10/18/19 – 10/25/19
I was up at five in the morning due to an over achieving rooster. I decided to work on my Spanish a bit and opened up my frequency dictionary, which lists the words of a language in order of the ones most commonly used. I took note that “Dios,” or “God,” is the eighty seventh most common word.
David and his brother took us out for breakfast. I had a drink called “Ponche” which was whipped raw eggs with a bit of sugar. It went well with coffee.
He rode with us to the edge of town and we said goodbye.
“Facil nos encontramos.”
It rained on and off all morning and afternoon. We took cover a few times and watched the steam rise from the road, but eventually decided that we wouldn’t get very far in the rain forest without riding in the rain at least a few times each day. We spent the night in Moyobamba and arrived in Yantolo the next morning. We’d arranged to stay at the home of a friend of a friend from the states.
The road from Yantolo back to the 5N is “trocha,” dirt. Washboarding with lone peaks projecting from the cane farms. We’d deflated our tires for better traction and as we reached the pavement we stopped in a small town called Calzada to inflate them. We had pumps, but a compressor is always better. I saw what appeared to be a mechanic shop and approached the door.
I could see a man inside holding a hammer. He didn’t appear to have heard me. I knocked and walked in. In small Latin American towns, a home and a business are often one in the same. There was a short corridor, concrete walls stained green from paint that had long peeled away, lit by morning sun pushing through faded corrugated plastic roof. A door cracked open to my right. An old woman lay in bed, a younger one by her side. Our eyes met briefly. She was dying. I’m not sure how I knew that, some things you just know. I forgot about the shop, and the pump and got lost in her tired creased face. Before I could process anything I felt a hand on my shoulder and the man pushed me out the door without saying anything.
5N was flat and smooth. It runs through a high jungle valley. Sugar cane, oranges, piña, breadfruit, coco, papaya. A hundred mile salad bowl. We found an unexpected balneario in a canyon behind a filthy highway town and the owner let us camp for a few soles. It had probably rained that day. It had rained every day since leaving Ecuador as far as I could tell. We put the tent on a concrete slab under a porch. There were roaches everywhere, a little black dog came by and ate them.
Jungle roads. Old ladies carrying bundles of brush bigger than their bodies. Men herding sheep on mopeds. Deep roadside runoff ditches overtaken by moss. Clapboard bush towns with perpetual puddles and a single restaurant that never looks open but never really closes. Water from a spigot at a tienda. Even after filtering, it looked like tea. Backtrack to a mirador overlooking the last sixty kilometers we’d ridden that day and set up camp for the night under a roadside gazebo. More visible than I would prefer, but nice to not be in a hotel or behind a gas station.
A group of school kids comes through as we're cooking dinner. Their guide asks all the questions and one by one they circle around Soph. I crack some eggs on top of our rice over our little jet engine stove and they all crowd in my direction. We pose for photos and before leaving they line up to shake our hands.
It was cold and I didn’t sleep much as the tent flapped in the wind and cars rolled by. I worried about being discovered. As we were getting ready to leave in the morning, two men pulled up on a motorcycle. They passed us a water bottle.
“Holy shit, it’s good, try it.”
It turned out to be aguardiente, sugar can alcohol. It cleared my nostrils. They drank half the bottle before getting back on their bike to maneuver the switchbacks.
We climbed for ten kilometers and then had twenty of downhill. Most people we passed were indigenous. In Ecuador nativos seemed suspicious of us. Here they smiled more. Not all of them though. One woman hissed at me. Shortly after, a man flagged us down and asked us to stop and enjoy some bananas with him.
We’d gotten into the habit of riding until the afternoon rain and stopping for lunch. Usually it would let up after an hour or so. Not this day. We got our books out and put our warm clothes on. At some point I realized that several hours had passed. It was getting late. There was no flat ground for the tent. The restaurant owners didn’t seem too excited about having us stay the night. I flagged a bus down and they told us they could drop us at the next town, but as I ran back to grab our bikes they must have decided they didn’t have room for our gear and pulled away. Eventually the husband came out and told us to put the bikes in his truck and he dumped us about thirty kilometers up the road in front of a hotel in Pomacochas. We ate some of the best ceviche we’d ever had that night.
If you’ve ever dreamed of cycle touring, you’ve probably had some sort of vision of floating through a canyon road with a river to your side and steep cliff walls and little tunnels, morning sun on wet roads reflecting a blinding trail of gold. Downhills twisting. Bridges over whitewater. Ruta 08B is that road. Headphone in right ear. Sounds of Peru in left. Acoustic solo tapping on hollow body for rhythm. Axe thud bass drum. Cars pass. Soft hello beeps. Breeze in the leaves.
Peruvian dogs are noticeably faster, stupider, and more aggressive than their relatives in other countries. As we pulled into Chachapoyas, one managed to get its teeth around my rear pannier before I could get away. While waiting out the rain the day before, I watched a pair of them chasing down semi-trucks, jaws snapping within inches of the tires. Before, they’d seemed to confine themselves to their own property lines. We were now regularly being chased for as much as a kilometer. I didn’t mind it. It bothered me in the past because Soph would always stop, but now when she saw them she would race ahead. I appreciated the faster pace.
We took a rest day to visit Cascadas Goctas. At nearly eight hundred meters, they are among the world’s tallest. The locals had known about them for years, but they were ‘discovered’ by a German man in 2002. I spent most of the ten kilometer hike practicing my Spanish with our guide.
"Yo se cuando hay un persona de los estados unidos en el grupo porque son gordos y despacios" (I know when there is a traveler from the United States because they are fat and slow.)
We mostly talked about horses. He asked me if I had one. He seemed shocked that I didn’t and explained that I could get more work done and have more “tiempo libre” if I had a horse.
“Son mascotas de los aristocraticos en los estados unidos.”
I told him that I once knew a woman that had paid close to twenty thousand dollars for a horse, but that they could be much more. He looked at me and shook his head as if he’d just caught me eating dirt.
"Un caballero bueno es 800 soles, pero se puede comprar uno por 200 soles."
“Soph!” I yelled. “We can get a horse for less than three hundred dollars here.”
“We already have a drone.”
Jose said that when the villagers took the German man to the falls for the first time he stood at the bottom crying and screaming something about birth. Later, an Italian philanthropist donated a large sum of money to build trails and bridges.
The group was a mix of gringos and middle class Peruvians. They have very different approaches to photos. The travelers will spend several minutes trying to stage a picture to look as if they had no idea it was being taken. They have special broad brim sunglasses and straw hats that they wear for these occasions. Peruvians, and most Latin Americans it seems, in contrast, take more of a “Here I am!” sort of approach. The standard male pose is to have both arms out like a cross. Sometimes thumbs up, sometimes palms open. Women have two options: They can either stand with one leg in front of the other and a hand on the hip, or they can lay on the ground with one leg straight and the other bent with the foot near the knee of the straight leg. They hike in heels and lipstick.
“El pueblo es muy diferente hoy.” He said that twenty years ago none of them had ever seen a foreigner and they just lived amongst themselves as farmers. Now their children go to college and learn about tourism and how to speak English. He seemed concerned that his daughter bought a computer instead of a horse.
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