4/12/2007 - QUITO - EASTER IN PERU


we were starting to feel a little anxious the last couple of days in quito. it was a good thing that another guest arrived at the casa de rocco, rosie the maid was probably tired of us chasing her around the house. the new guest was an australian by the name of ilya. he had just bought a motorcycle from a friend of ricardo, and was getting set to do a little traveling of his own. only problem was, the rear shock on his newly acquired motorcycle was damaged beyond all repair. ecuador is kind of funny in the sense that if you are looking to buy tires, there's a tire store on every block. if you're looking for a grocery store, you have to have some kind of insider knowledge to be able to find one. if you are looking for a really important part that your trip is dependent upon, look anywhere besides ecuador, because they don't have it. brian and i drove ilya all over quito looking for a new shock, even a car shock would have been fine, but there were none to be found. ilya had been stuck in quito for three weeks already, and to make matters worse, there was a motorcycle identical to his own parked in ricardo's garage, with a fully functional shock intact. the problem was that the bike didn't belong to ricardo, and he could not rightly hand the part over to ilya. days passed, and the three of us collectively came up with some truly ridiculous solutions, but in the end, it was ricardo rocco to the rescue. the old saying, "patience is a virtue" is a little different in south america, and i think it goes something like "patience is an absolute requirement". ricardo put in a call to his friend who owned the motorcycle that we had been eyeballing all week. with a little negotiation, the part was ilya's to take.

i cannot say enough good things about ricardo rocco, an inventive man with huge aspirations and the drive to accomplish most anything. we spent days flipping through his photo albums, he's been everywhere and has done just about everything. his schedule was a demanding one, what with taking the kids to the motocross track, planning coliseum type moto events, changing ecuadorian laws to accommodate travelers, and so on... despite his hectic lifestyle, he was always in a good mood, and was always able to join us for dinner. our last supper with ricardo was a cram session of geography, he had about a million recommendations of places we absolutely had to visit. in his opinion, everything is "faaantaaasticooo!", so planning a route that wouldn't take three years to travel was somewhat difficult. you can't go wrong if the whole world is fantastico, so we just kind of picked a route that cut down the center of ecuador and peru. leaving quito was not easy, we'd been spoiled by the generousity of senor rocco. we had rosie the maid to take care of us, and we'd even figured out where the grocery store was. seemed like such a shame to give all that up, but it was time again to jump back into the unknown. with a tentative plan to meet up with ilya in peru's salt flats, we left quito.

riobamba was the first recommended destination, but neither of us could figure out why. as brian weaved across lanes to avoid rogue buses, i could only think one clear thought... "what am i doing here, what am i doing here, what am i doing here". the volcano that sat on the edge of town had just erupted, adding ash to the diesel clouds. we were oddly hypnotized by the huge plume of ash rising thousands of feet into the sky, and even if it had been a life threatening situation, neither of us could have been bothered to stop watching it. it was another crazy-eyed bus driver that would eventually bring us out of our hypnotic state, and back to the reality of riobamba. tight streets were made tighter by bad drivers with an affinity for beeping their horns at anything that moved. the buildings closely resembled the cars that drove past them, all dust covered, with color-tinted windows, and about ten years behind on repairs. everything looks more ominous than it really is when the sun goes down, which made it hard to find a hotel that we'd feel comfortable enough to fall asleep in. out of exhaustion alone, we settled for the makeshift pink stucco highrise with the purple tinted windows. it turned out to be a lot nicer inside, and there was even a television set. three out of four channels were spanish infomercials, the fourth channel was english infomercials, so it was an early night for the both of us.

there was supposed to be some kind of a crazy adventure train that was the main attraction of riobamba, and i think that was why we went there. the rumor was that you could ride on the roof of the train with your dog amongst the farmers and their livestock, while the train made it's way up some gnarly mountainside called the nariz del diablo, the nose of the devil. it sounded too good to be true, and it was. we made the assumption that the train was not in service, due to the fact that the tracks were covered with carnival rides, and the station was closed and under repair. not wanting to spend much more time in riobamba, we headed further into the andes, but we didn't get out of r-bamba unscathed... one of the loco buses cut us off and clipped our side view mirror. brian had reached his threshold of being bullied by the buses, and he let the bus driver know exactly how he felt, and judging by the bus driver's reaction, he'd had this discussion before.


cuenca is supposed to be ecuador's most beautiful spanish colonial cities, but i'll never know because neither of us felt like driving through another city. i don't know too much about the weather patterns in ecuador, but i know enough to guarantee that it will rain every afternoon until the end of time. and not just a cute little colorado style rainstorm, but a full on wrath of god style rainstorm. the first modern, somewhat organized highway we'd seen since texas was under two feet of water, so the going was slow. hours passed before we reached our destination for the night. well, we thought we had made it to our destination, it was a field up in the andes, and we'd begun to set up camp when we noticed a guy whistling at us from a house in the distance. not wanting to cause any issue with the local land owners, we drove up to the house, where i told my usual sad story about not having a place to stay for the night. the guy, who was only whistling for his dogs, took mercy on us and allowed us to camp in the safety of his back yard. brian has become an expert at arranging the tarps in such a way that no matter how much it rains, we don't get wet. some fancy tarp artistry on his behalf not only kept us dry, but supplied us with fresh water, which we mistakenly forgot to replenish in cuenca. there was also a small matter of dinner, which was also bypassed earlier in the day. we dug through the truck and found a can of tomato soup and some bread slices, which ate just as well as a t-bone dinner at stuart anderson's. the rain never let up, which woke us up a few times throughout the night, but for the most part, we were quite comfortable all snuggled up in our tent.

the next morning, the family whose back yard we'd camped in was waiting outside our tent, waiting to meet us. i couldn't be bothered to crawl out of my sleeping bag, but brian was wide awake and conversing in funny spanish all morning long. the parents were the traditional indians, and the kids were half modern, half old-school. then the neighbor showed up, who could do nothing but stare at us in total curiousity and wonder. the hour that it took us to pack and make breakfast, he didn't even speak, he just peered at us and our four wheeled contraption. the man ate pancakes with us, then he disappeared, still without saying a word. we look so different from them, they must think we're martians.


finally starting to understand why senor rocco had sent us on this route, we passed through some of the most amazing mountains we'd ever seen. they were in fact faantaasticooo! we took our time, not that we had a choice, but it was a good day for not rushing things. there was a sign pointing the way to some ruins, so we left the highway in favor of some very secondary roads. the ecuadorian time multiplication factor also works for calculating actual distances... if the sign indicates that a place is eight kilometers away, multiply that by two and then you have your true distance. the ecuadorians are becoming quite saavy to the whole eco-tourism thing, and their prices are a direct reflection of that. tickets to the little ruin at the end of the parking lot were six bucks, which is more than my newly adopted third world spending habits would allow. there were some buildings that were in ruins all up and down the road anyway, so we opted to drive past those ones for free. not wanting to backtrack, we continued down the dirt road, but somewhere along the line, we made a wrong turn. the further we went, the worse it became. it's in these types of driving situations that brian and i are really bad for each other. we'll keep provoking each other, like, "oh, you can totally make it through that, no problem." the rain didn't help our situation, as that we were precariously perched on the side of a steep and muddy mountain road with little or no traction. since it was time to turn around about twenty minutes prior, we decided it best to finally do so. unable to steer down the slick donkey road, brian slowly cadence braked all the way down to the safety of the actual road. in a fit of nervous giggles, we made it back to the highway, it was a pretty good time.

having learned a valuable lesson in the lack of preparedness the day before, we made a point to stock up on food, water and money in loja. snickers bars are like gold as far as we're concerned, and we always keep a healthy supply. there have been several occasions when food was not available, or the environment was not conducive to getting out of the truck to cook something. a snickers bar is the best meal replacement that south america has to offer. i don't even like chocolate, but sometimes the need for sustenance outweighs preference. we loaded as many non perishable food items into the truck as we could, and continued south out of loja. legitimate camping spots are hard to find, but after a couple more hours of driving, we came across a little shrine off the side of the highway, surrounded by parking and obscured from the highway by trees and hills. there were some scientists down the hillside looking for some kind of rare amazon birds, and other than that, the place was vacant. happy to not have to resort to eating candy bars or ritz crackers for dinner, i cooked a big dinner while brian worked his tarp magic. not long after dinner, the rain started, and this time, it didn't stop. it was one of the most violent storms i'd ever encountered, and the sound of the water hitting the ground and the tent was intensely loud. we all drifted in and out of sleep the whole night through, and it was hard to tell if morning had come because the clouds are so thick that they completely obscure the sun. we got up anyway, and wandered around in the darkness trying to figure out where the sun would be if it were out, and eventually, as a slight bit of light began to illuminate the clouds, we deduced that it was probably about four thirty or five in the morning. the candles in the shrine had been lit at some point during the night, which was actually a comfort to know that we weren't alone all night. the scientists returned to the site to get some early morning shots, and by that time, we were feeling sleepy again. the next time we woke up, the hour was way more appropriate, and it was more obviously daylight.


we heard about this magical border where there were hardly any officials or border guides or border crossers. sounded to good to be true, and the location of the mythical border was a little remote, but we figured it was worth a shot. it was a two day drive south of loja, on dirt roads that had no business being roads at all. the mountain sides are so steep, and the rain is relentless, which makes for perfect landslide conditions. when we weren't driving through the recently detatched mountain side that flowed over the road, we were avoiding rocks the size of bowling balls that seemed to fall from the sky. some sections of road were completely washed out, which were not nearly as unnerving as the sections that seemed like they were about to wash out but hadn't because they were held in place by a stick or a flower. it took a lot of time and effort to finally reach the border, and we didn't make it there until late in the afternoon. peru was right across the river, and the guards seemed to be a little different from the usual border guards in that they were kind of nice. after a quick inspection of our passports, they sent us to the aduana officials. aduana, or customs was set up in a tiny adobe building, and all work was done over a plastic table, which was covered in pornographic materials, coka cola bottles, and a couple pieces of paper work that might or might not have had something to do with customs. in the corner of the office were stacks of television sets and dvd players, brand new, still in their boxes. the whole neighborhood had the exact same set up, most likely a tax imposed on a border crossing trucker with extra illigetimate cargo or not enough paperwork. we generally have a great appreciation for people who do their job well, but in the case of customs officials, the lazier, the better. these guys weren't lazy, and they brought to our attention one minor detail in our paperwork... we were to exit the country at a border that was about four days away from where we were. four days of landslides, potholes, water crossings, falling rocks, and so on. if it had been a matter of money, we would have gladly paid the bribe, but these guys were just trying to do their job, and there wasn't much we could do to convince them. the only phone in town was a cell phone that had no signal, so we drove one of the customs guards a half hour up the mountain so that he could call customs in guayaquil. still no luck, guayaquil wouldn't allow it either, so it was back down the hill. it was getting dark, and we were getting nowhere. we'd considered camping at the border, but the dogs, chickens and kids would have made it difficult. there was only one hotel in the area, and it was an hour and a half away. as lackluster as it was, it was nice to sleep inside and get a shower.

my cat, stupid joe, would never have been my cat if he hadn't been so persistent. he came back day after day, until eventually, he wore us down and we took him in. after a morning of calling closed embassies, closed consulates, and ricardo rocco, who was probably riding his motorcycle, we decided to take the stupid joe approach to crossing the border. that, and there was a small matter of our passports. one of the guards had stamped us out of the country while we were dealing with customs, and we didn't notice until that morning. we were now officially illegal aliens. brian made record time back down to the border, we were becoming quite familiar with the road. the same guards were still at work, and they were surprised to see us. we were determined to cross, there was no way we were going to backtrack four days to the other border. the only english spoken was "no", repeatedly. in a desperate last effort, i made up a story about how we got a hold of customs in guayaquil, and guayaquil said we could pass. to confirm my fake story, we had to drive the official back up the mountain to call guayaquil. on the way, i was coming up with whatever stories i could, like how ricardo rocco writes the laws for ecuadorian overland travel, which is kind of true, but not completely true. while the guard was on the phone, we waited in anticipation, knowing it was only a matter of time before the guard found out there was little credibility to our story. he hung up the phone and said, "okay. you can pass, but we need a photo of your truck." i have no idea how our bullsh.. story worked out, but it did, so we didn't question it. back down the hill, we realized that we didn't have a photo of the truck, and we couldn't find a dvd to burn some photos on to. the film camera batteries were dead, and it was beginning to look like we were s.o.l. again. five minutes and five dollars took care of the problem, we rented the town camera and took our photos. the guards, not wanting to waste the rest of the roll, ran around town taking everyones pictures, including ours. we were free to pass over the bridge to peru.

brian dealt with the peruvian side of the border, which was relatively easy in comparison. the townsfolk think its funny to tease the dog, so i stayed in the truck with dremel to keep them from messing with him. out of nowhere, a chicken jumped in the window of the truck, and was fluttering all over the place. i was trying to chase the chicken out, and the locals were telling me to roll up the windows so that i could have dinner. dremel was sound asleep, so he didn't even notice. eventually, one of the ecuadorian customs officials came over and booted the chicken out the window. that was my last memory of ecuador, and my first of peru.

april 8, 2007


i had spoken to my grandparents the day before easter, and i became so homesick. i thought about my family the whole day, and about how every easter we all go the the north woods inn to eat a big dinner together. then i started thinking about prime rib... the north woods inn sure serves an excellent prime rib. there'd be no chance of getting a prime rib down here, probably won't even be able to find a not so prime rib. then i thought about my brother, who had a rugby match today. hope he didn't get beat up too bad, but he does look tough with a black eye. i was kind of bummed out when we left the hotel this morning, and we were both hungry and tired. sometimes the road gets to you, and there's nothing you can do about it but just keep driving. the further we drove, the better i felt. there's a strange sensation that comes over you when you realize that you are driving through the south american andes behind a rickshaw with che guevara mudflaps. it was a perfect moment, one out of thousands throughout this journey. all those thoughts of "why am i here" dissolve. all those perfect moments are generally hard earned, but well worth the effort.

we drifted all day through the heat and the rain, through towns made of dust. unprovoked, the people that lined the entire distance of the road would wave ecstatically, as if we were the first passersby in a long time. the first couple of days are generally nervous, it's hard to know what to expect. then, as the environment becomes a little more familiar, and the customs become more apparent, we ease up. i can't explain why, but peru seems more innocent and friendly than a lot of the other countries we'd passed through. there's comfort in simplicity, especially when so many other places seemed so complex. peru has been an easy acclimation, and i haven't seen one place that i didn't like so far.

after a long day on the road, we rolled into a town called rioja, which according to my map was supposed to be a decent sized town. you can't trust any map of south america, some countries still print maps from when the border lines were in their favor. the past is not easily forgotten here, and the maps are a gentle way of saying so. there wasn't much in rioja, the whole town lasted about five minutes, including traffic. we continued on to moyobamba, a bigger town that might possibly have a hotel. the streets were filled with motorcycles and rickshaws, we were one of ten cars in the whole town. a great deal of patience is required to drive through the larger andean towns, the rickshaws buzz about you like thousands of blood thirsty mosquitoes. lanes serve no purpose, they just squiggle all over the place with little or no regard for speed or distance. most are quite exquisite in all their fuzzy upholstery, tiger mudflaps, and fringed canopies. the rain doesn't hamper their presence, the drivers have devised a clever tarp system that covers the entire front of the bike, all except for two little strategically cut holes to see out of.

it took an hour of weaving in and out of all the rickshaws to find a hotel. dinner was just down the street, and it was the first meal we ate in a restaurant in a long time. peruvian tipico is a far fetch from american easter dinner, but we were ever so thankful that it was not only edible, but halfway tasty, and super cheap. since we wouldn't be able to gorge on the regulation easter candies like peeps or chocolate eggs, we made do with a couple pieces of pie. there's probably a lot of readers wondering why i am bothering to write about pork chops and pie, so let me explain... there is no grocery store, at least not that i've seen. there's no seven eleven. heck, there's hardly any gas stations, and there's definitely no public bathrooms. finding a slice of pie in the andes is like finding gold, it's a little slice of something familiar, something that you don't have to guess at. back at the ten dollar hotel room, which at the time seemed like a good deal, we found out as soon as it began to rain why the room was so cheap. water poured into the two balconies outside our room, and flowed under the doors while we slept. brian suffered the brunt of the consequences, his feet were cold and wet the whole next day because his shoes were floating around in the rain all night.

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