Things started ok. Two shepherds watching their flock came running up to ask who we were, what we were doing. Normal. Less normal was when they wanted us to accompany them to meet unknown-spanish-word up the road, to the point where one put a hand on the bike’s handlebars to stop me from leaving without him. Suspicions rising.
Northern Peru, Cajamarca province. The Spanish came to the Andes in the 1500s looking for gold. Whatever they found, they shipped back to Spain. 500 years later, mining rights to Peruvian gold, silver, copper, plus many more mineral deposits are sold to foreign companies who come in to extract as much as they can. Peru the country might profit from this, but less so the people living in the immediate vicinity. Cajamarca, one of the richest states in terms of mineral resources, is one of the poorest states in terms of personal wealth.
For cyclists, mining has two important effects: one, the need to access the mines leads to the creation of dirt roads all across the country, an off-road tourer’s dream scenario. But the second effect is negative: local hostility towards foreigners, fear that strangers are mining operatives searching for new sites. Xenophobia is rare, but blog research done prior to the trip reported a few stories.
So at first, this seems like people wanting to know who’s coming through their town. Paul and I are riding the dirt road from Cajamarca to Cajabamba, a route that’s definitely been established by other cyclists in the past 3 years, we have plenty of accounts of others riding it, no problem. By the time we get here, Santa Rosa, we’ve been riding for the last day and a half, up two passes, spoken to plenty of people and have been invited into a farmer’s house the night before to sleep. Everyone we’ve met has been welcoming. Normal. 10km down the road is Cachachi, an actual town with food and an hospedaje, we’re pretty spent and didn’t find much for lunch so getting to that town is at the top of our minds.
The villagers aren’t interested in any of that. As the two original guys walk us further into the village, they start shouting out to other people in nearby fields. They come running, shouting to more people. Everyone gathers in the center, rapid-fire talk to themselves, and us, but in their slurred mix of Spanish and Castellano dialect. We stop moving.
“Who are you? What are you doing here? You have to speak to the rondo.”
“We are tourists. We’re going to Cachachi, then to Cajabamba. We’re cyclists (see: our bikes).”
“No. Tourists don’t come here. Tourists travel by bus, they sleep in hotels, they don’t camp. Only a bad person would camp up there where there’s no one*. You’re bad people.”
(*Aside: Peruvians love noise. Up in the mountains, up high where no one lives, those regions are called El Silencio. Peruvians think these regions are dangerous, because they’re empty, quiet. Cycletourists love these regions, because they’re beautiful, and they’re the only place you can escape the volume-turned-all-the-way-up-always-on TV/radio/what have you.)
We discuss leaving, all we’re doing is going back and forth you’re-bad-people-no-we’re-not-yes-you’re-gringos. On the outer edge of the crowd, villagers stoop to pick up armfuls of head-sized stones. So leaving is apparently not really an option anymore.
Discussions continue. We talk about cycling, the appeal of riding tranquil (oh the irony) dirt roads instead of busy asphalt roads. The villagers are having none of it. Paul and I are alternately calm and angry, the villagers just shout louder and louder. One guy on horseback listens to our story, agrees we’re just tourists, rolls his eyes at everyone else then turns around and rides off. Not super helpful. The villagers demand our passports, we show them our stamps, the visas that say we’re allowed to be in Peru.
“This is a public road, yes?”
“Yes, but you’re not allowed on it. We don’t want your kind here.”
Our passports are confiscated, then they demand to see what’s in our bags. This is ridiculous for many reasons, to us especially so because we’re currently riding full bikepacking setups and have nothing compared to most cycle tourists. Also, showing what’s in our bags- camping gear- proves nothing, since it’s been established that tourists don’t camp. So what to do? Exasperation sets in. I refuse to show anything until they return my passport. Paul dumps things out on the ground. No change in attitude. No letup in tension. No move to clear the way to let us continue.
One thing to note about this scenario is that it doesn’t ever see really seem like an attempt at robbing us. The whole village- or close enough- is crowded around us, men, women, children. No robbery account from any cycle tourist I could find ever involves an entire village, robberies are always a few bad eggs ganging up together. So this whole situation doesn’t really seem threatening in that respect. There’s just the stoning threat and constant shouting. Our passports, while we can’t have them back, are in sight the whole time, passed between some of the men.
So what to do? “You don’t believe that we’re tourists?” “No.” “Fine, can we just go back the way we came, forget Cachachi?” “No.” “And we can’t continue to Cachachi?” “Correct.” “We can’t go anywhere?” “Right.” “Can we go to the police (in Cachachi)?” “No.” “So what do you want us to do?” “We wait.” “For the police?” “No (of course). Someone’s coming. Maybe in an hour. More or less.”
We wait. We move the bikes to one side of the street and sit in the grass. The villagers move to the other side, watching us. The standoff starts. Only in an hour and a half it’s going to be dark, and this is not a place where we’re eager to camp for the night.
Then things start to improve. In half an hour two pickups from a political campaign group come out to the village, spreading their party word. While two guys rally the villagers, the others come speak to us, not expecting to see gringos. “Yes of course you’re tourists, where are you going?” They’ll take us to Cachachi, but first need to go to the next village down to campaign, so they’ll pick us up on the way back. Ok. We settle back to waiting, spirits improved, confident we have one way out now.
Before the politicians return, an older man appears, with a government ID card. He’s the head of the rondo, that word the villagers keep saying that we don’t know. It’s a watch group for the region the villagers maintain because the police force isn’t large enough to patrol everywhere. This man is calm, placating, both to us and the villages. He thinks we’re tourists, takes our information and collects our passports, tells the villagers he’ll take us to the police in Cachachi. There’s back and forth between him and the villagers, they don’t want to let us go without seeing what’s in our bags to make sure we don’t have anything “dangerous”. They won’t let us go without seeing what we have.
Paul empties his things, again. It’s clearly just a spectacle for the villagers now. I empty my bags, now it’s getting dark, hurry, hurry. Shouts and grins of victory when we show our Swiss Army Knives- the ones with the 3″ blades, dull from a year of cutting vegetables on the road. Ah ha! This could be used to cut a throat, 100% serious pantomime finger dragging across throats, one man does it, then another. Paul and I look at them in disbelief. “Here, this is a weapon,” says our official old man soberly. “I will take these and turn them over to the police.”
This does seem a placating effort, and later away from the villagers the man will return the knives to us. But it helps get to the bottom of what the villagers are afraid of: in the mountains here, stories go around of gringos stealing kids to torture and kill them. We could be scouts passing through, to return on the night to steal children. We’re told stories of this happening, earnestly, gravely. They believe this.
We’re told these stories again and again through the night. The man takes us to his house in the next village down, we’ll spend the night there and go to Cachachi and the police in the morning, it’s too dark now. At his village again men gather, and our official explains the situation and soothes them. We go to his house and meet his brother the local priest and the official’s wife and kids and grandchildren, we’re fed soup and frybread and tea and asked about our trip and our lives, completely normal, completely welcoming. Grandchildren are moved out of a bed and crowded into others so we’ll have a bed to sleep on for the night, typical Latin American hospitality.
In the morning we walk with him to Cachachi where the police immediately return us our passports. There’s an extremely fair-skinned policeman in Cachachi from Lima, he scoffs at the villagers’ superstition and says he has problems around here too because his skin is so white. As soon as we see him, our problems are clearly over, our virtual arrest is lifted and we’re free to go.
To future cyclists riding this route, I’m not sure what to tell you. The angry villagers wanted us to have asked for written permission from the police in Cajamarca to ride those roads. The police in Cachachi thought this was ridiculous, and told the official to tell the villagers they can ask for identification, but not to hassle people just passing through. Those police told us that the roads were public, and we were of course allowed to be on them. In none of the villages leading up to the first pass or the second did anyone give us any trouble or warn of problems ahead. Santa Rosa is the first village after the second pass, 10km or so from Cachachi, and all this could be avoided by riding straight through without stopping (ride through the next one in 2-3km too, and you should be good). If you get stuck, just wait for the official to show up, or for a political campaign (elections are on October 15, 2014, and again in 4 years). Two Spanish terms: rondo refers to a vigilante group policing an area. Redondorefers to the area where they operate. According to the Cachachi police, 80-90% of the redondos are in Cajamarca province, the only others are in the Cusco and Peno regions.
All in all this was a strange situation. I don’t think there was ever a real threat of violence against us- the stoning thing seems more intimidation than anything else, but none of the villagers ever made it clear to us in the beginning that they were waiting for someone official. They were just a mob demanding things from us and disregarding our answers. What’s the right course of action here? Should we have stayed calm the whole time? Maybe, but at the end of a day, low on energy and knowing we’re less than half an hour away from food and rest, calm can be challenging. And the fervor with which the villagers thought we were after their children was akin to the fervor religious extremists supposedly have. Completely irrational. Completely unarguable against. These villagers were far removed from our world, and believed the stories they heard about the terrible gringos. I have plenty of pictures of this trip as proof that I’m just a tourist, but I’m not all that inclined to pull out my tablet and entertain people screaming at me. Maybe that’s just pride. Maybe pride doesn’t help in situations like this. The general atmosphere was a) hostile, and b) futile, since attempts at conversation/reason repeatedly led to responses of “I don’t believe what you say.” My Spanish is fluent enough to understand that. So what then do you do?
Also, that political guy who was going to rescue us- u part of his platforms was a bid to improve the road so more traffic could come to these people’s village. I don’t think he’s really in touch with his constituents on that one.
Paul’s take on this can be found here.
3 photos pertaining to this incident. Photos of the villagers were (can you guess?) not allowed, so credits to Paul for sneaking one while I was demonstrating the innocuous contents of my bags.