Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Twin Peaks

`Who killed Laura Palmer?´...

....was the question on the lips of my friends and I in late 1990 when a cult television show from America obsessed everyone my age.

Twin Peaks.

This surreal drama series centered around a community of odd balls in small town USA where a teenage beauty queen had been murdered.

All the protagonists were unusual and wacky characters. There was a detective with a coffee and cherry pie addiction, a woman who always carried a log in her arms, a man who couldn't stop dancing and singing and an unusually high per-population number of dark secrets, physical quirks and tendencies to violent solutions.The plot twists were bizarre, their daily lives unimaginable. Surely nowhere on earth was this weird?
Well, that is what I thought until our last stretch of biking. At times it took surreal to a whole new level.

First, the terrain.

Imagine that you are spreading your hand out on a blank piece of paper and that you then draw round your fingers. You take your hand away and you are left with an imagine of five sausage like shapes (these are the mountain range extensions spreading out from the main spine of the Andes) and then the bulk of your palm (the main body of the range). Then draw a line across your finger ends so that you have made a connection between them (the coast). Draw a thin line down the centre of all the gaps in your fingers (these are rivers) and wiggly lines beyond (that is the sea) and you are starting to get an idea of what the topography we have just travelled through looks like.

Well perhaps not (!) but what I am trying to describe is a roller coaster ride of high peaks with deep valley troughs in between.

The high peaks were all desert. Hot, baking, utterly, utterly empty desert. The low troughs were river valleys. Verdant, lush, really quite populated valleys.

And we swung headily from one to the other. One moment we were crawling our way up endless hairpin climbs burning up from the sun and the effort, the next we were donning our gloves and shivering with cold and concentration as we swirled back down the other side to near sea level and green.

What goes up, must come down, but then it would seem that moments later, it all has to go back up again!

What I found confusing was that there was no lovely flat road that went right along the coast and joined all the bottoms of the fingers up without the need for going over the top of them. But there wasn´t and so our four biking days took these hilarious twists and turns and our rather `over the Andes´ thighs were in for another good work out.

We divided the journey into two halves though; two days to the glorious foot-of-a-mountain city of Arequipa, two days back to the coast at Camana.

And Arequipa really was glorious. A delicious city brimming with beautiful colonial edifices, beautiful cake filled coffee shops and a truly beautiful convent for dreamy hours of wandering and wonderment. We stayed in a calm, clean, criminally cheap hostel with a room larger than my London flat, all made of the white sillar stone characteristic of the city and which glowed with minimalist lustre, and this way the weirdness was broken up with a sweet flash of civilisation.

Which was a huge relief because although it was only a short time that we were `out there´ it seemed like forever.

Time stretches in the empty desert and the mind plays tricks. It was such an other worldly experience to come across these oases of green stuck at the bottom of deep trenches with the huge, overbearing twin peaks of bleak mountain dunes on either side of them, that it seems like a hallucination. It was as if someone had smudged grass stains in thin streaks up a nice beige table cloth. They looked completely unreal and at times we wondered if they actually existed.

And we wondered whether living in these parts made for a rather unusual view of the world. Whether the trench existence leads to cabin fever.

Because let us move on secondly to some of the characters we met.

On the first night we stayed in the bizarre little spot of El Fiscal. Not a place of glamour, this funny little spot contained one place to stay which was optimistically described as a `hostel´.

This damp ridden establishment was run by a lady who sat in a chair by the door and quite smilingly gave instructions to a small seven year old who carried out all her tasks. It was he who showed us to our lime green room with paint peeling from the wall, it was he who gave us two towels so wet that I scoured the other rooms until I could find others (presumed clean) that might perform the function for which they were designed, it was he who repeatedly put his hand under a pathetic dribble of cold water and assured us that what he could feel was actually hot and it was he presumably who turned the booming TV off at about midnight and back on again at six thirty in the morning for what I can only imagine was the further edification of the entire town.

This obsession with loud television was repeated on our second night in the wilderness. We had rather cunningly jumped on a bus at the end of our second day of biking to head to the lovely `off the route´ Arequipa but we had to rejoin it after our mini-break and spend a night in the completely minging town of San Jose.

I don´t know who San Jose was or what he was `San-ed´ for but I imagine he would have wanted to preach against the overuse of the volume button of a TV remote control. It was in much too much use in our accommodation, a place that deserved the 'hostal' title even less than the one in El Fiscal and which contained an owner of such unsmiling dourness that he would have made Stalin look like Mr Congeniality. Perhaps he did not like his permanently carrot peeling wife, or perhaps he didn't like San Jose, but his method of dealing with the world was to drown it out in a barrage of booming TV inanity morning, noon and night. When he tried to kick this particular sport off at FIVE a.m. he was swifty chastised by another guest (handily a policeman) into curtailing his evil plan. But he only managed to last another hour before he simply couldn't cope with the silence and launched into it again.

Fortunately we needed early starts for our long days of hill and dale but this (combined with the total lack of running water in the outdoor bathroom - although it oddly recommenced just as his last guest was heading out for the day) absolutely guaranteed that we didn't hang about.

Unlike the lady we saw lying in the road not long after leaving San Jose. The day that had begun with our unusual awakening just got odder and odder. A rather unfortunate creature, her presence was heralded by other worldly moaning, we heard her before we saw her. And when we did we realised that she had taken up residence in the middle of a lane on a blind bend. Luckily for her drivers were being very observant and avoided her or tried to help her despite her best efforts to refuse. But where had she come from? In this extreme emptiness it was a mystery and didn´t engender a feeling of normality.

And so we were a tad bemused at lunch on our third day. And a bit bleery eyed and perhaps a little bit sun struck, and conceivably altogether dreaming since we experienced the oddest lunch hour of our entire trip so far, a group of characters so unusual and a confluence of events so unlikely that we wondered if we made the whole thing up.

We stopped in a deep valley where, as you took the long straight down hill, you looked across at the long straight uphill out that was on the other side. So we decided to have a break at the bottom and some nice Philadelphia and tomato sandwiches. We found a bit of shade outside a little shop and got cracking.

The first oddness was a man who stood close to us during lunch and just sort of stared at us. He seemed to be waiting for something to happen and was restless but nothing much seemed to actually be happening. He chewed his bottom lip a lot and occassionally moved off to chat to a policeman in the police station next door but then would come back a resume the hanging around and the staring.

Then another man appeared. He was on crutches (of the Carry On, disproportionately chunky kind) and clearly had two artificial legs. He also had a huge handlebar moustache and a massive cowboy hat. He grabbed a hose from the police station and proceeded to water the earth just next to where we were sitting so that a small patch was damp, before retreating to the road side and waiting.

Then the policeman that the starey man had been talking to appeared, holding two chickens. More acurately they were cockerels and they had their feet tied together. Then he handed one to the starey man and hung on to one himself and there was much stroking and cooing of the birds going on, before they put them on the ground and set them to work on attacking each other.

Oh yes, we had inadvertantly stumbled across a lunchtime cock fight.

It was so completely strange.

It was all very nonchalantly done. Whilst the birds slugged it out no-one said anything or looked especially excited, or indeed particularly bothered by our presence (even when one of the birds used Phil's legs for cover) and then when they thought they'd had enough they picked the birds up and seemed to be going on their way. The man in crutches appeared to have some sort of vested interest in the whole affair but didn't actually say anything to the other men and none of them said anything at all to us.

But it was going to get odder yet.

One of the cocks had none of the red wobbly plumy type bits round his face that make the Kelloggs bird look so fine and hearty. The other one did.

But then the man on crutches produced what looked like a pair of nail scissors from his pocket and the starey man went to the hose pipe and filled a small washing up bowl and the policeman sat on a rock with the plumed bird on his lap.

I could sort of see what was coming a mile off and yet it was still a shock. The crutches man silently handed over the scissors,the starey man put the bowl down, and the policemen proceeded to cut away the red wobbly plumy bits from this poor hapless bird and leave him a red bleeding mess.

It was horrible. And of course we were hopelessly rooted to the spot.

Finally we found a voice and asked the starey man what in the Lord's name was happening and were treated to the perfectly rational explanation that this revolting practice was being perpetrated on this bird to stop him getting injured in a fight. He was, he explained, going to be all healed up in a matter of a fortnight and ready to return to the cock fighting arena.


Well, we decided it was time to leave. Just a quick W.C. stop needed (provided by the police - a charming experience, ladies, complete with delicious photographs of the female of our species in the most modest of poses) and we were going to depart.

But not before we had had a lovely chat with a nice new friend. A smiley man carrying an umbrella and accompanied by two grinning women who kept giggling at us.

Where were we from? What were we going? Why were we in Tambillo? Had we ever heard of Jehovah's Witnesses?

There we were. Just about as far from our own front doors as it was possible to be and still we couldn't escape the irresistible proposals (and pamphlets) of the good witnesses of Jehovah.

We smiled. We posed for photos with them. We resisted the temptation to comment when asked if we knew that most people think Jehovah's witnesses are crazy,we took a pamphlet and then we calmly mounted our bikes and began the assault on the hill.

It was some way up the road that we realised that lunch had contained a practice outlawed in the UK since 1835, a piece of very amateur surgery and an extremely optimistic attempt at religious conversion. Quite a list.

We biked on to find some accommodation. We had been told of a town ahead that we couldn´t actually find on any of our maps. Therefore our expectations of finding a grand metropolis weren´t high when we turned off the road to Pedregal. There was no sign to it, just an instruction from a shop owner to turn right at a large advert for evaporated milk.

But Pedregal was huge. A substantial spot supporting a sizable populace. It had clearly been in existence a while and so why oh why was it not on either of our paper maps and nowhere to be seen on any we had searched online? Was it really there or had we just made it up?

Whether it was real or not we stayed there but fled at first light. We were heading for the sea and for Camana, a place a lot lower in altitude than Pedregal and very definitely on the map.

We flew there, largely downhill, and coasted in just four hours later. Coming speeding down between the sand dunes and seeing the magnificent Pacific ahead us was one of my visual highlights of the trip.

But boy you don´t want to mess with that sea. The beach sides outskirts of Camana are a tsunami crushed mess, gradually recovering from their 2001 pounding but still very sparse and with lots of wreckage. The Pacific was quite calm for our arrival and yet with those rollers even calm looked pretty intimidating.

As was the emptiness of the spot, mostly closed since it is very out of season. We pulled up at a hostel we had heard about right by the sea which looked clean and nice, but when the man told us smilingly that there were no phones, no TV, no mobile reception and no internet we started to feel rather less Twin Peaks and rather more The Shining!

We decided to go into town. We had Phil´s birthday to celebrate and so we reasoned that a bit of normality was in order.

And Camana centre proved to be pretty normal. If you could ignore the giant plastic prawn scultures, the others of metal showing cock fights (big around here, clearly), the restaurants that had almost nothing on their menus actually available and the plaza filled with school desks for a giant outdoor exam, it was just like being in......

....well Twin Peaks really!


  1. I remember Twin Peaks so clearly. It was the one programme that the whole boarding dept would watch together. Everyone was glued to it.

  2. There we were. Just about as far from our own front doors as it was possible to be and still we couldn't escape..... the good witnesses of Jehovah.

    You don't know the half of it:

    A great adventure you're having. I'm envious.

  3. Wonderful writing again - you really should do it professionally you know Liz! Oops - you do! xx

  4. loving the photos again - it's just giving me too much wander lust.
    Wind at your back...

  5. OK - getting a bit worried now. No news for some time. You OK Liz?

  6. I would have offered to eat the winning chicken.