Potholes and other holes (The first ten days of the Carreterra Austral)
Ten days ago, the main purpose of my time in South America began: to experience Southern Chile, solo, carrying all my gear with me, on my bike.
I have done two trips like this before: My first trip was in my mid-20s, spending two months in New Zealand with a girlfriend. My second was in my ealy-30s, solo for a month in Ireland.
I wondered, could I handle another solo bike trek, this time in a foreign country where English is not the language, where roads are mostly unpaved, and after having had a kidney transplant and creeping up on a half century in age? Or had I become soft?
Now, parts of this trip are easier: Most nights I am staying in hotels or hostels, and doing very little camping. A company picked out the route for me so I have them to blame instead of myself if anything goes wrong. The bike and gear are half the weight of what I’ve carried in the past, so I’m covering more ground (though it feels quite slow compared to just having the bike and no gear). Google maps now exists, as well as wifi in almost every location. This trip is a lot easier, though I did a lot less planning and have outsourced most of the thinking. I really just need to pedal, and eat.
So mixing the new challenges with the new luxuries, I’m going to call it even! But the first 10 days have certainly been challenging.
There is almost no threat of violence or theft here in Southern Chile – you are safer than any major city in the world.
But on more than half my route, there is the constant threat of a crash. The gravel, or “ripio” is bad. I remember tooth-loosening roads of my childhood in King Salmon with fondness. The dirt roads in Cambodia were gentle compared to the Southern Chilean ripio (and I’ve heard these are aome of the best roads in South America…)
There are four types of ripio that I’ve found, which all might occur in one 100m section:
1. New dirt. This usually is fine to ride. It might be a tad soft, but velocity and a decent cadence will get you through it.
2. Hard pack. Pretty much solid rock, and very bumpy but rarely unsafe.
3. The @#$% Ridges. A bump every 15–25 cm (6–10 inches). You either hit this hard and have your brain swell a bit from the pounding, or you make no progress. This looks like little ripples and waves, and sometimes there is no line to take without getting the worst Magic Fingers experience of your life. I want my quarter back.
4. Loose rock. This is the most dangerous, the deeper the more dangerous. My one fall (where I caught myself) was on this surface. On downhills it is no fun and you are largely sledding, mostly out of control and trying to keep the weight of the bike from shifting quickly.
This is the one place where my choice of bike has me slightly disadvantaged – my tyres are only 35mm, while a lot of touring bikes would be 40mm and mountain bikes might even be twice as wide, making it a lot more stable. But, my bike + gear is half the weight of other touring set ups, so I think in the end the overall experience is better, and I’m becoming a more adventurous gravel rider despite constantly looking for the softest spot to sit down at the end of the day.
Add the to ripio the occasional truck / tourist that flies by your bike, going well over the speed limit, and throwing up dust and rocks. My Spanish vocabulary have expanded to help them understand exactly what I think of them. (There are a lot of very courteous people, and they all get a wave and a thank you).
‘Saddle Sores’ en español
A couple of days ago, I arrived in Chaiten on Christmas Eve. I often get saddle sores cycling, and usually they go away after a day or two, but here I’m riding every day, and they’ve been getting slowly worse. The main concern is if they get infected, then you’re in serious trouble. So I stopped by a tiny market-store. It looks like the inside of a shack, and food is pilled in wood and cardboard boxes. Fruits, vegetables, packets of cookies, laundry detergent. It looks more like a garage sale than a store (which is pretty common in South America).
On a lark, I ask if they have antibiotic cream (in Spanish), and the man behind the counter hollers into the back. A morbidly obese woman emerges, holding a tube of just what I need. She asks me what it’s for. In my limited Spanish medical vocabulary, I explain that “I have some pain in my skin from the my bicycle seat, and this can help.”
She nods and asks, “Is the pain in your anus?”
Now, I happen to know the word for anus (ano) in Spanish, because if you don’t use the ‘tidle’ mark on año, you go from asking someone how old they are (“How many years do you have?”) to asking them how many butt-holes they have (common answer: one). I’ve always felt that the introductory Spanish text should be renamed from Churros y Chocolate to Años y Anos. The publishers have not responded to my suggestions.
She goes on to tell me that if then pain is in my anus, I need to go see a doctor. At this point, I am fighting two different emotions: The first is pure shock, that the woman selling me antibiotic cream out of the back of the shack-market is doling out relatively sensitive medical advice (with the rest of her family listening in). The second is hysteria, where I am worried I will explode into gut wrenching laughter at this conversation and risk losing the difficult-to-acquire salve.
I compose myself, and in my best Spanish accent, say, “No, it’s not in my anus. It’s on the skin,” and I point to the side of my hip (no where near the sore, but I figured I should stay as far away from her area of concern as possible).
After the transaction, she invited me to a dance party at her house that night, for Christmas Eve. I politely explained that I was so tired from the ride today that I could barely walk, much less dance. A part of me (no, not that part) will always regret not going. I will save any possible dancing for Año Nuevo (New Year, not a new you-know-what).
The first ten days have delivered everything I had hoped. Getting a chance to survive entirely in Spanish in small towns where English is often limited or non-existect. Riding gravel roads and learning a new bike skill. Being self-sufficient (to a point, i.e. I don’t have a guide or support van). Spending time in nature. Listening to podcasts and reading. Writing every day and blogging every week. Standing awestruck as I stare up at the majesty of the mountains.
Along with this comes wind, rain, and other parts of nature. For the length of human history we have anthropomorphized nature – we think nature is trying to blow us off the road for something we did yesterday, the heavens are pouring rain upon us because our karma is tipped the wrong direction, or that flooding or earthquakes occur because we have displeased some spirit or deity.
In all the beauty, there is the cold hard truth that nature does not care one way or the other about us. But we are dependent on nature for our survival.
We have developed and refined our ability to destroy nature, but nature is not vengeful. We’ve recently learned we have 10 years to reverse this trend of destruction or we’re in serious trouble. We cannot appeal for mercy at the last minute and expect clemency or leniency. We are about to reap what we have sown, purely from the laws of physics and biology, and we cannot hope that the best of intentions will prevent our extinction.
Riding through the forests I am both inspired and saddened. Each day I am more resolved to do something about our past and to try and change the future. For now, I will keep pedaling!