11/19/19 - 11/22/19
Arequipa outskirts. Bus exhaust breakfast. Hectic hustling through traffic, but soon discover ourselves removed from urban confines and in mountain bordering pueblos. In the air a mixture of mesquite, parched desert, and grilled chicken. Lunch in Pocsi. Asked if the water was potable and a woman confirmed in a curious manner as if to say, “Well, it’s wet….” While eating my tuna sandwich and fine Peruvian olives I watched with, some amazement, a man carrying a five gallon bucket of water back and forth from a spigot on the back of a building and dumping it over demolished streets to keep construction dust down. I marveled at the possibilities of normalizing what would be an outright waste of a perfectly good spine in the rich world when a week of a person’s labor is less costly than a basic garden hose.
Three weeks since we'd done any serious riding. This coupled with several days of food on my bike made the climbing horrendous. After only thirty five kilometers we saw a river passing beneath a bridge and called it. It was nice to end the day with a bath and sleep next to the purr of water splashing over stones.
Woke up at six thirty to the sun baking the east side of our tent. River humming and blocking all other sounds except for the occasional vehicle above. Face a bit burned from having fallen asleep in the sun the day before. While packing we decided it was too nice to simply leave, so we grabbed our books and sat in the sand next to the water. I knelt down and washed my face and stretched. When I became too warm, I moved to a patch of shade.
Volcano alley. Golden grasses stretch from grey pyroclastic ash. Boulder fields. Mysterious stone walls waist high and enclosing empty spaces the size of a football field. Women on loaded donkeys herding sheep. Proper Peruvian countryside.
Crossed paths with Peter, a cycle tourist from California, around eleven. You can tell when somebody has ridden alone for a while. They speak slowly and with a high degree of detail. They're often covered in dust. Peter was covered in dust. We were going opposite directions. We exchange pleasantries and go into the customary swapping of beta. Road conditions, camping spots, where to find water, propensity of dogs to attack, etc.
There are dirt roads and there are dust roads. After lunch in Puquina the road turns to powder. The new tires were remarkably grippy and plush in comparison to the last pair. It made the trocha more enjoyable. Less enjoyable was riding in and out of various construction sites and getting peppered in soft ash by trucks rolling by.
Camp in a construction pullout. Dog comes sniffing around, then horse hooves. All quiet by ten. A bit later we here footsteps just a few feet away and I prepare to rush out. It was two workers hiking up a steep path that led through our camp and up to a town we’d passed earlier. They seemed surprised and threatened as I got out of the tent. This likely had something to do with the fact that I had picked up a large rock in the event they turned out to be banditos. I put it down. They continued on.
The night winds left everything covered in soot. Try to move quickly and get breakfast in a small town, but get stuck at a construction site. Twenty to thirty minute wait. Then another and they tell us an hour. So we make breakfast on the roadside and everyone marvels at our camp stove.
We passed through Omate expecting to pull water from the river after a thousand meters of descent. In the canyon below, a construction worker told us the water was deeply contaminated by a mine upstream. We continued toward a crossroad a few kilometers ahead. I had wanted to take the 100 further into the mountains before circling back to Tacna. This would involve an extra four thousand meters of climbing over fifty kilometers, but promised spectacularly desolate country and some small pueblos that only spoke indigenous languages. Soph vetoed this in favor of the shorter and less steep route 108. The problem was that the only known water was seven kilometers up the climb on the route I had hoped to take.
We saw a couple of shacks on the side of the road. There was nobody there. Soph noticed a spigot. Not knowing whether or not it came from the contaminated river I wanted nothing to do with it. She was less concerned.
“I don’t get why all of a sudden this is a problem.”
“Sometimes we don’t have any other option and we really have no idea if the water is contaminated, so we gamble. This water is contaminated.”
“One drink probably won’t hurt you.”
“I have no idea what they put in that water and whether or not it is safe to drink. I do know that British petroleum dumps more than a thousand pounds a day of ‘sludge’ into Lake Michigan and I would not drink the water near the discharge area if I didn’t have to.”
“So what are you going to do?”
She filled up her bladder and her bottles. I decided that we would find a place to camp near the junction and I would ride the seven kilometers uphill to Quinistaquillas to fill my own bottles. We pulled away in silence. At the end of the little compound there was a man and a woman bent over, working. I turned in their direction. They seemed happy to see us. We chatted for a few moments. They farmed the unwelcoming valley and were sorting and drying alfalfa. I asked about the water from the tap and they said that it did not come from the river, that it gets tested regularly, and was potable. We filled everything, cleaned ourselves, and thanked them. Grabielle, the woman, gave us some lemons and a massive brick of cheese which would have cost fifteen to twenty dollars in the states. Their roof was collapsing. She could have sold it to me for a day’s wages. She didn’t ask for a single centavo. She just smiled and waved us along.
We crossed a bridge over a narrow canyon. Three hundred meters later was the intersection with route 100. A construction worker napped on a pile of gravel. The road was clearly blocked, but as we approached he awoke to pick up his stop sign and waved it at us. It was only open from seven to noon, then again from six until midnight. We tried to get him to let us pass, but it was useless as they were doing major work which involved dynamite. We went about two hundred meters down the 100 and found a good place to camp by the river. I bathed in a tide pool. We ate our leftover lunch and the cheese for dinner. It was windy. I grabbed some of the larger river stones and built a small wall to protect the tent from the sand.
We'd dropped far enough into the canyon that it was warm again and we left the rain fly off. I could lay and stare at the stars. The white noise covered almost everything except the sounds of the larger trucks passing over the road just behind us. I preferred the silence of the night before. It is never really silent in the desert at night though. During the day everything hides and you only hear the grinding of the gears in your skull. Night is when everything comes alive.
Five thirty start to get ahead of construction. Heavy trucks kicking up dust all day. Wait for the last moment of fresh air before they pass, take a deep breath, hold it as long as possible. This doesn’t work well with the heavy breathing required when climbing Peruvian switchbacks. A skin of dust on my teeth. We were baking in the canyon depths. Saving grace is the occasional concrete water channel to cool off in, soak the shirt, and get a big slug of mountain water that I pray does not come from a mine. Once the road closed for the day we had it to ourselves.
Stop in Yahuay for lunch. There are about a dozen adobe houses with dirt porches covered by various pieces of plastic stitched together for shade. A single tienda sells soda and crackers. It has a ten year old bikini calendar taped to the wall. Maybe a young village boy (or girl) went to that store on Saturdays to buy a Coke and looked at Miss December hoping to meet her one day. Other than a bit of fade from the sun, she looks the same today as she did then. She could be serving pancakes in a cheap Kentucky diner with crusty grits on her apron today, but here in this place she is as timeless as wind. We sit in the shade and talk to the farmers and eat popcorn made from the famous giant Peruvian kernals. They all talk while chewing and it falls into the dirt near their tanned and cracked feet. The town smells like manure, which is not a criticism.
Soph went into the village with an old woman to procure water, I sat in silence under the tarp with the old shop owner and his wife. Desert dwellers are more comfortable with silence. There is something special about a few minutes of quiet shared with others, especially when nobody has to ask for it, it just happens and you all embrace it.
Ride less than a click from town and notice a steep wash. Sand packed as hard as concrete. We ride through it and find a small tree for shade and shelter from the afternoon wind and decide to make camp.
I was covered in a batter of sand, sunscreen, and sweat. I found a large drainage tunnel under the road, walked through it and arrived at a small stream in which I bathed and did my laundry. There was a bridge above. A construction truck stopped on top. My pants blew away and I ran behind a rock to hide my unsunned hide. The truck pulled away, I recovered my trousers, wrung out my clothes, and returned to camp.
I make mashed potatoes and rice in a nook hidden from the wind as Soph sets the tent up. As the sun sets the flies come out and I have to eat while walking around to keep them at bay. A white ring of light over the sandy mountains, last rays of day, two bright stars poking through the still light blue sky. One incredibly steep sand dune that I can barely see above the walls of the canyon and a single cactus and what appears to be a palm tree on top of it.
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