2 wheels in the Andes

From Vilcabamba, Ecuador to Huancavelica, Peru

In 1979 Dervla Murphy walked across the Peruvian Andes from Cajamarca to Cusco. She was accompanied by her 9 year old daughter Rachel and a mule named Juana. I reread the account of her journey, 8 feet in the Andes, while cycling these same roads with my trusted steel mule. Dervla Murphy is one of those adventurers that through their writing lit a spark in me. I travelled through books, long before I jumped on my bike.

Like books, maps have the ability to let your imagination wonder. I followed every single one of the roads I am riding now with my finger on a map. I looked at rivers and contour lines trying to figure out how much it was going to hurt. As far as the roads in Peru, reality exceeds imagination.

After admiring the Andes in all its glory, Dervla Murphy wrote: ‘As a painting this scene would have seemed vulgar, as Andes it was superb’.

Somehow I think travelling was more exciting back then. There were still blank spots on the map. The condition of the roads was unknown, sometimes it wasn’t even sure if there was a road. I’m following a gps track which tells me where I can find water and shelter. I’m always following in someone else’s wheels.

According to Dervla Murphy, ‘the internet has brought a change in the very concept of travel as a proces taking one away from the familiar into the unknown. Now the familiar is not left behind and the unknown has become familiar even before one leaves home.’ It is not easy to finf the right balance, to let the excess of possibilities to communicate not stand in the way of the everyday experiences that make travelling worthwile.

However, it does not mean that travelling has become redundant. It never will, I think, because it is not a collective experience. It isn’t any less valuable because someone else already did it. Although I got access to a lot more information than Dervla Murphy in her time, I still don’t know what will be arround the bent. And I’m still curious to see what is arround that bent. Arround one partiular bent in the middle of la nada, I encountered a man playing the trumpet. Luckily these chance encounters do not appear on a gpx track. There wasn’t a pueblo nearby, there wasn’t an audience up until I arrived. I was struck by this man playing the trumpet in the middle of nowhere. A muscian without an audience must be truly free. That or the other inhabitants of his village were fed up by his constant trumpet playing and gave him an ultimatum. Switch to panflute or go play the trumpet in la nada.

Cycling in Peru makes me feel as the human equivalent of a jojo. It is up and down all the time. In the last 14 days I climbed 18 +4000m passes. I can’t remember the last time I rode 5km flat. Distance doesn’t matter anymore. I’m on this road, climbing and that is all that matters.

One afternoon I was stopped by a roadworker. I chatted with her while I was waiting for the road to open. I told her I came all the way from Alaska. She asked if I wasn’t tired. Yes, I told her, I’m really tired. It took quite some time and eventually the woman went over to the man in the digger to tell him to stop for a second so I could pass. I heard her yelling over the sound of the heavy machinery to stop working so the moto could pass. I couldn’t believe it. When passing by them I yelled ‘es una bicicleta, es una bicicleta’. Pride is a funny thing.

It is the human condition to look for comfort. Cycling in the Peruvian Andes is the antidote of this. It is hard, but it is supposed to be hard. I’m measuring myself against the elements. I want to put myself to the test. See how much I still have left when I think everything is gone. To wake up day after day and find myself surrounded by mountains. Those first rays of sunshine on a frozen tent. To gasp for air while simultanously admiring the view on yet another pass. To fight against the howling winds and to shiver from the cold. It is the absence of comfort that provides me with the unmistakable sense of being free.

2 thoughts on “2 wheels in the Andes”

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