La Sierra: Gifts, Guns and God
|Closing in on the 4890 metres summit of Punta Olimpica, The Cordillera Blanca Range, Peru|
Two weeks before red and white flags flapped in a light breeze as I pedalled through a molten stream of traffic and harried pedestrians sloshing through Lima’s clamorous streets. The apparent outpouring of national pride over independence day was not all it seemed – flags on public buildings and businesses over the independence weekend are legally required in Peru and those that don’t feel sufficiently Peruvian to display the national strip pay a fine. My two weeks in Lima had been spent writing for magazines, visiting tropical disease experts and a community TB project, dancing, more dancing, engrossing myself in the Olympics on the tele and couchsurfing. The Games were still in mid sway in my home country but I was done with city living and ready for the hills.
Between spells of volleyball and table tennis on TV I had been engrossed in my map trying to decide how I was going to get to country 32 – Ecuador. At one stage my plan was to load my bike onto a self built Balsa wood raft and row down a tributary of the Amazon, the adventure I eluded to in my last post, but there were too many obstacles to overcome – the plan is on hold. Eventually a befittingly titled mountain pass caught my eye – Punta Olimpica or ‘The Olympic Peak’ – if I couldn’t watch the Olympics in my home country then this would have to do. It promised to be an epic climb up to 4890 metres and the pass traversed the venerated Cordillera Blanca – the highest mountain range on earth outside the Himalayas. I would get up close and personal with Huascaran – Peru’s highest peak, and afterwards it would be a freestyle through Peru’s mountainous back country – known locally as La Sierra.
I zipped along the coast to the soundtrack of “GRINGO!” – Peruvians suffer from a sort of ‘gringo tourettes’ which comes with a silly grin. Soon I met my junction to the hills, the new road was immediately swallowed up by a dense field of sugar cane. Several hours later I was spat out into chili growing country – the hills were orange and iridescent with the drying vegetables. The road climbed continuously from near sea level to over 4000 metres, crossing the Cordillera Negra. The ascent was paved but whilst my legs coped well, my bike suffered and I had seven broken spokes in three days – the salty sea air had probably inflicted the damage. But Peru offered a chance to redeem my lost time through Lorry Surfing. It was a game I played in Ethiopia – a slow moving truck crawls past you up the incline and, with a combination of luck and skill, you grab onto the back and your legs get a break for as long as your arm can take the strain.
In the evenings I sometimes joined Peruvians to watch TV in restaurants, one of which had a frowning Jesus and crucifix on one wall and a photo of a pouting model in a g-string decorating a calender on the other. Peruvians might seem outwardly demure but they enjoy a bit of titillation as much as anyone. From about six every night the most popular TV show in Peru begins – ‘The war of Girls and Boys’ – from what I can gather it’s a rowdy competition between a clique of sexy, gyrating girls in hot pants and a posse of tanned, peck juddering hunks. Nobody looks particularly Peruvian and regardless of the outcome of each round, the girls launch into an explicit display of booty shaking to dance music whilst the boys whoop and throw in some pelvic thrusts in response. Meanwhile the young and the elderly throughout Peru are glued to their screens.
Eventually I hit the Cordillera Blanca and began the climb up to Punta Olimpica, past glaciers where huge chunks of ice broke free, fell and smashed into rocks below, past frozen waterfalls and past the snow covered colossus of Huascaran. The civil engineer must have been on some strong medication when he or she planned a route across this range. After a month on the coast I once again had to pedal through the pounding headache of altitude sickness, but the views of Huascaran eased the pain – next to me was the highest point in all of the tropical regions on our planet, and one with a violent past. On the 31st of May 1970 an earthquake rocked this region and an avalanche half a mile wide and a mile long rushed down the side of Huascaran, burying nearby towns and killing more than 20,000 people.
|Riding in the shadows of glaciers|
After roughing it I was craving a bed and decided to chance my luck by asking at a village church where a cheery bunch of Italian missionaries were there to greet me. Without even finishing my well rehearsed request I was ushered inside and given a tour, offered a shower and guided to the dinner table. Over the meal a young missionary enquired
“Are you a Catholic?”
“I’m afraid not” I replied
“But you are a Christian?”
Yes! YES! What the hell was I thinking? I’m not sure why I didn’t just confess to my secular ways instead of unashamedly delivering a barefaced lie to God’s dedicated flock, but I suspect my brain had been bypassed – I blame my rumbling stomach and my worn out legs. Together they colluded and, in some sort of internal mutiny fuelled by the paranoid vision of another night of noodles in my tent, they had managed to power my lips and vocal cords.
Everyone stands, turns to face the Crucifix and begins to voice a prayer in unison. Crap. I don’t know the words. They’ll find me out for sure. OK, relax, relax. Just mime or mumble or something. Then silence. Everyone is conversing internally with the Lord, so am I. Please God don’t let them ask where I go to church or my favourite bible passage. And don’t send me to hell for lying to Christians. Some holy call and response stuff follows, I feign solemn ecclesiastical meditation as best I can, wishing it over. The sign of the cross is almost my undoing as I go right instead of left. Son of God before the Holy Ghost you idiot!
We sit and dig into soup followed by two potatoes and lettuce. These Christians don’t eat much, I think, although I’m not too sure what I had expected. I suppose I thought that missionary status aside, being Italian they may have got round to annexing a pizzeria onto the nave of the church. Alas there is not an anchovy, a slab of focaccia or even a clump of fettuccine in sight. Being British and thus eternally afraid of appearing rude, I opt not to ask for more, even though I usually consume about twice as much grub as a non-cyclist and by the looks of them, eight times as much as an Italian missionary. Only one of the bunch doesn’t fit the skinny mould – he’s enormous – it’s perplexing. To stave off hunger I try to figure out why. Perhaps he’s just arrived, I theorise. Perhaps he’s been here a good while but was previously the fattest man on earth and had to be airdropped into Peru by chopper flying priests. Perhaps after one too many lettuce heavy meals he resorted to eating a Peruvian choir boy or a less dedicated missionary and nobody has noticed.
After dinner my stomach and legs team up once again. Somehow my digestive system has gotten wind of the fried chicken place a few doors down from the parish and has convinced my legs to take action. On the pretence of getting supplies for tomorrow, I’m off to top up on calories. I duck into the restaurant and swiftly order a piece of chicken the size of at least two of the missionaries and devour with gusto. Hood up and I’m out, I think I’ve made it without being spotted and deemed, rightfully, an ungrateful and greedy liar. I’m full of guilt and chicken. The chicken was good though, maybe even worth a little hellfire. The next night I spot another parish and give an assured knock. Again the priest shows me to my room, asking
“And will you join us later for food and prayer?”
“Of course I will” I respond, adding, in English, “And God bless you father”.
Hell hell hell, I’m going to hell.
God’s wrath not yet evident, I wave goodbye and pedal into La Sierra. The last team of generous and thoughtful missionaries had noticed holes in my socks and I left with a welcome bag of new clothes and food. I would need lots of the latter – Peru was about to kick my ass…
At a glance the graph above could represent the heart tracing of a patient about to head to the mortuary or the polygraph of a British politician. In fact this is a graph of altitude verses distance from the Peruvian coast to Cajamarca, the city from where I’m writing this post – a distance of just over 1000 kilometres, most of which was on dirt roads. From hot tropical valley floors Peru’s roads flung me dramatically up to empty mountainous grassland and down again. Climbs sometimes lasted two full, exhausting days. In the valleys I gorged on mangoes, got savaged by sand flies and got noticed by everybody – few, if any, tourists choose this route. I rode along dishing out Buenos Dias’s to every stranger on my path, who’s faces worked frowns as they contemplated the puzzle of why this gringo would choose to ride here. Children asked – “are you from the jungle?” – I’m obviously from far away, and so is the jungle. Their world geography ends at Peru’s Amazon basin.
There was no clarity to this world, La Sierra was a haze. Colours were pastel, bleached and subdued with the exception of the Jacaranda which raged an angry violet in the day and lulled to a deep soothing purple in the evening. The odd steaminess made the countryside feel lazy and relaxed but I could never quite join the tranquillity – my sliver of track rode the mountains like a dolphin rides the surf. But I was content in Peru’s little visited back garden. Jumbles of livestock shambled past, goaded on by women, sometimes scattering in a panic if I rode past too quick. The men were forever building new homes for relatives and friends, lumping mud into moulds and drying out their new bricks in the sun. Watermelons were lined up in broad rows whilst cobs of corn dried on balconies and women’s clothes were hung out to dry, the loud luminescent pinks and greens of the fabric I have seen in combination only once before in an illegal techno rave in a field near Oxford in the mid 90s.
As I eased into the upper reaches of a climb in the late evening fireflies danced around my handlebars and layers of land were exposed beneath me – it was a strange apparition. In amongst the mishmash of interlocking valleys I could still look down upon the spot where I had lunch yesterday, the town where I bartered for mangoes and the field I slept in the previous night. Tomorrow morning I would finish my climb and drop over two vertical kilometres, back into the unabating fever of the tropical lowlands, and then tomorrow afternoon the battle against gravity would begin all over again.
|Lights from a small mountain settlement twinkle in the dusk|
So why cycle every inch? I pondered the question as I pedalled through shabby litter-strewn mining towns that came after the Sierra, places that on the surface there was no logical reason to ride through. Surely I could just buy the odd bus ticket to get me through the drab and dull bits? Nobody would know. I don’t though, and I have my reasons. Mainly it’s because I don’t trust myself. If one day the weather was so bad that I allowed myself a bus ride, perhaps next time I would find a less reasonable excuse, perhaps I would be too tired, perhaps “I just don’t feel like it”. If I break my rule I risk opening the flood gates to buses and taxis and trains. Don’t fancy Honduras? Well maybe I’ll just fly to California. Back in 2010 I set off on an adventure to see the world, warts and all. I have never wanted to career through only the airbrushed, pretty bits that I have to share with a million other tourists. I want to form a more authentic impression of our planet. The detritus, the waste and the problems, especially when industry and communities are slammed together, are all part of the true picture and can offer insight into the often awkward balance of man and nature. If I have a choice of course I would elect for the scenic ride but if I stick to my rule and cycle every inch then that choice doesn’t always exist, and in a way, I think that’s fortunate. Finally it’s because I ride for a sense of achievement. When I get to northern Alaska I can rejoice in the knowledge that I made it there from southern Argentina under my own steam.
Fear is everywhere in this world. Everywhere I go I am warned of the ‘bad people’ who are out to get me. In Peru in particular it seems these boogie men are everywhere and time and again I hear “¿No tienes miedo” – “Are you not afraid?” Banditry certainly exists here, in fact of all the cyclists I know who have taken a flight home without the bike they brought with them, many returned from Peru. In Patagonia I even met a cyclist who showed me a little dink on his bicycle frame – it was from where a bullet had ricocheted off as he tried to escape from bandits on the coast. Locals have plenty of stories too and form rural patrols – The Rondas Campesinas – a band of men who I met on the road who fill in for the police. A Ronda is basically a cross between a country bumpkin and a vigilante, if you can imagine that.
Fear is so often misdirected and an incident on the road to Cajamarca reminded me of this. A fine drizzle was falling onto the tarmac. Up ahead the road turned sharply to the left. As I edged uphill towards the curve a rickshaw came careering round the corner. With too much velocity coming round the hairpin and on a wet surface he lost control and the vehicle sped off the tarmac and crashed into a hedgerow, flipping onto it’s side. I went to help the injured – a pregnant lady passenger with a nose bleed, the careless idiot at the helm was unhurt.
If the accident had occurred thirty seconds later than it did, if I had finished my morning porridge a little quicker, if I had not bothered to stop and check my tent was well packed on the back of the bike, the hedge would have suffered less and I may have been the point of collision. So forget kidnapping and ransom, terrorist bombs and shootings, grizzly tropical diseases, high speed air crashes and the like. The sombre fact is that of the Brits who die from ‘unnatural’ causes abroad, most lose their lives in Road Traffic Accidents.
Back to the stranger in the night…
My brain is telling me to explain, but my mouth is dry and can’t form the words. There had been a storm. When I spotted the lonely house on the hill with a roof that jutted out beyond the walls, I knew it was the only shelter I would find. I had knocked and nobody had answered, I had waited and nobody had come. Finally I had decided to camp by the house, presuming it empty, the gun wielding man introduced himself as Pedro and told me that he was the tenant. Smiling now he ushered me into his home and put the gun aside. I had scared him, apparently. Last month an armed man had appeared at his front door. The bandit had levelled his gun to Pedro’s temple. The stranger stole everything in his small and modest home, he had invested in the gun afterwards for protection. He was a miner, he told me. It made sense – around the hills I had noticed small tunnels dug into the rock, these weren’t commercial mines, the companies were digging for gold the other side of the pass, this side was a free-for-all. Pedro’s family lived in the city of Trujillo a few hundred kilometres away, he worked at night in the tunnels hunting for gold, hence his swarthy face and late return home. He gave me a steaming mug of cocoa and some rice and briefly disappeared. A minute later he was back and unfurled a piece of cloth on the table, two gleaming gold nuggets were displayed for which he told me he will sell in the city for 112 Soles a gram (roughly 30 pounds). I thanked him for the cocoa and rice with far too much enthusiasm, because that’s not really what I was thanking him for.
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