Running on empty

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

Running on empty
December 10, 1997

From Lima we pedaled into
the great wide open
For the past three days we have been climbing from the beaches of Lima to this moment — the Conocoha Pass at 13,500 feet. Bill is cycling about 20 feet in front of me but I can't see or hear him for the clouds have swallowed both of us and the rain is thundering against my raincoat, deafening me. The feeling of accomplishment has overwhelmed us both as we hug at the top of the pass.

It had not been an easy three days of climbing. They were full of complaining, tears, massive fights, and throwing of panniers onto the road. Threats that I'd had it, I'm going home were at least once an hour. Camped during the nights I would have dreams about different ways to get me up this pass: Maybe if I held onto a truck bumper it would pull me up, or maybe a donkey? Where can I find a donkey?

At one point the road got so bad that Bill took some of my gear to lighten my load and rigged a harness-like pulley to the back of his bike and claimed he was going to pull me up. He was serious. I considered it, but I'd rather complain.

After making the top we hugged and kissed. All the painful memories somehow disappeared and we talked only of the gorgeous mountain views we had and what a great experience it was. Funny how accomplishment makes you forget the all the pain.

The clouds cleared to show us the mountain lake at the top of this altiplano-like landscape — a lavender splash of color in the lime green and yellow pampa. A reward for all our effort. As soon as it appeared it disappeared and we felt special for getting a glimpse of it.

The thunder roared above our heads as we began our descent. My legs and lungs gave out on the first tiny uphill that hit. After three days with seven straight hours of climbing I could go no more. I pushed my bike to where Bill was and he understood all to well.

As if out of nowhere a Peruvian man in a weathered poncho and old gangster hat stood strong, steady and timeless, offering us shelter from the storm that seemed not to effect him in anyway. We humbly accepted.

Our bikes seemed out of place against the adobe hut. Berta Turbiaga, the beautiful woman of the house, wearing 10 colored skirts and a huge white top hat, shooed out the sheep and the chickens from inside and we entered into a world that few gringos ever see.

We felt honored to be so welcomed. We tried not to seem so interested in what was inside, but we couldn´t help but ask about everything. They also felt the same way and wanted to talk about our gear and bikes.

The dirt floor was accustomed to everything, even sheep pee. Great big balls of brightly colored wool hung from the ceilings, and cheese aged in bags on the walls. Empty dusty bottles decorated the only shelf. There was one candle lighting an enormous crucifix in the corner, and two thatched chairs. The women giggled in Quechua and I'd hear the word 'gringos' every now and then.

As night fell we cooked dinner for them on our camping stove and answered all their questions. After, they lay 10 sheep skins onto the dirt floor and covered us in thick handmade blankets. As we made ourselves comfortable in our new bed, they sat in the two chairs at our feet just watching us in silence. After a while they said, "We never dreamed of having gringos in our house."

I believe we gave them an unforgettable experience, as they had us. It always amazes me how people all around the world are just people.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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