I don’t realise what the sound is at first, I think it’s the squeak of floorboards, the tinny sound of a radio in a distant room, birds on the roof. Then it comes to me. Rats, under the floorboards, echoing in the pipes in the courtyard, chattering in a hidden space behind the bathroom walls. The rain has brought them up along with a deathly stench that fills the bedroom every time we open the bathroom door. Eventually we have to buy incense to cover the foul smell and shower quickly under the tepid, dribbling water, holding our breaths and trying not to get electrocuted on the electric shower.
Like Kim Jong Un and atomic weapons, some combinations should be avoided. Water and electricity for example. Most of the world seems fairly enlightened on this subject but Latin America has embraced the electric shower as though electrocution were a standard part of ones daily ablutions. Trying not to breathe too much as the sewagey stink plays at my nostrils, a knuckle clicking shock goes through my hand as I turn off the shower and sours my mood further.
The dingy hostel we are staying in is costing us a bunch and they haven’t even left us any towel swans. Here there are just rodents and electric shocks. What’s more, the building appears to be constructed chiefly from carboard and sellotape and we can hear every word spoken from any part of the hostel at any time of night, namely two in the morning when everyone decides to get festive.
I can’t really remember why we came to Cuenca or, in fact, why we are doing this trip at all. We walk in to town and stand in the latest of many rose trimmed squares listening to the tinkle of yet another beautiful fountain and stare up at the church, sighing. I start wondering how early we can realistically start drinking wine at about 10am but drag Jamie inside the church to try and dispel my alcoholic notions.
The church is actually a huge, architecturally mishmashed cathedral that leaves the visitor feeling as if they are wandering through the open jaws of a blue whale. It’s massive and we stand by the door for a moment listening to the choir warming up. There is a warm, golden light filling the building born of the many candles lit around the edges and the bright stained glass windows studding the walls. I stand by the candles looking listlessly at the flows of molten wax and listening to the soft, grainy dispersion of the singers voices in the huge space. I am trying to love it in here, trying to hold on to a snippet of something memorable but my heart’s not really in it so we slip out of the huge doors and go to the contemporary art museum instead.
For a while we are the only visitors to the immaculately preserved, colonial building and it’s nice to feel the ringing silence behind my footsteps as I wander through the courtyard. Jamie has gone to look at a confusing installation of planks of wood covered in small, shiny objects clearly found on the street and besides, we are cross with each other having bickered on the way here. So I am alone, walking swiftly past an array of work that alludes to something meaningful but in reality looks more like an end of year art show curated by chemistry students. A telling moment comes when Jamie finally catches me up to find that I am intently studying the adobe brick wall which, to me, contains more nuance and skill that any of the art works on show. Little pieces of scorched bone and five hundred year old twigs stick out from the hardened adobe. Dry grasses striate across the surface, mixed carefully in with mud and clay, chips of flint, broken pottery all by the unknown hands of someone long dead and forever unknown. Jamie softens a bit when he finds me, nose to the wall and I manage a smile which sees us through the odd old cathedral museum which is essentially, the old cathedral with an entrance fee.
Strolling to a bar later we finally get to indulge in those glasses of red wine and, in Jamie’s case, some rugby from the not so subtle corner of his eye. We sit in the bar together sipping our drinks, chatting a little, but to me it feels like we are simply hiding from the world outside and the thought leaves me a little bereft. I think of London, all those many miles away, of England, of cups of tea and a pint in the pub and I feel squashed under a great weight of homesickness. We walk home under the street light watching everyone else stream past us and when we get back, the walls are reverberating with voices from the kitchen, the bathroom stink has seeped under the door and soon I find myself rigidly lying in bed, teeth clenched trying to maintain as much distance as possible between myself and my dear beloved.
The argument breaks out over very little and we rattle and rail at one another, flouncing from the room, returning, shouting a bit. We pour all the woes of the last week or two in to our hands and fling them at each other until we are both tired and silent, lights out, wondering what on earth we are doing here. The little fiesta in the kitchen goes on and on getting louder with each can of beer they drink. By midnight I am wondering if there are any other hotels nearby. By one I am wondering if we can get a refund and by two I am considering murder. They finally quieten down at some point and I manage four hours sleep before we have to get up and leave, sandy eyed and silent while I climb in to my bike gear.
Chicken soup solves everything though. We ride out of Cuenca the next day as the sun is rising and soon find ourselves grudgingly admiring the gorgeous scenery and admitting maybe we might quite like some breakfast. We have to wait for some time because we have both tuned each other out with our respective iPods and it’s not until David Byrne points it out to me that I realise we really are on the road to nowhere. There is nowhere for miles around apart from one dusty petrol station where the only food available is, if I have understood correctly, cheese flavoured fudge.
The mountains are dusted in a soft yellow pink light with the rising sun and stretch far in to the distance all around us. The road scampers playfully around them jigging us left and right, over bumps then zooming downhill before lifting us back up and popping us back up in to the sky, gazing down at the world below us. I feel the sludgy regret of yesterday peeling off me and fluttering away behind the bike. I look at the flags that Jamie has stuck to the back of his helmet and count ten. A tiny, scrabbling feeling hits me, I think it might be pride. I look in the wing mirror at Jamie, who has ridden all 13,000 miles of this journey. I squeeze him on the shoulders and hope it conveys some of the feeling to him. He gives my left knee a squeeze in return. It is another couple of hours until we notice the sunshine filtering through the rising smoke of a legion of blackened cooking pots by the road.
Some twenty or thirty women all sporting bowler hats and long, black plaits are busy stirring these great, smoke stained cauldrons, chatting, ordering children out the way and shooing away slinking dogs inside a long, open fronted hut built from bamboo. They watch us with interest as we drive past, double back and park on the hard shoulder, as appears to be custom here, and emerge from our helmets to stare back at them.
Shall we give it a go?
Says Jamie and with a nod and a skip, we cross the road and make ourselves comfortable at a gnarly wooden table where a couple are eating with their young child. I order us two chicken soups, hot chocolates and a round, bready thing. We are presented a few moments later with steaming bowls of clear broth, each sporting a submerged chicken drumstick, a bowl of steamed yucca, two jugs of the local hot chocolate and a cup of coffee each. The woman beside us quietly pushes a plate of chopped onion and coriander towards us which we sprinkle in to the soup in handfuls, along with fresh lime juice and the first big smiles of the day.
There’s nothing like chicken soup is there?
I say to Jamie. He takes a big slurp and nods his head enthusiastically.
And we sit for a while, dabbing our soupy chins with napkins and watching the ladies cook. They have built wooden tables which have been lined thickly with great, cracked slabs of clay upon which a wood fire has been built. The ancient, soot blackened pots are nestled in the burning embers bubbling enthusiastically. A skillet for toasting the bready things which turn out to be flour tortillas stuffed with homemade cheese and chilli sauce is attended by another woman who later pops a tortilla in front of us, edges blackened and warmed like the palm of someone’s hand. A guinea pig on a stick is hand turned over the flames, brushed in a mahogany coloured marinade at intervals and turned some more, it’s little feet stuck in scampering position. The stick pokes out of its mouth giving it a strangely overjoyed expression which I photograph when no one is looking.
Sunlight streams in through the gaps in the bamboo walls, mixing with the smoke and lending the place a dreamy, made up feel. A white dog cringes under the experimental patting of two young boys then slinks from their reach and comes to sit and look longingly at the chicken bones we are gnawing on. The little boys, seeing their canine friends eschew their advances, play on two white plastic chairs pretending they are driving motorbikes. Later, as we leave, they are sat quietly on two stools eating tortillas and looking out at the mountains. We wave goodbye and they manage a bready ‘bye‘ in response, waving their gloved hands. My hair smells of woodsmoke when I put my helmet on and I am feeling serenely happy, warm and full. Like I said, chicken soup solves everything.
Our last night in Ecuador is spent in a hot, dusty little town two hours from the Peruvian border. A big sign saying ‘Catamayo’ lights the central plaza, reminding the residents where they live lest they are prone to sudden attacks of amnesia. The big letters illuminate the passers by as I lean out the window that evening trying to catch some of the hot breeze that rolls in off the mountains. A man on a loud speaker sings about Jesus from the church across the square and the sound of music from the local restaurant follows me to sleep and when Jamie nudges me awake at five, I am momentarily confused. It’s still dark but the music is gone. It takes a moment to realise I have to get up already and say goodbye to Ecuador. We only just got here really but already we are driving out in to the deep blue morning light and waving it goodbye.
The mountains are great, dusty, ancient looking things and soon we are in the desert watching sand encroaching on to the road. A haze of delicate, purple trees softens the edges of the rocky landscape and the scene looks quite beautiful under the low light of the morning. The border approaches and we stand looking across a small ravine to a big Peruvian flag and a sign that says ‘Welcome to Peru’.
I can’t believe we already made it to Peru!
Says Jamie and neither can I. A moment ago we were smacking scavenged coconuts on the rocks in Costa Rica and chasing pizza thieving monkeys and a moment before that, wobbling off the ferry in to the morning light of Mexico. Weren’t we just levering open the crate holding Robin in a carpark outside Toronto? But here we are in the desert, the colour washing away in the sunlight, sand lapping at our boots, looking in to Peru.
We fill in familiar forms, pausing to remember what country we are leaving this time and what city we are headed for. Robin is detailed in a laboriously hand written logbook by a kind man with a moustache who explains the computer system is down and lapses in to a series of oh, god, oh god, oh god’s and slaps his forehead when he sees the amount of paperwork he must fill out. I tell him I hope the computer starts working again soon and he smiles widely, offering us a safe journey and then we are away in to the blanched, shimmering landscape, waving behind us.
The difference between the two countries is immediately apparent. From Ecuador’s neat, carefully finished houses, gated and painted in bright shades, we suddenly find ourselves riding through abject poverty. The windows are tacked over with sacking, the walls built from crumbling, unpainted adobe which is slowly sinking back in to the earth. Shacks are pulled together from scrap, rudimentary fences shakily circled about the property, leaning at angles in the sand. Rubbish is strewn along the edges of the road as far ahead as we can see, plastic shivering, wraith-like in every bush and tree. Filthy collections of tattered carrier bags and styrofoam plates shudder lazily in the breeze and trampled, mud clotted clothes lie in dried up puddles. We are both quiet for a long time, watching the mess whip past us.
We arrive in Piura, a stinking hot city full of surprisingly glossy buildings and expensive cars and check in to a hotel. The accommodation here is expensive, the hotels know they have you in their clutches unless you want a night bedded down in the rubbish strewn sand in the no-mans land beyond, so they make sure you pay for the privelage. It’s not the worst thing we have encountered though, it has to be said. There is a swimming pool where I quickly make a spectacle of myself by falling over on the slippery tiles, there are nice, hot showers and the place is clean bright and glassy. So glassy in fact, that when Jamie leans over to read the set of instructions for guests that we have been given, a loud crunch fills the room. He straightens up quickly to reveal a large crack in the the table top.
I say. He inspects his hand, trying to remove the small shard of glass that has lodged itself in to his palm. The glass had been balanced at it’s corners on four nubby pieces of rubber designed to lift it a fraction from the surface of the table. It’s not the most well considered design I have encountered and the silliness of it makes me irritable. We tetchily bicker at one another about what to do next and all the chicken soup flavoured love drains from the room. Eventually, after much to-ing and fro-ing I go downstairs and try to explain the situation without knowing the words for ‘cracked’, ‘lean’ or ‘stupid nubby things’ in Spanish. To my surprise the woman at reception smiles and tells us not to worry, a man will be right up to take away the broken glass.
Relieved and pleased I say sorry again for good measure and we head out, dismissing our early gripes, to indulge in my main reason for being in Peru, a big plate of ceviche. Piura is where ceviche apparently originated so there are cevicherias everywhere and we sit down in a busy one to be rewarded with two little glasses of warm tiger’s milk. Tiger’s milk is the lime based marinade used to marinade the slices of raw fish in before you gobble it down. Here in Peru, before you start eating, you down a bracing glass of the stuff to warm you up. I have forgotten this and assume it is lemonade and we both take a big swig upon which Jamie starts choking. His eyes stream as he coughs in to a tissue.
Sorry….wasn’t expecting that to be salty….
I say watching his face colour and his eyes well up again.
He manages before coughing some more and requesting some beer to calm things down. He has only just composed himself when two enormous dishes of ceviche appear in front of us. Beautiful, translucent cubes of cool, white fish doused in pale green lime juice, garlic and chilli, topped with thin, purple slices of onion make a rather stunning sight after the miles of desert and traffic clogged streets of Piura and for a while we simply sit and coo at the plates. Each serving comes with a helping of pale, moony yellow lupin seeds and long, spectral slices of yucca buried beneath. To the side, a big, gorgeous cube of orange sweet potato dotted with deep purple spots is coolly sucking up the marinade and shouting eat me on a wavelength only I can hear. So I do. I eat the lot and Jamie’s sweet potato too which he rather miraculously doesn’t want.
Full to bursting and licking our limey lips we head back to the hotel via a cash machine so we can pay. The receptionist smiles again and taps at a calculator before showing us an amount almost twice what we are expecting to pay. She looks at our puzzled faces and explains. This much for the room and that amount there, she points, is for the broken glass. Jamie looks at me and I look at him. His eyes widen and I can see the indignation in his eyes.
Can…there..pero yo…..I got glass in my….I want to see the manager! El el….
His Spanish fails him but the receptionist doesn’t seem to need this translating and she quietly calls a lady down who greets us politely. I start badly translating, a little panicked by the situation, until I realise she is nodding when Jamie speaks.
I say and she nods and smiles. I back away, relieved to be out of the line of fire. I am a confrontationphobe and am absolutely no help to Jamie at all as he tries to stay in control of his feelings. He explains the bad design of the table to the woman and tells her he got glass in hand. He doesn’t think we should pay, he says. She nods again, professionally and informs him that the management insist we pay. This doesn’t go down well and then he does it, he brings out the S word.
If I was American, I would just sue! I got glass in my hand!
He says, his voice a little elevated.
Are you telling me that I have to pay for this when I got glass in my hand?
The manager looks at him for a moment and carefully says,
I don’t want you getting upset about this….this is just what they have told me.
And Jamie visibly blanches.
Of course, it’s not your fault, I know that….but….
And then he does it again.
I could sue for this.
She seems to take him seriously because ten minutes later, back in our room, the phone rings and she asks to speak to Jamie then carefully explains that, of course, the management didn’t understand the situation and that was why they asked us to pay. There will be no charge. Jamie quietly thanks her and hangs the phone up and sits on the bed cross legged.
Well we don’t have to pay!
He says, looking at me sideways. Then he sighs and twiddles his thumbs a little and quietly adds,
But now I’m too embarrassed to go downstairs.