Saturday, September 16, 2006


miner with golden nuggets

Nasca has lines. Before the town had lines, it had sand, dust and rocks. The lines attract tourists. Tourists tramp over the pampas. Their footprints wreck the lines. Now the lines are forbidden territory. Fly over them in a small bumpy plane or watch them on video. Walking is out.
Tour companies are in despair. What else can they show their prey? They search desperately for new lines, unforbidden lines.
The manageress of the Hostal Via Morburg is invited by a tour agency to sample their new tour. She invites me to join the freebee. First we visit a gold mine. The actual mine is three-quarters of the way up a shale precipice and inaccessible. The tour company has blasted a tunnel at the bottom of the precipice. This fake mine is our target. The tunnel is man-height and ten feet deep. The manageress is more practised at pretending interest. I prefer talking to one of the miners. The miner earns $580 a month. He lives in a shack on site and works a five and half day week. He climbs the cliff to the mine. A tunnel 350 metres long leads to the workforce. The miner has golden socks. The socks are the closest he’ll get to personal wealth. The mine owner is North American. I am not being snide at the expense of the US. I am reporting fact.
Our guide stops on the return from the mine to show us his latest discovery. We are in a valley of boulders, shale and bare rock. “Look,” he says, pointing at a chunk of mountainside. “You can see the sun and its rays.”
Our guide’s partner in the tour agency points in a different direction, though with equal enthusiasm. “There, look, a cuy. See? That’s the tail.”
I am polite. I look. I see rock. The rock has the commonplace marks any rock face has.
The hotel manageress attempts loyalty to Nasca. Unfortunately she catches my eye.


fearless two


I have struck lucky in Nasca. I am staying at the Hostal Via Morburg (known as Hotel WalkInn. Why?) I have a small room with twin beds. The beds are comfortable and the wiring to the electric water heater on the shower appears vaguely safe. A small swimming pool with clean water occupies much of one patio. All good. Better yet are the staff one of whom has a daughter. The daughter is six. Last night I was her novio. Today I am Grandfather. Is this an upgrade or a downgrade? I am also a fearless explorer in partnership with the hotel administrator.

Friday, September 15, 2006


on the road

440 Ks to Nasca, city of lines! Most of the journey is across desert. I leave Lima at 7 a.m. and am in Nasca at 4.30 p.m. I ate lunch (a steak and onions, rice $2.20) at a crossroads. A cop joined me. I understand why I have contact with so many police. They are accustomed to asking questions. They see this old guy on a Mexican registered bike. They say, Hey, did you really ride from Mexico? Where are you from? Where are you going? How old are you? Are you married? How many kids do you have? What does your wife say, you being away so long? What job do you have? How much do you earn? What does this trip cost?
Non-cops are shy of being intrusive. They gather in the background, listen.
This cop is young. He earns $300 a month. Enough to live on? Barely. He and I sit in the sun and drink orange juice and chat. The chat is interrupted by the cop rising to blow his whistle each time a bus passes. Why? Because blowing a whistle goes with the job.


I will recall Lima for two beautiful patios and a grove of olive trees. Some of the trees are sufficiently holed and wizened to be survivors of the original planting by the Spanish founders of the city. The trees stand in a public park to the south of the city centre. The district is upmarket. The trees are surrounded by well kempt lawns. Private security guards are much in evidence. The poor are absent. A cab driver pointed out the houses built by millionaires on privately expropriated corners of this public land – land reform for the super rich. Their young speed on skateboards round a public fountain.
The patios suffer a different arrogance. Imagine the temerity required to overshadow their beauty with the most mundane of late 20th century construction – such is the arrogance of architects and property developers.


I sinned in persecuting a young woman at a tourist information office close by the cathedral. She is three months into a job she enjoys. She is sweetly well meaning. She enquires of tourists their experiences of Peru and writes their polite replies in a large book. I told of the refuse and the poverty. Though I knew the answer, asked whether she had been educated at a State or private school. Private, of course. The neat tweed suit was sufficient evidence.
Ashamed at my wickedness, I sought to shrive my soul - evening mass at San Pedro. The church is Hispanic American baroque and a delight. The congregation feared for the celebrant, an elderly Monsignor in his pink cap. Would he rise from his chair after the reading of Epistle and Gospel? Would he manage the steps from altar to dais? Whether he recalled the words was immaterial. As to the service, his voice was too soft, the prayers indecipherable and buried within the coughs and shuffles of the congregation. This was a Tuesday evening; I counted over a hundred celebrants. Men were in the majority.



The Peruvian cops of the Pan Americano are correct: truck drivers and coach drivers shown neither respect nor mercv for the rider of a small bike. The Freeway into Lima is terrifying. However the spires and domes of the cathedral are visible above the rooftops. I turn right across the river and am in Lima’s historic centre. The Hostal Roma is on Rica. I find it and am shown to a very basic room. Too basic. The Hostal comes with the blessing of Journey Latin America and the Footprint guidebook. $16 is way over priced. I complain and am moved to a room with marginally more space and a bathtub of white tiles. The water is hot. The towel is adequate. Staff lift the Honda up the steps into the vestibule. Much is forgiven.


I take a late lunch at a four-table village restaurant: excellent tongue stew with rice, orange juice, coffee, $2.20. Meals offer pot luck in whom I meet. Mada, 6, and Rosita, 12, join me. Mada shows me her schoolbook. Her handwriting is neat and her drawings are good and humorous. Rosita has left her schoolwork at home - or is shy of its quality (she has her backpack). They repeat for me the mantra: Education is the road woman’s liberty. I give Mada $0.80 for chocolate. Mada spends $0.20 on two huge chocolate coated chupachupas. She will give the change to her mother.



The road passes vast chicken farms. Desert land is cheap. No need to clean up or reuse. Barns are full awhile, then abandoned. Wind tears the sheeting. The barns become raggedy and spectral. Finally only the skeleton remains. This, too, buckles beneath the wind.


wage slaves

I stop for breakfast at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The restaurant is an industrial building with windows on three sides. Continual wind has twisted the arched side doors and broken the glass panes. Two waitresses huddle from the wind at a table protected by a pillar on the extreme right of the big space. Fifty tables are laid with red tablecloths. I am the lone customer. Did the owner expect coach traffic?
The waitresses invite me to sit with them. I order American breakfast from the menu: fried eggs, fresh orange juice, rolls with butter and jam, coffee. I ask for the eggs to be fried English style (soft yokes) - such are the last small futile claims of English independence.
The waitresses are young and pretty and giggly. They earn $70 a month plus room and board. $70 is slave money. Yes, they say, but needs must. They are unarmed by education yet TV informs them of alternative worlds – there is the cruelty. One had a novio. He left. What is their future? Marriage to a passing truck driver? Oh for a magic wand…


I ride the desert again. A young man stands beside the road. He wears freshly-laundered red jogging pants, blue top, white baseball cap reversed and clean trainers with their laces loose. He is miles from anywhere; miles, even, from the nearest bush. He stands with his hands in his pockets. His dress and posture are familiar from a thousand bus stops, London, Paris, New York: the confident kid ready to bop.
A few miles separate the kid from a middle-aged couple tending a roadside shrine to a son, a brother. No car, did they come by bus or by collectivo? How often do they make this pilgrimage? Does loss dominate their lives?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Peru is big. Trujillo to Lima is 560 Ks and this is a short leg. Lima-Cusco comes next: 1100 Ks. I stop at a small town which may have a name – if so, I missed it. A small single room with bathroom sets me back $7. The shower is electrically heated. I check the wiring and stay dirty. The internet café is safer. The guys and girls recommend a fish restaurant. They instruct a motor-rickshaw driver where to take me. The driver doesn’t listen. He is into shock. Here is a real foreigner. An old man with a beard. The driver is already rehearsing the tale he will tell his kids back home. So he turns left at the end of the block. He should turn right. I tell him he should turn right. What’s the point? He has no idea where the restaurant is. He can’t recall its name. So I walk.
I find the restaurant and order a mixed cebiche: mostly fish and pulpo, a few prawns, strong on quantity. Add a big bottle of Crystal larger and the bill comes to $4.
I am half way to Lima. I am warm. I am not breaking wind. I prepare to sleep the sleep of the just and dream of Ming bouncing over a rock road high in the Andes. Hah!


sculpted sand

Ming, the Adventurous, scorned the Pan American highway as too easy a ride. He is way up in the Andes scaring sheep. I take to the shifting sands of the littoral. The phrase sits easy on the tongue. Truth is seldom poetic. I am riding across real desert in a real sandstorm. The sand stings my cheeks. Visibility is fifty metres max. Cops are nursemaiding me.
The first lot are surprised to see an old man with a sand-filled beard appear out of the mist of sand. They wave me down. Am I OK? Where am I going? Where have I come from? Mexico? On this little Honda? Never…
Except for the sea trip, I insist.
The cops think I’m nuts. A shortened version of the Hell ship voyage convinces them.
They radio ahead a few Ks to the next squad car. These cops disbelieve the first cops. In due course I appear out of the sandstorm. They wave me down. Is it true? That I rode from Mexico? That I am riding to Tierra del Fuego? That I am over seventy?
They shake their heads and mutter the Peruvian cop equivalent of Wow! They shake my hand and clap me on the back and tell me to be careful on the Pan American highway in a sandstorm. Bus and truck drivers have no respect for small bikes. Better keep to the hard shoulder.
I would be impolite in mentioning that truckers dump garbage on the hard shoulder.
So the ride continues all morning and through the first hours of the afternoon: squad car to squad car, worries as to my wellbeing, wonder at my adventure. The storm clears in mid afternoon. I see the desert. The sea wind has scoured the hills bare over millenniums and sculpted the sand into curls and peaks and steep ridges. Long lines of surf unfold across the beaches to my right. Despite the garbage, it is extraordinarily beautiful. I am having a great time.


Ming is headed for the mountains. He has studied his map over the weekend and is confident the road is asphalt. I have doubts and my bowels enter a plea for mercy. Altitude disturbs them (my bowels). I break wind with the enthusiam of a cow loosed in a field of alfalfa.


color coordinated monk

Up there in the Andes a Peruvian road rock tore loose one hinge on the Honda’s rear rack box. I don’t know which rock. Maybe it was a pothole. I ask HardCorP where I can have the hinge fixed. The technical manager checks the box. The fibreglass is weakened. A new hinge will tear loose. He heads for a biker’s store. I follow. Ming brings up the rear. I am on a small bike and Trujillo traffic is scary. Being sandwiched between two maniacs on barking 650s is downright terrifying. The tech manager rides a race even when cruising round the block for a glass of milk. Other drivers are the enemy. One-way streets are a challenge. Red lights are for nurserymaids. Across town takes twenty minutes. To Hell with a bike shop. My nerves are shot. I need a pharmacy.



I have serviced my soul, the Honda, my belly and the Blog. The soul was easiest. Churches abound. El Carmen was a delight and full for Saturday evening mass. The cathedral is splendid from the outside. I found the interior cold and Sunday service disappointing.
Honda HardCorP on Avenida Nicolas de Pierola serviced the bike. The mechanic wore slacks and polished shoes and a clean short-sleeve shirt – sufficient cause for suspicion. So I watched. I watched keenly. He did everything by the book. He changed the oil, adjusted the valves, changed the plug, adjusted the points, greased this, oiled that, on and on for three hours. He did so while squatting on his polished heels and without getting a single drop of oil on his clothes or on the floor.
He dismounted the rear wheel, had a fresh tyre and tube fitted, remounted the wheel and remained clean. I mount the wheel, I have to sit in the dirt and balance the wheel between my feet. Dirty? Imagine an old man digging with bare hands for oil in a tar patch.
HardCorp’s General Manager is a champion Trials rider.
The technical manager rides a 650 Trial bike with the baffles removed from the exhaust. A full assault by a battalion of Special Forces would be quiet in comparison. His taking my innocent pizza delivery Honda for a trial run was akin to rape.
New rear tyre, tube and a spare tube, new plug, oil change and a full 3000 K service set me back $56. Back home I would pay $56 to have a bike mechanic sneer.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


Trujillo has a good feel. It is a bright, open city. The buildings are painted in strong pastel colours. Much of the center is Hispanic Colonial. Our hotel is The Colonial on Indipendencia, two blocks from the main plaza. I am on the ground floor. Ming on the first. I have two windows, one onto the rear patio. Our bikes are parked beside the fountain in the front patio. We stroll on past the tourist restaurants and up a pedestrian street to a small square with a fountain in the middle and four trees. We eat prawn cebiche at a table on the sidewalk. I follow with a steak. Ming orders calamare and rice. Ming drinks wine, I stick with beer. The bill? $8! We feel very proud of ourselves.


The dirt yesterday was a surprise. I hadn’t prepared myself. I didn’t know how long the dirt would continue or how much worse it might get. I felt that I was holding Ming back. Today I know. We have 160 Ks of dirt. I leave thirty minutes ahead of Ming. The road is rutted at the corners. The ruts are filled with fine powder. I ease into the corners and often use my feet to steady the bike. The straights are loose stone and bumps and holes. Some parts are only the width of a truck. The drop is terrifying. The road climbs and climbs and finally frees its self to cross dry windswept fells. I have ridden 40 Ks in the first two hours. Rather than depressed, I feel elated. This is tough. I am in my seventies. I am riding a small road bike. The grey crags ahead are lifted from the Scottish highlands. A reed-fringed tarn awakens teenage memories of casting for trout. The climb ends at 13,700 feet. I must be achieving some kind of Old Man’s record.


priest & self
The cathedral is in the worthy hands of a priest raised in Spain’s Rioca. He has spent 22 years in Peru. As a young priest, he travelled his first parish by mule. When he came to Huamachuco, the cathedral existed as concrete pillars and a curved roof. The parishioners made the bricks and built the walls. None of them like the cathedral. They wish to build a facade more in keeping with the Plaza. A concrete crossbeam supporting the choir loft is a major obstacle.
‘That beam would survive a nuclear war,’ complains the priest.
We talk of the many Protestant sects proselytising in the Province.
The priest’s sole desire is that people come to God. What route they choose is immaterial: Hindu, Buddhist (looking at Ming), whatever…
This might be an unpopular view with a conservative Vatican.
I suspect the priest is too busy struggling with the earthly and spiritual difficulties of his flock to give much care for such strictures. He struck both Ming and I as a remarkable man, kindly and gentle and deeply committed. How wonderful were he to see a new facade built.


The faithful and those without faith are united in their dislike of Huamachuco’s new cathedral. Architecturally it is out of place. It is a late 20th century industrial building in a 17th century setting. The gates are locked. The janitor will open at 8 a.m. I wait and talk with an elderly schoolteacher. She is an earnest lady, kindly. She cradles a large bunch of roses for the cathedral. A teacher’s monthly salary of $260 is insufficient to help buy medicine for her parents or small gifts for her grandchildren. She asks where I am going. I answer, ‘To Trujillo.’
She tells me that the road should be paved. Funds were apportioned more than ten years ago. Officials embezzled the funds and decamped for Europe. Now the road is in a disastrous state. Huamachuco is become an island. She nods in agreement with herself a she relates the theft of the road funds. ‘Corruption is the tremendous tragedy of our country, senor. Corruption is present at every level of Government – even here in the municipality.’
The janitor is a poor timekeeper.
I go in search of a priest.



Ming reaches Huamachuco three hours ahead of the bus. He finds an excellent hotel, the Colonial ($7.60). He asks a cop outside the cop shop on the Plaza for directions to the bus terminal. The cop drives Ming to the terminal in the police pick-up.
We have piping hot water in our bathrooms. We eat an excellent dinner at a small steakhouse on the square midway between the police station and the cathedral. The original cathedral was built of adobe. It fell down. The new cathedral resembles an aircraft hanger for small planes.
The sky is clear. The moon is almost full. Ming is in the mood for wine. Dinner for two accompanied by a litre of surprisingly good Peruvian red sets us back $10. We like Huamachuco. We don’t feel cheated. Strange that two towns in the Andes, both Hispanic Colonial, should be so different in atmosphere.


I have three hours to wait before the bus departs. I watch SEABISCUIT on TV in the cafe on the corner of the plaza. A gang of kindly helpers lay the Honda on its side in the rear luggage compartment. The omnibus takes three-and-a-half hours to reach Huamachuco. The distance is 60 Ks. The surface is awful. Some corners are so tight that the bus has to back up. I 'pay $1.60 as a passenger and $9 for the bike. I sit next to a young lady with a plump face and a quiet voice. Her petticoats splay her skirt and she wears a broad-brimmed straw hat with a high crown. She grabs my knee on a couple of bad curves, curves where the edge is so close you look straight down the side of the bus into the abyss. A video of a jungle horror movie plays on TV. The dialogue is English drowned by Latino pop from the HiFi speakers. I feel a fool having to ask my quiet-voiced companion to repeat herself as she comments on the passing scenery. She clearly believes that, in my old age, I am simpleminded - or all foreigners are simple.
‘That is a lake’, she says. ‘There are many trout.’
‘That is the river.’
‘That is the irrigation ditch’
‘That is wheat.’
‘That is rice.’
‘Those are sheep.’
‘Pardon me,’ I say and she repeats with patience, ‘Those are tiles for the roof.’
‘There they are making adobe bricks.’
‘That is a pig.’
My fellow passengers listen and add to the commentary. My companion comments to our neighbours on the information she is feeding me and on my lack of understanding. These layers of conversation become increasingly complicated. The bike ride has left me exhausted. Falling asleep would be extremely rude.


Early mornings are best. I am alert and physically fresh. The road crosses pale upland pastures where both air and soil are thin. Cows are lethargic. Dogs don’t bother barking. Our destination is Huamachuco. The small town of San Marcos is our first halt. We breakfast at a restaurant on the square: eggs, rolls, coffee, fresh juice ($1.20). Ming has thawed and the sun is up. We feel good. Then we hit dirt. The map doesn’t say dirt. Short stretches of dirt are common in Latin America. Lack of road maintenance is the cause. The tar surface crumbles. Heavy machinery isn’t available. Easier and cheaper to strip the area. I am confident that this will be a short stretch. The surface is loose stone, powder and deep ruts.
It goes on and goes on.
The Honda hates dirt. I do 30 KPH on the less rough straights, 20 on the climbs, down to 10 on curves. The front wheel bucks in ruts and over rocks. The rear wheel kicks me in the butt. God knows what the countryside looks like. One moment’s inatention and the bike will slide. The slide could be over a precipice and a thousand foot drop.
50 Ks brings us to Cajabamba. I am exhausted. I am not having fun.
We stop for fresh orange juice at a café. The owner tells us the dirt continues to Huamachuco, three more hours. She suggests we put the bikes on the Horna Transport omnibus (omnibus is Peruvian for a standard coach). We try. Horna will take the Honda. The Suzuki is too large; it won’t fit. At least the Suzuki is built for the rough stuff. The Honda is a city girl.


I have been travelling four months. I have been cold everyday passed in the mountains. I bought a leather jacket yesterday. Ming provided the argument. He asked how I expected to survive riding 2000 Ks through Patagonia. The jacket cost $55. I was certain that I could find a jacket at a lower price, though this discounts the cost of hunting in both time and energy. So I bought. Today we rode out of town at six-thirty. The road climbed. Ming froze. I was enveloped in the warmth both of my new leather jacket and of sartorial superiority. I look good. Farmers wave. In Patagonia I will add my rain suit.


Cajamarca remains dingy. We ride 6 Ks to the sulphur baths at Banos. $10 buys the full treatment at the spa. First we are told to walk back and forth for ten minutes on a bed of loose cobbles. The exercise stretches calf muscles and instep. Better still, it takes no effort by the white-coated female staff. Nor does the next twenty minutes in single-seater plastic Jacuzzis. A mean massage completes the treatment – mean in time. Fifteen minutes does little for Biker’s Back. In the good old pre-Hispanic days, the Inca would have had the staff’s heads lopped.


30 Ks of mountain road remain and my rear tyre has a slow puncture. Ming has a pump. We pump and I sprint. I overtake a convoy of tanker trucks heading for the new gold mine. Cornering becomes difficult. We pump again. The tyre loses air more rapidly. Damn! Sprint and pump. We reach the head of the pass. The terracotta roofs of Cajamarca spread below in a broad valley. I stop at the first puncture repair shop. Ming rides on ahead. The kid who fixes the wheel is a cock-fighting fanatic. He fixes the tube while I admire two of his cocks tethered on a tiny patch of grass. Two fresh punctures are in line with previous holes. The kid tells me to buy a new tyre. I pay him $1.80 for patching the punctures. I add $2 and tell the kid the extra is to wager on the next cock fight. He giggles happily. Ming is back. He has found rooms at a hotel where the cash goes to charity. We reach the hotel. In Ming’s absence, the manageress has let all rooms for the night to a German tour group. So much for charity.
We find another hotel, big rooms, rude manager ($14). The hand basin in my bathroom leaks onto the floor. The towel might dry a damp mouse. Walls need painting. Floor requires a clean. No undersheet and the mattress is stained. Yuk! And the town is somehow dingy. Atahualpa, last of the Incas, was trapped here and executed. Now the inhabitants concentrate on tourists. Beggars beg, street traders pester, everything is overpriced.
My advice? Give the town a miss.
Any positives? A restaurant on the downhill side of the central plaza, Salas. Customers are local bourgeoisie. Food is excellent (main courses $3-$7), waiters ancient, welcoming and professional.


The Pan-American Highway follows the coast. On the littoral no one waves. Why would they? God created their environment on a bad hair day. People have turned it into a vast rubbish dump. Politicians, motorists and their privileged passengers dismiss the inhabitants as part of the rubbish.
Cajamarca is 180 Ks inland and at an altitude of 2,750 meters. The road follows a river. The valley is narrow. The hills are naked rock against which stand lines of fruit trees shading the water channels that irrigate every inch of flat land. Each small field is a victory won through generations. Each field is loved and cherished. The emerald of rice paddy gleams against grey rock-face. Mango trees glitter with gold.