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Getting around South America: Part Four



Last week I signed off with an air travel scare story which ended with me being buried under an avalanche of paper napkins and plastic cups. A more serious scare occurred when I was working in Libya. On a domestic flight from Tripoli to Benghazi we suddenly dropped several hundred metres through the air, as if the engines had failed. There was a lot of screaming; then we stabilised and the pilot came on the loudspeakers to apologise; he’d done it on purpose to discipline two passengers who were harassing the stewardess. If I’d known the Arabic for “irresponsible bastard” I’d have used it. Another incident (well, two) occurred on a flight from Joburg to Doha (the capital of Qatar, an Arab Gulf state); I was booked to fly on from there to London. Sitting next to a pleasant-enough but very boring and not very well-informed South African woman I couldn’t resist a practical joke. When the coffee came round she peered at the label on the little plastic capsule of milk and said “Oot milk??” She was evidently reading UHT on the label, which stands for Ultra-High Temperature (a reference to the pasteurising process which removes harmful bacteria from the milk). “Say!” she said to me, “what kind of animal is an Oot?” I replied “it’s from Mongolia. Something like a yak.” The pilot (British, by the sound of him) was also a practical joker. As we prepared to land in Doha he announced “we have just started our descent to Al Huffuff” (and to get the full impact of that announcement you have to hear it pronounced with a guttural, explosive Arab accent). There were cries from passengers all around of “Where??” and “What the hell??” and my neighbour yelped “We’re on the wrong plane!” The pilot then stifled his giggles and explained that Doha airport wasn’t actually in Doha but near a village called Al Huffuff; there were courtesy buses to take people who weren’t in transit into town. I suppose something similar is true of Moshoeshoe I International Airport, which really should be called Mazenod. And unless memory fails, I don’t recall courtesy buses operating out there. Which (and it’s that old association of ideas thing again) prompts me to tell a story that may or may not be apocryphal. Where the airport access road meets the main road there used to be a big signboard advertising the services of the nearby (and excellent) Veterinarian Centre. Apparently the middle part of this signboard had fallen off, so as you arrived at the airport and drove away in your hire-car or taxi you were greeted with a sign that said “Welcome to Lesotho . . . Castration Centre.” I wonder how many first-time visitors to Lesotho shrieked and returned to the airport? Back now to my travels in South America. First, I realise I haven’t said very much about Lima, which was my base during those two years. One of the main attractions of the city was its range of bars and restaurants. And one of the fanciest of the latter was attached to a convent; the cooks and waitresses were all Catholic nuns. I guess this was a way of supporting the convent financially; I was happy to patronise the place, as the food was wonderful. Not too far away was the cathedral. The interior of this was rather dark and gloomy, but nothing as gloomy as the chamber of ossuaries in the basement. An ossuary is a container in which human bones are interred. Usually these are stone urns, as in the one near Tivoli in Italy, which I’d visited years before. Here, however, the bones were in the open, arranged inside the sort of low stone walls you except to see surrounding flower beds in posh gardens. All the bones — dozens of them — were arranged in pretty patterns: a circle of shin-bones, inside this a circle of skulls, inside that another round of shin-bones, and so on. Really bizarre. One of the best museums in the city was of Inca decorative pottery. Here were dozens of pots in the shape of human or animal heads or of groups of figures or of buildings. Also there was a special room — adults only allowed in — displaying erotic pottery, showing every kind of sexual activity imaginable (readers who know the Kama Sutra will be aware of some of the permutations and feats of athleticism). In that room sat an elderly lady in guard’s uniform; she watched each visitor intently — I’m sure she was curious as to which pot interested them the most. To be concluded

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