PERU, 28th October – 1st November 2019
It turned out I was not very good at cycling without Dea. It had been barely an hour since we’d said our first goodbye and the 12 kilometre cycle to Margos was not going at all well. I’d failed to restock on water before leaving town, thinking I would just find some from a stream and purify it, as we’d done the previous days. Unfortunately all of the streams I passed were muddy and the water didn’t look at all appealing, even with the addition of purification tablets. So I just kept on going, hoping to find clean liquid somewhere, as the road began to climb up a series of steep switchbacks. I was growing increasingly dehydrated under the hot sun, and I reached for my spare T-shirt that I keep in my basket to mop the sweat from my brow. It was nowhere to be seen. I realised to my dismay that it must have fallen out somewhere on the bumpy road. Despite the dehydration I made the decision to go back for it, as I really was getting quite sweaty. Suddenly going more quickly as I descended on the steep road I went into the first corner a little fast and my wheels skidded on the loose gravel, causing my bike to fall out from under me. I managed to hop off unharmed, but looking back at my stricken bicycle, the remaining contents of the basket tumbling out, an orange rolling off down the hill, I was left with the thought, ‘How the hell did I ever manage to do this by myself for so many years?’
The climb just went on and on, and eventually I was forced to put a tablet in some of the muddy water and drink it to avoid passing out. It was enough to get me the rest of the way to Margos, where I found Dea sitting in the town square chatting away to some old men. After buying and chugging down a big bottle of juice I sat and joined them, until it was time for Dea to return to Huanuco in the backseat of an Italian priest’s car. I felt bad about parting like this, but I knew it was the best thing for her wrist, to get some rest and to then continue on the paved roads. The plan was for me to now continue alone on the dirt roads south to Oyon, where I would keep our arrangement to meet up with Max, the young American who was flying down to cycle South America and was kindly bringing with him a new tent and some other supplies for us. He and I would then cycle together east to Cerro de Pasco to meet up with Dea who would have hopefully recovered enough to have ridden there from Huanuco on the highway.
I felt very alone as I cycled out of Margos, albeit well stocked up with water. The road was a quiet one where the oncoming traffic consisted of a horse, a donkey with its legs tied together, five pigs, and a herd of sheep. There were also occasional cars though, and so I still felt the need to get away from the road to camp, not easy considering it was starting off on another series of switchbacks. I was already now approaching 3,600 metres and with the risk of altitude sickness I didn’t want to sleep any higher, so I took the chance to get off the road at a corner. This involved an extraordinary portage of all my gear across a rocky river and up a gorge, only to eventually arrive at an area that was not really flat, and in complete view of the switchbacks higher up the mountain. ‘This would never have happened if Dea was here,’ I thought, as I struggled to fall asleep on the uneven ground.
I was awake at first light, and got packed down quickly. After hauling all of my stuff back over the river I was on my way. The climb was nine kilometres long and something close toanother 500 metres up, and I found it hard work at first, what with the thinner air and being quite tired. But I chatted with a few locals along the way as I passed through a couple of villages, and many others said hello or waved, demonstrating how friendly the people of the Peruvian Andes are. Past the villages the scenery got more impressive, all grass and rocks and mountain tops, but it was when I finally crested the 4,000+ metre peak that things got really special. On the other side I could see in the distance a range of higher mountains that were covered in snow. These views meant I was hanging around a lot, taking my time with the descent, enjoying the peace and quiet of this high-altitude world. There was almost no traffic at all, just shepherds and their animals on the green slopes, the road switchbacking down through them, rocky crags climbing out of them, and those amazing snowy peaks in the distance. I felt like I could ride here forever, there was nothing I’d rather be doing.
It felt like the kind of place where you might find God, but after a couple of hours of thrilling descent it was Jesus that I spotted. Now I don’t go on a lot about my religious inclinations, but I give you my word that I saw Jesus that day, and to be completely honest with you, Jesus was a bit of a disappointment. And by the way, if you’re reading that with the English pronounciation, may I just point out that you should really be reading it with the Spanish style, which sounds, ironically, like a greeting to a Greek god, “Hey, Zeus!”. Anyway, Jesus was right there before me, and I rode into it, because Jesus is the name of the town that I reached at the bottom of the descent, obviously. I had hoped to stop here and find a hotel or something, to have a rest and check that Dea had made it safely back to Huanuco. Unfortunately Jesus wasn’t looking too good today, and, while there must have been ten or so hospedajes, they were all locked up and not looking likely to have WiFi anyway. The next town of Cauri was only ten kilometres away and looked a little bigger on my map, so I decided to continue and see if I’d have better luck there.
Cauri was certainly not bigger, but after riding down its run-down main street I arrived in a fairly nice public square with a huge tourist hotel in it. It was, of course, all locked up. I asked around, and was told that, indeed, it was not open. I gave up on the idea of staying anywhere, and started riding out of town. This involved another big climb and a lot more switchbacks, though the traffic now really was down to almost nothing and it was very pleasant cycling. Camping was again going to prove difficult, and with a storm approaching I needed to find somewhere fast. I located an area of flat grass down a slope away from the road and pushed my bike down to it. It was quite exposed though, and the wind was picking up as the dark clouds of a nasty-looking thunderstorm closed in. I rushed around gathering rocks and used them to weigh down the plastic sheet I was still using as a makeshift flysheet around two sides of the tent, using my bike to keep it open for air on the side facing away from the wind. This method worked quite well and the storm passed, leaving me in peace to enjoy the rest of the evening in my wonderfully remote location. I love being in such places so very much. I only wished that Dea was also with me to enjoy them.
But I was probably lying in my bed at the top of the love hotel in Huanuco. Not the ideal place to be alone for a whole week either, as the concept of a love hotel actually is that young couples can have a room of privacy for a few hours, since living with their family doesn’t allow that, I guess. I was in the cheapest of the rooms though with a shared bathroom and located at the very top of the building which was actually a very nice open rooftop terrace with great views of the town in the valley. It cost 20 soles (five pounds) per 24 hours and since most of the lovers didn’t want to unimpress their partners by going for such a lousy option, nor liked walking the stairs all the way up to the sixth floor, I had a perfect place for my solitude.
Every day I would wander out into the town both to find a couple of fresh juices helping my body recover well by stuffing it with vitamins, to talk with various family members and friends from a cafe with good WiFi, look out for Ewan and Charlie, and just to see what was out there. Although I sometimes felt rather indifferent to more travel experiences while I was still in my room, every time I walked out, turned new corners, found a new market full of fresh produce, busy food stalls and piles of kitchen and hardware, everytime I went out the spark of excitement and curiosity was back, the world could not stop intriguing me no matter how travel fatigued I felt.
On top of the exploration of normal day life in Huanuco, I was also lucky to be there for the festivities of All Saints Day and Day of the Dead. One day I found most streets in the city centre blocked for traffic, which in itself was a relief, while mostly school kids but also fire workers and other institutions were decorating the pavement of the streets with huge religious pictures made of either paint, coloured sawdust or petals, and doors and gates were lined with white and purple balloons and fresh branches.
Fireworks could be heard from different places in the town, and as I neared my hotel I got close to one of these firing places and realised it was marking the beginning of quite a remarkable procession, that all the paintings on the ground were made for. People of the Catholic church dressed in long purple capes were carrying a huge wooden table on which a crucifix with Jesus lay. It was followed by an orchestra playing soulful march music read from the music sheets that were attached to the back of the band member walking in front with clothes pegs. Of course there was a crowd of people following it through the streets and people would grab the balloons from the walls and bang them in the rhythm of the music, while the fireworks still went off. Women of the church, also dressed in purple, burned incense in front of the procession while walking backwards, always facing Jesus on the crucifix. It was such a physical and sensorial experience that somehow reminded me much more of for example Hindu rituals than the Christianity I knew from Denmark.
A few days later I curiously neared the communal cemetery that was only a few blocks from my hotel. Day of the Dead is celebrated in the beginning of November all over Latin America, although it is the Mexican version of it that is these years becoming known all over the world with its skeleton-beauties, dances and feasts. I was curious to see what was happening here in Huanuco, somewhat uncertain of what kind of atmosphere the locals would be remembering and honouring their dead in. Outside the cemetery I passed through a loud and lively market of temporary restaurants and snack stalls, flowers (both plastic and real) for sale, lights and other decorations for the graves and the sellers shouting the best that they could. At the entrance of the cemetery the shouting only quietened slightly, there was still potential for selling whatever, but gradually the sounds muted as I walked deeper into the long, narrow paths of the cemetery. As it was located in the middle of the city and at the same time was the biggest communal graveyard it was dense with graves, not spread out over the ground but built up in high walls around me. Like tiny apartments in maybe eight floors the dead were laid to rest in the walls (I assume it is the ashes of cremation, but I don’t know), behind a little glass door behind which was a plate with their name and years of birth and death. It was like being in a city of another kind of beings, and this night they all had visitors. In front of the glass doors the family put their flowers and lights, and if their dead relative rested at one of the higher floors a few metres over the ground, a ladder could be rented to crawl up there. Various music groups went around and, as I understood it, got hired by the families to play music which the dead had liked. There were solo saxophonists, harp players, singers and little orchestras with horns and drums. The atmosphere was not overly happy, nor overly sad, it was something else, focused and connected with that and those which we tend to let slip away in our everyday life. Life and death, what we came from and who made us like we are. So essential, and so complex.
My aunt had died just a few days earlier, and I myself got partly absorbed in this atmosphere too, appreciating how this is done together, not individually and often in silence, like in my country. But at the same time I also clearly felt like an outsider, I had no dead family member to visit here and everyone looked at me and knew. I was not unwelcome, but everyone seemed to wonder what I was doing there, and since I didn’t want to disturb their contemplation I only walked a quick round before leaving again, returned to the buzz of sellers and flowers outside.
As I walked back one of the sellers caught my attention in a way I didn’t just reject straight away, he was charming and attentive, and as it turned out only curious to talk with me, a stranger. His name was Daniel and he was a refugee from Venezuela, and once again I was impressed by the cheerfulness that persisted despite the heartbreaking situation he was in. Daniel had a wife and daughter still in Venezuela who he sent money back to, but he did not know when he could return, nor what job he would be doing after the festivities at the cemetery was over.
Just as I left Daniel a few other people came to talk with me, because the Peruvians are ever so curious, talkative and not shy at all. An old man explained that he was from one of the villages Chris and I had passed through on the mountain road, and I was so happy to know what he was talking about. At the same time another woman approached me from the other side, asking me where I was from and inviting me to her home for lunch. It was such a brief interaction, but we connected on Facebook to arrange the details, and then she was gone. As I walked away I wondered what it was I had agreed to, I had no idea who she was, but I decided to go with my immediate intuition of seizing an opportunity to get to know more about these Peruvians that I liked so much.
Two days later I met up with Yodita outside the entrance to the cemetery, that was now back to normal again, and we walked to her house. It was in one of the outer areas of town with only dusty, gravel roads and lots of trash laying around, which she pointed out frustratedly, saying that Peruvians are not educated well enough and the system of governance is poor. She lived in a nice house herself, nicely decorated and with good furniture, plants and a kitchen that made me gasp with longing for again having such one myself. She had prepared a tasty meal of rice, chicken in tomato-carrot sauce and salad, which we had together with her 28-year-old son who was at home because he was a little sick. Otherwise he lived in another town with his wife and two daughters and worked as a policeman. Somehow he seemed to be both a man and his mother’s boy, and she nursed him and was obviously proud of him. After the meal, I wasn’t sure how long my invitation extended, but I found it would be rude to just leave, so I sat down on the couch and here Yodita and I had a long conversation learning more about each others’ lives. She told me she had grown up in Tingo Maria under very poor conditions, where the kids did not have toys or even underwear, and she expressed a sadness about this reality that I could never feel myself, since I have not experienced such poverty in my own body. At the same time she was so grateful to now live a good life, giving her own children better opportunities and educations and she loved them and her grandchildren, but unfortunately they all lived in other parts of the country. And as her husband was a police officer too and often away for work in other towns, she now had a cat that kept her company in the many lonely hours. She repeatedly told me how important she found it was to learn about other countries and cultures, and she had visited many different places in Peru and showed me souvenirs from them. Peru is such a rich country in both nature and culture and history. But Yodita also dreamed about travelling abroad, and when she had turned 50 she had said to her husband she wanted to travel rather than celebrate it. A trip to Europe was her dream, but he loved to party, eat and dance, and thus she never got to go, only to her own birthday party in a communal building a few blocks away.
It was such a gift for me to have such an honest and personal conversation with someone else than Chris and someone from such a different life situation than my own. It both revealed the many differences, but also the similarities between us two women, and when she served us a little glass of white port wine I was feeling a strong connection with similar situations with my sisters and girlfriends, that I had never imagined would be the end of that lunch invitation. Especially because it had all been in Spanish, and it is a mystery to me how my very poor Spanish somehow is enough to communicate so well with the Peruvians, but I assign it to them and their communication skills rather than to myself.
And so a week in Huanuco went by surprisingly quickly.
Once again I wasn’t doing too well without Dea. I slept okay on my flat bit of grass, but woke up feeling pretty unwell. The water I’d collected from a stream the day before all smelled and tasted bad, and I daren’t drink it lest it made me more unwell. But I was going up another high altitude pass, and there was no other water around. I cursed myself for being so stupid to run out of drinking water again as I struggled to push my bike back up the slope to the road. The last bit was especially steep, but I believed I could do it with one big effort. So I put in one big effort, straining with all my might to force my heavy bike up the incline. Then suddenly my feet slipped on the wet, muddy terrain. My bike started falling towards me, and I realised in a split second that I wasn’t going to be able to recover enough to hold it up, and bailed out. I turned tail and ran down the hill as fast as I could, my bike rolling and somersaulting after me, bags and possessions flying everywhere, me with the thought that ‘I really must get back to Dea as soon as I possible.’
I escaped unharmed, and my bike and bags also appeared to have survived unscathed. With a great deal of effort I carried everything up the slope piece-by-piece and reassembled everything on the road, and off I jolly well cycled. I still had around 500 metres of ascending to go, and it took a monumental effort. I was sick and dehydrated, and the altitude, once again now over 4,000 metres, surely wasn’t helping matters. I was partly saved when a village appeared where I could get some water from a tap, but the road continued to climb and remained hard work. Eventually it levelled out and a descent took me down into the small town of Anticolpa. It had started to rain and I sought shelter under a covered part of the modern-looking town square, which was very out of keeping with the poor-looking homes in the rest of the village.
The place seemed pretty empty and I sat for a while on my own out of the rain, contemplating my exhaustion, trying to motivate myself to eat something, for the altitude had also stolen my appetite. Just as I was finally reaching for my food a man came over and asked me what I was doing, where I was going, and so on. Then some boys came to ask me the same things. Then an old man came over and asked me the same things. Throughout all of this I felt a monumental exhaustion, completely robbed of all energy and unable to engage in meeting these friendly and inquisitive locals. After a while I decided that the 250 metre climb out of town was somehow more appealing, and I returned to my bike.
Again it was so tough. All I could do was creep a little along the climb and then stop to catch my breath. I felt like I was at the very edge of my limits here, that I possessed the ability to do little more, that the 4,700 metre pass looming ahead of me was an absurdity, an impossible task. It genuinely already felt like one of the hardest things I’d ever done. Being in such a wonderfully remote location high in the Peruvian Andes was a great experience, surely, but I felt like I could barely appreciate it through my exhaustion. But then came a long descent, and as I dropped down into slightly-more-oxygen-rich air I began to feel a little better. It felt like my strength was coming back as I reached a couple of absolutely stunning lakes, and by the time I set up camp a little later I was feeling pretty good about things again, almost excited by the challenge of the high pass that awaited me the next day.
It was 55 kilometres to Oyon, and after a good night’s sleep I decided that I would do it all in one day. I packed down the tent and was on my way by 6:30, knowing that it was 25 kilometres to the top of the pass. The first few even went by quite fast, as they were flattish alongside more lakes. After ten kilometres or so I reached a lake where I could see glaciers up in the far mountains, and it even crossed my mind that the road could be closed by snow, given that there was almost no traffic whatsoever now. But at the next lake the road started climbing up a series of switchbacks, and I could see mining trucks that at least reassured me that the roads would be kept open. The switchbacks were a little tough, especially with rain, hail, and snow in the air. But the weather changes very quickly in these parts, and by the time I was nearing the top the skies cleared and I had exceptional views back down at the lake I’d been climbing away from.
Unfortunately, the top of these switchbacks coincided with a mine entrance, and I was suddenly forced to share the road with huge dumper trucks that passed me closely on the narrow road. Worse was what they had done to the road itself, turning it into a horrible muddy mess that was difficult to cycle on. This unpleasant cycling experience was compensated slightly by the sight of another lake, this one with glaciers right behind it, and a friendly worker who told me that the top was not too far away as he pointed up another series of switchbacks.
The weather turned bad again as I headed for the final climb, although at least all the trucks turned off on a different route and the road improved. Up I went, now into thick cloud and unable to see much at all, up and up and up, until I was higher than I’d ever cycled before, above 4,700 metres for the first time in my life. I was feeling surprisingly good, and I made pretty good time over the summit too, which I missed as it coincided with another work entrance. So I stopped a little after the descent had begun, to sit and consider the achievement. I also wanted to wait, to give the weather a chance to improve once again. And it was the right decision, for after not very long at all the clouds shifted a little, and I saw some truly spectacular scenery, with some huge glaciers nestled in among the towering mountain peaks. I looked around me in awe, and snapped as many photos as I could before the clouds returned.
It rained again as I descended on a long series of switchbacks, and then for a long time along a river, until eventually I hit a tarmac road as I approached my goal of Oyon. It was a delight to feel the smooth road beneath my wheels again, the challenges of the mountians behind me for at least a little while, and I thought I’d celebrate by shifting into my middle chainring for the first time in days. I tried to lift the bar-end shifter upwards, and felt a worrying sensation. Instead of the shifter moving upwards, the whole left part of the drop bars did so. My handlebars had snapped! I guess the falls had done more damage than I’d first thought. I sighed, looking down at the sorry sight of one of the last remaining original parts of my bicycle in pieces, and I thought to myself, ‘I really shouldn’t cycle by myself anymore.’