Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Wanderlândia, Brasil

When I saw a police car parked along the road as I approached Araguaína, I stopped to ask the officers if they knew of a forty-real or cheap hotel in this city of 150,000.  My GPS showed a slew of hotels along the highway, but I had yet to come upon any and there hadn’t been signs advertising any of them.

Remarkably, both the officers spoke English, and the woman with some fluency.  Neither of them had any recommendations, but they assured me I’d find something within my range.  The woman had good reason to be uninformed, as this was just her fourth day on the job and was new to the area having grown up in Rio de Janeiro.  The guy just wasn’t paying attention, as several miles later I came upon a hotel with a large sign advertising rooms for 49.90.

Though they didn’t know anything about hotels, I next asked them the million dollar question, “Are either of you familiar with peanut butter?” Both were and the guy actually had some in his house, as he had an American staying with him.  He didn’t know if there was a store in town that sold it, but wanting to be helpful, he said his friend might let me have his as he hadn’t eaten much of it.  

“I’ll give him a call and see,” he said. When he didn’t answer his phone the officer, ever wanting to please, said, “I know of a supermarket that might carry it.  If you’ll wait here I’ll go and see and bring it back if they do.”  

“How far away is it?” I asked.

“Just a kilometer.”

“How about if I just follow you?”

“Sure, that would work.” 

Before they sat back in their vehicle I got a jump on them, hardly believing my good fortune—a police escort for a jar of peanut butter. A minute later they flew by me with siren blaring.  I feared they had gotten a call and were on a more important mission. After two kilometers and no sight of them, that definitely seemed the case. Oh well, at least they made the gesture, I thought.

A mile later I came upon a hotel that was too fancy for my tastes, but not much further was the one for less than fifty.  I was happy to make it my abode for the night after four straight nights in the tent since Christmas. I would have kept my string going, but I’d had a particularly aggressive ant attack the night before, the ants chewing their way through the mesh on one of my doors, leaving five quarter-sized holes.  

This was my fifth ant invasion, the last a week ago, and the second where they’d chewed their way in.  At least the first was through the bottom of the tent, which I could easily patch.  This was a different matter.  The holes were high, so I could drape a garment over them to keep out mosquitoes, and maybe even crawly bugs, so it wasn’t a full-blown catastrophe.

I didn’t discover the ants until eleven, after I’d been asleep for a couple of hours and the late afternoon rain that had led me to this tree-shaded campsite had stopped.  I smashed them all and returned to sleep.  Three hours later I was awoken by another ant nipping my hand, but there weren’t even a dozen others in the tent.  I offed them and then slept until daylight at 5:30, only interrupted by occasional visions of ants that had intruded upon my dreams. 

When I spread out my tent to dry outside my hotel room, a few ants emerged, and some from my panniers as well.  I hung my sleeping bag on a clothesline and out came a few more.  While I was washing clothes, someone knocked on my door.  My jaw dropped when I saw who it was—the woman officer bearing a kilo jar of peanut butter.  It was the Power One brand marketed for athletes that I had seen in Brasilia and had the added distinction of being just over a kilo, giving its contents as 1,005 kg.  

This was absolutely amazing.  Not only had the officers found peanut butter, but they’d found me. They had to try a couple hotels, but they weren’t to be deterred.  This would be my most treasured peanut butter ever.

“How much do I owe you?” I asked.  

“Nothing.  It’s a gift.  Happy New Year.”

I knew it wasn’t cheap.  I had earlier paid two dollars for a 200 gram carton.  This was extraordinary.  Edmilson told me he wished I would meet good people in my travels after I left him in Brasilia.  He set the tone and the goodwill has not stopped.  Now if only the ants would leave me alone.  

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Presidente Kennedy, Brasil

After six hundred miles on lightly traveled roads from Brasilia to beyond Palmas I returned to Highway 153, the main south/north trucker route through the interior of Brasil that I followed for some 1,500 miles to Brasilia.  It’s only two lanes wide, but I have its wide shoulder all to myself.  

There is a lot of traffic, but it’s easy to tune out and retreat to my inner world of bliss of  gliding along on my bike in a faraway place closing in on the Amazon.  The lush green scenery is increasingly less cultivated or given to cattle. It’s not quite jungle yet, but it is thickening, showing hints of being impenetrable. There is no evidence of slash and burning or much taming or cutting back of the vegetation.  It’s mostly wild and undeveloped, still serving as lungs for the planet.

Back on this main thoroughfare it’s ever so sweet to know I’m never more than twenty miles from filling my bottles with ice cold water at a service station and soaking my shirt with water.  The biggest bane is avoiding tire carcasses and splintered fragments on the shoulder that are minefields of tiny wires that have caused me a handful of flats.  I’ve taken to wiping my front tire every time I pass such a site.  

I thought I saved myself a flat when I felt a wire protruding from my tire and stopped to remove it. More came out than I was happy to see and ten minutes later my bike was swerving as my front tire turned soft. I went nearly 1,500 miles without a flat, but have had half a dozen in the past thousand.  These wires are worse than Senegal and as aggravating as the goat heads of the American West.

I have an occasional animal carcass to dodge too, mostly snakes and lizards, but not too many as the vultures make quick work of them.  I came upon a hoard feasting on a cow that would keep them busy for awhile.

I was pleased to happen upon a genuine forest for my first night of camping back on 153, sparing me of forging through thick weeds and bushes that might be harboring snakes or prickly vegetation, as I’ve had to do of late.  I camped somewhat prematurely as the sky had darkened and a smattering of raindrops had begun to fall.  The forest shielded me from getting too wet as I set up my refuge for the night.  It rained most of the night, keeping whatever ants might have been lurking in their lairs.  A thick layer of leaves was the best mattress I’ve have in a while.

I was very happy I resisted the temptation of the Hotel Economica and it’s rate of 29.90 reals ($7.50) that I had been seeing signs for leading into Miranorte.  I took a three-hour lunch at a service station cafeteria in Miranorte avoiding the blistering mid-day heat. The Hotel Economica was right across the street with the air conditioners sticking out of each room, a further temptation along with its rate, the cheapest I’ve seen other than the one-hour rates some motels charge of ten reals.  My legs would have welcomed an abbreviated day, but I wasn’t quite ready for a hotel, having had one two nights before on Christmas. 

Though it was still steamy when I resumed riding at 3:30, I could see clouds moving in that would blunt the sun’s intensity, which was beginning to wane anyway as it began its long descent to the horizon.  Maybe if I hadn’t finished the ebook I was reading over lunch, I might have been inclined to retreat to the cool of the hotel.  I had others lined up, thanks to the Chicago Public Library, but none were coming due as was the one I finished—“Gilead,” the Pulitzer Prize winner that so enamored President Obama that he interviewed its author, Marilyn Robinson, for the “New York Review of Books.”  

I gave the book a hearty bravo when the 77-year old narrator, a reverend with a heart condition, expressed the wish to his seven-year old son, who the long, chapterless narrative was addressed to, that when he gained his age that he would have seen more of the world than he had.  Not venturing often or far from his small-town in Iowa was one of the few regrets in his life.  He said he only had himself to blame.

Not seeing enough of the world is not a regret I have to worry about, though the more I see, the more I want to see.  I didn’t see enough of Uruguay at the start of this trip and there is a lot more to see in Brasil than I will have seen on this trip.  I would have liked to have seen the town of Americana that was established by Southerners after the Civil War where they could continue their cotton growing ways with slave labor, but it was a hundred mile detour off my route.

It would be an even greater detour and on arduous dirt roads to Fordlandia, a factory town on a tributary of the Amazon founded by Henry Ford in 1928 as a source for rubber.  One can read all about this ill-fated experiment of rubber production on a piece of jungle twice the size of Delaware in “Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten City” from 2009 by Greg Gondin.  The Chicago Public Library has several copies. It will be the first book I read when I return.  Ford gave up on it in 1945, but the remains of the cavernous factories linger and can be roamed.  The small town is most easily accessible by boat either from Manaus or Santarem, but they are hundreds of miles upriver from Belém.

But I had the unexpected pleasure of another American-rooted town, Presidente Kennedy, seventy-five miles after my return to 153.  I could have stayed in its lone hotel, but it was too pleasant of a night not to camp.  It is one of two towns in Brasil named for Kennedy.  Both have Wikipedia entries, but neither explains how they came by their names.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Miranorte, Brasil

 My Christmas wasn’t entirely rosy, as I spent the last thirty miles riding into Palmas nursing a slow leak, pausing twice to inflate it.  When I finally tended to it hours later after having dinner and talking to Janina, I discovered another tiny wire thread the culprit, causing just a pinprick of a puncture. That was easier to patch than a patch gone bad, as some slow weeks end up being.  But I was greatly alarmed to discover that I could barely turn the axle.  

I feared the mechanic in Brasilia had overly tightened the cones.  I did not have the skinny wrenches to make the adjustment, so would have to visit a bike shop first thing in the morning.  I had noticed a very impressive Specialized Bike Store just a few blocks from my hotel, so I was glad to have the opportunity to drop by, hoping the bearings hadn’t been pulverized and that a mechanic could make a quick adjustment, backing off a bolt on one of the cones. 

I was amazed I hadn’t felt the strain of propelling the bike the last 525 miles with the bearings so tight.  I knew the mechanic in Brasilia had tampered with my front hub, as he had shined it up, and also the generator was no longer working.  That was no concern with the ease of available electricity just about wherever I stopped to eat.  I had put off trying to get it back working until I reached Palmas and had a hotel room to perform the exploratory surgery.

My Christmas was also somewhat darkened by failing to find an ATM that would give me money.  I was turned down by the two banks nearest my hotel.   I had emailed my banker a couple days before telling him I’d recently been denied by ATMs in rural Brasil.  He said he thought he had straightened out the problem.  Unfortunately not.

I was down to fifty dollars in local currency.  I could theoretically make that last until I reached the big city of Belém in ten days, but it would mean no hotels or expensive buffets and no big bike expense.  With the possibility of having to replace my front wheel, I did not get the best of sleep that night with money and bike woes on my mind. I know these things always work out, and generally most happily, but sometimes it can be rather nerve-racking and traumatic.

It was neither this time. Before I ventured to the bike shop I searched out a larger bank recommended by Lonely Plant and suddenly I was transformed from a pauper to a prince. I now have the wherewithal to resort to a motel if the heat or rain or ants become too much to bear.  The bike issue wasn’t so easily resolved, but it was another heartening story of Brasilian ingenuity and generosity.  

The bike shop owner was the first person I’d met in a bike shop who spoke English.  Neither he nor his young, eager mechanic had ever worked on a generator hub, but they both whipped out their phones and went to YouTube to help guide them through the operation. 

One question was whether the large ring containing the innards of the generator twisted off clockwise or counterclockwise.  It was clockwise.  The bearings were perfectly fine. The cones hadn’t been overly tightened.  The issue was the rotor in the hub.  It had ever so slightly splayed, rubbing on the innards of the hub, making it an extreme effort to turn.  The young mechanic thoroughly cleaned and lubricated it, but it made no difference.  The solution was to discard the rotor, imbedded with the axle, and put in a new axle.  They didn’t have the right size axle, but a nearby bike shop did.  

Rather than sending me over there on my own, the owner, Alexander, drove me and the wheel.  After all his efforts, he had certainly earned the added appellation of “Great.”  He had named his bike shop after himself and his co-owner, another Alexander. They called it A2 Bikeshop.  They have two shops in Palmas, the other devoted to Trek bikes.  I wouldn’t have guessed Alexander to be even forty, but he said he had worked as an electrical engineer for twenty-three years before turning to his dream of having a bike shop. 

He was loving it, if only to be able to show up to work in shorts.  Bikes have always been the center of his life.  He was a BMX champion as a youth.  His favorite riding now is bombing down the single track in the nearby mountains.  He has one of the few electric bikes in the area, as their import tariffs make them prohibitive for most.  The assist eases the climbs considerably.  His five-year old son is following in his footsteps.  He bicycles everywhere, including to school.  His nine-year daughter has a bike too, but is nowhere near as passionate. 

His colleague’s shop wasn’t as large or as high-end as his, but it was well-stocked with Shimano parts and had a wall of impressive tools in the repair area.  The statuesque owner with a flourishing gray beard of a wizened elder was sitting behind the counter when we arrived.  I felt as if I were being granted an audience with a papal authority on all matters bicycle.  I knew he would have the answer to my hub conundrum.  

After he dissected the hub and pored over it with Alexander he confirmed that the rotor was defective and beyond repair.  He inserted a new axle in the huge space that had housed the rotor and like Alexander would accept no compensation for his efforts. 

I didn’t mind at all that this took nearly three hours to resolve, as my legs were in need of a light day.  I only regretted I wasn’t able to fully take advantage of an unseasonably cool day, under 90.  The delay also allowed me to thoroughly digest the three platefuls of breakfast I took advantage of—slices of papaya and several types of cheese and ham, along with assorted biscuits stuffed with meat and cheese, and a variety of slices of cakes. It was good to be in no rush so I could eat and eat, enough to hardly need lunch.  

The generous, bountiful breakfast buffets are a strong temptation to stay in motels and forsake my tent, though I certainly much prefer its cosy confines to the antiseptic, cell-like claustrophobia of a hotel room. It is beyond satisfying, almost exhilarating, to end the day in my tent out in nature though I’m generally near enough the road to hear the passing traffic.   It is always a much better sleep than being indoors, even if I can’t regulate the temperature.

The lone bummer of the day was that the Extra hypermarket wasn’t as hyper as the one in Brasilia and that it did not have peanut butter.  I will have to severely ration what I have  to make it last until Belém.  At least it had the cheapest chocolate milk I’ve come upon.  It’s 200 ml boxes were on deep discount, two-thirds of the usual twenty-five cent price. I stocked up, assured to know I could start the next several mornings with a shot or two of the high-octane fuel.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Palmas, Brasil

 The cycling gods made it a very Merry Christmas bequeathing me a tailwind and a cloudy sky and a relatively flat final forty miles along the wide, lake-like Rio Tocantins to Palmas, allowing me to complete my 62-mile Christmas Day ride several hours before dark.  

I had a host of hotels to choose from in this city of 250,000, but I had the recommendation of bargain-priced one from a couple that had stopped along the road the day before to offer me a cold bottle of water and some sweets.  The wife was an English-speaker.   They invited me to put my bike in their pick-up and take me to their vacation get-away home one hundred kilometers up the road, but I’m too committed to the bike for such temptations.  They’d be back in Palmas, their home, the day after Christmas and gave me their phone number in case I was still there or had need of help.  As the wife and I chatted for ten minutes or so, her husband videoed it all on his phone.  

They were the second couple to stop that day to give me a cold drink, just after I had commented in my blog that I was surprised no one had on my present stretch of long, hot distances between towns and service stations.  The first pulled a Heineken out of their cooler for me, then replaced it with a Schweppes.  It was hard not to guzzle it down in one gulp.  Wow, did it taste good, as did also the bottle of water from the other couple even though I had just filled my water bottles thirty minutes before with ice cold water from a service station.

The guy was the first person in these travels to ask my age, a question I often get now when on I’m tour.  But he was far from the first to give me a thumbs up.  That is a common occurrence from people who don’t even speak to me as they walk past or acknowledge me from a distance at my service station pit-stops.

My Christmas was further highlighted by an open supermarket in Porto National when I joined up with the river and turned north to Palmas.  I wasn’t even sure if the restaurants and mini-convenience stores at the service stations would be open on Christmas, so an actual open supermarket was reason to celebrate.  It was busy with people stopping in for six-packs and ice and snack items.

I went straight to its refrigerated cabinet and grabbed three 200 ml cartons of chocolate milk, my treat of the day whenever I find it.  They have replaced the liter-bags of yogurt drink that highlighted my first month on the road, as they disappeared just before I reached Brasilia.  I can stock up on the chocolate milk as it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, so I try to keep one in reserve to start my day as I break camp.

My biggest Christmas treat will be to be sleeping in air-conditioned comfort, not in a pool of sweat.  My sweat might be repelling the ants, as I’ve had a couple of nice ant-free campsites in high patches of grass that provided the ultimate of seclusion, but not a wisp of air circulation, especially with the need to put up the rain fly the last couple of nights.

When I made my Christmas call to Janina, she asked if there were Christmas lights to be seen.  The decorations are minimal.  The most prominent acknowledgement of Christmas is the red stocking hats that some service station attendants and restaurant workers are wearing even in the blistering heat.  Edmilson and Jussara had a two-foot high artificial tree in the corner of their apartment even though they would be visiting their children near São Paulo for the holiday.

I was hit by my first tropical thunderstorm late in the afternoon yesterday.  It came out of nowhere.  All was sunny and bright, then the sky quickly darkened and the wind started swirling, dropping the temperature, and then a torrent of water hit.  My legs and shorts were getting a car-wash of a cleaning.  It lasted about fifteen minutes and felt great.  Ten minutes after it passed I came to dry road and was soon dry myself other than my shoes and socks.  I would welcome one of those every afternoon.

Now that I’ve completed the 525-mile leg from Brasilia to Palmas, the next is 769 miles to Belém and my much-anticipated crossing of the Amazon, a 24-hour proposition around an island the size of Switzerland.  With the terrain relenting and the miles coming much easier, I finally can feel as if I’m closing in on my ultimate destination—the Carnegie Library in Georgetown, Guiana.  Every day now is a big step closer.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Conceição do Tocantins, Brasil

Ever since I set out from Montevideo over a month and two thousand miles ago, I have known that the equatorial inferno awaits me.  It has been hanging over my head like a fifty-pound weight.  It’s blast of heat finally hit me when I descended over 3,000 feet from the Chapada National Park to Teresina da Goiás and left the relative cool of the highlands that has been my savior all these days.  

I felt fortunate that it took this long.  For days I knew it could turn hot at any moment.  So now I have a month of coping with the heat. I have dealt with 100-degree heat on many a tour.  I have vivid inferno-memories from the Madagascar, Venezuela, the Philippines, El Salvador, Arizona, France this past summer and elsewhere.  Those all came in relatively small doses.  This stretch of nearly two thousand miles to the Guianas will be a new test.

I had no chance to ease into the heat, as it was immediately extreme and excessive, 103 degrees in the shade when I took a mid-afternoon break, and 115 degrees in the sun on the bike. The water in all my bottles, even the pair of insulated ones, turned more than warm, it was near scalding, hot enough to consider hard-boiling eggs.  I had to break into my packets of powdered fruit flavoring for the first time, which made the water perfectly palatable. It’s been like drinking pineapple and mango and peach flavored tea.

I was drained enough by the heat to take a mid-afternoon nap along the road on my sleeping pad, a first.  With fifty miles between towns on my first stretch in the furnace-like heat, and no service stations between, I filled five extra pint-bottles to go along with my four cycling bottles.  At the half-way point I was lucky to be able to fill the two bottles I had drunk with somewhat cool water at a house along the road that had a table on its porch with a thermos bottle and a tray of glasses, a rare site in Brasil.  The thermos was full of hot coffee, all that was for sale.  In poorer countries in Latin America I could always count on homes along the road with a table out front and a Coca-Cola sign selling cold bottles of soda.  There has been none of that here.

An occasional tree along the road provided a patch of shade.  I stopped every ten or fifteen minutes when I came upon one, especially on a climb, for some momentary relief.  I wouldn’t have minded if a motorist stopped to offer me fluid, as has happened elsewhere, but so far no one has. 

Those moments in the shade were almost as reviving as a cold drink, as was any cloud that passed in front of the sun, momentarily blunting its fury.  If I noticed a cloud-provided patch of shade on the road ahead I’d accelerate to reach it before it disappeared and then let up a bit as long as the sheltered stretch lasted.  This is the rainy season, so I am anxious to see how much relief the rain will provide, or if I’ll be overheating under my rain jacket and want to forego it and just enjoy being soaked.  

I completed that first fifty-mile stretch an hour before dark.  The small town had a hotel, but I couldn’t squander that last hour of the day of less intense heat and sun, so just filled my water bottles and continued on.  It was refreshing to ride the final hour of the day shirtless, putting off camping until the last moment.  I turned down a dirt road and then pushed off into a thin forest.  

No need for a rain fly this night.  It was still 89 degrees at nine p.m. when I laid down my head, hoping to awake at five as it began to get light.  As I lay oozing sweat I awoke every hour or so dry-mouthed needing a gulp of water.  At two it had finally cooled enough for me to put my shirt back on.  It was then that I noticed that my tent had been taken over by tiny ants, the fourth time, but the first in over a week since before Brasilia.  I worked up such a sweat smashing them, I needed to shed my shirt.

Day Two in the inferno was a little more tolerable, just 96 degrees.  And the terrain leveled a bit more.  It still had its ups and downs but was more undulating than rolling with only an occasional climb demanding my lowest gear for a few moments rather than minutes that went on and on.  Even in the heat it was pleasurable cycling.  At last the terrain was allowing me seventy-five miles a day.  

With only an occasional demanding climb, I wasn’t overly concerned about overheating.  I lost half an hour though when I ventured into Arraias in search of a supermarket, rather than taking the bypass around it.  It was two miles of cobbles, down a steep incline and then a steep climb out.   When I returned to the road there was a supermarket right there.  

At least the gas station on the outskirts had super-cold water.  I drank a couple bottles while I ate my buffet lunch, stocking up for a 63-mile stretch without services.  I would have to camp before I could restock, unless I happened upon another small-time  entrepreneur, which I didn’t, though if I were desperate I could have stopped at one of the occasional homesteads for water.  

After fifteen miles I had only drunk one bottle and then just two more before I stopped to camp.  I was confident I wasn’t too dehydrated and had enough water to get me through the night and then the eighteen miles in the morning to the next town. as I ate dinner I did take two mouthfuls of water for every mouthful of food, but only expended six of my nine bottles by the time I reached the neat gas station.  Hopefully that is the longest stretch I’ll have to contend with.  

When I return to the main highway to Belem in four days after Palmas, the service stations will be more frequent, but at the price of having to share the road with all the truckers.  Every billboard I see in the distance I’m hoping will be advertising a gas station ahead.  It was a bit disheartening to see one for a service station 115 kilometers away as I entered Arraias.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Teresina de Goiás, Brasil

My route through Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park took me up to 5,000 feet for the first time in Brasil and over the first pass in these travels as I cycled through the cerrado, Brasil’s version of a savanna, a mixture of grasslands and forest. It is a unique ecological region that will transition into the rain forest of the Amazon. Of the over 10,000 plants found on the cerrado, nearly half are endemic.

The park was established by the forward-thinking President Juscelino Kubitschek in 1961, a year after he moved the country’s capital to Brasilia from Rio de Janeiro.  And as with Brasilia, the National Park was later named a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The most spectacular scenery in the park, a series of canyons and waterfalls, was over twenty five miles off the main road.  I was enjoying what I was seeing enough that I declined a detour of over fifty miles.

The town of Alto Paraíso de Goiás sits in the middle of the park.  Lonely Planet described it as one of Brasil’s “kookiest” towns, where “crystals, dreadlocks and dirty feet are ubiquitous.”  I saw some long-haired guys and an array of souvenir shops and boutiques, but nothing that made me think the town was any different from the run-of-the-mill, well-worn towns I’ve passed all through Brasil.  The town was big enough to have two banks, but their ATMs didn’t care to oblige me.  I should have tended to this matter in Brasilia, though I should be fine until Palmas, a city of 250,000 less than 350 miles away.  With luck I’ll be there for Christmas. 

I was hoping Alto was at the high point in the park, but it was the gateway to a seven-mile climb to the pass, not exactly what I wanted to be doing after my noon buffet, especially with its grades steep grades, steep enough that I exceeded forty miles per hour on the descent for the first time on this trip.  Shortly before the summit a disabled truck blocked one lane.  At least it wasn’t raining, nor the temperature excessive at this elevation, just below 80.   The sun was strong, but whenever a descent presented itself, I could feel a hint of cool in the air. 

A few trucks had chosen this route, but most took the main highway that bypassed this uplift, sticking to a valley that I had intended to take had not Edmilson recommended this slightly longer, but much more scenic route.  The shoulder was negligible compared to the highway, but with the minimum of traffic, was more than adequate when I was forced to retreat to it. Brasil’s roads continues to provide amenable cycling, as long as one doesn’t mind lots of climbing.  

Off the trucker’s route the gas stations aren’t as frequent nor as grandiose, as much as forty miles between them.  Nor have they had “agua gelata.”   No ice cold water and no WiFi feels like a deprivation after having become accustomed to them.  The lanchonete at the service station in Alto catered to tourists rather than truckers and charged by the kilo, discouraging the ravenous from piling their plate high.  I should have gone in search for another buffet, as those that charge by the kilo aren’t such a good deal.  I paid twice as much as I usually do and for half as much food.

At least I knew I was going to have a fine campsite on the cerrado, though there was the possibility I might have to negotiate a fence, which I have become used to doing on this trip.  I was fortunate to find a fence on my first night after Brasilia with wires slack enough that I could raise them high enough to push my bike under.  When it came time to camp on the cerrado, I was on a stretch where there was a fence on just one side of the road, so I could push off into a clump of trees an adequate distance from what little traffic was going by.

I hope to stay up on the tableland for a while longer, as I know Palmas is down under a thousand feet as it will be the remaining seven hundred miles from there to Belém.  Palmas is said to be one of the hottest spots in the country.  At least it’s temperatures aren’t so extreme this time of year with the rainy season setting in.  

Edmilson said Palmas is similar to Brasilia, as it was established at about the same time and has a similar numbering system with only two streets in the entire city with names, everything else just a detailed  quadrant number.  At least I shouldn’t be looking for anything there other than a bank and the Extra hypermarket, a supermarket that is open 24 hours and is larger than a Walmart.  

After Edmilson introduced me to the one near his apartment, I checked my GPS device to see where the next might be down the road, not only for more peanut butter and whatever else I might need, but also for its bargain slices of pizza and other takeaway foods.  If I were a cheese fanatic, as is Edmilson, I’d also be eager for its rows and rows of cheese, equivalent to what French supermarkets offer.  

The paucity of cheese in US supermarkets was just about Edmilson’s lone disappointment with the US.  Rarely could he find much more than cheddar and one or two others.  While his complaints were few, his delights were many.  One was sweet corn.  Brasil has lots of corn, but none sweet.  And he greatly appreciated the self-serve soft drink and ice machines at fast food restaurants and in many service stations, just as do all touring cyclists.  I’d certainly be longing for those ice machines if it weren’t for the ice cold water dispensers at most service stations here.  The cold water is so delicious and satisfying that I haven’t had to buy a single soda or other cold drink here, and haven’t even felt the temptation.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Brasília, Brasil

It was ten miles further than I anticipated to the far northwest corner of Brasilia to the apartment of my Warmshowers hosts, so I had my first opportunity to do some night riding in Brasil.  Even with it being 75, rather than 65 miles to their home, I would have just made it before dark if I hadn’t suffered another tiny wire fragment flat twenty miles from my destination, my second of these travels, and another near day’s end, the least propitious time for a flat.

I was still on a six-lane divided highway when night fell, but it had a generous shoulder and the traffic was relatively relaxed and truck-free it being a Sunday, so I didn’t feel duly alarmed.  I was trying not to regret that I had declined the offer of my hosts to come pick me up at an outlet mall fifty miles from their home twenty-five miles from where I set out from that morning, the first of many gestures in the three days I spent with them of the utmost hospitality.  We could have easily arranged to meet at a McDonald’s at the mall, but I wanted the satisfaction of making my introduction to Brasil’s third largest city on my bike.

I didn’t have a street address for my hosts, just the coordinates for their apartment complex (SQN 316 Bloco E, Apartment 503), such as addresses were ordained in this futuristic city when it was established as the capital of Brasil in 1960.  Once one knows the system, it makes it very easy to find places.  And it made it easy for me to show the address to pedestrians when I got near my destination to direct me.

It was one of many six-story apartment buildings with one hundred units and a large parking garage beneath amongst trees and greenery.  It was most amiable.  Greenery and open space, even along the highway coming into Brasilia,  prevailed, lending it a rare sense of serenity for such a large metropolis.

A concierge called up to Edmilson to let him know I had arrived. He came down and greeted me with a broad smile.  Up at his apartment his wife Jussara greeted me with equal warmth along with a table full of food and a welcome sign.  

They are ardent touring cyclists who had biked across the US on the Adventure Cycling route last year, one of many dream trips Edmilson was eager to undertake in his retirement, which began six years ago after thirty-two years of working for the Bank of Brasil as a computer programmer/engineer.  They raved about the kindness and generosity of Americans, with people often inviting them into their homes when they asked to camp on their property.  

His first big dream adventure was riding his motorcycle from Brasilia to Alaska, which he commenced in 2014. He rode over the Andes to Lima, continued up the coast to Colombia, flew over the Darien Gap then kept riding and riding, enjoying every moment of it.  He spread it out over two years, taking a break in the middle to return home to Jussara for a few months.  He wandered all over the US, including all the way to Key West before heading up to Proudhoe Bay.

He and Jussara have a long list of future adventures.  They’d like to bicycle Africa and India and China, so were eager to hear of my experiences in all those places.  We sat and talked until midnight, forgetting how tired I was. They are presently awaiting the delivery of an RV that they plan to live out of for the next year exploring South America, driving to a place and then going off for days on their bikes.  They are a very happy couple, greatly enjoying their retirement, fulfilling a host of dreams.  Another they recently accomplished was hiking the Camino de Compostella across Spain.  An emblem of the trail, a shell, hangs in their kitchen.  The Appalachian Trail also beckons.  It was a great joy to listen to their enthusiastic anticipation of all that awaits them.  And they were very happy to meet someone who had been fulfilling many dream trips too.

I had only planned on a day in Brasilia, but Edmilson insisted I spend at least three days to see all the city and the environs had to offer, including kayaking on its lake.  I could hardly say no.  But the first order of business was replacing my rear tire.  We walked to his bike shop, Bike World, first thing the next morning, through an arcade of fruit trees—mango, papaya, jack fruit and more.  Such trees are all over the city with fruit for all. The more I saw of this ultra-planned city, the more I appreciated it.  And the weather is perfect too up at 3,500 feet, mild all year round.

Bike Sport was a first-rate resource, well-stocked with the highest quality of parts and a mechanic I will be eternally indebted to.  I was just going to pick up a tire, but I let Edmilson sway me into leaving my bike to have it checked it over.  When we returned the next day to pick it up the young man who worked on it had replaced all the cables and brake pads and the left pedal that had been seizing up and the slightly worn sealed bearing race in my rear wheel opposite the one that I had obliterated in Iowa just a couple months ago.  

The mechanic also trued the wheel to perfection and discarded my tube with six patches, replacing it with one that had a yellow cap over the valve as if he knew the bike would be following The Tour de France come summer. The crowning touch was new handlebar tape and removing every spec of dirt on the bike, fully cleaning the freewheel and spiffing up the rims making them look shiny and new.  Never has my bike been the beneficiary of such tender-loving care.  The mechanic treated it as if it were his own that he was going to ride to his wedding. I only regret I didn’t take his photograph with the monumental transformation he made of my well-traveled bike.

After lunch we drove to a complex of grocery stores where I had a choice of peanut butter, including a two-pound jar marketed as Power Food.  I also found couscous for the first time, some imported and also a local brand that was ridiculously cheap, twenty-five cents for a pound.  It was most enlightening to walk the aisles of a giant supermarket with Edmilson and Jussara, as well as perusing the shelves of smaller, speciality stores with items imported from all over, including cheese from France.  We spent so much time shopping we missed sunset over the lake that had been on our agenda.

As we talked, the subject of cinema came up. They had just seen the “Irishman” on 
Netflix, but had yet to see “Joker”, another of the most talked about movies of the year.  It was playing at a nearby multiplex and Monday was half-price night. He suggested we see it.  I had missed it myself, so was delighted for this opportunity, even though it would have to be a 9:20 screening and another late night.  

I managed to get in a nap before dinner, my second of the day, I was so run down.  The mall where it was playing was anchored by the French supermarket Carrefour, which until this past year had been sponsor of the The Tour de France polka dot jersey.  The mall was packed even at that late hour and the theater was more than half full. The movie was preceded by nearly twenty minutes of promos for the “Star Wars” movie opening in three days and also ads for Disney World and its “Star Wars” tie-ins.  Every so often the MacDonald’s logo flashed on the bottom of the screen.  “Joker” gave an unsettlingly harsh and bleak portrayal of New York, but we were all glad we had made the effort to see it on the Big Screen.  It was easy to see why many think Joachim Phoenix is a leading contender for the best actor Oscar.  

Before we began our exploration of the architectural wonders of Brasilia the next day we paid a visit to a nearby National Park that they frequently visit to take advantage of its natural swimming pool, constantly replenished with fresh water passing through it.  It was thronged with families with school out for the Christmas holiday.  The water was refreshingly cool.  We saw monkeys and birds as we hiked though the woods.  

After lunch I was reunited with my bike.  As we waited for it we heard several people burst into an all-out, lung-shattering scream at a nearby store.  I thought a robbery was taking place or that someone was brandishing a gun, but Edmilson knew Brasil was competing in an important soccer match and they must have just scored a goal. He has little interest in soccer, so didn’t even bother to duck out and see what had happened.

We went over a couple of blocks to pick up a bike path that took us to the National Stadium, four miles away, which began a three-mile stretch of a wide green expanse leading to the city center and all the government buildings.  Jussara led the way on the Surly that took her across the US, with Edmilson on my wheel, also riding a Surly, both of which they bought in San Francisco before commencing their ride. 

After the Stadium we passed the tomb of Juscelino Kubitschek, along with a large and towering memorial to the president who ordered the construction of Brasilia, largely designed by the extraordinary architect and artist Oscar Niemeyer, who lived to the age of 104 and has work all over the country and elsewhere, including New York City.  

Niemeyer was an ardent communist and friend of Castro.  Despite being an atheist, one of his most celebrated works in Brasilia is a cathedral in the from of a crown of thorns accompanied by the haunting Four Disciples statues carved by Ceschiatti.  

Towards the end of the three-mile swath of open space dotted with striking buildings, including museums and the National Library, are the twin towers of the parliamentary buildings beside the president’s home and the judicial building.  In front of the towers is a large bowl Niemeyer meant to symbolize an openness to all ideologies.  Beside it is a sphere representing reflection and serenity.  A large plaza behind it contained more sculptures and the highest flag pole in the country. It was all most pleasing and striking, earning Brasilia UNESCO World Heritage status.

Edmilson had one last outing for me the next morning before I continued on my way—a paddle in one of his two kayaks on the five-armed man-made lake to the east of the city.  I’ve done a bit of kayaking but not on a flat-bottomed model such as he had.  It was quite stable and could skim along without too much effort.  My upper body strength is no match for my lower body, so I could quickly feel the strain.  Edmilson wisely didn’t take us too far, just across the arm to a water purification station on an island in the lake and then back to our put-in.  We had one last lunch, their big meal of the day, of hummus and pasta, then it was time for me to end this glorious interlude.  

Edmilson was as excited about my route as if he were riding it himself and was full of suggestions of things to see and do along the way, including picking a wild fruit.  He persuaded me to take the slightly longer route to Belem, on much less traveled roads and through his favorite national park, Chapada.  It would be hillier too, but much, much better cycling.  He has cycled and hiked all over Brasil.  He and Jussara took a two-month tour around the country as a warmup for their US ride.  It was heartening to learn that he has never had an issue with ants.  He makes an effort to examine where he’s camping to try to be clear of them.  I haven’t always had that opportunity when I’ve plunged into the woods near dark, but I will now be more cognizant of where I camp.

Unfortunately Edmilson doesn’t have a blog or post on Facebook, so I’ll have to rely on personal emails to keep up with his travels.  I know he and Jussara have many noteworthy trips ahead I’d like to keep abreast of, if not join them.  Praise be to Warmshowers for bringing us together.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Abadiânia, Brasil

I can be in a celebratory mood, just 65 miles from Brasilia, on the verge of reaching the halfway point of this trip after having come 1,700 miles.  It’s been a tough slog with the unrelenting hills.  I end my days depleted rather than energized.  On most tours I don’t want the days to end and want to keep riding.  Here I’m not adverse to quitting early.

Its been a rare tour where food is the highlight of my day rather than sites I’ve seen or encounters I’ve had, but those noon buffets that are so gargantuan that they turn into my dinner as well, leave the strongest impression of the day.  They are a nice communal affair with truckers scattered at tables wolfing down piles of food.  The proprietor often comes around with a tray offering even more food, usually meat or fried eggs.

The camping has become even more problematic.  In addition to the ants there is always a chance of a downpour as the rainy season kicks in.  I had my second deluge in the middle of the night that pelted rain for twenty minutes and then turned to a drizzle all the way to daylight and beyond.  I was very fortunate that the brushy terrain I had camped in absorbed all the water. I sat up nervously awaiting my tent to start filling with water.

Before the rain hit at three a.m. I had been woken two hours early by another ant incursion.  My legs were covered with barely discernible micro-ants.  They weren’t biting, just slithering or perhaps nesting.  I left the tent and brushed them off and then proceeded to crush all those remaining.  When word spreads that they are under attack, they leave and generally don’t come back.  To be safe I dabbed on some mosquito repellant and then stuck my legs in my sleeping bag liner.  I had been laying on top of it in the warmth.  And that was it for the ants.

I hadn’t meant to camp that night.  I was on the outskirts of Aprecida de Goiânia, a large city with many hotels to choose from.  I kept hoping to see one along the road advertising the 40 real rate, but none appeared.  I was going to have to turn off the highway and go into the city.  Before the turnoff I was faced with another steep mile-long climb, not what I wanted after pushing hard to ride 80 miles for a hotel, my most miles in two weeks.

Just as I began the climb I came upon a rough dirt road that led to some bushy, secluded terrain, ideal camping...maybe.  I couldn’t resist it, as the words of Steve McQueen, the actor, echoed in my ears—“I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than any city.”  I was happy not to have to go through the rigamarole of finding a hotel and then registering and all that, though I had been overly exerting myself to reach this city before dark.  

I relented the next night and forsook the tent for a motel and was rewarded with a supermarket next door where I was able to get an end-of-the-day liter bag of yogurt.  It was my first supermarket in two days.

The Amazon grows closer and closer, though the actual river is still 1,200 miles away in Belem.  I feel as if I’ve been crossing the Plains, though the terrain has been anything but flat and bland, with the anticipation of the Rockies and then the Pacific.  This ride from the bottom to the top of Brasil is the equivalent of riding coast-to-coast of the US.  And it ought to be equally rewarding. 

Friday, December 13, 2019

Morrinhos, Brasil

Despite the seeming robust Brasilian economy, strong enough to announce today that it will be paying its $465 debt to the United Nations, I come upon an occasional closed down service station, even some of the mega-stations with multiple businesses.

I had to fend off a pack of stray dogs at one I stopped at for a snack.  When I stood to fetch a pen from my handlebar bag one of the mutts tried to snatch my peanut butter and banana sandwich, as audacious as Janina’s cats, one of whom has learned to paw open her refrigerator door.

I was able to take advantage of another last night as a place to camp, pitching my tent behind one of the side buildings that had an open door.  It was reassuring to know I could retreat to it if I were besieged by ants.  There was a rumbling of thunder as I set up my tent, so I was hoping a rain storm might keep the ants from foraging.

I was the beneficiary of rain the night before.  When the sky grew ominously dark at 5:30 and lightning stabbed at the horizon, I camped prematurely hoping to avoid a soaking.  I didn’t quite finish erecting my tent in a thick brush before the rain came, forcing me to enlist my bandanna to soak up what moisture had penetrated the tent before I could get the rain fly up.

But I was very happy to be just a bit damp and not dripping wet sitting in the tent, lucky to have come upon a place to camp on nearly a moment’s notice.  I did execute a couple of scout ants before they could report back and left their corpses along the edge of the tent as a warning to others.  

I feared though I might have to break camp prematurely when at four a.m. a deluge hit and a lake began to form below the bottom half of my tent.  I was on a slight slant with the lake not advancing much higher, so I was able to curl my legs up and get another two hours of sleep, greatly relieved I wasn’t flooded out, having to pack up in the dark as the rain fell as I once had to do on the altiplano in Bolivia.  These travels are adventure enough without that much more.

As I close in on Brasilia, just two hundred miles away, the traffic has increased and the road has widened to a four-lane divided highway.  The rest areas continue to be spaced every thirty or forty miles.  They are numbered.

They have slightly increased in quality with a larger room and vinyl couches to sit upon rather than plastic, molded chairs.

They also are accompanied by a map showing all the rest areas on this highway, 153, that I have been following for nearly a thousand miles, the main inland south to north route through Brasil.  I just learned that I will have a Warmshowers host in Brasilia.  One of my many questions for him will be if any songs have been written about 153.

One of the potential hosts in Brasilia I contacted told me the solution to the ants was to sleep in a hammock.  One definitely wants to be off the ground in the jungle of the Amazon as it is so ant infested that a single acre of the rain forest can contain 3.5 million of the critters.  It is estimated that they comprise a quarter of the Amazon’s total animal biomass. They are everywhere.  I frequently see them along the road marching in lines lugging kernels of corn or other food.

I don’t think I’ll resort to a hammock, as mosquitoes are an issue too.  I’ll be hoping for service stations at least every twenty miles that I can camp at where the terrain might not be so conducive to ants.  Either that or letting motels dictate how far I’ll ride each day.  

The past three nights I had the potential of reaching a town with a motel, but the hills thwarted me.  If I had been desperate,  I could have dug out my lights and done some night riding, but I know that’s not advisable.  Lonely Planet doesn’t even recommend driving after dark.  Robbery isn’t so much an issue, just inattentive drivers.  I’ve come upon a few wrecked trucks along the road.  Many drive through the night, enough that most of the service stations are open 24 hours.

If the heat becomes an issue, night riding might become more attractive if the shoulders continue to be wide and relatively smooth.  Riding in the dark out in the country certainly heightens one’s senses.  Riding under a full moon in Baja was exemplary with the shadows of the giant, multi-armed cactus quite eerie.  I am eager to see how the lush rain forest of the Amazon compares.