"Shouldn't you cover that?" Mark asks.
"Nah, the parasite's already into my blood, covering it wouldn't help. I went to a clinic to check it out, apparently it's pretty rare. They recommended 21 days of injections, but I didn't want to do that."
"Well, are there any long term effects from the parasite?"
"Yeah. It could kill me, I guess. But it's all good, I'm taking some natural medicine for it."
Mark stops asking questions.
The next morning a ragged group arrives while Kelly and I are drinking coffee, Jason digging into a pineapple. One, with loose, linen pants, and a lilting wonder to his voice, comes to say hi. "That's a beautiful flower." He comments. The parasite story follows. "Whoa, you need to just squirt some of that pineapple juice in there," the new guy recommends.
"What, to feed it?" Kelly asks.
"Nah, it's like super toxic for that parasite!" The new guy says. "There's like too many enzymes, make that fucker go 'argggaharrggg!" He mimes a parasite being covered in acid.
Jason keeps eating his pineapple. The new guy and his crew proceed to have a 24hour, weed, rum, cocaine, and prescription drug fueled bender on the patio in front of our room before getting kicked out the next morning. After a few days, Kelly and I are ready to get back on the road.
Jared arrives with bike and panniers gleaming black, skin blinding white, eyes bleary from an all night bus ride from Lima. Jared doesn't like the heat, or the desert, or bright sunlight for that matter. But we'd called him in Colombia, from that devil's taint known as Girardote, when we'd been trying to decide whether or not we could continue the trip, and asked for his help. Help crossing the last hot stretch of the trip, help carrying water weight, and lifting gear to second floor hotel rooms, and he'd said sure, where do you want me to come? Peruvians get a funny look on their face when you ask them what the northern coast of their country is like, and it takes a second or two for them to respond, thinking of the best way to translate shithole to more diplomatic terms. Luckily, neither Kelly and I, nor Jared, have any idea of the hidden meanings behind "dry" or "breezy" or we might be hopping right back on the bus that Jared came up on.
Leaving Huanchaco, we're exhausted and slightly hungover, as is liable to happen the morning after Alaskans reunite. Luckily it's flat. We spend the morning navigating the frenzied free-for-all of Peruvian urban traffic, trying to reconcile the neat grids of a smartphone map with the surging chaos of our street-level view. At one point we're trying to decided whether we should go the wrong way down a one way street when a line of 5 buses come flying down the street and turn against the arrow. In Trujillo street signs aren't even a suggestion, people do whatever seems most expedient at the moment. The stress makes the kilometers tick by and it's barely past noon by the time we roll into the grimy port town of Salaverry, just beyond the sprawl of Trujillo. Salaverry, like most of northern Peru is dust and crumbling brick. But as we approach town there are beautiful stretches of concrete, a pedestrian walkway half finished but no longer under construction, as if the local government was trying to spruce the place up to attract some beachgoers from Trujillo but only thought as far as sidewalks, and while the concrete was being poured, decided no, maybe sidewalks won't help. We ride along the street and settle in the shade of a Ficus for lunch. It feels weird to have ridden 30k and barely feel like we've moved. Helps to not have to climb a mountain or four.
The next morning we're up early, ready for a real day. It's been since Mexico since we've been able to ride any significant distances on a consistent basis. The start/stop/struggle/sick/rest/repeat is starting to fray our resolve and the only relief is to put some miles in. We spin along the flats back to the PanAmerican, the sun starting to peek over a great, sandy hill. Shortly we start climbing. At 8am the sun is already strong, cooler air temps maybe, but the Humboldt current holds little sway over the intensity of the equatorial sun. After half an hour of climbing we stop to cool off in the shade of a highway sign. Jared's mayonnaise complexion is starting to look like a few spoonfuls of ketchup have been stirred in. I ask Jared if he's always hated the heat. "Well, it's not just hating it," he responds. "I'm really susceptible to it. I actually got heat stroke once in Juneau when I was a kid."
"Wait, what?" Kelly isn't sure she's heard right.
"Yeah, we were out at Echo Ranch (a quasi-summer camp at the end of the road where Juneau area schools would take students for a weekend of outdoorsy fun) and it was a sunny day. We went out fishing and all of a sudden I started to feel really hot, so I told the guy we were with and he was like 'whatever kid, keep fishing.' A few minutes later I was puking off the side of the skiff. They dropped me off on the shore and told me to go to the nurse. I wobbled back to the woods and found this big concrete slab that was in the shade and flopped down face first. Eventually someone found me and took me to the nurse. I spent the rest of the weekend sick in the nurse's station."
I look at Jared, then past him, to the heat shimmering over an endless expanse of sand. "So maybe you weren't the best guy to call to help us trek through the desert?"
We head back onto the sun and it climbs steeply as we ride. My mind is still wrapped around the topography of the mountains, and at every bend I expect the road to rear up in excruciating steepness. But we're no longer in the mountains, and the hills come and go as gentle slopes that make me hope I might not be as weak as Ecuador had suggested. We stop for an hour in the thin shade of an old bus. Normally, Kelly and I don't rest this long, always wanting to push towards whatever lay at the end of the day. But Jared doesn't have much saddle endurance and he likes to lay down where he can. And really, it's these moments that make the trip. For how often can a granola bar and a shaded patch of dirt offer utter contentment?
Of course, that contentment only lasts while we're stopped. As soon as we're back on the road it's stupid hot and the suffering begins anew. In a little shit town between two other shit towns a dog charges Kelly and Jared, then whirls around and locks in on me. Running full speed, mouth frothing with hateful barks. I bellow as loud as I can and whip my front tire towards the rabid looking hound as it closes. This scares him long enough long enough for me to pass, but then he's nipping at my back wheel until a barrage of stones from a local sends him quivering into submission.
Kelly and Jared are stopped just ahead. When I reach them Kelly is ready to keep moving, but sees Jared's face, flushed and fatigued, when she looks back to me. "Are you okay?" she asks him.
"I need shade." Jared states. Just up the road there is small store with a leafy tree in front. When we get there Jared leans his bike against the building wall, buys a big bottle of cold water, and starts dumping it on his head. He slumps down against a shaded wall with a rather vacant look in his eyes. "So fucking hot," he mutters.
I know how he feels, and it's not good. When the body passes the threshold of its ability to shed heat, it starts shutting down, overriding the brain as primary decision maker. It's a feeling I know all too well, but it's strange and surreal watching someone else go through it. I'm hot, but still functional. I watch Jared lay down on a lumpy patch of concrete, water dripping from his hair and laugh to myself at the absurdity of it - that to this last stretch of heat, we've`summoned the one person I've seen who has worse thermo-regulation than a quad.
We make it through the day by hop-scotching between shade spots. Jared's skin is baked and soon to blister. We feel bad that he's here because of us, that he's paid money to come suffer through his most miserable climate. But so it goes sometimes. Fortunately we have a bottle of rum, and coca-cola is one thing readily available in the desert. That night we drink, bullshit, and eat mediocre food. Jared buys a bottle of SPF 100 sunscreen and we get ready to do it all over again.
The next morning is cloudy and we climb from the start. At first a grinding annoyance, what looks flat but feels much harder than it should be, going and going for 10-15k, sweeping up to a decent steepness for the last few km while the sun came out in full force. Jared figures out he can take more rest riding at his own speed, blowing by me then Schwan to a shade spot and waiting for us to catch up. After a few stops we top out and whisk down a fast descent in a cool breeze.
At the bottom there's a collection of buildings even more ramshackle than normal out here. A faded Coca-Cola sign hangs above a door. The only open patch of shade is under a small out building so I guide my bike there. When Kelly and Jared return with cold water and cokes, Kelly notices a companion lying on a ledge of the outbuilding just above my view. A dead cat. And it'd been there a while, legs splayed, fur and skin dried out in natural mummification. It's not hidden, clearly the occupants of this patch of sand have had chance to observe the slow process of decay and decided to leave it where it lay. It still stinks a little, but this is where the shade is, so we sit and cool off. In front of the main building there are a few stacks of truck tires, covered by scraps of board. One stack holds chickens, another ducks. A litter of puppies cries from behind a tarp. A truck packed high with chicken crates pulls off the Pan American to stop a moment to buy drinks. While the drivers are occupied a mother/daughter team run out and steal eggs from the holes of a low crate, running off with the loot wrapped in the bottom of their shirts. The poverty and isolation are laid out in the open, I shudder at the thought of daily existence here, the endless numbing sameness. The lesser shit towns (let alone the greater) we've passed seem awash with possibility compared to this roadside purgatory. It's easy to understand why the great mono-theistic religions - Christianity, Moslem, Judaism - arose from desert cultures: this can't be all there is. There must be some divine reality greater than this world of sand and wind.
Back out on the road there is a slight downhill and a strong headwind. Schwan sucks in on Jared's back wheel, and I on hers, forming a draft train. Jared chugs at the front like a steam engine and I take all the rest I can, getting sucked along in their wake. The landscape is bleak, colors washed out like some post-apocalyptic vision. We push hard, there is nothing to do but move. Eventually, civilization begins to pop back up as we near the coast. People keep telling us that the city of Chimbote is dangerous: thieves and baddies, that we should pass through it as quick as possible. But the town before it is worse, with one dank love hotel, so we push on and find a sprawling hotel on the harbour, huge blocks of concrete and soviet architecture. It's across the street from a huge supermarket so we take a rest day in Chimbote, glad to find that Jared wants to do as little as we do.
After that first stretch, the next week and 400 kilometers or so of desert meld together like a strange deja vu. We wake early and struggle to get moving before the sun is up and hot. The morning are often cloudy but devoid of breeze. In the afternoon the clouds break and a headwind picks up, cooling our bodies but slowing our progress. The terrain is rolling with one or two big climbs a day. The land is sand and rock, as many shades of brown as there are greens in the jungle. There is smooth sand, and wind-rippled sand, there are big dunes and small dunes, sand that rises to the base of rocky peaks and sand that slopes gently to the ocean. There is nowhere to camp because the sand is deep to the edge of the highway and our bikes founder a foot removed from the pavement. The riding is not difficult but for the heat, the wind, and the vast nothingness between towns. There are power lines and occasional shacks constructed of reed. Our days are based on the distance between towns. At night we check into hotels or hostels, eat, and sleep. The food is meat or fish (mostly fried), rice and soggy french fries. One night Jared camps on the beach because the hotel is stupid expensive and walking through the sand is easier than rolling. At 2am he feels a stream of warm fluid spraying through the mesh of his tent: one of a roving pack of dogs marking his territory. In towns locals like to point and yell: "Hey Gringo!" "Gringo, gringo!" "Mira, Gringo!" or sentences that are fully formed but unintelligible as they usual wait until after we've passed to start yelling. The are usually excited to see us, and yelling random things is how they can best express that excitement.
One day we ride for 13 hours and 104 kilometers (our longest day time-wise, and 2nd longest distance of the trip) because the only thing between two towns is a small restaurant that serves rice, eggs, and a whole fish, fried complete with their toothy smiles.
After another rest day we ride 75 kilometers from Barranca to Chancay. The rode cuts inland and the headwind is brutal. At one point, battling stomach issues for days, I have to pull over make the sand my toilet, white ass hanging in the air off the side of my bike. When we catch up to Jared he is lying in the sand on the side of the road. We make sure he's okay and decide to keep moving. We are climbing a long hill and the wind is pushing us to barely moving. After about 30mins, we spot a few scrap-lumber buildings providing some shade. "We should probably stop here in case Jared needs some shade..." I say to Schwan.
"Yeah, that's what I was thinking," she says.
We shouldn't stop, there's too far to go and too little daylight, but out here it's never a good idea to pass up shade and the possibility of a cold drink. Just then a car slows next to us and the driver starts yelling: "Hey, hey! Your friend needs help!"
Seeing visions of Jared facedown in the sand, body baking under his already fried shell, we turn around and ride hard. A kilometer or so down the road we see him, upright, running his bike, beet red and pouring sweat. "I got a flat," he says then tells us the story: He'd gotten up from the sand after we'd left, only to find his back tire airless. Kelly has the pump and tire tools. Slow as we were, we weren't too far ahead so Jared started sprinting after us, screaming our names to the wind. He was able to gain a little ground but never close the gap, his words carried behind him as he yells. For two or more kilometers he ran his bike up the road, us lost in our own windy world before he hailed the car to come alert us.
"Jesus, no wonder you're so fucking sweaty." I say.
Kelly helps air his tire up, and it holds till we reach the buildings. One even has cold water. Inside there are sheets holding thousands upon thousands of flies. Outside they fill the air, cover our bags and bikes, swarm our bodies. We eat, drink and swat while Jared changes his tire and swats. It's a creepy scene, wondering what all the flies are doing here, not hard to imagine dead bodies in the back. Not much law out here after all. We leave as quick as we can. Back on the road the wind is whipping up the sand into a stinging haze, we can't even make out the top of the hill. The force of the wind is making this long, gentle slope feel as steep as the worst mountains of Ecuador. Jared and Kelly ride ahead while I turn myself inside out just to stay moving. The sand is pelting my neck and working its way into my mouth, unthinking, I spit to the right and the wind plasters it to my cheek. Sand washing in waves across the road, sand working its way through my shirt, covering my pants like I've been rolling around on the beach. This goes on for more than an hour, my arms sputtering but there's no choice but to keep pushing. No choice but hailing a ride to the next town, which all of us have been thinking about. But while we think about it, we keep riding. The hill finally tops out but the wind continues. On slight downhills my bike cuts the air better than Kelly's or Jared so I jump to the front to see if I can push the pace up a few kilometers an hour. We've taken too many breaks and we're going to be fighting to get off the road before dark. We keep pedaling hard, stopping to chug Cokes when our muscles start to empty. Just keep pedaling, I tell myself. By 4:30 fatigue is in full force, for me as much mental as in my arms. Kelly's legs are shot. Jared's taint hurts. When I catch a glimpse of Jared's face, it displays the same wobbly vacancy that heat had imparted. It helps to have one more person to share the pain with. The wind dies down and we are able to move with speed. Schwan gets a second wind and I sprint to stay on her back wheel. Jared stays behind me and just keeps turning the cranks. We make it to Chancay as the sun is reddening over the sea. We're all a little loopy from exhaustion, endorphins, and knowing that pushing so hard just gave us a rest day tomorrow. Jared asks how hard that was compared other tough days on the trip and I say it was right up there with the toughest. He seems at least a little proud of this.
The last few days to Lima are a cakewalk in comparison. The same desert but the vast nothingness peters into gradually densifying civilization. Mentally it's harder because now we just want to be in Lima, with Jared's friends Joe and Mareika, enjoying all the comforts that a city of 9 million offers. But you can't always have what you want so we keep dodging traffic, getting pointed and yelled at, and fighting the ever-present wind. In Ventanilla, a former slum that has been incorporated in the massive expanse of Lima, we stay in a love hotel. In Peru, these establishments are in every town. They're places you can rent in 3 hour increments, the front desk folk tend to look at you funny when you ask for a price for the whole night. In a country where a large percentage of the population lives until they're married (or 30+), they're a necessary means of privacy for young lovers. Luckily, the Ventanilla place is brand new, and (visibly) squeaky clean. The rooms are nice, except that Jared's window opens to a Chicken Broaster restaurant, and about 11 o'clock they fire up the stoves, turn on the music, and broast into the wee hours.
Riding into Lima the next day we only have about 30k to do. We're coming into 2 weeks of rest as we wait for Dylan to join us. It's the end of another segment, one we can finally be proud of. Since flying to South America, every segment of riding has necessitated some sort of motored rescue. Hills too steep, services too far apart, bodies too sick to function, the excuses are all valid but that doesn't make the failures sting any less. This stretch of desert and heat was one we were worried about. One we honestly didn't know if my body would be able to handle. We would've been on a bus again without Jared, without a friend willing to fly down to his personal climatic nemesis and struggle along with us. Riding into Lima it feels good to be back into a rhythm, a damn demanding rhythm, but that's the nature of a trip like this. Sure as hell looking forward to 2 weeks of nothing though.