Nov 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 19 Comments

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

As evening set in, I stood outside of the van loading supplies into our backpacks.  I divided the tent, sleeping bags, stove, and other supplies carefully into each of our bags so as to equalize the weight.  We had removed every ounce of unnecessary material, eliminated a tent stake or two, all in the interest of saving weight.  Finally it was time to divvy up the food; I called to Sheena inside of the van.  While I had loaded the packs, she was responsible for getting the food together.  She opened the door and handed me a 15 pound trash bag full of fruits and vegetables.

“Sheena, WTF?  We’re going backpacking.  We have to carry this stuff for DAYS!”

“What, do you expect me to eat powdered SOUP for three days? ”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I expect you to do.  We’re going backpacking, and backpackers don’t eat stir fry for dinner.  They eat powdered soup.  Just enough to stay alive.”  I wasn’t getting through to her.  The trash bag, bulging with beets and carrots and bell peppers hung heavily in her fatiguing hand.

“I’m not eating powdered SOUP for three days!  That’s not HEALTHY!  We’re eating VEGETABLES!”  It was clear she wouldn’t budge on this.

“God, you’re so high maintenance!”

Her eyes opened wide and her eyebrows lifted, giving her the face of a crazy person.  She spoke slowly and deliberately.  “You don’t even know what that means.”

We had set up our basecamp in the dirt parking lot of Hospedaje La Casona, a block off of the main plaza in Caraz.  We would leave Nacho there while we trekked the Santa Cruz circuit through Peru’s Cordillera Blanca mountain range.

Our guidebook mentioned that hiking in the park would cost five Soles per day.  We would start the trek in the pueblo of Cashapampa, which would cost 20 soles to reach in a collectivo.  At the end of the trek we’d end up in the small village of Vaqueria, and would have to take a series of collectivos back home.  All in all the whole trip should cost around 65 soles, or about 25 dollars.  Just to be safe, I grabbed 150 soles out of our safe and pushed it into my pocket.  It was 5:30 AM, and it was time to go catch our first ride.

We found the collectivo – a clapped out station wagon – and crammed ourselves between goat herders wearing sheepskin vests and skirts – about the only other people who have a need to go to Cashapampa.  We handed the driver 20 Soles and settled in for the two hour bumpy dirt road into the foothills of the Cordillera Blanca.

“This trail costs 65 soles per person.”  We had almost slipped by the guard shack unnoticed, but we’d been caught.  And the cost was much higher than our guidebook had reported.

“But señor, that’s 130 soles for both of us.  Our guidebook says it’s only 5 soles per day.”

“Do you have your guidebook with you?”  Of course we didn’t.  We had to ditch it to make room for the 15 pound bag of vegetables.  “The ticket has the price printed right here.  I don’t set the prices.  If you want to go in, you pay 130 soles.”

“But we won’t be able to get back home from Vaqueria if we give you all of our money.  What do you suggest we do?”  Vaqueria was a 4 hour drive from Caraz, mostly on rough dirt roads.  Without a ride, we’d be screwed.

“Go back to Caraz and get more money,” he said.  With only two collectivos per day, this would mean waiting 10 hours for the next one, and then trying again the following day.  In a moment of weakness I jammed my hand into my pocket and pulled out all of our money in a big wad.  I handed it to the guard, ignoring the worried look from Sheena.  Walking for three days into the world’s second highest mountain range without any means of getting back home seemed risky, and we had no backup plan.  If I were a gambling man, my kneecaps would be shot out by loan sharks in no time.

“This pack is sooooo heavy,” Sheena whined.  We had stopped in the shade of a large granite boulder for lunch.  She looked at her feet, standing there sort of pigeon-toed, knees slightly bent, stooping her shoulders to exaggerate the weight of her pack.  I reminded her that I was always right, and that she should have known better than to question my all-knowing authority on packable, lightweight hiking foods.

We made lunch of fresh ciabatta bread, tuna, lemon infused mayonnaise, herbs du Provence, and sliced fresh tomatoes.  I’ll admit, although quietly and out of earshot of Sheena, that it was pretty damn good.

By day’s end we had arrived at a lagoon.  One edge of the lagoon was defined by the canyon wall, while the trail skirted the opposite edge of the water.  We found a flat spot above the trail and pitched our tent for the night.

While cooking dinner, a group of hikers passed in the opposite direction.  The last straggler from the group wandered up to our camp to say hello; a French woman in her forties.

“Have you come here alone, without a guide?” she asked.  We told her that yes, we were hiking alone.

“The agency in Huaraz lied to me!”  She had apparently asked a tour operator if she was permitted to do the hike without going through a tour operator.  Textbook conflict of interest.  Through her obvious anger, she was still in high spirits and very pleasant.  I told her the story about how not having a guide meant that we’d been responsible for managing our own money, and how that had lead to our current predicament.

“You have no money?  Well here!” she reached into her pack and gave us all of her money – precisely eight soles; the equivalent of three dollars and ten cents.  It wouldn’t be enough for a collectivo, but it was something.

“Thank you!  You don’t have to do this.  Can we offer you some food in return?”  We were communicating in Spanish, because her English was as rusty as my French.  Apparently her Spanish wasn’t much better; she misunderstood me, thinking that I was asking her for food.

These Americans…

“Si, si!” she said.  I went into the tent to grab some snacks for her, and when I came out she was handing me all of her granola bars.

“No, no, I was offering you food,” I said, “in return for your kindness.”

She finally understood, but insisted that we keep her food anyway.  Such benevolence!  And from the French!  I decided that I would never again refer to fried potato strips as “freedom fries”.

On the following morning we hit the trail early; we planned to cross over the 15,610 foot Paso Punta Union, and would need as much daylight as we could get.  The pass, although visible from our camp, turned out to be farther away than we had anticipated.  The sheer size of these mountains can be deceptive, and distances are hard to gauge.  By lunch time we had only reached the foot of the pass.  We hunkered down behind a hill, out of the frigid wind, and made ourselves more gourmet tuna ciabattas with sliced tomato and freedom herbs, or rather, French herbs.

The trail switched back relentlessly up the side of a rocky cliff toward the pass.  To our right the ridge continued around to become the canyon wall, while to our left an enormous 20,000 foot peak jutted straight up, terminating the ridge.  Glaciers skirted the lower flanks of the peak, and far below a turquoise glacial lake collected the runoff from the ancient ice.

By the time we reached the pass it was late afternoon.  Like climbers with minds fogged by lack of oxygen we lingered at the top.  We knew that we were at the pass too late in the day, and that we should get down as quickly as possible before night fell, but the setting was too incredible to pass by.  Bundled up in our down jackets and wool hats we sat there, silently admiring the extremeness of the mountain and its glaciers.  Every thirty seconds the creeping ice let out a loud pop; the crack of a wooden baseball bat crossed with a head on collision and an exploding firework.  It was the first time either one of us had ever heard a glacier groan.  At one point a hunk of ice broke off and came crashing down the rocky face toward the lake, five hundred feet below.  Never had I felt so insignificant.  It was the most impressive and grandiose spectacle we’d laid eyes upon over the course of our entire trip.  We regretfully pried ourselves away from the scene and started down the other side of the pass.  It was nearly 5:00 and the sun was approaching the horizon.  Cold was setting in.

We hurried down the back side of the ridge, but before long we lost the race to the cold and had to hunker down for the night.  We left the trail and headed for a small lake just below the ridge with a skinny finger of a peninsula jutting into its center; it would be the perfect spot, albeit a little cold, for a campsite.  To access the lake we had to shimmy along a ledge and then lower ourselves down a rock face.  On the peninsula we found a perfect sandy spot for our tent, unloaded our gear, and set up for the night.

The water in the lake was so clear that it seemed invisible.  Looking into the water from the edge of our peninsula was like looking off of a cliff; a couple of enormous boulders sat just below the surface, and beyond them the depth created blackness.  Everything in this place was enormous; the boulders under the lake’s surface, the depth of the water in the lake, the peak looming over our camp, and the range of glacier-covered peaks extending down the valley below us.

As we drifted off to sleep the rapidly dropping air temperature stabbed at our faces like daggers through the face holes in our down sleeping bags.  The last thing we heard as we drifted off to sleep was the soft sound of snow falling on our tent.

The following day we followed the trail through a canyon along the river’s edge, and by afternoon we reached the first signs of civilization.  By early evening we reached Vaqueria; it could hardly be called a town, as only eight families call the high mountain village home.  Walking into the village we came across two men moving a pile of rocks.  We asked them where we might find a place to pitch our tent.

“There is no need to pitch a tent; you can stay in our house,” one of the men said.  I explained to him that we didn’t have any money, and would be happy to camp.

“I won’t charge you,” he said, “go up to the house and tell my wife that you’re our guests.  I am Manuel, it’s a pleasure to host you.”

The man’s wife showed us our room – a dirt floored tack room on the ground level.  Manuel moved a few saddle blankets out of the way and spread a patchwork tarp on the floor for us, and proudly displayed that we would have electricity – a single bulb hanging from a wire in the center of the room.  We fell into a deep sleep with the smell of horses and dust in our noses.

In the morning we awoke well rested but without a plan.  We sat by the roadside reading our books, waiting for passing traffic.  After a couple of hours we heard the rumble, and then what looked like an enormous chicken truck rambled up the road.  I put my hand out and wiggled my fingers in the way that we’d seen Peruvian hitchhikers do, and the truck stopped in front of us.  From the cab three men peered down at us.

“We’re trying to get to Yungay,” I told them.

Blank stares.

“We have eight soles.”

The men talked amongst themselves, and then one man spoke.  “Climb up,” he said, motioning to the roof above the cab.

Almost immediately the truck began chugging uphill.  Sheena and I shared the open, wooden toolbox on top of the cab with an old Peruvian man.  The chilly morning air stung our lungs and we bundled up in our jackets.  Being so high up in the air and traveling through such a surreal setting brought smiles to our faces that we couldn’t shake.  Sheena sat crumpled in a little ball, her rosy cheeks and wide smile shining from beneath her hood.  After a half an hour of climbing we crawled into the back and nestled ourselves amongst the stacks of empty crates where the sun could warm us and we were protected from the cold breeze.

I looked up from my book to see the canyon walls closing in more tightly around us.  The fantastic white peaks that were previously hidden came into view, towering overhead.  We stood and propped ourselves up by holding onto the sides of the truck.  By stacking three crates on top of one another we created viewing platforms, and from our new vantage point we discovered that we were preparing to cross over a pass.  This pass, however, was no ordinary pass.  Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the lower 48 states, and stands at 14,505 feet.  Our chicken truck clambered ever higher until we finally passed through a small gap in the rocks, marking the highest point of the road.  We were at 15,636 feet;  1,131 feet higher than Mount Whitney!  Still, Peru’s highest peaks loomed thousands of feet above us.  Words like surreal and awe inspiring do nothing to describe these mountains.  There aren’t words for it.

Our awe quickly turned to terror as the truck pitched its nose downward and we saw what lie before us; the single lane dirt road dropped straight down a vertical mountain face, losing over 3,000 feet of elevation all in one go, over the course of 34 consecutive switchbacks.  From our perch, 10 feet above the surface of the road atop the old chicken truck, we could see the first 15 switchbacks, stacked one on top of the other down the cliff face, but the road beyond was obscured by the steepness of the face we’d be driving down.

At the sight of the switchbacks, Sheena turned to me, her red cheeks poking out from her black jacket.  “Bradley,” she said, “if we die in this truck today, I just wanted to let you know that I had a really nice time.”  Her face was still splashed with that ear to ear smile, her eyes glassy from the wind.

The driver picked up speed as he approached the first switchback.  Sheena and I looked at each other, fear in our eyes.  I swallowed hard.  I knew, deep down, that we were going to die.  I slunk down into the crates and buried my face in my jacket.  If I couldn’t see what was happening, then maybe I would be less scared.  Oh hell, who was I kidding?  I’d already seen the road; I knew we were dead meat.  I came to terms with the fact that our trip down the cliff would go however it would go, regardless of whether or not I watched.  I slowly stood and peered over the top of the truck.  My fingers gripped the wood.  My knuckles turned white.  My butt puckered so much that my pants nearly fell off.

After the first couple of switchbacks, I realized that we were in more danger than I had originally thought.  At the apex of each switchback, the tracks of the other trucks ended at the cliff’s drop off, meaning that they had pulled up to the edge, and then reversed before finishing the turn.  The curves were too tight to do in one fluid motion.  However, here we were, driving just a little too fast, making the entire turn in one go.  I craned my neck out the side of the truck to watch our tires, and to my terror, found them inches from the edge on every turn.  Besides the obvious danger of falling off the edge, I couldn’t stop thinking about the inept local mechanic who would have last worked on the truck’s brakes.

I turned to our Peruvian hitchhiking companion and asked the obvious question: “So, do lots of people die on this road?”

“Oh, not so many,” he said.  “The last time was a couple of years ago.  A bus fell off the side.  Everyone onboard was killed.”  He didn’t need to add that last part; no, that part was obvious.  It didn’t matter, I had already made my own escape plan in the event that the truck went over: I would hold onto the truck’s sideboards until I felt the ground, and then I’d grasp like hell for anything I could grab onto, letting the truck fall away without me.

Later on I told Sheena of my escape plan.  “Oh, I was thinking about it too,” she said, “but I couldn’t think of anything.  I figured I’d just have to go down with the truck.”

By the time we neared the bottom of the switchbacks, my intense fear had transformed into complete elation; now that I thought about it, this was turning out to be the most fun I could remember having – ever.  You can’t even pay for fun like this.  This was more exhilarating than any roller coaster; it gave the same feeling in my stomach, but it lasted for hours.  And when you look off of a roller coaster, you see a city.  I was seeing 22,000 foot peaks covered in snow, draining into turquoise lagoons, and I didn’t have to sit in one of those plastic seats with the safety bar.  In fact it was quite the opposite; near the end of the trip I noticed that the two metal flanges holding the tool/hitchhiker box to the roof were both broken.  Further inspection revealed that in fact a single bolt through a wooden plank was holding the whole thing on.  Guessing the worst, I checked the nut and, yes, found it to be only finger tight.

After four hours the chicken truck dropped us off on a curb in Yungay.  Sheena and I were covered from head to toe in dirt, our faces crisscrossed with smile lines in dust.  I had learned something on this trip: if you want to have an adventure, a good place to start is to throw caution to the wind and leave with only enough money to get you as far from home as possible.  The trip back will surely be a memorable one.

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Nov 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 12 Comments

Ride the Reed

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.

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Nov 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 28 Comments

The Robbery

NOTE: This blog falls out of chronological order.  While our last blog was written about our trip through Cañon del Pato, Peru, this one jumps past the next several stories and takes place in the present.  I’m trying to catch up on blogs, but decided that this one should come next, despite its being out of chronological order.

We’ve been robbed.  We started this trip fully expecting not to be robbed; in fact our motto about our fellow man is, in general, people are good. We especially didn’t think we’d be robbed in the relatively well-off country of Argentina, and even less so in the Swiss Alps-esque Lakes District with its flyfishing, chocolate shops, tea houses, and general affluence.  But we’ve been robbed, in a big way, in the Argentine Lake District.  It only takes one bad banana to make you want to bludgeon the whole group of bananas with a sock full of hot nickels.

We had just passed through the “trout capital of Argentina”; the small mountain village of Junin de los Andes.  Following the advice from my well-researched map of awesome fishing spots, we traveled five kilometers past Junin to the place where the Rio Quilquihue crosses under the road.  On one side of the road we found a parking area, and in the back corner we found a fairly secluded, flat place to park.  It would be the perfect place to camp before wrangling some fish in the morning.  We parked Nacho, locked the doors, and walked the 100 yards to the bridge to look at the water.

Arriving at the bridge we spotted a small trail leading down to the bank.  It seemed to afford a better view of the water, so we walked down it.  At our farthest point, we were 200 yards from Nacho, and almost able to see where we were parked.  No matter, we were in the middle of nowhere and there wasn’t a soul around.   We sat by the water for about five minutes, and then decided that we’d caught enough fish over the course of the last week.  It wouldn’t hurt to eat a few more meals and clear some fish out of the fridge before catching more.  We headed back to the car to travel a bit farther South.

When we arrived at Nacho, I unlocked the sliding door and got in so I could wash my hands.  Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except that the new walking stick that Sheena found was broken in half on the floor.

“Hey Sheena, it seems your walking stick is broken,” I said.

“You BASTARD!  You broke my walking stick!”  She was clearly pissed.  She’d dragged me around the shore of Lago Tromen all morning to find this stupid thing.

“I didn’t break it, I swear!  You must have stepped on it!”

Sheena gave me the stink eye and we had a laugh, and then I got out and walked around the side of the car.  At first my mind didn’t know what to do with what I saw.

Broken glass.  Window gone.  big dent in the door frame.  Door unlocked.

I opened the door and looked inside.  My seat was covered in glass shards, and there was a dusty footprint on Sheena’s seat.  The glove box was open, the center console was open.  Sheena’s beloved walking stick was broken like the very core of her little heart.

Nobody has ever broken into our car before.  But this is more than a car; it’s our home.  Some dirty rat bastard had broken our protective shell and had gone inside of our home without our permission.

We took a quick inventory of what was missing.  The first discovery was the hardest to accept: he’d made off with our entire camera bag.  It contained our digital SLR camera, all three of our nice lenses, and all of our lens filters.  The contents of the camera bag alone were worth more than $2,000.  He also got my Kindle e-book, my iPod with all of our pictures backed up on it, our onboard air compressor, and our beloved GPS, “Shackleton”. Camera, music, navigation, air, all of my books.  In total, over $3,000.

“Did he get the computers!?” I shouted.

Sheena checked the secret computer spot and a relieved look came over her face.  We would get to keep our photos and the rest of our digital lives, but it was only a small consolation.  We felt absolutely violated.  We got in the van and headed back to Junin, feeling like we wanted to curl up and die.

Our first stop was the police department, where a very unenthusiastic officer half-heartedly filled out a police report.  “Has this happened to anyone else in this spot?” I asked.  “Oh yes,” he responded, “It happens all the time.  The campesinos are very fast.  They rob all of the tourists who park in this spot.”  This angered me even more.  If the police know that someone is robbing all of the tourists who park in a certain spot, why not set up a decoy car and put the culprit in a “don’t drop the soap” situation?

We felt horrible.  We wanted to go home.  Our faith in humanity had been shaken.  We decided to hole up in a campground for a couple of days to recover our wits.

I went onto our Facebook page and mentioned that we’d been robbed.  Almost immediately, people started asking how they could make donations to help us replace our stolen goods.  This was completely unexpected, but the word kept spreading, and before long several different people had linked to our donations page through Facebook, syncro.org, and The Samba.  Over the last 48 hours, we’ve received $985 in donations from the ranks of you awesome and generous people who follow our adventure.

To those who have donated and offered their support in one way or another over the last couple of days, we can’t thank you enough.  In a time of despair and sadness, you have pulled together and showed us that we’re not alone in this, and that our pool of friends runs much deeper than we’d imagined.  None of you owes us anything, but we’re humbled to know that so many people care about our well-being.

By the second night of our stay at the campground we’d made friends with Mathias and Andrea; two Germans exploring South America by bike.  Additionally, our other new German friends Achim and Ute pulled into the campground in their overlanding truck.  We all gathered under our awning for the evening, barbequed steaks, shared a few beers, and tried to forget about our bad luck.

In the morning, Sheena and I stood at the sink washing dishes from the previous night.  The sun was out, we could hear the river rushing by, and birds were chirping overhead.

“You know, I don’t know why, but I actually feel pretty good right now,” I said to Sheena.

“Yeah,” she responded, “that’s because we’re surrounded by love.”

At the end of the day, our motto still holds true.  In general, people are good.  Especially our people!

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