Cuesta Arriba

(I wrote this a few weeks ago but forgot to post it.)

La Calera is a municipality directly to the east of Bogotá. It only takes about 30 minutes to drive up there from the center of Bogotá. It is about 3,000 meters above sea level and about 500 meters over the city.  On the way there, one of the stops is an area called, Patios, a mystical and revered place. There are a bunch of refreshment and snack places there. But that’s not why it’s mystical. From Bogotá to this point is a considerable hike at a considerable incline and it is considered a solid victory to make one’s way up this hill by bicycle.  I’ve been to La Calera by bus, but we didn’t stop at Patios, and even if we did it wouldn’t have been the same hallowed place. To say that you have made it to Patios by bicycle identifies you as a dedicated cyclist, one who enjoys participating in (and conquering) a real challenge. The reputation of this uphill trek has both excited and haunted me since I heard about it around a year ago. Recently, it has been coming up more as a topic of conversation: as a stop on the Alley Cat bike race checkpoint; as a typical Sunday morning work-out; as a night, group outing. I feared that I might be out riding with other people one day and someone suggests we go to Patios as a group, something I felt confident I was not ready to do. Not yet.


Just two months ago I got gears put onto my bike—seven, I think—but I’ve still been learning how to use them and I’ve had to get them adjusted numerous types. My gears and I are still getting to know each other, let’s say. Plus, my bike is older and heavier than the other bikes my friend use. But I do okay. In general, when it’s not rainy season, I bike around two hours a day going from class to class. I’ve never been an athlete—more of a picked-last-in-gym-class kind of gal—and it wasn’t really until about eight months ago that I started biking more seriously. Still, being fairly newish to cycling as a way to push physical limits is pretty new to me. Hanging out with a group of cyclists who participate in races and own multiple bikes for different kinds of riding, I’ve been getting kind of self-conscious. Plus, like every sport, expertise gets you street-cred; gives you something to bond over with other people in the group; generates respect. There is a certain insecurity which also comes from being “the new guy.” I frequently am conscious of how am being received: Am I talking enough? Am I talking too much? Are they laughing at my jokes? Am I going to be invited out again? Not only am I this character, but I’m also foreign. I worry that I will tire people when I stutter and stumble to find the word I’m looking for or that my sense of humor will way miss the mark and I’ll get dubbed strange. Finally, let’s not forget mentioning the difficulty of being a girl in a cycling group. There are girls in the cycling community in Bogotá, but it is largely a male-based group. Only six out of about forty participants at the Alley Cat race last weekend, a check point-based race which spanned about 55 kilometers around Bogotá, were girls. Only two girls actually finished the race. By pushing myself to excel and be considered an equal in the cyclist community, I’d also be representing Team Estrogen, so to speak; helping to make women be considered more as potential competitors and less as the ones who are waiting for their boyfriends at the finish line. So obviously making it up to Patios is a metaphor for obtaining equality just beyond the steep incline of female injustice. Obviously making it up to Patios is a metaphor for earning the respect of my peers and rising above my insecurities. Obviously. I just recently have been able to master the hills in the city, but supposedly this pales in comparison to the acute angled inclines of the route up to Patios. In other words, GULP.

Things have been kinda tough, lately. For one, my grandfather died and I couldn’t go to the funeral because going to visit Chicago costs more than a $30 bus ticket. So I got all whatamIdoinghere-y and my camera broke and I’m broke and it has been raining every single day for about three weeks or so. This either means I must stay house-bound, take public transportation (panic attack-inducing) or bike anyways and get soaked. In general, I’ve been trying to bike every day, regardless, taking advantage of momentary parting of the clouds, though this usually, ultimately, results in getting caught in downpours. Consequently, I got a nasty cold which won’t quit and the rain got into my backpack so my mp3 player broke. Oh and one of my roommates moved out early and took all the furniture with her, including the laundry machine and fridge. On the bright side, I realized I needed bobby pins and I found two free ones on the table of a coffee shop the other day, so things are looking up.

At the beginning of last week, I had a free morning that was also sunny (gasp!) and I decided to take advantage of it. I decided to head in the direction of La Calera, not necessarily with the intention of getting there, just trying to see how far I could get. I only made it as far as La Primera, 1st Avenue, which isn’t even close. And I was completely drenched in sweat. Though this area is undeniably very steep, it’s not the same in terms of bragging rights amongst other cyclists. Not by a longshot. I decided that the following day I would try again.

The next day, early in the morning, I mentioned my interest in the area to a friend and he advised me to do that trip accompanied; that the area is known for theft. Embarrassed by my lack of ability to hold my own when it comes to this kind of terrain, I wanted to practice alone, first. To remedy this thievery business, I resolved to stay on my bike as much as possible and not talk to anyone. Plus, I took out any valuables from my backpack, including my smartphone.

I headed that way prepared with water and a hearty breakfast in my stomach. This time, however, on the way up, I changed gears at one moment and my chain got all weird and trapped/twisted in the gears while I was at an intersection at 6th avenue. I didn’t even make it as far as I did the day before! Talk about an anti-climax! After about a half an hour of trying to fix my bike on my side of the road with no avail, after realizing that without my cell phone I was unable to call for help, I felt frustrated and out of ideas. I realized I had no choice but to come up with some solution and to do it fast. At this point I had taken the back wheel off and that was stuck, too, so rolling the bicycle down wasn’t an option. I needed tools and/or help. Taxis almost never are large enough to carry a bicycle and if they are, the drivers usually don’t feel like bothering. Bicycles also aren’t allowed on public transportation. Finally, I decided to carry my bike down with it over one shoulder, to look for private parking in an apartment building and try to convince the respective guard to let me stash my bike until I could come back with tools and or help.

Long story short, I ended up walking around for a while with no luck. I talked to several parking lot attendants who all said no and were worried that storing the bike would get them into trouble. Better yet, it started to rain. (I was laughing at the awfulness of the situation at this point.)

There’s a bright side to this story, I promise. While I was standing outside trying to convince one security guard, another one from a nearby building walked past and asked what the matter was with my bike. He was a very average, humble-looking man about in his mid-forties. “A ver…” (Let’s take a look…)  he said and turned my bike upside down on the pavement. He pulled a rag out of the pocket of his nice uniform and starting working on loosening the chain. After struggling with it for a while, he managed to pull it free. He really knew what he was doing. Surprised, I asked him about it. “I’ve been using my bike for transportation for about nine years,” he said, flipping the bike over again. I thanked him furiously. “Really, it’s no problem,” he said, finally, heading back to the apartment down the road where he worked so fast I couldn’t even catch his name.

Having lived here for a little over a year now, I have made friends and acquaintances, but even so I experience plenty of moments when I feel completely alone. As a result, I am often inclined to hibernate in my room, distracting myself with fictional characters conjured by the powerful sorcerer known as Netflix. However, this is only comforting for as long as I’m in front of the screen, closed off from real challenges and real growth. The best way to remedy these feelings of loneliness, I’ve found, is to reach out to the universe and to actually be present within it. And this reaching out is impossible to do with fear.  I’m not saying that the fear of theft as a cyclist in Bogotá is unjustified: tall tales within the community have amplified our reasons to feel otherwise. Here you will find it all: thieves, schemers, and strangers who would prefer to not help you instead of potentially risking their own tail. I once even saw a man put spikes in the road to give cars flat tires, likely as a ploy to get more business for a tire store up the road. But you will also find extreme generosity from complete strangers… if you are open to it. Feelings of fear and caution are different: one can be utilized while the other utilizes you.

Things get hard sometimes. Chains get stuck in the gears when you are in the middle of an intersection. The sun folds itself under covers of gray precisely in the moments you would benefit from its light. Moving somewhere new—wherever it is—is always an uphill climb, but I am doing my best to trust that the view from the top will be that much sweeter when I manage to reach it.

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