I grew up tall in Australia – the land of nourishing sunshine, meat and two veg and vegemite.
By the time I was 13 I had reached the height of 6 feet 1 inch and stopped there.
A good height.
It’s come in handy playing basketball, reaching the top shelf at the supermarket and getting rid of unwanted brain cells by hitting low ceilings.
But in Peru my height gave me something totally unexpected – Peru celebrity status.
A normal Sunday in Peru
Carmen and I were enjoying a Sunday afternoon walk in Arequipa, Peru’s southern city of culture and amazing gastronomy.
Arequipa has a big beautiful park that’s only open on weekends and costs you 1 sole to enter. So we decided to spend the afternoon poobing about among the locals, seeing what they do with their day off.
The municipal park is an oasis of nature away from Arequipa’s faded colonial streets that are used by local taxi drivers as a private racecourse where pedestrians are targets.
There’s a big lake in the middle where you can hire a paddle or row boat or just hop on a giant barge that a man with a pole pushes around.
Next to the maritime madness is a weird menagerie of miserable looking monkeys, tropical birds and turtles, then there’s a shell-shaped stage where lip-syncing boy bands sing western songs from the 1990s while hawkers try to sell you chocolate bars, popcorn and stolen razor blades – all in all a great day out for the whole family.
Performance in the park
We noticed a huge crowd of people laughing and cheering right at the top of the park so we went to have a squizz. As we walked up I noticed I towered chest, head and shoulders above absolutely everyone there.
Peruvians are many things – friendly, immensely physically strong, brave and trustworthy – but they are not tall.
I had a grandstand view of the show they were all watching – a live action Peruvian take on Punch and Judy with a woman dressed as a ‘Cholita’ (tough girl) haranguing her poor husband to the merriment of all.
After pantomime slapping her husband’s face, her eyes met mine. Then started calling out. I felt my stomach fall through the floor. ‘Please be speaking to someone behind me,’ I prayed.
Before I could object the crowd parted like the Red Sea and I was being invited to come on stage!
Becoming a Peru celebrity
I wish I could say I had a dashing entrance that stunned the crowd into awed silence. But alas, I tripped over an old woman sitting on the ground.
That warmed them all up.
The Cholita sidled up to me and started speaking to me in rapid fire Spanish. Eventually I figured out she was asking where I was from.
‘Australia,’ I said into the microphone. The crowd went wild.
‘Australia! Kangaroo!’ she yelled and started hopping up and down.
This was the moment I decided to just go for it. I was representing my country now. Hell’s bells if I was gonna wuss out.
I pretended to be skippy the bush kangaroo and played along with her. It was great fun but I was so nervous my legs were doing Elvis impressions.
After a blur of jokes in Spanish she rummaged through a kit bag and handed me a huge red poncho. ‘Burro!’ she yelled, pointing to her on stage husband who had put both hands at his temples to make bull horns.
Righto, I thought, and twirled the cape through the air like the bullfighter’s I’d seen on news stories on the blood sport. I stamped my feet, held my head high and yelled ‘vamos!’
‘The bull’ charged and I swept the red poncho across his back as he passed, dancing out of the way at the last second. The crowd cheered as he charged over and over again and I escaped certain death.
Then the Cholita handed me a huge knife (blunt of course) and told me ‘matalos!’ so I put the weapon between my teeth and charged after the bull. He surrendered and begged for his life and I spared him.
Was I being used?!
I hoped that crazy bit of action would be the end but I found myself being handed a huge packet of chocolate wafer bars.
Instead of passing the hat around like buskers usually do, this troupe sold wafer bars for a sole each – if you like the show you buy a bar.
My packet sold out in seconds. Every man, woman, child and I must say attractive female in the place (sorry Carmen, duty calls!) wanted a wafer from me.
Then the photo requests started up.
I must have posed for a hundred or more pictures with people. They called me ‘Australia’ and took selfies and group shots and even got me to hold babies.
It was insane. I couldn’t believe people wanted my picture – I’ve seen a thousand and one people dragged into street performances and never wanted to get close to them.
After selling six or seven packets of wafers I tried to get off stage and back to Carmen but the Cholita intervened and dragged her onstage too!
A sub plot of my bull fighting act was that the Cholita was madly in love with me and kept comparing my physical size to her husband who was much shorter. She kissed me a few times and groped me a fair bit too – all acting of course.
Now the husband had his revenge.
He chatted Carmen up shamelessly and just before she got off the stage he stole a big kiss from her!
The crowd went nuts.
When we reached the edge we decided to get going but that was easier said than done. The way was barred by our fans, all wanting photos with the Australians.
By the time we reached the exit gate our faces hurt from smiling for so many pictures. We went off to have a drink and calm our nerves from possibly the most random day of travel we’ve ever had.