PERU PART 3: Then everything went to shit

Tom left in the usual grey, sad, overcast Lima weather, his bike box in the back of a cab, me crying more than is appropriate. I had gotten used to having him with me for a month and for a brief time forgot that it was temporary. We danced in the kitchen, tears and the smell of coffee filling the air, and said our goodbyes.

I got on the bus back to Huaraz where I had left my bike. The guy next to me didn’t take my puffy face as a hint and kept trying to talk to me in Spanish and Quechuan, which was especially hard since he was partially deaf. I pretended to be asleep and counted down the hours of the forever drive.

Arriving at 10pm, I Walked down the dark alley to the hostel and immediately felt vulnerable and very alone in the way that only a female at night in that situation can. I had gotten used to my male companion and almost forgot this feeling and need for awareness, even though I’ve mostly felt very safe in Peru.

September 22 and 23: The next few days I reorganized and headed out towards the Pastoruri glacier. Then my rear derailleur failed and I had to return to Huaraz. What had taken almost two days of riding uphill took about 2.5 hours returning! I checked into a different, better, hostel, dropped my bike off at the shop, and bought oranges to fend off the cold I could feel was approaching.

Naivete. Historically I can fend off colds with rest, soup, and fruits. I take a day off work in the beginning and nip it in the bud. Not this time. I had feverish dreams about the characters in my book (in this case the Obama family from Michelle Obama’s very good book Becoming), and woke up to googling symptoms of strep throat. I went to the clinic, resting my feverish cheeks on the cold metal bars of the window for relief, as the lady explained they were all full today but I could make an appointment for tomorrow. I could also go to the hospital but the wait was long and it was expensive. It’s hard to understand Spanish when you can barely stand up. Then I remembered that often you can get antibiotics over the counter in Latin America. Probably not great for world health, but I got myself penicillin (penicillina en español), and went back to bed to sleep, sweat, and feel sorry for myself.

I was heartachey, with a broken bike, and so sick I couldn’t even get myself a popsicle. I had been sick plenty on this trip, and the other times were more painful but this was more pathetic. I tried to get a popsicle but I couldn’t make it farther than a block so had to turn around and go back.

Day 2 of strep, The bike shop called and said my bike was ready and they were closed for a few days so I had to come and get it. Being vertical was hard. I was skeptical about the repair so I put it in the stand to see for myself. it wasn’t fixed at all, so I tried to work on it, using their tools, troubleshooting and problem solving until they closed and I took the bike and just went back to bed. Like I said- pathetic.

The only good thing about being sick for an entire week was that I read a lot and subscribed to the New York Times, mainly so I could read the science articles and save their recipes from the cooking section. I finished Becoming, Mario Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes which really captures parts of Peruvian mountain culture in a way that I never could. The suspiciousness Of outsiders, the hard scrabble existence, the intelligence but lack of formal education. Then I started Turn right at Machu Pichu by Mark Adams.

Days went by as my fever slowly reduced and I got hooked on new Netflix series. I talked to my medical consultant, my dear friend (Gina Bauer!) and felt confident in my dr-google-self-diagnosis of strep. I know you’re not supposed to do that but given the circumstances I’m not sure what else I was supposed to do. Recovery slowly unfurled.

Finally I headed back up the mountain. On the way I saw Puya raimondii trees which I had been looking forward to!! These plants are in the Bromeliaceae family and are the tallest members of the family at 15m! They are also known as the Queen of the Andes. They are native to the Peruvian and Bolivian puna (high altitude plains)

I also got to see Azorella compacta (yareta or llareta ). A plant with very dense, closely growing “leaves” that look soft but are actually spiky like a toothpick! The leaves reduce heat and water loss in a freezing environment. It can also get to be over 3,000 years old. I love thinking of these Azorella and the Sequioa sempervirens (Redwoods) growing at the same time in completely opposite ways and environments before the Bible was written.

For the record, I don’t think climbing to a glacier at 16,000’ in the hail on your 6th out of 10 days of antibiotics is the best road to recovery. But there I was, just anxious to get out of bed. I would be so embarrassed if I got bed sores while on a bike trip. I camped near the glacier, because that’s where I was when it got dark. That wasn’t the plan but what else is new. I made tea and slept with my tent pitched under an awning at an empty visitors center while the snow lightly swirled.

I woke up early to a gentle white frosting and hiked the 1-mile loop to the glacier. The glacier used to be SO MUCH BIGGER. There’s photos from where people could walk on it a mile before you can even see it now. They started calling this road the “climate change route” and it’s easy to see why. Some scientists say that Pastoruri might not even classify as a glacier anymore because it doesn’t have a zone of accumulation, it’s just melting. Which saddens me immensely.

The pure, tranquil, icy and white surroundings were just so crisp and cold and tranquil, like a glass lake surface but in the air. My heavy breathing and the beating of a few birds’ wings were the only pulses breaking the still air. The clouds were low but the sight of the glacier had me transfixed, numb toes and all.

After hiking and talking to the few locals that appeared, I bike towards Huallanca over another pass. High above tree line with no shelter, snow and hail started coming in sideways stinging my face terribly. I pulled my wool buff up but then my glasses fog up. I kept stopping to warm my number feet even as I was climbing, Which is sort of crazy! there’s nothing to do but keep moving forward. The altitude made me Sleepy and I was out of coca leaves. When I made it to the “top” I didn’t know that my troubles had just begun.

The descent was long and the coldest of my Life. And I have had many frigid descents for comparison. Years ago, Tom and I decided to celebrate one year of dating by doing a 50-mile loop near Hayfork, CA. It poured down rain and the temperature dropped 20 degrees, leaving me in tears on the long downhill and unable to pull my brake levers. That time I was saved by a grumpy man in a closed bar with a wood stove. But that’s another story- We ended up calling it “the worst ride ever,” and this day of my trip- was more painful than that.

Hail turned to snow and snow turns to rain and gravel turns to pavement and the switchbacks continue. I had wanted the descent for hours and now that it was here I just wanted it to end my riding-inside-a-freezer experience. Near the bottom I see a restaurant, the first building Of the day. It looks like that abandoned-restaurant scene from the goonies but I knock on the door. Nothing. I knock again, voices. I knock again. Two ladies come out and I ask for something hot, anything hot, and they show me to a small cooking fire outside and I just let it all out- the broken heart of missing my husband, the broken derailleur, the altitude fatigue, the questions of hypothermia, the immense pain in my hands and feet- I start really crying. Luckily they seem to understand and they leave me alone. My hands have come back from numbness and near-frostbite many times in my reynauds-cursed adventures, but this was the worst. I was staring at them thinking “what is happening?!” As I tried to warm them by the fire slowly.

After about an hour I return to reasonable mindset and apologize for crying, (they just said “solita! And patted my hand, I don’t think they even noticed the tears). My socks, gloves, and shoes are dry. God bless these wonderful ladies. They bring me tea and fed me rice. I could have cried again in gratitude but held it back. Enough is enough.

You’re just so vulnerable when you’re out in the elements like that. Sure you can pitch a tent and hunker down any time but when you’re at such high altitude you just need to get lower and recover. Plus you never know if it’s going to snow more or not.

I made it to Huallanca the town, which was fine, loud, and dry. I made myself hot chocolate on my camp stove in my hostel room, put my sleeping bag under the bed covers, and went to sleep at 6pm.

From Huallanca I pedaled to La Union, with a soul-rejuvenating sunny downhill along a river valley then a gradual climb up another valley, both with almost no traffic and ample scenery. Steep paved switchbacks out of La Union had me feeling strong for the first time in ages, and I motored onto Baños. Green hillsides and glacier-carved u-shaped valleys with nothing but cows and a handful of people had me stunned and giggling at my good fortune. That evening I dodged a hailstorm as it made all the racket on the metal roofs literally as I walked into another hostel in the town of Baños. I had been missing camping but then reconsidered. The next day I had another glorious ride to Laguna Lauricocha. Again Steep switchbacks and gorgeous remote views- Things were looking up.

There are a series of lagunas that each drain into each other as you climb up the pass near Cerro Condorsenja, and each one has its own hue of blue. Again I had the road mostly to myself until I neared the top where there was a mining operation. Someone must have especially trained these workers because Peru drivers are the craziest most terrifyingly unpredictable creatures I have ever observed, and these guys would full-on stop and wait for me to pass. It was amazing. But it was also a challenging muddy steep climb, again at altitude. I had woken that morning feeling sleepy and wanting to pull a Rip van Winkle of my own and sleep for 1,000 years. Eyelids halfway open, I inched near the 15,700 ft (4770m) top, bike skipping gears and me occasionally cussing.

The descent brought back the smiles, as I was again eye-level with glaciers and snow capped peaks, through meadows and switch backs and my increasing appetite for something savory (all I had was Nutella and stale bread), had me on a one track mind.

On the side of the road was a group of ladies sitting in a circle. They offered me trucha a la plancha (grilled trout), which they were selling in pre-packaged plates to everyone who drove by. I hesitated in my fuzzied brain state and finally sat down with them. Their accents were hard to understand but they asked the usual questions. Grandmothers, moms, and kids running around, they were shocked, even more than most, that I was married but did not have kids. Like most others, they insisted on taking a picture with me as if I was a celebrity. I took a more candid picture of them, and it reminded me of my aunts and mom sitting around a big table rolling grape leaves (a Lebanese dolma but with ground beef and rice). I was happy again. Tired, but happy.

That afternoon the last uphill gravel section into Oyon just about did me in when the headwinds picked up. I arrived at 5:30, fairly shattered and had to go to 4 hostels before finding one open. It gets dark at 6:15 so time was pressing. It’s a small thing but when you’re exhausted searching for a hostel is like another mountain to climb. At dinner I ordered two entrees and the staff stared at me wondering if I was actually going to eat them both. Sometimes waitresses will bring me two forks for my meal or two cups for my drink and I’m like “do you see anyone else here? Yeah, it’s just me”

Another loud night left me borderline sleepless despite the comfy bed. People were coming and going all night, knocking on the door and ringing the doorbell. I still don’t understand that- I know Peruvians have a different relationship with noise but I also think there is a different relationship to sleep. there truly is no thought to the fact that some people are sleeping at 2,3,4 am, and some of those people might not want to wake up to loud noises. I’ve even had hotel owners yelling in the middle Of the night. It’s exasperating! but the people are also always charming and kind.

From Oyon I had an incredibly enjoyable descents of my life on the road, with only 3 trucks passing for almost 20 miles! I descended down into mesquite and cactus and yellow flowers which was such a shock after the previous day’s’ snow. Peru is amazing. Maybe everything wasn’t going badly after all. A gradual gravel climb in the sun and heat had me feeling strong again as I pulled into Chiuchin, a small town with hot springs. I had decided to take a day off here, full of the usual laundry, phone calls, blog writing, reading. My stomach was a little funky, but I went to sleep hoping it would sort itself out.

Morning came and I felt dizzy and weak standing to brush my teeth, so I decided to stay put. Well I didn’t really decide, since I could barely stand up. Is everything going to trash after all? Am I strong enough for this trip? This adventure? Can I proceed with all this illness ? Is the universe trying to tell me something? I don’t want to quit. I really don’t. I miss my family but I don’t want to go home. I just need a little more strength, on all levels. If everything goes to junk I will still try to persevere.

I was in bed all day and then ANOTHER DAY with more stomach pain and weakness. I made myself read more than watch Netflix so my brain doesn’t totally rot away and called my awesome stepdaughter Riley on her 18th birthday, October 10.

Pedaling toward the glacier

I met Brian on the way, we camped together at the visitors center but he continued when I returned to Huaraz.

Puya raymondi!!


September 16: 0 miles, Huaraz

September 17: 0 miles, bus Huaraz-Lima

September 18: 0 miles, Lima

September 19: 0 miles, Lima

September 20: 0 miles, Lima

September 21: 0 miles, bus Lima-Huaraz

September 22: 0 miles, Errands in Huaraz

September 23: 26 miles, 2500 ft up

September 24: 8 miles, 1700 ft up

September 25: 35 miles, mostly downhill

September 26: 0 miles, strep day 1

September 27: 0 miles, strep day 2

September 28: 0 miles, strep day 3

September 29: 0 miles, strep day 4

September 30: 0 miles, strep day 5

October 1: 0 miles, strep day 6

October 2: visitor center – Postruri Glacier;13 miles, 3,000 ft up

October 3: Glacier- Huallanca; 35 miles, 1500 ft up, maybe 4000 for down

October 4: Huallanca- Baños; 65 km/40 mi. a lot of up and then down

October 5: Baños- Lagunas; 50km/35 mi, 1500m up, some down

October 6: Laguna Taulicocha- Oyón; 35 mi, 3200 ft up

October 7: Oyón- Chiuchin; 33 mi, a lot of silly road down and then gravel road up.

October 8: 0 miles, Chiuchin rest day

October 9: 0 miles, Chiuchin sick day 1

October 10: 0 miles, Chiuchin sick day 2

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