The_wonders_of the world are only made more magnificent when you approach them from the humble perch of a bicycle. We woke that cold, blustery morning in the horse stable we camped in for the night. We were surprisingly feted with free breakfast by an amazing luxury hotel with giant portions of succulent lamb, eggs, and bread. Riding west to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine we encountered the best weather we’ve seen yet in Patagonia. We did not deserve it and will never forget it.
Posts tagged ‘hospitality’
When_we_aren’t riding, eating, or sleeping, chances are that we are planning. The exercise of planning anything with my brothers will be one of the things I will miss dearly when we leave Bound South behind. Countless times between Alaska and Argentina, I have found the three of us standing in a circle near our bicycles, bantering at lightspeed in barely intelligible English as we weigh the most efficient, adventurous, and fulfilling means to ride across Colombia, navigate a grocery store, or decide who has to do dishes and who will pack up the tent. There is an loving contentiousness between brothers where the volume and intensity of argument can escalate to near-blows when everyone is tired and hungry and I want to stop for food before camping and Nathan wants to stop to camp before we get food. Frequently, the best-laid plans go awry; the important thing is that everyone is heard and contributes to our course of action.
Sometimes, failure isn’t an option. Bound South made some bold plans to ride across the Austral and Highway 40 in time to meet David’s best friend, Joe Burgum, in El Calafate. Three would become four for the final leg to Ushuaia. Yet stiff winds and washboards and cold conspired to put us 200k behind schedule. After pushing our bodies to the limit, we rolled into a dead-end town on Argentina’s Highway 40 with no way to reach El Calafate on time. We had not seen internet for a week. We had no food. The town had neither, only a gas station with a few overpriced ham sandwiches. And the last bus to El Calafate? It left an hour before we arrived. And due to the Argentine equivalent of Labor Day Weekend, no more buses would run for days. So we were stuck, unable to ride the deficit in time to meet our friend, unable to notify him, and fearing that he would arrive to a strange town with no Spanish skills and no idea if we were dead or gone. We stood in a circle, hungry, despairing, and had few ideas other than dressing in all of our winter gear and waiting on the side of Highway #40 to pray for a truck to hitch with.
We ate some overpriced ham sandwiches sullenly. The owner of the gas station explained that he had a friend who would be happy to drive us for the low, low price of $540 USD. I politely thanked him for the offer, neglecting to tell him that this sum would pay for nearly two months of bicycle adventure. We drifted around the parking lot aimlessly, feeling in our gut that we were in trouble but that somehow things would work out. Three brand new Toyota pickup trucks rolled into the gas station. Loaded to the brim with coolers of food, fishing rods, clothing, Argentine wine, and some of the most gregarious Argentine family that you could possibly imagine. The details run long, but before we knew it we were hurtling across the empty, cold pampas in the back of a pickup truck, camping out at the ranch of an Argentine business mogul, and enjoying Argentine steak and wine and company in front of a fireplace.
The most indelible experiences of a bicycle expedition, just like the most unpleasant, can never be planned or counted upon. We sat in a circle that night as a family, after being filled with steak dinner and a tired by a rugged moonlight hike. Wine flowed and dessert of cheese and jam was served. We sang for our hosts as is our brotherly tradition; a Lutheran hymn and a negro spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” In a uniquely South American way, the men drank and smoked and held court with some of the most contentious, high-volume, and dramatic conversation that I have ever seen. The topics of conversation were also among the most mundane and entertaining that I have ever seen; why the Argentine Patagonians don’t sing like these fine North Dakotan men, why gas prices are so high, why we don’t ride our bicycles during the night, and what handsome eyelashes David has. The women, young and old, tended to sit to the side and laugh at the spectacle of Bruno, the patriarch of the ranch, shout “Lies! Lies! Lies!” during an absurd conversation about mothers’ insistence on musical lessons for their children, or fall asleep as the conversation thundered into the early morning. North Dakota Lutherans don’t stay up this late, and perhaps we don’t always have as much fun, either. And like a dream it was over too soon, with our bodies and bicycles dropped into the frigid air of El Calafate the next morning.
One of the family men, Jorge, refused to accept our offer to help pay for their generosity. The women had left to use the restroom and do some quick shopping. With the wisdom that can probably only be accrued through years and years of loving a wife and raising daughters, he said, “I don’t want you to give us anything, you have given us so much.” With a wink, he said, “I don’t need anything, but perhaps the women might appreciate something…” and he gestured to the chocolate shop down the street. He was a wise man, indeed. We snuck off to the chocolate shop and purchased some of the most expensive and delicious chocolate that I have ever seen in my entire life. We returned moments later, and as the women returned we presented our gift. In twenty-four hours, we went from hapless gringos to pitied American bicycle vagabonds to charming, courageous adventurer-singers to golden-boys bearing gifts of fine chocolate. The looks and kisses on the cheek good-bye said it all. For a short time, we were a part of their family, and they were a part of our story. The memories of our time with them and that unique, unplanned miracle on Highway #40 stays with us forever.
When_we_look at a map it is natural to see the highlights. Bigger cities get bigger names on the page. Country borders rise up to delineate an otherwise unbroken horizon. To see great cities by bicycle and to check another country off of our list is a tremendous thrill. Yet often the best riding in life is unexpected, and the most exciting roads are those that have no names and no signs and few people. Just a few days from Chile in the Peruvian city of Arequipa, we set out on some lonely roads to Lago Salinas and beyond. It felt like a ride around another world.
We climbed from the moment we left Arequipa and didn’t stop till we found winter. Starting in the hot sun at 7600 ft, we climbed a grueling dirt road for a day and a half until we arrived at Lago Salinas, a mountain-stream-fed lagoon in an eternally frigid, windy, Peruvian drizzle that can only be found above 13,500 ft. The road was deserted and alternatively bumpy, sandy, muddy, or inundated with water at the top. We were hungry and under-prepared. We arrived to a small cluster of buildings on the southeast corner of the lake, a small pueblito known as Moche before nightfall. There was a single small tienda run out of the front room of a woman’s home. No simple restaurant or hostel existed, and the prospect of tenting in rain and sub-freezing temperatures was disheartening. I had had one of the worst days of my life on the bike, bonking in the cold and struggling to turn the pedals over for the last few hours of the ride. We begged for the storeowner’s help, and in short time we had a place to stay in the spare room of her friend’s home, as well as hot plates of rice, eggs, and potatoes.
We hardly slept due to altitude sickness. Piercing headaches kept us up unwillingly while we craved the sleep we needed to recover and heal from the past day of riding. We were in the middle of nowhere, and despite our tremendous blessings and good fortune, we felt very alone and somewhat daunted. The next morning we woke to snow. Pressing on that next day we took the old road south of the lake, determined to descend out of the high altitude Peruvian winter we had stumbled upon at Lago Salinas. ”Road” is such a strong word sometimes. Perhaps “trail” or “pathetic vestige of mistaken vehicular activity” would have been more appropriate on this occasion. We struggled to climb the sandy path that slowed our wheels to walking pace. At times the road would simply disappear or become submerged under a lake or stream. This gave us the rather fun opportunity to simply ride out into the tundra-like snow and rock fields at nearly 15,000 feet of elevation and make our own trail. We are confident that vehicles do not pass that way for days at a time. It’s entirely likely that if the rain and snow were to stop, our tire tracks would be there waiting for the next set of bicycle adventurers to find.
It’s tremendously humbling to struggle all day against slow, sandy roads and steep climbs and only manage a walking-pace accomplishment of fifty kilometers. It can be disheartening to ride through empty places with no towns or tiendas to buy a simple Coke and sit in the shade to rest. These lonely places don’t have names or even the recognition of existence on Google Maps. This is flyover country, the space between where travelers find themselves and where they’d like to be. We relish that solitude, the intoxicating sense that we might be one of the few people to ride a bike here, ever. And though we might only see a handful of people, our interactions with them are that much more meaningful. Simply seeing another face on these roads is reassuring; for the Peruvians who see gringos riding these terrible, random, Andean dirt roads…we must be terribly peculiar. We descended goat paths out of the wintry mountains and after braving some tooth-rattling descents into the desert valleys below, began our many sandy, steep mountain passes on the road to Moquegua. We ran out of water and discovered that in over a hundred kilometers of consecutive 4000+ meter passes, there are no towns and we were lucky to see three vehicles…and even more lucky when those vehicles donated their half-consumed bottles of Inca-Kola and bags of bread to us so we could survive.
Now we leave Peru and all its goodness behind us. As you read this, we’ll be setting our tires on Chilean soil for the first time. The finish in Ushuaia has never seemed closer. Yet for all of the highlights ahead and behind us, our minds still flock to the solitude of the empty, unremarkable, and yet still extraordinary worlds we are privileged to explore by bicycle.
Feeling_at_home on the road is a rare thing. We have certainly grown accustomed to the rhythm of riding and camping that we established since Alaska. This is the life of a traveler, however, and it makes us thankful for spending time with a new family when we get the chance. In Trujillo, the great northern coastal city of Peru, we were blessed with some time to rest with a new kind of family: the Casa de Ciclistas.
Founded more than thirty years ago, the Casa de Ciclistas of Trujillo is one of the cycling world’s best-kept secrets. Nestled just outside the Avenida España in Trujillo, it is a hostel for bicycle adventurers of all shapes, sizes, ages, genders, and adventures. Come as you are and stay as you are for free. Since its founding, over 2,000 cyclists have walked through its doors and rested here for a night or a few days; once many encounter the splendid comfort and community here, they are tempted to stay for weeks. Lucho D’Angelo and his family take care of the Casa and the cyclists that pass through it. Lucho, a famous Peruvian bicycle racer, was invited to the 2000 Tour de France as a guest of honor and is known the world over by bicyclists for his decades-long work at Trujillo’s Casa de Ciclistas.
In the course of the past few days, we have met a remarkable Englishwoman named Judy who has bicycled from England to China and is now finishing her second Alaskan-Argentinan leg in July. She is riding alone, tough as nails, and some of the best lunch company that one could ever ask for. We have met another Italian named Matias who is taking an extended tour of the Americas for over four years; the duration of his travels perhaps explains the 70 kilos of gear that he is carrying on his bicycle; we suspect that his Italian supermodel girlfriend is hidden somewhere in the rear panniers.
I volunteered here in Trujillo two years ago as a volunteer teacher in a barrio outside the city called Delicias. This time in Trujillo was a wonderful homecoming to me; many things have changed in this city in that short time, but the good things are the same. The sparkling central Plaza de Armas, the spotless colonial architecture, the narrow streets of the Centro and Pizarro and the countless bakeries with the best tres leches we have had since leaving Alaska…all of it was as it was for me two years ago. This was home for me then, and now for us for a few days as well.
We rolled in on our bicycles to little local fanfare, except for the usual shouts of gringo that emanate from every corner of the Peruvian towns and cities that we ride by. We leave to the same chorus, a reminder that we are full-time travelers and students and strangers of the places and peoples that we visit along the way to Argentina. But when we’re lucky, even gringos get to feel at home for a while.
With_a_ribbon of road stretching back thousands of miles to Alaska, we have many stories to share. Those we meet usually hope to distill the vast spaces and places into a few highlights. It’s hard to comprehend what we are doing in any other way. Upon meeting new people in new places, one of the first things they ask for is our “favorite part of the trip.” They know and we know that this is almost an impossible question to answer, but we try nonetheless. People are the highlight of Bound South without a doubt.
Traveling by bicycle is unlike any other kind of travel that I’ve ever done. I’ve had my eyes opened to the endless possibilities one can grasp with a bicycle and a tent. At this point, I do not know if I could ever go back. We could trade country roads for train stations, tent sites for hotels and hostels, and would miss most of the amazing people that we meet along the way to Argentina. It wouldn’t be the same. In some ways I think our travel by bicycle harkens back to a more sentimental and perilous era of tourism. Perhaps there were days before Lonely Planet, before the internet, before tourism was big business. Travel was composed of much more discomfort, random searching, danger, inefficiency, and luck for better or for worse. And perhaps the attitude towards travelers was different; they were less consumers and more students, people from a strange land who had something to learn and something to share. This is not to idealize the past, because modern tourism has opened the world up in profound new ways. To travel by bicycle channels the most powerful aspects of historical travel; in the modern age, it is hard to do this any other way.
We have noticed on this bicycle expedition that the most wonderful and hospitable people in the world are typically the furthest from centers of tourism. We’re a little more extraordinary and less annoying that way, I think. Based on the flocks of children that gather to stare at us while we eat at rural South American restaurants, we know we’re out of the ordinary. The relative coldness of the cityscape is not a new stereotype, to be sure. In Bogotá, we were just a few faces in a sea of people, a few cyclists scrambling to escape the freeways of the city. We wouldn’t dream of approaching a stranger on the sidewalk and asking if we could set up our tent in his apartment. These are simple realities of urban living the world over. Only a few days later, when we were in the empty mountain roads outside of Mocoa, we didn’t hesitate to approach a farming family and ask for a place to camp for the night. We are asking for help, and a safe place to tent is a gift of generosity that we never take for granted. Deep down there is satisfaction from the knowledge of mutual benefit; we know that we have made others’ lives richer through our travels and stories. Everything we do here on our blog is made more powerful and more poignant in the company of a few new friends.
Our journey is built upon the simple kindness of strangers, the humble and hard-working families of nine countries between Anchorage and Ushuaia. They are of limited means but have more than their parents ever had. They work hard and dream for the even better opportunities that their children will have. They are farmers, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, storytellers, carpenters, mothers and fathers. They are “authentic” as far as touristic parlance goes; but when we’re looking for a family in South America, that’s the last thing on our minds. You realize how far you’ve come from Alaska only when you’re sitting in a family room in South America seeing kids’ eyes go wide.
If you would like to experience this kind of travel and learning for yourself and your family, we heavily recommend signing up for two online services: Couchsurfing and Warmshowers. They can be an economical window to the world and a means to share your world with others. Even if you can’t host us for a night on our journey to Ushuaia, you can help someone like us on their journey elsewhere.