Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Edge of the Mountain: Charity Update Ecuador

An 11 Minute Readimage
Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it.” ~ Dennis P. Kimbro, Author

I see the road where I am. I feel the power of the mountain pulling down towards our Earth. I hear the call of the birds and creaking of my wheels. I taste the morning dew and crisp lime in the food. I breath in a new day as if it was my last.

I ask questions because I do not know. I listen because it is more powerful than my speech. I wonder at all the small complexities that form the world. I think about how it is today and may be tomorrow. The past is gone and looking back should only be lessons. No longings or fated worries. In a world where no two days have ever been alike, we find ourselves at the point of the brush. It is up to us to give our lives colour. To feel the radiant Earth beneath our feet and give taste to the tasteless. To give shape where no shape was before. The power lies in us all. Hiding within different forms of clarity and vice.

We are makers of the future. We are players in the most dynamic drama to ever exist. We are not victims by circumstance, but have the power to change. The power to change our lives and those around us. To change lives for the better. To leave a small imprint that is timeless during our days. The history of our world is infinitely long and challenging to understand, when contemplating the sheer magnitude of existence. However, with careful thought we can squeeze out our own little story. Our own little drama. Players of the mind and creators of personal destiny. We are born to understand that meaning through the course of our days. Challenge, beauty, growth and all.
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Accept responsibility for your life. Know that it is you who will get you where you want to go, no one else.” ~ Les Brown, Author/Motivational Speaker

I arrived in Shuid, Ecuador late in the morning after a very steep 1,200 metre climb. Shuid is the village I am supporting to construct the fourth schoolhouse with Free the Children. The thirteen kilometres which brought me from the valley below to the village above, was one of those epic moments on the bike. The air slowly became thinner as I made my ascent in the early morning light. I removed the heavier layers of clothing as sweat began to peak on my back, face and chest. When stopping to take photos or catch my break, I would take in the scenery while the cool wind chilled my damp clothes.

I pushed onwards and upwards until I saw a sign that read, ‘Bienvenidos Comunidad de Shuid.’ Taking a photo of the sign, I felt extreme happiness for having made it here myself. I had been thinking about this moment for months. I wondered as I rode on aimless miles, how I would feel when I arrived. The mountain climb that would take me to my destination made me feel like there was actually a true goal for once. A destination with a purpose and message. I felt proud above all else.

Making my way to Shuid, the road forked upwards to the right, turning to loose gravel. I was not quite there yet. The views became more stunning as clouds built up steam and rolled over mountains in the distance. Grinding my way through a winding road with sheer drop offs, it reminded me of remote Bolivian roads not long behind. Shuid eventually came into view as I crested a corner. The mountain was dotted by little homes. I could see people walking their few cows along tiny paths. A radio echoed in the distance. I moved forward and entered the community.

I asked directions to the school from a timid lady and she pointed upwards. My climb was not over. I asked a second opinion and a man in a truck said the same thing. He on the other hand assured me I was close. I followed the road upwards as it got increasingly more steep. At two points I had to get off and push my bike. Even while pushing the loose gravel made it a tough task. Then I finally saw the cluster of buildings in the distance near a church. I hopped back on my bike and finished strong as I rolled up to the school.

When I arrived it was recess. Lucky me! There were many children running about playing games in the schoolyard. Kids being kids. It was an awesome sight to see. I found one of the teachers and we began talking about who I was and where I was from. He was very interested in my ride and gave me some porridge with crackers the kids were having for morning snack. I chugged it down happily, chatted a bit and returned to my bike, talking to kids as I went. When I got back to my bike, leaned against the fence on the side of the mountain, there was a group of kids busy dinging my bell. I made sure everyone had a chance to ding it at least twice. A few kids were even brave enough to try on my helmet. We all agreed my head was too big.

At that moment, my hosts Ryan and Luis arrived from Me to We. A group of High School students from New York also had made the journey with a facilitator named Carlos. It was amazing to see so many faces at once after days on the bike. As it turns out I had already met Ryan in Kenya briefly. While I was cycling through the rest of Africa and South America he had moved to Ecuador. It was nice to catch up with him and to see a familiar face for once. There are not too many of those on the open road.

(You can read about my experiences with Free the Children in Kenya by clicking https://oneadventureplease.com/2015/12/07/just-like-us-charity-update/ and in India at https://oneadventureplease.com/2015/08/19/from-distant-stars-charity-update/.

The alarm sounded for the kids to return to class and we did a tour of the school grounds. Set on the edge of the mountain the school is in the centre of the community. It is divided into upper and lower Shuid; with about 1000 people. If there are awards for picturesque locations for schools, this one would take the cake. Though it may be beautiful there, the people face many struggles on a daily basis. (See Shuid’s community profile below) Beautiful mountains do not put food on the table or children through school. My local guide Maria told me of the accomplishments and difficulties these people have seen recently. It was nice listening to her describe the community and see it in person for real.

Through positive encouragement families are beginning to understand the benefits of leaving their children in school. Many of the men do not work in the village itself, as there is very few jobs which would sustain a whole family. They travel to neighbouring towns to work and the women take care of the house along with the animals. This requires the children to grow up quite quickly and take on responsibilities they normally wouldn’t, in a place like Canada. With a typical family of eight children, there is a lot of pressure to leave school and begin working to help support the family.

Good actions give strength to ourselves and inspire good actions in others.” ~ Plato, Greek Philosopher

With the partnership of Free the Children, the village has begun to transform and overall enthusiasm has increased. It can be difficult, as most of the people still continue on with their traditional ways. But, through continued education of the whole village and the appearance of new physical structures, the morale has been boosted. In Ecuador, a Minga is called when something in the village needs to get done. It calls upon all able people to come help with a project on a certain day. At first in Shuid, people were somewhat reluctant to join and it was mostly children who showed up to help. However, now people are much more involved and take pride in their school on the mountain that is attended by over 300 children in two shifts each day.

In Shuid, older children go to school in the afternoon and young children in the morning. Currently, there is not enough room to accommodate them all at once. This is where we all come in. They are now digging the foundation of two new additional schoolhouses. One of the schoolhouses was the one I have been supporting with my ride. You can see photos of the current and future schoolhouses below. Most of the buildings have now been replaced in the main area of the school. They are expanding to give kids full day education with a growing population of enthusiastic learners. This will mean more teachers and a greater need for supplies.

One of the other projects on the go, was a nearly complete communal cafeteria for all the students. When I arrived that morning the children were all out in the schoolyard carrying around their hot cups of porridge. The cafeteria will be a comfortable place to eat and a sanitary place to cook the food as well. Looking in the busy classrooms and at the cafeteria, I could see that the transformation in process. The walls are coloured brightly and the children all looked sharp in their nice uniforms.

Change does not come overnight but involves hard work and dedication in all areas of development. Education is only one aspect of the challenge facing remote communities in struggling parts of the world. It is not about handouts. This does not solve the problem. It is the old story of the fisherman. If we teach children how to help themselves, they will forever hold the keys to success. It is about creating sustainable change. Change that lasts and is a beacon of hope. It is a chance. If I do nothing else but help give these children a proper childhood, that is enough.

In the afternoon, I joined the students from New York to help dig the foundation for the school I am fundraising for. It felt awesome to dig the holes where the foundation will soon be laid and a new building erected. The fact that it was the building I had been working towards was all the more special. However, the building does not belong to me, my sponsors or even Free the Children. It belongs to the people of Shuid and their community. It is their responsibility to ensure the upkeep and well-being of the building as well as their children. They are proud of these structures and the hope they symbolize for the future generations.

Before we all departed I was asked to do a short impromptu talk to the students from New York about my ride. They were an excellent audience as I discussed my motivations, my route and the difference we all can make. Earlier that day they had all helped dig the future school. Because of that they could see firsthand how important the school was to me as well as the people who lived in Shuid. They also had some excellent questions about my ride that I had never even thought of. Before they left Ryan discussed the topic of passion and what it means to all of us. We discussed the power of the individual and how all people can make a difference, in the way we talk, think and live.

Thinking is the best way to travel.~ The Moody Blues, The Best Way To Travel

As I meet people around the world and speak in front of future generations, I encourage them to follow their dreams. However, in a world where we are bombarded by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, finding our inner voice has become increasingly difficult. I realize not many people want to ride their bike around the world. But, with careful introspection and thought we all can find something we are truly passionate about. For me, I have found my passion it is education and experiencing our world on my own terms. This is not for everyone. This is what works for me. I cannot tell you what to do with your life. It is your job to find your bicycle ride.

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*Thank you everyone for supporting my ride to build schools with Free the Children. With over 200 donations from wonderful individuals, schools and organizations we are well on our way to reaching the goal for the school in Shuid. Powerful! Please CLICK HERE TO DONATE.

**Questions to contemplate: What does passion mean to you? What are you passionate about? How can you change your community and world? What problems do we face as a modern society? How can we solve them on a collective and individual scale?

***Full details and photos on my ride through Ecuador will be coming soon. It is a beautiful country, full of kind people and mountainous scenery. I will take you from the low reaches of the Amazon back up into the Andes in next instalment. Currently, I am cycling in Colombia on route to the end of South America. Please continue to follow along and share!

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Me to We, Ecuador

An Inspiring Speech

The Size of Our Universe

 

Up the Amazon River: Peru to Ecuador

A 20 Minute Readimage

Freedom means tremendous responsibility; you are on your own and alone.” ~ Osho, Freedom, Indian Mystic

To be free is an illusion of words and actions. I have learned that to be free for something is intrinsically different than to be free from something. Freedom, in the modern sense of the word, evokes the notion of free movement. Some would consider me free, because my movement for the last year and a half has been just that. But, it is not the freedom of movement that I look for. I search for another type of freedom, that makes all others seem like rusted chains. The purpose for freedom matters much more than what you are free from. I am free for a reason.

The Amazon. The very name conjures up a sense of wonder and images of adventure. People going into the unknown green madness with sweat stained backs as they endlessly swat mosquitos. They search of wild creatures, secluded tribes and medicinal herbs. It is the place where people go and never come back. They are taken hostage by the allure of rainforest. Some remain trapped mentally, others physically. I was certainly captivated by the majesty that is this massive piece of green flowing beauty.

To satisfy my hunger for adventure, I decided to step off the bicycle for some days and float down the Amazon on a series of boats to Ecuador. It is something I always wanted to do. The amazing vastness of the Amazon river and it’s tributaries cannot be full comprehended. It is huge; stretching across countries and landscapes. Here there are no more roads. The Amazon is the road and you must play by it’s rules. You give up all control to the river and the endless bends that lead the way home. This is where the adventure becomes real.

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We are the environment. The world is literally one biological process. The trees are our lungs. Look at the Amazon River system next to a human cardiovascular system, look at corals or trees and look at our lungs, you literally cannot tell the difference. They’re the same. So when we destroy our environment, we’re effectively destroying ourselves.” ~ Ian Somerhalder, Actor

My journey up the Amazon began in Pucallpa, Peru on the Ucayali River. I arrived at the loose sandy banks of the launches fairly early, after being told to get there to secure a comfortable spot on the boat. I had spent the previous day running around town getting extra food, water and a hammock. I boarded the boat and negotiated my way up to the third floor with my bike. It was almost empty at this point and I had my pick of places to string up my home for the next four (ended up being five) days to Iquitos. I had a great lookout alongside the window and settled in for the long haul north in my new hammock. This was to be my first and biggest boat of the trip, as well as the longest ride of my Amazon adventure.

My journey was off to a rocky start though. We departed to pick-up more cargo at a different dock and the boat caught on fire at the bow. It blazed up very quickly due to the dry wood crates surrounding the bellowing electrical fire. It is interesting to see the way people react in an emergency. A few rushed to save the boat from the blaze and others ran about, scared for their lives. Outside of mostly western countries, few people in our world learn to swim properly. I saw one man hoarding three of the very few life jackets around his neck and ready to jump. I will give him the benefit of the doubt that they were for his family, but I saw no family. I threw a few valuables into a waterproof bag and was confident with my hometown swimming lessons I could make it to shore if needed. The crew was busy tossing blazing cargo into the river and boats collected afterwards to scour the refuse like hungry vultures. Meanwhile, another firefighting ship arrived and saved the boat from the blaze. No one was hurt and we returned to shore. Pretty soon everyone was back to their laidback selves. It became clear very quickly we would not be leaving on time.

The loading continued for hours and into the night. Almost everything is loaded by hand. Hardened men sweat all day in the scorching sun, carrying loads that seem to be twice their weight. Men turned to mules. From my window, I watched the chaos as every imaginable item was loaded below and all around us. Chickens, potatoes, mattresses, dryers, refrigerators, sodas, snacks, tires, onions and the list goes on forever. In the distance I saw ships full of massive logs from the heart of the Amazon unloaded. They were sprayed with numbers and rumbled off ships with one last cry for help. The boat took on more passengers by the moment. My temporary oasis by the window was invaded by over two hundred people and their children. Hammocks were strung up like spider webs. Negotiating my way around immediately became difficult, between the crying babies and mess of people’s belongings.

Night came and went. In the morning we still hadn’t departed, when I woke up after a stagnant sweaty night. People were visibly agitated by the lack of knowledge about when we would leave and the rising heat of the day. I spoke to the laid back old salty captain, with a friendly demeanor, who assured me we would leave soon. He grinned a smile of capped gold teeth and also told me there would be no more fires. I don’t know if I could ever trust a man with gold teeth, but I had no real choice in this case. I returned to my hammock and sweat until the engine finally roared to life. I had already been on the boat for 28 hours before we even departed. The only thing that mattered was we were finally moving.

Once on route the mood of the ship picked up. I was happy to sit swinging by my windowsill and taking in the sights. Dinner was served as the typical meal of the voyage, rice and a tiny piece of chicken plucked from below the deck. We lined up like eager prisoners. The morning was usually some watery porridge gruel with bread. The rotation of food began. Luckily I brought some extra food with me and there were always people jumping onboard to sell fish, little snacks and drinks. On a cyclists appetite, the meals would not have been close to enough.

The first night I went up to the top deck and watched the stars light up the night sky. It was a beautiful showing with a full moon. As I looked off into space a shooting star blazed across the sky. I felt infinitely small at that moment, as the hum of the motor pulled us forward. I awoke the following morning in my hammock to the sun coming up over the canopy beyond the river. It was a stunning and welcome gift from mother nature. The days began early and finished the same with one lightbulb for the entire third floor. This was nice as the children would finally settle down to sleep in their hammocks or the floor that crawled with cockroaches.

There were many characters on my trip through to Iquitos. Some were more enjoyable than others. With only one other foreigner on board, everyone got to know me fairly quickly. I could focus on tons of people here, as I watched their personalities unfold during the course of the journey. But, because of time, I’ll just focus on one person: Angelo.

Angelo was a pouty little three year old boy that arrived with his baby brother, older sister and his Mom, just before departure. My arch-nemesis of the journey. They pitched up their hammocks next to mine and I knew we were in for a show immediately. Angelo was a very cute child, but it seemed that he and life in general did not agree throughout the journey. It was not ten minutes before he threw his first little tantrum over wanting some knock-off Peruvian Cola. Mom, of course, gave in to appease little Prince Angelo. As a Kindergarten teacher for two years, I found it hard not to step in at a few moments. It was hard to watch this poor overwhelmed mother deal with this child for five days of confinement. I often looked forward to Angelo’s naps and frowned deeply when I saw him guzzling piles of cola in between his sour poutings over nothing and river water baths. Looking back on the journey, it would not have been as memorable without him. Thank you Angelo.

On our second day we hummed along nicely all morning long. We were seemingly making great time until the ship came to a loud halt and everyone flung forward with the sudden stop. Angelo rolled to the floor like a bag of old potatoes. We had run aground on a hidden sandbar. No one was hurt. Though it is the rainy season in the Amazon, there has been a terrible drought this year. This has made the water incredible low and difficult to navigate. After some deliberation and a lot of coaxing the boat came unstuck. I could see in my mind the gold tooth captain grinning up at the helm when he got us free. It poured rain, thankfully, in the afternoon and we got stuck on another sandbar.

I spent most of my days window watching and writing in my journal. The view continued to show the wild side of the Amazon. At times the boat would stop and sometimes people would get off in the middle of a section of jungle with jeans and a sweater to walk inside. I presume that their homes are somewhere within the green reaches of the Amazon. I reflected back on my Grade 6 days, where a friend and I, used to write stories under the title of, ‘Adventures in the Amazon.’ We would present them every few weeks infront of the class. It was hard to believe I was actually here, though all the characters at play were much different than the ones my mind had created in my youth. There was always something to stay entertained with on the boat, as day dreams morphed into real-life.image

Ships are the nearest things to dreams that hands have ever made.” ~ Robert N. Rose, Poet/Writer

At night a storm rolled in again and we battened down the hatches as rain leaked in from all sides. At night you could hear the creaking of the old rusted ship as it carried us further up the river towards the larger mouth of the Amazon. In the quiet of the night after the storm died and all the little ones were gone to sleep, I listened to the sounds of the evening. Under the low hum of the motor I could hear the heart of the jungle beating in the veins of the river. It is the force of life that gives the jungle it’s energy. All things begin and return to the river.

During the fourth night, Angelo and his family departed at some unknown stop. In the morning my area was surprisingly barren and quiet in comparison to the last few days. It was as if I was now missing something. Angelo had a rather unfortunate time on his last day aboard though. He dropped his toy car down a set of stairs and it bounced into the river, never to be seen again. It took him a moment to understand the implications of his mistake, but when he realized that toy car wasn’t coming back, the waterworks exploded to new levels. I felt bad for him at this point. Mom quickly poured him a big cup of Peru Cola and bought him some candy from a toothless lady on board. Angelo soon forgot about the car as he wired himself for another night of his favourite game to play on his mom, “Where’s Angelo?”

The following day there were far few people on the boat. I went downstairs to get a final serving of prison gruel porridge from the ships cooks. The food on board, though included in the price of the ticket, left something to be desired. I was excited one afternoon when there was a bit of carrot in my rice. I brought cans of tuna, limes, onions and other snacks to spice things up along the way. I rationing my food like it may be the end of the world. We finally sailed into Iquitos, our destination, on the banks of the Amazon. Iquitos is the largest city in the world, that is not accessible by any roads. You either have to take a long adventure boat ride or a plane, as most tourists do.

Iquitos emerges out of the jungle like a temporary hallucination. Out of nothing comes a city bustling with activity and all of the amenities of any Peruvian city. On our way in, I saw pink river dolphins playing in the shallow water. In the distance, a beautiful cruise boat lumbered by with tourists dining in an open air hall, complete with riverside balconies to every room. I looked around at my squalor and wouldn’t have wanted it any other ay. While rolling up my hammock I looked at the space which I called home for the last five days and said farewell with a smile at the adventure that was the first leg of my Amazonian experience. When we docked the sky opened up and poured rain. Fitting. I disembarked the boat to struggle up the muddy garbage filled banks with my bicycle and gear. I arrived at a quiet hostel and fell asleep in a proper bed.

If man doesn’t learn to treat the oceans and the rainforest with respect, man will become extinct.” ~ Peter Benchley, Author

It was not all beautiful sunsets and flowing jungle water though. Maybe it is the sheer size of the Amazon Basin that causes people to mistreat it so willfully. The fact that it has always been there during their life, they think it will always be that way. Throughout my journey the garbage and destruction I saw was disheartening. People on the boat throwing styrofoam containers and plastics like it was their personal dumpster. All the waste not necessary, directly into the water. The same water they wash in moments later and expect to deliver them delicious fish. Out of sight and out of mind.

In the following days, I explored the hectic Belen market where I ate fried grubs and saw barbecue alligator and gutted armadillos for sale. I got a very overdue haircut and shave. The humidity of the jungle is not somewhere that a big beard is particularly enjoyable. What took four months to grow disappeared in a matter of seconds at the hands of a discontented barber. I left the moustache for a few days, just for a bit of fun. One night as I wandered around looking for a cheap meal I was hit by kids with water balloons and a lady poured a whole bucket of water on my head. I laughed a bit and was told they were getting ready for Carnival the following week.

In Iquitos, I went to the post office to mail some letters and a friendly security guard asked me where I was from. I told him Canada and he howled like a wolf and said, “Wolves!” I laughed, then replied there were big wolves and howled back at him. We fist pumped and I was on my way laughing. During this time I also prepared for the next stage of my riverboat experience that would take me to Ecuador. The plan, for those interested in such a backwater adventures, was to take a series of boats from Iquitos to Coca. This would be a completely different journey than my Henry boat float days before.

I packed up and made my way down to the docks. When I arrived, there was a massive and steep set of stairs to go down with my bike. It was crowded and busy. A man offered to help me for a small price and I agreed. We reached the bottom and loaded my bike on top of a junky boat that was headed for Mazan. After the man departed I realized I was missing something. My entire bag of bicycle tools, which I had carefully collected since the beginning of my trip, was gone. A new bottle of mosquito spray I had just bought, for the deep reaches of the jungle, was also stolen. I chased back up the stairs to try and find who had robbed me. I returned to the boat with no luck and wondered at the awful person who had my things. In twenty months on the road no one had taken anything from me or for that matter, ever during my travelling. Tools that are vital and difficult to replace, would serve little purpose in the life of a regular thief. I hoped he enjoyed the bit of money he procured from my tools as he munched on the stale bread he bought. I made a list of things that were stolen and have since slowly begun to recuperate what was lost.

Soon we were off down the river on a short two hour journey and I forgot about the days earlier events. I watched life on the Amazon float by. We arrived on the banks in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. I unloaded my bike and biked across a small isthmus to Mazan. In Mazan, I found a ‘fast boat’ that was to depart for Pantoja (Peruvian border) the following day.

There is no schedule in this part of the world, and no one really has any idea when things leave. If people in Iquitos tell you that you must hurry and a boat leaves soon, they are just making things up to hurry you onto their boat. No one really knows. I got lucky though on this one and the captain said every Wednesday he leaves from Mazan. I settled up the deal and cooked a pasta dinner on the banks of the river to a gathering crowd. I spent the night for free on the boat in my hammock. Once again I was clearly off the beat and track. At times it felt like the back end of the world as people returned with the bare essentials to the isolation of the jungle.

We left the following morning, as the captain had promised. Another adventure had begun. The boat was relatively empty for once. There seemed to be few people making the journey to the frontier of Peru. Along with one adventurous backpacker from Belgium, only one other man made the entire journey to Pantoja. He talked the entire time. He talked even if no one was listening. I called him the talking man. Even when I put my earplugs in at night, I could still hear the low hum of his voice continuing to talk to me as I watched him swat mosquitos in his hammock out of the corner of my eye.

Most people got off on the first day at different locations along the river. It seemed like we were abandoning them at times as they waved goodbye with their few belonging. There was usually a few people coming to meet them. I felt bad when we left the deaf man on his own with a massive sack of rice and bread. I watched as he approached his village to get someone to help him. I had a lot of time to contemplate the difficulties of his life as we motored onwards.

On one afternoon, we ate a ball of rice with meat inside called Juane. The rice is set inside leaves from the jungle and boiled in water. It was actually really good. Read about Juane and some other typical types of Amazonian food at http://authenticfoodquest.com/surprising-amazonian-food-from-peru/

The feeling in general was very peaceful and quiet. I had the Amazon to myself. These people must survive on the things they grow themselves or are able to find in the jungle. I had one fruit that grew on a tree and tasted exactly like a sweet potato. It was a very interesting life to ponder as the dual motors roared us along the Rio Napo. I saw boats that chugged along slowly like the one they used in the horribly awesome 90’s movie, Anaconda. Sadly, I didn’t see Ice Cube or Jennifer Lopez aboard any of the boats though.

We stopped at dusk on the banks of a tiny village. I put up my hammock once again and prepared for another night on the boat. We had some dinner and a storm rolled in as I went to sleep under the covered roof of the boat. Up early, we were off roaring just before 6am. The sunrise came over the horizon of endless greenery and little riverboats could be seen skirting along out for a morning fish. It was one of those travel moments you dream about and will cherish for as long as you live. The Amazon came to life as it shook off the cool of the night and a pink river dolphin jumped out of the water in the distance. Another day on my Amazon adventure had begun as our captain guided the driver down the shallow banks full of old trees stranded in the water. We sped by many whirlpools sucking debris down into the depths below.

During the day a storm came up and we lost some time docked on the edge of the river to wait it out. The boat got covered in water and everything was damp, but the air was much cooler. We pressed on after the storm passed. As night approached it became clear we would not make Pantoja. We docked near someone’s home. The captain arranged dinner for us to be cooked by the family living there. Hey loved isolated in the middle of the jungle. We were all welcomed into their simple home and made small talk as dinner was prepared. We had a basic Caldo de Gallina (chicken noodle soup, kind of) and I went into a sound sleep in my hammock. The next morning we were off roaring towards the border at first light.

We arrived at the Peruvian border frontier around 10am. The vibe in Pantoja was not very friendly at all. The border patrol was clearly bored and likely saw almost no tourists through here. They looked at every item in my four bags. I checked out of Peru and was off on a fast boat towards Ecuador. Arriving near dusk I was stamped in very quickly and let to go on my way. I found a cheap place to sleep. My last boat remained in the early morning to where the road began again in Coca. I woke at 4:30am to pouring rain and boarded an overloaded boat for eleven cramped hours of sleepy head-bobbing.

Finally arriving in Coca I had my first real taste of a new country and the end of my Amazon riverboat journey. It was a bittersweet moment at the port. It was some of the most introspective days I have ever had in my life. I don’t know if it was the beauty of the jungle or the life giving energy of river, but I felt alive. I felt like I had connected with a part of myself that I didn’t even know existed. I felt free of body and mind. I felt ready to get back on that bike and cycle the rest of the way home. I was ready.

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*If you are truly interested in this once in a lifetime, do it yourself Amazon adventure please send me an e-mail at markquattrocchi@hotmail.com. I will give direct details on prices paid, times of boats and what to expect. You wont find this trip in any guidebook and you will never regret it. It is one of the last great adventures of public transport available. Only necessity is patience and time. Time and patience.

**A big thank you goes out to Des & Judy McKenna, The Laidley Family, Edith Devlin, Shirley Kindellan and Queen Elizabeth School in Perth. They are all the recipients of personal thank you letters in the mail and have brought us up to 200 donors on my journey home. I am so blown away by this. Thank you to all the individual people, organizations and schools that have come together to help build a better future for kids around the world. I am currently heading towards Shuid, Ecuador and the site of the next schoolhouse. CLICK HERE TO DONATE.

***To read more about the amazing force that is the Amazon River CLICK HERE.

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Into the Andes: Peru (Part I)

A 17 Minute Readimage

“Peru, Peru. My heart’s lighthouse.” ~ Steven Patrick Morrissey, Singer/Author

Cycling around in the Andes of an ancient civilization like the Inca, can give you unique perspective into the nature of then and now. We as humans like to believe that we are somewhat indestructible. We think that our particular civilization is the centre of the world and will last forever. I am sure most people in ancient Egyptian, Roman and Incan societies all thought this. We think we are the best and our way of life will continue to spread forever. However, only remnants remain of all these once powerful and great nations.

Have we learned nothing? Are we that deeply vain to believe our current life-ways will be any different? It is clear at our rate of consumption and modern way of living will not last on the course we are on. Tensions rise over non-renewable resources like gold, oil and diamonds. Wars still being fought over who the same man in the sky favours. Are we still this primitive with all our modern advances? I guess we are.

We have the intelligence to sustain ourselves in peaceful ways, but we choose to ignore the thoughtful path and let economists dictate the future of our world. Maybe not in my lifetime, but in the future another change will come and people will wonder how we all didn’t see it coming. It doesn’t take traveling long on ground level to see that the Chinese have already won the secret quiet economic war they are waging, no matter what the ‘value’ of the American dollar would have you believe. Weren’t they just on the brink of economic collapse? I guess everyone just forgot about it. While the world worries about immigration and ISIS, the Chinese shrug their shoulders and lend out another stack of cash and build another road in exchange for resources in Africa. I admire their ability to do it all so quietly with all eyes diverted to more entertaining developments. Grab your bottled water and microwave popcorn.
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It was a rainy afternoon when I past into Peru from Bolivia. The rain picked up and turned the dusty border town into a muddy soup. I decided to resume my journey the following day as I checked into a cheap guesthouse to shake off the rain. The following day saw me riding along the vast banks of the highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. It was beautiful views to the right as hungry clouds puffed their muscles waiting to unleash in the afternoon. Being the rainy season in Peru, it rained with predictability almost every afternoon and most of the night. This meant my days started much earlier than usual. On one occasion I tried outrunning the clouds, which eventually caught me. They unleashed a freezing cold rain, followed by painful hail, that turned into snow and back into a horrible rain to finish things off.

During the sunny hours I plied along windy roads waving to farmers working their fields along the banks of the life-giving Titicaca. I made my way to the first large city of Puno, where I celebrated Christmas. It was another quiet Christmas for the guy on the bike. I walked about the main plaza wearing a santa hat I had bought and listened to the local police brigade play in their orchestral tribute to Christmas. I decided to treat myself to a new pair of shoes, as mine were looking battered and the smell was overpowering for the unsuspecting person. I found a new pair in the market and said goodbye to the shoes that pedalled roads since Egypt. For dinner I had some roasted chicken and got to bed early.

I was off the next morning towards Cusco. The road was relatively flat and riding was quick for the first section. At one point though I found myself at the summit of a 4,300 metre pass huffing for air up a slow hill. It was a good thing I had no idea it was coming or it would have been a harder mental battle to get going that morning. At the top of the pass I met another Canadian cyclist for the first time on my trip. We chatted for over an hour and wished each other good luck. We both had a huge downhill to look forward to. I flew like the wind for the next 40km meeting a German couple and a Korean cyclist on the way. I met more cyclists on the stretch from Puno to Cusco over four days than I did the entire time I was in Africa.

The road to Cusco became an up and down struggle but the valley views were spectacular and life in the little villages along the road was interesting. Putting in my last uphill battle I pulled into Cusco surrounded by honking horns and hoards of traffic spewing the typical fumes in my face. Tiny mini buses cut me off at every chance and people just did whatever they wanted on the road. Peruvian drivers are very impatient and don’t do well with stalled traffic in front of them. They honk as if their horns will suddenly part the cars and they will be given the all clear to go.

In Cusco I stayed at the Estrellita, which is known to be the hostel where cyclists congregate. It didn’t disappoint and soon I had met a good group of people waiting to celebrate New Years. Some of the French travellers put together a nice New Years dinner and we played some sort of miming game. I explored a bit of Cusco, but found it to be one of the most touristy cities on my trip. I found some local restaurants that served nice food for cheap, away from the centre of tourist pizza heaven. For lunch in Peru I always looked for the market. Almost every town has at least one central market, where for one or two dollars you could get a deliciously unique soup and a full meal with a drink. On the road this was always a welcome break and gave me the energy to continue tackling the monstrous hills that lay waiting for me in the afternoon.

From Cusco I took off towards Machu Picchu. It had been one of the few pin-points on the map I had actually planned on seeing during my time in South American. Most people in town were organizing some expensive tour to the site, which I could not afford or wanted to be apart of. The ticket itself was a huge expense for me, but I didn’t mind paying it. The cheapest route there involves a 5 hour collective van, followed by an additional van of 2 hours, which ends at a place called Hydro-Electrica. Here backpackers walk along the train tracks towards Agua Calientes, the town, at the foot of Machu Picchu. The train almost totally empty at times is the biggest scam going with white table clothes and white collar tourists. The walk to the town took an additional 3 hours on the tracks and I arrived to the sight of burritos and overpriced pizza once again. I was actually amazed by the power of tourism and the Disney Land created in the beautiful Inca valley.

“Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land.” ~ Hiram Bingham, Explorer

I grabbed a cheap dinner from the local market from a friendly lady and was off to bed. Up at 4am I started my climb with the line of other sleepy travellers to the top of Machu Picchu. There was already a line for the bus to the top. Yes, there is a bus to the top. For $24US you do not have to walk a step to get all the way to the top of one of the world’s most iconic and historical feats of ancient human creation. I arrived at 6am in time to enter and see the site before all the crowds arrived. Changing my shirt already soaked from the climb up I came around a corner to see the view for the first time and was blown away in the morning light. It was truly worth it. All of the effort cycling to get here made my contemplative moments more special, as I gazed over the terraced walls and restored structures.

I thought about the other pin-points on the map I had brought myself to with the power of the bicycle. The Taj Mahal, Iguazu Falls, The Great Wall, Pyramids and Colosseum. I found sitting there on the edge of the world, that same old feeling I always had at these places. Of course I was once again humbly overwhelmed when you consider the scope and grandeur of it all. I truly am a lucky person and I know it. However, I felt the feeling of emptiness. These places now only exist for tourists to come in droves with selfie sticks to share on Facebook. It is not these wonders which have given me the rich experiences I have achieved on the road. Sure these are massive pin-points on the map. They are somewhere to look forward to and set your sights on, but they are never the objective. What I love is what is in between. Meeting the people that call these countries home and seeing a clear road challenging me. I missed the freedom of my bike and returned down the same path to Cusco. I packed up and continued onwards where the real adventure and memories are made. For me, they are found out there on the road.

After Cusco I had a huge choice to make which would dictate the course of my Peruvian trip. I could head down to the coast where riding would be much flatter, warmer and easier, but far less interesting. My second choice, was the intensely difficult Andean route towards the Amazon where, I heard from my good friend and cyclist Steve, you could take a boat up the Amazon to Ecuador. The second sounded like the type of adventure I thrive on. From Cusco the climbs began and they didn’t stop. For days I would spend my entire day crawling up mountains at 6km an hour to reach summits over 4,000 metres. At the top I would be treated to a stunning view and then race downhill for next hour or two. Then repeat it all over again. The highs and lows were literal and mentally battles crushing.

On the road I broke my rear cassette at the top of a mountain pass and strode downhill with no pedals. I eventually found a spot to fix my bike and had to have my whole rear wheel rebuilt. I finally found some quality parts and took the opportunity to repair a few lingering problems. Out of a city called Abancay I descended some 10km and then climbed up 45km along a road that looked like it was a stray piece of spaghetti. At the end of the day, as the sun was getting low, I finally reached the top of my climb to see where I started my day. It was the first time I have rode all day long and could still see where I had begun. The climbs here were by far the most massive and difficult of my journey. Nothing can ever compare. The mountains from here wound their way along beautiful cliffs and windy stunning roads to Ayacucho, where I took a day to rest.

Here I ran into a French cyclist, named Remy, who I had met in La Paz and Cusco. We decided to ride to Huancayo together. Along the way we communicated in Spanish as his English was poor and so was my French. Our collective Spanish was surprisingly better. From Ayacucho the route was dry and full of cacti. The road narrowed and turned into a one-track route. We pushed through terribly steep climbs along the river, inside massive canyons. We camped in tiny towns, shared food and stories. One day we saw a small gathering of people where a truck had flipped off the side of the mountain and lay on the roof. Clearly the passengers had not survived and we were silent for a long while afterwards, each playing with our own thoughts. The riding in this section was extremely slow and involved a lot of hard work.

Camping in a small town we cooked dinner in a space where we were told to sleep. The village crowded around to watch us cook our dinner and asked us the same questions on repeat. I was slightly irritated at this point and wanted everyone to just give me a moment of peace after another long day. The next day saw some faster riding and we made good time until reaching yet another 35km hill. We talked it over and agreed that climbing this pass today was not in either of our interests or would make our trips any more fulfilling. From here we took a lift over the rest of the mountain pass and to Huancayo where we found a big proper dinner.

At this point Remy and I said our goodbyes. We both had a bit of a different way of riding after so long on solo missions. We also had different routes which we intended to take. It was nice riding with someone for a few days and I truly appreciated the company. However, I know myself and I always do better on my own. It is hard to describe to people when they ask about being alone, but if they were on this type of journey they might then understand how flying solo makes sense. Undertaking a trip like this you must know and understand yourself very well, if you are to involve another person in it with you. I spent the following day getting my dirty laundry sorted and explored the crazy weekend market of Huancayo, where I ate a delicious ceviche. For Peru’s claim to fame in culinary beauty and simplicity, see a recipe here on one of my favourites, delicious CEVICHE.

“A bicycle does get you there and more. And there is always the thin edge of danger to keep you alert and comfortably apprehensive. Dogs become dogs again and snap at your raincoat; potholes become personal. And getting there is all the fun.” ~ Bill Emerson, Writer/Journalist

From Huancayo I made my way to the Jewel of the Andes, Tarma. It was a bit of a long day with a huge mountain pass that never seemed to end. The dogs in Peru are notorious among cyclists for being some of the worst in the world. They definitely did not disappoint on this day. I made it to the top and the sun began to start sinking behind the mountains and as I wound my way down to the city. It was one of the most beautifully set places I have ever rode into. With perfect looking terraces stretching out along the switchbacks, I meandered with my mouth open past waterfalls and beautiful green into Tarma at the heart of the valley. I found a cheap place to sleep and debated my onwards route through the Andes or to sink down early into the Amazon. Discussing with a few locals solved my problem and the next morning I found myself on a 75km downhill into the Amazon Basin. For many stretches in Peru the views have been stunning, but commuication with home and my beautiful supportive fiancé has been a bit more difficult than we all would like sometimes.

The weather changed almost instantly and the people seemed to change as well. It was as if I had entered a completely different country. Everyone wore flip-flops and seemed very laid back. There were pineapples for sale and even coconuts in fridges serving up cold coconut water. One of the best things you can drink on a hot day while cycling. I explored the little towns as I went and began to see fruits I had never seen before. Places like La Merced, Villa Rica and Puerto Bermudez were waypoints for me as I made my route towards Pucallpa. There were two large climbs on dirt roads which I sweat over ten litres of water. It was for sure top five hottest places on my journey and definitely the most humid. It was too hot to do much of anything, let alone cycle up the side of a mountain. However, I persevered for three days of sweat filled beautiful riding.

On one day late in the afternoon I was racing down a hill after a long climb when a truck stopped me to chat. A nice man named Walter introduced himself and invited me to stay the night. I happily agreed. Walter was 81 years old and was still working as a farmer. He got up everyday at five to tend to his animals and milk his cows. He was also rebuilding his house at the moment after some ‘terrorists’ destroyed it. I never understood what exactly happened to his house, but he was super welcoming all the same. He was of Italian origin and had lived in Peru all of his life. I enjoyed our chats together and after breakfast the following day, we took a photo and said goodbye. Another kind friend from the road.

I spent the night the following day, after a horribly steep climb, along one of the tributaries to the Amazon in Puerto Bermudez at the guesthouse of Spanish born Jesus. In 18 years of owning this rustic guesthouse, I was the first to arrive on bicycle. A huge complement and an example of how off the main track I had gotten myself. I was happy to share some stories with Jesus (believe me he had a lot) and left early the following day. From here it was a two day ride to Pucallpa, where the road literally ends and my Amazon boat adventure would begin. I sweat like crazy all day in the hot sun. The year was decidedly abnormal as it usually rains almost all day here during this time in the rainy season. Jesus made it clear he was very worried about this. However, it had not being raining at all. If it had the road would have been mostly washed away or impassable on a bike.

Sleeping in a mosquito filled guesthouse I got little sleep and started riding at 5am to make Pucallpa. However, my legs and energy levels were not agreeing. I felt sick and slightly cold, which was not a good sign. I was either dehydrated or had eaten something of poor choosing. I looked at the next hill like it was a mountain. I had nothing left in me and my legs felt very weak. A van passed by and picked me up. Finishing the day in Pucallpa, I was very ill and spent the following day recovering in a state of exhaustion. However, I had made it. Not the way I intended to arrive, but I was here and ready for my next adventure. We cannot always predict our paths in life, but sometimes must take them as they are and accept that it all happens for some reason or another. The story picks up in the following post, where the road ends and I float my bike down the Amazon River towards Ecuador.

The route through the Andes and down to Pucallpa in the Amazon Basin was wildly difficult. It was also some of the most stunning scenery I have ever been privileged to. The downhills were extraordinary and the stars at night jumped out of the canvas sky like real life characters. I would recommend the Andean route to anyone who has a bit of time and some patience for struggle. The alternative Pan-American Highway along the coast would have given me little to wonder about later on.

“If I listen I have the advantage, if I speak others have it.” ~ Peruvian Proverb

The Andean route of Peru was well worth my while and given me insight into a world I never knew exist. Life for the local people here is tough. It has few rewards and is demanding of mind and body to survive. I am happy to have shared a piece of their struggle. We are all not that different. We all want the same things in life; whether it is now or hundreds of years back during the time of the Inca. We are all chasing that internal dream of light and energy we call, the good life.
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*In a weeks time I will be visiting our charity project with Free the Children in Ecuador. I am very excited about this opportunity and look forward to sharing with you my experiences afterwards. I am still also sending out three more handwritten thank you letters to the next three sponsors. CLICK HERE TO DONATE.

**At the moment I am now cycling in Ecuador. After an adventure and a half up the Amazon, I have made it through Peru. It was a challenging and beautiful journey. Update and photos from that adventure to come soon.

***A Canadian friend I met while traveling in China and Kyrgyzstan, has just released a new travel blog for adventure backpackers and travel enthusiasts. Stephan goes to some pretty interesting countries and has a lot of experience in the wild yonder of our world. Check out his site here, with a travel guide specifically for Peru at http://www.unchartedbackpacker.com.

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