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Traveling together

Those who have been following my blogs for a while know that I always made my previous trips alone. It was a natural instinct for me, that sense of independence. Every decision was mine to make, moment to moment. It was my responsibility to confront or overcome any challenge that arose. In solitude, undisturbed. Yet, I did find great joy in encountering other cyclists on my travels, sometimes even riding together for a while, but ultimately, I always ventured on alone with myself. Just me and my bike, Wilson. 

 Hera & Paul
Bicycle Santos Travelmaster 2.6 & Santos Cross Lite

During the years I spent in the Netherlands, I met Paul at 'Santos', where he was working at the time. We soon discovered that we had many common interests and enjoyed spending time together. Sparks flew. At that time, Paul had been on several cycling holidays with friends but had never embarked on a major journey. He had dreamt of it, but undertaking such a journey alone was not in his nature. Agreeing that there would be room for cycling trips in our relationship (whether alone or together) was as important to me as the desire for children is to many others. We soon decided to undertake a major journey together. Neither of us wants children. ;) 

In the following years, this trip was repeatedly postponed. First, due to my remaining recovery from burnout, then due to the pandemic, and finally due to my knee problems. This gave me time to get used to the idea of traveling together. I found this quite daunting, to share the journey with someone. Short joint cycling trips in the meantime strengthened my confidence in traveling together for a longer period. 

Now, after more than 4,5 years together, we have been traveling in Argentina for 2,5 months. We are doing well together! We do approach things differently and sometimes make decisions based on different factors. This partly lies in our difference in experience, but also in our personalities. Every time Paul writes a blog, I am curious to see how he will describe our experiences. The last blog he wrote was so fun that I prefer to post it here rather than writing my own report. Below is a report from Paul's perspective.

26 October 2023 - Rio Pico, Argentina

It's dreadful weather in Rio Pico, but we're dry, tucked away in an apartment under a blanket, as the heater is broken. This presents a perfect opportunity to reflect on the past week: We left Jorge's cyclist hostel in Villa la Blanca. Just before reaching the main road, a cyclist with a hefty load of baggage passed by. Clearly a traveler. Normally, we would have excitedly shouted or waved, but we kept quiet. It had to be Mateo... Over the past few days, we've been living and befriending Karen at the hostel. She told us she had traveled with Mateo for a while, but their relationship was 'complicated'. She was dreading his arrival. Biased as we were, we too weren't keen on meeting Mateo and hoped he would ride past the hostel unnoticed, leaving Karen in peace. But less than a kilometer away, he was waiting for us, making it inevitable to confront the situation. After quickly snapping a photo of Hera, I introduced myself: "Paul, nice to meet you." "Mario, all good?"… Mario?! Although we shouldn't have judged Mateo, we were relieved that we didn't have to lie about our stay and company over the last few days. We shared that we were heading to Cholila to look for sandwiches, coffee, Wi-Fi, and groceries. Mario wanted the same and decided to join us.

While enjoying the most delicious pastry we've had so far, we start getting to know each other a bit. Mario is from Cordoba, Argentina. He is 36 and travels for a few months before he returns to Austria, where he works on a farm. His visa doesn't allow him to work there for more than nine consecutive months. He speaks good English, but no German. He's smart, enthusiastic, full of great stories and cheerfulness. We instantly click! Together, we decide to continue along RP71 into Los Alerces National Park. His bike is unique, different from ours and from those of most Argentine travelers we meet. He has a lightweight aluminum gravel bike from Zenith, a nice fast bike, but slightly less suitable for our purposes.

1. A kickstand: he needs a stick and a few minutes to put his bike down.
2. Mudguards: he has plastic on the underside of his carrier that regularly drags against his tyres.
3. Mounts for bottle holders: he has 2 bottle holders with him, but no proper place to mount them.
4. Air and rubber: the tires, Schwalbe’s G-One, are nice but not ideal for a heavily loaded bike.
5. Light gear: to maintain his cadence, he pedals twice as fast up the mountain, sometimes needing to recover halfway. 
6. Front panniers: all his luggage is on the rear carrier. Regularly, something falls off. When he needs something from his bags, he has to 'unpack' everything.all his luggage is on the rear carrier. With regularity, something falls off. And if he needs something from his bags, he has to ‘unpack’ the whole thing.

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The scenery is breathtaking, just as Mathias, a local we had previously met, had predicted. There are crystal-clear rivers, waterfalls, forests, and meadows. The photogenic cottages are mostly constructed from wood and stone. Mario and I are in awe of the view. There's land for sale all around us… At the entrance to the National Park, our map shows a 'free camping' area. The spot is gorgeous, but camping isn't allowed until November. After an ice-cold skinny dip and a hot meal, we stealthily set up our tents in the bushes. The next morning, Mario forgets to bless his legs and bike before getting on, and ends up with a flat tire. He's frustrated because the seller had assured him these tires were suitable for both gravel and paved surfaces. And they are, but not when carrying 30kg of luggage. It's a puncture, or a 'snakebite' — two cuts from the tire flattening against the rim, a common issue when your tire is too soft for the terrain. His tires are 35mm wide, which is narrow, and they have to be inflated very hard to avoid this, but then you lose the cushioning effect, which means more strain on your body and wheels. Meanwhile, Hera is reading a book on the bank while my grateful 'hermano' (brother) and I patch up his tire. I am happy with my new brother.

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Over a distance of 20km, three lakes converge. The Rio Arrayanes connects them, forming a major attraction. Along the shore, there's a beautiful footpath which is also excellent for cycling. Although there are large groups of people on it, nobody minds us cycling there. They kindly step aside, offer encouragement, inquire about our origins, or even ask to take photos with moms and grandmas. It's only on our way back that we find the Park Guard isn't too pleased with our excursion. According to her, the hiking trail should have been clearly indicated by the swing gate. Admittedly, navigating that gate with our bikes was a bit tricky, but, well… the fun and the deed were already done :-). That night, with the permission of another park ranger, we camp at another closed 'camping libre' (free camping site). It's an unbelievably stunning location, and the weather is perfect: bright sunshine and no wind. The view reflects beautifully in the crystal-clear, icy lake. Have I ever camped in a more beautiful place?

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On the way to Trevelin, Hera spots something. She has a knack for this. There's a tear in Mario's front tire, with the inner tube slightly protruding through. It's a timely observation. Mario is even more dismayed with his tires than before. Yet, he also feels fortunate. A tire blowout could be dangerous, especially with a steep descent ahead. We manage a temporary fix by placing duct tape inside the outer tire and continue to Trevelin, the last village we visit as a trio. We celebrate our parting by dining out. Most people are taken aback when we tell them we don't drink alcohol and don't eat meat. Reactions like "Then what are you doing in Argentina?" or "Wrong country!" are common. Deciding to give it a try, we order parilla, which is meat—a mix of sausages, entrails, and ribs. Neither of us likes it, and we're actually relieved about that. Next time, we'll stick to pasta or rice with soy from our own 'kitchen'.

5km outside Trevelin, Mario takes a right turn towards Chile. We turn left towards Corcovado on the RP17. We bid each other safe travels and hope for a reunion in Chile, Argentina, Austria, or the Netherlands.

"I am angry at every stone, gust of wind and raindrop that crosses my path

Both Mario and we checked the weather forecast. We have three days before the weather turns harsh, with winter precipitation and strong winds. During such conditions, it's preferable to be indoors, so we both aim for villages that are reachable and affordable; for us, it's Rio Pico. Our route is extremely challenging. It's almost 2000 meters of elevation gain over three days, with slopes of up to 23%. Almost all of it is unpaved. We vainly hope for gravel, but these roads are made of the same material: rocks. Large, round stones. And where they have been compacted into tracks by the occasional car, they usually form ruts or washboards. Fortunately, the latter half of the stage to Corcovado is asphalted. However, this benefit is somewhat diminished by a cold headwind. Hera is surprised that I still have the energy to whip up a curry dish with my new spices that evening. Maybe I didn’t actually have the energy, after all.

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After all, the next day turns out to be the day of reckoning. It's the toughest of the three, and I’ve already expended too much energy. We face a 1000-meter climb on an absurdly bad road. It drains every ounce of my strength. At least half of our efforts seem 'wasted' on rocks slipping under our tires, counter-steering, bouncing over washboards, gripping tightly, and maintaining a strained expression. The constant jolting of my bike against my seat and body leaves me feeling nauseous for almost the entire ride. The third day to Rio Pico should be relatively easy, but it's windy, drizzly, cold, and the road remains terribly rough. I manage physically, but mentally, I'm struggling, feeling frustration and anger towards the Argentinians for not building a decent road. They could, but it's us stubborn cyclists who have chosen this path. This is where Hera clearly differs from me. She has experienced this more often, more intensely, and has learned to accept it. Her perspective is, “It's part of the journey,” she says. “It's the way to reach beautiful, remote places.” “Here, you find satisfaction and pride.” “Better this than sitting behind a desk in the Netherlands.” It unsettles me that I can't fully embrace this viewpoint. If given an alternative at that moment, I probably would have taken it, only to regret it later. I muster the last bit of my mental strength to remain somewhat pleasant towards Hera. She deserves that more than I can muster. I barely notice my surroundings, focused solely on reaching Rio Pico, finding a place to shower, sleep, and reflect on why this journey feels more intense than I anticipated and what that means for the rest of our trip.

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As we draw closer to the village, I find myself counting down the kilometers. We spot a paper 'cafe' sign hanging in a window. We order two coffees and strike up a conversation with the girl who single-handedly runs the coffee shop, supermarket, and bus station. Her help proves invaluable. She makes a few calls and eventually suggests we visit Cecilia’s place. That's where we are now, in a three-bedroom apartment with a balcony, a bathroom featuring a whirlpool, and a private kitchen, all at a surprisingly low cost. The place creaks and groans under the force of the wind, which also manages to creep inside. The roof leaks slightly, and the boiler provides just enough hot water to fill the bottom of the bath. But for now, it's perfect. It's time to recharge everything, myself included.

I receive messages from Mario. He didn’t make it to Futaleufú, the first town across the Chilean border, by bike due to two flat tires. He had hoped to reach a spot about 100km away where accommodation would be more affordable. Now, he's waiting out the 'storm' in Futaleufú. He doesn't seem like someone who gets as easily discouraged by setbacks as I do. I hope that's true.

In a bit of a mix-up, I accidentally buy puff pastry instead of a pizza base, so our dinner turns into an unusual pizza creation. After that, we're thoroughly exhausted and cuddle up in bed together, something we can't do on our air mattresses and in our sleeping bags. It feels incredibly good! There's a sense of bliss, and I'm grateful I can still feel it.

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That was it. Paul's recount of our cycling adventure with Mario and the 'hellish ride' over Argentina's 'gravel'. During our stay in Rio Pico, we spent time reflecting and philosophizing about our differing experiences of the recent cycling days. I tend to accept situations as they are and then find enjoyment in what comes AFTER the struggle. Whether it's a beautiful sky, hopping rabbits, the tranquility of the vast landscape, my own thoughts, or even the challenge of navigating through the boulders. For Paul, giving up without any 'reward', like a breathtaking view or an exhilarating descent, was a source of frustration. Ultimately, we decided not to avoid the gravel just yet but to give it another shot. We both are keen on tackling more adventurous routes. Paul wants to be able to manage it too, and I completely understand that! But, of course, it's essential to find joy in it.

I must say that the days immediately following were nothing like what we expected: not the 100 km of asphalt as indicated on the map and 'promised' to us by the tourist information. Instead, the route turned out to be one of the most challenging I have ever cycled and a true trial by fire for Paul. But, that story is for me to write next time….

Warm greetings from the border village of Aldea Beleiro, from both me and Paul.

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