Saturday, October 6, 2012

Finishing's Cool!

Anta, about 1pm and 25 kilometres west of Cusco was the point at which we said goodbye to Fritz with many thanks for all his hospitality and gracious guiding across the Andes. He’d dropped us at the local mototaxi repair shop where things were in a reassuring state of disarray. It was the usual set-up, one guy who knew what he was doing and the rest observing and offering useless advice. The sun beat down through an everlasting dark blue sky. As we explained the symptoms as best we could as our mechanic began the lengthy process of dismantling the engine. Lengthy, because like all the other mechanics we’d dealt with, he divided his time between every job serially; each project getting a few minutes of attention, interrupted by anyone passing by with something new to fix. Eventually, the parts lay before him, the shredded drive gear had blown teeth all through transmission, and he told Zaya that there was no way he could fix the bike until the next morning. “But we need to be in Urubamba by six, tonight!”, Zaya said. They went back and forth until he eventually couldn't resist Zaya any longer and agreed to get it done if he could. He did. By 4:30 that afternoon we were being led out of Anta by a complete stranger and directed along the back roads and the shortcut to Urubamba. Mid-afternoon had turned a little wild, rain and wind, but by early evening the sun began a long golden decline.

We drove alongside Lake Huaypo and some of the most beautiful scenery of the trip. The snow crested mountains away in the distance reflected on the lake, disturbed only by a cool wind. Little did we know that 20 years ago Lake Huaypo was the scene of a mysterious UFO sighting. Two young boys were out hunting frogs when the lake turned into a seething cauldron out of which shot a jet-propelled air mattress. One of the boys was knocked over by the bizarre machine and suffered severe injuries which almost killed him. But that was then and now all we wanted was to get onto the main road and reach the finish line before it got dark and some idiot in a truck ran us down.

The Adventurists’ Department of Crap Maps had outdone itself, but we found the restaurant and our colleagues anyway. It was great to actually drive across the finish line and greet the other teams that had made it ahead of us. Stories were swapped, Pisco Sours were drunk and a gigantic buffet consumed. Silly games were organized and serious drinking ensued. In an homage to Burning Man, the Adventurists had commissioned a giant wooden statue of an Inca god and promptly set it alight with a shower of fireworks.

Partying carried on into the wee hours, but at midnight I took a chance and joined Dave and Hobbit as they headed back to their hotel, which, they assured me, had rooms and was extremely well appointed. They were right on both counts. Peru had given us everything we could have wished for, bar one, Machu Picchu. That was to be the ‘icing on the cake’ as Dave later said. My adventures in Peru weren’t finishing with the Mototaxi Junket, just entering the next phase.

I said goodbye to Zaya at the party assuming we’d see each other in the morning. She was heading down to Bolivia or El Salvador before heading back to the USA for her immigration exam, followed by a quick visit to Mongolia for Christmas. At the end of the party, though, she’d joined a group heading for Cusco and we didn’t see each other again. We managed to catch up via the web later and said our farewells more properly and promised to track each other’s future adventures.

One of the things I most enjoy about traveling with Zaya is her open way with people and perhaps more importantly her genuine interest in them. That makes it easy for strangers to help her find her way through the world. For Zaya little things like money, or the myriad of challenges we faced, are simply hurdles to be overcome, not roadblocks or excuses for inaction. 90% of life is turning up, the other 10% is moving on. I’m sure that one day we’ll see the film of Zaya’s travels – if she ever sits still long enough to edit it.

Vicuñas and Junketeers

Fritz at the helmClimbing quickly we wound our way up to over 4500 meters. Zaya fell asleep and I struggled, between a headache and lack of oxygen, to stay awake. But the high altitude plain was itself a welcome change from the stress of the vertiginous road up. Vicuñas skittishly grazed alongside the highway and were really too cute for words. A relative of the domesticated llama, vicuñas were endangered in the 1960's. With the advent of conservation their numbers have since increased from 6,000 to over 350,000 today. They are prized for their very fine and warm wool. They are also, in my opinion, the prettiest of the Peruvian camelids.

We dropped into Abancay late and halted on a side street near the bus station outside the house of Fritz's extended family - a charming group who plied us with wine and questions. But it was time to rest in a real bed for the night, so we agreed with Fritz to rendezvous at 5:00AM and went in search of a hostel.

The next morning brought us Junketeers! The sun reflected warmly high up the mountain face and blue skies broke through the clouds now and then. Fritz drove us steadily up out of Abancay and I was daydreaming to the local Quechua news when we almost literally bumped into Dylan, Sledge, Dave and Mark. They had traveled together and made it all the way across the country. We shared our tales of mechanical woe and explained why our mototaxi was perched on the back of a lorry and they were collectively sympathetic and a little jealous. This was the last day - Saturday -  and it was the big push for the finish line and the victory party. There was no time to lose. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Life on the Edge

We pulled into a truck stop on the outskirts of Nazca for a dinner of trucker's fare which we'd become familiar with. Massive portions of good home cooking for very little money. Mine was a pile of rice with a egg on it and a side of chicken and chips for eight soles - about $3.00 US.

After looking around for alternative accommodation it became clear we'd have to share the truck's cabin. Fritz clambered into the upper deck and Zaya and I maneuvered ourselves top to tail on the lower bunk. It was cramped and cold and unfortunately Fritz suffers from sleep apnea. The long pauses between the gasping, rattling snores were barely drowned out by my single remaining earplug. He didn't stop Zaya sleeping, however. Zaya later learned that she had broken her tailbone when she fell through the skylight in Moyobamba. Not only was she in a lot of pain, but she couldn't sit comfortably for more than 30 minutes at a time. Chronic pain is very tiring, so it's no wonder she slept soundly.

4:00AM rolled around way too quickly and it was time to get going again. Having driven trucks in Peru for 40 years, Fritz is a survivor. It is no mean feat to have lived that long on those insanely treacherous roads, especially when you start driving at age 13. Both mornings we traveled with him Fritz followed the same routine. Starting at 5:00AM he walked around the truck, checking the tie downs and tires. Back in the cab, in the half light I watched him as he crossed himself and blew a kiss to the holy spirit. Then he carefully eased into first gear and the big semi started rolling. The bus crash was still fresh in my mind and I was grateful for his routines and his caution.

Fritz had arranged transportation of a load of chickens to a small village outside of Abancay, complete with the chicken wrangler. At the rendezvous I jumped out for a couple of bottles of water and some snacks, then helped load up the chickens. Unbeknownst to me, the chicken wrangler rode on the open trailer between the hens and our mototaxi. Peruvians still know how to have fun like we used to in America. They ride around in the back of open trucks and do crazy things like drive motorcycles without helmets. Truckers pull their seatbelts across their chests, but don't clip in. That's not for fun, though. That makes it easier to bail out of their cab if they go over a cliff.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Nazca, not NASCAR

Cusco or bust!
Pulling out her sign, Zaya started waving down trucks. It had been years since I hitchhiked anywhere and never with either a Mongolian or a mototaxi.

Sure enough within the hour Fritz pulled over in his huge Volvo 420 truck with a nearly empty flatbed heading all the way to Cusco. Negotiating a price for the ride we would now be in Urubamba by cocktail hour on Friday with enough time to get the taxi running again. Perhaps his name biased me, but Fritz looked for all the world like a 53-year-old Bavarian, short and stocky with a huge stomach and a warm smile.

At first the three of us tried manhandling the mototaxi onto the flat bed. Tying a strap around the front wheel, Fritz tried hauling up while we pushed from below. That proved fruitless and it was clear we needed more manpower. Fritz loaded our bags and after some hand waving we understood that he would tow the mototaxi to wherever we could find enough guys to help out. About five kilometres up the road, with me roped to the back steering the taxi, we pulled over and commandeered five random men to come and help lift the taxi onto the truck. With only a hint of a struggle it was done and once tied down we were on our way.

Our first stop was Nazca, famous for the lines that make long characters in the desert. The origins of the lines are now lost, but speculation includes ancient landing strips for extra-terrestrial beings, massive religious ceremonial sites, and perhaps most plausibly irrigation ditches. The ride up was beautiful in the stark manner of bone-dry desert. There was almost no natural vegetation. The lines run right next to the highway, but by the time we arrived it was dark and all we saw were signs warning drivers of sightseers.

Back to the Grind

Our plan was to be up early. We finally hit the road at 9:00AM - which isn’t particularly early. Zaya was keen to hitch a lift, while I wanted to drive. We compromised. We stood around with our thumbs out for a bit and then drove on to the next town. The PanAm Sur was all but empty as we sped along through the morning’s sea mist past smelly egg hatcheries and oddly abandoned buildings. Our first stop in Chincha Alta was the loo, followed by an oil change and lunch. 

Zaya agreed to keep driving as long as we found a replacement for the rear view mirror Leo had whacked with his head in Tarapoto. Understandably she was uncomfortable with not being able to see over her left shoulder. I had by this time resolved myself to instant death directly from the front or the side, and had pretty much given up looking backwards. The lads from El Chino Automotive were very happy to see us. They plastered our mototaxi in stickers and took lots of group photos with the crazy Chinita and the Gringo. Plus they had what we needed in the mirror department. And I had to admit it, Zaya was right: life was better and safer with two mirrors. 

The bit again between our teeth we headed back south along the PanAm, although now it was simply another bumpy road. Speeding through a peaje (a toll booth from which we were exempt) we grew confident and set our sights on Ica. The sun was warm. Sand and low hills stretched out for miles around us. Dry arroyos left a few shrubs at the corners of the occasional corral. A vulture circled far overhead. All the scene needed was the twang of a steel guitar, a few pieces of tumbleweed and stranger on a horse riding the ridge. 

“Kerpling! Kah-flingah! Plank-ety Plank!”, yelled the engine. “What the…?” “Uh-oh!” Horrible clanking and grinding noises emanated from the motor that suddenly had no ability to generate forward motion. Unsure if we’d dropped the piston, the clutch assembly, or the transmission into the oil pan, Zaya immediately shut down the motor and we bounced quietly to a halt and paused to catch our breath. 

This was the moment I capitulated and accepted that we were done driving ourselves. Our only option was another lift to another town to another repair shop. 

 Off in the distance the vulture cawed to its partner.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Kilometre 58

The Pan-American highway forbids pedestrians, horses, bicycles and mototaxi’s, so there we were - living on the edge, fugitives from justice, driving like banshees. Trucks blew by us at speed leaving us wallowing in their wake. In 10 minutes my nerves were fraying and my bottle dropping. I convinced Zaya to take the side road and get off at Pachacámac. Fear had overwhelmed logic: we'd learned the hard way that traffic in small towns in Peru has a special insanity all its own, but at least it was low speed insanity.

We pushed through Lurin and things cleared out fairly quickly. As we entered one of the many beach resorts we had our first real roadside police inspection. The young, uniformed officer wanted all of our papers, asked why we were driving a mototaxi, to where, and examined our cover letter from the Adventurists with insouciant interest. He briefly considered the situation, made his decision and let us go. A little further on our side road petered out and we had to rejoin the Pan Am. By this point trucks were fewer and further between and the going got a little safer.

Kilometre 58 and there was the vehicle inspection station. Trucks wandered in, drivers took papers to a booth, returned to their cabs and the trucks lumbered off. Zaya took what was left of her high visibility orange contact paper and made a sign for Cusco, Ica, or Nasca?, while I mulled over our options, including continuing under our own steam. Friday was the finish line party and it was already Wednesday afternoon. Even if everything went smoothly it would be a stretch to finish before Saturday.

After an hour or so of sign waving and chatting with the inspectors, Zaya found a van driver who said he'd take us as far as San Vincente in Cañete, about 75 kilometres away. From there he said we should easily find a truck heading further south towards Cusco. We piled in.

As soon as we reached San Vincente Zaya found a truck heading to Nasca, but by now all I really wanted was a night's rest in a bed. Negotiating a price with the driver proved difficult. His breath smelled of fish and his three remaining teeth were little more than pegs rattling around his mouth, making conversation incredibly distracting. He wanted 300 soles for the trip, which at that moment seemed entirely unreasonable. It didn't take much to convince Zaya our options would be better in the morning.

After we cleaned up we headed to town for Chinese food and cocktails. We found a bar frequented by a group of drunken civics students (are there any other kind?) keen to practice their English skills. The girls were pretty and the boys were charming, so we chatted a bit until they were overwhelmed by Tequila and we called it an evening.

Lima Redux

Plantains offloaded and Chiclayo toured, we were now heading down the Pan-American Highway towards Lima. Sea mist off the ocean diffused the bright sunlight, but the landscape was as arid as anywhere I’d seen. There’s no shortage of archaeological sites along the coast. While many towns and cities were abandoned 500 years ago thanks to the murderous invasion of the Spanish conquistadors, climate change also played a role in moving populations inland. 

Promptly at 5am we pulled to a stop on Lima’s northern outskirts. We took photos and bid a bittersweet farewell to our traveling companions. Life isn't really about the destination, it's about the journey and the people you meet along the way. Between them Leo, César, and Cyrano had given us of some of the best things Peru has to offer, friendship, food, and adventure. And we couldn't thank them enough.

Still, we needed to get to Cusco by Friday night. Leo told us to head towards kilometre 58 where there was a mandatory inspection point for all trucks heading south from Lima along the highway. It was probably our best chance of another lift. A quick trip to the ATM and several photos later and we were off to do battle with Lima's chaotic morning rush hour. Our now dog-eared map of Peru had just enough detail for us to find our way across the city. 

Traveling in a mototaxi is a piece of motoring insanity at the best of times. When we reached the highway I yielded the helm to Zaya and put my faith in the emergency services. Almost immediately a huge truck blasted its horn and came within inches of my left ear, leaving grit in our teeth and sweat on our palms. We wobbled, but didn't flip over. At the peaje a rather fetching traffic cop thought we were crazy and stupid for even wanting to drive on the highway. Mototaxis were simply not allowed. Eventually, though, thanks to Zaya's persuasion and insistence, she understood our predicament, relented, and let us through. We still had to pay a three soles toll, though.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Dead Trucks and Busses

Leo muttered to me in Spanish, breaking my reverie. When I stared at him blankly he tugged my shoulder and pointed out the window. It was pushing midnight and it had been a long day – mostly spent watching Cyrano fill the trailer with plantains – I was a little bleary. In the gloom a truck lay upside down in a ditch. It reminded me of a dead dung beetle, it's tires pointlessly clawing the air. Staring as we drove past, Leo turned back to me and crossed himself. I looked out the window at the moonlit cliffs to my right and imagined what the alternative might have been. There was worse to come. 

We had woken early and César led us to a meeting point so we could start our trip back to Lima. The rendezvous was by the side of the road just outside town. Leo pulled up at the appointed time and we quickly loaded the mototaxi and took off. Over the next couple days and nights we made the snug little cabin our home. Leo and César swapped off on the driving, while Cyrano mostly slept in the mototaxi in the trailer We had acquired another passenger, Yelina, who was heading to Trujillo so space was tight. 

A little further down the road from the dead lorry was a "security stop." Leo slowed down in the darkness and then decided he'd flick off the banditos, three guys shouldering automatic weapons and wearing rent-a-cop Seguridad vests. I guess we could have been shot, but the thugs had their hands full with other cars and Leo wasn't about to stop anyway. This was the same highway Zaya and I had come down two days before. Now I understood the pericoloso the officer spoke of when as we headed down the mountainside in the dark. César leaned forward and asked me if I wasn’t afraid of getting assaulted. I said, probably not. We are so far off the profile of a typical victim, I reasoned, these bandito's probably (hopefully) wouldn’t have the presence of mind to rob us. We were betting it would take them several minutes to even remember why they stopped us, by which time we'd charm our way out of trouble. 

Thirty minutes later César drove while Leo snored and I catnapped. Around 5:00AM Leo took the wheel back. As we headed down the final face of the Andes towards the coast, Leo started talking about an accident. He pointed out a break in the guardrail and as we came around the switchback we looked for wreckage in the dawn's twilight. My assumption was the accident occurred a while ago, but it was all over every newspaper’s front page in Chiclayo that morning. 22 people were killed, including several children. Leo thought the driver had fallen asleep, but the papers weren’t as clear. Bus crashes like that aren’t uncommon in Peru, some 5-6 every year, each one making headlines. And even though the wreckage had been cleared, it was the worst part of the night.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Lamas, not llamas

With the decision to head back to Lima on the truck we were preparing for an early start on Sunday, when late on Saturday it turned out our departure was delayed until Monday morning. Suddenly we were on a vacation! The day’s delay would still give us enough time, in theory, to reach the finish line by Saturday and that meant a full, free day in Tarapoto.

Climbing the stairs to the terrace for breakfast, we were presented with a spectacular view of the mountains circling the city. And even though we'd had a big dinner of chorizo and mashed plantain the night before, the eggs and coffee in the bright sun and cool morning air was very welcome. Joey joined us. Joey is loud and in your face in the way that I presume a good-looking Apache helicopter pilot should be. A peripatetic chiropractor, Joey pitched up in Peru seven years ago, married, impregnated and divorced a Peruvian woman (who now lives in Texas with their daughter and her second husband). Heartbroken, Joey found his way to Tarapoto and temporarily into the arms of a woman that convinced him to stay and start his own clinic in the city. Five years on he flies between Isidro, Tarapoto and another town kind of like the Southwest airlines of chiropractors. He has formed partnerships with local doctors and hospitals and the demand for his services is strong. Yet, because there is no formal licensing, he skates somewhat close to the law.

Towards the end of breakfast Leo’s friend Hilda and her little boy Alonso joined us. Together we went off in full tourist mode to see the local sights. Our first stop on our way up to a waterfall came a little sooner than we expected. mototaxis weren’t allowed up to the falls. Cars and motorcycles were okay, but like the Plaza des Armes in town mototaxis were banned. Neither smile, nor moue got us past the strapping, good-looking and uniformed policewoman. Thus spurned, Zaya and I swapped places and she took the controls and steered us back towards town. For the first time in a week she, by her own admission, really seemed to know what she was doing. Shifting gears in anticipation of the traffic, being in the right lane when needed, and most of all enjoying herself.

Zaya, it must be said, is one of life’s enthusiasts. Heading out of Tarapoto on the other side of town towards the quaint village of Lamas, she spontaneously pulled over for a cool, cocoanut refresher. Watching the vendor slice the tops off the cocoanuts with a full sized machete was mesmerizing and we kept our distance. Lamas is found at the top of a long hill about 40 kilometers from Tarapoto. Near the heart of the old town sits a brand new castle, garish as only faux Tudor can be. Entry was five soles each and we climbed to the very top where we contentedly looked out over the valley and an ancient barrio directly below us. On our way back towards Tarapoto we paused at a resort club for lunch and a swim. Eventually, we dropped Hilda and Alfonso back with Hilda’s dad in time for his birthday celebration. In all it was a quiet and rewarding day of touristica. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Plan B

The finish line is a week away and we have 2,000 kilometres to go, much of it along dirt roads and through the jungle with river crossings and cocaine bandits. It's not that we're not up to the task. It's not that we're concerned if the mototaxi can make it (we’re pretty sure that we’ll spend plenty of time getting it fixed in any case). It's the simple math of covering that much distance at a maximum of 35 kilometers an hour and still making it in time for Pisco Sours on Saturday a week from now.

Sitting around the table with Leo and Cesár we discussed the option of getting a lift back as far as Lima, from where we could head south under our own steam and possibly make up some of the time that we'd lost. Weighing up our alternatives, like Von Schlieffen, we decided to go to Plan B (seriously, don't worry about this bizarrely obscure reference - ed.) and head back to Lima and on towards Cusco.

It was at this point the full benefits of the mototaxi as a mode of long distance transportation finally became clear to me. This adventure is not about the destination, not about being first or last over the finish line, but about the journey. As frustratingly unreliable as the mototaxi is, it is in many ways the perfect adventuring vehicle. Here’s why: although we prepared ourselves for superficial repairs, brake cables, flat tires, oil changes and the like, each time we broke down something had failed catastrophically and we were forced to find help. And each time we found help we found the nicest people. People that through their own good graces gave us the time to put us back on the road. The minimalist, unsupported nature of this trip has given us incredibly rich insights into life in Peru. A view we would not have had any other way.

Panned Pipes

Radio music in Europe, as we discovered on the Mongol Rally last year, consists of one tune. The beat varies depending how far east you are, but it's essentially the same song repeated endlessly. You know it, it's that song that sounds like a cross between "Bitter Sweet Symphony" and "Jump!" and was arranged by ABBA. It grates on you. It grinds on you. It irritates you the way a piece of steak stuck in your molar irritates you. And, because its catchy, it sticks with you long after the radio has been smashed to pieces by some ragingly choleric metal head doing what he sees as his civic duty.

Radio music in Peru comes in a couple of flavors. The first is Dad Rock. The rock that your late baby boomer dad (dads like Mike) came of age with. Not that the '80's were a bad time to come of age, but there's a psychopathic threshold for how often you can hear "The Walk of Life" and "Money for Nothing" in the same day. The other flavor is 60's pop tunes reworked with Andean pan pipes. This hideous pastiche of World Music became much more present and therefore annoying as we made our way further south of Lima towards the Gringo Trail. "Yesterday" and "The Sounds of Silence" bleatingly played with all good intention for tourists is frankly something that should be banned by the United Nations as cruel and unusual punishment. At times it seemed the only break from "El Condor Pasa" (having come a full circle via Paul Simon) was, incongruously, "La Bamba" by Los Lobos. 

Fortunately, our drivers, Leo, Cesar, and Fritz leaned towards local musicians with a diverse range of styles - from Latin American pop to rumba and mambo - and Mike's head didn't explode. 

Friday, September 28, 2012


Waking at five in the morning with the hope that we might find a truck for Tarapoto wasn't easy, but things start happening early in Peru. We loaded up our mototaxi and headed towards the highway and a woman Zaya had met the night before. The woman in turn had contacted a friend that might be able to help. We were settling down to our tasty breakfasts of chicken, rice, plantains, and avocado when a huge 60' white Freightliner pulled. This was our ride. 100 soles to Tarapoto, up front. Seemed about the same as gas money and we'd have a shot at making up some time. The deal was made and along with six other guys we manhandled the mototaxi, luggage and all, into the back end of the truck.

Climbing into the cab we were introduced to Leonardo (Di Caprio) Cesár and Cyrano. Any initial trepidation I had vanished as we moved out. We made the milk run into Tarapoto, via Neuve Caramarca, Rioja, Moyobamba and Morales. A longer stop in Moyobamba had Leo and me mooching around the market while Zaya slept in the cab. A friend of Leo's invited he and Cesár to lunch at home and they pulled me along. Homemade caldo de gallini, chicken broth with leg of chicken, rice and potato. "Picante?", Cesár asked me. "Si, sure.", I replied. He turned around to a bush just behind him and picked off a couple of small ajis, or chilis. As I often do in unfamiliar situations, I waited to see what Cesar would do with the tiny pepper. He carefully cut it in half and then mashed one of the pieces into his soup with his spoon. Following on, I did just as he did and it was plenty spicy enough.

Just as we were finishing our meal Leo got a phone call and made it clear that we had to leave, pronto. Dashing back to the truck depot, it turned out Zaya had woken up and wandered off with her camera. She went exploring all the way to the top of the apartment building next to where the truck was parked. The roof, like so many things in Peru, was only partially finished and she stepped through a skylight and fell about eight feet onto a large bin, smashing a window and scraping her butt along the way. She was very lucky that she wasn't more seriously injured. The landlord demanded 500 soles for the window, but Leo intervened and quickly took Zaya off to find replacement glass at cost - about 200 soles. He then dragged her to the police station for a tetanus injection. What a guy!

Once we arrived in Tarapoto we settled on the Hotel Mirador recommended by the Lonely Planet. We were glad we did. Breakfast in the morning was on the upper verandah and afforded us a spectacular view of the mountains that circle over the city and across the wide valley. Even though we'd had a big dinner of chorizo and mashed plantain the night before, the eggs and coffee in the bright sun and cool morning air were very welcome. But we needed to catch up, we were two days behind and still had 2,000 kilometers to go. We needed to go to Plan B.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Into the Amazon

Zaya came back from an unsuccessful attempt at finding a truck to help speed us towards Tarapoto. It was 11AM. Very late. And we had a long way to go. Taking the wheel I put the hammer down for all 64 kilometers to Pedro Ruiz. We stopped for a late lunch of ceviche and chicken Milanese and filled up with gas for the second time that day.  Continuing east towards Rioja, Moyobamba and Tarapoto, we crested the pass just outside the tiny town of Florida when the heavens opened. The rain soaked Zaya and the cold mountain air chilled her thoroughly. Sitting in the back meant that I was effectively shielded. We stopped as soon as practicable so Zaya could change clothes and a grab warming cup of tea. 

Dusk was descending along the high ridgeline that protects the Amazon from the dry western side of Peru. In the increasing gloom and in our haste we almost flew by (haha! this is a mototaxi, it doesn't fly anywhere - ed.) two Carreteras, or highway patrol officers, flagging us down. The older one, a burly, dark haired and handsome man in his late 40's, led the discussion. Our conversation went like this (he in Spanish, we in Spanglish): 

"Hello. May I ask you what the bloody hell you think you're doing on my road in that thing at this time of day?
"We're heading to Tarapoto!" 
"Tarapoto is two days drive from here for you. This road is incredibly dangerous and mototaxis are banned at night for that reason." 
"But we are driving from Piura to Cusco and we're trying to catch up with our friends. We're a couple of days behind them already." 
"You're driving to Cusco in that? You really are crazy. Seriously, this road is not safe in the dark. What I want you to do is drive as far as Naranjos, the next major town. It's about one and a half hours down the road. You'll find a hostal there. Don't drive any further than that tonight!" 

He was very charming and made us feel like our dad telling us, his children, not to do stupid things in the dark on a mountain in the jungle. As soon as we left them it became clear why it was going to take so long - a long downhill run lay ahead of us with nothing but switchbacks and hairpins all the way. The inherent instability of the mototaxi makes cornering a very slow activity. Thirty minutes later an almost full moon broke through the clouds and highlighted the jungle with its silvery shadowy glare. The drive was at times spectacular and in turn terrifying. On one corner I could see the road ahead like a long gash, dark against the shiny blue of the trees, a sheer drop on one side and an overhang of dripping rock above it. We eventually reached the valley floor and I opened up the throttle at last. Pausing halfway at a police station for directions, an officer gave us the impression he was expecting us. "Oh it's you two. Yes, just carry straight on for another 25 minutes."

We dragged into Naranjos tired and relieved to be in the flare of its orange street lamps. This place was crumbly and disorganized in a way that felt like we'd reached the raggedy edge of civilization. "This town isn't going to look any better in the morning," I said. We found a hotel for 40 soles or about $10 for the night and went in search of a beer.  In the snazziest bar we could find five guys sat around a table passing the beer bottle and glass in the traditional manner. They had been doing that for a while before we arrived. Alex, the obvious ringleader, introduced himself and he 
immediately settled in to flirting with Zaya. Zaya held her own and eventually decided we should all have our own glass and do beer shots American style. This was the moment when the wisdom of the Peruvian approach became obvious for me. Two shots in short succession made them all noticeably redder and tipsier. Passing the bottle and glass like a blunt means you aren't going to get too drunk too quickly. 

Back at the hotel a short while later I realized that I had left my card in the ATM in Bagua Grande. Duh-oh! 

Rabid Progress

We finally pulled into Bagua Grande as dusk was settling down into evening. Zaya yielded the helm back to me and instinctively I found the central square, the Plaza des Armas. How did we know this? Because the Spanish set a common standard for urban design in Peru and every town has a Plaza des Armas which is almost invariably ringed with a church, the town hall, the palace of justice and hotels. Sure enough the Hotel Singapour (sic) was on the corner and turned out good enough for the price. Zaya talked with the proprietor about finding a truck to help us leapfrog ahead and he promised to take her early in the morning to look for one. We wandered around shooting photos and meeting a few locals. Not many gringos make it to Bagua Grande.

The following morning we were up early and met Rick, a Scotsman, at breakfast. While Zaya went off with the manager in search of a truck, Rick and I chatted a bit. He had spent the last seven years in Saudi Arabia and had had enough of work for now and decided to cycle around South America for the fun of it. He had, however, been bitten by a dog the day before and was moping about with an armful of rabies vaccine. Having started in Columbia, Rick was working his way south by instinct and the occasional help of others via the Internet. We exchanged emails and I promised to let him know about highway conditions to the east.

Rick's dilemma, like mine, had been whether to spend the money on rabies vaccine before leaving on his trip. For most of us it's a risk/cost calculation. The cost for a rabies vaccination in the US is $1,200. My doctor highly recommended it since the risk of contracting the disease in Peru is reasonably high, dogs chase mototaxis, and, he intoned, "If you get rabies you WILL DIE!" Rick had taken the risk and was on a six day course of injections (which were a lot less expensive than they would have been in the States). He later sent me an email to say that he'd become stir crazy after two days and made for Pablo Ruiz some 60 kilometers from Bagua Grande, where, it turned out, the local clinic didn't have any rabies vaccine. I haven't heard from Rick since, but that $1,200 sounds like cheap insurance now...

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Mototaxi Junk It!

An early start got us as far as Chamaya, a fork in the road with one spur heading east and the other heading north to Jaen. We were now a full day and a half behind the rest and a traffic jam stretched a good kilometer or two out of town. Everything was at a standstill. Rock slide? Accident? No one seemed to know. We snuck along the queue looking for Sam and Al and found them a few yards from the source. Apparently educational workers were striking and blocking the road in a show of solidarity. People had come from all over the region to participate. The sun rose, street vendors walked up and down hawking soy milk, pineapple, ice cream, pretty much anything to take advantage of the opportunity.

Walking through the crowd at the crossroads I got a whiff  of a '70's style pointless protest with lots of chants, flags and camaraderie. Time ticked along and finally the protesters picked their flag up off the road and we were free to move ahead. Grabbing the wheel I muscled the mototaxi through a maw of cars, trucks, and motorbikes. A bump here and there, a few shouts throen in our direction, but we never looked back.

Off we set again to the east. Throttling up our little engine reached 7,500 rpm and a blistering 30 mph. The wind in our hair and the smell of the open road and then a sudden clanking and banging and Zaya shouting "Stop! Mike, the chain came off!" I coasted to the side of the road for a look and indeed not only was the chain off the rear gear, but the main drive hub was loose and flopping around. This was more trouble than we had spares or tools for. We had to head back towards Jaen and a mechanic. Al and Sam turned around, but we told them to continue on since this was going to take a while. Bidding our goodbyes, Zaya and I started looking for a ride to town. It was hot, dusty, and ominously quiet.

There's a scene in Lawrence of Arabia when Omar Sharif comes out of the desert on a camel. The camera hangs on his distant mirage for minutes, building mystery and tension. That's kind of how it felt watching a lone mototaxi putter in our direction. It felt like an hour's wait before Juan and Pedro pulled up. We explained the situation, Pedro reviewed the damage and we eventually loaded the front wheel of our over-laden mototaxi onto the back of his. A long uphill struggle into the relative madness of Jaen traffic and we were dropped at a friend's garage. The culprit was more crap design. The lug nuts for the drive gear were secured with rubber bonded to aluminum. The solid brass replacements were both stronger and, with the help of a new rear chain, slightly more efficient. The garage also gave us an electrical overhaul including a new ignition switch. We had lights again!

We left the first garage in search of food and soon as we did our old carburetor problem flared up and it began pissing petrol again. "Basura!" Pedro declared. "Si!" I agreed, "Mas basura!" Which made them laugh. So we took off for our second mechanic. Our tow drivers had all the makings of a couple of wide boys, but their inherent niceness meant they were really spreading some very modest gringo dinero around to a couple of their buddys.

Our fuel system specialist, along with half a dozen mates, was getting gently drunk on Cristal, the local beer, when we pulled in. One of his guests was a teacher from the border near Ecuador who spoke a few words of English. He had traveled down for the protest and, like all the other guys there, had the slightly glassy-eyed look of an afternoon beer session. He explained to me how friends drink in Peru. There's one bottle of beer and one large shot glass. Each guy in turn takes the bottle, fills the glass and then takes a drink, leaving a small amount to swill the glass out before handing it to his mate. The bottle moved in a clockwise direction and this carries on as long as the conversation flows or the beer runs out. I liked this tradition. Swapping spit has its own symbolism, but the pace of drinking was very slow, the discussion and sharing stories seemed at the center of the activity, along with maintaining a steady buzz. Our mechanic had meanwhile covered himself in gas and drunk a liter or two blowing out the carburettor. Duly inspected and adjusted, and with the help of his young son, he reinstalled it, tested the engine and declared victory. With many photos and handshakes we were finally ready to hit the road. Juan and Pedro led us out of town and we headed back down the long hill towards Bagua Grande.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Chinita and The Gringo

As a short segue to our story it's worth saying that Team Livin' La Vida Loca Moto is an unlikely one. Formed at the last minute after Zaya decided to undertake all five of The Adventurists motoring adventures in one year and Mike spontaneously dropped everything for the opportunity of a month in Peru. Zaya had met Mike and Tom last year at the Mongol Rally finish line while she was back home visiting her family. A native of Mongolia, she has lived in the United States for 11 years and was drawn to the Mongol Rally for roughly the same reasons the rest of the lunatics are - the sheer joy and challenge of discovery. Behind the wanderlust lies Zaya's goal of helping promote Mongolia as a destination and promoting global travel to an increasingly wealthy Mongolian population.

There's a slight age difference, a mere 26 years between our two heroes, that invariably confused everyone they met. Were these two father and adopted daughter? Friends? Lovers, possibly? Mike quickly learned the phrase "solo amigos!". Which generally led to a sigh of relief from both younger men and older, somewhat envious ones.

Hailing from Mongolia meant that Zaya was constantly mistaken for being Chinese or occasionally Korean. Even after explaining where Mongolia was one fellow was convinced that she should have been African, not Asian. After all Angola is in Africa, isn't it? The shorthand for any Asian woman in Peru is Chinita. There is no mistaking Mike's Gringo-ness, though. Being foreign is one thing, traveling with someone you barely know is another. In the end our heroes brought not only a shared sense of adventure, as all the participants on the Junket do, but big warm smiles that opened many doors and helped make many new friends, as you will find out.


In the event a truck filled with mechanics happened by and they universally agreed that Jim and Ben´s clutch was indeed knackered. The good news was the driver had taken a team of Canadians up the mountain earlier in the day, so he was used the shenanigans of theMototaxi Junket already. He offered to take the lads back down the mountain where a fully armed mechanic could repair their mototaxi and they could be on their way again. Jim and I exchanged phone numbers so that we could text our statuses with a goal of meeting up later in the rally.

Meanwhile Livin´ La Vida Loca Moto and Thunder From Down Under carried on to a mysterious restaurant and hotel at the end of the universe, some two kilometers from where we´d been stuck. Our little taxis ground out the last couple of thousand metres and we found ourselves at the door of a building straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. The wind howled up the valley and the dimly lit threshold led the way past the banging wooden door into an even more dimly lit alcove. To the right was a restaurant of sorts. Long tables and rows of plastic chairs surrounded by Inka Cola bottles. Ahead was the reception bordered with ancient calenders and Spanish versions of the Watchtower. To the left lay a long corridor in ultimate darkness. A quick hit from the flashlight revealed two huge truck batteries powering pretty much everything for miles around.

A room for four at 20 nuevo soles sounded like a bargain. Dinner was served promptly and consisted of fried bully beef, Cristal beer, and rice. It was pretty delicious. Bed and then breakfast in the morning before the off. Another 200 metres of climbing followed by a long downhill run into Huancabamba.

After an altercation with my carburetor requiring removal, rebuilding, and replacement, the Aussies were keen to get going. Having learned on the Mongol Rally that downhill driving is often more dangerous than uphill, I took it incredibly slowly. Enthusiasm and youth have their benefits and sometimes their downsides. In this case a little too much speed saw Thunder from Down Under bounce off the track, catch the edge and flip twice before nestling is a stand of tall bushes. No serious injuries thanks to a couple of cheap motorcycling helmets. With the help of a half dozen locals we managed to manhandle the mototaxi out of it´s tree and back on the road. Within an hour we were in the helpful hands of a skilled crap vehicle mechanic and all was well. We hit the main square to celebrate the dodging of death and living la vida loco!

3,000 Metres and Climbing

Mototaxis are designed for a purpose. That purpose is to ferry people around towns and cities for as little as the passenger is willing to pay. When presented with the idea that a mototaxi can be used to climb mountains or drive long distances, Peruvians scratch their heads and utter words like 'loco'. But that's part of the fun. The first few days of the junket have been an adventure all their own. Having decided to head to Huancabamba from Piura, the map shows a straight yellow (second class) road leading off the main route to the southeast. The only clue on our map to the challenges that lay ahead were the distances between the towns. On certain sections kilometer measurements were three times longer than their apparent scale.

The answer was simple - the Andes stood between us and our hostal for the night and the distance vertically was at times more than the distance horizontally. Taking a mototaxi up a 3,000m mountain in the late afternoon may not be everyone's cup of tea, but we had joined two other teams, Al and Sam from Thunder from Down Under and Jim and Ben from Kamikaze Kabs, for the journey. The views over to the west were nothing short of spectacular as the sun started setting through the haze that backlit the valleys and foothills thousands of feet below us. The road was a track carved out of the sheer cliff face and cars, busses, trucks, and the rare mototaxi clung on to it for dear life. Corners are blind and as we ascended into the clouds a huge tourist bus lunged at us from out of nowhere honking wildly. Size has right of way and with only a foot or two to spare the bus driver forced our taxis to the very edge of a 1,000m sheer drop so he could pass.

The track's grade was probably a steady 9-10%, steeper than your typical mountain road in the United States which are rarely more than 6%. Then there were sections that were three times as steep that the little mototaxis simply couldn't cope with even if they were empty - let alone laden. Thrashing the clutch and throttle controls and lots of pushing got us around most bends until Jim and Ben's clutch gave out all together. Stranded in the impending gloom, the mists swirled as silence settled over us and we decided what to do next. A night on the mountain, in the open, at elevation, in Peru is, we were told by two passing motorcyclists, an open invitation for assault. Muy peligroso, amigo, muy peligroso!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Meeting the Beast

The last few days have been spattered with touristy activities. A bike tour around the neighborhood of Miraflores gave me the impression that Lima is an endless row of little parks and green spaces connected by quaint coffee shops. Which it isn´t. Wandering around Barranco, Lima´s bohemian barrio, afforded the opportunity to make an abstract photo essay. At the sure hands of a new friend, Juvenal, we toured Lima´s city center and saw signs of revival everywhere. Peru´s economy seems to be doing pretty well, certainly if the numbers of Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets is any benchmark of progress. But all that was a side show leading up to Piura and meeting the beast.

With a last minute venue change from the University of Piura to the National University of Piura The Adventurists gave teams an opportunity to test their cartographic interpretation skills. An email from the director of crap maps with two Google satellite images of a large playing field was as useless as the lack of directional signs when we got there. Poking around the grounds of the university with the help of a charming administrator looking for the Mototaxi Junket meeting point, we eventually found our way to the dusty back side of the engineering department. There Duncan went over some basics, "These mototaxis really are terrible! They are going to breakdown.", and handed out vehicle assignments. Patrick, the Adventurists´ extremely patient support crew, did his best to get the recalcitrant mototaxis to start and guided beginners in their operation

It´s not that the mechanics of the thing are particularly difficult. Having completed my basic (motorcycle) rider training earlier in the summer, I found the clutch, gear shift, brakes and horn all in their expected places. It´s more that the mototaxi is a beneficiary of monumentally crap design. The motorcycle engine drives only the left rear wheel. Simple as this concept is, there is no need for a differential, it means the sodding thing continually pulls to the right, bogs down in sand as soon as it can, and tips over with remarkable ease. Muscling it around corners the driver is exposed and passengers terrified for their lives. Underpowered with no protection, the conversation over beers later turned on the question of helmets - yes or no? Seems like helmets for both driver and passenger would be sensible, but if you´re going to be mashed at high speed by a huge overladen lorry what earthly difference would it make? Decisions, decisions...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Off to Peru!

The call of the wild and Red Thread is off on another Adventurists adventure. This time we're heading south to Peru, the land of lamas and Incas and sheep and wooly hats and lamas (didn't we say that already?). Far from a car suitable for your grandmother's shopping trip to Safeway, our ride is a mighty mototaxi - something like the one in the photo. What's a mototaxi? Imagine taking a 125cc motorbike and strapping a sofa on the back. Together they form one of the worst ideas for crossing any country ever invented. Braving jungles, mountains, yellow fever and ceviche won't be easy, but it's a mere 3,000 km. A stroll compared with last year's adventure to Mongolia.

We are raising funds for outstanding causes so please take a moment to look at our giving page by clicking the BIG RED DONATE button. The whole story will be told when we're back, so stay tuned!