11/22/19 – 11/28/19
Altitude can have strange effects on the human body. Thickened blood and pressure on the brain can cause a number of unexpected issues. In many cases, a person’s fitness is irrelevant. It was cold and dark by six and we went to bed early. I awoke around nine thirty and noticed that the left side of my face was numb, as was my arm and I felt a slight tingle in my leg as well. It is hard to go back to sleep when something like this is happening. I sat up and considered the possible causes based on a very limited knowledge of the body. I wasn’t a likely candidate for a heart attack or a stroke. I knew that kidney stones could cause similar symptoms. I’d passed one before and it was a relatively terrible experience. We were camped a quarter mile up a canyon, seventy kilometers from the nearest town large enough to have a gas station. No cell service.
I woke Soph and we debated our options. Go to the little pueblo that didn’t have electricity and hope they have some mystical desert herbs, start riding to Mocegua, or wait and see what happens. She set an alarm to wake up and check on me every hour. I laid wide awake into the evening. At some point I thought I felt a small pop in my head and feeling mostly came back. Still, I contemplated death under that cold sky and stars for another hour or so. I became bored of this and sat up and sketched what I felt was a water filtration system that would be superior in reliability, weight, and size to anything currently available on the market. This was inspired by the fact that we had recently broken two bladders for our filter and were now on our last one.
I felt mostly better the next morning. I choked back a bit of vomit and we started riding. After the first few kilometers everything seemed in order. Alternating pavement and dirt. Friendly construction crew preaching the good word and letting us know that the lord would be watching over our journey. We took the climbing slowly.
The bends on the 171 are gradual enough to see there are no cars so you can sweep across lanes to take them wide and fast. All the mountain farmers seem happy to see us and I wish we could stay in every town.
Due to the previous night’s issues, we decided to take a rest day in Moqegua. The old colonial town was packed for a festival and the only room we could find was in a relatively fancy business class hotel. I called the Buffalo, who was at a conference in Phoenix giving a speech about removing brain tumors. After a quick reminisce of cross country escapades, rocky mountain oysters, and broken bottles of champagne, I inquired as to whether or not I should be concerned about the numbness in my face.
“Are you disoriented?”
“You didn’t snort a rock star’s dose of coke or anything silly like that?”
“Probably nothing to worry about, but you would be surprised by the number of old friends that call me after a long night doing cocaine worried about a numb face."
Dropping out of Moquegua, we find ourselves in the Atacama Desert. Euphonic winds exfoliating faces. Dusty blue cloudless skies. Rock stacks for road signs. Barely a cacti. Perhaps the most extended stretch of death we've encountered. The only animals we see are roadside dried and reminiscent of Montana doormats. Lunch in Alto Camiara and the restaurant owner gifts us a bag of vegetables. We plan on another ten kilometers or so before finding a place to camp. The winds pick up as we start a long climb. As we top out they’re pushing close to thirty kilometers an hour and we have to pedal to roll downhill.
Endless flat sand making it impossible to hide a tent. We can see the road continue straight into eternity. I’d forgotten that a place could exist without a three percent gradient. There is nowhere to hide a tent and we end up riding until dark. Any place with the slightest amount of cover from the road has already been used as a toilet several times over. We finally make camp thirty feet off the highway behind some dunes. Cloudy pitch black desert night. Trucks whiz by and their lights go just over our rain fly.
The wind tends to drop at dusk and the air is still until late morning. We tried to get moving early for Tacna so we wouldn’t have to ride against it. Dotted along the desert are little Mad Max mud stone abandoned villages with the occasional hungry dog or desert drunkard in rags sifting through trash blown in from some place with less than zero signs of life. As we near town we pass men in black sombreros on motos with wives riding side saddle robed in rainbow indigenous dresses. To our right the desert rolls to a point where I suppose you could call it a beach some fifty kilometers away and into the Pacific. To the left is nothing for a hundred clicks until the snow covered peaks of the Andes.
At first glance Tacna is hellishly hot with a kill or be killed kind of vibe and drunk old men that kiss our hands and share pints of Inca Cola which they spill over the rims of our glasses. It is the national soft drink of Peru. Looks like piss and doesn’t taste much better. We’d consumed more than eight liters of water each over the last day though and I hadn’t had to relieve myself once so I happily accepted it.
We’d arranged to stay with a man named Herbert at a small winery on the outskirts of town. He had a Saint Bernard named Sammy and an unlimited supply of Pisco, the national liquor of Peru. We were waiting on a replacement water filter to arrive which appeared to be somewhere in the void of the Peruvian mail system which had thus far proven to be unpredictable yet completely reliable. Herbert didn’t seem to mind how long we stayed. The wine was a bit sweet and I found myself waking up with a headache most mornings.
It is good to have a goal to pass a rest day. I needed to replace our chains. This meant asking strangers for directions. In Latin America this of course means being sent on a near futile search because the phrase “I don’t know” does not appear to exist. In its place are answers such as “two blocks ahead, then one block to the right,” or “en frente de la catedral.” If I didn’t know any better, I would think that everything can be found in front of the cathedral. I suppose in one of Catholicism's best strongholds, this is generally true for most.
With my headache compounded by the sun and heat I decided to hail a taxi. I asked Jorge to take me to Avenida Corenel Mendoza. As we neared he asked me what I was looking for. I told him I needed a two bike chains. He swung the car around and down a small alley with a few stalls spilling over with car and motorcycle parts.
“Hola Chino, tienes una cadena de bicicleta?”
Jorge explained to me that Peruvians were not racist and therefore they could call people by their skin color or ethnicity and it is not offensive. This of course, he said, was in contrast with people from the United States who he said were all racists and hence could not refer to others in this way. I asked how he knew the man was from China and he said he had no clue but it was easier to just refer to all Asians as Chinos.
The man procured a brand new nine speed chain. I told him I also needed one for a ten speed, to which he replied that a chain is a chain. I politely explained this was not true and he put forth the extra effort to dig up a ten speed chain as well.
Our packages arrived on Friday and we prepared to leave the next morning. Herbert had invited a friend named David over for drinks that night. I joined them after Soph went to sleep. David owned a company that manufactured clothing and somehow the discussion turned to me trying to explain the relationship between idle time on an assembly line with the number of products being built and the number of assembly stations in use. I was drunk, which typically helps my Spanish, but even I was confused. I tried scratching a crude drawing into the dust on the table. I gave up decided to go to bed as Herbert was filling another pitcher with wine from an oak barrel.
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