Birthday and Biking to the Bolivian Border

I’m back in Argentina, although I’d hardly know it. I came to a very different Argentina this time. I landed in Buenos Aires after two days of travel from Honduras and three airports. I breezed through immigration, quickly caught the shuttle into town, rushed to Florida Street with my backpack in tow to change dollars (yes, on the street, more on that later), and did my best impersonation of a run, which was perhaps more like a fast, unattractive waddle to the bus station. I jumped aboard a 26 hour bus ride to Jujuy in the north with 10 minutes to spare, and felt quite proud that all of this had been possible so quickly because I had become familiar with Buenos Aires and my Spanish is getting better.

“They say” you can tell a lot about a person by the company he/she keeps. My most consistent company this year has been “The Great Dane”, Henrik. If what “they say” is true, you’ll find me to be a curious person, passionate about experiences, interactions, learning and photography to capture it all. It’s worked out quite well that his patient, challenging and beautiful pace of travel by bike has matched my style of lingering and soaking in the places I visit. So for one last time in Argentina, I was able to meet up with my friend and share some more adventures.

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Jujuy is a city, and is probably often skipped by travelers as it doesn’t have any shining star attractions per se. I really liked it though; I see that as a great opportunity to just wander and notice little things and witness life en vivo. While I didn’t remotely blend, it was fascinating to be the only two gringos in town for a couple of days. There’s a pretty cathedral and we had a wonderful experience pulling up some stools at a street food stand in the market to try some comidas regionales. We had tamales y humitas (like a tamale, a tad more sweet, more likely to be filled with cheese perhaps), and locro (a stew of maíz, beans, pork, beef, sausage).

I woke up on my birthday to the sounds of a parade. Looking out the window onto the street below it was more of a procession for a saint: some brass instruments, a flowered shrine and a couple dozen people following along. This turned into a regular occasion my last couple of weeks in the north…interesting.

A few of my friends had given me cards 6 months ago to open on my birthday. I thought it was the sweetest thing then, but to sit there in the morning and hear from them was truly amazing. I hope I’m a reflection of this company that I keep as well because these women constantly blow my mind. Thank you Katie Mason, Lindsay Vogt, and Susan Lambert!!!

I love to spend my birthday in nature, followed by some live music and awesome company, with my Mom traditionally telling me the story of my birth…it’s fun to see how that works out and this year did not fail me. I walked around the tiny, dusty streets of the little gem called Purmamarca. I had lunch, with wine of course, and the company of a very photogenic 5 year old and his kitten. I walked around the cerro de siete colores…the trail was full of green mountains, orange ones, purple ones, peppered with the towering cordones cacti. I stopped at an artists’ workshop and told him it was my birthday. He was more excited than I was! He poured some maté for us (a prolific Argentine cultural experience that I will write about at some point)…basically it’s a type of tea drank from a gourd and is shared. We watched the llamas against the backdrop of gorgeous alpenglow and he showed me a black and white photo of his Mom in New York in the 40s. Bliss!! Henrik then arrived en bici and we went to dinner, eating llama, drinking local wines and listening to folklore music. So far so good, for 33!

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The next day took us to Tilcara, where I decided it was time again to rent a bike and join my cycling friend for a much longer and more rigorous “cycle-tour” this time. I cycled with him to the Bolivia border, which I believe was about ~225km of cycling at about 12,000+ft of altitude, gaining 700m of altitude on one day alone. I like to think of myself as a fit person and that’s important to me, but I hadn’t been training for this and had just come from sea level (or below sea level with all of the diving!). We were quite unlucky with facing headwinds, side winds…actually I named our ride “Anything but tailwinds”. As is often the case with something you hear about, but haven’t tried…I never realized the implications of how much impact the wind has on this kind of travel.

One day in particular, I could not even look up at the horizon and surrounding landscape, my bike was almost toppled over twice from wind force, and I think I may have been growling out loud in a physical fight with the wind. I started picking trees on the horizon and just trying to make it to those trees. And to be perfectly honest, my butt really hurt! One night we didn’t make it to the town we were aiming for and the town we did reach was somewhat of an abandoned mine town with no where to stay. We ended up paying some guys to bring us mattresses and blankets to use in a dusty, old, concrete room in an abandoned train station. Remember it is winter here right now and temperatures are freezing at night. What an experience!

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This trip was so many things for me: First of all, I was proud. It was extremely difficult, but I like a physical challenge and I did it. It was a beautiful pace to see the world and a new way to be with nature. I love trying new things and learning and processing my experience (still doing that). It was a lot of time to think. I thought about everything from my heart bursting from gratitude or bursting from the challenge of the ride, thought about my parents celebrating their 38 wedding anniversary and what makes a soul mate or true love, I tried to think in Spanish to continue my practice and unfortunately I also spent more time than I cared to thinking about the wind. I talked to the wind, sometimes arguing, sometimes begging, sometimes trying to see a lesson. I talked to my body…yes out loud even. I thought about my intentions for the year that I set in a rose garden in Buenos Aires and how they are playing out and what my next move is. Lately, I’ve been thinking so much about the friends in my life and family at home and just exactly what each and every one of them have given to me and why I specifically miss them and how much I love them. If that sounds cheesy or cliché, I’ll accept that. It’s truly how I feel.

We started in a canyon and moved to high altitude plains. We passed llamas, the endangered vicuña, sand dunes and spectacular mountains of all sorts of colors. We stayed in tiny adobe towns, rich with bright colored handicrafts, the popular ponchos (not to be confused with panchos which means hot dogs 🙂 ), and hats that kind of look like top hats on both the men and women. Their faces had changed dramatically from southern Argentina as well, and were rounder and darker and looked more indigenous and Bolivian in nature.

In Humahuaca, we hiked up to the monument and took pictures of the mighty cordones at night, enjoyed local cuisine of queso de cabra and quinoa, and went to see the most magnificent pink, zigzag mountains that to me resemble rhodochrosite (the country stone of Argentina and the state stone of Colorado). We spent an amazing day in the remote town of Iruya, which we actually bused to. You shouldn’t go if you have a fear of heights and winding mountain roads. The town is made of steep, cobbled streets where donkeys roam freely, kids carry baby goats around and the people prefer not to be photographed.

We hiked up to a lookout where we watched swooping condors and the mountains that rippled with green, blue, orange, and purple. We met a couple that we joined for coffee and an impromtu Spanish lesson, and then finished the evening with a película (movie) at the cultural center, learning about the region’s history in Spanish. In Abra Pampa, we spent hours playing the Gran Bingo in the central plaza with what seemed to be the entire town sitting in silence, hoping for their numbers to be called. We lost, but it was a great experience and people seemed to find it fun that we were playing and wanted to help us too. We made it to La Quiaca, which seemed to be a crumbling, abandoned town that was mainly a border crossing and from there went to the very remote and tiny town of Yavi.

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Challenging, absolutely, but I’m really happy that I decided to go after this adventure, and grateful for the patience of someone cycling around the world to let me have a sneak peak into his world. We’ve had a lot of adventures, deep conversations and laughs the last several months, and I wish Henrik the best on the next two years of travel around the rest of the world. As for me, I’m loving the things that I’m thrilled and challenged to be diving back into…Spanish and continuing my exploration of this awesome country.

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3 thoughts on “Birthday and Biking to the Bolivian Border

  1. This is truly a journey. I could feel your struggle biking uphill against the wind. I’m out of breath and my heart is pounding. How did you get the photograph of both of you biking?? Thanks for putting me in touch with part of the world I never imagined I would. Love your journey, love you.
    So glad you had a happy birthday!

  2. WOW, I truly enjoyed reading of your travels. I felt as if I was part of the ride by the way you shared it. Thank you. Be proud. You are an amazing woman! Be safe. Be well. Journey on.

  3. Just stumbled on your blog Erin. What an amazing experience. I have always been such a scared cat and at 66 don’t think that’s going to change. I envy your adventuresome journey. What a great way to spend your birthday. The pictures were breathtaking and the faces on the children so curious. Be safe and enjoy the rest of your trip. Linda Pfeiffer

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