Posted by Andrew Godlewski ● Apr 19, 2019 4:10:31 PM
Life in the Shoulder: 3-Months Cycling in a Strange Land
Our time in South America is at an end. In one-week, we'll be heading to California to start the long ride north and then east back towards the Atlantic Coast. We've cycled 2,677 miles, through 5 countries, climbed 103,716 feet, and consumed approximately 9,247 peanuts. We also suffered 4 flat tires, were robbed of $3,000 of our gear, received 235 bug bites, and survived 3 vicious sunburns. We met 12 other cycle tourists on the road, pet over 55 friendly pooches, and watched the sunset 78 times. The entire experience was and continues to be (queue the Mastercard commercial music) priceless.
Life cycling on the narrow shoulders of the roads here has not been easy, and in fact, a huge portion of the time wasn't that fun at all. To paint a picture of what I mean by this, here is what I want you to envision:
You've spent the last 3 and a half hours pedaling up and down roads with a non-existent shoulder as trucks, buses, and horse carriages whiz by you. It's 85 degrees, and a fierce headwind has been slamming you in the face all day. As you look down at your front bag for a snack to satisfy your rumbling tummy, all you can muster up is a 1/4 of an old cereal bar and four 3-day old cashews that no longer have salt on them. There is a peach... but it's been in the sun so long that when you pick it up, it turns to juice in your hand and makes the whole front bag situation stickier than it was before.
You turn a corner and a logging truck speeds past within a foot of you as the horn blows loudly in your ear. The constant image in your head is what it would look like to be grazed in such and instance and sent end over end off the roadside. At least you have your audio book to distract you for the next 25 miles.
As you roll into town at 6:00, your spirits pick up; you see what appears to be three restaurants on the corner. Sweet victory! Sweet golden victory: in just ten minutes you'll finally have a full stomach and a break from the road for the day. You're so... very... hungry. As though it were Christmas morning you lean your bike up against a pole (it immediately falls to the ground with a familiar sound of "rock and sand meets guitar," but you don't care) and b-line to the first establishment. The sign reads "Cerrado." Okay, that one's closed but, no worries, you can deal. There are still two others. At the second, the sign reads "Abierto." You pull on the door handle and it doesn't budge. The lights are off, no one is home. With wind leaving your sails, you turn to the third. A man is standing outside. Hope is restored! Walking over you state "Abierto, no?" confidently. He stares back, says "no abierto" and walks away with a passing scoff. Your stomach rumbles and a mosquito lands on your face... and bites you, deep. The man in the corner takes out his violin and begins to play a somber tune, as a single tear streams down your cheek, as the mosquito continues to take his (or her) fill.
It's been a true adventure here in South America; one filled with as many challenges as there have been rewards. This is a good thing to be sure. When first setting out on the journey, I stated the reason for this trip was to struggle; to place myself in unfamiliar situations and create ways out of them. To rip myself out of the "comfort zone" of home was a big deal to me and in no way did I want to replace this with another comfortable circumstance. In this regard, I was successful. The people, roads, food, and culture all brought to bear challenges that (as a cyclist especially) brought me to the brink of destruction several times. More-so than on the Balkans cycling trip Suzie and I went on years ago or any other time that I spent abroad (over 4 years in total) I found this experience to wear me down and leave me just wanting to come home.
The Challenges on the Road
Against my better judgement, I'll include here something that I wrote when delirious on my bike one morning:
Alas, another morning waking up to mere Nescafe packets and mini- croissants on the breakfast menu. How I miss thee sweet Dunkin... the king of my heart, who fills up my coffee cup so large that I need both hands to remove it from the store. Today, I must subsist again with a tiny cup, filled several times... which tastes like old coffee beans ground through a weed wacker. Today, I resign myself to another morning of stale bread and yogurt. Hasn't anyone in this land heard of eggs?
As my weird self alludes to, the food here has been one of the big issues. It's just... not very good. I have yet to see a restaurant that doesn't serve the 5 basic items of: pizza, sandwich, milanesa, hot dog, and empanada. I'm talking about hundreds of restaurants that serve the same, exact, menu. For the most part, these all taste the same too and are (with a few exceptions) pretty bland in flavor.
I will couch all this in that I am one to smother eggs in too much hot sauce. I lived in Asia for so long that my pallet needs spice to be satisfied. I enjoy more complex flavors that have a little more "panache" (no clue if I used that term right, but I've always wanted to toss it in like the main character from "Grand Budapest Hotel") to offer the taste buds.
As a tourist for a week or two, this wouldn't be a problem at all. But as a person who is here longer term, the lack of variety does wear you down. Even the BBQ that we heard so much about leading up to the trip doesn't use any unique blend of seasoning or salsa. It's just fatty meat, cooked over an open flame. I'd call that basic a-f, if you ask me.
I haven't gone to an Applebees since college, but I am going to level with you here: as soon as I get back to the US, I'm getting off a random highway exit, turning left (there is always one of these when following these directions), and prepping up to eat good in the neighborhood. The only challenge in this situation is going to be if I am able to successfully reach around my blooming onion to the Memphis hot chicken wings on the other side of the table. I'm excited to have flavor back in my life.
It might sound silly that the food played such a large part, but when you are famished on the road, it does end up clogging your mental capacity and framing how you view a particular situation.
The other challenge for me was the people and the culture. Not speaking the language set me back a ways. I've learned quite a bit, but most of my conversations in Spanish sound a little bit like this when translated:
Waiter: "Hey, welcome guys. We are out of a few things on the menu today, in particular we don't have any chicken left. What can I get for you?"
Me: "Thank you."
Waiter: "Okay, so what are you having today? Do you want a drink first?"
Waiter: "Okay, like I said, we don't have the chicken, but we have meat. Do you want meat?"
Me: "Thank you?"
Waiter: "Do you want that on a sandwich or with rice?"
Me: "Thank you."
Waiter: "Okay... thanks guys."
Luckily, Suzie's Spanish has been amazing and she has been able to do all the talking for us. With this though, I am left slightly apart from being able to experience the full culture and its people. I should have tried harder to learn beyond a few Duolingo lessons beforehand, as that would have allowed me to better connect with the people we met on the road. As an extrovert, not having access to talk to others ended up wearing me down and depressing me throughout the trip. I think a big reason this hasn't caught up to me when travelling or living places in the past is that we typically travel in cities where there is an English speaking population, whereas for this trip we were mostly in the countryside.
A non-cyclist would likely be surprised that I haven't called out the cycling as being a big challenge here. Sure, we had tough days on the roads, but for the most part, the actual biking wasn't that hard. Climbing over the Andes, a feat that I was nervous about, turned out to be the best road and most memorable experience of the entire trip! The three days we spent working our way towards the top of Paso Pehuenche were the most scenic, awe-inspiring sights that I have ever seen in nature. In fact, I wish we spent our entire trip riding the spine of this incredible range. Unfortunately, we ran out of ride-able road and needed to turn back, but besides our hellish few days in the Argentine desert, the only real challenge in cycling was dealing with the traffic on the roads and the people versus the terrain.
The Good Stuff
The highlight of this trip for me was: having time. Time to talk and (mostly) joke around with Suzie, time to think to myself, time to read and listen to audio books, time to play guitar, and time to plan what comes next. Back home, I was so consumed by work and other side projects that I forgot to use my time for self improvement and dedication to thinking about what comes next in life. Zoning out on the bike, especially in the less interesting areas of the region, gave me a ton of time to reflect on these things.
You almost have too much time to think to yourself. If you read my "ode to Dunkin Donuts" above, you'll see that life in the shoulder can be a scary place for the unburdened mind. That said, I am grateful to have had the space to think through some of the big decisions that we'll need to make when we return home. More to come on this later, but we decided where we want to live next. I decided what sorts of extracurricular and governmental activities I want to be better involved with. These things always loomed over me, but with all the time finally granted, I've been able to lock down these "adult" decisions with a smile.
I also read and listened to 11 books: Tai-Pan, Alexander Hamilton, The Art of War, The Disappearing Spoon, Island of the Lost, American Spirit, The American Nations, The War for Spanish Succession, Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, The Plantagenets, and Salt to the Sea. Granted, most of these are history books for topics that I wanted to know more about, but a few of these (particularly Meditations) provided thought provoking guidance in how to live life to the fullest.
I'm grateful for the company and friendship of all the amazing people we met along the way. Three times, truckers picked us up off the road when we needed help. Twice to get us over an international border. Once, when we were biking in 90 degree heat into a forest fire. When robbed in Osorno, Chile of most of my gear, a stranger named Sebastian helped us work with the police to file a report and then a welcoming hotel owner, Pedro, made us feel comfortable for 5 days in a city we had only planned to pass through. Our Air BnB host in Mendoza, Mike, was both an amazing host and a great friend that we will no doubt see again sometime soon. We got a taste of New England when spending a night in Panguipulli with Tom and Luca from Durham, NH. We cycled and camped alongside Valentina from Spain and Keke from Brazil for a few days. So many others helped to squash the negative vibes we felt by just being awesome people and encouraging us to press on when things got tough.
Finally, I can't miss mentioning the nature we had a chance to experience. The Andes range, high desert of Argentina, coastal roads of Uruguay, interior hills of Paraguay, and lakes and volcanoes of Chile were just a few of the absolutely stunning sights we got to live in for a few days. Beyond all this, we reached Iguazu Falls. It's impossible to capture in words the beauty of this scene, but this wonder in the jungle is something I will never forget.
What's Next Along the Road
It's best for me now to look ahead into all that is on the horizon when we cycle and travel in North America. Just because South America wasn't all I expected it to be, we are not going to end the trip by any means. I look forward to seeing family and friends along our route in the months ahead, to having more options on the road besides riding the main highways, to large-iced coffees in the morning, speaking English to strangers, and of course... to eating good in the neighborhood.