South Peru – a Tumor, an Earthquake and lots of Desert

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Our latest blog posts have focused on equipment as many followers have asked us what we carry, and why. As a result you’d almost forget that in between we’re actually traveling. So let’s give you an update about what we’ve been up to in this fantastic country called Peru. Our last travel story was about Paucartambo, after which we drove to Arequipa from where we went to Chile because our visa ran out.

Since our return to Peru, a lot has happened, with a couple of frightening moments as soon as we crossed the border.

“Hey, you just drove past my Car Wash. If you like to have your car washed for free, drop by!”
How’s that for a welcome?!

Border Crossings – Do You Ever Get Used to Them?

Overlanders in South America are familiar with stories about Chilean border officials giving you a hard time as you can’t bring veggies, meat or any other fresh or raw produce across the border. Whereas entering Chile from Tacna had been pretty straightforward, Peru was the one that was giving us a hard time now.

First of all there wasn’t a clear procedure. Coen ran back and forth between office buildings, asking his way around. At last he caught an official by the shoulder and more or less dragged him to the Land Cruiser. The official’s immediate remark was that we had to empty everything from the car so it could be X-rayed. Coen laughed, showing him we don’t carry our stuff in suitcases but in cabinets; unloading and loading would take two days. To which the official responded, “Well, that isn’t my problem, is it?” Which, obviously, was true.

Second, there was the green box on top of the Land Cruiser that he instructed should be taken off as well to X-ray it. Coen pointed out the screws and bolts attaching it to the roof, commenting it would take hours to do that. Again the official’s response was, “Well, that isn’t my problem, is it?”

Argh…

Tough one.

Coen talked and cajoled for quite a bit until, at last, the official looked inside the Land Cruiser, said everything was okay and followed Coen to the roof to check the content of the green box.

Phew. We were free to go.

What was the problem again? The window not closing / not opening / a squeaking noise… Well, it was one of them.

Arequipa’s Monastery of Santa Catalina

It is a struggle to drive downtown Arequipa due to tons of traffic clogging up all suburbs of Peru’s second largest city. In fact, the first time we got here, we found it quite intimidating.

Narrow alleys inside Santa Catalina
Kitchen is part of a nun’s cell

Fortunately, Hotel las Mercedes – where overlanders can camp in the garden (for GPS waypoint, check here) – lies near the old center, on walking distance. We did our share of sightseeing but truth be told, the UNESCO status escapes me.

The plaza is quite impressive due to its predominant use of sillar, a whitish-colored volcanic rock quarried in the nearby area. The town does have its share of pleasant architecture, mostly in and around the plaza, but apart from that we were not particularly impressed.

With one exception that is: the Monastery of Santa Catalina. Now that site alone definitely warrants a UNESCO World Heritage Status, as far as we are concerned. We’ve seen our share of convents and monasteries in South America, and this is something unique.

The monastery (in fact a convent) is a  20,000-square-meters complex in the heart of the city. It was founded in 1580 by a wealthy widow, María de Guzmán, and it has remained a convent until today. Today most of it is open to the public (since the ’70s) and only a couple of dozen of nuns still live a cloistered life in one particular part of the complex.

For hours we meandered along twisting alleys and checked out the communal buildings and individual cells – the latter is a bit of an understatement for the far-from-small quarters which often come with a private kitchen and all. Alleys are lined with millions of geraniums, walls have been painted in blueish and reddish tinges, and while most staircases to the roof platforms were closed off, one remains open from which we had a view of the town within a city, which was quite a sight.

“You have a Tumor”

After a couple of days of sightseeing, lingering, doing chores, solving car troubles, and doing our runs in the morning, we were ready to go. However, on our last evening I discovered a swelling in my throat, almost the size of an egg! I panicked and plans for traveling north were put on hold.

Ursula, the owner of the hotel, was a fantastic help and support in the week that followed. Not just in a practical sense, calling taxis, making appointments with doctors, asking for explanations etcetera, but also in being a woman I could talk to. She comforted me, showed support, had faith and fortunately knew other women with similar symptoms and found a quick way into the medical circuit.

Over the years we have seen our share of hospitals and physicians and know the patience that comes with visiting them. This time it was harder than ever to deal with it. After a first check up, the head & neck specialist (as they call an ENT specialist here) concluded I had a tumor in my thyroid. He suggested to get an ultrasound and biopsy and then deciding on a date to have it removed. He said it just as straightforward as I write it here, without any fuss. And maybe because of that, I responded just as blandly, “Okay, we’ll do that.”

Each test took a full day. Not the test itself of course, but getting to the hospital, standing in line to make an appointment (no, you can’t do that by phone), standing in line to pay for it, standing (or if lucky, sitting) for hours before it was our turn. Our e-books have been a blessing!

Meanwhile I consulted our medical insurance, whose administrators were of great support and assistance, and a couple of friends who were familiar with medical care in Peru. Thanks Guy & Didi, and Stevie & Tree for your support and information! I spent hours on the Internet on everything that had to do with thyroids. It’s mind boggling what’s out there, in terms of information on the Internet, but also in terms of illnesses and conditions I had never heard of. And this related to only one such tiny part of our body. I learned two things:

First there was an important issue of language. In the Netherlands, for as far as I know, the word tumor equals cancer. You can’t have a tumor and not cancer. So after our first visit to the hospital my world obviously came tumbling down. Suddenly I was a cancer patient?! The concept was too alien to grasp, to tell you the truth. That didn’t feel right at all; it didn’t fit in god-knows-what, really. But, during my research I came to understand that the word tumor in Spanish, and if I understand correctly in English as well, does NOT equal cancer. In Spanish (and English), you can have a tumor without having cancer. Now that brought the gravity of the matter to a whole different level.

Second I discovered that a side effect of eating maca (a local root) can be a swelling of the thyroid! I had started eating maca a couple of weeks earlier (although eating only half of the suggested amount) in the hope to have found a natural way to reduce or eliminate the pains of my monthly cycles. But reading this, everything fell into place for me: this must be the cause.

We continued the tests, ultrasound and biopsy while I quit eating maca. Maca being the cause of this wasn’t something the local specialists agreed with, as it has not been scientifically proven. While this may be the case, I didn’t understand why they didn’t even want to consider the possibility (my medical insurance agrees it might have been a cause). Within days the swelling was gone.

Having said that, the tests did show that there is a cyst. Benign, and too small to feel it, but something to be aware of and to check up on in the future. But the panic was gone, as well as the attempts to eliminate zillions “What if…” questions, which are generally useless and energy draining.

Earthquake & a Flat Tire

After the medical insurance confirmed the interpretation of all tests, my last doubts were gone. It was time to hit the road again. After almost two weeks in Arequipa we were eager to leave. We returned to the coast and head north for Lima. We didn’t get to see much of the Pacific due to thick mist, and a large part of that journey was tedious and exhausting. Sometimes we went from a blue sky to clouds within minutes, which would worsen to mist, rain and hail, giving us no more than five meters of view. It was scary driving in the mountains with endless curves and idiots overtaking no matter the curves, mist and rain.

From the mountains rolled pebbles, subsequently stones. We have driven our share of off-roads in the mountains in the rainy season (like the official Death Road, and the unofficial one) but this kind of rolling down of rubble down the mountains was odd. We didn’t have time to reflect on it as it was a stretch full of traffic that demanded our attention.

Yep, that one slashed the tire

Just as tranquility returned, three major rocks came tumbling down the road. It demanded a super quick calculation: hit the gas pedal, hoping to get past them, or hit the breaks. Rocks don’t have the tendency to roll down evenly and in a straight line, so it was a gamble.

One of them hit the right front wheel. The tire ripped and the Land Cruiser hobbled on three wheels for some twenty meters until the first pull out while oncoming traffic halted and swerved to avoid more rocks coming down. Coen, who had been such a rock (nice play of word, huh…) for me during the past week in Arequipa, now broke down and despaired. As the sun set he replaced the tire in the rain with trucks thundering by. It was far from a pleasant moment.

Hours later than anticipated we reached Puerto Inca, which is known for the place where fish was caught and brought by runners to Cusco so the Inca emperor could eat fresh sea food! Incredible, isn’t it. Because of the bad weather the place looked a bit depressing but I can imagine on other days it’s a beautiful place.

South Peru: Desert & Desert, & Desert

Remains at the cemetery of Puerto Inca

More coast, alternating with desert. Mist continued swapping scenes with blue skies. We couldn’t really get a feel for this region and felt mostly that we were simply covering kilometers. Odd in the desert are the trillions of huts made of carton or stray mats. Who wants to live in the middle of this scorching nowhere? We had seen it around Arequipa and south to Chile as well, but here these settlements continued all over the place. Later we learned that they are mostly invaded lands – illegally. There is some law that if you have a house (even if its just four sides of stray mats) for so many years on a piece of land, the land becomes yours. People do this for their kids, others for reasons of speculation.

The other oddity here is how the desert can suddenly turn green. They must have an incredible system of irrigation as some regions smack in the middle of the desert are a flourishing oasis of agriculture.

Paracas National Park

One of the surprises on the road were the old ruins of Cahuachi, outside Nasca, which are generally off the tourist radar. They are used by an Italian university to bring in archaeologist students to get some field work experience. The late afternoon sunlight set the restored settlement on the hill on fire, and it was a great desert for running around sunrise. Coen found the remains of many ancient graves, robbed of their treasures and with now nothing but remains of bones and skulls lying around.

Nasca, Parácas, & Lima

Nasca didn’t inspire us at all; Parácas National Park all the more. We loved it there! It was a place to camp, to run in an extraordinary landscape dominated by silence, and to take in views.

We did have a bit of schedule though, as we wanted to join the 3-weekly HASH in Lima (more on Hashing in this story). The German Club was kind enough to let us stay in their parking lot for quite some time. We had a busy agenda for the next two weeks. But that will be for the next story.

For more on Peru, check out these articles:

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Thank you for your support — Karin-Marijke & Coen

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