… and back to the Andes

I awaken to the cold steel light of dawn filtering through the drawn curtains. The windows are fogged over indicating how cold it is outside, but I occasionally catch glimpses of the passing scenery. It looks like Iceland – barren tundra, ice floes in the river paralleling the road. Mist and fog hang over everything, reducing visibility to 50m and adding to the mystique. We’re climbing over the pass at 4,000m (13,100 ft.) and my ears are popping as we approach the mountain city of Huaraz.

Being on the second floor of a luxury bus (just $5 above economy class), my seat reclines nearly all the way – meaning I actually got some sleep through the night. It was $15 for the 9-hour trip, and comes complete with a hostess who hands out drinks, snacks, and blankets. I could get used to this. They fingerprinted and videotaped each of us as we got on the bus which I guess reassures me? Oh, and wove a metal detector cursorily over our bags, putting the TSA to shame at it’s own game of security theater. I’m finding that overnight buses are often the only option for covering long distances, and while it’s efficient and saves the cost of a hotel room, I’m pretty much wiped out the following day. Plus I miss watching the scenery rolling by. I have a front-row seat on a large picture window, but being nighttime, can’t see a durn thing.

We pull into Huaraz a bit past 7am and I leave my bag at the station to walk around and find a hotel. Being such a touristed town, there are a ton of cheap hotels and not-so-cheap gringo restaurants and coffee shops. Really nice comfortable groovy places that look like they’re straight out of Berkeley, Madison, or Asheville. WiFi abounds as does good coffee, and I even found a microbrewery! Real beer at last – made solely with hops, yeast, water, barley, and in a local twist, coca leaves. The George Clooney look-alike proprietor took a liking to me and kept feeding me tastes of brews he was working on. A jet-black porter. A pilsener which I usually don’t go for, but this one tasted so fresh, and got even more interesting when he muddled it with yerba buena (an herb similar to mint). I highly recommend this bar (13 Buhos) if you find yourself in Huaraz. The owner invokes such a fun, happy spirit in his guests that you can’t help getting swept up. One night, the traditional Alcatraz dance broke out – a sensual dance in which the woman has a tissue or napkin tucked into her waistband hanging down between the cheeks of her ass, while a man circles around with a candle trying to light it. She sways her hips and dances in circles trying to get away from him and his candle. Full of innuendo and metaphor.

This particular stretch of the Andes is called the Cordillera Blanca, and it’s the highest mountain range in the world outside of the Himalayas. Crazies Climbers from the world over come here to test their mettle on 34 peaks over 6,000 meters (20,000′). The first successful ascents were made by an intrepid American woman named Annie Smith Peck who was over fifty years old at the time. After a teaching career in classical studies she became fascinated by mountain climbing while traveling through Europe in 1885. That year she became the third woman to climb the Matterhorn, and the first to climb it wearing long pants instead of a dress! A truly inspiring woman, she continued to travel right up until the time of her death in 1935 at the age of 85.

Speaking of climbing, I saw a film called Touching the Void that one of the bars here occasionally screens. It’s an excellent documentary/reenactment of a tragic and now-famous climbing expedition that took place here in 1985 by two young but experienced climbers. Simon and Joe were trying to summit a new peak. On the second day the conditions were so rough that it took them six hours just to climb 200′. Then they ran out of fuel for the stove, which meant no more drinking water. Still, they reached the top and thought the descent would be easy. But then Joe fell and broke his leg. Apparently it’s standard procedure in these situations to leave that person behind for dead so the others can get out alive. But Simon instead lowered Joe 300′ feet at a time (which was all the rope they had) until unbeknownst to either of them, Simon went over a crevice and ended up dangling in mid air with no way up or down. With high winds, way below freezing temperatures, sunburnt and dehydrated, there was nothing either of them could do. So Simon cut the rope, plunging Joe 150′ into an ice canyon. Simon eventually made it back to base camp and took a couple of days healing his wounds and dealing with the emotions of surely having just killed his friend. But Joe was alive! He had miraculously survived the fall, and now found himself in an eerie world of ice caves. He tried for two days to climb out, finally giving up and lowering himself further down which unexpectedly led to a way out. He then spent two days crawling over boulders with a shattered leg and no food (ending up losing 1/3 of his body weight) or water until eventually making it back to camp. This film was their first return to the site and it’s incredibly moving and inspiring.

Is it any wonder I’m not going climbing? For those who don’t want to brave said conditions, many companies offer trekking tours. But even these sound a bit too much – typically it’s from 5 – 15 days of high altitude hiking and sleeping in tents at night. I’m not good with high altitude, and did I mention how cold it gets up there at night? It all sounds nice in theory, but I’m just not feeling up to it. Plus I’m running out of money. So no trekking for me, at least not here. I’m still presuming I’ll do the famous Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu, although even that one I’m having doubts about – mostly due to the cost and massive crowds.

After the film screening I had a nice conversation with the American ex-pat who organized it. He’s been living here for nine years and married a Peruvian woman. Turns out we have a lot in common – we both lived in Seattle at the same time; music and audio engineering; and politics. One topic we delved into was the “toolkits” that cultures develop. For example, Americans are very good at innovation and pushing into new directions without hindrance of tradition – something that Peruvians lack. On the other hand, there are many stifling traits in American culture that others are free from. One of the interesting concepts in Americans’ toolkit is the idea of justness and fairness. For example, we don’t kill the families of suicide bombers (even though that would be easy to do and would almost certainly end suicide bombing) because “it’s beneath us.” [Yet we bomb entire villages indiscriminately. But I digress..]

I lucked out with the weather again. It’s the off-season here which gives me the benefit of lower prices and less crowds, but usually means dreary cold rain. Apparently it has been raining for the past month and probably will again soon – but this week has been nothing but glorious sunshine, warm and spring-like. It makes such a difference – I’d probably wonder why anybody came to Huaraz if I only saw it in that weather.

The main streets were blocked off this morning for a big parade consisting of several marching bands, officials speaking, and kids of all ages dressed in their finest. Turns out it was to commemorate the founding of the university. Can you imagine NYU organizing a parade down Broadway to commemorate their founding??

This region is known for being the birthplace of the first advanced culture of the Andes some 10,000 years ago. One day I took a combi (minivan bus) about a half-hour outside of town to Willcahuain, a ruin dating from 900 B.C. – part of the Wari or possibly Chavín culture.
I’ve decided that combis are blessed with the same magical power as clown cars. Just when you think it’s really and truly full, they always manage to squeeze another few kids / animals / bags of produce inside. Why would anyone take a taxi when the bus is so much more colorful?

I can’t get over the elegant hats and wardrobes of the indigenous people. They have so little – living in dirt-floored houses, coming to town to sell a few vegetables for pennies a day – yet always manage to look so becoming. Other than the kids. The kids are invariably in need of a good bath. Their faces, in particular, are always covered in food remnants. The women carry their kids in slings on their backs until they’re quite large. I’ll bet a chiropractic who spoke Quechua would do a brisk business in these communities.

Again, loving the off-season – nobody was at this ruin, not even the guards meant to take my admission fee. The neighbor just waved me in. Down the road is another much more impressive funereal complex that the guidebooks hardly mention. Again, I had it to myself. This one featured stone buildings with tiny passageways, like it was build for gnomes. Hmm. Fun crawling through the doorways in the dark, not knowing where I’d end up. Leaving this, I had a wonderful walk back to town along an old Incan road passing picturesque farms and villages. There are a dozen such day hikes one can do around here.

Although multi-day treks aren’t in the cards for me, I did take an inexpensive ($10) and lovely one-day tour of some far-flung sites. I usually eschew tours, but sometimes they’re the most efficient way to reach outlying towns and sights. The highlight this day was a beautifully iridescent green-blue high alpine lake. On the tour with me were a dozen other people, all Peruvian, including a woman named Kathy that I hit it off with. It’s hard to explain exactly why we connected so quickly with each other; I can only surmise pheromones. Looking at it externally, there is no other reason that within hours of meeting each other we would be acting like we’d been dating for months. Kathy and I spent the next four days together hanging out, shopping (she became convinced that I would look smashing in a pink polo shirt, so that became our mission), dancing, going to hot springs, chilling. One night she regaled the bar with card tricks. Who knew?

Did I mention that she doesn’t speak a lick of English? Furthermore since she’s from the coast, her Spanish is terrible – as I’ve said before, coastal people, no matter what country, slur and speak so fast that I am hopeless at keeping up. Whereas with most people I can comprehend maybe 50% of what they’re saying (if speaking slowly) thus at least giving me a clue, with Kathy it’s about 10%. I can see how dating someone from another culture is the fastest way to improve one’s language skills. It certainly challenged mine.. by the third day I was almost in tears at my inability to communicate simple concepts. We used Google Translate for the complicated conversations. During the day we’d have pleasant semi-superficial conversations, but when something complex came up we’d say, “save it for the hotel.” Whereupon we’d whip out the computer, type out long paragraphs to each other in our native tongues, hit Translate! and turn the screen to the other person to read what we’d been trying to explain. Good fun.

Kathy is endlessly patient with me, down to earth, intelligent, trusting, loving, and has a wonderful laugh. Needless to say, it was difficult to extricate myself from her. Did I mention that she’s 22? She jokingly calls me “grandpappy”. Honestly, I was the one with an issue about the age – she wasn’t bothered by it. There is something enchanting about the optimism and lack of jadedness of youth. Yet you also get the maturity that comes from growing up in a developing country where maturity happens at a younger age. She invited me to a non-touristed part of the Amazon where her grandparents live and to spend Christmas with her family on the coast. I got a glimpse into what a wonderful life it could be marrying a local and raising a family. This is an evolution for me – it’s only in the last few years, and particularly on this trip, that I’ve revised my position on marriage and children.

One reason I couldn’t sustain the relationship, and I should have directly confronted her about this, is that I ended up paying for everything. She’s definitely not a gold-digger as is the stereotype of many Latin American women (“gringo hunters”), but in this culture it’s simply assumed that the man / gringo pays for everything. Objectively it makes sense, for we do generally have far more money than they do – an unfortunate economic reality. And I wish I could sweep her off her feet and play the role of sugar daddy, but my current situation simply doesn’t allow for that.

Back to that day tour – on the way up to the lake we came upon a motorcyclist who had wiped out in the middle of the road. His leg was bent at the unnatural angle indicative of a bad break. Ouch. It was interesting to watch how the people in our van, and others who came upon the scene, helped this poor guy who was just lying there moaning in agony. Someone ran into the woods and came back with a broken branch which was used as a splint, securing it around his leg with his belt. He was on the phone the whole time trying to raise money from family for the hospital visit. We laid flat the seats of a passing taxi and gently all picked him up and settled him in for the long ride.

Lake Llanganuco, with Huascarán National Park surrounding it, is stunning. I’m glad I at least got a taste of one of the hundreds of pristing alpine lakes around here. I wish we could have spent all day there strolling and lounging, but alas we only had an hour before jumping back into the van for the return journey.

The largest bromeliad in the world, a cousin to the pineapple, grows here. It evolved a fantastic adaptation in order to cast its seeds as far as possible. Just once in its 100-year life, the low shrub shoots up a 12m (40′) stalk which then erupts into 20,000 flowers that disperse six million seeds. Having spent its last gasp shooting its seeds, the plant promptly dies.

Along the way to the lake we paid our respects at Yungay, a town that was completely destroyed 40 years ago. Alluviones, or mudslides caused by retreating glaciers, have caused incredible destruction in this region. In 1970, the largest earthquake in the recorded history of the Western hemisphere (7.8-Richter) killed over 70,000 people here. Most of those killed were from a 10-meter-high wall of mud and boulders that came tearing down the mountain at 100 miles per hour when a high mountain lake gave way – the entire town of Yungay was buried alive. Within minutes, the only thing left of the town were the tops of a few palm trees sticking above the mud.

Global warming is raising the risk of more such disasters. It’s predicted that 80% of South America’s glaciers will disappear within the next 15 years; many of Peru’s glaciers are retreating uphill as fast as 35 yards per year. The loss of these glaciers is affecting everything from hydroelectric power production to irrigation of farms along the coast, which supply a big chunk of the country’s gross domestic product. The future doesn’t look bright.

Mountain biking is another popular sport around here. I didn’t end up going biking since I met Kathy and by the end of the week the rains had returned. But I just wanted to share this quote with you, since it’s a great description of the similar trip I took in Ecuador:

“Hey you guys, watch out for the pig when you come around this corner,” Julio said, looking back up at us from around the tight switchback we were about to dive into. “He’s right here in the middle of the trail. And make sure you don’t ride over his leash. You should never ride over a pig’s leash.”

It was our first day of riding in the Andes outside Huaraz, and as if we needed any reminders, things were a bit different than biking back home. The first thing you learn about riding in Peru is that you never know what to expect around the next bend. Whether it’s a fully-loaded bus peeling around a hairpin corner on a one-lane mountain pass, a pack of angry dogs snarling at your heels, a group of brightly-dressed campesina women leading a train of donkeys into the hills, or a ragged marching band with a religious procession winding its way through the dirt streets of town, your fingers are always at the ready while screaming down the never-ending selection of trails that braid the Andean slopes. And that’s just one reason why mountain biking here is so damn fun! […]

Many of the routes follow trails dating to pre-Inca times, winding through farms and villages where Quechua families herd sheep, tend their gardens and watch puzzled as a band of strangely-clad gringos on bikes go flying past, hooting, hollering, and shouting “buenos dias” on their way by. […]

Leaving the alpine, we were then faced with hours of ripping down dirt roads that traverse lush, terraced hillsides and pass villages that are like the setting of a Tolkien novel.

-Grady Semmens

It’s been a week of technological failures. First, my kick-ass Etymotic in-ear headphones died. I brought a backup pair of Shure headphones (good but not as good), but those are starting to fail too! Next, my trusty old iPod finally gave up the ghost. Fortunately I was able to save most of the music off of it onto my new netbook, but now I don’t have a portable device to play the music on. MP3 players are stupidly expensive down here, so I’m not sure what to do. Fortunately my old Palm Treo is limping along, so I can at least listen to podcasts and language tapes. That is, as soon as I can find decent replacement earphones. Finally, the immersion water heater I used to make tea and cup-a-noodles with died. It says it’s rated for the 220v here in Peru, but I suspect that’s what burned it out. A nice hot cup of Earl Grey makes everything all right after a long difficult day on the road, so I was very sad until I found a cheap kettle in the shops. It’s about 50x larger than the immersion one, but I’ll make room in the pack – it’s that important!


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1 Comment »

  • Nico says:

    Hola amigo,
    I finally add your blog to my favourites, and now I read it regularly. The great thing for me, about your “slow travelling”, is that you tell about places and experiences I lived some time ago, and that’s a great souvenir ! Peru, and even more Ecuador, sound to me like a previous life, so far behind …
    By the way, nice haircut !!
    I’ll leave South America in 10 days (and am already very sad about this), so I won’t have a chance to run into you again. But, hopefully, in a few months in Buenos Aires …
    Suerte !

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