Saturday, October 15, 2011

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

It had been a really long day, and this charming woman sold me this sweater, probably because I was the only person in the world who would ever buy it - AND SHE KNEW THAT.
I have to credit our good friend and traveling companion Tom for the title, which is an apt description for crossing from Peru to Bolivia. His critically-acclaimed blog is here

So, we came down from Machu Picchu, and had a decision to make. It was 6PM, and Jill was still not feeling well, so we were considering having her ride a train back to Cusco that evening, while I would hike the 10 miles back to the hydroelectric plant alone, in the dark, and ride the hour back to the village - alone and in the dark. The next day I would get an early start and be back in Cusco by noon and we would leave from there. Since that was an absolutely horrible plan and she said no, we bought sweaters and train tickets for the 6AM train the next morning. After a brief and fitful night's sleep we were on the train, and looking tops by any measure.

Bad lighting.
We enjoyed the ride back to Hydroelectrica, and went back to where we had left our bike with our good friend ________ who we will never forget. Seriously though, he was a really nice guy and all of our stuff was still there when we came back, which counts as a success.
We headed back down to the village, picked up the rest of our luggage, bought some gas out of a barrel and hit the road back to Cusco. The weather was much better, so this time there were pictures!

Four hours back toward Cusco we came to Ollantaytambo, where we met Leo, a Brazilian cyclist whose fortitude and physical abilities make our motorcycle trip look like a walk in the park. Leo had ridden from Brazil to Cusco, and had plans to make it up to Ecuador, Columbia and Venezuela before heading home. He had been on the road for several months, and wouldn't even hazard a guess at how long he had to go. His cheerful demeanor made it sound like he was halfway through is first day out, and talking to him gave us the impression that that was just how he treated every day.
Getting some positive energy via osmosis
We watched Leo ride off into the sunset, made it back to Cusco and called it a day. We awoke rested and ready for the ride to Puno, our last stop before the Bolivian border. We were back on the Altaplana, and the road from Cusco to Puno was perfectly flat pavement, and mostly arrow straight. A person could go 90mph for three hours on end there. Theoretically.  The wide open skies reminded us of home -  there were even cows and horses...

But there were also reminders that we weren't in Kansas, and we were at around 14,000 feet...

All the views were great, and the asphalt was as smooth as silk, but, as with everything, it couldn't last. This particular party was broken up by a flash hail storm that found us about an hour outside Puno. We saw some clouds over a mountain, made our way around it and were pelted by dime size hail out of nowhere. Luckily there was a gas station canopy a mile up from where it started, but by then the damage was done.

Ice encrusted and soaked to the bone, we broke out our raingear and sealed in the wetness, fully aware of the futility of it all. As we waited for the worst of the storm to pass, another wayward traveler came in from the storm; a local farmer sporting quite a unique piece of kit:

We discussed our machines with apparent mutual admiration, though his freshly imported Chinese ride had us beat on versatility, comfort and carrying capacity. As he pulled away Jill and I were discussing our failure to select the appropriate high-end techincal fabrics for the adverse weather conditions. Then, mid-sentence, Jill noticed that the "package" wrapped in plastic in the bed of the Chinese pick up was actually the farmer's wife and two kids, huddling together under the plastic in the freezing rain. It was precisely then that we stopped complaining.

The hail had quit, so we set back out in the rain - conveniently pre-soaked and quietly ashamed. An hour later we rolled into Puno and settled into the first hotel we found with hot water. I hope the farmer and his family made it somewhere warm.

The next morning I set about the business of equipping the bike for Bolivia. I had heard that the gas in Bolivia was both sketchy and scarce, so I wanted to increase the fuel capacity of the bike to cover us in case of long runs without gas stations. I also knew that riding on the salt of the Salar de Uyuni would expose our engine and undercarriage to highly concentrated salt water, which is very, very bad. To minimize the exposure, I planned to fit long mud flaps to the back of the front and rear fenders. The manager of our hotel was very helpful, and volunteered to take us around town to find the parts we needed. An hour later we had a pair of two gallon fuel tanks, a pair of rubber car mud flaps, a drill bit, and some hardware. Two hours in the hotel garage and the bike looked like this:
I guess you can only really see the fuel tanks...look for the mudflaps in later photos, they're beautiful.

While I was working I looked around the garage a little, and I noticed something...interesting.
"People's Revolutionary Alliance of America" APRA
1. Action against all imperialism
2. For the political and enconomic unification of Latin America
3. For the progressive nationalization of land and industries
4. For the internationalization of the Panama Canal
5. For the solidarity of all oppressed peoples and classes of the world
Eduardo had some particularly leftist political leanings, and it became apparent that this garage was, or had been, the sometimes meeting place for the "People's Revolutionary Alliance of America," whose posters and bulletins were hanging everywhere. Being an "anti-imperialist" organization I wondered what Eduardo might really think of "US American" me and my gigantic, extravagant gringo-mobile, so I pointed at the poster and said the only thing I could come up with in my limited Spanish. "Lo siento por el gobierno de los Estados Unidos." (Trans: "I'm sorry for the government of the United States") I know Mitt Romney won't apologize for the U.S., but anyone who has read some history on the interaction between it and Latin America sure will. Eduardo smiled and laughed nervously, and told me a "friend" sometimes uses his garage, and I didn't need to apologize. I had orginally included a picture of us together, but I didn't ask him about putting this up, so I took it off and changed his name. He was a great guy who helped us in every way he could, and I hope he can get what he, or his friend, are after.

Roadside memorials in front of the abandoned city soccer stadium. Juliaca, Peru
The next day we said goodbye and headed for Bolivia, the poorest, most opressed country in South America, and not concidentally the location of famous revolutionary Che Guevara's last stand...against U.S. commanded Bolivan special forces.