If you didn’t hear the news on Facebook, it may come as a surprise that I’m no longer in South America. I know, I planned to stay a couple of years, but a combination of financial and social reasons led to me to decide to move to Taiwan on very short notice. I’ll admit I’m not sad to be leaving Peru – it’s been amazing, but another adventure awaits me in Taiwan, and I won’t be sorry to earn a little money again for a time. I won’t stop writing, of course, but this blog’s title hardly seems appropriate anymore, and so I’m moving to a new blog, and leaving this one as archives for now. You’re invited to come follow me on my new adventures, of course!
I’m so pleased I can communicate here in Chile. Dealing with flight cancellations, changes, rescheduling, hotel vouchers, food vouchers: all this would be so much more difficult if I didn’t speak Spanish. I’m grateful to the people who can help me in English when I’m exhausted and trying to do something complicated, but more often my Spanish is better than their English and we switch over fairly quickly.
It’s also incredibly nice to be in this otherworldly hotel. Soft clean sheets, hot running water and a bathtub, ample fluffy towels, meals, and transportation provided and arranged on my behalf. It takes all the adventure out of travelling, but on the day of my flight it’s reliability, not the unexpected, that I’m looking for. The sign in the lobby quotes my hotel’s room rate as $289 per night for a single. I’m in a double, with three meals and taxi service included. The airline might have spent a third of my ticket cost on this delay. Considering I checked my ticket online and I have yet another flight change in my connection to Sydney, I can hardly say I feel sorry for them. At the minimum, I feel relaxed about the whole situation. If another of my flights changes, it is out of my hands. As I sit in the hotel restaurant sipping fruit juice while my waiter brings me my steak of Chilean beef, I feel quite confident that the airline will continue to take care of me. I take a bite. The steak is tender and perfectly medium-rare, the tiny balls of fried mashed potatoes crispy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside. The veggies are lightly curried and served al dente. Yes, I’m in very good hands indeed. This feels so far removed from camping in the Peruvian Andes or exploring the Amazon on $5 a day. I don’t have a single peso on me, and yet I’m seated on a velvet and walnut chair, dining on steak in a hotel with marble floors.
In the afternoon I wandered the tourist sites nearest the hotel – a park leading to a lookout over the city and offering a view of the snow-capped Chilean Andes beyond, a craft market, and the imposing structures of the National Archives and City Library. Exploring the area, I was surprised at how different Chile feels from the more northern countries on the continent. The climate is cooler, reminding me of Vancouver. I’ve re-entered the world of seasons – I was surprised to find it still dark at 7am, as days are noticeably shorter here. The deciduous trees have lost their leaves, something I haven’t seen in over a year. the people are also different – there are more light-skinned people than I’m used to seeing, and my lighter hair and eyes don’t mark me as a tourist like they did in Peru and Ecuador. In fact, I find it disconcerting not being able to use appearance and visual clues to guess what language to use with somebody. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt and stick to Spanish. The locals appear to do the same, as a couple of university students raising money for educational reforms assume I’m Chilean until my accent gives me away. I’ve decided that I like the city, though, on first view. My instincts tell me that I could live here contentedly, and maybe enven integrate more into the culture than I could elsewhere in Latin America. If I ever get tired of a world without winter, living in Chile will definitely be an option.
By the beginning of July, our journey was close to an end, so Ellen and I started to make our way to Lima. Of course, we wanted to go the slow way, so after getting off the riverboat in Yurimaguas, we planned to hitchhike our way through the mountains for a week or so until we ran out of time and had to hightail it down the coast to Lima. Ellen’s flight was scheduled for the 16th of July, and I was looking for a job starting around the same time. To my surprise, a couple of hours of internet time rewarded me with four job offers in my inbox, and on very short notice I accepted one of them and booked myself a ticket to Taiwan, leaving on the 9th of July. Suddenly, our leisurely trip through the mountains was about to acquire a note of urgency.
We started our travels with a couple of excellent free rides, ending up dropped off in a valley right on the border between the jungle and the mountains. The fields nearby looked a little swampy for camping in, but an abandoned-looking dormitory had several open rooms that looked quiet, and even the locked rooms were visibly empty when we peeked in the windows. Ellen and I set up our sleeping mats and got down to relaxing in the hot afternoon sun. About an hour later, though, the owner showed up and discovered us, and naturally invited we intruders to join his family for dinner and stay at their house. We were originally unenthusiastic about the suggestion, but as he was insistent and we were squatting on his property, we agreed. His place turned out to be a sweet setup indeed.
It turns out our host was running a camp for workers at the nearby Stevia farm, and had an empty dormitory/storeroom for us to sleep in, and plenty of food to share. We sat with him for an hour shelling peas, and chatted about the area and our travels. After dinner, he invited us into the family home to watch TV before bed. I was wiped out, and would have gladly refused, as I still wasn’t sleeping well at nights due to tweaking my back a few weeks earlier, but I’m glad we joined him. Not because we watched anything interesting, nor had any conversation, but upon seeing his house we were able to recognize that the family wasn’t at all short of money and we had no reason to feel guilty for accepting his hospitality. The leather couches and big-screen TV in his living room assured us that we weren’t taking advantage of someone who couldn’t afford to be generous. When we left the next morning, not only did they feed us breakfast, but they also packed us a lunch to go and pressed a twenty into Ellen’s hands (worth about $8).
The next day’s ride was just as nice. A trucker who was driving through to Chiclayo on the coast, our driver was full of interesting conversation. He stopped to buy us lunch, pulled over for a scenic lookout he thought we’d like to see, and spent the time playing ridiculous music (Backstreet Boys? Really?) rather than harassing us about our life choices as Peruvians are wont to do. We got off on the road to Chachapoyas, intending to go through that town and Cajamarca on the way to Lima.
Sadly, life had other plans for us. Upon getting halfway to Chachapoyas, we found out that the mountain road to Cajamarca was closed for repairs, and we had to double back and take the coastal route from Chiclayo to Lima after all. That delayed us most of a day, and we ended up stuck in the mountain town of Baguas, where no truck drivers seemed to be passing by on the same highway that had been so busy the day before. Finally, Ellen checked with a local bus company and got us tickets on an overnight bus to Chiclayo, from which city we intended to hitchhike to Lima. After a full night on the bus, though, a cheap ride on another bus line direct to Lima seemed easier, and so our last travel day ended up being 23 hours of bus time. We arrived at our couchsurfing host’s home around 9pm and were grateful for the welcome – and for bed!
I had two days in Lima before my flight, so Ellen and I set about exploring the city. We wandered around downtown seeing the sights, and came to recognize that we were ready for our trip to be over. We were done with admiring the architecture, uninterested in the hustle and bustle of the city, and unable to pay for any of the tourist sites. We still enjoyed exploring the markets, and I managed to buy myself a pair of shoes and a blouse for when I started working in Taiwan. I felt a bit silly that we stopped for lunch in Lima’s Chinatown the day before I got on a plane to Taiwan, but the food absolutely satisfied a craving.
What we really wanted to try was cuy, the Peruvian mountain specialty of fried guinea pig, which we’d never had the chance to try while we were in the mountains. Of course, it’s not traditional on the coast where Lima is located, so it took a fair amount of effort to track down a restaurant that served it. It took an internet search and careful cross-checking against a map to locate a tourist restaurant near us, and the day of my flight we went out at lunchtime to seek out the elusive dish. Our efforts were rewarded, though, and the tender meat reminded me of a cross between duck and rabbit, and certainly didn’t bring to mind a household pet.
Soon enough it was time to go. From our couchsurfing host’s house, it was a quick one-sol ($0.30) transport bus ride to the airport. Speedy it was, easy it wasn’t. Luggage is forbidden on transports in Lima, so I was squished into my seat with my bag on my back. The bus driver swerved sharply between lanes, floored it without warning, and screeched to a halt at random intervals, launching me into the laps of the passengers facing me every couple of minutes. I’d have apologized to them, but the locals without bags were equally uncomfortable and crashed into strangers just as much as I did, so I assumed it was par for the course. The woman next to me spent half the ride shrieking at the driver to slow down. When I got to the airport, four hours early for check-in, my flight had been cancelled and my itinerary changed. Thankfully, I was bumped up to an earlier flight, and was still leaving that night. As I watched my bag roll away behind the check-in desk, I smiled. My trip was over. Or so I thought.
Spending time in Peru, especially in the jungle, has made me realize how much we can’t take for granted. There are some things we should appreciate more, but most of us don’t. Fresh drinking water, for example. People in the jungle don’t drink water. They boil water from tiny streams for coffee or tea, and filter or chlorinate it to mix with fruit juices, but they don’t drink it on its own. Coca Cola is, of course, happy to supply bottled water but at a dollar for two liters, it’s out of most people’s budgets. Since soft drinks go for the same price, if the locals are going to buy bottled drinks, it won’t be water. Ellen and I buy as much clean drinking water as we can carry, and still we rarely have enough. On days when we have sufficient supplies to drink our fill, we feel very fortunate indeed.
Adequate housing is another luxury rarely seen in Peru’s Amazon. It’s a given that any roof here will leak in the rain. A family with more than one bedroom in their house is doing well for themselves. Some houses have electricity; the lucky few have solar panels or generators of their own. Ellen and I often joke on our trip that we felt like first class hobos. We sleep in tents, but our tents are at least as dry as most people’s homes. When we set up camp, we have mosquito nets to protect us as we eat our dinner. My personal solar panel kept my cell phone charged (at least until my phone was stolen).
We’ve really come to appreciate the simple pleasures here. Food cooked over an open fire tastes better. We have time and opportunity to watch the sunset in all its glory almost every night. We have everything we own, and everything we need, with us all the time. We have clothes and bedding for a variety of climates. If it gets chilly overnight, I have a sweater or a spare blanket. When it rains, we have tarps to protect our campsite. The food we eat is produced locally. We know the veggies and fruits were grown within a few kilometers of where we bought them. We see vendors go door to door at restaurants, selling a bag of yucca or fresh papayas. Eating local isn’t a movement, it’s a way of life here.
I’m writing this from a riverboat on the way to Yurimaguas, leaving the Amazon. This boat ride is a lot more peaceful than the Pucallpa-Iquitos run. I’m sitting in the shade on the upper deck while Ellen reads in her hammock. A German traveller is updating his diary and keeps scooting closer to me as the sun infringes on his cool spot in the shelter of the tarp roof. The view is simple: sandy banks thick with reeds, palms, brush and trees. We are surprisingly close to shore, but the captain steers us clear of the many logs and trees in the water along the shoreline. In some places, full trees are submerged and their leaves peek through the water, determined to survive. In other places, trunks have roots growing out of them six or ten feet above the ground, clearly indicating some past high water mark. Where the bank is shallow, makeshift rice paddies keep the locals fed, along with bananas and yucca growing in soil reclaimed from the river, during dry season at least. Lucio, our Amazonian host, told us that when the river floods each year, the locals live on nuts and seeds gathered from the trees on high ground. I wonder whether the crops survive the yearly deluge or whether families struggle to replant foodstuffs every time the waters recede. In Costa Rica and Ecuador, yucca took two years to reach maturity, but with the fertile soil near the river, maybe crops grow more quickly.
We are leaving the Amazon with many questions still unanswered, and sights unseen. I’d like to be here in wet season, when the fruits ripen and the river is teeming with fish. I’ve heard you can just dip a net in the water and come up with enough fish for dinner. I wonder how the houses do with all that water around. Some two-story homes are clearly below the surface on the first floor at least. The better structures are on stilts, but within a community there seems to be no consensus on how high the houses should be lifted above the ground. Some are as high as ten feet, while others just two or three. There must be some families who have just one room when the waters come. Is it a hardship for them, or are they so busy fishing and gathering food that it’s rarely an issue?
In many ways, I’d love to live here, to set up a home on these banks and make a life as people here have done for thousands of years. Living off the land would be much simpler here than in Canada, and with both food and natural building materials at hand, it’d be easy to live a low-impact lifestyle here. Sadly, environmentalism isn’t given the time of day here. Garbage is tossed onto the ground or into the river, and it’s just considered normal. Many people’s homes are surrounded by trash. I guess when the water comes, the flood washes the waste away and the people don’t worry about it. It breaks my heart, though, to see children drink a Coke and throw the bottle off the back porch without a second thought, following their parents’ example. The boat crews sweep the decks and toss the garbage right overboard. The river is so huge, you don’t see much trash in it, but I can’t help wonder which shoreline the bottles and bags wash up on, which marine creatures get caught and tangled in the plastic and nets.
Ellen and I packed our garbage out of the Amazon, but what good does that do, really? The whole country lacks infrastructure for recycling and waste collection. Here in the Amazon, the river disburses it, but on the coast you can see the sands littered with bags and cans, blown back and forth across the desert. Humanitarian aid organizations come here to do projects related to clean drinking water and disease prevention – I can’t help but think an investment in waste management infrastructure and educational programs on recycling, composting and safe garbage disposal would benefit the people as well. But changes like this need to come from within, rather than being imposed by well-meaning outsiders. It would take a cultural shift over at least a generation to accept it, and most aid projects fizzle out in a few short months or years. Just like my view on politics, I see little chance of lasting, meaningful change for the better. Maybe it’s cynical or shallow on my part, but I’m going to focus my energies on something where I can make a real difference that I can see.
This place, and this family, is ridiculously nice. On June 24th, the festival of San Juan, Ellen and I took a day of rest after our busy weekend of exploring the Amazonian way of life. We set up our mosquito net as a safe haven where we could chat and play games in peace, and spent the day puttering around. We went for a swim in the Amazon river (staying close to shore, of course) and washed our laundry in the river as well. We felt slightly guilty for doing nothing all day, but after dinner Lucio suggested a quick walk to the bridge and back. This turned into a full-scale jungle walk by torchlight. We listened to the sounds of nocturnal birds, bats, and frogs, spotted a few jungle creatures, and listened to Lucio tell us a legend that was the Amazon version of Hansel and Gretel.
The following day we walked into Tamshiyaco, the nearest town. On our way, we passed a local who had just come across and killed a 3.5 meter long boa constrictor. The snake was still moving, although the blood trail from a nearby field indicated that we’d missed the action by at least 15 minutes. We felt thrilled to see such a large snake – and frightened to find it so close to our path. What if we’d been the first to stumble over it, unarmed and unaware? Despite the carnivorous snakes and piranhas in the river, the Amazon doesn’t feel like a dangerous place to me, though. It has a powerful natural force to be respected, but caution rather than fear seems to be enough to keep you safe. You can swim in the river, but not too far out where the current will sweep you away. The piranhas don’t eat people except in extremely rare cases, and the crocodiles only come out at night. The Amazon feels like just another place that people call home, albeit a wilder one.
On Wednesday morning we went fishing again. I wanted to make up for my failure to catch anything earlier in the week, and nobody here will turn down a nice fried fish. I jokingly insisted we all change rods, blaming mine for my bad luck last time, and the lucky rod Ellen had used before paid out on this trip as well. This time around, I caught four piranhas, a sardine, and a tall flat fish called a palometa, while Ellen caught two piranhas and a striped grey fish that Lucio called a lisa. Lucio, using the rod that had been so unlucky for me last time, broke his hook after catching just one fish, a catfish-like creature that we used for bait. The four silvery-grey larger fish flopped around in the bottom of the canoe while we finished fishing, but Lucio insisted that the piranhas be put at the front of the boat where they wouldn’t bite our bare toes while we fished. I found it amusing that we were free to trail our hands and feet in the water, or even jump into the river to bathe or swim without fear of being bitten, but a half-dead piranha on the canoe floor was a risk. However, seeing the impressive mouthful of teeth in one of them, I was willing to play it safe!
Late in the morning, we headed back to the house with a wooden bowl full of fish. We’ve seen a lot of similar bowls, which look like they’re made of coconut shells, are used for all sorts of tasks, especially for bathing. Ellen and I admired them openly, so Lucio offered to show us how they’re made. He took us to a tree with shiny green fruits the size of a small watermelon, pointed out a ripe one, and knocked it down with a stick, so he could make us a bowl each. He carefully sawed the fruit in half, shoosing which angle so the bowls would stay upright when filled. Then with a machete, he removed the horrible-smelling pulp (it’s good for inducing vomiting in sick or poisoned patients, he explained) and scraped the inside of the shell clean with a spoon. The completed bowls we placed to dry in the sun. At the time they were green, but within a week or two they’d turned brown, and looked like they’d make fine salad bowls. At this stage in my trip, with thoughts of leaving South America and establishing a home again on my mind, I was glad to carry around the bowl as a souvenir of my time in the jungle.
Uncle Lucio and Aunt Ana’s house is a few hundred meters inland from the Amazon River, a short distance from a little village. The front of the house affords a view of a field of water buffalo with the river beyond. Behind their home, a chicken coop is nestled among fruit and nut trees. The jungle backs the orchard almost immediately, and the house is an interesting juxtaposition of civilization in wilderness. The roof is half thatched, half metal. Many of the beams are milled, but one section is made of nothing but logs. A concrete road the width of a sidewalk passes by the front door, but there is no plumbing in the area and the family cooks on a wood fire. When we arrived, Ana was cooking lunch for a road crew that was improving the riverfront path. She quickly fed us and pointed us to a little purple cabin on the riverfront with plenty of balcony space for our tents and two hammocks for us to relax in. We were home!
Somehow, we seemed to settle right into their family’s routine. Lucio took us for a little tour of the nearest town while the rest of the family did their shopping. Waiting for the canoe to take us home, Ellen and I watched river dolphins jumping and frolicking in the sunset. We rode back along the river by moonlight. Ana had a dinner of locally hunted armadillo waiting for us – “It’s endangered, but we need to eat,” Lucio explained.
The next day, we got to have our little trek into the jungle. Lucio took us wandering through dense foliage and across streams. As the path became less identifiable and split off repeatedly in all directions, it was clear we could never have explored this way on our own. We were making too much racket crashing through the bush to see any wildlife, but our guide was thoughtful enough to point out medicinal plants, edible fruits and nuts, and the local trees used for lumber. Back at the house, we munched on fresh Brazil nuts and finger painted with the seeds of the achiote fruit, under the cheerful instruction of the local children.
Sunday was the festival of San Juan, who was the namesake of a local town and the patron saint of the Amazon. Ana left just before midnight to buy special ingredients, not to return before lunchtime. While she was gone, we went fishing for piranhas with Lucio. Fishing is a much simpler affair than at home. Lucio cut three rods from a nearby tree and tied fishing line to them. We headed out in the family canoe with a can of worms from the garden. Cousin Romario turned our boat down one of those dark streams nestled amongst the trees that Ellen had been so dying to explore. We puttered up to a likely spot in the shade and watched as the fish managed to eat every worm off our hooks without being caught. Ellen had better luck than the rest of us, catching two small fish that we used for bait. My spell of bad luck continued as everyone else managed to catch something, and we got three piranhas in the end. The quiet time on the river did have one excellent reward, though: we saw two different kinds of monkeys in the trees. There was a pair of tiny monkeys no bigger than one of my fists. Their small bodies clutched the tree trunk as they ate sap from beneath the bark. Farther up, three slightly larger monkeys, black and white, swung from the branches at the tops of the trees. It was an excellent end to the morning.
Ellen and I arrived in the jungle city of Iquitos early in the evening, and decided to get a room and relax rather than running around looking for internet to check if we’d been expected by our couchsurfing hosts. The city was full of touts trying to book us on jungle tours and expeditions. Since the cheapest ones were seven times our daily budget of $5 apiece, we weren’t particularly interested in hearing the sales pitches.
Upon failing to reach our host the next morning, Ellen and I grabbed a stack of brochures from an info booth, headed to a market area, and sat down over beer to make a plan. There were a few tourist attractions within our price range, so we had a couple of days’ worth of adventures to have in Iquitos. When we went to find a phone booth to call our host, someone called out Ellen’s name from a passing motocar. Iquitos, it seems, is small enough for someone to find us just by asking around. Walter, our couchsurfing host, took us to the waterfront to chat. Clearly, his idea of couchsurfing differed from ours – he immediately launched into a sales pitch for different wilderness lodges in the jungle. When it became clear to him that we couldn’t pay, he encouraged us to spend a few days at his uncle’s place, where we could fish and explore the jungle at our own pace. All we’d have to do was bring some food for the family. This we agreed was in our budget, so Walter was all set to take us back to the hostel. “Umm…” said Ellen, “Aren’t we supposed to be staying with you?”
Once that confusion was sorted out, we started in on the next one. What food should we take to Uncle’s place? Walter insisted on shopping for us, but wanted 200 soles – $70, more or less. That is well beyond a reasonable price for groceries. We talked him down to a much lower price, but the next morning when we saw what he’d bought, we knew we’d been ripped off. What we saw in front of us, a small bag of rice, some pasta, and toilet paper, couldn’t have cost more than $5. Clearly, Walter’s commission for sending us to Uncle’s was about 85%. We were pretty pissed off because it made us look like we were taking advantage of Uncle, rather than Walter doing so.
Finally, we got on a river bus, one of the local boats doing the chicken-run service from village to village. We felt half-excited and quite apprehensive. Was this all a scam, or were we in for the time of our lives?
Ellen and I spent five days on a riverboat, on our way to the Amazon Jungle. We’d wanted to visit the Amazon but hadn’t thought we would have time. However, as the Andes were getting a little cold for us, we decided to head east into the jungle and see where we ended up. We arrived in the river town of Pucallpa last Saturday, where boats trundle their way toward the Amazon. The locals were quite insistent that we leave right away, as there wouldn’t be a Sunday boat. Ellen and I resisted for a few minutes – the Amazon is north, and we had planned to go south – but in the end agreed that a trip into the Amazon jungle would be pretty awesome. The trip was to cost $30 each for four days’ hammock space on the deck and food. This was a little over our $5 a day budget, but we splurged on the experience.
We were packed in tightly, but not as badly as I expected. Three rows of hammocks lined the decks, most of them thick cloth rather than the woven tourist hammocks we’d seen in Central America. Ellen and I had clearly purchased the bargain basement version – narrow nets of knotted cord. I lined mine with a blanket for comfort and to avoid mosquito bites, but it was too hot to sleep in and the angle of my back was too sharp. I gratefully lay out my bed roll on the cool metal floor and slept under my sarong instead. Ellen slept on the upper deck under the stars, an option I later decided to try when the weather cooperated.
Although the boat was almost a full day late leaving, people were in high spirits. The first night we had to go to shore to buy dinner because the boat didn’t provide meals when we hadn’t left yet. The guys in our section came back with beer and cigarettes that they passed around to all takers. Music played well into the night as groups sat up at the dining table playing cards until the power was shut off in the early hours before dawn. I slept restlessly – I’d had a sore back for days – and eventually gave up in favour of reading.
A variety of locals wander up to talk to me and Ellen throughout the days on the boat. They are eager to check that we’re having a good time and are getting a good impression of Peru. The resident children spend much of their time sitting next to us watching us play cards. They also swing wildly from hammocks and life jackets hanging from the ceilings, hare around the decks giggling and shrieking, and run through the captain’s steering compartment. Nobody seems to be bothered by them at all.
The journey is a mixture of relaxing and annoying. There’s no escaping the people. Whenever Ellen and I sit, a crowd gathers to watch us play dice or cards. When we stand and look out over the river, our tranquility is disturbed by a constant stream of people wanting to chat with us. It’s very sweet, but privacy and quiet time are clearly undervalued here. I moved out onto the deck to get some sleep, and someone stole my phone while I was unconscious. On the other hand, we had nothing to do on the boat but have fun. We had no commitments: we didn’t have to procure or cook our own dinner, as three tasty meals a day were provided to us. Our bags were not on our shoulders, and we didn’t have to set up camp for the night. All we needed to do was admire the scenery, nap when the mood struck, and play games. We taught our dice games to a group of guys, and spent many lively hours laughing, cheering, and groaning. They taught me a dice game in return, which involved rolling to win a house, then a bed, then one or more bed partners, the object being to win more lovers than your opponents. Much joking and laughing was involved. One guy insisted on me teaching him cribbage, which I managed to explain passably well – it’s complicated for beginners!
On our last days on the boat, we wished for a stop in a port. We ran out of water – somebody stole one of the several bottles we’d prepared – and the drinks on the ship were pricy. In the first few days’ stops, vendors sold water and pop, but in the last days they were absent. We stopped at a port in the middle of the night, and several of our gaming partners decided to get off to buy beer. The boat left without them, and Ellen and I felt grateful that we stayed in bed. We, at least, arrived in Iquitos, in the Amazon jungle, as planned.
When Ellen and I were first planning this trip, we expected the roads in Latin America to be awful. We envisioned winding dirt roads surrounded by jungles. In my head I saw sharp curves right at the edges of mountainsides, where a misjudged turn would send you tumbling down cliffs. I pictured roads wiped out by mudslides and bridges on the verge of collapse. I imagined we’d be taking our lives in our hands every time we got into a vehicle.
Now that we’re here, walking and driving these roads, they don’t seem nearly as terrifying as we anticipated. Yes, many of the roads through the mountains and jungles are unpaved, full of potholes and large stones to avoid, but they aren’t much worse than the logging roads we regularly drive on in the forests of British Columbia. The roads through the mountains are indeed full of switchbacks, hairpin turns, and blind corners, and they have no barriers to prevent you from driving straight off the edge of the road into the valley far below, but they really aren’t so difficult to navigate. The drivers honk their horns at most corners, and keep to the centre of the road rather than approaching the edge. The roads are often too narrow to let two cars pass each other safely, but there are ample pullouts, and most drivers pull their vehicles over as soon as they see another car approaching, rather than risk not being able to get past an oncoming car. Our highway from the coast to the sierra was full of long tunnels and bridges where only one car at a time could pass, but a honk of the horn was enough to determine that no other vehicles were approaching from the other side before we drove on. As for the condition of the roads themselves, we regularly see road workers improving the surfaces and clearing obstacles from the road’s edge. In Colombia, where a few highways didn’t seem to be under anybody’s control, local residents filled potholes and held their hands out for change from passing cars. Here in Peru, we see more highway workers than private cars.
Even with all that work, though, accidents still happen. I’m convinced the cities are much more dangerous than the mountain roads, with more cars, motorbikes, trucks, and pedestrians all vying for their share of the streets. However, it’s in the countryside where you see the reminders of the accidents long after they’re gone. I suppose in the city all traces of collisions are cleared up right away, while in the mountains people have space to memorialize the victims. It’s sad, but strangely fascinating to see how different the roadside tributes are from country to country. In Colombia, they reminded me of those at home: a simple white cross with a name on it was the most common marker of a life lost in a collision. In Ecuador, somebody painted a blue heart on the asphalt surface of the road at the scene of each accident. I liked that – even if a driver wasn’t looking at the crosses on the road’s edge, he could still be reminded of the danger of this place in the road. Here in Peru, the people build little shrines for every life lost on a mountain highway. Every now and again as you drive, you’ll see a tiny house open to the road, just big enough for a garden gnome. Some are filled with flowers, others a cross, and many hold statues of Jesus or Mary. The most moving part of the display is that the tiny shrines are rarely alone. Very few people drive private cars here, so most traffic is communal. Sadly, when an accident happens, the car is usually holding from eight to twenty people. One place I noticed had thirteen matching shrines in a row, followed closely by six more of another design.
Despite the road conditions and the reminders of accidents past, Ellen and I feel very secure here in the mountains. Nobody here questions whether it’s safe to hitchhike – the worst the driver would do is ask for money. When we tell people we’re travelling on foot and by car toward the south, they don’t see any cause for concern. We’ve had a few people voice objections to us camping, but mostly due to their fear that we’ll get too cold at night. (That’s a reasonable objection here near Huaraz – I’m going to buy an extra blanket!)
Unlike on the coast, where robberies of tourists aren’t uncommon, in the mountains not much is likely to happen to us. We try to camp away from the road and prying eyes, but the small towns police their own and nobody would risk stealing. In a town of a few hundred people, you wouldn’t want the reputation of a thief. Our biggest fears while we’re hitchhiking are usually minor issues: whether we’ll find flat ground to camp on before dark, whether there’s enough dry wood around for a campfire, and whether we brought enough drinking water with us to spend a couple of nights in the same place. It feels liberating to worry about such basic, essential issues. There’s no radio, no television, no news, no politics, no crime – just feeding and sheltering ourselves, and choosing the next place to rest and explore. It’s easy to feel relaxed and free when we travel like this. The only reminder of the more serious side of life is the occasional cross on the side of the road.
If you had asked me three weeks ago whether I wanted to go trekking in the Andes, I’d have answered “absolutely not!” I don’t particularly like walking up hills, never mind carrying all my bags up the mountains with me. However, as Ellen and I have been hitchhiking through the Sierra in Peru, everybody has been asking us whether we’re travelling on foot. When we explain that we’re hitchhiking, the locals look at us blankly. There are no cars here, they insist. We must be walking. End of story.
After a few days arguing with the locals about whether hitchhiking is possible, Ellen and I have just started walking out of town rather than searching for rides. Here in the Sierra, there really aren’t many cars. We could wait by the side of the road for hours and not have a single vehicle bigger than a motorbike or a mule pass us by. If we pass the time trekking rather than standing still, we have the chance to see the countryside and meet more people. We’re not going very quickly – neither of us is in good enough shape to be speedwalking up the Andean hillsides with all our gear – but at least we’re getting somewhere. Our progress is also slowed by stopping to chat to the locals. On the road, we get people stopping us every ten minutes. Some want photographs with us, others want to know where we’re from, and many give us food (fruit, bread, and water) or advice (most of it conflicting) about where to go from here. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Peruvians are ridiculously nice!
Some days we’ll walk for several hours before a car passes us, whereas other times we won’t even make it out of town. Here in the highlands, though, almost every car that drives by stops, and even the ones going the other way pause to apologize for not stopping. In the past few days, Ellen and I haven’t had a car refuse to pick us up. The drivers and passengers are eager to be part of our journey and to give us a good impression of their country. They don’t get many travellers in these mountain villages, but that we should be here, hiking to the next town, is taken as perfectly reasonable.
We’ve taken to telling people that we’re walking to Bolivia, little by little. “That’s a long way to go on foot,” they’ll say. “Yes,” we say, “but we’ll take rides in cars when we can.” The locals nod seriously. “Oh yes, that’s good. But there are no cars here on Mondays.” “Then I guess we’d better start hiking,” we say, and Ellen and I smile at each other. We’d never have expected to be in Peru trekking in the Andes, but now that we’re here, we’re loving every minute of it.