“You cut like a girl, Rrrrrambeta!”
I roll my eyes and continue swinging the machete….like a little girl.
“RRRRRRRRambeta!” he taunts again with a smile.
“Yeah, yeah. Anyway, shouldn’t it be Ramba?” I point out, hoping to inflict some damage, “RambO being the masculine…Or maybe even Rambita, for Little Girly Rambo?”
“I suppose,” he says waving my comments away like another pestilent mosquito. “But…I like Rrrrambeta.”
This was Charlie. Remonstrating against my efforts with the machete to cut through another stubborn bush on our return from a fruitless quest in search of Inca ruins. Charlie was all squares; square legs, square torso, square shoulders, square head, like a Lego man. I swing again, swearing the blade was blunt whilst also wondering if perhaps Charlie’s Indiana Jones-like hat concealed a little yellow lump, reminding me that earlier he was calling me ‘Indiana Jones Jr. the Third’, for some other derogatory purpose no doubt, though what it was I’m not sure I know.
“Anyway, ” I say stopping for a breather, “it wasn’t me who landed us in the very midst of the one place we began by saying we should avoid at absolutely all costs. Remember? You called it the, uhhh….the…what did you call it again?”
“The Fuck Fest.”
“Indeed. The Fuck Fest. And yet, here I am cutting our way through it.”
“Be quiet Rambeta.” he says turning to sun his face.
I do as bid, and swing and swing. The two dogs, Attenborough and Shackleton sit besides Charlie conversely patient and nonplussed, though likewise sunning their faces. Eventually we four escape ‘The Fest’, though my trousers now resemble a pair of colourless maypoles. Back at the car then and we drive back to Charlie’s tourist lodge which sits on the very edge of Peru’s Sierra Nevada, a prime location nestled between Peru’s highest peak Huascaran and arguably it’s most beautiful, Huandoy; a pointed slate of rippled cream, missing only a cherry.
|Shackleton and Nick
(with a wet leg after ‘the Shack’ pulled me in the river!)
The next day I walked the trail to Huandoy’s glacier and was sitting there trying to muster the saliva to consume some of Peru’s balsa-bread, when a group of Indian males pop over the top of the glacier looking like they’d well and truly lost their corn crop. They bound down in their wellies and inform me that the ice has just avalanched and one of their friend’s, as well as a few donkeys, are buried in the ice. The man stares, waiting it seems for me to provide some grains of wisdom, whilst the others dab something from small nail-varnish sized wooden vials into their cheeks, revealing brown stumps of teeth.
However, I have but breadcrumbs, and seeing this, the group begin to disperse, climbing back up the glacier to continue their search in their leathery felt hats and thick woollen sweaters full of holes. One turns back to me as he goes and asks,
“Do you have one of them cameras?”
“You know….lets you look inside the ice.”
I think for a moment before realising….”Ohhhh, a thermal camera! No, sorry. Just my bread and bananas.”
“Oh.” He says looking downcast.
When I walk up around the glacier I find the search abandoned, the group sitting on the banks chewing stalks of grass. Beyond them the mountain rescue team have arrived and are likewise sitting amongst the boulders eating sandwiches and a youth who was crying without restraint a moment ago, is now happily tapping his foot along to the music, a video to which is being filmed on top of the ice…..and, on top of the still cooling bodies….
“Hey gringo, you want to dance?”
“You call that dancing?”
“DAN-CING.” she says in English, assuming I didn’t understand or to prove her prowess in front of others.
“Urgh, No, thanks.” I say, I can’t dance, I never know what to do with my face, my facial repertoire consisting mainly of mocking and derogatory expressions.
Whilst I experiment with my facial muscles, I notice the singer’s have tensed and taken on a glacial chill – I’ll have to learn that one – and she projects this iciness adeptly through rapid speech. I’m not to sure what she says, but the certainty is that it was bad. Everyone, but me of course, is laughing now. I give a thin smile, shoulder my bag, and leave.
From Charlie’s the road sweeps downhill, through sweet smelling eucalyptus and a fairly sour smelling pack of dogs with crazy glassy eyes and an appetite for things that move, down and down to the town of Yungay.
Before I can continue south I have to pop into my favourite little restaurant, run by a sad looking widow, who today looks particularly despondent; the hired help hasn’t arrived and her son I see, is sitting incapacitated with a broken foot which he rests upon a chair.
It took several visits to the restaurant before the suspicion faded or even a word was spoken to me. Not so now, smiles all round and invited to sit with the son next to the table-sized plasma television showing a psychedelic Latino cartoon, upon which all eyes are fixed, despite the clientele being mostly fifty years older than the target audience.
We chat for a while, in which time the invalided son discovers that English people speak English and so he goes on a well-meant channel hopping spree in search of English programs, or the Olympics. All eyes move simultaneously to me, narrowing as they do so making me sweat more than my hot soup. Luckily no English TV is found and peace resumes when the crazy coloured Latino blob returns shouting on the screen. But no sooner and all eyes are on the move again, mine included, this time to a pretty girl walking by, parting the crowd, her long ink-dark hair flowing behind in her wake, leaving behind an invisible but almost tangible something. She catches us looking and smiles towards us….before slicing her finger sharply across her throat.
“I guess that means NO, then!”
But, I like her already.
Screaming. I’m finding it hard to see. My spectacles jump on the bridge of my nose make the road too bounce like a jumping film-strip.
A rut. Must be more than 35kmh. A rock. In first gear. Oop, Jesus. A curdling scream. Can’t keep this up. BRRRRRAAArrrrrrmmnnnn agrees Rodney, with a descending engine note….like a chainsaw dropped into water. NO! COME ON! COME ON! NO! NO! NO! No chance mate. My head drops with the rev counter. I could curse the machine, but it’s pointless and I just give my most inexorable Blackadder face, Rodney will feel much worse I’m sure.
I slip from the saddle and start pushing.
I reach my destination eventually, Laguna Llaca and at the end of the rough trail I find, unsurprisingly, a taxi and a minibus, as well as a lone park guard. The guard stares up to the snowy peaks wistfully, a thick silvery stubble on his small round face as if he’s been staring up for several days, and amongst the stubble too a feint but happy smile. He likes it here. There is an air of calm about him and, as if he were expecting me, turns his smile to me and says, “You want to camp?”
“Urgh….Yeah, if I can.”
“You can camp here on the grass if you like.” he says sweeping his hand across it before returning it with the other behind his back.
He’s far from being a wizard, his woollen hat not quite in keeping for that. But he looks….he looks like….well, how does he look? If I stuck a light-sabre in his hand I dare say he’d look quite a lot like that little Yoda fella in a woolly hat….just not green.
Alas. I suppose if I read more mythic tales I’d be able to conjure up some magical comparison, but as I think they’re full of well, myth (LIES I TELL YOU!) I’ll have to stick to my (photon) guns and go with the green fella.
“Umm,” I say pondering, weighing up the grounds, thinking I’ve got a good face for this one. I’m not thrilled about the view, the car park, the refuge and the outhouse, especially having made such an effort to arrive, optimistically I had my hopes set on actually seeing the lake. I tell him as much, but he informs me that it’s not permitted to camp at the lake. However, after a friendly chat, and a devilishly tricky light-sabre battle, he tells me that “okay, you can camp at the lake”….now just to lug all my gear up and over the tidal defences. I trot off, duffel in one hand, tent, water, stove and food in the other, on my way grabbing a gift of toasted maize kernels from someone else I’d been chatting to, then dash up the steep loose dirt before being reminded quite forcefully, that no, one doesn’t dash at 4500m. Well at least I don’t. Crawling over the lip of the bank, legs kicking in the dirt, dribbling a bit, dragging and pushing the now dusty bags I heave myself up to look around, finding before me my favourite spot in all the Andes. What a place! A formidable lake, which runs straight to the very edge of the thick blue glacier leading up to the huge razor sharp ridge of rippled snow and the pointed peak, Ranrapalca, at 6162m. I get a few quick pictures of the tent as the sun sets but, with a paralysingly cold wind blowing cunningly straight up my shirt and out through my sleeves, taking all my warmth with it. I am forced to jump into the tent, and then the sleeping bag, where the wind tries it’s best to jump in too.
|Spot the tent|
Settled in, all clothes on, woolly hat tied tight around my ears and my hands wrapped around my steaming tea, I let out a sigh of relaxation, alone at last….Then, outside, something. A whistle. People, and the whistle tells me they want my attention.
I wonder if I can just wait in my tent, maybe they’ll get tired and leave. Or freeze to death. But I know they’re just intrigued, and I don’t want piles of frozen corpses in my sunrise photos, and I mustn’t be nasty and so I start unzipping myself from my feathery sarcophagus. Outside, two men, carved from wood and dressed in fatigues; Peruvian Commandos. Their handshakes are like a couple of nutcrackers and I tuck my cold cracked hands in my armpits and step from foot to foot as we chat, though these two tree trunks stand rigid, little effected by the cold despite their measly fatigues. They tell me that as well as not getting cold they don’t get paid either, just free room and board, but one can understand the perks…and the peaks. They tell me that they just came over “that” pointing to the lethal blade of ice that bridges the two formidable peaks at the far end of the lake, surely over 5600m, 59 Commandos, with 30kg packs, and the Captain is 50 years old. Jungle though, they maintain, is far worse. I bid them good night, open the icy tent flap and get into my now chilly sleeping bag.
By morning the tent is thick with ice and the sleeping bag damp with cold breath. Once the sun is up I head off around the lake towards the morning’s target; the glacier. Approaching it through boulders, pools and chunks of melting ice I can make out the glacier’s jagged translucent blue flakes, curved humps and hollows, arches, tunnels, caves and overhangs. But when I arrive at it’s edge, it’s not the sight so much as the cacophony; dripping water, hissing sand, dropping dust, tumbling boulders and beneath it all the generator-like hum of a huge thrust of water, flowing somewhere below. The roof of the glacier is hidden below a layer of dirt and mountain debris like moon dust. Rocks teeter high up on the brink of the glacier or jut out of the ice face in rows like jaw lines of teeth.
I sit there for an age, next to a huge overhang of ice, watching the mountain move and wondering what might happen if that overhang should fall into the lake….I move to higher ground to a solitary mound of fine sand in the midst of the boulders and from my new vantage point I notice a large hole, which, under closer inspection, I see is an ice cave. Still, it could fall any minute, a horrid death, premature I feel, alone for certain. No, a beastly demise. I return to my hump. I watch the opening, enticing me to enter, watching the ice drip and drip, as my mind it ticks and ticks. I go back to the cave. As I get near a large pile of debris, rock and sand falls with a nasty clatter. Mmm, perhaps not. Back to the hump. But then I decide I can’t be a coward, if I’m really quick, once inside I will be safe…..from rocks at least. I dash in before I have chance to change my mind and find myself standing on a layer of the finest sparkling white sand, beneath a low ceiling of bright bubbly blue waves of ice. I give it a punch, solid as rock, a fact confirmed in that glacial ice is actually a metamorphic rock.
I walk to the end of the blue tube and look back over the lake, back to my hump and stand in wonderment! What a treat. What more can one person want. What else is there. A solitary man, in a tube of ice. But before the tube was no longer a tube I nipped out, back to my hump.
I crane my neck back. My throat burns like searing bacon. Up above a pair of black dots separated by one red dot. Each time I look to them, they are no more ahead of me but make the summit seem so much farther, they hardly seem to be moving. But I suppose that means that likewise, I’m not moving either. But my God, it’s steep, and loose. All I see is the black and white of dust and stones, like trying to climb bird-shit on a window pane. The heavy pack pulls me backwards, and its straps cut into my shoulder like shiny-sharp cheese-graters. I swing my head round and down, more coloured dots below, they’re not catching me at least….is anyone moving? A chunk of the Siula glacier tumbles down the face turning to dust before hitting the creamy lake below, my camp spot from last night. And I smile, what a spot it was. I twist my head back to the trail, which splits in two here, but my head is heavy like water. Or vinegar. Pickled. I just can’t decide which to take, though they rejoin each other in several meters. I just look from one to the other. Spot the difference. Seems awfully complicated. Then I hear something. Blast and darn it! The girl has caught me up, and now the summit is even farther. She looks up to me in anguish, a face not unlike Joe Simpson’s on the cover of “This game of Ghosts.” Funny, he’s the reason I’m here.
I shake my head in mock mirroring anguish and laugh. “Steep, no?” I ask.
I’ve picked up this silly habit. In Spanish ‘no’ is said like a verbal question mark, one can put it on the end of just about any sentence, and one can even say “Si, no?” See?
She let’s out another groan, looking down at her feet like they were some Chinese appliances, so oddly disappointing.
“You know,” she says as we move off, “we have a name in my country for people like you?”
“Oh yeah. It’s not the same as in my country is it?”
“I don’t think so….We say,” she pauses, forced to take gulp of air, “We say that you’re stronger than vinegar.”
Another fork in the trail it seems, does she mean I have an acid personality or that my strength is about 6 on the ph.scale? I can’t figure it with my pickled egg head, vinegar on the brain, so I just ask, “What’s it mean?”
“I don’t know. It’s just what we say.” So, I’m stronger than vinegar.
|Looking back on a fine camp
We reach the top together, though we’ve left the best mountains behind and the view over is actually a little disappointing. It’s one of the few points about Huayhuash, the main range is small and as well the main trail far from them, often out of view. It necessitates therefore that one walks the lesser, more difficult trails, like this one, though the rewards are great.
Sat on the top, a half dozen other walkers, the red and black dots finally reached. As well, two children, locals selling cola from a plastic paint bucket. They’d passed by my tent in the morning, despite the trail being a few hundred yards away.
“You want a coke?” asks the boy.
“No thanks.” I reply, finally removing my pack, damp with sweat. “I saw you this morning, no?”
“Here then,” I hand them a pack of biscuits, “you must be hungry.”
“That bag is very heavy!” he says.
“It is today! I thought it would be lighter after four days and I would be stronger, but it seems to weigh more and I’m weaker! How are the biscuits, good, no?”
“Mmmm.” they both say with happy grins.
“What are your names?”
“Fausto.” says he.
Someone else asks how old they are, Fausto is ten and his sister is only five.
I don’t really feel hungry, though I must be and force down a bag of peanuts whilst chatting to the others, telling them of the fine spots they have to come, as they’re heading north. After a while, I heave up my pack onto tender shoulders and start downhill, Fausto and Margarita decide to join me, and this in itself is one of the other benefits of trekking in Huayhuash, the locals. Whilst Huascaran is a National Park, Huayhuash is a community owned park. The downside is that the “communities” all require you to pay, and it gets expensive, to the point that almost everyone you meet asks if you’ve paid, “What, again!” and I was a bit tired of “communities” of two huts asking me pay for a camp spot next to a lake surrounded with turds and toilet paper. They’ll tell you the money is for security. Which of course means you are paying the thieves.
|Fausto and Margarita at the top, selling cokes|
Luckily Fausto and Margarita didn’t want paying, or maybe they were just after more chocolate biscuits, but I don’t think so. In the valley I meet their mother, a lovely lady in a floppy felt hat fetching cow pats for the stove. She seems impressed I deduced what they were for, though she wasn’t impressed with her son and she gives Fausto a good clack for not selling the last coke to a group now on the summit. “Israelis.” he says pulling a face out of my library, adding, “they’re really dirty!”
The two children invite me to camp at their house, but with mum saying little to that effect and me being absolutely dog tired, I continue on down the valley to the lake, though Fausto and Margarita cling desperately on!
“Do you sell coke everyday?” I ask Fausto.
“No, only on the weekend.”
“So what do you do with the money you make?”
“We buy more coke!” he says as if it were obvious.
“Oh, right, of course. Well, what do you do the rest of the week?”
“We have school.”
I can tell you it is in the same place as my motorbike, which I will not reach until tomorrow afternoon!
As we go we spot some huge white beast farther down in the valley, in the fraction of a second before it spotted us, I thought we’d stumbled upon a very lost polar bear, then spotting us, it turned it’s huge white rump and scarpered in polar bear like fashion. Fausto maintained it was a fox – some effing fox – that likes ripping tents open in the night in search of chocolate biscuits. I told him that it wasn’t very funny. He said it wasn’t very funny either.
|A Polar Bear in the Andes|
Fausto’s back at the tent in the morning and we have a nice chat. I wonder if I’ll go back one day, when I’m older, and find Fausto in the same hut, walking up the mountain to sell cokes….he’ll have his work cut out with his current work scheme, he’d have millions of cokes by then……one day perhaps.
I continued to meet people that day in Huayhuash on my return to the motorcycle, and didn’t walk alone for any of it. First Fausto, then a man whose name or photo I didn’t get and all I remember are his horse’s pointed feet for they were without shoes. Then, Rosa and Jorsten. She too was out collecting dried cow pats, and her red cheeked nephew was helping, he wanted to one day be a pilot, he looked a bit ‘Biggles’ in his woolly hat. Then two girls who asked me why my feet were soaking wet,
“Because I crossed the river there.” I say exhausted,
“We normally take our shoes off, otherwise it’s very cold.” they say with infinite wisdom. But I was too tired and now wondered if I’d regret this laziness later on the bike. The two girls go on to ask with lovely intrigue the names of all my family members, then all their ages,
“My great grandmother was 100 years old!” I tell them.
“My auntie is the oldest in the village.” she confers with her sister, “She’s 48 I think.”
Then it’s the sheep herder who asks what happens if a black person and a white person has children.
“Pint of guniess!”
“Oh…half and half. You know, black legs, white body. That sort of thing”
He seems a bit confused, it’s just not funny, “Not really,” I say, “you just hope he has a black penis…..”
|Rosa, Jorsten-Biggles and cow pats|
I see my first grey cloud in Peru, a large solitary one, beneath which reside the bleak mining towns on the road that runs to Junin. Here, in the market, murdered meats hang bleeding, the blood runs in the grooves between the tiles mixing with water which drips from the suffocated fish and plucked chickens glare with Monet screams. Herbs wither, bread dries, vegetables and fruit soften into palpable rot and amongst it all the vendors who sit gloomily surrounded by or beached on their produce, their self-made prison, counting down days perhaps, until they can escape, to wither and die. Between it all a small space for feet, where piss and roam the dogs. Flies are the pigs in proverbial and real, shit.
|Bit of snout anybody?|
It’s not all bad of course! Here in particular I’m lucky to see the indigenous mountain dwellers day-tripping to the low lands to sell and to buy. The women wear the usual firm felt hats, but decorated with rather ludicrous amounts of tinsel, of all colours though non that match the rest of their attire, turquoise leggings, yellow cardigans and pleated ‘crepe paper’ skirts. Somehow, as ever, they pull it off and look fantastic! It’s a friendly place too, and encouraging calls of ‘gringo’ come from all sides offering sugar cane juice, chicharron (pork rinds), or jellies with custard, or otherwise tugged by the elbow to inspect a cloth laid out on the floor neatly arranged upon which are broccoli, peppers and oranges, and so nice is she that it’s hard to resist buying a little something.
Camp is beautiful, the men and women – wrapped up against the cold, skin puffy, smooth and red like wax – return late with a their fattened herds of sheep and lamas. They’re back again early the next morning after the bitterly cold night and I’m glad to find the road heading downhill, beyond the high barren pampas, down through wild valleys of black mountains and blue lakes and, warmer now, the women sit in the sun spinning and weaving wool. Farther down, the valley is neatly cordoned by stone walls, probably home to one of Peru’s 2000 potato varieties. A lovely solitary route leads to a HEP plant, beyond which the weaving black valley changes to the warmer pastel shades of a deep desert canyon. Roads fork off left and right and I can only hope that I’m on the right path to my destination, as recommended to me by a friendly local Peruano; the coffee district of Villa Rica. But the confirmation signs are soon there, neat wooden frames supporting plump green avocados, which they call “palta” in Peru, and later the neat rows of musty sweet smelling coffee. It wasn’t Villa Rica I had reached though, it was Oxopampa.
|Oxopampa, my favourite town in Peru|
The first thing that I notice about Oxopampa is that it is clean. The street is spotless and wide and lined with neatly trimmed and thick, rich, green grass. A woman is sweeping this grass. No tooting horns at the traffic lights. On every corner a pair of rubbish bins, one of which for recyclables. Houses have grass gardens which are otherwise unseen in much of Latin America and the clapboard houses and shops look like old-time America, especially with their Peruvian banners fluttering on the porches. The main square has a church of stained wood that looks like a barn. Shops accept Visa.
|Fitting a new tire in Oxopampa’s clean street|
Despite trying in all the cities and bigger towns I’ve visited for spare-parts, I am certain that this is the place that I will find them. And I do. New wheel and steering bearings, a new front tire, oil change (I also greased the side-stand Adam) and no trip to a parts shop is complete without another box of….tire patches!
Chatting with the locals it seems they all have two things in common; they are happy and they are riding old Honda 250cc Bajas. “The new Hondas,” they tell me, “are crap. Made in China.” Quite right, and the old 250s still hold their price costing only a little less than a brand new, made in China Honda 250. Another guy does have a Chinese branded bike, which is currently having new piston rings installed, “it’s the law!” he says, with reference to Chinese reliability.
A popular route for weekenders from Lima is to a village near Oxopampa, Pozuzo. Limons, as I call them, are possibly weekending from further afield, Mars perhaps. They arrive in exploratory probing clans in two, three or four 4x4s. Debouching en masse, photographing every angle, posing with smiles copied from the latest billboard, before grabbing bottles of Inka Cola, armfuls of ice-cream, and bags of toasted maize kernals to fuel the sitting and smiling, or the boredom, and then – still ignoring me, waiting patiently – jumping back in the convoy and flooring the accelerator pedal. I must follow behind in a thick cloud of dust. At a viewpoint I get to talk to them, they ask some funny questions between mouthfuls of food, “Shoh…” chew, chew, “what boike are uh roidin?”
“You mean the one I’m sitting on?”
I look up and notice that from the pickup someone is filming me. He asks me to give him a peace sign. I think about giving him the finger. Luckily though, with them buying more snacks, and taking photos of themselves holding snacks, I’m able to sneak off before them and have a cloud free ride….and what a ride! Through the Yanachaga canyon, passing some spectacular waterfalls on the way, that carve out through sandstone and pass right by my shoulder…
|On my way to Pozuzo…! :-O|
The trail is smooth and fast all the way to the village of Prussia, where I pass signs for Schmidt Alberge, and Herr Schlaksig, and Frau Bruste and soon arrive in Pozuzo (How’s your German dad?). Born in 1859 when a group of 300 Tyrolese and Germans finally arrived after a two year slog from home, Pozuzo is the only German Tyrolese settlement in the world, and a lucky find for me as I only came to watch some Independence day moto-x having seen a poster in Oxopama. I have so much fun looking at the architecture, houses with tiles, kitchens with cupboards! toilets with seats, and the menus with wienerschnitzel, that I end up skipping the moto-x. I was hoping to blend in here, and was even asked if I was German by Limons, but the general theme continued and most people smirked at me and I was still far outnumbered by mixtos. Then I started to notice the bad side of things, stray dogs humping and the nice, previously German homes now falling into disrepair under their new owners, peeling paint and piling up junk. So, before I see too much more I head out hoping to maintain my positive view of Pozuzo, and it was a magic little palce, and anyway, I was all too happy to head back, towards my favourite town in Peru, Oxopampa.
|Hans Kohel’s house|
I nip through Villa Rica, with a short stop to buy up some of their fine organic coffee on my way to Satipo, which lies out towards the jungle. From here I would head back inland up on what looks to be a fine day’s ride, judging by the map at least, which shows the trail rising up from Satipo, only several hundred meters above sea level to above 4500m, and back down again to come out at Concepcion, near the city of Huancayo.
A barrier across the trail and a woman runs over, just to sell me oranges, followed by two men holding antique rifles, they look more like man-sized wooden toy stencils.
“Why the guns?” I ask, buying some oranges.
“Ah, sometimes there are robbers, bad men.”
“Oh, those guys…is it safe to camp?”
“Oh yeah, perfectly safe here.”
“Just be careful of tigers!”
“OK, I’ll make sure to leave an orange outside the tent!”
“So he’ll eat the orange! And not my stash of biscuits!”
I find camp overlooking the village of Mariposa at an old mine, and new rubbish dump….and the local recreational and procreational spot for the village youth who turn up on their motos at night….so sadly little chance of tigers.
From the lower reaches here, lush green an
d as well the burning brown of smouldering forests making way for crops of yams, and as I progress up the fabulous valley, gaining altitude all the while, the green changes to silvery green and then thickens out to jungle green where every tree and plant seems unique with not an inch to spare between them and I feel like I’m in Conan Doyle’s Lost World with this thick forest rising up steeply to high ridges. I imagine some tribe hidden upon these ridges, watching this solitary red dot progress up the valley, before imaging myself looking down on myself from way up there, where perhaps feet have never been. Twisting up and up along the trail, eventually the trees stop, abruptly like leaving tunnel. Then bare black and white mountains amongst cold damp air where grows asparagus in season, fat feathery heads being chopped from thin stalks and stuffed into sacks by the whole family, filling the road with a green waste of leaves and stalks. I’m freezing cold when I make it down to Concepcion and stock up and head out after a long chat with the friendly shop owner, and having spotted a tall crucifix on my descent decide to ride back a little and try to reach it. With a few dead ends and a bit of pushing up the final meters I make it! Another great spot, overlooking the town and its cloister.
Huancayo, the city near Concepcion, was one long strip of shity (opposed to city) and I passed through quickly continuing on towards Huancavelica and, save an interesting bridge which led to a small lively market where I watched a witch doctor taking pulses and dispensing green potions from Pepsi bottles, the road was dull, and Huancavelica too. Beyond Huancavelica though the dirt trail breathes life to myself and to the mountains, which glow iridescent; blood, blood red and deep, deep fiery orange in the setting sun. I glimpse a mountain that, from the road at least, somewhat resembles Arizona, USA’s “The Wave”. I try to reach it for camp, passing a returning herd of lamas laden with sacks of potatoes -and pink ribbons – the herders are invisible beneath thick wrapped layers of clothing, but I can’t seem to find a way to the Wave, and before it’s too late I set up at a small lake, certainly no hardship, a great spot.
Here, even my pen sounds loud scraping on the paper, but not as loud and terrifying as the sound of ducks landing on the lake! I tried to remember if I’d ever really heard this sound before, that of wings cutting and beating the air – not the sound of beating wings – a spectral ghostly noise that tore me from drifting into sleep with a jolt. When I do fall asleep it is fitful and full of disturbed thoughts, though simple every day thoughts, bananas, brake pads, her, water, fuel, tomorrow, words and sentences from the pages before bed or ones I seem to be writing that drone on and on in nonsensical monologues. Roll over, groan, check time, 1am, roll over, where’s your hat, check time, 2:42am, roll over, the hat is hurting my ears, what’s the time? 3:02am. When will morning finally come? Then it comes, too soon. And the ducks are gone. Tired and heavy, like I’m being squashed, and cold, but warmed at least by the thought that tonight I’ll be in Paracas at the coast, though I wonder what I’ll find, I have only brief cuttings of a conversation I’d had with a local who recommended I go there, “…should go…..Paracas….compass….Pisco…..south.”
|The Trail of Coloured Mountains|
I turn my back on the lake, at least for a lifetime and continue on my road, passing through the land of colours that I’ve never before seen, and I try to describe them to the inside of the helmet, but I can’t do it. The lakes are easier, blue. Deep, deep lazerite blue and I pass many of them, finally losing some height on a road that is much longer than I’d anticipated. With thirty kilometres to go I see them the formidable, vanquishers in the mist. Old enemies. That terrifying beauty. Dunes. I hadn’t expected dunes. I hadn’t really expected anything. It’s late and I rush to get petrol, food and directions and continue towards the dunes, coming ever near like approaching ships. I turn ninety degrees and pull off the main road towards the pack of dunes, darkness. It’s black sand here, firm enough but finding a way to the dunes is impossible; natural groves of palms, areas of bushes and shrubs, soft sand, and acres of bones, thousands of bones like hip bones. But not bones at all, mineral deposits that crumble like clumps of sugar, though still impossible to ride on.
The sun is gone now and the dunes seem no nearer, sinking back into darkness. One dead-end after another. I’ve twisted in so many circles, around obstacles this way and that, that I fear I won’t even be able to return to the road again, wherever it is. The wind comes ferociously at me, straight off the dunes with handfuls of sand and I wonder if these are grains of wisdom or even a warning. I set up camp amongst the palms out of the wind to think things over. But even here I’m not safe, sand piling up against the wind-battered tent like doubt, until it is an insurmountable dune, and I am buried. Can I make it up the dunes? Those massive monsters, so stark and lifeless they seem to represent death. And, if I can make it up and beyond, what about the next one and the next one? Or if I cannot return? Or I breakdown? Alone. Weak. Vulnerable. This would be easy with two. The wind would retreat. But alone it doesn’t, and it brings with it a bleak coldness, though this has the effect of waking me from my stupor and I write my diary.
Aug. 2nd, Day 1431. NEAR The Dunes, Paracas.
Surprisingly cold. Increasing vulnerability. Things take on their true importance; the bike becomes my most needed friend, if it fails you; you’re stuffed. Your stove, your fuel, your food and water, tent and sleeping bag etc, so important without these where would you be? Don’t forget one, be careful with them. I think, ‘if only I could ask my parents, “can I do this?” if they said yes, I will believe them wholeheartedly and carry on, and “no” likewise but back to the main road.’ I must cont. To prove my worth. To turn back would only show my true weakness. I fear I will wake in the morning to find the whole world vanished, washed away by the wind, which takes all sound with it, leaving me far away from those I cannot hear.
|Can’t reach them doooons
In the morning it is almost true; the wind seems to have taken all colour away, a strange stillness and hanging mist. There is just me, no movement and the only sound is that of sand crunching under my feet, another world, or may as well be. With the poor weather I sit reading, waiting to see if things will clear, but they don’t so I head to nearby Pisco with plans to return later, camp and try again.
I buy lunch, fingers tapping and legs bouncing with nervous energy, eyes flick left and right following the thoughts flying around my brain. Many days of this and I’ll be exhausted.
I ride back passing the odoriferous fisheries and the dirty tiny beach houses along to the coastal side of the Paracas national park, to try from this side, through the park entrance, to look for camp. There’s a well used trail, over the sandy ground to some of the tourist spots around the entrance and I take that, the wind is picking up again but with the benefit of sweeping away the hanging mist. There are no palm trees here, no bushes, no bones…but brilliant coastal trails that lead to the deep sea cliffs dropping into the foaming blue sea! The views! The sea! These cliffs of jagged chalk! SPACE and dunes all around! More, the dunes are firm and ridable!
|Following the coastal trail….|
I reach “The Cathedral” that in the past was a huge natural stone arch at sea, but has since fallen but it’s bay is still a fine and breathtaking spot. Whilst the few other visitors are turning about to return to the entrance, I continue on south, the trail a little fainter, hugging the cliffs and bays and so beautiful it is that I’m reluctant to head off alone and I ride free. But soon, the desire becomes too great and I nervously cut inland away from the security of the trail on to untouched sands towards a high col in the distance.
|…breaking free, following the compass.|
A strange feeling, like I’ve left the bike and all it’s luggage behind and it’s just me flying along the sands freely. The sand flies beneath me though the target seems to get little nearer, like the Hitchcock zoom effect….
This is all until I hit the dreaded “wedgies!” – something that over the coming ride I’d become all too familiar with – and I am sharply reminded that I am after-all still aboard Rodney. Formed by the strong afternoon winds that whip along the surface, these wedges of sand form in the wide valley floors and are impossible to steer through or skip over and often meant a big detour, or a sore bum….
|A “Wedgie!” Just replace the underwear with a motorbike|
The sand is firm otherwise and great to ride on, though it softens towards the top of the dunes and at times feeble Rodney struggles to make it to the top, but make it he does. Then, from this new lookout, a whole new vista and one to savour before I check of the compass and pick out a distant point, far, far away on the horizon, before dropping off the dune. At times these were frighteningly steep, too steep and too soft to ride across and down and I fight with brakes, left foot off the peg and digging into the sand to try and slow the bike and stop the rear-end from jack-knifing me off the bike until, at some terrifying speed I reach the salt pan bottom, or more likely, more Wedgies! But one can skirt these, and fly along flat plains through the most incredible landscape. This. Is brilliant.
Inevitably I find another track, a moto or car trail as the landscape forces us one way or the other around gullies, down steps, rock fields, cliffs, humps and burrows until I reach another high point and look down. I squint down the steep slope, through the now horrific wind shooting waves of sand zig-zagging along the ground up towards me and sent mercilessly away, to a trail that bisects my own path. I decide that in case the weather becomes impossibly nasty that it is probably wise to camp near this trail, giving me an easy escape route. But finding a camp spot in this wind is goign to be tricky. I walk miles in circles looking behind every conceivable leeward side only to find wind, it’s just everywhere! In the end, after a desperate search I give up and start putting up the tent on a patch that, despite being in the wide-open, seems to somehow have less wind. But, when I go to drive the first peg into the ground I get only a centimetre or so before the peg stops, I try the next, and the next, all the same. I rub away the top layer of sand and sea shells to find a solid white….It’s the bones! Like the minerals from last night, only a solid floor! An ancient seabed! NO! I let out a low sob as the tent rolls away into the desert like tumbleweed with the wind and I slump on my knees. Stronger than vinegar, but beaten by salt.
Most likely I sat a moment and ate some biscuits and then came up with the idea to use my old trick of a cunning pile of rocks and using the bike as a wind break and giant peg. Well frott me, it worked. I get in the tent, and drop dead. When I wake up, seconds or hours later, the moon is rising up over the mountains and all the wind has vanished…I put the tea on and start the diary…
Not lonely but very alone. Absolute silence. Even the wind has gone.
|Patent Pending, the Jones Peg|
The sand whispers over the ground like an Arabian dream, piling up in soft waves of rippled gold. I watch it from the tent porch in the morning and notice a plastic bag stuck in an eddy floating high above without moving at all. I spot something far off, a couple of vehicles, or is it an animal train, I can’t make it out…I grab the camera and on full telescope I am able to learn that it is in fact, just two boulders. I remember staring in to the darkness of Atbara, flame torches moving in the distant dark, and then all of a sudden, heart racing, panic rising, upon me!….or not there at all. Gone. Like the camel mounted boy who guided me through the dunes, past the adventurer’s jeep, buried up to it’s windows in the soft sand…there, encouraging, there, willing me on, and then, just gone. I never know if he was ever there or not.
The weather is colourless and foreboding, like yesterday. Cloud but no cloud. Soft but hard. Swirls of wool and marble. Over breakfast I decide which way I’ll go, beyond the Saturn-scape of yellow, cream and black, a maze of mushrooms, gulleys, arms and fingers knitting into deeper valleys. I warm the engine, look over the camp spot for any ‘forgottens’, click first and just ride away. The freedom is both delightful and tiring in the anxiety it brings. At every rise I reach the anxiety is rejuvenated by the huge expanses ahead of me, distances that I must cover, to the road that cuts back inland, the road I keep expecting to see, at the next rise, at the next rise, but it never comes. These distances hold hidden traps, large drops, and steps, secret fields of wedgies and rocks. But then, after passing one huge expanse after another, confidence grows replacing the anxiety with vast amounts of delight. I’m doing this! I can, do this. The pronoun is important! A dangerous one though. One. If one breaks down…..
Luckily I didn’t….or the bike and I reach the road, though I nearly missed it and via this, heading back inland reach the long range of golden soft sand dunes and a more beautiful sight one will never see, those golden soft velveteen ripples, running off in the distance all the way to the town of Ica. Arriving in Ica was a sad moment, litter and tires cover the sand, squallid shacks and horrid huts, signs that read, “For Sale, 100 heactares (of sand).”, “Private Property.” and mines dotting the sand. So much sadness. I ride to the oasis of Huacachina, which likewise is squalor, somehow being turned into a tourist village where the streets are filled with V8 dune buses, ugly buildings, ugly people. “‘The horror, the horror!’ he cried in a whisper, at some image, at some vision, he cried out twice, a cry no more than a breath.”
An unbeleiveable day, says the diary, but Ica has filled my joy with a city of junk.
|The oasis (of crap) in Ica
On the way back to Pisco, the long dying drone of the engine running out of fuuuueeeellllll, managing only 8km on the reserve tank…though luckily coming to a stop outside a fuel station. From here I backtrack further, inland beyond the high blue lakes and colourful mountains, towards Ayacucho and a small village called Quinua. Quinua it is clear is famous for its crafts, particularly the very Tim Burton-esque churches which the villagers place on their roofs to ward off evil spirits. I was ferociously ill here and spent a few hours in the hospital and a few days in a hotel here, and in Ayacucho, recovering.
|Quinua’s Evil Defences|
It used to be that trying to sleep in the tent was difficult, the fears at times, but more the noises and the proximity to them. A puma outside my tent, when I first wake, I think – still deep in the tunnel of sleep – how can I describe this in words? And oddly, not what is it? And I must have been writing my blog in my sleep and continue to think in cliché book form, An animal outside the tent, it sounds like white-noise backwards, no, no….that’s not it….Sounds big though, A big animal outside my tent, like….oh crap I had a simile a second go….what does it sound like….umm, I TELL ya what it sounds like Jones me old boy, sounds just like those toys at Teohuatican that you blew into to sound like a Jagu…It’s a JAGUAR! Noooo, can’t be….foolish thought.
But then I hear its footfall as it turns, Jeepers! It DOES sound big…and that fella mentioned pumas earlier just today…What are you doing….get out of the tent….!
|Ayacucho’s main street|
But I was too slow, it was gone. I look around for footprints, nothing. But then I went straight to sleep, without a thought and now it seems I can’t sleep in hotels. The noise! My God! The melee of dog, taxis tooting at cars that can’t go anywhere hemmed in by the badly running buses which, when they can move, roar up narrow streets in clouds of black, people shouting, traffic police whistling at everyone who can’t move to get a move on, music blaring, cockerels crowing, toilets flushing, rats scurrying….How does anyone sleep?! Ayacucho was raelly nice, but get me to my tent!
The man tells me I can pass to Abancay. Another voice calls out from down in the ditch, where once was a road,
“Sell me your bike!” he says popping his head up like a gopher.
“Yeah, all right, how much?” I reply, but it seems he’s all talk and his head vanishes.
“So I can make it passed then?!”
“To Abancay?” I say, meaning I’m not just popping to the shops…..
|Spot the roadworks….|
In Abancay, safely reached, a festival of some sort, though I seem to have missed the men dressed like gorillas whipping each other. A woman sticks a pin on my chest, Blackadder comes forth again as she asks for one “solito”. The money in Peru is the ‘Sol’, so a ‘solito’ (or dollito) is like saying one “small” dollar, as if asking for 50c but she wants it in dollar bills. I look at what my dollito has bought me, a blurry laminated stamp of Dolores. Not very good. Come on, let’s get to Cusco.
Cusco is of course home to the world famous Machu Picchu but it’s an expensive place, and a busy place too. So, after much consideration I decide I am not willing to pay the large fee, small dollars or otherwise. By chance though, I arrive at a trail-head to some other Inca ruins, Choquequirao. Not many people visit this Inca site, certainly the trail head was deserted, probably as no one can work out how to pronounce its name to a taxi or bus driver. A local girl at the trail head tells me it’s a three hour walk, sounds perfect and it’s also much cheaper. But then, packed up and setting off a friendly man tells me it’s actually three hours to La Playa, from here it’s another 4-5 hours to the ruins….and then back. I realise this is going to be one tall order.
When I encounter haggard hikers returning up the trail to the village, like troops from war, I learn that they have taken three days. I pass several as I run down, chatting with each one and filling me with doubts. It’s not until I reach Timor, a bearded Turkish man with legs speckled with a mosaic of bites and his shirt wrapped up on his head, that I realise it is hopeless. Timor spits out the ball of coca leaves from inside his lip and points out the onward trail across the valley, zig-zagging up a desperately steep mountain. This means that the trail drops, from my start point near Huanipaca two vertical kilometres to La Playa, the beach at the river in the valley. People then usually camp here, to be ready to make the huge effort up to the site itself, at 3,000m! A total climb of 5,000m! I knew that it was seven kilometres in length down to La Playa, so can assume that in total it is perhaps a 30km trail, to go and return, meaning an average gradient of 1-in-6! So I decided to join Timor on his ascent back to Huanipaca. Timor had cut grapes in France, cut marijuana in USA and busking just about every other country on his way to Peru. A true hippy, he was travelling with five others in a combi-van whom he met with at a Rainbow Family convention. After a while though and I leave Timor behind, eating salt and some herb root mixed with water, and then meet one of his friends, a Brazilian girl with bouncing black ringlets of hair. Well, they weren’t bouncing now, as she’s sat in the dust, legs straight out in front, chin on chest. She smells of hippy, like dirty hair and old underpants.
“How much further?” she asks hoarsley.
“Urgh…I think I just passed the 4km marker.”
“Ummm….indeed….sorry about that….do you want some bread?”
She snatches the bread as if possessed by some Satanic hunger and then, of all things, we start talking about biscuits and she tells me her favourite are Casino. I reach into my bag and pull out a pack of Casino and toss them to her. She cradles them in her hands, looking at them without comprehension, as if I’ve just handed over some long-lost heirloom, as if she might just cry.
“See ya!” I say with a big grin and in Portuguese she replies “Until later!” her eyes now returned to the biscuits in her lap.
This must be one tough hike and surely harder than my Huayhuash trek. This trek enjoys the thicker air of lower altitudes, but it also enjoys all-day, blisteringly hot, intense sun. I was getting through my water rapidly, and with no streams in the trail, even I was meditating on the red and white cola label and I was even a little worried for the tiny girl and Timor with their large packs so far to go late in afternoon heat.
“You want some sopita?”
“NO JUST GET ME COKE!” I say desperate.
He squeezes between a group of men eating the soup huddled on and between sacks of rice, sugar and oats, crates of Cusqueña beer, to pull out a bottle of coke. I slip past the woman filling the doorway and spread out like a rag-doll, and also eating the soup to sit on a mud wall in the street and savour my coke. The village is populated by the dirtiest people and I watch them pass by – seemingly with no purpose. Shirts and jogging trousers sullied and soiled as much as the thin sandals with wide straps that are filled by fat squares of cracked and muddy meaty feet. One man, walks up the street in zig-zags and stops in front of me. Given a moment he turns to look at me, he let’s his face do the talking, “oh, I say chaps, it’s a…burp…it’s a bloody gringo…” His thought train is derailed by the surging alcohol and he looks back up the road, trying to remember where he was going…or where he is. The old woman in the shop is now groaning like this man’s internal voice, though she merely wants to get to her feet.
The man turns back to me again, and raises his eyebrows in surprise…”Well, bugger me, it’s hummmmpff it’s a gringo!….Don’t I know you, sure I’ve seen your bloody mug somewhere…”
By now the woman has made it to her feet and, bent double, is feeling out for the door frame. The groaning continues.
The man prevaricates whilst the woman expostulates and I just contemplate how perhaps to help things along. But, no sooner and the man seems to wake from his reverie and continue his zig-zagging up the road between the houses like a ball on a tilting table. The woman too is making good progress, around the corner between the shop and the low mud brick wall…what’s she doing?….she shuffles down the wall as if participating in a shallow spot of rock climbing, demonstrating adept usage of the chimney technique….
Then she takes a poo.
I chat with Aliessi, as the woman hikes her skirt back up and slowly groans her way back to the shop floor. Aliessi is a lovely man, his face says so, though his Spanish is fast and hard to follow, something about a Japanese garden, valley, gringos, and the fact that he is about to start his 7km walk home. I’m then tugged by the arm and led to a party, the Presidents wife is 48 today. I’m given a drink of ‘chicha’, poured in this case from a petrol can. Chicha is a drink made with maize and fermented, and it tastes a bit like one might expect; like runny cream of wheat and petrol. I try to refuse a second helping of the lovely stuff, but as the world over they insist and the communal cup is thrust at me, brimming with combustible porridge. After about ten minutes I get worried that maybe someone else might want the cup, so I take a swig. Now they told me that this chicha also included sugar, but there’s something else, something, something a bit…a bit bilious. You were expecting a great punch-line there weren’t you?
Time then, of all things, for dinner and it seems I’m invited, though I can think of little else than discourging my stomach’s contents. All sit around the room, sullenly, eating, as if this were the last supper, or maybe the one just after.
“This is a good experience for a gringo,no?” says the birthday girl’s son.
“Indeed, it is an experience.” Another of her sons sits the other side of me, his plate untouched, seeming a little worse for wear from the night before, the birthday-eve being the big celebration.
“Want to dance?” asks an old lady, all my favourite things, but an opportunity to work on some new faces. And, perhaps they work, for more people join in, and we have a merry time pulling faces and moving feet. The president even joins in, telling me that they are building a cable-car to the ruins, “We can’t wait!” he says, “in twelve months they’ll be loads of gringos here!”
“Yup! And in about 18months you’ll hate tourists!” I say with a smile.
“Oh, no! We can’t wait, $25 a ticket…loadsa money!”
Indeed. Loadsa wonga! I have a feeling he’d fit in in Birmingham!
With talk of singing, I get a quick sprinkling of good-luck confetti on my head and escape fast, to find camp, where I contemplate their kindness and generosity. I think they will make a lot of money and, if they can keep up the hospitality they and the tourists will be winners for certain.
|Nick with good luck confetti head, more chicha, my dancing partner and the president.|
The first thing that strikes me about Cusco is that there are no moto taxis! No homeless dogs either! Banned and shot by the tourist police perhaps and replaced instead by Toyota estate Taxis and gringos! I sit on the steps outside the grand Santa Domingo cathedral in the beautiful main square watching them, the taxis and the gringos coming and going along the broad cobbled avenues. “These are gringos!” I think to myself. Silly shorts and silly shoes, shoes made for running though the wearers look only likely of running out of money as they dish it out in front of me to children for photographs. And I thought it was an Indian myth. I wonder too, if the tourist police didn’t get things wrong. I want to scream. A man next to me hands out a Peruvian day’s wage to two kids, I’d happily garrot this fellow without trial, with his fancy camera strap. And then steal his camera…
I wonder if Gringos and Limons aren’t much different, they look at every stone as if it was called Rosetta, or edible, or do I not look hard enough? But then I’m a gringo too. No unnatainable truths here though, just stones. Though one must admit that Inca stonework really is a thing to marvel at. They really knew their craft and their giant, smooth blocks remain hermetically fixed in place where others have fallen. Standing the test of time, of earthquakes, of rain, of photos…and, of urine. Nowhere though is the smell stronger than in my hotel room, and stronger still at night when the rat comes out and scratches around beneath the floor boards. But despite the smell I liked my hotel, it was otherwise peaceful and my host was lovely and I liked Cusco too.
“You’re a bad man!” says the woman, back in the square.
“Sorry. I just won’t pay for photos.” I reply, surely I could have roused some sharper remark, but as she walks away I wonder if she’s right.
|More photos from Cusco in the album “Peru 4” on the photos page|
When I reach the village of Chinchero, near Cusco, I’m dismayed to find that to even look around the non-Inca village, I must buy a tourist ticket. This is also expensive but does at least includes numerous sites and museums. Even so, my first reaction is to turn around and I start walking to the bike, but once I reach it I also reach the conclusion that if I don’t buy a ticket, I won’t be seeing anything. I know it’s not really my thing, but I might kick myself if I don’t see anything, but it’s a lot of money. I sit on a bench to think about it long and hard.
Inside Chinchero is the village church, though this is Colonial Spanish from the early 1600s. Inside the church it is beautifully decorated, painted from bottom to top with green and reds and faces, and as well a hodgepodge of frescoes and mini-altars and the main altar filling the end with garish fake gold. As no photos are allowed inside I stare at the walls with concentration willing my brain to remember….but it’s fairly useless.
|This is taken from http://www.marklauri.com|
I also meet Sonya, a weaver finishing off a two month project, a table piece that she might sell for $300, though she says an exporter comes around the village collecting pieces every Sunday and so she’ll sell this one to them. Sonya was a lovely woman, despite the heavy flow of tourists and my explaining I couldn’t buy anything. I watch her as we chat, threading the needle through threads fixed for tension to a metal gate, twisting a piece of wood, sliding a collar of wool and twisting the threads to finish off the border, an intricate coloured eye of eight or so threads, itself taking two days.
|Sonya’s hands at work.|
|Inca stonework at Saksaywaman|
Soon though, too soon, I am bored of Inca, bored of rocks and regretting buying the ticket a little, especially as my visa for Peru is running out. I visit many other sites included on the ticket, going through the motions because I’ve paid, and then the museums in Cusco which are poor as well, with more Spanish Catholic art than Inca artefacts. Still, the return to Cusco gives me a chance to go to the customs office in the hope of extending my vehicle permit, confirming only what I already know.
“So I have to leave the country?”
“Yes. It is the only way.”
“How long do I have to stay outside the country?”
“Ah. The law does not say this.”
“And you can’t just give me a new paper here? Because I can get a new visa for another 90 days here in Cusco.”
“No, this is not possible. The law says that vehicle permits cannot be extended.”
“Okay, but I don’t have to have an extension, is it possible to have a new one?” though it seems my Spanish is a bit poor here, and to clarify I say, “and throw this one in the bin?”
“No, you must go to the border. The nearest point is…..”
Miles away. But at the very least, commendable behaviour of the official. So I camped overlooking Cusco, watching the planes come in and go out, and then set off towards Puno, Laguna Titicaca and the border.
|Camp over Cusco|
I feel sick. I actually feel a bit like an accidental arsonist might feel after burning down his best friend’s house…with his kids in it, post hence, a man with a secret. A post coital rapist with a conscience, bit strong I know, but it’s bad. Things are bad. “Rapist” is a word on my mind. Rules, too. I’m thinking about breaking rules. My rules. The horror! The horror! It’s not that bad. But the stumps of teeth, the finger nails like a corpse’s black and yellow and ridged and long, the rheumy eyes, the desperation. I can’t possibly break the rule, I can’t hand out money. No. Absolutely not. That would be bad, very bad, terrible, you know that! But she was poor. No, she was beyond poor…where are the charities now…? No, where are the neighbours! We don’t need charities. But….I have fruit, I can give her that at least. But it’s nothing, it won’t help….But better than nothing….I make a u-turn and race back. Is she eating grass? I hand over the fruits I have and she cradles them lovingly in her arms. She speaks, I wonder what she is saying? I only stopped to take a photo of the house but then I saw her. Charities.
|The lady…all because of a picture|
I ride on and for the rest of the day wonder if I’m wrong and I should give money to the people I meet. I’m always telling people they should help their neighbours, their communities, rather than work with charities. Are my neighbours therefore, the people I meet? But I also know that there are reasons why people are poor. And much of the time I don’t really understand these problems, or the people they involve. I’ve gained the idea that charities are, generally speaking, not very good (apologies to my friend Tali and many people besides) and I spend all day wondering if my opinion is merely conjecture. Or, if perhaps with my knowledge, if there actually is any, I could actually help the charities to really help the people. But I probably can’t. It’s a big job. It’s a tough job. What a job! And actually, I usually always decide that it is quite simply a case of overpopulation.
Then, at lunch I meet people living in the exact same environment, in clean clothes, riding motorcycles purchased with money from crops and cattle, happy people, off to a wedding, lovely shining happy people. I was invited to the wedding and was just on my way when another gent arrives and tells me that “Oh, no. That’s a waste of a time, it’s not until tonight.” So that I could hardly follow him, as essetially he’d just univited me.
So I pushed on, stopping in Lampa a lovely little village of red mud and large Gothic church that wreaked of pee. Then to lake Titicaca, a popular tourist spot for it’s big (8372km2), high (3812m) and pretty deep (281m) making it one of the highest lakes in the world that you can float a big boat on. I saw no big boats, but I saw an awful lot of beautifully deep blue water, and as well on the Capachica Peninsula, the lovely hats of the Lachon peoples, hats that look like drying and curling up old pizzas with giant coloured baubles. The people wearing them though were equally unsavoury and unvaried in their response to me, laughing and mocking all the while, hysterically in my face. This treatment has actually been common outside the cities in Peru and, whilst I try and give them the benefit of the doubt, that they are not really being spiteful, but I just get annoyed, my doubts were small, tiny and shrinking all the while. Because of the recent treatment in Peru, I’d cut my hair, laundered, trimmed the beard and polished my boots – often the subject of mirth – but, to no effect. I often find that this treatment will vary from one village to the next, only several kilometres, so I always try to forget the past, and enter a new place with an open mind. But here it was incorrigible and that night my diary was deeply etched with scrawlings in block capitals, referring to the STUPID EFFING MONKEY LIKE GRINS and laughs that drove me to astonishing and a shaming amounts of anger.
I’ve been asking people why this is, including the monkeys, but they only laugh all the more. From others it seems simply that I’m white in place where there are perhaps no white people. I’ve been travelling quite a long while now but have never quite experienced this amount of ridicule, even in places deep in Africa where it was obvious that I was the first white person in at least a while to pass through, or one of very few to visit there. Here in Titicaca though, surely no excuses as it’s a tourist hotspot.
My mood presented itself ahead by way of a thin hanging funeral veil of rain falling from a murderous black sky. These veils, a strange phenomenon, a little like slicing the taught underbelly of some huge grey beast that bleeds ink, sinking into the atmosphere as if in water, and yet never quite reaching the ground, diluted. The thin veil ahead appears razor-thin so that I’ll pass straight through within seconds, and be safely into the sun clearly visible beyond. But, as the rain starts to hit this isn’t the case, seconds turn to minutes, though I try desperately to keep going, to push through, I saw the sun, I know it’s there, just keep going! The smell of grass comes bursting out then, the sweetest most lovely smell, and then onions so powerful. But then nothing. Nothing but wet. Wet and cold. I realise that the blue sky I had glimpsed earlier has long gone and when finally I turn around it isn’t one small curtain but a huge draping sheet that wraps me in its cold damp. Soaked through I search desperately for a camp spot, on and on I go trying every half-chance I see until eventually I find an old mine where I can tuck away, just out of sight. I race to get the tent up in an effort to keep it dry. Futile. May as well have put the tea on. Then, in the rain, take off all my clothes which I pile up into a sodden heap inside the porch and get in the tent. I’m shivering badly and rush to put on what dry clothes I have to get ready for a cold and thunderous night. As the hot tea boils, I pray that the morning will be sunny so that I can dry my riding gear, otherwise riding away at over 4000m is going to be frankly horrid.
And frankly horrid it is. Well, actually, when I wake, not too bad, cloudy and grey in preparation. I decide to get away early before there’s any chance of the more common, afternoon rain.
|Getting ready for another drubbing|
Over the border in Bolivia the officials are friendly, but tell me that I have to spend a minimum of 24hrs in Bolivia. I don’t really want to do this as that also means I have to import my bike, change money and sit and camp over the border. The stamps hover over the passport for an excruciating time though eventually they do give me the two seals I need, “as friends.” he says, adding “But, if you’re not back here in one month, I’m coming to Peru to get you!” I wondered if their procrastinating was in an attempt to get me to pay a bribe, but as well I think that genuinely they just want me to visit their country. Back at the bike and the Bolivian customs official beckons me into his office. People who say “you can’t judge a book…” well, you can for when I get inside the office and see the man, I know I’m in trouble. I wonder what my face says about me? His face tells me he is a bad person.
“Oh no…I’m going to Peru.”
“OK, Temporary [Bolivian] paper.”
“No, I mean, I came from Peru, I just needed the passport stamp….now I’m going back.”
“But your motorcycle is on Bolivian soil.”
Ah. Fiddle sticks indeed. I go to the window to look where my bike is, I know where it is, it’s just there, it’s in Bolivia, I know it, I rode it there, and wonder why I’m performing these theatrics, but at least it gives me time to think without looking at the bad face and to come up with a strategy.
“Umm…sorry.” (nice strategy).
“Peruvian temporary vehicle permit.”
“Well…I don’t have it! I just gave it back, I’ve left the country after all.”
“Then you have a problem. (yeah, it’s you!) You should have left the bike in Peru and walked over.”
“Wait, give me a second. I might have a receipt.” When I go to the bike I find I do, by some fortitude have the old paper, but I’m still certain he is about to diddle me so when I go back into the office, I do so with renewed avowal.
“Sorry,” I say, “I really didn’t think it was a problem. I just, well I just rode without thinking. I didn’t know. I wasn’t thinking. Here.” I hand him the paper, which he scans over before asking,
“How much did you pay?” He is of course referring to bribing the immigration officers. His voice is different now though, more human, his face too, and I realise I’m free.
“Nothing!” I say, snatching the paper from across the desk and with a wry smile add “that would be corruption!”
(For those interested, in hindsight, it would be wiser to get your visa extended at the immigration offices all around Peru and only exit the bike at the border, thus negating any need to visit the Bolivian (or other) outpost. The bike can be renewed indefinitely, but Brits at least have only 183 days per year allowance in Peru.)
Less than two minutes at the Peruvian border and I’m away, now with a slight weight off my mind with regards time limits, though one weight added by way of the customs official, I fear he’ll give me trouble when I return to enter Bolivia. But that thought soon vanishes along with the grey cloud, a new curtain raising, and I too, up and away from Titicaca lake towards Moquegua. Instantly my mood is quite different from that at the lake, a beautiful trail and few people to spoil it, like getting away from a really bad party full of people you don’t like. Passing through fields of tall wind-cut rock fingers towering over the small thatch homes on my way to the fabulous salty lake, Loriscota. A brilliant trail, and a beautiful high lake is Loriscota, surrounded by distant volcanoes and inhabited by a multitude of bird-life, the big beaked flamingos a really special highlight.
|Flamingoes at Laguna Loriscota|
The great route continued from Moquegua. Dropping again in altitude through fantastic desert canyons, with little traffic and easy camping having only yapping foxes for companions. This led to the colonial city of Arequipa, which has its splendid backdrop of volcanoes Misti and Chachani. A nice but busy – as always – city.
|The road to Arequipa|
|Santa Marta church in Arequipa, Volcan Misti in the background|
After the recent rains I’d experienced in Titicaca I was fearful of the arriving rainy season, especially with all of Bolivia yet to see at much the same latitudes as Peru. With this in mind I decide I must be quick on the final trails in Peru, only a one loop left now; but one that looks formidable on the map, taking me to Colca Canyon, Cotahuasi Canyon and the Valley of Volcanoes.
But things start badly when I reach Lluta. I shouldn’t have reached Lluta. But I have and must consider the fact that in taking the wrong trail to Colca Canyon, I’ve just lost another day . It’s a long way to return, too long, but anyway the trail is stunningly stark and wild, the few people friendly, asking me to “take a photito!” and too, I can still reach Colca from the end of this trail.
I spend a lot of the ride trying to read the landscape in accordance with the map, trying to ascertain if the tall mountain that is to my right is the one that should be on my left. If it is, then I am on the right trail and the map is wrong! The rest of the time I spend looking at large birds of prey, proud grey eagles and then up above, a condor. I see the condor swoop down and land to nestle in a hollow of grass. I get off the bike and go skulking over, camera fixed and ready. When I get to the lip, within 5-10m, the condor takes flight and with it my motor-functions. I stand there agape as it KAW KAW KAW KAW!s loudly away, spreading it’s huge wings and dropping off into the valley. No photos then….but ‘ere’s an eagle who came screaming torpedo like past my tent one morning having spotted a tasty mouse 3000m below in the canyon….perhaps.
|Heeerre, mousy, mousy, mousy….|
I stop for fuel in Chivay, a small town nestled at the head of Colca Canyon from where I hope to back-track essentially, but on the correct trail, over Colca Canyon.
“It’s that way.” says the pump attendant.
His face and pouting mouth seem to be pointing awfully close to where I’ve just come from….
“What….that one just there?”
“That one I just came from?”
“That goes to Lluta?”
And so I come to realise that I have just passed the second deepest canyon in the whole wide world and hardly noticed….oops. Still the trail was no hardship and the condor was good and I have Cotahuasi to come, which is the deepest canyon in the whole wide world! It’s taken much longer than expected to arrive, and I’m still worried about time, especially having seemingly wasted a large portion of it in some invisible canyon. But, in the morning I decide that “I’ll go, but must go really quick…no reading!”
Time limits are the travellers curse…ask Mr.Magregor.
So I raced off, if one can call it that, for the trail is steep and Rodney is running very poorly, worse even than normal. Any sort of uphill gradient means 1st gear and flat roads are 2nd or, if I can get a little bit of a downhill spurt, 3rd. Tedious. I never remember feeling this frustrated on Rudolf.
As is common in Peru, almost any dirt trail is breathtaking and here it is the wide-open spaces amongst the mountains that amaze, riding along arrow-straight roads through the wide-open plains where graze wild horses and fluffy plump lamas.
These wide-open spaces give the impression that the very end of a cloud is attainable, like a rainbow whose end you can see in a similar open space. And these grey clouds are regrouping, building, moving in and tightening their grip. A tiny archway sits on the horizon, not a rainbow, but a doorway leading clearly out from under and beyond this brewing storm, to heaven, to sunshine. I push Rodney as hard as I can, downhill now, transfixed on this archway and praying that the trail will lead me there, and not steer me off towards the misery. The road turns one way….but then, thank God veers back again…then another…but gratefully again returning me to put the arch within sight once more! But then, the horror! the horror! as the road turns ninety-degrees, pointing me straight towards the misery. I’ve tried my best to ignore it and now, staring it in the face, it looks seven shades darker, a horrid face, ugly, worse than any pizza-hat wearers, worse than the grinning monkeys, worse than the customs official…oh but I’d pay a bribe now! I know what’s to come, the sky so black now, so black, blacker than a black man’s big black bumhole and I fear, I fear. I fear the bumhole.
Almost crying now, but then, then, a blurry vision, a mirage? I see something, and then I hit it, a deep swinging berm that flicks me fast around and away…back towards the arch! And now, look! Look! I can see the whole trail ahead, running straight and true, all the way up to the horizon and through my gateway…a bit of Frank Sinatra seems appropriate and I sing, “Heaven, I’m in heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak!”
|Archway to Heaven, though seen from the good end.|
From the pleasant village of Andagua, the road drops down and down, into the black, black hell of the Valley of the Volcanoes. Surrounded both high and low by volcanoes, winding and twisting down and down, between and amongst towering piles and ridges of cool black and rusty brown lava. Vast, vast quantities in a vast expanse and, popping up amongst the detritus, some of the eighty tall cones of dead volcanoes.
|Valley of the Volcanoes
But then time was pressing, and it presses now too as I sit at the computer! For this blog is epic in proportions….and I hope in trials, trails and tribulations….ride on, write on, ride on! And I’m running out of energy, my mind is a dull block, no words, no poetry there, need fuel, some of those biscuits perhaps….but then, not now, not here, but there, in the valley, with the volcanoes, I needed petrol….the tank was again dry, and only 305km (60mpg!). Luckily the dirty dregs in the stove’s fuel-bottle are just enough to get me back to Andagua, where I buy two gallons from the village shop for $16.00, and not the small kind.
|The steep pass that rises away from Andagua|
|Rodney just made it….and thank God, what a view!|
“What you know it?” I ask.
“Yes, of course! The Queen, the pound, Manchester, London, the wars with France.”
“No with Germany.”
“Don’t you know history?”
“Yeah, well, some of it…France were our friends!”
“NO! Come on! Nelson…?”
“Ohhh yeah, him. Who was the other fellow?”
“When the Spanish came, you English were here too.”
“Pirates! You bought the Pound with you too, very strong! A very strong country!”
“I’m related to Blackbeard you know.”
“Then Germans and the Russians!”
“NOOOO! In the World War.”
“Ohhh, I’m following….”
“Hitler! Terrible! He wanted to take over the world.”
“Almost managed to as well…you could argue he was brilliant.”
“Oh no, terrible man, killing the Jews….”
At this point the old man goes off into a little bit of a monologue that I struggle to follow. He spoke loudly and with much animation, so that passers by appeared to think that I was Hitler getting a good telling off for my rather hideous behaviour!
“So, how long to Cotahuasi?” I ask, when eventually the opportunity presents itself.
“Oooh, about seven hours.”
“Plus a bit more for the canyon I think.”
“Hour an a half to…(a town I didn’t recognise)”
“Okay, great, thanks! Too far I think, I’m bit worried about the rain.”
“Oh, it won’t rain today.”
“Well, I assume it never rains here.”
“Gets a bit windy sometimes.”
“Anyway, I must go! Long way to go! Nice talking with you.”
“You won’t forget me, will you?”
“Doubt it, hard to find anyone with something to say. Until later.”
“Hope it goes well!”
And so I turned back to Arequipa, leaving Cotahuasi Canyon for another day, another trip, another lifetime.
|Riding the bulldust back to Arequipa|
Who knows what came before? Or what will come later? Here and then gone. Though never really there at all. Time is unkind. This way. Or that way. Unkind is time. Those grains of wisdom slipping down, through the narrow space, until the last grain drops…but where are they? Even the hour glass lies. Bottomless. The black hole of our time. Leaving nothing behind.
I’d like to leave something behind, I think to myself as I sit looking at these rocks, maybe just a grain or two. I wonder who sat here before me, in this scorched field of boulders? I try to picture them, three of them, children with chocolate skin and eyes like black-holes. They wear woven loin clothes decorated colourfully with the same animals that they are carving into the rock, these rocks, condors, eagles, fish, pumas, camels and snakes….people too; shepherds and hunters and sad crying dancers, the moon and the sun.
The sun is pure searing heat, penetrating all corners, leaving no shade and no plants either, cream and white hot rock. I hop from rock to rock, hundreds of them, thousands maybe, brushing away sand to reveal more petroglyphs, what a place! Down below, the river runs on and on, next to a road that is not mine.
I wonder what I will leave.
|The fabulous Toro Muerto