We have retired from our short careers as adventure motorcycle tour guides and are blissfully back to being grubby, unemployed drifters. On our own now we headed for Lima taking the long way as we followed the spine of the Andes north. We stayed at elevation and hopped from one tiny hamlet to the next. We gave the gringo trail a wide berth as we took a 1,300-mile detour just for the hell of it.
Thirty miles from Huancavelica we got fleeced for the first time since leaving Seattle. And, we are still pondering why this was okay in a bizarre way.
The highway we had been following that afternoon turned from great to becoming a hot mess of never ending road construction, dust, mud, heavy truck traffic, and sections of closed road every ten miles or so. As is the custom when stopped for road construction a long line of vehicles builds up behind the flagger holding the stop sign. We all wait. Finally the line of vehicles coming from the opposite direction clears the road then our group gets the ok to go. The talc like dust was unbearable and visibility was near zero. We dropped back behind the pack so we could at least see and breath a little and carried on this way for mile after mile. It was getting late in the day, we still had a long way to go, and we were informed at the last stop that the road works wouldn’t end until we reached Huancavelica. Suck it up buttercup.
We approached a desolate mud brick village typical on these remote, high altitude expanses of rock, ice, and alpine grasses. This is a place of grinding poverty and a brutal subsistence life in a land that is always cold and never easy. Maybe two hundred people lived here and it was a place without cheer.
In the middle of the road three men stood out from the rest of the villagers and obviously did not live here as evidenced by the orange suits and hard-hats, the uniform of the road construction workers. As our parade of vehicles made their way through the village with us at the rear, one of the road workers stepped into our path and placed an orange cone in our way. The gringos had just been culled from the herd. We were the only vehicles stopped and there was no one behind us so we shut off the engines and lifted our helmet visors. All activity in the fly-blown hamlet ceased and we became the focus of all attention. A crowed formed in open-mouthed gawking wonder at the alien space crafts now stopped in their midst.
The obvious boss of the road workers had body language like a neon sign as he swaggered over to me as I sat on my bike. The arrogance and douche-baggery came off him in rippling waves. He leaned on my bike, started messing with the switches on my handlebars, and demanded a cigarette. When I offered him one of the cheap, local brand cigarettes I had with me he turned up his nose and complained because they weren’t lucky strikes. But grudgingly he took one anyway and made me feel like I should be apologizing for something.
He asked how much the motorcycle costs, the GPS, the clothes on my back, and even my boots. In trade for this information I asked him how long we would have to wait and thirty minutes was the reply. We would barely make our destination by dark but our day was still doable and turning around wasn’t an option.
King Shit next took interest in my metal panniers and asked if there was food inside, he wanted me to give him food. This guy had never missed a meal in his life and he had the belly to prove it. Of course I lied and denied any knowledge of sustenance on my bike.
I stopped engaging, broke eye contact, and pretended to pick at a thread on my leather glove. He kicked my front tire so hard the bike wobbled and he walked back to his orange cone of power in the middle of the road. After a half hour had passed we were still the only people at the road block. I tried a new tactic and engaged one of the other road workers. He made some calls on his radio and said it would be fifteen more minutes. Every time I made a glance at King Shit he put his hand to his mouth in the universal sign to “give me some food”.
The crowd consisted of unhealthy, dirty children with runny noses and crusty eyes. A woman in layers of pleated skirts, multiple sweaters, and a jaunty bowler hat yelled angrily in our general direction and was ignored by everyone. The rest of the gathering were the teenage boys and men of the area. They asked questions about us, our bikes, and were absolutely mesmerized by the touch screen GPS and the switch that turned the headlights on and off.
Fifteen minutes had passed with lots of chatter on the radio so I asked the normal flagger how much longer. He did not get to answer as King Shit once again swaggered over and leaned into me so close I could feel his breath on my face. He smiled like a used car salesman. He cheerfully chirped in Spanish “two more hours”. Two more hours would be past sunset and the thought of riding this abysmal road in the dark was horrifying. Staying in this village was not an option either. No hostel, no store, and the kind of poverty that gives people funny ideas about rich Americans on fancy motorcycles. It didn’t vibe us a safe place to stay the night.
I asked for him to clarify his mistake. No mistake, two more hours. I crossed the moral threshold and asked him what I would need to do to speed up the process. He said for 10 soles (US$3) he could pull some strings and get us on our way. He then clarified that the money was for the rag-tag children all around us and not for himself. BULLSHIT.
Shannon was livid and demanded the orange cone of power be moved out of the road and us rolling before money changed hands. He said no. Pay and then shortly after you can go. I forked over the money.
King Shit walked away and disappeared into a dark doorway of a mud brick building. When he came out, ten minutes later, a teenage girl followed him carrying a bouquet of grilled hotdogs on sticks and yet another person brought out a large bag full of apricots. And, like Jesus pulling loaves and fish from his basket, King Shit fed all those kids hotdogs and everyone got fruit. I was shocked how much food ten soles bought in this village. Seeing the joy that hot food gave the children was worth ten times what I paid but the anger of how this deal went down still stung. We were left in a state of conflicting emotion. Soon after the crowd had finished eating we sat with our engines running and demanded the road be opened to us. The toll had been paid and we had a deal. And, guess what? around the bend of the road in front of us came a parade of vehicles coming from the opposite direction. The cone was moved to let them pass and after they were gone we were free to go. The road was never going to be closed for two more hours only long enough to let the oncoming traffic pass. Now it was King Shit’s turn to not make eye contact. This is a strange and wonderful life and in the end I am glad those kids got fed.
We continued north for the next two weeks without hindrance or trouble and only saw kindness, beauty, and adventure as we wandered through the Andes. We did dangerous mountain dirt roads as well as smooth new paved highways. We touched glaciers and passed through areas where tourists rarely go. Our momentum carried us as far north as Canon de Pato (Duck Canyon) before we turned south once again and made our way to Lima.