver tureens. That first year, ‘El Nino’ caused such a heatwave that uniform was waived and lessons began at seven and ended at twelve. The languid girls, long-legged in their shorts, reposed as if at a holiday camp. We joined the Sports Club and I attempted to play tennis with no training whatsoever.
Some of the girls were little minxes. One translated a short story by Borges and tried to pass it off as her own for a competition. She was rumbled by the school secretary typing it up, who happened to be reading the story at home. I was forced by the Cambridge Overseas Examination Board, to attempt to teach Hardy’s turgid tome, The Woodlanders. This, in the desert of Peru to the wealthy young senoritas of Miraflores!
Except in report season, it was possible to fit all work in during the school day, which never did return to its full length, the experiment in ending at twelve having proven so successful. People thought I was driven, coming in so early to get all my prep and marking done first thing, but as always, I was driven by sloth. My sole aim in arriving early was to put my feet up for as long as possible by the pool at the sports club. I would go out with the girls and sit in late night cafes: The Haiti, The Indianapolis, the Miraflores. We would dare each other to eat Pie de Limon or Suspiro Limeño or Torte de Cherimoya. I generally accepted and got rather fat. Peru deservedly became a foodies’ destination in later years.
Every holiday we went on amazing and dangerous trips. The first was to Colcha Canyon, a desert gorge of sandy cliffs, where there was a rushing brown torrent beneath a precipitous narrow road, onto which we alighted whilst the bus did a dangerous three-point turn. The trip was overbooked and the excess passengers were seated in loose chairs down the aisle! Another time, we ascended in a bus to Huaras, a mountain town with hot springs and ancient hotels in buildings that dated back to Conquistador times. The rambling ascent revealed the scale of nature in the raw, the little trucks far behind like ants, creeping along the steep tracks that trace the edges of the vast Andean foothills.
We were taken by the school to Yungay, a flattened area of stunted palm tops which were the sole remains of a Central square. Beneath them, a whole town lay buried. During an earthquake, a huge lump had cleaved off Huascaran, a nearby mountain, and had fallen into the lake adjacent, shooting tons of slurry out over the whole valley. Only the cemetery on the hill, and a handful of people who were visiting it that day, had survived. Grey-green ice-melt flowed between gravelly river banks that snaked their way along the valley. I was lonely. We all were. We had lost our friends but were not yet friends with each other. In May, I took a long overnight bus to Trujillo, Peru’s third largest city. We passed through the unbearable smell of the fish factories of Chimbote, and were turfed out in a low square of what looked to me like pre-fabs. I was most disappointed in Peru’s third city! We stayed in the Turistas hotel on the main square and took a ride to Chan Chan, a large pre-Columbian town in the desert, made from adobe, the eroded, low walls of which were barely preserved by cement topping.
Once I rode south on the back of a motorcycle along the Pacific coast with its smoking rollers and ghostly wrecks on empty shorelines. We turned inland to Arequipa and the volcano, El Misti when, approaching a low bridge over a dried up river, the motorcycle skidded on scree and we both fell off. We were safe due to the copious clothing we were wearing and our slow speed; the motorbike, however, was not. Unwilling to waste my break holed up in Arequipa with no chance of reaching Machu Picchu, we hitched a lift with the first large truck that came our way. The driver took the motorbike too and dropped its owner somewhere within reach of town, while I carried on overnight. I was dropped in Puno at sunrise, where I saw Inti rising golden from Lake Titicaca in a smoking dawn that cast silhouettes of morning coffee vendors around the station. I was alone and unafraid.
On the crowded platform of Cusco station, I was relieved of my handbag by means of a razor. Luckily, my money was elsewhere. Robbery was a way of life in Peru. There was no point in getting upset. I caught up with friends and we headed to Machu Picchu and on to Ollantaytambo. Since those days, this trip has become commonplace but it was a relative rarity then. Feeling cold at night and heady from Soroche, or altitude sickness, I can remember women sitting on the ground selling piles of alpaca jumpers and blankets in front of Inca foundations surmounted by Spanish colonial roofs. I recall too the huge walls of the boulder built fortress of Sacsayhuaman and an exuberant square filled with young hippies, Australians with hilarious stories. Bliss it was to be young at such a time!
There were further journeys, one with Doris to New Orleans and Mexico. We went to Merida, took a boat out on a windy lake with some young lads and visited a village of hammocks. We went to Chitchen Itza, Palenque, Acapulco and a yet undeveloped Puerto Escondido, where I nearly put my hand into a ceiling fan. I can hear Doris now saying, “No!” and saving me from an awful injury. We drove along the coast from Puebla to Vera Cruz, taking many ferries to make our way north. There were butterflies and forest fires and winding roads. Doris was a confident driver, calm when we ran out of petrol, fearless, very cool.
In my second year in Lima, I took a cheap flat in a barrio street off a park called Diagonal, long-since disappeared. The neighbourhood, known as Manuel Bonilla, was a hive of activity: apothekes, pop-up restaurants, late night bars. Around the corner was the pretty café, La Tiendacita Blanca, a step across the park from the Haiti and El Pacifico cinemas and opposite, The Blue Lagoon, a rough watering hole. This flat had cockroaches, a fan, and brown lino. On returning from a holiday, I found myriad insect wings all over the floor, presumably from the creatures that left piles of sawdust beneath the doors. When I swept them up, they flew around me in a disembodied cloud. Such things are the stuff of Latin American magical realism, which is, in fact, hardly fiction at all.
I went to Rio de Janeiro with the hockey girls and remember being shocked at the sight of such large crowds, heads upon heads into the horizon. It would be thirty years but eventually Europe too would look like this. It was my last holiday without my future husband, Dan. From now on, all of our time would be spent together as lifelong partners. In October of 1983, we walked the Inca Trail. Unbelievably now, during our three-day hike, we met just one poncho-wearing man and his dog. We camped late, illicitly, in the ruins of Machu Picchu. All night, I burned with the knowledge of something stupendous outside, as I had done when I was a child sleeping beside the sea. I found out about mountain passes, in the snow on my knees, sulking in misery beneath a tarpaulin as Dan dug deep into his rucksack to make us packet soup. Why this intrepid explorer chose me, a weakling, small and scatty, to be his partner in life, I still am not sure. I do believe we saved each other. I saved him from an early death by misadventure, while he saved me from atrophy on a sofa in front of the TV.
Heather Gatley was born in Cyprus to British parents and has lived and worked all over the world as an English teacher. She has had poetry, prose and photographs published in Proximity Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, Ariel Chart, Centered on Taipei, the Carmarthen Journal and Memoirist. Her four chapbooks of poems, entitled “Indigo Sky”, “Tombs of Gold” “Last Boat to Brienzersee” and The Cliffs of Qingshui are available on Amazon.