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Diamond in the rough: finding kindness in Peru

Brendan Barnes's picture
Brendan, Clement and Kev at Restaurant La Balsa Km. 347 in Peru. Cycle Traveller

We left Ecuador and cycled into Peru via the coast. I knew three things about this place; it was a desert, so quite barren and not much to see; it could be windy; and, plenty of cyclists have been robbed here at gunpoint. The stories of armed robberies played heavy on our minds to begin with but we soon stopped worrying about them. If it was going to happen it was going to happen and the odds weren’t that likely as long as we were smart – that is, not cycling at night and not flashing phones and money around the place.

Thoughts of bandits were quite literally blown from our minds as we battled into a consistent and strong headwind that came from the south. Cycling into a headwind is soul destroying. Unlike cycling up a mountain where extra effort is required but you have the reward of a downhill to look forward to, cycling into a headwind is all lost energy. Your average speed drops by 50% and your legs scream out from the constant pushing. The wind dries your throat and the constant buffeting sound is enough to drive you crazy. I was glad to have Kev cycling with me for this section as it meant I could tuck in cycling a few inches from his rear wheel. He acted as a shield from the wind allowing me to save energy. After a kilometre or two I would swap places and he could rest in my draft.

The desert is a strange landscape. I hate it for its barrenness and mile upon mile of desolate nothing, but it’s also a special place – quiet and solemnly beautiful. Away from the rush and chaos of cities, the desert is a beautiful place to let your mind relax and to think. I love nights spent in the desert, the temperature drops and I lie out on a bed of sand wrapped up in a blanket of stars.

Cycling in Peru. Cycle TravellerQuite literally in the middle of nowhere we stumbled across a restaurant at Km. 347 Restaurant La Balsa was going to be a quick stop for a drink for us. We had done 100km of a planned 150km day – our first of three 150km days needed to get to Lima. We sat down for a drink and the owner Clemente came over to greet us with the biggest smile I’ve seen in a long time. You will travel a very long way and be very hard pushed to find a gentleman as nice as 75-year-old Clemente.

At first I was unsure why he moved us away from the main restaurant and to his own family dining room at the back of the building, but it became clear after he went away and came back with a series of books. Clemete had three cherished guest books that passing travellers had signed and left stories and messages in since 1995. As we sat reading, Clemente presented us with a nice plate of fish and chips and all of the Inca Kola and coffee that Kev and I could drink. When we said we had no money to pay, Clemente waved his hand and said in English; “Don’t worry… Free.” Clemente obviously has a huge heart and a love for travellers. We weren’t the first and certainly wont be the last to experience his warm hospitality.

As we sat looking through the books, I spotted familiar names of people who have come this same way, including former World Record holder for circumnavigating the world by bike, Mark Beaumont, and Englishman Karl Bushby who has been trying to become the first man to walk around the world. Bushby began in 1997 and still has not completed his Goliath Expedition.

Clemente was born in Lima so I asked him why he decided to have a restaurant in the middle of the desert. He said he liked the fresh air and the tranquility out here. He runs the restaurant along with his daughter and four staff members who all live in a house out the back. He looks after everybody with the impeccable service he had shown to us, and locals in turn look after him, bringing him fish, bread and whatever else he needs.

Clemente looked through our journals and saw my leaflet from when I had visited the Empire State Building. He looked carefully at it and with a smile pointed to the top and said, “1960… I go there”. When he was my age he had travelled to many places around the world in the Navy, including New York City. He rushed off once again and came back with a 54-year-old picture of himself at the viewpoint on top of what was then the world's tallest building.

Bicycle touring the Peruvian deert. Cycle TravellerIt was getting late and we knew we wouldn’t get our 50km done, so we asked to camp outside his restaurant. Showing even more of his kindness he refused our request and instead gave us en suite beds in a casita reserved for his visiting family.

A sound sleep followed before breakfast the following morning.

I meet kind people every day. It’s all part of travelling and opening yourself up to people, relying on their kindness and hospitality, but I can easily say that I have rarely met anybody as kind and caring as Clemente. He is the true definition of a gentleman and I wish him all the best in the future.

Brendan Barnes is from Belfast, Ireland. He has cycled through Europe on numerous occasions and since May 2013 he has been on a 50,000km, three-year bicycle trip from the top of Alaska down to the tip of Chile after which he will cross over to South Africa and make his way home to Ireland through Africa, The Middle East and Europe. You can follow his journey on his website The Big Cycle.  

Images from top: 1. Brendan and Kev with Clement at Restaurant La Balsa. 2. Cycling through the Peruvian desert. 3. Desert mountains. (Images courtesy of Brendan Barnes.)

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