Friday 27 May 2011

Troy, New York State - On the wrong side of the law ... again

For the second time on this trip I found myself on the wrong side of the law. A few mornings ago, Graham and I were cycling along Highway 2 when a State Trooper, blue lights flashing, pulled us over and shouted as we slowed “it’s the end of the line, folks”. It sounded serious. I thought I was going to jail. At least then I wouldn’t have to cycle over 4000 miles to Seattle! However, we’d just ended up on a road that prohibits bicycles and our State Trooper politely escorted us off.

We’d gone onto a busier but more direct highway to try to cut some mileage. To be honest, the first week of cycling in the States was pretty tough. The weather has been awful with drenching mists and torrential rain, we’ve had to cycle some 60 and 70-mile days to link campsites and the navigation west of Boston was infuriating through a bewildering maze of suburban roads. A couple of days of welcome relief were provided in Ashland by friends of Graham in the beautiful, New England home of Karen, David, Craig, Jennifer and Doogle the dog.

From Ashland the weather has brightened and we’ve now cycled west into the thick, bear-infested forests of the Berkshires. A long, steep climb afforded us 100-mile views across woods that stretched to the horizon and a descent that got Graham up to a frightening 41mph! We’re cycling now on quiet roads through pleasant rural towns but we always seem to find a McDonalds at some point for Wifi access … honestly … the fries and coffee are just a bonus! People have been overwhelmingly friendly and helpful and we’ve only had a couple of instances of drivers rolling down their windows to shout at us “get off the road”. Nice! And so we’ve crossed Massachusetts, flirted briefly with Vermont and are now in New York State to join the Erie Canal cycle route at Troy that will take us 400 miles west to Buffalo.

The campsites we are using now are deep in the woods so we have to “bear aware”. We have bear bells attached to our bikes so they can hear us coming and carry bear spray, an unpleasant but harmless concoction of peppers that repels bears in the unlikely event of an attack. At the end of the day now, our food, cooking utensils, toiletries and even the clothes we were wearing when we were cooking, go into a bag that is placed out of the reach of bears, either hung between two trees or placed in the campsite office. We spend most of the day talking and fretting about bears despite everybody telling us not to worry about black bears – “they’re after your food, not you”.

Yesterday was my 42nd birthday and one sign of my advancing years is my inability to get through the night without getting up for the loo. In bear country you can’t simply pop behind a bush near the tent as the scent can attract bears. So in the middle of the night, I can brave the walk to the toilet block through the trees where, in the dark, every stump resembles a bear. Or I can stay in my tent and use a “pee bottle”. I’ve opted for the pee bottle!

Bears aren’t the only nuisances in American campsites – there are also midge-like flies called no-see-ums, mosquitoes, biting May flies and people who use golf buggies to travel to and from the toilet block!

But for all our worries about bears, the only food we’ve lost so far to a ravenous beast is a packet of dried milk, wrapper and all, to Doogle the dog!

Photos on Flickr and updated map below.

Thursday 19 May 2011

Plymouth, Massachusetts - Greyhound racing

Plane travel usually whisks you from one place on the planet to another without any gentle transitions but my first flight on this trip deposited me in Miami, a subtle bridge between South and North America – there was tropical heat, tall palms swaying in a sweltering breeze and most conversations were still conducted in Spanish. But there were also supermarkets and Starbucks! I have to confess to being spoiled rotten in Miami as I was hosted by Richard and Stuart (relatives of Lesley and Chris, my cycle heroes from Haddington) in the gorgeous suburb of Coral Gables with its wide avenues of overha
nging mangrove trees and quaint canals.

There was one problem with Miami – it was a long way from Boston where I was meeting my friend Graham to start our trans-America cycle. To minimise the number of flights but maximise the number of adventures, I decided to travel up through America by Greyhound bus, ticking off another little dream into the bargain!

My Greyhound raced north through night and day, pausing only briefing to change drivers or feed passengers. As we crossed state line after state line we put behind us Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New York and Connecticut before arriving in Massachusetts. I loved the drivers who all reminded me of Whoopi Goldberg – black women with a slick patter and a quick put-down for any passengers who didn’t tow the line! 39 hours and two nights after setting out into a hot, sticky Miami evening, I was delivered into a cold, grey, wet Boston morning. Maybe I’m strange but I slept well curled up under my duvet jacket across a double seat and really enjoyed the journey!

On a cold, grey, wet day I met Graham off his flight from the UK. We spent a couple of cold, grey, wet days pottering around Boston then cycled south on another cold, grey, wet day to Plymouth, our starting point for the east-west cycle and landing place in 1620 of the Mayflower and the Pilgrim Fathers. We cycled to Plymouth Rock and the National Monument of the Forefathers that commemorate the landing – yes, on another cold, grey, wet day!

If ever the rain goes off, I’ll take some photos of America to show you!

Monday 9 May 2011

La Paz, Bolivia - And the band played on

I'm not usually one to blow my own trumpet but I am feeling quite pleased with myself. You see, I've travelled all the way from Portobello to La Paz without using an airplane, the most polluting means of transport. But my unblemished record ends here as I'll shortly be boarding a flight to leave Bolivia.

Bolivia has been a brilliant wee country with beautiful landscapes and traditional cultures that remain strong, adding colour to everyday life. It was so exciting to hunt out the trail of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the spectacular scenery around Tupiza. And I visited two places that had become almost mythical in my mind over the years - the Salar de Uyuni and Lake Titicaca. Then there's nothing quite like carnival, as I discovered in Copacabana! But one of the fondest memories that I'll take away from Bolivia is that of the brass bands - they're such a unique and endearing facet to life here. It seemed that no matter where I was or what was going on, there was a brass band playing stirring tunes that gave me goosebumps all over. Long may the bands play on!

Not only am I leaving Bolivia, I'm also leaving South America. These last few months cycling through South America have been one of the most magical times of my life. The journey by bicycle has been wonderful and exciting, the scenery spectacular and the cultures rich and interesting. Of course, there have been challenges such as the earthquake and floods in Chile or crossing the deserts of Argentina. But there have been lighter moments as well such as being filmed for Argentine TV or trying to mime "anaemia" in a pharmacy in Salta! But I think what I'll remember most from this time are all the other cyclists that I met. Some, like Chris and Lesley, Simon, Eric and Gaelle, and Rodrigo, I spent several enjoyable days with. But most were just brief encounters as our paths crossed . . . a chat on the roadside . . . an exchange of stories in the campsite. Being part of this community of people pedalling up and down the Americas has been really, really special. Thinking about it will give me a warm glow for many years to come.

I may be leaving South Amercia but my bicycle journey through the Americas is not finished. In fact, a whole new American adventure is just about to begin. In one day I fly to the United States to meet my best friend and base camp manager, Graham. Over the next five months we're aiming to cycle from the east coast near Boston to the west coast at Seattle, a journey of over 4000 miles, across eight different states . . . we may even dip into Canada! It'll be dangerous - our lives will be threatened by bears or rednecks or . . . if we fall out . . . each other!

It's been brilliant having you along for the ride through South America so please keep following "the bicycle diaries" as the adventure unfolds across North America. Please also visit Graham's brilliant website, Sleepless ´til Seattle, for his blogs, photos and film clips. We may be on the same journey but you can bet your bottom dollar our blogging will be quite different! Click on the link on the right.

I'm absolutely beside myself with excitement at the prospect of joining my friend for this adventure across the States but I know that as my plane climbs out of La Paz and I cross the Andes for the last time, I'll be feeling a little sad to be leaving South America. Nonetheless, I'll be consoled by the knowledge that within a few hours I'll be speaking English again, pondering over a profusion of grocery options, munching McDonalds fries and sipping a Starbucks double-tall, extra-hot latte. God bless America!

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Copacabana, Bolivia - Island of the Sun

Tigger, Shirley and I pulled up a few feet short of the water´s edge. Behind us rose the spectacular snow-covered Andes and spread out before us was beautiful Lake Titicaca. Arriving on the shores should have been the climax of my bicycle journey through South America, a moment of joy and elation. But instead I found myself upset to the point of tears.

I had eventually rec
eived my visa and had eventually left La Paz, cycling north until I left the main route and took a quiet back road down to Puerto Perez, a sleepy village on the shores of Lake Titicaca. It was a beautiful ride. Dotted across the landscape were simple, little houses surrounded by small plots of crops in varying shades of green with quinoa adding splashes of red here and there. In Scotland this would be crofting land. Indian women in brightly-patterned skirts and colourful shawls worked the plots by hand or moved cattle and sheep across the road in front of me. To the west the Altiplano stretched to the horizon but to the east it ended abruptly at the breath-taking Cordillera Real de los Andes, a jagged range of snow-covered mountains. Ahead of me were the sparkling waters of Lake Titicaca where little boats with colourful sails bobbed on the waves. Along the shore humming birds hovered on red-hot poker plants. Later, a red hot sunset gave way to a starry night sky with Orion centre-stage. Lying in bed I could hear the water lapping against the moored boats, the squawks of waterfowl disturbed by some night-time predator and the distant bark of a dog.

It was idyllic but I was feeling a little bit down. My trusty camera had died on me just as I was taking photos of the triumphant arrival at Titicaca. I was really upset as the camera had been a very special gift some years ago that meant a lot to me. I was miserable at its demise. It also meant that I had to go all the way back to La Paz on the bus for a repair (not possible) or a replacement (big dent in the budget).

I might have ended my journey at the peaceful, pretty spot of Puerto Perez but I got back on the bike to cycle a
little further north. I wanted to take a boat to the island in Lake Titicaca that was worshipped as the most sacred site in the Inca Empire. The Incas believed that Isla del Sol, or Island of the Sun, was the birthplace of Manco Kapac and Mama Huaca, the very first Incas.

At the Straights of Tiquina the land almost pinches Lake Titicaca in two, leaving just a narrow channel. I crossed this channel on what I can only describe as a raft - planks of wood
roughly nailed together with an outboard motor attached. After I crossed, another raft came over carrying an entire brass band in full swing. I have no idea why! I cycled high above the lake to well over 13,000 feet but before my lungs burst in the thin air, a sweeping descent took me to the end of my road in Bolivia at the pretty, waterfront town of Copacabana - bang in the middle of carnival! What an incredible spectacle it was - wave after wave of brass bands, dancers in colourful costumes, a crowd of thousands and fireworks after dark. On the Sunday trucks, buses and taxis adorned with fresh flowers and scattered with petals, filed through the plaza to be blessed in front of the cathedral. Given the way Bolivians drive, they need all the help they can get!

When the town had settled down after carnival, I wande
red down to the waterfront early one morning and boarded a boat for Isla del Sol. A couple of hours later, I was in paradise. Isla del Sol is one of the most beautiful, serene places on earth. It´s easy to see why the island was so significant to the Incas and why it remains so to Andean populations today - it rests in the midst of such a powerful landscape. There are no roads on the island, just ancient worn paths that pick meandering routes through Inca terraces still used today to grow quinoa, beans and maize. As I wondered along the paths, I looked down on bays of white sand and clear, aquamarine water. In the south of the island, I climbed up the Inca Steps, a steep cobbled pathway that ascends from the shore through narrow terraces with all around the sweet smells of flowers and aromatic bushes. In the north of the island, I walked to the Temple of Chincana, a labyrinth of ancient walls perched on a hillside above the lake. On a high plateau a sacrificial altar faces Peru on the far western shore. On the temple path I saw large, oval markings in the rock that the Incas believed were the footprints of the Sun God, Wiraqocha. Then close by was the Sacred Rock itself, believed by the Incas to be the very birthplace of Manco Kapac and Mama Huaca. And all around were the azure waters of Lake Titicaca and vast views that stretched to the majestic, snow-covered Andes.

If that moment of elation escaped me when I first pulled up on the shores of Lake Titicaca, then I found it here on this little island in the sun, as I soaked up the beauty and ancient magic of Isla del Sol.

More photos and words on my Flickr page - click on the logo on the right.