With a handkerchief covering my nose and mouth and my helmet cinched down tight, I entered El Alto, the fastest growing city in South America until 1996. Here, there are entire neighborhoods under construction, third floors unfinished with the now-familiar beams and posts jutting towards the sky in hopes of the ever-possible home addition, where the traffic roars over the lane-less streets. This is the city that crowns La Paz. Contrary to our common understanding of city and social structure, the lower one descends into the “bowl” of La Paz, the wealthier the area becomes. El Alto, leaning over the edge of the Altiplano highlands into the capital (one of the two Bolivian capitals, that is), hosts the poorest of the area’s inhabitants, 87% of whom are of indigenous Aymara and Quechua descent.
And descend I did. Once I’d arrived at the edge of El Alto, I pulled over to peer down into the shimmering valley of La Paz. This was not the true end of the road, I thought, not the city that so many cyclists again and again claim as their final destination. No, this was not Ushuaia at the tip of Tierra del Fuego. But this was the end of the road for me. And as I descended, I couldn’t help but make the moment a dramatic one. The tears flowed as I talked aloud into the wind, thanking El Burro for getting me here safely, thanking the American, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Peruvian and Bolivian drivers, bulls, herders, cyclists, moto-taxis and sheep for allowing me to do the same. As I lost more elevation over the patchy tollroad, I thanked myself for having the courage to continue on for two months of cycling on my own, thanked Naomi Aitken for beginning the journey with me, thanked Manna for continuing on longer than he’d imagined, thanked Robert for helping to guide me along the way, and my family and friends for not losing their cool throughout. I thanked the wind for showing its fierceness only occasionally, the rain for giving me time to dry off, and the South Americans for being so kind as to provide me with 456 bananas along with the most delicious empanadas on earth.
Once the idea had been given birth to and the decision made, it was easier than what I’d thought to sell my belongings, to leave my job, and to say goodbye in the name of adventure and freedom. In six months, I’ve had more than a lifetime of freedom and superlatives fail to describe how thankful I am. It is this knowledge that has made horrendous, unending mountain climbs possible, even when the highest peak’s views were hidden in dense fog. It is not too difficult to forget about my frozen fingers and
toes and the use of gobs of Butt Butter; but the uninterrupted sunsets, the Redwood camping, the knowledge that I can and should stuff as much food as possible into me, the physical push and the cultural exchange will most definitely not be forgotten. And in fact, I’ll do it again.
The plan is as follows: In less than ten hours I begin the first of four flights to San Diego, where I’ll have the pleasure of spending three weeks with the friends I’ve made over the past five years of living there as well as those I’ve known for a lifetime. And what’s more, I’ll get to sneak into the roll of a teacher again while I substitute at Einstein Academies. After time in the Bay Area and Seattle, I will follow my heart back to the Southern Hemisphere. This time to Dunedin, New Zealand, where Manna has found a home with a view, and where, within three (or so) years, the University of Otago will put a Dr. in front of his name. Enjoying this bit of life that Pat and Marshall gave me, it seems, is what I am most interested in.
And thank you to you. For following parts or all of this experiment of my first blog. It has been more enjoyable and meaningful than I had imagined, has allowed me to feel connected when most alone, and it has been almost as fun as cycling nearly 5,000 miles.
ALSO: For those who would like to hear and see more, I will be giving a presentation about this 190-day cycling journey on Thursday, February 10th from 5 to 6:30 pm where I’ll share the experience through photos (ones you haven’t seen, even!), stories, and a live travel gear display. The event will be located at Albert Einstein Academies, 3035 Ash St. in the South Park neighborhood of San Diego. Fun will be had and you can ask any inventive or potentially embarrassing question you’d like. All are welcome.