In general travelling solo suits me but after about 10 days with little more in the way of conversation than the standard gringo cyclist questionnaire…
“Where are you going?”
“Where are you from?”
“You’re travelling alone?”
“Don’t you get scared?”
“Don’t you get tired?”
“How much does your bike cost?”
“Why don’t you attach a motor to that thing?”
“What do you think of (insert country here)?”
…I was craving something more substantial. And so I ended up Couchsurfing at Misa’s place in Ayacucho. Misa was inquisitive and friendly and I immediately felt comfortable in his house as I sat drinking tea and chatting with him and his sweet elderly mother, who constantly nagged him about everything. “Misa….MIIISSSAAA!”
That night Misa, myself and another couchsurfer, Ismael from Uruguay, went out drinking with a group of Misa’s travelling musician friends who were visiting from the Amazon region. They were an interesting bunch, each with their own instrument or craft with which they earn money touring. Talk of drinking ayahuasca, the psychedelic medicine, was banded around casually like planning a night at the pub. “Anyone for 6 hours of tripping balls and puking into a bowl this Friday? I hear Ricardo’s got a good mixture”. We drank a variety of local liquors then, as it was someone’s birthday, we went out clubbing.
The next few hours at the Las Vegas discoteca/cantina were a bit of an education in Peruvian partying. In a huge venue that was barely 1/4 full (it was a Sunday night) we stood in a big circle while a big 12 piece band played live from the stage. There was none of the sensual salsa dancing of Colombia, just slow rhythmic shuffling from side to side with the odd silly move thrown in here and there. It reminded me of a year 10 disco – no-one really paired up and hardly anyone talked.
The drinking had a very strict ritual too. We all shared one bottle and one cup. On your turn you would pour yourself a shot of beer, down it in one, shake off the dregs onto the floor, then hand it along. I found this process very frustrating. I get that it instills a sense of community, everyone drinking at the same pace, paying their share, etc, but to make clubbing bearable I like to get drunk and this communist approach to drinking was painfully slow. To make matters worse when you finally do get a turn you have to down your share in one gulp so as not to deny your neighbour, removing any fleeting chance of actually enjoying the drink. And while I’m no germaphone, if one person had been a little sick we’d all have been screwed. 3 painfully boring hours of enforced fun later the birthday girl called time and, judging by the speed at which we left, I wasn’t the only one who was relieved to get out of there. You know it’s time to go when the dancers on the stage are openly sending Whatsapp messages mid-routine.
I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to wild camping and often turn down reasonable spots under the assumption that a pixie dream grove will be around the next corner. Sometimes this works out, sometimes I’m left scrabbling around in the dark cursing myself. On this occasion, as I was about to commence said darkness scrabbling, I bumped into a farmer. After warning me of bandits on the hill (there are never bandits on the hill) he led me to a little mud-brick house. The owner, Wilma, invited me in and, within seconds, a makeshift seat was fashioned from a sack of rice and a sheep pelt and I was handed dinner. There was no electricity, the only light coming from a single candle, and, were it not for the old analogue radio and a few plastic containers, it could well have been a scene from another century. After dinner, despite it only being 7 o clock, a bed was made for me and I was buried in enough blankets to drown a small child. The 5 of us then settled down to listen to Wilma’s husband read some passages from the Bible in Kitchwa to the backdrop of the local Evangelical radio station. It was a heartening experience, being welcomed into the breast of a family and offered such kindness without question, yet also extremely surreal. How had my life’s path led me to be buried under a mountain of blankets, listening to a man read Corinthians in Kitchwa in a mud-brick house in rural Peru?
The fourth day to Abancay was a long, unforgiving bastard: 130km of ugly weather, a mountain that just wouldn’t end, 2 tube-ruining punctures and some extremely aggressive dogs. To make matters worse, the time I lost fixing the punctures meant I was still 10km outside of Abancay when the sun set. Cycling in the dark is dangerous at the best of times and this road was both busy and riddled with flashing eyes and barking jaws. When I spotted an unfinished construction in an empty field I decided it would be safest to cut my losses and try to get some shut eye inside. It was far enough from town to deter any drunken stragglers from wandering in and on a Friday night the owner and the builders would have better places to be, right?
At 8.30, once I was all snug in my derelict abode, a truck pulled up and I heard voices. Someone was walking around with a torch and checking the rooms. I sat there holding my breath, planning out how I’d explain myself and imagining how odd it would be for the guard to find a bedraggled gringo sleeping in the corner of his property. Would he call the police? After 15 minutes or so the guy got back in his truck and left. A little rattled, I tried to get back to sleep but it wasn’t easy – the lights from the interminable stream of trucks and buses throwing ominous shadows against the walls, the roar of their engines reverberating around the concrete cavern. Eventually I drifted off but at 12.30 I was startled awake. The men were back and this time they’d brought a dog with them. What on earth they were doing at this half-built dump so late on a Friday I’ll never know. The dog barked away at the doorway where I was hiding and the men once again creeped around but miraculously none of them entered the room. But neither did they leave. The truck remained parked outside the entrance all night, the men presumably sleeping inside, while the dog joined the canine chorus of local mutts barking at the moon. I snatched a few rotten scraps of sleep and then at 5.30 packed up my things in silence. As I tip-toed my way out over the rubble and broken glass the dog, for whom a little mattress had been laid out next to the truck, let out a few sleepy growls but the men didn’t wake. I slipped off into the half light swearing under my breath that I’d never sleep in such a place again.
Having conquered the fourth of the hills I got another tube-ruining puncture just outside of Carahuasi. In a horrific run I’d gone through 6 inner tubes in the space of 2 weeks and it was patently obvious that I needed to replace my tyre: all 6 punctures having occurred while braking on steep downhill sections and all to the more worn of the two tyres. I fitted my last remaining tube but upon arriving in Carahuasi it was already deflating and I realised there was no way I could cycle the last 120km to Cusco. The bike shop in town didn’t sell the type of inner tube to fit my rim and, even if I fixed the puncture, I knew the tube would rupture on the upcoming downhill and leave me stranded on the roadside getting eaten by sandflies. I would have to take the bus.
This was a big disappointment. I considered arriving in Cusco to be a symbolic milestone. Exactly 6 months prior I’d spent a few days in the city while on holiday and, during the early morning bus ride to the start of the Salkantay trek, I’d spotted a heavily laden cyclist trudging up what seemed to be an impossibly steep hill. My friend Carol said “that’ll be you, Ross” and the very idea that someday I’d be cycling this road having pedalled thousands of kilometres from Colombia seemed utterly absurd. Was I really crazy enough to attempt it? Would I really be able to make it this far?
As the colectivo climbed that same hill, my bike strapped to the roof, we passed the exact spot where I’d seen the cyclist 6 months before. I should’ve been out there, following in his tracks but instead I was stuck inside a minivan, just as I’d been the first time. It was a bittersweet moment. I’d come all this way, and proudly so, but was robbed the satisfaction of cycling the final stretch that bridged the past and present, the seemingly impossible and the reality of my achievements.
Ah whatever. Cusco has an Indian restaurant and in a few days I’ll visit a mountain that looks like a rainbow. Life is good.
Tunes: Manchester Orchestra – Cope, Simple Math, Lorde – Melodrama, that new QOTSA song
Reads: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – William Shirer, American Gods – Neil Gaiman, SPQR – Mary Beard