Desert Sand-boarding with a Drunken Peruvian Mayor
A blacked-out Hyundai screeches to a halt and, just as we think we’re going to be victims of a kidnapping, a friendly middle aged man jumps from the driver’s seat introducing himself as Rocky, our sand-boarding tour operator. We pile into the back, 6 of us now in the 5 seat 4×4, and discover that the “English speaking guide” we were promised can’t even count to ten. Conversing solely with flailing hand signals, Rocky stops outside a block of flats just two minutes after departing and starts re-arranging the junk in the boot –surely we can’t be picking up anyone else!
Just as this thought leaves my head however, out strolls a young girl called Wendy who, without blinking, hops happily into the trunk like it is customary routine. Rocky turns the conversation to Latin food; with the gringo’s in the back understanding about 50% of what he’s yammering and replying “Si” to the other half. This worked swimmingly for about 20 minutes until Rocky makes another pit stop, this time diving into a road side fast food cafe. Why it is open at 8am I have no idea. Attempting small talk with Wendy, who’s English is slightly better, Rocky soon re-appears with a massive KFC Bargain Bucket (minus the Colonel on the side). It contained chicheron, ‘Inca popcorn’ and sweet potato wedges; those tuna sandwiches we’d prepared for lunch would clearly be unnecessary.
Driving head first into the dessert, away from any sort of civilization, Rocky starts waggling his finger out of the window and shouting “Chile”, “Chile”. One could easily be mislead to thinking we were being smuggled over an international border as we then pass an anti-aircraft missile truck. In the most sincere demeanor this, usually animated, man turns to us and says “Heil Hitler?” Bursting into laughter we quickly brush that statement to the side with a negative response. What had we signed up for?
After another 40 minutes we turned off the highway and arrive at a small wooden structure beside an oasis. A man, whom we presume to be Rocky’s son, is waiting with two ferocious terriers that nip and growl at the disembarking strangers. Wendy offer’s us a drink and we quickly understand that she must be some kind of assistant. After dowsing ourselves in sun-cream we harness ourselves into the parked dune buggy and Roger blasts the machine into the dunes of the Atacama. Dough-nutting about, Roger’s progeny produces a Garmin sat-nav and the two enter a lengthy discussion about which direction best to proceed in. Meanwhile, Wendy directs our gaze to the horizon where all five Andean volcano peaks are visible through the haze, the highest being El Misti.
Eventually finding a suitable location Rocky pulls the plastic off two brand new sand-boards and hands me a third, which is actually just a skateboard missing the trucks. Any thought of this being an official tour company had now completely diminished. The sand was as soft as a pillow. Imagine trying to ski down a slope of clouds and that goes some way to describing both the difficulty and absurdity of the situation. Skills went in a huff, endlessly complaining about the price we’d paid up-front for this ‘experience’. This served only as a catalyst to fuel our enjoyment however and we spent the next 30 minutes crying with laughter under the baking sun.
Wendy quickly fills her phone with rolls of photographs, probably for the ‘official website’, and Rocky decides that enough is enough. We head back to the lake house where he offers us a shot on his jet-ski due to sand-boarding being, in his words, “Bad”. The water is toxic green but after agreeing that is must simply be discoloring from the algae we give it a whirl… jet-skiing is AWESOME. Rocky brings out the bucket of food, which looked like it could have fed a small African village. Getting out my phrasebook to assist my high-school level Spanish, Rocky announces that everything was ‘on the house’ due to the sand-boarding debacle. He turned out to be the former mayor of Arequipa, letting his vacation house out to tourists for some extra pocket money. Wendy, 20 years his junior, is actually his mistress and today they would be spending the night in the wooden structure to celebrate his birthday. Excited about our nationality from the minute we’d bundled into his car that morning, Rocky then claims to have a surprise for us. He returns from the lake house with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label and pours six hearty glasses before raising a toast to his ‘new amigos’.
Rojer Luiz Caceres Perez, discovering he didn’t actually share a name with the underdog boxing champion, had been the most hospitable person we’d come across since being in South America; not even the communication issues dissuading him from making us feel welcome in his city. Waffling on about wanting to invite his harem round later because he was about to take some Viagra, the half bottle of whiskey was clearly taking his toll. One glance towards Wendy confirmed that this chat was obviously a regular occurrence around the 1996-1998 city administrator, and it was chat that we would dearly miss as his son drove us back to the town square… and back to reality.