I lean in the doorway looking out on the plaza, whilst two guitarists dressed in square whites pluck away at a delicate saga, their voices wailing hauntingly beautiful. A woman approaches, walking in a waltz, smiling at me as she passes singing along. I smile back, a genuine smile, I’m really happy to be here and the music is mesmerising. I walk inside, the music echoing quietly down the painted yellow corridor, where stands Rodney packed and ready to go.
“SO YOU’RE GOING?” shouts the hotel owner, I assumed at first he shouted at me to help me understand his Spanish, but in fact he shouts at just about everyone, especially his silent wife. She comes out, from mopping the floor, short and sweet, a Mediterranean pear, a thin smile upon her face, though not for long….
“YOU LEFT THE BEDSHEETS IN THERE!! HOW ARE WE GOING TO GET THEM NOW!!!” he’s not being nasty, it’s just how he speaks!
I’m sad to leave Malacas, and Ecuador, but I’m also close to place I’ve been dreaming of for far too long; the Peruvian Andes. And I can hardly wait! And weigh up my options for the day.
Three options, though only one is a dirt road, so only one really, out towards the town of Zumba and then the Peruvian border, 170 km away. So, fully weighed up, I say my goodbyes to the few people whom I had contact, my hosts, the friendly baker who reminded me of Amelie, the old man who sat all day outside the hotel who reminds me of his equal in my village, and the cow at the internet cafe whom I owed money, and head out. The thrill of movement is short-lived, roadworks, and the road opens only every two hours. Once through though the scenery is superb; wrinkled green mountains and sandstone wedges and tableaus, all set beneath a perfect clear blue sky! I hope with the change of weather here to have left behind the previous months of rain at last, but I haven’t.
As I round a corner, the change is instant; thick over-bearing forests, dark and dripping with damp beneath a palpable weight of grey cloud. Grey mood. Cloud forest. With it; rain, landslides and sloppy mud which sprays out from under the front tire like melting snow. In fact, the entire road is one uninterrupted 160km landslide until almost, the border.
When I arrive the next day, the customs official, looks new and unused, like a freshly unwrapped doll; ‘Customs Ken’, or perhaps ‘Aduana Jose’. Not surprising though, as I am one of a fairly small number of people using this border point. He stamps my passport as squarely and precise as the creases in his uniform and bids me good day. I sneak under the barrier blocking the bridge, upon which the school set up sports day, a running track being painted and a PA system to rival any auditorium being laid out, the sky is high and white now, the rain stopped. On the far side the Peruvian outpost where, contrarily, the customs official looks old and worn, his shirt hangs forced partly out of his trousers by his sizeable paunch, his face droopy and droll. His eyesight is equally worn, so I fill in my bike details on the computer for him whilst he tries to persuade one of the female teachers to join me, she doesn’t seem keen…I wonder why, I am ugly, dirty and….can she smell my feet?
$1.00 goes to the immigration officer’s pocket and, I am fairly certain, that’s where it will stay….until he spends it. Regardless I’ve got my stamps and head out: Peru and hopefully a better road.
|Ouch, fallen after hitting the slick patch on the inside of the turn (right in pic)
It’s not. In fact it’s probably worse. But only as they’re trying to make it better; churned up like butter by construction trucks and bulldozers and dynamite. That said it’s great fun, riding as fast as Rodney allows I laugh as the bike bucks and twists and slides in the mud, pushing the engine which pitches and drops spinning in the mud….actually, probably not spinning let’s be honest, it’s a 125cc and I’m not moto-X racer, but still! Then nipping past a truck, up a hill broad-sliding a long sweeping bend, then accelerating out then on the straight – Chad Reed would be proud – then the front wheel slips out, I try to catch it with a sharp twist of the bars, but then inevitably the back starts to swing then, like a jack-knifing truck, and I’m off with my big toe stuck under a curled over brake pedal and another broken mirror drops off its mount. ‘maybe a bit slower Jones.’ I toss the mirror into the mud, and ride off a a little more cautiously. Eventually I arrive in San Ignacio, a car-wash town essentially, where taxis, cars, mototaxis and tuktuks clean up, marking the end of the mud and the start of regular old gravel. I quickly grab some water at a garage tap and find camp through a cacao plantation next to the river Chinchipe.
‘What are you doin’?’
‘Camping….I’m going to sleep here. What are you doing here?’ I ask looking at a large inflated tube atop his mototaxi.
‘In the dark?’
‘With that tube? Isn’t it a bit dangerous?’ I ask, looking at the river that is filling every void in its very wide bed with brown churning rapids.
‘No, no…no problem!’
But after a more than cursory glance at the river he changes his mind, ‘I think we’ll wait for it to drop. You carry on.’
The two men, who I heard rather than saw in the dark, can be described only as Jay & Silent Bob, Jay talked and laughed infectiously, literally as if he had an infection – of laughter – and might at any moment, frazzle and pop such was it’s odd giggling intensity. Bob said naught. And didn’t laugh either. I went to sleep.
I don’t feel like I’m actually in Peru yet, not until I have choices, a junction, a decision, the country opening up before me, left or right, for now it is just straight. To Bedlum. Which is the only way to describe the town of Jaen.
I try desperately to find the centre, but feel like a trapped swimmer in a rough tide, forced one way or another by wave after wave of….mototaxis, millions of them. Three-wheeled motorcycles, with as many drive-chains and as many seats. Exhausted from the battering I give up in a dirt street, and by fortune find myself outside an unmarked restaurant.
Inside, the cooking area and seating space are as one, the walls adorned with Catholic passages and calenders, the pots taking more space than the three tables, all occupied, I sit next to a youth and start talking, he is – as I might have guessed – a moto-taxi driver.
|A moto-taxi, quit e an old school one
I’m just about to dip my fork into my $1.00 plate chicken, rice, lentils and comedy salad when I’m bombarded with questions from cook and clientèle, my stomach groans philosophically at my cooling food. But their interest is so delightful and innocent it’s hard to not enjoy the interrogation.
‘Where are you from?’
‘England.’ I know what’s coming…wait for it,
‘So what language do you speak?’ I knew it!
‘English! It’s the birthplace of English….Come on! inglese, inglaterre….’
They look a bit blank. ‘It’s next to France…Germany….’
‘Ohhhh, your German….!’
‘No, it’s a, just, well….ohhh, yeah, I’m German.’
Two hours later I leave the restaurant- certainly feeling like I’m in Peru now! in search of electrical bits and pieces, bread and fruit.
‘What are you doing?’
‘It’s a gift!’
‘No…NO! I say, ‘stop!!!’ But the two ladies are unstoppable, as they pile fruit into a bag, ‘I can’t take all of your fruit, you need it!’
But it’s no good and I walk away with arms cradling a bounty of oranges, mandarins, bananas and some passion-fruits, half of which I drop in the mud but my ladies are soon on hand to help me cram it into my top-box
‘Here, you’re probably tired of oranges.’ I say handing them some kiwis I had.
‘Oh! Thanks very much!’
‘No problem! Thanks again! Adios!”
I’m just slipping on my helmet, when….
‘But…..What is it?’
‘Ohhhh, sorry!” I say and hop over to them, “It’s a kiwi…’ and I explain to them how to eat it, though they look fearful and I wonder if they ever did eat them.
Then a man wants his picture taken.
‘It’s usually me asking for the photos!’ I say, wondering if I should ask for a dollar.
‘I want a picture with the gringo.’
‘I’m not a gringo.’ I say flatly and explain as always, I’m not American.
‘Yeah, but you look the same.’ he says honestly.
I decide that Jaen’s entire economy is in fact built on the ‘mototaxi’. Almost all of them run around with their low raspy noise, filling the road though devoid of passengers, or broken down, or at 45º with a flat tire. And those which aren’t empty are ferrying mechanics or parts to these others which are broken, or else parked outside a restaurant to fill up on ricerrific calories before continuing the search for a distraught looking mototaxiless mototaxi driver. Men drive and fix, women feed the moving massive, and kids – it seems decorate them ‘ the mototaxis; usually with vinyls of Tweetie-Pie, Tom & Jerry, Yosemite Sam, triple x logos, Che Guevara, transformers and Thundercats, football logos, Jesús and Magdalena. The city buzzes in eternal circles, it goes nowhere.
The next day after a delightful camp, I cross the state border into Peru’s Amazonia, though you’d never tell; scorched canyons, and broad valley floors paved with a twisting mural of rice paddies where men and women plough, plant and cut or abandon the cut yellow stalks to rot. I hadn’t imagined rice paddies and fiery heat when I entered Peru, I imagined in the distance that I’d see the Andes towering up and dominating the horizon everywhere I went, menacing clouds forming at their peaks in high altitude winds, but as always with expectations it seems, it’s not quite like that! The road is fantastic however, despite being paved, and it is deserted of traffic and discreetly it does take me into the mountains, ever south, following the gentle curves of the Utcubamba river that weaves amongst these lower reaches on my way to…wait, where is it I’m going…?
‘So, you go up here” I ask, “and turn right?’ This doesn’t sound right.
‘Yup, two blocks, turn right over a bridge.’ she confirms.
Clearly I’d forgotten the 101 of asking directions this particular day….and the next too, spending two days, TWO DAYS! doggedly trying to find Karajia, a set of ancient statues carved in to a canyon wall. I found them, eventually, but I was on the wrong side of a deep and steep canyon and couldn’t find a way across. Tired, I decide this has gone on long enough and return towards my previous night’s camp.
Two trucks face each other as night gathers. I assume one is stuck or has begun its inevitable shedding of vital – but very worn and antique – parts. I sneak alongside to pass, though three men block the path, chatting, finding a solution it seems. The first idea they have strikes me as not being well thought out, though it strikes the one driver with much more persuasion, as it strikes him in his face. A scuffle. I remember that it is bloody Saturday and, sigh as tomorrow is obviously Drunk Sunday. I hate weekends, everyone drunk, everywhere packed to capacity with rich vacationing consuming city dwellers. The three fellows are rolling in the dirt, just a pretend fight, one guy tries to break it up, tele novela (Latino TV soaps) stuff, ‘come on I want to camp, rest….maybe I can squeeze by…..’. But then up on their feet, and this is what I remember, clear and sharp of focus:
I remember the back of a head hitting hard into the truck door like a coconut on a stone. A fourth chap now, younger, the son of one starts to punch and kick the stubborn coconut, possibly his dad if he really hates him, but I assume his dad is the other fellow also trying to break said coconut. Mother comes screaming, I forget her, but remember her shoes sitting in the dust, the shoes look different somehow, like they don’t belong, like litter, like they’re dead.
I remember out of the knot of bodies father’s arm arcing out wide and long like an swinging Olympic hammer which connects with a terrible slap, cracking coconut….the ruckus stop.
But then I remember coconut, bloodied walking from the other side of the truck, how’d he get there? He has a gun. He slides back the breach.
I remember the gun, a silver hilt, a fancy pattern, and thinking ‘flipping primadona Latinos with their flairy designs.’
I remember the sound of the gun, POK, pathetic sounding, I think ‘I bet it hurts though.’
The son doesn’t fight with his mother now, he’s hiding behind the truck door which is behind me, and now father is standing right by me, just off to the front left, his back to me, and the man has raised the gun, from the first shot at the ground, pointing it towards the man’s head. But to my mind it is pointing at me. I’m certain even that I can make out a glimmer of the cartridge in the chamber..
It’s not fear. It’s something else. I feel like someone’s cut of my feet, and all I can do is stand there and watch my blood drain rapidly down into the ground, leaving my face light white and your brain high and dry. It’s realisation. You have no options and soon you might be dead.
But somewhere my brain sees a window of opportunity, it’s narrow and dusty and I’m thinking ‘what are you doing?!’ as I push down into first and ride past them.
Beyond the headlights of the trucks a crowd.
I remember a girl having the best Saturday ever, judging by her face. And, all this I realise, as neither of the drivers would reverse to let the other pass on the narrow trail.
The tent feels every bit as vulnerable as it is that night.
|The scene of the fight below my camp!
The policeman waves me over, and pull up and slide off the helmet, bloody police. He stands staring,like a switched off toy…
‘Hi!’ I say, though receive no reply….’How are you?’ Still nothing.
‘What do you need?’ I ask a little impatiently now….sadly it seems, my tone wakes him from his stupor.
‘DOCUMENTS!’ He barks trying to regain power, control, authority.
Well, he can’t have it.
‘Well, what do you want;’ I say, ‘yellow fever vaccine certificate, an old bank statement, gas bill, or a letter from the British Embassy to the Sudanese Embassy stating that they don’t actually issue letters….’
That’ll tell him.
Nope, balls in his court.
‘Here’s my driver’s license….’
‘…and vehicle title…’
‘…and my customs forms…’
‘….and my passport….’ oh heck, I can’t lie, literally just incapable of it…So I tell it and tell straight, ‘No, I don’t have any insurance.’
Momentarily shocked by my honesty he resumes his earlier stand-by mode. Luckily, in this intervening time his friends come over and start asking a plethora of questions of bike and trip…and budget (always budget).
‘So, where are you from?’
‘INSURANCE!’ comes muffled amongst the small crowd.
‘Three years nine months!’
‘You camp EVERY night!’
And so on.
Cachapoyas the town up on the hill looks nice, full of white washed buildings and mahogany balconies overlooking a pristine green plaza around which march children dressed as Amazonian Indians accompanied by a thumping brass band. But I spend little time here, just to stock up and a quick walk as I’m heading out towards the fortress ruins of Kuelap.
The trail follows the river again, which flows barley inches below the road like the canals back home, though it runs smoky blue, like a pretty girl’s eyes I once knew, sadly no more, rather than the murky brown of the canals. The road her blonde hair? Probably a stretch of any sort of metaphor, but now I’m thinking of her as I wind my way along as through the valley appear more and more towering green mountains, blocking the horizon and as well, one feels certain, the way ahead. But of course I make it through , ever closer it seems the amazing blue of the Peruvian sky at the very end.
I camp at the entrance to Kuelap, feeling sick again (having been sick six weeks or so!), taxis await prey, music blaring, one repairs a puncture, kids dive about playing football, waiting to sell artesanias, a baby inspects my tent and a man lies on the grass staring at my tent coughing up thick wads of phlegm every half minute, but I’m exhausted ignore him and his murderous glare and sleep.
I’m given the keys to the fort and go to look around the pile of rubble, which to me is all it is, why do I bother – because I feel I should, though I know I’m not interested I like the unbeaten path, indigenous tribes and mountains. Should I even bother with Macchu Pichu….I know I should…but….
He looks troubled toiling over the map, as if the weight of that which is depicted upon it were in fact a real and physical burden upon his shoulders. He looks up, left and right surveying the land only to return to hastily to the map with renewed intensity, deeper now, beyond the valleys and mountains roads and rivers, towards something else, and though he tries and tries he cannot find what he seeks, because he seeks what he seeks! Is left right and right wrong or the other way about and right left wrong right, and so, wait…which is wrong? He despairs. ‘where are you going?’ they might ask, and he’d say, ‘I don’t know!’ and perhaps this itself is the problem? You’re going nowhere. And so perhaps you should go back. oh no, can’t go back, terrible thought, preposterous, leaving me with wrong or right, but which is which and where is right? And how to reach it? To arrive must I be driven endlessly forth by a weakness that fears of the inadequacy I strive to leave behind? And so, to be good, or maybe even great, must I be weak?
I look at the map.
And choose a direct route to the Andes. If it was right, or wrong I only know (and fear) that it was left.
It was certainly south, to Cajamarcas via a fairly high and then very low pass, really tremendous riding, free of traffic, people and even farms along a lovely smooth pale dirt. In Cajamarcas I avoid the protests against a proposed gold mine, whilst I buy another chain-set, my fourth in 32000 km and change the oil for the ninth time which entails many friendly conversations with passers by, nice people! And then again at lunch! The protests seem to focus on dirty water and an eyesore for reasons opposing the mine, eluding to the fact that it is American prospectors, or that the locals have an easy time throwing litter anywhere they please and filling rivers with tires and the fact they deforest relentlessly which dirties the river too. Whilst I don’t support the mine, people should be honest; a battle of wits I fear, will be lost on lies.
|Yes to water, NO to the gold mine
The roads continue to delight south, on my way to Huanachuco. I arrive late in the afternoon looking for a trail that will lead directly in to the heart of the Andes, this way avoiding all main paved routes on the coast. It’s tricky to find, but after a friendly camp – at one of a million private mines – I find it, only for Rodney to fail, too weak here at almost 4000m and the main problem is a tight corner before a rough and not-really steep hill. I try to ride the corner very fast to keep in the power sliding the rear wheel on the loose ground, my foot sliding along to keep upright, only to listen in despair as the motor bogs and bogs and dies. I push it up around the next turn, only to see even more uphill…which despite a fine run up, Rodney fails.
(lots of bad language mum go to next paragraph!)
‘youfuckingpieceofcocksuckingshit! Ifuckinghateyou! Fuck it! I’m sick of fucking pushing you! Rudolf would have made it up this! And used less fuel! It’s not even steep! You’re shit!’
I sit there angry, despondent, sad even thinking about just leaving the bike here, or turning it sideways and kicking it down the hill, then a Chinese replica of my bike – though 200cc – chugs past with a low note.
|Hate this guy!
‘I am never buying a bloody honda. Ever. Again!’
I imagine pushing it in the sea below Ushuaia with delight.
But! There is another way that will keep me in the Andes avoiding the coastal main roads, and I head there now with one angry eye trying to pick out the trail I’m missing out on, which I see heading down a valley of slanting pointed peaks dark and menacing, like my mood.
Whilst this route too is lovely and the weather fine, my mind is doggedly thinking about what I might be missing, and I try hard to tell myself that, maybe this way is better.
In Santiago de Chuco I fill up with fuel, having heard mixed reports on the route to Mollepata, the only name on my map. Estimates range from ‘it’s just about the other side of the world,’ to eight hours to an optimistically rapid; three hours. Three, apparently because ‘it’s a Honda!’ Whilst I could argue this point ’til I was blue in the face, I just thank the guy, he was nice and had good information, though he couldn’t tell me how England were doing in the Euros! Beyond Mollepata on my map are a further five towns equally spread….which works out as a grand total of……….18hrs, 64hrs or 8 years in the saddle. I hope I’ve enough fuel.
|Doing the maths on the fuel….
The road is dirt now and I head to Ancasmarcas based on locals’ information where I’ll rejoin the missed trail from this morning. It’s a little dull to start, crops crops crops and mines too. Indeed, Ancasmarcas is a gold mine town, full of suspicious people muttering questions gravely as if they really shouldn’t be mixing with gringo types, ‘What are you doing here? What are you going there for? What you taking pictures of my house for?’ Miserable shift workers shuffle home along the roads weary after a long shift in a hole…though not everyone was bad, I met friendly bus driver too!
‘Got kids?’ he asks.
‘Kidding aren’t you! Don’t be stupid!’ and I tell him about a man I met in Egypt who had 42 kids and 5 wives; one to cook, one to clean and three to make more kids! And the kids to earn money! And all the wives live together! The cooking wife has to cook for the other for wives!
‘Not even once! I don’t have enough camels.’
‘Ah….in Egypt you almost buy a bride with camels!’ (My Spanish was failing me here hence “almost buy”).
‘So, maybe later then?’
‘No, no….just sex.’ I say. He laughs, and I add, ‘and motorbikes!’
‘What about the girls in Peru, take one of them!’
‘If she’s got a bike and a tent and four smoking hot friends she can come…and she has to cook for all of us though!!’
Beyond the mines of Ancasmarcas the quality of road drops, the mines obviously maintaining their interests, I get a bit lost but help is never too far away the people helpful, and spotting a tumbling old mud-brick house I decide that it’s to good to pass up a chance to camp.
Fransisco, who allowed me to camp comes to the tent to chat. He sits in the cooling shade of an umbrella but despite this wears a thick warm puffer jacket fastened with a safety pin and a wooly hat that looks like a robbers the brim rolled up into a round twist. He’s only missing a swag bag. And the umbrella looks particularly out of place, especially considering his Mafia Don like manner, his pock marked face poker straight, weighing things up, very quiet, eerily so. Far below the river rushes, heard still from hear up amongst the wheat rustling in the wind.
‘I think about it a lot you know,’ I say looking out towards guillotine steep cliffs, ‘ which is best.’
‘Our way in Europe and America, or this way,’ nodding to his self-made house made with self-made bricks surrounded by self-made irrigation canals, wheat, buzzing bees, and grazing cows, pigs, sheep and chickens, maize, apples, potatoes, no TV, no electric even and a constant flow of fresh water dribbling out of a pipe poking out of a hill, he uses no pesticides – there’s no bugs – and of course there is a pack of lean mangy dogs that bite my leg.
‘That’s easy,’ he smiles, his first expression in half an hour, ‘this way.’
I wonder about this, how come he’s happy, and yet others constantly beg me, “We are poor. Give me your tent/sleeping bag/jacket/money/stove/gloves/helmet.” How can there be poverty when Fransisco here lives on virtually no money. As he said, “I need only sell a bit in order to buy some rice, sugar, coffee, sometimes fruit and batteries (for his torches/flashlights).” The poorest people do seem to live in the most unsuitable places, high in pampa for example where you can grow grass and little else, maybe this explains it and I suppose one needs capital to buy seeds. But these people seem miserable, as if constantly being dealt a mixed hand of low numbers, “I ain’t winning nothing today.” they must think looking at that dealt, and continue watching sheep or cows all day eating grass, hoping for what? More luck tomorrow, a gringo with a sleeping bag? Maybe I’m wrong, and I can’t say that I know all on this, having only glimpsed things, perhaps they look miserable because for many years they woke up every day with a mixed hand of low numbers and thought, despite the odds stacked against them, they could win.
Contrarily people like Fransisco, they’re always talking, smiling, laughing in the fields, or on their way to them, sitting in the shade of their crumbling house or a lonely tree in the afternoon. Perhaps it is this positivity that enables them to live. And anyway, what do they talk about, with no TV, no hobbies and hardly a break from work, do they talk about maize, pigs and gringos? I talk to myself endlessly admittedly, wondering these things and wondering if I could survive a life of maize and rice, on my way, still, to Mollepata.
I wind my way around a plummeting mound of ochre lunar dust, it zooms in and out of view as I wind up and down and round and round circuitously around the valley’s and mountains until, finally I reach Mollepata, which sits Macchu Pichu like on a flat step jutting over the valley minisculed by slanted green mountains all around. And though it features on my map it hardly features at all in reality and so I continue down the valley on a tight and twisting trail of ‘bull dust’, flour fine sand which makes a sound like grass in a blocked lawn-mower as it squeezes out from under the tires and fills the chain, air and one’s throat with dryness.
Across the way I see a trail and I smile, not only as the trail looks formidable but also I recognise it. Adam was here, and I recall his photo and so this becomes in my mind ‘Adam’s Road’ which I look upon fondly thinking he to was here! But I start to wonder if my little companion, Rodney, will be able to make it up this steep trail. In fact it hardly looks like a trail at all, the face is sheer and it seems impossible for a road to simply exist let alone be navigable, lest it be cut into the rock in a precarious tunnel-like ‘C’. At first it appears more as a two-dimensional etching, a Nazca line of zigs and zags and verticals that go straight up the face, then nearer now, it looks to stand out of the cliff face like a spiral in a children’s pop-up book. But it’s still not right and like a crazy M.C Escher three-dimensional drawing, I wonder too if I reach the top, I’ll find myself at the bottom?
|MC Escher’s Impossible Waterfall.
Across a sagging wood bridge to the trail, I meet two men and chat, fatally showing them the map and then more fatal,watching one fellow ride off on my bike up the valley. Luckily he returns, gets photos of me and gives directions, something like….
‘First you zig….’
‘Then you zag….’
‘Then you zig,’
…then you zag and then….’
‘No then it goes straight up!’
And so it goes, Mr.Vonnegut.
|Pallanca, if I remember the name correctly!
Rodney makes it up the trail, bless his puny heart and I reach the quiet town of Pallanca to eat a spot of lunch and stock up on supplies (free from a lovely woman) before immediately, again, I get lost. Down in the bottom of a steep and red hot valley and I’m told I have to go back to the top. Fuel becomes a bit critical, especially thanks to my joy-riding friend of earlier!!
“Excuse me,[for the love of God], which way for Cabana?” I say, “Is it up here?” pointing to a feint scuff in the earth.
“Yup,” says the man, “Up there, to a village, ask there it’s very difficult [to find your way], then carry on to another village, ask there too as there’s a few routes and you don’t want to go left as that will take you to Pallanca, then you’ll be on the carreterra.”
Ahh, the carreterra. People have been telling me all day of this mysterious and elusive road. I thought carreterra meant “paved road” but apparently here in Peru it means, “The way,” or something else entirely (“line” is one translation!) and I wonder if there is a big old paved road of smooth and shiny black asphalt and sweeping yellow lines just ‘over there’. I find the first village, asking lovely people all talking at once, all mentioning “carreterra” and then the second village, but still I don’t find the carreterra though am certain I’ve interpreted correctly. So, dusk now, I start looking for camp.
“Excuse me,” the three people – like their loaded mules – ignore me, “Excuse me….sorry to bother you. I’m looking for somewhere to camp. Is this your land?”
“YOU WHAT?” says one as if I fouled up my Spanish and just told him I rogered his girlfriend, right here, in this field on his land.
“Urgh, sorry, sorry….Is this your land, I just wanted to….”
“No.” says the old man, clearly fond of his common-law daughter-in-law.
“The carreterra’s up there.” he continues flatly with a glare and a shooing wave, he’s clearly not fond of me. The son follows suit, glaring and waves me off. They turn their backs and start walking off without further a word. But if they had, I’m fairly sure it would have been “So F off”.
Well, three words.
It’s dark, late and cold when, after a lengthy search I find camp on a rocky angled slope next to a quiet road. My glasses broken, they fall off repeatedly amongst the shrubs and rocks and I fumble in the dark for them pitching the tent. A moment I recall when next day I find a scorpion under the cooking pots.
In stark contrasts to this last group, my host here, another Fransisco, is a really great chap. In the morning he comes to talk and after a while I ask him for a photo, “I need to remember the good people so I can forget the bad,” I tell him (I definitely meet more good people, and have been trying to note these and remind myself!), and so I go on to ask what the general consensus is on gringos, if they are ill perceived and unliked, perhaps because of the mines in the area.
“OHHHH No! No problem! We get gringos and ‘feos’ here all the time!” Well I laughed and laughed as Fransisco makes the slight, and apparently unnoticed blunder of combining white people inseparably with ‘feos’, which are somewhat literally translated as ‘uglies’. He laughs too and continues, “why didn’t you stay in town?” I can think of a few reasons, but simply point out that despite my slightly ‘feo’ camp spot I do have a great view!
“But there are robbers! Aren’t you scared?!” (they always ask this).
“Not anymore, and it’s not Africa,” and I explain this point at length, “and anyway, I’m usually too tired to worry!”
“But the robbers come in trucks and steal all of our cows!”
“But I don’t have any cows!” Fransisco is silent, I continue, “When did they last come and take your cows?”
“HERE! NOOO, it’s really safe, totally tranquil!” (And they always say this too!)
It’s hard not to like Fransisco, though his wife clearly wasn’t too happy when, returning to the yam field where she was working with their two daughters, he returned empty handed; he was suppsoed to be fetching water and not chatting to me for an hour or more. So he returns back to me again on his way for water, and tells me all this….and we start chatting again.
He, like the other Francisco is happy too, and needs for little, thickening the plot on poverty. And we get chatting on life here and in the UK.
“So, how much do you make?” he asks me.
“Ummm,” I puff out my cheeks making a calculation and changing into Peruvian Soles (1 sole = 4GBP =$2.5).
“Well, yeah I’m here aren’t I?!” more silence, so I tell him straight, maybe my Spanish is even worse than I think – and I get tired after an hour! “Well, the law says the minimum wage is 24soles per hour.”
“MAAAAANNNNN!!! I’d be rich!”
“Well, here yeah, but in England you’d be borderline poverty!!”
So we talk about how much he pays for his house and amenities. The following are in dollars. Though they could be in just about any currency!
House Rent, 0
Land rent, 0
House materials for build, 0
Electric, $2 per month. (He has a TV and a DVD player, and cellphones naturally.)
“Sometimes we sell a cow or something if we need some clothes or some shoes….”
So I tell him how much it is in Europe to live and he decides against going there, ever…! Despite my telling him you can buy just about anything if you put your mind to it, despite the costs and that actually it is really great!
Fransisco points out Cabana, which we can see, sat in a cleft of the mountains and on a nearby ridge we can also see the next town on my map, Tauca, and Francisco – with a very loud encouragement from his wife far across the valley – finally continues to get the water! Despite the distances on the map being the same between Mollepata, Cabana and Tauca, the road to Tauca doesn’t wind 100km around the mountains and valleys and I reach it in no time at all, compared to all day for Mollepata, perhaps I’ll have enough fuel after all!
But then I get lost again. Though again, it is really immense riding, a glorious desert valley, only cactus poking out of the pale dry earth like dots of green stubble, save for one house, high, high, high on the far canyon wall amongst a startling patch of green, secluded to say the least.
|When did I last see another vehicle?
The boy thinks for moment trying to think of the way I seek, and is just about to answer, when from deep inside the house, his mother shouts,
“BACK TOWARDS TAUCA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” as if I was her hopelessly undependable husband. The boy shrugs his shoulders, nods the way.
“Ohh no!” I say, “Back to all the way to Tauca?”
“No,” says the boy, “there’s a tur….”
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” come the screams from the kitchen, the boy stands as if paused, open mouthed. The cream finished, he continues,
“There’s a turn off….”
“TO SANTA ROSA!!!!”
“Santa Rosa?” I query,
The lady appears then, waddling out, resembling a baulshy black lady who would clearly stand little messing with, least of all from me. Only, she Latino.
“YOU GO UP THERE! UP THE HILL!!! FOLLOW FOLLOW FOLLOW!!! OVER THE OTHER SIDE . THROUGH PERDIDO, THROUGH EL NUNCO, TO SANTA ROSA!!! THEN OVER THE OTHER SIDE!!!”
“OK lady! I understand!
“YOU GO THIS WAY….” she says indicating the wrong way I was going, “I HIT YOU WITH THIS SPOON!!!” she says shaking the spoon, a playful smile appearing on her face. I say my thanks and get away, fast!
|On the way to SANTA ROSA!!!
I reach the town of Llapo…was that on the lady’s screamed list of towns? None of them are on the map. I enter under a black arch, guarded by a large stone eagle and ride up the narrow and dusty cobbled street squashed between crumbling homes and shops towards the plaza, where I see a fantastic sight; the carved front of the Missionary, brilliant! And then, almost it’s equal, the church, built like a long low castle of mud bricks, a carved entrance leads to an eery interior, no windows, only shafts of light poking through the roof of wood branches and more fantastic carvings.
|The beautiful carved front of the old missionary in Llapo
I chat to some men who quickly arrive at the bike, ignore some drunks calling me over and make my way to a father’s day feast being served from huge cauldrons. A group of women in tall “palmata” straw hats with red rose slipped in behind large black ribbons buzz about the pots and feasting people. Before I have chance to speak, one lovely woman asks with an equally lovely thin smile, if I want some. Having been lost, it’s late and I’m starved. She shows me where to pay.
A man collects money. And assumes that I am have some mental deficiency or am perhaps deaf or, more simply just unable to speak Spanish (understandable). He shows ten fingers, taking quite a leap assuming that I can at least count.
“Ten Soles! For one lunch!” I say. (It’s normally about four).
The man turns to his friends and says “Ohhhh, the gringo doesn’t want to pay.” still, assuming that I am unable to understand.
“Not ten soles!” I say, “and don’t call me ‘gringo’.” I try to look grave, but just look, well Nick. “So, how much is it?”
Still not quite working out that although my Spanish is poor, it’s not horrific, he shows five fingers on one hand, then three, then five, then three again.
“What are you doing? How much is it? Five or three….bloody hell (in English!)” I look for the nice lady, she is looking over concerned, “how much is it?” I call to her.
“SEVEN!” I say to the man slapping a note on the desk, and go back to the women. A good few of them zip around piling chicken, potatoes and sweet potatoes, salad and a huge cob of corn on to a plate for me, I must look really hungry the speed at which they do it as if I’m about to keel over! Without doubt it is the best meal I’ve had for a long time, the last one being in Mexico roadside with Duncan and largely served by children, or perhaps the countless meals at Julio’s in Guatemala, and I fear too the women piled just a bit more on my plate than others.
“Were you the gringo here last year?” (NO, because I’m not a feking gringo – though debatable in the South I know), a young fella asks me, throwing a bone to the crowd of hunched sniffing dogs.
“No, it’s my first time here.” (I bet it was Adam!)
“Two there was. On bicycles.” (Not Adam then)
“I think I’ve heard of them actually from someone else, a Swiss couple?”
He seems to ignore this and continues as if deep in thought, perhaps he’s had a beer. “There’s two more, you know? Live up there, in the hospital.”
“No….you know.” (Yeah, of course I know.)
“No….” I say pulling a look of confusion. (So I can lie!)
“You know, people like you….gringos.” (AHHHHHHH!!! Stop for the love of God! (Don’t ask me why I hate it so, gringo, Mzungu, Furangi, all those damn words!)
“Ohhh, right.” I ask, “Where from?”
Italian gringos! Whatever next.
I don’t correct him, and anyway he was a really nice lad, nice enough to speak and we had a good chat before he made his way off back to the fields to watch over his cows. In fact all the people here in Llapo were living in some sort of capsule of friendliness, even the drunks weren’t bad, and the guy with the money was probably trying to be helpful with his fingers…though he was trying to rip me off the rascal. I felt welcome, and instantly I felt I could take pictures, though obviously watched, and not have glares of hate thrown at me like rocks in Ethiopia. Kids stopped in their tracks as if they’d just walked into a pane of glass, shocked and uncontrollably whispering, “Whuh! GRINGO!” I could feel the difference in the warmth, see it in the smiles, and hear it in the questions and laughs. I wonder if, somehow, I was wrong and if all people are nice, everywhere, and I am at fault, especially when I’m tired or thinking about what I need to buy or where am I going to camp! I’d been asking people, tentatively for pictures after I left Ecuador and entered Peru, but it was the same – askign for money and being, often, a bit nasty, and the end came when I stopped to chat with a girl weaving from a ‘tela’. She was pretty and brooding dark and moody like a storming sea, she hated me before I even stopped, before I spoke, before I asked for a photo. I tried to get to the bottom of it even asking if “she didn’t like tourists” (You are welcome in Peru) and if a lot passed and if they bothered her and why she clearly didn’t like me. It was like being dumped, only normally you can reason things out; I was an idiot, I’m ugly, I was selfish, I was mean, I was too nice, I killed the dog, I slept with her mum. Here I’m dumped because I’m a tourist, or an emblem of prosperity, or dare I say; white. I was heart broken that day, all day, and I decided that sadly, my efforts were to be no more, I couldn’t take the feeling and it was effecting my whole trip! (Yes, yes, sensitive boy I know!) But!!! here, maybe the seed was replanted!
|I’m always photographing old people, so for a change…
Painfully stuffed with food (But you haven’t had the soup!”), I smile and wave and then sadly, as always, leave.
“So, which way is Huallanca?” I ask two men waiting at the bike.
“Oh, it’s back that way.” OH NOOOOO! back the way I came….
“….you’ll come to the carreterra…”
I’m sure I won’t.
When I reach the top of the pass and look ahead (where’s that carreterra?!), there they are, finally, after all this time…the ANDES! A long ridge white pyramidal peaks! I can’t believe it! I really can’t believe it! But the road to them is a twisting affair, down and down, then around and across, then up….up another zig-zagging trail over another pass. “I’m camping there tonight. Let’s go.”
|Camp! At the top of the “Zig”! on the right.
So, down I go again, temperature rising, cactus here, snow there, way up there. I never realised that so much of Peru is hot dry desert. Even the village I arrive in, a broad dusty undulating street that merges seamlessly with red dirt houses that seem to have grown from the desert years ago and are in various stages of returning there. Asking for directions I learn there is fuel and go to stock up.
“Bit expensive isn’t it?”
“We have to get it from Chimbote.”
“How far’s that?”
“Eight hours.” Jesus. “Each way.” Crikes.
“But still, it’s expensive. Can I get a free coke?!” I ask cheekily.
“Coke is expensive here too.”
“So, no coke then?” She gives me a coke. Though I end up paying for it (bloody Spanish). Each gallon of fuel costs a whopping 25soles (6GBP, or 1.50GBP per litre $10 per gallon!).
“I wouldn’t have had this problem with Rudolf, Rodney!” I say riding away from town as the village, now lined with people sitting and standing in and around doorways watch me go.
The next village is perhaps 2km away, if Rodney could fly. Alas, he can’t, so we ride the 50km of winding trail to the village and stock up.
“Yes,porridge, do you have it?”
“Yes we have it.”
“Can I have some then?”
“You want some?”
I want to say that “if you [the guy] would stop smirking towards your friends over my shoulder this conversation would run a lot smoother!” Instead I delve into my reserves of scorn, easily reached at times like these, look upon his friends with as much derision as I can muster, and then turn back to him. The point it seems has been portrayed. “Yes. Half a kilo.”
Stocked up I race up the pass and find camp and, just as hoped find a beautiful spot, with all the Andes ahead of me, the only noise the blowing wind amongst the tall dry grass. I quickly forget the idiot in the shop and remember the great riding, Francisco, the friendly people guiding my way, the screaming lady, the perfect Llapo, a huge lunch, the church and throughout it all really stunning riding, and camp marks the end of a great day. And as I wrote in the diary, “I only hope tomorrow is as good.” Sunset is deep shades of uninterrupted colour across and around me, the whole horizon a swirl of pink, blue and deep violet, such thick colour I want to stir it up!
When I open the tent to ANOTHER perfect blue sky I wonder if I might get my diary’s wish, though nearly planting my foot on a scorpion nearly ended everything. I place a boulder over him for shade and there he comfortably remains until I hit the road, in search of the carreterra. But only get lost again. A road twists and rises around a maze of humps and desert buttes passing by an inferno where streams run yellow amongst scorched and burnt colours of rock on my way to Canyon del Pato.
The canyon is made famous by its 35 tunnels hewn into the canyon walls, and not for its ‘patos’ (ducks). The river runs a lovely crystal blue thanks to the HEP plant cleaning the river (which runs grey-brown thereafter),and carves lovely shapes into the soft pale sandstone of the riverbed, domes, arches and bowls all overshadowed by the steep walls rubbing your elbows.
Whilst all very nice, there’s only one thing on my mind: Andes. And spotting a poster in a restaurant of Laguna Parón, I go in search. The first day is a loss, I take a wrong road and end up in a small village of absolute poverty, everything in tatters, litter and most vivid in my memory a dog-eared cloth acting as a door flapping in the icy high-altitude wind of a house resembling the stones of Kuelap.
|Better than Kuelap, the gateway to the Andes!
Next day, I find the trail leading to a steep narrow glacial cut valley, deeply scarred black luminous rock that raises into grey cloud overhead. As I approach, the walls threatens to close in on me, along a road which seems to defy existence, but sure enough it somehow clings to one of the giant steep pointed slabs and Rodney and I rise and rise to 4200m, the walls leering in over you like reaching ghouls and shiny blue waterfalls cascade down from up high. Then one by one, the might of the Andes is upon me; menacing shades of white and black poking through windows of cloud, cloud that adds to the lurking mystery, the danger, so steep, dark, dark coal black rock that shines as if brand new, seeing light for the first time released from the tortuous grip of the intense white and oxygenated blue of the glacier. The intensity of the dark and light is something I’ve never seen. Snow hangs as if upside down, steep flutings of snow cling impossibly to the steep razor thin ridges of jagged rock, impossible, surely to climb….impossible, I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.
|I CAN’T BELIEVE IT!!!
I can’t believe it. It’s all I can say, again and again and again.
I can’t believe it.
I can’t believe it.
I can’t believe I’m here!
And I think of my whole trip, not any individual events but the whole, like seeing your life flash before your eyes, perhaps….from starting out, those first days (jeez!) the first dirt road (Albania!), the first desert, the first river, the first puncture (day 2!), the first giraffe, the first and only Table Mountain, Cape Town, Korea, USA, and now all of a sudden, here….
I can’t believe it.
Peru’s Andes can speak for themselves, here’s a selection, otherwise go to the Album Peruvian Andes in PHOTOS