Friends of Ann and Kent Moriarty,
Dear Family and Friends,
Finally, our next dispatch, which brings us up to date in Huaráz, Peru. Whew! What a time it's been! We rode from Quito on the 24th of July, heading south on the Pan American Highway. Crossed over into Peru in Macará and then went some weird ways through small towns: Tambo Grande, to Chulucanas, then on the old (eastern) Pan Am Highway to Chiclayo, south to Trujillo; before Chimbote, turning into the mountains through the Cañon del Pato to Caraz and Huaráz, then a bit south and crossing the Cordillera Blanca through Carpa to a town called Huallanca and south to Huanaco. Got that?
We returned on bus to Huaráz to trek and climb for five days with friends (nothing like a rest from exercise, huh?!) in the mountains and tonight return back to Huanaco, leaving there for the city of Huancayo. (All these "H" names confuse me!)
Anyway, we hope you all are doing well. Our next mail pickup will be in La Paz, Bolivia, for which my folks the Harders and also Kent's folks, the Stelles, have the address. We should be there within a month or so.
Love, Ann and Kent
It was a dark and stormy night ... (with apologies to Snoopy). The black clouds rolled in threatening to turn what had been minor hail flurries into a full-scale assault. Riding our tandem our bodies hunched over against the cold cold wind, the dirt road becoming yet rockier and steeper, we climbed to over 15,000 feet. Often we stopped, gasping for the oxygen that is harder to come by at that altitude, pushing the bike instead of riding.
But GOD! What a view! We were in the middle of the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, the second highest part of the Andes, riding from Huaráz to Húanaco, and were surrounded by wild awesome snow-capped peaks climbing out of the glacier carved valley. And even at this altitude and in this threatening weather, sheep herders bundled in woolen ponchos with mufflers around their faces and caps pulled down over their ears tended their animals, heading for their simple rock and grass shelters. We needed to head for our shelter too!
But Kent was adamant about making it to the pass at 16,000 feet and we passed by several likely camping spots. Until we saw of all things, a restaurant on this lonely road and stopped to ask a man how far we had to go. He took one look at us, glanced meaningfully at the sky and stated matter-of-factly, "There's nothing at the pass, no place to camp, the storm is coming. You'd better stay here; at least you'll have neighbors." So Kent gave up his goal and we pulled over into the rough field behind the restaurant.
Never have we set up our tent so quickly, even with numb hands stiff from the cold! The young man who ran the restaurant came over to check us out, told us we could keep the tandem in the building and if we needed anything else, "Just let me know!"
And so we ran down after securing the tent against the rising wind and squeezed the bike through the narrow door just as the storm hit. Hail poured down from the angry clouds turning to heavy icy snow. BRRRRR! Thank God we were inside. We asked Robinson, the young restaurant owner, what was for dinner and since his response of "lamb and rice" sounded good we decided to eat that instead of our old standby, ramen noodles.
We ate in the tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere nowhere, a restaurant with no electricity or light except for what filtered in through the dirt-encrusted windows and the crooked open door, a restaurant whose packed dirt floor was uneven enough to cause the rickety tables to wobble and whose ceiling was so low that we both bent over in order to walk. But what luxury! We warmed up soon enough chewing the tough lamb and crunching the undercooked rice and enjoying a special herbal tea that is good for altitude sickness (which we did not have) until Robinson turned on the local indigenous Quechua music. The loud screeching, high-pitched yowling soon drove us out to the tent to fall asleep at 7:00 p.m. to the sound of icy snow hitting the tent floor. What comfort to be warm and dry, snug in our down sleeping bags listening to the weather outside.
The following morning we woke to the cold light and the crack of a sheepherder's whip bracing ourselves to crawl out of our nest into the below freezing temperatures. Shaking the ice off the tent fly we packed up faster than we had set up and raced down to Robinson's for a hot cup of tea to prepare for what looked like a cold day of riding. We remained bundled up in layers that day as we slowly made our way through the mountains. Any downhill was almost as hard as the uphills because the rocky road covered by a thick layer of dust, presented a butt-battering, back-breaking, ball-busting (Kent's) surface! We averaged 6 mph that day, incredibly s-l-o-w.
Riding down into the dusty highlands, we were surprised two days later, rounding a corner into a small mountain town, finding ourselves face to face with a procession of exotic elaborately costumed people heading directly for us led by a masked man cracking a large whip. Not knowing if they would be angry with us for interrupting the procession and not wanting to be struck by the flying whip, we pulled well off the road. Instead of being angry with us, they approached and surrounded us curiously asking what we were doing in the middle of their procession. (Actually, they wondered where we were from and where we were going....) They also responded to our queries about what they were celebrating. "It's the festival of our patrona, Santa Rosa de Lima; come join our dancing!" What a strange sight we all appeared to each other, we in our Gore-Tex and Lycra tights on a tandem bike, they in their brilliantly colored costumes with masks and beads covering their faces. Kent wondered aloud if we had wandered onto the set of a National Geographic special. We joined the revelry, avoiding the raw alcohol that the men passed around but not the dancing that the celebrants smilingly prodded us to join. Both of us are extremely uncomfortable dancing but it was exhilarating to be a part of such a unique event under the brooding presence of the mountain, "The Crown of the Inca," which watched the people in Inca costume dancing to a Catholic saint. A short while later we noticed an old crone gesticulating wildly, pointing in our direction and making loud noises. Apparently not everyone wanted the gringos to participate and we caught the hint: maybe it was time to go!
A little bit on sensory overload, we started our descent from the mountains and were stopped by a group of men who jumped out of their pickup asking us to pose for pictures in their political tee shirts. One of them, Teodoro, an evangelical Christian, invited us to stay at his home in Huánaco, 30 miles down the road at the bottom of the mountain. We accepted and marveled at the day.
All throughout Ecuador and Peru we have enjoyed such hospitality. In fact, in Ecuador, what we remember more than the incredible high volcanoes, are the times we spent with Christian missionaries. In Quito, Baxter and Margie Swenson, missionaries from our home church in Berkeley arranged for a place to stay and invited us to dinners where we gorged on terrific food and enjoyed the interesting company of their friends. For us this interlude was like a short return home giving us time to see what missionaries were doing, work on the bike, and just relax from the rigors of the road. We dragged ourselves away from comfortable Quito after two weeks and the Swensons took care of us, sending us on to friends of theirs further on down the road. They were the beginning of a chain of missionaries with whom we stayed all throughout the south of Ecuador. Passed on from one to another we "took breaks" to paint walls in a church camp, chop wood, help build a cement block wall for a church and simply enjoy the company of good people. We were impressed by the commitment and ingenuity of these missionaries, serving people whom they obviously loved.
Sometimes, however, we still had to search out places to stay. Once in the small Ecuadoran town of Oña, the hotel did not open until 7:00 p.m. and there we were at 5:00, sweaty cold and waiting. So Kent went out in search. He started at the police station because the jail cell looked inviting. (Really!) No policeman there so he asked a neighbor who sent him to the volleyball court. No policeman there so the players hemmed and hawed, finally deciding he was eating in town. Following their directions, Kent ended up back at the restaurant where I was waiting. No policeman there so we waited some more. Then we saw a uniformed man talking with someone in a pickup and Kent walked over. He asked about the jail cell but before the policeman could answer, the man in the pickup interjected, "Come to my house, you can stay with me."
So we followed Antonio down to his house and found a comfortable place on the floor. He had a tiny store with very few items for sale: ten sodas, five packages of crackers, a fuel filter, some containers of transmission fluid and a single car battery -- all this on rough homemade shelves in front of the windows. He also advertised with a large colorful painted sign on the outside of his house: "Telephone -- 24 hours" but the phone had not been working for some time. At night he turned on a lightbulb in the window and slept nearby so that if someone drove up, he could attend them. Most of the customers just wanted to use the telephone. All of this brought in a tiny bit of money but he said that his main reason for doing it was that "I want to help people and since nothing is open at night, I will do it as a service." In the morning as we were enjoying the breakfast Antonio insisted on preparing, his young "wife" came in, who had been at the family farm taking care of the kids. Antonio nervously and with some embarrassment told her who we were and asked her to greet us which she declined to do, starting on some odd jobs. Guess she was not too happy to have us there! So we hurriedly finished up and went out the door, thanking Antonio for his generous hospitality and leaving him to deal with his woman!
We crossed over into Peru from the town of Macará where we camped by the pool in the Ecuadoran military's large base. (Because of the border conflicts with Peru, Ecuador maintains a strong military presence there.) We were glad to be with the military because the town was creepy and the hotels were full of drunken revelers celebrating a local holiday. Not something we wanted to be anywhere near! In the morning, while we waited for the immigration office to open, we tried to figure out the money exchange rates to change Ecuadoran sucres to Peruvian soles. Changing money is always hard and I filled two pages of my notebook with equations changing from dollars to sucres to soles and still, we did not figure out if higher or lower rates were to our advantage. Finally, armed with what we thought were the right figures, we went to the money changers who worked their magic calculators and found out we still had it backwards! AARGH! How complicated can this be? In the end, we got a good rate, changed our money and passed the border officials into Peru.
What we had not counted on was the desolate wasteland and poverty of northern coastal Peru. Dreary stretches of gray desert are broken only by towns that appear poverty-stricken, dirty unhealthy-looking children in shredded clothes blend in with their homes built of mud bricks that are indistinguishable from the dusty drab surroundings. "Pueblos jovenes," squatter shanty-towns, suburbanize the outskirts of many communities, situated on the worst possible land. One, outside the town of Guadalupe, consisted of shacks made of cardboard, reeds and rush mats haphazardly scattered under a mountain where the wind howled, driving dust before it. No water, no vegetation, just shacks. But squatting, occupying previously uninhabited land, is the only hope of many poor Peruvians to gain land and they do it, no matter how miserable the existence.
This miserable existence is complicated by the remaining effects of El Niño: fields had been inundated and irrigation ditches destroyed, sheep and other stock had died from infections in their feet from not being able to escape the mud or of pneumonia from their coats never drying out. Peruvians have a saying: "A man with 300 now has thirty, a man with thirty now has three, a man with nothing now has less than nothing." El Niño also heavily damaged the coastal infrastructure. We encountered collapsed bridges, entire stretches along the "Old" Pan American Highway that had been washed away by raging rivers leaving twenty-foot cliffs in their wake, and "potholes" that stretched for 100 yards or more. Sometimes maneuvering our tandem around these obstacles was challenging!
All of this -- the dreary landscape, the poverty and the difficulty of the roads combined to hit me with the worst bouts of homesickness that I had yet faced in the thirteen months of travel. All I could think of was how much I wanted to see my family, how I hated Peru, could not last another six months down to Ushuaia and just wanted to go HOME!
Another thing that added to my difficulty was the sometimes weird reactions that we incited. One of the last days we rode in Ecuador, a hysterically cackling woman threw a rubber boot at us. A boot? She reached down for more ammunition but we were out of range of her next missile. Bizarre? In Peru, people were sometimes downright scared of us. A couple, upon watching our approach, ran to the other side of the dirt road, she picking up a rock to protect herself should we attack. Attack? Us? The dogs also got more aggressive and frequently we stopped to pelt them with our own rocks as they snarled and snapped at us. And in Peru, more than anywhere else, children and adults called out "¡GRINGO!" as we passed. This grated heavily on the nerves as I sarcastically yelled back, "¡Peruano!" Kent got the worst of it one evening going to the market in Caraz in his tights and orange jersey while I stayed with the bike. Calls of "Look at the gringito in orange!" haunted him as the Peruvians derisively mocked his "sexy attire." We finally figured out that here in Peru, the term "gringo" is not derogatory, but simply a description meaning "white person." But we did not figure that out until after I was helped out of my funk by the good people we met along the way.
Our first night in Peru, in the dirty sprawling town of Tambo Grande, we asked for the Red Cross and ended up with a nun, Sister Magdalena from England at the Catholic Pastoral Center. Kent and I laughed about changing over from the Protestants of Ecuador to the Catholics of Peru! That night we combined resources to make a meal together before retiring to our simple but pleasant rooms (separate, of course!). Sister Magdalena passed us on to the Bishop of Chulucanas, our next stop. His first response upon seeing us waiting outside the Parish Center surrounded by a mob of men, women and children all jabbering away was to crack, "What is this -- a circus?" But he welcomed us to select a room, any room, in the large center and go take a (hot!) shower. Luxury! From there, a priest passed us on to his good friend, Juan Carlos, who was starting a restaurant in Chiclayo. In Juan Carlos's restaurant/home we feasted on succulent food that he insisted we share with him -- seafood stew, mussel soup, oriental chicken, rich duck with a regional sauce, and humitas, a kind of tamale. We even stayed an extra day to fatten up and enjoy Juan Carlos's entertaining and fascinating company.
And finally, getting me through the last depressing part of northern coastal Peru, we took advantage of the standing invitation to any and all bicycle tourists to stay with Lucho Ramirez D'Angelo and his family in Trujillo. Lucho, a successful competive cyclist and mechanic, loves having company and the guest book he keeps is a testament to this, containing maybe more than 100 entries of bicycle tourists logging their experiences. We spent hours poring over this guest book reading many experiences common to our own entered by bicycle tourists making trips similar to our own. We joined four other cycling friends the first night there, added two the following night for a record of eight sleeping wherever there was a spot not occupied by bicycles or furniture. The four left the next morning but we were joined the next morning by five other touring friends, gladly forcing us to remain another day.
Without these encouraging intervals with great friends, old and new, I might have opted for a bus out of Peru or at least direct to the mountains! Glad I did not because we rode from Trujillo with two new American touring friends into the magnificent Andes where we will remain for many weeks yet crossing southeast to Cusco and then past Lake Titicaca into Bolivia.