11/29/19 – 12/6/19
Before going to bed we’d put the leftover chicken and salad we’d bought the previous night in the fridge so we could have it for lunch on our way to Arica. I got up around six and found David asleep on the kitchen floor, a mangled bird carcass next to him. Salad rummaged through for all of the olives and cheese.
Continuing down Ruta 1S to the Chilean border is slightly downhill. Mostly nothing to look at but sand, although occasionally an olive farm. More sand for another twenty kilometers to Arica. Chile is markedly more expensive than Peru. Thirty dollar hotel rooms with no windows and bathrooms that begged the question if we had to pay extra for them to be cleaned. Most of the country was currently practicing the great Latin American tradition of protesting. The straw that broke the camel’s back was an increase in bus fares. This led to peaceful protests over the cost of living and general inequality. This, as it often does, led to Maltov cocktails and stealing televisions.
We were told that Arica was relatively safe, although not to venture too far from the centro in the evening due to the demonstrations and the possibility of being associated with them by a trigger happy police officer. On the ride in you could see the remnants of improvised road blocks and trash containers which had been lit on fire. Like all things south of the border, garbage cans are made of concrete, so there is still a garbage can left after a conflagration; it’s just a bit sooty. In Detroit I would occasionally find a hardened puddle of plastic in the downtown vicinity after an irate Tigers fan would ignite a trash receptacle in protest of a bad call.
Downtown was relatively calm. At the same time, businesses had welded their doors shut and posted signs politely requesting that demonstrators consider the fact that destroying somebody else’s modest means of survival would not accomplish much for inequality. Some of the banks, which appeared to be primary targets for bricks and spray paint, had completely closed. This left only a handful of ATM’s in the city and lines for cash in excess of fifty people at all hours of the day. We found a hotel for the night with a decent balance between price and cleanliness, resupplied, and got to bed reasonably early to head towards the altiplano.
The next morning we were about twelve kilometers out of town when the grinding began. At first it was just a quick crunch and I thought maybe a chunk of sandstone had been crushed in my gears. It quickly became more persistent. I knew it was bearings. I stopped, lifted my back wheel, and gave it a spin. Nothing. Same with the front. I turned the crank to see if it was the bottom bracket. The grinding reappeared, but it was in the pedal. It occurred to me that in seventeen months it had never been serviced.
We limped back to town against the wind. I clipped my left foot in and held my right foot to my side; pedaling with just one leg the whole way, hoping to avoid damage. We found what was clearly a quality shop with modern tools as evidenced by a service desk clad in reclaimed wood with barstools and an espresso machine. The mechanic said he could work on everything immediately. By the time he finished it was too late to get back on the road and we went back to the centro for another night. Within a mile of the shop, the grinding came back. The cups were pitted from the damaged bearings, as I feared, and I would need new pedals. The shop was closed for the weekend.
This prompted a spectacular adventure around the centro in which I played the "hey do you know where there's a bike shop?" game and decided to just wander to wherever it took me for an hour or so. I have no idea why the words "I don't know," have yet to enter the Hispanic vernacular. The amazing thing is how quickly and seemingly surely somebody will give you misinformation. Without flinching, "izquerda a la esquina y dos quadros. Se llama 'Bici Edgardo.'"
So you turn left at the corner and go two blocks. Edgardo's shop is nowhere to be found. In its place is a pile of dog shit, a burned trash can, and a vagrant named Jose who smells like piss and wants a hug. This can happen for hours until you give up.
Interestingly, Jose was the only person with any useful information. He told me there was a shop named "Wilson's." They had two locations, but the nearest was closed. I grabbed my bike, rode across town, and there it was. Miraculously, Wilson's had a pair of pedals with a cleat receptacle on one side and a standard platform on the other. These would be hard to come by in most shops in the states.
Nothing in Latin America is without caveats though. They were cheap Chinese tackle and had been over tightened in the factory so they didn't spin well. I asked to borrow some tools so I could adjust them. They said this was fine, but I had to buy them first. I handed over the cash.
They took me into the back, to a disaster of a workshop. A man handed me a wrench. The job required a twelve millimeter socket, which the shop owner asserted was in my hand.
"No, tengo 11, 13, y 14."
"No, tienes 11, 12, y 13."
We went back and forth like this several times. I tried to show him the numbers on the tools, but his unbreakable confidence was such that he did not need to look to know I was wrong. I started to rummage through the mess of tools. This prompted several cautionary whistles. In most Latin American countries, whistling is a second language. There are dozens of types for all sorts of occasions. This had been absent in Ecuador and Peru though, so I was caught off guard.
I was offered several tools which were unfit for the task at hand. Impatient with my desire for order, an old man grabbed the pedal from me and picked up a hammer (common solution in these parts) I jumped between him and the pedal as if I were breaking up a bar fight.
Eventually somebody appeared with the twelve millimeter socket and I made a quick adjustment. As I did this, one of the owners of the place was feeling helpful and decided to dump all the parts I'd removed and carefully placed into a small box into the pile of rubble which covered the work bench so I could spend fifteen minutes searching for the last screw. When it was all over we had the normal rounds of "de donde eres?" and "cuantos kilometros" and "suerte chico" and I left with a few greasy pats on my back.
Soph and I retraced our steps the next morning before turning onto Highway 11. The road cuts through geographic structures which are somewhere between sand dunes and mountains. On the sides are old petroglyphs made from stones arranged to depict various animals. They are hundreds of meters across. We came upon a Hare Krishna settlement with a dozen or so adobe buildings that resembled dollops of frosting on a cake. It was too nice to pass so we cut the day short.
It’s hot and the climbing is beginning. Valley smells like garlic. Flipped trucks fallen over sandy slopes. Lucky with a tail wind. Unlucky with my bottle having sprung a leak. Refill water at a solar voltaic power plant but I'm quickly empty again and thirsty. Passing half full discarded pop bottles and wondering how desperate I would have to be. This would be especially risky with the urine like color of Inka Cola.
Lunch time traffic. Double length semi-trucks returned in the southern Peru deserts as the road became straight and flat for the first time since Panama. I can feel the vibrations in the ground as caravans of a dozen or so approach and hold a deep breath to avoid the fumes.
White lizards bask on sandy shoulders. Uninhibited sun cooking our skin and fading our clothing. Stinging sunscreen sweat in my eyes. Body overheating and wondering why it is being fed scorching heat blurred air with tar resin from boiling bitumen roads. Unquenched thirst. No more sweat to give and as my shirt dries it develops an impressive rigidity.
After forty five kilometers and nearly two thousand meters of climbing we were wrecked. We were low on water and it was sixteen kilometers to a small restaurant. The altitude was getting to us and at our pace it would be more than two hours to arrive. It was already four o’clock. We passed through a construction zone and on one end there was a large water jug for the workers. We filled our bladders and found a spot in a large wash to camp for the night. As it got dark, traffic picked up. We were told this was a busy road at night with mining trucks. Their engines grinding like jack hammers on the steep climbs. During occasional moments of silence, I could hear the construction traffic directors on the night shift chatting in their little booth. Half full moon, relatively bright with all of the stars.
Despite a battered body, I couldn’t sleep. Altitude apnea, the trucks, the voices. Brief moments of windless silence and I can hear the little high pitched tone in the back of my mind. I’ve never really known if it is the sound of the world at idle that everyone hears or perhaps an inner ear issue.
Early morning earthquake and rockslide just behind our tent. Easy sixteen kilometers to a nice hippy adobe hut with fresh and astronomically priced bread. Owner is a nice woman that warns us about eating at restaurants that don't put as much care into their food as she does. She says the Andina route we're planning will be difficult but beautiful.
Another night in another wash. More earthquakes and rock slides. Morning vicuñas visit. They look like a giraffe crossed with a dear. Thirty kilometers to Putre. The town was surprisingly quaint with its mountain backdrop and smoke rising from chimneys and indigenous adobe buildings. The kicking off point to adventure tourism in the high plains. In front of a hostel were two English cyclists, Joe and Louise. They were polishing their bikes.
“I don’t think my bike was that clean when I bought it.”
“A clean bike makes me feel good mate.”
In all, there were six cyclists on site. They’d all just come off the Ruta de Las Vicuñas, which was where we were heading. We all chatted and admired one another’s machines; pointing at bits of gear, squeezing tires to compare pressure, and exchanging information about what to expect on the roads ahead.
At some point in the climbing over the last few days a new sound had appeared on my bike. It seemed that my front derailleur had been dislodged and was rubbing against my rear tire when in the lowest gear. I got to work on it immediately. Afterwards, I gave all the important parts a good wash. I went back into the courtyard of the hostel to find Antonio, an Italian cyclist, explaining some of the wisdom he’d learned while traveling.
“The psychedelic drugs of South America will open your mind to the true meaning of the world and they are the surest path to transcending the constraints of material desires.” He had a written a book explaining all of this in great detail which he said we could purchase online.
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