“Los Organos? Yeah I can take you boys there, easy, let’s go!” the moto-taxi driver said to me. Or at least it was something to this effect, as he said it in rapid, slurred spanish. We secured our backpacks to the small rack behind the rear axle of his trike as he tied our three surfboards to the roof. The hem of his faded Quiksilver t-shirt lifted, revealing a skinny ass-crack peaking from his two-sizes-too big board shorts. “Vamos, chicos, vamoooos!” he half-sang with an honest looking grin, which I returned. I trusted him. Sort of.
If you’ve never seen a moto-taxi (known in other parts of the world as a tuk-tuk), picture this: it’s a motorcycle that has had its chassis extended to the rear by about 4 feet, and has been given a two wheeled rear axle above which sits a two person bench. This is often enclosed by a spindly frame of fingerwidth piping and wrapped in tent-like plastic, giving the illusion that you’re “inside” a vehicle as opposed to “on top” of a moto-trike. Ours however, had no such siding. It was a rickety old thing, probably held together by DIY weld-jobs, good luck, and the occasional prayer. We were open to the night, literally and metaphorically.
It was about an hour-and-a-half after sunset. Kevin, Sam and I squeezed ourselves into the two-person bench, preparing to leave Mancora’s great surfing, rowdy beachfront bars, heavenly seafood barbecues, and affable argentinian hippies hawking special brownies on the beach.
“Pero, primero necesitamos gasolina!” shouted the driver as he started up his engine. Fair enough. As most moto-taxi work days are made up of little jaunts around town, we needed to gas up before our nighttime desert odyssey. We started rolling northwards along the town’s main strip. This was the opposite direction of where I knew we had to go. We passed the northernmost point we’d explored on foot during our stay and entered uncharted territory. The lights were fewer now and the strip was becoming more seedy and shabby. Ramshackled mechanics garages. Moto-taxis on their sides. A shirtless man was welding the undercarriage of one, bright sparks flying into the night. Why the hell was he welding shirtless? Why at night? Surely the gas station would be soon. Had we not already passed one?
Our driver waved to some cholitos drinking beer beneath a single bulb outside a bodega. We’d been driving for a while now in the wrong direction and my 8 months in Peru so far have taught me these aren’t always the part of town you want to be in. The road was now highway. We were well into the outskirts, and moving fast enough that it would be difficult to simply bail out the side if it became apparent we were being kidnapped. We were in it to win it, I guess.
Finally the lights of a gas station came into view. Obviously he wasn’t kidnapping us. He added $4 Canadian worth of gas (that’s all?) and we cruised back through town, fully enjoying the ride this time. The open sides of the trike left nothing separating my bare arms from the warm desert evening. The wind felt good on my skin. Passing the southern stretches of the town, Mancora’s lights and raggaeton faded into the night. We settled in for the sojourn out into the desert along the Panamericana. The little engine worked hard under its unusually heavy load, singing to us in strange, abrasive harmonies. I thought to myself how, so weighed down, it would be hard pressed to even reach 50km/h. I’d soon realize how wrong I was.
We began to climb a hill. The engine dug to the low boundary of its gear, pistons protesting in fat, deep-pitch pops, so slowly that I could focus on the silence between each cylinder firing. By the time the driver geared down we’d lost so much speed that the motorcycle had slowed to a crawl. Would we even make it? We crested the hill and as we began accelerating down its opposite side, it dawned on me: the extra weight that slowed our climb would have an equal and opposite effect on that rickety old carriage as soon as we began to go descend...
And descend we did, steadily gaining speed with the weight of four grown men, three heavy bags, and three surfboards fuelling the momentum of the tiny trike. The wind howled, slapping our cheeks around as the desert darkness flew by us on either side. The engine began to scream as our three-wheeled roller coaster reached the upper thresholds of its top gear, moving far faster than it would under a regular load. “Holy shiiiiitttt,” Sam roared above the din, wide-eyed and grinning with nervous adrenaline. The driver, who before had casually draped his hand over the handle, bent at the wrist, was now clamping tightly in a white-knuckle grip, trying to steady the bars from the high-speed wobble. His posture had shifted from a languid lean on the backrest to a forward hunch, intently focusing on keeping us alive. Christ. The whole damn carriage was shimmying madly. Then suddenly, the screaming engine quieted. He’d kicked it into neutral, and though we were still hurdling through the night at who-knows-how-many kilometers per hour, the now idling engine opened the sonic landscape to reveal the other songs of the moto-taxi: the squeaking of its rusty suspension in conversation with the bumps in the road, the flapping of its sun-faded awning in the wind, the whipping of the slack of the rope holding our boards to to roof. We coasted out onto the flat desert plain. We’d survived the first drop.
We settled into the rhythm of the ride. More agonizingly slow climbs. More adrenaline-inducing descents. It was profoundly dark out there in the desert night. We’d noticed that the northern region of Piura, while all sunny in the day, receives most of its cloud action at night. So, as we motored up and down the sandy hills, we could see nothing peripheral beyond the narrow field of tunnel-vision provided by the single low power bulb on the front of the trike. There was simply no horizontal point of reference. It was hard to gage the pitch or length of the hills. I was unsure at some points if we were going up or down. It was surreal.
I zoned out and let my mind wander. I had a succession of thoughts, beginning with an often contemplated subject: how I am spending my mid-twenties working and traveling abroad. I’d leaped off the low rungs of the Canadian corporate ladder and fallen all the way down into the southern hemisphere. Would I ever get back on? There are so many ways of living one’s life. My mind moved to other friends, admirably getting on with their careers. Some are shacking up with their soul mates too, even buying houses, building lives for themselves. And I’ve now signed up to live off a tiny daily budget in a 20-year old van in South America. Each night I sleep next to two other dirty, stinky dudes, surrounded by patched up surfboards, climbing gear and wet neoprene. Is it strange that right now, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than this?
BWAAN BWAAAHHHHHHHHHN!!! An enormous truck blew by us, way too close for comfort. Dust and rocks danced in its wake; the strong gust of wind wrenched me from mental wanderings and shoved me back into our questionable rickshaw. “No te preocupes!” shouts the driver, “don’t worry!”. I was preocupes-ing a little, but strangely laughing and whooping at the same time. That bus didn’t give us any room! It’s like he hadn’t even seen us.
At last we reached our destination, the small fishing town of Los Organos. We’d no idea where we would stay, but trusted there’d be some cheap digs along the beach leading up to the point where we would surf the next couple days. Our Mancora-based driver proved to be incredibly kind. Instead of just dropping us off under the flickering lights of the town’s dusty and deserted plaza, he pulled over and called up his friend to ask where he could drop off his three road-weary gringo surfers. While he was doing this, Sam realized the moto-taxi had no tail lights and confirmed my suspicion that the trike— and by extension, any passenger— was definitely held together by more prayers and luck than any physical measures.
As lay in bed an hour later, listening to the surf pounding on the shore beyond the hotel terrace, I thought about how we could have just as easily hired a car or truck to carry us across the dark, arid emptiness between towns. We could have waited till the next morning to make the journey. But, at the same time, we could have stayed in Canada and started getting on with our lives. Or perhaps, by choosing to live off the small savings a mid-twentysomething can accrue, we were too getting on with our lives, in a very real and very different way. Life’s for living after all. There will be time for everything, for love, for career, for family, for home. I’m sure of it. The sound of the surf quiets my mind and I lose consciousness.