Camouflaged Toads and Banditos?
Sebastian was a little way ahead as the first crack of gun fire rang out across the mountains; several more shots followed and Sebastian came to a halt. ‘Not normal’ he cried as I came to a stop alongside him ‘That was too close, I heard a bullet whistle past my ear’. I assumed a suitably concerned expression and we pressed on. We rounded the next corner and there in black fatigues stood two figures with semi-automatic weapons. We approached them and one pulled a mask up across his face, ‘that was bloody stupid’ we shouted as we pulled along side them, ‘ridiculous’ I added whilst making whistling sounds and gesturing the motion of a speeding bullet passing my ear. The two of them laughed a strained laugh as we pressed on. ‘Odd that the police are up here in the middle on nowhere without a car’ I said, ‘ooh, uuum, the mask, ohh dear, maybe they were banditos‘. We both laughed at the ridiculous possibility that we had just reprimanded bandits who were about to relieve us of our possessions. And so passed the first of many high passes from the past few weeks.
We passed through remote desolate areas sparsely populated, on at east two occasions a little before sunset we came across simple villages that wound on up the mountain side for over fifteen kilometres making finding a camping spot more than a little difficult. The people who populated these valleys were fine people, open and friendly, except for when we dropped into The Valley Of The Not Normal People. Rolling down from the high pass, first through hail and then into beautiful warm sunshine we passed peasants tending their fields. We then began to ride through small settlements where every child, and most of the adults, would shout out ‘plata plata’, ‘dollar dollar’, ‘money money’. We have never had this in South America. One man shouted ‘paisa paisa’ which we thought quite odd as that is Nepalese for money. The villages in this valley had an uneasy air to them. We stopped to buy a little food. A big fat toad of a policeman dressed in a camouflaged T shirt and trousers spotted us. His wore his gun in a manner inspired by John Wayne hanging from a belt that was uneasily trying to negotiate his swollen paunch. He dragged himself up from the semi-prone position he had adopted on the bonnet of his battered ex-Chinese Land Cruiser; ‘Police’ he barked at us. We ignored him, he whistled, we ignored him even more, to be treated like a dog is guaranteed to get my gander. He beckoned us to him, we beckoned him to us, he relented and made his way to us. He wanted the usual, a passport, just to make a point of authority. As usual he could not locate the entry stamp of his own country so in an effort to not make too much of an ass of himself he returned the passport and wandered back to his car bonnet. This was an odd valley.
We stayed in the town at the base of the valley. We found a tranquil hostel run by a rat of a man. The Rat amused himself by trying to gain accesses to our panniers, more from curiosity than the desire to steal, we think. I awoke early after a fine nights slumber. At 5:30 in the morning I opened the door and their was the Rat grinning at me. This was an odd valley.
We left the town early and discovered that the town folk were revelling in their annual guinea pig festival. Quite what happens at a guinea pig festival we are not sure beyond dining on these cuddly little pets and becoming blind drunk by mid-morning. It is the second that worried us the most and prompted us into the fastest altitude gain of the journey as we raced to get to the people free four thousand metre zone before a drunken taxi driver could run us down. It was an odd valley.
Climbing out of the valley all returned to normal, lovely friendly open people waved and greeted us and by 3500 metres the population dropped of to the few peasants left to try to eke out a living in this harsher environment.