October 30, 2004

Peru: Escape from LimA

Just as in the post Apocalyptic movie starring Kurt Russel "Escape from LA"
Leaving Lima was a harrowing experience.

We left early from the very nice and wealthy neighbourhood of Miraflores. It did not take long for the clean curbs to make way to half built buildings and potholes. In a city of 9 million inhabitants with no well developped transit infrastructure, like many other large mega cities in devellopping countries the roads are chaotic to say the least. The buses are of all shapes and sizes with the traditional north american school bus playing a significant part. Also as in most parts of South America the "micro" small-no headroom-no space for long legs-lets try to fit 24 people in here mini-van and belch out black smoke is king, closely followed by the very little yellow four door Dyhatsu taxis. Luckily our high altitude training for two months in the Andes served us well as we were able to survive the oxigen deprived atmosphere of Lima's exhaust-ed roads.

In the spring in Lima while we were there there was a near constant fog (much like San Fransisco) that drifts in from the ocean and drapes the city. As we made our way out however were were never really sure at which point the fog stopped and the smog ended.

To make it out we lugged a 2kg bag of trail mix we had put together in the market. Rasins, smarties, banana chips, brazil nuts, peanuts and prunes.
It was a good thing because we had to ride 45km to find the edge of the city and all this time we did not feel inclined to stop for very long for fear of being "discovered" by a theif lucky enough to stumble upon us.

We were rewareded near the end of the day when the Pan-american highway north splits. One road is for light traffic and goes inland for 40km, and the other is for heavy traffic and huggs the coast. In fact we did not know it but this road was illegal for cyclists... but the police after talking to us for a few minutes gave us a few tips about the road ahead and radioed to the next car that we would be passing by. In fact for 600km approximately every 20-30 km we have had the benefit of the police radio-ing our approach ahead. So that we felt really ultra well looked after. The heavy traffic road was amazing, the trucks were not too frequent and the road is perched on the side of what appears to be a sand dune that falls right into the ocean. The light fog really added to the eerie feeling that we were leaving the city behind and entering into a totally new landscape.

Posted by gwendal at 10:34 AM | Comments (6)

October 19, 2004

Peru: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose exact date is always fuzzy (especially if you are not sure you are American or Canadian). It is always for us canucks the first weekend of October. As such it somehow crept up on me as we were cycling north out of La Paz along the shores of lake Titicaca towards Cuzco in Peru. On our tenth day of cycling we crossed the "Abras de la Reyas" a pass at 4338 meters in altitude that marks the end of the Altiplano and opens up to a new watershed and its much more humid climate around Cuzco. The difference is subtle but after more than a month on the Altiplano it looked lush and green to me.

We followed the river down 1200m into ever increacing greenery and agriculture. As it is spring here, all the fields were being tilled by oxen and entire families were out pulling out weeds and preparing the fields for sowing. This meant that we had a lot of company along the roadside which was a welcome change from some of the more remote and windy parts of the altiplano. Although in Peru your first contact with children and farmers is often "Gringo" or "Mister" but once you reply in spanish they are immediately very friendly and curious.
We soon realized that although we had gone a long way downhill we would not make it to Cuzco that day. Luckily at kilometre 1080 we had been warned by two Equadorian cyclists we had met earlier that there is a Cheese (Queso) and milk farm that will let you camp in their field with the cows.

The next morning was Thanksgiving day and we were treated by the owner Noheimaimi to an excellent freshly pressed cheese and bread along with a very very good cafe au lait. Concequently we stayed a little longer ot savour our breakfeast and chatted with Noheimaimi. Eventually at 11am we managed to set off towards the big city of Cuzco. We were warned by Noheimaimi that Suylla about 20km before Cuzco is famous for "chicharon de chancho" which is deep fried pork. However 25km out of Cuzco were already very hungry and we crossed the town of Tipon which is famous for "Cuy al Horno" a very popular dish that dates back to the Incas. I did not totally realize what we were in for but I soon recalled that Cuy is Guinea pig and we were going to have one for thanksgiving lunch. One serving was enough for the two of us as it came with baked potatoes, noodles and stuffed peppers. It was not turkey, but the preparation almost made it feel like a thanksgiving dinner. (we were so grateful to be so close to our goal). The only thing you had to get over were that the guinea pig is baked with the head and the paws still attached and meant to be eaten.

Other notes: Cuzco to our suprise was a long and slow 200m climb after lunch on a busy road. We got our share of exhaust fumes for about 15km. However once in the historical centre of the city it is a very pleasant and calm place that almost feels sleepy compared to the hustle and bustle of La Paz.

Machu Pichu: Were very hesitant about visiting. For a long time we considered skipping out altogether and only going to see Choquiquerao the lesser known but also very interesting ruins where the Incas are beleived to have remained un-molested by the conquistadors for 40 years before they abandoned it to nature. But we just could not go through with it, and we plunged in with the crowds and took the train down the valley to Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Pichu. The whole approach and the town feel like you are in a mini Whistler. It also happened to hit the pocket book like a day at Whistler $50 US. However just like Whistler after a good day of powder skiing the crowds did not matter. I walked down the mountain with the legs burning and elated.

Posted by gwendal at 12:33 PM | Comments (0)

October 06, 2004

Bolivia: Potosian Wedding Cake

The cake was a collection of round 10cm high loaves covered in icing connected by a giant wire structure that reminded me of a coat hanger. The effect of having 30 cakes stacked together in this way made the ensemble look like a odd christmas tree.

After five grueling days on the sandy and washboard infested road from Uyuni to Potosi, we felt as though we had travelled through a martian landscape. But after that Potosi is unlikely to normally be considered an oasis. Perched at 4100m at the foot of Cerro Rico, scarred by nearly 500 years of mining; Potosi does not have many trees or any green vegetation at all.

Along the road we had crossed a german cyclist Martin, who had enthusiastically recomended we visit the "casa de ciclista" in Potosi. After 8 months on the road it was the first time I'd heard of such a thing. So with a little trepidation when we arrived in the evening we called the phone number he had given us. We were immediately accepted as "ciclistas" and given directions to the bakery "Panaderia Tomas". Although it was dark and the street poorly lit, we could already see that the house in this relatively new development in the modern part of the city was a little different.

For starters, the house was painted! It even had inlayed bits of porcelain and glass in the plaster which really set it apart from the rest of the houses that still had exposed adobe bricks. But what really caught my eye on arrival was the three little trees carefully potted and struggling to survive. These were the first trees I'd seen in town. Our arrival brought out the entire Ramos family who invited us through two very well worn wooden doors into a courtyard dominated by a giant cactus sitting in a little circular garden in the middle. The entire property is similar in size to a regular Vancouer 33' by 120' lot. But instead of the house being in the middle it is wrapped all around the edge leaving the empty space for the courtyard in the middle. One side was dedicated to the bakery while the ends had the kitchen, bedrooms and a living room.

Twelve years ago Florencio and his sons were really active cyclists participating in every local race possible. When one day at an event a cycling official asked them to host a french cycletourist. They accepted and really enjoyed his company. Several months later another french cyclist arrived. They then learned that they had been put on a french cycletouring host list. They took the news in stride and ever since have been accepting road weary cyclists into their home. The only condition is that you sign their guest book and leave a picture. They are also very happy if you share one of their "highest pizzas in the world" with them.

Florencio greeted us in his bakers uniform. A red sweatshirt with an innumerable collection of flour patches decorating it. He also wore a small once white hat that during the day never seems to leave his head. For the last 30 years Florencio has been making bread for Potosinos by hand without the help of any kneading machines. Currently he puts out more than 3000 buns a day and more on the weekend. On average one boliviano (20 cents CAD) buys you 4-5 buns.

On our third day in Potosi, Theodora, Florencio's wife started to take over the bakery. Thirty cake pans were brought out and a palette of eggs was delivered. For two days while we slowly recovered and rested, we watched the process of making a Potosian wedding cake. It was described to us that they would all be stacked and all I could imagine was a cake version of the leaning tower of Piza.
Our curiosity soon had us put to work helping make the cakes.
Once baked each loaf was sliced into three and filled with a layer of "manjar" caramelized condenced milk for one layer and strawberry jam the other. Friday was spent icing and decorating each loaf so that it truely became a cake. Saturday the whole contraption was assembled in the morning at the hall were the reception was to take place.

For our efforts we earned ourselves an invitation to a wedding reception I will never forget. Saturday night at about ten in the evening we walked down with the Ramos family, and all the girls who had worked in the bakery to make the cake, to the hall. There were two policemen stationed at the gate to control the guests. As we arrived the band started to play a popular cumbia song. Cumbia can be described as a modern repetitive beat that sounds like it was generated from the sample beats section of a synthesizer. On each end of the hall the speakers were stacked up to the ceiling and the music was very loud.
All who wanted to dance were lined up each facing their partner and calmly moving to the repetive beat of the music. Every few minutes a waiter would go through with a platter of little plastic cups full of pop mixed with 96% caņa alcohol. After an hour there was a break, guests then started appearing with entire 2L bottles of pop and increacing the rate of distribution of alcohol.
Soon the music started again and people were moving with more gusto and the early restraint of the evening was gone. Tania had a "fun" time dancing with one of the groom's brothers who had had an early start celebrating the evening.

At midnight the music stopped again and the famous cakes were carried to the middle of the room. What followed was a very odd little tradition where a little fountain filled with pop and caņa was placed at the foot of the cakes. Then the bride & groom started to drink as much as they could from two little straws. Once the were done they invited family and important guests to follow suite. Later almost each guest would take a drink and spill a little alcohol at all four corners of the cake table before finishing their glass.
Eventually somebody took charge of cutting each cake. Everyone there was given a piece in relative order of importance. But since there were two 30 cake trees everyone ended up with a least a quarter of a cake. The smart ones had plastic bags with them and saved the pleasure of eating the cake for a later time. Tania and I almost exploded trying to finish our share.

Once the cake sharing was over the music started again and the dancing continued with even more energy until about 3am. What followed was something I would have more associated with a rite of iniciation to a fraternity house than a wedding. "El bailar de la muerte" a wedding tradition unique to Potosi, starts with 24 shots of caņa mixed with pop. All the guests circle the bride and groom and the music starts. It only lasts about a minute when the first shot is presented and they must drink it in one gulp. The music starts again and the bride and groom dance again waving a little white hankercheif indicating that they are fine. The process continues until one either throws in the towel or both manage to finish the 12 shots and dance the whole way through. In either scenario at the end of the last drink the bride and groom are picked up in the air and danced around the room until the end of the night.

At 3:30am we straggled out of the hall with the Ramos family leaving behind 150 well fueled guests still dancing up a storm. Later Florencio explained to me that the festivities would continue until the following Thursday, with lots of drinking throughout the week. I really felt for the bride and groom who must really need the entire honeymoon to recover. Luckily the first present they receive from their parents is a brand new bed on Sunday!

Posted by gwendal at 07:57 PM | Comments (0)