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.

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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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Fall

I’ve noticed that as I grow older, as I continue to push myself to embark on challenging journeys like living in Colombia, my mind instinctively works to not let things bother me so much. For example, in the past when I’d lose something—an unfortunate pattern of mine—I would fall to pieces; feel painstakingly ashamed and disappointed in myself. Now, when I lose things, I still feel disappointed, but I calmly think, “What’s done is done.” Getting overly upset doesn’t change the situation. This reaction is helpful, in a sense, but sometimes I feel that this instinctual composure has become too much of a reflex; that tuning in to my feelings is like trying to kick in a door that stands directly before a brick wall.

I can’t remember ever having been particularly good at goodbyes. What makes someone “good at” goodbyes is probably fairly subjective, but to me it involves understanding what a given situation means, what realities are implied. Even if you’re the type who sobs at the airport, blubbering all over your boarding pass, this is still a form of an appropriate response. It means you get it.

It has been two years since I’ve seen the leaves turn in autumn. The red and gold leaves dazzle and distract from the coming cold, but they can only hold on to their branches for so long. Family trees know seasons, too. Still, knowing that these facts of nature exist and experiencing them are two different beasts. Death, like winter, is evitable, but since leaving the states I have been able to keep my distance from both of them.

I’ve known for about a year of my grandfather’s declining health, from being diagnosed with lung cancer to the chemo to the pneumonia, but it never really sank in. Though his condition was getting worse, his memory remained intact; he continued to tell stories and even to this day, at 88, he continues to send texts—in my case, an e-mail— from his smartphone every Friday night to wish his children, in-laws and grandchildren a “Shabbat Shalom.”  Two months earlier when I had visited the US, he was using a cane but, in general, doing fine. Since then, I’ve received messages from my parents that his condition has been worsening, which, from afar, seemed both abstract and unreal. A few weeks ago my parents told me through the Skype call on my computer that he was being returned to his home from the hospital to be “made comfortable,” and that he was preparing to “check out.” I was given the choice to fly back in the next week or so or to come in for his funeral. I told them I’d find a way to get off work for a few days and my dad (very generously) bought me a ticket to fly in on the 9th. Between the time my dad got me a ticket and my arriving to O’Hare airport, I still hadn’t done much processing of the situation. Being given the opportunity to say goodbye to someone before they die is an incredible blessing but also confusing, especially for someone who isn’t very good at registering the weight of parting in the moment that it takes place.

Part of the incentive to move abroad was to separate myself from distractions and focus on what I want to do with my life. I felt like in the year since graduating from the university I hadn’t accomplished as much as I had hoped and that drastic measures had to be taken to not get stuck. Honestly, in many ways the move can be boiled down to a selfish act as means of pursuing more selfish endeavors. I am essentially responsible to no one. Still, prompted by no one/nothing but my “Jewish Guilt,” I often experience recurrent feelings of remorse, tell myself that if I must make my family and friends miss me that I should, at least, be making something of myself; making the distance worth it. This past June when I last said goodbye to my grandmother, the wife of the aforementioned grandfather, she began to cry into a tissue retrieved from the sleeve of her periwinkle sweater, “Why do you have to be so far away? When am I going to see you again?” Granted, in these days she could cry even if the butcher called—her words, not mine—but, realistically, her response made sense. At my grandparents’ age, time is not infinite. For the past few months, my family has been taking frequent shifts to care for or visit them. Not only do I feel as if I am missing out on spending time with them but that I am skirting a responsibility to care for two people who have done nothing but show kindness and give unconditional love for their family their entire lives. I wanted to move forward while everything back home stayed exactly as it was, like a Netflix account I could deactivate and reactivate at any given time, finding my preferences saved and waiting for me.

Last week, when my mom and I pulled into my grandparents’ driveway, I sat in the passenger seat for a moment, buckled in, looking up through the windshield at the amber leaves dangling like young legs from the seat of a swing; the former inertia of up up and away nearing complete stillness. I didn’t know what to expect inside.

My grandparents bought this special bed that is divided into two parts, each side with the ability to incline and decline by remote control. Papa Art, as he is referred to, is permanently in this bed now. A long, plastic, oxygen tube winds under his nose. Every hour, for a short period of time, he uses an oxygen mask to provide additional support. My mom and I went to visit him every day and each time the house seemed to be a revolving door of visitors. Some days he would talk a little and some days barely at all. Coming from a man who always had a response or a story for everything, this silence, this shortness of breath, was more difficult to witness than even the mask. Not wanting to tire him, I mostly just chatted about everything I could think of and took naps next to him.

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At one moment I asked him if he thought he had any “unfinished business;” anything he wish he had done different. (Clearly, my experience with death has been educated by the movie, Casper.) He responded no, that he lived a good life, surrounded by family. By all intents and purposes, he did everything right: he loved his job, he married a woman who makes him happy, he traveled the world, went to glamorous parties, has a beautiful family who he has treated like treasure, gave back to the community, and brought laughter to friends and strangers alike. A few weeks ago he had my mom go into his phone and tell all of his contacts how grateful he was to have them as friends.  Up until the last moments, he has been doing everything right.

When it was finally time to say goodbye, I hugged Papa Art and told him I loved him. We each made the I Love You sign language hand gesture and touched our pointer finger and pinky finger to that of the other person— our special handshake. He said he loved me and he wished me a safe trip. I looked at him for the last time, studying his face, trying to stamp the image of it into my memory the best I could… And then that was it.

On the car ride away from their house, it rained so hard that I knew even if I were to stay, the leaves on the trees would all be gone soon. When we arrived back to my parent’s house, a place of so many memories of adolescent vulnerability, I finally cried. And I remembered why I had put up that wall in the first place.

I’m still trying to figure out the implications of living where I do. What does it mean to live far away from the people I love? What does it mean to not live in a climate with seasons? What constitutes “growth?” Without springtime, it’s easy to forget that in order to begin anew, everything, in its own way, must let go.

Obligatory 1-Year Post

Two days ago marked my one year anniversary of having moved to Bogotá. In the evening, I celebrated by joining a group of cyclists. Every Wednesday at night there’s a group called, “Ciclopaseos de los Miércoles,” a Wednesday bike ride. That is not what I did. A separate group rides on Wednesdays that’s called the Gonorraiders (pronounced: Gono-riders), who do what they refer to as a “pique,” which either translates to “rivalry” or “a full gallop.” To say I came in dead last would be too generous. First of all, a large amount of the group rides “fixies,” or fixed gear bicycles, which means (a) it has no freewheel mechanism, so there is no coasting and the cyclist must pedal at all times; (b) it has no gears and therefore is extremely more lightweight; and (c) it is often the model of choice for speed-riding. Second of all, I just had new gears put on my bicycle and am still learning how to use them. During the ride, I tried changing gears a few times and one of the changes caused my chain to fall off and provide no resistance. I had to stop and manually put it back on, which caused me to fall behind. Also, I recently got a new bike seat that isn’t so mini-skirt friendly: I had to slow down some to adjust it several times. All that aside, I still wouldn’t have been able to keep up: these guys are majorly fast and major risk-takers. There were about 25 people in the group at the start of the ride and I believe I was one of three girls.

One of the typical meeting places for these rides is a large plaza in front of a 24-hour Carulla, a supermarket. Conveniently, food is always a jump and a hop away and booze is sold until 1 in the morning. The temperature only drops as low as about 40 degrees Fahrenheit and public drinking is legal (so long as it isn’t disorderly), so the plaza is lively until very late hours in the night; especially on weekends. We left from the Carulla at 8:30 at night to head off to La Maloka, which is basically an interactive science center about 8 miles away. I had never been there and since I lost the group, I got… well… lost. Despite my best attempts to pedal as fast as I could, with all the turns—made at the whim of the leader—I lost the route. Trying to not get frustrated, I put on some music and head in the general direction. Finally, I called my friend to get the exact address. By the time I arrived, the group had already been hanging out for a while, drinking beer and chatting. The moment I arrived, it began to pour. As my friend from Minneapolis, Tim, explained, “The fastest people in cyclist groups always get to rest the longest.” Many of the people in the group decided to go back home, while about 10 people decided to return to the Carulla, where we had started, in the pouring rain. I joined them. I kept up with the group at the beginning—when it is raining, fixie riders have to take extra precautions—but then once again, I lost them. At least this time I knew where we were going. My guess is that I arrived about 15-20 minutes after they did. Everyone hung around chatting for about 15 more minutes and then decided to call it a night. Those of us going in the same general direction left together, taking our separate ways when the time came.

As I was finishing the final stretch home, about five minutes from my apartment, a bolt of lightning struck a power line up the road. For a moment, the sparks lit up the sky like fireworks and then entire neighborhood went dark. This meant two things: when I got home there would be no light and my electric-heated shower would be out until the following day, at best. So, I got home, lit a three-wicked candle which one of my students had given me and put on some dry clothes. Coming straight from class, I hadn’t eaten anything in about 10 hours and I was nearly out of food. By candlelight and my gas stove, I prepared all the food I had left in the fridge and cabinets, which wasn’t much because I hadn’t gotten around to going shopping.

I definitely felt a little disappointed in myself by the end of the night: for not being able to go as fast as the rest of the gang; for not having bought enough groceries; for leaving stuff on the floor that I tripped over in the dark, almost causing me to drop my candle; for not having charged my laptop so I couldn’t listen to music. And yet, I recognize I have a tendency to be overly hard on myself and to get all Negative Nancy very quickly. On the flip side, although I couldn’t keep up, I managed to complete the entire route and I was the only girl to do so. Also, these people have more experience cyclist than I do and way more experience riding across a hilly landscape: all my life I’ve lived on flat terrain. Plus, just because I couldn’t keep the same pace as them doesn’t mean that I never will be able to; just that I need more practice. And the other stuff? Well, being an adult takes years to perfect. When I finally do, maybe I’ll be bored out of my mind.

It’s hard to measure our accomplishments between now and a year ago or five years ago, but even more so when we measure ourselves against the version of ourselves we wish we were. Being grateful for what or where we are instead of what or where we wish we were is an ongoing struggle. Why is letting ourselves see our accomplishments often like walking through a dark apartment by candlelight?

Moving to another continent or country or even city, if you want help or love or respect from yourself then you have to demand it; to convince yourself that you deserve it. Being on your own isn’t easy. You have to pedal ‘til you are sore not because you want to be where someone else is but because you love the way it feels. The greatest gift you can give to yourself is compassion and understanding for your circumstances; to recognize that the most vulnerable place you can possibly live is in your own skin. It is up to you whether or not you make that skin feel like home.

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photo by Juan Davila

Selfies and Long-Distance Existentialism

In this day and age, our relationships are remarkably hinged on the internet. Particularly for me, living abroad, my ability to stay connected to my friends and family depends on it. This is how I know where my friends and acquaintances are living, what they’re doing or if any major events have occurred in their lives. Also, the connection that the majority of my non-Colombian Facebook friends have to me depends on it. By moving to Bogotá and wanting to continue having relationships with people back in the states, I have inadvertently divided myself into two: the me, in the flesh, in Colombia and the me that remains visible only in the realm of technology; in that which I share and allow on the internet, in that which I consider acceptable representation of myself. If the latter is all that is seen of me by those abroad, am I, in essence, my profile? Without it, would I even exist to the people with whom I once shared a continent?

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A concept by Jeremy Bentham was put into effect in the influential design of the Pentonville Prison, built in London in 1842: the design was called the “Panopticon.” It involved a circular building with jail cells lining the interior, making their behavior visible to a guard who could monitor anyone and everyone within it. “Assuming that the omnipotent governor was always watching them, Bentham expected that this ‘new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example’ would ensure that the prisoners would modify their behaviour and work hard, in order to avoid chastisement and avoid punishment”1.Obviously, one person can’t possibly perform total surveillance upon all of the inmates at all times, but the fact that one never knew for sure when he or she would be watched would be, in theory, enough to keep them in line.

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According to this model, we can deduce the positive effects of being observed. However, when the eyes of those we care about do not see us—be the circumstances influenced by location or ambivalence—we have two choices: create our own auto-surveillance or, by all intents and purposes, disappear.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

If a person moves to a foreign country and he or she doesn’t have a Facebook, does this person still exist?

Everyone I know who has lived abroad has, at least for some period of time, struggled with the loneliness and isolation that comes with it. On various days without morning work, I have thought, “Why get out of bed? Why do anything at all? No one is watching. No one would know the difference.” And so, for lack of a Panopticon, we make our own. We make Facebook profiles and Instagram accounts and hope that someone is watching because the idea gives us purpose. But now I’m not talking about just ex-patriots, anymore: the same goes for a large percent of internet users wherever they are. Up until recently, photographs depicting our activities were enough to feel seen, but in recent years this has changed. In 2003, “Selfie” became Oxford Dictionary’s new word of the year2.

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Whereas in the era of Myspace the Selfie was considered a cry for attention from self-absorbed pre-teens and teenagers, now it has become an acceptable form of internet presence. So what changed? Here’s my theory:

(1.) Just as we would like to ignore that using pesticides, cutting down trees and burning fossil fuels are linked to global warming; we ignore the connection between the proliferation of technology and that of the Selfie. I’m not talking about the obvious connection—being that cell phones and social media enable the trend—but that more technology puts greater distance between human interaction, making us feel the need to fight for attention like never before. According to the Forbes article, The ‘Selfie’: Mental Disorder Or Insight To Getting Better Results?, “The cultural phenomenon of the ‘Selfie’ exposes a very basic human desire—to feel noticed, appreciated and recognized.”3 Of course we’re not feeling noticed: everyone is too busy staring at their phones or computers! As such, doesn’t it make sense that the increase of Selfies is reflective of a decrease in feeling valued? Consequently, it doesn’t matter if our feelings of isolation stem from actual distance or emotional distance. Either way, the trend made it acceptable to fill that gap with more 2D—rather than 3D—versions of ourselves.

(2.) Social media has been around long enough that people are finding new ways to be in control, and that means not waiting for pictures to be taken of us just to conclude that we don’t like the way we look in them, anyway. Today at a coffee shop, I saw two guys sitting at a table, one taking pictures of the other. The subject of the photo insisted over and over again that his friend take another shot, changing positions and even tables to get the light just how he wanted. He wasn’t taking the photo himself, which is what actually constitutes a Selfie, but in the same way, he had his friend take shot after shot until he got exactly the outcome of himself that he desired. Control means filtering out vulnerability. This, dangerously, further feeds into the construction of a fake reality.

(3.) The Selfie is not only used to sculpt our internet personas, but to be presented to the world as a memo; as a reminder that we’re still here.

But who are we really trying to convince?

This yearning for validation can become as much of a prison as the Panopticon. Being concerned with how we are seen or whether or not we are seen can become so all-encompassing at times—especially when mediated by technology—that we have a hard time focusing on anything else. Have you ever Skyped with someone and gotten distracted from the image of the other person by the image of yourself? As a result of this multi-tasking, of dividing our attention between outward examination and introspection, we fail to delve beneath the surface of anything; not the people we are interacting with and certainly not ourselves.

The problem with technology and social media is that it tries to convince us that images provide truth; that if we want to express “truths” about ourselves to the world, this is the best way to convey them. In reality, an image can only possibly express a part of a whole. Therefore, we must ask: is it even possible to keep in touch with those who we cannot touch? Can we experience real connections when the interaction is mediated by an internet connection? If genuine exchange can only truly be achieved face-to-face, in an environment without mirrors and with vulnerability, then distance does not make the heart grow fonder: it makes it grow fuzzier. I realize now I was disillusioned to think that the internet would be enough to maintain the relationships I had back home. Yet, at the end of the day, there is a sense of satisfaction from comments on our Facebook wall, from “likes,” from being “followed.” As far as substitutes go, it’s not great, but when those we love are out of reach, a little blue thumb feels better than nothing at all.
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1http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Bentham-Project/who/panopticon

2http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/press-releases/oxford-dictionaries-word-of-the-year-2013/

3http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidsturt/2014/04/29/the-selfie-mental-disorder-or-insight-to-getting-better-results/

Cycling and Maturity

American psychologist David Wechsler defines maturity as “the ability to respond to the environment in an appropriate manner”1. We tend to think of maturity as something learned through professional settings, relationships with other people, confrontations with death and illness and other difficult life lessons.  The maturity one gains from riding a bike is rarely considered in this realm. Still, from flat tires to vehicle-related accidents to purposeful acts of aggression, cyclists’ ability to problem solve is constantly tested. I recently befriended a man, Juan David, who, while biking from Colombia to Argentina, was stopped in Peru; violently knocked off his bike and threatened. He responded by pulling out a machete, one of his “travel tools,” and threatening the men back. Intimidated by this behavior, the men drove off. Juan David’s knee was left injured, perhaps permanently, but he was in the middle of nowhere: he had no choice but to get back on his bike and continue riding. More often than not, these experiences go unseen and untold. Nevertheless, the character that these experiences build makes a lasting impression, providing tremendous problem-solving skills which, unfortunately—aside from bike messenger professions—will never be worth a damn on a job application.

DSC_1136b(Self Portrait from a bike accident in 2011)

Since its invention, cycling has been considered in many different ways. For a youngster, it is one’s means to freedom before being of age to drive. After 16 or 17, it is often seen as an illustration of immaturity, of financial inadequacies which leave the user unable to purchase a vehicle. Many adults emphasize their riding as a way of life. They compete in competitions and spout two-wheeled mantras like “Cars are Coffins.” Then there are those who ride for transportation or hobby but don’t consider it as something that defines them. All of these people have one thing in common, however, which is the innate solitude that one finds on their bicycle and on the road. Even those who travel in collectives or clubs or small groups of friends must depend on their own strength—both mental and physical—and be greatly in tune with their bicycle.

The other day while I was out with a group of fellow cyclists, one asked me if my bike had a name. I couldn’t tell if I was only being asked this if I was a girl—my company was all male—so after I replied, I echoed the same question to all of them. Sure enough, they all had names for their trusty steeds. In a way it is a similar relationship to that which one has with his or her pet: they go on adventures and share experiences together but neither a pet nor a bicycle can ever share that which they have seen, that which they have shared with their owner: the embarrassing falls, the huffing and puffing on big hills and the near-death experiences will always be something engrained into the history of this personal relationship. Also, like a pet, the amount of love and consideration given to a bicycle almost always comes back two-fold: tighten the brakes and it will protect you from potential accidents; clean the chain on a regular basis and it will not rust, which aids in a smoother ride.

In Nanci J. Adler’s master thesis, The Bicycle in Western Literature: Transformations on Two Wheels, she writes, “In literary works the term [machine] illustrates the significance of the bicycle: as a machine it has power, not only to transport individuals, but to transform them”2. Physically speaking, one gets into better shape through corporal exertion and improves his or her sense of balance, particularly in terms of navigating city riding. Similarly, proximity to other cars and trucks improves one’s reflexes, by means of self-protection. Bridging the gap between the physical and mental realms, realizing the ability one has to travel long distances with nothing more than his or her body and dear “machine” renders the possibilities and rewards of exploration. It incites the rider to ask the question, “What if I went a little further? And if my body allows for this, what else am I capable of?”

When our bodies show us what they can do, when they surprise us, we have physical evidence that the limitations we thought existed actually do not. We hear time and again of stories of expectant parents who have serious doubts about their ability to raise a child until its birth: once we bear witness to the capabilities of the human body, our faith in that which cannot see is suddenly restored.

Regrettably, our modern culture does not go hand in hand(lebar) with a lifestyle that is reinforced through our bodies. Sure, it ardently praises a toned figure, yet undervalues those who work in physical labor. Meanwhile, technological advancements root an increasing amount of people at desks; in cubicles; restrained. We are taught that the most important things are those we can buy. People buy more and more cars and televisions and cell phones, which– despite the guise of connectivity—actually cut us off further from the world. Technology has constructed and continues to construct mental safe spaces which aid in distancing ourselves from coming in contact with difficult or uncomfortable situations. People break up with each other via text message, send “Get Well Soon” messages to friends on Facebook instead of bringing them soup, or watch movies about people traveling instead of doing so, themselves.

If maturity is defined as “the ability to respond to the environment in an appropriate manner,” what happens when you take people out of their environment? What happens when the concept of culturally appropriate is altered in such a way that limits or eliminates interaction between people and other people or between people and the world they live in?

Not all cyclists I know are what society would consider “mature”: many run red lights, go way too fast and take too many risks. Despite it all, these are the people who see the world the way many others don’t or can’t: they experience all the movements around them because their safety depends on it. They tend to be better equipped to change gears and go with the flow. They understand that pain from a potential accident is an outcome they would prefer over the pain of sitting still; over the idea of living without the thrill of the ride. Between a sore backside from sitting in a car and sore legs from biking a long distance to work, between calling a mechanic and being their own, between sitting in a metal box stuck in traffic and feeling the wind on their face, these are the people who, every day, make a choice to live fully. They have the scars, the stories and the hearts to prove it.

 

1 http://everythingdcbookdiva.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/growth-maturity-wauthor-shaka-senghor/
2 http://scholarship.rollins.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=mls

Villa de Leyva

First lesson: When going on a 100 mile bike ride through the Andes, having gears helps.

The weekend of the 16th of August, I biked with a friend from Bogotá to Villa de Leyva. It was a pretty last-minute decision, but I bike daily so getting physically prepared wasn’t so much of a concern. Still, I had never gone on a ride that long and wasn’t really sure what to expect. I probably should have done a little more investigation on the topography of the region, though. One hundred miles on a flat surface is one thing, but through one of the largest mountain ranges is another. On Friday, the day before the trip, I had my bike fixed up so I would have not one but THREE gears. Well, two of the gears allowed for such little force that one could pedal and pedal and go nowhere, so I ended up using only the hardest gear for the first quarter or so of the trip. Then I realized that the other two gears had stopped working anyways, so they weren’t even an option. Oh well.

On Saturday morning, I woke up at 4 AM and left the house at 4:45 to meet Oscar at his house. Well, I don’t usually go to his part of town and got mixed up on the highway and ended up way out of the way. Okay, so I wasn’t off to the best start. When I got to Oscar’s house, though, he wasn’t exactly twiddling his thumbs waiting on me. We planned to leave from his house at 5 AM and didn’t leave until around 7:30, exiting Bogotá at around 8/8:15. We each had a piece of steak, rice and coffee for breakfast at his house for breakfast.

The day before, we had dropped off some things with a friend of his who was also going to Villa de Leyva, but by car: a blanket, some extra clothes and some extra food. Oscar had three racks on his bike for water bottles—something I definitely need—and a rack on the back, to which he strapped my camera, a tire inflator and various other things. He also had another saddle bag on the bike for tools and carried a 2-person tent in a bag on his back. I had no racks or anything, so I tried to keep it light in my backpack: two water bottles, some food, gloves and a hat, a raincoat and various other essentials.

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We ended up making quite a few stops, once every hour to two, to drink or eat something or take a bathroom break or take photos.

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At the Aguila beer factory: an obvious photo op.

The landscapes were amazing. They were also quite complicated without gears so walking our bikes up major hills definitely slowed us down.

Pig ear cartilage? No, I'm good, thanks.

Pig ear cartilage? No, I’m good, thanks.

Starting out

Starting out

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"Stop for honey"
“Stop for honey”
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At this bridge we stopped to take pictures. A woman was selling chocolate-covered strawberries on a stick.

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We were in good spirits, but as we got higher up in the mountains and as it got later, it got colder. The halfway point is a town called Choconta. We didn’t get there until about 3 in the afternoon. Gulp. From about four in the afternoon on, it started rained on and off, and that slowed us down a bit, too.

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fluffy
At around 6:30/7 it got dark and cold and very rainy. Biking in the rain isn’t so bad until you get wet and cold. We stopped at a rest stop and tried to talk to all the other people at the stop in pick-up trucks or trucks to give us a ride, with no avail.

dead

El Puente Boyacá, the Boyocá Bridge, was not far from there, and the police usually stop the cars/trucks and check them. Stowing extra passengers in the back is cause for a ticket. So, with little other choice, we rode another 25 miles in the rain (well, rode and walked our bikes) and at 10 at night, we decided to call it a day. We were about 25 miles away from Villa de Leyva and based on the past 25-50 miles or so, it was most likely not going to be a flat ride. We found a hotel near Ventaquemada that cost 22.000 COP ($11 USD) for the both of us and crashed. It was definitely nice to sleep in a bed and not in Oscar’s tent—we didn’t have blankets or anything and all our clothes were wet—though stayed at a hotel that had no warm water and was so cold you could see your breath while INSIDE the room.

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The next morning we took it easy, relaxed for a while and then had breakfast at the restaurant next to the hotel. This consisted of: hot chocolate with a big hunk of cheese to put in it to melt, a roll, about three scrambled eggs over white rice and Caldo de Costilla, a traditional Colombian broth with potatoes and a big hunk of fatty meat on a rib. So… you know… a small breakfast. All of it cost $3 USD.

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The small restaurant was playing the news, showing updates from a Colombian bike race going on. We felt inspired.

We left at around 12:30 in the afternoon, which is late, but we felt we had earned it. It was a foggy and rainy day, but we weren’t too sore and the landscape was beautiful, so it wasn’t so bad.

fog

The next main village was Samacá and most of it was uphill. We also passed a procession on the way, celebrating some saint or virgin or something. I was too tired to ask.

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Oscar fixes his dreads while we while up a very steep hill….

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We took a quick rest in Samacá, bought some food because we knew it would be cheaper there, and got to Villa de Leyva at about 4 in the afternoon on Sunday. It was much later than we had planned, but a kite festival was going on Villa de Leyva when we arrived and the cobble-stone streets were filled with people. Oscar met up with the girl who had our things, but she left right after that, so we didn’t have the big group we were expecting to arrive to. Regardless, we were just happy to have made it.

llegando

dusk

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We ate sausage and almonds and bread and drank some wine his friend left while we sat on a stoop in the plaza and watched people flying kites until late in the night. We hung out with some other people who were  playing music and when I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, we set up the tent about 10 blocks up from the plaza in an empty lot of grass and trees. I passed out instantly.

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The next day we spent relaxing, walking around the town, snacking, and lying in the sun.

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At 6 PM we returned to the city in a charter bus, which cost each of us 25.000 COP ($12.50 USD) plus an extra 5.000 pesos for storing the bikes.

fllota

The bus ride was long and filled with babies crying, bright lights and Colombian pueblo music; not too conducive for relaxing. We even had to make a pit stop along the way because one of the passengers got sick. On the bright side, it was an opportunity to get some 40 cent arepas and 25 cent coffee. We got in to the city at 11 at night.

Since being back, I’ve met a lot more cyclists who have great stories to tell of biking to other parts of Colombia, like Ibague, La Vega, Santa Marta (a week-long ride) and one guy who went as far as Argentina! He did the trip in about a year, making stops along the way. I think it’s going to be a while before I try something so bold as that, but accomplishing a trip like this definitely gave me confidence for achieving other sorts of goals. Oh, and bragging rights. It definitely gave me bragging rights!