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"Rocky Roads in Perú"
May 25, 2000

The roads of Perú

From all the police check points and searches, one would think that I was trying to get into the US embassy in Kenya. But all I really wanted to do was to get out of Ecuador and make my way down to Piura, Perú. I had wanted to fly direct to Lima, but as is the case all through South America, any flight which crosses an international border ends up being three times as expensive as a domestic flight of equal length, so I needed to cross the border by bus.

Welcome to Perú As we made out way to the border, it seemed like every couple of hours we would have to pull over, file out of the bus, get searched, then file back in. I'm not entirely sure what they were looking for, but no one even blinked at the switchblade knife and pepper spray that I had started carrying in response to my not so welcoming greeting in Managua. You probably need a semi-automatic weapon before they even start to get suspicious.

Of course, the laxity in the third world proved very helpful when it came time to get my bike on the plane in Piura. Arriving 45 minutes before a flight with no ticket and a fully assembled touring bike would get you laughed out of any US airport, but the folks in Piura not only let me on the plane, they gladly loaded on my bicycle, after wrapping it in a quiltwork of scraps of cardboard, paper, and flattened boxes, barely held together with tape. On any US airline, a carefully boxed bike usually comes off the baggage carousel looking like it has been attacked by rabid dogs, but my manky bundle of box pieces and tape showed up in Lima without a single flap of cardboard out of place.

My bike, covered with box
scrapsLima was a city of pure chaos. The largest in South America, its sprawling suburbs, countless plazas, and frenzied transportation system were too much for me to wrap my mind around. In my three days there, I never felt even slightly oriented. Having lost my guidebook (with accompanying map) in Ecuador, I threw myself at the mercy of a local cab driver, with instructions to take me to a cheap traveler's hostel close to downtown. What I ended up with could hardly be called either cheap or a traveler's hostel, but, not left with many options, I took it anyway.

My time in Lima was purely business. I needed to find a lung doctor, buy a ticket home, send some more photos home, and pick up an ATM card that was sent to me to replace the one I had prematurely cancelled. Each errand required being in a different district in the city, however, so I set about trying to decifer the cryptic transportation system. Lima has no metro - the entire transportation system consists of thousands of independently owned mini-vans and buses which swoop down on potential passengers like vultures to fresh kill. This survival of the fittest approach to transportation guaranteed that only the most aggressive and psychotic drivers survived. Each bus would have about a dozen names written on front, and you just needed to know which name meant that the bus would pass by your destination.

I soon got the hang of it, and started zipping around town to get my chores done. The first priority was the doctor. Finding a doctor was as simple as opening the yellow pages, flipping through the doctor listings until I saw a picture of a lung, and calling. "Would you like an appointment for right now, or this afternoon." If only the US had such service.

The appointment confirmed what I had suspected - a lung infection had reduced my lung capacity to 62%. It was good to have some medical justification for my coughing and spluttering up hills. I was handed a "prescription" for antibiotics and told all woudl be back to normal in a week. A prescription in Perú is really just a recommendation from the doctor, since you can walk into any pharmacy and buy anything you want without any prescription, signature, or ID. Apparently they wanted to save all the formalities for really imortant and dangerous things like trying to send film out of the country. I not only had to sign a waiver declaring that I was not sending any form of pornography, but I had to be fingerprinted as well. I could almost see my life of crime unfolding ahead of me. "Hello, is this the US Embassy?" "Yes." "Great, I need help. I'm in prison and ..." "You didn't try sending any film, did you?"

I finished the rest of my chores as soon as possible, and off I went to find a bus out of town. My errand focused stay had left me with absolutely no understanding of the cultural or historical offerings of Lima, but I didn't really mind.

Political propoganda for
Fujimori, the current presidentFor even though I managed to avoid the highlights of Lima, it was impossible to avoid the political turmoil that had been brewing. Just as I was ready to leave, Alberto Toledo, the opposition candidate in the upcoming elections, had withdrawn his candidacy, claiming that the first round of elections was fraudulent, and that nothing was going to save the next round from the same fate. It's hard to disagree, seeing as there were more votes in the primary that there were Peruvians. I managed to escape most of the major turmoil by heading out of town.

My destination was the Andean town of Huancayo, far from the fumes, chaos, and riots of the ctiy. When I arrived at the bus station, three buses were lined up to leave for Huancayo. I approached the one which looked most likely to leave, but I was quickly told that there was no room for my bike, and that I needed to board the next bus. I started loading my bike on the second bus, but once I realized that it wasn't leaving until after the first bus was entirely full, I decided to see if I could talk them into squeezing me in. I boarded the bus to talk to the driver and noticed that there were two people on board. It seemed unlikely that two people had brought enough stuff to fill a 60 person bus. Another case of basic laziness on the part of the driver.

I and the other two passengers were loaded and ready to go by 7pm, but we weren't going to leave until more passengers showed up. After another half dozen passengers arrived, the bus started to pull out of the station, only to stop and back right back to where it had started. The driver apparently wanted to create the impression we were leaving, so reluctant passengers would rush to get on. The driver contined this ruse for the next two hours, and each time we surged forward, a few more passengers would trickle on. The adjacent bus was doing the same thing, and it became a battle to see who could get the most passengers. It wasn't until 9:30, 2 1/2 hours after I had boarded and when the bus was at capacity, that we finally left for real.

I arrived in Huancayo at 6am, and the moment I stepped off the bus, it was immediately apparent that I was in the mountains - the crisp, clean, and icy cold air was a great relief after choking on diesel fumes in Lima. Gone were the monstrous high rises and freeways of the city, replaced by mud brick houses and dirt roads. Gone too was my relative anonymity which I enjoyed in the big city - suddenly I was back to being a rolling freak show.

The Peruvian
countrysideThe temperature was near freezing as I stepped out into the chilly air, so I quickly headed to the nearest hot food I could find, which turned out to be a bowl of soup. Unfortunately, it was a bowl of soup with a whole lamb's tongue floating in it. It had been ordered by a friend I had met on the bus, so I didn't want to offend by not eating it. The tongue itself was tolerable, but by the time I started gnawing through the veins and connective tissue that were included in my choice cut, I was having a hard time stomaching it. I decided that, etiquette or no etiquette, I was not going to eat any more of that nasty knot of lamb's tongue. I politely thanked my friend and the purveyor of the soup, and quickly hopped on my bike, trying to put as much distance as possible between me and the gris(t)ly remains of my abandoned meal.

As I rolled away from the outskirts of town and into the countryside, a wave of awe rolled over me, as I pedaled my way into the mostly uninhabited vastness of the Andes. The area was remote and untraveled, and the roads reflected it. All dirt, rocks, and potholes, my body was rattled to the core. As I began the long series of climbs, I felt another wave approaching, a wave of nausea, and soon I was at the sie of the road, vomiting out the chunks of lamb tongue that my stomach had summarily rejected. My queasiness soon went away, but the poor roads and climbing did not. Perú was quickly surpassing Guatemala for the worst roads in Latin America, an honor not easily earned.

The mountains of PerúIt was, however, also quickly gaining on Colombia for the nicest people in Latin America. Almost every time I would stop, even if only to ask directions, I would inevitably find myself deep in conversation. It got to the point that I would almost be spending more time talking during the day than biking.

That evening, my biking spirit bruised from hours of torturous roads, I stopped at the only village I could find, named Mejorada. Luckily, there was one, albeit bare bones, accomodation in town. I took my shower quickly, before the heat of my body from biking was robbed by the cold of the night. Once night fell, there was no way I was going to pour cold water on myself. The village had no electricity that evening, so, flashlight in hand, I walked to the one and only restaurant. Once again, the Peruvian amicability kicked in, and I found myself not only talking with the owners, but also with the owner's kids, a couple of other kids who had wandered in, and the other two patrons in the restaurant, a young couple apparently on a date. We talked about everything from the cost of living in each of our countries to politics to food, until I eventually found myself giving the children English lessons by candlelight.

Back in my room, buried deeply in a pile of blankets to keep warm, I discovered one of the unfortunate side-effects of the medications I had been given for my lungs; apparently, Zithromax is a diuretic, and I found myself having to get up half a dozen times in the night, which is bad enough in the best of times, but the bathroom was outside, in the cold, down a creaky set of steps more reminiscent of a ladder, and inside a tiny room, no larger than a closet, with no lights. The "toilet" was just a hole in the floor in a tiny corner, where the four foot ceiling necessitated a full squat just to get in. Budget accomodations sometimes have their disadvantages.

Continue to part 2

Copyright © 2000 Peter Birch All Rights Reserved.