PERU, 26th – 28th October 2019
I had been longing for this moment for months. To cycle the quiet and tough mountain dirt roads in Peru had been a dream since we began cycling south through South America, something of a highlight and a promise of once again cycling and camping in these remote and wild places, that are so rare on this planet. My now long lasting wrist problems had had this dream hanging by a thin thread for nearly two months, but since I had managed to get through the first week of cycling with only minor discomfort I was optimistic that I was well on my way easing back into my normal physical abilities. Or at least there was no way I could stand back from at least testing if I was ready for the Peruvian dirt roads because finally they were laying in front of our wheels.
After spending half of the day buying supplies for the next eight days in the big supermarkets in Huanuco (and keeping an eye out for Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman who we knew were these days making their way north from Cusco on their Long Way Up) we got ourselves ready to leave for the mountains. Our bags were heavy and I had a slight feeling that it was not ideal for my wrist to handle all that weight, but Chris was as always a great gentleman and helped me with the heaviest stuff. I was so grateful to have such a supportive and helpful partner, who would do anything so that we could cycle together.
The road out of Huanuco was not exactly what we had been dreaming of, a narrow dusty road with too many minibuses, overloaded taxis, 4×4’s and tuk-tuks racing around blind corners and passing us closely. We made it through the first 15 kilometres and sighed with relief when we turned off the so-called ‘main road’ onto our fairly quiet mountain road. It went immediately up along the mountain slope in a gentle way that let us find a lovely camp spot on a small ledge just above the road. Chris carried all our stuff up there, built the tent and cooked our dinner insisting that I should just rest as I had mentioned feeling a slight discomfort in my wrist. I tried not to worry about it thinking that it was just a sensation of my muscles being used again. Two dogs came curiously to our camp and one of them almost immediately threw its head in my hands begging me to pet it and I let my hands calm down in its soft fur.
The bliss of sleeping in the tent far away from town, traffic and people’s houses was immense and the stars were bright in the sky when I went out to pee. It felt like such a long time since I had been in this place, that this journey was somehow all about. Finally I was here.
So I still ignored the stiffness in my wrist that hadn’t eased overnight when we set off the next morning. The road curved and crawled up the slopes of the dry mountains that rose high up over our heads, while a small river sometimes became visible beneth us. The sky was blue and we soon found a small, fresh waterfall where we washed ourselves, our potatoes and filled up our bottles. So simple, so perfect. In the little stream beneath the fall I saw a shimmering shine of gold dust in the sand at the bottom, and even though Chris quickly determined that it wasn’t real gold, it was still one of nature’s little wonders that should stay exactly where it belonged.
The road climbed gradually but my legs felt strong, the long rest had done me well. It was also in a rather bad condition with holes and sharp rocks sticking up everywhere, so it was impossible to find a smooth line for more than a second or two. Progress was slow, but the scenery was already overwhelming as we moved deeper into the mountains. After a steeper section we reached a small village Chullay, where we found a bus shelter to hide from a brief shower. When we just arrived the place seemed deserted, but suddenly three kids giggled shyly from a door opening and an old woman dressed colorfully in the traditional layers of skirts, wooly leggings, sweaters and shawls and a bowler hat with a plastic flower in it came over to hear where we were from and where we were going. Then a man came over followed hesitantly by the kids, who he told us had never seen a foreigner before. Their curious and cautious behavior as they slowly neared us full of nervous giggles certainly backed his statement and soon we were surrounded by them and their questions and curious fingers on our helmets, bells and mirrors. We let them put on the helmets and my gloves that caused falling-around-in-the-grass laughter for a few moments before they politely handed us our stuff back. They were such good kids. We took some pictures with them and the man, who was the teacher of the school, and when we said we had to get cycling again they asked us when we would come back. Sadly, we were not planning to do that any time soon.
We managed another ten kilometres or so on the bumpy climb before Chris once again made us a wonderful camp out of sight of the road on a small ledge, here we were sheltered from the wind that had been picking up. The plastic sheet kept us dry as the dark clouds that came with the wind let it pour over the mountains. It was so cosy in our tent, but unfortunately I was overwhelmed by a sour realisation: the pain in my wrist was getting worse. It was not bad, but there was no doubt it was going the wrong way with it. I loved being where we were, but I couldn’t continue riding deeper into the mountains on these bad roads or I would make the injury as bad as it had been two months previously, or even worse, permanent. I had to return to Huanuco and give up the dream of the mountains and it caused a storm inside me that reflected the one outside. Chris comforted me the best he could, but he was as dissapointed and sad as me. We talked through our practical options and decided that I should try to arrange a lift back from one of the small towns we would get to the next day, while he would continue alone over to Oyon, still 160 kilometres away, to meet with Max like we had planned. Then we would all meet up where the roads from Oyon and Huanuco crossed each other 100 kilometres south of the latter. Hopefully I would be able to cycle there on the paved road, hopefully it was just the rough dirt road that was too much. The closer I seemed to get to the decision of taking a bus and give up the cycling the harder it seemed to accept it, the more I wanted to cycle the whole way of this trip in an unbroken line, which it would still be if I could continue from Huanuco. It was never something that had seemed accutely necessary to me before, but somehow after more than 2,5 years into the journey the idea had rubbed off on me from, yes you know who. Maybe because I started to realise that nothing else really made sense to me. Hiking somwhere, staying in towns, travelling for hours and hours in buses up and down these mad mountains, it was just not what I wanted to be doing. Cycling and camping was the way to be travelling for me, I just prayed I still had a chance, as we said goodnight in a mood as dark as the night.
The next morning we arrived in the small town Yarumayo that was lively with school kids, little shops, people hanging around on the plaza and cars that seemed like they could be hired for a lift. We had been passed by these 20-30-year-old cars as they, heavily loaded with passengers and cargo, rattled up and down the mountain. How a bike could fit in or on such a car I couldn’t really imagine, but I had a strong feeling the driver would find a way. In what state my bike would come down I could easier and with some horror imagine…
We settled in the restaurant at the plaza with a second breakfast of rice and fried eggs and a warm quinoa-and-apple drink that I took note of for future cold and dark autumn days in Denmark. Outside the kids were busy painting large religious motifs on the pavement by the church, and suddenly a big, new 4×4 arrived with a foreign looking, tall, bearded man by the steering wheel. Somehow I knew that this was my chance for a lift that would get me and the bike safely to Huanuco. The man went to the church and when he returned a little later I noticed the crucifix that hung from his neck. He was the priest, of course, and thus most probabaly a helpful man.
Another crowd of curious people had gathered around the bikes and the priest also joined to hear what was happening. I saw my chance to talk with him and asked if he by any chance was driving down to Huanuco and if so, could me and my bike come with him since I was injured and couldn’t cycle any longer. The answer to both questions was yes, only I would have to wait until he had undertaken ceremonies here in Yarumayo and the next town further up the road, Margos, so that he would be returning around four in the afternoon. That was fine with me, and he agreed that I could come with him up to Margos just to see a bit more and spend the day with something.
Surprisingly quick had my return been arranged, and the seperation from Chris was upon me. Even though it was only for two weeks it burned inside me, we were so used to being together, partners in all and everything, day and night, so unusual a thought to not have him by my side. On the other hand I thought it would be good for us both with some time alone, my long recovery time had requested a lot of him and his neverending will to help me, and even though he never complained about it I thought it would be good for both of us to be freed from our roles of helper and helpless. Maybe I’d even recover better if I was not always being offered the role of the ‘sick’ one. And beyond all of that I was so happy that Chris would still get to experience cycling those remote, rough, beautiful Peruvian mountain roads that also he had so dreamed about.
We were surrounded by the curious and social locals all until the priest returned from the ceremony, a baptism of some of the older kids, and we got ready to go to Margos. A brief hug and kiss watched by the locals, then I was off in the car while Chris stood alone behind on the plaza with his bike. It was a shock how fast the structure and speed of my life changed.
It was a brutal ride up to Margos even in a car, and I felt both pity and slight envy of Chris who was going to battle it through the afternoon. In Margos the priest and the woman, Suny, of the restaurant in Yarumayo, who had also got a lift with the priest, invited me for lunch in another restaurant and throughout the afternoon Suny took care of me as we sat together in the plaza and chatted, while the priest prepared his ceremony. She was 40 and had two kids of around 20 that were studying in bigger towns, and she was good at trying to understand the differences of our lives.
As the ceromony was about to begin at 2 pm I entered the church to see what would be happening, but no one else was there except from the priest who seemed a little irritated by this laid-back attitude of the locals who had requested this ceremony today, as I understood it. I went outside and sat in the plaza, waiting for the move into the church, but soon I was approached by two men. Sitting there alone now and without my bike to explain what I was doing there, I felt even more out of place than normal and slightly nervous about what these men wanted from me. To my relief I quickly sensed that they were still just curious and sociable, and soon a whole little gang of middle-aged men sat in a circle with me, asking me different questions about our journey and my country which I answered as well as I could, which was surprisingly well. I haven’t learned more than the basic Spanish, but I found the Peruvians are extremely good at communicating despite the very little lingual common ground. Maybe it comes out of the many variations of the indigenous language, kitchwa, which is spoken throughout the Andes of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, where they have to be flexible and generous with their language use to understand each other. Or maybe it comes from their genuine curiousity towards strangers that makes them willing to compromise the language to communicate and learn from the other. Either way or another, it made it a wonderful experience to sit there with them on the plaza for a couple of hours, and that was how Chris suddenly found me as he arrived after having climbed the endless switchbacks.
It was lovely to share the company of the locals with Chris, and we sat together for an hour or so until the ceremony (which had finally begun) was over and it was time for the priest to return down from the mountains. Another short goodbye and then I was back in the car descending all the way I had come up at an unbeliavable speed and no time to tell the kids in Chullay that I was back before I was gone again. It really is a strange thing to travel by car when you are so used to cycling. The priest, who was a lifelong missionary from Italy, seemed to believe he had God on his side and he beeped rather than braked around the blind corners on the narrow road, just like any local driver would do. He had lived here for 25 years driving these roads and was somehow still alive, so I just held my breath and once again was reminded why I prefer cycling. At least you go slow enough to get out of the way for crazy drivers.
It was weird and sad to arrive back at the love hotel, checking in to our old room at the roof. The lights of the city looked a bit like the stars at night, but they couldn’t quite cheer me up and I went to bed still somewhat shocked to be back, alone.
The next day I made a to-do-list for recovering and enjoying the rare me-time. It included lots of stretching, lots of fruit and juice, fish oil tablets, reading good books, coffee and good food. On the list was also the task of researching the possibilities for cycling safely through the rest of Peru on paved roads since I now had accepted that was the only way for me to stay in the saddle. Excitedly I found blogs from several people who had recently cycled the route from Huanuco and south on paved roads and I spent the afternoon at the computer. That was a big mistake. When I finally got up from the bed and away from the screen my hand hurt very bad. It had been my theory all the time that my injury was caused by a combination of rough cycling, worn brakes on long descents back in Colombia and too much keyboard/touchpad in bed-positions. Now it seemed the computer more than the cycling was the real problem, which after some thought still left me optimistic. I got some strong NSAID (anti-inflammatory), the first time I have used any medicine for my condition, and the pain eased quickly, but how the wrist would feel after the prescribed drugs ran out I was unsure of and I longed for Chris to come online so I could talk to him, but he was still far out in the mountains, three days from Oyon. Or so I thought…
(Although this blogpost might sound rather sad, I have actually enjoyed writing it, reflecting over things that happened. Things are going better, but I shouldn’t say more about that until the next blogpost. What I want to say now is ‘THANK YOU!’ for all the encoraging messages, good advice (I have tried some of them that made sense to me and that I hadn’t thought of before) and good wishes, I think it has all helped on both my wrist and my mood. This whole thing started out mildly and I’m surprised how long it has/is taking to heal, but it is a lesson in accepting and making the best of the moment. I know many other people have much bigger problems.
I have used the good old internet for consulting as I didn’t have much belief in the results of being examined by a Spanish speaking doctor here, and because rest and patience usually is the best and only way to recover from overuse. However, recently I managed to get examined by a doctor in Denmark via Skype and she specified the problem being overuse/inflammation in my thumb base joint and that many other weird sensations I have had comes from not using the hand and arm as I normally would. She gave me advice for recovering, getting back on the bike and assured me that it is a very normal injury and that mine seem very mild. It has been a great relief for me, and I thought I would share it with you who have showed concern too. Thank you so much!)