Road Trip: Peru Edition

July 26-27

A beautiful mountainside near Cascas, Peru.

It’s really dark…That looks steep…”Slow down…Er…Despacio, por favor!” As the steering wheel turns, the tires start to skid. Oh. Oh. OH. Caroline screams and shield her face. I stare at the oncoming cliff, directly ahead now, just a few more feet…Phew. The car stops a few feet from the edge, I make a dumb reference to hide my nervousness, Senor Abel looks shocked, then smiles and laughs.  Welcome to a Peruvian Road Trip.

This week I was lucky enough to get out of the workshop twice to take a couple of road trips into the heart of the Peruvian Andes. Since this is, after all, a road trip blog, it seems only appropriate to record them.

July 26th: Strong Wine and Soccer

A man in a hat scopes us out in Cascas.

When was the last time I had a jersey? 8th grade I think. It’s only been five years. About as long as it’s been since I’ve kicked around a soccer ball. Do I want to play an exhibition game at a Peruvian Grape crushing festival? Of course I do!

So that’s how I ended up on a four hour bus ride to the mountain town of Cascas, Peru, famous for its wine, hopefully not for its soccer players. The drive was beautiful, to say the least. In the Peruvian Highlands, huge mountains are separated by deep valleys covered in farms and tiny villages. Our big bus wound its way through dirt and pista (paved road), eventually arriving at a town looking over one of the valleys. The town had a plaza, a soccer stadium, and a couple of streets. Oh yeh, and vineyards, lots of vineyards.

A government sponsored vineyard, just as the sun was setting.

We were received at what served as the town hall, where a panel made a presentation is rapid Spanish, followed by a toast of strong white wine that tasted like sweet apples. A lunch of chicken (bones) and rice followed. Our bus took us further up the hill to the towns tourist sites: a tree with 1000 roots, and a rock that supposedly looks like Jesus. You can be the judge.

The outcropping closest to the blue sky is his head. I see Zeus, though it could be anyone really.

All the same tree?

After that, it was time for soccer. In our WindAid jerseys and ready to play, we were quickly winded by the high altitude and intimidated by the speedy Peruvian players. A crowd gathered to watch, and the game began. Playing defense for the first time in five years, I was more than a little rough. Playing defense at 6,000 feet, I was exhausted. I made one good slide tackle that might have saved a goal, but otherwise basically ran around chasing Peruvians whose footwork made me feel like a forty year old.

I was too busy playing to actually get a picture of us playing soccer, but here we are at the opening ceremony.

That said, it was a blast. We lost 5-2, but at the end of the first half it was tied up at 2, and for the most part we held our own. After soccer, I took a walk around the town, stumbling upon a parade of school children performing the salute which struck fear into the hearts of many, many people during World War II, presumably in ignorance. A tour of the vineyards and a tasty barbecued chicken dinner brought us to 9 pm.

The aforementioned schoolchildren.

It gets dark at 7 here, and the gangs come out at night. Our bus driver refused to take us home without security. As it turned out, we had plenty of security. I was pretty tired, so I found a comfortable window seat in the rear of the bus and cozyed up (its freezing in the mountains here.) Next thing I know, a raucous group of middle aged Peruvians with jugs of wine board the bus. Instead of moving up to be with the rest of the group, I decided to stay for the cultural experience. Piccaron, they called me, after a soccer player with equally long curls. Or so I’m told. The men spent most of the trip yelling, singing, drinking, hitting on one of my groupmates, and finally falling into a wine induced slumber. As for me, I spent the night starting up at the most beautiful sky I’d ever seen, and wishing on a couple shooting stars.

July 27th: Laying the Foundations in La Florida

The snow capped mountains in the distance are the famed tips of the Peruvian Andes.

My second road trip was a test drive, so to speak, of the final week of this Peru experience. Once we build the wind turbine, we’ll be taking it up to the tiny 100 family town of La Florida, a five hour drive into the mountains from Trujillo, to put it up. Realizing that if I return to school, I won’t be able to go, WindAid’s director Mike and I figured out a temporary solution. Go up with the program director Caro, and English engineer, and Senor Abel, Mike’s go to guy for basically anything, and see the village. If I have to leave early, at least I’ll have gotten a chance to check it out.

So, at 5:45 Wednesday morning, I woke up and began a very long day. After fumbling my early morning Spanish enough to almost send us a half hour out of the way, we picked up the rebar foundations from the workshop and headed west into the mountains. I quickly fell asleep, only to wake up an hour or so later in a deep fog.  Only it wasn’t fog. Looking out the back window, I realized we had passed above Trujillo’s constant cloud cover, which blanketed the road mere meters from our car. The next time I woke up, I looked out on one of the most beautiful valleys I’d ever seen.

The valley I awoke to the second time.

As we climbed to our eventual destination of 11,000 feet upwards, the road switched from paved to headache and nausea gravel then back to paved. We met construction, buses, trucks, and cars. Normally this is not a problem, but in Peru, every encounter with a vehicle is a dangerous one. With few exceptions, the locals drive like texting teenagers, only worse. The few street lights that exist act as stoptionals, stop signs are rarely seen. There is no such thing as a speeding ticket. Tired of driving and starting to feel the altitude take its toll, we finally arrived in Huamachuco to meet Ryan, our Peace Corps liaison with La Florida.

We drove another twenty minutes to La Florida, where we were meet with sheep, cows, pigs, donkeys, chickens, and trout? For the most part, the families of La Florida are subsistence farmers. Today, we were able to pry a couple of men away from the fields to help mix cement for the turbines foundation. After a lunch of delicious boiled potatoes and canned sardines (the potatoes were the delicious part) we set to work.

Laying the foundations. That's Senor Abel on the right.

We lined up the holes, mixed the cement, and filled it in. It seems easy, but the process took most of the day. The altitude was leaving me a little zoned out, so I’m not sure how much of a help I was, but being able to witness even just a day of quiet mountain life in Peru was well worth the bumpy ride. Not a fan of large groups, I enjoyed even more getting the chance to talk with Ryan, Caro, and to a lesser extent Senor Abel, and learn from the older travelers. We talked about the Peace Corps, working in foreign countries, pursuing what you love, and other topics lost to the mountain mists of memory.

Having finished our foundations, we returned to Huamachuco, sat down for some coffee, and headed back down the mountain. When we left La Florida, it was 4:30. When we arrived in Trujillo, it was 11:15. Only Senor Abel could drive in Peru, but even his skills would not be enough. We would need a little luck.

A view from the plaza in Huamachaco, supposedly one of the largest plaza's in Peru.

As darkness fell and we still had yet to hit the paved road, the turns became more treacherous. Buses flew past us halfway in our lane, trucks rumbled slowly through the fog, hugging the crumbling walls. I drifted in and out of conversation, singing along to country, rock, and middle school memory songs, and the occasional five minute nap.

It’s really dark…That looks steep…”Slow down…Er…Despacio, por favor!” As the steering wheel turns, the tires start to skid. Oh. Oh. OH. Caroline screams and shields her face. I stare at the oncoming cliff, directly ahead now, just a few more feet…Phew. The car stops a few feet from the edge, I make a dumb reference to hide my nervousness, Senor Abel looks shocked, then smiles and laughs.

That was the worst of our dangerous trip, but as Charlie said the next morning as I told the story: “Well, ya made it home.” True enough.

A pair of exciting trips sandwiched by three days in the workshop is my idea of a pretty awesome week, but the hairpin turns and gorgeous scenery I’ve witnessed so far will pale in comparison to my weekend plans. A twenty hour trip (each way) to the edge of the Amazon rainforest to see an ancient fortress and one of the world’s largest waterfalls will take me across the Andes, and into the very heart of Peru.

A reminder of the dangers of driving in Peru. This passenger bus slammed into the complex's wall, though luckily nobody was hurt. Even a nest full of eggs that got knocked out of a tree was untouched.

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