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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.