The Sands of Peru

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Crossing the border into Peru wasn’t entirely what I expected. Not that I expected to arrive in the midst of a crowd of people wearing knit alpaca sweaters, playing flutes and riding llamas, it’s just that I didn’t expect so much sand. There was also a lot more wind than I expected which, when coupled with the humungous, endless seas of sand, creates a set of problems all its own.

Crossing the border was easy enough and soon I was on my way through coastal northern Peru and I noticed it was a lot more arid than I’d expected. The first stop was for gas, where the bike labored to start to no avail. This border town was almost unfathomably dusty and run-down. It was honestly difficult to tell whether every building in the city was under construction or in the process of being torn down. Maybe they were falling down while under construction?

I wasn’t sure what the problem with the motorcycle was. I knew for sure, however, that sitting in the dust-blown parking lot of a gas station wasn’t going to solve the problem, so I wheeled the bike about 100 yards down the street to what looked like a mechanic working outside of a garage. He was a short, compact guy in jeans and a blue work shirt with thick, grease-stained hands. He looked to be about 60 years old, but could have been much younger. It was tough to tell the age of his face underneath the grease smudges and streaky dirt. An old battered tuk-tuk lay on its side in the yard with one wheel off and tools strewn around in the dirt while the mechanic wrenched away at a chain and sprocket assembly.

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A tuk-tuk is a popular three wheeled conveyance used as a taxi. It’s similar to a rickshaw, with the front end and engine of a moped providing power by a chain drive to the rear wheels. They run the gamut from custom painted, chrome-plated works of art, to lurching rattletraps with wobbly wheels that look as though they’re held together with rust and bailing wire. This was one of the latter.

The mechanic looked over, set down his crescent wrench, smiled a surprisingly white-toothed smile and walked over. I pantomimed trying to start the engine and made a noise approximating the chugging sound that the starter was now making, rather than its usual quick whirr and purr. We went through some troubleshooting, pulling the fuse and relay for the starter and cleaning the contacts with sandpaper. Each time we tried to start it again the chugging sounds got weaker and farther apart. He pulled the battery from under the seat and held up his finger in a “wait a second” gesture, then pointed to me, then his eyeballs, and then my luggage. The message was clear. I was to wait there and watch my luggage. He bolted the missing wheel back onto the tuk-tuk, rolled it over and disappeared into a wooden shed. Moments later, he was back, holding a dented motorcycle gas tank which he connected with a bolt to the frame of the tuk-tuk, plugged in a fuel line, hopped aboard and kick-started the thing. He held up my battery. “Carga!” he said. “Charge.” And then he disappeared off down the road through traffic.

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I sat there on the side of the road in an ancient wooden chair, wondering when he would return and answering the occasional questions about the motorcycle from passers by. “De donde vienes? Que pais?” I’ve gotten pretty good at those. An hour and a half later, I saw the tuk-tuk racing up the street, the driver/mechanic giving a smile and enthusiastic thumbs-up. He replaced the battery and the Triumph fired right up. “Comprar una nueva.” He said, pointing at the battery and drawing his finger across his throat. “Buy a new one.” He asked for ten dollars for the assistance, but since I had no change, I gave him a twenty-dollar bill and was happy to do it.

I set off for Lima, a place I imagined as an Emerald City full of new batteries, tires, brake pads and oil filters, while hoping the current battery would hold out for another two long days of riding through desert.

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The northern desert was flat, baked clay that looked exactly like the setting for a post-apocalyptic road movie. This huge monochromatic expanse of red clay and settlements of crumbling red brick structures was interrupted only by a Peruvian Air Force base surrounded by a 10-meter tall clay wall topped razor wire and cement guard towers. After passing a natural gas plant spewing a plume of flame, my imagination was getting the better of me, especially knowing that I was riding with a fluky battery. With my mind filled with visions of marauding gasoline pirates and sand-mutants wearing aviator goggles and football pads, I cracked open the throttle even further and the desert landscape began to change: to a different type of desert.

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This new desert was made of giant sand dunes. The wind increased until I was in a full blown sandstorm and the only thing to do was to draw my scarf over my nose and mouth, close the helmet visor and vents tight, and keep riding past the tendrils of sand dunes encroaching over the road. It was remarkably beautiful in a desolate sort of way and far more fun that one might think. All of the people I met during gas and meal stops also seemed remarkably friendly and happy, considering they must live every day of their lives with sand in everything from gritty Rice Crispies in the morning to sandy pajamas at night.

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After two days of this, I arrived in Lima and found a room in a pleasant hotel in a lovely and lively district called Miraflores amongst a mixture of colonial architecture, cathedrals and modern high rises. I left the bike in the capable hands of the Triumph dealer and spent the next several days resting, eating, drinking and sightseeing. By the time the bike was finished on Monday afternoon, I’d gotten the previous days’ sand out of my nose and ears and was ready to head south again in the morning towards Machu Pichu, where I imagine there will be flutes, llamas and alpaca sweaters. I’ll miss the desert, though.

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