Although only in Peru for five days when it happened, we had adjusted to a new country remarkably different from those before/north of it. Atop Calla Calla Pass—the high point of a canyon twice as deep as the Grand Canyon—we paused to appreciate our progress, briefly. Sentiment quickly replaced by a desperate dig for more layers. A whipping, foggy wind blew our nice moment down the road a ways. My chicken-skinned stems trembled, unaccustomed to the cold after a trip's worth of hot weather. These legs have undergone a lot in the past ten months, but in that moment—although chilled—they felt strong, and capable, and ready for the highly anticipated snowy passes in our near future.
But take whatever mental picture of toughness and bulging thighs you've conjured and replace it with the continued comedy of errors that is reality. We're still figuring out how to properly take care of ourselves, as well as iron out some important details of remote travel—clambering south by an unforgiving means of transportation. The window of opportunity to miscalculate is wide open.
We had not packed enough food for the Grand Canyon-dwarfing endeavor, departing our campsite a few hours earlier with four mandarin oranges and a handful each of raisins in our bags, meant to sustain a lot of climbing, and even more descending. Those snacks would not provide adequate nourishment for an hour at my old desk job, let alone a few of Andean exertion. Somewhere along the way, after a desperate food inquiry to a group of women on the side of a road, one of them led me into a locked mud closet lined with mostly empty shelves—with the exception of some crackers and second-rate chocolates. Sixty cents later, we sat on the side of the road and tore into his and hers packages of animal crackers, silently devouring until all that remained were crumbs at our feet and a few assorted appendages in the bottom corner of my bag. Couple a' hooves and a trunk down the hatch. Our water situation was grim, but the few remaining chugs should suffice until the town at the bottom of the canyon. Logic that fell apart as the temperature rose with each switchback descended. Our 30-mile descent would be the longest of the entire trip, so far. It was nearly effortless, and relaxing—the winding road, absence of traffic, colorful swirling leaves, mind-blowing views. With the exception of a van of workers stringing high voltage power lines, there was almost no one on the road. Which is presumably why I felt uncharacteristically social at the sight of a woman braiding her daughter's hair, waiting for a ride.
"Buenas tardes, awww qué lindo pelo."
The braid was nothing special, but I stretched the truth for an excuse to say hello. No different than when people pretend like someone's baby is much cuter than it actually is. As I put on the brakes for an obligatory smalltalk time-out, a dog—the dog—came out of nowhere, skipping predictable intimidation measures—barking, chasing, growling—and sunk his filthy mouth into my leg. One of his fangs went directly into my calf muscle, prompting a dramatic exit over the opposite side of my bike, into the ditch. He held firm for a second or two before fleeing my leg, and the scene altogether. The blood streaming from a pair of deep punctures confirmed he'd broken the skin.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck."
We've gotten pretty good at playing it cool on the road. Things are constantly changing, but we're working towards being less phased by adverse conditions—myself in particular. Thinking of complications more as welcome challenges and accepting inevitable doses of humility, because it seems saavy to be able to take things in stride. Albeit a clammy fumble to figure out which coin is which under the pressure of an impatient stare—or a campsite snake sighting—or yet another raw chicken foot bobbing in the soup bowl to navigate—or the guinea pig cartoon-wheel-o-feeting from the kitchen to the nearest exit, presumably aware of its fate as one of Peru's most beloved national dishes. Equal parts darling and delicious, some 65 million guinea pigs—or cuy as they're known here—are consumed annually in Peru. We had a similar pet growing up, and to see MC Hamster skewered on the street takes some getting used to, but we're down with cultural differences. We cool.
And once out of the ditch, I played it pretty cool, casually interrogating the hairdressing witness about the dog's current health status, trying to exhaust a responsible line of questioning. She insisted it didn't belong to her, but humored me and recited what she thought I wanted to hear. El no es peligroso. The dog is not dangerous. I dunno, he seems like at least a little bit of a liability. Wasn't worth challenging her though as she didn't have the specifics I was after. There was a hut within sight that the dog was probably just protecting, but I couldn't ignore the stench of potential rabies and/or blatant racism. Peruvian dogs are not above either. Ignoring my growing thirst, I cleaned the wounds as best I could with the last remaining squirts in my water bottle. Trying a few more times to trick details out of the woman, the language barrier and unreceptive audience would ultimately cut the formalities short. It was a strange moment to share with an indifferent stranger. There weren't services—a generous term—for thirty miles in either direction, leaving me no choice but to keep moving. Aidan was a ways down the road anyhow, probably getting nervous at this point. Although I knew the recommended protocol was to closely monitor offending dog for a minimum of ten days, it seemed like an unrealistic course of action.
I remembered this protocol from a fellow cyclist's story he'd told us over beers and tacos in Oaxaca, Mexico. No one can live with rabies and the dog will therefore die within ten days if he/she is infected. Alex—the cyclist—had hosted us in Oaxaca in the same neighborhood he'd been bitten a few months prior. The exact circumstances around the bite I don't remember, but since the dog lived on the same block, he was able to follow instructions and keep an eye on it. Alex stalked the dog for nine whole days before, on day ten, the little bastard disappeared. Assuming the dog had wandered off to die, the last day of observation was stressful for Alex as his mind went to a dark, rabid place. I can't shake the mental picture of him peeking through fence cracks and collecting secret DNA samples. Only later did Alex uncover the truth that the dog's owners had put their beloved pet into hiding for fear that Alex would actually kill it. Although Aidan joked that we should have brought a blood sample baggie to the hospital, no extraction procedures were performed on [my] dog. We'd later learn that the only way to effectively test a dog is by removing brain tissue. In lieu of anything surgical, I chucked a rock at the beast as I rode away, marking the end of the official observation period—lasting all of ten minutes.
There's a fine line between playing it cool and putting yourself in legitimate danger. The facts are that rabies exists in Peru and the dog that bit me was a bully with a goopy eye. Whether the two are correlated, I have no idea. Rabies is fatal, almost always. Aidan and I listened to a Radiolab back in Portland about a girl who had been bit by a bat, in a church, and took no action until hospitalized for scary symptoms. I remember my frustration. How could you not do something sooner? Well, I get it now. Doing something, in this case, meant tearing ourselves out of the wild Peruvian dream that had finally materialized—snoozing under the stars, eating chocolate bars in our sleeping bags, appreciating the disconnect. I hesitated whether a silly dog bite was worth a trip-interrupting pause/fast forward to the nearest city. But, doing nothing felt foolish—a gut feeling later legitimized by a terrifying Google search.
Given our remote location, the decision to pursue medical attention would result in an exhaustive scavenger hunt, beginning with a raucous back-of-the-truck ride up the opposite side of the vast Peruvian canyon we'd just descended. A rough, partially paved road. We bounced around next to our bicycles for a few hours, growing more nauseous with every switchback until Aidan eventually hung off the tailgate, "Yeah, I think I'm actually going to puke." He didn't, but not for lack of a mouth-wateringly close call. We abandoned any effort to stay clean and composed, arriving disheveled rather than disinfected. My bandages were saturated, dripping with blood, and our faces, grayed by forty miles worth of exhaust. We checked into a hotel in the town's plaza and burst into maniacal laughter when we saw our state in the mirror. "I can't believe they let us in here." A couple diesel dust handlebar mustaches staring back at us. It was good timing for the best shower of our entire trip.
I'll spare the map-necessitating details, but our search for the vaccine would lead us through a maze of multiple towns, hospitals, medical centers and pharmacies. At each stop we'd receive a clue for the next stop, naively believing it would be our last. We employed buses, collectivos, moto taxis, regular taxis, and our own two feet to pinball from clue to clue before finally landing into a couple creaky chairs inside a dingy room of Cajamarca's Centro Antirrabico. I'd been unsure initially whether to be relieved or alarmed that such a place existed. It wasn't until we arrived to the crumbling, unmarked building, and crouched through the locked gate's tiny kennel-like opening that I felt justified in my alarm. The place was in a serious state of neglect. The only person around shouted down to us from the roof, obviously not expecting rabid traffic. His building-maintenance-man-vibe left me wondering where all the white coats at? A few curled-cornered [rabies] awareness posters hung around the premises, as did a wall calendar from 2009. And a chart identifying different types of terriers.
In clunky Spanish—and with blatant skepticism—I recounted to the janitor exactly what had led us to him. Stumbling through my vaccination history while absorbing our seedy surroundings, I scanned the room for a drop of soap, or any indication of sanitation. The third world dysfunction that we've grown accustomed to on bicycles suddenly seemed especially dismal. Or more likely, just personal. My unsuccessful attempt at hiding tears of defeat resulted in immediate action from the man, growing visibly more flustered with each tear. Aidan later contributed his observation that "Latin men really don't like tears." The man frantically flipped through a tiny blue journal in search of his boss's phone number. At an obvious loss, I wondered when the last time was he had actually called the guy. 2009? When no one answered—shocking—he tried to distract me with unnecessary paperwork and a fun fingerprinting session. Firming up a theory that the place used to be a kindergarten. As he guided my index finger from the ink pad onto the signature line of the xeroxed form he'd dug out from the depths of the desk drawer, I could actually feel Aidan trying not to laugh.
Other basic questions followed:
What is your name?
Do you know the dog?
Male or female?
Me or the dog?
What color hair?
How is this relevant?
Was the dog big or small?
All I can do is confirm that it was not a terrier.
Wiping the excess blue ink from my finger, I inquired as to why my paw prints were necessary. Rather than answering my question, the man held his index finger into the air in demonstration of having an end-all idea.
I have a friend.
She is a veterinarian.
You will go see her.
The vaccine is the same.
The prospect of sharing a waiting room with magical highland creatures—flanked by a German Shepard and a goat with an alpaca across the way—made me smile, remembering my mom's career change suggestion in her last e-mail to become a veterinarian. And although the animal bonding time sounded like a dream, I had lingering questions. Questions lost to the deafening commotion of dogs barking just outside—irony not lost. Realizing there was really nothing else the man could do for us, I surrendered any further fight and accepted my fate as Dr. Dolittle's afternoon appointment.
The vaccine for dogs and humans is not the same. And although there was a cute puppy in the street on the way to the vet, there were only human beings in the waiting room. The veterinarian was a smart, personable woman with an office buried deep within the hallways of what was actually the public hospital, hence all the humans. She chuckled when I asked if I'd be getting the same shot as the dogs. Confused by her lack of equipment to treat animals, I left assuming her job consisted mostly of research, although I never actually asked. She guided me through loopholes and past unnecessary long lines. With obvious preferential treatment, I had become the vet's pet project. I would never question the credentials of Peruvian doctors, but the facilities themselves are unnerving. People overcrowded the dark hallways, awaiting attention. Kids ran amuk. Sounds of sickness echoed. And I, feeling incredibly fortunate that all I needed were a few shots, made a mental note to avoid getting seriously ill in Peru.
After completing a couple vaccinations and a course of antibiotics, my mental state is restored. It seems appropriate to thank my former employer for covering the cost of the seriously spendy preexposure shots back in Portland—a very unusual insurance benefit—especially since I'd already put in my notice. For future reference, the vaccine costs zero dollars and zero cents in Peru, but it does not come without a web of wacky interactions. Should you find yourself in Cajamarca though, I know a guy...
We are taking a time out in Pacasmayo—on the northern coast—while I nurse a few things and Aidan surfs some of Peru's most famous waves. My exercise envy is not subtle, but am ultimately happy one of us can get out there. Pacasmayo is our first glimpse of the Pacific since Panama. It's an interesting town that I'm enjoying lapping in my downtime. The waterfront is scattered with feral cats, fishing gear and ample ice cream carts. The town moves slowly. From our rooftop you can check the waves and take in a bird's eye view of an endless maze of crumbling brick, Peru's second largest concrete plant, and a stark-white, open-armed Jesus statue blessing the bus salvage yard below. Due to all the dust, there's a permanent filter casting a warm glow over town. When Aidan opened our window the other morning to the sound of howling dogs and the smell of fish feed production, the magenta sun rose through the pollution particles, illuminating the decay, and he said, "Looks like Afghanistan out there."
I'm trying to keep my train of thought as a hammer wails into the floor above us, our ceiling. Getting better at zen'ing out. Once everything heals and Aidan's gotten his fix, we'll pick up where we left off—in the northern Peruvian highlands—for more peace and quiet, tent chocolate and pop quizzes testing our ability to play it cool.