Peru sucked in 1995.
The country was under siege.
The War of Drugs had replaced the War against the Shining Path.
The capitol city Lima was cool, but I had unsuccessfully spent the better part of two days trying to score a bag of cocaine. The airport police fingered me as a user and an undercover squad tailed my ventures into the slums. Their obvious presence had scared off any steerers. To the dealers I was either DEA or a fool.
Ms. Carolina didn't understand my mounting frustration. The golfer pro had been reared in a convent. People like me didn't frequent the 19th hole at country clubs.
The blonde southern beauty and I had been seeing each other for over five years. Her husband was in his late-60s. They had an understanding. Charles had given his wife space to take trips on her own, so she didn’t feel trapped after twenty years of marriage. Ms. Carolina came back with a smile and the small town doctor had a monthly week of peace and quiet. The arrangement had worked for years, except Ms. Carolina had violated an unspoken tenet of her pact by falling desperately in love with me on a winter ski trip.
While the Ten Commandments had no influence over my soul, I had met the old doctor at a party in New York. Charles was a good old boy from the tar forests. He helped people black or white and my rule about never sleeping with the wife or girlfriend of someone I respected was stronger than any law from the Bible.
Charles and his wife were meant for each other and Ms. Carolina deserved better than a nightclub bouncer.
I figured nothing said an affair was over faster than a coke binge in Peru.
The Lima police refused to cooperate.
On our last night in our seaside hotel Ms. Carolina stroked my skin and mewed with pleasure. Convent girls were tough to refuse in the dark, even in their 40s, so I pretended to be asleep.
The next morning I left the hotel and there were no police on the sidewalk. A heavy fog was rolling off the Pacific and I headed over to a plaza in Miraflores, where I noticed several nasty pieces of work hanging on the sidewalk. I approached the one with the best clothing and explained my proposition. I gave him $20 and promised another $80, if he came back.
"Non problema." The dealer shifted his eyes left and right. "Trente minudos."
I sat at a cafe and ordered an expresso. The bastard hadn't shown up by my third. I swore under my breath, thinking I had been ripped off, then spotted the dealer across the plaza. He walked, as if he was carrying the mother lode. We exchanged smiles. My hand went into my pocket. A car screeched to the curb. An undercover squad of 'tomba' hit the pavement and threw us against the wall.
"I am screwed." I muttered several times, but the cops cut us loose.
"Bamba." The lead detective hefted the bag of powder.
"Bamba?" This word didn't register in my lexicon of Peruvian slang.
"Fake." The detective spoke English like he had spent time at a police academy in LA. "You got ripped off. Via con dios."
I returned to the hotel in a black mood.
Ms. Carolina and I had been together long enough for her not to question my mood.
After check-out we exited from the hotel. A black rental Nissan Sentra was waiting outside. I sat in the driver seat. The odometer read 70,000 miles. The steering wheel betrayed the real wear and tear. Lima's potholes had taken their bite from the suspension, but once out of the city the coastal highway was smooth as the surface of a frozen Maine lake.
We drove north along the Pacific, taking turns at the wheel. I acted 'nice' and put CDs in the stereo. Ms. Carolina liked my music as we passed through a desert without houses or no trees, only a few giant chicken farms with millions of chickens pooping out eggs into basket for capitol's consumption dotted the sand expanse far from the rare towns huddled next to streams flowing with the Andes glacial melt.
According the guide book the Sechuran Desert received close to no rain each year.
The ocean was a dark blue mystery. The Humboldt Current surged south from the Arctic. Balboa had named it 'Pacific' as a joke. The waves crushed ships on desolate shores, doldrums starved men to death, and storms sucked armadas to the fathomless depths.
I went for a swim at a nameless beach. The cold water stun my skin. Seals surfed the waves. Ms. Carolina took pictures. She was happy. It would have been easy to make her sad, but I kept my mouth shut, as she handed me a towel.
Back on the road Ms. Carolina handed me a Pilsen Callao. The bottle was icy cold and I thanked my passenger.
"You're a good traveler companion."
"Is that all, precious?" She only said the words precious to dogs, children, and people who annoyed her.
"Why?" It was a question a man is never supposed to ask of a woman.
"Because there's also this." She held up a bag of green leaves and explained with a southern accent, "Coca. I know it's not what you want, but it's the best I could do with my limited habla espanol."
"Okay, you're a saint too." I stuck a wad of dried leaves in my cheek.
Breaking up was hard to do with a woman this nice.
"That's what I thought too." She smiled and joined my predilection for epiphany.
The coca and the beer loosened my tongue.
I recounted Pizarro's conquest of the Incan Empire. His march in 1532 had traversed the coastal wasteland. "His troops numbered less that 200. They headed into the mountains and found the Royal Incan at a place now known as Baños del Inca. For some reason Atahualpa and his army of 80,000 were defeated by a sneak attack on the king. They later garroted the Incan when he didn't give them more gold."
"Nice people." Ms. Carolina loved hearing my shortened versions of history and smart enough to absorb the parts that sounded almost true.
"You know that coca makes you real talky, precious."
She was right and I said, "Pass me a beer, please."
Like Pizarro we left the coast and drove east into the mountains. The road to Huarez wound through an arid valley walled by ever-steeper cliffs to arrive on the high plain with the horizon blocked by snow-covered mountains.
This was the first sight of the Andes for both of us and Ms. Carolina lowered the window of the rented car to admire the sun gleaming off impressive peaks.
"Mind if I drive?"
"How are you feeling?" I asked Ms. Carolina.
Traveling in rural Peru was more dangerous than Lima, since the local motorists drove as if they were used to empty roads. They passed on blind corners and sped through switchbacks with deadly intent. Being a defensive driver I anticipated their every stupid move with an almost ESP alacrity.
"Fine." She sounded a little dreamy.
"Good, the coca makes it easier to breath at this altitude." We were 3000 meters above sea level, which was higher than most of the Rockies.
"You want me to drive?"
"No, I'm good." The surface of the valley road was impeccable and she said, "You enjoy the view."
She loved the mountains and we arrived in Huaraz in the late afternoon. Our hotel was cheap, but cheerful and we sat on the roof drinking wine and examining the map for the next day's travels.
Ms. Carolina held THE ROUGH GUIDE TO PERU. She loved reading about where she was to learn the history and geography. As the sun set the temperature dropped, but we were warm in our alpaca sweaters purchased at the city's farmers' market.
"Those mountains are the Cordillera Blanca.
About fifty miles north of here a road crossed the Andes to descend into the Amazon jungle.
"It's probably dirt and none of it good. I bet fewer than ten westerners travel it each year."
A couple of years before the trip would have been too dangerous. The Shining Path had ruled the Andean highlands. Their president had been captured by the military and there was no number two to take over the role of leader for the Maoists.
"What are you thinking?" She fluttered through the guide book without finding any references to the region. It was terra incognito.
"It might take two days from here and back to Lima." I spit out a gigantic chaw of coca, which hit the tiled roof below us with a splat.
"Then I'm all for it." Ms. Carolina tried to imitate by projectile gobbing. The green goop rolled down her chin onto her new sweater. Girls from convent schools were terrible at spitting.
"Good thing your sweater is green." I brushed the dregs from the alpaca with my sleeve. She laughed at the absurdity of this gesture and we clinked glasses to honor the possibilities of tomorrow's trip.
The Olluquito con charqui accompanied our excellent dinner of lake trout. The waiter hailed from Matibamba. He pointed it on the map. His hometown town was on the other side of the Andes.
"No one goes there. Only people leave." His eyes clouded with suspicion, as if we might be DEA.
"We're not the police." Ms. Carolina had changed into a lovely traditional dress. Her smile reconverted him to our side. She knew how to treat men and bought him a beer.
"How's the road?"
"Road? Malo. Muy malo e mucho peligroso." He begged us to only visit the twin glacial lakes east of Yungay. "Very beautiful same."
"Muchos gracias." She toasted him for braving his fears as well as his compliment.
Gringos were never good luck in Latin America.
As we retired to our room, Ms. Carolina hooked her arm with mine.
High altitudes played havoc with hard drinking. Now was not the time to say that we were over. I kissed her with the tenderness of a sailor about to leave his port and fell into bed as soon as we reached our room. I didn't have to fake going to sleep.
At dawn I stood on the veranda and watch the sun glow over marshmallow white glaciers cloaking the Andes. Some of the mountains rose to 6000 meters plus. Their names came from the Quechuan language.
Stone fireplace, hummingbird beak of ice, and the butcher were just a few.
Climbing those monster were for experts.
Driving through them was strictly for fools.
Ms. Carolina put on her explorer outfit. The pants and shirt had an excess of pockets. I wore jeans and a leather jacket. This was a road trip and not a safari, then again she was a woman and women like looking good in case they have to get dirty and handed her a wide-brimmed hat.
"I like that hat."
"The sun is strong up there."
"But I feel like I'm traveling with Indiana Jones."
"Sore sport." She threw me my Red Sox cap. "Jock."
It was a not good way to start the morning and we left the room.
While she ate breakfast, I filled the gas tank and had a mechanic check the engine and tires. When I told the mechanic my destination, he wished me luck.
His comment reinforced my opinion that crossing the Andes in a rented car was plain old stupid.
But we weren't turning back, but it was asunny day.
Ms. Carolina got provisions for the journey. She had been born in the Adirondacks. Camping in the north woods required planning. Bad weather killed fools.
"You know I've been thinking about this trip." We had another fifteen days in Peru. This drive might eat two or five.
"Listen you always play that Steppenwolf song for me." She got in the car and motioned for me to get behind the wheel. AS I snapped on my seatbelt, Ms. Carolina said, "That singer sings 'looking for adventure and whatever comes our way. I didn't come here with you to stay at the Holiday Inn and drink chardonnay. Let's see whatever comes our way. What the worst thing that can happen?"
"We get stuck in a remote town and kidnapped by banditos."
"I was thinking about something less worst."
"We get stuck in the remote town and have to tow the car back to Lima."
"Now that's not a worst worst."
"Running out of coca leaves."
We supplemented the coca in our cheeks and I started the car, thankfully we were set for an emergency.
The road to Yungay was well maintained by work crews. They were happy for the work and good at it. Ms. Carolina lay the map on her lap and held the guide book in her hands.
"Yungay was destroyed by a glacier avalanche in 1970. Over 70,000 people were killed. The town was buried under ten meters of debris." She read the facts and I spotted the slide.
Twenty-four years later a mile-wide scar marked the slope under Mount Huascarán.
"Looks safe today." I turned right and the dirt road weaved through the fertile farmlands into a pine forest and then a series of switchbacks. I kept the speed under 20 to avoid potholes and roads. Several battered cars covered with dust came from the other direction. A relic of a bus appeared at a corner. The passengers waved to us. There were no towns at the lakes, so they had to be coming from the other side of the Andes.
"That's a good sign."
"What?" Ms. Carolina studied the valley floor for car wrecks. She suffered slightly from vertigo, but the coca was working a miracle to calm her fear of heights, however when the Sentra squeaked around a hairpin curve and it was my turn to feel the fears.
We rose into the chasm with the sensation of sinking, as the twin giants topped with millennia of snow and ice loomed over the road. They were close enough to shiver from the cold trembling off their unattainable summits.
More vehicles came from the east.
"Those cars are coming from where we want to go."
"Good." Her lungs were wheezing from the lack of oxygen.
"Are you okay?" I played three hours of streetball every day back in New York. My chest rivaled the width of Henry VIII and he was a fat man. Aided my the coca leaves I was fine.
"A slight migraine that's all." Ms. Carolina was a sport, but high altitude sickness was no joke.
"If it gets worst let me know."
The road leveled out for two azure lakes glistening under the high Andean sun. We parked the Nissan by the side of a creek spilling into Laguna Llaganuco. Shredded clouds fingered the cliffs and the sun blistered the lake surface with mirrored flashes of light. I stripped off my clothes and told Ms. Carolina, "I'm going for a swim."
"It has to be cold." The water was straight off a glacier.
"It's a purification rite." My anti-Catholicism didn't interfere with my spirituality. I wore my shoes into the water. The beach was water-smoothed stone. I leapt from the shore. The cold was deeper than a plunge into a Bar Harbor beach in March. Ice crackled my capillaries and I stroked back to the shore. Ms. Carolina spread a huge towel on the stones. I shuddered for several minutes before regaining the power of speech.
"Cold?" She handed me a glass of pisco. Ms. Carolina knew how to treat a man.
Stupid ones too.
"Fucking cold." I lay on my back.
Ms. Carolina lay next to me. She was warm. We were close to the sun. Ten minutes later I was on my feet. I pointed to the top of the pass.
"Beyond that the unknown." I dressed in my dry clothes and sat behind the steering wheel. I turned up the heat.
"You want me to drive?" Ms. Carolina was genuinely concerned about my condition.
"No, I'm good." My hands were shaking from the effects of exposure and I chewed more coca leaves. They weren't helping and I put the car in drive. "I'll take it slow."
Several cars passed us. They knew the road and I increased the speed to 30 mph to keep up with them. I looked out the window. The valley of lakes disappeared under a cloud bank. We were at flight altitude.
"Precious, keep your eye on the road."
"Yes, boss." I turned my head to scowl at her. The car scrapped over a rock with a screech of metal. The stench of gas filled the car. Ms. Carolina smelled it too.
I got out of the car and lay on the dirt. Gas spewed from a gash in the tank. My attempts to staunch the flow with electrical tape were failures. I stood up and looked up the road. The pass was obscured by a thick fog. It might be snow.
"We have to turn back. We have a full tank and it should get us back to Yungay. At worst we can roll down the mountain."
"On the road, I hope." She lifted her hand. "Just trying to be funny."
"Ha, ha." My humor was diminished by the prospect of having the rental car towed back to Lima. I gave up trying to estimate how much that would cost in my head. "That was my bad. I'll pay whatever it cost."
"This is not a 'me' world, but a 'we' world. 50/50. Let's get going before I have to push us."
I drove down past the lakes. They were as beautiful the second time as the first, but we didn't stop for photographs and the Nissan rocked through the potholes and shivered across the ruts. The gas meter read half-full.
We made Yungay with a quarter tank to spare.
I asked a local woman about a mechanic. She pointed around the corner. The building was surrounded by wrecks and scavenged hulks. There was no way that I was leaving the Nissan here. The three men in the garage lifted their heads from a V8 block. The oldest man was sealing a crack in between two cylinders with an acetylene torch. He sniffed the air with a knowledgeable nose and turned off the torch.
I stepped out of the car. The boss signed for his young helpers to take a break. They lit up cigarettes and the older man shouted at them in rapid Spanish. Admonished by his tirade they put out the cigarettes.
The older man shook his head and wiped his grimy hands on grimier overalls. His eyes squinted in the bright sunlight like his mind was calculating the price of his solution to my problem. The passenger door opened behind me and his eyes shifted over my shoulder.
The boss bowed his head with a polite deference.
Blonde hair the color of the sun was an abnormality in the high Andes and the boss offered her a chair, then quickly examined the gas tank after which he explained in passable English, “This not big problema. Road bad. Rock cut tank. I fix. Take out tank. Empty petrol. Seal hole with solder. Turn tank back upside down. Car OK. Good idea.”
“What is plan numero two?” I asked to re-establish my standing as the man here, not Ms. Carolina. It was a futile effort.
“Plan two?” The mechanic smirked at my question. “Plan numero two I go to Lima. Get new tank.”
“Si mucho caro. Plan numero uno est better.”
“Very good idea. How much?” Carolina got to the point.
The man held up two fingers. I thought $200 was a rip-off, but he smiled and said, “$20.”
“Very good idea.” Ms. Carolina shook his hand.
None of his grime came off on her hand.
Goddesses were above dirt.
The man introduced himself as Chocho, “I like Chocolate.”
“Who doesn’t,” Ms. Carolina told our host that I was her husband. The lie was easier than explaining the truth.
Chocho ordered beers.
The two young man jacked up the Nissan and yanked off the tank, as Ms. Carolina shot photos of the mechanic and his children. He laughed hearing about our wanting to see the other side of the mountain.
“Nothing there. No hotels. No beer. Nada. Everyone leave there. Come here or go to Lima.” He clapped his hands and ordered his children to leave the garage, as the young men drained the gasoline into a plastic bucket. They hauled the empty tank into the courtyard and our new friend advised that we get something to eat.
“Senora, better you not here, if tank go boom.”
His fingers flicked up to aid our visualizing his plan # 1 going bad.
“Not worry. If go boom. We do plan two.”
The two young men didn’t join his laughter. I didn’t think it was funny, but Ms. Carolina laughed so hard that she swallowed her cud of coca leaves, which stuck in her throat. Chocho slapped his palm on her back and she expelled the wad across the street to strike the wall with the intensity of a bazooka shell hitting the side of a Panzer tank.
“I guess I went boom boom.”
Her joke got a rib-ripping chortle from Chocho and we had a classic Peruvian lunch of cuy chactado and olluco, roasted pig and Andean tubers along with roasted peppers. After several glasses of pisco Chocho looked at his watch.
“Car finish. You can go now. You go to other side of mountain?”
“No, I think we’ve gone far enough.”
"Si. a gas tank can only be flipped one time."
The repair looked good to my eyes and Ms. Carolina paid Chocho, then tipped the two young boys $5US, which was a good day’s pay in this part of Peru. I thanked them for their help with two baseball caps. The three of them waved good-bye, as we pulled out of the garage and Ms. Carolina checked the air with a quick sniff.
The air smelled of the ancient Andes.
“And they put what they took out back in the tank.”
The Nissan had a quarter tank.
“So what the plan?”
“Head to the coast and then back to Lima. Chilbote is a city with two bays."
"I’m sure they have good fish.”
“Me too, but you know I came down here for a reason and it wasn’t a coke binge.” I had to tell her my feelings. The word love was dead on my lips.
“Honey.” Ms. Carolina lifted her hand. “We’ve been together five years. I think I know what goes on in that little head of yours. Not everything, but sometimes you’re easier to read than a comic book.”
“You’re a man. I’m a woman. You’re a comic book. I’m a mystery.” Her sunglasses hid her eyes, but there were no tears, despite the hurt warbling in her voice. “We had a good time. We can still have good times, but only on two conditions.”
“Which are?” My mind shuffled through the possibility of conditions like a card shark.
“No explanations. They don’t change anything and second as long as you never introduce me as a ‘friend’, I can live with being an ex-lover.” She caressed my hand. “Can you live with that?”
“I only want to make you happy.”
“You want to make me happy, then give me that bag of coca leaves.”
She stuck a clump of coca in her cheek and I put Jess Winchester's’s YANKEE LADY on the stereo and sang the words with Ms. Carolina joining me on the chorus. The insurmountable mountains paraded down the valley to the sea and the sun dazzled off their peaks. It was a good day to be on the road.