The Daily Grind
A Cyc-o-path Loose in South America
A Motivational Book About Cycle Touring Through South America
A Book by Bob Lutsky
"Take care of the moments, the years will take care of themselves"
The Cycling Begins: Do I Need A Visa For Brazil?!
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"The gladdest moments in a person's life is the departure of a distant
journey to unknown lands shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters
of habit, the laden weight of routine, the cloak of many cares and the
slavery of home. Man feels once more happy. The blood flows with the
rapid circulation of childhood - afresh dawns the morning of life."
Richard Burton - 1856
I have been in South America for about 10 days and finally we arrive in
Puerto Suarez, Bolivia, a border town with Brazil. This is where the cycling
part of my trip will actually begin. It's early December, just north of
the tropic of Capricorn, which means that the sun passes directly overhead
because its summer. It's not just hot, it's damn hot, 105 degrees and humid,
in the shade, if you're lucky. To add to the fun and amusement, the roads are
dirt and it's the rainy season, Yahoo!! I think to myself, if you look on the
bright side, the bugs are as thick as London fog so perhaps they will blot
out the sun. Besides, Tierra Del Fuego is only 3000 miles away. I feel better
already. Actually, this is the only time on the whole trip where I'm here
at the wrong time of year. I must say that from Ushuaia to Quito I was always
at the right place at the right time.
I can't begin to express how happy I am to be on the bike again and back
to the daily grind. The whole continent lies before me with all it's ups
and downs and headwinds. The vacation is over and it's back to work. This
is work you ask? No, this is my life. If you think about it, everything
that we do is work. It's work to cook a meal or shop for groceries and it's
even work to prepare for a picnic. Life is a series of projects and problems
to solve, skills to learn. I always find it interesting that the average
person will die within 7 years of retirement. If you think about it, work
gives us more than an income, even more than an accomplishment or a solution
to a problem. It gives us our very lives.
Speaking of work, let's try to cross into Brazil. It's 6:30 PM, still
daylight although the sun has set and I'm at the customs post in my natural
state of frustration for we have a problem to solve. I apparently cannot
cross until morning because the guy who gives the exit stamps from Bolivia
has gone home for the day. There must be 5 or 6 custom officers here, all
standing about while many local people are crossing the border. It's an open
border between the two towns. I didn't say anything but I was thinking
to myself in reference to this astute sharply dressed customs officer
standing before me - It's sitting right there in front of you, why don't
you just grab the bloody stamper thing and put a nice neat exit stamp next
to my entry stamp. I offered him everything but sexual favors but he
wouldn't hear any of it. "Come back tomorrow 8:00 am" and I thought to
myself "SWELL". Stuart found it all quite amusing and managed to get a
fair bit of entertainment out of my frustration.
Not able to find an affordable hotel (as in less than $5.00 a night),
I started asking the locals, with my minimal Spanish, if we
could pay them $2.00 and camp in their yard. The third person I asked
said no problem and Stuart and I made ourselves at home on the lovely
10'x10' patch of dirt behind his house. We had to be careful not to trip
over the boundary fence which came up to about our kneecaps. Marking off
your piece of land seems to be an instinctive habit.
After a nice shower (in Bolivia there is always hot and
cold running water ... except for hot) from the man's hose hung over the
fork in the tree branch, I felt fully refreshed. Washing away the
frustrations of the futile battle with the customs puppets, we went out
to a local restaurant for the usual soup, meat and rice dinner, with a
beverage all for 5 Bolivianos - the equivalent of $1.00 US.
The restaurant also sold bags of Cocoa Leaves which are available
everywhere throughout the country and are more common than cigarettes.
You can buy a whole bag about the size of a basketball for about 20 cents.
Since there wasn't much else to two in this two-road town, I thought I'd
try the Cocoa Leaves. You chew them with a pinch of baking soda or some
black sweat tasting tar-like substance to help bring out the full effect.
You chew them like chewing tobacco only you swallow the liquid instead of
spitting it out, every so often adding to the mixture. Every few hours,
you spit out the whole wad and start again. Pushing the wad from side to
side can provide for hours of amusement on the long stretches of biking.
There is no "High" no "WHOOPEE" and no adrenaline rush or sudden burst of
energy. In fact, there is no noticeable change at all. You simply, gradually,
feel GOOD, like you feel when you're having a great day, no aches, no pains,
no headache, no fatigue, no hunger or thirst - you just feel GOOD, like you
can go on. It's not a wonder drug or a cure-all. I found myself chewing
the leaves mostly for the novelty of it, not for any effect it might
have, but it truly does relieve the altitude discomforts on the altiplano.
Stuart, still struggling with an uncertain tummy takes a pass on the leaves.
His only concern was that I make sure that I get rid of them all before we
cross into Brazil, where they are still illegal, I agreed that this would
be a wise precaution.
It's morning - time to see if the customs officer, who gives the official
exit stamp, has made it to work today. I wonder what special kind of
background he has, to be blessed with the extraordinary gift of stamping
passports. I guess it takes good hand eye coordination which can require
a lot of practice. I mean it's only a 3"x5" space in the passport and he's
got to get it just right in one shot. I can see why none of the other
customs officials were qualified for the task.
After thanking our hosts for letting us camp in their yard, I paid them the
20 boliviano's and we packed up our bikes, and headed back to the customs
office. When we got there we saw a whole new set of faces. And there
behind the desk is the man we've all been waiting for. He's at the ready
with stamper in hand. He looks over my passport, checks out the photo
with the usual horrifying smile. The photo reveals shoulder length hair,
clean shaven with HUGE Elton John style glasses. Of course, now I have
very short hair, shaggy beard and really small glasses. Nevertheless, he
trusts that it is in fact me. After he feels confident that I won't
try to take over the country, he grabs the stamper and I watch carefully
for the skill and confidence that earns him the big money here. He makes
the strike, albeit it a little off to the right side, but nevertheless,
the stamp is completely within it's boundaries on the passport. It's
a good thing I waited. If anybody other than the customs officer had
stamped my passport I'm sure it would be a complete mess. Throughout
my trip in South America, I collected 24 new stamps at 12 official
border crossings in 7 different countries and never did anyone search
my bags or my bicycle or even inquire as to what I was carrying. Crossing
into Canada has been more difficult for me than any of the border
crossings in South America.
Finally we cycle into Brazil. Wow - smooth pavement! About 10 miles to
the next town. No customs post anywhere. We are still in no man's land.
We arrive in the town of Corumba which appropriately means "Good Grief"
in Spanish. I spent most of the day asking around, with my minimal
Spanish, Where is the customs post? We needed to have a stamp to show
that we've officially entered into the country. You can be arrested if you
are found in a country without a visa. Naturally, as you might expect, no-one
knew anything about any customs post. But at least they all had the decency
to give us specific directions anyway which means we spent most of the
day following directions that went no-where. I learned early how to
ask directions in South America. Ask only "Is the customs office This way"
Point your finger in the general direction you think it is. If the answer
is Yes, proceed one or two blocks and repeat the procedure. If they
try to give you any MORE information, just run away. By 4:00 pm, the
mystery office appeared. By accident we stumbled upon a small remote bus
station on the far edge of town. Why did they decide to put it here?
The nice official stamper man is not there but with a half hour of asking
and waiting and poking through his papers, he arrives and hands me
a form to fill out. Question #7 - Have you ever been involved in an
organization to overthrow the government? I bet they get a lot of YES
answers on that one. I naturally filled in, "Sole reason for visit".
Answers like this are highly recommended to make the crossing go
smoothly. My other favorite question is "Where will you stay while
in Brazil?" Well let me take a shot at this one: For most of the time
I will not be in or near any town, second of all, it will be a different
place every night for an undetermined period of time. Naturally, the only
answer you can put down would be "Yo Momma's House". When you're going
across with a bike, the answers on these customs form just don't work
anymore. The customs guy actually looked me in the face, as I'm leaning
up against my bike with all the gear on it and asks "How will you be
traveling?". I knew I was dealing with an astute above-average
intellectual at this point. And my favorite question of all "What is
your occupation?" and my favorite answer is "Teacher and lecturer on
highly effective prison escape techniques". I never understood the
purpose of all these questions but it makes for an entertaining social
exchange and introduction into a new country.
After the ordeal, he informs me that I need a Visa. If that wasn't
frustration enough, I became ecstatic when he informed that I must
return to Bolivia, and not just to the town I came from either, but
to the NEXT town 25 miles beyond it, to find the nearest Brazilian
consulate. Ah, but wait, it gets better, it's only open on Tuesdays
and Thursdays! Today is Friday. I'll also need the usual two photos so they
will have something for their scrap book, and of course $20 for the entrance
fee. Swell! I read the South American handbook about 50 times and it's
worded in such a way that until the 51st reading, you're sure you don't need
one. I had such a good time the last couple days at the border that
I'm quite excited to be blessed with a couple more.
Like the train station forced incarceration, I used the time to practice
and study my Spanish, sample all the local juices, eat in the local
unsanitary restaurants with the wide variety of chicken and rice dishes.
The following day we met an attractive Brazilian girl about 18 years old.
She appeared to be very interested in both of us, so we walked around town
together for a few hours but communication was very difficult. She spoke
Portuguese and I spoke English. She appeared to want a romantic encounter
and asked me if she could meet me later at my hotel. This doesn't happen
very often, and I did have a few days to kill, but the more I thought
about it, the more my mind wandered into the idea that it might be a ploy
that she might lead a bunch of friends to my room and steal everything.
My trip is far more important to me than a romantic encounter with
someone I can't even speak to and it's certainly not worth the risk.
However, I have read that the Brazilian people are very hedonistic and
fun people who know how to live life. They really love to dance, party
drive fast and have fun like no other people and illicit romance is
at the top of the list. In retrospect, I believe she was sincere and
had no evil intent. It was a tough decision, but upon reflection of
all the great stories you're about to read about, a wise one.
The Brazilian currency is called the Real and it's about equal with
the dollar which means that the country is relatively very expensive.
Stuart also needed a Visa, so we got up very early on our fifth day in
this border area, and together we cycled out the Brazilian consulate
in Bolivia. We paid our entrance fee, which is all a Visa is - a test
to see how badly you want to enter their country. While I was waiting
for things to process, I strolled down to the Piranha river. It was huge,
about a mile across, brown in color with a really swift current. There,
down by my feet at the river's edge, with razor sharp teeth smiling at
me was a real, yet dead Piranha. I thought that it would be fun to take
all my clothes off and jump in for a swim. They're small enough that one
probably wouldn't bother you, but I was keen to know what swimming with
25 of them would be like. Needless to say I didn't have a swim.
After collecting our passports with newly implanted Visa and seeing that
everything was in order, We retraced our steps back into Brazil. The next
morning, 6 DAYS after arriving at the border, We officially entered Brazil.
This whole scenario helps to reinforce the notion that your greatest asset
when cycle touring is TIME.
It's about 10:00 am and I set out for the Matagrosso Pantenal area of Brazil
just North of Corumba. The sun is almost directly overhead, it's 97 degrees
and humid. The mattagrosso region is mostly swamp but not swamp like
Louisiana. Less dense, areas of trees bushes and plants growing in shallow
water with many birds and wildlife most of which I have never seen before.
But with all the surrounding water comes the special feature of swarms
of bugs because of ideal breeding ground. This would an interesting as well
as a beautiful place to travel, especially for the wildlife but only in the
right season, June, July, August. Now it's not only too hot and humid but
also the rainy season. So with out too much contemplation we decided to head
south and return to this fascinating area another time. Also I'm still
struggling with Spanish, so my mind refuses to try to learn any Portuguese.
Without the language, traveling here is like being a deaf mute, and all you
can do is soak up all you can see and taste. Speaking of taste, Brazil was
the only country where we found all you can eat for one price, here they
call this "tenedor libre". We took full advantage of this valuable asset,
being hungry cyclists who can eat two or three dinners at a sitting but
unfortunately can barely afford one.
For me it takes about a month to get organized and settled and acquire
my Spanish tummy, get into a good routine, know exactly where everything
is in my panniers. I hoped to have all this accomplished before arriving in
Ushuaia. A place we are both over anxious to be. We cycled for about 2 weeks
covering about 45 miles a day on very good roads, but with very hot
temperatures. Finally we arrive at the town of Foz de Iguasu and check into
a hotel for a much needed shower and rest.
The following day we decided to take the bus to the world famous Igausu falls.
They were only 20 miles away about 45 minutes by bus. It cost $6 to get in
and was a little touristy but well worth it. This magnificent place was
perhaps one of the biggest highlights of my trip. Together we both got
off the bus and walked down to the 1st viewing area. Just like a Mozart
symphony it starts off slowly, I look out over a series of small individual
falls just materializing out of the jungle. Then the symphony picks up as
I start to look left and move down the path. The falls increase in size and
number until the music reaches a crescendo as all 275 water-falls become
visible at once. I fall into a state of hypnosis brought on by awe. Some of
the falls are split into 2 tiers (layers) and the whole series stretches over
half a mile as it winds its way into a semi circle ending at the visitor
center. There it is possible to reach out and touch the refreshing water
of the Paraguay river as it splashes your face. The setting is tropical,
almost jungle like with snow white puffy cumulous clouds between patches
of vivid blue sky.
The visual symphony continues to play for several hours for each new
turn in the trail provides another perspective of nature at its finest.
Mozart was like a god who could create an entire piece of music already
finished to perfection in his head before ever writing it down. The most
dream fulfilling pieces of nature are like a Mozart symphony. It has the
ability to sweep you out of consciousness into an alpha state of bliss. I
guess you could say I kinda' liked it. Through the number of clicks from his
camera and his long zombie-like stares, I could tell that Stuart was
equally impressed. This is one of the natural wonders of the world that
most certainly merits a visit. The Argentine side provides a closer look
at the falls, but like most works of art is most impressive when viewed
from a distance.
By 4 in the afternoon we were both hungry and decided to return to town.
We walked across the street and stretched out under two large palm trees
on the lawn near where the bus would take us back to the hotel. As
Stuart slept I wandered into the fancy shmancy hotel to change more
money and to find a toilet. Fortunately, I also found a beautiful swimming
pool which I somehow accidentally fell into for about 30 minutes. The
huge pool was very crowded, not very clean and as I floated there treading
water, I looked up at the palm trees and the bright Brazilian summer
sun just reflecting back on this just another day at the office. I'm in
Brazil, it's almost Christmas, I'm actually in South America. The reality
has finally set in. 3 years of trying to get here, disregarding everyone's
foolish warnings of how dangerous it would be, and months of tending to
last minute details. Without question the hardest part of any trip is
leaving home. Saving money, planning, making all the arrangements to be
away for a year, and another month to realize I'm actually here.
I have the feeling of being on top of the world, and not the north pole
top of the world, just that feeling of WOW! It's that feeling of living your
dreams, and no drug can provide that. Just like no drug can provide the
feeling of playing the violin to perfection, being fluent in a foreign
language or running a marathon in two and a half hours. This feeling of
WOW can only be achieved through hard work and following your dreams, making
them reality. I don't know if the hotel management minded me using the
pool but I didn't mind and I figured as long as one of us was reasonable
why not? It was very difficult to extricate myself from this stolen moment
of luxury but I knew Stuart would be wondering where I was. Should I tell
him? He might be really disappointed about missing out, perhaps not.
I walked out of the hotel and back to where Stuart was sitting and told him
about the pool. He was more distressed that I was gone for half and hour than
that I had a swim. We crossed the street to take one more look at the
falls before heading back to the hotel for dinner. We went to a Turkish
style restaurant serving falafel and gyros for a dollar. In south America
there is this mystery of no change. I bought 2 gyros and gave the man
two real coins equal to 2 dollars. As we ate I watched as 5 other people
bought a gyro and all paid with dollar or real coins. Therefore I know
he has at least 7 coins. So I ordered 2 more gyros and gave the man a five
real note. He looked at me real sad and asked if I had change? I said no
that's the smallest I have. He actually sent someone down the street to get
change while I waited for about 10 minutes. This no change phenomenon seems
to be consistent throughout South America. In Bolivia when you buy something
for 3 and pay with a 5 note, it seems to take a long time for them to figure
out how much you should get back, even though they have been at this job for
years and everything costs between 1 and 5 bolivianos. One time I went into a
shop, a small place that only had 15 or 20 different items for sale. A tin of
peas, corn, some canned fish, bread, eggs pasta etc. I asked him how long
he has worked in this shop and he said about 10 years. A few minutes later I
asked him how much a tin of peas cost and he didn't know. He had to look it
up in the book. Maybe he doesn't sell many tins of peas. Maybe he needs time
to figure out how much to over charge me!
That evening I spent several hours studying the map of Paraguay, and reading
a little about their cultural aspects. They speak a strange language called
guarani, pronounced guar - a - nee. But I believe most people will understand
Spanish. I really enjoyed myself here in Brazil and would like to return
sometime and spend 6 or 8 months sailing the 5000 miles of coast, or at least
crewing on a boat sailing the coast of Brazil.
I travel by bicycle not just because I like it, but because it is challenging and hard which is what makes it rewarding, building resourcefullness and confidence. It also adds spice and energy to life, and without this, life becomes monotonous and boring, leading to lethargy and eventually illness! An interesting note- mental illness, largly a rich nations disease, is very rare in South America.