Moriartys -- Dispatch from La Paz, Bolivia

Ann and Kent Moriarty sent this dispatch on 30 October 1998 from La Paz, Bolivia.

We left Ayacucho, Peru, on a bright sunny morning, physically rested after two days of lazing around exploring the colonial city, preparing for ten days of biking on rough dirt roads that we had been told are the worst in the country. The road climbed out of the city switchbacking in front of us for miles, the landscape quickly turning to rolling pampa, the high altitude treeless, brown, and seemingly barren plains of Peru. The land and sky stretched forever, meeting at some unknown spot far in the distance and we were soon covered in pampa dust from the constant wind and the occasional passing vehicle. Out of one dust cloud materialized an old man walking towards us. "Please join us for lunch," he invited, waving to the two women and baby seated on blankets in the grass not 100 yards from the road. Kent started making excuses, not wanting to offend the man but worried about the safety of the food. "We're not hungry, we already ate, we still have a long way to go,..." but the old man waited patiently and I decided, "Why not?" As Kent and I discussed joining them, our eyes took in the grazing cows, the pigs rooting in the dirt and the sheep wandering peacefully around. We also noticed the freshly slaughtered cow carcass laid out nearby -- the intestines and organs neatly piled on a rock near the trickling stream, the head perched rather oddly on another, the hide staked out to dry, the skinned muscles of the body and legs drying in the sun. Having decided it must be fresh whatever it was for lunch, we joined the family sitting down with a hasty prayer for digestive protection.

The old man had maybe two or three teeth left in his mouth, his deeply seamed yet dignified face testifying to a life spent in the elements, his head covered by a brightly colored knit balaclava over which sat a wool fedora. His wife, appearing even more ancient than he, smiled revealing completely toothless gums. The other old woman, her face less creased but still lacking some teeth, tended the baby. Later as we talked she asked me how old I was. Responding, "32," I was shocked to find out she was only 33, one year older than I but in appearance many more. The harsh pampa ages people prematurely.

Grandmother stirred a small pot simmering over the fire containing what looked like chopped liver in a dark sauce with bits of carrot and onion. I knew there was garlic because the smell wafted up as she dished a large helping into our bowl. Managing to overcome for a moment my lifelong disgust for liver, I ate a few mouthfuls before surrendering the rest to Kent who happily polished it off, including the offered seconds.

Communicating in broken Spanish because she spoke only her native Quechua, Grandma asked if she could have my earrings and I explained how the two hearts were given to me by my mother representing my parents' hearts travelling with us. She looked at her old husband, daughter, and grandchild, gazed back at me and asked why we were travelling so far away from our families if they were so important to us. Good question. The stark differences in our lives, Peruvian shepherds and American professionals, were enormous.

"How do you have the money?"

"We saved for years."

"Why no children after six years of marriage?"

"We want to wait."

"For what?"

"For when we're ready."


We returned to talking about their shepherding lives and Kent asked them if the Shining Path, the guerrilla group until recently a violent part of Peruvian life, had helped them in any way. We had spoken with young university students in Ayacucho (the birthplace of the movement) who were intrigued by the Maoist ideology of the Shining Path and we were interested in the views of the people in the country. Apparently not, for according to their story, the guerrillas took their animals for food without repayment and raided their homes for supplies and money. We asked if they were ever physically harmed and Nelly, the daughter, answered yes and then declined to discuss the subject any longer. So we let it be, content to sit in the sun playing with the baby and enjoying quiet company. Leaving these friendly, generous people with a postcard of San Francisco, we finally hauled ourselves back up to our bike and the dusty road as they returned to shepherding their cows, pigs, and sheep.

Peru is full of such people living their quiet lives in the mountains or on the pampas but the country is also rich in minerals and there are many mining towns scattered throughout. We gained a more intimate look at one, for our friend Teodoro from Huánaco made arrangements for us to stay with his sister and her family in the dying mining town of Chicrín.

Wet cold rain poured on us as we climbed the final miles to the town. Asking in each group of dwellings along the way, "Chicrín?" we were told, "Ahead, further..." Finally, wet and cold, we arrived. But we were dismayed to find out that it was not the town that we had expected. Instead of the traditional plaza we were faced with rows of crumbling cement apartment buildings. Many were gutted, empty glassless windows and doorless frames gaping. Running water gushed from drains, and the muddy ground and gloomy sky did not help matters much. Oppressive despair permeated the atmosphere and descended on the people, including us. Kent's quiet comment, "Now I know what Siberia must be like," described it perfectly.

"Should we camp further on and forget it? Or should we find Teodoro's sister?" We finally decided upon the latter and traced down Blanca and her family. Two little girls led us over to the crumbling apartment building in the middle of other crumbling apartment buildings. They led us up several flights of stairs and I knocked on the indicated door. We were welcomed with open arms, "Come in! We have been expecting you! Teodoro said you were coming and we have a bed ready." The bike was man-handled up the narrow turning staircase and into the tiny crammed apartment. A hot cup of coffee helped warm us up as did the reception by this lovely family.

Chicrín was a company town built over 70 years ago for the mine workers. The mining company was sold to a Spanish firm not long ago and they are now allowing the town to decay, bringing in less expensive contract workers that they do not have to provide with anything other than a paycheck. In 1997, 200 of 250 workers were let go. 200 families accustomed to company-provided housing, electricity, water, and schools, now with nothing. So now much of the town is empty, except for the apartments of the fifty leftover families of workers who will most likely be replaced in the future. The Orellanos' apartment, as well as the other apartments, is in a state of disrepair, wooden floors coming up, broken windows letting in the damp cold. The bathroom has no shower and a standup concrete toilet that flushes with a bucket. Hydroelectric power, erratic because it supplies the mine's needs first, means that the family has a ready supply of candles for the night.

But the warmth of the Orellanos did battle with the dereliction, the living room literally stuffed full of several lifetimes of mementos, "good dishes," dolls, crocheted throws, little trinkets, and above all, a congenial spirit. Kent and I did not want to leave that room!

Amador, Blanca's husband, anticipating the future, planned ahead, purchasing a plot of land and building a small adobe house in Huancayo, the next city, near his wife's family. They will not be thrown out on the street with nothing but a small pension as many who are in denial will be. And the children, all four of them, are bright ambitious young people who desire education which they will continue to pursue after leaving. So in the face of upcoming loss, this family will win.

After a cup of coffee and some bread in the morning, we got back on the tandem and continued climbing to the high pampa. The roads of Peru tend to zigzag over the mountains making them less steep but sometimes seemingly twice as long as they would have been. The road from Huánaco up to the pampa followed this pattern and though it was beautifully paved, it took us forever to reach the flat plain above. Along the way we passed a truck accident, the corpse of the driver laid under a blanket beside the road -- sobering. Apparently, he had fallen asleep and gone around and over one of those switchbacking turns.

The road and the terrain straightened out finally at 14,600 feet opening to the largest high-altitude plain in the world. Dry brown grass rolled away from us until it ran into craggy snow-covered peaks which were barely visible. On these cold windswept pampas, Simón Bolívar won an important victory over the Spanish eventually leading to ejection of the colonialists and freedom for Peru. A monument commemorates the event, jutting out of the pampa, seen for miles. Sharing the pampa with this obelisk were herds of the wild beautiful vicuña, a relative of the llama and alpaca. As we stopped to watch, several herds of these richly brown-colored, graceful animals crossed the road in front of us, the larger males both guiding and forcing their charges across.

A few days later, we again found ourselves with family of Teodoro. When we arrived at the city of Huancayo, they had prepared Amador and Blanca's (the family from the mining town) unfinished adobe for us, sweeping the dirt floor, making up beds, painting the walls. These wonderful people have large hearts and we were invited into almost everyone's home for meals or coffee or juice during our time there. We spent more time with one sister, Dora and her children, and enjoyed our connection with them. When we left, she made ribbon flowers -- red for love and white for peace -- which still grace the handlebars of the tandem.

The market in Huancayo is a gigantic affair selling any imaginable item. One section that we found ourselves drawn to consisted of cages piled ten to twelve feet in the air full of rabbits and guinea pigs fattening up for sale. Cuy, or guinea pig, is considered a delicacy here and people laugh when I tell them that in the United States they are pets and no one would ever dream of eating them! Next to the live animals were dead ones in various stages of preparation, skinned, with their organs piled on top or dangling from hooks. Some booths sold skinned dessicated frogs, supposedly an aphrodisiac. Fascinating!

Kent found a four-foot-tall bag of the Peruvian version of Sugar Pops cereal which he bought for $1.00 and dug in. He walked down the street carrying the bag wrapped in one arm, popping the treats into his mouth. People stopped and stared! Funniest thing they ever saw -- a tall gringo stuffing his face. While talking to a merchant he offered the man a handful and before you know it, he was the Gringo Santa Claus, shoppers and children walking up with plastic bags open or shirt fronts pulled out or hands outstretched to receive a snack. As Kent walked no more than a single block he kept filling whatever was offered until the entire bag was gone. I did not even have a chance! Sigh. But the people were happy, munching on their treats and laughing at the gringo.

Upon leaving Huancayo headed for Ayacucho, we left the pavement and were back on rough dirt roads. Going down some hills, there were ragged children waving their arms like the mechanized dolls in a storefront window display, back and forth, back and forth, asking for money for the "road repairs" they had done, casting dirt into potholes. Their faces were as blank as those same dolls'. Shivers crept up my back.

We arrived in the country town of Huanta after a bad day on terrible roads, having contended with a slashed tire which had finally succumbed to the sharp Peruvian rocks, the hot sun beating down on us made worse by the fact we had run out of water. But in Huanta, the final day of a regional fair awaited us. After finding a hotel and cleaning off the road grime, we relaxed and joined in the fun. It was as if we had entered a county fair from home for there were food booths, bands, rides for the kids, and even a Ferris wheel. In one venue a traditional Andino band was playing its flutes and drums and they invited us, the only gringos in sight, to join them on stage, giving us baseball caps emblazoned with one of the national beers and promising to send a tape. Embarrassing but at least we got free stuff out of it! After that we were pulled into any number of dancing circles -- not able to escape into any anonymity. Kent wondered, "What will it be like to go home and be nobodies again?" Both a relief and a letdown.

The next day we arrived in Ayacucho and after our stay, we continued towards Cuzco, the dreaded reputedly most difficult riding in Peru. Climbs of up to 6,000 feet followed by descents of the same proportions meant that most days we rode no more than 30 miles or so. To physically survive, we rode two days, rested one, rode two, rested, ... for the entire distance. Our second day out, the day after we had lunch with the shepherds, a pickup pulled up alongside and the young driver and his wife invited us to stay at his parents' "hacienda" further down the road. They would not let us go until we agreed and several hours later we were precariously sliding down a narrow rock-filled slippery track the five or so miles to the gate.

The Martinelli patriarchs, Alfonso and his wife Cherly, welcomed us enthusiastically to their "Fonda", or ranch, La Colpa, once an extensive hacienda covering the entire fertile valley we had ridden into, as far as the eye could see. They invited us to sit down to a cup of coffee on the porch and we looked out at what was left. Surrounding us, the crumbling adobe walls of the old hacienda were falling into ruins, trees growing and goats running through what used to be the rooms and immense courtyard of a grand house. The mystique of it intrigued us and after talking for awhile with Alfonso and Cherly, we were "coerced" into staying several days, spending hours on the porch listening to story after story.

Alfonso, a vibrant man of 70+ years slowed down by a painfully bad back, is an intelligent, thoughtful man who reads philosophy and the Bible regularly. This seriousness does not cover over the humorous glint that often enters his eyes and I think one could do worse than have him as a grandfather. A third generation Peruvian of Italian blood he is light-skinned and -eyed. (Which explains the hundreds of black fly bites covering any exposed flesh for we noticed that dark-skinned people suffered much less. We watched in horrified fascination as the flies landed on his face, his ears, his arms and ate their lunch, Alfonso paying no attention to them. We, having light skin as well, were constantly harassed, slathering on as much insect repellent as we could stand and still getting eaten alive in spite of our chemical protection.) He had studied at Purdue University in Indiana and returned to inherit La Colpa, the family hacienda, a magnificent property of more than 3,000 hectares.

His wife of 39 years, Cherly, is a 62-year-old dynamo bursting with energy and forcefulness. She regularly gets on her tractor and surveys the 300 hectares that are left of the original hacienda. Heaven help anyone that gets in her way! They are both very proud of their family -- four children who are all successful good people having come through the fire, tempered and stronger.

What fire? Well, many fires. In 1978, a land reform bill was passed and the Martinellis, in addition to the other landed gentry, lost virtually all of their land, down to the 300 hectares surrounding the family home that they fought to keep. After land reform, they focused their money and formidable energy on the smaller plot, mechanizing, trying advanced techniques, making a go of it with what was left.

Then, in 1982, the Shining Path hit. The terrorists attacked La Colpa burning the entire home and all outbuildings down to their adobe walls and searching for the family in order to destroy them as well. Luckily they were unsuccessful in the latter for the parents and children were in Ayacucho at the time and escaped physical harm. None of them were able to return, fearing for their lives, except for one son who briefly visited the destroyed home and farm immediately after the attack in a military helicopter. The family fled to live in Lima, the capital.

The Shining Path followed and not long after, Cherly and their ten-year-old daughter and a servant were hit by a motorcycle in a terrible "accident" and nearly killed. Broken bones, internal injuries, and facial disfigurement resulted. Cherly underwent twelve operations to reconstruct her face and fix the damage. After these horrors, Alfonso went into deep depression and was hospitalized several times. They did not return to La Colpa until twelve years later in 1994 when the Shining Path was no longer such a threat in the area. Cherly in her driven way decided it was time to go back and fix things up.

She returned to face 200 squatter families who had taken advantage of the owners' absence to move in. Calling in the military to help her, she chased them off and then attacked the ruins of their home, clearing brush and trees and starting to restore the land. She lived in the village on the ridge above the valley and drove down daily to work, for danger was not entirely gone. Then, when she felt safer, she moved into a tent on the property and lived there for two years during rebuilding.

And now both Alfonso and Cherly live there in some rebuilt rooms, surrounded by what is left of the old grandeur. They are working hard to plant new crops and succeed, more out of stubbornness and pride, I think, than any need for the money. But this stubbornness and pride are part of their makeup; they refuse to be beaten or give in. This impressed us and though we did not always agree with their political ideas, we enjoyed talking to them and getting to know them and were sorry to go; seems like we are always leaving new friends....

The rest of the ride to Cuzco continued in the same vein as before, tough cycling. In one town we checked our email only to learn that two friends had suffered -- one, his pannier (containing $1,000, a water filter, and other important equipment) stolen in a small town, was unable to recover it for the police were afraid to track down the known criminals who had done it. The other, a Japanese friend, was in an accident near La Paz, Bolivia, breaking numerous bones and having to return to Quito, Ecuador, to heal. Made us a little more wary.

Finally, after eight days of riding, we arrived in Cuzco, an incredible city full of history and tourists. The city had been an Inca capital before being conquered by the Spanish who wrecked the temples and built Catholic churches over the foundations which, in many cases, were still visible. Ahh, what a luxury to sit in the balconies overlooking the Plaza de Armas, drinking coffee, playing checkers, and watching people. We needed the break after the grueling ride to get there! We rested until various biking friends arrived and spent hours sharing experiences of the road. Several of them convinced us to walk the famous Inca Trail to the ruins of Machu Picchu. So much for the rest!

We were convinced to go, not realizing how strenuous the 3 1/2 day hike would be. Nearly killed us! I am sure that someone has counted the number of rock steps but not knowing the number, I am sure that there must be more than a million, climbing two major passes and another smaller, going down as steeply on one side as they go up the other. After we started, it was not long before a group of "running porters" passed us, each carrying an incredible load of chairs, stoves, cooking equipment, backpacks, and even little tables for their clients who were on organized tours. We passed them soon after, while they were resting from their running and thus began 3 1/2 days of back and forth. We often passed the gringo clients, they carrying maybe a daypack while we had full packs carrying everything we needed. A little pride?! Nico, the other woman in our group, and I named ourselves the "Puna Girls" (Puna -- a word that we have heard but that we are not quite sure of the definition!). Puna Girls Rule!

[puna: cold, arid tableland of the Andes; sickness caused by high altitude. -- PLD]

Along the way were several other impressive Inca ruins, tucked into the beginning of the jungle, surrounded by big trees dripping with damp mosses and lichens, cascading rivers and drifting clouds. How different this area was from the dry landscape we had left behind in Cuzco. An aura of mystery draped itself over the entire area and we were enchanted, wondering what had happened to these people and the ruins that were never discovered by the Spanish. Why had they been deserted? No one knows the answer to that question, compounding the mystery and adding to the frustration of not understanding.

After storms of hail, thunder, and lightening, battles with the porters over camping spots, and burning calves from the descent of steep Inca staircases, we reached Machu Picchu. Or, more specifically, we arrived at a point from which we were supposed to be able to view the ruins. No such luck. They were completely shrouded in clouds. How could we appreciate these magnificent ruins if we could not see them? Discouragement set it until the wind started moving those pesky clouds around, sometimes clearing the ruins for a few tantalizing seconds before enshrouding them again. Until finally, the clouds disappeared, revealing the lost city in all its intricate beauty. We moved down into the sunshine and just drank it in. Nothing compared to that first view, even wandering through the ruins and exploring close-up the rooms and temples. Having seen the famous photographs of Machu Picchu many times previously did not diminish the experience of seeing it first-hand.

We were glad that we had been talked into going, the company of friends making all the difference in the world. Returning on the train to Cuzco, we celebrated with a good dinner and prepared to ride to La Paz. The entire group of five bicyclists walked around the city crippled by our burning calves. I wondered if I would even be able to ride! No such problems as we took off from this beautiful city into agricultural valleys on paved roads that were a relief from the dirt, rock, steep roads that had taken us there. We rode past Lake Titicaca, gorgeous and deeply blue, seemingly as infinite as the ocean. Pushing hard, for mail was waiting for us in La Paz, Bolivia, we crossed the border and arrived in style, a hailstorm dumping inches of the stuff on the roads making for deep slush and cold! Ah well, the rainy season has arrived and as we continue through Bolivia, I am sure we will experience more of the same.

Copyright (c) 1998 Ann Moriarty. All Rights Reserved.
This page is . Best viewed with any browser
[Index of Moriartys' items]
[Up to Phil's home page]
Phil Davidson / / Last modified 30 September 1999