Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Adventure in Andagua Day Four: The Real Death Road

Chachas had the feeling of being closer to civilization than the villages on the other side of the mountains. It's on the mining road, and there's a once daily kombi to Andagua, from where the road connects eventually to the Panamericana and to Arequipa.

We stayed in a spacious attic with about ten beds, sharing the room with the two (noisy) little boys of the host family, and ate downstairs in the comedor. Around the table were men who looked as if they had just come in from the fields, probably because they had. Where were we from, one asked. When I said "New Zealand" he nodded sagely and said (as do about 95% of Peruvians when I say where I'm from) "Ah, a lot of cattle, no?" (the actual word is ganaderia, which means any grazing animal). Not a lot of people here have any idea where New Zealand is, but the majority are aware that it has good pasture.

I concurred - my standard response is "yes, it rains a lot, so the animals get to eat pure grass" (In Arequipa, the cows and sheep make do with alfalfa grown on the irrigated terraces). This guy, however, knew a little more. "You know, when the Majes irrigation project got under way, they used bull semen from New Zealand to breed the cows there" he told me. As it happened, I had read something about this in an online NZ farming publication I had come across by accident a couple of weeks ago, so knew what he was talking about. But I was still quite impressed.

I was almost too tired to sleep properly, in addition to being bothered by the sunburn, insect bites and dust-caked respiratory passages. But it was heaven to at least be in a bed. There's something I learnt on this trip - I'm a confirmed camping wimp. Between a slight claustrophobia, inability to sleep on my back, and a preference for two good pillows, I *really* don't like tents. And I'm not much at pitching them, cooking over a campfire or shitting in the wilderness either. So, I'd really rather walk an extra few hours and arrive at a nice little village where I can sleep in a bed. There - I've admitted it.

Next morning we left the exhausted burro in Chachas and set off to walk the five hours to Andagua. Toño had promised it would be "pure highway" all the way, but in the end we spent just as much time cutting across country and scrambling up and down banks. There's "only" a 400-500 metre gain in altitude from Chachas to Andagua, and the five hours march wasn't much compared to previous days. But, donkeyless, we were walking with fully loaded packs, and it was still pretty tough going.

We were now in the Valley of Volcanoes, a geothermal wonder containing about thirty separate volcanoes. The road wound between old lava flows, twisted mounds of porous rock like chewed-up toffee. The volcanoes themselves were hardly more than little conical hillocks in the desert, about thirty metres high. During one of our cross-country shortcuts Toño pointed out a thin line of bare earth about ten centimetres wide cutting a straight path through the sparse vegetation. It has been there for years, he said. It was certainly not a path for people or animals, as it disappeared into a heap of volcanic rock. So, something of a minor mystery.

Andagua, when we eventually arrived, was a strange little town. Toño commented that it was "poor, sad". The surrounding terrain is rough and infertile, and the atmosphere was different from the simple but verdant villages we had passed through on our travels. The most striking feature were the hedges in the small central plaza which had been clipped, Edward Scissorhands fashion,into the shapes of people and animals.

After lunch in a local comedor we said goodbye to Toño who had to return to Chachas, pick up the burro, then head all the way back to Cabanaconde. He had another three days ahead of him.

For us, it was a somnolent afternoon waiting six hours for the bus to arrive from Arequipa. I chatted to some guys in a 4WD who said they had taken three days to come from Arequipa. Their mission was to work their way through the little villages in back-country Arequipa and establish property titles for people who, by common consensus, owned their dwelling but didn't have an official title to it in Peru's property registers. They were doing urban areas while another team was working on rural properties. I said it sounded like difficult but rewarding work - in the liberal world view having formal title to one's property ought to inspire economic confidence and investment. They agreed, and said that the project was actually being sponsored by the World Bank.

The streets were nearly deserted for most of the afternoon, and it was only when the bus was about to arrive that the village girls appeared with their cheeses, for which I later learned Andagua is well-known. But I had run out of money by this point and wasn't able to sample them.

Though it had been a hard four day's walk, I reckon the most gruelling part of the whole journey was the return trip in the bus. It's 10 hours from Andagua-Arequipa, and I knew the road would be rough. It was - passengers being tossed up and down like rag dolls as we crossed the bumpier bits. This is true torture when it's night and you're dead tired but can't sleep.

I wasn't quite prepared for how steep and narrow it would be, though. It was already dark as we headed out of Andagua and I couldn't see a thing. But couldn't help noticing the bus repeatedly stopping, reversing and then heading downhill again. It was clearly negotiating some pretty tight hairpins...I pulled back the curtain and out the window could see the lights of a small town far below. Between the lights and the bus window was...empty space. I closed the curtain and hoped for the best; it's probably the first time I've felt genuinely scared in public transport.

It was a great relief to arrive at the bottom of the descent and a charming little town of stone streets where we had a break. It was still a way to go on the rough trocha before we joined the tarseal at Aplao, and I never really looked like sleeping, having time to chat to a public health nurse who sat in the seat next to me for a stretch.

On arrival in Arequipa at an exhausted 3:30 in the morning I made my pledge - no more Andes! But maybe it's what hurts and exhaust you this most that is, in the end, the most memorable.

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