Jan Wessmas is a local travel writer who recently spent time touring Peru and South Africa in the company of two busloads of not-so-young but brave-at-heart Trinis.
South Africa in August is not an option readily embraced by the average Trini traveller, notwithstanding the mystique surrounding the inimitable Nelson Mandela. Nor will the Highlands of Peru, at any time, but moreso in July, tempt any but the more daring among us. Both southern hemispheric nations, in these months their winters are at their peak, and visitors who pay no heed to this, and dress inappropriately as a result, are bound to freeze.
Apart from the fact that more travellers seem disposed, for whatever reason, to travel in the "summer", there are sound reasons why, in the case of South Africa, winter and early spring are good times to travel. It's the dry season and there's every chance of being able to see impalas, rhinos, leopards, elephants, you name them, as they roam the wild in search of water holes. If your sole reason for visiting South Africa is to see first-hand what the post-apartheid ANC Government has brought to this fascinating land, I guess any time will do. Otherwise, the dry and cold season is singularly the time to be there.
In the case of the Peruvian Highlands, it's also the dry season and the widely acclaimed Inca ruins of Machu Picchu will almost certainly be open much unlike what happened two years ago in the wet season when landslides caused by torrential rains caused them to be closed for some time.
Imagine turning up at the world-renowned Kruger National Park in the province of Mpumalanga in the South African rainy season to find all of the big five on vacation! Or, for that matter, in Cusco in January to find that Atahualpa's revenge- swollen rivers and landslides- have undermined the track upon which super efficient Peru Rail so faithfully depends to carry throngs of tourists to the most famous Inca City. I wouldn't wish such on my most mortal enemy .
I'll be switching between the two countries in these articles as each tour followed so closely on the other that I cannot help comparing and contrasting them as I travel through huge chunks of both by land. Located in different continents that were torn apart by continental drift or plate tectonics millions of years ago, both destinations have so exploited their tourism potential that they are able to attract visitors by the millions annually. This is, in spite of the reputation deserved or not, that both countries have for insecurity and violence. What do you expect if you ill-advisedly venture into the slums of Cape Town or Lima after dark? Or if you are a miner who decides to strike for fairer wages and conditions at the Lonmin Platinum Plant in Marikana near Johannesburg? Or even better, if you are one of the last remaining followers of the outlawed terrorist organisation Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) that had the country on its knees for years and are captured by the Peruvian National Police?
Both are, relatively speaking , vast countries with much more to exploit than its bitter past. South Africa covers roughly 472,000 square miles of territory with a population of close to fifty million while Peru covers 496,225 square miles with a population approaching thirty million! Both are geographically diverse. Snow-capped mountains, deserts, altiplanos, high veld grasslands, savannah woodlands and semi-tropical and tropical forests are features of both.
And they are, linguistically and culturally, equally diverse. In the highlands of Peru you may just as easily hear Quechua spoken as you will hear Spanish. In Pretoria, chances are you will be hearing Afrikaans, the off-shoot of Dutch spoken by the original Boers. Of native languages, you can take your pick of any of the nine official indigenous languages from from Xhosa to SiSwati!
Happily, we get by in English (the South African variety) which 50 per cent of the population speak. The Boers and the British fought terrible wars over land and resources but the languages of both had survived the carnage. We may even have the opportunity to try some Bojpuri in Durban when we get there. Some of us will be at home, no doubt, as Durban boasts the largest population of "Indians" outside India! And we Trinis still insist that we are in the major league where diversity and other matters are concerned.
And so debunking the images of violence and mayhem that are often painted of both countries , we travel across a large cross-section of urban and rural South Africa, and venture into a sizeable chunk of altiplano in the Peruvian Andes. Surprise of surprises, we return home with every limb ,wallet and handbag intact! I guess that's what you can reasonably expect if you hire professional native tour escorts, as we did, in both instances.
We arrive in Lima not long after midnight. With nothing to declare and longing for some sleep we transfer post haste to the tidy and efficient German Hotel (Hotel Aleman) in upscale Miraflores. Like many Latin American cities the centre has become a magnet for migrants from the Sierra (largely indigenous or mestizo and marginalised). The inner city shows signs of decay as the well-heeled and, generally lighter-hued, seek refuge in places nearer the sea like Miraflores.
Switching to South Africa, there's no sea near Johannesburg so the suburbs like Sandton and Midrand—secured by guards in every nook and cranny, efficient super modern rapid rail, first world highways highways, posh buildings and finely-landscaped public spaces are all the rage. You will hardly be surprised to know that among the beneficiaries are a significant number of the newly- arrived post-apartheid and ANC blessed, black economic empowered elite, the much vaunted BEE.
Ever a city of two worlds—one white and privileged, and the other black and marginalised, Johannesburg is still one of the world's leading financial centres and remains the economic and the financial hub of South Africa. Nowadays, however, it gives the impression of being a shadow of the city that bloomed during the halcyon days of gold and diamonds. Downtown, the morning we arrive, is drab, dirty and depressing. Even with high-tech CCTV surveillance introduced on every street corner by the ANC- controlled Municipal Council in 2008, not a Trini, normally so eager to stop and shop, would venture out.
In Peru we leave Miraflores that afternoon for the Plaza Mayor (formerly Plaza de Armas) where in 1535 gold hungry Spanish conquistador Pizarro laid the foundation for what is today, the city of Lima. As raw historical fact this ignores the ignominy meted out to Atahualpa, the last Inca leader, three years earlier in 1532. He was assassinated by Pizarro after having arranged the delivery of a "room filled with gold" in return for his release following his capture in the Battle of Cajamarca!
Three weeks later, on the African continent this time, we listen to a familiar story of European treachery and greed in conquered lands. Venturing beyond their original mandate to establish a way station on the Cape to provide fresh provisions to vessels of the Dutch East India Company, early Dutch settlers (the first Afrikaaners) starting with Jan Van Riebeeck systematically and ruthlessly displaced the Khoi who had been farming sheep, cattle and goats in the Cape since the fifth century AD.
Present-day Boers will argue otherwise. Yes, they conquered and subjugated but they added value, the argument goes. Witness the superb first world infrastructure visible on the highways, parks and major cities (never mind the exploitation as a consequence) . Marvel at how the rural landscape has been transformed into idyllic farms where grapes, cereals, ground nuts, potatoes, apples and citrus abound. "The past is gone. It's the now and the future in a new rainbow nation that matter most", one Afrikaaner farmer proclaims.
Ironically, the news in downtown Lima today is that the present residents of Cajamarca are calling for the shut down of all gold mines (foreign-owned) in the area because of the untold damage done to the ecosystem in general and to local agriculture, in particular as a result of the pollution of the water courses. Two conflicting value systems are at loggerheads- one in pursuit of profit and "progress" and the other in pursuit of sustainability. The Peruvian and South African experience are not all that estranged, I muse aloud.
—Part Two next week.
• The writer invites fans interested in touring South Africa during the IPL season in October to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org