Archive for August, 2012
The last couple of weeks have been amongst the most challenging and tiring I’ve had on the entire trip but not for the most obvious of reasons. The notion of losing ‘motivation’ for cycling and touring had frightened me from the very start as I considered it a very deep hole to dig out of once trapped within. However, I’m glad to say that this mental battle is one I hope to have put behind me now as I pedal forward on my last 7 weeks in the Americas.
It’s tough to know where to start when explaining the relationship between motivation and bicycle travel but I’ll try to keep it simple. In short, I think just about every long term touring cyclist will face or just happen upon a period of less enthusiasm for getting on their bike every day and making yet another 80, 100 or 120km. It’s natural too when you think about it – hours lead to days, days lead to months and in my case a couple more of those over a year where a great deal of time has been spent in the saddle, working hard to arrive at another destination, the top of a mountain pass or safe camp spot for the night.
However, a few weeks back I started to notice the symptoms of this motivation loss creeping in as I became a little more fatigued as the days went on, most notably after midday when all I wanted to do was get off the bicycle and into a hotel room, any hotel room for rest and forget about cycling a while. I had also been thinking quite alot about the idea of ‘appreciation’ and the ability of one to look at something – a great mountain, a shimmering lake, local farmers on the harsh Altiplano – and take on board firstly how beautiful or unique these scenes may be and secondly how lucky one is to actually be here and upon them at this exact moment in time. And most will agree, if you spend months watching ruggedly crested and special snow-capped mountains go by you’ll eventually begin to lose some, not all, of the feelings and emotions associated with that ‘special’ part. I even spoke to one 6 year round the world cyclist named Salva in Mexico who told me he spent so many weeks in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that he just had to get away from all the beauty so he could take it all in again in the future, as it deserved.
Being completely honest, I’m not at that level yet and definitely am awe-inspired on a frequent basis out here. Lake Titicaca, the Salar de Uyuni, Quebrada de Cafayate and the Andes separating Mendoza from Santiago and more importantly Argentina from Chile all gave me shivers within the last 8 weeks. Yet, I do want to preserve the ability to keep feeling like that. The appreciation side of things didn’t explain the general lack of want for much more pedalling though and it took a little time to figure out exactly what was causing the problem. I could only look to an obvious point of some thought in recent months – the end or finish date for the journey, something that really shouldn’t bother anyone too much as the journey itself should dictate when that arrives. Nevertheless, it has been a constant, scratching thought banging about my head from the minute I boarded the plane in Ireland last July, leaving my girlfriend and a perfectly happy life. One could be forgiven for thinking they were actually a little mad even taking the action. And it wasn’t setting out on the Alaskan Arctic tundra 500 miles from the nearest town, but that instant at the airport which awoke my “What the hell am I doing?” moment. However, with Áine now back from 10 months working in Asia and of course the huge want to be back in Ireland with her after almost a year and 2 months apart, it did bug me a little cycling each day and being unable to give a definite answer for when I’d be home, to her and me.
Knowing that I had over 3,800km road still to cycle and some easy maths I figured out it would be at least another 2 and a half months considering the road conditions, terrain and Patagonian wind that lies ahead in southern Chile – a timeframe that didn’t particularly suit. So, I hopped on the bus from a town called Belén in north-western Argentina until Mendoza to save one week cycle time and buy some space to reassess for the rest. In Santiago, Chile’s capital a few days later I clicked purchase and am due out of Tierra del Fuego on October 17th. Just having that date set has now given me some time to plan my southern route more carefully and also to take in what I can without rushing the sure to be cracking Carretera Austral.
Reading back over these lines right now they feel like petty complaints/concerns considering my good fortune to firstly just dream up this trip and subsequently take the leap. Yet they have been legitimate worries for some while – I suppose all this time alone will do funny things to a man! However, I now have head space and a definite renewed enthusiasm, aware that I am in the glowing embers of this American journey on perhaps one of the most special sections yet – the Carretera Austral or Southern Road. Considering how much I loved Canada and its wild nature, this path through similar environment will be a fitting end as I near Ushuaia.
At the moment, I write this from a Rest Area on Chile’s Ruta 5 which is a wide, busy, straight as a poker and flat as a pancake highway to Puerto Montt where the Austral begins. I like Chile as I did Argentina for lots of reasons – the friendly and chatty people, safe road shoulders, hot water, cold weather and Dairy Milk chocolate! The electricity and Wi-Fi signal for me to write this by my tent isn’t too bad either. I’ve also been catching up with friends in Santiago too – Kieran who I lived with during University in Ireland and Rich from London who I’ve met sailing from Panama to Colombia, in Medellín, Cusco and now here. And tomorrow, I’ll go for 120km again, this time glad of the mental tailwind from new energy and as my good friend Urs would say, the ‘mileage of smileage’.
Total miles/km: 14,689mi/23,640km
Current destination: Parral, Chile
The swift change to life over the border and into Argentina has been pretty surprising. Replacing chicken and chips with sandwiches and veg, dirt roads for paved and expense for bargains has taken a few days to accustom to yet the spirit of the Argentine is already beginning to capture in the penultimate country of the trip.
I departed Bolivia on the back of 6th August, the national day and for it was left with a very pleasant and kind image of a country that I cycled through in 16 days and had yet to fully appreciate. As was the case in Perú, the majority of people had turned out to be a little tougher on the outside and needed a fair time to crack into life during conversation or random chance encounters. Yet, sitting late night by a leafy plaza in Tupiza, south-western Bolivia during the festivities I began to warm a little quicker to the country. Two moments will stand out from the evening. The first was watching 5 young local girls on a rickety stage plastered with Bolivian flags play traditional music for the crowd using electronic instruments, guitars and drums. The confidence seen in these 5 was something I hadn’t witnessed in a considerable time as often women’s place in society here occupies a far quieter and clandestine corner of the world – tending animals in the fields, staying within the home and thus remaining a slight mystery as I pedal by, in rural areas at the very least. The second moment was just simple. A family of 3 generations (grandmother, husband and wife and 2 children) played and joked with each other next to me. There was something in the pure ‘togetherness’ of it all and especially the smile on the storyful face of the grandmother that was a very welcomed send-off from Bolivia.
And then there was Argentina. I’ve been here just 9 days but already it’s becoming one of my favourite countries and personalities so far. First off, the people are incredibly friendly and I’m back into the routine of stopping randomly on a lay-by for some people to hand me media lunas (croissants) out the window or show me pictures of their children for no apparent reasons other than it’s the background shot on their phone and they’re proud. In one case, there was even a generous promise that I could be seeing their daughter if I would just make the 2,000km detour to Santa Fe close to Buenos Aires. These are the exact type of meetings that made Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador such immensely enjoyable places to be and I’ve a feeling it may all continue in the same vein. Sometimes you just have to trust your feelings and mine for Argentina are as high as a kite right now.
Saying that, it’s ridiculously expensive here and I haven’t needed a dictionary to tell me what the locals mean when they mention inflación. On my first night in Argentina, in a small, very delicate hostel in La Quiaca, I paid 14 pesos for a chocolate bar when the very same amount would buy me a hotel room in Bolivia just 12 blocks or 1km away over the border. However, sometimes money can buy happiness and devouring that Milka chocolate made Argentina all the more welcome in my world!
The first big town experience was in Salta, way up in the northwest and an endpoint to my biggest day so far – 186kms from high red rock canyons to this balmy, clean-cut city. What can only be described as a polite and amiable place, it was a gentle introduction to a new urban life where the streets didn’t smell like bread, meat or chicken houses for the first time in maybe too long. There seemed to be a great buzz off the place (possibly the youthful population) and I made way for a bar advertising Brit-Pop as its theme and wasn’t disappointed as I walked in to a chorus of “And so, Sally can’t wait, she knows it’s too late as we’re walking on by, Her soul slides away, But don’t look back in anger, I heard you say”. A good night was had by all.
After Salta I was treated to some gobsmacking landscape and one I never expected after Lonely Planet was downgraded in favour of plenty of cyclist’s advice I gathered in Perú. It took two days to get to Cafayate from Salta through a river gorge coloured several shades of red and one I’d associate more with Butch Cassidy’s American homeland than northern Argentina. Million year old rock formations, sharply shaped wind-cut terraces and strange animals carved from rock provided enough stop-off points for me to roll into Cafayate at a later hour than a 100km day would expect. And from Altiplano to forested hills near Salta and now the Wild-West, I’ve been immersed in an unexpected beauty, just hoping long may it continue.
On a non-350South note, I’ve been glued to the TV when possible to catch the Olympics too. You often hear people saying “Ah sure, you’ll remember where you were when that happened”. I definitely will – smacking a quiet restaurant table in Humahuaca and roaring at the screen as Katie Taylor won Gold for Ireland and women’s boxing last week. After 13 months on the road and perhaps expected periods of tiredness, lethargy, lack of motivation and well… the thoughts of waking for another 100km day, that was a moment filling me with inspiration for my last 2 months on the road and utter pride in Ireland; not just for Katie’s deserved achievement but for the noise generated by the greatest supporters ever in the ExCel Arena for her.
I leave Cafayate tomorrow for an 8 day stint on the bike to San Juan where it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to Mendoza and then Santiago, Chile. While I’ve been here though, I’ve gone wine tasting as this is premier country they tell me and some of the region’s best is grown and produced in the valley surrounding the town. However, watching tourists toss half a glass of good wine per go into an ice bucket at the end of the table just to get the flavour of the next made me draw breath. More a beer man than wine, I kept quiet and threw the last of the generous 4 glasses down, hoping the other 10 obvious appreciators wouldn’t notice. You can take the Irish out of Ireland… and all that.
Total miles/kilomteres: 14,278mi/22,978km
Current destination: Cafayate, Argentina
Bolivia certainly saved the best until last in terms of landscape but the worst in terms of roads. I feel I’ve been tossed around like a ragdoll on over 380kms of sandy washboard tracks but at least there has been something to admire with giant salt flats and a Wild Western looking desert making their home in this harsh and remote corner of the country.
I can’t say much about Ruta 4 which cuts a direct line from La Paz to the city of Oruro in Bolivia’s western plains. It was flat, cold and properly dangerous from heavy traffic on a narrow, badly surfaced road. In Oruro though I had reason to be excited as I would meet up with Tauru and Christi from the US who are riding their tandem bicycle on an Argentina-Alaska route to raise awareness for the blind. The reason they do this is first hand as Tauru has a hereditary disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa and Christi has been diagnosed with Myopia. Both conditions mean severe challenges to sight when navigating and cycling over 17,000 miles but even through the difficulties they’ve tackled half a continent and some of the toughest conditions en route. For the first time in weeks, it was nice to swap stories and share a few rare dark beers with some other cyclists after a long day’s pedalling.
This week also saw washboard jump straight to number 2 in the list of most hated cycling frustrations – right after the dreaded headwind. From Challapata – a strange little town surely inspiring a Stephen King novel – until Tupiza where I now write, it was complete and constant rotten washboard surface – mostly sand and rocks clumped into bumps that jolted bones and bike throughout the day. Words just can’t describe the nastiness of that vengeful sand! Occasionally I would be granted a smooth shoulder on the few downhill sections only for seconds later the familiar ‘thump, thump, thump’ to return whereby I would maniacally curse SW Bolivian roads and pick my water bottles up which lay strewn 20 yards behind me.
To say it was all toil and trouble would be an overstatement though as this was one of the quietest roads I’ve ever travelled with little more than 10 cars passing daily and an entire landscape empty and devoid of human habitation. It was so quiet that on Saturday last after lunch I fell asleep by the side of the road at a dried stream crossing with my legs stretched out into the lane and not surprised at all to wake an hour later with a complete and twiddling set of ten toes. Camping spots were in true abundance too… old abandoned houses, creek beds, funny looking rocky outcrops and vast sandy plains to pitch on. With a regular gusty evening wind, the rocky protrusion became the most suitable and in a pretty high tech change for proceedings I managed to watch High Fidelity on the laptop one of the nights (but maybe 10th time on the trip) and in due course began deciding upon the Top 5 countries, Top 5 Mountain Climbs, Top 5 Hot Showers until I feel asleep in the chilly air.
So, after 3 days and 200kms of rough riding you can imagine the joy at seeing the largest Salt Flat on the planet – Salar de Uyuni – stretched out in the distance and punctuated by absolutely nothing at all. After pasting the last of the sun cream to my face and buying a pair of cheap sunnies in Colchani I pedalled with a frantic energy onto the white salt, tearing clothes off when far enough away from surely sensitive eyes inside passing tour jeeps after inspiration from the boys at Revolution Cycle. The immediate alien nature of the Salar is striking. Pure white, cracked salt spread out as far as the eye can see with only the haze of a distant mountain breaking the view. Without all the tourists, this must be a very lonely place indeed. However, I saw it as prime terrain to mess around and remove the remainder of my clothes, attempt to dance, cartwheel and play football with a pair of rolled up gloves. Maybe it was the salt, the bright lights of reflection or accelerating sunstroke but getting naked seemed the most appropriate thing to do.
And so with just 95kms and a day’s cycling left to Argentina, I’m about to meet the expectations of the 350South tagline. Bolivia seems if it has passed by in an instant and I’ll be sorry to leave cheap food and accommodation, local markets, fiestas, a very different way of life and quality of living. From what I hear, Argentina brings with it good roads, supermarkets, more cars, great steak, hot shower water and a distinctly European feel the further I travel south. I think I’m about to have a very new experience on this last 5,000km and 2 months of journeying.
While I’ve been having fun on the Salar, a very important development in the lives of Irish Family Carer’s took place at home a few weeks ago. The Government released The National Carer’s Strategy, a much welcomed plan to support Irish Carers’ vital role in care provision for those most needing it in our society. Recognising Carers as the backbone of this provision is a huge step and we hope over the next 3 to 4 years the health and well-being of Carers will improve and lives will again be truly empowered. You can read more about The National Carer’s Strategy here.
Total miles/km: 13,842mi/22,278km
Current location: Tupiza, Bolivia