Saturday, February 20, 2016

Travel Update & Photo Dump: Santiago and Valparaiso

A couple weeks ago I had wrapped up my bike ride and was trying to sell the bicycle. I thought I could sell it to another traveler in Puerto Montt or Puerto Varas, cities at the northern terminus of the Caretera Austral. But all the inquiries to my online ad came from Santiago and Valparaiso, large cities several hundred miles to the north. So I put the bike on a bus and headed north.

Here are some friends I made at Pearl's Place Hostel in Puerto Montt, Chile.

And this is Puerto Varas, 20km north of Puerto Montt. It's a beautiful town with a picturesque lake and volcano.

Santiago is a pretty nice city. 6 million people is 1/3 of Chile's population. There were many beautiful parks that I enjoyed strolling through. Here's an example:

And I was shocked to see a street sign labeled San Olav as I was looking for the Brazilian Consulate. The entire neighborhood was made up of Scandinavian-themed streets, foremost among them were the Norwegian streets, of course.
I needed to get a visa for Brazil where I will go in April. The time between now and then I will spend in Valparaiso, Chile and then make my way east via Aconcogua, the tallest mountain in the Americas and the wine region around Mendoza, Argentina. In those cities I plan on taking another two weeks of Spanish language lessons. This whole amazing adventure would definitely be even better if I could communicate better with the locals. Getting better at Espanol is high on my to-do list. Of course, as soon as I take these classes I'm going to Brazil where they speak Portuguese and I'll still be out in the cold linguistically. After Brazil the plan is to head back through Bolivia, then Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.

Valparaiso is an amazing artistic city full of steep hills going down to the harbor. Think of a post-apocalyptic San Francisco that's been taken over by artists. It's a little gritty, but the art and the steep streets, stairs and funiculars give it a special personality.









Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Bicycle Touring: Love It & Loathe It

Here's what I loved and loathed about bicycle touring on the Caretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia:

LOVE

  • The big smile on my face as I round a turn on smooth gravel surrounded by majestic mountains, gritty glaciers and luminous lakes
  • Camping alone out in the wild (as long as there aren't too many bugs or those sticker things that cling to your shoelaces & trousers)
  • Camping for free (I'm on a budget, after all)
  • The smooth, effortless switch of a derailleur finely-tuned by yours truly
  • Burning fat for 5-10 hours per day
  • Thinking to myself that the people who pass me in automobiles think I'm a badass (whether it's actually true or not)
  • Seeing the look in people's eyes when I tell them that I'm traveling by bicycle and even more so if they're familiar with the challenging border crossing I made
  • When there are onions in the cheap tomato sauce that I bought at the little store to go with my pasta dinner, cuz the plain tomato sauce really tastes like crap
  • That feeling after a challenging day when the challenging part is over with
  • Bikes!

LOATHE

  • Being dirty and sweaty and stinky all the time
  • Traveling at 7mph on soft or washboard gravel for hours at a time
  • The dust in my face thrown up by passing automobiles, some of whom pass by far too closely considering I'm having a hard time holding a line in soft gravel
  • Sleeping in a tent rarely produces a good night of sleep for me
  • When the bicycle fits me alright, but not as well as I would desire for hours of riding if I had had a selection to choose from when purchasing
  • Horseflies that I can't outrun while climbing a steep hill for 45 minutes at about 5mph

Monday, February 8, 2016

On Crying

From about age 15-30 I don't think I cried. And I kind of noticed it near the end of that time frame, but didn't really think anything of it. I noticed how people who did cry seemed to be different from me. I just wasn't an emotional guy.

In the past few years I have been crying noticeably more - usually weekly or a few times per month. I have actually cried 4 times in the past 8 days -- yes, I started keeping track (via the Way of Life app). 

Note: when I say "crying" I mean getting teary-eyed. Sometimes it's a bit more than that but I've yet to reach the point of all-out bawler.

Why the emotional evolution?

My mom died from ovarian cancer fifteen years ago when I was 31. It was a sad time for our family and it seems to have acted as a lever that cracked me open emotionally, if only just a sliver at first. In the decade that followed I noticed myself tearing up a couple times a year and I remember it as always being around a memory of her. Usually I'd be alone, maybe driving along a lonesome country road and something, a song or the landscape, would trigger a memory of her. I'd think of all the things in the lives of myself and my sister that she didn't get to experience with us. It was a sense of loss.

That level of emotion lasted about a decade for me.

Between five and ten years ago the only other thing that would moisten my eyes was hearing a story of sacrifice -- like perhaps a story of someone in the Army who gave their life to save the lives of his fellow soldiers. For me it was not about the patriotism or about America, it was about the personal sacrifice for others.

Loss. Sacrifice.

More recently, as an example, I got emotional reading about the Save the BWCA people -- a couple who is spending a year living in the majestic Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota in order to help protect the ecosystem from mining and the pollution it inevitably brings. It's such a beautiful place that made a tremendous impression on me as a teenager and I'm thankful for those who are fighting for it. I'm so thankful, in fact, that I might get an odd stare from a stranger while wiping my eyes in some Argentinian hostel.

Traveling through Patagonia provided me with so many moments of terrific natural beauty, and the fact that I was able to experience it meant that it was inevitably intertwined with my gratitude for the ability to do so.

Beauty. Gratitude.

But I think the more interesting point is that I am also appreciating it. I cry because I finally got to a point in life where I appreciate that these things -- loss, sacrifice, beauty, gratitude -- are special to me. I cry because my emotions now have a clear path for their cleansing message.  I see it as personal growth, perhaps as a barometer of comfort with myself.

I will leave you with this bit of Lebowski wisdom...


Friday, February 5, 2016

Bicycle Touring Chilean Patagonia

I spent the past 3 weeks or so bicycle touring through Chilean Patagonia along the Caretera Austral. The Caretera Austral is a mostly gravel road that is the only link from around the middle of Chile down to the south.

This was the first time I'd bike toured for more than 2 nights and it was filled with magical moments as well as a lot of sweat and dust and one stinky cyclist.

The trip began in El Chalten, Argentina which is where I purchased this bike from a Spanish gentleman who had been cycling around South America for more than a year. The Casa de Ciclistas you see in this photo is part of a network of people around the world who open their home or backyard to touring cyclists for merely a donation.

This next photo is typical of the route. Gorgeous scenery -- mountains, rivers, waterfalls, forests, lakes, glaciers. Patagonia. It looks like I'm on a fairly decent stretch of gravel here. No washboards and it isn't too loose. Many parts of the road involved very steep hills, soft gravel, washboards or buses kicking up lots of dust.


The first few days were quite difficult riding and also involved a couple ferry crossings and a remote border crossing from Argentina to Chile where I pushed the bike uphill for 6km through some steep and deeply gorged singletrack. This campsite was while waiting for a thrice weekly ferry across Lago O'Higgins. When I put up the tent I didn't realize that there were horses around who like to nuzzle there.


Doug Tompkins is the founder of The North Face and he and his wife are great conservationists in Patagonia. They have been buying up land, building infrastructure, and then donating it back to Chile as new national parks. The first one they did is called Parque Pumalin and it is quite gorgeous. Like many places around the globe, large resource extraction companies would love to get their hands on this land to strip it of minerals and build dams. The Tompkins' are heroes of conservation.

Unfortunately, but also somewhat heroically, Mr. Tompkins died a few months ago at age 77 while kayaking on a lake in Patagonia when large waves capsized his boat and he became hypothermic. But what a way to go: kayaking in Patagonia at age 77 amidst beautiful land that you preserved for future generations. The nice campsite pictured to the right in Parque Pumalin cost me $3 for the night.

Earlier that day I had the pleasure of one of the coolest hikes of my life. The luscious flora in this region is like nothing I've seen before. Some of the trees are massive 1,000-year old redwoods that are clothed in all sorts of mosses and lichens and ferns growing on their trunk and branches. And the trail itself, less than 2 miles long, is made mostly of wooden boardwalks and stair/ladders that make every step a grand adventure.

In the leftmost photo in this first collage, the left part of the photo is a tree.

It felt like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark and you can bet your bottom dollar I was keeping my eyes peeled for massive, perfectly spherical, rolling boulders.

The next day was partially spent at this gorgeous black sand beach that seriously had dolphins flipping and playing not 100' offshore. It was just me and the dolphins with no other people in sight. Heavenly...except...it was also swarming with these demon-red horseflies. I took out a squadron or two, but they just kept coming. This whole area is full of volcanoes and in 2008 one about 10km from this beach (and inside Parque Pumalin) erupted and covered the area in ash. The local port town of Chaiten had 4,000 residents before the blast and less than 1,000 today, 90% of whom seem to own hostels or travel guide agencies for travelers like me.


A few days later on the island of Chiloe, I encountered another of the reasons that I love travel -- the surprise community event of personal interest. I turned off the main (recently paved) road back onto gravel to access a small town and a place to throw down my tent for the night. Down the road a piece and across a field I spied a collection of about 100 people, a number of pick'em up trucks and some horses. As I got closer I realized there was a horse race going on tonight. The track was 3 lanes wide and about 100m long. The sun was setting and photos were difficult, but these two turned out pretty well.

This is the championship race and the only race I caught. Apparently there were 3 or 4 more qualifying heats earlier in the evening. The jockeys are young men and they're essentially bareback, using only a thin foam pad and no stirrups. I had a couple beers and by far the best empanadas I've had on this trip. Stumbling upon situations like this is one of the things I absolutely love about travel.

My bike trip wound down in the town of Castro. Castro is a charming seaside village full of houses built right on the water and a number of nice wooden churches.

I've decided that this was a great bike adventure but that I do not wish to continue by bike all over South America. Not that I'm in a rush or anything, but the travel is quite slow and Chile is such a long nation that it really takes awhile to travel between sights of interest. Now I've settled down in a nice little hostel in Puerto Montt and I'm trying to sell the bicycle. I wish it were easy to just take the bike with me and ride it or not whenever I please, but the logistics of bus travel with bicycle make that difficult. I do love bicycles, though, and expect to do more bicycle touring elsewhere in my travels.