20 March 2009

Roadside Distractions, Argentina

Civil engineers designed Route 150 with a single pen-stroke and a t-square. A total absence of features in the landscape of La Rioja allowed them to complete the scheme one-handed in a matter of minutes. From there, the contractor piled rocks, packed asphalt, and painted lines. After it dried, cyclists came and grew bored.

In such absence, the sight of something anomalous is captivating, no matter the circumstance. So, when from underneath the shade of a low-slung tent an eagerly gesturing woman in a slinky skirt emerged bearing a sweating bottle of water, I swerved, braked, and circled back, failing to check for oncoming traffic. Thankfully, motorists stalled for the siesta, so my maneuver went unchecked. But underneath the luring shade lurked another disaster waiting to happen.

At once, I was seated on a cool, hide-stretched chair and served a glistening glass of water. Usual conversation commenced, harmlessly, until she asked for my hands. Then, as if on cue, a crippled midget and two more women, scantily clad, emerged from a tent within the tent. Minutes later, palms showing signs of luck and love, more women, gangs of them, each in brilliantly colored, sparkling, strapless tops, approached. I had been lured into the realm of gypsies, fooled by their seductive trickery and tanned cleavage.

Sorcerous rituals requiring pocket change and foreign money produced a Brazilian nut and a small clove of garlic, mysteriously inserted into my pocket. When she insisted that someone named Maria in my family demanded that I cross the miniature crusafix that graced my precious leather book, I got spooked and tried to wiggle out of their slippery grasp. The unfavorable ratio of feminine juices to celibate cyclist unsettled me. Forgetting my stealth, I awkwardly stood up and made my escape, shaking gropes like a greasy runningback, fleeing like a cowardous calvaryman. Next time, sweat beads, whether on waterbottles or painted eyebrows, will be a clear indication of trickery.

13 March 2009

Omens, Argentina

Water droplets fell in annoyingly infrequent intervals with infallible accuracy onto my eyelids that struggled to remain glued together in early-morning delerium. Heat from the sixth level of Hell ushered me through clutters of cacti the day before, so when the beginnings of a terrible storm reared its ghastly head in the late afternoon, I welcomed the heavenly extinguisher. The next morning, I cursed precipitation.

Retrospectively, I should have invested slightly more energy in pitching my tent while eyeing the storming schmoo, because the pool of water that collected directly above my head defied gear physics and breeched the impermeable skin. In a dreary attempt to dodge the aquatic globlets, I rolled over, expelling a frustrated groan at the tiresome trickle. Moments later, concurring with the unpredictable dispensation of dribbling liquid alarm clocks, the droplets fell into my ear. Understood, I awoke.

Slightly off-balance due to the inequilibreum of my auditory orifices, I scrambled through my food stuffs mumbling ¨fee, fi, fo, fum,¨ knowing that the blood of an Englishman surely wouldn´t do. Instead, drugs were on my mind, the sort that when pulverized and mixed with boiling water, initiate an artificial awareness that salvages mornings for millions of commuters around the world. Black gold be found, I staggered to the outlet that´s conveniently stocked in municipial campgrounds. Rather than fussing with the minute mechanics of a stove that requires honed motor skills, I resorted to the electric water heater common with most maté-gobbling Argentinians.

Cup in hand, prongs posed to release potential power, I inserted the plug. ZAP! 220 volts of agitated electrons went bolting through my system. Coils smoking, cup tumbling, I found the jolt I needed. Awake indeed.

With my wits about me, I realized the error. Metal mug, filled with water, through which an electric current passes. Any elementary electrician could have foreseen the resulting surge I felt pulse through my body, but with only a fraction of neurons firing, I fell victim to the painful results of learning by doing.

Later, still feeling a slight tingle in the point of conduction, I became excited at the prospect of improving my luck, seeing a bountiful crop of cactus fruit. Sifting through the overgrown barbwire, I plucked a plump speciman, still cool from the shade of a poplar grove. The thorny lobes were easily dodged, but what I didn´t expect were the microscopic spines that covered the fruit itself. The slivers dug into the crevices between my fingers and remained there for the remainder of the day. No matter how desperately I scoured my palms, scores of thorns evaded my extraction attempts. Even my tongue managed to get stuck, perhaps while licking the corner of my mouth that, apparently, had also been afflicted.

Omens have never held much water in my pool of thought. If they did, my plans would have led me into a comfortable living room long ago, where nothing but the glare from a window behind the blaring television could harm me. No, I interpret experiences with debateable logic, not interpretable mysticism. This way, I´m able to cruise through a series of seemingly dooming encounters with the knowledge that, at a certain point, circumstances will improve, just as sure as an uphill will eventually cease, opening the floodgates for a thrilling descent.

Salta, Argentina

Lean wrists dangled from noon on loose steering wheels that sloppily maneuvered forgotten models of European origin. Passengers hung halfway out windows with bare feet perched on the dashes next to piles of useful gadgets yet to be used for their intended purpose. Velocities never reached more than a pedestrian´s pace, leaving one to wonder why vehicles were used in the first place. It was Sunday, after all. Rest was of the utmost order.

The imperceptibly declining slope on which I coasted allowed me to engage in the slow-motion spectacles with like lethargy. Sitting semi-side-saddle on the toptube, I felt no compulsion to pedal. Moment elongation, atmospheric preservation.

Creatures that don´t normally fly found traction on the abnormally chewy air, gaining additional leverage from the charcoal smoke wafting from barbeques on the verge of readiness. Grasshoppers surfed on the strummed bars of a thoughtless string session emerging from the shade of a woven canopy next to the condiments and beverages. Less than fifty percent of all skin present was covered in clothing, exposed portions glistening with effortless sweat.

People went about their Sunday way as if there was no war, no poverty, no concern - not arrogantly or ignorantly, but self-indulgently aware. Their response to my presence was equally characterized by an unexpected understanding, like I was supposed to be doing whatever it was I was or am doing. It came as a fresh sense of belonging after the alienating gawks of most folks further north.

Belonging amplified with the unseasonable warmth felt at the Casa de Ciclistas in Salta. Unannounced, ungroomed, and unaccompanied, I washed up on the curb like a beached whale out a sea of refuse. Hesitantly, I inquired about temporary lodg - when I was interrupted by the creaking gate and ushered into the embrace of the Marín family. There, I had the fleeting feeling of familiarity for the few days I spent. More than any jaw-dropping panorama, the kindness of people astounds me.

03 March 2009

Paso Sico, Chile

Sand, wind, and washboards wittled my will into a fragile twig that nearly snapped under the laterally battering currents of an unending ascent. Curiously, an iron-mongering enterprise found speculation in the impossibly inhabited terrain, salvaging my spirit from a reeking pile of emotional wreckage. The countercontextually vibrant gang of miners recognized, and at once, rectified my desperation by escorting my frail figure into a converted shipping container equipped with a stack of soiled mattresses. A presidential suite in my eyes.

Within minutes, I was thrown into a hot shower, pointed to a toilet, had my cholesterol measured, and seated at a smorgasboard. Food, of culinary notariety, filled my energy-oriface until my eyelids sunk into my sunburned cheeks. Shuffling to my allocated cage, I managed to scoff at the falling snow, knowing I´d be well sheltered. For now.

Early the next morning, I was bombarded by another eager-to-please man-mole. Apparently, the brotherhood values food over sleep, concurring with my long-held belief that nourishment happens during waking hours. Once again, hoovering measured in astronomical proportions as I shoveled loaves of warm bread into my shrunken stomach. Mixed with vats of tea, leavening commenced and bloating proceeded.

When sufficiently decompressed, I gathered Surely from the stable and saddled my surly steed. With a handful of firm shakes and a clapping of slaps on the back, I proceeded into the meagerly endowed, massively apportioned landscape. The few remaining kilometers of Chilean trail led me to the onslaught of Argentinian roads, maintained under the philosophy that evasion leads to disappearance. Not the case.

Metronomic blows from the carnal inclinations of an ill-kept highway drove my mind into a negative spiral long after my body failed to feel the beating. At that point, I delved into nihlistic transcendentalism. The cult committee, consisting of me and my waning spirit, coined the mantra ¨I am not here. That is not there.¨ to be repeated indefinitely in a rhymic, monotonous, utterance. This practice successfully distracted me from the abusive terrain but didn´t come without consequences. Thirst, numbness, and hunger dawned on me as soon as I snapped out of my trance. Perhaps an opinionated awareness clan would be a healthier option.

Wits barely about me, I approached the final (supposed) ascent, but as I struggled along the increasingly steep grade, I was apprehended by the concerned deaccelleration of a petrol-truck driver. Normally, I get no more than an aggressive air horn from these fellows, but this time, there seemed to be something that couldn´t be translated into shrill, shattering frequencies.

Peering down at my ill-equipped entourage, he suggested I take refuge in the little town that, evidently, I bypassed while blinking. Snow was rapidly accumulating ahead, and judging by the baldness of my exhausted tires, he didn´t think I´d make it. He mentioned something about dying. Convinced, I postponed.

As I wheeled around the village, which took no more than a few revolutions of a twenty-eight-inch wheel, I encountered what appeared to be a sunbeam materializing in the steaming molecules that emanated from the kitchen of a bright blue building. When I inquired about room and board, she hurriedly affirmed, but in doing so, I reminded myself that I had exhausted my stash in San Pedro de Atacama during the heat of Carnaval. The only machine capable of refueling my tank was equally as empty, hence my premature departure, penniless.

Desperately sifting through my documents to prove my incapacity, I found a hidden five-dollar bill, drunkenly inscribed with ¨Tonight, we ride! Coltan ´08¨ on the back. Days before leaving home, I was given this note during a heated ten-pin session in the smokey ambiance of Meadowood Lanes under the instruction that I was to do something special with it and deliver the resulting story. After seven months of unknowingly toting this ticket, it saved me from starvation. While it wasn´t quite enough to get me a warm bed, it bought me plenty of delicious cuisine. Once again, waking nourishment prevailed, enough to fuel my battered bones across the last (confirmed) pass of the treacherous international passage.