It is a strange feeling when you pull across the border to another country. The transition from one to another always leaves us with deeply engrained memories. We can still vividly recall crossing into Turkey, India, and a whole myriad of others. Something special always seems to happen at these demarcation lines which leave indelible stamps on our memories like the permanent mark in our passports. At times these events are invariably tied up with the wonderfully naïve way we approach the whole thing; pulling up to a line where we have no language other than a smile and a handshake. People all over the world have responded.
Everywhere we have been my own blindness or Bernard’s ways of dealing with people have enabled us to overcome the worries of our friends and family at home. It sees heavily armed police or soldiers rush off to find a chair for me while others help Bernard fill out reams of paper so we can go on our way.Naivety, innocence, gullibility, inexperience, call it what you will but these words, if used against us, would not change our mentality even if we could. Our ‘innocence’ has, we think, kept us safe in many ways as we wander through country after country.
“Two innocents abroad.”
It may be true but we are happy in our innocence.
Pulling through the final barrier Peru stretches out before us and Bernard’s voice repeats the ‘traditional’ greeting at each new encounter:
“I’ve brought Bertha to Peru!”
Sometimes he says it with such amazement in his voice, like a child in many ways, the rising and falling cadence demonstrating the enormity of his achievement. Despite passing through so many borders, overcoming so many problems, he truly still cannot believe he has passed another line. Some other far distant place on the other side of the world; achieving another part of a dream which he has longed for his whole life.
“I can’t believe we are in Peru, I’m actually riding a bike in Peru!”
The sound carries through the speakers in my helmet; it is good to hear. All worries of border crossing wash away from him. Despite so many he still has to be calmed as we advance towards a line on a map. Peru was no different. I always know, somehow, everything will be fine.
Meanwhile he constructs scenarios involving multiple ‘What if?” questions before going on to generate three solutions to every problem we (may) encounter. I cannot change him. I have tried across the miles. It is the way he is, always looking for possible problems. I gave up many long days ago trying to change this aspect of him.
Pulling through the final barrier separating Chile from Peru we experience all the excitement of ‘newness’, stopping at a little road-side shack selling ice-cold drinks where we use the few Peruvian coins (soles) we have; contributed by Jaime and Conti before we left the Spanish couple in Chile.
Sitting in the sun we savour the drink’s coldness while all around us heat radiates until we can bear sitting still no longer. We set off towards our destination of the frontier city of Tacna where the night’s stop is planned. Arequipa is too far away (at 380km) to reach before darkness falls and we are always cautious on the first day in a new country. The one thing we know when we cross a border is we do not know how long it will take; anything from an hour to a day.
Finding the Gran Hotel we fill out all the immigration documents while waiting. The receptionist cannot find any of the bell-boys and eventually the manager goes to find them all pouring over every detail of Bertha; all activity in the building has stopped with even the kitchen staff evacuating to the car park. The manager scolds the staff, but gently, ushering them back while ‘our’ bell-boy laughs sheepishly as we climb the stairs with ‘la Moto’ (the bike) being discussed; how big it is, how far we have come.
We set off ATM hunting after settling in, walking through a town where people step out of the way while taxi drivers stop their cars – and other traffic – to enable us to cross the busy roads. Beggars fill side streets, approaching us in droves as we try to find the elusive ATM.We walk under the Alto de la Alianza (The Arch of the Heroes) as we wander – standing like a giant commemorative wishbone of a battle in 1880 where the region fought Chile during the battle for independence. It talks of the wish to be part of Peru once again; successfully achieved in 1929.
As we walk Bernard ponders about the Chilean riders at the border who seemed to be there far longer than usual before being allowed into the country. Perhaps, like people of Spanish descent, the Peruvians have a long memory, looking backwards to what has gone before? We’ll never know.
The roads are busy while we play the ‘ATM hunting’ game. People stare at us as we pass, mildly inquisitive, but Bernard meets their eyes with a smile, readily given back in this border city. We eventually find the ATM and cross back under the careful tutorage of the two laughing female police officers while local people play ‘chicken’ in their death defying leaps of faith in between the streams of cars.
Leaving Tacna the next morning with two sets of directions for the route to the main highway and end up completely lost until a police road-block stops our progress. They want to see all of our documents but this is rapidly forgotten when they realise I am blind. All talk of ‘Documentos’ are swept away while they helpfully give us directions towards the north.
In the long climb out of Tacna we enter a burnt wasteland where the ground has fried to gold and yellow. Not a blade of grass, no bushes, nothing for as far as Bernard can see but yellow shifting sand. The road twists and turns steeply through the hills like a huge snake chasing its own tail. 180 degree turns come thick and fast as the world tilts crazily from one corner to the next.
We see five cars while laughing at the ‘rush hour’ when several pass at the same time. We talk of home, of how different it will all feel from this land which is twice as long as Britain.
The engine growls, taking the strain as Bertha hauls us up and down throughout the day to cover the 370kms in heat and glaring sun. We coast to a halt at a custom’s post where two Harley-Davidsons are parked with Chilean number plates. Bernard wonders how they can stand the temperature dressed in full leathers while we are still hot in vented suites which let air pass through the fabric.
One of the riders wanders over and shakes our hands saying words like “Buenos” (Good) – pointing to the bike and “Muey Buenos” (very good) pointing to all the stickers which testify to where we have been. Meanwhile Bertha sits pinging dustily in the sun, cooling down, as he circles her.
We are joined by a custom’s officer who leaves his shaded area as he instantly realises I am blind. Collecting all our papers he motions us to “wait here” as there are several banks of stairs up to his shaded position on a balcony. He disappears to record our details in his voluminous ledger, the thump of which I hear from many feet away as it is opened.
Our Harley riders start their engines in a wall of noise which leaps out probably frightening everything for miles around. They wave and disappear up the road with throaty bellows of exhaust notes.
The officer returns, documents are safely stored in the pannier and all just as the local ice-cream vendor turns up on his 100cc Honda. The bike has been heavily modified with front forks being replaced by a hand-cart within which sits polystyrene containers full of their frozen contents.
It was really funny to watch all the riot stick totting, armed police and soldiers’ line up like well behaved school children. It looked so incongruous really as they borrowed money off each other, shifting machine guns off their shoulders as they rooted in their pockets for money. Banter filled the air as they talked amid much laughter. A simple thing like an ice-cream and suddenly they became something very different to me; people, not uniforms.
Needless say when Bernard described what has happening it would have been very impolite not to support local businesses; we join the queue! Getting to the front we have a choice of Peruvian Melon or Peruvian Melon. One of the soldiers behind helpfully sorts out the handful of money Bernard holds out and the cost is handed over. Bernard stands patiently sucking on a cigarette while I savour the contents. After the last crunch on the cornet we climb back on the bike.
The soldiers, police and customs agents all wave from their shaded positions as we pull out back onto the road – some of them clutching second ice-creams, so enjoyable was the first.
The road from this point winds in ever tighter circles until we climb to a plateau of 7000 feet where we can merrily blast along at 90kph on reasonable road surfaces, cutting across the flattened tops of the mountains where nothing grows. Dropping down into valleys where the floor is covered with lush green vegetation we find trees are everywhere, like little oases, before once again climbing to leave the greenness behind us.
A large army outpost appears in the middle of nowhere with high concrete walls painted in desert camouflage colours of sand and beige to make it ‘disappear’ from sight – like a child with their fingers over eyes saying “You can’t see me!”
Large signs declare “Live Firing” and “Live Missiles in Use” as we come to a Peruvian Air Force complex further down the road. Signs everywhere indicate you cannot stop, take pictures, or do anything else the multiple signs say you cannot do. Others refer to the loud, sudden explosions which may occur. All we hear is the sound of Bertha’s engine and her tyres on the surface of the road. Not a single explosion to be heard anywhere.Soon the 470 year old city of Arequipa appears nestling 7800 feet up the Andes under the snow capped shadow of the eight largest volcano in the world, towering 19000 feet up into the sky (El Mistri). The white stone of the volcano, from which many of the city’s buildings have been constructed, led to ‘The White City’ label by which it is widely known in Peru.
We roll into the outskirts where the road instantly deteriorates as we bounce down pitted and pot-holed side roads which were left ruined by the earthquake in 2001. They have obviously been repaired but hastily so, thus falling into ruin under the weight of traffic. Driving around for twenty minutes avoiding holes while looking for an elusive hotel, we give up and resort to Plan A.These are always humorous events as Bernard flags down a taxi. I listen as he goes into his whole ‘Spangalese’ pantomime with much use of the words (in various permutations) “Hotel” and “Buenos ‘Otel” (Good Hotel). Sometimes I giggle as he resorts to saying the same thing numerous times with slight intonation changes, then slower, then quicker until the message gets through (usually). This time the taxi driver gets the message.
He sets off with his hazard flashers lighting the way for us to follow, sending the message ahead “Beware English Lunatics coming through.” The driver leads us through various streets with buildings of gleaming white before depositing us at a lovely little hostel. Here staff want us to bring the bike through the marble floored foyer into the covered garden; “In case it rains”.
We manage to convince them Bertha could do with a wash and a little water is not going to harm her.
Leaving Arequipa the next morning the smell of fog and smog is thick in the air like in Kathmandu, grabbing your throat in a vice while your eyes water under the assault. We drive round and round trying to find the road to Juliaca before we begin the great climb with the day spent traversing roads at 14854 feet – setting a new Bertha height record. The information we have proves to be correct as the road twists and turns constantly throughout the 175 miles we cover.
As we ascend we come across new road signs – in Australia they warned of Camels, Kangaroos and Ostriches while in Peru they warn of marauding Alpacas. These animals are famous for their fibers which are woven into everything from blankets to socks, living at higher altitudes in Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru where they graze in herds.
The animals themselves seem to be something akin to Llamas but considerably smaller; long necked but with straight pointy ears. We stopped several times to take pictures, trying to talk to them in a very Dr Doolittle manner but our accent confounded them and they never responded – Peruvian accents are hard to mimic when you are speaking Alpacan, particularly in a Lancashire accent!.In the middle of the emptiest landscape where Alpacas roam, we come around corners and there, lying in the middle of the road or just on the edge will be a dog. They are everywhere in Peru. They sit in the grass verges watching the world go by. Alternatively they engage in the great Peruvian Doggie pass time of “Chase the Bertha.” Snarling, growling, barking, they race alongside the bike, pitting their legs against Bertha’s fifty horsepower; an unequal battle but one which they did not understand it to be. We blast away from them before they return to lay waiting for the next entertainment.
We stop to let air out of our seats (which are inflatable) as we have visions of them exploding under the altitude, hurling us up into space. Bernard lets the tyres down a little as the height is making them harder, causing the bike to slip and slide on corners with little warning. As we stretch our legs we retrieve tubes of sun cream from pockets where they have expanded under the pressure; the cream shoots out when the lids are popped; pressurised instead of squeezable.
We pass snow capped mountains, with plateaus lush with green vegetation, plants and pools of water. The Alpacas graze amongst the vegetation while farmers and children wave as we pass. Wagons and cars beep in greeting as we meet them on deserted roads stretching off to the horizon.
Bertha starts to struggle as the altitude catches up with her breathing. She wheezes under the effort of being 20 year’s old and still running on little things called needles and jets buried within carburetors. Newer bikes have clever little on-board computers which constantly monitor the fuel / air ratio, adjusting automatically without you ever realising. Precise amounts of the right mixture are fired down injectors into engines without even a pause for you to recognise. Meanwhile Bernard is up and down the gearbox several times per minute as we climb upwards.
He ponders if we should stop and rejet the carburetors in order to bring the mixture back into balance as the less dense air takes its toll. Deciding to go on we wait a little longer as this engine powers micro-lights even though Bertha is feeling the 14000 feet, she continues to puff her way up and down the Andes with a little gentle coaxing through the gear box.
It’s cold up here as the wind blows from the snow capped peaks and we have not been this cold since Erzurum in Eastern Turkey; sitting huddled around our one bar electric fire while we waited for Visas to Iran which were never to come. The cold wind passes through our mesh suites like a thousand needles. We start to puff along with Bertha. The air is thin.
You breathe in and still feel breathless when you exhale. So you breathe in again but it offers little relief. Then again, it didn’t stop Bernard lighting up a cigarette whenever we stopped; he swears he would have been worse if he didn’t smoke. Somehow I don’t believe him.
The whole day is spent climbing then free-wheeling down hills to conserve fuel. We pass through several Peaje (Toll) booths and they seem so out of place in the mountains. Motorbikes do not pay so we just wave to people as we approach, going through without ever touching feet to ground. The Police who are present at every Paige due to the mountain bandits all wave as we pass them bye.
Dropping down towards the town of Juliaca, and with only 30kms to go, we hit serious roadwork’s; soil works would be a more apt description. There is no road, just dirt which the road crew is trying to pack down to give a drivable surface.
Bernard is now a completely different rider when we come to events like this. In the early days he would stress over mud – then he drove in Turkey. He stressed over sand – then he drove in Pakistan. His gravel fears were overcome in India. Now he just pulls up and looks at the surface, pondering routes and surfaces. He talks out loud so I am aware what is happening. I don’t join in this conversation; he is not talking to me. He is talking to himself, articulating options while letting me in on his thoughts. We sit while he calculates and considers the big question “Is it safe?”
The click of his lighter tells me the road is serious.
He watches the wagons going through as a measurement of the surface.
When you come to conditions like this there are so many things to consider. The first and foremost question is always, is it safe? Then comes ‘is it doable?’ with the two of us on the bike? Then a whole set of others spring to mind. Would it be better if I walked the surface first? Should I walk Cathy up the route and then come back for the bike alone? Should I take the very heavy side panniers off and carry them past the worst sections? There are so many questions and options to make sure we get through in one piece. Some of the options mean it will take far longer to drive half a mile but they are worth considering as an accident here would be catastrophic.
I can tell he is very pensive as he lights a second cigarette.
He is waiting for the wagons to flatten the road surface down for a little while longer, their tyres will compress the new surface into something which, he thinks, will be more manageable.
The road crew is watching as we sit and wait and Bernard waves off their signals telling him we can go through.
Wagons are coming the other way as the stream of traffic alternates on the single track which has just been laid. Big earth movers flatten the surface with their weight in-between the alternating flows but their huge wheels with massive treads (while flattening the surface) actually chop up the hardened soil into enormous ridges a foot high and running sideways across the ten foot wide strip – not a problem for cars or wagons but for us?
After two cigarettes Bernard is ready and he has done all the calculations.
“Ok, we can do this, brace yourself Shiela!” He has never been the same since Australia!
The bike is nudged into gear. The road crew has understood we are a little more vulnerable to the conditions as they stop all the traffic to give us a free run by ourselves. Work stops. Fifty or so people watch what happens.
I feel Bernard stand up on the foot pegs to aid his balance (and the bikes) as my hands grip the top of the panniers.
We start to slip and slide immediately as we drop off the tarmac onto the surface. The back of the bike wiggles and the slipping of the clutch, the growling of the engine fill my senses as I feel each twitch being corrected. We plow through and bounce over the ridges with Bertha skipping, sliding through the surface like an ice skater on blades. Bernard looks for harder sections to aim for as we navigate through the chopped up layers of soil and dirt. Several hundred yards later we slide up the gravel ramp to applause from the whole road crew who had gathered there to watch our progress towards them. Tools had even been downed for the up and coming show.
In a theatrical gesture Bernard took a bow – with his hand on his heart – as we crossed onto the tarmac. They whistle back in response.
Several hundred yards further the road consists of cavernous cracks in the surface interspersed with potholes filled in with sand or gravel. Bouncing though the surface it was nearly enough to loosen every nut on the bike!We descend after 30 kms of bad, bad surfaces into the chaos of Juliaca which is filled with taxis all competing for the same dusty space on the congested roads. Rickshaws compete for spare inches and not since Asia have we experienced such traffic conditions. So far off the tourist trail due to its dust, impermanent and transient population, it has little appeal to visitors. So it turned out to be and after half-an-hour of trying to find a hotel we, once again, flagged down a taxi and followed it.
Clumping into the hotel we are greeted by 150 soles for the night. I prepare for a long wait as £33 for the night is the starting point for negotiations.
Bernard “No, no, really, so much? A hundred would be better. It must be lower than that.”
Staff “120 with American breakfast”
Bernard “100 would be better, we don’t like Americans.”
Staff “110 without breakfast”
Bernard “We like the Americans more than that. 110 with breakfast?”
So it was, with humour and much laughter at his comments, a price is agreed and the bike is pulled into the courtyard behind steel gates. I throw Bernard out of the room so I can find my way around, preferring to do this alone. He goes off in a mildly spurious huff to find cigarettes; he smoked his last one pondering the road works 30 kms earlier.
He returns in time to receive a knock on the door as a tray of tea is delivered. The waiter explains it is a coca tea to help us with the altitude which is 3,825 meters or 12,549 feet high. Coca is widely known in this part of the world to increase energy levels during pain, hunger and thirst and it is brewed from the Coca leaf. Due to the presence of cocaine as an extract from the leaves, it also relieves the headaches some people experience from the effects of altitude. We have both had headaches most of the day. We drink two cups while laughing about the possibility we’ll be flying tonight with other effects!
Sitting downstairs later on I can hear my steak being beaten into submission for at least 20 minutes in the kitchen. By the time it arrives the Coca tea has kicked as we sit giggling and, at one point, while trying to cut my steak there was a twanging sound:
“Do you want me to go and get that piece of steak for you?”
Bernard innocently asked me as he explained I had catapulted a piece of steak across the room. We both descended into a fit of further laughing as he went to retrieve the AWOL piece from 10 foot away. We are still laughing when we fell into bed. The last thing either of us remembers is laughing as we fall asleep before 9pm.
Britain should definitely import this Coca tea. It would provide an instant cure for most of the national woes – at least the perception of those woes. “Let’s have a cup of tea” would bring on a whole set of new connotations; people would certainly feel better afterwards. The problems would still be there but, perhaps, they would feel slightly smaller. At least until the tea wore off.In the morning we set out to cover the 344kms to Cusco, the last seat of the Inca Empire and the road to Machu Picchu or ‘Lost City of Incas’. For once we find our way straight towards the S3 which heads north back towards the wilderness of the Peruvian mountains. The road starts well and we wind our way through the streets of the town until we hit a roundabout.
Burning tyres block our route.
Thick black acrid smoke fills the air as people block the road to Cusco.Barricades block all entrances and are manned by very determined looking people according to Bernard. We sit and Bernard watches as events unfold. Cars, buses, or trucks approaching the barricades are stopped and forced to turn around.
“No way through it seems”. Bernard explains as he sits watching, looking for options.
Eventually several vehicles simply drive up the wrong side of the centrally divided route before crossing a gravel divide hundreds of yards further up the empty road. The bike is nudged into gear as we follow the next truck who attempts the same thing. Around the roundabout we go, the wrong way, up the wrong side of the road against oncoming traffic – whole all beep furiously – before nipping across the gravel divide onto another appalling road surface.The surface causes the bike to bounce like a jack-hammer and it is fifty miles before we find anything like tarmac. Bertha shudders and vibrates the whole way as she sends shock waves through the panniers where I hold on with tight fingers. We bounce over the surface, rapidly slowing where deep holes appear and cannot miss them or around them we weave like a skier on a slalom run.
We climb higher and the landscape changes from brown to green as rivers appear on our sides. Sheep and cattle graze peacefully in the fields as we hit heights over 14000 feet again. Peruvian women tend their flocks but never return waves in contrast to the men. Young children, irrespective of gender return happy waves but the girls stop responding when they become ‘adult’ so it seems.
Passing through small villages where houses are mud brick with thatched or corrugated grooves, people stare as we drive slowly on the narrow roads while children all wave furiously back to our greeting.
The road continues to hammer at Bertha while we weave through the worst of it before coming around a corner to find rocks all across the surface. Over the next few miles we find the same thing yet there is no sign of landslides which are our initial thoughts to explain the extent of the debris. It gets denser.
Tree trunks and huge boulders suddenly appear as we turn corners and our speed drops considerably. With 344kms to go, across high altitude roads, we start to become concerned at our average speed. We wonder whether we will make Cusco before nightfall?
A small town full of military in riot gear appears and it dawns on us. Something is not right.
The debris gets worse and worse as we continue, soon joined by corners strewn with broken glass glinting in the sun. No traffic is moving on the road and we have not seen another vehicle for nearly an hour. It would be impossible for anything larger than ourselves to navigate through the boulders, rocks and glass strewn roads anyway, we reason. It is such slow work, often the bike is at little more than walking pace as Bernard picks his way through carefully; like riding a bike through a minefield.
We come across cars seemingly stranded at whatever time this strange situation developed; surrounded by boulders blocking progress either back or forward. Drivers sit in the sun and ruefully watch as we slowly wend our way around them while they wait for whatever is to come. Several of them try to shift some of the debris which will allow them to drive six foot before they have to get out again and clear another section; only to be confounded by boulders half the size of their vehicle and so they have to sit and wait.We drift through using small gaps barely wider than Bertha’s three feet wide girth. Sometimes scraping the horizontal cylinders on boulders which do not move even given her 350kg weight pushing against them.
The police stand in the shade watching as we slowly pass lines of parked cars, wagons and coaches on the main road to Cusco. Making our way to the front of the line we stop just short of the tree trunks slung across the road. The bike is lowered onto the side stand as group of Germans come over.They tell us the road has been shut for three hours by farmers protesting about prices but it is due to open again in 10 minutes (at 3pm). The protest is region wide and we know, in this case, we are going to struggle to get to Cusco before nightfall. It is a prospect which does not fill us with glee; Peruvian mountain roads, at night, and under these conditions. Meanwhile the barricade watchers clutch their farm implements in their hands. The farm implements include machetes.
Bernard lights a cigarette and puffs away the ten minutes while drunks approach asking for money in thickened, slurred voices.
At three we can go around the barricade and Bertha comes to life as Bernard stamps out the cigarette. We start to move.
People are milling all around us, their voices a cacophony of chanting, shouting as we slowly wind through the parked cars, trucks and people on the other side of the barricade. Several voices shout “Hey Gringo” as we pass. Depending on which understanding of the word you believe, they are either using it derogatorily (as an insult) or in greeting to people they assume are Americans. We think it was a greeting of ‘Hello’. It is our way.The road is a mess with miles and miles of rocks, broken glass, and tree trunks being cynically placed on sharp corners or on humps in the road to drive you onto the wrong side. Sympathy runs out for the farmers after hours of such dangerous riding.
We pass an old lady on a corner trying to shift the rocks outside her house. A car stops. The driver and passenger get out helping her move the stones and the image is replayed on many parts of the road. We assume the great clear up is underway although heavy machinery will be required to move some of the massive boulders blocking the road which we weave around.
Slowly over the miles it becomes obvious people are clearing ‘their section’ as, little by little, the roads improve. At times the ‘protest’ is nothing more than a few small stones spread across the road in a line while other small villages we pass through look like there had been an explosion; debris, logs and burning tyres are scattered everywhere.
At one point the bike brakes hard and Bernard tells of a rope laying across the road, of the two young boys hiding in the trees on either side, waiting for us to approach. He explains the concept of ‘clothes-lining’, pulling the rope tight and taking you off the bike. He laughs as they run and let the rope go as we approach.
If it had been me I would have wrapped the rope around a tree both sides, it would save their palms from being shredded when 500kg of weight travelling at 40 mph took it from their hands. It’s all about physics.
He laughed. Still I have no doubt it would have been dangerous if he had not been so tuned into the environment.
We descend into Cusco after seven and a half hours of riding under these conditions. We are so tired, a taxi is instantly flagged down, Spangalese employed, and we follow a mad driver who doesn’t use indicators and who pulls straight across chaotic junctions like Moses expecting the waters to part. Dropping the side-stand outside the only hotel in town with parking, the driver wants three soles. He is very happy with the five we give.
Staff rush out to greet us and Bertha works her magic. Many of them become very animated at our arrival but not nearly as animated as Bernard when the room is quoted at 180 United States dollars PER NIGHT.
Bernard “I clutched my chest and asked the receptionist for a chair due to the impending heart attack at the cost.”
He continued with – I don’t doubt – his best innocent look, “Is that for the week?”
Staff “no Sir, per night, but how much would be better?”
There’s the opening!
Bernard “Even 90 would be expensive – it would still be very expensive for London, Paris or Rome, even at 90!”
Really what he is saying is he wouldn’t pay this much if he had any option, he would sleep on the bike first.
She picks up the phone and rings her manager, rapid Spanish exchanges occur before she hangs up. Bernard stands patiently and waits. He has the scent of victory now I have no doubt. In the end the price is agreed at 90.
It is still a lot of money but all of the hotels in Cusco are catering for the plane loads of Americans who fly in and out constantly. It is also the only hotel with parking. Sometimes we have little choice.
We sign in before moving Bertha to the underground car park where she drew her usual crowd as she rested after a hard day’s exertion. Like the two of us, we assume she was asleep in seconds.
Over the following days we wander through Cusco and drink lots of Coca tea although the altitude (11500 feet) does not bother us greatly; being lower than many of the roads we have already ridden across. People come and go from the hotel and it is obvious they have flown straight in; largely from the USA and struggling with the height. Sounds of huffing and puffing surround us and the tea urn, constantly replenished by staff, is the focal point of the reception area. Sometimes we wake in the middle of the night and are short of breath. You breath in but gain little relief. It takes several attempts before you feel enough oxygen is getting through but it is getting through, unlike earlier days.The Peruvian people start to remind us of the people of Nepal being, as they are, so friendly. Even when street hawkers approach they are not insistent or aggressive if you say “No thank you”. They smile and move on.The evenings are cool and Alpaca tops are acquired to ward of the night air as we set to making arrangements to visit Machu Picchu which lies 50 miles away and can only be reached by train and bus.
The famous landmark, the most visited site in Peru, is near the town of Aquas Calientes (the ‘local’ name for Machu Picchu) although the ‘Lost city of the Incas’ is a further 3.5 miles away standing at a height of over 7500 feet. It is overlooked by a mountain I learn about called Huayna Picchu (8860 feet). When Bernard read the background to the city and the overlooking mountain, I knew I wanted to climb it. He tried to talk me out of it, but acquiesced in the end although warning me it would be very hard to do. So it was to prove.We leave everything but a few essentials with Bertha a few days later as we set out. Carrying all that is needed for the two days in one backpack, Bernard fusses as the staff assures him the bike will be safe with them. He walks onto the coach relatively mollified at leaving her behind.
As we climb the coach steps it is noticeable they have reserved the two front seats for us. A nice touch straight away as somebody had thought of it.We set off through the Sacred Valley towards the train we have to catch at Ollantaytambo hearing the history from a guide who amuses and entertains us in English with fact and anecdotal stories of the Inca Empire; much of which Bernard had previously read to me from the books he had bought.
On the first stop at a market Bernard guides me to stroke my first Alpaca and they feel soft and furry, with long pointed ears. The scene is ruined somewhat when two of the males decide to mate in front of the camera and video totting people who pour off tour buses. Comments such as “Peruvian Porno” fill the air as Bernard, in his most serious BBC Audio description Voice, feels obliged to give a running commentary of the events; even stretching to, supposed, facial expressions of an Alpaca during carnal relations!
We leave our Alpaca friends – who will undoubtedly be famous all over the world with their performance – finding an old woman weaving the colours of Cusco (rainbows) on a wooden frame. She shouts at tourists when they take her picture without handing over the 1 sole gratuatory (about 20 pence). She understands I cannot see when we approach as Bernard indicates “Would it be ok to look?”
She gently guides my hand towards her weaving loom, placing her wooden tools into my fingers while Bernard describes the garment she is weaving. My hands explore the soft fibres while my mind pictures the colours and combinations. She smiles as I explore her hat and sits perfectly still as Bernard describes all he can see while my fingers trace memories in my mind. We thank her for her time and since we were two, two soles are given in thanks. She smiles back.
A little boy sits by a statue in traditional dress of poncho, woollen hat and blue cloth trousers. People happily snap away with him before departing looking for their next picture. The boy looks sad as we approach, sitting with not a sole in his hand; until we arrive when his face breaks into a smile at the five Bernard places into his palm.
Further along the valley we stop at Inca burial holes and are told of how the spine is removed to enable the bodies to fit into the tiny circle cut into the hillside.
Two children sit on a wall talking and laughing in deep conversation while their mothers sell belts or hair bands to the tourists who march up and down the hill to the site. The women laugh when they try to sell Bernard hair bands, he whips off his hat to prove he does not need one!
In a land where people ask for one sole for a picture the cost of a bottle of water is 5.50 at a hotel where we stop for lunch compared to the 1soles 50 usual price. In the sacred Valley we find out (Tourist) water is the new gold.After travelling over half the world, through all conceivable toilet arrangements I find one full of English language while struggling to find my way around. Bernard usually marches confidently into women’s toilets and orientates me – apart from Turkey where the nice female Turkish Muslim attendant threw him out! In Malaysia, with no English, people would gesture to him and then guide me. The same thing has happened all over the world and yet, here I am surrounded by North American and European voices with no guidance at all. It was a strange experience and one which stood out. I managed to muddle my way around the toilet and emerge unscathed to an annoyed, when he found out, Bernard.
“Probably too busy doing their hair” was his response “Next time I’m in there” he confidently stated. I don’t doubt it at all.
We arrive at Ollantaytambo and climb the train steps before setting off for the 1.5 hour journey through the mountains. Japanese men, each with three cameras, leap out of their seats taking pictures of everything throughout the journey as the guide tells us of the passing mountains. There used to be snow at 9000 feet but now it is nearer 13 he sadly states. Global warming reaches far and wide he adds. Right to the heart of Peru.
We pull into Aguas Caliente in the dark to be met by a placard bearing man with the name “Bernard Sniff” scrawled in large letters on the white surface. We laugh. Following him through the labyrinth like market which greets you on disembarkation, we walk down the hill with the roaring water rushing down on our left before arriving at our hotel nestling at the bottom. The room smells musty but everywhere in this town does due to the raging water which crashes down the mountains less than 30 feet away.
We fall into bed with alarms set for 4am as only 400 people are allowed to climb Wyna Picchu and we know the first buses (5.30am) are required to stand any chance of being in the 400.
All our possessions are packed (apart from toothbrushes) into the backpack Bernard carries to enable a quick exit to the bus stop in the morning. We fall asleep late with only five hours of sleep possible.
“I’m getting too old for this” is the first thing I hear at 3.55am followed by “Ohh God”.
“God won’t help you” I respond helpfully while listening to the shuffling footsteps followed by the brushing of teeth complete with sighs and moans.
We are ready quickly and bernard returns from his morning (on the veranda) constitutional (smoke) to tell me of streams of people walking past the hotel; making the one and a half trek to Machu Picchu. It looks like we are already in danger of being gazzumped. Others are already heading up the hill towards the bus stop.
About a hundred people are there when we arrive and it is only 5am. Bernard acts rather dafter than he is and guides me to the only place he can see to sit (about 20 from the front) and nobody comments, even helpfully parting to let us through to sit on stone steps. He retrieves coffee and sandwiches from a street vendor as we wait in the darkness. She wanders up and down with flasks of coffee, reaching into her bag for sandwiches while conducting a roaring trade under the street lights which glow dim orange. Nobody, it seems, gets breakfast in any of the hotels at this ungodly hour.
The queue gets longer and longer as more and more people arrive. Some see it and turn back to their still warm beds; a wasted journey for many. All the time the line gets steadily longer, stretching up the hill for hundreds of yards.5.25 comes and sitting people all stand, gather their belongings as officials arrive. Bernard nudges us into the queue as all social niceties start to disappear, people jostling for bus spaces.
A stream of twenty five sea vehicles appear as an official spots the white stick and rescues us from the crush, placing us Bus number 2 – people bashed past us for the first one. The pale light of morning is starting to appear as we wind ever upward along the unsurfaced road which only buses are allowed to drive on – otherwise we would have made the journey with Bertha. Thirty minutes later we arrive at the depot and people launch themselves out doors without a care for anybody around them. We are bashed and I worry Bernard will retaliate at some point. He restrains his inclinations.
People run past us over the rough ground as we feel the competition for places on reaching the first gate. Voices try to ‘save places’ for their ‘friends’ on later buses. People respond badly to each other and the whole experience is starting to feel ‘wrong’.
The staff on the barriers notice the white stick and wave to Bernard come forward to the entrance. As we move it starts a stampede with several people pushing past us to get in front as they think a second turn-stile has opened; only to be turned back as the staff kindly responding to the white stick, and we alone are allowed through.
We set off into the ruins of Machu Picchu to reach the gate for the entrance of the ‘Young Mountain’ of Wyna Picchu. The ground is rough and there are multiple banks of uneven stone steps to traverse. People stream past us as they rush for the distant entrance while running, tripping, and even falling as Bernard defends our space. They look sheepish when they see the stick which is trying to find the steps in front of us. Picking themselves up they look apologetic but rush on regardless.
I start to get angry as I realise my disability – despite our careful timing and arrangements – may prevent me from getting to the entrance within the four hundred allowed. I walk as fast as I can while Bernard coaxes, encouraging me with his words and his presence. More and more people pass but I will not give up. Not yet. It is a fact we simply cannot walk fast enough to keep up on this ground.
We arrive at the tail end of the queue and, for some reason, it is not as long as we anticipate; perhaps a hundred in front of us. Did only 75 people pass us (or three bus loads?) It felt far more. Again staff approach us and ask “7am or 10am?” We assume to start the climb and respond “7am” and they wander away. It is now 6.30, daylight has arrived and it has taken half-an-hour to get to this point.
Eventually, after much forward shuffling, our tickets are stamped number 62 and 63!
We made it!
We move slowly forward and, at 7.30am, we sign into the register, log our start time and set off with my walking stick replacing its white counterpart.
I do not hold onto Bernard from this point, but listen to his instructions about the next step, section, or obstacle we are coming to. My stick finds them and I move independently. It has taken a long time to develop this way of working. We call it ‘Free walking’ and the level of trust involved is considerable. It takes complete and utter confidence in what he is telling me.
When we walk or climb I usually stay behind Cathy while watching and giving information about what is in front. When we are descending I am usually in front of her. Both ways mean, you may have already worked out, if she does slip or fall (very rare) I have a chance of catching her. It is a very ‘labour intensive’ way of working with a blind person. The concentration is considerable and it can be very tiring for the both of us, in different ways. For the blind person it takes a great deal of courage to give this trust. For the sighted guide you have to be able to ‘step back’ and be able to let go. It is something you have to learn to do with confidence. The blind person themselves give you this confidence by how they deal with the information you are giving them.
What occurred over the next few hours was the most savage and dangerous climb I have ever encountered as a blind person. Several people had fallen on the previous day and it is easy to see how this can happen. It is a place where you can seriously hurt yourself.
Centuries old downwards paths and steps greet you before you get to the base of the 1000 foot vertical climb up Wyna Picchu itself.
The steps are uneven, off-set, slippery, narrow and the likes of which trekking people come across in small doses, but these go on forever!
As we began our ascent I start to realise why Bernard had been urging caution about wanted to complete the climb. It is 1000-1200 feet straight up in the air along a winding path. Grab rails are few and far between with the worn slippery upward steps going ever upwards.
It is something akin to climbing a 100 story building, but with steeper steps than normal; with the distance between them never being the same. They are all eroded and cracked due to the rocks they are constructed from and the surface is slippery and smooth from the centuries of use and morning dew. Imagine knowing there are sheer drops of hundreds of feet, and eventually thousands, below you; just a step away at times. Now imagine doing the climb with your eyes closed.
As we climb we have to move aside, where possible, for small knots of people to pass us. They come across Bernard first as he takes station behind, carrying my white cane as a symbol to indicate the need for a little patience. Sometimes he leads as it is so hard to move upwards. At this point my hand holds onto his back pack as we haul ourselves up the steep gradients.
We stop for breaks while the hair sticks to my face and the sweat drips into eyes making them sting. Within 20 minutes clothes are stuck to me and breathing is hard to come by but we take comfort from the – half our age – people all huffing and puffing as they pass us. We have learned the fastest ascent was by an unknown Olympian God (they must have been) at 26 minutes whereas mere mortals take 40-60. After an hour we are nearly halfway up. I start to have doubts.
Can I do this?
It is so, so, hard.
People pass by and offer encouragement but I start to get worried as, if it is this hard going up, how bad will it be coming down when all steps are a leap of faith when you cannot see them?
We stop for a break and I ponder whether this is achievable.
I voice my doubts and Bernard tells me it is ok to retrace our steps and go back if I want to, telling me I have nothing to prove, to anyone, to him. Then he waits, giving me time to think.
After a few moments of silence he speaks again:
“It would be a shame, however, to stop now as it’s not much further really?”
I want to do it. He knows I do. I don’t want to turn back but I’m worried about the descent. Then the little girl in me, hesitatingly, asks:
“Is it possible?”
A cheery voice responds.
“Common girl, you can do this if you want to. Come. We’re going to the top. You and me. Together. You can do this. Believe it. Let’s go.”
We set off.
Sometimes the steps are two foot high and Bernard passes me before reaching back, grabbing my wrist, hauling me up before stopping as my hand finds his backpack. Off we go again until the next time when again he turns, locking our hands on each other’s wrists and he hauls me up again. The amount of physical strength expended must have been considerable considering his breathing is as hoarse as mine and he is already carrying a backpack.
Muscles are aching in every part of my body as my whole mental world becomes wrapped up in each step. I will not give up.
Words of encouragement flow from my companion and sometimes a little cajoling is required as we slowly make a dent in the amount to be climbed. We stop for short breaks – he will only allow short as momentum is lost and muscles seize he tells me – but never again did I question if I would reach the top.
“Not far now.”
“Just around the corner.”
“Just over the next bit.”
Bernard sprinkles them liberally and he is joined by other voices who encourage me up the mountain. People who saw us at the bus queue, or passed us earlier, are all now descending. They egg me on with their words as they wait for us to climb up past them.
People come over as we struggle up to the edge, congratulating us on making it. Many, many pictures were taken of the two disheveled figures we presented ourselves as on this morning. We sit with our legs dangling over the edge of a drop several thousand feet below us, with sweat dripping.
Bernard is gasping for a smoke in self-congratulation and everywhere is full of no-smoking signs as it is part of the World Heritage Site.
In the end he turns to everybody within ear shot and declares.
“If anybody wants to shout at me for smoking then please feel free, do it now and then don’t interrupt my smoke. I’m going to light up and I’ll even take my butt with me when I’m finished. Anybody want to shout?”
Sounds of laughter and good natured comments from the Americans followed about the use of the word ‘butt’. They are lost in the sound of the distinctive click of his lighter. A sharp contented inhale followed from the person who enabled me to believe, who safely got me here. I think everybody on the plateau knew this more than he did. They watched us fight our way up. They’d seen. Nobody begrudged him his quiet reflection and many even encouraged him.
A deep American voice commented from not far away: “Man, after what you two did you both deserve a medal never mind a cigarette. You smoke away”.
I had been guided up the most difficult terrain imaginable under lung wrenching, muscle burning conditions, all the time with patience, humour and encouragement. It would have taken a hard person to begrudge him his cigarette. There wasn’t a hard person around us.
We rested for 15 minutes with the view being described through a second cigarette; of the Lost City way below us with the grassed terraces where agriculture thrived to feed three times the people who actually lived here. Of the fact it was only inhabited for about 100 years when its inhabitants were wiped out by (one theory states) the Spanish advance guard of smallpox. Of how the conquerors were only 50 miles away executing the last Inca Emperor at Cusco and they never knew it was here; so remote and inaccessible was the location which, however, by this time was long abandoned and overgrown before cannon thunder was ever heard. Of the clouds that drift pass the mountain peaks around us, through which a piercing blue sky can be seen. Far, far below us people wander around the ancient ruins which have stood here for just under 600 hundred years.
My muscles protest when asked to stand and Bernard comments how I can not come this far without going right to the very top which is “not far”. In fairness it is not far.
We have to crawl through a slightly flooded ‘grotto, and scale a few more rocks, climbing a log ladder before we are able to stand on the summit rock; the highest point you can go.
Bernard punches his arms into the air as we stand amongst the clouds, proclaiming loudly:
“Look at me Ma, I’m on top of the world!”
He stands silent.
I leave him to his thoughts.
I know he is shouting ‘Hello’ to his father in Ireland (a James Cagney fan – and the saying comes from the film White Heat) but also, more poignantly, he is saying hello to his mother who died in 2006. Last night he had told me he would do this if we got to the top.
He once told me while sitting in the clouds of the French Pyrenees of people who believe you are closer to God when you are so high. This is why, he continued, high places are sacred in so many cultures. He went on to say if we are physically closer to God then we must be closer to our departed ones and, perhaps, they can hear us if we talk to them. In this way, he thought, my late husband Peter would hear anything I said at that point. He reasoned that, because you don’t get an answer, it doesn’t mean they cannot hear what we are saying.
He had then left me sitting, alone, on the monolith built high in the Pyrenees while taking station a 100 feet away with Bertha; no doubt, puffing away on a cigarette as he waited.
He had taken a picture as I sat alone deep in my thoughts. It is still, he believes, the best picture he has ever taken and it appears on this page.It was to become the encapsulation of my view on blindness as we set out to cross the world. In many ways it became my answer to people who thought, or were brave enough to ask: “What’s the point when you are blind?”
So it was we found ourselves sitting on another high place thousands of miles away from the original. We were there for a long time as the single member of staff left us alone while constantly moving on other people; otherwise the summit would become crowded very quickly. He knew what we had achieved, more than we did as we were to find out later from the staff; no such ascent having occurred before as far as they knew or could recall. A Blind woman climbing Wyna Picchu.
Then it was time to move and the descent, when it started, was as bad as I had feared.
Anybody who understands blindness will know going down stairs is more difficult than going up. This is easily demonstrated. Try climbing your own stairs and see how it feels with your eyes closed. Coming down is far, far harder.
Now amplify the problem with near vertical steps which vary in depth. Every time your foot descends you do not know how far it is going to go. Each step jars your foot, ankle and knees. A small shock wave goes through your leg as you cannot judge how far you are stepping down. You are truly stepping into space, into thin air, and then hoping.
Your life is in the hands of your guide.
There are few hand rails, sheers drops are all around you and the whole process is in single file as the path is so narrow. Complete trust in what you are told is the only way to get through the descent.
Bernard spends most of the descent climbing down backwards so he can describe each step to me. Imagine coming down a mountain of rough steps backwards, giving directions for nearly two hours while talking, encouraging, cajoling all the time. He carries the back pack, my fleece and bag as well. He takes everything off me which interferes with my ability to move freely. To move safely.A couple we meet on the summit (Sandra and Phil) stay behind me virtually all the way and they take my items off Bernard to allow him to move more freely as well.
People pass us saying “Good Job” and “Well done” and other words of encouragement.
One group of Teenagers from America stop and tell me: “In all the time we have been in South America travelling, seeing a blind woman climb Wyna Picchu is the most amazing thing we have seen.”
It was very humbling to hear this when you consider all around us is the most spectacular surroundings and the most beautiful environment. I treasured the comment. I still do.
We were videoed and photographed all the way down by different people, including a group of Japanese who even set up their tripods, filming us until out of sight.
People coming up huffing and puffing constantly ask “Is it far?” as we had earlier. We offer our own words of encouragement to keep them going. The kind comments continued to flow as we go down stone by stone, step by step, with Sandra and Phil behind and Bernard in front. All three keep me going.As time draws on we have been at it for over 4 hours and I am getting physically weaker but, perhaps, more importantly, mentally as well. Every joint and muscle is in pain. My hips are sore along with every joint in my legs. Sometimes little waves of pain follow each step as my foot slams down. It goes on forever. Wave after wave, step after step, until all the pains join together in a constant stream of aching and throbbing.
As I weaken Bernard’s humour increases and people laugh as they pass with his overheard comments:
“Common, it a bit of a stroll down, stop faffing about and get a move on, it’s not that hard.”
A group of Australians laugh out loud when they managed to draw breath with his:
“Will you stop buggering about, the pubs will be closed by the time we get down”.
The Australians responded with “Good on ya” as is the way with Australians.
We have one bottle of water left and Bernard insists I swill it around before taking small mouthfuls. I am nearing my own physical end. He knows. The breaks become a little more frequent along with the sips of water. More breaks but shorter in duration as he explains any longer and it will hurt more when we have to move.
When we eventually reached the bottom it was so hard to begin climbing up the end of Machu Picchu to get to the exit which leads back into the city itself. Everything is really hurting and I am so, so tired. The end is, I am constantly reassured, not far away. Our wrists grab each other as I am hauled up enormous mountain like steps – or so they now seem.
Happy whistling fills my ears as Bernard makes jolly sounds and jokes to which I can barely respond.
“Don’t talk, just breath” he commands, while talking to me constantly – streams of instructions, interspersed with witty comments.
And then it is over.
We reach the cabin at the entrance and sign out of the log book to mark our official exit from the ‘Young Mountain’. Five hours it took for a climb most people do in a maximum of two.
We may not have been the quickest up or down (!) but neither of us care as we turn the big ledger back several pages to find our entry time. People have come, climbed, and are now long gone as we register our exit. We don’t care. We are too tired to care.
I was immensely proud of what was achieved. To enter a sign out time of 12.30 was one the best things I have written in my whole life. To watch Cathy engage in such a struggle was awesome. To see her overcome both the physical and mental worlds involved was phenomenal. It was a privilege to be with her on the mountain. There are few times in my life when I have been as proud of anyone.
Like two shambling wrecks we virtually stumble through the gate and are approached by a young man who asks how long it took us:
“Five hours” came our proud, breathless, reply.
“Five hours!” he loudly exclaimed in snorting derision.
In a typical understatement Bernard responded:
“We went slow and admired the view.”
To be fair to the young climber, no white cane was visible as I still clutched my walking stick and Bernard had long since buried my cane in his pack; he needed both hands on the descent. My walking stick was actually holding me up by this time and I would have fallen over without it!
He was not to know I was blind, nor of Bernard’s monumental feat of guiding. All he saw was two ‘old’ people, completely worn out and barely standing while he was about to set off onto the mountain in all his youthful vigour. We hope he enjoyed the day and the climb, we truly do. We hope he set a time he was happy with. If you ever get to climb the young mountain turn the ledger backwards to the page dated Friday 17th April 2009 and look for numbers 62 and 63. There you will find us.
In many ways we like to think we made a small impact on the day as we fought our way up and down the mountain. Not a nuclear explosion, not even a small earthquake but an impact none-the-less. You see the people on the mountain could be seen by Bernard to be thinking “How can you do this being blind?” Their faces gave it away to him.In many ways the journey is all about challenging these perceptions; about what is achievable as a blind person. It is not that many things CANNOT be done, it is about HOW they can be done. Sometimes people have to see something being done before they realise it can be done. Perhaps, in a small way, all those people on the mountain who watched us struggle will return home and on meeting a blind person they will say:
“You can do that if you want to, here let me help you”.
Much like Bernard does.
As he himself is fond of saying:
“It is the hundred small things people see us do each day which shows them what can be achieved”.
We shamble our way through the ruins while many people give us the thumbs up, others wave to us, as we make the long walk to the exit. Both of us are completely destroyed. I realise how tired my companion is when he nearly falls into a café chair, lights a cigarette, and then drinks two beers in rapid succession before he speaks again. Two huge slices of apple pie and an enormous bottle of water are all soon gone as we congratulate each other.
I suppose like a lot of people given this situation, you stave off the tiredness and focus totally on what needs to be done. What needed to be done was getting Cathy got up and down safe. Nothing else entered my mind. Even if it did I threw the thought out. It is really that simple. Once you have done what you set out to do, and only then, can you collapse yourself!
At 51 and 53 years old we could hardly get up out of the chairs half-an-hour later to catch the bus down to Agua Caliente and the four hour train ride back to Cusco. This journey involved the first ever fashion show I have ever experienced on a train! Wonderful Alpaca garments are described and handled as the train attendants cavort, dancing their way up and down the isle to the applause of us all as they entertained us. It distracted the two of us from our rapidly seizing bodies.
Arriving back at the hotel we drink copious amounts of Coca tea and down Ibuprofen tablets before Bernard is asleep in seconds.
In my head I stand on top of the world and savour the feel of the air across my face. I can taste it in my lungs. I fall asleep to the whispering breeze and the silence in my mind. I dream of heights and clouds and people on the mountain who said wonderful things to keep me going. The world can be a very special place, full of special people. The mountain was full of them on that day.The next morning after a deep night’s sleep I wake up with some trepidation, waiting for the screaming muscles to announce themselves.
I flex my thighs and await the shout concerning the baseball bat which has beaten them into bruised masses.
Tensing my calves I wait for the pain.
Yes, there is some soreness in the tendons, some joints are tender but not the screaming fires from hell.
I lay awake puzzled.
Bernard had insisted we drink several cups of Coca tea the night before? He had placed the Ibuprofen tablets in my hand, passing me the water to wash them down before we turned in? Perhaps they have staved off the worst?
“A good wander around the shops will do our legs good”.
He hits my weak spot straight away when he wakes up.
We climb out of bed, a little gingerly yes, but no muscles raging in protest.
Over the coming morning we find tenderness wherever stairs or steps are concerned. We hobble slightly as we start to find sore points on our bodies but, all-in-all, we feel rather better than anticipated.
We buy postcards of Machu Picchu which show where we stood amongst the clouds and we sit on steps talking with a ten year old boy called George who, for some reason, wormed his way into Bernard’s heart as they talk of Peru and Britain. Five hand-painted cards are bought from him before he wanders off waving backwards. Despite my companion always resisting anything which will take up space on the bike he weakens and buys me a traditional knitted doll 10 inches high from a young girl who looks no older than eight. Sometimes he can be such a big softy.
We buy coca chocolate to aid our recovery (plus it tastes nice!). Much like the tea we have been drinking, it also increases the absorption of oxygen in blood, thus not only altitude sickness is aided but also muscle fatigue – which we definitely have!
Coming back to the hotel we fall asleep early in the evening (and quickly) after drinking the tea, sucking the chocolate, and quaffing more Ibuprofen with copious amounts of water to replenish our depleted physical resources.Cusco and Peru has seeping into our consciousness as we recover. The people of Peru have wormed their way into our hearts in the way of the Nepalese. As we repack Bertha the following day sadness envelops us as we could quite happily stay in Cusco, rent somewhere, and sink into everyday life. Bernard even talks of finding a job in the area “doing something”.
He has watched various guides doing their work with the – predominantly – English speaking tourists and he thinks this could be a career change for him. He can certainly bring the, often, dull guide books to life by injecting ad-libed comments around their themes. However, it is not to be.
We repack everything and install the two new fuel containers we have acquired to act as a ‘fail-safe’ in terms of distance while every member of staff at the hotel gathers to wave us off. They even flag down a taxi, pay the fare, and instruct the driver to see us safely onto the S3 which will take us back towards the Pan-American Highway; two days ride away and back through the mountains. Waving to everybody we set off and 15 minutes later we are climbing high above Cusco.
The road is chopped up and we rattle along at the regulatory much reduced pace as both of us settle back into the bike. We have 125 miles to do, planning an easy day as our legs are ‘tender’.
We enter the mountains and the roads make the Swiss Alps look straight by comparison except they are loosely covered in fine gravel. Constant switch-back bends upwards for mile after mile before we drop in a downward spiral when the whole process is repeated again. We pass through small hamlets with tall poles bearing fluttering red flags indicating you can buy home brewed corn whisky; as has been the way of generations before them who also brewed this potent mix.We swoop and dive on the roads as the miles mount slowly. Torturous bends, twisting and turning constantly until we stop and Bernard describes the fact there is no road ahead. It just stops and becomes gravel and soil. Somebody obviously sneaked up here in the middle of the night and stole the tarmac!We sit and wait.
By now I know he is waiting for a vehicle to cross the surface so he can sit and watch what happens. Looking at the wheels of the vehicle he gauges the depth of the surface, how slippery it may be for the bike, which track to put our wheels on.
“We’ve done worse” he comments as he watches a car pass.
We bounce and slide across the loose surface with the rear wheel sending loud cracks as it compresses the gravel. Occasionally it skips sideways but the bike keeps moving forward to climb back onto tarmac.
During the day sections of the road have disappeared under the force of raging waters which have hurled the surface down the mountain below, leaving deep channels through which water still flows deeply. Steam hisses as the engine submerges sending warmth up my legs as we power through. The sound of loud crunching fills my ears constantly as miles of gravel and hardcore fill our time while passing vehicles throw up large clouds of dust obscuring the road for Bernard. We wait for the clouds to settle before driving on.
We fall over two thousand feet quickly through snake-like roads. Our ears pop and you swallow hard to unblock them; aircraft like symptoms as we continue the roller coaster and helter-skelter highway through the mountains.
We drop down into Albancay and, despite all the effort, Bernard claims it is his favourite day as it ‘had everything’.
It is strange really. I worry about our safety more than anything. Despite this, I think it was the challenge more than anything. You see I don’t claim to be a ‘great’ rider, far from it. I am undoubtedly better after riding under so many different conditions across some 14,000 miles. However, I also know there are far, far, better riders than me. While I believe all this, for me, and based on what I think are my riding levels, it felt like a major achievement to get through today without coming off!
We pull into the streets of the city which nestle under the mountain ranges, passing through side-streets where school children march up and down with high goose-like steps under the watchful eyes of instructors and teachers. The children at the front enter into it enthusiastically with smiles while the rear slouches along with the “I’m bored” look of their counterparts all over the world.
The next morning I can hear the rain falling heavily. It patters on the roof, against the windows, while dripping noisily and heavily onto the small balcony outside. Bernard is pulled into wakefulness by a bout of stomach cramps which leaves him doubled over. Multiple trips to ‘The Little Boy’s room’ leave me in no doubt all is not well. He swallows Diafix tablets after each visit and tells me he can see ten feet outside due to rain and the heavy mist of this 7800 feet high city. We have a feeling the God’s are against us this day. Bad weather and stomach are conspiring to tell us something. We take the hint and decide to sit still today, catching up on writing, journals and web updates.
Clear skies greet us on the morning as we climb out of Abancay and drivers wash their cars in streams which race across the road surface. We understand why as we pass through the first wash of water and discover it is hot and so must come from underground thermals. All along the roads above the city it must be car-washing day as soap suds turn the road white.
We spend the day climbing and falling on near derserted roads and Bertha pulls us up to 14,963 feet gasping under the strain while Bernard searches for another 37 feet to go past 15,000 (without success). He ponders whether we should take one of the side tracks up the mountains just to claim this (to him) magical figure. Eventually he relents and we continue on our way with the 15 barrier unbreached, much to his disappointment.
The rain starts to fall painfully as it thumps into us and we pull over to haul on our waterproofs, last used in Australia. We fumble and rush to pull them on as torrents drop from the sky; within seconds we are breathless from the simple effort of getting dressed. It’s cold and Bernard’s hands are shaking as he passes me my layers while hail-stones start to crash noisily down onto our helmets. The sky is black and threatening as we continue onwards splashing through torrents of water which rush across the tarmac ribbon.
We weave around goats, ases, cows, horses, sheep and Alpacas who all consider the road a good place to lie down and rest. Wild pigs scurry out of our way as farmers return wet waves as the rain pounds down.
At 14,800 feet we come upon a stationary set of vehicles and discover the road is closed for at least two hours as they rip the surface off in preparation for the new. To make matters even worse Bernard discovers he has no cigarettes; he is not amused. It is 2pm as we pull up and we have 89km to the next town. The sky is completely black.
Two hill women are sitting on the edge of the road with their babies wrapped in blankets and slung across their backs. A wheel barrow is before them and to Bernard’s delight he discovers it is full biscuits, drinks and Eureka, two open packets of cigarettes from which they sell individuals. He buys two cartons of orange juice, several packets of biscuits and 10 cigarettes (all they had).
It was obviously hard going for the vehicles as I walked over and watched several wagons negotiate the surface. It was deep in water and extremely muddy. It took me five seconds to realise it would be beyond me to ride on it. Bertha’s engine would be virtually under water and the wheels axel deep in mud gauging by the degree the wagons sunk into the water. Even a couple of four-by-fours made hard going of it. I watched 12 vehicles go through and then discounted it completely.
He came back to tell me we wait.
We sit by the side of the road laughing about events. Laughing about the weather, the roads. In the end laugh about laughing. Two English people huddled under an umbrella at over 14,000 feet wrapped in four layers of clothing; hail and snow starts to pummel us and it feels just like home!
The hill women cross the road run to shelter in the leigh of the wagons, seeking comfort from the wind, rain, sleet and snow sweeping across the plateau and turning everything a mushy white colour.
Bernard asks them, with Spangalese and sign language, if he can take their picture. They indicate no and he puts the camera away.
The weather eases a little and people appear, including two female members of the road crew who direct the traffic with Stop/Go paddles like table tennis bats. They stand looking at the bike while asking questions. Even the young daughter of the two hill women wanders over, shyly, to look at the bike.
One of the paddle bearers (Gwen) translates Bernard’s question to the little girl if she would like to sit on Bertha? She looks to her mother for affirmation and it is given. So it is that a little 9 year old Peruvian girl called Samikai sits on a bike made 11 years before she was born, in a country on the other side of the world. Life can be wonderfully magical sometimes. Mum even relented, and then viewed with delight, the picture we took of Samikai. It was a shame we could not give her a copy but when you live 14,000 feet up with no electricity, gas or phones, it is a different way of living.
In many ways, it is a different world.
Then the hail and snow starts again and everybody retreats back to whatever shelter they have while we hide, once again, under our Malaysian umbrella.
A police officer suddenly appears and gestures towards a bus as thunder and lightning crash around us. The sky rages and hailstones fall like bullets hitting us painfully. We retreat to the bus with its leaking roof which eventually hosts a compliment of a Peruvian Policeman, Two Traffic attendants, two hill women, one young girl called Samikai, two babies and ourselves.The thunder and lightning is crashing, blasting around the sky as if the Thor, the Norse God, is striking his hammer in the sky while riding a Harley-Davidson with open exhausts. The hail drops like stones onto the roof. We pass the time with Eduardo (The Policeman) reading Bernard’s English/Spanish, Spanish/English Dictionary and with Paddle baring Gwen admiring our rubberised waterproofs as she bemoans the broken zip on her coat. The landscape turns white as time drifts past in the way we have got used to when we are waiting for something to happen.
Climbing back on the bike Bernard waits for the trucks to go through, watching, as always, what happens. Bertha edges forward with a clear run in front of her. Slithering and sliding through the mud and hailstones we juddered up onto the new hardcore surface which has just been laid. The road crew all wave as we pass on the other end as Gwen had told them to hold the traffic until we got through safely. The surface improves after a few miles and we blast along as quickly as we can.
The prospect of being caught on these roads at night is not something we want to even contemplate really, never mind experience. It is just too unpredictable. One minute good tarmac, the next no road, then good tarmac, then huge potholes. A huge black storm hovers over to our right and we do not need more water to complicate the road surfaces. Water and soil equals mud. Water hides the depth of pot holes. We don’t need it and so Bernard hustles Bertha as quick as he can safely go. Sporadic road crews appear and all wave as we pass seeking mileage above all else.
We enter Puquio as the light starts to fall, dropping 2,500 feet into the town – where the tarmac suddenly finishes, leaving us with nothing but hard packed dirt and narrow streets before we climb the street from hell. Launch-ramp like it strecthes up into the air except, unlike a launch ramp, it is full of voluminous pot-holes. Bertha’s front wheel paws the air like a stallion as we exploded up its length onto the Plaza startling everybody there.
I couldn’t believe the street. I really couldn’t. The gradient was so steep and I sat looking at it for a long time before attempting it. It was the steepest thing I have ever, ever, encountered. Single car width with holes running across. It was incredibly bad. I thought we were coming off for sure as we crashed up it. It was truly fortunate there was nothing at the top as we exited; front wheel in the air before slamming down hard. I just kept muttering all the way up ‘Keep the power on, keep the power on’. It was the only thing Cathy heard all the way up!
The town is so far off the tourist radar people stop to look at us as we search for, and find, an ‘authentic’ Peruvian one-and-a-half star hostel (-5 star European rated) and eat chicken (Pollo) and chips with dogs wandering around our legs looking for scraps. We retire to stand underneath luke-warm water which trickles over our heads before falling into bed where, eventually, we get warm and drift asleep at 12,000 feet.
We wake tired and irritable as the Hound of the Baskervilles has barked every hour all through the night. It is like a finely tuned Swiss Watch with its alarm set. The first vehicle fires up at 3.40 in the car park just outside our door. They obviously like to get their heater working before they set off as they rev the diesel engine constantly for 15 minutes before setting off. Like a true Gothic Horror film, the garage doors give enormous loud creaks as they swing open so the, presumably warm, driver can depart. We drift off to sleep. An hour later the same process occurs with vehicle number two. After a little while we struggle out of bed as no further sleep is possible – the whole town is up and about. Children shout from the street, cars fly up and down, dogs are barking and it is only 5am. It seems the Peruvians and the Nepalese even share the love of getting up early!
We spend the day riding on shattered roads passing orange jacketed crews working for mile after mile as they whistle and cheer our passing, giving ‘V’ for victory signs. The constant hammering breaks a frame which leaves the pannier wobbling dangerously and we stop to allow a spanner to be cable tied across the crack to brace it. Even this job leaves Bernard puffing with the altitude.
Alpacas roll in the roads, kicking their legs in the air like playful dogs as we pass them. Horses wander across the road in mobs while a dog plays with six piglets on a bend as we gently coast to a halt to watch. Hundreds of goats appear around one corner completely hiding the surface as the farmer ushers them on with his two dogs; one at the front and one at the rear. The tail-end dog limps heavily and seems much older and his more youthful companion. He struggles to keep up.
“A bit like me sometimes” Bernard confides tiredly through the intercom.
After hours of being shaken to bits across 80 miles, Bertha drops rapidly down the mountains and we both know our time in the heights of Peru is coming to an end. The Pan-Americana beckons us as we fall through the clouds onto pristine new black tarmac complete with freshly painted bright yellow lines.
Bertha stretches her legs as she is freed from the constraints of hours stuck in first and second gear. Dropping 12,000 feet quickly our ears pop as we calculate it has taken 5 hours to cover the 100 miles. In some ways we ride onto the Highway with a mixture of relief and sadness. Relief as it has involved hard roads but sadness as there is something very special about riding amongst the clouds and people of the high places of Peru.
We think we shall miss the silence, solitude and peacefulness of where we have been.
Like a greyhound unleashed, we sprint up to 100 kph as we hurtle towards Ica where our hearts sink as Bernard describes mounds of rubbish on entering the town. Often it smolders and gives off acrid smoke which drifts across the road. A police motorcyclist pulls up and realises we are looking for somewhere to sleep. He sets off with flashing lights to lead us to the only guest house with somewhere for the bike. We are completely worn out and drag ourselves through the motions of eating before falling sound asleep to the beeping of horns at 8pm.
We pull onto the 1S (Pan-Am) the following morning and it is hot with straight roads and traffic, both of which, we haven’t seen for some time. The landscape is burnt, flat, and sandy and so unlike the mountains which seem ‘lush’. I miss the mountains. The air was clean and smelled so different. It was also so much quieter. The air here is full of the sounds of people rushing everywhere. Loud diesel engines thunder along and fumes are everywhere.Police road blocks start to appear and we are constantly pulled over for document checks. When they realise I am blind, the documents are in the pannier, and I have to climb off for Bernard to get them they just wave us off.We come to Lima and you know you are arriving by the smell of pollution. Horns blare everywhere, drivers cut each other up, buses pass and then suddenly pull in to stop for a fare. Relief floods us as we climb out of the city. We pull over and Bernard tells me the pollution hangs over the city like a cloud. It smelled like Lahore in Pakistan so dense was it due to vehicles constantly pouring out black smoke from their ruined or ancient engines.
We reach Chancay after a very mixed up day where we feel hemmed in; it’s noisy, busy. We don’t like it.
We are driven out of Chancay to a hostel on the outskirts by the fetid smell of fish which permeates the whole of everything. It is so strong you can taste it long after you can smell it. I want to retreat to the shower to wash away the taste and the smell. It seems to be stuck to my clothes but the shower is cold according to the whimpering sounds of Bernard as he goes first.
“Bracing, darling, bracing” he confidently reports. This means stone cold. After living in the same clothes for four days I’m not impressed with the lack of ‘Agua Caliente’ (hot water). Our feet have eaten the ‘odour eaters’ recently installed and we are running ragged really at the moment. On overnight stops we no longer get changed as it is not worth the effort; falling into bed so early.
The receptionist claims there is no hot water supply. It has been a long stressful day, we are surrounded by noise and pollution, the TV has nothing we can understand while the wagons from the wagon park next door rattle the windows deep into the night. They do not disturb my sleeping companion who seems to be able to sleep on a cliff edge and go asleep instantly. I lay awake deep into the night and when morning comes I feel listless and irritable.
Bernard tries to cheer me up with his quirky humour; describing everything and anything in his attempt to cheer me up but all to no avail. Eventually he falls silent and we ride for hours under a cloud. It is hot and the sand blows across the road despite the sandbags placed along its length.
We near Chamboti in silence and the right hand pannier moves more than it should; the lock has broken now as well. Gratefully we pull into the town and are directed to a Hotel which shall remain nameless.
A broken legged man on reception tells us of his motorcycle crash and Bernard sets off to dismantle the broken carrier frame while I have my first hot shower in days.
As I dismantle the rear frame I can see workmen inside the compound building a set of steel gates and, presto, they have an arc welder. As I make this discovery our broken legged friend appears hobbling across the courtyard. I explain my predicament to him. A rapid exchange of Spanish occurs and the frame is welded back together and installed back onto the bike in under half-an-hour. That is what I call ‘a result’!
We set off to find something to eat and the lingering effects of our mood cause us to, again, fall into our separate moods. We speak little through the whole evening before settling in for the night.
I awake several times and, after the third time, I sit up listening while coming to the realisation that, once again, he has brought me to a brothel.
It’s a very clean brothel I hasten to add, but still a brothel none-the-less. Putting together all the information, as in Kosovo, it all now makes perfect sense.
The round bed (Clue number one).
The Shower with no doors.
The stainless steel pole in the corner running from floor to ceiling which Bernard described as having ‘a bit like a circular drinks table’ on it, ‘like in a club’.
The female receptionist laughing when Bernard asked if the rooms had ‘Matrimonial’ (double) beds before responding ‘Si senhor.’
The Pornographic channels which he found while flicking through looking for something to fill the awkward silence of the previous night.
The constant opening and closing all through the night of the electronic car gates leading to the arch way under our room.
The heavy footsteps on the stairs announcing constant new arrivals to one of many rooms – including next door – through the walls of which nocturnal activities of the sexual kind can be heard. An hour or so later, the door opens, footsteps descend and shortly afterwards, the sound of mop buckets announce cleaners going about their business. Then the next customer arrives. More nocturnal meanderings occur to the sound of the TV channels carefully selected, shall we say, to aid the experience.
Either that or people in Peru book into Hotels to power nap for only an hour, while watching pornography (or channels showing people with heavy respiratory problems perhaps?) Highly unlikely on both counts I would think!
As always, he is blissfully unaware of these goings on. I must admit though, they were fastidious in their cleaning of the rooms. It happened at least six times to the room next door through the night.
And my companion slept on.
I woke him at 2.30am and reported my observations.
“You woke me to tell me that?” came the incredulous sleepy voice.
“You complained in Kosovo when I didn’t tell you”
“No I didn’t”
“Yes, you did, you said you wanted to listen”
“No I did not”
“Yes, you did”
“If it bothers you use ear plugs” was his helpful reply as he turned over and went back to sleep.
Needless to say the two nights became one as we packed the next morning with Bernard grumbling he really liked it here, they welded his frame, the girls were all really nice (I’m sure they were), the bike was safe in the car park etc. etc.
We pull out past all the expensive four-by-four vehicles – at least it seemed to have been an expensive brothel – and ride towards Trujillo before continuing onwards to Chiclayo where a very nice rickshaw driver took us to the Gran Hotel. The room, and hotel, is everything we recognise, quiet, spacious, menus in English (Bernard: “This all means Expensive with a capital ‘E’”).We are so tired from the last few days we need to restore some harmony. In the end we stayed four nights as we wrote and launched the Thailand Update onto the internet. Through our time there we came back to each other from the places where we had gone. The bike is checked over, oils and filters are changed and everything else tightened down as Bertha has taken a beating crossing Peru so far. Much as we had but without realising to what extent.
We rest in Chiclayo and Hector (the receptionist) seems genuinely surprised at our leaving four days later.
“Why?” he asks.
“Because it is time to move on Hector” Bernard had said, handing over the 15 cards for postage showing Machu Picchu; which arrived home over three months later (weeks after ourselves!)
“We have loved your real English accents” he proclaimed.
“Not like American accents” he continued.
We ride into the heat of the desert complete with sand dunes which have crept over the road while men work with shovels like King Canutes trying to hold back the waves. The temperature increases drastically and in the sun our gauge shows 45 degrees. Bernard finds the scenery hypnotic and sleepy with the sun so bright his eyes get sore despite two pairs of sun glasses!
Sullana soon appears and we settle into a hostel for the night. The water is cool in the shower but I make no complaint as I have started to realise there is little can be done about it and, after the heat of the day, it is actually pleasant. I eat tuna steaks and salad and I like it far more than Bernard’s random menu pick which he say is ‘indeterminable’. The football on the TV blares in the background as twenty truck drivers shout at their local teams or watch the two of us in the corner.
The trucks wake us at 6am and the windows rattle as a whole convoy fire up, one at a time. Revving engines threaten to collapse our building but, thankfully, it stays upright.
We pull out and ninety miles later we sit eating toast and drinking coffee while ten mechanics in red overalls from the garage next door watch our every move and every mouthful. Back on the road we pass through small towns and encounter the biggest speed humps in the world; we think. Bertha’s sump and exhausts smack onto the top of them. Bernard tries different speeds and none alter the outcome. We ride over them slowly, “Bang”; we hit them faster “Bang”.
The border is not far and we should be there by 1pm so we decide to stop about 40km away to stretch our legs while Bernard lights up. We have done 140 miles. Fifteen minutes later the starter button is pressed. Nothing. Pressed again, nothing.
Panel lights are on. Horn is pressed and they blare loudly. Voltage shows 13 and good on all meters.
“Damn” accompanies the loud clicking as the starter button is pressed repeatedly; all to no avail.
A heavy sigh comes through the intercom.
“We have a problem Cath, climb off”.
As Bernard dismantles the bike there is the sound of a small motorcycle pulling up beside us and a voice in heavily accented English asks “Problems?”It turns out he lives a few hundred yards away and we are soon joined by another man walking past who is dispatched to the house to get a chair for me to sit on. As the chair arrives a truck load of Peruvian Police pull up as Bernard has descended deep into wiring world. The truck is one of the ones Bernard had waved to earlier and all the police remember the bike. Rapidly they suggest we bump start it and get to the next town (Tumbes) where a mechanic can look at it.
I readily agreed as if you have ever tried to work on a problem like this, with eight people watching you, it can be a little disconcerting! So I put the air filters and petrol tank back on, reconnected fuel lines and climbed on the bike.
It must have looked really funny in some ways to see five Peruvian Policemen running down the road pushing Bertha but then I heard her fire up and come back, slowly, towards me. More handshakes all around and off we go again.
We manage to find a hotel where Bertha is taken to bits to get at the starter motor while we both sit in the sun.
The starter solenoid works and the bendix shoots out to engage but the motor barely turns. The motor is carefully dismantled and the brushes are fine.About 10 minutes into this process a van turns up and the next door neighbour turns out to be a mechanic.Rapidly the whole starter motor is taken to bits on the grass and the problem located; magnets in the casing have separated and jam the rotor. Over the next two hours he manages to fix one problem but creates another by snapping the casing. With judicious amounts of epoxy it is all stuck back together. By this time night is falling and we are all being eaten alive by mosquitoes. We beat a hasty retreat and leave everything to set over night before reinstalling it in the morning.
Both of us gratefully fall into bed only to be woken half-an-hour later by the loudest Latin American Music ever experienced; it emanates from next door to the hotel. Bernard is dispatched to investigate and returns with the comment:”It’s pretty good, sounds much better outside”
I would have hit with a pillow if my head was not buried under it.
“It’s a stage full of musicians and loads of people milling about. Looks like some form of concert”.
At this he climbed back into bed, pushed ear plugs in and was asleep in no time. Sometimes I do hate him. Meanwhile every drum beat and shrill ‘Arriva’ goes through me until the drummers arms give out at 3.30. Silence fell.The morning comes and Bernard is sure he must have a dartboard painted on his back for every mosquito in Tumbes to aim at. He is covered in lumps. So it is he found out – the hard way – Tumbes is renowned for the numbers of its mosquito population. Last night they fed well on white meat!
The room is like an oven and the overhead fan circulates the air lazily. Outside the sun is fiercely bright as we eat breakfast while Bernard readies himself to put the bike back together under its glare. Tubes of (now) depressurised sun cream are brought into play.
I sit under our umbrella as the clink of metal on metal signifies Bertha being restored to one piece. Soon he presses the starter motor and, the sounds of clicking and whizzing can be heard. Then comes a huge sigh as he tells me he has to take it apart again. The motor is not turning over the engine and there is little else can be done. He dismantles the whole thing again. Each bit is tested before deciding a new one is required which means more delays as we wait for bits to arrive from England. We are completely deflated and so fed up at the break downs (the fifth so far).
We hunt the internet in our sweltering room for another hotel as we discover we live next door to a disco as they set up for another round of all night ‘Arrivas’; we cannot face it. We pack overnight cases and call a taxi telling the staff we’ll be back tomorrow. A ten minute taxi ride takes us to the Costa del Sol and it has everything we need; air conditioning, English menus, internet, chips and tomato sauce. Karma is restored. We sit in cool shaded areas under palm trees and the rustling sounds calm us down. We fall asleep by 9pm to the hum of the air conditioner.
The next morning, after reading a menu we can understand, we make the decision to investigate parking facilities. Bernard soon reappears and confirms there is somewhere for Bertha. The manager (Franco) is called; speaking excellent English with a vaguely American accent.
Explaining our open-ended request for a room until parts arrive he shows us around and gives us an ‘executive room’ for half the normal cost. We promise to return in the morning and take a taxi back to Bertha where Bernard swelters under the sun putting her back together while I pack to leave. The heat is unbearable in the room and continues unabated even when an additional fan is called into play. Sweat drips down my face and threatens to short circuit the computer as I write emails home. The disco pumps all afternoon and at 7.30 we suddenly realise it has stopped as we sit eating our curried pasta – the only thing we can work out from the menu.
We are out of bed in a flash the next morning, so eager are we to move. The bike is bump started and everything is bundled into a taxi with me. Bernard follows behind as we all bounce down the rutted road for the short journey.Fifteen minutes later we are being fussed around by Franco at our new location; where all work comes to a stop as we arrive. He shoos his staff back in laughing and delivers cold drinks to where we sit by the pool. Life is suddenly so much better.
We walk around the local area to find supermarkets supplying essential provisions; ‘clinking’ our way back to the hotel. Multiple alarms are set for the 3am call home (6 hours ahead) for parts to be ordered while Bernard finds out he is big in Japan with pictures lifted from our website. We see a new video of us on you tube and find a company offering 250 dollar prints of us sitting on the bike. We go to sleep chortling at our discoveries before ordering the new part in the middle of our night.
The days pass as we wait for the starter motor to arrive, wandering around the town of Tumbes which is within the land of ‘Perpetual Summer’ so we are told. It is certainly hot, very hot although there is very little to do as Tumbes.
A few kilometers away it sits from all the beach resorts where most people actually stay, lying on the sand or in deck chairs all day. People try to convince us we should go to the beach but we are no ‘beach’ people. We had watched people in Bangkok and noted they slept by the pool all day and then, probably, partied all night. Perhaps it is an age thing.
Thirty years younger your whole life stretches before you and time is infinite. As you get older you have little time to spend ‘doing nothing’, as lying on a beach would be to both Bernard and I.
We spent a whole afternoon taking in the sights of Tumbes to fill our time. Then we ran out of things to see. We read on the internet of how Tumbes is ‘a dangerous place’ for travelers with guards accompanying tourists to ATMs, to buses, where taxi drivers belong to criminal gangs and will rob you. Meanwhile we see children laughing, shops with people counting their pennies, families sitting in the shade of the trees talking, where people step out of our way as we wander the streets with a smile and a nod while others smile as we sit eating ice-cream boats full of fruit. Children shout ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you’ as they did in Malaysia when we pass them; this greeting being the only English they know. We smile back and reply, as best we can, in Spanish.
I take to going swimming in the morning and it leaves the staff fascinated as I go round and round the circular pool. Circle after circle I complete for 40 laps; over a mile when we measured the diameter. Bernard covers me in sun cream as it is brutally hot before, he retreats from the brightness to the shade where he sits reading or watching me. The staff shake their heads at Bernard as if to say “How does she do this?” What they do not realise is swimming gives me freedom, it is under my control, I am, ‘on my own’ with ‘just me’. No white stick, no guide dog, nobody physically guiding me. Just me and the water. Allowed ‘just to be’.
The sounds of the pool orientate me. The water inlet shaped like two buffalo horns churns the water into froth as I swim through the bubbles. Ten strokes later I pass the ladder. The pool gets shallower at this point. I can hear the sounds of another – smaller – inlet in ten strokes time. Ten more strokes sees me pass the small pool where the central fountain splashes water gently onto its surface as I swim past towards the sound of the buffalo horns. So it goes on for 40 laps. My body changes colour under the brightness of the sun and Bernard suggests I change to backstroke to even out my tan and laughs as I comment:”I won’t be able to see where I’m going if I do that!”Meanwhile he sits in the shade as “He swims like a brick”. I am sure he is exaggerating and it is more to do with him nearly drowning in a school swimming session as a child. It has left him with a life-long aversion to swimming. He can swim. He admits it. He just doesn’t ‘do’ swimming.
Men appear to hack away at the painted edges with hand chisels. They were to spend all day, every day, baking in the sun while making little progress on the hard stone surface. The nature of their labour told us a great deal about the cheapness of it in Peru as they stab downwards with hand chisels onto the hard stone surface for 10 hours a day, every day, for over a week. After this time Franco invests in a power sander with a large circular wire brush. Only then is any meaningful progress made as great clouds of blue concrete dust flies into the air.
We watch as Franco frets at the slowness of the progress while guests complain about the pool’s closure along with the sander’s noise. Meanwhile the workers turn deep blue with concrete dust and paint; breathing in both for 10 hours a day while waving to Bernard in thanks as he sends over bottles of coke and water from the bar.
Bernard endears himself to many at the hotel as jumps up to help carry a huge mattress up the stairs when he sees one of the staff struggling or by carrying piles of chairs when functions are being set up. Shortly after moving in he can do no wrong; whatever he asks for, he gets.
It is in complete contrast to other guests who will not walk ten feet to the self-service breakfast layout but, instead, call staff to bring them a slice of toast or a top up for their coffee. Bernard calls it ‘paralysis of the pocket’ in other words ‘I’m paying so I expect you to move for me’. “Hello Meester Smith” can be heard all around the grounds as we pass. No matter how he tries to get them to call him Bernard, “Meester Smith” is still his name to them.I learn the main areas of the hotel and am often half-way down the corridor and the stairs before Bernard is even out the room while the staff laugh good naturedly. As I approach they now say ‘Good Morning’ or Good evening’ rather than ‘Buenos Diaz’, or ‘Buenos tardes.’
They smile genuinely at the blind English woman with her ‘shadow’ and the thumbs up sign is given to us as I do ‘my thing’; learning the layout of the hotel. The staff change from being ‘staff’ to Hector, Pablo or Marco as if we have become residents rather than guests. I distinguish between their voices and know one from another.
My stick learns of the glass wall dividers of the restaurant, the sound of the panel led frames of reception, the legs of the coffee table or the planters in the foyer. Of the grass edges which lead down the concrete path to the swimming pool where I turn right at the end. All the sounds and surfaces act as markers or ‘signs’ of location for me.
My solo world expands as I start to be able to ‘picture’ the hotel and the staff teach me ‘Peruvian Origami’ (as Bernard calls it), the folding and refolding of place napkins to create elaborate shapes. They take delight as I create roses, Bishop’s hats and fans of various shapes and sizes while the evenings are spent watching movies, either ones I have never seen or never before had Audio Described (AD).
People may well read this and ask:
“What’s the point in watching movies if you cannot see?”
I then have to respond with:
“Why does a blind person cry over a sad movie?”
As we have travelled and my understanding of this wonderful world has increased, the images are engraved in my mind from what I hear, sense and experience. Like a movie with Audio Description (AD) skilfully done, it aids and completes my understanding.
Picture the film ‘Titanic’.
Leonardo Di Caprio rests his chin on the large wooden panel as, above him, Kate Winslet lies. Over time he succumbs to the freezing water, of she prising his hand from hers, of his sinking down through the depths while reaching up towards her. I cried as Bernard described it to me. I had never realised, or had described, the images on the screen before. I had watched the film but the additional description completes the understanding of events.
Audio description paints on the canvas of my mind, imprinting images. It is the same when we meet people or pass through countries as Bernard puts these things into words and I combine them with everything I perceive. It is like reading a book and you, yourself, create the world the words inhabit. The descriptions create the images. So it is with me.
We start to slow down and see new things about the everyday streets of Tumbes. We now notice the many soldiers who wander through the streets of this Garrison town not far from the Ecuadorian Border.
Our time is filled with parcels and post cards being dispatched home. It takes several hours of hilarious encounters with the main post office where no parcel tape, brown paper, or envelopes exist. Suddenly we recall Montenegro where it took hours to solve this simple matter, as it does now.We return to the Hotel and staff rush off to gather everything Meeester Smith needs.
We return triumphant to the post office with a bomb proof package only to find it has to be opened so the staff can inspect the contents. Bernard is not impressed, to put it mildly, after using a full roll of parcel tape in his paranoia after one was opened in India and items stolen, with other things deliberately broken.
An hour later we are allowed, after being fingerprinted and providing copies of his passport, to send the parcel. It sits on the scales and found to be too heavy so we have to go through the whole process again. Another hour goes by as one becomes two parcels (plus two sets of fingerprints and another copy of his passport). One of the parcels contain our written journal; stretching from Turkey to Malaysia. Two hours in our room had passed as each of the 300 pages are photographed, only then will he consent to it being posted. It alone weighs 1.2kg as it sits on the scales!
As we complete such activities to fill our time we notice Tumbes is a land of music. It blasts from everywhere in the town. Loud Latin music is infectious, it joyful thumps out all around. Speakers outside the shops, on the pavements, pump ‘Latino’ in a mad mixture of sounds. Snatches of songs which make you want to dance to float in the air as we walk down the streets.
We eat in little cafes surrounded by the sound while Bernard carefully picks little fried Octopus-like creatures out of his ‘Fruits of the Sea’ rice. He can cope with the shrimps and black scallops for which the area is cuisine famed along with the Mango Groves and beaches, but these, no thank you. He tries to offer them to me but his description of them leaves me with little appetite for the ‘fruit’.
The evenings are spent listening to ‘our two little friends, Ennie and Meenie’ as we have named the owls who sit in the palm tree outside our balcony. They talk to each other constantly and appear just as day shifts to night. We construct conversations between them as we sit listening;”What would you like for tea tonight darling?””Anything my treasure, as long as I am with you.””Oh you are a smoothie, aren’t you?”
During the day the palm tree is empty and I listen to the breeze as it rustles each stem creating a different sound, becoming familiar with the different tones and whispers. Then the whole symphony is changed as the tree is climbed by a bare footed gardener who shimmies up cutting and pruning while lowering coconuts to the ground.
As the days pass and change to weeks we become concerned with the time it is taking for the new starter motor to arrive. Bernard grumbles he could have rebuilt the whole bike, or crossed the whole of Ecuador, Colombia and Panama while we sit waiting. Time is slipping away from us. The passing is keenly felt.
We console ourselves Bertha will be like a brush having ten new handles and four new heads but still being ‘the same brush’. Meanwhile we bake in the heat and dodge the mosquitoes for day after day.
Two weeks pass and we fume at the delay as our eight weeks to cover the final leg has now been cut drastically. People start to follow the Tale of the Spinning Thing’ on the internet. Americans write such things as ‘Chin up’ and ‘Hang on in there’ while others wing emails to friends seeking a spare ‘spinning thing’ to get us back on our way. Bernard’s finger nails get shorter with the stress and he frets constantly. Nervously, he watches time dripping away sitting still for nearly three weeks. His frustrations boil over one day as he kicks the balcony wall several times to vent his feelings outwards after ringing the carrier in England for answers. He calms down after several cigarettes and I know better than to interfere with his thoughts.
Shorter time scales equals higher daily distances, it is this he is worrying about.
The problem is the road conditions preclude anything involving ‘big’ mileages. I feel the whole thing is unraveling and there is nothing we could do about it until, eventually after three weeks of inactivity Franco smiling hugely, walks around the workers who are now busy filling the pool. He clutches a parcel which is festooned with stickers. We laugh uproariously at the ‘Express’ labels adorning it as twenty one days have gone by and Bernard mutters ‘Pony’ when he stops laughing. Everybody in the hotel knows it has arrived.An hour or so later Bernard nervously presses the starter button and Bertha rumbles into life first time while he leaps up and down with glee in true Monty Python fashion. Delight would be an understatement of our feelings after sitting for three weeks while our time bled away. For the next two hours we repack everything to enable departure.
As we go back and forth between room and Bertha staff stop to ask:
“Si Mañana” we respond (Yes Tomorrow)
The pool shines luminous green after it is filled up and the smell of stagnant water is powerful as we walk past it on our many trips to the bike. All it needs are a few crocodiles or piranha and it could be in the Amazonian jungle or the Peruvian everglades so strange does it appear. The ‘man with the hoover’ is coming tomorrow to ‘clean the pool’. Typical, we are leaving when it is about to go operational again.
It feels strange to be moving on and uncomfortably sad as we have settled; each night sleeping in the same surroundings, familiar and happy with the people and the town around us. Feeling both ‘wary’ and excited we continue to pack our belongings. It is a curious combination of feelings.
On the morning we leave it has been 26 days since we broke down. Twenty six days of frustrations, irritations and annoyance.
However, it has also been 26 days of meeting people, of reading, writing and exploring a ‘dangerous’ town off the tourist route. Where people live their daily lives under the ‘perpetual summer’ amidst the Latino music which fills the air from morning until deep into the night. It has been twenty six days where a waiter became Pablo or a bell-boy became Hector. During the days we learned to simply sit still and listen to the world around us. “The interruptions are the journey”, as Bernard quotes in his more lucid moments. Never a truer word has been spoken in many ways.
The departure, the big farewell, the Hasta la vista or ‘until we meet again’ arrives and Hector takes station guarding Bertha while leaning on his broom pole. We say goodbye to everybody in sight and Bernard disappears to find the gardeners and anybody else he can before we depart.
Hector urgently talks to Franco who translates his concern about entering Ecuador, “it is dangerous” Hector’s words warn. He insists we pay attention to certain parts of the route as “there are bandits who will rob you”. We thank him and promise we will take care and watch out for all the things he tells us of.
We climb back on Bertha, she rattles into life, and we wave over our shoulders as we leave the square in which the Costa del Sol resides in the town of Tumbes. Our home for 26 days.
Within an hour it doesn’t feel like it has been over three weeks. It feels like a day as we pick up signs for La Frontera 40kms away while tracking the road towards Aguas Verdes. Everything runs perfectly, at first. We follow the signs down the highway (curiously deserted) towards the frontier with Bernard saying questioningly:”There’s not much traffic between Peru and Ecuador?”
He is not convinced but we stop at road workers and they all confirm we are on the road to Ecuador. We drive on. Miles further on the road stops. Dead.There is a 100 foot trench cut deep into the earth with an unfinished bridge supposed to span the several hundred feet across the gouge. It has not been built.
It was a complete mystery to me. There is an earthen ramp down to our right which occasional cars are using but I’m convinced wagons or buses could not do it. It seemed impossible this could the highway! I can see another dusty ramp across the other side to climb out of the trench but I cannot believe this leads to the border crossing. I ask several people about ‘Ecuador’ and fingers point across the gap. I’m puzzled. We have, however, come across some weird roads in this part of the world so it shouldn’t really surprise me but it feels wrong? I ease the bike into gear and use the back brake and first gear to set off down the ramp kicking up a cloud of dust. We bounce across the rutted ground where road workers watch in fascination as I gun the engine and hammer up the incline in second.
After several miles I can feel the bike slowing down and a puzzled voice comes through the intercom:”Ecuador E50? Bloody hell, I think we’re in Ecuador?”We stop at a truck with its bonnet up.”Excuse me, is this Ecuador?” comes Bernard’s voice in his halting Spanish.”Si Senhor, Ecuador” comes the reply we do not want.
A mile further on we pull into a petrol station where thirty troops in camouflage uniforms lounge with automatic weapons. They look at us curiously as we stop. Several of them stand and shift their weapons. Bernard asks the young attendant for “La Frontera?” and she points back the way we have come.”Peru frontera?” and she again indicates back the way we have come. Then it dawns on us.Somehow we have crossed the border and are now illegally in Ecuador on a foreign motorcycle, with no passport stamp or any other documentation whatsoever. All the while the Ecuadorian troops watch us while sitting in the shade.
Before anybody has a chance to ask anything the bike is turned around and we blast back down the highway at warp speed, down the earthen ramp we fly, up the other side and back down the road where we hit a sign which declares ‘Welcome to Peru’.
We retrace our steps and eventually find the loosely managed crossing down a dusty side road nearly invisible to the naked eye. Everything stops as we pull up and a small crowd gathers.
Hernando attaches himself to us as our fixer and this time we go along with it. The sum is likely to be small for his help and he arranges for one of the border guards to watch the bike. The sweat is poring down us as we enter the immigration building where the police stamp us out of the country. Signs everywhere say the elderly or people with disabilities will be given preferential treatment as we are shepherded to the ‘exit’ cue where a man is roundly scolded for trying to push past us.
The border guards leap from their station and thump the sign about disability while gesticulating furiously at the man, hands inches away from his face, while pointing at me. He retires sheepishly back into the line as we are stamped out of Peru.
Outside Hernando climbs onto a 100cc Honda complete with rider and waves us to follow him to the next office where Bertha will exit Peru; a five minute ride away he says.
Pulling onto a dusty side road, Bernard stops the bike.
“Something feels wrong Cath” he says.
“I’m not going down there, this cannot be right.”
Hernando waves. The bike does not move.
In the meantime, other uniformed officials appear and look at us questioningly indicating we should be going another way. Bernard agrees but waits as Hernando comes back. Words are exchanged between the uniformed people as they, again, indicate a different way.
Meanwhile Hernando is still trying to get us to follow him but is again met with the blank refusal of Bernard to move the bike. The officials point back towards where a police road block is in place and we turn Bertha around and drive towards the road block.
Hernando and his companion pass us and say something to the Policeman which leads to the barrier being moved. Five minutes later, the Carnet has been completed in an office which we leave puddled with our sweat as it drips so profusely.
The Ecuador border is strange. It is not one line to cross over officially, but several.
First we find the Custom’s office to have Bertha stamped into the country; hidden and down a side street which we would never have found without Hernando. Directions from our ‘fixer’ are then carefully followed for the four kilometer drive further on to have our passports stamped. It is a curious situation when you are used to rigid ‘lines’ on a map.
We find out at this point of the new road we had travelled on to the ‘not finished bridge’. It will be the new integrated border crossing, finished in about a year’s time. We did think it was a very quiet border crossing! Now we know why!
We arrive at Immigration office where we shuffle forward to the counter before being asked:
“Have you ever been in Ecuador before?”
We were very tempted to say: “Well actually yes, about two hours ago”.
Needless to say we resisted the temptation!
So we enter the land of the Equator legally this time and the road northwards towards Colombia stretches before us. We know we have to travel quickly now, being weeks behind schedule. Our timing is shot to pieces but the only sound you can hear as we prepare to set off into this new country is the sound of laughter; this time without the aid of Coca tea.
Somehow, it still feels good to be, perhaps, naive. Despite everything which could have gone wrong today, nothing did. Each day so many serious things could occur and yet they do not. If we were to settle into thinking of all the things which could go wrong on a journey such as this, we would not be able to leave home. We would be too frightened of the world, of people or of ourselves and our ability to cope. We now take each day as it comes, solving each thing as it appears on our horizon.
Above all, we stand in the dust of Ecuador thinking how incredibly lucky we are. Lucky to be physically and mentally intact after some of the days we have encountered. Lucky to have each other. Lucky to be standing where we are. We know all these things are true whilst also feeling lucky to understand that the time in Peru has made us different.
It has changed the perception of ourselves as people; shifting it further away from the two who left England so long ago. I feel it. The climbing of Wyna Picchu, the roads we have travelled, the people we have met, all leave indelible stamps in our mind.
People say a long road journey can change you in fundamental, irreversible, ways. We now know it does. Things are never quite the same again. There has been a layer of superfluous reality lost somewhere, somehow, along the way. The loss sneaked up on us from the shadows without us ever realizing it. As we stand in the dust of Ecuador only now do we feel it fully. A creeping, dawning realization.
It leaves us feeling like the panniers on Bertha which carry so little but which hold everything needed. We have become Bertha’s panniers. Some of the layers have gone forever and neither of us want them back. Ever. We stand wandering what is in store for us before climbing back on the bike. Bernard presses the starter and the engine rumbles into life.
Bertha surges forward into Ecuador like the new broom she has become across the journey. Much like the two people she now carries.