Tour Peru promised me a direct bus from Puno to Cusco, no stops, no locals. Not my usual way to travel, but it meant two hours less travel time. However, when the bus made its first stop and a ‘bus load’ of cholitas began to climb aboard with their wares and proceeded to argue over seats, the cat was out of the bag. We had been sold a local bus at tourists prices. However, the hassle of the additional hours of travel was soon forgotten as we were treated to a variety show of vendors and beggars who turned the bus into a veritable stage and the passengers, their unwitting audience.
Act one: “Asadito, asadito,” she cried out as opened up her shouldered burden, pulled out a cleaver and began to hack apart what appeared to be a fourth of a grilled cow, doling out portions into individual plastic bags for sale. Meanwhile, a minstrel whose voice never rose above a whisper had climbed aboard to serenade us on one of Bolivia’s many variations on the mandolin. Each song, which consisted of the same fingering and the same inaudible voice, was met with a raucous applause in the form of thunks and chops from the clever-wielding meat lady.
Act two: “Ladys and gentlemen, men and women, fellow travelers, please excuse my intrusion. Many of you would prefer to continue your conversation or your reading (only we gringos were reading), but please give me 15 minutes of your time, friends, as I am sure that what I have to say will prove to be a great interest. Friends, many of you may have experienced, or know someone who has experienced kidney stones, liver problems, impotence…” This man was a beautiful orator, as he marshaled all available evidence (real or not) and played into the vulnerabilities of his rural compatriots in order to sell his packets of powdered “maca”, a local tuber capable of curing all ailments. (I later overheard him on his cell phone, “I need more boxes of maca as soon as possible. What’s that? Oh, yes (nervous laughter), I know I owe you 100 soles (Peruvian currency), but please understand, I am on hard times, we can work this out…”)
Act three: A lesser orator followed with a similar pitch for an ointment intended to cure arthritis and similar symptoms. With his audience proving unresponsive, he fell into a pitch for inspirational pamphlets that explained the meaning of local refrains and dealt out life wisdom. I bought one of each.
We finally arrived in Cuzco towards dusk, after having traveled about 9 hours. However, we agreed unanimously that the local bus was worth (almost) every hour. What was paraded before our eyes on that bus was no less than the drama and hardships of everyday life in the Altiplano of the Puna, where itinerant vendors target, as well as mirror, the hearts and realities of their fellow compatriots.