26 February, 2007

North Towards Lima

The border crossing was the usual average adventure. Smile and be patient. "Yes, I realise that I don't have the correct documentation but I am a foreigner in your country and I don't understand where to get what I need. Can you help?". The whole process was compounded by busloads of people having to be processed one by one, their drivers screaming at them all the while to hurry up and get into this or that queue. But of course there were no queues and everyone squeezed in front of whoever would let them. I stood there with what I hoped was a friendly, tolerant smile (but could have been a grimace), waiting patiently to turn it into a beaming jokey conspiratorial ("isn't this just nuts?") giggle whenever approached by anyone official-looking. People jostled and squeezed in front and I resorted to my jovial Scots, laughing; "Aye, so you'll be needin' in front o' me then!?"

My theory is that if I can make out to these people that I'm actually having a pretty good time observing all the mad goings on, and that I am by no means in any sort of a hurry to get on at all, I'll remain calm and things will eventually happen. They get such a big kick out of watching the 'Gringo' get annoyed if you really are in a rush, I hope that by looking as if it's all such fun, it won't matter. I can even join in a little bit whenever a Gringo nearby starts getting steamed up, looking at them askance.

This works in that I do end up sort of enjoying it, as long as it's not too hot. I can even laugh at rudeness, joking away out loud with myself in what I hope to be an unintelligibly strong Fife Scots accent. If you smile as you say "aye, well an' you can awa' an' bile yer heid aswell, ye wee niaff!" They seem to get the point that I'm maybe slightly irritated but not really offended. I get things humorously off my chest, they don't understand the extent of my frustration (if any), they see me smile and when I come back with whatever nonsensical bit of paper they've asked me for, we start off by smiling; "mind o' me, ye wee scunner? Here's thon bit pipper ye were efter, a' filled in, stampit an' sortit oot fir ye." And they don't understand so I get to laugh at myself for using words I'd rarely even use at 'hame', and pray there are no other Scots lurking in the vicinity to register my cheek. This whole approach serves also to confuse border guards at least as far as not knowing quite where I'm from, but concluding I can't be a fully-qualified Gringo. Gringoes, I am told, are really from the US (but all peellie-wallie types are initially regarded as such) and seem fairly unpopular here, if the transition in attitude between the grumpily asked question "de que pais? (which country are you from?)" and the happily amazed response to "Escoçia!!?" is anything to go by. I've learned with smiles all round that some Peruvian bloke plays for Rangers this way. Football, the universal language outside the US.

The first thing I noticed about Peru was that they had pill boxes, probably to protect themselves against any Chiléan onslaught. The thing was that, in the desert, these were painted in the green camouflage colours. So it must be that they were painted long ago when the deserts were verdant or they were painted optimistically in the hope of water arriving here soon, or just that the Peruvian Army haven't quite worked out the idea behind camouflage. No wonder they keep losing wars!

The next thing was very confusing. I went to buy fuel and noticed that there were big differences in prices between ordinary, extra and super. I went for the cheapest until I realised the fuel was being sold in Gallons! For years I've recorded fuel consumption in mpg (miles per gallon) since the speedometer is in miles. Because it's sold all over Europe in litres, this has meant a quick calculation, which is good exercise for the brain. At first I thought this would make the job easier, but then I realised these were USGallons, and not 'Imperial' ones! USGallons (3.7litres) are smaller than Imperial ones (4.5l). All calculations are on hold, until I find a calculator. So whereas in the UK we sell fuel in litres but cover distances in miles, the reverse exists here where fuel is sold in USGallons, but distances are covered in kilometres. Mad!

The desert didn't stop at the border but kept going right up to Lima. I'd like to say it was as inviting as the Sahara for camping in, but the simple truth is that it was so dry and inhospitable that I was fairly intimidated by it. The sun was so hot during the day whenever I stopped, the air so thin, and the wind so strong that I felt I'd wake up next morning - never mind the protection of the tent - as something like a human raisin, with all the moisture sooked out of my body. Old and wrinkled before my time. So I rode on, finding hostels in whichever town looked as if it might have one. Apart from marvelling at the incredible beauty of it all (but then you'd hardly move) there was little else to stop for. Despite suncream on my face and lipsalve on my lips, the wind whipped my skin red and dry, cracking my mouth and making smiling painful.

Stopping for lunch in Tacna, I was escorted by a friendly policeman to the nearest ATM for Peruvian cash. Then I found an extremely friendly place for my dinner. They had a menu! In Chilé, the menu was almost always the same; meat, fish or chicken with rice or chips. Here was something different. I wasn't quite sure what it was, but yellow Inca-Kola was interesting!

Sometimes the road wound and twisted through amazing scenery, with hills and mountains all in beige. Some twisting along the coast at the foot of a gigantic beach, the Pacific fresh-cool and grey-blue on the left. Others wound through barren inland mountains with Humboldt's sea-breeze still reaching; strong and very cold that high up. There were occasional oases of fertile valleys between these huge sandy hills. These usually had trickles of rivers flowing down to the sea with a distinctive brown colour to stain the ocean. At fewer times there would be a sufficiently flat bit of desert for the road engineers to have designed a straight that seemed to go on forever.

On the second day and 577miles into Peru, I'd spent much of the day being amazed by the coastal scenery, when I came to a pretty wee village called Chala strung haphazardly along the beach. Despite the dull ache in my posterior, I disciplined myself and refuelled in preparation for the next morning's early start. Maybe, if I really went for it, I could make Lima in a day. The fuel attendant kindly directed me to the best/least expensive hostel. Tired after what was now a straight seven days' riding, I squeezed the bike through the doors into the courtyard and was given an excellent room overlooking the beach. There were four single bunks in this room but I was assured there would only be me in it. The sun dropped into the sea as I read my book after tea.

A young lad appeared. Would I mind if he shared the room, only there wasn't another bunk for him. I didn't mind too much, and he was delighted. Alonzo was 16 years old and full of beans, he wondered if I might like to accompany him out dancing that night. There were 'chicas' and dancing (he rolled his shoulders and bent his arms, shimmying in a fair impersonation of any teacher 'dancing' at the school disco) and it'd be great! I could meet his mates. He hadn't any English and was struggling to comprehend much of what rubbish I was saying. His mum was a primary teacher as well (ah, so he'd known the dance then!), and he was going to be a lawyer. He hadn't any money but hoped to make it to Lima soon. I told him if he could get a helmet by the morning I could give him a lift, but I'd be leaving at eight. He said he'd try. I couldn't really imagine myself shoogling about with him and his 16-year-old 'chicas' and anyway it was late. We agreed I'd leave the key in the door, and I bid him goodnight

I was lying in my bunk at midnight listening to the comforting sound of the sea, when I remembered - the wire!! I leapt out of bed and went back to the bike. It was still plugged in, six hours after I'd switched off! I disconnected it and returned, cursing my fatigue, to my bed.

Next morning, of course, the bike wouldn't start. The battery was entirely dead, and who knew what else may have fried itself. A man from the hostel helped me try to bump it, pushing it along the main road. It coughed once or twice and then gave up. A passing lorry driver very kindly disconnected his battery and carried it over to the bike. But the connections on motorbike batteries are too small to take proper jump leads. Connecting these through thin wires had some small effect, but not enough to turn the engine quickly.

There was no 'eletrista' (auto-electrician) in Chala and anyway I was already having nightmares thinking of the language I'd need to describe the Illapel "botch" that had brought me this far. I was 400miles short of Lima and the safety of Lizzie's flat. What to do? The lady in the hostel assured me it could go on the bus. I had a mental image of dragging my bike into the seat next to me and commanding it not to move. Less hassle, perhaps than sitting next to a fidgetting stranger. Then I remembered I'd seen buses with cargo trailers. She sent me to her pal at Comité 4, at the other hotel. They would sort it out.

"No problem", said the man, "come back at 3pm and I'll let you know the price. But first I need to go for my afternoon nap." It was at this point that I learned that Peru was two hours behind Chilé! It was still early. At 3pm the man's daughter told me he was still asleep. Subsequent visits every hour got the same response, until at 6pm, he was awake! Yes, the bike could go on the truck (truck!?) tonight at 3.30am, but I would need to be awake to help with the loading. This would cost 300Solés and a further 20Solés would get it all the way to Lizzie's flat. This is about 50GBP, and seemed to me to be somthing of a bargain when compared to the 25GBP I'd paid for 100miles of slow destruction on the truck in Kenya. "Let's just see if it happens" Lizzie said ominously in an e-mail.

I've broken down in less attractive places.
I went back to the hostel with my receipt (more official-looking than the one I'd got for putting it on the plane in South Africa!) and settled in to read my book. As I was preparing to get about four hours sleep, the lady in the hostel wanted to see the receipt. "You're not paying all that!!" she scolded in Spanish, "See that fridge? I got that down from Lima for only 50Solés. It's about the same size as your bike! Wait till I see him. What did you pay all that for?" She wasn't happy. It was a shame for Peru that I should be ripped off so much. "But you'll be going on the truck as well?" "Ehm, no actually," I had to get the bus next day. Another explosion of disbelief. I protested that I was just a daft tourist and whenever anyone wanted money in an emergency I had no option but to pay. It was a fairly official-looking receipt so I had to assume that little of what I'd paid was going in her friend's pocket. She went off, after this rather fraught exchange, all in Span-uguese, and I went back to my book, a bit nervous, especially with the addition of Lizzie's scepticism.

Fifteen minutes later she came quietly up to me, "Hola amigo," she said slowly, all calmed down; "how much does your bike weigh?" I told her about 200kg. "And your luggage?" I'm not sure but maybe about 100kg? She had phoned the head office of Comité 4 and found out that the price really was 1Solé per kg and 20Solés for the extra distance to Lizzie's flat. With that relief, I went quietly to bed.

At 2am I pinged awake. Good because I'd wanted to get everything sorted and ready in the off-chance I could blag a lift on the truck. All sorted and the front door knocked, it was Alonzo, back from dancing with his 'chicas'. He said he'd wait around to help with the truck at 3. The truck arrived promptly and we began loading the bike on. A huge plank was produced and the driver, his mate, the man from Comité 4, Alonzo and I all got it on board. All the while the lady had appeared and began arguing with her friend, the Comité 4 man. When the bike was on and all strapped down I got ready to go back to my bed, but no! I was to go on the truck after all. The lady had sorted it, but I wasn't to be giving any more money to these two truckies even if they asked for it. She was warning me like I'd be in big trouble with her if I was to disobey! I thanked her profusely, grabbed my remaining stuff, said my goodbyes and jumped on the truck. The driver's mate went immediately to sleep in the bunk just behind the front seats. Off we roared into the night.

The road was busy and we had to stop a few times with various deliveries and pick-ups. Since the mate was asleep I happily helped out in these tasks. There was little chance of my sleeping anyway. Coming past Nazca and its famous 'lines' I realised I'd never have seen them from the ground anyway and all the wee aeroplanes proved the best way to see this amazing spectacle. Maybe later when I'm rich! For now I can look at photographs.

We got to the depot in Lima and the bike was unloaded by forklift and straps. But it still had to get to Lizzie's flat and I stood around waiting, anyone who came over to me to ask what I was up to got the sign-language for 'bike with me, when?'. This was solved when the phone rang and I was old it was for me. Lizzie's kindly secretary Laura was calling to find out how things were going. Some to-ing and fro-ing of the phone and I understood that I was to get a taxi and the bike would arrive at the flat at 4pm. Grateful, I went off to find some food and a taxi. The bike arrived on time. Now I had to find a battery charger.


At 05/03/2007, 11:01, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such beautiful senery. I miss the sea. I really like how your Lima Kola blows smoke rings.

Hope you bike gets better soon

x Rachel

At 17/03/2007, 18:26, Blogger Barbara said...

Mick - have just caught up with all your amazing travels. Fantastic - and was so pleased to see Lizzie - give her my love! Hope you are mobile soon.

Barbara xxx

At 19/03/2007, 16:43, Blogger Mick said...

Hi Barbara, good to hear from you! You can be sure that both yourself as well as Mary were thought of, missed, giggled about and toasted as Lizzie introduced me to the delights of Pisco Sours, Manhattans, and G&Ts in South American style! Sadly Lizzie has gone the way of Poker, and no longer recalls the finer points of Bridge! Wish you were here. :-) X

At 28/03/2007, 13:46, Blogger Mick said...

Find out more about Inca Kola at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inca_Kola


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