A long time coming...

0 degrees fahrenheit. No heat, no lights, solid block of drinking water, exploded beer, frozen ketchup and it's only 8pm. After all that, we still had each other and we still had our determination to realize our vision. Despite the circulating perceptions that this maniacal way of life would inevitably lead to a divorce, we are pleased to say that you were wrong! We are as happy as ever and every frozen bone was well worth it! After 4 years of living together in our 21ft RV, we managed to pay off our debts, Kirsten complete graduate school, Seth become a certified arborist, both work multiple jobs and manage to save up enough money to travel. So here we go. We hope that you can come along for the ride.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Paso de Agua Negra

We are quite proud and a little relieved to announce that we have just conquered the last, monolithic obstacle on our quest to Santiago (and eventually to see all of you), Paso de Agua Negra: 4780 meters. For those of you already rummaging around for a calculator, that´s 15,682 feet. This leg of our journey was the greatest point to point elevation gain we´ve made in the shortest amountof time. We started from approximately 600 meters above sea level and completed the climb (190 km)in three days...Thats over 30,000 feet of elevation gained and lost! Eat that, Lance Armstrong! Our journey upward was energized and motivated by the ongoing parade of fan club members that passed us by with waves, smiles, thumbs-up, fistpumps, tobacco tin finger-slaps, musical honks and applause. There were few passersby that didn´t at least give us a friendly wave. A river followed us most of the ride up the canyon, collecting snow melt from the capped peaks and melting (too bad) glaciers. The mountains were void of vegetation, but full of electric colors, contrasting golds, reds and shades of grey. We fell under the good graces of the wind gods for most of the climb, until about 15km from the top of the pass, when hurricane force winds blasted us head-on and we struggled to keep ourbikes upright and moving in a forward direction. One slow kilometer and hairpin turn after another, we arrived at the international border with tears of joy in both of our eyes and a little less breath in our lungs. We struggled to keep from being blown off the mountain as we took photos before bundling up for the steep descent. The next morning, we awoke frozen to the bone and rode in hats, mittens and down jackets until the sun rose above the mountains a few hours later. We abrubtly met the infamous Pacific-to-Andes wind that we had been hearing so much about. Sure, we can handle wind, we thought. At least we´re going downhill. Ha Ha! Not much is worse for the psyche than struggling (hard) to pedal downhill. We passed fairly efficiently through Chilean customs and immigration and rode nearly 100km down, into the wind. Beaten, battered and hungry, we pulled over to locate the first town on the map to buy food. (At this point, we were completely out of food less the powdered milk, tea and mermelada that wasn´t confiscated by customs). A car pulled over to ask us if we wanted help and they ended up turning around and 4 adults peeled out. They offered us water, bread, cheese and Cola de Mono, a drink like Bailey´s Irish Cream, to give us energy they told us. They invited us to stay at their house and this time, we took them up on the offer. So, we bustled as fast as we could another 30km, found their house in the dark and they offered up the greatest hospitality. They sent us away this morning,with cheese, homemade apricot jam, bread and fruit. We feel so grateful. Incredibly, the second Chilean we met today invited us to his house, too! We have just seen the Pacific Ocean from La Serena, about 500km north of Santiago. We plan to hit the beach and indulge in a little Chilean seafood and wine this evening. We are thrilled to be here. You wouldn´t believe the amount of fruits and vegetables in season! We thought we saw a lot of grapes in Argentina. There is little earth that is not covered in them here. As we rode down yesterday, the valley looked like Jean-Claude and Christo´s fabric wrapping, because they hang curtains of fabric over the vineyards to protect them from the wind and sun. Our panniers are currently filled with strawberries, plums,watermelon and lots of veggies. They probably won´t last through the night. Anyway, that´s enough from the Chilean coast. We look forward to seeing you all soon. Put the champagne on ice...we´re coming soon to an airport near you!

Argentina - Land of Plenty

"We better keep an eye on the bikes, in case the river comes alive" I said to Kirsten with a grin. "Yeah right" she countered. The riverbed was dry as a bone and looked like it hadn`t seen water in a year. It was our first night in Argentina and, still riding the lunar-like altiplano, could find nowhere else out of sight to camp. So we trudged our bikes upstream, laid them against the steep wall of the riverbank and threw our tent down on a sandbar. We crawled inside and within seconds, the black clouds we had been racing against were upon us and made there presence known by unleashing a thrashing for the ages. Our tent shook violently as the inches of hail piled up around us and the water begain seeping into our now less-than-waterproof abode. For 15 minutes the madness continued, the tent exploding with bright flashes every few seconds as the lightening bolts cracked all around us. As the rain subsided, we sat back to enjoy that post storm calmness when everything is strangely silent and the air is fresh and pure. Except...What`s that noise? A strange new gurgling sound that wasn`t there before now emanated from outside the door. With uncomfortable looks, Kirsten unzipped the tent to peak outside. To our amazement, a full raging torrent of black, muddy, sandy, crap-infested water was gushing by, just inches from the edge of our tent. My joke of 15 minutes past had suddenly become a nightmare of reality and our bikes were helplessly sinking. The water rose before our eyes, first to our pedals, then well above our axles, the small logjam of foam, sticks and other crap another foot higher threatening to breach the top of our still-connected rear panniers and drenching their contents. Without considering the importance of documenting such an occasion on film, something I regret as I write this, I stripped down and jumped into the nów knee deep flood waters and wrestled them across from the far side. Every nook and cranny from hub to hub was crammed full of sand and sticks and muck and it would be several hours before they would be rideable again. Lesson from day 1 in Argentina...Beware of Flash Floods!

The high altiplano that we had become accustomed to would soon become a distant memory as we began our descent into the Humahuaca Valley via the Quebrada (canyon) de Humahuaca. The valley was lusciously green, given life by the meandering chocolate brown Rio Grande, the surrounding hills draped in a dozen shades of red, brown and purple and the thin vegetation consisting mostly of the forests of giant, saguaro-like cacti. The canyon soon dissolved, giving way to the lowland forests of Jujuy and Salta. With a 2500m loss of elevation, we were suddenly battling heat we hadn`t known since the Sechura Desert in northern Peru. We pushed on to Salta, passing up a generous offer to stay from the first man we met in Jujuy, the rolling and winding road through thick forest in stark contrast to the long, straight monotonous stretches of the altiplano. We paused in Salta for a much needed 3 day rest as we were generously and warmly welcomed into the home of Ramon Marin and the other 6 members of his family. Another `Casa de Ciclistas`, they welcome any travelling cyclist to stay, with an entire separate part of their house devoted to cyclists. We brought the new year in with them all, in addition to 5 Belgian cyclists who arrived shortly after we did. 14 of us in all, it was a rowdy night, capped off by Ramon`s 75 year old mother setting off fireworks in the back yard...go Tina!

The beautiful countryside continued south of Salta as we followed the historic `Ruta del Vino` (Route of Wine) through the Quebrada de las Conchas, a remarkable canyon they call `the Grand Canyon of Argentina`. Heavily carved sandstone walls of varying shades of red with towering rock monoliths left us in awe. As would become a custom in Argentina, we found ourselves the subject in as many photos as we were stopping for, nearly every car snapping pictures of us as we passed by. As abruptly as the canyon began, it disappeared, with thousands of acres of grapes taking their place. It seemed every house had its own mini-vineyard along with the 6 or 7 large vineyards that dominated the valley. A brief stay in the picturesque town of Cafayete offered us our first experience with the municipal campgrounds of Argentina (almost evey town has one). They are a rowdy bunch, prone to all night parties and to be sure, we prefer the quiet solitude of our usual campsites, but we met some cool people and had another to-die-for plate of Argentine steak and killer wine. From here the road straightened again and at times we could see so far ahead it almost felt like we were looking straight into tomorrow. Though the landscape seemed monotonous, wildlife was spectacular and we encountered some unusual creatures, including grasshoppers over 5" long! If the dinosaurs stood with grasshoppers, surely they were this big...
As midday temperatures rose to the boiling point, we took a cue from Argentine life and began taking siestas in the afternoon. We`d ride until 1 or 2 in the afternoon, find a shady spot, pull out the hammock and devour watermelons, make popcorn and nap for a few hours until the sun had dropped to a tolerable point. On again into the evening to finish our day. After 7 long, hot days we rolled into Chilecito for a day of rest. A cute town, we found ourselves at home in a place that has an ice cream shop on every block! Still punching out 100-130km every day, we arrived in San Jose de Jàchal, our last major stop before Chile and where our last big Andean conquest begins. Only 160km and nearly 4000m of elevation gain separate us from our new homeland.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Commerce in Bolivia

Although Bolivia was a quick passing in our Latin America riding adventures, it was spectacular at times, frustrating at others and deserves a closer look into the inner workings of its day to day business transactions. Outside of the cities, the scenery was breathtaking and suprisingly free of the litter that pervades LA. We rode through landscapes that reminded us of the desolation of Nevada, the canyons of Arizona and the red rock formations of Utah. Along this stretch of deserted road to the Salar Uyuni in SW Bolivia, only three cars passed in our direction in three entire days. The road was very challenging as we pushed our bikes through sand, shook and girated through washboard and screamed (Kirsten) obscenities as we humped our bikes back and forth from the horrible main road to the nearly as horrible frontage road.

We met a number of incredibly friendly Bolivian women on the road that engaged us in conversations about the history of their towns, their families and had a genuine interest in our curious form of travel. These encounters by far trumped the much left to be desired food and shady business deals in other more ¨touristy¨parts of the country. As we crested a hill in the desert altiplano, we saw kids rush towards us on the road to greet us with their hats upturned, hoping for some coins to walk away with. Panhandling is often directly aimed at us gringos, but we much prefer this less invasive approach to the other common demand, ¨Gringo, Give me money!¨ Within the next 3km, we saw dozens of women scattered along the road selling cheese. There was not even a town in sight, though there was a smattering of mud brick houses way off in the distance. The women shouted, raised their arms in a desperate attempt to lure customers out of their cars and off their bicycles for a sale. Yet, every person was selling exactly the same thing! We think they need a serious economics lesson in supply and demand. It happens this way all over the countries we have visited. Dozens or more selling exactly the same product and they end up aggressively recruiting customers to fight for business. Not a wise economic plan. Remedial math skills would be beneficial, too. 99% of the financial transactions we make are counted incorrectly, often in our favor. If they could count better, maybe they would be more financially stable. That´s some bonus points for education!

Frequently in Bolivia, we´ve entered little stores to purchase food, handed over the bill to pay and they respond in kind with a puppy dog look and whiny tone, ¨Don´t you have anything smaller? I don´t have change.¨ When we say no, they ask us, ¨Don´t you want to buy something else to make up the difference?¨ In turn, ¨No we don´t, but thanks anyway.¨ Often times, they said they didn´t have change, but we could see that they had buckets full. They just didn´t want to disperse their precious change, because they´d run into the same problem somewhere else. Occasionally, they thought it was our responsibility to get change then come back if we wanted to buy something. How absurd! To make matters worse, nothing was ever labeled with a price so we had to blindly trust that we weren´t getting ripped off too badly. Seth went to pick up our laundry one morning, bringing a $50 boliviano bill, about $7USD. She didn´t have change so she wanted to give the bill back to Seth, but keep our laundry instead.

In Uyuni, the day after Christmas, we went out for coffee, ice cream and a few rounds of cribbage. When we went to pay, the waitress told us what we owed, but it was a little more than what we had counted up from the prices on the menu. She insisted that Seth´s coffee was 8 bolivianos. So Seth picked up the menu and showed her that it stated $6. No exaggeration here when she picked up a pen and attempted to change the price on the menu right in front of us. That was a no-go for us. We were flabbergasted! It doesn´t end there, as we were continously being cheated of minutes on the internet, getting skimmed on either side and constantly had to count change in ALL money exchanges. Shady dealings bit us like summer mosquitoes in Minnesota.

Despite these challenges, we didn´t leave Bolivia with a bitter taste in our mouth. In South America, it´s a dog-eat-dog world. Still, we were relieved and excited to enter the modern world in Argentina and we are still adjusting to the welcome changes.