ALTIPLANO: Humahuaca, Arg. to Villazon, BOLIVIA

5 03 2009

Altiplano loosely translates to High Plain. This place IS high, ranging from about 3,400 meters (11,100 ft.) to 4,200 meters (13,400 ft.) above sea level. It is mostly flat, as that range is only an 800 meter elevation range, but everything is made more extreme not simply due to the fact that the roads are ripio dirt, but mostly by the elevation.

My pulse races when I climb a small hill up here in the clouds. As proud as I am to have raced bicycles as a Flagstaff resident, making fun of competitors from lower, lesser altitudes, I must admit I have not lived in Flagstaff for years now; I have been living in low-altitude Paraguay. And besides, altiplano residents would scoff at Flagstaff residents for our pride– 7,000 ft is nothing here (Sorry Flagstaff, I still love you.) I am typing this entry in a town whose elevation is higher than the summit of Humphrey’s peak, the highest point in Arizona, 5,000 feet above more-than-mile-high Flagstaff. Campesinos on single-speed cruiser bicycles ride past me with no effort. I need more red blood cells. Read the rest of this entry »


They asked me to tell you this: wood-burning factory

7 02 2009

To be honest, I didn’t realize how involved with my cause I would become when I was planning this ride. I thought I might travel, do some interviews, raise some money for charity, maybe even have a big impact in Paraguay. But I didn’t expect to become so concerned about other environmental issues throughout Latin America. This tour might just turn out to be more important than I ever realized. Now people often treat me like an authority and beg me to post their environmental and social issues on my website so that you can know about them. And for good reason! Here’s one example:

When I was riding Route 16 last Friday I was constantly getting passed by trucks headed west, loaded with logs. They were red logs, big and beautiful. On the way, I asked some folks if it was legal to chop said logs. They said yes, it was perfectly legal, but it shouldn’t be. One man drew a picture for me, a circle the size of a standard sheet of paper. “If that’s the forest before…” Then he drew another circle the size of a penny inside the bigger circle. “That’s how much is left now.” Quebracho, they he said the tree was called. (And the wood is called Quebracho too. I’m glad the dead tree product has the same name as the live tree. It’s not like beef. I heard a new study revealed some children don’t know meat comes from animals. Certainly, if beef were called cow there would be less confusion.) Because I was continuing west, I would see a number of trucks loaded with dead Quebracho trees on my route.

In the early afternoon I decided to ride 5 kilometers off the main route to a small town of about 5,000 people, called La Escondida, or “The Hidden.” When I finally arrived in La Escondida the first thing I noticed was the tall factory, billowing smoke, but I didn’t ask about it yet. I socialized a bit, found a place to stay, set up camp, then asked my host brother to lead me to the local radio station so I could set up an interview. Outside the radio station was a mural painted by local youth. Tree stumps everywhere, smoke in the air, and a factory in the background.

Of course, I asked about it. The factory was clearly the factory I saw at the edge of this small town. But what about the tree stumps? It is a wood burning factory. If I just go look around that corner, I’ll see mountains of logs.

Many of the residents are not sure what the factory produces. A powder is made there, they all agree. But some told me it is a powder for juice, exported to the United States. Others told me it is a powder used for treating leather, exported to Italy. One thing is clear, nobody in La Escondida uses the powder, whatever it is.

The rest of the day I spent talking to people about the factory. Nobody wants it there. In fact, the residents are quite upset about the factory’s existence. One señor told me, “I wish you could stay longer to see the disaster this factory causes. Sometimes it rains ash on us, on our homes. On those days you don’t want to go outside.”

I spent Friday night at the local social club (soccer fields, basketball courts, patio restaurant) with a group of new friends. Everybody in the club was socializing, sitting outside when two outsiders arrived, a man and a woman. They looked like models, they were dressed in fine clothing, and they got two personal pizzas to go. Pizza boxes in hand, they were getting ready to leave when they heard my accent. Where am I from? What am I doing here? Arizona, an environmental bicycle tour. What about them? They’re from Resistencia, the local big city. They came to work on a project at the factory. The factory gave the town this social club, they told me, isn’t that great? So that’s why the factory is here. Somebody made a deal.

Saturday morning, on may way out of La Escondida at sunrise, there was a train of trucks loaded with Quebracho logs waiting at the entrance of the factory. Once I made it back to the main route and continued west, I noticed all the trucks were headed in the opposite direction as the day before. Now that I had passed La Escondida, the logging trucks go east! Wow, all the trucks are headed for the factory…

—After posting this entry— Here’s my friend Angela’s two cents: “The story about the powder being sent to Italy is very likely true – Quebracho wood contains a high level of tannins, which are indeed used to cure leather. If they are making powder out of it, that’s probably why. In Paraguay quebracho is also cut down to make carbon… Not sure if that’s true in Argentina too, or if they just import their carbon and cut down their trees to feed more lucrative industries.” Important info, thanks Angela!

Oh, how the adventure stings

28 01 2009

I was attacked by a swarm of Africanized “killer” bees and subsequently lost the majority of my gear: Tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, cookset, clothes, shoes, tools, replacement parts.

So I’m between a rock and a hard place; I don’t want to be a snob and think I only need the best gear to continue my trip, but I definitely don’t want to be naïve and put myself in a dangerous situation.

Aron Ralston is the climber who cut his own arm off with a pocket knife after a boulder trapped it against a canyon wall during a solo hike in Utah. In his book he says, after years of adventures perhaps this was the challenge he had been looking for subconsciously. In an interview with Summit Magazine he said “I’d led myself down there, I’d set it all in motion, and well, it did turn out to be an adventure.” I couldn’t help but relate.

No, I am not in nearly as dire a situation as Aron Ralston; I didn’t have to cut my arm off, for example. But I have led myself to down here, I have set this tour in motion, and now, after the bee attack I find myself in Corrientes, Argentina with essentially no gear and, still, an undying desire to bicycle back to the United States.

Stories like Aron Ralston’s are inspiring. So is Che Guevara’s story from “The Motorcycle Diaries.” He lost his motorcycle on a motorcycle trip and continued on foot through the Andes.

You probably want to know about the attack.

It was the most unlucky string of events in my life. My first mistake was stopping above a bridge to take a break. My second mistake was taking my bag off of the trailer to look for the lightweight backpacker’s hammock inside. Finding the hammock may have been my third mistake but I can’t be sure; it was bright red, and the bees attacked right after I opened it in the wind. My plan was to use the hammock as a sail. I had been waiting for a day like this for some time. I was so content, it was a beautiful cloudy day and I had a strong tailwind, now I’ll just use my hammock as a sail andBAM!BAM!BAM!BAM!

Needles in my neck. Bees were stinging me now. I don’t think I had ever been stung by more than one bee before. The first thing that entered my mind was my father’s voice from when I was about 10 years old: “If you ever get attacked by bees run as far and as fast as you can. At some point they will stop following you.” I ran as fast as I could in cycling shoes. Of course, it’s natural to run away when you are being attacked by something, but more than that it was comforting to know they would stop following me at some point. And, oh yes, they were following me. I was now swarmed by about 25 or 50 bees if I had to guess. The majority of the bees were in my hair, but there were a few behind my ears, on my neck and back, and on my hands. I ran for a minute or two and they seemed to stop following me. So I was standing on the side of the road a few hundred meters from my bike when I started to hear buzzing again. So I decided I had to leave the area altogether. I would ride away, but I had to get to my bike first. I ran toward my bike and, in the process, lost the bees again. Or so I thought.

My camera was around my neck. I had been making joke videos all day about how flat and easy the cycling in northern Argentina is, and now I had just gotten attacked by a swarm of bees! So I turned it on and started to make a video as I arrived at my bike. Between breaths I say, “I just got attacked by a swarm of bees. Shit, they’re still stinging me! I gotta go…. AHHH, FUCK!!!!” And suddenly there were hundreds of bees. In my jersey, on my mouth, all over my hands, and in my hair, of course in my hair, wow feel that? How they really get into your hair! I picked up my bag and threw it in in the back of my trailer, I think. I might have just left it in the grass. Nothing mattered except getting away from the beesOW! JEEEEZUS! it makes sense that they would go into the hairAH!, they’re protected thereOUCH!!WATER!! I considered jumping in the stream under the bridge, but the numbers of dead crocodiles and live snakes I had seen on the side of the road the past few days worried me more than the bees. So this is how bees attack youAHAHAAAAAAAAA!!! I rode away as fast as I could, much faster than I could run in cycling shoes. Beyond the stings, I think I could almost feel the wind in my hair. And feel how many bees are stinging you on your back, you can’t kill them there eitherOH!they have evolved to sting in this wayAH!amazing…

Then, like a predictable happy-ending movie, the first car I saw while I was getting stung, swerving, waving my arms, and zig-zagging through the street was an ambulance. I rode right toward it, as if to play chicken. It swerved around me and kept going. Then it stopped, YES!, turned around and drove past me again. What?! I couldn’t believe it. What a nightmare. You can hear it pass me toward the end of the video when I scream at it desperately. A few other cars passed me. I had no idea nobody would stop for 20 minutes. After about 5 minutes of riding, slapping at bees, and trying to wave down passing cars, I realized the bag with the majority of my gear was no longer in the trailer behind the bike. Just then I arrived at a building. Police!!! And there was a truck! I pulled up at the police station with my bleeding fingers and stingers in my face. I tried to explain the situation to the officer. He ignored me, walked into his office and sat down as though he had never seen me. I followed him into his office and asked for help. I said I was having an emergency. My bag was along the side of the road somewhere but I couldn’t return because of the bees. Could he give me a ride? He said the truck didn’t work. I thought he was lying. Could he call somebody? He said there was nothing he could do. I told him I would pay him if he could just drive me down the road 5 minutes to get my bag. Somebody will steal it any second if they haven’t already. He told me to go get my own bag. I took two Benedryls and then went to the street to hitch hike. He yelled at me, told me to get out of the road, I couldn’t hitch hike there. I didn’t leave the street. He called somebody to complain about me. I said, “SI, SI, LLAMÁLE POR FAVOR, LLAMÁLE A ALGUIEN! HAHAHAHAAAA!!!!” A car would pass every 1 or 2 minutes. Desperate now, I stood in the middle of the street. Each time a car passed I would crawl on my hands and knees, fall down on the side of the road. Nobody stopped. Then I made another video. After a few failed attempts to get a ride I remembered something I had learned on a previous hitch hiking/cycling tour through California: Remove your front wheel and hold it in your hand as you wave your arms for help. I finally got a ride. My bag was gone.

To make matters worse, I spent the rest of the afternoon at the police station, alternating between the bathroom and the shade under a tree. My body was defending itself against the bee poison in every way possible: vomiting, diarrhea, sleep. The cop told me not to drink anything. I drank as much as I could, and returned to the bathroom many times. “See?” he said. “The water is making you sicker.” Before I hitch hiked into the nearest city, Corrientes, where I am now, my amigo left in his truck. Oh, how the engine roared.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the history of Africanized “killer” bees.
“The Africanized bee in the western hemisphere descended from 26 Tanzanian queen bees accidentally released by a replacement bee-keeper in 1957… in the southeast of Brazil from hives operated by biologist Warwick E. Kerr, who had interbred honey bees from Europe and southern Africa. Hives containing these particular queens were noted to be especially defensive… As of 2002, Africanized honey bees had spread from Brazil south to NORTHERN ARGENTINA and north to South and Central America, Trinidad (West Indies), Mexico, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida and southern California.”

Yet another example of humans manipulating nature… gone awry. Thanks, Warwick and your nameless replacement. A sarcastic thanks, also, on behalf of the native bees that are being driven out of their tropical habitats by your creations, and the inevitable chain reaction disrupting the balance of nature.

Carnaval starts tonight. So I’m going out. I’m going to party until 4 a.m. like a Kurepi and then sleep in late like a Yanki. And then, at 4 p.m. tomorrow when the shops re-open after the siesta I will tour the city with one goal: to put together the bare necessities for a two-week bicycle trip through the Argentinian Chaco. From there, Bolivia. One step at a time…

Parrots and Crocodiles and Bees, oh… my…

19 01 2009

Okay, my camera was stolen yesterday. I’ve been robbed three times already. There, I said it. And yes, I’m being careful.

Now that the bad news is out of the way, this trip is incredible! Anybody who has ever thought about bicycle touring, especially abroad, should do it and/or think about joining me. Bring at least 4 cameras.

Here’s the lowdown:

On Friday, January 16th I said goodbye to Austin, a Peace Corps friend I travelled to Argentina with. He went to Buenos Aires to meet up with his brother and I stayed in Posadas that night. First things first, I bought a chip so my phone would work in Argentina. Then, with hours to spare before sunset, I toured the streets asking respectable-looking people if they knew anybody who might want to host a gringo, and as usual I got a lot of “I guess you can stay with us if you want.” I exchanged numbers with these folks to secure a plans B, C, D, etc. and then made my way to a few churches where there are often people more eager to host me. This would become my routine, along with police stations and fire stations. At a huge Catholic Church downtown I met a laid back, smoker, bearded male receptionist who invited me to stay with him and his roommates without hesitation and with a big smile. Great! So I stayed with them Friday night, glad to get my bike off the Posadas streets. I mentioned the fact that the receptionist smokes because in just one day crossing from Paraguay to Argentina I noticed a huge increase in smokers. In Argentina, employees often smoke while working in stores, for example.

Businesses in Posadas stayed open LATE. I was at an internet cafe until 1 a.m. and as I wandered back to the Catholic house I could see restaurants and small corner shops were still open. That night I slept like a babe under the stars in my tent in the backyard. The tent is a great mosquito net; I even prefer it to a bed in an unairconditioned house.

Early Saturday morning I woke up, drank mate with my friends and hit the road. On the way out I hit up a bike shop, finally found some chain lube (there was none in Paraguay and I didn’t bring any to South America thinking it would be easy to find), and a few other odds and ends.

The ride out of Posadas was exciting for me. For one, it was my first ride away from the Paraguayan border, knowing I wouldn’t be back. I would miss Paraguay for sure, but at the same time I finally felt like I was really leaving home even though I had been on the road a month or so. Along Ruta 12 outside I saw a few young student-types thumbing their way west. I stopped and asked a group where they were headed. Ituzaingo, they said. It’s a party destination during the summer, with river beaches and crowded clubs. Ituzaingo was already my intended destination for the day, 85 kilometers away. Not much to say about the ride before arriving at Ituzaingo. Flat. Pine and Eucalyptus. Pastures with cows grazing. A sign for Jesuit ruins 45 kilometers down a dirt road. Fruit stands here and there. And it was hot.

Ituzaingo is a small touristy town on the banks of the Rio Paraná, and is home to a new, gigantic, nearly completed dam, Jasyreta (moon country) between Argentina and Paraguay. I asked around for a place to say, investigated some campsites, and then decided on the fire station, where I pitched camp in safe, fenced-in spot among friendly volunteer firefighters that offered me dinner and route advice. I took a bike ride to the beach, snapped a photo, showered, and then took a siesta before the fiesta. I woke up at about 9 p.m. and followed the crowds. In Ituzaingo the meeting spot for hundreds of partiers is a small gas station in the middle of town. From there you meet people over beers, pack into new friends’ cars, and drive a few kilometers outside of town to a gigantic nightclub where the drink of choice is Coke and Fernet. The party ends (for them) when the sun rises, or later. The party ended for me when people started to fight and I realized it was already 5 a.m.

I slept in until 9 a.m., woke up sweating, and forced myself to get on the bike. Sunday morning was difficult riding but being on the bike was definitely better than laying in the tent as the summer sun heated up South America. I was tired. Fortunately the day took it easy on me; clouds moved in and I enjoyed some light sprinkles and cool breezes.

It has been beautiful watching civilization fade away behind me. Each town I pass through seems to get smaller and smaller. Sunday night I stayed in a small village (Villa Olivari, which was not on my map) reminiscent of my Peace Corps site in Paraguay. Plan B was camping in the grass near a guard station by a forest, plan C was camping behind the police station. Plan A became a genuinely nice family that forced me to stay in a bed in their extra bedroom. I accepted. We chatted over Sprite, I took a siesta, then they invited me to a birthday party at their 27 year old son’s house. His hobby is making recycled beautiful wine glasses (copas) from glass bottles. He gave me one to pay forward to the next family I stay with. And as we ate cake and the kids took turns blowing out the candle, we brainstormed and decided one of the goals of Ride for the Trees should be paying environmental gifts forward, like a chain of environmental gifts along the route from one community to the next. (I write this now in Corrientes, where I have already presented the glass to the Castelo family. They LOVED it and have promised me a plant to take to the next family.)

I had no idea what Monday had in store for me. Partly cloudy skies, flat roads, 100 kilometers to the next town. Little did I know there were Africanized bees in the area. I don’t remember much else from the day. I remember seeing dead crocodiles and live snakes. I remember a tailwind, and an idea to use my red hammock as a sail. And then I heard buzzing.

Adióp, Paraguay! and Que Tal Che, Argentina!

17 01 2009

From the roadside in Northeastern Argentina I send you all saludos and wish you the best!

Here’s what’s up in my neck of the city:

1) VIDEO from Paraguay!
2) We have reached approximately 1.5% of the $100,000 fundraising goal with plenty of time to keep fundraising. Big thanks to all of you who have donated! The Paraguayan non-profits told me to tell you “¡Muchisimas Gracias!” Donations can me made quickly and safely through the link on
3) is now using a TravelStash blog so you can visualize the route and even zoom in on satellite photos… Check it out!
4)I have been wondering… without Guarani (the charming language that it is) would it be as easy to find friendly people to stay with in “Casteshano”-speaking Argentina as it was in Paraguay? So far so good! See the attached photo for tonight’s campsite in my new university friends’ backyard here in Posadas, Argentina. Looky there, that’s the tent behind us.
5) After a week or so off, due to getting my backpack stolen, complete with passport, wallet, camera, and cell pone, among other things, I am back on the road with replacements… viva Argentina!

Wow, I’ve been cycling around Paraguay for about a month (and lived there 2 years), and now it is behind me. So I feel like I should try to summarize it for you. For travellers, for touring cyclists, and for curious folks the world over.

The first two things that come to mind are that Paraguay is a country on fire—everything seems to be on fire: trash, piles of leaves, forests– and the people setting those fires are probably the most hospitable, friendly folks you’ll never meet.

Paraguayan summers are HOT.

Central Paraguay, in the Cordillera, is home to rainbows in the clouds, like cartoons. What? Yep, just what I said. When I was riding around Cordillera, Paraguay, I saw rainbows in the clouds all the time. I don’t know why this would be the case, but residents tell me it is not uncommon in that area.

The roads are better than you’d expect in Paraguay. I rarely saw a pothole I could not avoid. But there are these speed bumps every few meters along the shoulders of many a highway, probably to keep motorcycles from passing on the shoulder… be careful early morning and late afternoon when tree and light post shadows are long and can camouflage the speed bumps that sometimes seem to come out of nowhereBAM! Poverty abounds in Paraguay, but so do mansions and elaborate casinos and hotels. Guarani is an amazing language! Ah, I could talk about Paraguay all day long… I miss it already. I miss the United States too, and perhaps soon I’ll miss Argentina, but Paraguay and the people there (locals and volunteers!) will always have a special place in my heart. Chau Paraguay, rohayhu!