11 months in and I finally made the ferry crossing from Buenos Aires to my last stop on two wheels: Uruguay. But alas it didn’t feel like a triumphant final voyage I’d hoped but rather a pleasant footnote to my journey through South America. The Italians have an phrase cavioli riscaldati (reheated cabbage) for when you try to reignite a romance with a former flame. Suffice to say the cabbage never tastes quite as good after a minute in the microwave. When I put foot to pedal in Colonia – the appropriately named colonial port town across from Buenos Aires – I felt contented and happy, but after the emotional arrival to Ushuaia and the sense of urgency of my hitchhiking trip, I found it impossible to get excited about cycling again. It was one ending too many; the cycling equivalent of that hobbit orgy at the end of Return of the King. Hard to believe but it turns out that after 10 1/2 months cycling the length of a continent, the prospect of a leisurely cycling holiday through swelteringly hot flatlands isn’t so inticing. That’s not to say that I had a bad time in Uruguay. Far from it. But all the best times were off the bike.
Everything is falling apart. My dry bag is ripped, my spork melted then snapped, my Kindle broke, both my phone and laptop screens are cracked while the ‘a’ key doesn’t work on the latter, my jeans and one pair of underwear have holes in the crotch – if inadvertently worn in tandem old ladies scream in terror when I cross my legs – my one good shirt is torn, one of my tent poles snapped and is held together with duct tape, my tent pegs are bent or lost, my air mattress is riddled with holes, my cooking gear is covered in a permanent patina of filth, I look like a homeless disco pirate and every morning I’m smacked with the stench of dried sweat and wet socks.
The best laid plans of cycle tourers often go awry. Usually this is due to tree felling winds, mechanical failures or biblical rainstorms, but every now and then one’s plans are laid aside due to more serendipitous circumstances. My stay at Nant y Fall was one such propitious twist of fate. Had the weather not been so crap, my phone been out of battery or my schedule been ever so slightly different, I would’ve passed right by the signpost to the uncommonly southern vineyard and made straight for the Chilean border. As it was I stopped by with the intention of staying for one night only to be so charmed by the eco-campsite (and the opportunity to stream the Spurs match) that I decided to stay for two. Then Sergio, who has spent the last 7 years transforming what was once forgotten scrub land into easily the best campsite I’ve ever stayed at, offered me room and board for a few hours of daily labour and I thought “Why not?”. I was set to cross the border a little earlier than intended and the weather was rubbish so a couple of days working and practising my Spanish couldn’t do any harm. 10 days later I was still there.
I didn’t think I’d make it this far. Patagonia was a mirage shimmering so far in the distance that I assumed I’d give up or die of thirst before I reached it. At the beginning of my trip I was unsure if I even wanted to go this far. What if I had crippling back pain, got really lonely or my bike exploded? When people asked about my destintion I’d always say Montevideo with an added “maybe via Patagonia…but we’ll see”.
Accordingly I didn’t do much research about the ruggedly beautiful region that draws so many people to this part of the world, nor did I spend hours poring over earthporn photos of the Torres del Paine or the Carretera Austral, preferring to leave an air of mystery around it. Or maybe I was just lazy. Either way, when I emerged from the bus in Pucon it was clear that I was entering a whole other world – one of log cabins, crystalline lakes and the kind of raw, uncaring wild that Jack London wrote about.
Crossing Paso de Jama felt momentous. After 6 1/2 months in the Andean countries that once comprised Greater Colombia we were crossing to the Southern Cone: the more
developed, European part of the continent. And on my quest to reach Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, it felt like a half way point. Were this Super Mario World I’d have jumped through a white pole and doubled in size, though unfortunately if I die I doubt I’ll respawn on the Argentine border.
What’s the biggest danger to cycle tourers? Bad drivers? Thieves? Getting lost? Homicidal maniacs? Existential Angst? Food poisoning? Guerrillas? Poisonous spiders? Lacking the motivation to step out the door? The ghost of Jeremy Beadle?
It’s those lovable little shit munchers that we call dogs.
The Peruvian dry season is belatedly under way and it’s wonderfully consistent. For the past 2 weeks I’ve woken up to spotless blue skies and on the morn that I finally left Ticclos it was no different: wall to wall azul with barely a cloud in sky. The narrow dusty road meandering south was completely free of traffic and human life. Every now and then I’d come across a cadre of horses or donkeys having a board meeting in the middle of the road and they’d scarper as if I’d walked in on them changing.
A couple of days before I arrived in Chachapoyas I noticed some paint peeling on the frame of the bike. It was only later while giving it a clean I realised it was something much more serious. The welding at the join between one of the seat stays and the seat tube had completely cracked and the two were no longer attached. I went online to find out how bad this was and, much like how WebMD can make a mild rash seem like a virulent case of smallpox, the various cycling forums soon led me to believe that I had no choice but to give up on my frame or else suffer the dreaded “catastrophic failure”. There was never any mention of partial or slight failure, it just had to be catastrophic. It was clear that if I rode my bike again it would instantly explode and I would die. On the other hand replacing the frame would be time consuming, expensive and a logistical nightmare. As I lay there in my hostel bed I saw my whole trip flash before my eyes. Surely there had to be a way to fix this.