29 December 2008

Cuzco, Peru

Faint whispers of Inca processions still ooze from between the minute creases that lock the stone ashlars in place. Neither conquest nor earthquake could shake the stolid foundations of such diligent builders. Perching on top with blatantly dominant intentions are the colonial institutions that successfully manipulated the indigenous culture into complacent puppets. This combination creates a perplexing architectural dichotomy, materializing the shameful cultural tragedy that coincided with the Conquest.

Despite it´s brutish past, Cuzco now manages it´s many facets responsibly and beautifully, creating a quaint community of diversity. While contemplating it, as always, through reckless delineation in embellished proportions, I´m continually impressed by the narrow sliver of sky that these narrow streets afford. For hours at a time, I wander with my neck craned upward, stumbling on the inconsistent street surface, bumping into the occasional llama.

Each street outdoes the last by contorting perspective into a bent reality where geometry is crumpled into a far more intricate complexity. The labyrinth of slotted streets winds incomprehensibly through a topographic maze where the illusive cheese is always beyond reach.

Nowhere are there parallel lines and seldom are there straight planes. Everything bubbles and ripples like a pot of water on the brink of boiling. At times, the pot boils over with as much force as a geyser, scalding everyone within proximity. These are the moments of ultimate intrigue, those unique to the orchestrated mess of this city. Cuzco is captivating, physically and mentally. The riddle will never be solved, but the process of discovery is worth the pursuit.

22 December 2008

Fugitive, Peru

The kind women at the tourist office casually informed me that I could expect a five dollar fine for every day that I overstay my visa. Come January, they said with a smile, it could increase. With this, I gagged, calculating an eighty dollar tab already, a sum that would consume well over a week´s budget. The one dollar quote that I heard from other tourists was a dirty rumor that kept me thinking I could handle a few extra days in Peru. Not the case, according to the oracles at the information bank.

As soon as the blood returned to my face, I made arrangements to minimize my fine by jumping onto the first bus headed for the border with hopes of weaseling my way out of it by some stroke of luck or bribery. Hastily, nervously, I pocketed my passport and what little American money I had been hoarding and boarded a night bus for Bolivia to legitimize the remainder of my stay.

Sleep eluded me that night, but by the time the sun broke over the moutains that surrounded Lago Titicaca, I was alert enough to craft a story worthy of remorse. With an exhausted explanation of how tiresome this trip has been, complete with anecdotes that would surely impress a hardened Peruvian, I pleaded my case to the unresponsive countenance of the border official. I claimed that the pace I´ve been cycling has made it impossible to cross this country in ninety days, and when my alotted time expired in early December, I was far from any means to rectify my illegality. He humored my rambling, but in the end, disgustedly reminded me that I had broken the law and would have to pay, just like every other gringo that enjoys himself, extensively, in Peru.

Thankfully, his inaccurate longhand addition saved me a few dollars. When he passed his calculations to the accountant, I was surprised to hear his demand - only twenty-eight dollars. With this, I sighed. The first twenty dollar bill I offered him was rejected with confidence that the bank wouldn´t accept a note that had pen markings on it. Nothing more than a scribble, but to him, it might as well have been toilet paper. Thankfully, I had another, but this, too, he snuffed with an arrogant air. Never have I seen a cleaner bill in the United States, but according to his money-grubbing experience, the bank wouldn´t take it because it had a square of Scotch tape on the edge.

At this, my patience reached it´s breaking point. I raised my voice, turning more than a few heads, and demonstrated their authenticity by peeling off the scrap of tape and giving myself a paper cut with their crisp edges. For the first time, I egotistically played my ¨American card,¨ claiming to have extensive knowledge on the currency and demanded that he take the bills to the bank. It pained me to act so obtusely, but in that situation, nothing less would have worked.

It worked. After waiting for a few cooling moments in the immigration office, the handler returned with change. The first official stamped my passport, clearing me of my infringement whilethe second official relieved me of my last American money. When I told him I´ll be back mometarily after I get stamped in the Bolivian office, he said I´ll have to wait twenty-four hours - or pay him twenty dollars. Forget it. I could handle a night in Copacabana.

After an unburdened evening on the shores of Lago Titicaca, I returned to the Peruvian immigration office twenty-five hours after leaving it. The same official from the day before greeted me with surprising affection, asking me how long I planned on staying this time. With a brief explanation that accounted for only a few more weeks beyond the holiday season, he responded with a skeptical grin, saying that he would save me some trouble by giving me six months - just in case. The pain in my ass after twenty-six hours on a bus will remind me to obey the rules next time. Thankfully, I won´t have to confront this situation again for another 183 days.

19 December 2008

Ruta Dura, Peru

Reputable sources have qualified the section approaching Cuzco as the most difficult in the Americas. The combination of road surfaces, population density, weather conditions, and vertical gain makes it the veritable summit of cycling South America. Six days of hellish terrain awaited, but with a confidence inflated by previous undertakings of similar ardor, I saddled up with hoots and hollers, soon to be reduced to weeps and whimpers.

After a scorching climb through cacti-clad canyons on the first day out of Ayacucho my spirits were leavened by the hospitality of a rather unsuspecting village whose name happened to translate as ¨He Will Kill.¨ Despite it´s inherent morbidity, the folks that lived there were all but homicidal. Moments after I parked my bike beside the church, they lured me onto the soccer field where I stumbled around with gelatinous legs until I grew accustomed to this new form of movement. The thin strip of amber that bathed the horizon eventually disappeared, but the game went on, well into the darkness. When it transformed into a sort of hide-and-seek, we retired to the candle-lit confines of Gato´s tiny bodega. There, I was introduced to ¨Chanca Kuyuchi,¨ a Quechua saying which translates to ¨Leg Movements.¨ When I asked the significance of this, they said that after a few drinks, you´re bound to be dancing. Sure enough, we jigged with what little strength remained, but before long, I ceased supporting myself and collapsed on the cold floor. Thankfully, Gato was kind enough to humor my exhaustion.

For the next few days, an insufficient intake of foods starting with something other than ¨b¨ contributed to the eventual breakdown of my immune system. As they say, man, as well as cyclists, cannot live on bread alone, but the vacuity of the terrain offered nothing more besides a few rotten bananas. One afternoon, when the road descended from 4,000 meters into a fly-infested dustbowl at 1,800 meters, I smelled a hint of lunch, but in accordance with the thematic menu, it was bunny rabbit. Since I was dreadfully low on protein and aching for something with substance, I pleaded for a plate which was promptly produced and subsequently devoured. When I dug around my pockets for change, I found no more than thirty cents - an insulting offer for such a delicacy. So, I forfeited my coveted can of tuna in exchange - something, in hindsight, I would have much rather eaten.

The following few days climbed back into the bosom, a place with even fewer facilities. At this point, I was ragged. Through my delusions, I contemplated the panorama before me, it´s vastness so great that it appeared flat. With such emptiness between myself and the surroundings, I lost all sense of perspective and felt as if I could reach out and pick the potatoes growing on the steep slope across the canyon. Thankfully, I still maintained a slice of reason that stopped me from throwing myself off the edge in pursuit of starch. As the track rounded the corner, I saw the ridges fade into the distance, struggling to accept the reality that I´d have to climb them. From then on, I lowered my head and fought blindly through the expanse. A day later, Abancay came as a great relief, but after torturing my body for nearly a week, I was feeling feeble. My sole motivation for moving on was the knowledge that I´d find refuge in Cuzco, two days and two passes later.

Midway up the second pass, after climbing for hours on end through a dismal drizzle at a pace demanding the utmost balance, I resorted to a method that Soren, Sven, and I developed in Ecuador. I bitched. Bitching, it should be clarified, doesn´t involve whining, despite the homonymn´s suggestion. Rather, it combines bicycling with hitching in a parasitic relationship with a vehicle moving slow enough to allow for affixation. Fortunately, I was able be the barnacle on a beer truck for the remainder of the climb. There, I encountered instant karmic payback when the wind blew directly in my face, forcing me to pedal downhill to keep my momentum.

The terrain eventually leveled and the atmosphere settled as I neared the naval of the Inca empire. From the ridge above Cuzco, my excitement was uncontainable. I freed my fingers from the brake levers and barrelled downhill at a breakneck speed. Rattling through the cobbled streets that wove through the immaculate Inca ashlar, I came skidding into the plaza with no concern for the trail of rubber, blood, tears, phlegm, and snot that I left behind. Here, I collapsed in a heap of tender flesh with my mouth open, tongue protruding, and eyes squinting - in a grimmacing smile. The satisfaction at having arrived in Cuzco numbed the pain to a blissful state of immobility, one I´ll maintain for quite some time.

10 December 2008

Ayacucho, Peru

Among the scattering of cacti and yucca in the hostile hinterland of the Andes is a softer sort of growth, one with extravagent colors and luscious textures. Just as my fibers fired their last round on a four-day fight from Huancavelica, the oasis of Ayacucho appeared in the fertile basin below. The 30 km descent on pristine asphalt led me to believe that this was a mirage, but nearing the city center, the habitual honking of Peruvian drivers dissolved my aparition and grounded me in the realities of South America. Preparing to release a satisfactory sigh at having reached substantial civilization again, I choked on the exhaust of a passing truck. I coughed instead.

In Ayacucho, the mixture of indian, colonial, and contemporary culture fluidly waltzes along the narrow streets and bursts onto the vast plazas. The 34 colonial churches appear at intervals along the cobbled alleys, each within view of at least two others. Evidently, the Spaniards anticipated an Inca rebellion and summoned a surplus of divine presence to aid their cause. Nowadays, one finds buisinessmen worshipping next to Quechua women, one fiddling with his mobile phone and the other twirling a rod of wool, each passively absorbing the sermon spoken from in front of the extravagantly kitschy altar.

Festivals in the Central Andes are in no shortage, and Ayacucho, in the heart of the hills, is no exception. In fact, they boast over 400 parties a year, each maintaining a unique character that dates back hundreds of years. This year, they´ve added an additional event to the already overflowing calendar - the International Guitar Festival - which I happened to find in it´s third and final night. Their layering and timing took some time to comprehend, but once I gained a slight understanding, I sat with wide eyes, openly gaping at their dexterity. By the third performer, I could share in the unbridled excitement of the old woman sitting next to me, bouncing in her seat with the first lick of each tune, whispering her affection to no one in particular. I remained stunned, despite the elbows thrust into my side at each concluding chord.

When my attention wasn´t darting from block to block leading me in untraceable circles around the city, I took some time to recooperate and prepare for the upcoming stretch. From what I hear, it´s a beast. When my claws are sharp enough to defend myself, I´ll confront the animal with as much gusto as I´ve got left.

07 December 2008

Collage, Peru

Along the route that links the few cities strung along the Central Andes, changes in scenery are as frequent as potholes. Despite the lack of the latest technology, the landscape in this remote region is transmitted via the highest quality RGB monitor. Freshly planted, plucked, or plowed potato patches contrasted with those awaiting their fate on my plate in an undulating mosaic of cultivated earth. This quilt of complementary colors gained additional vibrance from the bright blue sky, although in the early afternoon, reception was obscured by a thick static that left me soaking wet.

As the altitude increased, the quilted RGB liquified into an insoluable mixture of chaotic composition. The same pallatte used in the gridded agriculture transformed into the swirling abstraction of a surrealist´s brush. At 5,059 meters, the composition reached it´s height, as did Surely and her passenger. Nowhere else in South America can wheeled vehicles travel this high, rendering it as a milestone of sorts. Celebrations were limited to an Inca war-cry and a solitary square-dance because the B on the RGB scale was growing darker, sounding off a war-cry of it´s own.

A nervous descent through an atmospheric mosh-pit brought with it a stable sky that allowed my blood to resume flow in my knuckles. During a brief but intense break in the clouds, a curious smell rose on the steam of the thawing earth. From my deductions, either Peru got its smell from potatoes or potatoes got their smell from Peru, because the odor emitting from the thawing landscape smelled exactly as such. This reminded me of the hunger that had been lingering, but with no satiating options in sight, I chewed on my cheek.

People residing in this desolate stretch emit a similar radiance as the brilliant landscape. Instead of shouting an alienating comment at my passing - which is customary among most highlanders - the people of this region seem to have a genuine interest in why a gringo would ride a bike and eat avocados when most others ride busses and chomp on chickens. Whenever I slow down enough to exchange more than a two-syllable greeting, I´m swarmed with an onslaught of questions from everyone within earshot.

The old men usually ask how long my tires last while the younger generation is more concerned with how I manage to eat if I don´t have enough money to travel by car. No matter how hard I try to convince them that this is a choice, they still demand to know where I find food. This reminded me of the hunger that had been lingering, and with a produce cart in sight, I indulged in the bounty of a beautiful landscape.

Altiplano, Peru

Deep within the Andean fortress exists a topographic anomalie. Flatness. After fighting through months of mountains, I penetrated the last defenses to find a strangely soft underbelly to an otherwise callous creature. At 4,500 meters - high above any reasonably prospective civilization - is an authentic atmosphere unpolluted by weak foreign imports. For this reason, the majority of the population has four legs and the buildings that withstand the winds look more like anthills than refuges.

Among the wooly populace of the altiplano are a wild variety of llamas. At the edge of the plain, atop a slight bulge, appeared two vicuñas. They watched as I laboriously cranked against a barrage of thin air, agitated with electricity. As their ears girated, I could hear them squealing like worn-out rubber-duckies, the intake choked with soapy bathwater. From what I hear, their courage reflects their call, for in the face of danger, they´re known to die of cardiac arrest before ever being attacked. If only they weren´t so timid, I could pet them and know why their wool is illegal.

After crossing the last moat that stood between me and momentary respite, I clawed my way onto the plain, stupified by its expanse, but terrified by its exposure. From beyond the jagged trim brewed a frightening sight, drawing in fierce winds to fuel it´s eventual discharge. At times like these in severe caloric-deprivation, fear serves as a suitable substitute for pedal power, and since a great distance still separated me from shelter and supplies, I expended the last of my adrenaline reserves and charged onward, lance drooping, eyes watering, stomach growling.

Early the next morning, I squinted through the vast expanse and saw Junín, a semi-organized cluster of wind-weathered buildings that resembed the few remaining rice granules on an empty plate. The planets aligned that day for the International Maca Festival, of which I´m convinced I represented the single foreign fraction. The produce they so devoutly worship is worth the reverence - nutritionally speaking. As a starving cyclist, I was resurrected by the warm brew of a yam´s cousin mixed with a dash of quinoa. When my fibers were filled with enough substance to fight through another day of damning headwinds, I resumed my pathetically aerodynamic position and bade farewell to the potato-party.