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High in El Alto

With a handkerchief covering my nose and mouth and my helmet cinched down tight, I entered El Alto, the fastest growing city in South America until 1996. Here, there are entire neighborhoods under construction, third floors unfinished with the now-familiar beams and posts jutting towards the sky in hopes of the ever-possible home addition, where the traffic roars over the lane-less streets. This is the city that crowns La Paz. Contrary to our common understanding of city and social structure, the lower one descends into the “bowl” of La Paz, the wealthier the area becomes. El Alto, leaning over the edge of the Altiplano highlands into the capital (one of the two Bolivian capitals, that is), hosts the poorest of the area’s inhabitants, 87% of whom are of indigenous Aymara and Quechua descent.

Looking down into La Paz

And descend I did. Once I’d arrived at the edge of El Alto, I pulled over to peer down into the shimmering valley of La Paz. This was not the true end of the road, I thought, not the city that so many cyclists again and again claim as their final destination. No, this was not Ushuaia at the tip of Tierra del Fuego. But this was the end of the road for me. And as I descended, I couldn’t help but make the moment a dramatic one. The tears flowed as I talked aloud into the wind, thanking El Burro for getting me here safely, thanking the American, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Peruvian and Bolivian drivers, bulls, herders, cyclists, moto-taxis and sheep for allowing me to do the same. As I lost more elevation over the patchy tollroad, I thanked myself for having the courage to continue on for two months of cycling on my own, thanked Naomi Aitken for beginning the journey with me, thanked Manna for continuing on longer than he’d imagined, thanked Robert for helping to guide me along the way, and my family and friends for not losing their cool throughout. I thanked the wind for showing its fierceness only occasionally, the rain for giving me time to dry off, and the South Americans for being so kind as to provide me with 456 bananas along with the most delicious empanadas on earth.

"May we live in harmony with the environment" Gentle words accompanying the violently truthful image.

Once the idea had been given birth to and the decision made, it was easier than what I’d thought to sell my belongings, to leave my job, and to say goodbye in the name of adventure and freedom.  In six months, I’ve had more than a lifetime of freedom and superlatives fail to describe how thankful I am. It is this knowledge that has made horrendous, unending mountain climbs possible, even when the highest peak’s views were hidden in dense fog. It is not too difficult to forget about my frozen fingers and

Back north, the final views of Titicaca.

toes and the use of gobs of Butt Butter; but the uninterrupted sunsets, the Redwood camping, the knowledge that I can and should stuff as much food as possible into me, the physical push and the cultural exchange will most definitely not be forgotten. And in fact, I’ll do it again.
The plan is as follows: In less than ten hours I begin the first of four flights to San Diego, where I’ll have the pleasure of spending three weeks with the friends I’ve made over the past five years of living there as well as those I’ve known for a lifetime. And what’s more, I’ll get to sneak into the roll of a teacher again while I substitute at Einstein Academies.  After time in the Bay Area and Seattle, I will follow my heart back to the Southern Hemisphere. This time to Dunedin, New Zealand, where Manna has found a home with a view, and where, within three (or so) years, the University of Otago will put a Dr. in front of his name.  Enjoying this bit of life that Pat and Marshall gave me, it seems, is what I am most interested in.

See you in San Diego.

And thank you to you. For following parts or all of this experiment of my first blog. It has been more enjoyable and meaningful than I had imagined, has allowed me to feel connected when most alone, and it has been almost as fun as cycling nearly 5,000 miles.

ALSO: For those who would like to hear and see more, I will be giving a presentation about this 190-day cycling journey on Thursday, February 10th from 5 to 6:30 pm where I’ll share the experience through photos (ones you haven’t seen, even!), stories, and a live travel gear display. The event will be located at Albert Einstein Academies, 3035 Ash St. in the South Park neighborhood of San Diego. Fun will be had and you can ask any inventive or potentially embarrassing question you’d like. All are welcome.

Bolivia!

Bienvenidos al Lago Titicaca

The weather in Cusco on the day of my departure was gorgeous. Unfortunately, the last chapter of this six-month cycling extravaganza did not get off to a very good start. Within blocks of leaving the hotel, I hit a parked car. Luckily, this resulted only in a bruised thigh and a broken shifter (a part of the bike, not a part of me), plus a very loud car alarm that brought everyone’s attention to this foolhardy cyclist. Then, 20km later, I witnessed a horrible accident between a cyclist and a van. After the ambulance came for the cyclist and thinking I was ready to ride, I continued on before beginning what turned into a long, hard cry in the parking lot of a gas station. During a subsequent online chat with my friend Greta, she helped me decided it would be best to stop riding for the day and I found myself a quiet hotel to rest.

The sad end of my bar-end shifter.

Fortunately, the remainder of the ride to the Bolivian border was blissful. I met Steve, a retired Brit who is spending six months of each year on his bike in a different part of the world; I met Shane and Paul, two bikers (the “cheater” bikers – the kind that go vrooooom.), who pulled off on the side of the road to say hello and then took me out to dinner once I arrived in

Hat sellers in Puno. Single women adorn their long braids with brightly-colored beads. Married women use brown and black.

Puno the next day; and I met young Vincent, a Belgian cyclist who was heading north and whose bike shorts were decidedly too short. (I have a photo for those who request proof.)

Enjoying a Reese's over my first view of Lake Titicaca.

The high plains nearing Lake Titicaca have been wonderfully flat and the winds have been agreeable, meaning tail, tail, tail! I’ve had the pleasure of staying with a family who was shearing and sorting sheep wool in their courtyard, of being invited to spend the night in the guest room of a church, of witnessing a freak hail/snow storm in Sicuani and – after 5 days of either cold or no showers – staying in a luxurious hotel in Puno and visiting the floating islands of Uros and the famous knitting men on Tecate Island.
My departure from Peru was mysteriously magical. The grandmother at my final hostel gave me an unusually heart-felt farewell, blessing me, wishing my father well, my mother well, my aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters well and giving me a surprising kiss to finish off her speech. Then, just 15 km from the border, I stopped for a snack and once I had made myself comfortable in the grass under the warm sun, I looked up and saw that the alpaca in front of me was standing next to her newly-birthed baby. A toothless campesina came over and told me that mama alpaca had given birth that morning. She then laughed and said I should give her a bit of money in return for the many photos I had started taking. For the first time, I happily obliged.

Now, three weeks after Bolivian President Morales gave his citizens the Christmas gift of significantly raising gas prices (to match those of neighboring countries), resulting in huge protests in La Paz, I find myself two cycling days away from this very capital city. I am on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca in the touristy town of Copacabana (not to be mistaken by the Copacabana of Brazil nor the bar in New York sung about by Sinatra). Here, what I find rivals the amazing sunset view over the lake, is the event that takes place every Saturday and Sunday in front of the cathedral Basilica de la Virgen. I attempted to figure out on my own why the streets leading to the cathedral – at 8am – were packed with every kind of vehicle one can imagine, all decorated with flowers. And why was everyone standing around with liters of coca-cola and jugs of beer and wine? And these priests? I had to ask a local. It turns out, in truly amazing South American

Witnessing the tri-annual blessing of a car and its family.

form, that all were waiting for their vehicles to be blessed. Bolivians come here three times a year from throughout the country to visit a priest, who receives 10 Bolivianos (around $1.40) for each car, truck and van he blesses. Holy water, coca-cola, beer and wine are sprinkled and sprayed over each car, protecting it and its passengers from harm. Considering Bolivia’s miserable driving record, I would imagine that driving in a safer manner may be more helpful than spraying large quantities of soft drinks.

The anticipation of arriving in La Paz is rising and, with glee,  I await the dis-assembly of Mi Burro and his careful placement in a box addressed to San Diego.

Proper Peruvian Tourism

Ubiquitous recycled-tire shoes

My mother arrived at the Cusco airport with the same deep cough that she shared with the entire Grogan family over Christmas. I’d brought a thermos of coca-leaf tea to reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness as the city lies 3,400meters (just over 11,000ft) above sea level, from where she’d just arrived. Nonetheless, the cough, travel fatigue and oxygen deficiency put her flat on the bed of our eerily quiet hotel room in the middle of this Inca capital. While she rested, I feasted on the Reese’s peanut-butter cups and Ghirardelli dark chocolates she’d brought from the homeland.

Winaywayna orchid

Cusco, layered with Killka, then Inca, then Spanish history, was transformed into a grand city by the Inca in the shape of a puma whose head rises out of the hillside at the ruins of Sachsayhuaman (say that out loud), the walls of which rival the awesomeness of Machu Picchu.

Walls and ruins of Ollantaytambo

In an attempt to get my mother fully healthy before our four-day hike along a small and very mountainous portion of the over 50,000 km of road built by the Inca, we decided to focus on relaxation during her first week. This meant taking the bus down to the lower-altitude town of Pisac where we lounged about, ate delicious vegetable-rich food, tasted our first alpaca meat (delicious), sipped on happy hour pisco sours and enjoyed the surrounding Sacred Valley views. We then moved to the best-preserved Inca village in Peru: Ollantaytambo. Its stone streets are too narrow for cars and even the infamous moto-taxis due to the space taken up by the babbling street water canals.

Fiesta de Reyes

We happened to be in Ollantaytambo during one of their most festive celebrations, the “Fiesta de Reyes,” during which the entire town and the surrounding villages parade up and down the streets all morning and into the night in an exhausting, dance-filled tribute to the three Kings.  Music was heard from every corner of the town, including at 5:30am when the parade marched by our hotel over several days.

Taking a break from the fiesta.

History Minute: It was in Ollantaytambo in 1537, where the Inca army (temporarily) defeated the Spanish army by hastily turning their Sun Temple, built just above the town, into a military fort. Stealing the symbol of Spanish military strength, the royal heir Manco Inca commanded his troops from horseback while archers shot off arrows and soldiers fired slingshots and let boulders roll atop their attackers. The last surprise, though, as the Spaniards retreated, was diverting the River Urubamba on cue and flooding the plains below the town, making the path for the Spaniards’ horses quite muddy while they struggled to make it all the way back to Cusco and bring reinforcements. Since we already know the ending of the Inca-Spanish story, it is at least good to be reminded of the ways in which the Inca used nature – the force of the great Urubamba River – in a clever attempt to save themselves.

Tourists add cairn to the Inca Trail

An example of some of the more moderate Inca trail steps.

One thing the Inca Empire did not do, however, is invent the switchback. No zig-zag pathways for them. Their narrow yet solid trails, with super-human sized stone steps, mind-numbingly steep ascents and descents at altitudes reaching 4,200 meters (nearly 14,000 ft) were not constructed in consideration of 21st century, altitude-sick tourists. As we hiked and camped along the trail, my mom, who has hiked the Alps and tango dances and practices yoga multiple times a week, confessed that it was the hardest physical work she had ever done. Even more impressive than the trail and the spectacularly rewarding views were the 10 porters who carried four-days worth of equipment for our 11-person group. With private tents, food tents, kitchen tents, fuel, food, medical gear, camping gear and their own personal gear piled onto their backs, they all but ran up and skipped down the mountainsides in their recycled-tire shoes while conversing in Quechua and calling out “porrrrterrrr” as they slid past the panting tourists. With 500 tourists allowed to begin hiking the Inca trail a day, imagine the number of porters who passed us, setting up and breaking down our lunch spot and then racing past us yet again to set up our camp for the night. Both of our guides, Victor and Guido, had worked previously as porters before deciding that they never wanted to do such gruling work again. They then began the five years of study required to become a professional guide. Up until recently, porters carried more than 40 kg (nearly 90 lbs) on their backs until regulations were made that limited their loads to 25 kg (55 lbs). We heard (and saw) that these regulations are still not strictly followed. In our vacationing bliss – despite our sweat and shortness of breath – we were intimately reminded along the Inca trail of the back-breaking work that is put into creating a comfortable experience for tourists. Such work is impossible to hide along the narrow trail.

One porter with a lighter load.

On our final day we rose at 3:30am, rain pummeling our tent. The porters hurried us to pack our gear, we all ate our breakfast in dazed silence as the rain continued to celebrate its wet descent. We piled on our water-proof clothing and headed out on the final 6 km to the grand upper entrance of Machu Picchu: the Sun Gate. We were 2 km from this destination when we heard the shouting. “¡Por atrás, por atrás!” “Go back, go back!” Due to the rains and construction of water lines into the hillside for a new hotel in the town below of Aguas Calientes, a fresh landslide had blocked the trail. Unlike the year before, when a guide and an Argentinian woman were killed, this landslide caused no deaths (of humans, at least). We reluctantly

Our gleeful arrival.

retreated and our short morning hike turned into 15 km of a steep descent (Legs!!) and then a long walk along the train tracks. Tired, we arrived in Aguas Calientes where we, together with 2,000 other tourists a day, took the bus up to Machu Picchu and from there gazed longingly up at the Sun Gate.

Despite this detour, we were graced by the venerable presence of Machu Picchu. And I, to boot, was graced by the loving presence of my mother.

So! What’s next? What’s next? Right now I sit on our hotel bed while my mom packs into her suitcase the beautiful items of textiles and knitted hats she’s received in exchange for supporting the Peruvian economy. Tomorrow, I will once again be on my own and heading south on the familiar saddle of my bike. The bike has been named, by the way: Mi Burro. After five and a half months of travel with Mi Burro, there is an end in sight. It is appropriately called “The Peace”, otherwise known as La Paz, Bolivia. There, on February 1st, I will pack my belongings into boxes, fly home to San Diego and call Naomicycle complete. For now.

These bike shoe covers were not made for walkin'. So that's just what I'll do.

Try to eat the our guinea pig.

Peru: Ayacucho – Cusco

The rains have definitely arrived with force. Unlike the folks in parts of Europe and New England who are currently buried in snow, this rain here is expected as such every year. What this means for me is that I zip myself up in my rain gear and ride on. It reminds me of my bike commutes in the wet Seattle days to Garfield HS and then Pike Place Market to bake some “unnaturally large bagels”. Though in those days I just tied plastic bags around my shoes and let Nirvana play from my Walkman.

The path to Cusco was many, many things, but flat it definitely was not. Much of it was also not paved which made the 30 mile descents most exciting and body shattering. When I reached pavement just before the city of Abancay, I dropped to my knees and kissed the ground. The two policemen at the intersection were entertained:

Pavement!

One rainy night I stayed in the village of Ccotaquite behind one of the brightly painted houses where the sheep and horses graze. There, the Spanish is broken as Quechua is the shared language. Runasimi pisillata rimanim. I speak very (very, very) little Quechua. Nonetheless, the children of the village helped me set up my tent and blow up my air pillow. A bit later, I sewed up a gaping hole in the pink pants of one of the smallest girls while they admired my tiny sewing box. The matriarch of the patterned house came to me after I’d tucked myself into my sleeping bag and asked if her three daughters could share the tent with me that night. This was quite the request. I said no. As nicely as I could.  The next morning, we had a conversation in which I acquired the following view into her world:
The mother is 21 and her oldest of three daughters is eight. She, along with everyone else in the village, does not want pictures taken of them because they believe that the gringos return home and sell the photos. I had heard the same from others before. There was nothing I could say to convince her otherwise and so took no photos. Her mother tells her to throw stones at those who attempt to take photos. She knows that the people in England all have houses underground to prepare themselves for the end of the world. Gringos are moving to Andahuaylas and Cusco in droves and will soon start a war, bringing their problems to the land of Peru. Rice is too expensive and so they eat primarily potatoes. The family also sells potatoes at the market, but does not sell their cows, sheep and chickens which they use to feed themselves.  There is a new mine being dug upstream and a road being blasted into the side of the mountain; I could see it ascending behind us.  She says it is already contaminating the river and the fishing is not as prosperous.
She made it clear that she, too, wants to travel to Ecuador and Bolivia. I left her with what I could, although I didn’t feel that it was enough: Encouragement to find a way to travel, warm wishes and many, many thanks.

Since drivers don't do so enough already, they are reminded here to honk as they turn the corner.

I’ve asked many children and teenagers if they enjoy living in their towns and usually hear the same response: “Yes! I love being with my family and the air here is very clean.” Only from one teenager have I heard the answer you’d expect to hear in the States: “It is a little boring.”

Barefoot

On Christmas Eve, I arrived in Pucyura, a muddy town just north of Cusco. There, I once again stayed with the bomberos, firemen, who treated me to paneton (similar to fruitcake, but much tastier), hot chocolate and Latin hip-hop videos. One of the firemen also doubles as a rock climbing tour guide and so on Christmas Day five of us went out in their fire truck for some good climbs and even better rappels. The firemen, Giovanny, Bill, Alex and Rafael, all wore full uniform in order for the excursion to be considered an official “training” and therefore be legitimately allowed to use the truck. The four fellows climbed clad in red uniforms, large helmets, thick gloves and heavy boots.  From the top of “el catedral” as the rock is called, we could see Cusco’s suburbs sparkling in the distance while the cows and dirty sheep grazed in the field below. We also saw the $500-per-passenger Hiram Bingham Train pass by heading for Machu Picchu.

On the 26th, I rode the final 13 miles into Cusco and found the cyclist-renowned Hospedaje Estrellita, whose price (15 soles a night – about $ 6), breakfast, use of kitchen, comfortable beds and company cannot be beat. There are currently five other cyclists here, four from France and one from French Canada. As I write this, all of them sit in the kitchen reading  different sections of Le Monde, the French newspaper that was freshly flown in by some other French travelers.  That will just have to be the next language I learn. Too bad they don’t speak it in New Zealand…

"Caldo de gallina" hen soup

Usually, as I ride by, people remind me that I am, indeed, a “gringa”, although they do so nicely. The best greeting I’ve had recently came from a teenager pushing a truck tire up a hill. As I passed him, he looked over and called out “ra wa wa ra ra wa” with a perfectly pronounced American /r/. Although he didn’t say anything, he had  a charmingly authentic accent.
The mom arrives early tomorrow morning. Let the bike collect dust and let us be proper Tourists!!

Happy New Year and ra wa wa ra wa,

Naomi

For those interested, this is the elevation profile for Ayacucho-Cusco. The peaks are at 4,300m (14,000ft), the valleys at 1,700m (5,500ft)

Ayacucho

The town names are getting better and better the deeper into Peru I ride:

La Quinua, Manantial, Huancavelica, Sapallanga, Huaribamba, Nahuimpuquio.

Say those out loud.

Through the valley of Rio Mantaro

I have been traveling now solo for over a month. It doesn’t surprise me that I feel safe, but it surprises me how very, very safe I feel. No, I’m not writing this for the sake of those who are worried, but because I think often about how much fear can prevent us from experience. From the Peruvians, a new question has emerged from the usual line of “Where are you from?” “How many days have you been traveling? ” “What happens if you get a flat tire?” The new one, now that I am alone, is “But aren’t you afraid?” My reply is usually “What should I be afraid of?” and they tend to smile and say something like “Thieves.” or “They say that the countryside is dangerous.” or “On TV, I saw….” And yet, all of the people I have met have either given me an energetic wave, have wanted to wave me down to ask questions, or have been afraid of me, strange that I am. A group of men, standing around in front of a bar mid-week, mid-day asked me if I was afraid of riding alone. I figured these men (a bit rowdy and very possibly unemployed)  were probably the most I had to fear, and so I asked them if I should be afraid of them. They laughed and said of course not, and I believed their answer was true. In one town I cycled through in the valley of Rio Mantaro, I felt like the movie star that I’ve never wanted to be as people cheered and yelled at me to stop and stay for a while. I’ve been given fruit, tea, an extra portion of yogurt, and some roasted corn by a farmer and his two donkeys.

Adrian & Lizzy. Brief company that was very much enjoyed. This photo looks like an Ortlieb advertisement.

In Huancayo, I met up with the two Swiss cyclists that I had first met in Trujillo. We decided to leave the city the next morning together. We ended up taking the wrong road, which, since I was going to take a different route than them, turned out to be the right road for me (or so I thought at the time – it ended up taking me over three giant passes instead of the one) and so we split up just 4 hours after we’d begun. It was interesting to see how another couple makes their way on bikes through Peru and it struck me as odd that they didn’t greet anyone, even when they were greeted by others. Since riding alone, I say hello to others even more often. I’ve realized that this reminds me that I am surrounded by good people, hearing their voices and seeing their  smiles. On another note, the Quechua language is pervasive and has strongly influenced the Spanish of this region. The D’s are harder, the grammar is a bit more broken. Long live Quechua! There is definitely reason to celebrate when an indigenous language so healthily shines through the power of the language of the conquistadors.

Hm. Not sure what this one means.

Vanessa Huamani Canchanya. A fantastic woman.

In the Rio Mantaro valley, I stopped opposite a restaurant to eat a snack. The woman across the way started up a friendly conversation with the usual questions. We eventually waved goodbye and I rode on, stopping about five miles later for a photo of some decorated donkeys. At the same moment, a cyclist came up from behind me, panting furiously and sweating from below her baseball cap. It was the same women who I’d spoken with at the restaurant. She had grown up in the valley, in the village of about 70 people, had learned to cycle in a high school class (I’d love to teach that class), but had never been on a bike down the only road through town. She told me she “didn’t get my name” and so had quickly borrowed the much-too-large bike from her neighbor and had ridden off after me. She said she wanted to keep on riding with me until I reached the big climb that lay ahead. Vanessa was her name, 22 years old and the youngest of ten children. Her company, and the fact that she was riding her first ride with me, was really, really cool. After a snack of bread, cheese and peach juice together with an old woman who appeared with a bundle of wood from the river below, Vanessa turned around after nearly 10 miles to catch a ride with a truck back home.  I’d bet that had I been cycling together with a gigantic gringo man, she would have thought twice before riding after me.

A typical Peruvian construction sight.

Another family hotel. Their parents were out of town, so these siblings brilliantly completed all of the business transactions and thoroughly entertained their guest.

I’d say the most difficult part about riding solo is once I get off the bike.  Eating alone in a restaurant – although I am often invited into a conversation – the sights of children lighting firecrackers (and throwing them at each other), of herders knitting legwarmers, of men trying to figure out how exactly to get the bull in the truck or the truck over the half-constructed bridge, are all experiences that I find myself wanting to share. When I see a car drive by and think it has a Christmas tree tied to the roof only to realize that it is a huge bundle of alfalfa, I wish for someone there to laugh at the mistake.

This is the end of the school year here in Peru. And here is proof.

It is an exciting time to be in Peru. The country is experiencing ten years of economic success after the corrupt history of former president (dictator) Alberto Fujimori. Governmental support of infrastructure  is being “decentralized”, that is, moving outside of Lima, and it seems that every other major town is under renovation. Mario Vargas Llosa has won the first Nobel Prize in Literature for the country.  I have been told that there is a new sense of Peruvian pride that has been absent for a while. Although I also hear that their futbol team is nothing to shout about. The media here, too, are mesmerized by Julian Assange and in particular the cables released on Fidel Castro’s health condition.

Sunset over Ayacucho.

And, as it turns out, the best news of all: On New Years, I will be together with the most wonderful person in the whole, wide world: my mother in person!!! She, (in her recently retired bliss) has agreed to fly to Cuzco, Peru, on the 29th of December, where we will spend two weeks exploring the Sacred Urubamba Valley. Now I just have to get there by bike in under two weeks,  with no paved roads until the last 100 miles and four passes of over 13,000 feet. And enjoy myself doing it.

More kids. I just can't help myself.

I wish I had exciting stories to tell you of carrying my bike through llama-infested rivers and dogs chewing their way through my panniers and activating my emergency beacon, but  have no such stories to tell. Instead, I am having a grand and relatively peaceful time. Well, except one evening, when I was getting the occasional whiff of urine in my “hotel” room until I noticed a bucket in the corner filled with just that, which I promptly, and with various noises of disgust, brought outside and into the outhouse.  It seems the worse the accommodation, the nicer the people though.

Peru: Huaraz – Huancayo

This time, a narrative in photos:

Climbing closer up into La Cordillera Blanca

These children asked me to take their picture. Then they asked to have my camera. Clever kids!

And up...

I found them in front of my hospedaje in the tiny town of Conococha, where every store sells cheese.

My breakfast. I was planning on having it for dinner but it was too cold the night before and my fingers would not function.

I was adopted by a family in Pachapaqui. Esteven and Joseph attached themselves to me as I washed my bike shorts, hung my tent out to dry, lit my burner, and did other strange tasks.

Joseph, amazed by how quickly my rain fly dried.

At the top. Of this peak at least.

My altimeter stopped working at 12,999 feet. The route sheet said the peak was at 4,540 meters. So mathies: What should my altimeter read? And how crazy is that.

Free room with the firemen in Huanuco. Yeah.

The beginning of four days worth of rain.

"Do not leave rocks in the road" This is done by residents in an attempt to slow down traffic. No residents here though. Not for another 30 miles.

The refinery in La Oroya. The simplified story goes like this: Bought by the US company Renco Group in 1997. Peru later improved it's health standards and told Renco it must compensate employees whose children had ingested lead over the years. Renco refused, closed the refinery but pays it's employees 70% of their wages. Crime is up, business in La Oroya is down. Lead remains.

Folks washing the laundry downstream.

Traffic and juice in Junin.

Fried mashed-potatoes filled with cheese and peppers. Heaven.

Notice, too, the little German fellow in the corner.

Which way now?

Lastly, I spent four days in the town of Jauja, just north of Huancayo. For anyone passing through, stay at the fantastic, tranquil, garden-filled Hostal Manco Capac on the street of the same name, number 575. The owner, Bruno Bonierbale (bbonierbale@yahoo.com) is someone to remember.

Peru: Trujillo to Huaraz

If I were to ask a collection of random women if they would be willing to cycle through Peru alone, they would laugh, ask “Are you crazy?” and then shake their head with a vigorous “No”.  Even if I were to ask a random collection of female cyclists, I would probably get a similar reply.

Which is why I didn’t ask a random group at all. Instead, I found myself about four women who have cycled alone in South America and asked them for their impressions, if they felt safe, how to stay safe, and so on. Here is a collection excerpts from their responses (not all are native English or Spanish speakers but I’ve kept them in their original form):

Naomi, in case you do end up riding solo and discovering the joys of life as a single woman, I can assure you that everywhere in the world I have been received like a long-lost daughter; it seems that a woman traveling alone on a bike is a curiosity and arouses every woman’s maternal instinct. From Argentina to Colombia, Australia to Japan, Ireland to Morocco, I have had the incredible good fortune to be warmly welcomed into people’s homes for meals and overnight stays without any concern for my safety or well-being. These have invariably been the most memorable experiences from each of my trips. - Lucy

I have never had any problem while shopping or while searching for a place to stay. When it comes to hotels, the only tricky part is
when you get the hotels which only have a staircase that goes up. I try to
avoid these hotels, or run up the stairs as fast as I can. [to avoid leaving the bike unattended] Everyone along the road has been real darlings. I feel that I am in one way safer cycling on my own as everyone around me are very concerned about my safety. It is very easy to get invited to stay in peoples houses, I do not get turned down when asking to camp, the police has escorted me across a heavy trafficked bridge, I ve been getting a days ride to a city bikeshop when my tire burst and I simply get a lot of help when I need. Sometimes I even get help when I dont need it. I get asked if I want a ride when I am climbing and if there are men around when I get a flat, they want to fix it for me. I also get more attention then I want, but most days I can ignore the cat-whistles. My Spanish is not good enough to give them a lecture in feminist theory so I simply ignore them.
When it comes to precaucions I am pretty picky regarding where I stay at night. Usually I camp at either family restaurants where there are women and children around, or stay at guarded places such as army camps, toll stations, firestation or such. Camping in an area with macho men in uniform might not sound as a good choice, but it seems as if they take great pride in keeping a woman safe and are usually very polite.
I have so many wonderful experiences being a solo cyclist and I feel very well taken care of. - Hanna

Lo que yo puedo decirte es andar sola no va causar te ningun problemas si no te da cuentas de los machistas que te silvan por la carreterra o que te llaman “princessa” o “muneca”… a veces me pongo en mi bulla para no escuchar nada y andar con placer… por la noche, siempre me busco lugares bien seguros, y si no hay, yo pregunto si puedo accampara a lado de una casa (si veo que hay una mujer!).. y la gente aqui se cuidan mucho de una chica que va sola… a veces te offrece comida si no es una cama por la noche!!! es increible, de verdad!!!
yo espero que va disfrutar de tu viaje sola, para mi es muy lindo y muy intenso!! te vas a tu ritmo, te paras cuando quieres, comes cuando quieres… y tienes mas opportunidades de communicar con la gente local!! - Debo

I have done a lot of travelling alone and really enjoy it and would highly recommend it. The best advice that I can give you as a solo traveller is to be aware and don’t put yourself in situations that feels unsafe, listen to that feeling if it doesn’t feel right. I have never really had any serious problems but you need to be smart and I don’t mean paranoid just cautious.  Remember there are a lot more kind people in the world then there are dangerous people. I find that as a solo women traveller people seem to lookout for me a little more. - Jeanette

So you may be asking yourself,” Whaaaat? But what happened to the Argentinian fellow, Axel, you were going to ride with?” Well, he is still on the road, but is about three weeks behind me (in bike-time) and I wanted to get going sooner than that. Also, there is an Italian fellow about five days behind me, an American about 4 days ahead, and two Swiss cyclists about two days behind me, so I am very close to potential partners. The Swiss asked if I wanted to join them and it wasn’t until this moment when I realized I really wanted to cycle on my own – at least for a bit. Yes, for the adventure, and also simply for the time alone. It is day six of solo-cycling, and I am not yet convinced that it is my preferred method of travel. This is not because of safety, since I feel safer here than I often did in the States, but because I enjoy company and the sharing of a beautiful view, or getting soaked by a water-spraying truck in a construction zone and laughing with someone at my side. I am being patient with myself, absorbing the newness of my circumstances while continuing to enjoy the ride.

And while I try out the solo-cyclist adventure, I am blessed with amazing views of the Cordillera Blanca, the friendly waves of passers-by (it reminds me of Colombia!) and yes, the somewhat annoying but easily ignored cat-calls that arrived as soon as Manna left. I would have thought that ladies would have given him cat-calls in his spandex shorts, but I suppose that is not the direction of things here.

Together with some 6th graders who are one month away from graduating primary school.

The remainder of my stay in Lima before returning to my bike in Trujillo was enjoyable as I visited my first South American school, El Niño Jesus, thanks to friends in Germany, Darinka and Holger, who have fostered its growth for many years. It was very rewarding to once again hear the direct and curious questions of children (How old are you? But you look young to be so old! Do you have children? Why not?  And of course one whispered to me: Are you a man or a woman?) I also finally played the tourist card and went to a couple of very enjoyable museums.

Lucho saw me off, just has he has for almost 2,000 other cyclists.

Lucho, from the most famous Casa de Ciclistas, saw me off to the edge of town to bid me farewell. I was in good company before beginning the ride alone. Being on my own, I think even more now of friends and family and  hope those in the States enjoyed Thanksgiving.  I had box-wine along with red sauce and spaghetti, cooked over my stove in my four-bed hostel room all to myself. The turkeys here in Peru get to relax until Christmas.

The "totora" boat race in Huanchaco, off the coast of Trujillo. Also a fantastic surfing spot.

Totoras, all in a row. The fishermen kneel on top of them rather than sitting in them.

Entering the desert along a private road built to monitor the acueduct that nourishes the northern Peruvian coast.

The third of over 40 tunnels that a cyclist has to go through before being rewarded by a view of the Cordillera Blanca, Peru's highest mountain range.

And there it is! From atop the hostel where I am camping in Huaraz.


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