Narrow crooked dirtscrabble ladder into the hilltops, each switchback a modest increment upward. Chasing coy blue holes in clouds, through small collections of homes, farmland, three cows here a half acre of yucca there. I register only faintly first through fatigue and illness that this is an incredible road, and later the sublime pierces the merely biological and I am wide open to the flood of landscape. Ascent into ethereal mist, dirt through rockscapes covered with a green rolling onward. In the distance shadow peaks and towering layers of sky, 12000 feet at Abra de Barro Negra welcomes with steady Maine spittle, tiny plants soldiering against the descended nimbus clouds. Gather speed into the 50k descent to the river valley, can’t feel my fingers or toes, forehead like I’ve had a gluttonous scoop of gelato too fast.
On the downhill in the big ring the recent days of frustration and weakness and torpor are switched off, I’m full burn and concentration. The fat bike glues to bermed curves, whistling in my ears hints of the thousand foot drops at the outside of every arc and that’s when I touch the faster currents in the flow. Lower, the space between the tracks turns to sand and when I alternate the tires plow and duneslide before tracking again. Pugsleys show little grace uphill, but right now I’m the first time you saw the space shuttle brashly scorching the final vector to Houston, holyshit that tubby motherfucker can fly.
In a little over an hour I’m in Balsas, baking nighttime heat acting as if the mountain pass is a pleasant fiction.
* * *
The next day my stomach still couldn’t tolerate, you know, food, so I didn’t eat any. This turns out to have an effect on cycling up 8000 foot climbs, which one must do to leave this valley. Crawling weaving in the granny gear dry mouth and light head, drinking at triple my normal pace in the 7am start sun. By early afternoon I stop to calculate how I’m doing, wait, that can’t be right, my hourly average is the number I used to use to figure distance I’d cover backpacking. I put it out of my mind and push my nose toward the stem, if I make the pass by, say, 5:30, then I can pull off another glorious coup like last night. The problem is, it’s Sunday, so people are hanging out, having a good time. I see a group of guys ahead sitting in the road in front of a house, they are going to be hard to escape. Deductively they insistently wave me over, one is seemingly asleep on an upside down bucket, elbows on his knees, head in hands. We make our introductions, I explain that I’ve been sick so it’s slow going, not surprisingly sugar cane whiskey is proffered as the best remedy. I gamely take a shot, more chatting and when the (2 liter former cola) bottle comes again I confess that some juice or water will be way better for me, I should go on to the little store and then be on my way. One of the guys tells me to hang on, jumps up and runs to the house. Some activity later and there’s a mom with a pitcher of koolaid on offer, no going back now, I knock back multiple gulpfuls and a few more shots as we talk about my favorite things about Peru, the weather in the USA, whether I want to buy a mobile from them, that sort of thing. Then I declare firmly that I must go, or I’ll not get over the pass before night, figuring I’m two and half hours away, and even though their “so what? sleep here” is a very decent point, I do want to make some progress given the ill-slow recent days. Then Alva with the trump card: “Stay with us for awhile and we’ll take you to the pass.” I eye the dormant mototaxi dubiously but they regard this latest play as irrefutable, I smile and sit down.
We’re bouncing along in one the worst machines ever conceived, unsteady on three wheels, creaking spewing fumes deafening hum rattle gnash, the Pugs noosed haphazardly behind me. It’s all too, I tap Alva on the shoulder, he looks back and I raise my hand to stop, he locks the brakes, I take a half step out of the side and blow like Vesuvius, a pluming arc of red instant drink, cane liquor, and last night’s mostly undigested dinner back when I thought I needed to top up my stores. I’m spitting and coughing, Alva is openly weeping over the handlebars, as this is the funniest thing to happen in a while. Hop back in, “mejor?” “claro!” At the top of the pass it’s pouring rain, we shake hands exclaim on the great time, I duck into an outhouse, put on all my warm clothes. In a half hour I’m pedaling in warmth again, in another half thinking about a place to sleep.
Shivering sweating in my puff jacket next to two kettles, two pots on an iron grid over a cooking fire, its orange glow and a candle to light the small drafty adobe room. I’ve been ordered there by Olga Susanna to keep warm as she prepares a tea from a collection of leaves and green twigs, simultaneously with her daughter-in-law Berlitz cooking dinner. One of the boys, maybe he was assigned to make sure I don’t fall over, is pressed close on this bench where I’m rip tides of nausea. Sometimes they look at me gravely, mostly there is levity and buoyant rising volumes of talk and laughter.
We are a few hundred meters from Kuelap, where I hiked up and spent the day, the bike and my gear left at Pablo’s in Tingo far below. As mistgreys and then the easily underestimated cold of evening came, my judgment and ability and stability for the two hour steep muddy downclimb dwindled. Olga Susanna has been exploring around Kuelap and assisting archeological teams for most of her life, she wears her KP1 ballcap jauntily. She was raised and in turn has raised her family in the lee of its walls, and when her granddaughter sells soup to shivering deteriorating tourists, few details elude her. She insists that I come inside, she vetoes any talk of my descending. With even the produce truck long having left the village until tomorrow, it was settled that I would spend the night there.
Gauzy shifts in attention, pendulum focus, each detail jumps out then sinks in my perception’s pool: Berlitz is in her 20’s, two small children, one a whirling daring cherub, the other with an infant’s awake and alive exploration. Ronald, her husband, holds the baby aloft in beaming pride, over the next day I witness him as involved in her life as any father I’ve known of. He wears mismatched futbol shoes, one Adidas, one something else, mudcaked from feeding the sheep and cow. The boy with me is his much younger brother, the last, I gather, of Olga Susanna’s children, strands of relations interwoven seamlessly, then a sister between him and Ronald in age, she is feeling unwell so we bond in convalescence, she has a colorful dress over her khaki pants with neon pink socks, black pumps, a snapped up denim jacket, a knit cap that she pulls over her nose sometimes, exuding mountain village cool.
Ronald is telling a story about Berlitz joining other women in the village to drink quantities of wine, he’s laughing and she is, too, confessing to liking the thick rich taste of the homemade stuff, Ronald has a grainy video on his mobile showing them carrying on, we all howl and it rumbles my middle uncomfortably. They are in harmony together, visible play and respect and collaboration.
Olga Susanna’s father is hard of hearing, they explain, but without any shortage of things to say. He launches into stories of his youth in guiding mule trains over the mountains delivering salt to villages hundreds of kilometers around, moist half closed eyes gleaming like marbles in the deep wrinkle folds of his handsome face. All the while he cuts reeds lengthwise with a flashing machete, his rough yellow fingernails stark against the haft, thin cords will be worn into twine later in the evening. Olga Susanna leans up close to her father to shout in his ear, yes, he would like some potatoes, we huddle over no two alike soup bowls, the children politely insist that I use the metal spoon even if this means they eat with the plastic. I drink two more brimming cups of medicine.
More stories in darkness, the air has a density that comes from family and community, familiarity. Ronald sets up a place for me to sleep, I go to bed with my body still astral in fever but with my consciousness quiet in the beauty and kindness here. The next morning they brighten at my presenting as visibly improved, I’ll bounce the baby on my knee and airplane her as Berlitz eats breakfast, I’ll listen rapt to Olga Susanna unpretentiously lecture on Chachapoyan history. Our thick hugs and smiles and parting met eyes, then I’m off into the mud for the valley, humbled by the sense of loving vitality above.
Drinking tradition: Everyone at the table, in this case six of us, one bottle of beer open at a time though many in ready reserve. Two glasses total, one stays at the center of the table, the other is passed from drinker to drinker counterclockwise. The drinker pours, saluts everyone, clinks the open bottle, drinks at her or his own pace, sure, chugging is okay but not expected, then dumps the backwash into the middle-of-the-table glass, which will ultimately be discarded. When we move the operation outside to the campfire, the on deck drinker holds the bottle of beer while the one cup is being consumed, the backwash is just flung into the grass.
Peru readily rockets up the list of favorite places. But, if the coffee improved to being merely terrible, I would be elated. If there is a television, it’s on and at near maximum volume, from the time one wakes until going to bed, unless you go to bed with it still on like a loud incoherent relative. Every single dessert and sweet looks heavenly; every single one is incompetent college first year dorm baking mediocrity. And the bread makes me chuckle; remember the bun on a McDonald’s filet-o’-fish from when we were kids? Yeah, artisanal breadmaking by local standards.
When Pablo, 12, speeds off downhill on the Pugs at an alarming sprint, I’m pretty sure that he’s going to put it into the ditch. Damned if he can’t pilot the thing like he was born on it, all while sitting on the top tube. We head back to his parents’ restaurant, his older brothers take turns wrestling the big tires, I hang out with his father and his friends. Eventually they get their hands on the iPhone, listen to some music, swipe through my photos. Everyone gathers to watch twenty minutes of Inception, no subtitles. The daughter has DiCaprio’s photo in her wallet and at first she speculates that this is Titanic 2. What, on a new boat? Didn’t he die? I shake my head. “He looks fat and old,” she complains. They want me to explain it, but it comes out all garbled and they end up thinking that he’s stealing good dreams from bad people to sell in order to make money to get home to his children, a premise they find entirely sound.
Suspect I’m running a serious fever, achy weak, indignity of fierce mocking waves of belly pain and nausea and all the urgent measures consequently required. But I’m at Kuelap, one of the great ruins of an ancient culture, archeologically a rival in Peru to Machu Picchu, with few tourists and complete freedom of exploration. So I’m going to explore. I wander past a group, peripherally aware, I suppose, that it’s a school trip of some sort. A junior high kid is tugging my shoulder, “a picture?” “Sure,” holding out my hand for her camera. “No, me with you.” “Oh, um, yeah, okay.” Her friend snaps the shot. “I want a picture with the gringo!” My stomach moils, I try to smile. Several queue up, the idea catches on. As each stands next to me I’m cognizant of the high number of sweat/stink/sleep cycles I’ve been through without washing. Pride keeps me from doubling over in pain. Everyone, the whole class, then the three teachers, the teachers!, somehow need a photo with the gringo. My face twists into new visages of not happy when no one is looking. Then the multitude of BFF’s want photos with both of them and me, I’m periodically moments from puking or worse. We’re posing in this circular ruin with a deep stone lined fire pit in the center and I’m fighting back bile saying, “careful don’t step…” and she’s tumbling backwards shrieking, my grip on her upper arm in a panic lock, I whip her up out around. Nervous laughter, friends clap, I’m eyeing that hole wishing with all my guts it was an outhouse.
Protected by remorseless origami hills in static heat, the remote border crossing into Peru is simple and friendly. At this midday hour — far from the scheduled bus arrivals, themselves infrequent — as quiet as I’ve ever encountered. A young man in badged polyester ocean blue short sleeves saying goodbye in Ecuador, his off-the-clock buddies insist on a round of beer, a bespectacled old man in need of a shave who would be at home in the academy shaking my hand, welcoming me and wishing a beautiful trip in Peru after insisting on a six month entry against my requested three, owing to my being on a bicycle and I should take my time to enjoy his country. A 70 meter bridge separates them, I wonder if they are friends, sometimes chatting over juice. A few lazy buildings, lunch, ice cream and some banter with mototaxi boys who trade rides on the Pugsley for my piloting their covered three-wheelers in a circle.
The theoretical knowledge that Peru is poorer potentially distorts the image, so I concentrate on really looking: sure, narrower road spec, the Toyota Hi-Lux taxi, ubiquitous in southern Ecuador, has been replaced by a smaller more efficient Corolla DX wagon, more pairs and trios than singletons on the motorbikes, that first minuscule town an unmitigated wreck of torn trenched dirt streets and ramshackle cinder block or adobe mated with wood scraps, none of which has the slightest bearing on the exuberant immanence on the front stairs or dirt lot chairs calling out to me (“hello, Gringo!” “Welcome, Gringo!”). Roosters, turkeys, pigs, donkeys, horses, ducks, children, unfettered in kaleidoscopic chaos already at a volume I rarely saw in Ecuador.
Three into four hours of grinding into cliffsides that could be Arizona or Jordan, I crest and am lifted from a trance by a town Sunday festival, a futbol match in the center, women playing volleyball (or its local variant) right next to it, music, motorcycles, smoking food tents, teenagers crisscrossing the mud main avenue with confections triumphantly aloft, the stray dogs and somnolent pigs unquestionably belonging, too. Spectators watching the game turn around, “can I ride it?”, “go for it,” and circling the pitch but mostly the thing is I’m standing there in descending light, envious but also swept slightway into the completely unpretentious buzz of these friends hanging out.
The comparative shyness of Ecuadorians has given way to an unapologetic, thoroughly confident presence in one another’s existence, your movement in everyone else’s attention and so to be observed, spontaneously, enthusiastically commented upon, as so it is for you to participate. The feeling is not one of being judged but of figuring in a story continuously publicly told out-loud that situates orients elevates, that highlight the humor or modest drama or plain ordinariness of events. I get playfully heckled by unretreating self-assured teenage girls, groups of cab drivers call me over, then call their friends over, to say hello, a family in their front yard wonders if I might demonstrate riding for their tiny wide eyed son, rifle slinging grinning soldiers in mirrored shades and boonie hats reveal shortcuts and tell me my bike is better than the others they’ve seen gringos riding. A pair of college students waiting for a ride under a tree insist on sharing their snacks.
There is the sense of shared emotional texture, where what people are feeling is naturally genuinely part of the open continuous public space. One can share objects, one can share words, this is yet another sharing, swept into delight or curiosity or calm through those around you.