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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Crash into me, yeah...

An early start and an escape from urban Lima. That's what we said we were going to have. But of course, after the glorious French dinner of the night before, we ended up with a moderately-early-bring-me-Starbucks start. Which, what the hey, we were on vacation after all.

At least, I was. Good enough for the group. Royce, April and Mike had made most of the proposed trip earlier in the summer and were as enthusiastic about sharing it with me as I was about going.

The plan was to head up Highway 22 in a borrowed truck from Lima at sea level all the way up to a pass in the Andes mountains. (Yes, those Andes.) Then back again. In one day.

This was actually not too bad of a plan, believe it or not.

Armed with a drink carrier and 4 awkwardly ordered lattes and mochas, (our Spanish lousy, the baristas English comparable and everyone a bit shy about how to say what), we also hit up a rather swanky grocery store in Lima, a place obviously favored by expats, in pursuit of road food. Water headed the list, then wines, cheeses, crackers, and some apples.

Obviously we were going to be roughing it.

I was digging the absolutely giant kernelled purply-black corn they had there. Check it out:

Getting out of town was a bit of a trick. Finding the correct exit and then being relentlessly detoured through the outskirts of the city took more time than we, and my teeny tiny non-travel-friendly bladder, would have liked.

Fool that I am, I drank that damned coffee, knowing full well I would be looking for el baño within 45 minutes. What was I thinking?! Starbucks is a plague, I swear.

Then Mike had been (correctly) extolling me to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate to counteract possible altitude sickness. We were, after all, planning to drive from 0 to 15,800 feet. My doctor had said to drink a minimum of 100 ounces of water daily but she hadn't mentioned that I might also covet, wistfully, and unexpectedly, the convenience of Depends undergarments.

Perhaps you cringe. I don't blame you, though I have to point out that it's good enough for astronauts. Sadly, though ostensibly much more dignified, I was not equipped. And there is little that is dignified about whining to your spouse and friends but I really really gotta goooo!
The traffic was, in every way, South American. Honking, insane driving, visible pollution. Vehicles squeezed into every possible millimeter of space of the road. I was so glad Royce was driving. I would have had a heart attack. As a passenger, de nada, no problem.

The detour took us, among other things, over a questionable-looking temporary bridge. So questionable that we were debating with animation and ill-concealed fear the wisdom of going over it at the same time as a large truck. Of course we went over it just behind a large truck, listening for that creeeaking sound just before the thing crumpled like a brittle house of cards.

It didn't crumple, nicely for us.

Before the bridge and for several miles the traffic naturally slowed to a standstill, and so, naturally, the road vendors came out to try and sell their wares. These sellers extolled the virtues of their merchandise by holding them high up for us to see. I would have loved to snap a few photos but we knew better than to have anything visible that we didn't want stolen, so the cameras stayed safely below eye level. They seemed to have everything -from CDs to candy, action figures, kites, books, bottles of water, and even wooden cars, polished to a high sheen, were for sale. I do believe we saw a kitchen sink.

What they didn't have was a toilet.

Drat. I really needed one of those. I may have mentioned this already.

The truck windows were filthy by this point, and though often there was little to see of interest beyond the garbage lining the roads, and pale concrete walls of building after building, we were trying to spot distinctive landmarks to help us find our way back in the dark, once we survived crossing the bridge.

Royce spotted a train, evoking many guffaws that it might be there when we returned. A particularly tall and squarish building might do the trick, and then a completely unexpected Dutch-esque windmill seemed the winner. In the meantime Royce was battling the road and other drivers, admonishing one in particular that it would be beneficial to "make better lane choices in life" to gales of laughter from the rest of us.

I would have laughed harder, but frankly I would have wet both my pants and the truck's upholstery, earning serious scorn from my fellow travellers. As it was I was trying really, really hard to keep it below 5 whines a mile about needing a bathroom. Though I was well past the point of caring about modesty, there really was no place along the road to stop and drop trou. Through the haze of pain, my legs crossed so tightly it was doubtful I'd ever get them unwound again, I dimly heard Royce saying that we were pulling over at a petrol station ahead.

I'm not entirely sure the truck even stopped rolling before I was out the door and into a stall. There should be a word to describe that level of relief. I'll bet the Germans have one. Coming back to the truck, I tried not to feel too abashed about the whole thing. April asked how the bathrooms were and my face went entirely blank -I hadn't actually noticed, and couldn't have cared less. At the moment they were the Taj Mahal, as far as I was concerned.

April was scrubbing the windows with a sad excuse for paper towel, the best that could be had, and we got back under way. The scrubbing, surprisingly, actually did make a difference, and the view going past was improving vastly as the city dwindled to villages.

Though the names of candidates in the presidential election were still boldly painted on nearly every vertical surface, (see above -always Ollanta in red, Keiko in orange- stangely, they ran by their first names,) there were fewer and fewer buildings and now swathes of hill and tree made up more and more of the outside view.

We came to a straight section of road with policía cars alongside and the gendarmes themselves waving over certain unfortunate vehicles, those "randomly" chosen for special attention.

Not surprisingly, our nice truck with 4 gringos in it warranted special attention.

Special attention essentially means "lunch money for the police officers." You give them a nice bribe, they let you go on your way, everybody is (well, kind of) happy.

But Royce, well, Royce refuses to play.

What followed was a Keystone Cops/Who's On First routine, español version. The police officer and his younger partner established their dominance by demanding our papers, which were turned over. They were, of course, in perfect order, so then he wanted to see our...something.

It was not a phrase that any of us recognised. The policía became more and more agitated, and in the way of all those trying to communicate an unknown word to a non-speaker, the older one raised his voice. This was, of course, ineffective. But Royce was making sure it was ineffective, especially after the officer asked for about $50 and wanted Royce to sign some sort of statement.

Royce refused. Repeatedly. "I can't read this, I won't sign it," He averred over and over again, "English, English, does your chief speak English? Does your boss speak English? Go and get him."

Royce and the middle-aged policeman went round after round, neither one giving an inch. Royce, unfailingly polite but unwavering. The policia was doing a rather good impression of a little round pressure cooker. You could see his blood pressure going steadily up as Royce parried each thrust, refusing to turn over his license, for instance. The policia said he must surrender it immediately. He could come back and get it...mañana.

"No no!" Royce exclaimed "mañana aeroplano! Touristo! Touristo!" Including hand gestures of flying away.

The policía kept demanding the something-or-another-that-we-didn't-know-what-it-was. We kept looking confused. Royce continued his "leaving tomorrow, I'm a tourist" litany.

Finally the policía flung up his hands and, with narrowed eyes while snarling at us to wait, went back to his cruiser and brought back...the Peru-required-by-law to be in every vehicle first aid kit.

Aha. So that's why people displayed them on their dashboards. We found one under the seat. So, in hindsight, it may have been "cuadro de primeros auxilios" that the officer had been asking about. He said it so frequently you'd think I would have the phrase memorized, but I was busy residing in a very odd mental space where you're half amused...and half paralysed with fear. I'll bet the Germans have a word for that too.

The younger policía had philosophically given up on us long ago and gone off in search of easier pickings, but our fellow persisted a bit longer, Royce saying "Touristo!" until the policía looked like he was either going to shoot us or have a coronary.

He finally realised that it was hopeless, that gringo touristo or not, that Royce was too hard of a nut to crack and not worth it. Vamos!

Right. We vamosed.

Royce calmly explained to the rest of us that if he had turned over his license, not only would it be a huge hassle to get back, but that he would also have to use his passport as ID. If the next policía demanded that, well, Royce would be up a creek. Best to not give up anything in the first place.

Then he mentioned this choice bit: the Peruvian government has, with a shrewd eye on the bottom line, been telling their law enforcers to try and make Peru a more tourist-friendly country. To be welcoming and helpful to tourists. So Royce had said touristo as many times as possible.

No wonder the policía had done such a fine imitation of passing a kidney stone. His machismo and greed, good virtues in the past, were now fighting an internal battle with his instructions from the very top: be nice.

Poor bastard.

OK, actually I don't feel that sorry for him. He probably went and bullied some poor farmer after us. THAT guy I feel sorry for.

What could have been done? We were down the road.

Our second baño and provision stop (OK, tell me you don't distinguish parts of road trips by the rest stop, I know you do!) was at a line of little roadside shops, virtually indistinguishable from one another with the same sorts of goods and teeny tiny bathroom stalls. So teeny, in fact, that even April, who as you can see is quite slender, agreed that coming out of those was not terribly unlike being shot out of a starting gate chute at the horse races.

Royce got an incredible photo of this little Peruvian girl. He is so much...braver than I am with the camera, unabashedly taking photos of who and what he wants, and his easy smile won over this girl-child.

Back on the road, adding to our cache of booty some gum, Coca-cola, and some dusky plums. And came around a corner to our first major crash of the day.

This was a good one. Note that the truck is utterly on the wrong side of the road. I'm glad we didn't come around a corner to see that careening at us! Brush had been piled before and after the truck and draped with bright cloth of some kind.

Safety first.

Nicely, it didn't look like anyone had been hurt. There was produce scattered across the road, with two men chasing wayward oranges. There was plenty of evidence of crashes not so fortunate: shrines to those who hadn't made it to their intended destination were commonplace.

We left the main road to revisit a place my three companions had discovered on their previous trip -a village off the main road, and there I had my first glimpse of village life in South America.

Which I loved.

Best of all, and for these we pulled over: heavily laden donkeys.

Aaaaawesome. Ass jokes ensued, not surprisingly, but not until we had worn ourselves out snapping photo after photo of the floppy eared beasts of burden with their tiny hooves and swishing tails.

A rugged little road led beyond the village through a beautiful valley. The three of them had been out there before as well, putting my mind mostly to ease about leaving the beaten path and inadvertently running into drug smugglers.The guide books have emphasized over and over again that the consequences for that sort of mistake are, let us say, not so good. However, what we found was the occasional farmer, an enchanting ghost town,

and a spot where we could look out over a now-collapsed Bailey Bridge.

Mike and Royce were enamoured with this bridge. It's an inevitable and sad side effect to being an engineer, not to mention male. Here's a Wikipedia link for those similarly afflicted: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bailey_bridge

April and I wandered away after getting our fill of the bridge (I know,) following the maddening-to-attempt-to-photograph bird, April's favorite, the Vermillion Flycatcher. Cheeky scarlet little thing, it flitted just out of suitable lens range. I think it was laughing at us in Spanish as well. There were odd spikey orange flowers in the dust and grasses along the roads, and we kept an eye out for serpientes.

The boys had finally exhausted their seemingly inexhaustable enthusiasm for the Bailey bridge and, piling back into the truck, we headed out again, though in fits and starts, needing to pause to take a photo of a blue shuttered shack, for instance, or a stunningly orange bridge beyond a clump of cactus. This was my kind of road trip.

Even if the day had ended there I could have gone back to Lima happy. But there was more, oh yes, there was more.

note: I borrowed and used Royce's excellent photos from this road trip with abandon.


  1. What a story! As for the need for the bathroom while on the road and no toilet in sight, I know it well! It's a curse we women have and that whole hydration thing vs. toilet availability is ALWAYS a challenge. Glad you had such an interesting trip!

  2. Oh and Peru? Since 1988 it's been my plan to go there, but hasn't happened yet (too busy going to other (unexpected) places). But it's definitely on my list, so am living vicariously through your adventures. :) Enjoy every minute.

  3. Loving your latest installment - I'm listening to the nuns as I type :) It actually sounds just like a version I learned as a child in Ireland :)