Or, lonesome little lady does fucking great big mountains.
I hope it was evident from my previous post that the first leg of northern Peru was interesting and largely enjoyable. Conversely, the second leg (Cajamarca to Huaraz) has been tough and has left me wondering if I even want to be riding a bike in this country.
On the bike, I’m reminded of what Zoe said in Indonesia, hours before I was hospitalised: ‘We’re not meant to be here.’
Asphalt is far, far easier for a heavily-loaded road-tourer, but in Peru asphalt usually means more and faster traffic, sometimes overtaking towards me while making eye-contact and grinning from ear-to-ear. One can only assume Luis - if he thinks at all - believes I should actually get off the road so he can shave two seconds off his journey. I haven’t even ridden on a really busy road yet. Sorry Pema Chodron but no amount of meditation (which I am doing every day) will ever teach me to accept being accelerated at by maniacs in metal boxes.
Vast tracts of Peruvian road are still unpaved, which slows everything down - including me. Trying to get a fully-loaded road-touring bike up and down Andean passes on medieval gravel-and-sand tracks is at times (literally) scream-inducing.
And then there’s the HONKing. And the snarling dogs. And the regular shouts (from adults as well as kids) of ‘gringo’. And the fact you can ride for hours without finding any services (food, drinks), and what you do eventually find is often utterly squalid.
What is it about the HONKing that drives me apoplectic? It’s the violence of it. I did not consent to have this hideous noise done at me, for.no.reason, all day every day. For sure, sometimes it’s an inane form of salutation (metal box wants to say HONKHONKHONKHONK to gringo) but 90% of the time it seems to be no more than a reflex of the unthinking.
Off the bike
I’ve been reading other pan-American cyclists’ blogs trying to work out what - besides the truly extraordinary scenery - they enjoyed about Peru and how I might recover from this nasty case of misanthropic anhedonia. Many cite the friendliness and generosity of Peruvians. I’ve certainly experienced generosity and I do appreciate it, but I’m afraid I find it hard to classify as ‘friendly’ being told - *within two minutes of meeting any and every Peruvian* - all the ways I’m performing my assigned gender incorrectly. The script is so unchanging it’s almost uncanny:
Where are you from? (very often with no salutation and from several metres away with no eye-contact having been made)
Where are you going?
(On deciding I’m not a man after all) Oh you’re a little lady! ALONE? (I’ll come back to this*)
How old are you?/ (Now looking confused) Don’t you have a husband?/ Don’t you have any children? (42 and no children DOES NOT COMPUTE, especially as I don’t look 42.)
Occasionally someone will throw in a ‘I thought you were a man jajaja’ (a.k.a. your hair is incorrect) or a ‘Did you cycle all the way here from London, little lady?’ Er...
Whether one classifies this unchanging barrage as ‘friendliness’ is a matter of interpretation I think. Often it has a distinct edge of entitlement (entertain me gringo) and judgment (oh you’re a gringa, well what the hell do you think you are *for* if not to serve as wife and mother? - this from women especially)
*As for ‘ALONE?’, what they actually say is ‘SOLITA?’, which is the feminine, diminutive form of the adjective. The diminutive is supposed to cutesify - as in little fatty and little blacky - which are also said though not to me - but I find it adds to the condescending edge of being immediately and for.no.reason asked by total strangers whether I’m SOLITA, when I quite clearly (and quite happily) am.
As my mum used to say, ask a silly question get a silly answer, so I’ve started coming up with some silly reposts. I don’t do interviews on <insert day of the week>. I’m Martian. I’m the property of no-one. Yes I’ve got a child in each pannier, etc. Sometimes I’d love to add ‘...you fuckwit’.
Last night I was told by a woman of about 19 (weirdly, I don’t ask adults how old they are) that I should have a child. When I asked why, her own mother (whom she was wrapped around at the time) interjected, with an explanation that seemed to centre on the idea that only your children will bring you water when you’re dying. Well in that case I’ll die thirsty, thanks. I mean, wow, that’s a lot of hassle for a glass of water. Seriously though, I don’t comment on other women’s reproductive choices; anyone who comments on mine can go straight to their terrifying Catholic hell.
I guess it’s just a bog-standard culture-clash: Hackney queer meets Andean peasantry. Doubtless they think I’m as rude as I think they are. Notwithstanding, when I eventually reach a larger town or city I palpably relax. The questions don’t really change but at least when I’m away from the bike and stick a cap on my head I’m noticed less, so there’s less of the open-mouthed staring and I have more choice about who I interact with. Christ, people, I’m not.that.interesting. (At times I long to be back in Colombia or Mexico, where even rural people treated me as a fellow human-being, not some kind of performing monkey.)
After my somewhat intense week with the kitten family in Cajamarca I still wasn’t well enough to get back on the road so I had a hot Incan Bath, a massage and finally bought some amoxicillin. Randomly the supermarket in Baños del Inca sold Dairy Milk, Whole Nut and Fruit & Nut so I bought, um, a few of those.
The next couple of days were on excellent roads. There’s no obvious rhyme or reason why some sections of road are paved and some aren’t, though the terrain must have something to do with it.
Camping (for 75p) at some rather more rudimentary thermal baths (at Aguas Calientes) I spent an entire afternoon fixing the same weird puncture six times. The next day my sixth fix held for about 20 kms before I had to hitch a ride in a pick-up to a mechanic in Cajabamba. It’s lucky I also noticed some of my front spikes were loose, given the rough, remote stretch that followed. (At that campsite I also got bitten by a scorpion!)
In Cajabamba I stayed at the lovely CLEAN and QUIET Hostal Caribe (a splurge at £7.50) and enjoyed a stroll round the neat indoor market at dusk, where I bought some quinoa and a sieve and enjoyed the social ritual of another hot emoliente (the snot-like stuff I mentioned in my last post). It’s FASCINATING how some Peruvian towns feel like it’s 2019 and others like it’s 1400.
The village at Lake Sausacocha was bizarrely devoid of atmosphere; despite every building being a restaurant and it being Saturday night there were no other customers. Camping at one of them my tent was barked at for much of the night by one of the village dogs - nobody did anything of course; dogs do entirely as they please and nobody even notices. You may be starting to observe that not-giving-a-shit is a central component of Peruvian culture. Have I mentioned the littering?
After being run off the road near Huamachuco by several cars overtaking towards me for.no.reason, my first multi-day unpaved experience began: seriously hard work both physically and psychologically (see above). Climbing through a wide valley I saw my first huge quarries and an inactive mine. Stopping at a tiny shop with half a dozen products and nobody in sight I located the proprietor and joked that I thought everything was free. I’m starting to do quite a good line in dad-jokes in Spanish. She laughed and told me the mine closed years ago and now the men have no work, which would explain the grim atmosphere. I bought a tin of evaporated milk. At the top of that pass I came across a group of people standing around in the rain in ponchos looking slightly shifty. Some were drunk and after much shouting of amigo (vastly preferable to gringo) someone explained they’d come up to bury a cadaver in the wind-swept cemetery (I didn’t see the body).
A long descent on a random section of tarmac followed, and an error of judgment had me arriving in Cachicadán after dark. Cachicadán is an example of a small, lost-in-time Peruvian town that would *never* see a tourist if it weren’t for the lack of a continuous route down through the Andes and the fact many two-wheeled tourers cut through on dirt roads rather than go all the way down to the coast and back up again. On arriving in the town I was hollered at from behind (‘joven’/ ‘young maaan’) for a minute or so before 63-year-old Rosa came over and more or less informed me I’d be camping inside her house that night. It’s a thing, apparently; all the passing young men and little lady cyclists camp inside her house, which doubles as a restaurant. She fed me rice and eggs for supper and rice-and-potato broth for breakfast and wouldn’t hear of payment. Notwithstanding the standard convo (see above) plus a grilling about my religion this was a nice experience I am grateful for.
The next day was tough though I only travelled 30km (up 600m of elevation and back down again on a stone track - both equally challenging). I enquired about a room in Angasmarca but the one I was shown had not been cleaned since the last guest so I decided to carry on a bit. I’m camping a lot by preference as the inside of my lovely tent is considerably more sanitary than most of the rooms I’ve seen. (I’ve cleaned hotel rooms. It’s really not so *very* hard.). That night I camped outside a nursery school in a scattered hamlet. The school building had an electricity supply but the surrounding houses didn’t seem to. In the pitch dark the stars were amazing and there were none of the usual irritations: dogs, biting insects, boundaryless children.
The following day was tougher still: down and steeply up again on the same stone/sand road. Amazing to think that’s the main access route to three small towns! Arriving in the most ghostly of these I asked in a shop for a cold drink and some mandarins. No cold drinks. Ok, a warm drink and some mandarins then, please. Have I mentioned they don’t even chill beer in the high villages? I may be English but I draw the line at warm lager. Finally I reached the top of the horror-climb (sand switchbacks, anyone?) and began the long roll downhill through Mollebamba into the Tablachaca valley. In Mollebamba while feeding myself a peanut butter sandwich in the hope of improving my mood/ sense of perspective I was told I have man’s hair by some local busybody. I told her hair does not equal gender and that I felt really uncomfortable. To her credit she apologised, but I decided to move on anyway. A huge operation was underway improving the crazy switchbacks into the valley. I gradually relaxed a bit and managed to enjoy the extraordinary views and the friendly roadworkers. The stop/go sign operators are always women - presumably they’re cheaper? They probably have civil engineering degrees. I’ll ask them next time. I noticed the same thing in Colombia. An endless flow of trucks carrying rubble up the mountain threw up clouds of dust but were carefully driven.
I’d been told the thermal baths in the valley had ‘a hotel and food’. I had a (almost impossibly hot) bath because hell I always need one, but the ‘hotel’ was basically a rancid chicken coop with no running water to the loos or basins! Fortunately I was able to camp and went straight to sleep feeling totally whacked, I guess from a combination of the heat and tension.
The following day I felt fine in the morning but it took me hours and hours to get 20km up the other side of the valley on more crazy switchbacks (this time paved), I’m not sure why. Something seems to be interfering with my energy and I keep getting really bad stomach aches.
I’d made a list of tasks to achieve in Pallasca (like backing up my photos) thinking it might be a 2019 town rather than a 1400 town but sadly I was wrong. My ‘hotel’ room had blankets but no sheets in spite of which, feeling ropey, I slept all afternoon and all night.
The day before yesterday was really the icing on the cake of this challenging leg. A Czech motorbiker had described a two-metre-wide broken road with a 1,000-metre drop and he wasn’t exaggerating much. From Pallasca to Chuquicara I descended from 3,000 to 500m (sad face) through the grimly hard to describe (but weirdly fascinating) Tablachaca canyon (basically a desert). I can’t begin to imagine why a handful of people actually live there. I was wearing my shorter shorts without leggings underneath on account of the heat and was actually wolf-whistled at twice that day (‘gringa’) - the only other place on Earth I’ve been sexually harassed like that is yes-you-guessed-it Indonesia. To say this was the last straw would be understating it.
Camping amongst litter beside a police post in disgusting Chuquicara (the ‘restaurant’ where I ate dinner had vats of brown river water for washing your hands after going to the loo, which presumably drains… into the river!) I made the decision I wasn’t up for spending 2-3 days grinding back up to 3,000m through another roasting desert canyon (Rio Santa) and FORTY TUNNELS, so I hung about til mid morning when a bus to Caraz (100 km away) came by and they somehow managed to get my bike into the small boot. I had to stand most of the way and it wasn’t a comfortable journey, but for the sake of fast-forwarding to civilisation before losing my mind, it was the right decision.
In Caraz I had lunch in a nice place with a toilet and basin that had actually been cleaned within the past 24 hours (as opposed to never), before hanging about on a street corner hoping for passage the remaining 60km up to Huaraz. A quick-witted colectivo (minibus) assistant said he could take out his whole back row for the bike if I just paid for all the seats - bingo!
And so, in a matter of hours I was cheaply and efficiently transported from the filthy inferno of Chuquicara up to this cafe in Huaraz, which has 17 kinds of tea, craft beer, tofu, panoramic views of the 6,000+m snow-covered peaks of the Huascaran National Park*, and where I’ve just been told off for sitting with a (socked) foot up on my knee because they have a no-bare-feet policy! For lunch I had an ‘Interesting Salad’ (that’s its name) followed by banana bread with earl grey ice cream. It’s another world.
Looking at all the jars of tea I started to well-up. Not about the tea (the PG Tips amused me but I have Yorkshire Tea!) but for some other reason. Is overwhelm an emotion? Tears have certainly been on their way for several days and it usually takes something ridiculous (or accidentally banging my head) to trigger them.
*I’ve never seen mountains like these! Wowwowwow!!!
So now what? I will spend a couple of days here in Huaraz researching my onward route options some more and trying to decide if I dare undertake about 1,000km of dirt roads over multiple 4,000+m passes (the legendary ‘Great Divide’ route) or whether to try to get through most of the rest of Peru in a series of buses or even a plane. Being driven at on main roads is not something I’m willing to do; I don’t owe Peru my life.
I’m thinking of taking one of the passes up and over the National Park to see how I get on with the altitude and cold. That’s sure to be Earth-shatteringly stunning if potentially very challenging indeed, and may help me decide how to tackle the rest of Peru. An added challenge is needing to carry so much more food than usual.
I keep reminding myself I don’t have to do anything that feels reckless in terms of my physical or emotional well-being. I could just skip straight to Ayacucho or Cusco and take some Spanish classes!