I. The scariest burrito
Two years before I set out on my trip, a guy from California named Artia Moghbel rode his motorcycle on many of the same South American roads that I was on now, and I relied on heavily on his advice while preparing for my trip. One of his most harrowing moments on the road took place while camping in Perú, when he and his friend Vadim had shots fired over their heads by the owners of the land they were on. I always seek out the most remote spots to make camp, since its easiest to avoid trouble with people by just avoiding people, but tonight the thought of Artia's close-call lingers in the back of my mind when I finally lay down in my tent.
Despite the tranquility of my campsite on the river's edge, my dreams take me to a far more tumultuous place. A subconscious seed of anxiety from Artia's cautionary tale sprouts in my mind; I hear unfamiliar voices drawing near my campsite somewhere in the mountains, I scramble to load the bike but I know it is no use, as the strangers emerge from the trees and walk into the campsite I can hear myself pleading with them in Spanish until one man sticks a pistol in my chest and fires.
I jolt awake and realize I am still in my tent. I hear the gurgle of the river again and begin to mentally re-orient myself (which is actually something I have to do every morning on the trip, since it's hard to assure myself that I've stopped dreaming without waking up in "my" bed or "my" room). Once I'm certain of where I am again, I lay back and stare at the grey sky as it fills with pinks and yellows of dawn. A sudden crack of a twig sets my heart racing again. I freeze for another moment and recognize the sound of soft foot steps coming down the riverbank in my direction. Thoughts surge through my head of Artia's story, of my dream from the night before, of the men in Alcomachay who could have followed me to the camp. Instinctively I reach for the machete, at least to have the appearance that I'm ready to defend myself, but at this point the foot steps have multiplied. I continue to lay quiet in the tent while the steps stray away from me, toward the low line of trees where the bike is parked. I hear a rustle from the tarp covering the bike, and I know I have to do something.
I slowly unzip the tent flap on the side facing away from the foot steps, and my arms tense up as the teeth of the zipper pop open a pair at a time. Soon I have an opening large enough to crawl through. I slip headfirst onto the riverbank, inching forward until I can see around the corner of the tent. My pulse pounds so powerfully in my ears that I don't notice when the rustling of the bike's cover has stops.
Then I see it: a grey figure standing next to my bike, staring at me with immense brown eyes. He is flicking his tail behind him. In an instant the tension drains out of every single muscle of my body and my head falls to the ground, and I let out a relieved chuckle. The donkey goes back to sniffing the cover of my motorcycle. A few sheep browse the bushes behind him, and don't even notice me until a little orange dog strolls through the camp and into view and starts to growl at me before darting+ back out of sight. I slip on boots without bothering with the buckles and stomp over to my bike to make sure the donkey hasn't munched any holes in the cover. I shoo the donkey away as sheep continue marching down through the trees toward the water. The little orange dog reappears at the side of an old woman, taking tiny steps on tiny feet. I give her a friendly wave that she doesn't return, and so I watch her take the flock downstream until all are out of sight. It is only then that I remember that I am wearing nothing but boots and form-fitting athletic underwear.
II. At least there were puppies
The road works its way north along the river through Mayoc, and as I start to climb again into the mountains it is easy to see the reds and tans of exposed rock and desert sand become a blanket of green once more. Soon the pavement resumes, but with a worrisome feature; random spots of the road are missing, having crumbled and fallen down the mountainside a long time ago. I ride underneath the cover of grey clouds, and welcome a drizzle to escape the heat. Soon it becomes a downpour, forcing me to keep the pace down until I come to a police checkpoint in Esmeralda. They tell me a landslide covered the road last night just a few ahead, but nobody seems to know when or even if a crew is clearing it. A detour is always a risky undertaking in Perú, since the nearest intersection with another highway may mean backtracking through a few valleys. Taking unmarked local roads (as I learned in Huarocondo) are just as likely to take you to a dead end in some random village as they are to get you to your destination.
In this case, there closest highway is half-a-day in the other direction, back in Ayacucho. The police suggest that I cross the river and taking the Paucara road. I'm glad to take the more direct option, until the road becomes an endless series of switchbacks up the mountainside. The brown river in the canyon gets smaller as the road climbs higher and the rain falls harder on the muddy road. I begin to think that maybe half a day wasn't such a bad loss for a dry detour.
I forget that I haven't passed a gas station since Ayacucho, so after one more pass over the peaks--this time topping out just shy of fifteen-thousand feet--I kill the engine and coast down the mountain until I reach pavement again. The rest of the day is an easy cruise to traffic-clogged Huancayo. I won't make it to my planned destination, Junin, so I settle in Jauja for the night.
Since I was unable to escape the urban sprawl by nightfall, I look around Jauja for a hostel. One of the few advantages of paying for a hostel is that it usually allows me to let folks know back home that I'm still alright. After checking in and washing two days' worth of dirt and mud, I ask the hostel attendant for the wifi password ("¿Cómo es la clave del wifi?" is a standard phrase that even the least spanish-savvy gringo learns while travelling Latin America). In a twenty-first century version of Ted Simon's encounter with "no hay" in Perú, the woman behind the front dest looks up from her cellphone long enough to tell me that they don't have internet at the hostel. Uncertain how to respond, I look at her, turn to the router sitting on the desk in plain view, and look back at her.
Another thought occurs to me: I started the day thinking I would have to chase off a thief with my machete, and it didn't seem right to end it with an argument over a wifi password. I decide to walk to the store, grab a beer, and call it a day.
While packing my bike the next morning in the hostel parking lot I'm greeted by a litter of puppies. Thanks to this adorable turn of events, I forget entirely about the wifi issue and hit the road an hour late.
III. Aeropuerto con pollo
The next morning I roll through Tarma, riding down the same road that hosts the downhill longboarding world championship races. By midday I climb back up past fourteen-thousand feet to the plain of Junin, the site of another critical battle in the South American wars for independence against Spain. I'd hoped to camp out on Lago Junin, but rainstorms and bone-chilling winds on the high plain convince me to ride on.
An unmaintained paved road is the worst surface imaginable for a dual-sport bike, and it is exactly what I encounter between Junin and Huánuco. For hours on end I pray to motorcycle Jesus to keep the road from completely shredding my tires before I make it to town for the night, and luckily the end of the day arrives with no flat tires. I check into a hotel in Huánuco whose front desk is manned by the most annoying person I have encountered since starting the trip. After the exhausting afternoon ride on such poor roads I treat myself with dinner from a chinese restaurant in town. (Perú is actually full of great chinese restaurants thanks to a long history of chinese immigration)
Unfortunately I choose the wrong restaurant this time. For those who don't recall, this next part was taken from my blog update on April 16:
#31-A: Aeropuerto con pollo: a dish which shall live in infamy.
Over the next two days the intestinal insurrection is eventually quelled. Unfortunately I'm still at risk of dying out of annoyance with the chubby-cheeked teenager working the hotel's front desk. I can't tell if I should think of him like a nosy younger brother or a dim-witted con man. Any time I have a hotel-related request--e.g. handing him cash to pay for my room--he acts with world-class apathy, and I have to make the same request several times to get him to stop watching TV or to stop asking me if I'll let him ride my motorcycle. Throughout the day he takes my room's open door (I had kept my door open with a window to cool down the room while I napped through the illness) as an invitation to come sit on the bed and chat even while I am napping. "Why don't you give this to me?" he asks about each item he finds as he rummages through my luggage. I am too tired to argue with him to leave, but I have to stay awake to make sure he doesn't assume that I've "given" him my pocketknife or my camera.
The next morning, while loading the bike outside the hotel, the owner introduces himself and asks about my trip. I also meet Andreita, who gives me a bracelet for good luck. They ask me how I've enjoyed my time in Huánuco, and I can't help but laugh about spending two days sick, with the world's worst hotel deskman as my only companion.
I'm told not to expect good roads for the next few days, and the ride to La Unión upholds that prediction. Luckily the scenery never quits, and it's not the quality of the roads that brings anyone to Perú anyway. South of La Unión I find an old quarry alongside the Río Uruqumayu. I set up camp between an old shack and some gravel mounds before the afternoon rains, which arrive just a few minutes after the tent is up.
I settle in for an afternoon nap, but soon I wake up to the sound of voices and footsteps just outside my tent. I recall my overreaction to the donkey incident a few days before, but there is no doubt of the species of the intruder this time. My machete is outside of my tent, under the vestibule, so I sit up and say "Buenas tardes, señores."
An old voice calls back "Buenas tardes, señor. Yo vivo en este campamento."
Relieved once more, I apologize and ask to keep my tent here for the night, which he agrees to. My second self-induced heart attack subsides, but I decide to keep my machete handy anyway.
The next morning arrives but there is no sign of the gentleman who has allowed me to camp on his land. I pack up camp while curious shepherds watch me from the across the river. I continue past the town of Huallanca, directly at the southeast corner of the Cordillera Blanca, the highest mountains in Perú. From here, most people take the paved around the southern edge of the mountains on their way to Huaraz, but I've decided to ride north to Chacas and cross over the cordillera at its highest point.
IV. Mr. Orange Vest
I've been riding in the Andes for three months, but my thirst for mountain views is as unquenched as ever today. Huge white clouds roll overhead, grey rocks jut into the sky to meet them, and below I am treated to valley after valley of steel-blue lagunas ringed by bowls of moss and rock. I am drinking in the scenery when suddenly I stumble upon an enormous industrial facility tucked away in a grey valley. Brightly colored trucks, pipelines, safety signs and workers' uniforms stand in stark contrast to the dull browns, greys, and purples of the stripped mountainsides and a lake that looks infected. After what I've seen all morning, this is so shocking that I ride past the security office without noticing until I see someone in a bright orange vest running behind me waving a clipboard.
I turn the bike around, and Mr. Orange Vest marches my way with another man in the exact same uniform. Mr. Orange Vest watches with a silent scowl as his friend and I exchange friendly greetings and I ask for directions to Chacas. I learn that this is the Antamina Mine, and the friendly guard starts to inquire about my trip when Mr. Orange Vest abruptly cuts him off to ask me why I failed to stop at the checkpoint. I retort that motorcycles are waved through every police checkpoint, toll booth, and anywhere else where orange cone roadblocks are found in Perú. He seems genuinely offended by my lack of respect for his cones, and steps back to study my bike for a moment before asking if I have identification.
"Do you have your card?"
"Proof that you own the motorcycle."
"And your DNI. [Peruvian national ID]"
"...yes." I was nervous about what he might ask next.
"....show them to me." His voice suggests that he is surprised that I'm not already digging them out of my bag.
At this point I feel my intuition spring forth, telling me to get out of here as fast as I can. Police checkpoints and border crossings are nothing that a bribe or a convincing "dumb gringo" act can't get you through, but I have no idea what private corporate security is capable of out here, and I figure even in a place like Perú the police are more accountable than a corporation.
"....I'll just show those to the police."
Before he can say anything else I twist the throttle and blast through Mr. Orange Vest's revered line of cones a second time. It seems like utter shit-headery on my part, but for all I know Mr. Orange Vest could confiscate my bike just as easily as telling me to leave. I have no interest in getting to know Mr. Orange Vest's favorite detention procedures, so I tear through the mine as fast as possible before anyone else in an orange vest decides to stop me.
After skedaddling out of Antamina, I press on through increasingly tough roads to Chacas. The Peruvian government publishes maps that indicate that these are paved roads, but at this point I stop putting stock in what any maps say about the roads in this country, and continue through the mud and potholes.
At sunset I roll into the village of San Luis, butted against the eastern edge of the Cordillera Blanca. The sleepy feeling of this small village disappears after the sun sets. Old men huddle around card tables on sidewalks, young men hang out on corners or sit lazily on the steps of storefronts, and I overhear the staff from neighboring restaurants discuss preparations for tomorrow's Easter lunch. I duck into a restaurant for dinner, and the owner's son can't resist asking a thousand questions to the white guy in motorcycle boots. I'm only able to eat my dinner in the few minutes the boy leaves the restaurant to go fetch some friends, who ask me the English names of every animal they can think of.