Posted by: cyclingsi | February 26, 2011

Simon has reached the end of the road in Ushuaia

After 11,000km, six months and too many punctures to count, I have finally rolled into the world’s most southern city, on La Condor (no road too rough or tough) Roja, with the rain and wind lashing against me. This trip started as a solo adventure but it has been anything but a solo effort. There are so many people to thank. As an individual I would have struggled but with the love, support and encouragement from family, friends and strangers I have thrived. It has been hard but not nearly as hard as it could have been. This is the end of this journey but certainly not the end of the adventure.

Would I do it again? In a second, without pause or hesitation, but I might just kick back for a while and see if I’m as bad at Tango dancing as I suspect. I would not change a thing… It has been everything I wanted and so much more. I have felt absolutely free (it is wondrous and rare), I have fallen in love and had the adventure I have always wanted.

I have experienced a remarkable continent in the best possible way. Received kindness, generosity and friendship from strangers who never wanted anything in return but to see me succeed. To travel by bicycle has humbled me, made me vulnerable and in return South America has welcomed me with open arms and showed me the best of humanity. There have been so many lessons learned, preconceptions overturned and dreams reinforced.

So thank you for honking horns, waving, cheering, shouting ‘mas rapido’ as I pushed my bike over mountain passes, welcoming me into your homes, feeding me, giving me water in the desert, sharing your lives with me, showing off your home towns, giving me a lift when the rain or wind made it impossible to cycle, riding with me, giving me bike parts, a hug and a smile, giving me the clothes off your back, lending me cash, stopping to say ‘hi’ in the Canyon del Pato and saying yes to a date in Huaraz. All of it… just too much to list… an experience of a lifetime made possible by A MASSIVE TEAM EFFORT.

Thank you everyone.

Also, a special thanks to everyone who has donated to the Worcestershire Breast Unit Campaign.

Posted by: cyclingsi | February 22, 2011

The old ways

What have we forgotten? We still have glimpses of the old ways, through stories, songs and art but as with many things… they lose their potency as they become diluted by time. But we can try, try to listen to the woods and rivers, understand the animals and forests and hear a whisper… a quiet word in our ear… giving insight into what we have, what we can celebrate and most importantly what we can protect for future generations.

I am in Patagonia, it is all my dreams. A land of stories told around wood burners, where fighting the weather just wastes time, cb radios, gouchos and ancient forests. I am sharing it with Adrienne (who is patiently rumbling along at a cyclists pace (eight hours for me… one hour for her!) so we can travel together and enjoy this sensational land. Glaciers tumble down into azure rivers that wind through moss-laden forests which are home to deer and puma. We are not alone, there are cyclists, hitch-hikers, motorcyclists and 4×4 motorhomes rumbling through the gravel with jaws dropped and cameras flashing.

We are following The Carratera Austral, a stroke of genius by the former Dictator Pinocet. He may have been up to no good (understatement) for most of the time but what a vision. To connect isolated villages and estancias with a gravel road that feels as though it has had to claw itself through the wilderness. It has opened a wondrous world, despite creating a scar 1200km long, and has been some of the the best cycling of my trip. It has been an adventure from the start.

Getting to Patagonia isn’t easy. You follow the tarmac till it fades to gravel until you reach the sea. From there you leave a ramshackle settlement of wooden huts on a small ferry to what feels like the end of the world… which it kind of is. A quick jaunt along another 50km takes you to Hornopiren, another ferry and start of the Caratera Austal proper.

trouble with ferries is that they fill up. They have a capacity that cannot be exceeded and this is Chile. I suspect that if you take a ferry in Argentina, they have an inspired disregard for health and safety, and there would be no issues but Chile loves to live by the book… and they do. The ferry from Hornopiren suffers from massive overcapacity and to get on board requires a certain amount of cunning. The day before I was due to catch the ferry I was staying in a campsite and met a German couple who were touring in a pickup. Over a couple of glasses of wine they offered me a lift to the ferry in the morning, about 5km. Perfect.

The next day I went to buy a ticket and was met with a resounding ‘No’. Worse still there was a four day wait for foot passengers. Cyclists had been waiting at the dock for days for the ferry with gave priority to cars and their passengers. Walkers, cyclists and motorcyclists were bottom of the pile. A plan was hatched and in a stroke of genius the couple offered to hide my bike in the back and I could pretend to be asleep until we were onboard where I would reveal myself and evicting me and my bike would make the ferry late. It worked like a charm. I was onboard. From the bridge I watched the other cyclists shrink into the distance. One life lesson I have learned on this trip is ‘Don’t ask questions you don’t want answers to.’ Ignorance is not always bliss but it often comes pretty close.

Blue skies, light winds and a small swell suit me just fine when travelling by ferry. I am not a sailor. The vistas come and go and there is only the wild, It is as if we (humankind) had never existed.

Arriving at Gonzalo is a puzzle, you cannot see the port… there isn’t one…. just a concrete slip obscured by rocks. You cannot see the road. It is encased in forest. We disembarked and began to grind through the gravel, the dust pluming behind. It is the start of something magical, a place where we are guests, a gift to be there, and our stay is permitted by our surroundings. It feels like if you turned your back for a minute the forest would reclaim the road and you would simply disappear.

There are people living here. Small towns and settlements but it is temporary. Chaiten, one time hopspot for travellers and adventure seekers is now a ghost town encased in ash from the bowls of the earth. A volcano reinstated it’s right to the land a couple of years ago, destroying most of the town. People still live there but it has a melancholy.

The cycling is perfect, one of the most famous cycling roads in the world, gentle undulations are made up of a thousand photographs, but the cycling becomes transport not sport. Quietly you slip through, unnoticed, and become your surroundings but I have been doing more than cycling. I have been fishing in rivers (without a fishing permit… can you imagine) that flow clear and where you see the salmon swimming by. There is a joy when filling your cup from the nearest stream or simply stuffing your face with berries till your tongue and teeth are blue. I have been passing through woods where the boughs hang heavy with old man’s beard and the leaves rustle with life. And… I have been sleeping in, lying in, being wonderfully lazy. The mornings are damp and wet so wake up, cuddle up, go back to sleep until the tent canvas goes silent and the sun warms the air. It is a very nice pace of life.

So why do we fear the wild? Maybe it is because we have no control over it as an individual. As a species we can flatten forests and level mountains but as just one … we are no more than the forest that surrounds us and spending time in this pristine environment has made me think about the old ways.

Indigenous peoples throughout the world have beliefs and not religions and they all ring a similar bell. They mostly believe in a creator but more importantly they have an overwhelming respect and love for their surroundings, which they define as spirits, and when an animal is killed or a tree felled a small prayer is given. This respect recognises the importance of all life and how all life is connected. These beliefs reflect the impact of their actions. The world is a massive, wonderful, awe-inspiring place and we are a tiny part of it. The world does not mean cities and humanity, The world is the world in its greatest sense.

One night when the cold began to encase our tent and sleeping bags were pulled up and tight, Adrienne and I were telling each other stories about home and childhood and she told me a story from the Canadian First Nations which shares my feelings on our responsibilities, love and our place in the world.

‘The was once a tree and a deer and they were deeply in love but they could not be together because they were a tree and a deer. It was impossible. One night the Creator spoke to a great hunter in a far away land through a dream, giving him clear instructions of what he must do. The next day he set off across the land for many days until he reached the forest where the tree and the deer lived. The hunter knew what he must do. First he cut down the tree and then he quickly killed the deer with a single arrow. He took both the tree and the deer back to his home. He carried then for many days. When he returned to the village he used all of the tree but kept back a special part, the heart of the trunk. He also used all of the deer but kept aside its hide. One night he took the heart from the tree and the hide from the deer and turned them into a drum. When the drum is played you hear the sound of the tree and the deer’s heartbeat joined together forever.’

Posted by: cyclingsi | January 18, 2011

Inspiration and resilience

Is it the great stories of adventure and daring that inspire? Is it someone who has suffered, lost and then rebuilt, demonstrating stoicism, commitment to the future and resilience to all that is thrown at them? … By nature or humankind.

For me there are many things that have inspired me to be where I am (on the coast of Chile). When I try to think back to what made me want to embark on my adventure it came from the most unlikely of sources. My passion for climbing and mountaineering had been born from books about great adventures in the greater ranges, the suffering, the challenges and the camaraderie that develops through a shared experience of danger and the unknown. For cycling it was not the fastest, strongest and most daring tale of adventures that first planted a seed in my mind… it was a retired headmistress who on finishing her working life decided to head off round the world. She was not an adventurer, although she was well travelled, but rather she saw the benefits of seeing the world through the perspective of a cyclist. The ability to feel every contour of a map, the surface of the road and move slowly enough through a culture that slowly it seeps into your pours.

I am talking about Anne Mustoe, who is sadly no longer with us. Her passion for her adventure, the history of the lands she travelled through and her love of the people and places she met leapt out from each page. While she was not able to even fix a puncture when she left the UK she soon learnt what was needed along the way and if not then the kindness of strangers carried her through. It was her believe in the goodness of us all, in humanity and love of a new life, whether temporary or permanent, that spoke loudest.

So why do I mention her? We all take our inspiration from different sources depending on what we want to achieve or learn. Sometimes it is our family and friends, people who have trod the road of adventure before us or simply a stranger who ignites a fire in our belly. It is increasingly difficult to be the first to do something or go somewhere new, and although we should not follow the path but make a path for others to follow, just do it anyway. We don’t all have to be setting the world on fire. We just have to start the fire in our own life.

So what is inspiration? I have thought about this a lot as it is through inspiration that I am in South America, cycling and here in Chile. People have inspired me to visit this crazy continent made up of passions, extremes and wonders. Inspiration is that moment when all the little bits of pieces inside your head click. For a brief moment they all mesh and you think… that looks brilliant, I could imagine myself doing that… and so I did…. and so should you. Whether it an adventure, a change of job or a new hobby. We are all inspired all the time we just need to remember that inspiration is nothing without perseverance as it can take a long time for an acorn to grow into an oak. It is those early stages when it grows fastest but is also most vulnerable.

It could be that the brief insight or inspiration that came to us might be just a bit too much to contemplate but maybe it is worth a ponder, a scribble on the back of a cigarette packet or a conversation with a friend to sound out an idea. Maybe inspiration for you and me, the artist, musician or architect is just a moment of clarity. The difference between those who act upon inspiration and those who don’t is maybe that they live a life true to themselves. They have the balls to follow their path.

Christmas was spent in Mendoza with Adrienne. Mendoza is a beautiful city that with a quirk of fate has made it appear like a city in a forest. Mendoza has suffered from many earthquakes and so the streets are wide to allow the buildings somewhere to fall and because of the heat (and it is very hot) nearly every street is lined with noble trees offering cooling shade throughout the city. In turn the trees attract birds which sing with appreciation. If in Europe it would be chocked with tourists seeking out the many charms of vineyards, cafe culture and boutique shops but here it is just a beautiful city, full of beautiful people taking advantage of the Argentinian siesta and going for ice cream or a walk in the park at 3am. It is a culture that is hard to adapt to but Argentina doesn’t bend for anyone and fighting it is just too much hard work so you give in, sleep in the afternoon, drink mate and stay up till dawn. It is like a city of vampires… only when the sun goes down does the city change gear and come alive.

After Mendoza it was time to head east and cross over into Chile, and with a few wrong turns and few dead ends (out of date maps!) I eventually made it onto Ruta 7, heading towards the border and Aconcagua, South America’s highest mountain at nearly 7000m. With a couple a days cycling to ease my body back into life from nearly a fortnight of eating, sleeping and relaxing, the climb up the pass into Chile slowly relented and via a few tunnels found myself in a new country. New challenges, new currency and a new Spanish accent to contend with. South America seems an ideal continent to travel with one language predominantly spoken but the reality, just like home, is that accents and slang rule supreme and so just like someone travelling from the Black Country to Glasgow and ordering a beer, there is countless opportunities for misunderstanding… which can be resolved by playing pictionary with the locals.

Chile is like no where in South America. It is like neither the USA or the UK but is somewhere in the middle about 10 years ago. It is expensive and affluent but also harbours poverty, tucked away in the corners. Shopping malls stand next to shacks with a single water tap and the poverty seems worse because of it but there are positives. It is friendly, clean and has an order which has has been missing the last four months but with it comes the loss of freedom. Elsewhere in South America it seems like there is a freedom to exist, pursue ones dreams and be who you are but here, in Chile, the force of Western compliance bears down, and the day to day humdrum is much more apparent, as if like horses we have been broken in.

In Chile there are good roads, cheap wine and English is more widely spoken has gone some way to compensate for the expensive cost of living. After a few days getting caught out by a roads merging into motorways I decided it was time to head for the coast and find some quieter roads… my life has been flashing before my eyes a little more often than I would like.

I found myself in the small town of Lolol, a town propped up with scaffolding, a result of the earthquake last year. A chance conversation in the corner shop resulted in two bottles of whiskey, family BBQ, a midnight rodeo (this is not a euphemism!) and a seafood stew on a hungover Sunday (the best food I have eaten in the whole of South America). Thanks Francisco and your family for a wonderful couple of days..

Heading to the coast from Ruta 5 you enter a more relaxed pace of life, where vineyards stretch for hundreds of hectares, cowboys ride their mounts down the main street and life just seems a little less complicated. I met a group of cycling Americans (http://bicicletaabajo.wordpress.com/ , eight days into their trip and thirsty for adventure) and Adrienne a few days later. We travelled down the coast to Constitucion. A town devastated by the earthquake and tsunami last year.

We decided to make up a few miles before finding somewhere to sleep and an idea was hatched to tow me behind her motorbike. This worked better than one could imagine and soon we were eating up the miles, until after one lucky break too many, the local police clocked us and we were given a good telling off despite our reassurances that this method of travel was widely accepted in both Canada and England. Mmmm. So after a conversation which neither of us properly understood, we were either going to a hotel or the police station. We set off with full police escort (me now cycling behind) to the centre of town… to a hotel… where the policeman made sure we had a good rate and posed for a photo. Life is nothing but surprising.

Constitucion, a once thriving town, is now a building site and horror show of destroyed buildings. Many residents have been relocated by the government from the city giving it an empty lost feeling, it lacks buzz. As we travelled down the coast, peppered by picturesque fishing and tourist towns the magnitude of the tsunami is awe-inspiring. It has claimed over 700 lives, levelled towns and still people choose to live here. They are rebuilding themselves, their homes, their livelihoods. It is not the first time that they have had to do it and unfortunately it will not be the last. Their resilience is inspiring. To live somewhere where the ground could swallow you up or the sea rise up to steal you family from their beds defies belief and logic but home is home and we are stubborn creatures and so we rebuild. There are volunteers from universities painting tsunami evacuation signs on the roads and manning much underused tourist information centres but there is nowhere for tourists to stay. It has all been stolen by the sea..

It is high season and the legacy of the tsunami will not be the instant loss of live and devastation but rather how the coast died through lack of visitors and so the death of the local economy. There is plenty to attract them… beautiful beaches and scenery, world-class surf but it feels like the communities which rely on tourism will slowly slip into the ocean to be forgotten.

It is beautiful and depressing in equal measure and so I have left the coast to travel towards the Lake District… is it like the Lake District at home? And from there? A couple of days ride to Puerte Montt and the start of the Carreterra Austral and where the adventure officially begins again. PATAGONIA!

Note – For the first time on this trip I have had to translate for someone whose Spanish is worse than mine. Unbelievable but true. People are amazed that I have got as far as I have on my lack of Spanish but this poor traveller doesn’t stand a chance. Great that he is here, having his adventure with his friends, but really… his Spanish is worse than mine. It made me realise how far I have come, literally, and also that I have less than two months left of this trip. It seems it was only yesterday I landed in Quito not really knowing very much, wanting to head South. And South I am. There has been the countless help of strangers, new friends and life lessons. I don’t feel as though I have significantly changed but rather I have filled my shoes.

Posted by: cyclingsi | December 30, 2010

How do you measure wealth?

We all have an answer. Some of us may measure wealth by time, by experiences or relationships, or the amount of possessions we own. When we wonder how wealthy someone is we revert to money but being wealthy can mean so many more things.

So why then are we obsessed with how much wealth we have coming in? Could we focus on how much wealth is going out and then allow ourselves to be richer in other ways? Maybe 30 hours sat behind a desk would be enough and that time gained from reducing our hours could be spent doing something we really love… unless you really love your job then brilliant! Or do you turn down a payrise and instead ask to reduce your hours for the same money… just a thought.

I have been travelling for the last two weeks with a Polish couple who have been cycling around the world for a year and a half and they expect their trip to last three years. They live on five dollars a day and are some of the happiest people I know. True they are living their dream, which may contribute to their happiness, and that they have found something in each other that has enabled them to realise their dreams but for the moment their time is their own. Could it be that time is the most valuable thing we have?

Life is people, and cultures and having the time to learn… not in the book sense but in the ability to step out and learn about life. Your life, our lives and the lives of other people. Just because we become adults should we give up our dreams? Why should we sit down, shut up and grow up?

I am of course a hypocrite.

When I return to the UK I will need to earn money to pay for this trip but I hope to take back some of what I have learned. Like all things in life there is a balance to be struck. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong. The tipping point is a personal personal point of reference.

I am lucky. I am living my dream. Cycling across South America has not changed my values but more secured my belief in them. I have had the opportunity to meet wonderful people, share in their lives and you learn a lot about them very quickly. It is like a life in fast forward. But more importantly it is the shared values of the people we meet that bring us together. There are the thrifty cyclists grinding their way across a continent, the motorcyclists hooning along dirt roads inbetween visits to mechanics, the gap year students staggering from bus to bus with heads full of dreams. It is a carnival of differences.

The Polish couple, Anna and Krzys, never pay for accommodation, their daily budget does not allow it. They knock on doors and ask if the can camp in gardens. I have been travelling with them for the last two weeks and I have been joining in the fun and games. One thing very quickly becomes apparent. If you want a bed for the night, wonderful company, kindness and hospitality, you go to the edge of town, to the ‘richer’ neighbourhoods. Likewise, it is more often than not, the beat up Chevy pickup, full of kids or other waifs and strays that will stop and offer a ride when they see me toiling up a hot, dusty road. Those with less are offering more.

We are all spokes in a wheel and to keep the wheel running true, we all need a tweak, a little bit of help or charity to keep everything running smoothly.

I have been living on a modest amount of money, a lot of money by Bolivian standards and more money than Krzys and Anna, and when I meet other cyclists I have been humbled on what they are achieving on such small amounts of money, thriving on it, and so I have been trying to live on less. They sometimes have to be a little inventive to get what they need but if you use a little imagination and are prepared to spend the odd night sleeping behind a hedge or derelict building it all works out.

So when someone asks you if they could camp in your garden and have some water just say yes. It could be fun.

What will your new guests bring to you? A new perspective on life, different ways of thinking, lifelong friendships, an evening of tall stories and tales from the other side of the world, an extended network for your business? Or maybe they will be so tired that they will just crawl into their tent and be forever grateful for somewhere safe to sleep. Inviting someone into your home will bring the adventure to you. It may inspire you. It may affirm that that the life you want is the life you have. It may inspire you to buy a bicycle and explore where you live…. the microadventure is the new black.

This is not my last adventure. This is my first adventure. Maybe my next journey will be on a bicycle, a motorbike, a horse or by foot. It might not be for two, five or fifteen years but there will be another. Maybe on my next trip I will be alone, maybe I will share an adventure with a loved one or even have a wife and family in tow but what you gain from a life on the road, to discover just how wondrous our world is, is just too much of a pull to deny. Everyday I am amazed at what I see. Amazed at the nature, the landscape, the people who show kindness without reason or repayment. It seems that life is not nearly as bad as the BBC news would have you believe.

I am over half way through my trip and I am soaking up every second. I wish I could somehow bottle it and share it with you all because you would all get a bicycle and set off for somewhere in an instant. It maybe to the shops by a different route or visiting a friend in a distant land. You are only limited by your imagination and your sense of adventure. Never dismiss a thought or dream.

I am now speeding down to Mendoza to spend Christmas with Adrienne. Crossing from Bolivia to Argentina has been like popping out during your lunchbreak to a carnival. Western order has resumed and with it comes a sense of slight disappointment that the adventure stakes are slightly less but … people are friendly, if you camp and cook for yourself then life is cheap (in the best sense of the phrase) and there are still plenty of surprises to keep you on your toes. Gone are the fears of robbers and having to stealth camp. I have been enjoying campfires, 2 dollars for a litre of wine, and locals wanting to share their little bit of Argentina. With a bag of mate (Google it!) and good conversation the evenings slip into darkness and the stars light the sky.

Ushuaia is only 3500km away and the end is beginning to get closer but I still have Patagonia and this shakes my soul. Glaciers, mountains, headwinds and gravel roads with nothing for hundreds of kilometres… it will be like nothing else. This last three and bit months have not been my life. Everyday has been full of wonder, joy, shared moments and it has made me realised how easy it is for all of us to become wrapped up in our own world and just forget the there is a magnificent world, full of people just waiting to be met, new cultures to explore and simply to be amongst it all.

When I set off from Quito, Ecuador, I didn’t know if I could do this trip. Now I know I could do much more. I can suffer, toil, face hardship and endure AND I wouldn’t change a single minute. I have a suspicion that if I am prepared to try hard enough I can do anything (with a few exceptions). With perseverance, a sense of humour, a foolhardy adventurous streak and the occasional shoulder to cry on anything is possible for all of us. We are all ‘the bomb’. Far more than we will ever know. but by perusing a crazy idea once in a while we can learn that although it might not always be fun, it might be dangerous, it might hurt, you might bleed physically and emotional but when the bad times are over there will be rewards of unbelievable wealth. There will be friendships and the knowledge that we can thrive despite what life can throw at us. It just depends how bad you want something and how much you are prepared to endure to achieve it.

I am truly happy and I wonder if I could have more wealth. While a little money can go a long way to making life easier… a lot of money doesn’t make it any easier. With the stars above my tent, a belly full of food and tired legs I cannot wait to hit the road and spin my wheels the next day. I have a few luxuries such as much laptop and ipod but maybe it is just having the sun on my back, that glorious heavy feeling after a day of hard exercise or simply that I have been lucky enough to blow the doors off my life and become the man I wanted to be. I feel more confident, a little wiser, stronger both emotionally and physically (I am quite proud of my ‘buff’ legs), and most importantly… life can be better than you ever imagined if you are prepared to take a risk. I am wealthy. I hope you are too and if you’re not… you know what you’ve got to do… stop worrying and thinking, making excuses and make a change.

Live to ride. Ride to live.

PS. If you want to invite the world into your home sign up to www.warmshowers.org and www.couchsurfing.org.

Posted by: cyclingsi | December 8, 2010

Slideshow Time

To celebrate reaching the halfway point of my trip I have put together a short slideshow of my favourite moments and photos. Please click on the link below… I am afraid you will need to log onto the dreaded Facebook to view it.

I hope you enjoy.

Simon

http://www.facebook.com/v/10150107143259257

Posted by: cyclingsi | December 5, 2010

Turn right after the volcano

There is something about somewhere else that makes people assume that it is always worse than where they are. Whether it is a place, a person or an object, it seems that to South Americans at least, and maybe us all, that the grass could not possibly be greener on the other side and our ‘lot’ is as good as it is going to or ever could get. Away from home – whether it is the mountains, the coast, desert, jungle or another country, it is always more dangerous than where you are. It is less friendly, too hot or too cold.. I had been warned about Bolivia by Peruvians, watched movies and read books about cocaine barons and heard all the wonderful travellers tales that get better and bigger over a beer or two.

What is it that makes us assume the worst, assume that somewhere else is cloaked in a sinister fog of corruption, robbery and deceit? Maybe we like to believe that the choices we make on where we choose to spend our time are the best they could possibly be? The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. I have been in Bolivia for two weeks and it has been nothing but wonderful. I had heard tales of corrupt police planting drugs on unsuspecting tourists, unfriendly locals, bad food and the travellers ultimate fear…. the option of cold showers only. These have all happened I’m sure… just not to me…. apart from the cold showers which I have grown to love.

Bolivia has the impression of a country in chaos but happy with the arrangement, it is South Americas poorest country, and there is horrendous poverty, but as political instability rules, life goes on. I have cycled through towns without electricity, running water or proper sanitation but I have been greeted with nothing but kindness, compassion and genuine friendliness. It is a poor country but so far it is the richest country I have been in. I have never waved so much in a 24 hour period. I am greeted by smiles and questions not about how much my bike costs (all the time in Peru) but with genuine interest on where I have been, where I am going and wanting to know about the bike and to have a go. I wouldn’t allow this in Peru as it always felt that they might just keep riding into the distance but in Bolivia there are laughs and smiles while locals take it in turns to ride around the town square.

It was a surprise to cross into Bolivia and arrive at Copacabamba, Bolivia’s only seaside resort on the shores of the magnificent Lake Titicaca. As Copacabamba came into view it felt like the Mediterranean with a vista of moored boats and terracotta roofs. Adrienne arrived a day later and we spent time together taking a tour to the Isla del Sol (supposed birthplace of the Inca religion) and hiring a sailing boat (without prior sailing experience only to be “rescued” later in the afternoon due to unfavourable wind directions as opposed to poor sailing expertise… that is my story.)

With some hesitation it was time to leave and off to La Paz to do the ‘world’s most dangerous road’ which is not that dangerous unless you have a disposition for hurling yourself off cliffs. When driving along at home how many times have you drive off the road… not very often… so it comes as no surprise that while the ‘world’s most dangerous road’ does indeed have the potential to be very dangerous but you could equally have the ‘world’s most dangerous plug socket’ at home if you whiled away the hours licking it wondering what would happen. It is a great ride… 60km of fast, rutted and bumpy dirt road through spectacular mountains, cloud forest and finally warm humid jungle as the road descents over 2500m. It was all over far too soon but it was fun to set a new speed record on la condor roja… 95km on the paved section… I have always sold on bikes but I think I just could not do it to her or me.

Bolivian roads are legendary and you wont quite believe it until you travel along one. The roads are so bad, apart from the three main paved roads, that people drive, ride and cycle along on the dirt either side of the road as this is far more comfortable than having your internal organs turned to pate by the incessant washboard, gravel and sand. It has to be experienced to be believed.

After three days from La Paz I had covered around 400km and was heading to the Salar de Uyni, the world’s largest salt flat when a wrong turning presented a better option than my original plan of going to Uyni. I could now go round the back of the salt flats, down a minor road for 200km and then do a true crossing rather than a loop. The adventure idiot in my head sparked up and before I had thought about the consequences of no-one knowing where I was, not enough water and food, and no idea of the road conditions I was off to Timbillo and beyond.

The road was magnificent in it’s ability to loosen teeth, washboard corrugations reduce you to 5km an hour, sand so fine and so deep it was impossible to cycle through and just as difficult to walk through, and gravel just loose enough to finish you off but it has been the adventure I have been wanting. There were no road signs, roads not marked on the map add to confusion and villages with one light bulb between them all made me realise something.

We in the west just have it easy. So easy that we panic if we haven’t got a bottle of mineral water when we are on the bus, panic when we haven’t had lunch or shower everyday or the cupboards are bare. It just always works out. If you run out of water, you may get a bit thirsty (and while you might not be able to get Volvic’s finest) there will be a village well or a stream and if you’re not too fussy, in which case you are not thirsty enough, you can have a drink. If you need food someone will always sell you some, it might not be what you would like but in the words of the contemporary philosopher Jagger… ‘You cant always get what you want but if you try sometimes you might find, you might get what you need.’

After two days of following the ‘road’ it ended in a place called Salinas de Garci Mendoza. I had a lot banking on this village. It was on the edge of the beginning of the salt flats but still 40km from the white gleaming salt of the Solar de Uyuni proper. I had run out of food and water and was wondering if crossing the Solar de Uyuni without the basics might be a step too far but…. it all works out. There was a great restaurant where I had a beef stew for 80p and a small shop which had everything I needed

Toilet roll
Three packets of vegetable soup
Large bag of pasta
4 tins of sardines
4 packets of biscuits
Porridge
Sugar
10 litres of bottled water
Box of matches
Bin liners (to carry ALL rubbish out including toilet paper and crap)

Perfect

Over lunch I pondered directions to the edge of the slat flat. There were two possible routes so I asked the local men in the square. There was much debate (about half an hour) and over beer and much chewing of coca leaves it was decided I should head for Jirira but before I left I was bought a bag of lime and coca leaves… it would be much safer to cross with a little extra stamina and ‘mas rapido’. I promised I would use them and it does work. Coca has been used in South Americia for around 8000 years! (according to wikipedia) You take a handful of leafs and shove them in your mouth and chew them up into a pulp. You them add a small piece of lime, this realises the chemicals in the leafs, and hey presto… well not quite but they do make a little difference. It helps with the altitude, reduces hunger and thirst, reduces fatigue and gives you an energy surge like a strong coffee. Coca is not cocaine. Cocaine is to coca is to getting 1000 cups of coffee and reducing them all into one single cup by using bleach and other delightful chemicals… not wonder people’s noses fall apart. Here in Bolivia, chewing on a few leaves to make life a little easier in this harsh environment makes perfect sense.

‘Where is Jirira?’ I asked
‘Go south for 40km and then turn right after the volcano.’… obviously!

With such clear instructions I cycled onto the flats, took a glance at the compass, and rolled on to Jirira. It was about 6pm by the time I arrived. It is a place where shutters bang in the wind and dust devils play in the roads but there was a family run hostel and I banged on the gates.

I was the only guest staying there and was invited into the family kitchen to cook with the family. Friendly, great fun and a homemade beef and corn soup. It was there that I met Poly. A parrot with a love for pasta that knows no bounds. I was cooking pasta and Poly had spied it from across the room. Like a commando on a night raid she had scuttled across the floor and climbed the rubber gas hose to the gas rings. In no time she was on the cooker ready to dive into the water. The smell of singed feathers gave her away and before Poly was engulfed in flames she was quickly removed and dropped on the floor. Cooking the pet parrot, I assumed… but this is Bolivia, would be the ultimate in bad guest behaviour. I shared a little pasta with Poly as an apology and to get some peace to eat without her climbing my back to steal pasta from my fork.

The solar gleamed in the distance, white, flat and flanked by mountains like a bowl of sugar. At 6.30am my wheel crunched onto the flat and I was there. I looked at the map, I was heading for Isla Inca Huasi, in the centre about 50km just off south. I took a compass bearing and set off.

As the sun rose the whiteness began to build, so bright I was squinting behind my sunglasses. Any skin not covered quickly crisped and the air, dry and acrid, cracked my lips. The heat surrounded me, I took off my hat to cool down but was hotter as the sun pressed down but I had la condor roja (she is the best bike in the world… not a single thing has gone wrong), and enough water and food for three days (an extra day for getting lost!)

One thing became apparent. The island, over 10km wide on my map, still hadn’t appeared. The hours began to slide by and still there was no sign. There wasn’t a single jeep or motorbike hooning around, shattering the silence with explosions of petrol and air. I began to worry. I kept stopping to check my bearing but how could I miss it? Other islands started to appear… they were not on my map. The compass never lies and my bearing had been good al-day (Llanrug I am not lying!) so I ignored and continued and slowly, very slowly through the haze and reflection, a small dot began to stand out from the horizon, darker than mountains that skirt the salt flat. Rocks and cactuses came into view. It could be no other island but it was only 200m wide. Bloody maps!

Then the noise, the people, the jeeps and the boom of music. The solitude of the flat was ripped apart by 20 tour groups all picnicking on the island. I was a disappointed. I had enjoyed the solitude with nothing but the wind and the crunching of salt under my wheels.. By late afternoon they had gone and the island was still. The wind whipped at the sides of my tent and I watched the sun slink behind the mountains. The wind vanished with the sun and the quiet was intoxicating. I slept until sunrise.

With the arrival of the first tour the next morning I was off to Uyuni for an 80km ride across the salt flats and it was over all too quick. It is a harsh environment but it is flat, very flat, and where there are jeep tracks (going ion the right direction) you can cruise at 30kmph by just spinning the wheels and then the white turns to grey, to sand to the end of the Solar de Uyni all too quickly. It felt as if I had been let off to easily without drama or incident but to be able to experience a cycle ride across the Solar de Uyni has to be on everybody’s bucket list. There are things when you are old and grey that you might regret and there are things that, although not life changing or done for the good of humanity, are just a wonderful experiences that makes you realise what a unique, diverse and staggeringly beautiful world we live in and how lucky we all are to be apart of it.

Most people I meet are amazed that I have cycled from Quito and say they could never do it. This is surprising because I tell them this is the most fun I have ever had and they should buy a flight and a bike and start riding themselves. It is just lots of little rides, like someone riding to work everyday but a bit further. If they really wanted to do it they could. It is that simple. It is not that us long distance cyclists are a special breed, it is just that we have all had a dream and haven’t let anyone tell us that we couldn’t or shouldn’t do it.

I would do this trip again in a second and would hope that everything that has happened would repeat itself all over again. I am happier than I have ever been. To live my dream (although six months is much too short) makes me realise how fortunate I am. I hope that you get the chance to experience the reality of your dream but you can’t sit around and dream… you have to make it happen. It might be rubbish… it might be magnificent beyond words but having the chance to know is a very special thing. Just do it (to quote a popular sports manufacture).

.

Posted by: cyclingsi | November 18, 2010

Gut instinct

We are complicated creatures with many skills but there is one spanner in our human tool box I have been using a lot. Some of you would describe it as an inner voice or intuition, others would describe it as a combination of learned experiences that allow us to make sound judgements. More interestingly, it is becoming louder and louder. Impossible to ignore…. so I don’t.

Gut instinct

With nothing more than a feeling I make judgements on people, places and situations and I listen and react. If something doesn’t feel right… it isn’t. Simple. I am coming to the conclusion that you can spot a good person. Within a couple of minutes of meeting someone or arriving at a new place you can, most of the time, have the situation figured out for better or worse. Language… spoken language… is such a small part of how we communicate. The tone and intonation of speech, hand gestures, stance and reactions… it all paints a picture. All the stuff afterwards, the detail, (lifestyle, occupation, family, the past) just fills in the gaps between the building blocks of our personalities. Although the devil can be in the detail and help explain the present, it is the blocks of a person that gives them away.

Back home I heard my gut instinct but would often rationalise or procrastinate or just ignore. I would intellectualise rather than pay attention to how I was feeling, talk myself into or out of a decision or situation when really what I should’ve done was listen and react. Obviously there are times when you have to ‘take one for the team’ or put yourself in a situation when you know you’re going to lose but generally our instincts tell us what is good and bad and what is best for us.

The road after Huallanca was a mixture of smooth dirt and tarmac and as the days progressed I settled into a rhythm of uphill and downhill, suffering the climbs and altitude in the knowledge that on the other side of the pass there was fun to be had. Peru seemed endless, one giant piece of corrugated iron, and at times it felt as though I was going nowhere but slowly you move from one fold on the map to another and although the landscape seems constant, you chip away and arrive at a new town or mountain pass and remind yourself that you are closer to your goal. Ushuaia still seems a lifetime away… or about 5000km.

There are times when your gut pipes up. You role into a village, it is isolated, and there are cat calls of ‘Gringo’… the shouts roll down the road like a wave of nausea until those ahead of you know you are coming. It is menacing. As you cycle past, (the roads through these villages are inevitably uphill so you pass through at walking pace!) there are no waves or smiles, just stares and occasionally rocks are thrown. It is a bad situation. It has happened before but never one village after the next.

My gut kept telling me to keep going despite dusk approaching. The road was lined with houses and farms and, with nowhere safe sleep, I decided to cycle through the night. (This is a very stupid thing to do because of bandits – they are very real) but with no (perceived) choice you go, you get your head down, and pedal.

As night approached I tried to silently roll through the villages with my lights off and avoid detection but dogs (looking for a chase) give away your presence and figures peer round doors. Your heart pounds and you pedal hard. You hear a motorbike start or voices shouting. You are prey and your lungs burn with the effort and altitude. Your only advantage is your fear. It courses through you, burning every cell like acid, whipping you… making you dig deep.

Once it is dark, visions of bandits are quickly dismissed by the reflections of dog eyes. It is a primal fear, seeing sets of eyes running parallel to you, hearing the barking, and then they cut across, your ankles teasing their teeth. It is an excellent exercise in prioritisation. Do you slow down and kick or focus and pedal? Sometimes there are three, you pedal and hope that their lungs give out before yours. It hurts so much you wish you could reach down your throat and rip out your lungs.

Slowly the night passed. I pulled over a few times, sat and waited for daylight but felt too vulnerable so carried on. Those first rays of light that pierce the darkness are something special. They envelope you and you yearn for more and then it is day. You can understand why so many early civilisations put so much emphasis on the sun.

Haunaco was a very welcome relief as I hit the outskirts at around 6am. I was wrecked (becoming an ongoing theme) and booked into a nice hotel (figured I’d earned it!)

And then Pampas happened. Looking down into the valley it was not unlike a Peruvian Trumpton. Everything was perfectly laid out and as I entered the town, school children said hello, people smiled and waved and shop keepers wanted to know where you are from and why you’re in Pampas. I even had to sign autographs! It was as if I had entered a different country or a different universe.

Pampas sucks you in. I was waiting for a catch. There was none. A safe place. A place to relax, recharge and enjoy. I stayed a day or two longer than planned and fleshed out my bones. I flashed my arse (by accident) at some nuns while fixing my bike in the square (I have since bought a belt) and drank surgical alcohol mixed with hot lemon and sugar out of an old pop bottle whilst enjoying a fiesta (I didn’t go blind!).

I left for Cuzco, to be a tourist and experience Mach Picchu. Getting there was wonderfully hard riding, challenging, remote, with sinister weather hiding the road ahead. This trip is the adventure I have been craving. I am starting to feel it is not nearly long enough.

______

I am about two and half months into this trip (depending on when I post this and when you read it) and I am amazed at how quickly the body adapts and changes to suit your circumstances. I have lost weight (14 kilos), my arms have withered away to pipes cleaners and my legs have changed shape beyond recognition. I feel strong. Back home I would cycle at around 10mph but here, loaded up and at 3900m, I am cruising at around 14mph on the flat. It is a wonderful to feel your body working, grinding out the miles, and waking the next day without a pain or sore and do it all again. I am cycling for eight to ten hours a day and sleeping for eight and the rest of the time I eat… lots.

In Ecuador I was struggling to do 75km a day but now, on the flat, 140km passes the time of day very nicely and although strenuous and a long time in the saddle, big distances are now achievable. I hope to capitalise on this and start to make some real progress. South America is slowly becoming smaller.

Posted by: cyclingsi | November 1, 2010

The difference between loneliness and solitude

There are times when I have been desperately lonely. It was as if I lived in a bell jar. Looking out through the vacuum and glass at the world beyond. Despite being surrounded by friends and family, with company and friendships only a phonecall away, you would think it impossible to be lonely living in the town where you where born with opportunities for adventures on most weekends. But in the hours sat at home the loneliness surrounds you. A feeling of emptiness and vacancy… unhappiness in your own company. It is a restlessness that seems impossible to address and facilitates bad decision making.

But solitude is very different. Solitude empowers, allows your mind to quiet. The chatter stops, the worries go away and you become happy in your own company. This trip has presented many emotions… I have cried, been tender, been euphoric and exhausted, cowered in fear, chased in rage, felt I could take on the world then wondered if I could take on a couple ten year old children (road block!). All these emotions seem bigger and bolder, with a citrus clarity, than at home and maybe it is that because my life, in its current guise, is heightened and detached from the day to day humdrum.

Feeling such extremes, makes me appreciate the human spirit, my spirit, and how much capacity for both love and hate (if we let it), of peace and rage, we have inside us all and to deny our full range of emotions is to deny ourselves our true selves. I will take all this back home with me BUT I have never been lonely on this trip… even when I have gone five or six days without a conversation in English (the conversations in Spanish are a dramatic failure on my part). Life on the road has been anything but sedate… an extremis of feelings and emotions rather than our preferred (but not natural) state of nothingness – where we try to avoid anything that challenges the safe, and arguably a little dull, world that we create to avoid ourselves and what we are capable of… which I now believe, and know, is far greater than we all allow ourselves to be.

The solitude of bicycle travel is unique. The repetitive movement, the changing vistas and physical challenges of both effort and now altitude (another day another 4000m+ pass). And don’t forget the excitement of finding somewhere to stealth camp and then the feeling of your heart leaping from your chest with every rustle or voice, fearing your inadequate attempt at clandestine camping has been rumbled. Solitude is when you do not feel alone in your company but rather you thrive, you grow, learn about yourself and the world and seek out company because you choose to rather than out of necessity. I am not trapped or tied to a place through fear. I do not fear not speaking to anyone for days on end, it does not cross my mind, and so my choices are my own… maybe I have not been on the road for long enough?

It is with these feelings that I set off for Huanaco. Bouyed up on the kindness of the travellers and locals of Huanchaco (this is a very blurred line), with my new panniers and boundless energy acquired from continually eating for ten days. The road to Huanaco is breathtaking. You rise from sea level to a lung crushing 4800m in 250km and then back to 2000m in 150km on a dirt road rollercoaster. The road turns from tarmac to dirt as it claws towards towards the sky and the Canyon de Plato (Canyon of the Ducks! – Although I don’t know where the ducks would live given that the canyon is steep and deep with a little stream weaselling through the bottom). The canyon has 29 tunnels, cut into the canyon side, that makes for exciting riding and more exciting camping.

Over the course of a couple of days, the mileage began to clock up as did the steepness of the canyon until a sense of pressure could be felt from all sides. As you penetrate deeper, light become more precious, dust lingers and the air is filled with the clatter of small rocks. I was in awe. This ride was what I had dreamed of… remote, demanding, punishing yet achievable, I felt strong, able to pursue and endure and enjoy the whole experience. The road was quiet, with the occasional truck leaving a wake of consuming dust. The sound of water was tantalisingly close enough to bring on thirst. A motorcycle pulled up alongside.

This is not unusual, I have met a couple of long distance motorcycle tourers enjoying the same journey as me but this… Meet Adrienne. A Canadian girl riding solo on a dirtbike across South America. Sometimes, very rarely, you meet someone and it’s like being hit by a truck. BOOM (in a positive way!). We chatted, laughed, discussed route choices and experiences and an hour had gone in an instant, both of us being cooked in the sun and rained on by rocks. She left on Dirk (her motorbike) but threw down the challenge of a dinner invitation in Huaraz the next evening.

Later that evening, I had discovered a magical camping spot by following a ventilation shaft in one of the tunnels which brought me out onto a small hanging ledge. As I lay there, pondering the day, making dinner and working out tomorrow’s distance I realised that I had to cycle 120km, mostly uphill, to make dinner. It would be an early start and a long day but everyone knows it’s rude to leave a girl to have dinner on her own.

I was on the road at 6.30am. Ten hours later I was still on the road. Twelve ours later I finally rolled into Huaraz. Broken. I had found my hostel, checked in and collapsed. 120Km cycling for a dinner and I was too tired to go. There is a certain irony about life that never ceases to amuse me. Adrienne emailed the next day, we met up, hung out and went out for a curry. After a few days, when travellers tasked had been completed (second pair of glasses in two weeks for me!) it was time to leave for Huancayo via the spectacular Pargue National Huascaran.

By early afternoon I entered the Pargue National Huascaran and was slowly grinding up a gravel road towards the 4800m pass when I saw a motorcycle coming towards me. It was Adrienne. She had tried to cross the pass, it is a eight kilometre stretch of road over 4700m, but got caught in a snow storm, dropped the bike three times, was freezing cold, and beaten. We set up camp in the pampas, cooked dinner and discussed the road ahead and after a little persuasion she decided to give it another go… (possibly not wanting to be outdone by a boy on a bicycle). The weather concerned me as a motorbike can get you out of mischief a little quicker than a bicycle. The weather followed a pattern of clear mornings followed by stormy afternoons.

We were met in the morning by blinding blue skies, said goodbye again, and we set off hoping to make the pass before midday to avoid the storms. As the day edged on, it dawned on me what I had got myself into. Cycling at altitude is destroying. It takes everything just to move, to think and progress. I had anticipated being at the pass at around 11am but by 3pm I had just reached the start of the plateau and was being pummelled by a hailstorm. The next eight kilometres took three hours. It was all I could do to slowly push the bike along, to learn on the bars and gasp for air between steps but slowly progress was made. You fight and progress, see how far you can push yourself before you fail and when you do, you start again and push yourself further. The pass ended with an uneventful gentle incline but by now it was 6pm, there was only a little light and still I was high on the mountain. It was bitterly cold and I did not want to camp so high.

You have occasional moments in life which are brilliant. So brilliant you wonder whether they were real. Events that make you want to sing at the top of your voice, you’ll want to tell everyone who’ll listen and you’ll still tell those who don’t. Ingredients mix together to produce a moment, an hour or a day, that transcends. I had reached the main road from the pass. Exhausted, tired, slightly confused (possible altitude or possibly just me) and not wanting to make a wrong turning due to the steepness of the road, as I felt I would not have had the strength to return. A truck pulled up and I asked directions to Huallanca. He spoke brilliant English, said he was going my way and would follow me with his big rig lights on. The next hour can only be described as the best cycling experience of my life. 40km of switchbacks and steep descends in the dark, lit up like daylight with the truck growling behind and showing the way. It took just under an hour to reach Huallanca, the dirt road was Lady Shave smooth and Huallanca had a cheap friendly hotel with hot water, cable TV and all at only £5 a night. Days like these.

Posted by: cyclingsi | October 24, 2010

The kindness of strangers

Being robbed was a good thing.

I have always believed that there is a balance in life and when the equilibrium is upset, humanity, will do its best to restore us and our surroundings to a state of good. Despite all the events we see in the news, we (humanity), have a natural urge to be nice to each other. To help, nurish and care for the life that surrounds us.

It is this faith in humanity, in the importance of life and love, that makes us all strive to restore a positivity for others and ourselves. It may not be immediately obvious but, with time and hindsight, our greatest moments of charity, feelings of happiness or acts of love are driven by unfortunate events or circumstances. These acts are not done (hopefully – but there are exceptions) for a feeling of self-rightousness or recognition but because within us all there is to will, a need, a want, to be good.

Negative acts to ourselves, friends or strangers remind us all how vunerable we really are. The flesh and bone that gives us feelings of immense strength and power can shatter like glass in a moment and we recognise this in ourselves and others. Our happinesses and those of others balance on a knife edge of circumstance and at at any moment we might fall one side or the other without a helping hand or a gentle shove.

The day after arriving in Huanchaco there was a need for practical help. I needed new glasses, a police statement for my insurnace company, new equipment and clothes. One by one, slowly at first and then a wave, people began to offer support and advice, kind words, help and friendship. Too many to mention.

Joan Louis, a talented artist, lent me clothes, welcomed me into his home, spent a day acting as translator with the Police, introduced me to his friends at Menuland and to Luchos (a legend in long-distance cycling circles who runs Casa de Cyclistas). Luchos opens up his home to long distance cyclists. I stayed at his home in Trujillo, he provided me with a new,( safer and beautiful!) route through Peru, spent time looking around the Black Market for my stolen equipment and introduced me to Matt Walker, a cyclist who has been working his way around the world for a couple of years. Matt showed me how to make a coke can alcohol stove… it’s so good I haven’t bothered to replace my expensive petrol stove. If it brakes I shall just buy a couple of cans of coke and a can of peaches. It is simplicity itself.

It has been overwhelming to receive so many messages of support, messages of encouragement, messages reminding me why I decided to take on this journey and what I wanted to learn from it. Wonderful messages from home, friends at Llanrug and Worcestershire County Council and friends I have made along the way. The messages gave me perspective, motivation to remain positive and a desire to see the robbery as a good yarn… who would want to hear about the bloke who cycled across South America and it was all… well… nice?

Not me . BUT…there is the thought that an adventure only begins when everything is new and unfamiliar so I could argue that cycling across South America ( I love mountains, camping and bicycles) is not that big an adventure for me but being robbed is more so. My journey was about discovering the world, having an adventure, and physically challenging myself but as time creeps by I can see that the physical side is tough and to be expected but the journey both mentally and spirtitually is where both the challanges and rewards lie.

I tried to remain positive about the experieince and so treated myself to a (impromptu) holiday in Huanchaco (you could be laid up in far worse places). Ten days were spent surfing, eating and hanging out with group of international volunteers, who are helping out at a local special school and other projects across Peru. We chatted around beach fires, watched movies, went to a football game and relaxed.

It was time to leave Huanchaco, I was itching to move, to feel the grind of the chain and enjoy the simplicity of finding water, food and shelter but Huanchaco reminded me of the importance of forgetting a schedule and taking time for the people around you.

My parcel finally arrived from Chile (from a very helpful Andes Gear) containing my new panniers (the most expensive panniers in the world thanks to Peruvian import tax), via a useless DHL Peru, and life was ready to return to normal. Like a baby Giraffe, I tentatively set off for the mountains of Huaraz, via a short bus ride to avoid a possible robbing on the way out of Trujillo.

As I left the bus station I twitched on the bike with every passing vehicle or stare but as the familiar rythum of the road returned I began to breath more easily. I was fed, watered, rested and full of the thoughts and wishes of others. My journey continued.

Posted by: cyclingsi | October 9, 2010

A stone in the road

After a hot night in San Ignacio the bus cut a route out of the Andes and to the coast. The further I travelled East into the Amazon, the Pan Americana would became ever more distant and so I decided to catch the bus. It is cheating and I felt guilty having arrived a 100km south of where I should be but I reasoned that all the effort of the jungle and the unpaved road was punishment enough. If I had been cruising along the Pan Americana I would be further South still.

The bus ride seemed false, the landscape detached… an image of mountains projected onto glass. It was depressing but the tail end of the Sechura Desert loomed and enticed. The sunshine, the smell of the ocean and the prospect of a ribbon of glasslike tarmac stretching into the distance took my thoughts away from the stagnant comfort of the bus. Chiclayo arrived.

I found a hostel and spent a few days planning the route, visiting the incredible ruins of Sipan and admiring the wonderful treasure recovered from the tombs at the Lambayeque Museum. It is impossible to describe the beauty and precision of the artefacts. Despite being 2000 years old, the craftsmanship is outstanding and the sheers volume of gold makes the guards twitchy and tourists dream of Hollywood heists.

The cycling was good, despite a slight headwind, the monotonous line of tarmac allowed me to switch off and think off home, take stock of where I am in both a physically and emotionally. I pondered mistakes I had made, the future, my aspirations and the people at home. The rhythm of cycling was hypnotic and allowed me to slide into my thoughts. The desert with its vastness and nothingness takes you into yourself.

It was the second day through the desert and I was rolling… really rolling along. I didn’t realise how much stronger I had become. 110km a day, loaded up, through the desert was both a joy and revelation. The tarmac flowed beneath my wheels as the sun climbed.

Early afternoon had brought me to Pirjan and as I free-wheeled through this small town I felt an air of caution. Calls of ‘Gringo’ cut through the hum and horns of traffic and motortaxis buzzed ferrying locals. I was aware that this is not a good place but I cruised through without a thought. Another ten minutes passed and I was surrounded by sugarcane lining either side of the road. I relaxed.

I heard the familiar buzzing of a motortaxis as it gained on me. CRUNCH. I had been rammed. It had happened so quickly but I was back on my feet and shouting. Accidents happen but I didn’t click. Then they got out. Three men. They ran over to me, pushed me to the ground and set to work trying to steal my panniers. They ripped open my barbag. I grabbed it back but they had grabbed my wallet and glasses! (I was extremely lucky as my camera, ipod and passport were also in the bag but they just didn’t see them).

I shouted. Pushed back. Held on, but as one was repelled the other two surged forward. It was an impossible situation. Then, with a stroke of luck for them and not me, the robbers figured out how to remove my panniers from the rack and they were off. Two were in the taxis (with one bag) with a third running behind with other pannier and then I chased. I ran and I gained. Slowly… and as I ran the taxis sped up so the third thief could not catch up. I ran faster and gained more ground. The thief saw I was close and threw the pannier for more speed and jumped onboard.

It had taken less than a minute and everything had changed. Clothes gone. Laptop gone. Cooking equipment gone. Pannier gone. Glasses gone. Confidence gone.

I stood in the road, dazed, confused. My bike and equipment scattered. Cars and lorries drove around me, uninterested in the everyday occurrence. And then people began to stop. Good people. Aware of what had happened and I felt safe. It is remarkable how the actions of a few for one minute can shift your whole perception, if you allow it, but you can’t and there will always be legions of kind, honest and warm people to every corrupt and morally bankrupt individual.

The police arrived, my bike and luggage were collected up, thrown in a pickup and we went to the station. It was useless. They are not interested. It happens all the time. They leave me in the station for four hours and they do not return so I leave on a bus to Huancheco, shaken and alone. I clutched my bags and watched everyone else on the bus as though they were all implicated. It was wrong to tar with a big brush.

The bus pulled up in Huanchaco. I stood in the street, looking for my friend Joan who I had met a few days earlier in Chiclayo. He had invited me to stay at his home. He was in. His friends were having dinner and within a minute I had a beer, warm food and conversation. It was over.

Bad things will always happen. It is a certainty of life, but these things are only a stone on the road we travel.

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