Day 9+10: 6./7.1.2009

Talca-Chillan-Los Angeles

        The PanAmericana Experience

        “Do you guys train for this kind of long distance ride?” “No, we don’t train. We pray.” This is what the head of the group of 28 members of a certain church in Chillan tells me. They do a 12 day bike ride around middle and southern Chile, all of them on more or less crappy bikes. Some of the bikes really are old, some seem new but are equipped with old components. On top of this they are all dressed in jeans (long) and dark blue woolen sweaters, which seems to be their church uniform. I ask some of them wether they don’t feel a bit hot but the simple answer is: “We are Chilean, we are used to this”. The other and probably better reason for wearing jeans is the safety factor, the head of the group explains to me. They crash rather frequently (claro if you only ride your bike once a year for this tour and then go in a big group together) and with jeans they do have  better leg protection. Within the 30 minutes that we cycle together I can indeed observe one guy falling, for no obvious reason but rather spontaneously of course. Funny group. When I wish them farewell because they turn in for a lunch break while I keep going their group head ensures me that as of now they would include a German on his way southwards on a bike in their prayers to make sure I will be safe. Very reassuring to know. 

        Apart from this my Panamericana experience is rather boring. I know now that even during a sabbatical life can be tough. During these last two days I have spent 225 km in a constant, strong headwind, at about 40 °C and with trucks passing by all the time. I could not manage an average speed of more than 17-18 km/h (although I was pushing quite hard) and could not drink enough to keep my mouth at least a bit moist. I really have no sentiment for people who do the whole Panamericana on a bike. Why would you do this ? Neither do you see much of the country or meet  a lot of local people. I know that I am not looking forward to the third day PanAm experience but need to cover another 120 km southwards to cover some distance on my way into the lake & volcano region. But this will be after my rest day tomorrow. Listening to my heavily harassed butt and having enjoyed a wonderful afternoon in my guest house for the  night (called El Rincon, run by a German couple who emigrated 19 years ago) I have decided to stay for another day and take care of my self. I will bath in the river  and rest in the hammock in the wonderful garden, just like I did today, but maybe a bit more intensively.

        The other two interesting encounters I had on the PanAm were yesterday. The first one when I did 7 km together with a local who went back home from his work (fieldwork). He does the 7 km (one way) every day. On a very old bike of course. And he for sure was really hard to understand. When our ways had parted I  had to admit that I did hardly understand a word of what he had said, and he talked the majority of our time together.

        The second one was at the evening of the first day when after 120 km I was really wasted and did not yet know exactly how to get to the next bigger town. It was still 25 kms away and my target to find a hostal there. I was parked at one of the mini-kiosks at the side of the road, eating and drinking sweet stuff to boost my blood sugar level when an older farmer stopped by to eat his dinner. He ordered a little bread bun, three boiled eggs, salt and two bottles of Coke. This explained his big belly. As he was living in the town I wanted to get to (Chillan) he offered to give me a lift with his pick up, which I happily accepted. In the car he was looking at me quite directly from the side all the time, with his eyes narrowed, somehow as if he either could not see properly or wanted to screen me in detail. I was not sure whether he either needed some strong glasses and was in fact driving nearly blind or if he maybe even was gay. An unsolved mystery until now as I got out of the car right when we reached town and did not bother or dare to ask for more details.

Day 11: 8.1.2009

El Rincon – Relaxation

        Again wonderful how many nice people I meet on my journey here. This time in the cosy lodge “El Rincon”, which I use for a rest day on my way south on the PanAm highway. I meet not only the two German owners Winfried and Elke but also two other guests, Larry and  Cherie from Canada. Both are retired and on a three months journey around South America, mainly by cruise ship. They have some time to drive through the Chilean inland by rental car and we have met here last night when they arrived just in time for dinner. They are from the Vancouver area and have definitely travelled the world. We have interesting and entertaining conversations about special experiences in China, we enjoy good Chilean red wine, produced ecologically friendly by Swiss people in the area here, and we enjoy the great food that has been prepared by Winfried. Now I will be moving towards the hammock and enjoy my rest day between sleeping, bathing in the river and eating. Well deserved I think. Tomorrow there will be another day on  the PanAm before I reach the level where I want to turn east into the Andes. Lets see what I will find, I am curiously awaiting the experience.


        What is it that I get to know so many more people on my trip here compared to other holidays and trips I have done before ? Is it purely and by default the fact that I am travelling alone ? And hence in return that when  you are travelling together with somebody else you are more focused on interpersonal communication and more closed as a group rather than being open to external influences ? Or is it because the people here are so much more (foreigner) friendly and open than where I have been in the world so far ? Or is it that I approach people differently ? Or do I look like somebody who needs some company or maybe even help ? I have observed some more things already: When I wear my sunglasses people are more cautious with approaching me in a friendly manner. They seem to struggle to read my real intentions and hence do not happily make the first move, are more neutral or sometimes even suspicious (agreed, the glasses look a bit weird). Also does their body language and mimics change from “neutral-suspicious” to “open and friendly” when I move from simply looking at them neutrally to smiling at them and using my bike bell to say hello. This little bell on my handlebar, together with a no sunglasses-approach when I want to meet local people makes it much easier to get connected and to find support. I feel a bit annoyed because I have the impression that I have wasted some opportunities on past travel when I have not connected enough with the locals. It is such a rich experience. You really get to know a countrybest  through the people themselves. The rest is only the landscape and nature, which might be stunning and beautiful but the contents is still missing. I do  sincerely believe now that you see the world through your own eyes, and if your eyes sit in a friendly head with a smile on the face, this is how you will see in the world. If your eyes sit behind sunglasses and/or in an unfriendly head, then this is how you will see the world. I will keep going with the experiment to prove the given hypothesis. If I am friendly all the way through to the end of the journey I should only be meeting friendly people. Lets see.. I will also apply this next time when I travel together with other people to prove that the hypothesis is also valid for traveling in a group. This was todays “messerscharfe Einordnung meiner Beobachtungen in die Aretz’sche Weltordnung” (I borrow this quote from a nice feedback mail I got from Martin Vergien, thanks, Martin!).

Day 12: 8.1.2009

Bye Bye PanAm highway

        Oh my god, this is a present from heaven ! This massive John Deere agricultural machine that is approaching me from behind with only a small speed surplus should be the perfect draft for me to go with. And it is ! This thing goes at exactly 30 km/h and is indeed so huge that I do hardly need to paddle to stay behind, in the flat of course. As the road keeps moving lightly up and down I move from not pedaling at all, even breaking, on the downhills to pushing really hard to stay right behind on the short uphill sections. It all works out fine for ca. 15 km but then this longer and especially steeper uphill section appears. I try hard but my legs explode almost immediately. I have to let the draft go. Plus I also need to make a break to get my legs sorted again. Nevertheless, this was cool. Definitely helped me accomplish my target to finish the PanAm experience today. On my last kilometers before my planned exit I pass by a little kiosk, happily wave the owners hello like I usually do, when my front tire loses all its air within seconds. Flat tire number three. The sun is too hot, I need shade to repair the flat. And here we go, I waved hello in passing just a few seconds ago to the ladies and now here I am , pushing my bike into the shade of their kiosk. They are very polite and  talkative. While changing the tube I learn everything about how todays kids in Chile learn English (even in more rural Chile). They watch movies with subtitles and  they have computer programs that help them learn words and pronounce them properly. And of course at school. Nice conversation. And by the way, the cheese they are selling tastes excellent. If I was here by car I would buy one.        

        5.30 pm, I have finally made it ! I leave the PanAm highway for good today. The name of the exit I take is “Victoria”, and it does indeed feel like a small personal victory. In the three days I have spent riding my bike on that road I have totaled ca. 350 km, climbed ca. 1700 meters of altitude and spent almost 20 hours effective riding time. This mission to go south effectively has now been accomplished. I reflect on my PanAm experience and summarize my key observations: 1. The highway often flows like a moving snake, regularly up and down all the time. I don’t like snakes. 2. You can find all types  and sizes of screws on the hard shoulder (which I have been using all the time). They are pretty rare though, much rarer than e.g. in China, about one every few kilometers. If you are looking for a certain type it might take you all day to find it. 3. You can see a few of the ca. 250 Volcanos of the Southern Andes on the eastern horizon regularly. They look spectacular already from a distance. I will be climbing one very soon. 4. The most frequently met trucks are from the big fuel companies, COPEC and SHELL the most. They also  have by far the newest trucks, which is not surprising but annoying and reassuring at the same time. Annoying because they buy them from huge profits they make with us customers and reassuring because they transport flammable goods and should be modern and safe. I do believe they go south full. Hence I should not have a problem to refill my camping stove when I need to. 5. There are even more tourist buses going south than SHELL and COPEC trucks. I will not be alone in the Lake and Volcano region. 6. The gas stations and service areas are always close to the exits at the bigger cities. I am not sure why because the same stuff of course exists in the cities as well. Until I have understood that logic I have suffered quite some hunger and thirst attacks in the empty areas in between (where I was expecting some of those).

        In  the town of Victoria I first find a bike shop where the owner helps me identify the problem with my front wheel tube. The valve is broken. I buy a few new tubes and have a chat with him about all the posters he has on the walls in his shop. He ensures me that these are all popular female Chilean cyclists, just on the pictures they are without bikes. And without clothes as well. Anyway, a very nice and helpful chap. And he knows what he is doing. Also the town is quite nice. My dinner is a  big burger in the Café Aleman (the owner does not know why it is called “aleman”) and I reside in the best (and only) hotel in town again. Wireless internet as always, I am impressed by the infracstructure. Hope it will stay this way all the way south. Tomorrow I will cycle towards the volcanoes !