“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” ~ Confucius
Looking at the year past, I sometimes peek back at my old journals. They take me back to a different place. A place where sometimes I even have trouble remembering. That is why I wrote them. To capture those moments, to capture those tough days, the highs and lows of two years alone on the road. It was a different time in my life. We are always changing as people and reminding ourselves of who we once were, who we think we are now and hope to be for the future are very important.
This is a random journal entry I opened to today. A year and half into my journey. Have a look.
Dec 1st Yunchara – Bolivia – Acclimatizing
-Today was another extremely hard day
-Rode all day long and just covered 65km
-Though the scenery was stunning. Some of the best I have seen in a long time
-The climbs, hills and wind were less forgiving
-A tough road. Pushing most of the way up the big climbs on the rocky gravel towards Tupiza
-Sometimes I question myself, as I know this is not the main route to Uyuni. But I think it will be stunning, I have to get there
-First day of seeing Llamas today, they look a bit like camels
-Nice guy named Alan gave me a piece of chocolate
-Got to Yunchara and was looking for a place to camp
-The one lady told me to camp by the church in the middle of the village
-It was a little cold and very windy today, so I asked around
-A truck driver asked a friend and now I am sleeping in his house. All good and a new amigo. People here are so nice.
-Pretty sunset in the distance
-I want to curl up and sleep for days
-The altitude is kicking my butt.
In the quieter moments, I look back in wonder at how I ever did it. How different my life once was. In the days and months that have passed since arriving back, I have become comfortable. Sometimes, I wonder if we are all a little bit too comfortable. Comfortable in our routines, expectations and what we think the world owes us. Sometimes, I have to catch myself, when I think back to the days from the road. In those days, I expected very little. More like, hoped for very little. I hoped for a place to sleep, something to eat and water to drink. Everything else was a bonus.
I realize now, that those reading this are the minority. A vast majority of people live daily with those three hopes, shelter, food and water. It is not up to us to feel obligatory or sorry for our current position, but thankful and mindful of our privilege. For me, to be able to go on the bike ride was a complete privilege. I am only now really starting to understand all that I saw and experienced. The days were long and so much was happening, that sometimes it was hard to make sense of it all. Now, after a year in reflection, speaking and thinking about the ride, the pieces that I once struggled with like poverty, war, inequality and even my own selfishness are coming to light. I do not dwell on the past, but look to it for guidance on how I can be better.
Since finishing a lot has happened. I am now with the women that I love. My wonderful wife, who makes me stronger and better each day. After two long years of separation, we were united together. Sometimes, I take for granted how much we once missed each other, now that we are together. Those long periods of time between seeing each other were incredibly tough, but the wait was worth all the while. It is in the little moments with her, that I find the greatest happiness.
I also now work a job that I love. Motivational Speaker, sharing my story and the incredible work of the WE Movement. Without this opportunity, my transition to life back in Canada would have been much more difficult. I will be the first to admit, after the excitement of being home died down, I had a tough time. Trying to find my place in somewhere I hadn’t lived for four years was not easy. Eventually, I found something, but it was not what I envisioned. I had lived the last two years on the bike with an incredible purpose and then one day that purpose vanished and I had to sort things out. We all go through these periods in our life and with hard work we can make the changes we want to see. Then I was given the opportunity I was looking for. This year has been an introspective year as I searched through my two years finding the best way to share the story. I now go out each day excited about the chance I have to make a difference in people’s lives. I could have hoped for nothing better.
The ride put me closer in touch with the human and natural energy that guides our world. I see that it is important to understand what we have and embrace change as it comes. Life is not about filling your life up with things, but investing in memories. You cannot take any of it with you, so by investing in memories, you invest in yourself. Throughout my journey the common thread for happiness in all of the countries I have ever traveled to boils down to a few basic things. Happiness is having a place to sleep, food to eat and a few good friends and family to share your time with. It is that simple. On my bike ride I managed to always find the first two and the third was almost always missing. Now, I have all of those things. Embrace your happiness, it is already there. You don’t need to ride a bike around the world to find the secret to a happy life.
(Extreme Roads: Bolivia)
Lesson #3- Never Give Up: It is Not That Bad
“Never give up on something that you can’t go a day without thinking about.” ~ Sir Winston Churchill, English Prime Minister
—-> Life is not that complicated. However, we do a good job of making it just that. Sometimes the present seems impossible. We think we’re up against a terrible resistance and the end is nowhere in sight. Maybe something happens that impacts our life, seemingly irreversibly. Though some horrible things may come our way throughout life, it is important to keep focused on what is still important to us. It is important to focus on who you are. There is a bigger picture. Like in cycling, every up eventually has a down.
If you want something enough there shouldn’t be anything that stands in your way. Obstacles will come, changes will be needed and hard decisions are likely to ensue. Do not be a victim of circumstance. The world, your family and friends need you to be the best you. There are others out there that depend on you and you in turn will depend on them when things get tough. We need each other on the good days and the bad.
No matter how awful you think things may be in the present moment, years, months and weeks down the line, you will wonder why you felt so upset over those little things. We get bogged down by our present situation and forget what really matters. The tiny details that stress you out are but minor inconveniences in the grand scheme of our lives. Why stress about all the little details when they impact your overall persona but really do not matter?
I am sorry to say, but we’re all not that special. We share the world with over seven billion other people. Thinking the world revolves around you and your personal desires is not only detrimental to your present state, but impacts everyone else around you. Being selfish and ignorant of your surrounds, will get you nowhere. Being aware and in the moment is the most important aspect to enjoying life as it is and as it comes at you. Looking forward to certain dates is something we all do. However, don’t let it get in the way of living in the moment.
Whether it is getting over something traumatic or setting your sights on impossible looking goals the most important thing to remember is that you can never give up. Each day is a new one with struggles and annoyances, but eventually you will get there. One day at a time.
On my journey, sometimes I would get wrapped up in distances and deadlines. I would forget to stop and take it all in. During those moments, I sometimes lost sight of why I set out in the first place. I set out to experience the world, see the beauty of nature, make a difference and talk to the people that share our world. Sometimes I had to catch myself and slow down. Rolling through everyone else’s normal for two years, it sometimes came to be my normal. At times I was spoiled by the beauty I was rolling through. Sometimes I took myself for granted as well, pushing too hard and too long on the bike. I had to use these instances to step back and really look at where I was. Even when the road was tough and I wanted to throw it all in, I had to remember why I was there in the first place. Taking into account past decisions for my present circumstance, was something that always helped me make sense of it all.
Our present state is a culmination of our decisions. At one point we wanted something more than anything else. Living with our decisions and moving forward is one of the harder aspects in life, but in time things get easier. Don’t give up, it is all part of our greater history and journey.
**You can expect Lesson #2 tomorrow. Almost there! 🙂
***Bolivia, one of the most challenging, wild and unforgettably beautiful countries on my trip. If something is worth doing, it won’t be easy. I had some extremely tough and wonderful days in Bolivia. Days I wouldn’t trade for the world. Never give up, it will be worth it in the end!
In our modern society we have been conditioned to think that the quickest way is the best. People thrive on speed and ease. We expect information to come in seconds and feel empty even when we have access to more knowledge than ever. Conversations that used to last hours are ended in moments with a quick Google search. We believe in 7 day weight loss programs, a pill for every ill and that the world generally owes us something. We live in a world of I.
The value of struggle has been lost. We want something and we want it now. Get rich quick schemes are all the rage. My junk mail box proves that. People are hoping to get ahead and not have do anything for it. With the New Year upon us, it is a booming time for gym memberships and diet programs. Typically, people will forget about these resolutions in a month, when life gets busy again. It is not that we aren’t good enough to follow through with these goals, we just approach things the wrong way. People give up because they weren’t ready and someone else told them what to do. No one likes being told what to do or how to do it. Take every child someone told do something. You need to come up with your own path to the changes you think you need to make.
We forget that any of the great feats in our world were not accomplished in a day. They instead took time, careful planning and exponential amounts of energy. The invention of the light bulb, automobile and the development of Wayne Gretzky’s hockey skill did not come overnight. All of these things took a lot of dedication.
I understand we are all busy, tired and stressed by modern day pressures. However, there are some simple things you can do to feel better about yourself in the New Year. Start small and grow gradually until those positive aspects become cornerstones of your life. Get to the point where you don’t talk about the change anymore, but just do it. It becomes part of a better and new you.
Making a regular healthy dinner is not that difficult, nor is writing a letter to an old friend. These are just examples, that involve simple planning and execution. However, the rewards far exceed the effort necessary in return. If you pour yourself into something that truly means a lot to you, you will succeed. Make 2016 something you can be proud to remember.
“May the sun set on where my love dwells.” ~ Bolivian Proverb
Crossing the Paraguayan border into Bolivia was not exactly what you would expect. I had essentially been in cycling limbo for the last three days after checking out of Paraguay some 300km beforehand. I crossed the military checkpoint and finally was able to punch into Bolivia at an ‘immigration’ post called Ibibobo some 50km from the border. The border control was basically a shack with one man giving stamps and a lady to change money.
As I was leaving another cyclist from France named Laurent rolled in. A huge surprise given our locality. We decided to have a bit of lunch together and shared stories from the road. As I was leaving Laurent tried to get his exit stamp to the sight of the border control taking off with the money exchange lady on a motorbike. I found out later he had chased the man down in the nearby village and received his exit stamp.
I rode off very tired into a new country after ten straight days of riding through the Gran Chaco of Paraguay. Though I was very excited to see a hill for the first time since Asunción some 800km back. There were parts of the road which were full of loose gravel where I had to walk my bike for short stretches. I thought very little of it at the time. I was mainly focusing on making it to the first town, Villamontes. Not far down the road was a return to civilization and a well deserved rest day. What I didn’t realize that this was a small warning for things to come. An ominous look into the misery of the Bolivian road system ahead.
Arriving in Villamontes I promptly ate two dinners and fell into a deep sweaty sleep. This part of Bolivia is known to be the warmest in the country. The temperature in my room was 38 degrees and only a small fan on the wall to cool off. After the first night I pushed my bed to the other side of the room to be closer to the fan. It didn’t help much and I avoided the oven of my room as much as possible. Instead, I stuck to drinking awesome fruit juices and eating Salteñas in the market. Though a Salteña is similar to an empanada, it is decidedly much better in my opinion. Click on Salteñas to see a delicious and savory recipe.
From Villamontes I decided to begin my ascent to the altiplano of Bolivia where the weather would be cooler and less rainy. The total climb would be upwards of 4,000 meters higher than where I currently was. The ascent started almost immediately. I was followed by hoards of little biting flies and a scorching sun as I cycled up the dusty dirt road. Stopping in a roadside village, I was invited in for lunch at a school. The kids all laughed at me and I shared a bottle of local cola with one of the teachers. Pushing on in the heat was draining and slow but the views along the canyon I was riding up were fantastic.
Near the end of my day I heard a terrible sound coming from the back of my bike. I inspected and my cassette had come loose. I tightened it back on but it didn’t last long and I was stranded with no hope of moving. I hitched a ride to the next town where a mechanic and I with the proper tools ‘fixed’ the problem. About 45km into the following day towards my next destination, Tarija, the problem returned once again. When I tried to fix the problem the cassette opened up and ball bearings went all over the road. I was upset as I had just replaced this part in Paraguay, but was sold a very cheap piece of equipment. Because of this my continuous route of cycling from Buenos Aires was broken. I felt down as I waited on the side of the road for a ride to the city over the mountain pass. When you invest yourself in something like this and things don’t work out, it is sometimes hard to swallow.
A nice man, also named Mark, picked me up not long after. Luck would have it he knew a mechanic who could help me in Tarija. We found a new cassette in the bike market and returned to the nice mechanic who promptly put the heart back into my bike. He wouldn’t take payment when I offered. I thanked him a dozen times and went off to my new friend’s pizza restaurant. His restaurant was inspired by his travels overseas and we shared a bottle of Orange Fanta while I admired the decor. I found a restful hostel called CASA BLANCA and got my mind back in order.
“It’s easy for people in an air-conditioned room to continue with policies of destruction of Mother Earth. We need instead to put ourselves in the shoes of families in Bolivia and worldwide that lack water and food and suffer misery and hunger.” ~ Evo Morales, Bolivian President
There was a very long and steep climb out of Tarija as I made my way towards Tupiza. By the time night rolled around a nasty storm was upon me and a little old lady invited me to sleep in her house. She cleared a room for me in what was most certainly one of the poorest families I had stayed with in a while. There was a knock later at my door and the lady had a nice looking soup in hand. I ate it quietly feeling humble as ever on my chair missing the back.
Talking to locals back in town, I was told that the road I had chosen was very difficult and I was decidedly crazy. If it was crazy and terrible that also meant it would be beautiful. I was certainly right about the beautiful part. But the locals were also right about it being terrible. It was one of the hardest roads I have ever traversed with rutted dirt tracks to the top of mountains and a howling wind. Once in a while tarmac would appear out of nowhere and I would coast like a giant along empty smooth roads. I have amazing memories of larger than life views with clouds crawling over the sides of mountain ridges. In a small town one night I had nowhere to sleep until a nice guy named Osman welcomed me to his house. He was still working, but let me into his place all the same. When he returned we watched a new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and I fell asleep.
In the morning Osman and I had some chicken soup together before I descended down my own ‘Road of Death.” Thousand foot drop offs with zero railings and crumbling loose gravel on the edges of the road. Every once in a while a bus would come roaring around a blind corner and shower me with dust. I usually stopped on some firm ground and waited for it to pass if I heard something coming. Though it was some white knuckle riding, it was completely worth the effort. The ride to Tupiza was stunning and the struggle for beauty was the reason I chose to come this way through Bolivia.
Arriving in the canyon town of Tupiza, I found a delicious lunch after days of cooking bland pasta. I then found a cold shower and scrubbed the dirt from my life. After exploring the markets of Tupiza I planned what can only be described as a hair brain venture down the wrong road. I was headed towards the largest Salt Flat in the world near Uyuni. Everyone I asked told me the road directly to Uyuni was the worst in Bolivia and I should take the route twice as long that was paved. I was here for adventure and I chose the exactly what you would expect. I chose struggle and misery, mixed with dashes of solitary beauty.
If ever there was a road I am happy to have left behind it was this one. It began with sandy riding through spectacular canyons. Supposedly where Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid met their end. I pictured olden days of people struggling through these passages with ox carts as I rode. Lightning struck off in the distance and set the scene for an end of days western shootout.
“Bolivians die with rotted lungs so that the world may consume cheap tin.” ~ Eduardo Galeano, Writer
Eventually, I made my way up to Atocha. It was one of the most interesting settings for a town I have ever seen. Set into the edge of mountain it lay at the side of an extinct river and a sleepy railway. As an old mining town it seemed that everything here had seen better days. There is a long history of exploitation in Bolivia and the use of their people to mine plentiful natural resources by developed countries at low cost. Nevertheless, I was welcomed by friendly curious locals into their town. I couldn’t afford the nicer hotel in town and was shown to the second cheapest room of my entire trip, at the equivalent of $2. The bed smelled like spit and the odor of the communal toilet wafted into my room through the cardboard window in my 4×4 square. I slept in my sleeping bag, with my cycling buff over my face and didn’t dare touch the stained sheets. I escaped the room as soon as possible in the morning and gagged one more time as I headed back in to grab my bags.
The following two days to Uyuni saw some spectacular but difficult riding through amazing rocky landscape. I followed a volcanically poisoned river and passed along high canyon walls. Later I bumped past as Llamas grazed on the sides of the road. I huffed up steep hills into a strong wind as the corrugated road bounced me to pieces. Sometimes the road wasn’t much more than a drift of sand and gravel. In spots roadwork was in progress, but at the rate they seem to be going it will be done in ten years. Eventually the dusty tourist jump off point of Uyuni emerged and I tumbled into reality like a space monster. Tourists laughed in the streets as they headed off on their tours with blinders on. I could see them through windows in English looking pubs eating pizza at outrageous prices while they drank cold Corona beers. It all seemed extremely odd to me after where I just came from. I ate my regular local meal of chicken with rice and hid away from it all in my room after a fruitless search for a new bungee cord for my bike.
At this point I was far more consumed by the adventure ahead. The largest salt flat waited for me in the morning. I was truly excited. It serves for most cyclists in South America as the quintessential cycling experience. As I approached the entrance to Uyuni the following day I heard a loud snap and a broken spoke. Terrible timing with Uyuni some 15km behind. I rolled into the town on the edge of the Salar and found a truck mechanic. We used his tools to take off my new cassette and my ball bearings exploded all over the sand. With his kids we picked up all of the little pieces and put the thing back together. A ten minute job turned into two hours. (I have now purchased all the tools to do this myself) When I finally entered the Salar de Uyuni, the wind was already roaring, not in my favor. I met four cyclists around one of the hotels made of salt. They were being carried by the wind without even pedaling. I’ve never been so jealous.
I pushed onwards into one of the most naturally stunning landscapes on the planet. A completely flat and a magically disorientating experience to cycle. At first the Salar was truly fun. I took lots of silly photos as I headed to an island called Incahuasi in the middle of the Salar to camp. However, after seeing the island in the far off distance for more than half the day it seemed to come no closer. I kept thinking it must just be a few more kilometers ahead. But it never materialized. The sun was getting low and I stopped in the howling madness to snap some photos. At this point the wind was stronger than ever and I was exhausted. I resorted to pushing my bike towards the outline of the looming island. My mind was playing tricks on me and I imagined nightmarish creatures following me. To be honest I whimpered a bit and felt delirious from the sun and wind. By the time I arrived it was after 9:30pm and had been dark for hours. I found the tourist centre and pitched my tent with my last ounce of energy. I ate some cookies in my tent and passed out.
I was awoken early by the arrival of hoards of tourists to the island. Less than impressed, I packed up and ate some bread as people snapped photos of me where I gave a begrudging thumbs up. The nice ticket man let me go up the island and take a photo for free and gave me a bottle full of tea. He said he saw me arrive late the night before and I think he was worried about me. I felt exhausted beyond all belief, but knew I couldn’t stay where I was. I headed for land and the volcano in the distance.
After a few kilometers of riding I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt awful and threw up a number of times from exhaustion. I positioned my bike in front of the sun and lay in the shade under my bike and had a nap. When I woke up the sun was beating down on me, but I felt much better. I got back on my bike and slowly made it to land where I found some nice tourists that shared their dinner with me.
From the volcano Tunupu, I carried along a very beautiful and sandy road towards Salinas de Garcia Mendoza feeling much better. In this part of the world water is very precious and it was many days before I was able to get a shower. As I turned to rejoin the main road towards La Paz, I met a cyclist from Mexico who told me just three kilometers down the road it turned to asphalt. I have never been so happy. From that point on the hills were less strenuous on a fully paved road all the way to La Paz. Along the road I watched deer grazing in the distance while dust tornados whipped up around them. I flew past Llamas and Alpacas as I rode with speed on the finished road.
Approaching La Paz I was on my last bit of steam and in need of a break. When I came around a bend in the road and saw La Paz in the valley below from El Alto, I was speechless. I had never seen anything quite like it. I felt insanely small as I pictured myself down in the mass of buildings that seemed like little toy pieces from above. As I weaved my way down into La Paz I felt like an airplane coming in for a landing. I landed in the famous Casa de Ciclista where I recharged my batteries and met some nice people before heading to the border of Peru and onto the next adventure.
It was a month long journey through Bolivia with extreme highs and some serious lows. Coming through on the other side I can certainly say that it was a challenge worth the time and effort. It is one of the most raw and beautiful countries I have ever been to. Biking here definitely has all of the rewards you can imagine. Getting away from the main roads is where the adventure happens and the light of the world sparks the engine for adventure inside your heart. Maybe it was the adrenaline of sheer cliffs or the pressure of thin air, but I look back with extreme fondness on my days in Bolivia. Here you can learn the true value of struggle.
*We are now at 195 donors and over 1/3 of the way to the schoolhouse in Shuid, Ecuador. Pretty awesome stuff! If you hung on and read this far, I am proud of you. I also like to honour the type of lessons I preach. Therefore, I will be sending every donor up to #200 a personal handwritten thank you letter in the mail. Your name will also appear in the next post. If you are lucky you may receive a letter from the Amazon as I head north. I know most people don’t collect stamps anymore, but I think that would be really cool location to get a letter from. But, that’s just me. Thank you for all of your support! CLICK HERE TO DONATE.
**At the moment I am riding in Peru, where the views are larger than life and the mountain climbs are monstrous. I spend most of my days huffing up massive hills as I head north and will eventually find my way down to the Amazon Basin. Here the road itself ends and I begin my great Amazon adventure towards Ecuador. Thanks for reading and stay tuned.
*** Below is a nicely written message from my walking friend, David, which I received around New Year. It is hard to stay in touch with everyone I have met along the way, but this is one chap I am always happy to hear from. Walking to India at A TASTE OF ANCIENT ROUTES.
“You are doing the ultimate and every day brings you closer to your final goal. This is for you my friend, when I think about your journey:
It can be tough, it can be a breeze;
some days are filled with hardship,
others gust with ease.
The people wave,
And smile and frown,
You pass them by,
Heading out of town.
The bed is hard,
the ground is your home,
Even if you feel it,
You’re ever alone;
Thoughts move in your brain
As you leave the road behind you,
Again, and again, and again.
“Paraguay is an island surrounded on all sides by land.” ~ Augusto Roa Bastos, Novelist
The idea of success and perseverance to a goal is only as difficult as our mind will allow. There is only one obstacle between us and our goals. The mind. This is what prevents us from making the best decisions for ourselves, finishing or starting that project and following our dreams. When I sat down to write this post, my mind wouldn’t let me continue. It said you have no good ideas, there are other things to worry about and no one really cares. I was in a bad mindset. There was only cannot and excuses. I gave up for days and the page lay blank. It’s not that I didn’t think I had a good story to tell, it was the inner slob pouring out. I was not in a mindset to feel the inspiration I needed.
However, it’s all in your head. You are only going to be successful at what you do, if you allow your mind to break free. Dreams, abilities, strengths and weakness are all linked to our internal perceptions of ourselves. One moment we could feel like we can conquer the world and the next we have trouble getting out of bed. Sometimes laying there I feel like this. I think that home is so far away. There wont be anything interesting to see today. I convince myself I feel tired, hungry and thirsty. These are all just excuses of the mind. When you get out there and start taking action, things begin to fall into place. The same goes for this post. The same goes for setting new goals for ourselves. The same goes for getting out of my warm sleeping bag and putting another day in on the bicycle. Ignoring the distractions our minds create for us and getting on with things is one of the most important tools for achieving new boundaries of personal potential. Without a clear mind on your side, you are lost.
“Gratitude is the least of virtues; ingratitude is the worst of vices.” ~ Paraguayan Proverb
I entered Paraguay via a ten minute ferry ride across Rio Iguazu from Argentina. I thought this would save time and a huge hassle at the renowned tri Argentina, Brazil & Paraguay crossing. All three countries meet at this point near Iguazu Falls. I found the ferry and immigration post easily enough, but was wrong about the time saver part. Not to bore you with Visa legality problems, but I will say I have an undeserving 600 Peso mark against me should I ever return to Argentina. There is also a border guard I am less than fond of now. In some places corruption prevails and no amount of truth will save you.
It was not the best way to leave Argentina, but soon all was forgotten and I was off riding in Paraguay. I sorted out some new country business and took the day to see the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. It was pretty impressive to say the least. Paraguay is not known for their sights. They have almost no mountains, it is terribly hot, landlocked and extremely flat in most areas. It is skipped over by most travelers and who cannot even say why they didn’t go. However, this was the country I had been dying to see since I arrived in South America. Some may wonder why I was so excited, but it was the sheer fact that I knew nothing that interested me the most. Very few tourists visit here and I was thrilled at the opportunity to cycle from one end of the country to the other.
At first when I got rolling the road had a similar feeling to the one behind me. Hill after hill in extreme humidity. Stopping every few minutes to wipe my face and stare at another impending hill. I took lots of breaks on my three day ride to the capital of Asunción. The people were very friendly and I was already happy with my choice to come. I often dove into air conditioned gas stations beat red to cool off and snacked on empanadas. Learn about and see delicious empanadas receipes HERE.
On my final day into the capital I had to push myself very hard. I was exhausted entering the city with buses spewing black smoke and stopping all over the road. It was very typical of entering many capital cities on my trip, but I was almost out of steam. In Paraguay they drink mate, the same as Brazilians and Uruguayans, but instead of hot they drink it ice cold. Smart if you ask me. Many people carry around jugs of ice water to go with their stimulating mate. One man likely seeing I was struggling up another hill, stopped his car and filled my water bottle with some of his ice cold water. It was exactly what I needed to get me through the final push to my hosts house in downtown Asunción.
When I arrived at Silvia’s house I was greeted by her amazing mother, who instantly began to feed me delicious foods. For the next few days I got caught up on my things, ate up to my ears, explored Asunción and shared stories with my gracious host. I also did a presentation on my ride at Canadian School and met another Quattrocchi. This was quite possibly the most extended and random of chance encounters on my trip, but one of the most interesting. Not everyday you meet someone with the same last name as you in Paraguay. I certainly had never met anyone with an uncommon name such a mine that I wasn’t related to. I ate a pile of cheesy fries and we shared stories about our lives and family histories out of Sicily.
Saying goodbye to a nice host, comfortable bed and security is never easy. However, setting out into the infamous Gran Chaco of Paraguay was even more difficult. It didn’t help that every person told me I was crazy. I had 850km of completely flat, semi-arid and mostly empty landscape ahead of me to the first town in Bolivia. Taking a photo goodbye I felt that same old tough feeling which is hard to describe. A sense of adventure welled up in me for the next stage, as did a longing for some normalcy in my life. Something predictable to hold onto is always a sneaking white rabbit for the long distance cyclist.
“Paraguay is a well-kept secret of South America; and its music is a passport to international recognition.” ~ Berta Rojas, Paraguayan Classical Guitarist
(Click below to listen to some of Berta Rojas beautiful classical guitar)
Setting out into the ‘Green Hell’ of the Chaco, as it has been dubbed by some, I quickly discovered it was very green but not as hellish as I thought it would be. The road was completely flat. I have been promised flat roads countless times on my journey, but they were all lies. This was the first time it was completely true. After the road behind, no amount of isolation could dampen my spirits.
On my first night into the Chaco I was looking for a place to camp. However, the sides of the road were all full of very tall grass or marshy land. The houses had disappeared and were taken over by massive cattle ranches that stretched way back into the distance. I could see disinterested cows grazing in between the palm trees to keep shade. It was very hot and I was ready to be off the road. Seeing an inviting looking ranch sign and a bench I pull off the road. I saw a man walking around a very long driveway back to the ranch and decided I’d ask to camp. I waved at him and after a moment he noticed me and began to approach. It took him about 5 minutes to get closer to me as I didn’t want to trespass before given permission so I remained there smiling. As the man got closer I realized he wasn’t carrying a stick, but a large shotgun. He had a bulletproof vest on and looked hardened. At this point returning to my bike and pedaling away would have been a poor choice and I knew at once the answer to my camping request would be a big fat no. I asked anyways and got the answer I was hoping for. No.
I bid a smiling farewell as he pointed down the road and claimed there was another place to camp. I tried not to look back as I rode, but he watched me until I was way out of sight. Whomever owned that ranch clearly did not want to be disturbed. I shrugged off my first failed attempt at camping and the next ranch welcomed me with open arms. I set up camp and fell into deep sleep until the rooster crowed the following morning. I awoke to a hoard of ants in my tent and danced like a crazy to shake them off me and out of my tent.
My days over the next week took a similar form as I plied across the flattest road to ever exist. Ride all day until a small village or gas station presented itself, stock up on supplies, mentally regroup and head back out into the green flat yonder. On one night one of the worst storms I have seen since Ethiopia descended upon me. It poured rain all night, blew my tent to pieces and I had a fitfully nightmarish sleep. Dreams of being swept away filled my moments of unconsciousness and my tent filled up with water. In the morning outside looked like a typhoon had hit and I was a personal disaster. I packed up my sopping wet things and set off to just get moving. My eyes kept closing on the road which had not seen a turn in a few days. The Chaco was now living up to the reputation I had heard of. However, the birdlife and butterflies were stunning. At times I found myself riding in nothing but butterflies. I felt like I was in some obscure Disney movie and the bottle trees looked like they were out of a Dr. Seuss book. I kept thinking of my favourite children’s book, ‘Oh, The Place You’ll Go’ and tried to remember the words as I rode. Back teaching Kindergarten in Sanya I used to read the book to my kids every few weeks, simply because I loved it so much.
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” ~ Dr. Seuss, Writer
Just when I thought that I was riding my bike into the back end of nowhere, civilization began to emerge. Shops with more than just stale crackers or aging empanadas emerged. I was entering which can only be described as a civilization within a country. The Mennonite towns began. Back in the 1930’s Mennonites avoiding persecution came to Paraguay from Russia, Germany and Canada. They came with the promise of religious freedom and to colonize Paraguay’s empty western frontier. To read more about the successes, struggles and history of the Paraguayan Mennonites CLICK HERE.
I rolled into the Mennonite capital of Filadelfia and found an organized society. Roads were on a grid system, the co-op was bursting with good food and everything seemed to run smoothly in the dusty town. Out of nothing these people had built their own society with functioning banks, a post office, nice hotels and a museum. I decided to take a peek at the museum for curiosity sake. I was given a full tour of three sections of the museum and a colonial house from a nice lady. The motto of the town was printed on one of the the walls as “The common good before personal interest.” When the lady asked me where I was staying that night, I told her I would camp somewhere outside town. She insisted I stay and sleep in an empty nearby classroom instead. Always one for strange vagabond sleep locations, I was thrilled. A nice man named Norbert was the grounds keeper and gave me Wi-Fi. He was sleeping in a dormitory next to the classroom and we made some jokes about being neighbors. “Keep it down in there!”, I banged on the wall. He was a lighthearted man. Before going to sleep I scratched ONE ADVENTURE PLEASE on the chalkboard, while a nighttime driving school class took place next door. I could smell my shoes in the corner of the room as I drifted into sleep.
I said a slow goodbye to the nice people in the morning and set out on the last few hundred kilometres to Bolivia. After a days ride I encountered the number one worst section of road on my trip. Straight well maintained road degraded into the most bumpy, patchy and completely destroyed piece of road I have ever seen. There are no nice words for this stretch of road which was once flat tarmac. I am told that it was only good for the inauguration and deteriorated soon after with all money scooped off in corruption to build a mirage. When inquiring about the state of the road one man just said, “Ask the President.”
I bumped through a terribly physical and emotionally crushing day. At some points I entered pot holes that were as tall as my bike as the only traffic, heavy oil trucks from Bolivia, carved deeper holes to find a path through the madness. At one point I was cycling just in front of one of these tanker trucks for over an hour. We were traveling the same speed forever, until he hit a flatter stretch and showered me in dust. In the heat and rocking of the road my mind began to play tricks on me. I hadn’t seen any life for hours and began to imagine a Jaguar prowling the Chaco was stalking me. In the corner of my eye I saw something move and I jerked to life in fright. My bike flipped sideways and crashed across the rough road. My leg was cut and bleeding. I looked behind to see the supposed Jaguar was nothing but a rogue cow. I laughed to myself and felt so ridiculous. Back to reality I came and pressed on until the pavement reappeared.
That night I camped out on the edge of a police booth and patched up my leg. I found some old looking empanadas and ate seven while looking like a zombie on a plastic chair as I lethargically swatted at hundreds of mosquitoes. During my dinner a tapir came out of the bushes and tried to take my dinner. With its’ weird nose and huge body it lumbered after me. Even though it was my first time to ever see this strange animal, I was not amused. The locals then joked I was eating tapir empanadas. I laughed politely, didn’t really care and escaped to my tent. I had one more day left of riding to reach Bolivia and I was worn out. Two more days to reach the first town on the Bolivian side. I told myself I could do it. My nose was burnt bright red and my energy levels were low. I was tired of the same old pasta and it was a mental drain each day to push forward.
My last day was a push to the border. I felt slightly sick and was tired of the slog on straight roads. After a few hours I had barely seen any traffic until three strange images emerged from the flat yonder as some touring cyclists. We chatted for over an hour and shared some cookies. It was exactly what I needed to make it to the border. When I arrived all of the border security were taking a day off, as it was Sunday, to play the most obscure game of volleyball I have ever witnessed. No hands were allowed. It was amazing to watch. There is no actual immigration here, it is more of a military post than anything. I had stamped out of Paraguay about 3 days before in Mariscal as protocol dictated. I had effectively not been in any country officially for the last little while. The one guard asked me if I wanted to join them and before I knew it he showed me to a nice cold shower, while the guards barbecued a delicious dinner. A nice end to a wonderfully difficult adventure I thought to myself as I went to sleep on a mattress laid out for me.
The Gran Chaco will stand as one of the greatest mental challenges of this trip. Though the road may have been completely flat, it is not for the unprepared or beginner. The Chaco will test every inch of your resolve and spit you out if you’re not careful. All of that being said, Paraguay stands as one of my favourite countries on the journey. It was the challenge I needed to refocus my future goals. I have many wonderful stories of the people along the way that I cannot fully share here now. The Chaco rejuvenated my love for the wild and seldom explored reaches of our planet. It made me remember why I started this journey in the first place. It made me feel that life pumping energy you get from exploring the new and unknown. It made me think about all that I hold dear in my life and thankful for the strength of mind to persevere. All of this has changed me into someone that is more adaptive than I ever thought possible.
As I pedaled on into Bolivia I thought, ‘Oh, the places you’ll go…’
*We are off to an awesome start with the fundraising towards the new schoolhouse in Shuid, Ecuador. In only a few short weeks we have already raised over 1/4 of the money to build the new schoolhouse. Beautiful work! A big thank you goes out to St. Joseph’s School in Toledo as well as J.L. Jordan for all of their hard fundraising. Seeing kids helping kids is one of the most rewarding parts of this experience. I would also like to thank close family and friends for getting the ball rolling as well. You are all wonderful people! Please CLICK HERE TO DONATE
**I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Last year I celebrated in India and a year later I am riding in Peru near the highest alpine lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. It is amazing where the world can take you. I am thankful for more things than I can count this holiday season. Updates on the beauty, struggle and challenge of Bolivia to come soon. Thank you for continuing to follow along!