The Breath of the Desert and Driving Through Limbo

Puerto Maldonaldo, Perù

I’ve returned to the Amazon; in fact, I’m at nearly the same latitude as Guyaramerìn, only in Perù, and the Madre de Dios is part of the same estuary complex as the Mamorè. A series of random occurrences took place that ended with me arriving here last week, instead of Cusco, my original destination a few hours to the west.

My last post ended with the desert farm near Moquegua; we shall begin from there.

I was walking along the side of the main street of Moquegua; it was hot, windy, and I had a terrible sunburn that I had gotten on my arms and the back of my neck the previous day while jumping the Bolivia-Chile border.

The sun in southwest Perù is brutal; sometimes it feels as if no matter how thoroughly I cover my neck and arms with clothing, the rays still manage to worm their way in like a cat flattening its body to slip under a hole in the fence. I squinted against the brightness as I trode along the dusty road, choking on the occasional puff of exhaust from passing motorcycles and mototaxis.

I walked for maybe forty-five minutes; a mototaxi gave me a mercy ride to the end of town, and I was soon out of the sandy, motorcycle-clogged streets of Moquegua. The road wound around a bend and twisted its way in a northerly direction into the dry Andean foothills.

A ride was short in coming; a beat-up old Volkswagon pulled over, and I jogged quickly up to the ancient beetle and pulled open the creaky door.

Inside was Felix and his assumed wife/girlfriend. There was no front seat, so I squeezed rather awkwardly into the back seat with the woman. Felix popped the clutch and the old bug chugged off into the hills.

Felix owned a farm, apparently. I was curious as to how one could farm anything in these lifeless hills, so Felix invited me over to have a look. After about a twenty minute drive, we arrived to a small house built into the side of a uniform tan hillside.

‘Here we are,’ said Felix. ‘Go on, get out and have a look around.’

I pulled open the rusty door and stepped out, a warm, dry wind whipping through my hair. We walked to the edge of the hillside. Arranged in the classic ‘vertical farming’ style of the mountainous farmer were rows and rows of many different types of plants. At the tops of each hillside were black hoses, from which water trickled out and ran like a small waterfall down the incline. Along with the crops grew lush, green grass around the edges of the water to a distance of about two feet; after that, the ground returned to its usual lifeless state.

‘We grow many different crops here; but the majority is cactus. Harvest is year-round, and the demand is high, so we can make a decent wage per month,’ said Felix. ‘Well, would you like to go down and get a closer look?’

We set off down the steep hillside. I asked him where the water comes from; this place wasn’t exactly a rainforest. Felix told me that there was a stream a few kilometers away, from which they (and the other farmers in the area) were able to draw sufficient amounts of the liquid life. He said there was a very nice waterfall there, so after I finished surveying the crops I went to have a look.

The route to the falls started at the top of a large hill, at the bottom of which was located the falls themselves. The trail wound about for quite a long ways, but the side of the hill had many rocks sticking out of it, making it an easy climb. I headed straight down, the dull, faraway roar of the falls echoing oddly out of the otherwise totally silent valley.

About halfway down, I could see the top of the falls. Two thirds down and I could see all the way to the bottom, where frothy whitecaps roiled about in the pool at the base.

A desert waterfall is a peculiar sight to behold; all around as far as the eye can see are barren, lifeless hills, and yet at the waterfall there is an explosion of life. Grasses, shrubs, even small trees sprout from the pool at the base, while lichens and mosses take root on the rocks of either side, from the pool all the way to the top.

The roar of the falls is the breath of the desert; here escapes the life that is aching to explode into existence, life otherwise crushed under the vindictive hand of a desiccated wasteland. The rolling sands of the faraway dunes, doomed to forever subsist alone in austere loneliness, dream of a day when the winds blow them here to moisture, to purpose, to life.

The desert breathed in enormous gasps; shallow breaths are never uttered and are not permitted. The mists of the falls drifted wispily around in the otherwise dry air, hanging for a moment before settling on the surrounding rocks and evaporating in the intense ultraviolet rays of the unforgiving sun.

I sat and listened to the breath of a place I had been sure had no life. What breathes cannot be dead; I found myself entirely proved wrong.

The falls occupied a few hours of time and I returned to the farm about an hour before nightfall, the roar of life fading to a whisper as I returned to the top of that dusty hillside. Felix invited me to stay for the evening since night was fast approaching, and I accepted his offer and took my bag into the small, one-room building.

Later we ate dinner as we watched the sun set over a majestic plateau which dominated the western horizon. The intense orange colors of the setting sun bathed the undulating hills in a fiery light, giving the land an appearance of being in the midst of flaming apocalypse. As the plateau blocked the last of the light, darkness set in quickly.

The night sky is our window to the unknown. A sparkling, crystal-clear swath of stars and planets spattered the clear heavens with an air of unconquerable mystery. The desert is truly the best place to stargaze; The Milky Way lies splashed across the centre of the sky from one horizon to the other, while the innumerable glitters of faraway heavenly bodies dot nearly every unoccupied blank space. It is commonplace to see meteors zipping furtively across the cosmos, some of them even having coloured tails of brilliant green, red, or blue.

I retired early that night, as I hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep since I was in La Paz. The next morning I woke to find that Felix had gone for the day and I was left with only a few of the hired hands that lived and worked there. Felix apparently was not coming back until the next day, so I found myself quite stranded; the nearest town was quite a long ways away, and the small road on which the farmhouse was located received very little traffic.

I didn’t mind; I could use an extra days’ rest, and this farm was a very nice little spot. I spent the days helping plant some new crops and moving around the irrigation hoses.

The next day Felix arrived, albeit a bit late. At about five p.m. he drove me another twenty kilometers to where there were apparently ‘lots of camiones to Puno.’ I got out and said goodbye and began walking.

Within the hour night fell, and I found myself walking in rather complete darkness on a winding, uphill road into the dry foothills, which were rapidly becoming real mountains. Few vehicles passed me, and the occasional semi truck didn’t look twice at me as it ground its gears on the ascent into the mountains.

Felix had dropped me off while I was still in a valley; the road went straight up into the highest parts of local terrain. I was able to see the lights of the trucks passing ten kilometers ahead of me, because while the road was ten kilometers long, it was simply ten kilometers winding straight up the mountainside. In reality they were only about one or two clicks away; I thought about trying to climb straight up the mountainside to save walking distance, but it was rather sheer and very dark. I resigned myself to just walking.

Twist, turn, curve, coil. The road seemed truly endless, and the lights of the town at the bottom of the valley faded to a weak glimmer in the darkness. After nearly three hours I had reached the top of the mountain; on the other side the road continued eternally to the north. There was nothing to do but keep going, and so the last of the lights disappeared beneath the profile of the mountain as I continued onward in darkness on the other side.

Another hour and I was still walking; caravans of four, five vehicles would motor on by without so much as a flicker of brake lights. Didn’t they realize I’d just walked up the entire mountain and was now nearly at the bottom of the other side, all the while lugging my increasingly heavy pack with me?

Finally, around eleven-thirty, someone stopped. It was public transportation headed to Puno, and luckily they let me aboard for free. I collapsed onto one of the passenger seats and went to sleep.

We arrived to Puno around two in the morning. The driver dropped me off at the bus station and told me that it was a good place for me to spend the night. I thanked him and went inside, the cold mountain air of this town on the shores of Lake Titicaca biting into my exposed skin.

The inside was considerably warmer; I was hungry, so I went just outside the station and busked with my harmonica to the occasional passerby.

Playing blues by yourself on a C harmonica in a deserted bus station at two-thirty in the morning is pretty much as stereotypically homeless as you can get; it’s a lonely task, but the music helps. Tiny amounts of change trickled into my tin cup every now and then; ten, twenty, fifty centimos. Then the security guard tossed in two soles, so I packed up the harp and went inside and bought a late night hobo-snack: dry bread, a few old doughnuts, and a cup of hard, black coffee.

After I dined I sneaked up to the dark and deserted second floor, rolled out my sleeping bag and blanket, and slept until around five-thirty when the owner of the restaurant I was sleeping in front of woke me up with his opening duties. He was nice and gave me three pieces of sliced white bread and a cup of coffee before I headed out towards Cusco.

I left the station just as the sun was peeking over the lake; today was market day in Puno, and farmers from every corner of the hills had come to the main street to peddle their crops on blankets and tarps spread out on the street.

The early-morning market is a thousand different smells all at the same time; from one angle you sniff the earthy smell of freshly harvested potatoes; turn your head a fraction to the left and the sharp odor of onions invades your nostrils and makes your eyes water. Here we smell sugar from the cotton-candy machine, the aroma of frying meat from the old woman making empanadas. A passing motorcycle brings the scent of exhaust, followed by the fragrance of boiling corn.

The entire main street is lined; by six-thirty, nearly everyone has arrived and sits tightly bundled against the morning cold in front of their respective products.

Manzanas!’ shouts a man passing by on a cart loaded with apples. ‘Papas!’ ‘Maiz!’ ‘Churrisos!’ A thousand different voices shouting a thousand different names from a thousand different places on the street. Welcome to the marketplace, long since done away with in the so called ‘developed nations,’ thriving with commerce and pulsating with life in Perù.

Eventually the sights, smells, and sounds of the market faded behind me as I continued my walk towards Cusco; the road twisted up a hillside and eventually, around seven-thirty, I arrived to the exit. I didn’t need to wait long before a pickup stopped. He was on his way to his farm some kilometers to the north go gather crops and bring them to the market for sale. We rode for around half an hour before I got off at a crossroads, my ride heading left as I continued straight.

Hitchhiking was easy this morning; soon I was in another public transportation van enjoying my free ride to the next town around twenty kilometers away.

We rode along the vast, flat highland plains of southeast Perù, zooming by herds of llamas, alpaca, cows, horses, and every farm animal you could possibly imagine. The lush, fertile soil yielded endless fields of crops stretching far onto the horizon.

We soon arrived; I got off around the town centre and began walking still north. I was nearly at the end of town when I passed a woman selling soup by the railroad tracks. There were a few truckers eating their breakfast there, and the woman saw my pack and asked me where I was going; I told her I wasn’t really sure. North, at least.

‘No destination, eh?’ said one of the truckers. ‘Well, I’m headed north. Goin’ to Puerto Maldonaldo. Amazonas. I’ll give ye a ride.’

All the way to Amazonas? This was an opportunity to cut a lot of time off my traveling and get to Iquitos quickly; I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to find a riverboat when I got there, and I only had a month and a half to get to Leticia, Colombia, and then back down to Argentina before the end of December. Sure, I had originally planned on going straight to Cusco and Machu Piccu first, but that place had become so overrun with tourists toting their long-lensed cameras and bottled water, I was all right with missing it. I could always go there on the way back, anyhow.

So off we went. The truck rumbled, and I hopped in the passenger seat next to the truckers assumed girlfriend as we chugged northward.

The trucker was named Roldolfo, and he seemed like a pretty chill guy, at first. The first hours of the trip went well; the highland plains evolving into rolling hills with ancient Inca vertical farms carved into their sides. Towards the afternoon we went to higher altitude and it began to hail stones the size of grape seeds.

Around the early afternoon we came to a mountain pass that was blocked off by construction workers, who informed us that the road would be closed for the next four hours due to a landslide. Fantastic.

We waited the entire four hours; it was very cold rainy, and a thick fog had set in. Finally the workers let us by.

The old semi rumbled on over the makeshift path the workers had cleared through the rubble of the landslide. At one point, the path became extremely narrow, with nothing but a few small pebbles separating the tires of the semi and a thousand feet of empty air. Undeterred, Roldolfo bumped on by without so much as glancing at the deadly drop to his left.

Finally, we passed the landslide and returned to paved road. By this time the fog had arrived in earnest, and we were completely enveloped in a total whiteout. We weren’t even able to see the side of the mountain to our right or the deadly drop-offs on the left.

Driving in a serious whiteout is akin to driving through limbo; one has the feeling of being in suspended animation. No matter where one looks, there is nothing but white, wispy fog suffocating and choking the life out of every detail from the world around you. The road ahead and a few yellow lines are visible for two or three feet in the headlights of the truck; after that, there is nothing but impenetrable white.

This road could be anywhere in the world, you think, as you wind past yet another curve that looks identical to the last eight curves. This road could be anywhere, yes, but you know deep down that it’s really nowhere; the endless, eternal road of limbo. We are neither here nor there, and nothing really matters anymore because all that exists now are the black asphalt, those yellow lines, and the intermiable mist.

There is no sky in limbo, no Earth, no air; you tell yourself over and over again that eventually the fog will clear and you will emerge once again into the world, but after every bend? More suffocating white, squeezing the hope from your tortured, wandering soul like the very last drops of juice from a spent rind.

Time passes; maybe it’s only been a few minutes, a few hours, but perhaps it’s been years, centuries, millenniums. There’s no way of knowing, and you suddenly feel as if you aren’t even traveling on a road anymore; the tires seem to have left the pavement, and the fog gets thicker and thicker as even the details of the road, of the truck around you, of your very own body fade thinly away and you are left floating alone, drifting aimlessly forever through the perpetual nothing of the mist…of limbo.

Of course, we weren’t really in limbo; we were in the misty, mysterious mountains of southeast Perù, mountains with such an otherworldly feel that for a moment, after the fog cleared somewhat, I was nearly certain that we had passed into another dimension somewhere back there in that terrible fog.

There were no trees, no plants of any substantial bulk; only rocks, rocks of all shapes and sizes covered with moss, short grasses, and lichens of different shades of green, grey, and orange. As our altitude became lower, the mist become patchy and occasionally rolled in puffy chunks across the road, colliding with the sides of the mountain and wafting outward in all directions.

Sometimes we would pass stone walls constructed by the Incas, whom somehow managed to subsist in this mysterious place all those years ago. The rocks were stacked perfectly, only the thick coverings of moss betraying the centuries they had been sitting here on the mountain, archaic reminders of a civilization long since exterminated by white men with horses, guns, and disease.

Landslides were a common problem on this misty road through the mountains; we would often pass huge boulders the size of houses that had crushed the road and left it completely impassable. Like ants, the construction workers had carved another small dirt path around it, winding under huge rock outcroppings that looked in danger of collapse at any moment.

As we reached the middle of the mountains, we stopped for a moment so as Roldolfo could do something with the engine; I simply got out and stared.

Straight down a thousand feet or more was a distant stream winding through the valley, a diminutive shimmer of silver amongst the uniform mossy green. Behind me, the rock face of the mountain went straight up before disappearing once again into the mist. For all I knew it went up forever, endlessly reaching up through the white and into the heavens.

I sometimes find it hard to bow down to the whims of ordinary people; however, there passes not a day in my life when I am not stunned, humbled, completely astounded and meek in the face of the might of our Planet Earth. The misty mountains are my masters; I am a servant to the seven seas. The deepest jungle is the matriarch of my mind, and the four winds and arid deserts of afar will forever be the sultans of my soul.


Around eight, after it had been dark for several hours, we reached the bottom of the mountains where the stream wound through the narrow valley. Soon we came to a town, which appeared out of nowhere after we rounded a bend, the bright concentration of lights and sound a sharp contrast to the dull silence of the misty mountains. We stopped for dinner (well, Roldolfo stopped. I and his assumed girlfriend sat in the truck and listened to our stomachs growling), and then continued on into the night.

We drove lower and lower, the misty mountains changing to foggy jungle. Trees stretched up into the night sky, vines of many different exciting sizes and colours twisting snakelike up their thorny trunks. We had reached the dense jungles of eastern Perú that the Spanish had named ‘El Dorado;’ Legend has it that there is a fantastic city of gold nestled somewhere in the densest canyons of this tangly forest.

Around eleven-thirty I saw a bushmaster snake crossing the road, but before my mind could register the thrill of encountering such an exciting specimen, Roldolfo had swerved the big rig and crushed it beneath the huge tires, chuckling at his pointless murder of the snake. I was not amused.

By this point I was pretty tired of Roldolfo and his girlfriend. They were crass, loud, and unintuitive. Roldolfo treated his girlfriend like dirt, shouting at her to ‘get me my tire iron before I smack you in the mouth’ and demanding that she feed him peanuts while he was driving. She seemed to not notice, and even appeared to count herself lucky that she was with a man who had a job and could travel.

To top it all off, they both littered constantly. Anything: plastic bottles, paper, cellophane wrappers, or whatever Roldolfo decided he didn’t want in his truck anymore flew straight out the window. We would periodically stop to do something with engine oil and water, and Roldolfo’s girlfriend would shamelessly pour pure oil into pristine mountain streams! I felt like smacking her in the mouth too, after witnessing that atrocity.

We stopped for the night somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I slept outside while Roldolfo slept in the cab with his woman. I heard sounds floating wetly out of the cab, like he was finally slapping her in the mouth, just not with his hand. Pleasant.

We left early the next morning, the cab reeking of sweat and sex. I rolled down the window and kept my head outside.

Around midday we suffered a blowout, and Roldolfo enlisted the help of his woman to change the tire. She obviously didn’t know much about it, and when she would make a mistake Roldolfo would throw nuts and bolts at her. I don’t care who you are, you don’t treat women like that, even if they are stream-polluting bitches. I wished we would just arrive to Puerto Maldonaldo already so I could leave these Peruvian versions of Poor White Trash behind.

Finally we arrived around three p.m. I happily left the semi and set off into the town.

I spent the day searching for work, and eventually found it. I was in a restaurant asking the Señora if she knew where I could find work when I guy who had been drinking a beer told me that if I was looking for work, I could find it with him.

His name was Percy, and he worked at a glass shop installing windows for people. He said I could work with him as an ayudante, or helper, for forty Soles a day, plus meals and lodging. That sounded like a sweet deal to me, so after he had finished a beer we went back to his place, a small, one room cuadra with a lonely mattress and posters of naked women using power tools all over the walls.

The next morning we left around eight to start work. We were soon in a house installing a sliding glass door, and it looked like I had found a good place to work. The installation didn’t take long and we were back at the glass shop for the next installation before ten o’clock.

Percy told me to wait for him for twenty minutes at the shop, so I did so. He didn’t come back for an hour and a half, but when he did we went off to another job.

We dropped off our supplies in a warehouse, and then Percy said that we would go and have lunch and come back for the work afterwards. This sounded okay to me.

I had lunch; Percy had seven beers, and then afterwards he said he was too drunk to work now, so we would go and take a nap and then get back to the job. Ok, I guess, as long as I still get paid…

Percey didn’t wake up until seven-thirty in the evening, but he promised we were off to work now. We walked, but Percy couldn’t resist himself and stopped for more beer with friend of his. By the time this was over, it was nearly ten and Percy had no money left to pay me. We had done a total of maybe thirty minutes of work that day.

Percy said that today had been a ‘day off’ and that tomorrow we would work hard all day and he would pay me for the two days at the end. All right, if you promise…

The next morning when I awoke Percy told me that he had ‘other things to take care of’ in the morning with his friends (more booze, I assumed), and that we would work in the evening, he promised. I no longer belived Percy’s promises, so as soon as he left I packed up my things and headed out of there, planning to leave Puerto and go somewhere else. I was walking down the street next to the glass shop where Percy ‘worked,’ when the owner flagged me down. I went over and he asked where Percy was. I told him I didn’t know, that he had left earlier that morning with his friends. I told him that I didn’t work for Percy anymore because he was a lazy drunk, and the owner agreed with me. He asked me if I wanted to just work in the shop with him and I said yes.

So that day I began real work. Putting together glass display cases, cutting glass, and just working for my money. After a few days here the owner even sent me to Mazuco, a town a few hundred kilometres to the south to deliver some materials to another glass shop he owned and to help the worker there for a few days. I arrived back to Puerto Maldonaldo yesterday after four days in Mazuco; I made 150 Soles (around sixty dollars), and I’m still working here in Puerto Maldonaldo. I think I will leave tomorrow or the next day to head to Cusco, since that’s the only way out of here.

I know I initally planned to go all the way to Iquitos, but I have changed my plan. I figure I will eventually arrive to the Amazon River via Brazil, and there is one thing on my list of things to accomplish in South America that I can only do in Perù (or Bolivia, but we all know I can’t go back there), and that’s to spend several weeks on llama back exploring th Andes. So I’ll head to Cusco and then hopefully find a llama rancher who is willing to lend me a steed for a month or so. Plus, I’ll have a little money from working here in Puerto, so perhaps that will make it a little easier to convince the farmer.

Wish me luck on my llama-search!

The Modern Nomad