A ride out of La Libertad would be a long time coming. In fact, there was no ride. Suppose no rides is possible anywhere. The walk took hours, and by the time I’d decided to stop for another meal, I was drenched in sweat two towns south of La Libertad.
A bamboo and thatch structure housing a small kitchen and several plastic tables caught my eye. I dragged myself over and fell into one of the chairs. I asked for a dollar meal. I got a whole fish instead, with a healthy complement of rice. My spirits were lifted as I thanked my benefactor and dug into the rice. The fish was fried and laying on it’s side, a gooey eye looking up at me. It looked like a flounder. The next ten minutes were dedicated to tearing apart my fish and avoiding swallowing bones.
“Hey you, you walked all the way here?”
I looked up at the man sitting at the table in front. “Been walkin’ yeah.”
“You walk fast! I saw you in La Libertad hours ago! No one picked you up?”
“None at all?”
“None at all.”
“Where are you going?”
He studied his plate for a moment. “Let’s go then. I’m heading that way.”
And so it was that after I had thoroughly devastated my fish and the lady gave me a nice cold metal mug of water, I went with my ride.
The way was 2 and a half hours, but the heavy load of salt the guy was carrying made the trip a 5 hour haul. I didn’t mind. The landscape looked dead outside of La Libertad. Desert. Dry and crisp like overcooked bacon. That’s what the landscape looked like. Overcooked bacon. Hairy bacon.
We talked mostly about religion, so I haven’t much to say about it. The man was friendly enough, especially for giving me the ride, and, when we’d reached the outskirts of Guayquil, Ecuador’s largest city, he paid for a bus that took me directly to the main bus terminal.
It was dark, and I didn’t feel like taking a bus outside the city to try to find a place to sleep. There was no opportune place to lay down outside of the terminal so I opted to stay in. Besides, this terminal was great for passing a night, albeit sitting up. It was like a mall, with 4 stories and free bathrooms. Free bathroom! I had a sink shower, brushed my teeth, washed my face, etc. etc. Of course there was no toilet paper. There’s never any toilet paper. Always carry your own.
I wandered around the place, since the tiredness still hadn’t rung my eyes. Coa had gifted me a jar of peanut butter before I left. With some bread and some bananas from one of the three super markets in the terminal, I had a gorgeous meal. I finally found a resting spot in one of the waiting rooms. There I’d half-sleep until morning, when I’d jump on the first bus to Duran, just outside the big city.
Waiting to fall asleep, I watched buses come and go on the third story loading bay. One bus company was called “Executive Express.” Right, as if there exists an executive transport that isn’t express.
In the morning I went into a stall in the bathroom to do my business. “I wanna eat me a big 21 cm dick, call me at..” “Gays have no right to life.” “Jesus loves you.” I guess there’s just something about the atmosphere of a stall that inspires. I wonder if these authors have anything in common.
A 25 cent bus ride took me way further outside the city than I thought. All the way to a crossroads. And what’s more is that they never charged me my 25 cents. No worries, big bus company, it ain’t stealing.
I stood for a few minutes and ate some more bread peanut butter bananas. A few minutes more and I was in the car with Jorge. We drove south to another crossroads where he bought me pollo seco and a coke. When we arrived in Puerto Inca, Jorge rolled down the window and yelled at a trucker to take me to Cuenca. The trucker said sure.
The truck ride took 5 hours instead of 2 and a half because the trailer was loaded down with flour. No matter, I’d still get to Cuenca in the early afternoon. The truck climbed into the rainforest hills and in no time I was scrambling for my sweater, the heat behind us at last and the chill of the cloud forest drying my skin. We summitted several hours later, and began a descent, coiling around tight bends in the road, crazy bus drivers careening by on the wet asphalt. The landscape spread out, smooth black rock faces standing out among a grass sea of what looked like golden horse hair, waving gently in the breeze on the shores of ebony lakes. The place was called Cajas national park.
Finally arriving in Cuenca, I felt the familiar climate of cool and was glad to be away from the coast. I walked across the city to the center. And a beautiful center. Old colonial buildings line the streets, and the central square is the most beautiful I’d seen, with 8 towering trees circling a central monument. The giant rose-colored cathedral dominates the scenes, and is said to be the biggest in South America. It was built in the 20th century, and inside the surfaces are all marble, shined to perfection. I sat in at mass. Organs have a profound effect on people.
April is the rainiest month in Cuenca, and my arrival coincided with a fierce lightning storm that sent us all running for shelter. A roof would not do, so most took refuge in shops. The strikes were seen only blocks away.
I walked to the address where my CS host lived. He wasn’t at home but his house maid was, a cute girl named Maria. Patricio would arrive later. My digs were in back of the house in a separate building. A bed and a hot shower. Then the discovery that my water bag in my backpack had exploded. Everything wet, and so put out to dry. I ate some peanut butter and fell asleep with a kitten in my lap, not to wake until morning.
I met Patricio and his flamboyant brother in the morning. They went off to work and I went walking around town. The beautiful riverfront, the endless options of hookah bars. The dollar fifty almuerzos, the colorful buildings and vibrant people, the museum of shrunken heads and the old ruins at Pumapungo in the center. Sometimes, I feel like I can almost smell possibility. This city has such a fragrance. I felt like I could stay.
Back at the house Maria was alone, cooking. She’s 22 but so quiet I feel like she treats me as though I’m also a boss. She turned her back most of the time, her long molasses-colored hair falling in a tight braid down her back. Patricio and his brother Mario didn’t spend much time with me. I read books and tickled the cat. I decided to head out in the morning to Puerto Bolivar, back on the coast near Machala. There was another couchsurfer there who I wanted to meet.
With the motivating cool air of this mountain town, the next morning I took off before anyone else was awake, leaving a small note of thanks for their hospitality. I walked clear across the city. 2 hours it took me to get to the other side. Sometimes we just have to walk.
One man picked me up as I was nearing the limit of the city. Age was ground into his features as he huffed questions matter-of-factly at me. The typical questions. What am I doing? Where do I sleep? What money do I have? Why are you doing this? After each response I gave he shook his head and muttered in disbelief, “hijo de puta, son of a bitch.”
Walking down another road again. Another way. Another ride. The conversation boiled and splattered about. Talk of the economy and war, Americans and Hugo Chavez, corruption and government, drugs and taxation. We appreciated each other and they went on their way.
Santa Isabel it was called, about an hour outside of Cuenca. A quick meal of Cancho Hornado, meat from a whole pig on a spit, with some salad and juice. A quick ride with a guy who lived in Denver. “Did they treat you well?” I asked. They did, for the most part. I said things I hadn’t thought of before, like “bad people are more aggressive in their badness and good people are more passive in their goodness.” I’m not sure about it. One more thing to think about.
Then I was walking again. Part of the highway was closed to traffic, and the detour curved up a dirt road into the surrounding hills. I decided to walk to where the detour would come back to the highway on the other side of the obstruction.
I walked on. The road curved away and I was alone with it and the cliffs, views spread out beyond the distant mountains. Dirt and rocks littered the surface. I walked down the double yellow lines. I felt like the Road Warrior, here in my domain.
The road became piles of dirt and rock. It degraded further as I trudged through the mud and gravel. In fact I lost the highway and had to backtrack to find it again, having walked into an abandoned open mine. If they hadn’t been mining mud then I don’t know what. It was like a moonscape. I walked and walked, eventually the road spreading out once more, and again I was the dogless Road Warrior.
An hour or so, walking and then scraping the mud off my boots, before a car passed, from where, I don’t have a clue. But he took me to the next town and we talked about nightclubs and his dead brothers. In the next town I sat around in the rain for a spell. The heat was back. Already? Yeah, the heat was back already.
Joel stopped in a pickup taxi and wanted to help me out. I sat up front with him and he pretended to speak English. It was a bizarre one-way conversation as I took the opportunity to babble on in my native tongue. He had lived in Connecticut, having arrived Stateside illegally in a boat from Puerto Bolivar. I suppose that’s one way to do it.
He took me to a town called Pasaje and bought me a meal and a bus to Machala. We said our goodbyes and I was on a bus again. Through the city and the endless banana fields (Puerto Bolivar is the premier banana export port in the world, so I hear). In Machala I sweated. That’s what I did, I sat and sweated. “It was hot” doesn’t cut it.
I called Kahyda, my new host here. I’d stay here two days. She’d been in Barranquilla, but I hadn’t had the chance to meet her, despite sharing several messages. I met her when she showed up yelling at me to come over to the taxi she was in. There were also two hairy French guys in the cab. At the house I met a couple; a German guy and an Ecuadoran. Another CS bash. Beer was bought and sushi was made. Then we piled into a car and went off to a bar where salsa happened and the beer continued to find its place in the palm of my hand. And so it went…
The next day was sweating and walking and ceviche. Ceviche is raw fish or crab or conch or lobster meat cooked by lime juice, no heat. My new friends spent 8 dollars on the stuff and I just watched, sneaking off briefly to eat a dollar almuerzo across the street. The restaurant was on the water, and as the tide rose, it flooded the street where cars were parked. We watched as some kids did business by placing plastic crates in the water for people to get in their cars. Later back at the house it was the Dead Poet’s Society and my turn to cook. After eating it was What Women Want.
In the morning, before the birds were singing, I was gone. A green bus took me from Puerto Bolivar to clear outside of Machala. Loja was the next destination, the city they credit with opening the way to the Amazon river system, and the city by which conquistadors passed in search of “El Dorado”. The heat in Machala was almost abusive. I didn’t want to cross into Peru on the coast, I was done with the damn coast!
I suffered the heat for a little while more, taking a quick ride with a mother and son to the crossroads for Loja. The area was called Santa Rosa and it was the shittiest part of Ecuador I’d seen. Shitty why? Because of the vibes, mostly. Evil looks and passive advice to be careful because it is so damn fucking dangerous there. One man spent 15 minutes telling me I’d get robbed if I walked up and around a hill. I didn’t. Finally I was picked up by a quiet dump truck driver. So quiet, in fact, that we didn’t even talk.
When he let me off near a restaurant I solicited a meal and as I left the place I threw my thumb at a car with young faces behind the glass. Alfonso, a latin Russell Crowe, and his wife Daniela and baby son Daniel picked me up. Alfonso was 20 and she 21, and the baby was 8 months old. I thought of my sister who is 19 years old, and what it’d be like if she had a kid… I’d probably be a good uncle.
I went with the couple out of the way down to a small village to visit Daniela’s uncle and cousins. They were carpenters. We entered into a large workshop where they were sanding beds and tables. I met the uncle and the cousins and they looked puzzled. I suppose it must have been puzzling. So it goes.
At the uncle’s house we had some beers and Daniela whipped out a boob to shut the baby up. I watched Mexican soap operas and listened to suckling, trying to avert my eyes, believing it the most polite thing to do. Eventually it was time to go, and back at the main highway I walked on alone, with gifted chips and a cherry cream ice cream bar to boot.
Very few cars passed. The sky was open and the heat was still abusive. I needed to get into the sierra! The fifth car in 30 minutes pulled over with a screech and I jumped into the back of the pick-up. A man with blue orbs for eyes looked back at me, his withered face giving away his years. “Loja?” I knew it was a 6 hour drive from here. “Yeah,” I said. “Ok, me too, here we go!” “Wait! You’re going all the way there? Can I take a leak really fast?” He frowned, “you hitch a ride just to get out again?” “Didn’t expect a ride all the way there!”
I hopped out of the truck and watered the weeds. Then we were off. But what a ride! I thought we were going to take off he drove so fast. Every curve was a resounding squeel from the strained rubber of the tires, and my head spun in circles. I tried to sit as close to the cab as possible, sitting on top of my backpack. The road degenerated into a holey lane, and then into gravel, but that didn’t seem to slow the man down! Before long we had left the heat behind and I had to don my hoody. At one point we stopped in a small town and before I knew it dozens of schoolchildren had climbed into the back of the truck with me in their little gray and white uniforms. It was a veritable sea of innocence looking curiously at this bizarre long-haired gringo. We were underway, and the fact that there were at least 25 children in the bed of the pick-up with me did not cause our chauffer to slow down. The children were seated and standing and screamed at every turn as they leaned hard against their neighbors, unable to depend on anything else to keep them in the car other than the sheer density of the pack. They were in the car for 20 minutes.
Hours flew by and I had several episodes I’d like to call, “not throwing up”, wherein I imagined throwing up to calm my nerves. If I had a camera attached to my head and showed my mom the video, she’d be concerned. If in the video I included footage through the rear window of what the man was up to as he drove, she’d probably flip out. He didn’t really look at the road, and paid little attention to the steering wheel. Mostly he gestured as he spoke to the woman next to him in the cab. It must have been an incredible story if those gestures were any indication! Otherwise he looked around a lot and ate a lot of bread.
We summitted suddenly into a dark mist seething the potential of rain. And so it went. Drops bigger than marbles pelted the car. I sat close to the cab and the vaccum that was created kept most of the drops off me as I struggled to get out my pack rain cover and rainjacket. But then the man stopped to invite me into the cab. Soaked. Bag soaked, but cover on. Into the cab. When I slammed the door shut the rain stopped. “Well, you see it’s pretty cramped in here and it’s not raining now. You better get back into the bed.” Again in the bed, and bam! it began raining again. I gestured to the guy to keep going, to avoid getting more drenched, as if it were possible.
I had my raincoat on then. The trip reminded me of the drive from Mexicali to Tecate, in northern Mexico. I was in the back of a pick-up as well when it began to rain. It was colder in that mountain range, called La Rumorosa, and I didn’t get my rain gear on fast enough. I was drenched, and in Tecate I came down with a wild cough that in the afternoon became a cold shiver and deafening chatter of the teeth. Luckily, in Tecate I met a man limping on a crutch who spoke English (because back then I didn’t speak Spanish), who invited me to sleep in his taco stand, and gifted me a jacket as well.
Back in Ecuador. By the time my blue-eyed benefactor had reached the outskirts of Loja, I was completey dry under the valley sun. He bought me a water and gave me a slice of pineapple. In the city I said goodbye and walked into an internet cafe to see if I hadn’t received any response from a CS who Kahyda had contacted for me. Alas I had, and when I called his number from one of the telephone cabinas he agreed to host me. And what do you know… I had been let off in the very square where his tour company office was located.
Diego came and met me in front of the small church on the corner of the square. Loja gave me the impression of a small city, quiet but mysterious enough to warrant a visit. Diego smiled and introduced himself. He spoke selectively, making a small suction noise before his longer utterances. He seemed to consider carefully each thing he said, making sure that it was what he really believed. It is a characteristic of his personality that in two days I came to appreciate. It gave Diego an aspect of uniqueness when he told stories.
I hung out with him in his tour company offices, pictures of the province all around us. I thanked him for hosting me in such short notice. He and Kahyda are friends, and so Kahyda had offered to send him a message for me. I was glad for it.
We talked about travel and couchsurfing and spent an hour pouring over my map. He suggested a new route for me. I told him I wasn’t going to go back to the coast to enter Peru, and he agreed. I offered that I’d descend to Vilcabamba and from there cut across to Macara. “That means if you want to go to Chapapoyas, you have to go all the way around. Why don’t you just go from Vilcabamba to Zumba?” I looked at the map and there was no road connecting the two. “Trust me it’s there,” he said. Alas that would be the new plan.
Back at his house I didn’t meet the family, they were hidden in their rooms. It might be something special if I was the first traveler staying at their place, but the fact of couchsurfing is that when you use it often, you become accustomed to having guests. It becomes a norm in your house, and sometimes that means no excitement at new arrivals. But alas, so it goes.
Diego told me why he had a Jewish temple in his house, which is also where I slept. Something about immigrants coming to Ecuador and there being 400 converts in country.
The next day I walked around, we had some almuerzo in the market, and I tried a drink called morocho, which is milk and maize mixed. I walked around the city. Men in jeans and women wrapped in patterned wool blankets with the identity symbol of the top hat. Colonial facades pink or baby blue. Peeled mangos on rotating spindles, and vendors lathing off strips. Crumbled collages of sidewalks, trying to avoid the holes. Picture perfect chapels hidden in unlikely alleys. A pleasant town.
On the third morning I left Loja, leaving Diego a small note of gratitude. The sun was hidden behind the distant clouds and the walk was a refreshing hour and a half. When I reached the far round-about at the south exit of the city, the first pick-up to come my way took me to the next town 30 minutes away, called Malacatos. I shouldered my pack and strolled the central plaza. There was a sky blue church almost impossibly cute, and the park was lined with a brightly colored foot-tall picket fence. Impossibly cute.
Out of the town I walked, on toward Vilcabamba. I would check out the town, maybe stick around for a spell. Another pick-up took me the rest of the way over smooth asphalt to the town. “Vilcabamba is where all the tourists go,” Diego had said. And so it was. All the signs in the town were in English. There were white people everywhere, almost more than there were Ecuadorans. Things were more expensive here. Every shop, whether a saloon, a corner store, or a barber, seemed to double as a tour outfit. I decided not to hang around.
Walking out of town I noticed a bunch of signs reading, “agua es vida”, “water is life, conserve it!” There is quite a large campaign for conserving water in Ecuador. I suppose that’s the way we have to think of it. It is life, after all.
Pedro picked me up while I was walking past one of the water signs. He took me up into the hills, the road spinning us around and around until he let me off about 30 minutes later. The road was dirt. I should expect it to be, since it didn’t even exist on my map. Then again, that map has failed me before.
I walked up to a couple of guys holding a “sigue, pare” “go, stop” sign. They had blue hardhats. They were controlling non-existant traffic because some diggers were up on top of a hill scraping rocks and dirt down to the road. They were tearing down the hill to expand the highway. So that’s how they do it, they scrape away the hill little by little from up top. Although, I wondered why they were building a 4-lane highway where there were only little villages. It´s like Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere.
They guys liked me and asked a guy in a passing pick-up to take me onward, and he agreed. I hopped in the cab. He was a farmer from not far from where they were tearing at that hill. “What do you think about the highway?” I inquired.
“I think it’s a waste of money. The government doesn’t have any money, they’re broke. They just keep spending on fruitless endeavors.”
“Won’t it open trade with Peru?”
“Maybe a little more sure, but the big cities are better accessed by the coastal road, and it’s already built. Who will want to spend for trucks to pass these mountains? A waste.”
I glanced at the houses and farms we passed. “What about these properties that are close to the old road? They’re going to demolish them?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“Does the government pay them compensation?”
“Not a cent.”
He let me off down the road after another traffic control. There was no traffic. It would be a hard hitch, I thought. I walked down the road for lack of better things to do. I swung my umbrella and scraped the gravel. To my surprise, the first vehicle to pass pulled over. It was a big delivery truck. The guys inside told me they were heading to Zumba, which was the town I wanted to try to reach. It was 6 hours away on the dirt roads.
And so it was that I went with this pair on to Zumba. The road climbed high into the hills and then the mountains, lush vegetation skirting the sides of the way. Through a national park where I saw two foreign photographers walking, the man with eyes blue as the Fremen. We forded several shallow rivers that had broken their way across the road. Smalls towns pass by like afterthoughts. Valladolid, Palanda. The giant tires of the truck struggled with deep mud mini lakes. This road was one of the most winding I’d encountered. A ribbon of dirt laid raveling round the range.
Zumba was 7 hours on, and when we arrived I was alone in the central park. Zumba was situated on a steep slanted hill, with views over the distant country: Peru. The sky was turning pink and stars twinkled into view. The main church was a bizarre colonial-house-like construction with a green roof and blue facade. Right next to the main plaza was an army base, being a frontier town and whatnot.
After a meal and lounging around the church, I decided it was time I search for accomodation. I noticed that the army base had some lawn area. I’d never slept in an army base before. After a short explanation of my intentions, with sergeants and lieutenants looking on, the captain at the gate thought it was a lovely idea to let me camp there for the night. And so it was.
I pitched my tent on the lawn inside the compound, and then went back to the gate to talk with the enlisted men and the conscripts for a couple hours. First they explain to me why there’s a giant metal sculpture of an ant in the plaza. “In november those giant flying ants are everywhere, and the people here eat them right out of the air. They yank off the wings, legs, and head, and eat the body. Sometimes they fry them.” If only November…
Then we talked about conscription. There is conscription in so many countries, we in those without it don’t realize how lucky we are. I spoke with 18, 19, and 20 year olds who were stuck in the army for a year. Some countries, like Germany, offer the option of social service, but here it is army, bribes, or jail.
I talked on and on with the sergeant into the wee hours. A career man. We spoke of the military, of their rules and the fact that they lte me sleep there. “It would never happen in my country,” I’d said, “our rules are so strict, in everything… that sometimes it feels like we’re losing our humanity.”
I slept well that night.
The brilliant sunrise welcomed a new day, and I began to walk. I bought a meal, and another meal to go. The ribbon road continued south, they told me, 2 hours in car to the border with Peru. From Zumbra you could see so far, it was like looking off the edge of the Earth.
There was no traffic. In an hour of walking only a bus had passed me by. The sun was intense. There were dead snakes in the road. My footsteps kicked dust in front of me. Every time I’d be cresting a hill, I could see the heatwaves rising from the surface of the road. The road was a rollercoaster. It had to return to the level of the rivers to reach the short bridges that straddled them. I washed my face and shirt in one creek.
A pick-up passed me and I hung my head, but it changed it’s mind, stopped, reversed to me and picked me up. I sat comfortable in the bed on sacks of corn kernels. An hour later I was at a police checkpoint, 2 hours walk frmo the border. I greeted the army men at the cabin and regaled them with a tale of camping at their base, then began the walk to the border. I passed a bicyclist, a European, I think. He was wearing top-notch bike clothing. It made me think. I couldn’t do it. Not because I couldn’t but because I don’t want to. A biker is going to be on his bike all day, huffing and puffing. To each his own. But how much of his time is spent really getting to know the people? Talking is the most important to me.
Down the road, with no traffic passing me, until a motorbike with two border agents. They arrived at the same time that a minivan did, and they suggested they get me a ride in the van to the border. Alright.
Well, when I got into the van after the chauffer agreed to take me, the agent’s eye caught sight of three bottles tucked beneath the seat. “What’s this?” He said to the driver. “Oh nothing, it’s just for the trip,” the driver responded hesitantly. It was diesel. The agent told the driver that it was illegal and then made him open his trunk, only to discover 5 more jugs of diesel. All on account of me. Shitty.
The driver somehow convinced the agent not only to let him go, but also to let him cross the border and deal with the Peruvian immigration. He didn’t want to sell the diesel, he’d said, he just wanted to take it for his own voyage, since the subsidized gasoline in Ecuador was 4 times cheaper than in Peru.
I introduced myself. His name was Nelson, and the little kid next to him was his 10 year old nephew Angelo. He said he’d take me two hours into Peru to a town called San Ignacio. We drove the 20 minutes to the border. As the agent there stamped my passport, I looked across the bridge at Peru. Hmm. It looks a lot like Ecuador, I thought. Borders. What shit.
Across the bridge I was in Peru. Peru, the nation of a gastronomic reputation only paralleled by countries like France or China. I already knew I wanted to eat potatos here. Maybe I’d also spend some time in their food capital, Lima, regardless of the bad rap it has received from just about everyone I’ve met.
In a small wooden building was the Peruvian immigration. A woman sat at a desk opposite her first customer, Nelson. Nelson was short, but beefy in his sleeveless design shirt. His eyes slanted slightly and he sported a dark black moustache. He told me he was 46. He sat with one hand on the desk and the other wrapped around the back of the chair, somewhat lounging.
“So what’s knew with you?” He asked the woman.
They began a conversation that was decidedly friendly. In fact not only were they friends, I think they were lovers! Or at least they seemed inclined to be. They spoke openly. Nelson was saying that he was interested in the ruins near Chachapoyas and he wanted to check them out, and that she should leave her work to someone else and come with him. “Come on,” he told her, “you’re the boss here aren’t you?” She was. “Don’t you want to see ruins with me?” She did. “Well let’s go them!” She couldn’t.
Nelson somehow convinced her to write him a pass for Angelo, since he didn’t have proof that he was his nephew. Then he went out and I went and sat in the chair. She was more stern with me, but when I mentioned I was with Nelson, she said why hadn’t I said so, and instead of the normal 90 day period Peru gives toursits, she plopped a big ‘ole 180 day stamp in my passport. Yes! This means that if my plan to get into Bolivia works, I won’t have to worry about being pressed for time!
We took the Peru immigration boss to lunch, and then Nelson and Angelo took me all the way to San Ignacio on my first Peruvian dirt road. There we met Jose, Nelson’s Peruvian friend. Nelson also had a bunch of sheets he wanted to sell, so Jose jumped in the car and we spent about an hour driving around trying to sell the sheets. They sold some. They were colorful sheets.
One of the first difference between Peru and elsewhere I noticed was that there were beautiful turkeys strutting about. Now I could see ducks, chickens, and turkeys all together. A first for me.
It just so happens that I’m entering Peru at the perfect time. Not only is the dry season approaching, but also there are presidential elections going on, and the winner will be announced in May. I suppose it’s between Fujimori’s daughter Keiko (she’s married to a gringo, and her father is in jail for defrauding the national treasury), and Ollanta. They tell me Ollanta is like president Corea of Ecuador, who is like Chavez of Venezuela. I don’t know enough about it to have an opinion.
After selling sheets for an hour Nelson turns around in his seat to face me. “So, how about we go to Chachapoyas?” Chachapoyas! It’s 8 hours away! It’s where I’d going too! Hell yeah! “Hell yeah!”
And so it was that I ended up traveling with Nelson, Jose, and Angelo (little Angelo with what looked like a backwards mullet haircut, who radiated innocence). I stayed with them for 4 days. Nelson insisted that I stay in the hotels with them, and at each hotel we convinced them to charge the regular rate that Nelson would pay if I weren’t there. I blew up my mat and slept on the floor.
To Chachapoyas we directed ourselves. The border and San Ignacio sheet selling took most of the day, so we would only make it to Bagua Grande, a humid city. From the border, the road had widened into flattened gravel. We drove into a wide canyon and followed gentle curves. Brilliant green rice paddies carpeted the valley floor like a patterned rug. Suddenly we were on a high plain, shapes of clouds ringing the distant horizon, almost as though we were looking down at motherships of cloud. In Jaen I hung out with Angelo with the guys went off to try to sell more sheets. I showed Angelo my drawings, and taught him how to drum on the headrests. He called my drawings impossible. I toldhim he could them. He could do anything if he dedicated his time and attention. I told him so. You can do anything you want.
At night we ate hard roasted meat over a bowl shape of rice. The portions here are small, but the rice is kept warmer in this shape. The drink was a purple Peruvian corn refresco. I slept under a fan in the Bagua Grande Hotel.
The next day we hung around until the afternoon. Nelson treated us to jugo, juice, at a tall establishment. Papayas and pineapples lined the walls, and we sat on short plastic red stools at plastic white tables. When we left, we first drove down to the river and washed the car, scooping dirty river water with cut-up bottles. Then we drove on to Chachapoyas.
We saw giant landslides, one that had completely blocked the river. Then we entered the sierra, and drove upwards. The canyon road was narrow and followed a raging river. I dreamed of my earlier days of whitewater kayaking. This one would be a trip. The canyon walls were towering, so much so that if you lay on your back you’d have a view. Chachapoyas was nestled among smooth hills up and above the canyon. We arrived at dusk. A beautiful traditional plaza de armas lay before us. It smelled of gingerbread. We parked. Jose bought us some llapinachos, fried mashed potatos with mayonaise. We walked around the town, admiring the tranquility, admiring the Spanish balconies and simple adobe brick houses. The climate was cool and calming. A lovely place. We drove to a lookout over the city, and took photos.
Back in the center we parked the car and got two rooms at a hotel, up top the roof with a view over the rooftops of this mountain city. Another stroll to the main square. There was a procession circling the plaza. I’d forgotten that it was semana santa, and Friday was the day Jesus is said to have died. The procession was black and somber. Night gave it the edge of mourning. A band played behind the candle-carrying mourners. It was sad music, the bellowing horns guided by a sorrowful tuba.
I slept, regardless of Nelson’s raucous roar of a snore. In the morning we left early, intent to arrive at the fortress of Kuelap. Another drive down into the canyon, and further south to another dirt road that brought us winding around incredibly narrow and steep roads to the town of Tingo. It’s central park had dense green bushes trimmed into shapes of creatures that looked like Pokemon. I crushed some of the bush in my hand, and it smelled like Christmas. And back into the car to summit the giants around us. The way zig-zagging like slashes of earth in the hillside. The frightening heights before us, the twisted tangles of cacti, the swelling sensation of adventure, it’s always changing.
We stopped along the way and could see the road we’d come along far off across the range. At a small mud brick house Nelson disappeared and reappeared with a yellow plastic bag. Back in the car he turned around and offered it opened to me. “Vamos a cocear!” The bag big as a purse was filled with dried green leaves. Coca leaves! Ah yes, Coca leaves, I’d heard these were popular in the Peruvian Andes. Indeed, on the drive up many of the older people walking on the road were obviously coceando. Nelson and I each grabbed a huge handfull of the leaves and shoved them in our mouths. In no time my gums felt numb and Nelson smiled a gangly green smile and bounced his eyebrows up and down. Growing coca is legal in Peru, but processing it into cocaine is not. Of course, I imagine plenty of people of influence know exactly where at least some of the thousands of processing houses are. But it’s not profitable to close down operations, even though every once in a while they do so to keep up the image of the war on drugs.
We arrived at Kuelap, the massive fortress that was once lively and prosperous for the Chachapoyas people, before the Incas conquered. Llamas grazed outside the gates, like latent patrons of its lost day. I sat on the walls and took in the immense land around. A beautiful thing to see reminders of your smallness. Your fatality.
There is a slit of an entrance to the fortress, but once on top, you can see the gravity of the precautions. People lived here, it was not simply for defense. Now, atop Kuelap is thick with jungly hairy trees creeping out of stone footprints of circular houses.
Back in the car. Back down the winding roads to the canyon floor and raging rapids. We picked up an old couple (the car had also been acting as a taxi to raise additional funds for the trip). They led us to a a hidden river that was rushing out from the earth. A spring. I filled my water bladder and bottle with the pure stuff, and we were off once more. We drove an hour south to Leimebamba where Nelson and Angelo went into a museum of mummies. I’d seen enough mummies, and it was 10 soles I didn’t feel like spending after the 12 to get into Kuelap (having lost my student card from the U of Oregon and thus forfeiting 5 soles more). Oh that’s right, sol is the money here, meaning “sun”. At least I can feel good paying in suns.
I thought I’d separate from my new friends here and continue to Trujillo via Cajamarca, but I decided instead to return all the way to Bagua Grande. And so it was, we drove the 6 hours bac to Grande, back to the hotel, and I was back on the floor.
In the morning I glanced across the street with my tired eyes. A medical clinic was called “Senior de los milagros.” Hmm. Mister Miracle. That’s the name of a medical clinic. Ahem, false advertising doesn’t seem to be against the law yet.
We drove back toward Chamaya, the crossroads where I would leave my friends. We listened to Milder Ore’s “Ya te olvide” on the stereo system. I let my mind wander. Somehow I came up with: all presidential candidates should live for a few months in a ‘Real World’ situation for all to see.
At the crossroads I said goodbye to Nelson, Jose, and Angelo. Nelson suggested that I come back to Loja and work with him, but I told him that that was another road, another time. We parted, and again I stood alone at another of hundreds of crossroads where I’d left hundreds of other newfound friends. It’s always a crossroads. And I always wonder if I’ll ever see them again.
Bushy desert hills sloped down to the Maranon river, and I walked the road away from the wooden stalls set up at the crossroads to sell coco helados or almuerzos to travelers and truckers heading toward the coast from the Amazon or the Sierra. I sat under a skinny tree for its shade. A group of kids approached and I thought “oh know, they’re going to pester me,” but I had to scold myself for such prejudice when, as they passed, they did but offer me a cracker nada mas.
I stuck my thumb out at some cars, but it was Sunday, and very cars were on the road. The taxis honked and flashed their lights hopefully at me. The taxis are all station wagons. They’re all white. Some taxis are blue. It’s interesting to note some of the more particular differences between countries. Here in Peru, they don’t have tunnels for water to pass beneath the roads, but dips in the pavement for water to pass over the road. Buses here are double-decker, a first in Latin America. Little differences.
I flagged down a big semi truck. At first the woman in the passenger seat told me to jump on the trailer, but then the driver changed his mind and invited me in. He had features that reminded me of Shrek. If Shrek had hair it would be his. But he was full of kindness, and his wife smiled and there was love between them and it gladdened my heart. Her name was Mary.
We drove on, stopping briefly to have lunch, and after I went through my routine of negotiating down the price, the couple wanted to pay for the meal. It was called seco de rez and is basically just a steak on rice with some kind of lemon sizzly salad on the side. A juice of pineapple, sugar, water, and molasses as well came to my lips. Dynamite exploded in the distance as we boarded the cab and were underway. Apparently some people fish with dynamite here.
On the drive the couple introduced me to Pacay, a fruit that looks like the Mr. Hyde to a Dr. Jekyl green bean. Inside it looks fuzzy, white, and dry, but when you take the casing into your mouth it melts sweet like cotton candy. It spit out the seed, which is the size of a thumb.
We listened to Andino music, called sayas. Always with the Peruvian flute and Spanish shout outs to cities. The videos usually show a bobbing band in a field or near a pool of some kind. We drove on and they offered me more fruit. Passion fruit is glorious. Lima is the one fruit I found no taste in. “It’s good for your heart,” he said. I replied with, “maybe I should develope a taste for it then, me, who has no girlfriend.” He laughed heavily, the kind that warms the soul.
The couple let me off after we had spent 5 hours together. We’d come down from misty wet mountains into the hills approaching the coastal regions, and I saw what Ithought wasa decent place to camp. Night was coming and I would want to pitch my tent because the light was gone. I said goodbye and walked passed a few families gaping at me from mud brick and thatch houses. I found a Quebrada, a wide dry river bed with brush and trees. I pitched my tent near the stream, under tree on the sand. I filtered some of the spring water through my hankerchief into my water bottle for the night. And like a baby again I slept.
An orange morning, hazy and cool. I packed up and climbed to the road. Walking, and walking some more. A trucker picked me up and we talked about population control. Here, there are too many children in one family, and where I’m from, individuals consume too much. There it is. Change that and maybe we’re talkin’ changing the course of humaminty!
I walked through a hot dusty town and noticed spoilers on mototaxis. To each his own. Hugo picked me up then. It was already 10 in the morning. He was an intense man with intense views. “You have to fight a dirty war with a dirty war! The Sendero Luminoso is a terrorist group that still exists in Peru in the selva. They kill civilians, we kill theirs. That’s the only way you’ll win … You know why nothing works here? It’s because we have blacks, indians, mestizos, all living together … We need martial law, we need harsh pùnishments, we need the whip.” Then he told me some stuff I hung on to like, “The reason Peru’s coast south of Punto Parinas is desert is because we have the northbound Humbolt current. Ecuador has a southbound warm current. When El nino arrives, it gets really wet around here.” He also told me about a museum in Lambayeque that he called “the best in Peru”. I was headed to something on my map labeled “Pyramids of Tucume.”
In Tucume Hugo dropped me off. “Remember, the only way you can get anything done in the world is to take an eye for an eye!” I sighed and wished him well.
Tucume was dusty if I’d ever seen a town like that. I’d be learning shortly that all of Peru’s coast is a desert. I began walking toward the Tucume pyramids. People directed me. I usually ask one person, and then a block later ask another. No one has ever told me “I don’t know” when I’m asking directions. That means that plenty of times, I’ve been given bad info. Always ask a lot.
I walked three kilometers out of town down a long twisting road. Rice paddies lined it all the way to a crossroads. The paved road went right, and the dirt road went straight. I didn’t want to pay the entrance. Why? I can’t really justify my preference for sneaking into places, I can only say that it’s more of an adventure.
I took the dirt road, the paved road leading to the entrance. I walked by shaded properties with all sorts of animals. I inquired at a house about the way into the pyramids. I sugarcoated my question so as not to cause concern for wanting to sneak in. “Could you tell me where I could get a high view of pyramids so that I could draw them?”
I eventually found a back access road, and when inside the site a worker saw me, I decided to walk straight at him to ask where I could walk up a hill. I ended up explaining that I didn’t pay and I didn’t want to, and he didn’t mind. “The lookout is up that hill, you can get a good view up there.” I walked up, passing some guys from New Mexico. I hauled my pack onto the rock wall and looked down on the site. Dozens of clay pyramids had been built by the old inhabitants of this region. They were scarred by centuries of rain, and so looked like blocks of cheese scraped with a fork.
Back down the access road and out to the main road I walked, having spent an hour drawing the complex from the high mirador. A giant blue tractor was passing me by when I flagged him down, and he gave me a ride the 3 kilometers back to town. My first time hitching a tractor. There’s always a first.
A meal at the market. Boiled chicken with a pepper sauce poured over on rice. Always rice. The lady gave me change with a stern look, and I left.
I walked for a ways out of the town without any luck. A semi that had began to stop was chased off my a minivan taxi. I was about to curse the taxi, but a motorbike taxi decided to give me a free lift to the next town, since he was headed that way anyway and had already passed me several times. In the next town a different motorbike taxi driver insists that I let him pay me a minivan taxi to Lambayeque. And so it went, I arrived in Lambayeque.
The museum of Sipan, the one Hugo had told me of, was closed. I didn’t feel like waiting around until the next day. I reminded myself, remember: everything is closed Mondays too.
I went to the internet. I had sent a message to a CS in Chiclayo, the next big city, with little hope of getting a couch with him. Why? Because all his guests had been gringo girls. Some people use the site just to get laid or to brag to their friends that they know a lot of foreign girls. Vice versa as well, some guys use it just to get guys. Oh well. I had also received a response from Abraham from Trujillo, that he could host me. I decided to get to the otherside of Chiclayo to camp the night, and in the morning I would head to Trujillo, 4 hours south. I handed the internet guy a sol.
“This is fake man.”
“Yea, sea it’s yellowish, and black edges. It’s fake.”
I thought of the woman at the market with the stern face. Damn it. At least now I know. I paid with a good sol and left.
I was in the middle of a city so I walked up to a delivery truck at a stop light and they agreed to take me to the next city, Chiclayo. At Chiclayo I walked clear across the city from one side to the other, through the central plaza and inquiring directions from white-hatted women traffic police.
At the outskirts of town I was at a fancy mall. There, I found a Scotiabank ATM. No service charges, yes! Since I only had a couple dollars left, I took out 30 bucks and was on my way.
I found myself walking a long time. When I looked up a saw a Johnny Walker Red Label Whiskey advertisement that read, “Keep Walking.” How’s that for motivation? A dump truck picked me up and the guy took me further out of the city, and shoved 5 soles into my hand before he drove off.
I walked more. Thirst. Lots of thirst. I strolled into a shop to buy some water. I got to talking with the man about my fake sol, and he accepted it, to my surprise, as payment. Not only that, but he also explained how to tell if the 2’s and the 5’s are really. They’re magnetic. He gave me a magnet, “you with your gringo face might need this more than I do heh heh heh heh.”
I bought some cookies from the man and asked at a truck if they’d take me further south, into the desert. I’d been told it was all desert. I wanted to camp there. They agreed. They wanted me to come with them to Lima. Another day mates!
There was a desert. And there was nothing there, absolutely nothing. The road, and nothing else. They let me off at dusk in the middle of it. The sun was on the horizon, a glowing red globe silhouetting whisps of thin cloud. I picked a rocky sandy hill in the distance and walked 4 kilometers out. The highway was a hair in the distance, the cars’ engines barely audible. I camped behind a small dune to avoid the wind, and the sleep was pleasant, albeit one mosquito. How the hell was that mosquito there?
The morning came, and again the routine of packing. And the walk back to the road. Buses passed and the faces were hilarious. I wonder what was going through their minds, this lone gringo in the middle of the desert walking out of it.
A concerned pick-up took me into the next town. A cop in the same ride wouldn’t stop talking about big asses. In the next town I chatted with some truckers at a restaurant, then hung around at a police checkpoint. The police decided to use their powers and put me in a minivan taxi to Chepen. It took me to a town called Guadaloupe.
An hour or so without a ride, just walking. Guadaloupe. I reached the exit of the city and had a 50 cent juice in a restaurant. How refreshing a passion fruit pineapple juice with ice can be!
Back on the road a semi truck pulled over. It was hauling an empty flatbed with pilons of wood lining the edges. I jumped on the back. Only my second time on the flatbed of a truck. I used my umbrella to protect from the sun, and it was 3 hours through desert. Deserted. Desert empty, and sand. And 30 minute from Trujillo.
At the town where the truck left me I met more cops and they got me a ride in a pick up with a family. They were all on their cell phones the whole time, but shared some cookies and soda with me. It was providence that they should let me off those 30 minutes later right smack in the center of Trujillo.
Peru’s third biggest city after Lima and Arequipa. I thanked them and walked to the Plaza de Armas. The central fountain towered over marble benches and the shining walkways. Yellow and blue colonial facades skirted the central square, white metal grates protecting the low windows. I felt good. I called Abraham and then 30 minutes later met him in the center.
How quickly things pass. I went with Abraham, a tall (as in almost as tall as me), Peruvian and impossibly skinny. Like Diego, he was well-spoken and patient. He did not walk, he strode, and we strode down the road to his place. He lived with 7 other family members in a tall building near the city market. He set me up in a room on the roof with a bed and bathroom, and we talked for hours.
I was beat, dead tired from the road. I began to feel feverish and I felt that twinge of sickness, when you know it’s coming. But alas, that was last night and I am wel, possibly thanks to the last ibuprofin from Raquel’s mom in Honduras, do you remember?
So here I will stay with Abraham for a few days. I’ll wash my shirt and pants I’ve been wearing for two weeks, and I’ll let my feet rest. But the road goes on, don’t you see? Look at a map. I’m only halfway to where I’m going. Or am I halfway? I don’t even really know! The greatest thing in vagabonding is the unsurety, and I’ll let it thrive!