Dances with Bicycles -- Part 1: Lunacy
June 12th, 2006
Dances with Bicycles (Part 1)
Two years?! Two years. It's a hell of a long time.
I'm not doing this just to whittle away my life savings,
or to tick off countries and their highlights like dominoes.
I love my country. I miss it. The people in it too.
But, some experiments can only be tried in a vacuum of
So, with that in mind, after meeting a horde of cyclists
in Salta, in Northwestern Argentina, I bought a used bicycle
and began to plan an assault on the Salt Flats of Bolivia.
An appropriate response from a fellow traveler: "Bolivia!?
Do you know how many fucking mountains there are?!"
Indeed, insanity. But, not accidental. Bicycle travel,
like trekking and walking and hitchhiking, is slow travel.
You and the scenery -- you bond. I wanted an alternative
to the Gringo Trail. It's the perpetual option in South
America: hopping from hostel to hostel on double-decker
buses, taking in a series of natural and cultural wonders,
with all the beer, wine and drugs one cares to ask for.
The group of cyclists that congregated at Terra Oculta,
my hostel, was nothing short of phenomenal. 11 at one
point, majority Swiss and German. They gathered together
in the hostel kitchen, cooking fresh bread and enormous
pasta and salad dinners. As I came to savor the idea of
joining them, the curtain pulled away from their world --
one of hand-drawn maps, whispered advice, and real fear
of passes and the cold of the (15,000+ foot) Bolivian Altiplano.
Navigating with a piece of napkin whose principal landmark
was "Mama Sandwicheria", I followed the recommendation of a
British couple, Liam and Claire. I was to visit Hector
the Bike Shaman; not only a skilled mechanic, but the 9-time
state cycling champ, and 3rd in all of Argentina. Hector
has a quick smile, and as he unraveled the gears, chain and
cables, revealed himself as an impromptu tutor of roadside
maintenance and Argentine-American economics. As I asked
him whether or not the bike would make it through Bolivia,
he said something very clearly -- the bike is ready, "it's
what's up here (tapping a temple) that will determine if you make it."
Unlike your average college student, cyclists employ panniers
(hanging wheel-bags) to haul clothes, maps, tool kits and
sometimes even water. Since I happened into my bike in
Argentina, the high-quality gear that the other cyclists
toted wasn't available. Instead, I had to call on my
inner MacGyver and "custom" the bicycle. Through Hector's shop,
I had a custom rear rack made to accommodate my backpack.
Front panniers barely exist in Argentina, let alone in the
Bolivia of Argentina, so by bolting two baskets from children's
bikes to the front wheel, I drew closer to the 70/30 balance
of weight between the rear and front load.
Just five days after I bought the bike, it was ready to go.
There's a saying in Argentina that Hector shared with me:
"atamos con alambre", or "we tie it with wire". Indeed,
given the plan to climb into Bolivia, I had plenty of spare
ties with me, and more than a bit of illogical optimism..
But that's for the second chapter..