At the end of 2011 we quit our jobs and set off in our 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon, "Nacho". Our plan? To circumnavigate the globe, slowly, while discovering culture, food, recreation, and emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance. We are Brad and Sheena. Just wingin' it.
With one deep exhale, I stripped the sheets off and sat up in bed. I tied my hair back, slipped on the previous day’s clothes, walked into my flip flops, and slung the camera over my shoulder. I pointed my body down the stairs, turned left, and walked a block, intersecting with Huanchaco’s desolate beach. The waves crashed down in layers, validating the accuracy of the wave chart tacked up by the pier. Today indeed was going to be a huge day. My tired eyes scanned the waves. The rafts were nowhere to be seen.
Out of commission for the day, the reed rafts, or ballitos de tortora leaned against the promenade. Just the day before, while on a morning run, I ran by and saw a vastly different scene. It was fantastic. In the water, perched atop their Venetian like reed rafts, fisherman floated over waves with upright postures. Sustaining balance, they robotically dipped their long bamboo paddle in the water from side to side. Their eyes pierced through the depths of the water, in search of the fish. Once they were beyond the waves, they straddled their caballitos ,dropped their weighted gill nets or line and hook and fished.
A short while later, when I ran back down the promenade, the tired fisherman were on land, congregated along the rock wall where their rafts stood upright, drying for the remainder of the day. Alongside their hips like a set of house keys, skinny fish were strung up on metal cords.
In Huanchaco, this method of fishing has been going on for centuries, with the image of reed rafts even depicted on 2,000 year old Mochica ceramics.
Far past where the sidewalk drops off into dirt, a sandy road continues to an agricultural zone. Wispy strands of reed or wachaque, grow in the marsh. Masterfully bound around two chunks of foam, the reed is shaped into a Venetian style boat, with one end tapering upward, just like the long sweeping curve of a handlebar mustache. On the other end, the reed is precisely cut, dipping down a level and forming a cozy dug out.
As I began heading away from the rafts, a man with kind eyes, chocolate colored skin and a quick smile appeared before me. Long before the sun’s heat leaked from the sky, he had been alongside the promenade, staring out at the sea. Oblivious to the chill in the air, in his warm fleece and beanie, he lingered, wanting to converse.
Quickly he revealed he was a fisherman. With a matter-of-fact tone in his voice, he explained that there would be no fishing today. The waves were too big and the water too turbulent for spotting the fish. He would be back out again tomorrow, fishing, if the sea would allow it. It was clear that while he would have liked to have been out fishing, it was just as well if he didn’t. The act of catching fish didn’t change what he’d be doing for the majority of the day. He’d still congregate along the wall with his buddies until the sun set, talking of wives, woes, and weather. I promised to come back the next day to buy some fish, sold either along the wall or in the market. For the two following days, the waves were harsh and the ocean froth muddled the visibility.
And despite not buying any fish, I did go and check out the market that lay hidden between two massive garage doors. Here, I tried chicha for the first time. Ladled into a small snack sized plastic bag, a deep purple juice sloshed from side to side. With a few quick flicks of the wrist, a straw was inserted in the top and the bag was bow tied around the protrusion. It tasted just like fruit juice, except that it was made from cobs of dried purple corn soaked in water. Come to find out, chicha is so popular in Peru that it even had its own national symbol. If you spot a long wooden branch, pole, or pipe protruding from the ground, and a bag tied to the end of it, you know there is a local concoction of chicha for sale.
With chicha in hand, we wandered the streets splashed with colorful murals, enjoying the day while pondering our next move. The second highest mountain range in the world, the Peruvian Andes were near. It was time to pull out the wool socks and hiking boots and point Nacho to the South.
A few years ago I attempted the Pines 2 Mines mountain bike race – an 80 mile off road jaunt from Flagstaff to Jerome – on my cyclocross bike. Everyone told me I was of unsound mind for wanting to ride this bike, which amounted to a road bike with knobby tires. “Too rough”, they would say. “So-and-so tried it a few years ago and said never again.” Naysayers. I went out there and gave it hell, and after the first fifteen miles I was in the top 5 and feeling pretty good. I sat in and planned where I’d break away. Maybe the final 20 mile climb to Jerome. At about this time I hit a rock and got a flat tire.
Before I even came to a stop I had my new tube out and partially inflated with my mouth, and had my pump in my hand. I hopped off my bike, pulled the old tube out, put the new one back in, and started pumping. Air sprayed out of the valve stem; my new tube was bad. I got my only other tube and put it into the tire and started pumping. Air sprayed out again. Both of my spare tubes were bad. I sat my ass on a rock, pulled out my patch kit, and started patching.
Fast forward to the 65 mile mark. I’ve endured 13 flat tires and a broken spoke. Yes, thirteen flats. At one point I had dropped a patch under the rock I was sitting on, and watched it fall down a snake hole. I sat in the dirt under the roasting sun and desperately stabbed the hole with sticks until I’d recovered my precious patch. Now I sit on the roadside wearing my spandex superhero costume with my wheel in my hand, the 105 degree sun beating down on me. There’s no shade, only dust and weeds and heat waves. I’m out of water, and I am out of patches. End of the road. I look down and realize I’m covered in dozens of spiders. It’s like a bad dream. Eventually I see a deer hunter driving by in his truck – the first truck I’ve seen in eight hours. I stand in front of him in my superhero costume so he has to stop. We drive together, a spandex-clad bike racer and Donny the deer hunter, in the cab of his beat up pickup truck. He recounts the time he hung out with two naked strippers from Flagstaff at a nearby hot spring while they worked on their stripper tans. I start to pass out from exhaustion in the passenger seat, and his story gets caught up in my delirium. Strippers are dying of heat stroke in the desert, covered in dirt and spiders.
Sometimes we go into the wild knowing good and well that we shouldn’t. And sometimes we find ourselves stranded in the desert, covered in spiders, begging horny deer hunters for help. But if we always heed the warnings, what on Earth will we tell our grandchildren about?
I’m pondering this conundrum in the shower on the last night we’ll spend at James and Lauren’s apartment in Huanchaco before heading into the wild. It’s only been a few days since we were last stranded by a mechanical problem, and they’ve been coming like punches ever since Costa Rica. The next day we plan to drop off the pavement and head into the Andes on a desolate dirt road climb that strings its way through dozens of hand-dug tunnels before depositing us in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru’s most massive mountain range. This is the famous Cañón del Pato. But to get to the start of the canyon we think we’ve found a short cut. Google Maps can’t make a route of it, but looking closely at the satellite imagery seems to show that the short cut goes through, and if it does, it would shave 17 miles off of the normal road that’s used to access the canyon. It would be a long path through the middle of an empty desert, through some mountains, and somehow crossing a large river. If we always heed the warnings, what on Earth will we tell our grandchildren about?
At about this time I’m slammed in the back of the head by a Louisville Slugger and the inside of the shower flashes an electric blue. Rather than my life flashing before my eyes, all of the times I’ve been electrocuted in the shower on this trip flash before my eyes. I snap out of it as the fireball dissipates and the shower walls return to their pale yellow hue. The echo of my yelp still echoes in my ears. Was this a sign? I chalk it up to Latin-American electricians not knowing what they’re doing. Just like the mechanics. These on-demand hot water shower heads consist of a rat’s nest of loose, hot wires that the water runs over to heat up. If some innocent shower-taker happens to touch the shower head and create a ground for the circuit, the poor bastard gets fried. This is the 9th or 10th time it’s happened to me; I feel like a prisoner in a Bush-era POW camp.
In the morning we brush aside all of the obvious warnings and head South. We still haven’t decided if we’ll take the ill-omened short cut when we roll up to it on the side of the highway. What’s the worst that could happen? Before we have a chance to decide against it, a man with a clipboard approaches. He takes down our information on his page; I spy the names on his sheet and see that only a couple of vehicles per day cross his post. This seems like a bad idea. For our future grandchildren’s sake, we press through. Before we know it we’re bumping along a rough dirt road toward a line of ominous, sandy desert mountains. We’re driving on the surface of Mars.
Driving through the desert between mountains and cliff walls, it’s easy to imagine that we’re in Iran or Pakistan. The road winds through sandy spires and through low passes until finally we emerge at the river. Across the canyon we can see the primary road that ultimately leads into Canyon del Pato. This is the point at which our short cut becomes ambiguous; neither Google Maps nor our GPS give a clear indication of a way across the river. The GPS shows a route, which turns out not to be real. Google had said we’d cross over a small dam, which also turns out not to be possible. We continue on for miles along the rough dirt road clinging to the canyon wall while on the other side a nice paved road shuttles cars along at high speed. Finally, at long last, we come to a guard shack next to a rickety wooden bridge. We stop to pay our toll for using the bridge, and then a man lifts a metal pole with a rope and we drive through, finally reconnecting with pavement. No spiders, no deer hunters.
By early afternoon we’ve reached the mouth of the canyon. Two soldiers stand guard over the entrance to the canyon. Desert clowns. We chat for a while about nothing and one of them asks me if I had taken any pictures of them. Unsure of the best response, I play the dumb tourist and tell him in broken Spanish that the canyon is pretty. Soon we’re free of his boredom trap and driving through the canyon, past inhabited structures that could have been plucked straight out of a rural settlement in Afghanistan.
Given the fame of this canyon road, there are surprisingly few vehicles. It doesn’t bode well for the mechanical failure that we’re expecting to happen at any moment. Construction on this road was started in 1952, and a French company now operates a hydroelectric dam near the top of the canyon. We occasionally pass pickup trucks emblazoned with the company’s logo, their roofs covered in elevated steel mesh to minimize the damage from rocks that fall from the sheer cliff walls. A new road has since been built farther South to access the Cordillera Blanca, but this one is still here for those with confidence in their vehicles and adventure in their hearts. We press on, passing through one hand dug tunnel after another, clinging to the cliff wall on the narrow dirt track. Below us, the Rio Santa batters the sandstone cliff walls with its emerald-colored torrent.
By evening we’ve only made it halfway, so we look for a place to camp. We come across a bridge spanning the canyon, and on the other side there is a large open area above the river. The bridge sounds as if it’ll come apart as we drive across it; the boards comprising its driving surface are held together by steel bands, and the rivets holding the steel bands on have all come apart. The steel rattles and the boards shift, my eyes intently focus on finding the best driving line, and Sheena nervously eyes the swift current passing underneath us.
In the morning the sun slowly crawls over the canyon rim, illuminating the multicolored sandstone walls across the river. The night’s chill is transformed into a still heat. It’s a classic desert morning; we sip our coffee and take in the smell of the desert plants and rocks as they’re heated by the sun. Mornings in the desert have a distinct smell, as if the night has deposited a layer of condensation on everything. When touched by the sun, this condensation turns into an evaporating perfume that smells like shale, cactus, mesquite, and dry sticks. It reminds us of Arizona.
After crossing back over the rickety bridge we’re back on the road, gaining elevation through the Canyon of the Duck. We realize that yesterday’s drive was just the mundane prelude to the real show. Quickly the canyon walls close in and the road winds along one wall, ducking through tunnels, the opposing wall sometimes less than 20 feet away, while the sheer cliff faces rise upwards on either side of the river a hundred feet or more. This must have been one hell of a road construction project. We see almost nobody else on the road for hours.
I remember sitting on the couch at Sheena’s parents’ house watching an episode about this road on some sort of Death Road Trucker TV show. It was about six months before we left on our trip, and I told them we’d be driving that road. It seemed so far away, like it would never actually come to pass. Yet here we are, driving our Nacho, of questionable mechanical integrity, through those tunnels, along those precipices, and across those bridges. It doesn’t seem as deadly in person.
The insides of the tunnels are rough. It’s as if they were blasted with dynamite and carved out with picks until just passable, and then the workers moved on to the next tunnel. There are 35 single lane tunnels in all. The actors on Death Road Truckers had scared looks on their faces as they passed through these tunnels. They crept along slowly, cameras showed their tires pushing pebbles off the edge into the rushing river below. At any moment, it seemed, their world could be turned upside down by a collapsing tunnel, a failed bridge, or a landslide.
We just thought it was fun. This is how we know that we’re more hard-core than Death Road Truckers.
By day’s end we emerge above the rim of Cañón del Pato and reconnect with pavement. Nacho has survived the trip and so have we. Our eyes are rewarded by views of the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Blanca as we sail down smooth pavement toward the mountain Hamlet of Caraz. Warning signs be damned; our grandchildren will have plenty of stories to listen to.
Mancora’s claim to fame is that there’s always something to surf.
In the morning I awoke early, having dreamt all night of riding the curl of Mancora’s famous year-round wave, as promised in our Moon Handbook. I forced my eyes open and rolled out of bed, hopping downstairs using our portable toilet as a step, and stumbled into the morning light. It was already hot out, the desert sun baking my lily white skin as I clumsily stumbled through the sand. I walked onto the beach and stood next to a dead seagull. I squinted across the horizon, but my hopeful gaze was met by the flattest, calmest, glassy surface of an ocean I’d ever seen in my entire life.
“There’s never a wave at Mancora. EVER!”
Tree was smarter than our guidebook. After all, he’d spent a considerable amount of time living the Sprinter Life and surfing the Peruvian coast. Tree would make a better life coach than a Moon Handbook.
Born to Run
Instead of surfing, I laced up my running shoes and followed Sheena into a desert canyon leading away from the beach. I’d just finished reading Born to Run, and was convinced that I actually had an inner Tarahumara Indian deep in my ancestral soul waiting to run his little heart out.
We disappeared around the first bend in the canyon. On the ridge to our left, two mean looking stray dogs watched us like vultures. I could picture the face of a Tarahumara Indian in my mind telling me you were born to run, man! It was pretty hot out, and I can’t say for sure that it wasn’t James Franco saying 127 hours, man! It took 127 hours! We continued deeper into the canyon.
I ran lightly on my toes, shuffling from rock to rock through the canyon while reminding Sheena, “This is all very easy for me. You know, since I was Born to Run.” After a few miles my inner tribesman had fallen ill and shriveled pathetically into the fetal position. We regretted not having brought any water. If my arm were trapped under a boulder out here, I’d be dead in far fewer than 127 hours.
The melting rubber of our shoes flapped against the parched earth in the midday sun as we attempted to steal moments of shade under overhanging cliff walls. Lizards scurried through the dust and my mind wandered to the running book. A white man had drifted into Mexico’s Copper Canyon and become one with the Tarahumara Indians. They called him Caballo Blanco. I wondered what they would call me if I were Born to Run. When I worked at my dad’s Mexican restaurant, the cooks used to call me Girafa. They would make animal calls at me, and when I’d look, they would grab a handful of cilantro and try to feed me. “Tienes hambre, Girafa?” It wasn’t my fault that I was a 6’3″ high schooler. “Whoa there boys, better watch out or I’ll call La Migra.” Knowing more about Mexico and Mexicans now, I still feel badly about threatening to call Immigration on them.
“Aaaayyyaayyaya!” Sheena’s shrill squeal snapped me out of my lethargic daydream, and all at once she was running a circle around me, her pigtail whipping my face. The vulture dogs had been waiting for us, and they knew we’d be out of it. It was at this moment that I realized that I was indeed Born to Run.
In the world of professional soccer, there’s a move called The Flop. A soccer player dribbles the ball skillfully, criss-crosses his way through his opponents’ defensive legwork, and suddenly the ball is stolen. At this moment, the player who had been driving the ball leaps forward, arms flailing, and lands on the ground. His face is pure agony; he’s grasping at his ankle while he falls. He lands on his shoulder in just such a way that he is able to propel himself along the ground in a series of magnificent rolls and somersaults. When, at long last, he finally comes to rest, he does so with his agonized face clasped in his hands. That guy was nearly killed! Is he okay!? That’s what he wants us to think. In reality he wasn’t fouled, but rather put on this elaborate show to try to garner sympathy from the fans and referees. This is the main reason that most North Americans think that soccer players are crybabies.
Peruvian drivers have mastered The Flop. In a country with the worst drivers in all of Latin-America, one would expect a certain level of defensive driving skill to be engrained in every Peruvian from birth. Since crossing the border into Mexico over ten months ago, I’ve become much more comfortable with common-sense driving. Passing with oncoming traffic is just fine; the other guy just moves over a little to allow three cars to pass on a two lane road. It’s just the way it is. For this reason, passing on a blind corner is acceptable if the conditions are right. It may sound crazy to a member of a modern, rule-driven society like America or Europe, but it works down here. We do these things every day. It therefore came as a surprise that once we entered Peru, drivers started completely freaking out. Everywhere we went, drivers were doing The Flop.
In one instance, I followed a slow semi truck down a straight road. A Peruvian approached in the other direction, but there was plenty of room for me to pass. I pulled out and began to pass the truck. Almost immediately, the Peruvian in the oncoming lane started frantically flashing his headlights at me. My heart continued to beat at 63 beats per minute. No reason to be nervous; I’d done this a million times. As I passed the semi truck I signaled and pulled in front of him. A few seconds later the Peruvian passed by, and as he did he performed the most elaborate Driver Flop I’d ever seen. Inside of his cab he created a vivid scene of total disgust. His arms whipped wildly around his cab, his eyes were wild with rage. One arm flailed wildly out the driver’s window, signaling his deep repugnance at me for having nearly killed him. This pass, by the way, would have been totally acceptable even in the USA. Every day we encounter at least two or three Flopping drivers. Crybabies.
Spending extended periods of time in the desert can make a person crazy. In Nevada, people see aliens. In Sedona, hippies seek out energy vortices and pass the day sitting naked on the red rocks, becoming severely sunburned in all the wrong places. Peru’s Northern desert is as vast as any on Earth, and it has its fair share of crazy people. Here, they all wear the same uniform; they’re the police who are stationed in the small pueblos that dot the immense sand wasteland.
The police are deployed in pairs. They place an orange cone in the middle of the highway and stand there going stir crazy in the sun, just waiting for a poor sucker to pass by. Our desert driving days are spent passing slow semi trucks, and then coming across police checkpoints, where all of the slow trucks pass us again. Seeing our milk faces through the windshield, the police lick their lips and flag us down.
“Hello officer, would you like to see my importation paperwork and my license?”
“Where are you from? How far have you driven today? Where are you going? Why don’t you have a front license plate? What kind of van is this? Is this van from the USA or Germany? Do you like Peru? Have you tried the caldo de gallina?” The conversations always start the same. These people are bored, and they lean on my door with their arm perched on my windowsill as they talk. They’re here for the long haul. They have no reason to pull us over other than the fact that they’re bored out of their minds and just need someone to talk to. It’s like being cornered by a conspiracy theorist; you can’t leave until they’ve had enough. It would be fine if it ended here, but every time we’re stopped the police go too far.
“What do you do for a living? How much money do you make?” They always want to know how much you’re worth.
“I’m an engineer, but I prefer not to discuss money.”
“Come on, what’s your salary? You must be very rich to be driving all the way from America.”
“I said I won’t tell you what I earn. But in general people in America make $500 per month.” If they have the right to be jackasses, then I have the right to be a liar. “We earn $500 per month, but rent is $1,000 per month. For this reason, people in America are all in debt and they’re actually very poor. ” Well okay, maybe not a total liar.
“You could live like a King in Peru on $500 per month. Do you guys sleep in your van?” At this, the police officer pokes his crazy head into my window and has a look around. “Wow, it’s like a small apartment in there. Do you and your wife have sex in this van?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand Spanish.” Sure, the whole conversation has been played out in Spanish to this point, but to a crazy person my response may seem rational. The police officer starts motioning with his hands so that I might understand what he’s saying.
“Do you,” (hand gesture) “and your wife,” (hand gesture) “have sex inside of your van?” (grotesque hand gestures)
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand Spanish.”
In Northern Peru, the police are nothing more than insane desert clowns going stir crazy in the sun.
“I’m thinking about getting a wheel alignment done. Do you know of a good place around here?” We had driven for a few weeks on a new tie rod, but hadn’t had our alignment checked. James and Lauren, having temporarily settled down in Huanchaco, would be the perfect people to ask. After all, they were like us – Americans driving the Pan-Am and dealing with similar incompetency issues.
“Don’t do it, man. I brought our truck to the BFGoodrich shop a few weeks ago to get an alignment, and then I drove to Cuzco. When I got there my tires were completely bald.” I looked at his tires; the tread was completely gone with the exception of a 1/2″ ridge on the outside of either front tire.
“What happened?” I asked, my finger sliding over the surface of one of his new racing slicks. They were completely destroyed.
“The guy did the alignment with a broomstick. He held it between the tires, and then adjusted the alignment by eyeballing it. Obviously it didn’t work. These guys have no idea what they’re doing.”
It sounded like I was hearing an echo. If you’re driving the Pan-American highway and need auto work done that you can’t do yourself, you’re better off setting your vehicle on fire and flying home.
We walked inside and found Sheena and Lauren up to no good. Lauren was leaning out of their second floor window holding a piece of string. I could hear a kitten screaming. Closer inspection revealed that the string had a basket tied to the end of it, and in the basket was an open can of tuna. Lauren was trying to bait the neighbor’s kitten it into her hanging basket.
Sheena offered words of advice and encouragement. “Just a little to the left. She’s smelling the tuna. One more leg and she’ll be all the way in…”
Before long the cat had taken the bait, and Lauren reeled her away from her loving home in the tipsy basket. Brian David Mitchell celebrated his kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart by setting up camp by a river in the Wasatch Mountains and reciting a marathon of Mormon prophecies to his victim. We intimidated our victim by making popcorn and playing a game of Gin Rummy on the roof. “Squeakers” pleaded a relentless torrent of high pitched squeaks. Like Brian David Mitchell, we didn’t even care.
We sat around James and Lauren’s apartment, the lease for which they had recently taken over from Stevie and Tree of Sprinter Life, and talked about what had happened since our last meeting. They were with us on the morning that our transmission failed in Colombia, but they had continued on while we remained in the mountains. As we talked, someone knocked on the front door. James got it.
“Oh hi! How are you? You know, we actually have your cat!” Lauren was already fast at work stuffing Squeakers into the basket and opening the window.
“Just hold on Squeakers! Everything’s going to be fine, just hold on!”
By the time James reached her to get the cat, the basket was out the window. He ran back to the front door where the neighbor waited, confused. She hadn’t yet been home, and didn’t know her cat had been kidnapped.
“Actually,” James told her, backpedalling, “we don’t have your cat. We just…uh…It was nice talking to you!” When the affair was over we all congregated on the couch. Lauren looked worried.
“I hope little Squeakers is okay,” she said. “She jumped out right when I put the basket out the window.”
We all migrated to the window to see if Squeakers was dead. No trace of a cat was to be seen on the pavement below. No fur, no blood, no tuna. Lauren looked at us. We looked back at her. The moral divide between us grew, as we couldn’t allow ourselves to be associated with a murderer. Finally, at long last, a happy squeak emerged from the neighbor’s downstairs grotto. Squeakers would live to see another day.