Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Historical crossroads.

Cajamarca was a physical crossroad, where we had opted to turn to the right and head off east. But it was an historical crossroad in 1532. It's also another wonderful case of the "What Ifs?"

A brief history. The Inca Lord, Atahualpa has defeated his brother and is heading north to the empire's capital in Cusco, there to claim his crown. He stops off at the thermal baths in Cajamarca for a clean and spruce up, when his vast civil service of informants and messengers informs him that Pizzaro, the conquistadorian Spaniard is marching out of the coastal town of Piura. The Inca has a possible ceremonial army of 80,000 to attend on him, Pizzaro has 62 mounted horsemen and 106 foot soldiers. You wouldn't bet against those odds. Pizzaro does.

Cajamarca slaughter

The first great 'What if'?' question has to be...why didn't a minor portion of that vast army deal with this insignificant, irritating intrusion at one of the many potential ambush points? We've ridden some of the route; all he had to do was roll a few boulders down a hillside onto the advancing aliens. Nature's been doing that to us for some time. The valley sides are so steep the caballeros would have been leading their horses, the foot soldiers would have almost certainly have shed their plate armour in the high humidity and tangled confines of the valley floor. The radicalising friar would have been preaching, encouraging, threatening, 'hell, fire and damnation'. Sound familiar? Recurring religious history does.

The andeancondor pecks the heart from the Spanish Bull

More history. The conquistadors make it into the plaza, and distribute themselves throughout the buildings that cover the three sides of the square. Atahualpa enters and is confronted by the Dominican friar Vicente de Valverde who proceeds to preach unintelligibly at the Inca Lord. A sacrilege is claimed and the man of God calls on the Christains to "come at these heathen dogs who reject the things of God". Or at least that's the version that the victors claim, bearing in mind that the only barely literate character in this whole scenario is the friar. Two cannons loaded with grapeshot are fired, carnage and slaughter ensue. 5000 ceremonially armoured troops and unarmed civilians are butchered. Atahualpa is captured and a ransom agreed. A room is required to be filled to the specified line with gold and silver, all within two months. But something happens; actually Pizzaro and his cohorts get greedy, they 'try and find guilty' the Inca. He's executed. The Spaniards pocket the ransom. Is there nothing new in history?

Why did Ataualpa delay an attack? Was it arrogance, ignorance, or plain bad management? Who knows? Had he dealt with Pizzaro, almost certainly another character with a thirst for gold would have come along. Had he or they prevailed, it would be his language that I would today be trying to make myself understood in.

However those histories are still an interesting exercise in consequential chronologies. The wealth that flowed out of the defeated Inca empire fuelled the Spanish conquest of the Western Hemisphere. Which in turn prompted an English queen to unleash her crown-sanctioned slaver pirates: Drake, Hawkings, Cavendish, et-al on plundering that same wealth to create an English, and subsequent British Empire. Thus creating an atlas of imperialistic regal border drawings, for which much of today's troubled world is still trying to solve the consequences. The Middle East and Africa are obvious examples. I'm sitting today, in British recorded terms, on another less well documented, border dispute.

More regal dabblers in history

Yet more history. It's 1830, not long after the break-up of the Spanish empire, Ecuador has seceded from Gran Colombia, but finds itself in debt to a group of British investors. It clears said debt by swapping away a large tract of her Amazon basin. From these mercantile beginnings are birthed a series of wars that have only now been finally (possibly?) resolved. It explains the troops of fatigued, chanting soldiers off for their morning jog that we've been passing over the last few days. I do enjoy their exertions, if only because the ever-present dogs find more sporting interest in a group of squaddies than they do in passing cyclists.

Even yet more history. I was educated under that curious Scottish conundrum. To study History or Geography...."either or" but never both. I chose the latter on the adolescent grounds that it was more relevant to a modern world, then spent my subsequent adult life realising that the two subjects are mutually inseparable. Crossroads litter life, both past and present. For me, it's interesting to speculate what's down each of the roads; for our decision makers it's an imperative. History always repeats itself.


Saturday, 26 December 2015

Yet more geography lessons.

For those in the know: Cajamarca > Celindin > Balsas > Leymemarca > Pedro Ruis > Bagua Grande...all places that might not show on an atlas map, but are in northern Perù. Dropped pins ( k > q )


I thought that I had got a handle on the clima-geography of the Andes. Dry desert on the coast, bisected by great rivers flowing from out of the glaciated mountains that feed an irrigation agriculture, surrounded by bare plantless desert. Rising quickly from the ocean coast to an impoverished Altipano. Dropping down to an elevated Central Valley, only to climb a second ridge of similar hills and then descendIng to the jungly flats.

We had a choice. We arrived in town from the south, we can leave on any of the remaining three quarters of the compass. Which makes Cajamarca a genuine geographical crossroad. It's also a cross-road to history.

Head straight on at the crossroads, on what would be the obvious line to reach the Ecuadorian frontier and we would find a major road construction project. Gravel roads in the wet are 'interesting', but only in the euphemistic sense; add in the prospect of road graders, dump trucks and one hour temporary road closures, and that 'interest' becomes problematic. One night's rain will render the route into an impassable glutinous, glaucous paste. We know, we've been rescued by a four-wheel driven pick-up once before.

Turn left and we quickly arrive back down in the coastal Suchera desert, a place described as 'there will be nothing, then more nothing and then absolutely nothing'. Dieter's quote concludes, 'but just as zero is a valid mathematical result, so a desert is a multifaceted entity'. I like his sentiment and I love that countryside, but we've been through it many times, and anyway, we'll end up down there soon enough, whenst it will offer a useful contrast to the mountains.

So we head off to the right. It will be the other three sides of that rectangle. Another deviation, another diversion. We have just enough information to know that there's going to be a variation in elevations. A couple of high points over 3600m, and a river crossing around 500m, which suggests a rollercoaster ride. It is. But it's an even bigger rollercoaster of variety.

On our excessively scaled map, the valley that carries the Rio Marañon looks like a major geographical feature. Crest to crest is twenty kilometres as the condor soars, by asphalt it is three times longer and will take us two and a bit days to get to the other side. That's the trouble with mapping apps; you get the good news and the bad news all together. With that sort of ratio, you know that there's going to be very few flat sections of road. Do the math and you know the average gradient is going to be constant work.

We crest the first 'abra', to find a bank of thick fog clinging to the upper slopes. That makes clima-sense. Warm moist air rising on convection currents meeting cooler drier air arising from the valley that we've just left. Roiling, tumbling clouds that are in perpetual motion, yet never retreat or progress. We fall into this murk, down a narrow road that's been chipped out of the steep hillside. An apparition of a gaucho horseman merges out of the white gloom, but that's virtually the only traffic. Down. Down. Down. Breaking into clear skies and a vertigo-inducing descent. Each subsequent turn of road appearing to be folded underneath where I'm standing; the road a mere illiterate scribble on the scape.

Hot blasted drafts of ventilated air buffet us as the vegetative zones merge into a dry desert of mesquite trees. Then just as suddenly a spring-fed plot of jungle fruit, papaya and bananas materialises; only to return to that thin shadeless tree cover.

Slowly the bottom of the valley emerges out of the haze, and acquires some definition. I'd convinced myself that if we were going down to those reduced elevations, that we would be entering wild jungle, with visions of howler monkeys, strangler pythons and malarial mozzies. After all, the Rio Marañòn is the major precursor for the Rio Amazonas. Wrong. It might have only a further five hundred metres to drop and over four thousand kilometres to travel to the Atlantic Ocean, but this is a powerful, creamed, mud infused desert river. I will always be incredulous that a river with those potential physics, it's a gradient so negligible as to be insignificant, can still move. All we find is a meagre strip of mango cultivation on it's banks. A minor oasis of hardscrabble subsistence farming.

Or so I had assumed. We find a room on a 'finca', a smallholding. The family are sorting through a heap of leaves, picking out the woody stalks. Of course I know that it's coca, but it could possibly be for the chewing, drinking market, the ancient antidote for 'sorache', the altitude sickness. Only, in the middle of the night I hear a soft tap on the locked outside gate, whispered conversation, and in the morning the sorted bag has been replaced with a new pile of leaves. There's also a new powerful Yamaha motor bike parked in a yard that is scattered with the paraphernalia for cock fighting. We play the ignorant Gringo, and start our climb back up the other side of the valley.

Not to break my habit for misjudging the local clima-geography, I had assumed that the re-ascent would be a reverse of the descent. Wrong. True there is the mesquite tree, but now it's surrounded by withered, desiccated grasses that slowly, with altitude, turn green and grow clovers. More altitude and the trees grow plate sized leaves and garner a canopy that near the top evolves into a cloud forest. The early morning cumulus is an inversion; islands of hill tops break through the cloudscape, wisps of white are teased apart and spiral like geyser'd fumaroles out of scalloped hillsides. The roadside banks are dripping mosses and ferns, a single bead of crystal'd dew on each new unfurling frond.

Cresting the second 'abra', we enter yet another world. Possibly nor'west Scotland, circa 1850. Granite outcrops erupting from a wildflower infused swards, docken-chocked patches of potato and rickets of gnarled fence posts held up with rusted tangles of barbed wire. It might not be good traveler etiquette to compare locations, but the emotions engendered by this high river source are so strong as to be impossible to ignore. Then I realise I was in the right century, only the wrong country....County Donegal; Ireland, as a herd of horses, asses and donkeys come clattering around the corner, driven on by three whooping lads. "Gringa, amigo", to which I'm tempted to reply: "an' the top o' the mornin' to you". I wonder if they're straight out of central casting, and the Navigator questions if we've stepped into Brigadoon. Will it all disappear around the next corner?

Another long river valley descent, the pay-back, a chance to spend or squander all of the last two days accumulated work. A chance to acquire more stories of violent thunder storms, collapsing hillsides and the surreal evidence of nature's capriciousness; Jungled bromeliads growing on desert cactus. The weird is just plain wonderful.

I've learnt my lesson and given up on trying to second-guess what might be coming around the next corner.


Sunday, 13 December 2015


Ubiquitous imagery.

In a world of globalised, western-influenced fashion, it's invigorating to watch the strength of resistance and the power of pride that's exhibited in the Andean ladies. The baseball cap may have conquered the world and the Andean male, but the ladies are in aggressive attack mode.

Quechuan style: Cusco.

Only I have a problem. The varying hats that we see bear no resemblance to the near-ubiquitous painted and woven images that are sold in all the artisanal markets the length and breadth of the Andean highlands. The slumbering figure in native dress, a wide brimmed hat, surrounded by a clutch of terracotta pots. It's taken three trips and a lot of pedalling to find the answer.

Puritan in style, if not in colour.

Pre- the conquistador's arrival, each community, each ethnic clan, each regional district had their own style of hat, which, along with the fringes of the pollera's underskirt, it was possible to realise where a lady originated from. A dialect of couture. A map of ethnicity. Of course the Spanish tried to eradicate these tendencies towards cultural and national identity, and attempted to enforce European clothing styles. Like in the religious iconography, the carvings and the paintings in the ecclesiastical establishments, there was a low level of rebellion. A cuy, a guinea pig, in San Francisco's portraiture; the stone-carved puma with foliage erupting from its mouth in Arequipa - so reminiscent of the pagan green-man carvings found in early British churches. So it's no surprise that the hats survived the culturacide.

The Bowler of Bolivia, alongside the 'Chullo'; the beanie with ear flaps so favoured by every gringo visitor, are the most recognisable, but there are many more. Although not as many as there once were. Over fifty styles are held as museum pieces, many of which are unfortunately no longer manufactured.

Tales of how the bowler arrived in the Bolivia are many. The shipment that was delivered in the 1920s for the Irish Navigators on the rail construction gangs and were found to be too small. Said shipment subsequently sold on to a wholesaler. This does seem to be the most plausible, if only because the bowler-hat-wearing andeñas carry theirs with total panache, perched on top of their heads, generally at a rakish angle. I've yet to see one fall off. I've seen them readjusting them, or when it rains, removing them to cover with a poly bag, and can confirm that there's no recourse to pins, clips or straps. There's some alchemy involved. The bowler hat might have been born in Victorian Britain, but it's been perfected in Bolivia.

You might have expected to see one style form predominating in a group of adjacent pueblos, and then would anticipate them to be marginally adapted in the next clutch of places. It's not so. The diversity in style from one small area to another is extreme, and there seems little in the way of progressive design development. Which for us is exciting, you never know what to expect next.

In the space of one week of cycling, (not a great distance given the severity of the inclines), we've had four very differing styles. A black felted Homburg whose dish brim is filled with real flowers, to the 'Montera', an upturned fruit bowl, appropriately decked in luminous plastic fruit; a stove-pipe adorned with a complementary cockade; and now an exacerbated version of the straw hat. A hat whose brim, in the time it took us to descend from the high ground, expanded to encompass the (admittedly diminutive) Andeña's shoulders and whose crown has acquired Puritan proportions. Whilst the conservative Bolivian bowler comes in the dappled shades of black, brown and green, the range of colours exhibited in Perù are near kaleidoscopic. From lipstick pink to lime green, crushed mulberry to sky blue. And these ladies have only gone out to do their shopping.

A Texas rancher and the Ladies of Ascot simply don't have a look in.


Sunday, 6 December 2015

Lima Bypass.

One thousand, nine hundred and eighty-six kilometres later, and we've completed our Lima bypass.

We're back down on the Pacific coast again, and the last 'km' post that we noted suggested that the capital was exactly 500km behind us. Oddly, as we don't seem to have shaken off the Lima fog. This despite the fact that those murky clima-conditions are supposed to be particular to a mere 80km stretch of coastline around the capital. In fact we're back in desert and it's been raining for the last two days.

A meagre deviation of nearly 1500km, all to avoid the capital's notorious manic traffic. It also scores for us what I think of as our eleventh Andean traverse. Each has been unique, each has had a different feel to it. This one has been no different.

Mapped, the route has a sense of indecision. Focus in and set it into the third dimension and it takes on the plot of a wanderer. As we waver around bends, clamber up and over passes, then wend along meandering rivers. It's as if there was a plague in Lima, such has been our effort to avoid it.

Moving south to north has certain peculiar aspects to it. For one we have the prevailing winds at our backs, which allows for lazy starts to the day. No need to rush, in the hope to beat the afternoon gales. It also allows us to faux-sympathise, secretly gloat, with those other cyclists who all seem to be heading for Cape Horn. All heading south, ergo we get to meet them, they all comment that we're the first bike travellers they've encountered since somewhere in Central America.

Is it our euro-centric concept of Mercator's globe and an unbound belief in gravity that all the 'Enders' start in that most inspiring of place names: Dead Horse, Alaska, from where, presumably it's downhill all the way. (The accepted advice is to follow the southerly prevailing winds on the US coast, having achieved that relatively short, easy distance, they are now well placed to face the headwinds on the infinitely longer SA coast). We know, we were taught that lesson two trips past.

Then there's the fact that our track has been so obviously 'off-gringo', such that we've taken note of it, more so than on previous occasions. Between Ayacucho and Huaraz, seventeen days travel, the only non-Peruvians that we've met, let alone seen have been three meetings with four cyclists. In part because not one town between these two points warrants a mention in the guidebooks. And yet we've never had that: "two headed town" moment. The silent stare as we wander by, the spooky, silent store assistant who follows you round the near empty shelves. If anything it's been the opposite. Walking up the single, meagrely lit street, avoiding the slumbering dogs and the pueblo's rooting swine, the locals passing like dark wraiths in the night, without exception offer us "good evening" greetings. The school children newly sprung from their desks who want to practice their "hallo mister" English and then remember their good Latin manners and wish us a "Buenas tardes". The Navigator, whilst queueing for bread, watches the gent in front purchase a piece of cake, then turn and present it to her.

There is no plan, there is no timetable, there is no race. That's why 'by-passes' are so invaluable. They offer the chance to break up the trail, to vary the pace, to stop us from becoming enthralled to the linear 'Ender' route.

We're not yet finished with by-passes. Having climbed back down to sea level, we have the intention to bounce back up to height again. The town of Paiján has a strange reputation, one that I find difficult to equate with all the many Peruvian towns that we've safely slept in and safely passed through. The advice from online forums, law enforcement and other travellers, is to avoid it. Banditry is rife. And long-distance cyclists are a particular speciality. Your initial reaction is to question the relevance and the veracity of these tales. Are they the fertile imaginings, the oft repeated, inflated fifth-hand tellings of 'newbie' travellers? Only the town isn't a second day stop away from an European entry point, an international airport, but stuck in the middle of the Pan-Americana. Many of the reports are all too real, from cyclists, some into their fourth or fifth year of world travel, from people who must have acquired a well developed sense of 'street safety'. Paiján is like a black plug on our route, sending us inland. Only I suspect, even expect, serendipity to intervene; we're bound to find at least one unscripted good-feeling story along the way.


Thursday, 3 December 2015

Quiet Night In.

There's a free concert in the plaza. They've been hauling the scaffolding in for the last two days. Then this morning an articulated lorry delivers the amplification. Stacked canyons of amplification. The posters advertising the artists, indicate that the festivities will kick off at midday, only there's no indication of a termination. There never is, everybody knows that it will be around sun up tomorrow morning. Our rented room is on the top floor, and whilst the plaza is three blocks away, we have a direct line of sight to that scaffolding stage, now dressed in its obligatory chiffon of red and white patriotism. Our concrete balcony will act as a sound trap.....we might as well be down in the front row of the stalls.

More braid than a general

Twelve differing acts are scheduled for performance, only to my untutored ear they might all be one. It's the same style of Andean ballad that is pumped from transistor radios and the moto-taxis that swarm along the narrow side streets that feed onto the now-closed Plaza de Armas. There's a general air of gridlock that requires an incessant cacophony of claxon and a certain inattention from the traffic police. It's all good natured...very Peruvian.

One day later; different town; same story. Saturday night: Dance night. We've wandered several streets hunting either an hostel or a food shop or a bank, but what we never find in these situations is the local disco. Yet come the dark time, it, or at least the base beat, seems to be right next door. On this occasion I came to, early pre-dawn and the amps have just been screwed up. When all the street lights go dark. They've blown the town fuse. The screaming silence is deafening. Into this void the chapel strikes the hour. It's a momentary the cockerels and the dogs soon fill the vacuum and a vague light defines the eastern skyline.

Another Friday night; another Andean town; another noisy story. Three school brass bands, parades of costumed school children, free range firecrackers, and a man ranting at the microphone, until 4am.

If only....!

Traveling Highland Perú will, with practice, eventually acclimatises you to the height-generated oxygen depletion; with persistence it might also habituate you to the noise. By my calculation this has taken two and a half trips to attain a certain level of tranquility, some reconciled serenity. Eventually I can blend out the incessant horns, the disco bass of thump, the pre-dawn dog chorus; I just wish the DJ would give up on his speechifying, and he would introduce the Peruvian harp player. That would be a pleasant way to be lulled back to sleep. Only....

There really is no such thing as a quiet night in.

Post script......there's always a post script when it comes to Perú......Saturday morning: 8.44am.....the bands are back in the plaza....trumpets and trombones, euphoniums and sousaphones blazing, drums do they do it?....three hours down time.

So one should always be out of step...