Retirement Home for Victorious Bulls

                    All we knew for sure about the upcoming route was that it was far from being a main road and eventually it would lead to Cajabamba. Nothing could have possibly prepared us for what lay ahead; namely another world with its unique terrain, an often puzzling history, and a system of rules and conventions that didn’t always make sense. But then not yet a mile outside the community of San Juan we would have to face up to the fact that our new lives inside the Cooperativo Jose Carlos Mariategui would require some adjustment.

              As if we had arrived at the very doorstep to God’s holy citadel there hung a sign from a toll booth like shack that read: “Only the Virtuous man shall pass!�  A woman of  imposing figure acted as sentry who, rather than greeting us, morosely draped her arm around the tongue of the large iron-gate that blocked the road. Not being in a particularly penitent frame of mind, I felt somewhat reluctant to make further advance.  
            Luckily J.J. had no such reservations. “Hey, can we use this road?�

            The eyes of our formidable gatekeeper wandered distractedly to the ground as she pondered this question.
            “This road is the property of the ’empresa’ (company).”Usually we only grant entrance to workers of the empresa.â€� Then she withdrew into silence. There was something to be appreciated in the brevity of her argument. Most Peruvians we encounter offer instant and constant interrogation from a seemingly endless well of curiosity.
            J.J. pressed on: “We’re just trying to pass on through. We’re going to Cajabamba, but we don’t want to take the main road. We hate cars, and heard that this road leads through some beautiful country.�  
             Luckily the woman suddenly remembered that she had seen a group of cyclists access the road some months back. She told us about this event then reiterated that it was unusual to admit outsiders onto the road.
              “You would have to get permission from one of managers at Huacraruco.� She said referring to the hacienda situated some fifteen miles beyond the gates.
            “Well can we give him a call?�
            “Certainly, there’s a calling place in San Juan.�
            “We’d really like to avoid going back to town. There isn’t a phone here?�
            “Look, I’m not really the gatekeeper, I just happen to be here waiting for a ride. But if you agree to repay me for the minutes, I’ll use my cell phone.�
             Without hesitation we all expressed our approval of this arrangement.
               A phone was produced from a pocket in her thick woollen skirt but, just as she was about to dial the number she cast us a concerned look. Suddenly she made an impressive leap toward the gate and grasping the thick loop of wire that kept it fastened to its post, pulled down till her face grew red with strain. Despite having succeeded in moving the loop a fraction of an inch lower from its original notch, the woman made a satisfying motion of wiping her hands clean. Now, with the formidable barrier snugly secure she felt safe enough to make her demands known.
                 “I want twenty soles. Twenty soles to make this call. You will give them to me?”
At six dollars and fifty cents, she wasn’t exactly charging a bargain rate.
                “We can just push our bikes through that puddle there…” -Began Jacob, pointing to a gap between the gate post and a knee high retaining wall. “It might not be the polite thing to do… but it’s starting to rain and I want to move.”

                In the end we took the diplomatic route, insisting again and again that twenty soles was a reasonable price for her services. Surprisingly she managed to get a hold of someone who claimed to have some authority and J.J got on the phone to plead our cause.
                        With the rain trickling down and the sky growing dark, the negotiations seemed to drag on and on. When finally J.J. concluded the conversation and handed back the phone, he proceeded to fill us in:”So the head guy wants us to spend the night in the next town up the road. He says that he’ll be by in the morning to give us written passes that will ensure our safe passage through out the rest of the empresa.”  
                        “The rest of it…” I stammered. “How big can this ’empresa’ possible be?”
                        “Don’t know..:” J. Continued “But the guy was really adamant about us not going past the town till morning, he was like: ‘anything can happen in the high country!’.”
                    To make sure that our transaction with the woman was concluded in a peaceful manner I took out two crisp ten nueva sole notes freshly withdrawn from a cash-machine in Cajamarca (Peruvians abhor being asked to make change and, if a bill is in less than stellar condition, will not hesitate to refuse it outright). But when I went to hand our gate-keeper her fee, a strong wind ripped one of the bills straight out of my hand. It fluttered up in the air, was pelted by rain, and crashed straight into the middle of a soupy pool of mud. The distressed woman dove in after it.

                   As the drizzle began to thicken into a cold downpour we started up the path owned and operated by the mysterious ’empresa’. It would be hard to imagine our discovering this route had we never crossed paths with another bike tourist, a German man by the name of Auto. A freight train operator by trade, Auto was in the habit of taking two months off every year to tour with his bicycle. He had just begun his ride through Peru when we encountered him at an American food restaurant in Jaen. Once he revealed to us the fact that he was equipped with a decent map, (it was not possible to obtain a decent map in all of Northern Peru) an ecstatic Jacob leapt up from his seat, begged to be allowed to make copies, and strode off into the night (he finally returned two hours later looking exhausted, murmuring that it was nearly impossible to find a decent copy machine in all Jaen). Although compiled by Germans the map was in English and had little numbers written beside each road that designated distances between towns. As we would find out, the numbers were dead accurate, sometimes down to fractions of a kilometre. In a word, our life of strenuous dirt track adventure would be ensured for the next two months.
                     After an hour and a half of gradual climbing we arrived at a crossroads. Unfortunately there wasn’t a soul around to ask which way was which.
                        “We just got to keep climbing man!” shouted J.J. from behind. “If experience has taught us anything, it’s that the way is up.”
                     “Yeah, but which way is up” A thick blanket of fog obscured all visibility.

                     We stopped and gapped at our options: two rutted dirt tracks with equal amounts of recent traffic. Luckily within five minutes the fog lifted to reveal the bell-tower of a church, and then all at once emerged a multitude of buildings like army barracks. The town that we had been warned not to pass was little more than fifty yards from where we stood.
                    Instinctively I began heading for the hacienda, thinking that some friendly face might simply point out the directions to the next town and neglect to inquire about the status of our permission to freely travel.
                    Underneath the overhang of an indoor garage I found three men standing around in mud caked boots. One man wearing glasses extended his hand to shake as we all exchanged greetings.
                    I immediately got down to it, “Where can we find the road to Sunchubamba”
            The response was a swift: “Por Arriba!” as the man swung his arm in a wide arc, as though to clarify that the route would behave a little like a bird steadily floating on convection currents. “But you won’t get there tonight.”
            At this point, the whole crew had arrived. We were all crowded closely together under the slim piece of roof, eyeing with envy the dry shells of old trucks parked inside the garage.
            “About how long would you say it takes to reach Sunchubamba?” asked J.
            “It’s a six hour drive in car.”
            Usually we wouldn’t pay much heed to information that made this kind of comparison. Though considering that our map had a straight line between the two towns and a distance of 60 kilometres, this seemed like an unreasonable prediction -even for terrible roads. If it had been a matter of landslides surely the man would have just told us, “No hay Passe! (There’s no way you’ll make it)” something we understood very well.
                The man with the glasses ventured to describe the route further, “The road climbs up to over 4,000 meters and then drops back down to about the elevation we’re at right now.” Considering that we were then at an elevation of around 2,500 meters this translated roughly to a four thousand foot climb.
“Up at the top of the pass there is a maze of roads. One goes towards the coast and Trujillo, another goes back to Cajamarca, nothing is marked, there won’t be anybody around, and so it’s easy enough to pick the wrong one.”
              “Of course you can spend the night here and get a fresh start in the morning. The only thing is that we don’t have the means to feed all of you.�
            We assured him that we were quite self-sufficient and followed him to a bungalow containing dormitory style rooms. On the way to our room, our host explained in brief how we were on part of a cooperative farm that spanned throughout a vast amount of territory. All the roads and buildings had originally been built by a German company that operated before the 1970’s, but had since been ousted in compliance with a government sponsored land requisition act.
            “That guy on the phone must have called ahead.� -Opined J.
            This seemed like an odd impression considering that the cooperative headmaster made no mention of J.’s phone chat, but then I saw that exactly four out of the five beds in the room had already been made up with sheets and blankets. In the process of settling ourselves an old man walked into the room.
            “You better get some rest. If you leave here by six a.m. tomorrow you might reach Sunchubamba by nightfall.� The man made to leave when suddenly he turned back around and said, “I’m going to unlock the bathroom door across the hall so that you don’t go relieving yourselves in the garden.�
             As the door shut, the stench of mould became overwhelming. The thick adobe walls discoloured from decades of humidity provided a kind of tomb-like atmosphere. Outside it looked as if the rain would never let up. In an earlier effort to warm up to the host I had tried making fun of the dismal weather: “Does sunshine ever dry this place out?�
            Instead of laughing or acknowledging the gloom of the day my gracious host affirmed my worst fears with dead pan severity. “No, we never get sun up here. Since January it has been like this all morning, afternoon, and night; just fog and rain.� It was now mid-April.
            In the early hours of the morning we were awakened to the violent sound of a door crashing against its fringe. Over and over the door was flung open and slammed shut, its thunder reverberating around the antechambers just outside our room.
            Emerging as I was from dreams of sweet familiarity into an uncertain nightmare I cried out; “It’s the ghosts of the Germans, coming to exact their revenge by… demonstrating the structural degradation of their beloved hacienda.�
            Everyone else just tossed, turned, and moaned in their beds.
            When finally I decided to get out of bed –perhaps three sleepless hours after the ghost in heavy boots had finished stalking the tile floors between rooms- I found the old man from the night before, wiping the bathroom sink with ratty towel.
            “I can uh… come back if you’re busy.� I said.    
            “Oh no, it’s all yours. Get in there!� -Insisted the old man while making one last pass with the rag.
            With dawn steadily breaking, we set up our stoves on the outside patio. The old man had moved on to the communications room which housed an antique telephone magneto. In order to operate the phone the man had to crank up a generator by hand. As the phone operator would relate to us during the course of our breakfast, there had been sightings last night of a dim light somewhere way up on the mountain. Everyone had feared that “mala gente� might have been lurking about. Unfortunately he had not been able to relay information to anyone in the next town. Could the ghostly apparition that haunted me the previous night really just been the stomping and slamming of a paranoid man venting his frustrations?
            Now again this morning he still struggled with the antique phone, furiously spinning the crank, calling out “hello, hello, hello�. When finally he did get a hold of somebody, we (being right outside the communications room) could immediately decipher the subject of conversation; “I’ve got some foreigners here with bikes…� Goat and I could not help but turn out heads. The phone operator noticing our attentive gazes threw us a look of irritation then slammed the door shut leaving us to wonder at just how much our fate would depend on the outcome of the ensuing conversation.

                         At a quarter to nine (nearly a record-breaking departure time) we were packed and ready to head out.  A sparse gathering of coop workers pointed and smirked as we rubbed sun-tan lotion into our faces. They probably wondered just how serious we were about making it to Sunchubamba having already squandered two hours of light and bets were most certainly being placed on whether we’d really make it. After wishing us well, the headmaster began to explain how to pick the right roads then bit his lip and drew us a map with a twig in the mud. For all the good this visual aid would prove, the headmaster might as well have given us a handful of stones and called them divination runes.

                   The only way out of the cooperative was through a corral filled with stampeding horses. These ‘special horses’, we were told, belonged to the national police force of Peru and it was the task of the cooperative to rear, shelter, and break in the animals. A strong effort was made to pacify the horses for the moment it would take to usher us through. A few wild ones, unwilling to compromise their precious hour of exercise threatened to trample us still. Just two peddle strokes away from safety I could hear from behind the snorting and staccato hoof falls of a galloping beast threatening to crash right into me.
                     Ten minutes later we were outside the hacienda and facing our first crossroads.
                    “Nobody made any mention about this one!� –exclaimed Jacob.
                    “I’m sure somebody will be by shortly.�  
                      This time we got lucky and somebody did.

Despite what we were told, our road offered no evidence of the massive gain in elevation that we had expected to climb. Each switchback wound its way lazily up the mountainside, betraying no sense of urgency in carrying its travelers to the top. Throughout the next few days we would all have occasion to remark at the impressive amount of engineering foresight that had gone into the creation of the cooperative’s system of roads. It was certainly a rarity in our experience to find dirt tracks that weren’t graded to a brake-busting-steepness and in a constant state of disrepair.

                 Of course these roads and little towns that we would soon encounter owed their existence to massive foreign investment.  Long ago, in the 1920’s, huge chunks of Peru’s Cajamarca and La Libertad provinces were bought up by the German owned Casa Grande, which had, up until the end of World War I, been South America’s leading exporter of sugar cane. The territory was devoted to cattle-raising and agricultural production. Less than one hundred kilometers away, on the coast line between Chimbote and Trujillo were several giant industrial cities, where Casa Grande housed its sugar cane plantation workers and their families. It was the plan of the Gildemeister family, the owners of Casa Grande, to have these company towns provided with food and raw materials from other nearby towns also operated by Casa Grande, hence the creation of Huacraruco and Sunchubamba.
                      Beginning in 1968 a populist regime under the rule of General Juan Alvarado came to power and made agrarian land reformation their main political objective. It was during Alvarado’s five year land reformation plan that the lands of Casa Grande were expropriated from the Gildemeister family and “reorganized into cooperatives with communal ownership (Mennen, 2006)�. Generally speaking the outcome of this land requisition act did not favor the welfare of the destitute peasant. In many cases the old feudal style hacienda-serf relationship was replaced with a similar government-‘liberated-peasant’ relationship. But perhaps the cooperatives of Huacraruco and Sunchubamba had acquired a lucrative contract maintaining the stables of the police.


                      As the day wore on and we drew near the top of the pass –or rather what I hoped was the top- I began to feel the effects of high elevation. J.J. and Goat, peddling nearly twice as fast as Jacob and I, looked like they could continue to the moon without any ill-effects. Luckily I had at my disposal, a sack of coca leaves and a calabacita (a little gourd) filled with cal (lime). Cal has been traditionally used by Andean highlanders to catalyze the effects of coca’s alkaloids since before the time of the Inca. Thus far I had encountered a variety of local coca users. I met a few recovering drug addicts and religious folk who might chew the leaves on occasion but would refuse to mix it with cal, purporting that the lime made it too much of a ‘habit forming drug’. Then there were the seasoned coca chewers who often substituted much of their daily diet (sometimes with little choice in the matter) with the leaves and could be seen constantly adding lines of the cal to their bola (a wad of coca held between the gums) with the dipstick of their calabacita.

                          With my lungs burning and heaving from oxygen deprivation, I decided that the best course of action would be to chew to excess. On the palm of my hand I laid out the largest leaves I had, covered them with a heaping pile of cal and rolled them up like a burrito. I stuck the bola in between my gums and continued to stuff my face full of leaves until my cheeks were ready to burst. Within five minutes my gums and tongue felt as though they had been shot full of Novocain and my lungs, though still hard at work, were no longer on the threshold of imploding.
                  I managed to catch up with everyone else as they were bundling up against the altiplano chill. Marking our arrival at the crucial crossroads sat a giant concrete slab that at one time served to relate some kind of information. Unfortunately the face of the sign was so weathered that the only word we could make out was the name of a town that we had never before heard of.

                      Nobody seemed capable of applying the coop headmaster’s mud drawing to the actual crossroads. J.J. thought right, Goat thought left. Jacob consulted his compass to find that the road to the right ‘appeared’ to be heading south-east, which was theoretically the direction we wanted. However, the never-ending switchbacks of these roads tended to vacillate in direction so dramatically that there was no telling where we’d be facing in the next two minutes. So it did not come as much of a shock when ten minutes into our decided upon path I heard Jacob shouting from behind; “stop, stop, we’re heading north!�
                      J.J. and I heard the warning, but Goat was way ahead, bombing down the hill without a functional front brake. Dark was rapidly approaching, and with it a sea of fog that threatened to engulf us. As we raced down hill after Goat, it looked as though we were chasing him into the depths of a bubbling abyss, with volatile plumes of mist spurting up among the jagged rock cliffs of either side.      
Too add to our predicament we hadn’t passed by a single possible campsite since leaving Huacraruco that morning. There was a very real possibility that trees simply did not exist anymore in this part of the cooperative.
          “We’re back on track!� beamed Jacob as he suddenly overtook me hurtling towards the depths. “South…eh… kind of south East.�
We all stopped to strap on our headlamps, zip up our rain jackets and make the agreement to stick close together. Throughout the next hour we had a wild and bumpy ride through rivers, over small mud slides, and around barb wired gates just barely visible with our dim L.E.D lights. Night biking worked relatively well so long as I mimicked the line taken by the biker in front. Whatever threw J.J. off balance, I attentively took note of in order to avoid. At one point I failed to notice a sharp curve to the right and braked only when my front tire was an inch off the embankment. It was a blessing to be spared the sight of the plunge off that sheer cliff-side.  
Eventually the decent tapered off and we found ourselves in the midst of a pine tree plantation. While dragging my bike into the dripping forest, I reflected on what an epic day it had been; ten grueling hours of biking in elevations of over twelve thousand feet and we still had no real idea of where we had ended up.

                       Drained of that turbulent gloom that had exploded and rained its dreary shrapnel upon us the previous night, the morning’s sky belonged to another world. Towering mountains softened the sun’s brilliance, allowing only an ideal amount of warmth to radiate through and thaw our blood and dry out our soggy shoes. Despite gnawing hunger in our bellies, no one ventured to prepare breakfast, opting instead to lie in a grassy pasture and gaze in awe at the dramatic landscapes. It was the kind of mountain retreat, I felt, that a man might feel content to never leave. Not even the road could be said to spoil the terrain’s virginity. Whereas most roads make their appearance like jagged scars disfiguring a mountains face, this one could barely be seen.
                       “I don’t believe that the German’s really left this place.� I made a casual effort to initiate conversation. “How could they?  If they had any sense at all, they’d have burrowed a system of caves deep in the mountains to hold out the military’s land requisition campaign.�
                 “All that rock at the top of the pass yesterday was limestone.� -Began Goat, coming to my aid. “It would have been a perfect place to make this ‘system of caves’.�
               Our camp of lounging cyclists was soon joined by a herdsman who carried a small pack and a poncho.
               “It’s not too often you find foreigners in these parts!� –he greeted us. “But here we have a different word for gringos; here we call them Alemans (Germans).�
                 After we had told the man where we had come from, he insisted that he had been up near the top of the pass around the same time as us. This news came as a bit of a disappointment considering that the road we had neglected to take had actually been the direct route to Sunchubamba.
                   “Oh this road goes to Sunchubamba as well…� -the herdsman began.
                 “But takes twice as long to arrive there?� J.J. intuited the rest.
               “Claro, this route is much longer, but much prettier.� -Consoled the herdsman. “The other way is a lot uglier, a lot more rugged. “
                Indeed the road up ahead proved to be so remarkable that Jacob felt compelled to shoot nearly half an hour of video throughout our decent. Riding as we were, on a knife-edge blasted into the side of vertical cliff, the drop off to the canyon below looked to be at least two thousand feet.   In the distance spanned inaccessible river gorges and plateau’s with volcanic like craters that looked like aqua-marine lagoons but were really just pastures of green grass contrasted against a backdrop of grey limestone. The only thing missing was the wildlife –a drawback which unfortunately could not be reconciled.  


                   At one point this area had been so devastated by unrestricted hunting that nearly all native animal species were wiped out. About the only articles about Sunchubamba available on the internet inevitably describe the lands as a “hunting enclosed area�, supposedly another way of saying a habitat restoration project. Wikipedia briefly explains the main purpose of Sunchubamba as “preserving the wild fauna� and ‘EnjoyPeru’ tourist website says that its reforested areas (for example the pine tree plantation in which we had made camp) is home to ‘over ten’ re-introduced species. By simply reading about it, you might cultivate the impression that the cooperative’s lands are maintained by heady environmentalists.  However I personally found no evidence of any efforts to protect native plant species from the indiscriminate grazing of the innumerable cattle herds. The cooperative had been set up to make money off the selling of bulls to matador arenas around Peru and has little potential to be a safe haven for natural flora and fauna.
A story uncovered by a previous visitor to Sunchubamba offers a satisfying epitaph to the wild animals that once roamed: “The last red deer to graze these meadows died… alone and bored in the orchard of a farmer who had rescued it from the bullets of a stealthy hunter (Wust 2008).� As had been demonstrated by the night watchman with the hand crank phone at Huacraruco, the workers of the cooperative appear to be relatively powerless in preventing “mala gente� from stealing their own cattle heads let alone stopping hunters from shooting protected species.

                         Certainly these lands contained many cattle herds. During the previous day’s climb we had skillfully weaved our way among hundreds of massive bodies unwilling to make room, while the bulls   glared at us indignantly as though the very sight of us had fouled their mood. Our morning visitor, the herdsman, had explained to us how many of the bulls had already gone to fight in matador arenas and managed to survive the ordeal.
                “They are the undisputed champs!� laughed our visitor “They have earned their freedom, and have come back to retire in the highlands…�suddenly he was chocking with laughter. It was hard to say what had tickled his bone. “…Where they can chase down and gore strange ‘Aleman bikers’! Do you realize that you’re all wearing red?�
                           “Oh yeah…� Everyone but J.J. was wearing something bright red. “Probably a good way to pick a fight around here?�
                         “Well…� the herdsman, still laughing, searched for something reassuring to say. “They’ll probably only charge you if you’re alone. That’s at least how their trained to react. So just so long as you stay close together…�

                    Since I was the one of the group who generally rushed ahead or fell behind, the herdsman’s advice didn’t exactly inspire in me a placid state of mind. But I tried my best to keep pace with the rest of the crew. When I wasn’t in the midst of a fellow biker, I would be chatting with a local herdsman, winning new friends with heaping handfuls of coca. Everyone I talked to seemed to think Sunchubamba was really far. But the roads continued to be in good condition and we covered a lot of ground.  
                     By all accounts we were less than an hour away from the town when suddenly Jacob turned around and went back the way we came.
                    “Is there an ambush ahead? Does Jacob know something I don’t?� I interrogated Goat.
                  “He lost the dry bag with his rain gear back some ways.� Goat replied. “Hopefully not too far back. He’ll be one hag scene if he can’t find it.�
                  Luckily I knew of just the right place to wait for my crestfallen comrade.  Just a few peddle strokes away would be a bar with a roaring fire place, cold beers and a jukebox blasting Tom Waits. Unfortunately the last little stretch proved to be a bit tricky.  For the past fifteen hours of biking we had only crossed one tiny landslide, and yet the last four kilometers before Sunchubamba was a muddy mess, with landslides everywhere, and only a thin trickle of water here and there in which to wash off. There was an obvious equation to be learned: Lands tend to erode at a rate proportional to the quantity of people that they support.  
                            When finally the town plaza of Sunchubamba was in view I still couldn’t seem to arrive fast enough. My bike inched like a snail through the soggy streets, accumulating more and more of the sticky clay between tire rim and brakes, between derailleur and chain.  An entire town studied my clumsy movements, their faces reminiscent of the baffled cows and indignant bulls. Nobody seemed willing to shout out: “let’s be friends�.  


              When finally a group of older men approached me, their greeting didn’t exactly set my mind at ease.
              “You’re not alone are you? We heard rumors that there were several ‘well equipped people’ traveling down the road. We thought it might be some ‘Mala Gente’. Of course if you were bad people…�  The grinning man dragged his index finger slowly across his throat. “We would have killed you!� This remark was seconded with the unreserved laughter from his fellow town folk.

                 Then somebody else, pointing at my red sweatshirt, said: “You didn’t really wear that shirt coming all the way from Huacraruco?”
                “I’ve got mad thirst.� I managed to say. “Anyplace I might get a drink?�
                As the evening drizzle started to sprinkle the lenses of my glasses and I stood sipping my beer, the man who just a minute ago implied that he’d have no problem hanging me in the town square came over to engage me with a more hospitable flair.
               “You like chewing the bola, huh. Does it mix well with beer?� He said, pointing to the bulge in my cheek.
I had completely forgotten about the wad of coca. It had taken on the familiarity of a goiter or large tumor that, for fear of the incapacitating anxiety that naturally accompanies its discovery, is left better off unacknowledged.
              “Look, we have a nice place for you to spend the night, so when your friends arrive, just follow me.�
Luckily J.J. and Goat weren’t long in coming.
              “Guy over there says he’s going to lead us to a nice house.� I informed the crew.
              “Will he feed us? Does he realize how famished we are?� J.J. looked about ready to start gnawing on the fake leather of his handle-bar-bag.
                J.J. promptly took off to enquire in a lighted building whether it was possible to have food prepared.  Within seconds he was sauntering back, burdened with a dejected expression.   
               “The woman actually wouldn’t do it… I mean she wanted to, she said; ‘I’d love to cook for you, but I’m afraid that I’d get in trouble with the hacienda. I think you should go up there first.’� –related J.
                This hacienda, with its immense power over the town and our fate, was freaking me out.  Really we had no choice but to follow the man to our new home, and assure him that our fourth party member, Jacob, would be just fine.
                 Arriving at another military like bungalow, we were obliged to wait with the company of a man-servant, while our host went in search for the keys.
                Trying to banish the awkward silence with a bit of chit-chat I asked; “So the Germans built this place?�
              “Then around 1970 they were kicked out?�
               “Think they might have been Nazis?�
“Yeah!” Said the man-servant springing to life. “There are rumors that Hitler himself once stayed at that house down there.â€�  He pointed to a small hut.
                  Unfortunately our host butted in before I could pursue this topic further. “I can’t find the keys. There was a guest, a doctor from Trujillo who was staying in there… but nobody knows where he is.�
I didn’t exactly find his story believable. However what he said next put our minds at ease. “Would it be alright if you first came to the kitchen to have a bite to eat?�
                   “Yes!� we all shouted at once.
              Our host led us through a flooded meadow and then into a picturesque rustic kitchen. A short woman completely obscured by the bulk of her clothing hovered over a cutting board, while behind her a roaring fire heated several giant bubbling cauldrons. Several cooperative workers were sitting on a plank stirring with their forks large plates of beans. Much to our dismay we were briskly led out of the kitchen into a cold barren dinning room.  A dusty chandelier hung over our heads, illuminating the room with electric light. Soon our man-servant began setting the table, laying the soup spoon before the salad fork before the cutting knife. Instead of simply handing us the soup bowels, the servant went out of his way to walk around the entire table to serve us each individually.  Every movement he made was done discretely and with his head bowed. I would wonder later, when doing research, if this man had been groomed for a life of servitude while the hacienda was still under the ownership of the Gildemeister family. Apparently while the hacienda was still German owned all staff members were expected to adhere to rigorous codes of piety. This code could be exemplified by the signs that still exist outside the cooperatives entrance (Only the virtuous man shall pass) and by the fact that underneath every clock hung the Casa Grande motto: “tace, ora et labora, which in Latin means: Quiet, prayer, and work (Wust 2008)�. I still seriously wondered if the Germans weren’t just beyond the next wall, eaves dropping on the idle gringo gossip, writing down in their leather bound ledgers all the immoral indecencies perpetrated by us on their venerable lands, waiting for just the right moment to drop down from the trees and take us out.    
                       Just before slurping up the last bit of broth, the real headmaster of the hacienda entered the dinning room. So lacking in character was this man that I mistook him at first for a somnambulist that had randomly wandered into the room. Goat had to remind me later on of the only substantial remark he made; “Ah… business, business would be so much better if it wasn’t for all the invasions.�  So depleted was his being of energy that he might have passed out in his chair had the help not tapped him on the shoulder.  And yet there was something about his vague comment that further reinforced what we had already come to understand about the mentality of this cooperative’s management; they were terribly paranoid of outsiders coming in and stealing their cattle. As we would find out later on in the town of Cajabamba, bulls that fight in the matador arenas fetch a hefty price:  Four thousand dollars a head. At such a price I was surprised that the cooperative hadn’t long ago hired armed militias to patrol the grounds and shoot on sight any questionable characters –namely any gringo bike tourists.

                 Our friend, the headmaster’s mention of business got me thinking about how this cooperative was still managing to conduct business successfully. Was the cooperative just a façade? And if it wasn’t, what distinguished this cooperative from all the others that could not stay afloat. Nearly every other socialist creation of Peru’s agrarian land reformation had since disintegrated into fractionalized family owned plots and government controlled operations. When it came down to it, Peruvian farms could not handle the socialized means of ownership imposed on them because nobody was prepared to make the necessary investments to transform their lands into profit turning businesses. Peasants really just wanted to continue doing what they had always done; work the land, and maybe earn a greater degree of autonomy and better pay. They didn’t have the technical skills or the organizational skills necessary to maintain farm equipment and roads, conduct business negotiations, or create progressive programs to improve the infrastructure of their communities.  When the political tide changed again in 1980 and ‘democratic institutions’ replaced those of the socialists that had been subsidizing cooperative efforts, the “government of President Balaunde Terry authorized cooperatives to turn communal lands into family plots (Riding, Dec. 1988) thus ending Peru’s ten year farm-cooperative experiment. I really wondered about this exhausted cooperative manager who had entered and fled our dinning room with such a blur of haphazard introductions. It would have been interesting to discuss his role in the cooperative’s management.  
                 Our meal was a pile of pasta garnished with a bone of boiled mutton. Jacob showed up just as we were finishing.
            “Well, I managed to get my raingear back.� He began. “…but only after twisting the arm of the only dude with a motorcycle around. I offered this guy One hundred Soles. I said I’d pay him fifty soles before he left and another fifty when he returned, regardless if he found my bag or not. One hundred soles and he had the gall to refuse. It’s like a huge party for them today, and the guy was obviously drunk, which might explain why he was hesitant to ride his motorbike. So finally after waving the bills in his face long enough, he went and got it.�
                   “That’s wasn’t the least of my problems.� -continued Jacob.  “My bike exploded at the bottom of that hill. No kidding, I’ve been pushing the damn thing for the last two hours. My derailleur exploded, and my bottom bracket came completely loose.�
It was about this time that I remembered it was Jacob’s birthday.         

                 “Hey, Happy birthday!� I shouted.
                  “Thanks, Sean.�    
                  While Goat and Jacob went back to the dormitory to try and get inside and maybe get some rest, J.J. and I went searching for groceries, and for a cake to celebrate Jacob’s birthday.
The cake we found, along with a gigantic box full of assorted sweet treats to help our blood sugar endure the mornings’ four-thousand foot climb. Unfortunately, and despite the incredibly high concentration of cattle in the area, there was no means of procuring either cheese or meat.
                     “How am I supposed to get my protein?� I asked the grocer. “There are literally thousands of cows grazing within arms reach, and there isn’t a shred of fresh meat in this entire town?�  
                   “I can sell you a live chicken.� He said.

                   We celebrated Jacob’s birthday with an orange bunt cake, a packet of dehydrated frosting, several candles, and two shots of Johnny Walker Red Label that I had been carrying since Cajamarca.  We fell asleep on sheets embroidered with the letters J.C.M. which, I would discover later were the initials of Jose Carlos Mariategui, a Peruvian writer of socialist theory, and whose name had been adopted by the cooperative to use as its own. It was Mariategui’s ground breaking Siete Ensayos de interpretatiòn de la realidad Peruana that illuminated the alienation of Peru’s peasantry from their land and the ill-effects of multinational domination of virtually all of Peru’s natural resources.
                    Early the next morning Goat appraised the full extent of Jacob’s bike failure.
                  “Maybe we can get it to work in single-speed mode, but your bottom bracket is completely stripped. We’d have to glue it in place or… something.�
                  As breakfast boiled over our M.S.R. stove we discussed our available options. Then the man who had went to fetch the keys last appeared.
                 “Our friend’s bike is out of commission.� Goat told the man. “Is there a chance he might be able to get his stuff in a truck heading to Cajabamba?�
                  “It is certain.� -Boomed the man. “I have all the keys to the gate. Nobody can leave this town without getting past me first.�
                   This jolly gatekeeper seemed like he would take any task asked of him straight to heart, and dive headlong into blind obedience to the mission.
                 “Hey, uh, gatekeeper…� I called. “I’ve haven’t had any luck acquiring any meat or cheese in this town. Do you think that…?�
                 Quickly cutting me short the gatekeeper roared: “You want cheese? I can get you cheese. How much do you want?�
                 “Well, I guess the more the better.� I naively stated.
                 “It’s seven soles a kilo. Give me fifteen soles and I’ll get you two kilos.� He said this as though he were getting me a grand bargain.
I handed him a twenty. He took off at a sprint.
                     While Jacob scurried about the bungalow busily packing his things, a cooperative worker meekly asked the rest of us if he could sit and chat for awhile. He was genuinely excited to meet foreigners and spoke about how much there was to learn from interactions with people of different cultures.
                     “You really shouldn’t leave today.� He pleaded. “It is already past nine. How far do you think you’ll get today? There’s plenty to do here in Sunchubamba. I’ll take you to see the bulls, the rams, and the sheep.�
                    “Is there any chance we could eat the meat of any of these animals?� My inquiry drew a mischievous smile from the worker.
                     “Only if we find one dead.� He winked.  

                     Our attention was diverted momentarily by a racket from outside. The first truck of the morning had pulled up to the gate and its driver and passengers were searching impatiently for the gate keeper. Everyone looked so distressed that I felt compelled to pose obnoxious questions like, “Is your gatekeeper always this unreliable,� just to further chagrin them. Admittedly the man was taking his sweet time in acquiring my cheese, which was good, because Jacob was not nearly ready to throw his bike in back of the truck. With a little luck Jacob would still be able to enjoy a nice breakfast without any rush to finish.
                       When the gatekeeper reappeared I could smell the cheese before he even handed it to me. It was a heavy sack of Quesillo –yellow, crusty, and with the fragrance of over-ripeness. Someone must have left this hunk of stink in their pantry for weeks, and were most certainly overjoyed at the opportunity to pawn it off to some unwitting gringos.
                    “Thanks.� I said. I was about to ask about the change from my twenty, but thought better of it. The man deserved a generous tip if only for delaying the car that would take Jacob and his debilitated riding machine to Cajabamba.

                      So after an elegant breakfast of rice and beans garnished with flakes of well-aged cheese, our bike crew, minus one, took to the highlands.  As we climbed back up towards another four-thousand meter pass, the fog rose with us, sometimes literally licking our backs. Around dusk, we found another pine tree plantation in which to hang our hammocks. As though tired out from its rapid climb, the fog leveled out just below us. The setting sun was sandwiched between the sea of fog and a layer of storm clouds just above it, and every imaginable color seamed to blast out of these two colliding prisms to produce one of the most memorable sunsets I’ve ever experienced.

                 Early the next day we reached the outer gates of the Cooperativo Jose Carlos Mariategui. Instead of encountering a toll booth and a disgruntled sentry, we heard the jovial hollering of several drinking companions beckoning us to join them.
                “Hey, you guys are friends of Jacobo.� Someone shouted. “We saw Jacobo yesterday. He chewed coca and drank beers with us at our camp.�
                 This basically sealed our obligation to join them for a quick beer or two. We passed around the leaves, the cal, and the glasses of beer and joked about how many pretty girls Jacobo had met by now in the town of Cajabamba.
                 “If only our reception had been like this at the beginning of this weird cooperative.� I thought to myself. “I might think twice about leaving.�

                     There seemed so much still to learn from the cooperative, so many questions left unasked.  ‘How many of the locals were actually involved in the management? It seemed more like a select few at the hacienda were calling all the shots.  And how often were these mysterious ‘invasions’ taking place, and was business really suffering because of bull theft? What became of the Germans? Did the haciendas ever offer refuge for fleeing Nazis ? It seemed plausible that a great deal of myth had by now obscured historical accuracy. I wondered what it would be like to interview someone from among the ranks of the older generation.
                   But perhaps just as intriguing as its history was Sunchubamba’s natural beauty. Despite being depleted of nearly all its native wildlife, the lands still appeared relatively untouched. Just a stones throw away from Sunchubamba existed gorges and canyons that by all accounts were completely inaccessible. We could have easily spent over a month exploring the entirety of the lands that belong to the Cooperativo Jose Carlos Mariategui.

Mennen, T. (2006). Land Reform Revisited: Can Latin America Get it Right and Should it Even Try? International Affairs Review.

Riding, A. (Dec. 1988). Collective Farms Out of Style in Peru. The New York Times , 1-2.

Wust, W. H. (July 2007). Secretos de Sunchubamba. Revista Viajeros Conservaciòn y Culturas.

One thought on “Retirement Home for Victorious Bulls

  1. Alejandro Alfaro says:

    I was the first one to inaugurate the Kansel Weather Observatory in 1944 during the time of Hans Hobt Adminstrator of Hacienda Sunchubamba. I still have some pictures of the place where we started “The Rainfull
    Stimulation Program” under Wallace E. Howell @ Associates from Bedford, Mass.

    All records accumulated during 400 days from 6 AM to PM were left in the hands of the Rotterdam, Office Mgr. in Casa Grande.

  2. Alejandro Alfaro says:

    I was the first one to inaugurate the Kansel Weather Observatory in 1944 during the time of Hans Hobt Adminstrator of Hacienda Sunchubamba. I still have some pictures of the place where we started “The Rainfull
    Stimulation Program” under Wallace E. Howell @ Associates from Bedford, Mass.

    All records accumulated during 400 days from 6 AM to PM were left in the hands of the Rotterdam, Office Mgr. in Casa Grande.

  3. Alejandro Alfaro says:

    I was the first one to inaugurate the Kansel Weather Observatory in 1944 during the time of Hans Hobt Adminstrator of Hacienda Sunchubamba. I still have some pictures of the place where we started “The Rainfull
    Stimulation Program” under Wallace E. Howell @ Associates from Bedford, Mass.

    All records accumulated during 400 days from 6 AM to PM were left in the hands of the Rotterdam, Office Mgr. in Casa Grande.

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