Out in the Peruvian desert, where the only sign of civilization is the long, black asphalt line that stretches endlessly into the hazy white distance, a man can lose himself to his thoughts. With the hypnotic rhythm of a big, single cylinder engine thumping beneath me, and warm air flowing across the padded handlebars, I am riding toward the center of my soul.
As the miles roll by, the occasional cloud sails on the distant horizon, adrift in a tranquil sea of blue as the kaleidoscope of thoughts tumbling through my mind slowly start to take focus. Riding in the wild places, away from our possessions and the rituals we perform on a daily basis, the value systems used to quantify our existence begin to melt. Life is distilled to its essential components, and for a time you can be free.
Alone in this vast, unspoiled desert, after many days in the saddle and a myriad of experiences not typical to my daily life, I finally find this freedom. It was 1995 when I first rode in Peru, and rolling through the desert I realize the only consistent possession we carry through life is our story.
A nearly 2000-mile ride from Lima to Nazca, up to Cusco, out to Machu Picchu, across the Altiplano at 14,500 feet, and down into this wide-open desert, will allow me to tell mine. I was deep in the Peruvian Andes, divorced and running in the wrong direction with the throttle wide-open. Living for booze, sex, and instant gratification, I watched a small, loaded motorcycle struggle up the side of an impossibly steep mountain.
At the controls, the rider stared intently through a pair of old, crooked glasses, dust settling on the smudged lenses. A dirty white helmet crammed onto his head, and a full wiry beard, marbled with gray, erupted from the opening. Wearing an old engineering jacket, stained blue jeans, and a pair of dusty work boots, the rider seemed to blend into the rugged landscape. Gunning the small engine out of a turn he smiles, remembering his own story that started with his college years in Canada.
It is 1969, the first moon landing has just taken place, and man can do anything he puts his mind to. There cannot possibly be a God, and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species makes more sense than the bible. An engineering student working at the cutting edge of technology, his life was about to change.
Removing a petunia plant from the campus gardens started a chain of events that would lead him to the harsh, dusty mountain road in Peru some 25 years later. Examining it, he knows that cutting a branch from the plant won’t cause it to wither and die, it will simply come up with a new idea. The plant has an infinite amount of possibilities available.
Realizing that even a simple electrical wire in an airplane can’t repair itself, it becomes apparent that man cannot create anything living from scratch. From this moment his mind and life are turned around forever, as it becomes clear to him that God truly is the Author of life.
He joined the Seminary and, shunning material possessions, swore a vow of celibacy before starting his ministry among some of the poorest people on earth. Traveling alone by motorcycle to the most remote villages in the Andes, his work included installing irrigation systems, erecting solar panels and greenhouses, as well as funding health care and education programs. Periodically he would return to Canada to visit family and raise money, but would soon long to be back with his people in the rugged mountains of Peru.
Pulling higher into the rarified air on the small, red motorcycle, he leaves the town of Abencay behind as a shrinking dot in the majestic landscape, and sees a bearded Gringo leaning against a filthy, battered motorcycle covered in many layers of South American dirt. "Where you heading?" the Gringo shouted to the Priest. "Ollantaytambo," came the reply, as the small motorcycle passed.
Over the next few hours, the two men crossed paths a number of times, each feeling it was his destiny to meet. Finally, where a small river cut across the dusty road, they met, talked, and traveled on together. Riding with the Lord, he took the Gringo further back in time as they passed through forgotten Peruvian villages, places so far from the beaten track that the inhabitants had never seen a white man other than the priest.
Blasting across ancient Incan terracing, racing alongside thundering rivers, and flying down dirt trails, their crazy journey continued into the night, ending at the ancient church in Ollantaytambo.
During the following days, the Priest and the Gringo exchanged their life stories in the uncensored way travelers often do. Then parted company never to meet again. I was the Gringo, Father Giovanni Battaglini the Priest, and I could never have realized the life-changing effect of this meeting. Back in the US, I felt a change without knowing why; I quit drinking, quit my job, and took off to Europe. For ten months, I rode and wrote, traveling through 23 countries before returning to the US on a new path.
Years later, I learned a car accident had taken Father Gio while he was driving supplies to the people he so dearly loved. As the news sank in, it became clear why I had met the motorcycle-riding priest years ago on that lonely, deserted road high up in the Peruvian Andes. I had to tell his story.
By now, I haven’t seen the group I am traveling with for more than an hour. Thankfully, I catch up when they take a roadside break a few miles later. Pharmacist, Chef, Carpenter, Mechanic, Tour Operator, and Journalist (we all have titles), our collective goal is to visit an orphanage in Moquegua to take much-needed funds to the children who live there.
Like me, Peru has changed in the years that have passed since I rode here. Where most of the main roads were dirt and broken rock, now they are paved. This has greatly speeded up the movement of goods, and the modernization of places that had appeared nearly medieval to me is quite shocking. Cell phones and computers have linked small towns and villages, once as isolated as islands, to the outside world, and modern conveniences abound. There has also been a great deal of rain, and most of the faded snapshot memories I have are worn and out of date.
It is completely new to my companions though, and no less challenging or exciting for the change. Spending the first day of the journey traveling alongside soft, undulating sand dunes, framed out by the glistening Pacific Ocean, we quickly ride into another vastly different landscape. As you negotiate switchbacks the rival of anything the Alps has to offer, climbing the mountain roads to the ancient city of Cusco is still time consuming. But the vistas that greet your eye at every turn make you want the ride to last forever.
With not one blade of grass, or a single tree, the soft mountains seem to stretch endlessly into the pale-blue sky. A couple of miles up into the crisp, Peruvian air, we dive down into a valley so lush and fertile, it is as if we are riding through the Garden of Eden. Thick green grass, large succulent cacti and laden fruit trees, bask in perfect morning sunshine beneath the eye of the sacred, snowcapped mountains a mile above.
Riding past packs of vicunas grazing on the huge flatland of the Altiplano, and meeting native Indians tending their sheep, our guide, Flavio, tells us the Quechua speak little to no Spanish, do not use money, and make all their own clothes. Responsible for the beautiful, colorful fabrics you associate with Peru, they trade goods for supplies.
With a hard life lived at altitude, it is not easy to guess the age behind the weathered skin, and they appear as timeless as the land we are traveling through. Living without electricity or running water in the most remote places in Peru, it is fascinating and humbling in equal measures to peer back in time at these ancient people.
Visiting the Lost City of the Incas, touring a small guinea pig farm, and wandering through the ancient streets of Cusco, allow us glimpses into the captivating history and culture of this beautiful country. Intoxicated by the warmth of the people, and at times the lack of oxygen at altitude, our smiling faces reflect the beauty of the surroundings.
Sometimes I am alone on the motorcycle with my thoughts; other times, I’m riding in the truck, deep in philosophical discussions with Flavio. Then we spend time together as a group over a simple meal of rice and beans, or coffee at a roadside café. It is as if we tear through the fabric of time, where minutes take hours, hours last for days. By the time I collapse into whatever bed we have found for the night, there is not enough space in my mental hard drive to save all the moments of these days.
Six days into the ride we leave the historical city of Aeroquippa behind, framed and guarded by muscular, volcanic mountains. Goodbye to the 400-year-old Plaza De Armas. Goodbye to the peaceful hacienda where we spent the night, and the crazy city traffic that we fight with while leaving town. Back into the open desert, it is a half-day’s ride to Moquegua and the story that Gio would want me to tell.
On an old farm, his friend, 78-year-old Sister Loretta, is raising as many as 300 abandoned children. She came to Peru 40 years ago from Canada, and within a year local people began leaving children on her doorstep. Since that time, over 1200 unwanted souls have come to call her "Madre." Living in a wooden hut with bare concrete floors, sharing a communal bathroom, and working seven days a week, her devotion and sacrifice is hard for my spoiled western mind to conceive.
Reaching town, we cross the river that turns this part of the desert into an oasis and ride onto the farm to a heroes welcome. Dozens of screaming, laughing kids surround us, as we try to dismount and take off our gear. We find Sr. Loretta supervising her lieutenants with military precision, battle orders issued with a hug, a kiss on the cheek or a kindly smile.
Older kids care for younger kids, un-wed mothers prepare food, and while there is rarely enough of anything to go around, there is no shortage of love. Greeting a bunch of dirty, dusty road warriors, as if it were an everyday occurrence at Hogar Belen orphanage, she informs us that it is time for lunch.
We have journeyed long and far to get here, both physically and emotionally, but it is difficult to prevent yourself from being overwhelmed by the life of hardship Sr. Loretta has endured to care for these beautiful children. Flowers in the desert blooming in the face of such aridity, they bring us to our knees.
Over a simple meal, we talk of Gio, we talk of our journey, and we talk of the incredible challenges Sister is constantly facing with so many mouths to feed. Later, we show photos to the kids, and then take hundreds more.
On the surface, we have taken an adventure ride around Peru on a bunch of cool, battle-scarred Honda XR600Rs, but inside we have traveled deep within our souls. Father Gio might be gone but his story lives on with all of us, and somewhere deep in the Andes Mountains, where condors soar in the crystal, clear blue sky, he is still riding.
This time when I return to the States, it is to keep telling stories, raise my boys, and continue Gio’s work helping Sr. Loretta care for the abandoned children of Moquegua.
With Maria Fitzgerald, motojournalist Neale Bayly heads Wellspring International Outreach (wellspring-outreach.org), an organization that raises funds for Hogar Belen orphanage.