I’m sliding face first on the gravel road; arms out in front of me, “Just like a slippin’ slide” my unusual brain thinks for a moment. Ancient mountains filled with the history of the Incan culture surround me. Wind carved spirals and deep caves are cut into the jagged rock faces jutting into the sky. The river below roars on its tireless quest for the Atlantic Ocean. What a beautiful place to fall.
When my forward momentum stops, 10 meters later, I pop up. Briefly laughing, I look up to see Daniel stopped in the road, staring back at me, frozen, with a worried look on his face. I hop on one leg in a circle checking my appendages for serious damage. Blood covers my forearm and knee, nothing serious. Fingers bleeding, that’s okay, I can move them fine. My hip took the brunt of the fall; pants are ripped. Blood, scratches, dirt, skin. I’m walking; it can’t be too bad. I taste blood in my mouth, in the air.
Daniel drags my bike out of the road, the steel and plastic of the fenders are mangled, the tires rotation halted. I WANT ANSWERS!! I need answers. Why do I keep falling off my bike?? 8,000 km and more or less no issues, and now I have fallen three times in two weeks. After a serious discussion we decide the pannier bounced loose, caught in the spoke, and caused the destruction. I feel better for a moment, with this definitive answer. It’s an empty resolution; we have no idea what really caused the accident. My body shakes from the adrenaline and pain begins to set in.
Then the insects come. Not normal insects, these are desert living, flesh eating, spider mosquitoes with an endless thirst for blood. Once one finds you, he immediately calls thousands of his best friends, who each tell 10 of their family members. Within minutes we are inside a dense cloud of these mosquitoes; there is no escape. They cover every millimeter of my open wounds, a fountain of fresh blood. After mending the bike and cleaning my wounds, we are back on the way. Every rock reminds me danger is near.
We arrive to the campsite quickly, passing a road block on an outlet to the river made of thorn covered trees. Our campsite is on the precipice of an eroding 50 meter cliff dropping into the river. After covering myself with rain gear and bug spray I begin to set up my tent. In addition to the shooting pain in my back, the deserts plants stick me and stick to my equipment. This land is unforgiving. The air is hard to breathe; I am dehydrated. “What the hell am I doing here?” I ask myself.. I receive no internal reply.
Daniel asks how I’m doing, “The pain is all in my back.” I respond. I can barely stand; pain rips through my back muscles when I try. We make a meal together; I do what I can to help. The meal is delicious but very spicy; we underestimated the strength of the peppers. After cleaning up I crawl into my tent with much effort, getting into my sleeping bag requires many grunts and moans. Turning my body to zip up my tent I grab the zipper, but it won’t budge. I pull a little harder, the zipper rips off the tent, “awesome” I say out loud. I drift into a light sleep.
I’m awoken by Daniel, from 10 meters away. Daniel is screaming, in apparent agony. “What’s wrong” I ask worriedly. He tells me he has accidentally wiped spicy pepper juice into his eyes; he can’t see. I tell him I feel his pain. I suggest he walk to the river and wash his face; he grunts. I immediately fall into a restless sleep.
We wake in the morning; I am stiff. We break camp. Every 30 minutes Daniel is going to the bathroom; his stomach hasn’t been functioning properly in days. The last two days seem like a comedy of errors and unfortunate events. After anti-inflamatories and pain medicine, I’m able to ride with surprisingly little pain, only feeling my back spasm over big bumps. My new found fear of falling is more present than the pain. We arrive in the small town of Sicsibamba. A kind shop owner invites us to stay in the extra room of his home, situated on the main square. There are cement floors and walls made of mud and clay. Corn of all colors hangs from a string connected to the ceiling; purples, browns, yellows, and oranges. A small hay mattress in the corner of the room is the only furniture; I take the bed.
The festival of Santa Maria begins in four days, the energy of the town is buzzing as they make their preparations. The people in the town urge us to stay for the festival, but we tell them we must get going soon. My back pain takes a turn for the worst. I’m stuck in bed; standing up makes me ill. I feel the need to vomit for 2 days; I try to vomit for hours during each night. It never comes; I only heave. I have diarrhea. My stomach constantly feels dangerously bloated. Each afternoon we ask Ernesto if we can stay another night. He smiles and says yes.
On the third morning I go to the local, understaffed, multi-purpose hospital in Sicsibamba. Daniel accompanies me on the slow walk. I have a hard time saying hello as the townsfolk greet us. The hospital has one nurse, and an ambulance driver (who is the nurse’s brother). We are told to wait. Laying on the bench in the cold hospital the urge to vomit overtakes me. I waddle outside and vomit at the front door. Twenty middle aged women, preparing for a meeting, all dressed in their nicest traditional Andean attire watch the scene. I feel no embarrassment, only sweet relief. I crumple to the ground, lean to one side, and let it all out with gusto. The ambulance driver comes out and tells me that it’s my turn to be seen.
The sweet nurse Maria checks my vitals. All is good. She wants to inject a concoction of anti-nausea, anti-inflammatory, and pain medicine to ease the suffering. I’m given the option of pills as well, but Maria says the medicines will be more affective injected. I submit apprehensively with Daniel and Maria’s urging.
Daniel follows me into the room, uninvited; he has taken on the role of my mom. I’m equally resistant and thankful for this. The nurse breaks open some glass vials, screws a giant needle onto a 50cc syringe and fills it nearly half way up with the drug concoction. I take my position over the hospital bed, a relic from the 1970s; it feels unstable. Maria cleans the skin on my butt with alcohol and starts the injection. A deep, cold chill sweeps through my body. I feel lightheaded, regain composure for a moment, and then start to fall. My face hits the bed; the lights go out.
When I wake up, I’m on the floor. The hospital bed is on top of me. My right leg pinned beneath its weight. Maria is screaming for her brother the ambulance driver, “Alexander!! Alexander!! Venga!!! Venga!! Ayudame!” Daniel is cradling my head in his lap shouting something at me. I start to laugh, “Shhh.. tranquillo, estoy bien” I assure everyone. I lean over and lift the bed enough to remove my leg. Alexander busts through the door. Tilting my head back to look at him I see the faces of ten of the cholitas that previously watched me vomit outside. Everyone seems excited.
I tell Maria that I am okay another time. She has a cotton ball, which I believe is covered in alcohol, that she is holding under my nose. It’s pleasant. My body is cold and weak; the cold floor refreshing. Daniel, Alexander, Maria, and I talk and then begin to laugh. Maria tells me she finished the injection, and I should feel better soon; I’m relieved. After five minutes, my strength is back; Daniel helps me up. I shake hands with Maria and Alexander, answer a few questions from the cholitas, and we begin our walk back to Ernesto’s house.
We pass the day resting. When I wake up the next morning, I feel a bit better and decide to go for a walk. Everyone in the town seems to know the story of my hospital visit; they approach the subject delicately. I tell them I’m okay. For the first time I’m able to enjoy the beautiful town, perched on the side of the mountain.
The next morning marks the first day of the festival, and I’m ready to part. We can’t leave now. By 10 PM the party is in full swing. Daniel and I make our way into the plaza. There are two marching bands; one plays traditional music, the other modern Peruvian music. Groups of men are drinking cases of beer every few meters. We are invited into every group to partake. A bottle of beer and a single glass is passed around and around in the circle. You fill your cup, drink the beer, and then pass the bottle to the next man. This sharing of the cup signifies respect and brotherhood among the men.
In every circle of men, someone reenacts my passing out in the hospital incident. My incident is no longer a delicate subject it seems. These reenactments get funnier as the night goes on. Fireworks are exploding in all corners of the plaza. At one in the morning the dancing starts, I’m dragged into the streets. A snake like group dance ensues, pushing, pulling, in out, around and around. I’m then pushed into the circle after we have gathered in the center of the plaza to dance with a young women; I know none of the moves that I assume I was expected to know. It’s awkward and fun. When the song ends I join another group of drinking men. By 3 AM half of the people at the festival have passed out or have wandered home; the other half heavily drunk and happily dancing. I find Daniel, and we decide to call it a night.
It’s time to leave Sicsibamba. We are packed and ready to hit the road by noon. The party is once again in full swing. We say our long goodbyes and start climbing into the mountains. We are given delicious homemade bread by a working family. 200 meters later we are invited to eat a huge meal of cabbage and beef at a party. Stuffed full of food, we continue the climb.
Three young boys from the party follow us up the mountain. For thirty minutes they follow, running, taking shortcuts to keep up, teaching us Quechwa, laughing, out of breath. They share their orange drink with us. Finally we leave the boys behind, they wave goodbye; the world quiets down as we climb towards another mountain pass.
My mind is clear, the air is crisp, the scenery stunning; we have our first views of the Cordillera Blanca from here, 22,000 foot mountains jutting into the sky. Once again the question enters my mind, “What am I doing here?” This time I seem to have answers.
I’m here to have experiences. I’m here to laugh and fall in love. I’m here to bleed. I’m here to breath deeply. I’m here to be scared and uncomfortable. I’m here to feel safe and loved and perfectly comfortable. I’m here to be exhausted physically and mentally. I’m here to learn a new language and new cultures. I’m here to make lifelong friends. I’m here to learn how to be alone. I’m here to live with passion and feel connected deeply with the earth. I’m here to try new things. I’m here to learn about myself and to confront the things that I’m not proud of. I’m here to grow. I’m here to fall off my bike, pass out in a foreign hospital, and party until the morning with complete strangers that treat me like family.. I’m here to feel alive, and I do! I feel it in my bones like I never have before. I feel the freedom of choosing my direction every day, all directions open and available to me. I feel my strength and courage. I feel I’m taking a path that much of the world views as directionless, but in MY dream it’s the perfect direction. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for myself; the passion of dreams and the courage to follow them. That’s all I want for everyone. Follow your heart, follow your passion, chase your dreams. Love and learn with vigor. Whatever it is, whatever direction, make sure it’s yours and then grab hold of it and don’t let it go.
Some days this trip feels like hell on earth. I’m cold, wet and hungry; I’m tired of the daily grind of riding; I’m tired of myself and my bike. The worst of my traits are amplified ten fold, I’m argumentative, condescending, and hurtful; I’m disgusted with myself. I’m stuck in endless loops. When will I finally change and be the person that I want to be? I’m still not sure what my life path will be; I’m anxious and confused; I drink too much; maybe I’ll never fall in love again; what is the point of this trip anyway? Of life? I just want a comfy bed, a hot coffee, a routine, football, my beautiful dog, my friends, my family, money, the life I know so well; comfort. But then there are these moments.. I see shooting star traverse a brilliant milky way while laying on top of a boat sailing the amazon river; I see the radiant smile of a child with a dirt covered face; a majestic snow covered peak that I can reach out and touch seems to touch the heavens; I meet the perfect soul at the perfect moment that gives me the perspective I’m yearning for; I laugh until my stomach hurts with new lifelong friends; I’m taken in graciously and with love by a family living in poverty and given a hot meal and a warm bed. It’s in these moments that present themselves constantly here that I’m reminded of this beautiful magic of human existence. I gently tell myself to breathe it all in and to be thankful for the experience. I feel a beauty and a level of peace here that I’m not sure I could replicate in any other place in the world in any other situation. This is where I want to be. Life for me is about experiences, powerful emotions, and deep human connections; I’m finding these things in South America. Here I am, on this great adventure, living in the most authentic way I know how… this is what I’m doing here.