A long time coming...

0 degrees fahrenheit. No heat, no lights, solid block of drinking water, exploded beer, frozen ketchup and it's only 8pm. After all that, we still had each other and we still had our determination to realize our vision. Despite the circulating perceptions that this maniacal way of life would inevitably lead to a divorce, we are pleased to say that you were wrong! We are as happy as ever and every frozen bone was well worth it! After 4 years of living together in our 21ft RV, we managed to pay off our debts, Kirsten complete graduate school, Seth become a certified arborist, both work multiple jobs and manage to save up enough money to travel. So here we go. We hope that you can come along for the ride.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

La Casa de Ciclistas

We´re writing our rules as we go. Rule #1: If they´re not on a bike, don´t take their advice to heart.

We broke rule #1. Our new buddy, Ricardo informed us that it was going to rain in Cajamarca (our destination) for the next four days. On account of his advice, we detoured to the beach town of Pacasmayo for two days, then took a supposedly 4 hour bus ride, which took 7 ½ hours to the mountain city of Cajamarca. It turns out that, yes, it is the rainy season, but it only showers briefly (half hour at most) in the afternoons. The suckers we are. Regardless of how we actually arrived at 9,000+ ft, it turned out to be a beautiful, colonial hub with manicured plazas (real green grass), stone sculptures depicting indigenous life and a rich cultural history which intertwines native Cajamarcans, the Incas and the Spanish conquistadors. We filled our days by strolling the cobblestone sidewalks, indulging in delectable street food and marveling at the intricate stonework of the cathedrals and engaging in conversations with delightfully friendly Peruanos.

One afternoon, we rode out of town to Los Baños del Inca, the thermal hotsprings (we soaked) where the Incan leader, Atahualpa relaxed with his troops. At this location in 1532, Pizarro arrived with 160 men, horses and cannons. The story goes that Atahualpa was lured into the plaza, given a bible, which he subsequently threw on the ground, at which point the massacre of 7,000 indigenous ensued. Atahualpa was captured, sentenced to burning at the stake, but was rewarded with a lesser punishment of strangulation after he agreed to be baptized. The Spanish stole 18,000kg of gold and silver, now estimated to be worth more than $60 million.

Our next destination lay back on the coast, the grand city of Trujillo, where we were eager to receive our ballots to vote in the U.S. election. The descent from Cajamarca was picturesque, bumpy and dusty. To be more precise: 60+km of bone-jarring, decapitating, spine-crushing, palm-pounding, jaw-grinding, head-wind hell of a road. As hard as it is to believe, the 110+km of pavement wasn´t much better. We were blessed with convoys (up to 10 at a time) of petrol trucks and cement rigs swishing by us at break-neck speeds, spewing exhaust and dust into every crevice and orifice of our bodies. We could have passed as Peruanos by the time our 176km were up. Despite the less than stellar road conditions, the landscape was dynamite. Most of the road crept along Río Chilete, which sat in a wide valley, diverting water for lush rice paddies terraced by boulders and protected by make-shift T-shirt scarecrows hanging from tall poles. We grimaced and fought against the fierce head wind as we eeked out the last few kilometers of our 90km day. Yet, for us, we knew it wasn´t over yet. We had to safely pass through the infamous town of Paiján on the pan-american highway. It is widely known to be dangerous for cyclists as MANY have been robbed in the recent past. After a huge plate of fried fish, rice, salad, lentils and soup, we scoped out our options. We ended up hitching on a bus, whose attendant handled our bikes with a tender care rarely seen in S.A. We passed through Paiján without incident, arriving in Trujillo just in time to find a hotel before dusk set in.

Since it was late, we decided we would call Lucho to tell him we would arrive at the Casa de Ciclistas the following day. ¨We can hook up tonight,¨he told us. Himself, his wife, kids, a German, Spanish, and U.S. cyclist were going out for pizza and we got the invite. At this point, we had only heard stories about how Lucho and his house were legendary. Yet, we really had no idea what to expect. Twenty-five years ago, Lucho, an avid cyclist himself, started hosting touring cyclists in his home as they were passing through Perú. It has since grown into an immense network and hub of cyclists, with over 100 cyclists visiting each month. According to the guest registry, Seth and I are #s 1038 and 1039. There is a repair workshop downstairs, bedrooms for tired cyclists and bike paraphenelia galore. This is where IT is at. Two wheels bringing the heart of the world together. When we arrived, there were already 5 cyclists staying here. We make 7. Lucho helps cyclists order much needed parts, tunes up bikes, organizes races and rides to raise awareness in Trujillo and Perú about cycling. Books abound with hundreds of stories, pictures, suggestions and anecdotes left by previous cyclists. The most legendary being Heniz Stucke, who has been traveling every inch of the globe by bike for over 46 years. Whew! There´s enough inspirational content here to fill the Grand Canyon. On top of cycling mania, we have been humbled by Lucho´s family: his wife Areceli, kids...Angela and Lance (yes, after Armstrong) and dog, Luna. Areceli invited us to her house to teach us how to make empanadas from scratch and share their life and love with open arms. They are a truly beautiful family in every way. We feel so blessed and inspired to be in the company of so many wonderful beings. We´ve fallen into the trap, as others before us. When you arrive here, you imagine it will be a short stay, but soon find out the energy is too electric to leave.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Peruano Passion

Welcome to Perú. And the desert. We left Macará early Tuesday, attempting to beat the grueling midday heat of lowland South America. The border crossing was at the Rio Macará, 3km out of town. A quick pit stop to fill up our fuel bottle found us tangled amongst a line of 10-15 cars blocking one lane of traffic in front of the station. Sorry, they said, no gas until 7:15 when the military comes to turn the pumps on. It was 7, so we chatted with the guys for a few minutes until one of them motioned for our bottle, went to the pump that they just told us was off, and filled it up with 25 cents worth of gas. Worked for us and we pedaled off, leaving the rest of the folks waiting for the military. Ecuador immigration was manned by an official looking fellow in full military garb who stamped us out of Ecuador without a word. As he worked, we could see guys in the background in their underwear swimming across the river with 10 or so giant jugs in tow. Gas is $1.50/gallon in Ecuador and $5.00/gallon in Perú, so they smuggle it across the border. Illegal to be sure, but no one turned around to see it, so it wasn´t ¨really¨ happening. On the Peruvian side, we were greeted cheerfully by a young guy in jeans and a t-shirt, a sign of the laid-back friendliness of Perú to come. We filled out the requisite paperwork and returned it as he asked us where we were headed. To Lima, we replied…and then where? Uh, Chile. All by bike? He seemed unsure. Yes, all by bike, we said – it really isn´t that far. Apparently unconvinced that we would make it with the customary 90 day visa, he stamped our passports for an extra 2 months.

Scattered amongst the masses of cars waiting to cross on the Peruvian side was a small army of farm animals, all in various stages of confinement. Piles of chickens tied by their feet in groups of 6 or 8 squawked loudly, clearly aware of the fate that awaited them. Similarly captivated turkeys, goats and pigs lay loudly voicing their disapproval as well. The vibe was different right away. Every person we passed had a huge smile, wave or friendly hello to offer. If they missed us as we rode by, they would run behind us and shout until we turned to return their gesture. For the first time in weeks, we cruised relative flatness and enjoyed a pace we haven´t known since Canada. As we stopped to munch on some bananas and crackers, a jeep flew by with a friendly honk and large, toothy grins from both occupants. Before we knew it, they were back to chat and welcome us to Perú. They were excited about our trip and told us to keep an eye out for the pilgrims we would meet on the road making an arduous trek to the mountain town of Ayabaca for an annual festival in 3 days. They would be hard to miss.

The first wave appeared on the horizon 10 minutes down the road and we would be passing them for the next 2 days. They walked in small groups carrying a wide assortment of necessities, knick-knacks and musical instruments. Several were dragging enormous wooden crosses, one end draped over their shoulder, the other with a small wheel attached that they pulled behind them.

The majority carried comfortable looking shoes while limping along in sandals or flip-flops in some kind of ¨Jesus suffered, so so should I¨ kind of sacrifice. Many had been walking for 4 days or more with at least 3 more to go, a journey of hundreds of miles. Our pain paled in comparison and we wished we could have gone to see the amazing spectacle that was sure to unfold when they arrived in Ayabaca. About 25km north of Tambogrande, our final destination for the day, we entered mango country. Mango trees for as far as we could see in any direction. That the trees were heavily laden with not-yet-quite-ripe fruits was a true heartbreaker. I was ready to stop and set up camp for the month or so until they would be ready for harvest. Tambogrande arrived in no time and the best part of town ended up being the gorgeous welcome tower at the entrance to town. ¨Smile, you´re in Tambogrande!¨ We did.

It wasn´t much of a town, but had all the necessities, including internet where we watched the second round of presidential debates (way to go Obama!) . It was also where we were introduced to our new favorite Peruano food, picarones – small blobs of fried dough smothered in sweet molasses syrup. Certainly not the healthiest food on earth, but too tasty to pass up.
Thursday brought us our most enjoyable day of riding yet in Perú, after two blissful evening of camping, with the blessing of a pair of ancient Peruano cowboys unfazed by the presence of two gringos on bikes in the middle of their desert pasture. We were passing through the Sechura Desert, a wide open expanse of not much, along a lonely, desolate stretch of highway.

Wildlife was plentiful, my favorites being the Vermiliion Flycatchers, their stunning electric red glowing against the brown, sandy backdrop, the gray and black Sechuruan foxes and the enormous Tumbesian Tegu lizards that scampered across the highway with the speed and grace of a water snake. After hours of nothingness, we passed through the micro-village of Quepon. As we rode by, two gringos on the side of the road shouted hello and we stopped to say hi. They were Peace Corps volunteers, one had been there for 2 years, the other one month. Dan and Mark were very friendly and soon we were back in Dan´s house chatting it up about American politics, Peruano life and travel and swapping books. Dan even hooked us up with a sweet little Perú map and wrote out an entire sheet of suggested destinations in northern Perú. We bid farewell just as the brutal afternoon sun was beginning to rear its´ ugly head.

A few more hours of riding and passing through other small towns found us in Motupe, our stopping point for the day. As Kirsten checked out our hostal, I met and chatted with Walton, a Peruano sitting out front who told me he worked at the local cerveceria (brewery) and instantly my beer radar was on full alert. After telling him that I had spent the better part of the afternoon dreaming about a cold beer, we agreed to meet up later for a drink. On the way back from dinner, we picked up a couple bombers (large bottles) and found Walton in front of the hostal again with two of his buddies, Walton (#2) and Jorge, both fellow workers and part of a group of 8 guys who travel around the country together working at the various breweries. The two beers disappeared quickly as we passed the bottles around the circle. Two more bottles quickly became four, then six then, well…it was a long night! Our group doubled as the rest of the group arrived and introduced themselves. They were an intensely generous and friendly bunch that treated eachother like family and as we drank, we planned our rendezvous in Lima (where they all live) when we arrive in a few weeks. They argued over who was going to host us! At one point, Kirs asked what time it was, mentioning that her watch was broken and Walton (#1) disappeared for a bit and returned with his watch that he gave to us! We are looking forward to a fun party in Lima!
Our 8th straight day of riding since Loja landed us in Layambeque, a smaller town in the shadow of Chiclayo on the northern Peruvian coast. We polished off the final 65km before lunch and pulled in time for some much anticipated ceviche and a day off (today, Saturday) to recoup, eat good and restock before heading south on Sunday.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Goodbye Ecuador, Hello Peru!

The day we pulled into Cuenca three weeks ago, my stomach started cramping. It was both a curse and a blessing. The curse being that I was about to battle a 2-week long bout with giardia, the blessing was that we had access to fine hotel rooms with cable TV and private bathrooms. Day after slow day crept by as we watched more television in 2 weeks than we had the previous five years combined! We thank the heavens that brought us the European Champions League and Hollywood blockbusters in English. As restlessness got a hold of both of us, Seth rode solo the 200km south to Loja, a grueling uphill climb with stunning mountain vistas. I, of course took the bus and met him there where we were anxiously awaiting a mound of goodies (books and sour patch kids) that Seth's mom had sent us. (Thank you Susan!) We hurried off to the post office to get our hands on the feast only to be told that only one of two packages had arrived. 'You're kidding right?' we mumble to ourselves. They were sent on the same day and the first package had been there for two weeks now.

Seth gave the lady all of his info as she typed in her computer, then announced 'no, there's nothing here, but if you go over to the other counter maybe they can help you.' So, we walked to the next counter, which was in the same building. The lady there asked for the same info and painstakingly pecked and re-pecked each key into her keyboard. She sorely needed typing lessons. 'No. There's nothing, but let me ask someone else.' A third employee came to help, his knowledge far surpassing the two previous ladies. Yes, he was convinced it was there. They asked for the name of the sender as the keyboard pecker, slammed each key in slow succession. S...A....N...D....E...R...S. 'Oh, here it is.' Then she flipped through 3 books that contained all of the received packages that were hand written one-by-one. Then she needed to re-write the tracking number into the computer. She proceeded to instruct us, 'Sign here. Pay $1 at the next counter and photocopy this form and two copies of your passport and then come back.' Questioninly, we did and then were told we needed to go to the next building over to pick up our package. We waited in customs for awhile, before the unfriendly man looked for our box, slashed it open, had us fill out yet more forms and then fork over $11. The Ecuadorian postal service has to be one of the most antiquated on earth!

We left Loja, anxious to get the blood pumping again and that it did. We had another 200km of mtns to tackle before reaching the Peruvian border. Along the way, we met plenty of friendly folks, including Felipe, a cyclist from Mexico and Fani and Elizabeth, our first Peruvian friends. They were so smitten with us, they were nearly jumping out of their skin when we agreed to let them take pictures of us with their cell phones. They were a hoot! The last Ecuadorian days were hard, but I was getting stronger with each passing day and our last memories of Ecuador will be of coasting downhill to the border crossing. We have made it to Peru (yeah!) and will offer all of our amazing 1st day experiences in the next edition.