In Huancavelica (Wankawilka in Quechua) a provincial capital where I harbored the comforts of a place where people beckon to come back & visit, I did just that. In Brooklyn this esteem takes years to build, in Peru mere minutes. A routine commenced involving essential elements that I adore-feisty yet sweet abuelitas, hot springs, a cobbler that repairs everything imaginable (like panniers), a mercado with 1 sole paltas (avocado) where you could while away an afternoon talking to whomever about whatever, decadent baked goods, even a bike path.
Intent to get something green inside me after being up in the meat n’ potato mountains I hit up a stall where the owner wouldn’t charge me, suggesting I use the money to bathe at the aguas termales. Proud of himself for that one, he was. Fair enough, I was as ripe as his fruit stand. When I told a local lady how far I had rode & that I could not have done it without broccoli, she piled 3 into her k’eperina (cloth worn over the back and knotted in front, often emitting the coo of a baby). When I saw her that night running her cart she was excited to tell me about all the broc. she had eaten. In the days to come, if I tried to sneak by her spot, she would shout out to give her my teeth, which she said were nice like corn. I’d pop in to watch Bollywood music vids that the fruit man was fanatical of (coincidentally a family in Jerusalen on the last route loved Indian cinema music too). The rest of the week was spent teaching English, Skyping with family, bike maintenance & rooftop writing. With such ease I settled in there, then as always the road was pulling me back with magnetic force, nature was calling.
I never tire of high mountain passes, only reiterating that the freedom to sleep & ride most anywhere isn’t frightening to me. Whereas well intentioned folks express sympathy or tell me ghastly stories of what MIGHT happen to me, I can be a receptacle of fears and seldom consider my own. They are just thoughts, not wheels that must turn so as I see it if I gave these thoughts momentum they would only hinder my instinct, experience & caution which I encouragingly feed. If I had listened to hearsay I would have avoided some of the countries I came to love like home. Some folks wrote me that their children are following my adventure & this fills my heart. Kids don’t know the meaning of impossibility & they don’t fear the world yet…in essence they are more wise than we are.I don’t know when in my life I will ever feel this resonance to travel on my own and after a year of doing so I am thriving in this wild abandon. The following weeks would entail convincing gentle, compassionate people that I am not running out of time, it is the one sure thing I have & I value it now more than ever. My single status and womb were usually up for public debate.
I leave the plaza in a wake of live music,chicha & women throwing rice into the air. This saintly fiesta infuses my spirits which are already amped to retreat to the simplicity of the mountains and the challenge of traversing them. Admittedly, the initial pavement was a gentle transition for the 1300 meter ascent after a few slob days. Credit for this gem of a route goes to the mighty Pikes on Bikes andesbybike.com who have taken my expectations of bike touring to level that has breathed life into my tires.
Part 3 of Peru’s Great Divide starts out following a defunct train route….
I didn’t see much of anyone, some guys pull over in the small village of Astobamba to tell me that up ahead was a real happening place which seemed strange as I knew there were no facilities. I did stop there, in Pucapampa, to wait out some bullet sized hail. Huayno music was cranking from a house that belonged to Marcello,the sole resident…of the village. There remained a school, ball court and a modern looking municipal building, eerily sans the people who had all migrated to Huancavelica. Marcello’s shop was strictly cookies & soda, and he asked if I had any food from town. I figured maybe he was hankering for something special but it was just noodles he was after. We joked about me moving there & being neighbors. I asked about his family of which he had none, I was relentless in my grilling. He fascinated me, the hermit Mayor of Pucapampa. How does he live in this ghost town? How ironic this was, me living on a bicycle alone, and tripping out on someone my age with no kids. Afterwards I thought that is what it’s like when I try & send signals that I don’t want to talk about myself & strangers keep at it. I asked to take a photo of him & he looked at me like I had ruined everything.
The smooth Abra Chonta pass was just ahead, some teenagers told me ‘llegaras en un año’ (you’ll get there in a year). Back onto dirt,where I belong, I was able to maximize the day with no weather interruptions for the first time in a while, Abra Huayraccasa was an easy one and was followed by captivating colors.
With white knuckles I descend the steep shortcut onto the main road which met with mine traffic steaming by. I should have patiently waited aside but after letting a few pass, I joined the 4x4s & mega trucks. To nearly be crushed because a driver feels they are entitled to the entire road is infuriating in itself but while said road hog is calling me pretty mama, this really chapped my hide. I was run off the road into gooey deep mud, livid, dropping f-bombs in a cloud of dust. A car stopped, likely they saw my close call & subsequent melt down. The driver got out to draw me a map to get me back to the highway, despite me telling him that was my last objective. When a priest got out of the passenger seat & asked if he could give me a blessing, I chuckled uncomfortably. Three people in the back of the car watched on. I agreed with a hasty ‘make it quick’. It wasn’t what he actually said but it put things into perspective, this stranger taking a moment to be kind, in the middle of the road, where all bets are off, and also the place I am most.
It was 4:30 & I knew there was a possibility I wouldn’t be able to pass Caudalosa Grande, depending on the depth of the mud up top. I decided to camp when I saw an estancia & house. A man came out after I shouted a few greetings. I felt sorry for disturbing him, he seemed frail & only responded in Quechua, of which I could only say `Imata sutiki?` (what`s your name). I was happy at the idea of a neighbor as it was next to a busy road. Soon as I set my tent up it started to hail and he generously offered me shelter to cook. I made noodles in the company of a rooster, cats & dogs. I went over to his room with my dinner offerings but after careful inspection he declined (not sure if it was the generous amount of garlic, hot sauce or carrots that dissuaded him). He came over later with porridge and again with rice & potatoes. At some point he switched to Spanish & told me that sleeping in a tent was crazy & with that he offered the hut. There were some animal horns, hoofs and chopped legs hanging about but these days if I look hard enough, this is most anywhere. I didn’t do too much lurking in the corners.
My new air mat has a pin hole I am unable to detect, just like my old one. Clearly I can’t be trusted with these things. My solution is to blow it up several times in the night when I awake touching the freezing ground. To some this may not be the jackpot I remember it as but I am given two sheepskins (feet still attached) to sleep on & I was practically purring, so warm & comfortable.It rained relentlessly all through the night as I lay awake counting every drop, kicking myself for not trying to knock the pass out at the end of the day. The next day would be surely impassable.
It was indeed a sludge fest, a whipped batter with a cruelty that knows no bounds. A light brown clay, it caked to my shoes, brakes, fork of my bike & tires making movement beyond a few steps impossible. I became a machine..push, remove doo doo cakes, push. Luckily there were only a few patches of this & I made the pass which was beautiful. Then the road seemed to disappear. I descended further until I was halfway down the mountain & the thought of pushing back up was second to daring myself to carry my bike & bags all the way down steep rocks. It was stubborn & idiotic, I couldn’t believe I was doing it. I rode through the Caudalosa Chica mine, grateful that these mine roads are open the the public. Workers were more entertained whistling than tending to their ectoplasm swimming pool.
I flew down 1700m to the village of Huachocolpa in a muddy, bloody and ravenous state. Some toasted teetotalers greet me, the streets are trenches & dirt mounds, it is no small feat to reach the plaza. A little kid wanted to play & got behind my bike & gave it a push which really pushed my buttons. I just wanted to blend in and check out, was so relieved when I rocked up to the health center they treated me like an old friend and suddenly I had a kitchen & a bed. In the morning I climbed back up that mountain the back way (far less mud) and over Paso Esperanza, descending down to the mine where I slide around in mud reaching Paso Carhuapata in sunshine bliss. This woman tried to give me a few soles for bread. Then she pinched my cheek and ear lobe, she was just oozing with sweetness.
One moment I’m serenely snacking when interrupted with thundercracks, I turn around & the descent ahead is covered in black clouds. It was only 15k downhill to the next village but panic grew when lightning was striking on both sides of me, uncomfortably close. I consoled myself thinking of a cyclist friend who was struck by lighting & it possibly increased his intelligence. http://nicholasgault.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/hit-by-lightning-on-san-miguel/ .
With pea-sized hail pelting my skull, I scramble for the nearest roof, wanting off that damn bike. Some menacing dogs ran for me & my shouts for attention sounded pathetic amidst the thunder. I rode further until I found a hut. It was padlocked, so in the stinging hail, I hulked the door & bent a wire just enough that I could wiggle through. I was so relieved to be indoors for that hour that felt like an eternity. When I peeped out, birds were chirping & all seemed calm under a blanket of ice. I felt bad for breaking in, I fixed the wire & hit the road again, stopping constantly to thaw out my hands. I followed a car’s tracks which soon disappeared & now I was pedaling in snow, a slow slog. It was a beautiful apocalypse out there, just me & the alpacas & horses.
I arrived in Ccollpapata properly soaked. Many villages have taken on names with a cc which is pronounced as ‘ha’. It was still raining strong, kids were out playing, unphased. Trying to suss out camp, I look in the health center where Lydia & Yarita are working in near dark, shouting over the pounding rain on the tin roof. I was so muddy they asked if I had fallen & without glancing up from their mountain of paperwork, gave me many lectures on wearing wet socks, sleeping outdoors & my ticking biological clock. They take me back to their quarters, a rented room as they live on the coast in Ica. We cook dinner while blasting a horrendously staticky radio. I retire to the floor in my sleeping bag, woken up periodically when they shine a candle over me & laugh hysterically. I was too exhausted to be annoyed & besides, I did look like a mummy all cinched up with a blanket over my face. One of them had a high pitched laugh that reminded me of a vicuña whistle & it entertained her otherwise stoic daughter so I resigned myself to them laughing at me, not with me.
In the morning they interrogated me about my life plan & I was antagonistically vague. These days I’m most content to be honest about not knowing where I will live or if I will ever ¨settle down¨. There are about 5 countries so far that I would love to live in, or keep riding the world, I feel pretty determined to find a way to keep truckin…so many options. ‘Tu no sabes, quien sabes?’ (if you don’t know then who knows, they wondered). I never knew any of this was possible so really, truly, ‘who knows’ has become an exhilarating pondering.
I arrived in Licapa and the (Libertadores Highway) as the road was uprooted for the new one they are building. A donut & orange syrupy punch propel me along the highway toward Ayacucho for part 4.
I break up the monotony of traffic chatting to sheepherdesses and then wind up to Abra (this word is for mountain passes, I think derived from the Spanish word Abrir-to open) Apacheta at 4760 meters. A soaring descent among what looked like jagged rock castles & through a lush green valley, I passed a group of colorful campesinos & I knew this was my turn off back into the Sierra.I crunched the ripio into Santa Fe, stopping to chat to a guy with completely green teeth. He was munching a cud of coca leaves, I often wonder if this is my fate. He was catching a ride to Ayacucho. At times transcening from tiny village life to the city, I get somewhat overwhelmed. I wonder what it must be like to those that live here. I stopped in the village when Istrella waved me over, She had a fire going & extended what I had come to know as the binder of friendship: a bag of canchita. As would be the theme for the coming weeks, she was surprised that I spoke Spanish but more surprised that I didn’t speak Quechua and railed it at me anyhow.
There was a gaggle of workers from the city staying there. They took off in a truck uphill, shocked at my refusal of a lift. Along the climb they were scattered along the road in ditches or with chainsaws & they would stop to cheer me on. It sort of seemed like they realized what I was doing and that it was bad ass. A mother and children stopped when they saw me & I waved but they detoured and rejoined the road after I passed. Perhaps they had gotten wind of an overly chatty she-nomad. The sky loomed grey as I ate a strawberry jam packet with oats (my new power bar). A stunning vista, led to Abra Ritipata.It had the feeling of another planet & up at the top 4950m there were some guys building a table, looking at me like ‘what are you doing up here?’
To Paras the dramatic 1430m descent was 2 hours of smooth sailing, gawking at colors and curves. In the village a woman cautioned me to ride my motorcycle slow, as there were children about…haha. There sure were, about 15 of them of all ages, surrounded my table at lunch to watch me. I had to pinch myself, finding a restaurant without having to knock on doors or hunt for anyone was luck I was not used to. A delicious plate of lentils & soup were before me & I was beaming. A sassy little girl working in the restaurant would come out of the kitchen to shoo my audience away but I loved them. They asked me how many people I had killed with my pepper spray.
I sat to digest my mammoth feast & some people from the municipality welcomed me & offered me a room gratis, to stay & enjoy the town. These moments are the sort of things I store up & then when things fall apart I have all these good vibes in me that prevail. I hadn’t planned to stay but it was a lovely place, where you can sit in the plaza 15 minutes & join a hen sesh of amazing women laughing, joking, crocheting, breast feeding. One woman asked what my objective was & I told her that I wish more people in my country were less wary of the rest of the world and I hope to change even one mind. They were really open, strong & intelligent and I was delighted to pass the afternoon with them. A teacher at the nearby high school took me around to meet just about everyone and kept saying,”what an example,right?” It was embarrassing but I relished it.
During breakfast ($1.50 for 2 fried trout) the teacher, Teo, turned up in the plaza with his bike asking to ride along. I knew it was 1500 meters to Abra Tucuccasa up a steep farm road ahead but I figured he could tag along a few hours. Not only did he keep up but he crushed it like a champ, continuously thanking me for riding along.. he was a reminder to me of the backbone of traveling by bike. On his rickety ride with a broken seat, he could have pedaled infinitely while grinning & chopping it up in Quechua with people along the way. I would never be inclined to call an older woman ´Mamita´ but this seemed to be a respectful term of endearment. He was proud to tell people how far he was going by bike and how far I had come. ‘Sin permiso’ (without permission) accompanied my introductions. This was really the only Peruvian long distance cyclist I had met and I suspect this stretch would have been tedious without him.
We had a massive lunch in Totos (more fried trout) and Kola Real. He strapped the remaining 2 liters to his rack & that is all I saw him drink for 2 days & 2300m of climbing. I finally stopped offering my water, he told me he had some & would take a chug if warm cola which he referred to as ‘agua’. At some point there was a refreshing stream & I said I was going to fetch water & he handed me a cup of Kola Real. ¨Noo, agua agua¨ I clarified. He wanted to ride into the night but I suggested we camp when I found a barn roof. We built a fire which I miss doing & cooked & he vented about campesinos believing in fantasmas (ghosts). I can see how one would prefer to believe evil as not being charasteric of humans. He does believe in aliens though, we blathered about things I would never think about when I’m camping alone. I gave him my tent since he didn’t have a mat & his sleeping bag didn’t look warm. He snored like a bear but I slept well under the stars nestled on the mountain. In the morning we made a cauldron of pasta with my new fav, Huancaina sauce followed by an unsuccessful attempt to locate the slow leak in my air mat by immersing it into a stream to look for bubbles.
The descent into Tuco was so picturesque, Teo would periodically boast, ¨mi lindo Peru!¨ to the sky. I envy this sense of pride, some Peruvians say that I know more of their country than they do but I barely know my own country beyond the East & West coasts. A few times in Internet cafes a kid will ask me to show them photos of where I’m from & I google image search New York to show them all the bridges but I am left to wonder about the deep South and sprawling prairies and farmlands that are like a different country from the cities I know. Could I knock on the doors of strangers there and be received in the same ways that I have been in the 10 countries I have pedaled?
I was making a huge effort to understand Quechua & a few things I could make out, Teo was chatting it up along the way, he seemed so content just to be on his bicycle and on the backroads. It was raining but we were keeping spirits high, he would sing songs about love & beer in Quechua & then ask me to sing in English, suggesting Elvis but I was too embarrassed so I told him no way, that Elvis had stolen songs from black people. This request came up again in a kitchen full of his relatives & this time I delivered, hastily, with ‘Horse with no Name’.
He had mentioned that he had family in the village of Huertahuasi but it turns out he was related to the entire tiny village. ‘Hola sobrinas!’ (Nieces) he said as we rolled by 2 young women is amazingly bright fluorescent colored skirts with the distinct hats of the Chuschi region decorated with sequins, ribbons & plastic flowers on top. No one could fathom that he had ridden such a distance, as for me the just plain didn’t believe. It was touching, how proud they were that he had came to visit. Teo had met them in Ayacucho before but this was his first time in the village, in their home.
We planned to push on to Chuschi but before we knew it we were making the rounds by every uncle & cousins house for soups, canchita & fresh cheese. Teo said that they thought all us cyclists that pass through are being paid by our countries to do this. An aunt recounted a woman who rode through in shorts, this really shocked her. A steady flow of abuelitas with long braids, sandals, sturdy legs, few teeth & the most beautifully memorable faces, mapped with creases of time. There are times I look at some woman, who never seem to stop taking care of everybody & I can’t believe they have raised 10 or 11 children. I imagined this was a typical day..everyone coming round to check in.
We walked around more of the tiny village & met Ruth & Norma who were up on a hill giggling & almost too shy to come down to talk to us. They had the last name of Huamani which made them relatives if Teo’s. They put their hats on me & took photos on their cell phone, repeating my full name & cracking up, it must have sounded so strange to them, They thought it was insane that I only had my father’s last name. A rambunctious brother rode up on a clunker bicycle & the painfully shy Ruth sped off down the road on it. An unforgettable sight, this coy woman in her traditional skirts & hat, confidently blazing on a bike. I so wish to have a photo but I didn’t want it to seem this was out of the ordinary. She said she wanted to ride to Argentina with me but that she would miss her mother too much. They said they didn’t think Gringos breast fed, that’s why we leave home early.
I’m pretty sure they were just telling stories as they recalled a couple who had pitched their tent along the road, they didn’t know what it was & in a whisper they said for a moment had thought of burning it, thinking it was a ghost. Later, the whole family crammed round the tiny, smoky kitchen with only the light of the fire. I felt a tremendous honor to be there with a family world’s different from mine but fueling me not only with dinner but a feeling of comfortable acceptance that I feel with my own family. They wondered why more cyclists don’t ask to stay in their home & I laughed and advised not to tell the tent fire story.. We slept soundly under the family roof amidst pouring rain and hit the road at 5am arriving in to Chuschi where Teo’s father lives and ate some of the best fried trout then rode through Uchuyri, Ccoctarara, Cancha Cancha- It was all paved through Pomabamba which was boring the hell out of me and Teo thought that was hilarious. When the shops were closed he was content to just not eat, astounding flexibility. I made us stop for a nosh & fired up my stove for coffee which attracted a small gathering. We had a little disagreement when he picked up a discarded motor oil bottle & oiled his chain with it. I told him that was a horrible idea & he said that is what he always does. I just shook my head.
We parted ways as he powered onto Ayacucho where (of course he had more family) in the dark to bus back to Paras in the morning as he had classes to teach & that was the end of his mini tour. At times I daydream of what I would change about my set up but I really respect Teo who was powered by the guts of biking and was hell on wheels, some very janky ones at that. In Ayacucho I managed some work, bought brake pads, and when all the bike shops only had the thin multi purpose sewing machine oil, I used motor oil on my chain! I still haven’t decided if I’m going to tell Teo.
I cycled to Llullucha, Pacupata, down to Huahuapuquio then a gool ol’ hot dusty dirt road climb up to Putica. I thought this chapel looked like a homely slumber spot. I spotted a house & was curious who lived out in that vast pampa with only horses & cows so I went on over. A boy of about 12 emerged, the only one home. He told me there was a dead soldier under the chapel and I got chills up my spine, opting to pitch my tent near the pig pen. His sweet grandmother came by & told me the dead body was just campo legend but I still preferred my wind shield behind their adobe hut. The kid ran by my tent a few times making demon noises to scare me. I told him how funny he was, but honestly it spooked me. At sunrise a gruff voice awoke me & when I answered he apologized and said, ´´poor thing why aren’t you sleeping in the house?¨.
Funny when people think that I am a delicate flower. I try not to imagine going back to life where I don’t sleep under the stars & wake up with the sun rays on my face. My basement apartment I called home for years in Brooklyn doesn’t even seem real now.
After a mug of fresh cow’s milk I hit the road and pedaled through Patahuasi, Ñuñunhuyco & Paccha. By Vishongo the ride felt dull & I was no longer accustomed to the heat. Combi vans and trucks would lay on their horns full blast within soul shattering proximity. I would pull off to the side & give them the road, but this thwarted no honking. I was direly craving music, or some company. After thinking this, a gaggle of Peruvians were having a picnic & playing music on the side of the road. In typical Peru form, I had a plate of food & a warm welcome before me in a blink. I took out a ball of fresh cheese I bought on the side of the road, this impromptu pause was such a pick-me-up. It wasn’t long before talk turned of marrying me off & this was my cue to go.
Vilcas Huaman is a provincial capital located on an ancient archealogical sight. It sees little tourists and is absolutely stunning with friendly people and tables in the plaza where sweet (&surly) mamas dish up plates of home cookin, sending you off with mazamorro morada (a deliciously sweet purple colored corn pudding). I peeked into the municipal building, as I do, to ask about camping & they point me to the El Ushnu pyramid. The city is said to be falcon shaped and so I was camping at the head. The next morning a gaggle of kids from a school in Lircay were visiting. Full of character they were. I gave them a soccerball for their school & delayed leaving by hanging out in the plaza shaking hands with just about anyone who passes.
Through the villages of Viscachayocc and Putacca I arrive in Raymina, narily escaping a dog bite. There are 3 engineers from Lima staying there to work on a project to install renewable energy like solar panels & wind turbines to campos. Passing through Pitecc a man tells me how happy he is to meet all of the cyclists that ride through and thankfully warns me of the thorns below but nothing prepares me for the laughably bad surface of the road. Luckily I’m descending the 1700 meters to Anta where I will cross the Rio Pampa which I watched get smaller as I rose above it after Paras and now I will be right up close to it, it is so low now but the only way to cross for quite a distance is via this rickity bridge.
I can’t tear my eyes away from the 30+ switchbacks facing me on the other side. The only person I see on this road is a man up in a tree collecting leaves for his cows.
I had been so fortunate on all of mountain routes that finding water was never a concern but this ended here. I guzzled all 2 liters I had in the the dry 10k climb. The road was in good condition but at many turns a pile of fine dirt or pebbles had been laid down (for truck traction). I had been surprised by my tolerance of high altitude cold and normally heat doesn’t zap me too much but I was panting wildly when I got to Socos. There were animals roaming so I thought surely people must be nearby. I spotted 2 emaciated cows eating a prickly cactus frond, personifying how I felt. After what seems an eternity I spot a hat over a stone wall. I yell & bellow but the person doesn’t look over at all. There’s no way up to the house with out looping up another switchback or climbing up in the dirt. I choose the latter & upon reaching the wall I realize the hatted person is a deaf very elderly woman. I am signing with my bottle but she is not really coherent. I climb up the wall figuring someone must surely be home. I spy an open tap! I do some more feeble explaining & then hoist myself over. Like a horror movie, the tap shuts off as I am inches away. I try turning it but only drops appear. Another women walks through the gate, fortunately looks at me like it’s normal for me to be in her yard. She tells me the water has been shut off. I go wander but only find a man with a severe twitch & after more signing it’s confirmed there is no water until…later. I’ve found this to be the case in other villages, where there is no water for hours (the most abysmal time was a hospedaje where I had to run to the non functioning communal toilet every 20 min).
I fill my bottle in a scummy barrel that is surely the goat trough. My steri pen purification stick is out of commission since I replaced the lithium batteries with knock off Peruvian Duracells so I boil the water & drink it in the baking sun. The wind has really kicked up now & I set my tent up under the walled awning of a small church.
I turn around just in time to see a bull charging at me from behind. It knocks me to the side. Running is a bad idea, right? I actually grabbed it by the horns & it lowers it’s head, snagging my underwear, & is now tugging me by a wedgie. This is not my day. I hid in my tent behind a fence that I secure closed with rocks and the bull comes & stands outside. I attempt eating the pasta where I made the grim mistake of adding a 2 sole can of tuna which was in fact grated sardines & was like eating mushy fish bones. I vow never to eat sardines again in my life. I feed it to a dog that whimpered whenever I looked at it and waited In the same spot until morning when I caved & fed it part of my breakfast.
I manage to track down a flowing, glorious tap & a woman who was screeching at her goats. They were reeking havoc, & she seemed too busy for the likes of me. I fell asleep to the sound if crickets, sweating outside my sleeping bag for a change. In the morning an elderly woman came and wanted to look inside my tent & kept saying ‘ohhhh que tal’ when I would explain how it all worked. She sort of just crumpled into soft sobs, telling me she was all alone. That place was damn tough.As I’m leaving there’s people all over the place & I tell them a bull attacked me. ¨Which one?¨ they ask & I point to the one curled up on the ground, head tucked under it’s leg, snoozing like a docile kitten.
The climb gives way to a fabulous view of the river valley I’m in a spirited sweat and hear live music in the village of Belen & decide to replenish snacks. It’s hard to describe the feeling of trying to eek by half a dozen drunk men. I always think if I say hi first this helps curb initial comments. It’s only 8 am but there’s a fiesta under way & when I go to the plaza some men offer me a drink which I politely refuse. A mentally handicapped guy grabs my arm hard for a kiss, these dudes all content to watch and laugh. The sad part was the kids who watched these “men” act like complete idiots. When I passed the peanut gallery again I yell “muchogusto buen dia un placer chaoooo” drowning out anything they were dribbling, killing them with kindness and setting about my crushing of 400 meters in the next 4k.
I only made it to Chilcayocc. My lungs were in flames & my throat was swollen. I had spent weeks feeling great riding in hail, snow and rainy high altitudes and now that it was blazing hot and I was only hovering around 3000 meters I had a cold. There was a family run hostel & I tucked myself into a bed, figuring I’d be myself again by morning. I was out like a light but woke up in the middle of the night, with a raging fever, reptilian chapped lips & dying of thirst. I stumbled down the precarious steps, cracking my noggin on an overhang juuust low enough. The tap gave a sad gasp, the water was turned off. I vowed from here on out to never allow my dromery bag to be empty.
I slumped back to my quarters, cracking my skull yet again on the low ceiling in my dizzied state, retreating under what may as well have been the Earths crust in blanket layers. The mother of the house kept me drowning in her many soups (mondongo, gallina) to keep me from using my alcohol stove which she said had an ugly smell & a kid I had met in the plaza came to check on me everyday, certain I would perish. I jokingly asked if he had 10 siblings, which he did. There was a doc at the health center who checked my lymph nodes with the light on his cellphone & I was given some antibiotics, departing town with a goose egg on my forehead and climbed 500 meters in 5k’s spitting and wheezing til the top. These are the moments that I think there is still no place I would rather be. Ayy lindo Peru…
Up to Abra Putongo, with my head in the clouds, not in a good way. My sinus’ more stuffed than my panniers, a man in the village answers my inquiries for water by shuffling me into a room where a table full of women are lunching & watching gossip tv. I eat really tasty soup & a pile of lentils and a chewy little fried fish which I have learned the art of extracting everything but bones expertly. With renewed faith in the healing powers of home cooking, I ride through stretches of what looks like a forest of rocks, and pitch my tent in Autama in a parking shed with chicks and a turkey pecking about. After a dip in the hot springs of Larcay my head spins with the dizzying combination of sun and thermal heat. I have become so adapted to groups of people laughing amidst the buzz of Quechua, peppered with the word Gringa, that I learned about 5 basic phrases & people are tremendously pleased, stoked even, by this & it made rocking up to small villages alone more interesting for me.
I met 2 guys who were out supervising the roads to make sure residents of the villages were doing their mandatory maintaining if the roads. All throughout this route, I’ve seen groups of women with their orange vests & shovels moving rocks about. I wondered if these supes were given the stink eye or if, like me, they get smiles & funny anecdotes. In Chicha, intent to pass out like the dusty dogs strewn about, I seek refuge on the lawn of the now empty school. There’s a babbling river, cool grass, and I’m feeling ill. Word catches with the local tweens that a weirdo on a bike is there & I open my eyes, surrounded by kids. I want to plead with them to act as though they haven’t seen me but I cave at their invite to tea. They speak to me in a mix of English, Quechua & Spanish and are so full of energy and bizarre questions. ‘Do your sisters believe in God?’ ‘How many pairs of shoes do people in th US have?’ ‘how do you say dwarf in English?’ They teach me some songs & then badger me to tell them a stories in English & then translate. ‘Once there was a mountain that was so hungry it ate all of the other mountains & it was so big that a girl on a bicycle rode it for five months’.
Their teacher, who naturally lives next door, invites me in & offers to take the floor in exchange for her bed (ridiculous generosity) but she is surprised when I unfurl my “house”. All the students piled around me, watching in total amazement as I blow up my air mat & lay out my sleeping bag. She is inspiring, this teacher of 20 years and asks me to share with her students what I think of their native language that some are embarrassed to speak. Some of them tell me they want to come live in the US and have money and things. My answer to them is, from my experience, that what they have in the unspoiled natural beauty of their land and culture is what many people in my country would want.
Alas, tucked into my cacoon, some kids bring me dinner & a to-go sack of potatoes that weighed more than all of my cargo. The plateaus of the next day are such a contrast to the rugged peaks I had started the route with in the Cordillera Blanca. The next morning when I cross the bridge I am now in the Apurimac region. In the village of Torohuichccaña a jolly bunch are drinking caña and I take a wee sip before trudging through some road works up Abra Millanmar. Through Sañayca and descending onto the paved Nazca-Abancay highway, I arrive in scorching Santa Rosa where the water is turned off so I jump in the river with the rest of the kids splashing around in their undies.
I had only planned on my entire trip taking a year and here I am, 5 months riding this country that warmed my heart, burned my thighs and lit a fire for cycling beyond what I thought possible. A truly extraordinary chapter that is far from finished.