Sunday, December 1, 2013

Heading Out

It’s Thanksgiving weekend and the recent snowfall has melted. I’m sitting in bed here in Michigan, remembering details from my trip with Peru Motors last year.

The day before we set out to ride, we all gathered outside in La Gruta’s garden to discuss logistics of our trip.  Lars prepped us about what to expect while traveling. We would awaken early each day to eat, pack up our gear and be on the road by 7:00AM. We’d ride for about 4 hours, stop for lunch and ride again until we reached our hotel around 4:30. Lars explained he’d be leading us on his bike while our second guide, Eduardo, (who proved invaluable for many reasons I’ll get to eventually) followed us in a truck that hauled a trailer, tools, spare tires and our luggage.

Our bikes and back-up vehicle lined up in front of La Gruta the morning of our departure.

Lars finished up our meeting by helping us sort out who would ride which bike. We were able to chose between Honda Falcon 400’s, Kawasaki KLR 650’s and an old Honda XR650 while one person upgraded to a BMW.  After our meeting we took some time to properly outfit our bikes with gadgets and such. I brought along an Airhawk seat cushion and heated jacket for comfort so I hooked up the battery harness and attached the cushion while others secured Go-Pros and rigged up tank bags and secured straps for daypacks.

The remainder of the day was spent exploring Arequipa (pronounced ah-ray-keep-ah).  The hotel was walking distance from town so we gathered up our cameras and and walked into town.  This city, like many of the others we visited, has a “Plaza de Armas”-  a park-like area at the center of town. This one was filled with lush foliage including palm trees, pruned shrubs and specimen trees that surrounded a central fountain. The fountain was bordered by wide walk-ways paved with tiles and lined with park benches.

La Plaza de Armas in the center of Arequipa

The plaza was surrounded by Spanish inspired architecture on three sides and a cathedral on the fourth side. The Basillica Cathedral of Arequipa was so large, it spanned one block, was fitted with three towers and massive arches on either side. (So big, in fact, I couldn't fit the whole thing in one picture!)

The Basillica Cathedra of Arequipa- a cathedral museum.

It, like many of the buildings in the city were made of sillar, a white stone quarried from volcanoes that surround it.  Joe, Lars H. (not our guide, but a fellow rider) and I took a tour of it our first day, the day before everyone else arrived. The cathedral is a museum that showcases stunning artistry inside: larger than life statues of the apostles along the aisles, cavernous domed ceilings, detailed moldings and an ornately carved pulpit. On the wall opposite the altar was an enormous pipe organ that filled the entire wall.

Inside the Basillica Cathedral

Before this, I’d never been in a church as old and elaborate. We toured interior rooms showcasing solid gold scepters and crowns accented with precious gems as well as intricately detailed vestments. We also went to the top of the building where we were able to touch and photograph the bell in the main tower. This gave us a birds eye view of the Plaza de Armas (photo above) and the buildings alongside it.

This building ran alongside La Plaza de Armas and housed many small stores and restaurants. Photo credit: Lars Helgeson
For lunch we had many options to choose from in restaurants along the narrow streets or in the wide, tiled alleys between buildings. There was traditional Peruvian food, wood-fired pizzas and even Chinese food. For ordering, I was glad to have practiced my second language by listening to tapes in the months leading up to the trip. Both Lars and Eduardo spoke English and Spanish so while I was glad for the opportunity to use Spanish, it wasn’t necessary once we left town. Our guides served as translators for details such as menu options and finding bathrooms. But more than that, they were our cultural insiders. They were friendly and knowledgeable about all sorts of interesting tidbits and they enjoyed answering questions and telling us all about what we were seeing.

I’d talked with several folks about the tour before going. One person was insistent that he could get a better and cheaper trip by just loading his bike in a trailer and heading down to Mexico. Here’s the thing- Peru Motors costs are well below the going rate for other tours in South America. They provide the motorcycles, assist in route planning, book the lodging, know the best restaurants and are familiar with the must-see places. They even know where to stop to get the best pictures along the way.  I particularly liked having the back-up vehicle following us so we could stop and for photos without fear of being left behind. But most importantly, they could make small repairs, were equipped to change tires, refill gas tanks or haul a bike to the nearest shop for repair. So for me, the guided tour was a blessing.  At the most basic level, having everything planned out allowed me to really focus on the riding and the experience of being in Peru.

The morning we left La Gruta on our bikes, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. Lars warned us that we’d have to stay close together while riding through the city so we wouldn’t lose each other. All but one of us who went on the trip were accustomed to group riding through our motorcycle club where there were very clear guidelines about how to ride: remaining side-by-side in a staggered formation, moving through stops as one unit, communicating with hand gestures – all to help us ride safely and keep us together. Lars assured us that those skills would not be useful to us in Peru. And he was right. From our first turn onto city streets, we were on our own. Our leader wove in and out of traffic, split lanes and raced through lights. It was clear within minutes that we needed pay attention or we’d get lost in a sea of vehicles - without GPS, cell phone reception or maps. Of course when there was a turn, he’d stop and wait until those in the rear could catch up, then he’d move on through the city. We road like this from light to light, turn by turn, surrounded by vehicles of all types- small cars, motorcycles, bicycle taxi’s and buses.  Our first destination was a gas station. As attendants fueled up our bikes, we took pictures of each other and the volcano sitting at the edge of town overlooking the city.  

Grinning ear to ear while fueling up after our first ride through town.

Those first fifteen minutes on the bike were exhilarating; they pointed to all the wondrous things to come! Next Sunday, I'll tell you all about that first day of riding...

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Arriving in Peru

When I woke up this morning, fluffy white snowflakes were falling from the sky. I'd rather be on the bike than on skis so this isn't good news but with no accumulation, it's a slow start to Winter and I'm grateful to be easing into it.  This time last year, I was in Peru...

Three of us flew together from West Michigan through to Peru on the day before Thanksgiving. Can you say long travel day?! Grand Rapids to Chicago to Miami to Lima - through customs- ugh!) - and finally to Arequipa. We arrived a few days earlier than we were scheduled to ride so we could acclimate to the altitude.  It worked out well because that gave us two days to recover from our hectic day of flying, check out the city and review our tour plans with the guides. The remainder of our group arrived in the days following.

Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru (by population) but you wouldn’t know it from the airport. As I looked down from the plane I was mesmerized by brightly colored squares – turquoise, magenta and yellow- and flickering silver shapes. As we descended these squares became cubes and were quickly revealed to be metal roofed houses sitting precariously close to the airport.  (This had me wondering if land near an airport is cheap because of all the air traffic!)

Our plane landed near a simple building right out of the 50's.  If it weren’t for the sign above the door (and the airplane we’d just come out of) I wouldn’t have believed it was an airport.  With the view being what it was, the building didn’t really matter though. We exited the plane via large wheeled staircases to find we were surrounded by three mountains. I found out later, during a tour in the city these we actually volcanoes.  One of them can be seen below, right behind the airplane.

View from the tarmac behind the plane we just exited.

Our tour package included transportation to our hotel. We were picked up by two cabs - this is the first of many examples of Peru Motors expertise: they know just how much gear folks bring on these trips.  Between the three of us and our luggage, we completely filled both vehicles. I don't know which view was better- the one of the city or the cab itself. Check out the in fur-lined dash!

The owners of Peru Motors have a hotel in Arequipa called La Gruta. The building was a good introduction of many we encountered on our trip. 

The Gruta- the hotel we started and ended our trip in.
The exterior was modest and simple, which belied what was found inside.  Beyond the front desk was a dining area.  The first floor rooms extended from that down an interior hallway. Each of the rooms exited onto one of two lush outdoor gardens filled with tropical plants.

My room opened onto this outdoor garden.
My first morning there, I sat in the outdoor garden off my room luxuriating in the sun. Lars, one of our guides, stopped in and warned us to be careful as the sun is very low in the sky and you can burn easily. Mind you it was 8:00 in the morning so I never would have thought to put on sunscreen. That was one of many things that made me feel like I was in a different world!

If I were to pick out key phrases from this blog over the years, I’m sure I would find “a different world” a dozen times. It seems to be a theme of mine to refer to this. More than that, though, I think it’s something I both associate with, and look for in riding. In fact, I think that’s why I ride. I want to escape the everyday. I want to flee normalcy. 

I came across a quote recently that really hit home:  

                       “When’s the last time you did something for the first time?”

I don’t particularly like routine, but I tend to fall into it. At about the same time each evening I start getting ready for work the next day- packing a lunch, setting out my clothes. I brush my teeth, do my stretches and head to bed. While the regularity helps me get out of bed in the morning, it also ensures I’m bored. And that’s the thing about Peru. Every single day, I did 800 things for the first time.

You read that right. 800. Now I never actually counted but that’s what it felt like. And instead of getting nervous about forgetting something or anxious that I’d be late, I felt free. I felt wildly and ecstatically free! I woke up around 5:30 each morning without an alarm (never in my life have I done that- this in itself is miraculous) and I was absolutely exhausted by 9:00PM. I didn’t have too many “nights on the town” like some of guys did, but I didn’t miss a thing.  At home I often wish there was someone to get out of the house with. I browse local calendars of events for “something fun to do.” While in Peru, everything was fun. Everything was new. Life had energy and I had zeal. I didn’t have to look for it or manufacture it. 

When I talk about missing Peru, that is what I miss. Everything new.

Of course, when you set yourself on a course for adventure, things don’t always go as planned, and this was no exception. When the 10 of us signed up for this South American tour, we elected to tour 3 different countries- Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Once we got there though, we found out from our tour guide that there were issues with the border crossings. To be fair, we’d been warned there were always issues with border crossings and that travel can be significantly delayed because both people and the bikes have to clear customs. After much discussion and a vote of the majority, it was decided that we forgo Chile (and therefore Bolivia- because we needed to go through one to get to the other) and remain in Peru.  Our guide insisted we would get a far better tour by staying in one country because there was so much to see in such a short distance.  And he was right. Our tour involved the southern part of Peru and included high jungle, snow-filled mountain passes, desert, and the coast. And we were able to add in Machu Picchu, too.

But because we had planned for over a year about what we wanted to do while there, it was pretty disappointing to find out we couldn’t take the trip we’d planned. That first day of riding, we talked about it at several stops. Even the next morning it came up. And one guy decided to cut his losses and head home because he couldn’t let go of the trip he wanted for the one we were getting.

While I wish Bob had been able to adjust to the change the rest of us did, his choice to leave influenced many of us in an unforeseen way: we continued to ask ourselves throughout the trip “what if I had missed this?”  That became a lesson for me, almost a mantra. How many things do I miss in life because I’m so disappointed (or frustrated or angry or sad) about what didn’t happen. I’m the first one to say we need to feel our feelings when they come up, so I’m not talking about pretending everything’s all right when it isn’t. But I began to see how easy it is to get stuck in those difficult places and forget to enjoy the ride.

If there was a second theme to most of these blog posts, that would be it: enjoying the ride. But let’s face it, figuring out how to ride a motorcycle, isn’t the same thing as figuring out how to get through some of what life throws at you. Or is it?

If you've read any of my other posts, I guess the cat's out of the bag; I learn a lot about life through riding. Maybe I won't be spoiling anything by saying that as I review photos and share more about  Peru you're likely to find out a little of what I learned as well as see photos from a spectacular country.  Set your alarm and get ready for the next leg of the adventure with me! 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Remembering Peru

Nearly six weeks ago, I climbed into my truck and haven’t looked back at the bike. I removed her battery, filled up her tank and settled her into the corner of the garage to rest until Spring.  I will miss riding her, miss the trips out of my everyday life into other worlds. But as I sit here reflecting on the past year, I realize I have enough memories of riding to keep me through the Winter. 

Last year at this time, I was packed and ready for my motorcycle trip in Peru. Although I came home, it’s as though I haven’t really returned. It took me a month to look at the pictures we took because I hadn't wanted it to end. The events of those weeks were burned into my mind and yet revisiting them seems painful because I miss it so much.  I’ve not written about the trip or much else since coming home. I know it will be some time before I can take another trip again whether its back to Peru or on to other countries like India or Scotland. I think in some ways, I’ve been holding so tight to those memories to keep them safe, to keep them mine for just a little longer.

A few months after coming home, I met up with members from my motorcycle club for a slide show presentation of about a 100 pictures.  I talked about some of my favorite things but kept the stories and  details to a minimum. I couldn’t figure out how to talk about this trip in a way that captured my experience of it. Still, I’m surprised I haven’t written about it yet. I had even planned to write another article for Rider magazine about it and that hasn't happened.

Last year while unemployed, I received assistance from the government to support myself and got financial help from friends and family.  One of the people who went with me- who I invited along - told me a few days in, how angry he was that I took this help.  His argument was so forceful and so devoid of any compassion that it divided us. I couldn’t understand why his politics were more important than me or our friendship. 

In writing this, I realize that some of my silence about the trip is related to my shame about my financial situation that year and the fact that I needed help. I wanted the support of my friend.  I couldn’t believe I had let someone who was so selfish and mean get so close to me. I was angry I had given him my friendship and that he chose not to support me when I needed it most. We haven’t seen each other since. While there, I had put all those feelings about him aside so I could enjoy the trip. While it was only a small part of what happened while there, I can see now how much it impacted me.

As I sit here typing, I peer outside to see a mail truck door slide open and my carrier reaching inside.  Soon I will hear her footsteps on my porch stairs and the metal latch on my mailbox open as she slips my mail inside.  A year ago, this is what I would have seen and heard. Now, after one year into my nursing job with the Postal Service, I see so much more. I notice she is dressed appropriately for the weather and that her footwear is sturdy and protective. I notice that her satchel is positioned across her body to distribute the weight. I know she has been trained to use it to fend off a dog attack if necessary. She is careful to finger her mail while stationary to avoid tripping.  Her boxy white vehicle is referred to as an LLV (Long-Life Vehicle) and she has parked it strategically to avoid being hit. 

Once, years ago, I ran into this carrier at the grocery store. Although we had waved, I had never spoken to her while she was delivering my mail.  In the store I walked up to her and told her I thought she was my carrier.  She asked for my address and when I told her, she described my house to me! I didn’t know until then how much carriers know about the neighborhoods they work in.

So I have established myself as an Occupational Health Nurse and while I hadn’t forseen my career moving in this direction, I have enjoyed the change. In my office at work I keep framed pictures from Peru nearby.  One is a close-up of the architectural details of a building in Arequipa.  Another picture is a view from a mountain road overlooking the mountains in the distance. 

 When I think back to Peru, there are things I hope I never forget.  Like how it felt as though I was riding through a watercolor painting because the beauty of the landscape was so overwhelming. In fact, I often found myself riding along with tears streaming down my face.  There was a simplicity to life in Peru that drew me in.  Our lunch stops were leisurely as we waited for our meals to be prepared - either soup or meat. While riding in the mountains we saw homes with thatched roofs that stood amid fields surrounded with square plots outlined in rocks. 

I saw fields being plowed with oxen and sown by hand.  Once while riding along, I saw a farmer reaching into his sack for a fistful of grain. I watched his arm move back and forth again and again in a rhythmic pattern, the seeds spraying forth from his hand with each swing of his arm.  He had done this a thousand times before.  

Streams flowed down mountains and ran right over the roads; the engineers hadn’t bothered to find another route for the water but instead let it take its natural course. (There is a tiny red dot in the center of the picture- that is Lars on his bike approaching the waterfall.)

I've only described a few of the many moments where I was lost in time, lost in the experience of it all. While I know that reading about it isn't the same as experiencing it, I nevertheless feel an urgency to communicate more about what happened for me while I was in Peru. It’s a siren call pulling me back and encouraging me to bring others along with me, too. The photos I have are a vivid reminder of how much I saw in one day, how many places and people, how many mountains.

At work and at home, I've settled back into ordinary life. Preparing meals, cleaning the house, making phone calls, shuffling paper. I'm grateful for an interesting job and that the difficult choices I made last year allowed me to keep my home. I am still working to pay off some debts but it feels manageable. A few weeks ago, I had the option of signing up to contribute to charities through payroll deduction. The decisions came easy and included one organization that fights homelessness. I have spent the last year continuing to grow in my relationship with Tom, a fellow rider who also came on the trip. We talk often about our time there and plan to visit more places together. Things are good in my life, steady and stable, but there is something missing. I think it's back in Peru.

I have talked about the roads, the landscape, the people and yet still I have not mentioned the feeling of place while there. I could have focused the whole post on this one aspect of Peru. Some directors understand this concept so thoroughly that it becomes a character in their films. While I know of this, I hadn’t experienced it until I was in Peru. The feeling of the land there was as much a part of the trip as anything that happened while I was there. The land itself was like the protagonist in a novel. It was the thing through which all was experienced and around which all things unfolded.

One morning I was riding along a straight stretch of road. Off to my right there was a vast expanse of flatland with herds of vicuna roaming about.  (These are deer like animals). On my left side, a mountain rose up out of the land. My eyes were continually drawn to look upon it. With its jagged and rocky face, it became personified.  Although the mountain was one thing among many in the landscape, its presence was palpable.  The lure of it was so strong that I finally pulled off the road so I could capture it with my camera. It would not be ignored. (And of course the picture does not capture the feeling it imparted to as we rode by it.)

For those of you accustomed to traveling in the Appalachian or the Rocky Mountains, this account might seem strange. Let me assure you, it was strange to me as well. Despite numerous trips through other mountain ranges, I had never had a personal encounter with a single mountain. I’d never felt one reach out and pull me toward it. But that is what happened in Peru. And it wasn’t just this one mountain. They were everywhere.  In fact, you’ve likely seen the most famous one in pictures of Machu Picchu. If you’ve never noticed it before, take a look.

Can you see how the mountain seems to stare down into the grassy "town" below it? This isn’t just the perspective of the photograph- it’s what you feel while standing in front of it. There is an ancestral quality to it. Pure and simple, it’s sacred.

I’m glad I finally took some time to write about this trip. Keeping so much of it to myself for so long must have been necessary on some level.  But I have to come out  from behind my desk at the office and stare into those pictures a little more often.  I can hear these mountains calling out to me. I know they have more to tell me if only I'll listen.  Perhaps you'd like to come along, too?