The trees rustled in the wind as a young monkey played in the boughs. Lounging in a hammock near the Amazonian town of Tena, Ecuador, I marveled at the creature above. My biggest wish at that moment was to hold that monkey. It would be the pinnacle of happiness.
A branch snapped and the monkey tumbled a few feet down the hill. Springing up he scampered over to a neighboring hammock and swung in gracefully. Maybe he thought it was a better bet than the thin tree he had been playing on, or maybe he was just looking for some company, but I could barely believe he was so close. I held my hand out, not expecting anything to happen, but grabbing it, he lept into my lap in one quick jump, put his long arms around my waist, and immediately snuggled into my body. I could feel his little hands squeezing my sides tenderly. “Is this really happening?” I said aloud to Justin, frozen for a second in disbelieve. I didn’t know what to do, so cradling him like a baby, I laid gingerly back down on the hammock. He sat up, delicately rolled my t-shirt up with his long, slender fingers, exposing the warm skin of my stomach, and snuggled in again. A few times I pulled my shirt down, and he’d immediately sit up to carefully roll it up again.
He stayed with us for almost an hour, sometimes napping, sometimes playing, very gently nibbling on my shirt, ear or fingers, or picking through my hair with his human like hands. His mysterious big brown eyes would sometimes wander up to my own, staring at me intently and calmly. The wilder monkeys hooted and called from nearby trees, much bigger and looking ferocious.
Taking a bus to Lima from Huaraz the second week of May, I picked up Ash from the airport and rode the nauseating 7 hour bus back to Huaraz after spending the night in the beautiful Miraflores neighborhood of Lima, reminding me so much of Melbourne. After months of riding my own motorcycle, being a passenger would have been unbearable if Ash and I didn’t have so much catching up to do, distracting me from the lurching bus and speedy hairpin turns. I was so happy she was with me. We had much to discuss. Wedding and bridesmaid dresses, flowers, invitations, cake, food, guest list and the music selection for her September wedding. One real regret on this trip is not being home to help her plan and prepare. I just had a dream I was in charge of the music, but could only get the Lion King soundtrack to play as she prepared to walk down the aisle (Ash, if you’re reading this, it was a terrible nightmare so please don’t put me on music duty!).
The next morning we set out on her first South American adventure. She had plenty of experience riding around Europe with me, but this time she was on her own bike in an even more foreign place. The keys to the Storm had been passed off by Tom, and she was both excited and nervous. She knew the driving conditions in Peru were perilous and that constant attention to the road needed to be maintained.
For the next week Peru introduced her to the glorious world of off-roading and insane Latin American driving. And she loved it. We have a bad habit of having motorcycles break down on us when we’re together though, so by the time we made it to Chiclayo on the Peruvian coast, and were just about to head into 200km of barren desert, my bike started stalling and we could go no further. Within a couple of hours, we had made it to a bus station, boarded the bus with motorcycles in the cargo hold below, and were on our way to Mancora, via Piura where I left both bikes to get serviced, and a new magneto for mine.
We spent the next couple of days catching up and relaxing on Peru’s most famous beach before she had to head back to the States.
The day after she left Justin arrived and we spent the next 8 days blasting through some of the most glorious rural roads of the entire trip, 1300km to Quito, following the western edge of the Amazon. The lush jungle beckoned, river crossings were plentiful, and steep muddy roads tested out our skills. An experienced mountain biker and world adventurer, Justin gave me a run for my money. His glorious pictures tell the story much better than I can.
With Tom’s departure came the arrival of Ashley, Justin and Adam, three incredible friends who coordinated and made the time to come see me northwards through Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Arriving in Colombia marked 20,000kms from Santiago de Chile to Ushuaia, and then back north all the way to the Darien Gap, the gateway to Central America and home.
The last month has been a whirlwind of friends and adventure, with some moments I’ll never forget. Ashley and I off-roading in Canyon de Pato, Justin and I befriending a monkey in the woods, and Adam and I motorcycling with a local police squadron. The experiences are so diverse and overwhelming that I barely know where to start, so please enjoy these photos while I compile my thoughts, stories and photos.
A dunk in the river, and a friend to help me out. I didn’t know if I wanted Justin to come save me, or take a picture of me and bike half submerged.
Not very confidence inspiring…
Rice paddies in Peru
A warm welcome to Ecuador!
Followed by a very muddy ride, one of the best of the whole trip
Thanks for the fabulous pictures, Justin!
The tunnel was dank, dark and toxic. I sloshed through deep water that glowed an unnatural putrid neon green; the color made when combining piss, explosive residues and heavy metals. The air stunk of sulfur and arsenic, and psychedelic green and yellow crystals formed themselves in patches on the rock. Something told me I shouldn’t touch them. It’s been estimated that over a million people have died in these tunnels, slaves and free men alike. I was in Potosi, Bolivia’s Cerro Rico silver mine, and it was hell on earth.
A kilometer into the mountain two teenage miners labored all day with no food, no visible source of water, only coca leaves- the raw product used in the production of cocaine. A medicinal plant widely used in Bolivia and Peru, the miners, and even the guides, still believe it helps filter the toxic dust they ingest with every breath. This isn’t work for the weak. When an older miner dies, his son takes his place. Boys as young as 12. They earn as little as 200 Bolivianos a month ($30USD), and occasionally strike it rich. It’s a lottery game, where only an early death is a certainty.
Above ground, the miners believe in God and pray to the Virgin Mary, but down here, the Devil is their God. The guide explained it like this: to the miners, there are two worlds: the woman’s world, the one of light and air and God, the Pachamama. Below ground is the realm of man and masculinity and devil, and wherever you are, you must appeal to the God of that territory.
We crawled along, sometimes on hands and knees and below cracked beams, choking and sputtering, and entered the Devil’s filthy shrine: a rancid smell hung in the air, a smell of death, decay, cigarettes, and chewed up coca leaves. Made of clay, he had long curling horns and a monstrous penis pointed towards the intruder. I couldn’t tell if he was laughing or crying. Gaping soot-filled mouth and nose and black eyes that wept ash, he held his hands out, greedy for the offerings the poor minors would leave behind, praying for him to spare their lives and give them prosperity. Alcohol, cigarettes, coca leaves, little colored flags and banners, the carcass of a lamb fetus. None of it mattered- the life expectancy for a miner is between 45-55 years of age, before his shredded lungs give out, the result of years of heavy labor while breathing in arsenic and lead-filled dust. I coughed uneasily as another group went by wearing protective masks, and wondered why we hadn’t been given any.
It was Easter Sunday.
A sea of white extended as far as the eye could see, pierced here and there with brown mountains far in the distance. Patterns like on a turtle’s back covered the salt crust and glimmered in the desert sun; The Uyuni Salt Flat was immense. We had been warned not to ride in too far because of the proven risk of becoming lost and never finding our way out, but it was tempting nonetheless. A plaque near the edge commemorated the various parties that had died in that vast empty space. Without a GPS, we wandered the periphery, keeping sight of cacti dotting the land.
The ride through Bolivia started in Villazon, on the border with Argentina. From Tupiza we took a dirt road leading northwest to Uyuni, 200kms away, with the worst corrugation I’ve experienced so far. We were on the altiplano, and within the first 50kms I felt sick, dizzy and migrained. Tom was ahead and out of sight, but I pulled over and sat in the dirt anyway, cradling my head. He quickly noted my absence, returned and wrapped me in the tarp like a taco. I fell asleep in the shade and warmth of my plastic blanket. He woke me up later in the afternoon, and feeling much refreshed, we struggled on.
We made it to the next town and had the option of two equally dumpy hotels, but at $3 bucks each, it was hard to complain – but not impossible. There was no heater, no shower, no flushing toilet, and no curtains. I covered the bare window with the scarf given to me by a student before my trip, and slept 14 hours beneath 50lbs of woolen blankets.
Bolivia is a land of women in brightly colored knee-length skirts and bowler hats; a custom picked up from the colonial days in Latin America. With shawls wrapped around their frames, they carry rainbow bundles tight to their backs. If you look closely, you’ll often see the sleeping face of a baby.
On our way to Potosi, via another 200km of winding mountain roads, my bike suffered the same altitude sickness as I, and could only crawl along at 40km/h. Riding until dark, we saw lighting clouds approaching and pulled into a rural village where a small store offered lodging. Our room had three beds, concrete floors and a poster of a half naked lady on the wall (this was even worse than the Barbie poster at the hotel in Villazon). It was a rough night, and was like sleeping on the corrugated road of a couple days before. The bed was hard as a rock, with lumps running the width of the “mattress” right at the shoulder, hip and knees.
Daybreak came too soon, and with it, a huge family party gathered in the patio outside our room. Children ran around shouting and screaming, catching bunnies and kittens that had suddenly appeared for Easter festivities, grandmas in funny hats cooked enormous quantities of rice, meats and corn in ceramic pots on an outside mud oven, someone slaughtered the goat Tom had seen munching the hay, and all around people were sitting and chatting. By the time I emerged, the goat carcass was hung up and bleeding over a couple kids’ bicycles.
And in the middle of it all, two gringos rubbed the sleep out of their eyes and wondered where they were.