dirt biking the Sacred Valley

We dirt biked the Sacred Valley last week. When we set out from Cusco the day was warm, the sun hot and beating as we slathered sunblock onto shoulders, only a tiny hint of morning chill in the air. We topped the bike up with gas at a tiny petrol pump on one of the old streets, the Peruvian men watching dubiously as we pulled our helmets on. We flung our legs over the Honda and with a quick check back from Oli we were off, winding up and away from the city towards Saksaywaman, me feeling nostalgic at the familiar rumble and vibration beneath the balls of my feet.

Our hips moved in synchronisation as the bike shifted below us on the
rutted tarmac, left and then right as we twisted up and down the winding hills. The Sacred Valley showed herself slowly, shyly, first only a glimpse of mountains between hills, then rounding corners to amazing views of green and orange terraced hillsides.

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We stopped to take a photo at a lookout, not noticing the women with lambs and llamas that paraded that particular roadside stop, who quickly gathered their steeds and wares to come and show us, ‘a photo miss, una foto!’ We tried to explain apologetically exactly why we didn’t want a photo with the lambs, but I couldn´t quite convey the apathy gained through years of feeding five lambs at seven in the morning when I was a teenager. After a few moments of futile broken Spanish we backed away, speeding further down into the valley.

We passed the buses and trucks only on the straights at first, then corners as Oli got a little more Peruvian with his passing. We hit what we thought was about a hundred and ten kilometres an hour – the dirt bike had no speedo – and I outstretched my arms on the straight, both of us whooping in delight at the speed and the view laid out before us, green terraces lapping at rocky mountains laced with snow.

We stopped to see a few ruins, walking around the old stones and walls quietly, touching the rock here and there to try somehow to connect with the ancient people who once walked the same ground. After a few minutes Oli raised an eyebrow, ‘back on the bike?’ One ruin – done. Speed sightseeing. My father would be proud.

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We flew through village after village as the bike whined below us in the warm day. Women were cooking guinea pigs skewered on thin sticks over smoking fires, their tiny meatless bodies splayed out degradingly. A man sat in an unfinished top floor window eating from a bowl, his eyes lifted from the road, distracted from the blaring horns and engine noise below him. Countless women in traditional dress – the cholitas – wearing puffy skirts and undersized bowler hats, their long black plaits trailing down their backs, connected at the end by
a thin piece of black string.

And dogs. Dogs everywhere, of all sizes, barking from rooftops, sleeping in doorways and running in packs, or just standing and staring into space, like they forgot what they were doing. We met an English girl in Cusco who had been attacked by three little dogs, her long slender leg shaking as she extended it to show us three small bites and a broken sandal.

We stopped to buy water from a small adobe village, a woman with a club foot and a sullen child ahead of me in line, arguing about the price with the shopkeeper and tugging at the little boy´s hand.

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As the day rolled by the brilliant blue sky began to be slightly marred by clouds, some white and fluffy, some with an ominous dark streak, gathering together like children for a fight. We rode on, oblivious, shouting to each other about the sights, reminding me forcefully of The Castle. ‘Look at that!’ ‘What?’ ‘Back there!’

At one point a bus stopped suddenly in front of us for a speed bump and we almost hit it, the back wheel of the bike lifting beneath us as the brakes locked and we were engulfed in a cloud of thick black exhaust fumes.

We continued on, following the small red lines of our not-to-scale map, surprised every time we hit a village much earlier than expected, and confused when it took longer to appear around the bend. We were headed to Ollantaytambo, a ruin town from the time of the Incas, full of adobe houses and traditional markets. We were halfway along the road there when the first drops fell.

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We kept going, trying to ignore the rain falling faster, the drops landing on our glasses and blurring the road ahead. Before us the clouds were dark and full, behind us they were light, only a few littered across the blue of the afternoon sky. After a few minutes Oli yelled, ‘do you want to turn back?’ I muffled a yes.

We pulled into a gravel shoulder, shivering as cars and trucks passed us in a huge loud line of noise and fumes. We swooped back after they passed, the gravel crunching beneath the thick treaded tyres.

As soon as we had turned back the wind picked up and the temperature dropped, icy cold raindrops hitting exposed skin and the wind whipping through our windproof jackets, up sleeves and down necks, biting through the denim of my jeans.

We passed people watching their cattle plough the fields, huge wooden yokes astride their thick necks, the type usually reserved for museums and historical fairs.

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The bike rose easily up and out of the valley, turning back on itself as we twisted up the switchbacks, so that one moment we were facing the storm, the blue black of the sky threatening ahead, then the next moment we were racing towards the blue, a circle of the storm only visible in our rear view mirrors. The clouds behind were so dark and black that it became hard to tell which was mountain and which was storm.

The rain was moving towards us then, we could see twists of it high up in the sky, smudged like dirty fingerprints of grey against the white overcast sky. Then it was sweeping across the plains, great sheets of water falling in blurred lines. We were freezing.

The urgency picked up and suddenly we were racing to beat the weather,
running from the darkening sky and the snow clouds that were circling the jagged peaks of the mountains. We rose above a blue lake and I yelled ´photo Oli, photo!´ ´No time!’ was all I got back. And he was right, there wasn´t time.

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Ahead the skies were blue, patchy with white, innocent clouds, so we raced to Cusco, the land changing as we sped past. I marvelled at the crazy contrast of the dry red earth and the ominous, almost purple sky behind it, the men still working the fields, either oblivious or uncaring about the imminent deluge. I tucked my head behind Oli’s back, watching the road.

I couldn´t take a photo, so let me paint you a picture, a snapshot pulled from a single moment of my vision. The road snatching past us below, smeared into lines of different coloured stone and tarmac. The blue denim of my jeans, stretched tight across my thigh, blue and white lines of fabric. The centre line rushing past like yellow bullets, hair flipping in the breeze. The black of my jacket buffeting in the wind, though in a photo this would be snapped into place, perhaps frozen with the wrist pulled into a sharp triangle of movement. It was strangely beautiful.

By the time the outskirts of Cusco appeared we were shivering, our asses numb from the bike, unused to such a long ride. We navigated through the busy streets, honking and pushing in like locals, the iron grey sky chilly above us.

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We drank hot chocolate and shared a brownie in the Choco Museo, feeling the sweet dark cocoa heating us up from the bones out, uncurling fingers and relaxing shoulders with every mouthful, smiling and dry as we listened to the rain begin outside.

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Edge of Huanchaco

un sol

I am writing this on my iPhone, the tiny white screen and jumpy autocorrect not really conducive to creativity. But so much has happened in the last couple of weeks! The sand I am sitting on is warm and coarse, the strong breeze that pulls my hair from my shoulders is chilly, raising goosebumps along my bare arms. We are in the north of Peru, in a little fishing come surfing village named Huanchaco. I just met a man named Reinata, who was sitting guard and armed with a pistol outside an abandoned looking shop front at the edge of town. We had a clunky conversation in Spanish, during which he asked whether I have children, and I told him that New Zealand is much colder than here.

The Edge of Huanchaco

The people here are friendly. Out of their way friendly. Not the outward, beaming smile friendly that you get in other parts of the world, but helpful and resourceful, a reluctant smile only tugging at their lips when you’ve said something that they like, when you’ve earned it.

Ruin Wall

When we arrived here from Lima we tried to catch a bus from the city out to Huanchaco. The men waiting outside the station told us that it was too hard, that we’d have to take a taxi, and the price quickly jumped from 12 soles to 22 soles. We told them it was too much, ignoring their outstretched arms and open car doors, the ever dropping prices being shouted at us. When they realised that they wouldn’t get a sale out of us they seemed happy to give up, and dropped the salesman persona while pointing us across the road to the bus. We waited on the dirty curb, marvelling at the strange contrast between the post-apocalytic looking town and the space age, uber modern bus station we had arrived into.

A Peruvian lady took us under her wing then. Clamping her handbag tightly under her elbow she hailed a colectivo and prodded us inside, where we stood in the tiny aisle, holding our bags and bent double. Twenty five other people all watched us curiously, and every now and then we would catch each other’s eye and suppress a laugh. The minivan bumped and lurched around the streets of Trujillo and taxis tooted, while a little boy hung out of the doorway, yelling at people walking outside.

We shuddered to a sudden stop and the woman asked again where we wanted to go. We told her Huanchaco, and in a flurry of asking and other passengers nodding and flapping their hands we were abruptly ejected and told to wait on the other side of the busy street. We walked across, bemused and unsure, and asked another woman in her cart full of magazines and lollipops where we should wait. She looked up from her magazine only for a second, using a finger to push her glasses back up her nose as she appraised us.

“Aca, aca,” she told us dismissively, returning to flipping pages. We waited. After about twenty five seconds another colectivo hurtled up to the curb, another little boy yelling, this time “Huanchaco Huanchaco Huanchaco!” We bundled ourselves in again, scoring seats and paid our two soles to the boy.

Pelicans

He can’t have been more than twelve. He hung an arm and a head out of the bus, all business and haggling and trying to short change people, still yelling “Huanchaco Huanchaco!” It was only later, when someone left some rubbish on the back seat that he laughed, and his boyish grin belied his business-like facade. It was almost surprising to realise then that he was still just a little boy. I watched his small, adept fingers counting coins, always trying for more, his thin palm outstretched. He slammed the old door closed again and hung out against its rattle, yelling for more people, like the bus and its offer of excitement was something to sell.

Chan Chan Spine Walls

Out of the window the landscape was dusty and desolate, dogs played in the dirt in the abandoned streets. We stopped several times to pick up lipsticked women in the middle of the desert, their dark hair slicked back into tight ponytails and scuffed high heels waiting on litter strewn curbs.

The bus dropped us beside the pier in Huanchaco, and we were left in the relative quiet of a bustling marketplace, the roar of the sea in our ears and the smell of pelicans in our nose. We would have had no idea what was happening up until that point without the help of the locals.

We rented a double room for just thirty five soles at La Gringa hostel, showed around by the owner, La Gringa herself, a fifty something blonde woman from Kansas who jumped between sentences and intercepted each positive thought with a “Praise The Lord!” and beamed at us with bright blue eyes and white teeth.

Breakfast

We went out for dinner that night, ordering cocktails and seafood, more food than we could even eat, all for less than $24 NZD. Breakfast at the market today was about two dollars for both of us. Everything seems to cost ‘un sol’ here, and I think almost every person that we have bought something from has tried to short change us.

Market Fruit

There seems to be nothing malicious about it, more an opportunist streak, just pushing the boundaries to see if we’ll notice. We always do, and when we ask for our change they pretend as though they forgot, or that they didn’t understand what we wanted to buy. It happens so often it’s almost endearing, like some strange ritual, enjoyable for both parties.

Oli Chan Chan

A couple of days ago we went to see the Chan Chan ruins, a huge adobe city just off the beach, where sheer seven metre walls rise out of the sand, still there from centuries ago. We walked around the ruins of the old palace in hushed silence then wandered back towards the main road, eating salty banana chips and a pack of something else we didn’t quite catch, but which tasted like dried kumara chips.

Ruin Close UpChan Chan CorridorRuin Diamond Shape

We stepped over the painted white rocks that marked the track to walk on the sands off the road, talking about scorpions and tarantulas and wondering if they have them in Peru, while following the spines of old walls still hidden in the ground. I guess when you have so many ruins you can be picky about the ones that you excavate. The sand shifted beneath us like snow crust, our footprints pressing down on still unrevealed ancient mud and stone. We kept yelling at each other excitedly, “man this is some Indiana Jones shit!”

Chan Chan Wall

A lone ice cream wrapper skittered along the sand beside the deserted road and Peruvian vultures circled above us, their shadows rippling across the ancient walls. The warm wind rushed in my ears, falling silent each time I turned my head.

There were Peruvian dogs there too, a hairless, black breed with reddish eyes, which look like a terrifying cross between a dementor and a rabid hyena. They hang around old temples, like some sort of freaky Playstation creatures.

Peru Dog

Yesterday was our first day of doing nothing in two weeks, today our second. I spent the day in a bikini in the sun trapped courtyard, reading and drinking icy cold beers that sweated in the sun, leaving watery rings on the old wooden table. I could feel the sun soaking into my skin, warm and loving against my closed eyelids, the vitamin D soaking right through, permeating down into my bones.

Huanchaco Street Sunset

That night I chatted to some surfers here for a week from NYC. We watched the sun lower in the sky, turning red as it dropped into the haze, before disappearing completely. The temperature dropped then, the cool evening wind rustling the palm fronds.

Market Dog

It’s strange, that in the last two weeks we’ve gone from the Colombian jungle to the Peruvian desert. It seems a world away. In Colombia we met a little girl in the jungle with a machete, and guards stood armed with machine guns while sucking on lollipops. The people look different in Peru too, and the accent is different. Easier, I think. Next step is Huaraz in the Andes, Peru’s hiking capital, then back to Lima, then down and around to Cusco and Macchu Picchu, before leaving through Bolivia.

It’s funny to think that when we arrived in South America we thought we’d have a shot at blending in. We thought that if we wore the right clothes (tight) and spoke enough Spanish (very unlikely) that maybe people wouldn’t notice that we were gringos. But there is absolutely no chance of us being mistaken for Peruvians. We look too different, our blonde-streaked hair and light eyes stand out from miles away.

Anticuchos - Heart Skewers

We rode the metro in Lima after eating anticuchos – delicious heart skewers – and it was an incredibly strange feeling to look around and find twelve pairs of dark eyes quickly averted. Everyone seems to look at us, and to know immediately that we are not from here. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and even if it is there’s nothing we can do about it. All we can do is try to improve our Spanish, and maybe get better at handing over the correct change.

So far, I love Peru. There’s so much more than the Inca Trail here.

Huanchaco Beach

 

practice – not long now

We’re going to South America soon. Our tickets are booked and waiting, a space for us reserved on some LAN Chile manifest sheet. Our backpacks are empty and expectant, a smug 38L, ready to be carted across insanely expansive plains and up the mountains of the Andes. I haven’t thought much about it until now. It hasn’t felt real. South America to me is just a massive expanse of land on the other side of the map, sketched scribbles tracing far away mountain ranges and coastlines, like a figment of a particularly geographically gifted kid’s imagination.

But it is starting to whet the appetite for adventure, writing this. I am beginning to imagine landing in Santiago, to a cold, sprawling city, filled with a language that I love and people who will speak it much too fast for me. My own rusty Spanish will be dusted off and I will try, shyly at first, perhaps to a shopkeeper who might smile bemusedly and step closer to lend me his ear. But it will get better, along with our pathway across the continent, and by the time we hit Santiago again I will make that same man laugh and nod with some witty local repartee. That’s the plan anyway, so here’s hoping.

I’m not taking a laptop – hell I’m not even taking face wash, obsessed with that elusive minimalism as we are – so I am practising by writing this with pen and paper, scrawling black lines of ink across the pages of an uncharacteristically girly Typo notebook. My hand has already started to cramp – I’m going to have to get better if I’m going to document this trip properly. But the thirst has begun now, almost like the ink that has unlocked it, my sense of adventure has begun to flow.

We are travelling there in August, the South American winter. Working for a New Zealand skydiving company, it’s hard to get time off in our shared summer. So because of this we are starting north – after a quick stop in Santiago we hit Colombia, then down to Lima, then Cuzco, Machu Picchu, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Patagonia. Places that up until now have just been names and learned capitals, a word to pull out at a pub quiz with an ‘aha!’

I’m still getting my head around the fact that we will actually see these places, do mundane things like eat breakfast and wash our clothes in these far away cities. I guess that’s what travelling is about, really. The wonder, the thirst to keep going, see more, the absolute beauty and surrealism of the experience and the landscape, accompanied by everyday things like showering and clipping nails, those things that keep you tethered to home, to the person you are.

I can’t wait now. Time for the expired passport to be renewed, the Mini sold, the tiny backpack packed. My hand is killing me now. I’ll be back for more practice soon.

rain spattered windows

The car stopped with a soft lurch, leaving a residual shuddering that was like an almost imperceptible vibration through my body, a memory of the last constant hour of movement. The drops pattered on the thin roof and I looked sideways, down the rain slashed streets. Street lights gleamed on the wet windows, smeared into messy crosses of phosphorous flare. The red traffic light shone thickly in the empty night, a silent sentinel of an abandoned, forgotten bridge, shining loudly into the wet black dark.

I waited. There was no one else for miles.

stuck – part six – epilogue

I broke both of my feet, but that’s all. The wound to my head was only superficial, caused by a flying shard of glass from the window I had been sitting beside. I had been struck pretty hard by the wall opposite me when it fell, but that’s what saved my life. The angle of the wall in front of me and the wall behind created a perfect triangle of safety for my breakable body. The bed beneath me managed to save my fall, even though I fell through about five storeys.

The clicker was my neighbour, Johannes. He had the clicker he used to train his dog in his hand at the time, they had been practising tricks. His dog was killed instantly by a falling light fixture. He had only been little. It took Johannes longer to die. He had been crushed by a bookshelf, with only his hand free. He died of internal injuries, they said, hours before we were found.

No one got my emails. The network failed around the whole Wellington region after the quake.

I still shake every time there’s an aftershock. Most people do, especially the long ones. My concussion is still healing, it’s only when I sit up now that I feel dizzy. It takes me a few seconds when I wake up each day to realise that I can move, that dust isn’t clouding my breath and blood dripping down my back, or shards of pain shooting from my mangled feet.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. Over six hundred people died that day, the biggest New Zealand disaster on record. And I survived, all because a drunken wall decided to lurch for me.

~

Read from part one here

stuck – part five

Voices. I can hear voices. My eyes pull open again and I am unsurprised to find that I am in the dark, unable to move. It’s as though this is my reality now, I’ve come to terms with it. But there are definitely voices. They sound loud and rough, somewhere to my right. I turn my head sluggishly to stare into the darkness at the sound. There is quiet for a while, then a definite word.

“Hello?”

I watch, puzzled. Is someone on the phone? Maybe there’s someone else with a phone, and they are calling for help. I watch the black some more. The word comes again. It’s a man’s voice, loud and abrupt. He sounds like someone who gets shit done, I think to myself. He probably wears overalls and fixes his own plumbing. And a hardhat. Something in my brain is trying to tell me something. I can almost feel pathways zig-zagging furiously through my head, but the thing I am trying to realise is just out of reach. My brow furrows, and I listen again.

“Hello? Anyone alive in there?” The voice is getting quieter.

An explosion of movement from my body as I realise they are outside, that it’s help. The pain sears through my legs again but I ignore it, gritting my teeth as I yell back.

“Hello! I’m here, I’m in here!” I scream until my throat is ragged and sore, the huge noise threatening to break my tiny space apart.

There is a moment of silence, then the voice again, a little louder.

“Are you in there? Yell again!” It sounds as though it’s above me, still somewhere to the left.

“Yes I’m here! Below you!” My heart is thumping in my chest and my throat constricting with the eagerness to be heard.

“Okay, we’re going to get you out. You’re going to have to keep yelling, can you do that?” His voice has changed now, it’s softer, gentle. This scares me, it makes me wonder how bad it is.

“Yes,” I shout, my voice breaking.

I begin to rant and rave, my voice dropping and cracking on occasional words. I yell to the clicker, but there is no answer. When the voices get quiet I panic, but they chat back mostly. I can hear things being moved, huge heavy things that sound painful and intimidating, scraping and heaving above me. There is a sharp sound of metal pulling against metal and a shaft of light enters my area, making me squint in pain.

“In here! I can see light!”

“Can you hear me now?” The voice sounds as though it’s right beside me, a disembodied sound in the semi-dark. The light dims as he speaks.

“Yes!”

More things scrape and bang and I can hear the talking and grunts of the people moving them around. There are screams in the background and sirens, and the jarring drill of a jackhammer from far away. With each passing second the light surrounding me gets brighter, until I can see the laptop on my thighs and my top soaked with blood. The thing against my head is the wall that lurched at me, lying on an angle from my feet to my face. The window frame that sat beside me is warped and twisted, shards of glass littered across the duvet beside me.

I know I should feel euphoric but I just feel tired and dazed, as though nothing is real. A face appears beside me beneath low angle of the wall and I turn to look at it, taking in only the white dust settled in his short beard.

“Hey there. We’re going to get you out, okay? Can you do that?” He says it gently, like he’s speaking to a wounded animal, or a particularly stupid child. Usually this would annoy me, but today I just nod.

“Good girl.” He looks down towards my feet, at where they trail into darkness. I see the shadow cross his face.

“It’s alright,” I say. “Just get it off.”

He nods briskly.

“Alright boys, she’s under here, so we’re going to lift this wall. Her feet are crushed underneath it so –“

I stop listening, my mind telling me I don’t need to hear what they are saying. The man with the white dust beard tries to warn me, to count down until they lift it but I shake my head, gritting my teeth. When the impact finally comes it is worse than anything I have ever experienced, ripping and tearing, like knives in my flesh and fire on my skin. The pain comes with a hyper-reality, a heightening of noises and sensations. The sirens blare from below and my scream hurts my own ears.

A light rain is falling and the drops kiss my skin, melding into the dried blood on my clothes. The sky above is grey, beginning to tinge black at the edges. Night is already falling, or is it finally? I watch the clouds as the men lift me, ignoring the red ambulance lights tossing their beams into the ruined street. I hardly notice the men’s passage over the uneven ground. It’s only when they have deposited me into the street, into an ambulance with a woman with a head of tight black curls and a hooked nose that I notice the destruction.

The street around us is gone. Crumbling ruins of building spill onto the neat yellow and white lines of the road, like Lego structures broken by a toddler. A needle punctures my arm and I wonder idly what it is. For pain maybe? I try to form the words.

“How long ago was the earthquake?”

The woman looks at me in surprise. She seems startled that I can speak. This makes me feel sick. How many others couldn’t speak?

“Ten thirty. Eight hours ago.” She returns to my feet. I don’t watch.

Eight hours. Eight hours I was stuck in that hole. I turn to look at what was once my building. Only a pile of rocks remain, just two storeys high. The man with the white beard is stepping lightly across the top stones again, ducking down into holes. From another I see a man and a woman pull a large, heavy shape from one of the pockets. I realise it is a body and the world spins for a second.

The lady with black curls tells me to shush, and I lie back. Within seconds everything goes black.

Read part six here

Read from part one here

stuck – part four

I wonder how far away they are, if they are coming at all. I feel as though I don’t know anything anymore. There is nothing, except space and dust, the seconds ticking sluggishly past, like some thick, viscous liquid. Time has slowed and sped at the same time and I feel confused, dazed with the effort of sitting upright.

Whatever is pressing against my right shoulder has started to hurt and the ceiling above my head feels as though it’s slipping, millimetre by millimetre, as though determined to finish the job and crush me. It is dark now, the laptop long dead. I say long, but really I have no idea if it’s been a few minutes or a few hours since the white light flickered and died, leaving me sitting in the relentless dark. There had been no emails, despite my restless checking. Nothing came, and deep down I had known that nothing would come. Not in time. There haven’t been any clicks for a while.

My entire body feels as though it’s throbbing with numbness. The stress that has raced through my body wants me to move, but there is nothing, no movement. I am trapped in this tiny space, with nothing left to breath, and it is hell. I wait, terrified and pinned.

After what feels like twenty minutes I wake. I didn’t know that I had slept. The clicking has started again, a burst, then nothing, then a click each few seconds.

“How are you doing?” I know this is a stupid, unanswerable question but I have nothing else in my arsenal, no presence of mind to form a new sentence.

There are two clicks, then silence.

“I’m not good. I think I might go to sleep now.”

A frenzy of clicking. I don’t know what that means. I begin to monologue.

“My laptop died. I tried to call 111 but my mike’s screwed, so they can’t hear me.’ Even in my own voice I can hear the unstable sound of a person tipped over the edge, that insane hint of laughter, like the bad guy at the end of a movie, when he’s been mortally wounded and is reeling out his entire evil plan while waiting to die. That sick, scary insanity. I can hear it in my own voice now.

“So I emailed some people, so here’s hoping that someone has a nice relaxing coffee break soon and I haven’t ended up in their Junk folder.” I break off with a shaky laugh. More unhinged humour. “So I think we might be fucked! I don’t have much air left, I can’t breathe and I can’t move, and you certainly don’t sound very good, so we might be done mate!” I finish my sentence almost triumphantly. I don’t know why I said mate. I never say mate.

The world is beginning to swim around me, even though I can’t see it. Blackness swirls and dips in my vision and I try to focus, but my head hurts and I can’t see anything to anchor from. There are three slow clicks, then nothing for a very long time.

Read part five here

Read from part one here

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