A Few Days Back on the Road

Getting back on my bike was more difficult than I expected. The month long hiatus had taken its toll, and I had acclimatized to sea level.

We reorganized in Ayacocha, a small colonial town where the Shining Path, a Maoist guerilla organization got its start in 1980 with a philosophy professor at the university.

Out of town, we quickly escaped the traffic and noise and found ourselves cruising up and down the contours of small tributary valleys. Giant agave plants curled over the road periodically giving it a tunnel like effect, and the Nopales cactus crammed in with scrub brush and thorny trees. The landscape seemed to open up, a noticeable change from the wall of jungle in Central America and the steep climbs throughout the Andes. Still, it was not flat, we were climbing and dropping 100 meters a pop, but it doesn´t take long in the Andes to get the feeling that every mountain requires a 3,000 meter climb to cross over.


As we passed by small village huts, children with dirt and snot smeared across their face would yell, “Gringo Gringo.� with great delight. A phrase we hear hundreds of times a day, sometimes laced with venom, but for the most part, good natured. Goat was riding by and heard the mom tell them, “Hey that´s not nice, say hello.� And then the kids started chanting, “Hola Gringo, Hola Gringo.� Further up the road a farmer waved him over excitedly, holding a bag of coca leaves with a green oozy smile so full of leaves he couldn´t manage to say anything comprehensible. He wanted Goat to be as happy as he was and encouraged him to take a chew.
By the end of the day, I was beat and ready to camp. Goat had found a spot tucked behind some fields where nobody except for a few wandering dogs would come upon us. We set up camp before dark and enjoyed the clear skies and beautiful weather, refreshing, like California in early spring. A thick layer of clouds were creeping over an adjacent mountain range, displaying red and orange hues as the sun set.
We steadily climbed up a smooth valley, hey fields and crop covers all covered the hillsides in a golden hue. A large gathering was happening at a tiny one chapel church and I stopped to take some photos and enjoy the revelry. A huge 20 something piece band from Ayacucho was drinking outside the church, and everybody in the town seemed to have a drink in hand or were already too drunk to keep hold of one.

I was invited to take a picture of the saint they were honoring, which was currently being “decorated� by a drunk managing to dismantle more of the saint than anything else. Outside the villagers were dancing, their movements largely influenced by the drink, as the swerved to the right and left, waving their hands and trying not to completely fall over, a task that proved too much for a few of them.
I didn´t make my escape quick enough, and they brought me into the circle to laugh at the way a gringo dances. The guys were telling me they want to “gift� me a Peruvian woman, and I told them, “It´s okay, really, I got my bike� and either they found some logic in that or were completely baffled, but, they did let the matter drop. A younger girl jumped out to imitate my poor rendition of the drunken dance saying, “That doesn´t work for nothing.�

I would have to disagree, because just then, a perfectly round “cholita� (traditional dressed woman) somehow managed to locate me in her swervy cane liquor juiced vision, and came up from behind me holding a corn stalk at her crotch and tried to ram me from behind. Terrified, I looked back and saw her coming for another charge, this time, her wasted vision failed her and she apparently tried to assault a blurry version of me with her corn stalk, and took a spill when she went right through the apparition. Her face was determined, serious, and through the original attacks, the crowd seemed unmoved, they now fortunately started holding her back, long enough for me to get out of reach of her phallic cornstalk and back on my bike.

At camp I was able to offer, “Wow, today an indigenous woman tried to sexually assault me with a corn stalk.�

We climbed steadily all day, and not till about 3,400-3,500 meters did I start feeling the effects. Before our hiatus, we were going over passes at 4,800 meters without much concern. But I had reacclimatized to sea level. Our camp was about 3,700 meters and I felt dizzy and broken down from a long day´s ride. From sheer exhaustion, I fell asleep, but around midnite I woke up with a mind bending headache (much like a hangover) from altitude sickness and spent the entire night rolling from side to side, unable to sleep.
With the sunrise, a strong feeling of tranquility settled in as I watched the families moving their cattle. Goats, sheep, and pigs, were all bouncing along the well worn paths, with dogs nipping at their ankles.
We climbed another 5-10 kilometers to reach the pass at around 4,000 meters and instantly dropped down, passing through one cluster of houses where a kid rolled a bike tour in front of me, “Cuidado!� I yelled uselessly as my bike entangled into the tire, nearly causing me to wreck. A feria (market) was going on in a village about halfway down our descent, and we stopped to get lunch and resupply. Waiting outside a tienda for Goat to get some mandarinas and squash, some locals starting talking to me, clearly excited about the novel opportunity to speak with a Gringo, they even encouraged people passing by, “Oye amigo..come we´re talking to a gringo.�

They asked me about my trip briefly, and then a woman tells me that the gringos brought the swine flu, and wanted to know what I thought about that.

“I though it came from Mexico.� I told her.

Another guy asked me if “the US has a cure that they are not sharing?�

“I don´t think there is a cure for the flu. It´s viral.�

Then with a big smile on his face, he told me, “I don´t believe you.�

From the summit we would eventually drop about 2,000 meters, and it took us almost the entire day to speed down to the river on narrow roads with blind corners and many close calls with belligerent bus drivers. Swarms of biting flies attacked us after we crossed the bridge, and we spent the last hour of our day hoping to climb out of the river enough to avoid the bugs.

The following day, we started riding much earlier than normal, an attempt to minimize our time with the biting flies. Relief was found after a solid 500-600 meter climb to the town of Chincheros, where we sat briefly to eat leftovers for lunch and down a box of juice.
Just outside of town, we ran into a group of three cyclists, one was from Russia and was heading north from Ushuaia, while the other two were from France and heading south. Remarkably, we all found each other at the same switchback at the same time. We checked out bikes, talked routes and stories, and continued towards Uripa a few hundred meters further up the valley.
Busy town, lots of drunks accosting us with slurred Spanish and uncotrolled spitting. To avoid the drunken harassment, I opted for the mischievous women in the market where I would inevitably be made fun of, but at least they wouldn´t put their arm around me with their alcohol breathe in my face and drool tangling in their unkempt facial hair.

I went searching for quinoa, got some tuna (cactus) fruits. I asked her not to peel the fruits because I planned to eat them later, I assured her that I was capable of cutting the fruit myself, but she didn´t believe me. So she told her friends in the stalls beside her that I was going to eat them like the pigs do. Then of course, was the pointing and laughing. I knew that was my cue to exit, on my way out I didn´t see a single guy shopping for food. Kids chased baby chicks through the market stalls, hearing the commotion others would help. There were stands with sandals made from car tires, stands with cloths, hats, stands with hundreds of tiny bags of seeds, bark, roots, etc. and small tarps with only tomatoes onions, and a few avocados laid out. The markets are always a colorful affair.

We camped beside a cattle trail on the soft grass. Inevitably, through the morning we encountered herds of livestock that would freak out the second they saw gringos and bicycles on the trail. Instant chaos. All the animals would scatter and the caretakers would have to run around throwing rocks to keep them in line. The kids and women always giggle as they pass us by. As were finishing up breakfast, an old man with a cane scuttled past us, holding a sack of coca leaves high and beaming a green smile as if to say, “Life is so much better with coca leaves to chew on.�

I couldn´t agree more and the thought of the mild stimulant (no stronger than coffee) being prohibited seems criminal. For a lot of the people working out in the campo at high elevations, it is what keeps them going, offering a complete vitamin and mineral source that they don´t get from their steady diet of mere potatoes and cheese. And it makes them so happy.

Other kids that pass by always practice their English, “Good morning, teacher, Goodbye, Hello, and How Are You?� are the most common choices, generally used out of context. Goodbye is usually used as a greeting, and they always wait until evening time to say Good Morning, teacher and save Good Afternoon for the morning time� But they are happy to interact with the gringos and it always brightens our day.

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