Just Deserts

Hunkered in our hostel with a frosty carton of rocky road wedged between us, Aidan and I cheers'd our camp spoons and dug into the celebratory half-gallon. We were in Chile. At last. Aside from intermittent mmm's, we sat facing the wall in dead, reflective silence. Our overpriced room serving its sunblock purpose well. The coolness of the tile floor preserved with tightly sealed curtains. Every bite accompanied by a contemplative gaze, thinking back on the sufferfest we'd just endured. Aidan eventually broke the calorie consumption silence to comment on our respective ice cream excavation techniques. My spoon, like a backhoe, dug from top to bottom, removing boulderous bites. A cavern of visible carton floor. While Aidan, the bite allocator, strategically skimmed the top inch or so, savoring, and making it look like he'd hardly put any of it away. Choosing not to read into our differing techniques as an analogy for anything more profound, I continued to race towards the bottom.
 
We both lost weight in Bolivia. Myself a few lbs, Aidan more than fifteen. Crossing into Chile via the remote Lagunas route, it was impossible to schlep enough food. Bolivia, in general, was not easy eating. Other cyclists warned us of the chicken and rice monotony, but our route choices made it difficult to find even those things in tandem. Mostly pecking from tienda shelves consisting of crackers and candy, meals were a bleak affair. Any opportunity for something hot was approached with foolish enthusiasm. The bar had dropped. And the sight of señoras pushing wheelbarrowed food carts through the blazing midday sun was seducing. A ratty blanket pulled back to reveal a smattering of potato pots, rice, noodles, sloppery soups, slippery slops and mystery meat. The ultimate dice roll. Aidan loves to charade a dice shake and release onto the table as if to say, "We're really doing it, see you on the other side." One lunch consisted of plain white rice, plain noodles and boiled potatoes. And not a morsel of flavor more. The vegetarian option. And another, conversely, panza—cow stomach. If Aidan is guilty of Boy Scout bullshit, then I, of language lies. While he confidently, yet falsely identifies bird species and wind direction, I've got a nasty habit of pretending to understand indecipherable Spanish mumbling. "She's super nice," I report back to Aidan after chatting with the fast-talking señora serving lunch. "Chicken. She's got chicken." It wasn't until a big pile of gamey, stomach-churning stomach was placed in front of us that I admitted to having no idea what she'd actually said. "But she was so nice," I insisted. Cue the dice roll.
 
When left to our own devices, Bolivian menu highlights included greyed anchovies, saltine crackers dipped in tubbed margarine, white bread sandwiched between saltines and when dessert rolled around, saltines dipped in strange, artificially sweetened jam. A creation we call jelly donuts. In my best school dance DJ voice, "Who's ready for a jelly D'eeeee?!" To which Aidan would respond, "Oh, is it time to eat again?" Condescending, but justified. Progress severely impaired many days by my incessant snack stop requests.
 
But who could (n)ever forget the great tuna meltdown of 2017? Aptly named by Aidan after feeling especially sorry for myself and choosing to salt the tuna with my tears. A long list of coinciding physical ailments make it less pathetic, but I'll confess a low point and digress.
 
It's not a well-kept secret that the timing of Bolivia, for me, was rough. Reflected in my tone of voice, family and friends began asking how we were really doing. Aidan's mother started to sign off her e-mails with "take care of each other." My brother Luke, a comic illustrator/aficionado—armed with fantasy/sci-fi references—wrote:
 
There's a point in all stories called the "all is lost" period. It's right before the climax of any given story. This is where either the mentor dies (like Obi-Wan Kenobi or Gandalf), and everything seems a little darker than it should in the exotic setting in which characters reside. Or things simply become a bit weary in their own way and the story characters have to persevere. You guys must be exhausted, but if the story pans out, you're in for the most glorious of third acts.
 
Bolivia was not all lost. It's just that nothing was easy. A place that required more work and planning than we had the energy for. Than I had the energy for. If Peru was one sick joke after another, as I told Aidan, then Bolivia was the punchline. Bolivia burnout. More likely, bike burnout. The process of packing and unpacking, perpetually searching for small comforts, was wearing me down. In between air mattress breaths, "Some day we'll sleep in a bed again." And while meticulously packing panniers, "Some day we'll just put a few things in our pockets and leave the house." A romanticized oversimplification of regular life. Classic case of wanting what you don't have. Pangs for home leave me feeling guilty. Disappointed that I am not better at "living in the moment." Easier said on a crafty coffee shop sign than done. I respect, but don't entirely trust other cyclists we encounter with excessively positive attitudes. I know that Bolivia is a beautiful country—now tell me something original, and honest. Something humanizing. There is comfort in commiseration.
 
Any time an airplane passes overhead, I fixate on the mesmerizing jetstream and whisper, "heeeelp." What began as a joke suited to particularly well-timed flights amidst challenging road sections became Every. Single. Plane.
 
I threw my bike in Bolivia, again.
 
And gave a scarecrow an impassioned piece of my mind. My eyesight hasn't been the same since corrective surgery and I just wanted the man on the hillside to stop fucking staring. Aidan has come to detect the fragility in these moments and sensitively resists jokes until the following morning.
 
Although not overly welcoming, I genuinely respect Bolivians for their ability to make it work. And the country for not taking it easy on us. Just challenging enough to redirect daydreams from good friends/fancy eats to drinking water and basic shelter. Bolivia really knows how to put things into perspective—to force you to live in the moment, for the moment cannot be ignored.
 
Our life exists almost entirely outdoors. Weeks pass and we've only gone inside to buy food. When again in our lives will we have the freedom (read lack of responsibility) to exist this way? What a shame it would be to allow such a strange series of surprises to pass unappreciated. Sometimes Aidan pauses in the middle of breakfast prep and exhales a heartfelt, "Ahhh, this is the best." Sorting through a big pour of cowboy coffee—and with a gritty grin—I nod in agreement.
 
I will miss the daily ambushings. Nothing is predictable. The frustrating, but colorful details in a place like Bolivia make for an endless roll of head shakes and good stories. No more brass band all-nighters. Or steaming piles of stomach. Pueblo-wide searches for a loaf of bread or a few bananas will soon be behind us. In Portland, we know how things operate. And where everything is. I only hope that as we stare at a sea of perfectly color-coordinated produce at the store that we take a moment to reflect on what obtaining veggies once entailed.
 
Estoy buscando verduras, nada mas.
"Hi, I'm here for the veggies."
 
Como estan?
"How's everyone doing?"
 
Met with a sea of blank stares, I made a nervous effort to meet the eyes of the ten or so women scattered around the mud courtyard. Craning around the clothesline to include everyone. An 8-year-old girl had guided me by the hand from the village plaza directly into her home after learning that I was looking for vegetables. Anything other than candy and crackers, really. Most of the villages along the route were "dry" and our dietary desperation was real. In classic Bolivia fashion, the women needed time to warm up to the idea of me. They stared in apprehension and I stared back, smiling stupidly, hoping they couldn't sense my discomfort.
 
"Muy malo," one of the woman doing laundry finally replied.
 
In all of my introductory Spanish, I've never actually heard anyone respond negatively. There is a formulaic conversational exchange that ensures you are fine, regardless of how you are actually doing. Entire phrase books are published on this premise. I asked if it was because of all the dirty clothes that needed washing and everyone broke into laughter.
 
Yeah, I guess that was pretty funny.
 
After letting me sweat through a few more minutes of interrogative small talk, I was handed a plastic bag and motioned to follow. From tattered potato sacks in the corner of the room, the woman scooped peas, potatoes and even an onion into my treat bag. I gasped with sincere excitement at each new addition while the young girl responsible for all of it, just giggled. It was amusing. A gringo, dressed weird, trick-or-treating for vegetables. After they refused payment, I assumed my sweet laundry joke was enough to cover the tab. A million thanks and a slow backwards walk towards the plaza where I'd left Aidan. Proudly holding a similarly-earned bag of carrots, we'd successfully navigated the remote Bolivian village vegetable challenge.
 
And now, after a brief dip into Chile, we are officially in Argentina. Our final country—though will cross back and forth between the two a few more times. The contrast between Bolivia and South America's wealthiest countries is jarring. There is money, and infrastructure and a lot of vegetables. A hell of a lot of space too. After ten days of desert camping, we're taking a timeout in wine country. Empty tinto boxes multiply on our hostel floor and show no sign of slowing down. The villages dotting our route from the border felt like another world—one in which stereotypes are the reality. Vino aplenty. Gauchos in character. Neighborhood butchers. Sunday barbecues. Six-hour siestas. Our meals now consist of fruit, cheese, salami and chocolate chip cookies. We are adjusting just fine. And are prepared for the most glorious of third acts.

 Descending Ruta 40's Abra Del Acay in Argentina. As the country's highest road, you can't help but think it's going to be easier from here. The kilometer signs tick away the remaining distance to Ushuaia/penguins at the end of Ruta 40...4623 is still a very big number.

Descending Ruta 40's Abra Del Acay in Argentina. As the country's highest road, you can't help but think it's going to be easier from here. The kilometer signs tick away the remaining distance to Ushuaia/penguins at the end of Ruta 40...4623 is still a very big number.

 From the Chilean border, we descended roughly 12,000' into Argentinian wine country—the landscape continually changing over the course of a few days. This was the last of the high, dry altiplano that we'd been riding since Bolivia. 

From the Chilean border, we descended roughly 12,000' into Argentinian wine country—the landscape continually changing over the course of a few days. This was the last of the high, dry altiplano that we'd been riding since Bolivia. 

 Not quite making it to the top of the pass has its advantages/consequences. Sun soaked/wind whipped campsite at 15,200'.

Not quite making it to the top of the pass has its advantages/consequences. Sun soaked/wind whipped campsite at 15,200'.

 Greenery—a welcome addition to the landscape. A vast river canyon lined with giant cacti and farmland offered up plenty of perfect camp spots. 

Greenery—a welcome addition to the landscape. A vast river canyon lined with giant cacti and farmland offered up plenty of perfect camp spots. 

 It's warm if you're out of the wind, but that place doesn't exist. 

It's warm if you're out of the wind, but that place doesn't exist. 

 Bandaid fix is no fix at all.

Bandaid fix is no fix at all.

 Much of Northern Argentina is reminiscent of the American Southwest. This church in El Trigal does its best Santa Fe.

Much of Northern Argentina is reminiscent of the American Southwest. This church in El Trigal does its best Santa Fe.

 The Valle De Las Rocas is an incredible array of wildly eroded sandstone. Like a Rorshach Test, what you see in the rocks is a telling insight into your psyche. 🐧

The Valle De Las Rocas is an incredible array of wildly eroded sandstone. Like a Rorshach Test, what you see in the rocks is a telling insight into your psyche. 🐧

 Camped in the wash. The wind is blowing, wild donkeys are braying and the sock tuck technique reduces ants in the pants.  

Camped in the wash. The wind is blowing, wild donkeys are braying and the sock tuck technique reduces ants in the pants.  

 "Doing the dishes" consists of splashing a tiny bit of water around and then rubbing off visible bits with your fingers. Flavor for later, we say. 

"Doing the dishes" consists of splashing a tiny bit of water around and then rubbing off visible bits with your fingers. Flavor for later, we say. 

 The view out the kitchen window.  

The view out the kitchen window.  

 Aidan celebrating the one morning of the trip that he was ready first. As I rushed to finish brushing my teeth he shouted "Time!" six inches from my face, like a drill sargearnt. It was all rock top dance moves until discovering his two flat tires moments later. There is justice. 

Aidan celebrating the one morning of the trip that he was ready first. As I rushed to finish brushing my teeth he shouted "Time!" six inches from my face, like a drill sargearnt. It was all rock top dance moves until discovering his two flat tires moments later. There is justice. 

 The fuzzy cacti of the upper Ruta 40.  

The fuzzy cacti of the upper Ruta 40.  

 Don't play with your food.  

Don't play with your food.  

 I'll catch up.

I'll catch up.

 Northern Argentina Viagriculture.

Northern Argentina Viagriculture.

 The long gaps between towns crossing the Chile/Argentina border meant inevitable supply shortages. The long gaps in anything but stupid oatmeal for breakfast mean you're-damn-right-we're-putting-the-cookies-in-there.

The long gaps between towns crossing the Chile/Argentina border meant inevitable supply shortages. The long gaps in anything but stupid oatmeal for breakfast mean you're-damn-right-we're-putting-the-cookies-in-there.

 It's the simple pleasures.  

It's the simple pleasures.  

 Dani Raúl and man disgusted at the photographer's request to say "queso." 

Dani Raúl and man disgusted at the photographer's request to say "queso." 

 Last of the remaining winter snow.  

Last of the remaining winter snow.  

 Made in the shade. When life squeezes lemons in your eye, crying is the best way to make lemonade.  

Made in the shade. When life squeezes lemons in your eye, crying is the best way to make lemonade.  

 Chile/Argentina border. Paso de Sico. 

Chile/Argentina border. Paso de Sico. 

 His and her gear sunning in an abandoned llama pen.  

His and her gear sunning in an abandoned llama pen.  

 Andean Flamingos poking around a freezing Bolivian laguna. Whatever keeps those pink flapper toes warm, we want it. 

Andean Flamingos poking around a freezing Bolivian laguna. Whatever keeps those pink flapper toes warm, we want it. 

 The Lagunas Route through Southwest Bolivia is famous/infamous among cyclists for its beauty and challenging roads. Looking out across a blood red lake filled with pink flamingos and icebergs is almost worth spending eight days pushing through half a foot of kitty litter.

The Lagunas Route through Southwest Bolivia is famous/infamous among cyclists for its beauty and challenging roads. Looking out across a blood red lake filled with pink flamingos and icebergs is almost worth spending eight days pushing through half a foot of kitty litter.

 Laguna Colorada is Spanish for colored laguna.

Laguna Colorada is Spanish for colored laguna.

 Even though things seem remote, hundreds (dozens?) of jeeps filled with adventure tourists tore past us every day. Their only redeeming quality being that sometimes they offer goodies. We asked for water and got the Bolivian equivalent—2 liters of cyclist motor oil. 

Even though things seem remote, hundreds (dozens?) of jeeps filled with adventure tourists tore past us every day. Their only redeeming quality being that sometimes they offer goodies. We asked for water and got the Bolivian equivalent—2 liters of cyclist motor oil. 

 A very cold campsite complete with a front yard's worth of penitentiary—ice stalagmytes that seem to grow upwards as they slowly melt down from their former snowdrift-selves.  

A very cold campsite complete with a front yard's worth of penitentiary—ice stalagmytes that seem to grow upwards as they slowly melt down from their former snowdrift-selves.  

 Lagunas come in all shapes and colors. 

Lagunas come in all shapes and colors. 

 Dusty alien landscape before the Argentinian border.  

Dusty alien landscape before the Argentinian border.  

 Not our best campsite. The slight rise behind the tent was the product of a half hour search for wind protection. The blowing grit comes from all sides but due to the tent's mesh, only the finest of sands coat you/your face in the night.  

Not our best campsite. The slight rise behind the tent was the product of a half hour search for wind protection. The blowing grit comes from all sides but due to the tent's mesh, only the finest of sands coat you/your face in the night.  

 Our big panniers double as cushy camp seats. Pretty sure this is sacrilege among the gear nerd cyclists of the world but, our butts hurt.  

Our big panniers double as cushy camp seats. Pretty sure this is sacrilege among the gear nerd cyclists of the world but, our butts hurt.  

 Brown desert gettin' greener.  

Brown desert gettin' greener.  

 Utopia! A campground in the process of being built up by two wonderful travelers Martina and Johan. They intercepted us on the road and invited us back to swap stories and sleep under the grape vines.  

Utopia! A campground in the process of being built up by two wonderful travelers Martina and Johan. They intercepted us on the road and invited us back to swap stories and sleep under the grape vines.  

 Wandering off towards a winery. 

Wandering off towards a winery.