Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Magical Peru may have its problems but it's no drug den

Michaella McCollum Connolly
Michaella McCollum Connolly

I once spent a year in South America. Most of it in Peru. Once you've been to that country the rest of the continent almost becomes an irrelevancy.

It is one of the most magical and genuinely awe-inspiring countries on the planet. Or at least it was in 1989, before the era of global get-there-quick travel and know-it-all Trip Advisor online diffidence reduced everything to the humdrum.

I've had cause to reminisce about the country this week following the arrest of Michaella McCollum Connolly in the country's capital, Lima, on suspicion of drug smuggling.

To read some reports you'd think Peru is a country of corrupt, coke-sniffing officials, hell-hole jails and shifty criminals.

In 1989 it was. But it was also so much more. A country of incredibly friendly people caught in a brutal civil war, which claimed tens of thousands of lives.

A land of breathtaking beauty, rich in untouched history. A country in which a delicious surprise sprung from every corner.

Often, on miserable days, I will close my eyes and summon up Peru. She always comes, smiling and full of colour and rich memories. How the McCollum Connolly story plays out, no one knows, but it will be a pity if the country which plays unwitting backdrop to the case is stereotyped into a Latin version of Midnight Express.

I went because I wanted a Boy's Own adventure, I wanted to travel down the Amazon and visit the opera house in the jungle built by the rubber barons and visit the lost city of the Incas.

This was before the internet. How was I to know that I would spend 16 days in jam-packed banana boats getting to the Brazilian town of Manaus, only to find the opera house had been closed for refurbishment for the last two years?

How was I to know that a third of Peru was controlled by the Shining Path Maoist guerrillas, who were not too keen on colonial gringos like me. You were never too sure if the man kicking you awake wearing a balaclava and toting a machine-gun was a terrorist, or in the army. Neither was very palatable.

The country, at that time, was in turmoil. But, still, very much like this one, its people were incredible.

Mostly very poor, to them Western travellers were wealth on two legs, but I can count on one hand the amount of incidents of theft, or mugging, I witnessed, or heard about.

But I have lost count of the number of people who would open their doors to feed you and let you stay the night.

Just like here, Peruvians don't just give you directions, they'll take you all the way there if you let them.

And that magic... in every town, in every village, fascinating folk rituals, incredible dances with people in colourful bird costume, cracking whips and carousing all night long took place.

And don't think these were for the tourists. Often, we were the only whiteys in town. People were just glad and half-amazed that you were there. We know how that feels.

The South American country, home to a Incan civilisation in the 16th century that was at least as advanced as ours, has been blighted by a drugs war for years.

The coca leaf is still used by Andean farmers, either chewed or brewed in tea, to offset the effects of the altitude. Its powdered by-product is in demand around the world.

That is not Peru's fault, but it is why a Dungannon dancer is on the front pages of our newspapers.

Despite what you might read over the next few weeks, the real story of Peru is found in its deserts, Amazonian rain forests, five-mile deep canyons, Andean lost cities and anarchic towns.

And amid the people who live in its wonder.

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