Monday, May 21, 2007

last ride

It turns out biking without panniers is way easier. For our last stage we dropped the bags at our hostel and headed up the northern slope of the Merida valley. When we topped out we found ourselves out of the jungle, riding along a snakey road through the Andes. We saw mountains covered in those big soft cloud banks you always see in hot air ballooning documentaries, a guy on a scooter who used to live in Yonkers with forgotten English, and each other. After eating peanuts we turned around and whizzed back to town. Bull went to fast and ended up in a ditch and everyone sang songs. We can´t wait to play with everybody when we get back.

Reaching the Coast

Roundhouse kick!

Some days we do not bike at all. Sometimes we just put on dirty bike gloves and pretend to be tired and watch tv. And then I do photoshoots of dorky boys in spandex watching tv. You could join us next time.

Gran Sabana

Here some pics from the Gran Sabana near the Venezuelan/Brazilian border. This was probably some of our best riding in Venezuela - flat roads, big crazy looking tepuis and waterfalls everywhere. Plus Venezuela is nuts about Gatorade, a special treat after the poison water of Bolivia. Remember in Willa Cather books when the well got poisoned and everybody got sick and Ma and Pa had stay up all night nursing their fevered little ones? That is what Bolivia feels like all the time. But Venezuelan water has been pretty good so far; check out this sweet waterfall made completely out of jasper. Wow, beautiful!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Wind and waves

After an extra night stuck in San Felix as the result of a broken hub we took off for the north and the last 400km of our journey to the coast. However, try as we might to escape the un-endearing urban sprawl of that great city, we couldn´t. Kilometer after kilometer we were cozily wedged up next to 18 wheelers as our bikes teetered on the narrow shoulder. Eventually the highway dead-ended on a river, at which point we boarded a free ferry loaded with an unusually high number of crazies, even by south american free ferry standards. After shooing away a couple of 3 card monte hustlers, some beggars, and one man who was determined lob spanish gibberish at us for the duration of the ride we had a group huddle and came to the unanimous decision that it would be a wise decision to try to hitchhike the next 160 km to Maturin, so an not to tempt fate, which had been especially generous to us up to that point. As we got off the ferry a good samaritan with a truck offered to take us to the point where passing trucks picked up hitchhikers. When we arrived it was the early afternoon and we plopped down beside the liquor store / gas station (a unique Venezulan institution that says a lot about the prevailing sentiment towards drinking and driving) and waited for a ride. We were surrounded by kilometers of pine tree farms in every direction. People often stopped, not to offer us a ride, but to tell us how incredibly dangerous this part of Venezuela was. They often stuck their thumb up while extending their index finger, so as to emphasize the expression "muchas pistolas." Needless to say, we were thrilled. One hour turned into three and four and the falling sun created an ominous crimson sky over the tall stands of pine trees. Still no ride. We stopped a passing police truck and asked if there was anyway we could sleep at the police station that night. The police obliged and, as it was almost dark, gave us an escort to the station where we crashed hard in the sweltering heat and woke up right at dawn to make the journey toward Maturin. Less than a dozen kilometers after the police station the road opened up to a wide, luxurious shoulder, the traffic lessened and we completed the remaining 130 km by 2:30 that afternoon. An air conditioned hotel room and a schmorgosborg of delicious chinese food followed soon thereafter.

The next day was mostly the same Venezuelan crap. Flat road, road kill, broken glass, the acrid smell of burning garbage mixed with the acrid smell burning grassland, 95 degrees, 95% humidity, but as evening approached the road gained some curves and climbed into the mountains. The scorched expanse surrounding the road turned into amber fields encompassed by verdant peaks. We camped at a gorgeous lake and ate animal shaped pastas for dinner.

The next morning we saddled up and faced the 30km climb to cueva del guacharo, which is one of the world´s largest caves filled with some 15,000 guacharo, or oilbirds. They are the only nocturnal, fruit-eating species of bird and they use echolocation, aided by the help of audible clicks, to find their way in the dark caves in which they roost. Along the way we stopped at a few strawberry and cream shops and engorged ourselves on this regional delicacy.

We took a long lunch in the town of Caripe and made it to the cave just after the last tour where we learned that the cave would be closed to visitors for the next two days. Nonetheless, we still got to watch the birds make their nightly exit from the cave to forage.

I (Harris) woke up at 4:30 to the sound of the birds returning to roost. I made my way quietly to the entrance of the cave to see the birds pouring back into the cave´s mouth. Steping over the limp chain guarding the entrance I turned on my head lamp. I made it about two steps in before making a hasty retreat. There is something especially unnerving about entering a strange, behemoth cave, alone and under the cover of night. Of course Freud would have a thing or two to say about this, but I think the squawking birds flying low over my head were a major contributing factor to my unease, I later found out that they do not take kindly to light in their roost. I made another approach into the cave and took four hearty steps before jettisoning out again. The third try was the charm; holding my hand over my head lamp so that it shone only a sliver of light I walked the kilometer long tourist path into the cave to see massive stalactites and stalagmites, oilbirds, and cave mice darting in front of my path. But to tell the truth, it was dark, and I saw only shadows of those things.

We got out of camp before seven and by eleven the atlantic lay before us. I had envisioned us jumping off our bikes as we got to the ocean: running into the warm water jubilant, snapping pictures, splashing water, pumping our fists in the air in victory. Of course it was not quite like that. There was no ocean access and our day´s goal, Cumana, still lay more than 40km away. The ocean breeze barely tempered the mid-day heat and soon the quiet road coming down from the mountains was turned into a boiling coastal thruway with trucks careening past us at incredible speeds. We made it to the city by the late afternoon, dehydrated and very tired of hecklers who had hurled insults, sexual advances, and all manner of drunken gibberish at us all day. We celebrated with a few beers before passing out at ten and planned to make our way to the backpacker´s town of Santa De the next afternoon for a few days of r and r.

An hour before taking off, the owner of the hostel came to talk to me with a grave face.
"You are going to Santa Fe this afternoon?" he asked
"Sure are," I replied, "I hear it´s relaxing-"
He cut me off with broken english, "Do not go. For your lives. It is no joke."
It turned out that there was a non-trivial amount of civil unrest there, somehow related to a drug war, and that biking through there, never mind staying there would be especially unwise, not that any us of were all that excited to bike to Caracas along that busy highway anyway.

There is that haiku about the flexible reed lasting longer in the storm. We booked a ferry for the tropical island of Isla margarita for the next morning and by that evening we were eating seafood on the north side of the island and watching the sunset over the water. We hung out at the town of juan griego for a couple of days and then Ben, Thea and I took off to the other side of the island for the windsurfing capital of south america, El Yaque, while Matt did a circumlocution of the island and promised to meet up with us in a day.

None of us lasted more than two days windsurfing, as the muscles necessary for that sport are exactly the same muscles that had atrophied while biking. However, we did get a good arm work out carrying cases of beer from the nearby minimart and some cardio looking for the remote to the DVD player (Luckily, the air conditioner remote had its own wall mount). In the evenings we had dinner with a pair of swedes we had met on the first night, told stories, and played yatzee and other assorted games. In the day time we worked through an ardours schedule of sleeping in, going to the beach, watching movies, and eating. Oh, this is why people go on vacation, we realized. However, our thighs started to twitch with agitated impatience and after four nights, we had to go.

We are now back on the coast. Tomorrow we take a bus to Merida, a city in the mountains of western Venezuela where we will hopefully have a few more days of thigh expanding experiences before heading back home to the good ol´ US of A.

So close,

Team CP

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Venezuela rapido

Venezuela is fast, fast, fast. Got into Santa Elena on the border, had a beer with Ben´s cousin, traded some currency on the Venezuelan black market to avoid artifical inflation by the Venezuelan government, saw some tepuis (huge plateaus rising out of beautiful grassland) and then go, go, go. We´ve been moving through the searing hot landscape like cheetas, and now we´re in San Felix with only 400km to go. If you ever win a contest to come to San Felix, politely decline. Riddle: What do you get when you mix 5 parts urban decay with 1 part mall? (Hint: I´m writing from it right now.) From here on out we´re riding with our heads in front of our handle bars, mouths agape, so we can taste the sea salt on the tips of our tongues.

Team CP

Saturday, April 21, 2007


Hey Eric and I went to hockey camp together when we were twelve. Then we rowed boats together when we were 18. Then we were miners for a day when we were 23 in Potosi. Pretty soon we are going to enter into a platonic life partnership. We´re just waiting for some sort of federal recognition; you know, medical power of attorney and tax exemptions and stuff like that.

Gavin Newsom is the man.

Last night we went to the opera. It was like a regular opera except instead of being inside the opera house it was outside and instead of paying 5000 dollars for seats we had to pay zero dollars. About three thousand people showed up and they all payed zero dollars too. I think someone made friends with an Amazonian financier. There were carnival floats and sopranos and a drum band and dancers in revealing outfits and a symphony and churros and about 8 megatron tvs projecting all the fun in minute detail. Then there were fireworks and I thought about the 4th of July back home.

Basically Manaus is a great city. Yesterday we went to a buffet lunch where they brought us meat and swords and then used another smaller sword, otherwise known as a knife, to cut off pieces of meat to strategically land on your plate. It was delicious. After that it was on to the ice cream buffet where you pay by the kilogram. Imagine that.

Outdoor Opera in Manaus

The first night of an opera festival- flashy dancer distracts the audience from singing priest. Don´t you love Brazil?

River Boat: Porto Velho to Manaus

Three days and three nights in a hammock sounds tranquilo, but things turned surprisingly dramatic. The clock struck midnight on the second night and a teenage boy decided to steal a box of golden strappy sandals from underneath the hammock of a middle-aged shoe salesman. The young punk tried selling the sandals, so when the salesman found a woman on the boat wearing those very shoes, trouble ensued. There was a police boat arrest and the boy is now stuck in a jail in a tiny town along the Madeira river – there are no lawyers nearby so he will be waiting and waiting for a court date. It seems unfair that we played dominoes.

Friday, April 20, 2007

A Tale of Two Busses

(Harris getting some mud out from between his toes and surveying the scene)

As we sat in Rurre on our last night, enjoying a unique Bolivian tradition known as 2 for 1 happy hour we made the rather astute observation that we were facing a very large continent : time ratio. A few back of the envelope calculations showed clearly that moving at our current rate we were destined to spend approximately -3 weeks in Venezuela, give or take. A BUS! A BUS! We realized that was our solution. A deal with the devil maybe, less biking, more time wedged between fat ladies with narrow notions of personal space, but it was our best option, as we saw it.

We arrived at the bus station at 7:30 the next morning for an 8:00 bus slated to make the 500 km journey to the border between bolivia and brazil in about 18 hours, give or take. There was a bit of rain as we peddled to the bus station and we'd heard that it was possible in the rainy season for the journey to take as many as 3 days because of deteriorating roads. 3 days for 500 km though? Really? We saw this figure as an outside bound, two standard deviations from the norm, more of a statistical anomaly than anything else. We pointed to the figure in the guide book and laughed. Sure would feel sorry for those 3 day bastards.

By 8 the rain had picked up, by 8:30 the sky was filled with a cube of water. 9, 9:30, 10: ditto. The bus arrived and at 11 the bus driver decided that it was now or never. We clamored on and took our seats in the back of the bus. The bus rumbled on at break neck pace, bump, bump, BUMP, bump. We were tossed like fresh, leafy greens. We were the Micheal Jordans of bus riding. All two hundred odd pounds of Matt Turnbull were thrown against the overhead console and he came down holding his forehead with one hand and his butt with the other. Thea pulled the same trick and soon we were asking ourselves what we had gotten into. It was less than two hours into the trip when the bumps stopped and we found ourselves caught in a rut. A few men got off, some shoveling was done, the bus moved on. A kilometer down the same story, and then two kilometers after that.

We were all ordered off the bus when we had to get through a particularly muddy patch. The driver revved the engine and shot the bus out of the mud, careening through the next spat the bus leaped onto two wheels and returning from a 30 degree journey, fell back down on its tires with a thud. Its amazing how fast people run when they think a bus is about to land on them. We climbed back on and after another couple of kilometers the bus was stopped again. The shovels and pickaxes were brought out, digging commenced, the bus still wouldn't move, more digging, a rope was tied to the front of the frame and every able bodied man and Thea pulled with all their might, trying to free the great steel Leviathan from its muddy grave. Nothing. More digging, more pulling. The bus is equipped with two drivers. One drives the bus, the other drives the passengers to pull harder.

The locals were getting restless, they were calling us some impolite names within earshot (four gringos are a good scapegoat if you need one on the quick). There was a good chance that we would be the first to be eaten if this bus didn't start to budge. It was starting to get dark, we dug, we pulled, we repeated. Sometime around 10 we moved, we cheered, we were stuck again in 50 yards. Another four hours, another fifty yards. We were Doctor Faustus and the devils with sparklers had finally appeared.

A muddy expanse lay before us and we realized that it only got worse from here on out. We were no longer just pulling the bus out of the mud, we were building road in front of the bus. We would shovel out the soupy slop, use pick axes to tear up the ground to create a tractionable surface and when there weren't enough tools to go around we squatted down and used our hands to ladle the mud to the side of the road. At some point a Lord of the Flies scene erupted when passengers from the long line of buses that had formed behind ours gingerly walked by, not offering a helping hand. Someone threw mud and then a volly of mud came directed at anyone, man, woman, or child who walked past. It was a messy scene.

The coca was passed around and we shoveled and pulled more. By 2 am we were still going. Thea told us about an email she'd recieved for a jungle party back on campus. Now this is an f@#$@ jungle party we thought. We were tired. My bare feet had been bitten by ants and cut up by the rocky road. Getting back on the bus was a clear faux pas, however. 10 more minutes! our foreman, er, driver said. It elapsed to 20, 30... By 3:30 we had done the last ditch of the stretch. We cheered shook hands, passed out on the bus. The worst of it was over.

The next morning we had a traditional bolivian breakfast. It was suspect, but we hadn't really eaten in the last day, so we weren't going to complain. We had gone about 80km in 30 hours. Even the bolivians on the bus couldn't help but comment, Wow, this is an adventure. That night we unloaded again for dinner. Jamie told me that Saturn was the bright body on the horizon, and that in Bolivia, Orion's belt was known as the 3 marias. We ate some more food of unknown origins and got back on the bus. Matt and Thea befriended a copy repair man who was going to fix a broken copy machine in Riberalta, Ben befriended a burly man with "sex instructor, first lesson free" written on his mud covered tee shirt.

The pace picked up and in just under 60 hours after the start of our trip we arrived safely in our final destination. We shook hands with people as we got off the bus, gave them well wishes. We confided to the driver that it was quite an adventure. He just laughed, it had taken him 18 days once last year, he said. We had gotten off easily.

We spent a night at the border and the next day crossed into Brazil and hopped a bus to Porto Velho. It was air conditioned, our bags were luggage tagged and our seats reclined. The 300 paved kilometers were covered in 5 hours and we arrived in Porto Velho without a story to tell.

Don´t worry, the bus is not on fire. The smoke is just to keep bugs away while we push the bus off the road and through a river.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Ronny´s House

Still in Rurrenebaque, still sweating. We hit the road tomorrow for Brasil. Matt feels good. Thea and Ben and Harris spent the afternoon eating banana bread and watching Creation Science videos at Ronny´s house - you all know Ronny, right? He moved his family here from Florida after working as a horse jockey for a couple years in various south pacific nations and then organic farming in Santa Cruz.

We have been travelling for a while and so it has been great to have a chance to catch up on all the latest world developments. In case you are feeling a little out of the loop, let us clue you in to a few recent international developments: Dinosaurs co-existed with humans about 4000 years ago, all your federal income taxes go directly into the pockets of JP Morgan (or now his heirs, presumably), the US government infused radioactive uranium into tank armor during desert storm to purposefully irradiate Kuwait during Desert Storm, and evolution is a fairy tale for grown-ups. Surprise! Sorry to spoil your birthday party, Darwin.

Ronny has some very informative dvds. We have found the most enriching presentations to be those of Dr. Kent Hovind, a public intellectual whose quest to expose factual errors in science textbooks clearly demonstrates a deep commitment to the public good.

Ronny makes some pretty good cinnamon rolls too (lots of raisins). Actually, he doesn´t really make them (his daughters do), but he sells them on the street and is more than willing to give you the recipe. Yesterday we spent a couple hours helping him fix up an old mountain bike of his and drinking orange juice under the star fruit tree. It was very informative. We had been under the mistaken impression that The Da Vinci Code was a work of non-fiction and that Dan Brown, the most recent of the great Christian philosophers, was about to inherit the mantle of St. Augustine and become a Cardinal Bishop in Rome. We were so wrong! Apparently the whole thing is fiction and shouldn´t be used as a model for popular religion or even material for assessing the current state of the Catholic church. It must have been the heat that made us so confused.

Seriously Matt is feeling really good and tomorrow we are probably going to go swimming with about seventy pink amazon dolphins. Either that or ride bikes.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


After Coroico we rode for a couple days on muddy roads, got a couple flats, broke a spoke, were bitten by lots of bugs, and found about three table spoons of rocks inside Matt´s crankset. This usually makes riding difficult to impossible. So we did what we usually do when the Powercrushers are faced with adversity; we took a truck. Now we have seen some bad roads, but the ones in the jungle really smooch the pooch. While it is relatively easy to find empty transport trucks heading out into the jungle, they are by no means fast. Our average speed from some nameless town outside Caranavi to Rurrenebaca was about 8 mph. We bounced around in the back for about 18 hours, trying to read and not ingest too much sawdust or flies. During the long six or eight hour stretches of jostling the bathroom situation was resolved in numerous creative fashions. At one point Ben dropped his crankset (the round, pokey sprocket in front) on his foot and made a hole where you could see the bones. The doctors told him later that this was impossible (it got infected), that it was merely a sub-surface tendon, yet he persists in his claim that bones were exposed. This is in line with his usual ploy of making himself feel tougher than he actually is. Also, while Ben and Harris enjoyed a sensible breakfast of boiled mystery meat, rice, and fried plantains at a roadside restaurant, Bull and Thea opted to try the fare at the shack a few blocks down where all the locals were eating. Fried pig parts were served and Matthew, courteous as ever, consumed them and barfed. It has been two days and the purging continues. Everybody else is happy and sweating.

PS. Thea is putting up some sweet photos on old entries so scroll down if you have 6 seconds that haven´t already been spoken for.

The View to Coroico


Leaving La Paz was exciting. Some guy with two beards at Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking (home to the most incompetent bike mechanics on the continent) told us that a Canadian cyclist was mugged three weeks ago leaving La Paz on the climb through El Alto to the 4700 meter La Cumbre pass. Apparently a couple homestars met him at the top and relieved him of his wallet and his life. We opted to take a cab.

At the top of La Cumbre it was rainy, misty, and cold - perfect weather for a high speed 10,000 foot descent. We passed lots of slow moving trucks, drug checkpoints, and mysterious dogs on the way down, all engulfed by the mist that caused us to blow alternately on our frozen fingers. The road was very wet, cut into the sides of steep green cliffsides, and it felt like we were descending into a Tolkien novel. After about an hour of pavement we found ourselves at the gravel turn off for the "World´s Most Dangerous Road." Everybody had a candy bar and we went for it.

As we descended the temperature slowly increased, causing us to stop regularly to shed layers and snap photos. It was amazing to see our environs change from harsh Altiplano desert to humid jungle over the course of an hour. Lots of Crucifixes and Stars of David as we descended - one side of the road is a sheer cliff the whole way to Coroico and occasionally a tourist from the regular mountain bike tours takes a plunge. Sobering.

About four hours after starting off from the top of La Cumbre we reached the bottom of the descent, taking a minute to rest in the practically soupy air of 3000 ft. Then a miserable 2000 ft climb up a cobblestone road to the town of Coroico where most of La Paz had already assembled to celebrate the Easter weekend by getting hammered in the town plaza. We ate Mexican food and worked out a sleeping deal at an already full hotel, though breakfast and pool use were not included. Everybody agreed biking is way easier when you don´t have to pedal.