The South American Diaries

Recently I began re-reading The Bicycle Diaries, by Talking Heads’ David Byrne. I find David Byrne a spectacularly interesting character. Talking Heads were a Byrne brainchild beginning in the mid 70’s, and for all purposes he appears to be a truly creative, individual, and broad artist who crosses music and visual arts, musicals and creative writing.

The Bicycle Diaries is a collection of thought’s that came about or were inspired when riding his bike through cities throughout the world, they cross a lot of different topics from the history of the places he’s riding to fleeting thoughts for new creative endeavours. Sometimes they read like a history lesson, other times they read as though they could be on a private blog.

At any rate it’s a pretty great read and was the information for the collection of thoughts below which have all come about and been jotted down shorthand in my notebooks. They’re collected by town/city.

San Marco, Perú

I roll into town mid afternoon, knowing there was a river nearby and that in order to wash myself and my clothes in it I would need a piece of sunlight. The kids by the river observe me and tell me that farther up is more tranquil, they themselves were swimming in what they rated as dirty water but it paled in comparison to the week of filth I had on the collar of my fraying business shirt. Hey, I might be dirty doing this, but I still make it look good.

I found a quiet spot near the river and made camp even though it was early. Places this small and quiet usually don’t feel like they could create problems if people know you’re camping near town. Cue bored youth hurling rocks over the nearby shrubs in the direction of my tent. I couldn’t see them and they couldn’t see me, but their aim told me they knew I was there. I’m not talking small rocks, but stones half the size of your head. I don’t doubt the winner in a battle between those rocks and my head so I’m glad they didn’t get too close to me. I ran out, rock in hand prepared to throw right back at them but the thorny brush had its own plan, quickly drawing blood from the ball of my foot. Maybe the rock would have been less painful.

Near the San Marco market there are shrunken señoras wearing things resembling 10 gallon hats. If the origin of these enormous headpieces has anything to do with overcompensation, then the folk’s sporting them in Texas should probably know Peru’s full of old women with bigger nuts than them. They are truly extreme down here.

Leaving town I opt for a small colectivo to drive me the final kilometre’s to Cajamarca, I just can’t be bothered riding for a full day through to a big city, normally I’d avoid them but I’m craving a few days off the bike and figure I can find a decent enough mattress in town somewhere, maybe even a good coffee. Next to me is a woman cradling what looks like a 3 year old, can anyone actually tell how old kids are? I have no idea. The woman anxiously and urgently requests a plastic bag from in the front seat shortly before her kid throws up. I watch her roll down the window and throw the bag out before closing the window again, is she crazy? No-one’s going to complain about it being brisk inside when the alternative is huffing her spew covered hands – leave the window open so we don’t all stew in her kids stew. She doesn’t seem to care.

As we pull past a roadside police check the cop’s take everyones national identification to radio the numbers into some external centre. The fact that my passport is in a bag strapped to the roof of the kombi seems to be a problem and I’m ordered out of the car where one policewoman passes me off to another, and then to another again. They don’t seem to know what to do with me so I just walk away from them planning to play the lack of Spanish card if it causes a problem. I hop back into the van and tell the driver to leave before I neck myself from the bureaucracy. It’s funny, I cruise past these on bike 3 times a week and they just watch me go past, but it’s different for foreigners if they’re taking the local transport.

Between incompetent officials and spew lady I won’t take another bus, no matter how brief.

Chiguirip, Perú

The valley engulfing this little place is incredibly hospitable. When I rode through nearby Conchan, I was immediately invited inside by a local family for cafe and breakfast tamales. I don’t carry so much food and am often hungry, so random acts of kindness like this are fulfilling and restorative.

Nearby Chiguirip was a bit of an ordeal. I saw many hidden camping spots en route where I could have rested but carried on into town none the less. I found the only restaurant in the square and sat myself for a large plate of salty chicharron, I was readily invited for more food and beer with a nearby group of old Peruanos. Ultimately it ended with me winning an oversized hat off the head of a very shaken older gent, clearly not happy with the transaction. I returned his hat.

When I finished I went to the police station where I had stored my bike, all of the cops were sitting in the dormitory, drunk and drinking large bottles in a circle. They insisted I join and I quickly grew frustrated by the situation. I’m not drinking so much these days in general and I certainly have little interest in getting drunk in such a formulaic way.

The constable opened up a dialogue about trading hats, and I tried to take advantage of his drunkeness and see if I could leave with a national Peruano police force cap as a souvenir of the strange encounter. The constable left to go outside and piss on the concrete right next to my bike and in the very spot he’s told me I could sleep.

After a little while a superior kept surfacing and rummaging around near me, clearly uncomfortable or at least out of the loop as to why I was there. Shortly afterwards my constable friend received a phone call and abruptly told me to produce my passport – how quickly attitudes can change. He snatched his hat back which by this point had been gifted to me in a drunken gesture.

I was then marched outside where I probed the drunk as to why it was necessary, and what was going on. He gave me a spiel about his superiors, who were clearly uncomfortable with me seeing the town police force drunk out of their minds and comparing automatic pistols. He had to kick me out and he was sorry for it. It was almost midnight. I was more upset that I’d lost the police cap.

I wandered across to the local school football field and was in the middle of setting up my tent when some local kids started hanging out and watching me. Once they figured out what I was doing they they disappeared and came back with the headmistress who quickly offered me a classroom to sleep in. I fell asleep and woke up to gawking kids staring at me sleeping on the floor.

Vilcabamba, Ecuador

Ecuador, before Vilcabamba, was a slog – rough, pitted roads and climbs that don’t seem to end. Vilcabamba is the first touristed town approaching from the South in the mountains.

The American elections took place a few dyas ago, Trump! Go figure. In some ways this makes the timing coming into Vilcabamba appropriate. You see, Vilcabamba is nestled in a valley surrounded by beautiful green mountains, and is popular among tourists since, a number of years ago, readers digest published a story about the longevity of it’s residents. Cue the inevitable influx of American and other foreign oldtimers to populate the area in a strange attempt to cheat death.

There’s a strange irony in the whole endeavour. Most people attribute their lengthy lives here to the environment and the local diet. The new locals have then set up the main plaza with coffee shops and restaurants. Take your pick from the the felafel joint or one of four mexican options.

If the original attempt was to live a life in a beautiful place, then success – but if they wanted to live the lengthy life of the locals then they’ve instead brought all the western vices along for the ride. The church in the square is beautiful, and the plaza sparkling and immaculate, complete with a gilded fountain. I wonder if the western flavour has something to do with it? I’m determined to answer the question before I leave Ecuador.

I’m trying not to be too critical, I’m sitting here drinking the best coffee I’ve had in a year while I people watch. There are only a few people out early to enjoy the sun, and less than three which I think might be locals. The chap running my hostal is Swiss, and while I negotiated for some patches in a bike workshop I amusedly took in an older American woman trying to communicate while looking like a stunned mullet, only to find out the worker spoke near perfect English.

Another reason not to be too critical, maybe if all of the geriatric yanks relocated down here then America might have experienced a different election result. Two bird’s, one big rock.

There’s a think American accented conversation happening nearby about trade problems in Spain. Leave it to this odd collection of expat’s to relocate to a utopia and provide commentary on international trade issues. Another oddity in this place, they seem oblivious to the fact that both of these countries have essentially pillaged every Latin American country for centuries (economically and politically) [further reading: Las Veinas Abiertas de Latino America]. I’m not even sure they realise this. Spain may have trade issues, though I’m sure that at least in part they acknowledge their pretty dark history in the region.

I wonder what this place was like before so much of the cultural capital was exhausted. Is there a contrast between foreign exploitation of natural resources here and the next generation cultural/political exploitation. Does this exploitation end when the original culture is inevitably quashed completely?

Perhaps this is an unsurprising reaction, I haven’t been in a place like this anywhere else in South America. There have been other richly western influenced places, but they were generalyl expected. Buenos Aires rightly earns its reputation as the Paris of the South – but the Porteños fiery pride would never have you believe you were anywhere else – Vilcabamba is like a clipping from a bad description of any progressive suburb in a western city.

Despite all this foreign money, there’s still beautiful older Ecuadorian women (clad in Panama hats now!) begging for money. Have any real problems been solved with all this new money come into the place? Or have they just gilded or regilded the fountain?

The thick American conversation has now turned to family. ‘NO ESPOSA, NO MASCOTAS’, one proudly cries (no wife, no pets). I’m not surprised – this one guy has completely dominated the conversation, in fact I haven’t seen the other guy speak at all. It’s like he’s talking to himself and I can’t imagine even a pet hanging around with him. The only saving grace for me in this place might be having a beautiful local girl to mess up the bed sheets with, so I feel a little bit sorry for the first guy.

The shop next to me is owned by an American and sells essential oils – it’s called ‘Young Living’. Overall the place gives me the feeling of a bad painting of paradise, and I wonder how many of the wilting expat population actually spend time amongst, or even look and the mountains around them.

There’s now a large local emo kid here, how on earth have they brought that along with them? It’s been non existent in South America by my reckoning.

Jardín, Colombia

A few people had told me to visit Jardín en route to Medellín. And even without the advice it was a pretty obvious detour since the alternative would have been a long and horrible climb on a main highway dodging busses.

So I opted to see this place because the road in was still a long climb but through a winding and narrow valley and on a dirt road. On the way I slept in a pine forest, which is always one of my favourite places to sleep because of the smell in the morning and the soft bed of decaying pine needles under the tent.

When I finally passed the saddle I sped down into the next valley and past antique bird watchers by the side of the road who looked upset at my rattling and rickety bike which probable scared away their birds. Bird watching is interesting to me, because it’s something I can appreciate, but I don’ think I can ever understand what people are getting from it. I’ve seen moose and bears and of course more kangaroos than I know, and they fascinate me because of their size and ferocity and oddity. Sometimes they scare me. The idea of walking around with a book and collecting bird sightings seems somehow different.

When I got into the main square in Jardín I was awestruck – the place was enormous! Maybe 9 city blocks cleared out to make a magnificent central square surrounded by beautifully carved old wooden shops and houses. I rolled slowly past the church when an old guy interrupted his conversation with his wife and daughter to tell me I couldn’t ride through the square because it was interrupting and distracting to the people drinking coffee or eating pastries. I told him I’d just got there, didn’t know the rules and as was probably logical and understandable had entered the square because of the sheer majesty of it. He didn’t listen and repeated the same upset rambling until I cut him off and pointed out that rather than me interrupting his coffee, that he might in fact have interrupted his own conversation with his family when he might have just ignored me and kept enjoying his day. I left quickly to give him a chance to think about it and bought a bunch of cakes from the closest pastelleria to refuel.

I walked this time into the main square and gorged myself to a sugar high while I absorbed everything around me, and then put one foot on a pedal and push-scootered my way out of the square to find a place to sleep.

On the way out some other old fart whistled at me to get my attention and then expressed his displeasure at my scooting this time and yelled out that no bikes were allowed in the plaza. If you know me you’d know I have a real problem with authority, especially when it comes to anything which disrupts the simple pleasure I take from riding my bike and seems somehow completely pointless to me. I decided I couldn’t stand to leave any money in this place and pointed myself down the hill out of town.

I rode another 25km into the evening and watched the sun set as I set up my tent at the bottom of a hill below a small church and got up early enough to watch the sunrise over my oats before pedalling off again to find better hospitality.

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