Chapter 6: A Thousand Miles

1000 Miles Away

By on November 12, 2009 in A Thousand Miles // 7 Comments

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I was feeling strong and sassy as I left Rio Branco with a three day jaunt down to the borders of Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru. I never expected to make it this far in this amount of time and I thought “Wow, I am killing the miles, maybe I can get home early.” Then, staring me in the face for the first time was a distance marker over the road showing the kilometers to Lima. It says 1,931…that´s about 1,200 miles to go, with the Andes in between.

There is a bike lane for commuters going in and out of Rio Branco and as I rode that morning I saw the result of a bike accident. An older man had collided head on with someone else and was laying on his side still tangle in his bike. There was a rather large puddle of blood on the pavement from a cut on his head shining bright red in the sun while people collected bandages from a local pharmacy and called an ambulance. The man didn´t look well and wasn´t moving. I could do nothing for him at that point and cleared out of the way.

After a quick sleep in Capixaba (the town was completely engrossed in their Saturday night local soccer game and everything was closed) I was on the road at 5:30 am and filled my water bottles at the town´s gas station. Something I have seen a few times in Brazil that leaves me a little wary are the late night booze fests that occur at the 24 hour gas stations, or postos. That morning I rode past the pumps and to the water fountain next to the office. There were about 30 people in the lot and crushed beer cans laying everywhere. Some of the car doors were open and calypso music was blasting full volume while couples swaggered together to the hypnotic beat (if you´re interested it´s a band called Banda De Ja Vu and it is played constantly in the Amazon, you can find it on YouTube). A few guys asked me about what I was doing and slurred “Boa Sorte.” Yep, you too guys!

Every car that passed me that morning made me cringe with the thought of a drunk behind the wheel. One hour later I passed a group of guys at a shack of a bar in a 3 house town. They wanted me to stop for a second but from the thousands of beer cans in the road, parking lot, and yards I decided to give them a thumbs up and keep rolling. I was quickly called a porra and filha da puta (you can imagine what they mean). I thought about the truck loads of beer it took to keep this tiny town stocked up. I considered stopping for a beer to see what would happen but had 92 miles to make that day so passed on the idea.

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Brasileia is on the border of Brazil and Bolivia with a small river separating the two countries. When I came into town I took a quick picture on the other side of the border but turned around before the armed guards asked me any questions. Later, after some dinner I wanted to go back. Americans require a paid for and approved visa to enter Bolivia but it seemed Brazilians just freely walked in and out past the military base. I had left my passport in my room since it wouldn´t really help me anyway and jumped in a pack of guys walking over the border. I did my best to look Brazilian (act cool, relaxed, no big deal). I´m not sure what would happen if I was caught in the country with no passport or visa and it was discovered I was American. But screw it. Let´s see which way the wind blows in Bolivia.

Once in Cobija Bolivia I strolled around the streets for a few hours. The town is quite big and I was briefly lost trying to avoid the swarm of armed cadres on all the street corners. They are like the blue light call boxes on college campuses, one is always in sight. They were wearing full fatigues and had machine guns slung over their shoulders. As I walked I tried to look like I had somewhere to go but wasn´t in a hurry. Guys played craps in the street, reggaeton blasted from street stands selling pirated CDs and DVDs, and chickens roasted everywhere. It was very typical of any city in this part of the world from what I could tell.

I headed back towards the border bridge which is just beyond a military zone with gates close the street to traffic. This time I was alone, there was no one else in sight, except the 5 armed guards in the middle of the road. It´s not easy to look nonchalent when your heart rate is about 180 bpm and one question from a guard would give me away. I looked straight, gave a quick nod hello to the pack, and walked right by. It would have been a good idea to walk back over the bridge, across the river, and into the safety of Brazil. However, just up river on the Bolivian side was some loud music that seemed intriguing. So instead I banged a left to find the source and maybe grab a beer.

One Block Into Peru and I Make Friends

By on November 12, 2009 in A Thousand Miles // 12 Comments

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One block over the border into Peru I get called over to a table at a bar. I spent the next 7 hours with these guys in the town of Iñarapi. On the left is Marco, then Bullet Face (he told me he was shot in the face recently), then Stallone (Antonio), a bag of coca leaves, and finally yours truly, for the day known as Michael Douglas.

The three borders of Bolivia, Peru, and Brazil come together at the towns of Assis Brazil and Iñarapi. I wanted to get into Peru this day to square away money and start early the next morning for my leg down to Puerto Maldonado.

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While riding from Brasileia to Assis Brazil I ran into a road block. I coasted up to the gate and looked for the man in charge of this mess. There were people sitting in the road, a food stand set up, wooden gates blocking the way, and a police truck parked perpendicular in the middle of the street. I man with chest hair billowing out of his shirt walks over and puts his hands on my handle bars.

Me: “Hi, can I go through?”
Chest Hair: “Nope. Would you like something to eat?”
Me: “Not now. Why can´t I go through?”
Chest Hair: (something about the rights of his small side community and the new Estrado Do Pacifico roadway that I was on.)
Me: “How long until I can go?”
Chest Hair: “Six, seven, eight, maybe ten days.”
Me: “Ha Ha. Wow.”
Chest Hair: “Have something to eat or drink.”

My lord, are these guys serious? The conversation went on and I told them I had biked from Belem via the TransAm and was on my way to Lima Peru. They talked amongst themselves, went back to talk to someone in the crowd of people eating, and within 5-10 minutes let me through and wished me luck!

The border between Brazil and Peru had a customs station but I didn´t see anyone around so rolled down the hill, over the bridge, and one block to the bar with my new friends. I asked them where the customs station was and they told me to sit down and have a beer “you´re in Peru.” They quickly had a large bag of coca leaves, the plant used to make cocaine (not to be confused with cocoa or cacau for chocolate), and ordered a few more beers. The younger guy had a black eye, swollen face, and a bandage just below his eye. He told me he was shot recently, just on the other side of the plaza. Really? By who I thought. He pointed to a swaying drunk on the sidewalk. Obviously he was pulling my leg… I think.

The other guy insisted on calling me Michael Douglas, he mildly resembled Sly Stallone so that´s what he was called, and for the rest of the day he wore my hat. We spoke in Spanish, Portuguese, and even some English. I realized I never got my passport stamped by the Brazilians and needed to go back. At this point I was mildly drunk as well. They called over Marco, someones cousin, who drove me the 2 km back to the Brazilian customs. It takes some faith to leave everything you have with perfect strangers and head back into a country you left to get your passport stamped, while buzzed. I was thinking I am in it now, everything I own is with god knows who, what are the customs agents gonna say, and why do I still have this damn spandex shorts on?

Needless to say the Brazilian customs agents were less than happy with how I left the country. “So you left Brazil, all your baggage is in Peru, and you didn´t stop here to get approved, now you are re-entering Brazil and want your exit stamp?” Ummm, yeah.

Back down the hill, over the river, to return with the bags and bike. I stopped in “No Man´s Land” to make sure the chuckle heads back at the bar didn´t slip something into my panniers that the customs agents might find. They went through everything I had, stamped my passport, and back to the bar I was no worse for the wear! My motto for much of the scenarios that seem questionable on this trip has been, “Let´s see how this plays out.” And so it went.

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Everything was going great but eventually when you mix enough beer, brawn, and coca something is bound to happen. The more or less inevitable eventually did indeed happen … ARM WRESTLING! It was me verses Bullet Face (can´t remember his real name). Peru VS United States, North America VS South America, Boston VS Iñarapi. Stallone was the referee and the wager was two beers to the loser. My upper body strength has suffered somewhat with the lack of calories and long hours pedaling and so I got my clock cleaned pretty handily. Double or nothin´on the left. Maybe he let me win because he felt bad, maybe I am a stone cold stud, but I won the left and in the end it was a draw overall. Of course we bought and drank the beers anyway.

By the way, the coca leave is stuffed in the lip or cheek and is a mild stimulant. It is perfectly legal in Peru, sold everywhere, and chewed by locals and gringos alike. I never have felt more than a numbness in my mouth but it is supposed to help with the low oxygen levels of the highlands. As I type this I have a wad stuck in my lip in true gringo fashion. I´ll be putting it to the test for sure in the next week.

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The next two days I cycled from the border down to Puerto Maldonado. This stretch has recently been paved as part of the Trans-Oceanic roadway that now connects the ports of southern Brazil to Peru and the west coast. I saw almost no trucks pass through this way however. The project is still going on and is slated to be finished in 2010. It has been in the works for decades more or less. I passed some dirt and mud sections reminding me of my more than 1500 miles off road so far.

The villages along this road are very small and very poor. I have seen amazing amounts of insects through this section as well. At night blankets of flying ants lose their wings and die on the ground. In the morning they cover everything. I´m not sure how often this happens but it must be a pain to clean up. I also have seen giant beetles dead in the streets and buildings.

I´ve crossed yet another time zone (and although I am so far west in South America I am currently on East Coast time back in the US). I am adjusting to the food and water in Peru as I did in Brazil. Needless to say my Southern Hemisphere has seen better days. I know as I go forward that inevitably I will have to eat food and drink water the normal travel would probably avoid. Overall I have had very little problems with this during the trip and feel I have somewhat of an “iron constitution” at this point.

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Puerto Maldonado is surrounded by some of the most pristine rainforest left on the planet. With that comes something I haven´t seen once on the entire ride…tourists! Of course, I am a tourist as well. I am foreign and here to see the sites more or less. But, these other tourists look so clean. They also are decked out with gear and clothing like they were going on safari with Dr. Livingstone himself. I´ve yet to talk to one, I´m not all that interested, although it might be nice to relate my experiences first hand in my native language.

I have bought a sleeping pad and even a sleeping bag made in Colombia in the marketplace here. I will get some more clothing for the mountains over the next few hundred miles as I climb in elevation. The ascent is daunting and has potential to give me problems with lack of food and water…and at this point even time.

In the words of Che´ “We shall see.”

Leaving the Amazon Basin

By on November 18, 2009 in A Thousand Miles // 4 Comments

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Like any city Puerto Maldonado got old quick and with the Andes just out of sight over the horizon I set out for my last few days in the Amazon Basin. Very quickly the scenery would change, my cycling patterns would change, the weather would change, so many things I had become accustomed to over the past two months would change. I knew the road ahead would be more difficult and in my mind decided this would be a new beginning for my trip.

The run out of Puerto Maldonado was pancake flat. I passed a poor man suffering from mental illness squatting on the shoulder of the road in the middle of nowhere. When I passed we stared at each other until he began laughing and gnawing his hands. The image is completely surreal in my mind even now.

Further along that day I passed a number of shanty towns that must have housed thousands of people. Again, this was in the middle of nothing, there were no settlements marked on my map, yet here were these tent cities with video bars, hotels, taxi stands, restaurants, car washes, everything all made from bamboo and blue plastic tarps.  Over the course of 10-15 miles there were 4-5 of these camps. After some observation I realized they were for mining activities. I watched a group of men haul on their shoulders a huge diesel powered water pump through a swamp and saw signs for buying and selling gold and silver. There were also tractor trailers unloading pallets of beer. I bet this place would have been some fun at night! I later learned it can be very dangerous to take pictures of this illegal mining. Huge amounts of mercury are used in the mining of gold in this area.

This area of the Peruvian Amazon is reportedly the most bio-diverse area on the planet. The highway makes this area easily penetrable for the average person with a motorbike. The mining procedure involves stripping the land of vegetation and using the enormous water pump to blast the dirt away in search of gold. This is strip mining and is quickly destroying the jungle, and there is no law enforcement out here to prevent the destruction.

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I spent the night in a dirty town called Santa Rosa at the beginning of the foothills of the Andes. Literally the first turn out of town marked the change from the last two months. I brushed the dead bead bugs from my mattress and waited until after dark when the power came on for a few hours. As I sat in the sun I started a conversation with a road worker waiting for a ride out of town. I taught him to count to ten in English and he taught me to count to five in Quechua. I told him about my trip and he asked if I was hungry. “Of course,” I said and he told me to follow him. In a small restaurant he ordered me lunch (there´s usually only three menu options in these towns: breakfast, lunch, dinner) and a drink. He quickly paid my bill and wished me luck as I dug into my chicken and rice.

The next morning I started climbing…and decending. The scenery was indeed beautiful but I was still only gaining a small amount of elevation with this days ride. I looked back after a few mintues and could see endless flat Amazon jungle to the horizon, just unbroken green tree tops. I was looking forward to leaving behind some aspects of the jungle but felt a little nostalgic about the trip thus far.

The road rose and fell through green foliage with some great river views and steep ravines and cliffs boarding the route. I came upon a road block that closed traffic for 12 hours a day! Evidently there was still alot of work to be done on the Trans-Oceanic and cars could only pass before 6am and after 6pm. Thank god they waved me through the gates. Oddly enough I didn`t see any roadwork going on in the entire closed section (the roadway is slated to be completed in 2010 but after completely much of the new route I can guarantee it won´t be).

I spent the night in Quinze Mil at an elevation of only 2300ft. This was still jungle climate and I had a difficult time finding any warmer clothing. I bought some long socks, half gloves, a ski mask, and a thin nylon parka. These clothes were by no means appropriate to camp at high elevation (nor is my Colombian made cotton stuffed sleeping bag) but I needed something to start with.

Quinze Mil is a stop over for people traversing this area and for road workers along the Trans-Oceanic route. I was told the Trans-Oceanic is almost complete in this region with brand new pavement all the way up. Of course my info was way off as I had already cycled through rubble and mud for 40km into town.

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Saturday night in Quinze Mil is when the road workers let loose…in the bar below my room from 6pm until I left the next morning at 4:30am. The bass pumped all night as men yelled right below my window and a huge thunderstorms passed by. I can´t blame them for parting hard. Their schedules are 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. I haven´t slept well in weeks, why start the night before a 8000ft climb?