Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Arrival in Lima Peru

It is an all day journey from leaving my Chicago area home to finally arriving in Lima at midnight. My friend Sara, her mother and her four siblings met me at the airport. We had so many people with us we didn't have room for my bike box in the taxi. We rented a second taxi and I got to my small hotel room about 2:00 AM.

The next morning I put my bike together out on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. The bike seemed in fine shape and all my touring gear was ready to go. The hotel was helpful about storing my bike in the office behind their desk until tomorrow.

I wanted to go on a bus tour of Lima as a test to see it this was something we wanted to do as a group someday. The four hour guided tour cost $20. The bus picked me up at my hotel door at 10:30 AM. The guide showed us the pre Inca ruins that were built several thousand years ago in the center of the city. We also toured many Spanish military statues that are slightly incorrect. Such as the Navy General shown sitting on a calvary horse. Lima reminded me of the fancy historic architecture of Paris combined with the adobe ruins of New Mexico.

Later we went down into the Catacombs under the cathedral church. This is where they buried 20,000 people during 150 years by dissolving their bodies in lime dust. The flesh and small bones would decompose in the lime. All that remained are the skulls and thigh (femur) bones. The skull and leg bones were then stacked in huge pits in the basement of the church. Then they used the lime powder to make the concrete walls in the city. Since I was there on Halloween this was an appropriate tour. After we finished the gruesome tour we had a tasty Peruvian lunch at a nearby restaurant. Tomorrow I was ready to start my bike ride up the slopes of the Andes.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Bike Ride Up the Andes

The first part of my route would be a repeat of a group tour I did with eighteen PAC Tour riders last November. We started in the coastal city of Lima and rode inland over the mountains. That is how I would begin my trip again this year. I did have the comfort of knowing the roads and locations of basic hotels every 50 miles.

The first day I was to climb from Lima up to the small town of San Meteo located 10,000 feet up into the Andes. San Meteo is famous in Peru for their bottled water made from the melted snow high on the peaks. As I departed Lima a low gray smog hung over the foothills. Further up the mountain the beauty of the region became visible. It looks similar to the rocky canyons of Utah or Nevada. The landscape is very arid with only two inches of rain per year. Vegetation is barren and the changing elevation is deceptive.

I climbed for seven hours up the steady 4-5% grade. The old highway in the lower valley ran parallel to the new main road. I alternated riding on the two routes as the roads followed between the towering peaks. The old road was void of any traffic except for some small villages. The pavement was broken and cracked similar to Old Route 66 along the interstate in America. On the newer busy road the local bus passengers would pass me with sympathetic stares as I bicycled up the mountain. They were not used to seeing bicycles climb this pass. I could tell they felt sorry for me that I could not afford the 25 cent bus ride. I wanted to yell at them that I was riding my bike because I wanted to. To have the freedom and opportunity to cycle over the Andes into the Amazon Rain Forest was a fun and exciting thing to do.

The yearly drought ended during my last five miles into San Meteo. The afternoon rains started and I needed my raincoat and gloves. From my hotel I could tell the distant summit at almost 16,000 feet elevation was hidden in the clouds. Tomorrow I still had 6,000 feet to gain and half a day of riding to reach the top.

My hotel room was cold and industrial without hot water or room heat. Taking a shower and washing my clothes in 40 degree water was refreshing. The tile floor was ice cold but the five heavy thick wool blankets on the bed were welcome. It would take a strong person to rollover in bed under the weight of those blankets which must have weighed thirty pounds. The rain outside tapping on the windows put me to sleep while hoping for better conditions tomorrow.

The next morning the rain stopped. Patches of clouds were making streaks of sunshine on the mountaintop. Last year it had taken me five hours to reach the summit from here. The elevation had started to make me dizzy above 14,000 feet. Today I would take it easy. I planned to stop and drink a half liter of water every 30 minutes. I wanted to ride at a conversation pace and never feel like I was breathing heavy. My low gear of a 38 tooth chainring and 32 tooth rear cog would become my friend today at four miles per hour.

I took lots of pictures and stopped to buy refreshments from several small stores along the road. The snow capped peaks contrasted with the dark blue rock on the mountain slopes. By the time I had reached 14,000 feet elevation I only had six more miles of road to go to the summit. My head was still feeling pretty good. The air was brisk and I had on my long nylon pants and windbreaker. I carried a small thermometer on the zipper of by seat bag. It read 35 degrees. As I neared the top the snow flurries began and I knew I didn’t want to stop for long. Even with my methodical pace I was almost an hour faster than last year and feeling much better.

I reached the summit at 15,890 feet elevation. It is the highest paved road in the world. If you want to climb to over 16,000 feet there is a nearby hiking trail to the monument of a Spanish Priest named Ticlio for whom this mountain pass is named is suppose. I asked the policeman at the guard station to take my photo near the sign.. I quickly put on my fleece jacket and gloves then pushed off down the other side. The grade down is a gentle 4%. Coasting at 30 mph was about my maximum. I was shivering too much to want to go any faster. After 40 minutes I had dropped almost 4,000 feet. The snow had stopped and I could see sunshine in the valley below. The remainder of the day was a joy. I rolled into the city of La Oroya located at an elevation of 12,000 feet. I found a nice hotel for $9 along the main street. It still didn’t have hot water but the afternoon sun helped dry my clothes by hanging them out the window. The sky was clear but there was a crisp mountain chill in the air.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Dinner with Diana in Peru

I walked down the street to a restaurant and found a table near the window. Outside there was a young girl about twelve years old walking up and down the sidewalk. She carried a damp rag and would jump out and wash the windows of cars when they stopped at the intersection. She was hoping to receive a small coin as a tip from the driver. She wore a thick dark blue wool sweater that was torn at the elbows. Her red chapped cheeks had a scabby sunburn like the high altitude farmers who work outside all day. She presented the rugged and tattered looks of someone who slept outside on the sidewalk at night.

The waitress brought me my menu. I couldn’t read it, but I knew the keys words like pollo (chicken), fish (pescado), potato (papa) and rice (arroz). If I ordered something that had those words in the description and I was never disappointed with the quality or quantity of the food. Meals are usually less than $3 with enough rice and potatoes for two people.

I kept watching the girl washing car windows outside. Most drivers drove away without saying thank you. I got up and walked to the door. I whistled to the girl and waved her to come over. I pointed to the menu in my hand and motioned her to come in the restaurant. She was hesitant but then came inside to my table. I gave her my menu but I wasn’t sure if she could read. I asked her in my basic Spanish...“Pollo, arroz para ti?” (Chicken and rice for you?). She nodded...“yes”. I must have said something right. The waitress took our order for two servings of chicken and rice. During our meal I found out the girl’s name was Diana. We didn’t talk much about anything else. I did notice she had perfect table manners and could eat a chicken leg with a fork without using her fingers.

My dinner with Diana started a theme I would repeat many times during the next three weeks. When I went to eat at a restaurant in each town I would find someone to sit at my table. Usually it was a shoeshine boy who would be hanging out on the street. Once it was a mother and a small girl about two years old. The child didn’t eat directly from the table because the mother kept breast feeding the girl during the entire meal. I only wish I could have spoken more Spanish because I didn’t know the names or ages of most of the people I met. I still enjoyed the company and I think my guests enjoyed a real meal. I was learning that my bicycle was just a prop to introduce me to an assortment of people across Peru.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Cross the Peruvian Andes Mountains

I had just crossed the highest ridge of the Andes Mountains. My route now would turn north to follow along parallel to the slopes. During the next four days I traveled through the mining country past the towns of Cerro de Pasco (elevation 12,000’) and toward the jungle city of Tingo Maria. There are still many demanding climbs as the road meandered from 10,000 to 13,000 feet elevation several times. The road was perfectly paved during this 200 mile section. Once a year the bicycle club from Lima has a road race through this area. It would be a fun and challenging route for a future PAC Tour road bike tour.

The landscape is similar to being above the tree line in the United States. Lots of barren rocky hillsides. The sporadic tufts of grass looked like bald man’s hair with a bad comb over. Just when I thought the mountains were drab and sterile I would drop into a lush farming valley. The terraced flower farms going into Tarma are famous in Peru. There were more hairpin turns than I could count in fifteen miles. It must have taken farmers hundreds of years to level the fields and move all the rocks that now make giant staircases up the mountain.

The nice thing about cycling in Peru is that bicycles receive equal respect on the road. Motorists are used to seeing herds of sheep, hand carts and pedestrians on the road. Everybody still needs to be careful because oncoming vehicles in your lane expect you to yield to them. The reverse is also true when I had vehicles pass me with plenty of room to spare they almost hit oncoming traffic in the other lane. During all my bicycle travels I never had any motorist act like bicycles didn’t belong on the road.

When I reached Tingo Maria 200 miles further north I was entering the jungle region. I had dropped down to almost 3,000 feet. I still needed to get north to the town of Tarapoto to scout the jungle routes for our tour. There were limited villages the next 300 miles. The guide books warned tourists not to travel the one lane mud road because of possible military rebels and drug dealers. Since I was running short of time I decided to load my bike onto one of the 4 wheel drive pick-up trucks that transport passengers through the jungle.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Crossing the Jungle

The small 4 x 4 pickup truck had a king cab that fit three people and a driver...but they insisted on cramming in five people with the driver. The back of the truck had railings for ten people to stand up and hang-on. Everyone had at least two gear bags piled in the back. My bike was strapped to the outside railing. The truck was packed full and overloaded by 1,000 pounds. We could only average 12 mph. We would travel the next 300 miles on rock, dirt, mud and water.

The first day I traveled in the truck for 13 hours. Tickets were $8. I had a seat inside...because I paid $4 extra...well worth it. Going through the remote jungle we only saw village huts every few hours. Any smooth and straight section of gravel road had concrete pillars down the middle. This was to stop small airplanes from landing that were smuggling drugs.

We must have crossed 50 streams and small rivers in the first 100 miles. The water covered the wheels and the floor of the truck was always wet inside. I was inside the cab thinking maybe it would be better to be hanging on outside on the railing than to roll over and get trapped underwater inside the truck. Just before a water crossing I would take a photo of the river. If we didn’t survive there was chance someone might find my camera and be able to explain our drowning.

The one lane road was very rutted and muddy. Meeting an on coming truck meant each vehicle had to get half way off the road and possibly slide into the ditch. Everyone traveled at idling speeds. When the mud got too deep for the truck, everyone had to get out and walk. The driver then just did his best to get the truck moving again. I thought we were going to tip over at least ten times because one wheel was in a two foot deep rut and the other wheel was up on the side bank.

Later that night we got to the town of Juanjui (Wan-hooy). Juanjui received world attention in 1984 when rebel MRTA guerrilla forces invited the media to televise their attack against the local army. Instead of a battle the rebels showed up with soccer balls and organized a street party for the town. The rebels received much favorable publicity across South America. The MRTA guerrilla were rivals of the notorious Shining Path rebels. Some of the most influential guerilla leaders were actually women college students. Unfortunately over 30,000 people were killed during twenty years of turmoil. Many of these victims were villagers and farmers caught in the crossfire. Since 1997 the area has become more politically stable. I felt safe here now, but Peru received a tainted reputation because of the conflict.

It was hot here tonight in the jungle. Near 90 degrees at 8:00 PM. I stayed at a motel in the center of town. The room did not have air conditioning, hot water, or a toilet seat. The water only worked when you asked the office to turn on the water pump for ten minutes to use the shower or flush the toilet. The room only cost $7 but it was clean and safe.

I was surprised to find the availability of public Internet computers were very common in Peru. Not many people have computers in their homes. Billboards for Internet Cafes are seen on every street in town. The cost is about 70 cents per hour. Even in the rural areas I could use the Internet at the city hall. I would try to write home everyday. My wife and daughter knew I was okay and it was a good way for me to compile the daily updates from my travels.

The next day the taxi truck departed at 8:00 AM. The road was better and we made good time on the gravel sections. We rolled into the city of Tarapoto by mid afternoon. I was a little disappointed about not riding my bike the past 300 miles. It would have taken me at least six days with only a few small villages to buy supplies. I would have been several days behind schedule with my scouting trip. Actually the riding in the truck was pretty fun and I would do it again.

After two long days in vehicles I was looking forward to riding my bike tomorrow. Tarapoto is a big town and my fancy hotel room is very nice for $28. This is the hotel I want our group tour to stay at in the future. There are many good restaurants in Tarapoto and an airport with daily flights to Lima. We will base our loops rides out from here. I wanted to ride everything first and get a better idea of what to expect. So far I have been eating well and have not been sick or had one bug bite.

I am not sure why I like the jungle life of Peru. The landscapes can be beautiful, but there are hundreds of other beautiful locations around the world. To say one is more scenic than another is only based on opinion. Maybe what I find fascinating are the people’s simple lifestyle of focusing only on day to day necessities. The more I got to know the rural people of Peru I began to understand the motivations in my own life. As an American with a comfortable life I have the luxury to plan for the future. I am expected to prepare for my life twenty or thirty years in advance.

In Peru I had many discussions with local people about their future. The people with few possessions were most concerned with their next meal. Some would dream of having a baby and family someday. These people have an admirable trust that everything will be fine for them. “What will you do in the future” I questioned one young woman. “Jesus will decide my future” she said. Later I asked a street vender what was the interest rate the bank paid on a savings account. They answered me honestly ...“I have never put money in the bank. I don’t have enough coins at the end of the day to fill a small purse. All my money is spent each night buying food for tomorrow. If I do not work everyday, I do not have enough coins to buy my next meal.”

I also met several Peruvians who had much money. They reminded me of Americans in how they thought about their future. They knew they had a safety net of cash for immediate problems. Most could afford to extend their field of vision toward other longer term decisions. Such as “What kind of car to buy” or “Were their stock investments secure”. It seems everyone needs a certain amount of uncertainly in their future to make their current life valuable.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Bike Rides Near Tarapoto, Peru

My first route from Tarapoto was up to the mountain village of Lamas. The first 22 miles are paved along the river leaving town. Later there is a steep rocky ten mile climb gaining 2,000 feet to the mountain top. From the summit you have a good view overlooking the river valley 20 miles away. Lamas is actually a Spanish settlement that was founded in the year 1610. It is a small town of about 2,000 people. Lamas is a famous location in Peru for ethnic jokes like what American say about Polocks. Similar to “Did you hear what the crazy man from Lamas did...” Everyone from Peru has heard about Lamas even if they don’t know where it is located. It is a clean town and not worthy of being the brunt of bad jokes. The mountain breezes and cooler temperature makes Lamas much more comfortable than the jungle below. Returning to Tarapoto I took a different road. It was a paved, twisting, fast decent that completed a scenic 45 mile loop back to my hotel.

The next day I rode to Sauce (sow-see). It is another mountain village hidden 34 miles from Tarapoto. I had to cross a large river about the size of the Mississippi River in St. Louis. I used a tiny manual cable ferry boat could carry a vehicle and a few passengers. The inconvenience of the ferry boat limited the amount of car traffic on the road to only one or two cars per hour. Although the road was built from melon size rocks it was a nice mountain route with great scenery going up the grade. It took me almost six hours of riding from Tarapoto with many stops to take photos. I was ready to go swimming in the lake by the time I reached my hotel in Sauce.

Sauce is locally famous for being located on the Laguna Azul (Blue Lake). There are grass roof Indian huts around the shore of the five mile lake. The village women are known for making their own paper. The tropical setting is highlighted by the calm water which is a comfortable 85 degrees. My motel room was small and clean with a thatched roof. There were screens on the windows but no glass. It is always a constant 70 degrees at night and 90 degrees during the day here.

At home my favorite kind of fish to eat is Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks. In Peru I learned to try new foods. For dinner I ate fish that were caught from the lake. I think I had Trout or Bass fillets. There are not any notorious man eating Piranhas in this lake. I had tried eating some of them during a previous tour. The palm size ones look and taste similar to American Blue Gills with a lot more bones and not much meat. The largest breed of fish in Peru are called Piraruca. They can be ten feet long and weigh 400 pounds. For comparison that is about twice the size of “Flipper” the TV Dolphin. One fish can feed 100 people a plate size fillet of tender white meat.

Tonight I sat on the deck of the open air restaurant eating my fish and overlooking the lake. The hotel owner said I was the first gringo (American or European person) he has seen in their town for over a year. The village of Sauce is truly a hidden paradise.

I took a new route back to Tarapoto that was a little shorter. I crossed the river on a different one car ferry. When I arrived at the river the empty boat was waiting on the bank. I was the only one around. There was not a ferry boat operator or any other people on my side of the river. All the people waiting for the ferry were on the other shore which was about 250 yards away. They must of thought I was the ferry boat captain because they all started waving and whistling for me come over and pick them up. I wasn’t going to attempt to take the ferry across the the fast current of the river. I just parked my bike and sat down to eat the oranges I bought in Sauce. After I had waited over an hour the shouts of the waiting passengers must have eventually been heard in the next village. The ferry driver came running over and took me across the river to the other side.

The narrow road leaving the ferry was as steep as a goat path and rutted with dry mud. I walked about one mile up the incline gaining 700 feet to the river bluff summit. It was 95-100 degrees and very humid too. Since I had waited so long at the ferry I was now out of water. My route had merged back into the road from yesterday. I remembered there was a crude roadside refreshment stand a few miles ahead. I paced myself while dreaming of a cold Coca-Cola.

When I arrived at the stand there were a half dozen women selling bottled drinks. The bottles were floating in five gallon pails of water. When I asked a women for a Coca Cola she pulled out a plastic Coke bottle filled with yellow liquid. She said “no is pina” (pineapple juice). They had been refilling old coke bottles with their own homemade fruit juice.

Normally I would have declined roadside beverages that were not in commercially sealed containers. Now I was still two hours from my hotel and feeling the effects of the heat and dehydration. I drank one pineapple juice bottle and it tasted so good I had another, then another. After three bottles of roadside juice I felt refreshed. The ride back to town was on a packed sand road that shimmered in the afternoon heat. It had only been a 32 mile ride but it had taken me over six hours including the wait at the ferry. Fortunately the hotel swimming pool was waiting for me.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Bike Ride in the Jungle

The next morning I began the 82 mile bike ride to the river town of Yurimaguas. The first fifteen miles I climbed a mountain road that was lined with waterfalls and ferns. Giant blue butterflies that were bigger than my hands fluttered beside me up the grade. The road was cut along hillside cliffs that gave expansive views of the jungle valley below. Patches of cool air drifted from the shadows of roadside canyons. At the top of the mountain I passed through a tunnel that began the descent into the lower jungle. The road was very rough with the remains of car size boulders poking their roof tops through the thin covering of loose stones. My bike shook and bounced like I was coasting down a continuous flight of stairs. My tape recorder bounced out of my shirt packet and landed in a mud puddle. I frantically tried to wipe it dry. I thought it was working again but later I listened to my recording and a found I had lost 20 minutes of tape. I did not have suspension on my mountain bike but I became a convert today.

I had started riding at 6:00 AM just when it was light enough to see. It was now 1:00 PM and I hadn’t been passed by any vehicles. For seven hours I was the only one on the road. I was really starting to think I was in the middle of nowhere. Eventually a car came up behind me. They stopped to see how I was doing. They told me the reason there was no traffic was that a truck had stalled going up the mountain and closed the one lane road. Gradually a dozen other cars passed me before I arrived in Yurimaguas. I still felt that I was alone most of the day.

Between all the bouncing on my bicycle seat and the three bottles of tainted fruit juice yesterday, my bowels were not feeling so good now. I had experienced the laxative effect of jungle juice on other tours and I knew I was in trouble today. Although my legs still felt strong enough to ride I now had to deal with the hourly urges of diarrhea.

Friday, January 12, 2007

On a Boat Down the Amazon

I rolled into the river town of Yurimaguas just before dark. I had to go down to the docks and find a boat for tomorrow. My boat was called the ”Madre Selva” (Mother of the Jungle). These riverboats in the jungle are similar to if Carnival Cruises combined with Humphrey Bogart and his “African Queen”. Most of these boats are thirty year old steel ferry style ships that could use a coat fresh paint to brighten them up a bit. There are usually three decks on the vessels. The lower deck is for bags of rice, bananas and cattle. The middle deck is a big open room for fifty passengers to hang hammocks for sleeping. The upper deck has five or six cabins on each side with a walkway out to the roof. The bathrooms for all decks is usually in the back of the boat with a squatter’s toilet that dumps directly into the river. My diarrhea was still reminding me to keep toilet paper and a bathroom close by.

I made reservations for a cabin so I could lock my gear inside and sleep on a cot. The cabin had bunk beds and I had plenty of room to store my bike on the upper bed. I had ridden a similar boat from Yurimaguas last year. The total trip would take forty hours to travel about 300 miles. Our boat might stop at thirty different villages to pick-up passengers and more bananas. Based on our 10:00 AM departure time I would be on the boat two full days and one full night. The boat should be arriving in Nauta by the second night. I would get off the boat there and start cycling the next morning to complete the remaining 65 miles into Iquitos. The boat cost $14 with two meals of chicken and rice per day.

There is something special about being on the river. I felt it the first time I was on an Amazon river boat three years ago. I have felt it every time since. The trees seem more green on the river bank. The clouds are more defined during the day and the stars are brighter at night. Everyone aboard is on a little floating island and we are all friends.

Since I was the only English speaking gringo on the boat I tried to make some new friends with the Spanish speaking passengers. The decks were filled with families and small children that were commuting to local villages along the river. I had brought along a Polaroid camera to take photos of the families. I would hangout on the lower deck of the boat and meet families that were sitting together. Most of the villagers do not have cameras or own photos of themselves. They are always eager to pose for a picture. After I gave them their new Polaroid photo they would all gather around and watch the picture develop like magic. Some of the people were curious about me and America. I would sit with them and draw pictures on my note pad of maps of the USA and skyscraper buildings in Chicago.

There was a TV set and VCR on the main deck. Each evening they show movies for nightly entertainment. The first movie was a Japanese made Kung Fu thriller. It was dubbed over in English then added Spanish subtitles. It was a pretty dumb movie but it was the first English speaking TV I had seen in two weeks. The second movie was another action flick that was even worse. I went to bed about 11:00 PM and I could still hear the movie car crashes on the loud TV. I must have fallen a sleep because I woke up at midnight and heard a very loud woman screaming...”Oh Yes...Oh Yes...Oh Yes”. I thought there must be another gringo woman on the boat having a moment of passion in the next cabin. My diarrhea was calling me and I walked to the bathroom. In the TV area they were watching an American XXX film without Spanish subtitles. I didn’t stay to watch but I expect the action didn’t need to be translated to explain the plot.

The next day was sunny and hot. Perfect weather for cruising down the river. The boat would steer from shore to shore trying to find the best river channel to follow. The rainy season would start next month and the river would double again in width. Even now the river was getting wider the further downstream we went. Some areas were so broad it looked like we were on a lake. The huts on the distant shore were barely visible. When we decided to dock at a village it caused a lot of excitement and all the people came out to line up along the riverbank. Sometimes a few passengers got off and a few got on. Our boat would unload some bags of rice and take on a bunch of bananas. The whole exchange would take only a minute with the boat barely coming to a stop.

There are as many varieties of bananas or platanos in Peru as there are apples in America. I only know two kinds of bananas at home; Chiquita and Dole, and they both look the same to me. In Peru there are at least six common types. Some are as small as your thumb or as large as Zucchini. Each kind is used for a different cooking dish. Some you can eat raw but most of them are served baked like a sweet potato or boiled in a soup. Restaurants serve fried and salted bananas that are sliced like french fries. They are not as sweet as American bananas. During our trip down the river our boat deck was stacked with a large selection of bananas.

During one of the longer stops I was able to get off the boat and walk along the riverbank. The local residents watched me curiously. I don’t think many gringos had ever stopped at their village. When I went to get back on the boat one of the men asked me in broken English if I wanted to stay and be the leader (mayor) of their village. I had to shake my head “No”. I barely spoke any Spanish and I knew even less about making a house from palm leaves or carving a dugout canoe. Their offer was generous but typical of the friendliness the local people showed toward me during my tour.

At 9:00 PM we first saw the small city of Nauta where I would get off the boat. I stood by the boat railing and viewed the distant lights reflecting off the Amazon River. The lights of the city made Nauta look like a metropolis in the jungle. I started packing up my gear and bicycle from my cabin. Since I didn’t need my cabin tonight I gave my room key to a mother with two small kids who had been sleeping on the floor of the main deck. The boat would continue through the night to the city of Iquitos which was seven hours down river. My diarrhea had now ended after three days of Imodium and Cipro pills. I always felt pretty strong and still had an appetite. I was going to be careful about drinking anymore fruit juice.

I got off the boat and walked along the rustic river dock into Nauta. The streetlights had attracted swarms of bugs around the lights. I noticed the flocks of huge bats swooping through the night. The bats had a wingspan of about twelve inches or the size of American pigeons. They were flying within a few inches of me but I could not hear their wings flapping. I was able to photograph them diving in front of my camera. The bats didn’t eat all the mosquitoes that night. I finally got my first mosquito bite in Peru after over two weeks in the jungle.

I found a hotel downtown on the city square (Plaza de Armas). There was a street festival promoting the upcoming elections. I walked over and watched the people dancing. The local politicians were handing out paper cups filled with a dark syrupy beverage. I didn’t try any but it had a strong molasses smell. The music was loud and continued past midnight. I went back to my hotel room overlooking the festival. Finally the music stopped and I could hear the dripping of a major rainstorm on the cement street.

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Off the Boat Into the Jungle

From Nauta to Iquitos is 65 miles by road and 100 miles by river. I had traveled both routes last year and I knew the old road was dirt and clay for the first twenty miles. From the amount of rain we had last night I expected a lot of mud on the road. The rains had stopped at sunrise. I waited until until 10:00 AM to depart and hoped that the road had dried out. Leaving Nauta I was surprised to find the road was under construction and being paved with asphalt. A road crew of at least 200 men were moving blacktop with wheel barrels and smoothing the tar and gravel with rakes. Another crew of men dragged wooden planks over the new asphalt to level the road.

Good paying organized jobs in Peru are scarce. Over 50% of workers over the age of 16 are self employed. That means they have jobs as street venders where they do not receive a monthly pay check or receive any insurance benefits. The other organized workers might only receive a minimum wage of $100 per month based on a 200 hour work schedule. I am sure most of the men working on the new road were fortunate to have a job paying $5 per day doing strenuous labor.

After two more miles of road construction the pavement ended. The dirt road began again into the jungle. I was able to follow the tire ruts that had been left by a bus last night. The ruts were so deep my bicycle pedals were hitting on the sides of the tire tracks. I decided to try riding on the grassy edge of the road but the mud was too soft. I started walking and pushing my bike as my shoes became covered with clumps of thick red clay. In the next two hours I had traveled six miles. I would ride and walk trying to find the best wheel track to follow. The mud was just the right consistency to stick to my knobby bike tires like cookie dough. The clay would ball up between my tires and bike frame and lock my wheels every few revolutions. I carried a small stick to clean my wheels but I was spending more time cleaning off mud than riding.

At my current rate of speed I still had several more hours of mud riding to go. I wouldn’t get into Iquitos until after dark. I found that riding in the water puddles was actually better. The water kept the mud from sticking to my tires. My front tire would slide, and my rear tire would spin, but I was able to keep moving. The afternoon sun was now starting to dry the clay into a solid crust. The edge of the road was firm and fast again and I began making better time. When I reached the pavement I knew I could make it to Iquitos before dark. For the next 45 miles my knobby tires hummed at 18 mph. I had finished the cycling portion of my tour without any serious mechanical or physical problems.

I arrived at the Baltizar Hotel downtown at 5:00 PM. They charged me $11 a night for a room with air conditioning. I got a bucket of water and disassembled my bike for a thorough cleaning. I used the remaining spray from my WD-40 lubricant to give my red bike frame a shiny polishing. The old bike looked pretty good again. Now it was time to find my old friends in Iquitos.

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Dinner and Elections

A few nights ago I was downtown in the Plaza de Armas. A young woman in a wheel chair came up to me selling penny candy. She was dressed in dirty clothes and a small ten year old boy was pushing her. The boy spoke some English and we began talking about their life in the city. They both live in the Belem Ghetto about a mile away. They come downtown to sell candy to get enough money for food. The woman’s name is Daisy and the boy is Jesus. I think Daisy has polio in her legs but she can use her arms a little.

I asked them if they were hungry and they said they hadn’t eaten today. I said “let’s go across the street to Aires Burger”’s the nice tourist cafe with the Rock'n’ Roll theme. When we rolled Daisy up to the door the guards didn’t know what to say. The guards are supposed to keep the local street people out of the restaurant. I assured the guards that Daisy and Jesus were with me for dinner.

When we rolled Daisy up to a table everyone in the restaurant did a double take looking at her. I could tell she was excited to be eating there. We all had the roast chicken and rice special for $2 a plate. We had enough extra food that Jesus and Daisy took a large doggie bag back home to their families.

We decided to meet again for dinner the next night. I was waiting in the city park for Daisy and a couple of ugly prostitutes walk up to me and start talking in Spanish. I could tell what they wanted so I decided to some have fun with them by negotiating prices. I was trying to convince them that they should be paying me since I was a tall, green eyed American man. I kept stalling and said I was waiting for my girlfriend.

Just when they were demonstrating how good they were in bed, Daisy and Jesus roll up with her wheelchair. I got up and gave Daisy a kiss on her cheek and told the whores that Daisy was my girlfriend. The timing of the moment was perfect and the expression on the women’s faces was priceless as I pushed Daisy over to Aries Burger.

Daisy had put on clean clothes and eye make-up. She actually looked pretty good. She did not look out of place at a nice restaurant this time. During the next few nights I would have dinner again with Daisy.

Next Sunday is the big national election in Peru. There have been pep rallies every night in each town I have visited. Lots of marching bands and street dances until after midnight. The reason the elections are such a big deal in Peru is that everyone has to vote. If you do not vote, you don’t get your National Card updated (like a drivers license renewal). If you don’t have a current National Card you can’t use the bank, post office or any national service.

I had my photo taken with one of the candidates for state governor named “July”. I think she was a former stripper or something and is campaigning as kind of a joke. She was dressed in a tight tank top and short pants. She gave me a t-shirt with her picture on it. All the candidates give out lots of t-shirts. I think that is how most of the village people get new clothes. Everyone is always wearing political t-shirts. The candidates also pay home owners to paint their houses with campaign slogans. It is common for houses in good locations to be totally covered with political names

Joisi's Baby

Last year I met a street entertainer who was dressed as a clown. His name was ”Augustine”. He spoke some English so I always looked forward to asking him questions about street life in the city. Augustine introduced me to his girlfriend Joisi who was a 17 year old street vender selling lemonade nearby. During my stay in Iquitos I bought a drink from Joisi and her mother everyday. They invited me over to their house and I eventually got to know their whole family. Joisi’s father is in the military and he has five children ages five to seventeen. They live in a shatty house without running water or indoor sewer.

Now...a year later, I went to their house to see Joisi and Augustine. Joisi’s mom and dad were home. I stumbled with my awkward Spanish to ask how their family was doing. We communicated by drawing pictures on my sketch pad. Joisi came home a short time later and and I was surprised to see she was eight months pregnant. Joisi hasn’t completed much schooling. She is almost illiterate and can barely draw her name on a piece of paper. Trying to communicate with her by showing her words in a dictionary is useless. I learned that sometimes the most complex emotions are communicated more clearly by a frown, hand gesture or expressions.

I foolishly asked her...”Joisi and Augustine matrimonial” (got married).

She shook her head... “No”.

Then I asked... “Who is the papa” ...while pointing to her stomach.

She said... “Augustine”.

“Where is Augustine”... I asked.

Joisi made a gesture with her hand like an airplane flying up to the sky.

“Augustine to Lima”...she said.

Her father joined in... “Augustine no good” ...while making a hand gesture of cutting his own throat.

I could tell from their faces they were happy for the new baby but sad and raged that Joisi was alone.

“What is baby’s name?”... I asked.

Joisi pointed at me... “Baby Lon”

I didn’t know if I should feel embarrassed, surprised or honored.

“Why no baby Augustine?” ...I asked

Joisi wrinkled her nose and shook her head no... “Me no like Augustine.”

I tried to tell Joisi that I thought Juan Carlos might be a better name for her baby.

She tapped the side of her head and motioned she would...“Think about it”.

I could tell Joisi’s family didn’t have money for new clothes or things for the baby. I asked them if they wanted to go shopping for baby clothes at the market store downtown. Joisi thought that would be fine. Her twelve year old sister came with us and we took a moto taxi into the city.

The three of us began walking along the crowded sidewalks of the shopping district. Joisi would stop at baby clothing displays. I would dawdle and do “the guy thing”, and stand around and look dumb. The store clerks would look down at Joisi’s stomach, then look up at me. Then point at say... “Oh you papa”. I would shake my head...“No”. Joisi would say... “Si”...(yes). I frowned at Joisi but she wanted a father for her baby. This accusation would be repeated by shop owners as we went from store to store. We spent $20 on various baby undershirts, sleepers and shampoo. Joisi was going to have her baby a few weeks after I left Iquitos. I don’t know if she had a boy or girl. Or what she chose for the baby’s name.

I had a night flight from Iquitos to Lima, then back home to the United States. At noon I went swimming at the lagoon resort near the zoo. It was a hot 95 degree day and the water was very warm. This is the place I would like to end our bike tour on the edge of town. It would be a fun place to have an afternoon picnic and swim after a hot day of riding.

The restaurant there was making grilled Alligator Fillets and Grub Worms on a stick. The grubs are about the size of your thumb. They have a thick crispy coating with lots of spice. They crunch like cheetos corn curls from the mini mart. The alligator is actually very good. Like a stringy chicken meat with a smoked flavor. I would eat it again.

I started to get my things packed to come home. I had to buy two duffel bags to store the souvenirs I bought here. This was a good tour and I accomplished my scouting goals. Our group of American cyclists will return next November to ride the best routes and stay at the best hotels during our expedition. We will have our own guides and vehicles to keep everyone safe. I still want to offer Americans the chance to get to know the local people who make traveling interesting. Peru has so many beautiful areas to visit and explore, but it will be the people I have met that I will remember most.