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bus. The Ascent
Part 3 (back to Part 2)

We Start Moving
After several hours of packing and repacking the buses, we all squeeze into the few remaining seats unoccupied by backpacks. The driver tries to start the bus and there's no response. Fortunately, nothing that runs on diesel in Peru is beyond repair, and within a few minutes we're rolling through town.

The dust-filled streets finally give way to green irrigated fields filled with workers planting onions. Here, south of the equator, spring is just blooming and the growing season is beginning. We move slowly along the road and are soon stopped by the police on a routine check. Our driver, it turns out, lost his license while packing bags atop the bus. An hour and a half passes while the police type up a letter of authorization that will accompany our driver the rest of the way. The lack of a typewriter ribbon makes the process almost impossible. It's the little things in life that hinder the progress of expeditions in remote places.

road The terrain quickly turns brown and sandy, a desolate expanse of lifeless dry earth save for the occasional chuuna cactus, a large column-like species. Suddenly, dirt and sand begin to blow and earth and sky melt together in complete brown-out. Mountainous dunes of sand and ash from nearby volcanic peaks can hardly be seen through the blowing clouds of brown. We hit the Pan American highway and the Pacific coast, speckled with shanty towns catering to the busy highway traffic.

It feels like we've reached the end of the earth here, with huge waves crashing on the coast and looming parched hills, beyond which no one could possibly survive. This is Pan American highway culture—transvestites mingle with fruit vendors. Sleeping dogs sprawled on the side of the road are greeted with honks from the endless stream of diesel trucks.

We stop for the night in the coastal town of Atico and are shaken awake by an earthquake that feels like it could make headline news. Some of us stumble out of bed to stand in doorways that wouldn't protect a cockroach from the crumbling cinder block structure. In the darkness of night, our thoughts wander to the curse of the mummy and the shamans' grim warnings of Sara Sara's anger. Jose Antonio later tells me that this was a good-sized quake, hitting 4.5 on the Richter Scale, and auspiciously arriving on the eve of the one-year anniversary of Johan Reinhard's discovery of Juanita.

road It's Much Farther Than We Thought
An hour out of Atico on the washboard-ridden dirt roads, the bus comes to an unexpected stop. A connector to the battery came loose with the rattling and created a burning arc of electricity that burned a hole in the battery. Walter Diaz, one of the Peruvian archaeology students, rushes off in another vehicle to get the necessary spare parts and the rest of us wait to see what might happen next.

Three hours pass, Walter returns, and we are on our way. The five- hour trip turns into an 8-hour journey over mountain passes and down into riverbed canyons, until we reach Quilcata at 11,000 feet—our destination at the base of Sara Sara. We arrive at 3:00 a.m. and bivouac in the town square to catch an hour or two of sleep. We rise bewildered by chattering and staring townspeople who must think we have arrived from outer space. The children immediately surround us, asking questions in Quechua, the native tongue. We've finally arrived in the heart of Inca country, for the inhabitants of Quilcata are certainly descendants of the Inca empire.


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