El Nio at last

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

El Niño at last
January 1, 1998

El Niño, the climatic event of the century. We'd heard it so often that the idea had long lost all significance. Rains had come and gone, but seemed little different from the regular seasonal weather. We headed on with a carefree "we'll see when we get there" attitude.

Images of the Peruvian coast showed flooded streets and bewildered people staring into ruined homes. "El Niño Has Arrived!" the newspapers screamed. Our intended route passed directly through the disaster zone, but we figured the media always highlights the worst. Besides, in Latin America there's always a way.

Sunny skies greeted us in Disaster Area #1, the city of Piura, and we wandered the streets looking for evidence of a puddle. From here we intended to detour via back roads to the Ecuadorian border. Newspaper rain indexes showed heavy precipitation — a bad sign for dirt roads — but we were determined to continue.

We were driven by ceramic obsession. The town of Chulucanas is home to a style of pottery we'd loved for years. The highly glazed rotund figures called us as certainly as any destination on our itinerary.

With panniers packed to overflowing, we said good-bye to Chulucanas and began the most uncertain stretch of road yet. The landscape, normally a dry desert, had erupted to life with the recent rains. Fields of jade grass, the color of new life, rolled into the purple mountains on the horizon. Isolated palms punctuated the sky and we rolled alongside weathered campesinos atop their burros.

Local knowledge of road conditions ended at the horizon. Beyond, the road was always impassable. It reminded me of the old maps wherein uncharted regions bear the legend "Here lie monsters!"

The road worsened. Stream crossing became more complicated as the waters deepened. The crossing were so frequent we rode in flip-flops to avoid constantly changing shoes. At each major crossing we received warnings about those to come.

A line of parked mini-vans greeted us as we approached the ultimate crossing. Groups of excited children thrashed about in neck-deep water. A stalled pickup sat mid-stream; water rushed past just below window line. It didn't look promising.

A group of locals gathered and began a frenzied discussion. Clutching our bikes, the men pantomimed hoisting them onto their shoulders. I envisioned them struggling chest-deep beneath the awkward 150-pound load. One stumble and our bikes would sink in the raging torrent. "Si, si, si!" they urged seeing my doubt. A crowd of 50 had gathered.

Succor arrived at the critical moment of decision: a horse pulling a wooden cart. Without a word the old driver understood our predicament and motioned for us to load the bikes. The crowd hefted the bikes onto the wooden slat and me atop the horse. The children splashed and shouted and the men smiled with satisfaction. We'd get across; proof that there's always a way in Latin America — El Niño notwithstanding.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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