All Wit & Pedal Power
Today the Home Forum continues the story of two brothers cycling the rugged Andes. David and Doug Aagesen have ridden their 18-speed all-terain bicycles from La Paz, Bolivia, to Lake Titicaca in Peru, where we catch up to them on the shoreline, having just crossed the border. The diary entries published yesterday and today record the first two weeks of their 10-month travels in South America - a rugged journey from La Paz, Bolivia, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Sept. 10, 1988 - Moho, Peru
Things took a real flip-flop today. Our second day in Peru was downright difficult. However, it actually didn't start out so badly. We broke camp early and made pretty good progress this morning. In a village called Canimos we came to a checkpoint once manned by the Guardia Republicana. Our documents were checked and we were treated kindly. We even stuck around for a while to chat and eat fruit.
On the other side of town, no more than 500 yards from the Guardia Republicana checkpoint, we were stopped by the Guardia Civil. With the ear-piercing shrill of a whistle, a power-tripping official called us into his office for yet another superfluous registration process. This time the authorities shook us down pretty good, checking our vaccination certificates and even our international driver's licenses. The two men who did so were curt and anything but friendly. By the time we pedaled off, Doug and I found it hard to believe that they didn't play even more games.
After we had been treated like human beings on the other side of town, our encounter with the Guardia Civil crushed our relatively good spirits. We tried to put it all behind us, but the road conditions continued to test our patience. Where there wasn't sand there were large rocks. When we weren't sliding out in ruts we were falling into gaping holes. We got pretty tired of being thrown around and tumbling off the bikes. The nearby calm coves of Lake Titicaca did little to console us.
We slugged it out though, eventually reaching the village of Moho, which is tucked in a valley not far from the lake. Our objective was to fill our water bottles and move on out of town hoping to avoid detection by the authorities. How many times a day can a person present every last document he had? Doug and I were very successful in our quest.
We pulled on for a few miles. Road conditions did not improve and a hill came upon us. We couldn't take much more and we weren't in the mood to continue. With less than two hours of daylight remaining, we agreed to scope out a campsite.
The surroundings were pretty rugged and rocky, but off to our left about 100 yards we suspected there might be a flat spot on the fringe of a gully which rolled gently down from a saddle high above. It appeared as if there we might be able to spend the night in peace. I broke off from the road and began pushing my bike up the barren hillside. Doug did the same, but lagged about 25 yards behind. Just as he pulled off the road and just as I was high enough to enjoy a view of the valley we had recently entered, a large green truck with a khaki canvas cover rumbled around the bend. I smelled trouble.
Just a couple of minutes later and we would have avoided detection, but it wasn't to be. No sooner than the screeching brakes had halted the truck, five uniformed and fully armed men hopped out. Four of the gun-toting warriors besieged Doug and one ran up the hill toward me, demanding to see my documents upon arrival.
Soon my bags were unzipped and my possessions were searched. We really had nothing to hide, but then we were asked if we had any dollars. With sweat on our brows, we replied with a single word - ``No'' - totally aware that the greenbacks we had strapped to our waists would support these men and their families for months.
The document inspection seemed to be quite drawn out. Two subordinates fumbled through our papers, but the commander eventually took charge of the situation by grabbing the passports. He couldn't seem to find what he was looking for. Trying to impress us with a few words of English he sputtered, ``This no good - back to Bolivia.'' He was referring to the typewritten memo that the Guardia Republicana had given us the previous day. It was worthless, and lacking an entrance stamp in our passports and the corresponding tourist cards, we were in Peru illegally. What a tremendous blow this was. The road had already beat us to smithereens once, and now again? Our heads just sank.
The military men soon decided that they had had enough. After making sure that we understood them, they climbed back in their truck. In a cloud of dust they left behind two thoroughly depressed cyclists.
Doug and I sat on the hill for a while. Naturally, we toyed with the idea of continuing, but he who has the guns, wins. We really had no choice but to retreat. Realizing that this wasn't a favorable night for camping out, we struggled back to Moho.
In the village's only pension, we tucked ourselves away. However, when two gringos on bikes show up in a remote Peruvian village, it doesn't take long for their presence to become known. Less than fifteen minutes after our arrival here someone was knocking on the door demanding to see our documents. ``Not again,'' we mumbled. This time, however, things were to take a different twist. We opened the door and found a friend in Henri, who at once produced his Policia de Investigaciones del Peru (PIP) badge. We showed him our documents and explained what had happened that afternoon. He went on to tell us that the Peruvian military had no say whatsoever in this matter. Immigration was an official concern of PIP, and it just so happened that Henri was the local chief of immigration. Our passports would be fixed at once and he assured us that we would have no problem reaching Puno.
Henri asked Doug and me to accompany him to the PIP office, just a few blocks off the main plaza. We noticed that he had already sloshed down a few drinks in preparation for the week-long fiesta that begins in Moho tonight. Nevertheless, this didn't mean he couldn't take a few minutes off for official business, and soon enough we had a couple of stamps in our passports and big smiles on our faces. This is just what we needed.
The two of us sat down on our beds, and after several deep breaths, we took out our passports to see what it takes to travel in this country. Well, what it takes, we don't have. On the last page of our passports, with a stamp from PIP's immigration wing, a hand-written date, and the word salida (exit) scribbled across the entire page. It can't be, but it is. We need an entrance stamp. Doug and I have had enough for one day.
Sept. 11, 1988 - Moho, Peru
Yesterday the trials, tribulations, and general chaos really wore us out. I must say though, it sure is exciting. Today, the saga continued, but by and large we spent the day with our hearts beating regularly.
Our first task this morning was to stop by the PIP office. Henri was not there, although the station chief, whom we had met the previous day, was.
In the chief's small office, decorated with maps of Peru (finally we could see where we are), we explained that yesterday we had been seeking an entrance stamp. No problem, he indicated, opening our passports to the very last page. He proceeded to cross out the word salida with a red marker. Below it he scrawled ingresso, meaning that we had entered the country. What a mess he made out of the entire page. Was this what a Peruvian entrance stamp amounted to? Give me an eraser, an ink pad, and a red marker, and I could stamp myself in this country.
Sept. 12, 1988 - Huancane, Peru
It is 5:00 p.m. now. We made it here about four hours ago after a 25-mile journey from Moho. It was actually an uneventful but tiring trip over a bad road. We feared police or military checkpoints, but encountered none.
Considering our run in with the military and the entire entrance stamp fiasco, Doug and I have agreed to keep a low profile for a few days. This means no camping out or frequent stops. Our intention is to reach Puno as soon as possible. There we expect to see other pale faces, as we have been told that Puno is a very important tourist center. Once there, we hope to be a little less conspicuous.
Evidently, the only way to keep a low profile in these parts is to lock yourself in a closet. We made the mistake of leaving our hotel room door open and several hours after our arrival we had an uninvited and unwelcome visitor, a young man of about 25. He was opening the door of the room next to ours when he stumbled in on us. He had been drinking and with a slur he said he was from PIP.
We pulled out our passports of course, but things went smoothly. There didn't seem to be a problem with our being in Peru. It was only when we were requested to produce paperwork for our bicycles did a problem arise. It never occurred to us that we would need a receipt and/or a registration card. We were only novices, and what did we know?
The inebriated policeman went on to inform us that unless we could produce documentation for the bicycles, they would be confiscated by PIP. Our nerves settled a bit when he started laughing and shaking our hands. ``Gringos - amigos,'' he sputtered repeatedly. Was it all a joke? Need we worry now?
No sooner than the policeman became our friend, did he once again become a threat. He took on a more serious tone and told us if we tried to get away without producing proof of ownership, our hands would be broken. Then he rambled on about how powerful PIP is and what a proud organization it is.
Finally, the intruder left, but this gave us no peace of mind. Just how serious do we take all this? It is tough to brush aside, and we didn't feel any better when the hotel owner came in to warn us about PIP. They were drunk and getting drunker, he said, and we best be careful. We could only shut our door, lock it and hope for the best. Doug and I looked at each other in disbelief. When would it all stop?
We have decided to blaze out of here at first light tomorrow, hoping to slip out the door undetected by our neighbors. We feel more comfortable trying to make a getaway than trying to solve this dilemma by negotiating with drunken officials. Whatever the outcome, we don't expect to have a peaceful and well-needed night of shut eye. Right now, I almost wish we would have gone back to Bolivia. I'm scared.
Sept. 13, 1988 - Juliaca, Peru
Yesterday afternoon and last night I experienced some of the tensest moments in all my 25 years. I was full of anxiety and I think Doug was too. Neither of us could even eat dinner. We just wanted the night to end before it ever began.
At last there was a glimmer of light. The roosters weren't even up yet, but Doug and I stood ready for the ``escape.'' I noticed that my voice was trembling when I spoke to Doug. It sounded so loud, as did the door when Doug opened it.
Both Doug and I took a very deep breath, and I wheeled my bicycle quietly through the courtyard. Doug followed closely. In the room next to ours, I noticed one man sprawled out on a straw mattress, and heard another one mumble something. We were just waiting for the ``Oye!'' (Hey!), but it didn't happen. Once outside the pension's one-and-only wooden gate we didn't waste a second, mounting our bikes and speeding off like bats out of hell.
For the next few hours we pedaled like wildfire, with a constant eye in our mirrors and an occasional look over the shoulder. Initially every approaching vehicle brought a cringe. We felt as if we were running from the law, although we had done absolutely nothing wrong, at least as far as we were concerned. Only after being some 20 miles from Huancane did we feel comfortable enough to stop and rest.
We are currently holed up in another one of Peru's famous zero-star hotels. There is a possibility that we will venture out for a meal tonight, as Juliaca is a real city. I mean there are many hotels, restaurants, vehicles, people and even a bus terminal. It all makes us feel a little safer.
In all we progressed 36 miles today as the road went from terrible to bad. At least it's an improvement. From here Puno sits a mere 24 miles to the south, over a paved road. Seemingly, it is only a hop, skip, and a jump away.
Sept. 14, 1988 - Puno, Peru
Here at last! I have never been to heaven before, but it feels like I am mighty close. There are gringos here, and what a relief it is to shed some of that heavy conspicuousness. Not only can we blend in a bit more, but now it appears that we can turn our backs to the entire entrance-stamp problem, our confrontation with the military, and our close call with PIP. Today we went through a sizable checkpoint manned by the Guardia Civil, and to our surprise our documents weren't even checked.
Puno is a scaled-down version of Juliaca, but has a beautiful setting, being located in a basin along Lake Titicaca's edge. Social and political unrest grows daily, as Peru is in the midst of a profound economic crisis and the government continues to battle the insurgency led by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path).
The tourist office here has informed Doug and me that some recent terrorist attacks have been taken out in the vicinity of Juliaca and Huancane. Maybe we should count our blessings.
The first phase of this trip is now over. We registered 247 miles in 12 days, with one full day of rest. This is by no means record time, but we aren't out to break records. Our only objective is to see a land and its people, and although I only have two weeks of cycling experience under my belt, I am already convinced that a bicycle facilitates this end. I wouldn't carry on without it.
Of course Doug and I had our fill of unpleasant encounters between La Paz and Puno. But often we would just succumb to the harmony that radiates from a beautiful land sparsely populated by humble and simple folk. The landscapes have made for some pressing images, and many of the people will be difficult to forget, especially those shining few who touched our hearts.