Long before I had formed any real plans about travelling in South America, I imagined riding between the misty green peaks of the Peruvian Andes. As a boy I developed an adventurer's complex over the course of hundreds of viewings of the Indiana Jones trilogy. As I grew older I armed this delusion intellectually by burying myself in the words of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Alonso de Ercilla, Pedro de Oña, Ted Simon, and Charles Mann. Now that I was diving right into it, I grew anxious at the thought of what I might find.
Of course, that's the funny thing about dreams; bringing them to fruition comes with a risk. Despite the best planning and preparations, transposing your expectations onto reality always results in discrepancies. I left Cusco with the intention forming my own approach to this predicament. These discrepancies between our dreams and reality can be so great that they result in disappointment, a fact that many people react to with cynicism. After all, when you have no expectations you also have no reason to be disappointed, right? Though it seems rational and safe to take on this way of thinking, I knew such a mindset was poisonous in the long run. There is no doubt that dogmatic adherence to rigid expectations would only result in frustration when the circumstances inevitably failed to comply with the plan. However, evacuating myself of expectation and the capacity to be surprised would also leave me completely incapable of deriving real meaning from my experiences. Surely there must be something in between?
Nearly a month had gone by since my ragged arrival in Cusco after burning through half of South America in less than a fortnight. In the navel of the world I had found ancient wonders and new friends. Only the possibility of exploring new places is enough to eventually convince me to carry out the painful rites of severing the ties I had forged in this place. Even after months on the road, saying goodbye hasn't gotten any easier for me.
Perú didn't take long to remind me why I was leaving. Within an hour of leaving I am rolling down the switchbacks of the Abra de Huillque with the golden late afternoon sun, drinking up views of the Río Apurimac valley at dusk as the road followed the river's curves. I find an unexpected hostel at the bottom of the valley and find a spot behind the building between a lime tree and an empty red-tiled pool where I can park the bike. In my room the open lets in the sound of a chorus of frogs belching and squealing in the river below. In most towns in South America you have to learn to fall asleep to a steady sonic barrage of barking dogs and the occasional car horn or siren (but seriously the dogs never stop), so a few minutes into the amphibian anthem I am snoozing soundly.
I spend my next morning crossing the Abra de Huañipaca to Abancay, and then get good and lost for awhile after a landslide-induced detour. A few hours later I regain my bearings and stop on the shore of Laguna Pacucha and cut up an avocado for lunch before finding my way back to the highway in Andahuaylas, where I promptly get lost again.
The concept of getting lost has changed dramatically since the start of the trip. Google and Garmin are beyond useless out here. Miles of mountain switchbacks are reduced to straight lines on the maps I carry, and I lose count of the roads I see on the maps that doesn't actually exist. Peruvian highways can not be taken for granted when passing through towns, and I often have to filter my way through unfamiliar blocks and intersections until I find the right way out of town. At first these moments were charming, then became immensely frustrating once the novelty of being lost in each town lost its novelty, but they are just part of the process now.
On the eastern side of Andahuaylas the highway becomes just another street in town without notice. I only realize this when I come to an intersection that is completely blocked by cattle, which is surprising even to me, a native Texan. Their herders sit in front of a nearby shop with no seeming intention on moving their cows anywhere, but they are happy to give me directions to a shortcut out of town. I nod and thank them, but after their "shortcut" leads me to a valley on the opposite of the small mountain range that I know I need to cross to get to Ayacucho. I turn around, making sure to slip around the corner and out of sight of the cattle herders. A few minutes later I reach another dead end where a woman holding a mesh sack full of guinea pigs finally points me in the right direction. Once I am out of the valley of Andahuaylas and back on the open road I skim along the tops of mountains while the clouds give me space to take in the view. I race the late afternoon sun to the horizon, arriving in Chincheros right at dusk.
In town I ask the police about camping further up the road, which they are quick to discourage. They offer to watch my bike for the night and suggest that I stay around the corner with an old man known as Don Felix. The modesty of his eponymous hostel matches his personality, save for the enthusiasm of his little green parrot named Lolita. Don Felix swears Lolita is as good as any watchdog, though the only thing I ever hear her say is "PAPI!" whenever she wants Don Felix to let her out of her cage. Over a dinner of chicken foot soup and warm tea, Don Felix tells me about his own travels through Europe and South America as a much younger man.
Later, with the bike safe behind the concrete walls and steel gate of the police station and Lolita on guard in the corner of the hostel courtyard, I settle in for the night.
II. Palm Sunday Parade
The next morning is grey, so I feel no hurry to leave Don Felix and Lolita. Eventually I fetch my bike from the police station and make my way down into the valley where the road snakes alongside the Río Pampas. The grey curtain overhead shows no signs of breaking up as I begin yet another ascent and observe the now-familiar transition from lush green covering the valley floor to treeless plains on the mountain tops.
The cold, barren, and often cloudy mountain passes serve as intermissions from one valley to the next, and every descent brings me to a completely new world. This time the clouds wear away as I twist my way down toward Ayacucho. The verdant valley of the Río Pampas bears hardly any resemblance to the dry, scrub-covered hills I find here, and I take a long lunch on a family's patio/restaurant to wait out the hottest part of the day.
Once the sun crawls to a friendlier spot in the sky I decide to set off from Ayacucho, working my way north on cactus-lined roads. In a field just a few miles from the city, the Battle of Ayacucho marked the final decisive victory in the war for South American independence from Spain.
In the hillside town of Huanta there's a police officer blocking the road, even though I can't see any apparent obstacle in the way. The sun is getting low I only have another hour before I need to find a campsite for the night, so I turn the bike around and look for another way through town. Following a few more unsuccessful attempts I realize the entire main street is blocked off. Pulling up to the last intersection in town, I find out why.
This is what Palm Sunday looks like in Huanta, Perú:
There is nowhere to go, so I kill the engine and observe the spectacle before me. The people have shut down their entire town and are marching down the street holding yellow palm fronds and singing. I think about how odd this whole thing would seem to someone with no knowledge of Christian traditions. Suddenly I'm reminded of a Palm Sunday procession fifteen years ago outside of the small church in Texas that I attended as a kid.
Although the Bible is pretty clear that Jesus was a full-grown adult at the time, our Palm Sunday reenactments always featured a nine or ten year old boy wearing a tunic from the church's Christmas pageant armory. The reason for the discrepancy was, in fact, another discrepancy. The "donkey' from the Bible story was played by a Shetland pony who belonged to the owners of a farm next to the church. I assume they weren't fond of the idea of a grown man riding their tiny horse, so every year the congregation sang and laid down their palm fronds for a prepubescent Jesus atop a Shetland pony. I don't remember much about my day as Jesus, aside from the thrill of riding a tiny horse.
After remembering these Palm Sunday traditions from my childhood, I decide Huanta isn't so weird after all.
Outside of Huanta, the road meets the Río Huarpa and the pavement disappears, either buried beneath the sandy riverbank sediment or washed away long ago. This makes for some tricky but fun riding after a day full of paved roads. On the other side of the Alcomachay bridge are a couple of shops. This is the town of Alcomachay, I'm told by some men drinking on a patio outside of one of the stores. I ask them about the condition of the road ahead, and they ask what the hell brings me out here. Like most people I talk to, they're pleasantly surprised to meet a gringo who can speak fluently. They offer me a seat and pour me a glass of warm beer.
III. Better than sleeping behind a gas station
I finish the beer and they offer me another, but I have to keep moving. The sandy hillsides in the desert diffuse the sun's light better than the deep green mesh of vegetation that blanketed the mountains nearer to Cusco. For now the landscape is still bathed in the gold of the late afternoon sun, but traces of pinks and reds mark the approach of dusk. I slide and crunch my way on the gravel into a small canyon that opens into a wide valley with sandy desert hills overlooking green riverbanks. A messy construction zone on the road ahead means I can slip off the road without having to cover up my tracks, and I soon find old footpath down toward the river. When I'm sure nobody has seen me, I unload the bike and make camp behind a hedge of thorny bushes and mesquite-like trees, out of sight of anyone on the road. Later I practice my machete skills on a bush while waiting for some rice to cook.
A couple of hours pass without a sound from the road, so I decide to move my tent out from under the tree and on to the riverbank. Enveloped by the soft gurgling of the river and a flawless view of the stars, I feel myself overwhelmed by a peculiar sense of presence.. I lay quiet in my tent, mentally grasping in vain for the words to describe all of it when I remember some excerpts from Walden that I scribbled in my notebook before leaving home. I'm delighted to find that Thoreau has a perfect diagnosis of this condition: