South of the Zombie Apocalypse

Posted in Uncategorized on June 27, 2012 by hajiridesbikes

South of the Zombie Apocalypse.

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We Will Detain Monsters with Extreme Prejudice

Posted in Uncategorized on October 27, 2011 by hajiridesbikes

I have to take a step back… From my bike and from the original theme of this blog, that is.

Yep, things are gonna change here for a while.  After making our way up the North coast of Peru, breaking my own personal record by cycling 100 miles in one day, smashing steak and beans by the kilo, posting on the beach for five days and meeting three Brazilian cyclicts with whom we formed an unstoppable 10 wheeled cyclone of steele and muscle that rips asphalt and creates lightening…

Wait, did I just say ‘rips asphalt’?

Thats not the point.  What  I am really trying to get at is that before I could even let the Peruvian saga seep in all the way and let my nerve damaged fingers strike the keyboard, I was already halfway through Ecuador.  Our new friends Tiago, Carloz and Kico are the Brazilian trifecta that have perfected me and my buddy Nates already near unstoppable leg power.  Relying on the kindness of strangers, whom happen to be Ecuadorian people as a whole, we made it from sea level, to over 13,000 feet, and back down to 9,000 all in two weeks time.  Tired, missing home, loved ones and toilets, we are settled here in Quito.  Looks like this will be my home for the next month, but unlike previous times, Haji will try to keep you informed, even when he (I!)is not riding bikes.

Anyway.

In the Spirit of trying to create a home away from home, I am curious about what I may be missing back in the good ol’ U.S. of A.  So many questions, will my readers…if there are any, help me out

1.  Will the Chupacabra ever make it into the U.S.?  Or will governor Rick Perry win the oval office and deploy Bigfoot to the border to ensure he will never make it past immigration and customs.

2.  Is Occupy Wallstreet really a cohesive political movement that, like its rival, the Tea Party, has emerged from out of nowhere and could eventually take shape into a cohesive political party?

Or is it doomed to be equated to a photo of a person taking a shit on a car anytime anti-wallstreet grievances are addressed by someone other than the Tea Party?

3.  Will Dexter kill Casey Anthony in season 6?  I mean, they’re both from Florida.

4.  Will our next president be a fascist, a pussy, or a fascist pussy?

The Tea-baggers and G.O.P. will probably decide that one…

5.  Will the U.S. really try to reassert itself  in the Middle East after the Arab Spring?  Will the region bestow  real democratic revolutions upon itself ? Or will the ghosts of Qadaffi and Bin Laden combine forces and create something so sinister that invading Iran would look like kid shit?

6.  Will the N.B.A. be replaced by a Lebron reality show this season?  Or will Kobe just give him a fucking ring already?

Seriously guys, I’m struggling here.  I paid so much of my attention to South America that I just can’t make sense of what is happening in my own country.  Anyone got something real to say about it?

Wait.  I do.

Bigfoot will detain any and all other monsters with extreme prejudice, thus barring drugs from reaching our precious children who never asked to be exposed to marijuana and cocaine, whilst stopping good honest people from earning a living for their families.

Occupy Wall Street will win the battle of politics and image.  And while they may be beaten over the head with batons, tear gassed and arrested..they will never have to post 10 million dollar bail for insider trading.  And no one will ever call them T-Baggers.

I will own the rights to the episode and/or season in which Dexter hunts and murders his most high profile victim ever:  Casey Anthony

Our next president will be a fascist, and might even have a pussy.

The Middle East will…. fuck who knows.  Help me on this one guys.

And finally.  The N.B.A. will occupy wall street.  But Lebron can’t come.

I think that sums up America today, at least for my simple head.  But please don’t take my word for it.  I would love my readers to post their own feedback.  Send me an answer.

Please.

Thank you.

Haji

The Peru I Know Part 2: Crises Precipitate Neglect

Posted in Uncategorized on September 8, 2011 by hajiridesbikes

Though connecting to places all over the Americas (as far as the Alaskan highway to Argentina), the officially recognized portion of this road system that is called the Panamerican Highway stretches from just North of Monterrey, Mexico, all the way to Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Since it is easy to transfer by car (or bike  for that matter) onto this route from various crossing points in the U.S., I think it is safe to say that just down the road, on the coast of Peru, exists a city called Pisco.  I certainly did not feel too far from home here.

In 2007, Pisco was hit by an 8.0 magnitude earthquake that lasted for over 3 minutes.  80% of the city was leveled, and this once beautiful coastal town was destroyed.  The result has been a humanitarian crisis, chock full of all of our favorite symptoms of third world disasters.  Corrupt police and politicians, lack of adequate disaster response, thousands of displaced, years of waiting for nothing, a lack of significant media attention and a biased focus on bringing revenue back to those who already had it, leaving those who did not with less.  Originally arriving here to meet a friend for a few days before I headed off to Lima, the next chapter in the saga, I was struck with the longing to make somewhere my home for a while, and fell in love with this place and the organization I worked with, Pisco Sin Fronteras.

We had finally made our final descent to Nazca and had a nice day of decompression from months spent at sometimes crippling altitudes.  Excited that we never had to face the toil of getting up ¨just one last hill¨only to be disappointed with yet another peak to reach, we were faced with a new emotion that the windy Andean roads did not offer: boredom.

The PanAm shoots you straight out of the mountains, literally.  As if our twirling decent from the Andes had been a decommissioned satellite using the gravity of the moon to gain enough inertia to send it off into the next galaxy, we found ourselves on a straight line through nothing.  Sand as far as you could see in either direction, and the only thing to remind us we were still on planet Earth was the semis that now brushed passed us more violently and frequently than in the remote mountains.  Arriving at the coast was like discovering water on Mars.

Anyway, cut the drama, its not much more interesting than the road.

If you can neglect to acknowledge the damage done to Pisco in 2007 upon first entry to the city, well, you’re blind.  Remnants of the quake that killed over 500 people and displaced thousands sit as constant reminders.  Cracks vein their way through portions of road and sidewalks.  Empty lots sit piled with adobe rubble.  The church in the center of town remains a work in progress after it collapsed during a funeral service, trapping and killing most of the mourners.  The main market, normally a pinacle sign of community and commerce in Peruvian towns looks as if it fell down and was picked right back up and put on stilts like a busted camper shell.  If you walk down to the beach, a once pristine waterfront known for great fishing and surfing, you will have to walk through huge mounds of debris just to see the water.  Not knowing what to do, and with very little help in the aftermath, many residents carried their destroyed houses to the coastline where they sit as unofficial monuments.  Essentially, Pisco looks like a post-apocalyptic beach town.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of post disaster Pisco is the psychological damage sustained.  Minor tremors and aftershocks are enough to send people into the streets overnight, afraid to return to their homes in fear of “the big one”.  Much of the coast has been abandoned out of fear of tsunamis.  In the town of Tupac Amaru (the place I passed most of my time), just outside of Pisco and further from the ocean, new neighborhoods of plastic sheeting and scrap wood have sprung up.  Higher altitude and less material to fall on you could be the theme of a real-estate reality show here.  Many families are just beginning to construct “real” houses, a long process with little money.

In some, but not all aspects of Pisco’s post seismic life there exists a sense of hopelessness.  Perhaps the combination of the loss, and the neglect by outside instiutions has left some with a lesser sense of worth.  Embarrassingly enough, the damage done to nearby Paracas, a small ritzy beach town that centers on tourism was repaired immediately.  It still houses some of the more popular sites in the region, such as the Islas Ballestas, and even has a Hilton and a Double Tree.  Back in Pisco, the mayor ordered walls  (unofficially called walls of shame) to be built around the worst of the damage so as not to clean-up and rebuild, nor have an eyesore in his city (the same mayor is also being accused of embezzling tens of millions of dollars in public funds as well).  In Plaza de Armas, the center of the city, you can look one direction and almost see a normal Pisco.  Banks, restaurants and hotels still serve what small amount of tourism comes through.  Though if you turn around you might see a destroyed house, a begging child or a road never repaved.

Back to real time.

My French mates and I arrived because we had heard of a relief organization in Pisco.  I normally think volunteering with some organizations is tacky, not because I do not wish to help, but because sometimes the act itself serves the volunteer more than it serves the people.  I was definately wrong in this instance.  Upon my first visit to the headquarters of Pisco Sin Fronteras, I was strangely enamored by its basic accommodations.  Built out of a wrecked hostel, the center courtyard serves a space for meals, afterwork beers and tool storage.  The meals are cooked in a small kitchen by whatever volunteers decide to cook for the day.  The rooms are basic dorms with dirty cement floors and straw mattress bunks.  For the 65 to 90 volunteers here at any given time, four or five bathrooms are shared, and cleaning jobs are distributed daily.  Projects are pitched to coordinators and allotted money and man-power.  They range form all out construction sites to community development and education, and to office jobs and fundraising.  Sometimes one can simply just play with the local kids.

PSF was formed by a group from Burning Man (Burners Without Borders) that came to help with basic disaster relief in the wake of the earthquake.  It has since blossomed into an organization in which volunteers (overwhelmingly English, Colombian, Australian, Peruvian, and Argentinian) have taken time out of their travels, work, education or what-have you to work in Pisco.  Unlike other more bureaucratic NGO’s, it has garnered much respect in the community and its location, general life-style and attitude does not give off any sort of elitist vibe that alienates the community around it.  Oftentimes, community members assist and help plan projects.

Lacking adequate time to work before hopping a flight to China, my friends Nico and Thomas had to depart for Lima, but I myself, unsure of how to spend my two weeks (which turned into quite a bit longer) stayed behind.  I settled in and quickly began working on a eco-park project in the neighborhood of Tupac Amaru Inca.  Over the course of the week, my  friend and I became the managers of this project, seeing it all the way through to completion.

Now, I have to sidetrack for a second to give special recognition to the neighborhood of Tupac Amaru Inca and all the people living there.  Being an awkward process to assimilate into foreign place, the people here treated me like family, and have labeled my such on several occasions.  This neighborhood is testament to the generosity of people everywhere, and despite the lack of aid in this region, it a community putting in much work to turn itself around.

Despite the commradery developed here, and the mutual respect earned, there is a sad reality to the kind of work a groupe like PSF does.  My experience in Venezuela was different in this aspect.  There, there is an education process around creatig drive to turn around your community, and resources can be procured to do so.  In Pisco, and Tupac Amaru, there is an entire people ignored by their governemnt, and the fact that a group of foreigners is even needed to help provide basic necessities is a shame to some degree.  The government of Peru has made grave errors in choosing to deal with the situation in a different way.

Peruvian Street Sweepers

If the Pope, bearing the weight of much responsibility and perhaps guilt-laden from his failure to adequately address pedophilia in his clergy, decides to visit the most dangerous slum in, say Brazil, what do you think is going to happen?  The area, not capable of pacifying itself from its own internal socioeconomic problems will most likely not lay down arms, cease illicit markets, banish condoms and seek atonement from the church.  The government and police will sweep the streets, remove any and all offenders, crowd its prisons for a weekend and blood will most likely be shed.

No offense if you´re Catholic, it happens with politicians too.

Pisco is no exception when the newly elected President comes to visit.  Ollanta Humala, the first socially conscious candiate to win office in Peru in decades came for a visit to see the hardship and neglect Pisco has experienced by the hands of the previous regime, stated upon his arrival that Peru could not accomplish anything if they could not fix Pisco.  The events leading up to this statement, however showed quite the contrary to his often socially conscious tone.

As a freelance writer who has found himself in the middle of some pretty hairy situations in Latin America, I was displeased by the fact that PSF would not let us exit our headquarters (with the threat of expulsion from the organization for doing so) for the two nights prior to Ollanta’s arrival on the anniversary of the earthquake.  The reasoning, a tug-of-war between local government and Police was taking place throughout much of the city.  The city had ordered street vendors, many of whom turned to this line of work out of desperation after the earthquake shut down their businesses, and homeless people go elsewhere by their own will or otherwise.  The market, one that would be shut down and fined many times more than its annual revenue in a country capable maintaining universal health-standards, was also forced to close.  The streets were being swept to create the illusion that the city was more or less handling itself in accordance with its obligations.

The anger that ensued throughout the general public after years of neglect and this final swift kick from the boot spiraled into demonstrations and scattered rioting.  From our compound, we could not see much but it seemed as if the moto-taxis had proliferated in our area, taking people to and from the center of town.  Motorcycle police patrolled more frequently, and we were told that downtown Pisco was a warzone at the moment.  Speaking to our neighbor, Fabiola, I was put on to rumors that three people had been shot and killed, but it was unconfirmed if all of these were by the hands of the police (though I was told some were).  And that is the reality of reporting here, many rumors are passed around with no official accounts readily available.

By Monday, when Ollanta came in his convoy, the city was quiet.  We went to work as usual, but noticed more security around the main avenues in which he would travel.  The market remained closed and despite the eofforts of the Police to paint a prettier picture of Pisco, I think Ollanta got the point.  Pisco needs the help of a central government that is willing to decentralize itself more than previous regimes, and if you cannot help one of the most depressed regions of South America, what could be accomplished anywhere?

The Peru I know Part 1: Andean Time Warps

Posted in Uncategorized on September 8, 2011 by hajiridesbikes

In the time I crossed the strike in Puno and eventually made it to the coast of Peru, roughly 30 days of cycling spread amongst 2 months of settling place to place, I have failed to chronicle much of the journey in writing.  On the other hand, the experience offered nothing to keep constant updates on, rather infinite observations of culture, prosperity, poverty, neglect and pro-activity through the individual uniqueness of Peruvian cultures and life-styles.  To do justice to everything I have seen, and all of the wonderful people that have met, I will have to break up my experience in several segments.  This is the Peru I have come to know and fall in love with.

Seeing the wonderful sites of Machu Pichu and the Sacred Valley is definitely worth a trip to Cusco, though after one week of sight seeing a feeling of stagnation took over and moods went into decline.  Having decided to have a package of necessary camping gear sent to the Andean oasis, all the way from Los Angeles, I set a trap for myself.  After  one week of needed relaxation and the typical side trips taken in the region by most travelers to Peru, I could not imagine what two more weeks in this place would be like, or how they could possibly be spent.  Likewise, the marvel of more ancient ruins and the touristic night life of the city left me feeling somewhat autistic.  I just could not express any amount of excitement for what was around me.

Cusco as a city and region holds secrets of an indigenous civilization and a foreign pillage.  Colonial structures sit atop their Incan ancestors as if to show dominance.  In some aspects, there are signs that the mean spirits of Puno have prevailed here, though many of the locals engage in cultural insurgency to exert their presence and show perhaps they will never truly be defeated.   Traditional crafts are sold, clothes worn, and music played.  Unfortunately, all aspects of Cusco’s brand of tourism do not pay proper homage to this culture.  But what a beatiful place it is nonetheless.

Machu Pichu, the hidden city of the Inca’s was never found by the Spanish during their conquest here. Though centuries later, archaeologists did lay the first foreign eyes on the site and it has since become the mascot of the region, if not the country as a whole.  Immaculate to the sight, perhaps big tourism did not trust its true inheritors to maintain Machu Pichu under their image of a touristic metropolis, and despite the millions of dollars poured into the industry by foreign travelers, the poverty in the surrounding sierra shows little sign this wealth has been spread.  Opposite to the industry’s preferred method of travel, this reality was most easily acessed by bicycle.

The road out of Cusco, much like the road into Cusco, takes you into a time warp.  The main highway exists for commerce, but virtually no personally owned vehicles can be seen.  Rather, semis, tour busses, and pick up trucks used in the mining industry brush past you.  Everything appears to be either passing through, dropping off goods, or pulling minerals that will bring great developement to the cities on the coast, where mining operations are centralized.  The majority of the people, however, subsist off of working in mines, small farming, and selling goods to their neighbors, keeping a small amount of revenue in circulation in towns of no more than 100 to 200 people.  Houses are often made from tin, scrap wood, and crude bricks.  On one occasion we decided to set up camp in what appeared to be a very old abandoned mud house.  The inside had been hollowed out, the floors were dirt and in one corer the dirt was piled so high you could climb through a hole to the second floor.  After unloading our bikes, a woman appeared from the surrounding hills with a herd of cattle and told us we were in her home.  At higher altitudes the idea of having four walls seems to serve only as protection from the heavy wind that violently shakes houses of tin, wood and plastic sheeting.

The modernity of city life emerges in peculiar ways.  Imagine a mud brick house bearing a satellite dish, or an old woman in traditional garb chatting in Quechua on a cell phone.  Despite corporate Peru’s ability to sell these small modern services in the region, Andean towns are more or less void of any other modern development.  In the larger towns such as Abancay and Puquio (though they are not large by coastal standards), internet cafes can be found, though they are often packed with the local youth checking their facebooks and playing computer games.  Personal computers are rare.  Many of these places boast tourist sites, and though beautiful, they just cannot compete the political economy of neighboring Machu Pichu.  Subsequently, you will find a few nicer hostels and hotels, but the accommodations are basic, perhaps due to the lack of revenue in a dwindling tourist industry.   Despite how basic they are, they greatly overshadow the living standard of most of the residents as even something like this is not affordable to most.  Rather, many of these places seemed to house government workers coming in from Ica and Lima on the coast sent on month long missions to take census’ and promote a few basic social programs (though these programs may begin to proliferate due to the recent election of nationalist president Ollanta Humala).

Crossing the higher parts of Andes (some reaching up to 4,600 meters) was as much a feat of patience as it was fitness.  Strong headwinds blow directly into your face, literally snatching your already thin breath away from you.  The ride was more like swimming Olympic freestyle, look straight ahead as if to stick your face under water, and then with each strenuous pedal rotation, cock your head out of the wind to try and catch your breath.  If I could have counted my breaths in the 2 days I spent getting over one pass, it probably would have surpassed the total of all my respirations for the prior 10 days.  I like to call this “llama zone.”  As you get higher the cows and mules begin to disappear, and the preferred cattle for high altitude, llamas, begin to appear in vast numbers.  They look at you curiously, but their speed and gracefulness taunts you.

Despite these conditions that are a challenge to the cyclist, people do live up here.  The land and weather, infertile to yield much in the way of crops, is perfect for grazing llama, though this does not bring much money into the area.  Up until the final drop off into the desert below the Andes, we could see old Quechua women sitting perched on rocks, miles away from the closest cluster of houses, watching their cattle.  As we huffed by on our bikes, all we could imagine in our heads, accustomed to western city life, was “why would you choose to live here”.  Houses are basic shelters, not to afford any building materials, they are ofte just rocks beautifully piled into square shapes.  It is apparent that in many ways people prefer these locations and these lifestyles, though Peru’s centralized government and economy do not seem to suite, let alone pay any real amount of attention to it.

Coming over the final pass, we looked behind us one last time before our decent into the Desert.  Appropriate reparations for the toil of crossing the Andes by bike, Pachamama (Quechua for Mother Earth) granted us a 51 mile downhill spiral to the city of Nazca where we would discover a different side of Peru we had not yet seen.  Warm and happy to have been out of the mountains for the first time in three months, we each ate half of a chicken and drank a whiskey before resting up to cross the desert cities to eventually arrive in Pisco, the first coastal city on our route.

Welcome to Peru…Mind the Glass

Posted in Uncategorized on June 4, 2011 by hajiridesbikes

In her 1990 novel, Mean Spirit, native-Indian author and activist Linda Hogan chronicles the plight of the plains Indians of Oklahoma as their culture and livelihood are threatened by the discovery of oil, and the white Americans that will stop at nothing short of exploitation and murder to get it.  It is a story of a culture whose extinction is imminent to the rapid advances of American capitalism as economics invade a society that only a short time ago was not privy to such systems and isms.  Since the arrival of Europeans to the Americas, mean spirits have haunted indigenous populations from North to South.  Peru is no exception. 

For the last several weeks, the Ayamara Indians have been on strike, blocking nearly 180 kilometers of road spanning from the border of Bolivia to Juliaca, Peru.  The reason; the Peruvian government has recently sold a contract to a Canadian mining company to mine gold that has been discovered in a mountain near Puno.  Situated near Lake Titicaca, the nest of the Inca civilization, the mountain is sacred to the locals who still hold tight to their native traditions and languages.  As if the immense amount of wealth being pulled out from under such an impoverished community´s feet was not enough, the company will divert some of the mining waste to the Lake as well.  The reaction; social, cultural, environmental, indigenous…and slightly militant.

Where do I begin?  Just when you think you couldn’t possibly have another profound life changing experience, you roll your bike across the border of Peru.  In this instance, our bikes placed us in the wrong place at exactly the right time.  But lets back up for a minute.

Leaving Potosi for the capitol city of La Paz was a confusing exchange.  Though the majority of the population are  indigenous, the stoicism of the more rural areas disappears.  Blockades, protests and marches happen so frequently that you do not even have time to figure out what is going on before it is over.  The altitude makes exploring this city a feat of fitness, and it is difficult to even eat without having to stop and catch your breath.  Nonetheless, biking in this city was extremely difficult.

Though La Paz has a lot to offer the socially conscious traveler, my unfortunate realization was that it was more a hot spot for backpackers to hop hostel to hostel, mingling amongst their own country folk, screaming in their native tongue, and consuming cheap cocaine.  Sick of the scene there, we booked it by bus to Copacabana, just by the border, where the rumors of a blockade on the Peruvian side became a reality and a business strategy all in one.

Upon our arrival, we learned that there are no buses to Peru, and most of the tour companies that are used to booking boat rides to the Islands near Copacabana were now trying to sell solutions to getting through the strike safely.  Pay several times more than the bus fare, and they will take you to the city of Puno (the heart of the strike) by boat where you could apparently hop a bus to Cusco, the next most popular tourist spot. Understanding that we would most likely not make it to Cusco before Gabe had to take off for Lima, we decided to stay in Copacabana with some new friends to enjoy the scenery, and wait for the roads to reopen.

Three or four days of waiting showed the opposite of improvement.  The blockades became tighter, the city of Puno more gridlocked, and the boat taxis from Copacabana more full of shit.  If you were to ask the boat driver how far it is to Puno on the road, he would probably something like ‘300 kilometers of dangerous, bloodthirsty, Ayamara, anglo-hating, communist llama fucking terrorists’.  And then he will try to sell you a boat ticket for 200-300 Bolivianos (6 times more than the bus ticket).  Numerous reports of tourists having to pay bribes in exchange for not having rocks thrown at their heads circulated amongst the tour companies.  If their was a struggle for human rights only 8k away, there had to be a booming tourist industry on the Bolivian side.

Two days of trying to figure out how to get to Cusco without paying the boat fare ended unsuccessfully after an attempt to round up tourists and bribe a bus driver to take us around the other side of the lake.  The price always seems to double after you fasten your seat belt.  We were 140k from Puno, the closest bus station, Dylan’s bike was in disrepair, Gabe had a deadline and the only option seemed to be to pay the boat to take us the next day.  Pissed off with my head hung low, I began to make my way to the tour company to pay the boat fare.

Within thirty seconds of  making the decision to give up, the clouds parted, the sun beat down on my forehead, and something sent a better solution my way.  I cannot tell if it was by the grace of God, or Nicholas Sarkozy, but two French cyclists on really nice bikes rolled down the street towards me.  The cyclists, Nico and Thomas, told me they were going to Cusco, and invited me along .  No sooner than I could say ‘freedom fries’, we were on the road to the border, with the plan to meet our other friends in Cusco.

After camping one night on the border, we woke up, got our passports stamped and rode toward the entrance of Peru.  Initially stoked to roll over yet another border, we were quickly reminded of the chaos we had heard about in Puno when we had to lift our bikes over a pile of boulders to get back on the road.  A quick pause to humble ourselves while crossing, we were back rolling in style on the Peruvian side, blasting Brazilian folk-music and exited to be riding with new friends.  400 meters into Peru, we were startled by the swift sound of air leaking from a freshly punctured tire.  PSSSSSSSSSSSSST…..

Whether you are in a car or on a bike tour, when you get a flat tire you are always in denial.  You hear the air releasing, you feel yourself slowing down, but you never stop until you herd the thud of your rim clanking against the ground.  We stopped to see what had caused the puncture and found a very large piece of glass.

In the 30 or so minutes it took the patch the hole, we examined the road.  As far as we could see, broken glass shimmered under the afternoon sun, only interrupted by piles of boulders.  This would be one of many flat tires between the border and the town of Juliaca, 45k outside of Puno.  The road itself was rugged, full of potholes and some portions were rocky and carved from the dirt that sat underneath the rest of the shitty tarmac.  The town around us was made of mud, and what little commerce existed there had ceased during the blockade.  You would not believe there was gold here.

Somewhat nervous about what we were getting ourselves into, we continued down the road.  The first road block we came to let us pass without incident, and in fact the strikers were enthusiastic about letting three gringos on bikes pass by.  We would come across at least 75 more blocks, staffed by anywhere from 10 to 50 Ayamara strikers of all ages chanting ‘Viva el paro!’.  And it is in this experience that the word blockade became a pejorative media description of what the participants simply referred to as El Paro (the strike).  The entire region was up in arms, and we were the only foreigners there to witness it first hand.

The ride became rote work.  Weave slowly down a flat road to avoid broken glass and rocks, and every 2 kilometers roll over or around a blockade and exchange words of encouragement with the strikers to avoid being viewed as a foreign scab crossing a picket line.  When you cross 5ok of the strike, you become used to it.  It engulfs you, and all you can think is how full of shit all the boat drivers and scared tourists were just down the road behind you.  We are not Ayamara, but there was a true sense of inclusion passed on to us by the strikers, merely by their gestures.  They understood that we understood.  Some shook our hands, others dismantled parts of the blocks to let us roll through without having to dismount our bikes, and some women even shouted their cell phone numbers to us as we passed.  And as if the people were not kind enough, the whole ride gave us a pristine view of Lake Titicaca surrounded by farms that looked unchanged for thousands of years.

Just when our spirits reached the highest point possible during the journey through the strike, a stern looking man surrounded by what must have been 50 to 60 people stepped into the middle of the road, putting his hands up and signaling us to stop.  We stopped 15 meters in front of him, puzzled and nervous.  Thinking to myself that it had to happen sometime, we finally came to the wrong road block, the one that would not let us pass.  The man reached into his pockets and pulled out two round hard looking objects.  ‘Rocks’, we thought.  Holding the objects up in the air as if trying to show contempt for the three gringos on bikes, his expression turned to a smile, and the rocks were not really rocks at all. They were potatoes.

‘You have a long way to go!  Come eat lunch to get some energy!’ he yelled in Spanish.

We stopped on the side of the road and ate lunch with a huge Ayamara family, at the highest point of what had been their several week long struggle.  The same people that we were told would beat and rob us were sharing potatoes and yuca on the side of the road with us.  The kids shyly approached us for cookies, and the elders forced us to take group photos with them.  After 20 minutes of chatting, exchanging words of encouragement (us wishing well to the strike and them wishing us a safe journey), the farmers loaded up a bag of cooked potatoes and yuka for us to eat later, and sent us on our way.  As the sun set over the horizon, we could see lightening over the center of the lake.  Pachamama (mother Earth) was on strike as well.  A kind farmer let us set up a tent on his land, and we dozed off after a long day of dodging glass and stuffing potatoes in our faces.

We woke up, shared breakfast with the farmer and his family, and got on the road.  Something had changed.  The road blocks were no longer staffed by strikers, and taxis and small local buses rolled by freely.  All that remained was the glass and boulders.  As we continued further, it became apparent that the buses and taxis were really a mass exodus to Puno.  The strike was moving to the front line, and we were due to be in the center of it by the end of the day.

Somewhat relieved that we could ride without having to cross lines of people all day, we picked up the pace.  Flat tires still remained a problem, and the broken glass became poetic.  In the U.S., I have witnessed broken glass, but always as a reaction to a situation.  Budget cuts, police brutality, etc….someone breaks a window one night, and then goes to work the next day, often alienating those truly affected by whatever injustice.  On the road to Puno, the glass was as much a solution as it was a reaction.  Freeze the infrastructure until the mining contract is changed or revoked.  Unfortunaely, we were fozen with it at times.

When we arrived in Puno towards the middle of the afternoon, we were forced to ride around the perimeter of the city to get to the center.  Strikers, organized into a massive march, waited on every street and in every alleyway to file into the center of the city in protest.  Lines of police surrounded government buildings.  Despite small bands of mostly drunk protesters burning a couple cars and breaking windows, the march was mostly peaceful, but we were warned not to find ourselves directly in the center of it.  Some strikers might take offense, and if the police attacked, we would be in the crossfire.  Burnt out on riding, we found a hostel, grabbed some beers and relaxed, reflecting together on the previous three days.

The next morning we rode out of town again.  The boat drivers from Copacabana still landed on the docks of Puno to drop off tourists that would again be disappointed to discover that the bus station in Puno was in fact closed, and the road blocks extended 45k outside of the city to Juliaca.  The tour companies must have been uninformed, or indeed really full of shit.  I suspect that latter.  The road there was more of the same.  Broken glass and boulders, and massive amounts of locals making the walk between Puno and Juliaca, trying to hitchhike on motorcycles and small cars.  By the end of the day we had officially exited the strike.

In three days of riding, we not only witnessed the strike, but relied on the generosity of the strikers to feed us and give us places to sleep.  Arriving in Juliaca and watching the news, we laughed at how inaccurate the reporting was on something taking place literally down the street.  Dramatic music played, headlines saying ‘War in Puno!’ flashed, and footage of burnt cars streamed.  American media made no mention of the event, and French media described the situation as hundreds of french tourists trapped in a war zone.  When asked where we were coming from, even locals could not believe we had crossed the strike in is entirety.

Five days after crossing the strike, we arrived in Cusco.  The road from Puno to Cusco is more than 500k of impoverished towns that lack development.  The people often speak Quechua and Ayamara and it is apparent that many learned Spanish as a second language. The day I arrived in Cusco I read in the newspaper that five children had died from exposure to below freezing temperatures on this road as I was riding on it.

Cusco, on the other hand, is one of the most popular tourist destinations on Earth.  The foreign money poured into the town has given it a look similar to Pasadena, California.  Strewn amongst colonial ruins, courtesy of the Spanish, are North Face stores, Irish style pubs and a McDonalds.  Many tourists will take a bus straight from Arequipa or Copacabana to Cusco pay top dollar to stand on Machupichu, the ancient city of the Incan Empire.  Along the way, they will sleep, often traveling by night so not to see the reality of the road to Cusco.  When they arrive, survival Spanish will be sufficient to buy a beer and a cheap massage, and most workers here have learned English to adapt to the booming tourist industry.  As for us, we have seen the road to Cusco, and everything it has to offer.  The lack of development, the hospitality of kind hearted locals, the poverty, and the struggle against mean spirits.  As for mines, the people here are the only gold I can vouch for.

If you ever choose to enter Peru via Bolivia, at least take the bus during daylight, and try to stay awake.  Travelers on this continent have the ability to go so far, yet we often miss so much.  And if you decide to enter by bicycle, roll slowly.  There is often more glass than pavement.

Note-  My experience with the strike was strictly positive.  For many people this was not an easy or expected part of their travels.  Gabe and Dylan, my great friends whom I wished could have made the bike ride with me had a totally different experience after arriving in Puno by boat.  They were met with drunk protesters throwing rocks at 5 in the morning.  My experience is my experience, and does not serve to summarize the entire strike, that is in fact still happening as we speak.  Similarly, the drunken rock throwing protesters do no represent any significant portion of the struggle many have witnessed over the last few weeks as thousands of travelers cross through this region of south America.

Stay tuned for flicks.

The Bowels of Hell Meet Happy Endings

Posted in Uncategorized on May 17, 2011 by hajiridesbikes

Before I begin, let me apologize for the lack of pictures in this blog.  Internet here is often too slow to upload flicks on wordpress. 

It has been roughly 10 days since our border crossing fiasco, and my impression of Bolivia is not in the least bit affected by that one bad experience.  After a few nights in Tupiza and a 70k bikeride to and from the Salar (salt desert) to go on the most bizarre camping trip of my life, we hopped a bus to Potosi, the highest city on Earth (and I mean this in the litereal sense, Portland is by far the highest city on Earth nahmsayin?).  We arrived healthy and rejuvinated from basking in the salt, our skin dry as bone.  With an abundance of street food ranging from 1 to 5 bolivianos per item, we are eating cheaper than a vegan at Taco Bell.

Many gringos travel to Bolvia to enjoy the cheap tourism.  I swear to God you can go parasailing, rock climbing and cliff diving anywhere on this continent.  For me, however, it has been my dream to come to Potosi to see the mines that have existed here since the Spanish enslaved the indigenous population to scrape veins of silver and other minerals 500 years ago.  Morbid?  Maybe.  But hear me out.

When you enter Potosi, you can see the highest peak looming over the city.  Brown, barren and dry, it somewhat resembles an ant hill.  The thousands of miners filing in and out of it 24 hours a day add to this effect.  My initial idea of seeing the mines was that I would ask around and see if someone would take me in, but upon my arrival I realized that there are dozens of guided tours to take you in for a small price of 80 to 100 Bolivanos (10 to 12 U.S.).  So the gringo tourist remained as such in this sense, and I was disgusted to find that many of the companies are outsiders that do not have any formal connection to the mines.  Their profits do no benefit the miners who work for roughly $70 U.S. per week, despite numerous advertisements that they give 10% of their earnings to the miners.

By reccomendation of a friend, we came accross a tour company that calls itself, in English, ´The Real Deal´.  All of their guides are ex-miners, and they started this company as a response to the mine tourism boom that escorts foreigners to see what is perhaps the toughest job on Earth.  It is policy that when you take their tour, you bring gifts of soda, liqour, cigarettes, coca and dynamite to the miners, and 10% of their earnings do in fact go into the hands of the miners.  The guides, though they are no longer scraping the mines for what precious minerals are left, are very much connected to the mines, and still do indeed work in them.  They were very kind, spoke English and Spanish (though for most their first language was Quechua), and their sense of humor was on point.  After a brief orientation and a stop at the miners store to buy gifts, one of our guides screamed to us, ¨Lets go llama fuckers!¨, and we began our short bus ride up the hill to the mouth of the mine.

When we arrived to the mine, we split into two groups, one that would be guided in English, and one in Spanish.  Gabe and I opted for the Spanish tour because it was much smaller.  We were able to see more and move faster.  Our guide, Reynaldo, took four of us into the mine first.

Lets backtrack a little for a brief history lesson.

The mines of Potosi were raided by the Spanish using indigenous slave labor.  So much gold and silver was extracted here that it was common to say a rich European had a ´Potosi´s worth of wealth´.  The streets were literally paved in silver, and Potosi was in fact the wealthiest city on the planet.  If capitalism repeats itself, we can call Potosi the first Detroit in the Americas…  No more minerals, no more rich Europeans, and the indigenous to this day toil to extract what is left over from the days their ancestors were forced to work until their imminent death from collapsing lungs, frequent accidents and general exhaustion.  The life expectancy of a miner is still very low, and they often begin working in the mines around age 13.  Miners make around 2000 Bolivanos per month, which is roughly $280 U.S.  There is very little private enterprise in the mines, and the majority of the miners are members of cooperative syndicates.  The Bolivian government, under the guidance of President Evo Morales sees to it that the overwhelming ammount of cooperatives dominates the mining culture, and that private corporations stay put do not expand into their territory.  Listo?  Lets go to the mines already.

When you enter the mines the hieght of the ceiling fluctuates meter by meter.  You are constantly  moving from upright position into a full-on crawl.  The labrytnth of tunnels resembles an intestinal tract, and the sudden temperature changes from freezing to stifling hot (as much as 110 farenheight)  makes one feel as if they have entered the bowels of hell.  It is dark and musty, and you can see particles of espestos and dust dancing in the air through the beam of your helmet light.  When passing some corridors, dynamite fumes attack your senses.  As Reynaldo takes us deeper, some are unsure if they can fit through the narrow holes in the ground that connect other series of tunnels by way of rickety wooden ladders.  As he disappears into other tunnels to make sure there are no workers needing to get by, or that there is no demolition taking place, we wait for his signal to continue on.

The small corridors, connected by rail tracks leave no room for passing.  We are guests in the mine, and if the workers come barreling down the passage with a mine cart overflowing in minerals, we are to backtrack quickly until we can find space to move out of the way.  The miners will often ask you to help them push or pull, and we stop to give them coca, and talk to them about their experiences in the mines.  Despite the numerous dangers that go with working in the mines, and the physical demands of pulling minerals, the miners are often in high spirits and there is a fraternal bond between them that is immediately apparent to any visitor.

Every mine has at least 2 statues of what seems like a demon goat to an outsider.  This is called the Tio, or the god of mine.  Created by the Spanish hundreds of years ago as a superstitious lure, the Tio is still highly revered in the mine, and workers share their breaks around the Tio.  They make offerings of liquour, tobacco and coca to the Tio so that he will keep them safe fom accidents.

Moving around in the mines tires you instantly.  You are at roughly 15,000 feet, underground.  You fall short of breath quickly, and often feel nautious.  We share coca to keep us alert.  I wonder how such an inhabitable place can support so much life.  In 2 hours spent in the mines, I experienced extreme fatigue and dehydration, and at times my vision went blurry from heat exaustion.  How on Earth can someone spend 30 years here?  And I bitch about my 40 hours a week in a kitchen enjoying a more generous wage and all the food I can eat?

Subsquent to our descent into the belly of mother Earth, we were invited to a wedding for one of the miners (this is the happy ending I was talking about).  He was our guides cousin, and the whole family said they wanted us to see a different side of life outside of the mines.  We accepted our invitation with enthusiasm, and like the entrance to the mines, there was one condition…bring a gift.  Instead of buying coca and liquor, we brought gifts typical of any wedding.  Tacky tupperwear sets, glasses with pictures of fruit on them, and other housewarming items.  When everyone had something to offer, we hopped on a bus and headed to the reception.

Weddings in Bolivia are not too far off from any other wedding I had been to, but there is a different sense of community around weddings for miners.  Often working 6 days a week, miners do not get as much leisure as other professions.  When you go to a miner´s wedding, it is not just a ceremony for the Bride and Groom, but a day for all the miners and their families to unwind, take their minds off of work…and yes, get really, really, really drunk.

When I got to the wedding, it was hard to even believe that I was there with some of the same people thad I had seen in the mine.  The rough and dusty exteriors were scrubbed clean, and everyone was dressed in such a way that put my llama t-shirt and jeans to shame.  Nonetheless, we had a blast.

At most weddings in the U.S. you would expect an open bar, champagne toasts and some shitty DJ or Wedding Band that played 80´s covers everyone could dance to.  At the miners wedding, there were two kinds of drinks (both mixes of cheap soda and grape liquour), and the band played some sort of poppy music that was difficult to understand through the muffled microphones.  There is no lights off bumpin and grinding.  Rather, they keep ALL the lights on (and they are very bright) and men and women get in two lines facing eachother and bob up and down aimlessly.  By far the most unimtimidating dance party I have ever been to (and certainly different than the night clubs of Mendoza and Buenos Aires).  If your glass goes below 1/4 full, you can expect a drunk server to roll by and top you off.  After a certain hour, the servers carry around trays with shots (concauctions of orange soda and grape liquor).  It is customary to pour two sips out for Pachamama (mother earth) onto the floor. Two cakes, one provided by each family (and both larger than any cake I have ever seen) are consumed around midnight.  By the end of the ceremony, your feet are covered in sticky orange liquor and frosting, and it is impossible to determine how much alcohol you consumed until the next day…when you can´t wake up.

The wedding is supposed to last three days, the two days after involve lots of eating, and even more booze.  For these three gringos, we could not keep up.  I knew there were many special things about this country, but I could not have imagined recieving the hospitality we have been given in my life.  Thank you all Potosians!

Obama is not my boss…

Posted in Uncategorized on May 8, 2011 by hajiridesbikes

After hopping a 2 hour bus to the border (about 2 or more days by bike), we got to the border crossing between La Quiaca, Argentina and Villazon, Bolivia.  It was a rude awakening.  Villazon is desolate, and feels like any border crossing.  I might as well have been in Tijuana.  Smog, lines of people trying to cross to Argentina, the occasional Bolivia border crosser, dead dogs, money changing shops and traditional Andean crafts strewn about cheap electronics and other goods brought from Argentina illegally.  The French and Swiss travelers cross with ease, paying nothing.  Americans, Gringos, if you will, are slammed with a 135$ (american) fee.  For me this included  the task of finding a way to withdrawl more money to help my friends accross which subsequently cost me my ATM card.  The border agents were extremely rude to us, and extremely unprofessional.  Standing under posters of President Evo Morales, they cracked jokes at us, called us Yankees, tried to ripped us off by creating their own exchane rates, and went as far as to say ¨Hey look, its your boss¨when Obama came on the T.V. behind them.

So when you enter a country like Boliva, where the informal market employs the majority of an Indigenous population, tread softly.  You will learn that you are represented by your government, and if more Americans tried to roll a bike over the border of Bolivia, you might see where you come from in a different light.  A great place, that causes lots of problems.   And remember when you are greeted with a smile at the hotel in Rio or Santiago, or Buenos Aires, you are in a way paying for it.  And if you can think critically enough, you will represent yourself when you travel…let me be clear (to quote the man himself), Obama is not your fucking boss.

Anyway.

After a 6 hour unpleasent experience trying to get everyone over the border safely, we smashed on our bikes up a long hill, paid our respects to Simon Boliviar (a Latin American revolutionary/hero) with a nod  in the central plaza, and got on a bus to Tupiza where we were greeted at the bus station by curious locals who were more than helpful in getting us to our Hostel.

The town of Tupiza was the final transition into the indigenous heartland (though we will go deeper).  Matte, nonexsitent.  Coca is everywhere.  Recently legalized, courtesy of their first Indigenous president Evo Morales, Bolivia enjoys it as a cultural tradition and is no longer under the jurisdiction of the D.E.A.´s bloody drug war that has spiraled Mexico and other Latin American countires into an endless cycle of violence.  No one here is being decapitated because of it, no one is having their face stitched to a soccer ball, and there are no coke-crazed 16 year olds emptying their parents bank accounts to get it.  It was a strange experience purchasing the leaf for the equivalenet of 1$ U.S. from a little old woman on a street corner.

The woman selling coca on the street symbolizes something special about Bolivia that I have observed over the last few days.  There is a certain matriarchical essence to Bolivia.  In other Latin American countries, men hiss at women on the streets.  In the U.S., we are certainly guilty of our own shovenistic tendencies, your boy included.  But here, when you go to a market place, you will find mostly women and children working very hard to provide for their family.  And the hissing, at least up until this point, has ceased.  I do not know enough to speak of women´s struggles in this country, but I have observed a certain type of respect for women that is not always present in western culture.

Back to real time…

As for Haji riding bikes, Bolivia is a difficult terrain to conquer (and i mean this in the bike sense not in the conquistador sense).  We will have to hybridize between bike and bus for the next few weeks if we are to make it to Peru.  The roads are rough, often unpaved, and riding a bus here is like being on the Indianna Jones ride for hours at a time, and I hate that fucking ride (so you could only imagine riding a bike on Space Mountain and the Matterhorn as well).  Also, potable water is sparse, and towns are spread out.  I am generally excited to get a tan, but I am slowly turning into leather.  Expect to find pics of us cramming our bikes onto busses over the next couple weeks…we are humbly declining the challenge of pushing through every inch of this piercing climate.  Don´t hate…