27 November 2008

Camino Inca, Peru

The Incas were a hearty breed. They had spleens the size of watermelons and blood as red as Satan´s cape. They inhabited a landscape of improbable subsistence, and did so with glimmering exuberance with the vast quantities of precious metals they routinely bathed in. Without a written language, the arch, or the wheel, they managed to prosper in virtual isolation from the rest of the world. Then, the lowlanders arrived.

The conquistadores bravely marched through an inhospitable landscape, savagely drooling at the prospect of what Peru held. Sadly, they destroyed much of what they came upon, but what little remains is to be marvelled. Remnants of the masterfully engineered Incan bridges, roads, and temples scatter the route that currently traces the backbone of the Andes en route to Cuzco.

If Pizarro and his contingent could scour this terrain with 30 kilos of chainmail and weapons, the least I can do is follow in their footsteps with immense technological improvements carrying 30 kilos of survival gear and drawing paper. Fortunately, I´ve learned to have slightly more honorable intentions in the five-hundred years that separates us. Other than that, we´re one in the same: restless explorers that ignore the odds in pursuit of unknown treasure. What unites us is our common interest in Cuzco, but what separates us is hundreds of kilos of gold, of which I´ll fail to find. Hopefully, there will be rewards of a different sort in store.

21 November 2008

Pastoruri, Peru

Earlier this week, we breeched the borders of Huaraz. Shortly after, we came crawling back. Along the way, we had a revelation, one that will affect the remaining eight months of our South American stint.

After nearly a month of growing accustomed to pedestrianism it´s a wonder we didn´t need training wheels, but as the gears slowly churned and the road grew sufficiently textured, the hesitation in Soren´s demeanor openly revealed itself. Between laborious breaths, he matter-of-factly expressed his distaste for this masochistic mode, mentioning a possible shift to a motorized unit. This realization came after a day-and-a-half of tormented riding in which nothing seemed to feel right for him - physically, mentally, spiritually, or philosophically.

Schematically posed, we squatted on the side of the road at 4,500 meters under an icy shower and talked it through, piece by piece, considering all possibilities and alternatives. After nearly an hour of spilling what guts we had left, we came to the conclusion that we would blaze separate trails - him with the aid of a motor and me with the aid of a fresh pair of tires. But expeditions end at breakfast, not at the heels of a glacier. So, back in Huaraz, we toasted to each other´s well-being, vowing to spend Christmas together in Cuzco, along with an unforeseeable amount of roadside encounters as the Andes unfold before us. With that, we split, but not before crunching on a bowl of cereal.

Back on the road, I cycled with explosive eagerness, but after the immediate novelty wore off, I caught myself looking longingly behind me in search of the companions that would no longer appear. With a deep and lonely sigh, I reluctantly kept on, believing that my appetite for adventure would return as the kilometers accumulate. Just as my comfort began to establish itself, it was rocked by a gunshot from behind me which simultaneously brought me to a lurching halt. After checking my vitals and inspecting my steed, I found that my tire had blown itself off the rim, obliterating the tube in the process. Not to be deterred, I performed the necessary operations and carried on - through rain, hail, and lightning - until I reached the control post for Huasarán where I shacked up while the storm blew over. While I dipped and sipped the tea and biscuits which I coddled with great affection, I was jolted into attentiveness by another gunshot. Without provocation, the tire blew - again. This time, I figured these weren´t isolated events, so I resigned to return to Huaraz the next day to gather a pair of functioning tires - again.

Thankfully, my crippled rig and I were warmly welcomed with ample reinforcemets that would facilitate my next dispatch. Soren graciously designated Will as an organ donor, the parts of which were accepted by Surely and her doctor in a time of desperate need. After an urgent operation, the transplants have been successfully installed and the patient is recovering at a startling rate. As soon as she whinnies with her characteristic vibrato, we´ll be on the road - again.

13 November 2008

Huayhuash, Peru

Cordillera Huayhuash is a notably brutal range. Skeptics should consult Joe Simpson from ¨Touching the Void.¨ As we loaded the bus for the final leg that would bring us into the circuit, the ticket-hawker looked at us quizzically and asked, ¨Where´s your guide?¨ Shrugging our shoulders, she proceeded with, ¨Well then, where will you get your donkey?¨ Shaking our heads, she followed up with a final concern, ¨Um, and the rest of your bags and boxes?¨ Her look of surprise both worried and encouraged us, meaning we were either brave or ignorant. Apparently, three scrawny gringos in tennis shoes carrying bicycle bags during the rainy season rarely undertake the Huayhuash trek without substantial support. Here we were, once again defying our reputation.

Fresh milk, barely cooled, filled our cups on the first morning. Slinging our rucksacks over our shoulders, we parted ways with the shepherd that hosted us and wandered the faint trail that led us along the lateral moraines. The mineral-enriched aggregate that eroded during geologic yoga mixed with the snowmelt, refridgerating in gelatinous pools of Blue Raspberry Jello. As the week wore on, the frequency of such desserts would minimize, and the Bill Cosby treats were replaced by less succulent, more bittersweet derivatives, endorsed by such personalities as the Tazmanian Devil.

Early the next morning, the palpable aroma of blood hung in the frigid air as steam rose from the throat of a freshly slaughtered sheep. Only a few drops of blood breeched the bucket´s rim, much to the disappointment of the dutifully waiting dogs. Pagan tendencies would have led us to conclude that this sacrifice would appease the mountain gods, but a coincidental sign counteracted whatever blood was spilt in our favor. Thirteen condors, each with a wingspan of three meters, hovered high above, some swooping down to inspect the event and whisk away our fortune. Later, we would damn these condors for snatching our good luck.

Following the index finger of the shepherd, we scrambled between the tightly binding canyon walls toward a void in the skyline. As the basin became increasingly steep and narrow, the donkey droppings disappeared, rendering the terrain impassable for four-legged porters. But as bipedals, we carried on, precariously edging our way along a thawing slope of snow and schist. Nearing the top, our fear reached new heights with each crumbling step, amplified by the bounce of my bike bags against the fifty-degree slope. We trembled while recollecting the route from the saddle, realizing now that the shepherds had been pointing elsewhere, toward a faint trail to the south, two-hundred meters below us. The dread of descending instantly dissolved when we discovered that the east-facing slope had sufficiently dried to allow a kilometer of scree-sliding. ¨Yeehaw!¨ was heard resounding in the valley below.

Early the next afternoon, the clouds collected in pulsating piles of indigo. Soon, hailstones began hopping around the thin vegetative layer like mummified grasshoppers summoned by the coded claps of thunder. With each chant, thousands of critters were resurrected with spunk. From our vantage against the only sizeable stone in sight, we watched the dance of the dead, shivering with reverence. Looking toward the pass, we witnessed an act of defiance, perpetrated by a hundred-meter waterfall that refused to comply with gravity. The water that plunged over the canyon rim was sent spraying upward with lawless fury, eventually landing on the valley floor, far from its intended target; but the event was calculated, nonetheless, for it extinguished a small brush fire that had grown with the swirling winds and static discharges. Choas resolved.

The next morning, a navigational error led us into a dangerously hot trap. So hot was the trap that we actually jumped in. It was dangerous because we didn´t want to get out. After an endorphinic hour, we flopped out of the hot springs and clothed ourselves for the 5,000 meter pass that awaited. That night, I´d feverishly ache for that bath. With the top in sight, we were forced to sprint past the cairns and deny our triumph, propelled by a morbid fear of what chased us. Indigo has never been so intimidating. Safely on the leeward side of the slope, we cowered under a boulder and coddled a cup of soup as we waited for a clearing. The swirling snow and the resulting snot that dripped from my nose made for fine garnishes.

The limits that I continually seek were viewed from a frighteningly close proximity that day. Never do I expect to reach those limits because that would incur irrevocable results, but the closer I come, the livlier I feel. I felt alive that day, but as a result, I was left feeling dead. The feverish sleep that ensued caused me to writhe in the sweat-soaked confines of an emergency blanket while my dreams breeched all conventions, venturing into utter surreality. For some inexplicable reason, I felt as if I were subject to the microscopic explosions that happen inside the mechanisms of a pinball machine. With each paddle flop, I was jolted awake, only to be knocked out again by the drumroll of the thumper-bumpers. While the primary ball was held captive, I became the glittering reflection that coated the extra ball. When the high scores flowed across the marquee, I shivered in concert with the flashing bulbs. Thankfully, I ran out of tokens by morning. With wide-eyed anticipation, the sun eventually thawed the ice that had collected on the inside of the tent, and I was ready to stagger on through severe nutritional debt.

We spent the remaining days on the trail in blissful ignorance of our haggard condition. By our sixth day, our tastebuds were numb to rice, beans, and raisins, and our stomachs had long since shrunk to the point of satisfaction by a single cup of this monotonous concoction. Nearing the end of the circuit, we returned to find the shepherd with whom we spent the first night preparing a delectable dinner of trout and potatoes, just as he had promised over a week ago. On our last morning, we were awake in time to enjoy hot milk which sufficiently energized us for the tenth pass that led back to the motorized world. Eight days of inadequacy desaturated our senses to the point of an awareness rarely witnessed in our pampered lives. We were able to appreciate the cycle of the sun as it incubated an infant storm, and later, gratefully acknowledge the technology that went into our plastic ponchos.

The jarring descent into Llamac strummed our tendons like stringed instruments, but instead of producing a symphony that the surroundings suggested, it provoked a sound that resembled the donkeys that we refused to take. We paid, sorely, for our independence. Shoelessly shuffling into the bus station, I thought I noticed a slightly upturned lip on the ticket-hawker from the first day. From beyond my rosy nose and through my crusted stubble, I smiled back.

On the return trip to Huaraz, a handfull of factors led to another bout with imbalance. In hindsight, I think it was the slightly out-of-tune radio station that sent me spiraling into another inescapable game of pinball. Silence, the most evasive state of South America, required nearly a week of solitude to restore itself, and was instantaneously disrupted by Sonia´s shrieking Spanish songs. In the end, Huayhuash refused to be humiliated by my insistence on independence, gently leaving its mark, reminding me which of us is immoveable. I humbly bow.