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Walking up the Andes

So the last stop was Nasca. I have covered the distance to Curahuasi in two phases: rapid and snails pace.

Getting a bus ticket out of Nasca was an exercise in patience. The first place was Imperial service only which means that for s/.100 you got a reclining seat, dinner and breakfast. In retrospect, this now seems like a good idea. They left at 8pm. When I checked in a second time the 8pm was full (mind you this was 1 hour later so it was probably full when I checked the first time). The next place didn’t go to Abancay even though the guidebook said that it did. I then stumbled across Patrick who has been cycling around Central and South America for about 7 months and is loving it. He suggested Flores, the company he rode down on, but when I tried they said that they couldn’t take my bike. When asked why the answer was that it had something to do with no one was coming down from Abancay so the luggage space was empty but going up it was full and there wasn’t much space anyway. I rode out to Expreso Wari, which was supposed to have 6 trips a day to Abancay but only had two, to check out their prices and schedule. The low end bargain had space for the bike and the best price and a decent time. Forty soles but the bus left at 11pm and arrived, supposedly, at 8am. Sold.

As it was now 10:30am I had a lot of time on my hands to kill so I headed back to town on my bike to check out of my room, load up the bike, and kill time. I had Chicharonnes sandwiches for breakfast, wrote some long emails, found the adjustable wrench I need. The wrench was more difficult than one would think. All the ferreterias have the tiny wrench or the huge monstrosity, but none seem to have any sized in between. After being shown the small one I said that it was too small did they have anything bigger. Mind you I’m looking right at the size I need which is right next to where he got the initial wrench. He’s routing around and I point it out to him. “This one?” Yeh, duh. I have a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t asking for a bigger one correctly; who knows what I was saying. What else. I tried the tuna fruit from a stall. This is a cactus fruit and they peel it for you and you eat the bright magenta colored frut pips and all. The nice lady indicated that they would pass. I bought fruit, papaya & orange juice, and cookies from street vendors. These ladies selling baked good all make them themselves and most of them are very good. I like the dulce de leche cookies. I stuffed most of this away for the bus trip later.

Onward to the square to sit in the shade. The Plaza des Armas is a great place in any of these towns where there were Spanish and the community gathers there every evening before dinner to socialize (although it seems to me that people are socializing all the time) and hang out. There are couples and kids and men and women and a gringo or gringa here and there. This was before social hour, but as I was looking around for a trashcan for my fruit detruis a couple struck up a conversation with me. It was fun and the man took to writing the question down as I could understand that better. I got all sorts of tough questions: What to you like about Peru, what don’t you like about Peru, What to you like about Peruvian, what don’t you like about Peruvians, cost of traveling to here vs Europe or elsewhere, where I was going, George Bush?, why Iraq?, Oil, what did I think about their new president (Alan-I think), Venezuela’s politics, Bolivia’s politics?. Fun stuff like that. While I know some of what is going on with the politics here and in Bolivia and Venezuela, I don’t know enough to converse on it. We parted way and I went to search out Patrick for a beer before sitting at the bus station for 2 hours.

The bus. Apparently it passed us by and the manager and a nice Peruvian backpacker of sorts help me lug the bags over to the bus. We shoved all the bags on and I went over to supervise the loading of the bike. I had learned the word side in order to say “It needs to be on the other side” The gear side needs to be on top or there is a high probability that the derailleur will get bent. Everything got loaded including myself and off we went. I ended up sitting next to the backpacker.

As we headed off into the night I realized that everyone, and I mean everyone had blankets out. I had heard that the buses got cold, but I didn’t understand until the wind started blowing in the cracks in the windows, how cold. With three top layers on I was ok, but my legs were a little cold. The bus was packed with both people and cargo. There was almost no space for the bike and there were packages in the last 3 rows of seats, the bathroom and the floor where we were sitting. You just stepped on them to get in and out of your seat. We went up for about 2.5 hours and then just stopped. In a fitful sleep, I could hear someone banging at something for about 1.5 hours and then we started off again. It could have been overheating due to the altitude as much of the climb is done in the first 2.5 hours by vehicle. Good luck Anton! Off we went for a few more hours with a bathroom break, a caldo break about 5 minutes from the bathroom break, and then the exciting road to Tintay.

By now the sun had risen and while it was still cold on the bus it was better then the night chills. We were cruising along about to pass by this rickty little bridge when the bus started slowing down. We turned and much to my disbelief, started across the bridge. Yikes, I was too enthralled to be scared. Up, up, up we went to the little town of Tintay where we unload what seemed like a department stores worth of stuff - much of it sewn into potato sacks. There were doors, baskets of oranges, garbage cans, a washing machine (maybe), and a million sacks. Many of the people got of here too. Apparently, much of the town speaks Quechuan. Back down the dusty road and onto the main highway again.

Abancay. There isn’t much nice to say about Abancay. Individuals were somewhat friendly especially at the restaurant on the square where I had a wonderful but unappreciated dish of Caldo de Gallina. This particular restaurant only sold this dish so it was finely tuned. The altitude had finally gotten to me and I had no hunger whatsoever. I made myself eat the soup anyway as it was good and nourishing. I do not recommend the hostel that I stayed in. It’s called El Sol and there are many others that would have been better, but after pushing my bike up the hill from the bus station I just took the closest one. I learned my lesson there. The outside looked ok, freshly painted with a café attached. I refused to go to the café. For some reason I decided that I did not want to have a private bathroom. I think it was because they were charging too much so I went with the 10 sole deal. A room without a view (or a window), shared bathroom (where I walked in on someone peeing in the dark), and a teen who laughed with a high pitched giggle when ever I approached and always asked where I was going. There was a concert in town the day I arrived, but as I hadn’t really slept on the bus and the effects of altitude were beginning to get to me I decided to bag it. The funny thing is about traveling so far, it is quite a bit about the journey and what you see along the way and not so much the tourist spots that you check off. This concert would have been fantastic, but I just couldn’t keep my eyes open so I had to pass. After being awakened at 3am by knocking at the front door and then at 3:30 am by and alarm clock and the radio turned full blast I fumbled around for my earplugs and got a few hours of sleep. It was also this morning that I realized that besides the lethargy of altitude I had finally succumbed to the traveler problem. Oh well. I left the next day.

So now riding. Let’s talk about hills. There are hills and there are the Andes and let me tell you the Andes are kicking my butt. I rode with a mountain biker for the first few kilometers out of town up and up and up and had to stop pretty constantly. I should have actually stopped more, but I wanted to get a little farther away from the urban settlement. Finally he ditched me to ride with a friend of his and I never saw him again. The word on the street was that the pass was 30km or so from Abancay. A breeze you say, think again. Think NO DOWNHILL ANYWHERE. Bit by bit I slogged my way up the mountain(s) and got higher and higher about Abancay. From a distance it almost looks cute. The terrain is pretty dry but not desert dry. It smells of eucalyptus and reminds me of the foothills of California but higher. In the sun and with exertion you feel hot, but as soon as you hit shade you realize that it isn’t really that warm out. The sun is deceiving. I haven’t worn short sleeves since the first days out of Lima. Here I use the long sleeves as a cover up and as a social thing. I want to look as asexual as possible and I think that it is working a little bit. I don’t think that people realize that I’m female unless they see the braid or they look closely.

After about 5 hours of riding and walking I rounded the bend to hear a babbling brook and lots of kids voices. There was a field on the side of a hill with a few flat spots that was perfect and while I had only gone 18km in about 5 hours I was beat. The woman that came flying down the hill towards me was all smiles and she gladly let me set up camp even showing me where a flat spot was. The kids all helped me carry my stuff up and once I got the tent up we looked at pictures and they took turns being pushed on the bike. It was a beautiful view and both the dog and the location were tranquille (safe). Once the kids left for dinner (about 4pm) I started the delightful task of getting water and making my own dinner. Dinner here was important because part of the reason I was so beat is that I hadn’t had much to eat all day. A tostada that tasted like pork fat dipped in my mate de coca and a choclo bread which I also dipped in my tea, various fruits and that was about it. My dinner consisted of a mix of large bead cous cous, mixed with tuna and that delightful Penzeys spice called Old World. While I wasn’t hungry due to altitude it was necessary and I retreated into the tent to eat. An attempt at clean up (cooking with kerosene is not fun) and I was off to bed. It was 6:13pm. So if I ever make fun of anyone again for going to be early remind me about this one.

A word on altitude. Last time I exerted myself at this altitude (lower actually) I got awful headaches. This time it hasn’t been the headaches, but just the fact that the oxygen isn’t getting to my muscles. This problem of oxygen to muscles and just plain breathing often makes pushing the bike a suitable solution to riding the bike especially on the slightly more inclined switchbacks. There are nice gradual switchbacks and there are “what were they thinking” switchbacks. Most of this road consists of the “what were they thinking” switchbacks. Another thing is appetite. I have none and while you need to eat it’s difficult to shove the food into your mouth – you just don’t want it. It really helps to have salt and spices and a nice cup of tea in these circumstance, even if everything smells like kerosene. I was taking altitude medicine up until today (July 4th) and that may have helped.

In the morning was more kerosene cooking with a cup of mate de coca and a bowl of goopy quinoavena. This concoction is meant to be had as a drink but as it was just oatmeal I made it a little heftier and treated it like oatmeal with the addition of the absolutely necessary salt and a little sugar. Not bad and very good for you. With two full meals under my belt I was ready to start back up the hill. I knew that there were about 20km to go according to a kid whom I bought water from the day before so I set my sights on the pass and would see what happened after that. I have to admit that besides looking up at the mountains here and there and looking do at how high I had risen I didn’t really think about much other then moving forward. You could tell when lunch hour was due to the drop in traffic and about two or three people offered to take me to the top. One guy said that it was 5 km more so I figured another hour or two walking ( you lose all track of time) and when I hit kilometer 5 I was horrified to look up and see at least three more huge switchbacks. The bastard – it was 7km not 5km. The joys of a car – how was he to know exactly how many km it was to the top. People wanted to talk to me but I was too exhausted to breath much less figure out how to say things in Spanish. Oh, on the coast they call the language español, but in the mountains they call it castellano. That is the difference. The people in Lima looked at me like I was crazy when I mention castellano – that’s ok, now I know where it’s used. I passed Quechuan potato farmers, rock haulers, lots of couples or women with animals. I can’t really tell who speaks Quechuan and who speaks Spanish. You would think that the woman in the brightly colored skirts and the bowler type hats would be Quechuan, but often they speak Spanish. I gave up trying to figure out and just said Buenos Dias or Tardes or Hola to everyone. If they answered in a lot of syllables I figured it was Quechuan.

So I pushed up the last 2 km of road way and got to the top. There was a nice lade that said, “Un poco mas.” And this time she was RIGHT! At the top I tried to smile as I took a picture but I just couldn’t between a variety of infirmaries and just being too tired I was happy enough to get a picture. The top was at about elevation 13,125 ft according to my trusty GPS. Pretty good for a New Yorker. I was trying to cheat at the end and hitch a ride, but there were no empty cars around when you needed one. I’m glad that I did it myself though. And tomorrow there is another one to tackle!

The descent was fantastic. Twenty seven (27) of downhill and one tiny little hill that I, yes, walked up. Twenty seven miles. It was exhilarating even keeping the speeds low. On this side of the mountain, or in this valley I should say, there is a lot of farming. It seems to be grains rather than potatoes and there are a lot of animals. Funny think is I can’t remember what type at the moment. It’s not llamas – haven’t seen one of them yet. I think I usually see the people on the side of the road and I’m looking at them rather than the animals. Perhaps it’s cows, that makes the most sense because I haven’t seen goats recently and there aren’t that many horses. For the descent I put on my heavier shirt (on top of the other two), the shell jacket, and some mittens on top of my cycling gloves. No need for the extra warm layer as the shell shielded me from the wind chill. The hard part was breaking and controlling the wobble. I now think that the wobble is really due to over loading and it wasn’t too bad. I could head for the shoulder to beak the oscillations or as it turns out just back pedaling and moving my weight around helped. Riding into the U-turns really helped. At one point in the descent I even passed a truck. That was safer than trying to break and stay behind him because the real danger with the downhill (besides flying over the side) was having your hands cramp. After awhile you develop a rhythm that allows your hands to rest, the bike to stay at a steady speed. It was really something else.

Upon arrival at Curahuasi, I was directed towards my current location. It is a clean, pleasant hospadaje at the East end of town, where I am now happily ensconced for a rest day with a slight cold. I went to take a hot shower upon arrival and much to my dismay (shivering with no clothes on ) I discovered that there was no hot water. We chatted and for a price (which I was more than willing to pay) I got hot water but that was after three family member got involved trying to get it running. It involved a propane tank, a meter on the side of the building and I don’t know what actually occurred to make it work, but it was wonderful. I washed my hair for the first time in 5 or 6 days, brushed my teeth for the first time in two, had a toilet where I could sit down, and scrubbed the kerosene soot from my hands.

I’ll leave you with these two things. Once the dirt was scrubbed away I could clearly see the bumps and bruises from my first fall. I was going so slowly as to not be moving at all and couldn’t get my shoe out of the clip when I just toppled over into the drainage ditch that lines the road from top to bottom. I looked up to see a farmer on the hill above me looking down so I waved at him. He waved back and didn’t laugh. My plans are to try to make it to Cusco in 3 or 4 days. If I can get to Limatambo tomorrow I will have a bed to rest in before the attack on the peak, but I have a feeling that the road to Limatambo is on a gradual incline which isn’t as bad as a pass road isn’t easy. Limatambo over the pass (4200m) and down to Anta. And finally an easy ride into Cusco from Anta to try to find a hostel for a few weeks. Perhaps I can try to bargain for extended stay rates!

Feelings after the first day of ascent:
1) Estoy cansada
2) Some dogs really, really suck. I’m glad I got rabies shots
3) At altitude I understand even less in Spanish
4) People can be very nice even with a language barrier on my part
5) Falling isn’t so bad at zero mph
6) Food and water is important whether you want it or not
7) The camping gear was necessary – all of it.
8) Dictionaries rock

No photos (my connection is - and I´m not kidding - 10.0 mbps - and you thought dial up was bad).
If you´ve gotten this far here is another
Google Earth file
showing the ascent (part of the bus ride is missing but each and every glorious switchback of the pass is shown)

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