By Darren Alff
Tricycles may never become mainstream here in the United States, but in the South American country of Peru, tricycles reign supreme. No matter where you go in the country, whether it be a large metropolitan city or a small remote farming village, you're bound to see a tricycle of some kind.
But these large, heavy three-wheeled tricycles aren't just used for personal transportation. They're used for all sorts of different things. From the storage of fruits and vegetables; To a portable business from which black-market DVDs, ice cream, umbrellas, tools, and clothing can be sold; A place to sleep during the day; A street vendor's restaurant on wheels; And most interestingly, as taxicabs, used to transport people and their belongings up the block or around town.
It was the tricycle taxicabs that intrigued me the most during my travels in Peru, and when I arrived in the small city of Puno, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I thought to myself, “If I can pull this off, it will be one of the greatest, most bizarre, things I have ever done.” Either that, or my quest for “tricycle touring” glory would linger in the back of my mind as one of the stupidest, most painful, things I had ever attempted.
On Thursday, February 10th, 2011, I left the ramshackle hostel in downtown Puno that had been my temporary home for the past several weeks, and walked a short distance toward the shores of Lake Titicaca to the home of a stalky Peruvian man named Ivan. I knocked on the large metal gate outside Ivan's crumbling brick home and waited for a few minutes until the door finally swung open.
As Ivan unlatched the gate that stood between myself out on the street and his small dirt courtyard littered with trash and metal debris, I saw what I had come for: the used, single-speed, lime green tricycle taxi cab I had purchased just a couple days prior for only 250 Peruvian Soles (about $90 US Dollars).
Ivan didn't speak a word of English and I only knew a few dozen words in Spanish, so with the best sign language we could muster, we thanked one another (me for his trike…and he for my money) and off I went on my lime green tricycle.
The plan from there was to leave the lakeside city of Puno and begin a multi-day tricycle touring adventure to the city of Cuzco, Peru, some 250 miles away. While on route, I'd travel from an elevation of 12,500 feet to a slightly lesser elevation of 11,500 feet. But that one-thousand foot drop in elevation didn't mean the entire trip was going to be downhill. In order to reach Cuzco, I would have to cross over several large passes, negotiate long desolate roads, cycle across hundreds of miles of farmland, and make the entire trip without the ability to speak with the locals I was sure to encounter along the way.
But before I could begin my trip toward Cuzco, I needed to make a number of quick repairs to my new tricycle. After all, the thing was far from safe to ride. It needed a new bottom bracket, a new crankshaft, new pedals, new brake-pads, and more than anything else, I needed to figure out how to lock the front-left wheel to it's axle so that it didn't roll completely off the trike while I was out there on the road.
After claiming ownership of my green metal chariot, I rode the used steel giant just a few blocks west to a small side street in downtown Puno where a couple cluttered shops cater to those with bicycles, tricycles, motorcycles and motor-taxis. It was here that I spent the next four hours of my day, looking over the shoulder of an uneducated bicycle mechanic, slowly going about the job of repairing my rusty three-wheeled vehicle.
By the time the repairs to my tricycle were finished, I was out another 86 Soles ($31 USD), it was well past noon, and I was anxious to get on the road.
After throwing my personal possessions into the tricycle's front compartment, I cycled a short distance across town through heavy traffic and then began an hour-and-a-half long effort to push the weighty tricycle and all of my belongings up the steep 2-mile hill leading out of the city. Little did I know, my trip by tricycle across Southern Peru would consist of me pushing the vehicle for nearly 40% of the journey.
The first part of the push out of Puno was the most difficult. There was a large amount of traffic on the street and the uphill grade was the steepest I would encounter on the entire trip. With no bike lanes or any obvious place to pull over and rest, I had to hurriedly push my cumbersome metal trike all the way to the top of the Puno city limits with no more than one or two short breaks along the way.
Arms trembling, I finally reached the top of the hill that led north out of the city, and I quickly began my descent into the colorful farmland below.
This was my first attempt at steering the trike down a steep windy hill, so I had the brakes on almost the entire time as I wobbled from side to side and tried to keep control of my wild metal beast.
As I gained speed, the trike's problems became more evident. The front-right wheel had a couple broken spokes, and as a result, the wheel itself was far from round. The faster I went, the more noise the trike made and the more its front-right wheel hopped off the ground. At times, the untrue wheel caused the tricycle's right side to jump completely off the pavement!
The downhill descent was frightening at times, but it meant one thing – I was making progress. Unfortunately, I didn't get too far before behind forced to a halt.
A short distance down the hill I came across a large police roadblock and was forced to pull my three-wheeled taxicab to the side of the road. In all my years of traveling by bike, it was the first time I have ever been pulled over by a police officer, and as the large, dark-skinned officer approached me on foot, I began to wonder what he might ask.
But the officer's question for me was basic… and it was one that I could easily understand. He wanted to know where I was going, and I gladly told him, “Cuzco”.
Interestingly enough, the officer didn't seem the least bit surprised that I, a tall, skinny, white-skinned “gringo” was cycling out of town on a tricycle taxicab. Instead, the officer took notice of the small video camera I had laying in the seat of the tricycle's main compartment.
“What is this?” he asked me, as he pointed toward my camera.
“It's a camera.” I replied. “To record my travels in Peru”.
I thought about asking the officer if I could take his photo, but figured I better not. All I wanted at that point was to get through the questioning and continue on my way. I had a lot of ground to cover and the sun was soon to disappear over the horizon.
After a few more trivial questions about my camera and the way it operated, the tall Peruvian police officer grimly waved me through and I continued down the hill, trying not to look the least bit flustered as I cycled past a large group of younger policemen who were huddled together in a circle and pointing at me from afar, just a short distance down the road.
The next several miles seemed to fly by. With the police roadblock behind me, downhill traffic consisted of just one or two vehicles whipping past my left-hand side every couple minutes. Now on a good downhill stretch, I bounced my way down the road, pressing the brake the entire time, and experimenting with the best way to tackle the Peruvian streets on my super-wide trike.
It was near the bottom of the hill that I noticed a tall man walking along the side of the road in the direction of a nearby town. As I passed the man on my trike, he gave me a wide toothless grin and waved at me, as though he wanted me to pull over and give him a ride.
I knew that this might happen, of course. I figured that at some point on my trip, someone would see me driving my tricycle taxicab and ask for a short ride in the vehicle. And even though riding the tricycle was difficult enough, I secretly wanted to carry a passenger or two during my adventure, just to have the story to tell.
So, with my first potential ride walking just a few feet to my side, I pulled my tricycle into the shoulder and asked the strange man in my best possible Spanish if I could give him a ride down the road.
At first the man was hesitant. He kept saying something about “paying me two Soles” and I figured he feared the charge I might give him if he were to actually get inside my trike. But I tried to tell the man that the ride was free and that he wouldn't owe me a thing.
“Es gratuito”, I kept saying over and over again.
Eventually, the man got the message. He crawled into the front seat of my tricycle, I jumped on the back, and I pedaled the man just a short distance down the road, before pulling to the side and dropping him off outside a small convenience store that either he or one of his close friends apparently owned.
When we stopped outside the store, a small group of people emerged from inside a nearby adobe home and they circled around so as to see my tricycle taxicab and their friend, the passenger I had picked up just a short distance down the road, sitting inside the tricycle's passenger compartment.
At first, the party of people circled around my tricycle was extremely kind and friendly. They asked about where I was from, where I was going, and how much I paid for my lime green three-wheeler. But soon after taking a photo of my passenger sitting inside the trike, the mood of those standing nearby took a turn for the worse.
It was at this time that I heard one of the men standing around my bike begin to say something about money. And at first, I thought that he might be saying that my passenger needed to pay me for the ride he had been given. But as it turns out, that wasn't the case at all. Instead, the people circled around my tricycle wanted me to give them money, for no reason whatsoever!
This was something I had encountered multiple times during my stay in Peru, and it was something I would encounter time and time again during my remaining months in the country. Even though the people of Peru can be extremely kind and friendly at times, many of them see tourists like me as a quick and easy means of getting desperately needed cash without just cause or reason. And because I'm not one to easily hand out my money or belongings to just anyone, I gave the crowd a nasty glare before jumping back on my tricycle and quickly riding off into the distance.
It was around this point that I knew I would never reach Cuzco on my tricycle. It wasn’t my money-hungry passenger that had discouraged me from making it there, but instead a whole host of problems with the tricycle itself.
For starters, the seat on the trike was far too low and because of this I couldn’t put much force behind my pedal stokes. Not to mention that the ill-fitting saddle was slowly ruining my knees.
The fact that the tricycle only had one gear didn’t help much either. If that one gear had been a really low gear, that certainly would have helped. But the one gear the tricycle did have on it was much too large. Even on flat ground I could barely get the tricycle rolling.
Besides all this, my three-wheeled vehicle was making all kinds of horrible noises. It was creaking, cracking, and scratching the entire time it was in motion. As I pedaled along, the trike made an incredible ruckus that was hard for me to ignore and slowly turned my attitude towards the trip in a devastatingly negative direction.
Because of the repairs I had had to make and the late start I had gotten, I didn’t get much distance between Puno and me on that first day. I cycled for a few hours and when it began to get dark and cloudy I pulled the tricycle to the side of the road and hid it in a pile of trash before climbing a nearby hill, setting up my tent, and crawling inside just as it began to rain.
The following morning I woke up early with the intention of getting as many miles behind me as I possible could. But like day one, I didn’t get very far. I spent the entire day cycling up and over countless small hills while passing through remote farming villages and spent more of my time pushing the bike and/or resting than I did actually riding my three-wheeled vehicle.
Day two on the tricycle was long and uneventful. As I suffered through every pedal stroke, I kept myself busy by thinking about how easy this would have been if I just had my regular touring bike with me.
Tricycle touring in Southern Peru may have been painful, but it sure was beautiful. Out there on the road, I saw hundreds of llamas, dogs, and farmers. But what surprised me more than anything were the beautiful ranch homes made of adobe and decorated with small protective bulls standing watch over the homes, so as to protect the people within from evil, harmful spirits.
Life on the road was lonely, and I spoke to almost no one the entire time I was out there. I just got a lot of strange looks and casual waves from the people I passed by. I did, however, run into one individual who refused to let me be.
As I entered a small remote village I saw a filthy, slender man standing by the side of the road with a bucket of white paint in his hand. As I approached the man on my tricycle, he began walking toward me and I could see that he had paint dripping down his face. It was then that I realized the man had been inhaling, and possibly even eating, the white paint that was now pouring out of his nostrils and mouth.
As the man reached me, he stuck out his paint covered hand so as to introduce himself, and I didn’t want to be rude, so I shook the man’s hand and introduced myself in return.
The man then began speaking to me in a strange, slurred voice and I did my best to understand even a single thing he might be saying. But the man was either speaking a completely different language or he was plastered out of his mind and the words being pressed from his lips were pure gibberish. By the way his breath smelled, I figured it was likely the later.
As the man spoke I kept telling him that I didn’t speak Spanish and that I couldn’t understand him, but he kept on talking and, as he did so, he’d lean into me and put his paint-covered face just a few inches from my own so that I had no choice but to look at and smell the rancid chemicals that were dripping from his filthy mouth and nose.
After just a few moments of this, I tried to say goodbye to the man, but he wouldn’t let me leave. He grabbed my arm and tried to get me to stop, but I ripped my arm away from him and explained that I had to be going.
It was at this time that I began pushing my tricycle up a long, yet gradual hill, while walking as fast as I possibly could so as to try and get away from this mess of a man. But the man stuck right with me and followed me all the way through town.
For more than two kilometers the man walked alongside me as I pushed my heavy tricycle up the road and across the small city I now found myself in. The entire time the paint-covered gentlemen kept talking to me, and the entire time I kept telling him that I couldn’t understand what he was saying.
Numerous times I stopped and tried to get a photo of the guy, but when I pointed the camera at him, he’d dodge the camera lens and jump to the side, as though he believed I were pointing a gun at him and he was successfully dodging my bullets.
When we finally reached the top of the hill I saw a small park bench just a short distance away and tried to tell the man that I was going to stop and get some food. I thought that this might get him to go away, but instead the man decided to sit down with me and continue to stick his paint-covered face into my own.
At this point I began to get somewhat upset with the man. I was doing everything I could to ditch him and he just wouldn’t go away. It was then that I began thinking to myself that the man might be trying to rob me, or at the very least, trying to get me to give him some money.
As we were sitting there on the bench I tried to play it cool and ignore the rancid man jabbering away mere inches from my ear. But all of a sudden the guy reached into his jacket pocket and in an instant my heart jumped. He was reaching for something big and my mind feared the worst.
“A gun?” I thought to myself.
At this thought, I jumped up from the park bench and prepared myself for whatever the man might be getting ready to pull from his jacket pocket. I seriously thought the guy might have a gun… or a knife at the very least. But then I saw it… and I was instantly relieved. It was a radio!
With his music now blaring, I said “Adios” to the man for the three-hundredth time and he finally got the message. He stuck out his hand for another quick shake, pressed his face a mere inch from my lips, mumbled a few more slurred phrases into my ear, and then took off walking down the road, back in the direction we had come.
Day two on the tricycle flew by. When I wasn't struggling to ride the trike, I was struggling to push it. So as day two came to a close and the sun began to disappear behind the mountains in the distance, I began looking for a place to spend the night.
It was then that I spotted a small cluster of clay homes perched up on the hillside to my left and I thought that whoever lived there might be nice enough to let me camp in their field below. So I parked my tricycle on the side of the road and walked up the hillside toward the cluster of buildings above me.
As I got closer I began to see a few short, dark-skinned women running from one home to the next. They had obviously spotted me coming their way and the word was spreading that there was a stranger in their midst.
When I got closer, I was approached by a single woman in traditional Peruvian dress. She stood confidently at the top of the hill with her arms crossed and looked down on me while a few women sat in the doorway behind her and took turns peeking out at me through the darkness of their unlit home.
In my very best Spanish I explained to the woman that I was riding my tricycle from Puno to Cuzco and that I was simply looking for a place to spend the night. I told her I had a tent and asked her if it would be okay for me to camp in her field.
Without saying a word, the woman nodded her head and motioned for me to bring my things up to her house.
With the woman's silent approval, I ran down to the road where my tricycle was parked and grabbed the bag containing my tent, sleeping bag and all my other worldly possessions and prepared to heave it up the steep mountainside to my temporary home for the evening. But when I turned around I was surprised to see a young teenage boy, who quickly grabbed my tricycle and began pushing it up the hill in the direction I planned to camp.
The boy’s name was Julian, he was 15-years-old, and his mother (Alicia – the woman who had said it would be okay for me to spend the night) had instructed him to help me with my trike.
Together, Julian and I pushed the tricycle up the steep hill toward the family’s farmhouse and when we reached the lowest of the family's outbuildings, we parked the tricycle in a big pile of llama feces and it was there that Julian instructed me to pitch my tent.
As I went about setting up my camp for the evening, the entire family began to emerge from the nearby structures. There were five of them in total: Alicia (the mom), Julian (the son), Ruth and Mary (the sisters), and a much older woman, who must have been an aunt of some kind. The five of them huddled around me as I went about setting up my tent and as I did so they’d ask questions about the equipment I was pulling from my bags.
“How much does your tent cost?” Julian would ask.
“What is that for?” Ruth would then say as I began blowing up my air mattress.
“Will you be warm enough when it begins to rain?” The aunt wanted to know.
After answering all their questions and completing the set up of my home for the night, it began to rain and the family said goodnight. I said goodnight to the family in return and also said goodnight to the donkey and llama that were tied up on the hillside just a few feet from my campsite. Then I crawled inside my tent, rolled over onto my side, and quickly fell sleep. I was exhausted!
I woke the following morning with a horrible feeling in my gut. I just knew that something had gone wrong. And as soon as I poked my head out the door of my tiny one-man tent, those bad feelings were instantly confirmed. My tricycle had a flat tire! During the evening, the front-right tire of the tricycle had gone completely flat and if I was going to continue on I would need to repair the puncture.
Unfortunately, I had very limited tools in my possession. Before leaving Puno I had purchased an adjustable wrench that could be used to unscrew the wheel from its axle, but I didn’t have the tools needed to remove the tire from its rim.
The bicycle mechanic I had done business with in Puno had manufactured a single tire-lever for me out of an old metal kickstand, but even with this one tool in my possession I was unable to pry the tire from its current location. I tried for nearly a half-hour to repair the flat, but failed to make even a small amount of progress. It seemed as though I was stuck.
I considered the options and for a moment thought about simply blowing the tire up, continuing down the road until the tire deflated once again, and stopping every couple minutes to re-inflate the tire with my pump. But the thought of doing this action over and over again, for miles on end made me slightly nauseous.
Then 15-year-old Julian came out to help me try and mend the tire. But even with the two of us working on the project, we were unable to repair the flat.
Finally, I had had enough… and I knew that my tricycle tour was over.
In an instant, I decided to give my beloved trike away. Julian and his family had almost nothing, and they had been so kind to allow me to stay on their property for free. So I asked Julian if he might want my tricycle and he shook his head in disbelief, asking me again and again if I was really going to give him my trike.
“Yes” I said. “The tricycle is yours. You can have it. It's my gift to you.”
As I said this, Julian began to smile, rub his hands together with joy, and then ask me once again if he could really keep my trike.
“Sí” I said again. “You can have it. It's all yours!”
After finally getting the message, Julian ran up the hillside to tell his family the good news. And at this point the entire family joined me by the trike.
After taking a few photos of the family and my crippled tricycle, I packed all of my things into my backpack and took off walking down the road. When I reached the pavement and looked back, Julian and his sisters were pushing the tricycle across the hillside and in the direction of a nearby farmhouse. It was the last time I ever saw my green Peruvian trike.
The truth is, my tricycle touring adventure was neither the greatest thing I’ve ever done, nor the stupidest. I didn't reach Cuzco like I had planned. In fact, I didn't even come close. But the experience was unlike any other travel moment I have ever had. And if I were to do the whole thing all over again, I'd do it in a heartbeat.
For me, giving the tricycle away to Julian and his family felt better than the feeling I'm sure I would have had if I had ridden the trike all the way to Cuzco like I had planned. Hopefully Julian was able to repair that flat tire and put the tricycle to good use. Whatever the case, it felt good to give someone something and have them appreciate it so fully.
As Julian's home faded into the distance, I popped in my headphones and turned on some music. I still had a long ways to go until I reached Cuzco, my body was sore, and I was alone yet again.