One doesn’t just visit Peru, one confronts, and is confronted by Peru.
The generalized urban chaos with little or no space for pedestrians or cyclists, the constant, ear-splitting blasts from souped-up, aftermarket car horns, the shockingly heedless drivers, the vicious dogs, the glares and the shouts and the tension and the ugliness and misery and need wore me down in our first weeks there. The astonishing natural beauty of Peru’s unpeopled expanses nourished me and carried me through its cities and towns, but I felt a sense of dread each time we approached a settlement.
Then something snapped one night while Lucie and I were sipping from our shared 1-dollar tall bottle of beer in a clandestine courtyard pretending not to be a bar in the rugged Andean town of Andahuaylas, a few days west of Cusco.
There was a sad ballad hanging in the cold air bleeding from an unseen source, a bare bulb over our heads. We sat close, wrapped in wool, talking in low voices. The crumbling earthen-brick buildings walling us in bowed their wooden colonial balconies to us, the shadows thrown by their railings stark in the full moonlight. My eye fell on a geranium that seemed to be thriving in a rusty coffee tin punched full of holes and perched on a stone wall. Misery, anger and desperation are part of Peru. As are patience, kindness, generosity, pride and love. There’s a carefully tended geranium in Andahuaylas in the brittle cold moonlit night in full, defiant bloom as though it were basking in the sun in the height of summer. A contradiction. A paradox. In that moment I seemed to understand something important about the country that had eluded me till then. Peru is a complicated, difficult place in many ways, yet it managed to insinuate itself into my heart.
After over three months, Peru is now behind us, at least geographically.
We are flying. Enter the Altiplano—completely flat highlands 4000 metres above sea level spanning hundreds and hundreds of kilometers. Add tailwinds, perfect road surfaces and our pent-up frustration from slogging over dirt roads in the mountains for the past few months. Look at our map; we just left Cusco, and we’re already in La Paz, Bolivia’s capital.
The constant tension we’d grown accustomed to in Peru seems to have melted away in our new host state. It’s supposed to be even poorer here, the poorest country in South America. We don’t see it, though, at least not on the surface. Homes seem sturdier, of better quality and construction. The scary parts we were warned about are not that scary. And there’s something else: Peruvian TV and advertising features—to the point of near exclusivity—sexy white people in tight pants and short skirts, despite the fact that whites make up 15 percent of the population, while nearly half of Peru is indigenous and dirt poor. On our first night in Bolivia in Copacabana, Lucie and I stopped to grab a bite at a chicken place. We looked up and saw an Aymara indigenous woman on the screen in full traditional regalia, including her voluminous skirts, a bowler hat and long braids plaited with wool. She was the news anchor. We found that quite refreshing.
Lucie and I just conquered the Death Road on a side trip from La Paz. We didn’t die, but our bikes bled a little. Google it, if you’re stout of heart. From here we fly down to the Salar Uyuni salt desert (google), to Potosi (probably worth a google), then Sucre (just keep on googling), where we’ll meet with our charity Cyclo Nord Sud’s final partner. We’re hoping to be in Salta, Argentina for Christmas. Stay tuned for details on Lake Titicaca and the Floating Islands and our Death Road gallery!