Huancabamba, to Jaen 11 May: The road to the road to Jaen runs through Sondor, so once again – for about the fourth or fifth time in a couple of days – we take it.
It takes us a couple of tries to get out of Sondor, mostly because the dirt road we embark on, just a block from the Plaza de Armas, looks so unlikely to go further than a few hundred meters.
For a good many miles, we see no one. Then we reach a fork in the road, and pause to try to divine which road we should take. We have no clue; but suddenly we meet our first human being since leaving Sondor, and he knows.
We climb from Sondor to another high mountain pass. For awhile we are progressing by a series of switchbacks up three sides of a long, narrow canyon, then over a pass into another and up three sides of that. (It is like driving around a fjord in Iceland.) The landscape below becomes worthless photographically, an abstract pattern of cultivated and uncultivated hills, hundreds of meters high, varying colors of green. We are into and then above the clouds again.
The road is slow and difficult, but rarely dangerous. It is also a lonely one: for hours we do not see another car, and not even many burros and chickens and horses. It is dirt and mud, puddled from the recent rains. Sometimes a waterfall cascades down toward us on the uphill side of the road. Very occasionally, simple adobe homes perch on steep hillsides beside the road, with dirt floors and beautiful views. More often we are isolated.
We stop occasionally to get out and admire the view – a view unmarred by human construction, roads, or telephone lines.
Eventually we approach another pass. There is a simple home on the right, with horses standing beside it. In the distance I can see another turn where ghostly riders are barely visible in the fog. After another couple of kilometers we reach them and pass them.
We come around the bend and I’m transfixed by the sight of a loaded burro standing on the grass just before the world drops off steeply – and with dark peaks and bright clouds from some other planet directly behind. Instantly I am shooting.
Inside, darkness, dirt floor, but good cheer. A family. A mountain restaurant. Kids and grown-ups. A couple of rough wooden tables. Adobe walls. Dim light. I tell the man it is a beautiful place, and he smiles. I buy an Inca Cola just to contribute something to their support. Or out of gratitude.
I feel suddenly wonderful. It feels like the top of the world. Too, at just this moment, or perhaps in just this place, the sun shines through the fog on us.
We are crossing from one world to another, although we do not yet know it. From here the road descends to E____, which we can see almost immediately but will not reach for an hour or longer. On the way, we pass waterfalls, and trees loaded down with huge bromeliads.
At E____ there’s a barrier; apparently this is a mountain reserve, five or six hours from Jaen. It’s nearly noon. When I step into a shop to get snacks and something to drink, a crowd gathers around R. A benign, curious crowd, although one fellow gets a little flirtatious.
Soon we are in rain forest. Unlike the morning’s drive through isolated high country, we pass through innumerable small villages celebrating El Dia de Madres. It is a big deal in Peru, or at least in this part of Peru. Schools have been given over to cookouts and dances, and we pass plenty of villages in which the children and women are carrying or eating from full plates of fresh-cooked food, while the men are drinking or playing cards. (In one village a white object by the side of the road turns out, on closer inspection, to be a man in a white shirt, completely passed out, his sleeping head on the edge of the road where my right tire would have passed if I hadn’t noticed him.)
Somewhere we pass a young girl and her abuela, dressed for a party and strolling down a dirt path from what must be their home. I shoot a picture, then ask, Con su permiso? and shoot a couple more as they approach us. Too, I wish her a happy Mother’s Day.
Normally I am waxing enthusiastic about relocating to whatever beautiful or isolated spot we’re passing through. Here, Ragna takes that role, imagining a house here – if only she could also put in an airport, to avoid bouncing around for quite so many hours on the dirt road to the highway to Jaen.
Later three figures approach on the right side of the road: a woman with her mother and daughter. The grandmother holds a yellow rose, and appears to be blind. We have slowed down anyway, so I stop.
“Feliz Dia de Madres – y Abuelas,” I say. The mother thanks me and, looking at Ragna, says (in Spanish), “and to you.” “Ella tiene tres,” I tell her. [Ragna has three.] She touches Ragna’s arm fondly, and her eyes express a kinship she might not have expected to feel with a blonde woman from far away.
The rainforest. It must be called a rainforest because it rains. For awhile, it rains steadily, sometimes quite hard, but the drive is enjoyable anyway.
By mid-afternoon the continual jouncing is taking its toll. I’m not driving as fast as I might be, because of the likelihood of kids or chickens or burros straying into the road, but even so the pot-holes are so numerous most of the way that by some point I start feeling as if the next time one hits us hard I’m going to stop, jump out of the car, and hit the damned thing back.
Then suddenly I see something I have never before been so joyful to see: a bright red octagon on a pole. I point it out to Ragna. “Pare” she reads, then recognizes the shape. A stop sign! We have reached paved road. Our ordeal is nearly over.
A few kilometers on, I realize an odd sensation: that we seem to be floating, as in a dream. I realize that after nine hours of jouncing along dirt roads – and, essentially, several days of it, except when within the narrow confines of Huancabamba – my body is not used to the sensation of the car speeding along smooth pavement. Christ it feels good.
“We’ve left the bumps behind,” I say.
“But we left the beauty behind too,” she points out.
It is true. There’s still some brightness in the rice fields catching the late afternoon sun, but there’s not the magic of the rainforest.
Jaen has only about 60,000 citizens, and wide streets. We quickly locate the Hotel El Bosque. An unimpressive entrance leads to a pool surrounded by palm trees and other vegetation, and neat, cool bungalows. Even a modest restaurant. After a whiskey and coke I’m in the pool. Soon Ragna, who has a woman’s love for luxuriating in hot water and doing whatever it is that women do in bathrooms for so long, is enjoying the novelty of truly hot water, a clean bathroom, a couple of shelves on which to place things, a toilet that flushes properly – all in the same location.
We take a moto-taxi to the Plaza de Armas for supper. The small restaurant is full of Mother’s Day celebrants, but has one free table, and surprises us with its menu. Afterward we retreat to the hotel, alternately drinking red wine by the swimming pool and reviewing what we shot on the drive down from Huancabamba.