Lençois – Andaraí

While in Lençois I’d been having some serious thinking time about the upcoming route. In South America the climate provides a few serious restrictions. One of those is not being too far south during the winter, both to avoid the cold and very short days. That means that it’s only really advisable to go to the end of South America (Patagonia) from November to March. The other, is that in the Andes, from Colombia down to Chile, the rainy season is October to April. Being a north-south stretch about as far as from London to Jerusalem it’s not exactly that in all places, but for example someone in Bolivia mentioned that they just finished 7 months of rain.

With those things to keep in mind, I came up with 3 ideas.
1. Get to Rio (bus or hitch probably), and fly to Bogotá to start heading down the Andes. I might not get all the way to Chile before the rain starts, but it’ll the only be the start of the rainy season.
2. Keep going as I am, get around Buenos Aires and take 6 months off riding, probably involving teaching English there.
3. As 2 but, instead of teaching, head down to Patagonia.

While the first option definitely has a certain appeal, it would mean not being in Brazil during the world cup. It also of course would cost more as I’d have to get both down to Rio and then up to Bogotá. I also basically believe that if I keep going as I am, I’ll get to Buenos Aires and something will come up. Be it working, going down to Patagonia or some other idea I’ve not yet had.

So, from Lençois, my next goal was to get to Diamantina, about 1000km away, and the start of the Estrada Real or the Royal Road. It was the path of the diamonds and gold from the mines of Minas Gerais to Rio & São Paulo. About half of it is on hilly dirt roads, so the 30km flattish dirt road out of Lençois seemed a perfect trial run. Ronaldo even gave me a lift down the first few kilometres, I was ready for a nice day. That’s not quite how it turned out.

When we said our goodbyes, my GPS said I had 22.7km to the pavement and I figured in 3 hours I’d be there. It ended up taking 5:15 and I really don’t see myself wanting to ride all the dirt of the Estrada Real if it’s anything like that. There was the regular sandy parts that I couldn’t pedal through, rocky descents that I had to nurse my bike down with my front tyre still looking like it wanted to explode, beaches where I went barefoot because it felt better until the bottom of my foot got sliced open, rivers and sludgy puddles that I got to push through or skirt around – especially after cutting my foot open – all while being constantly eaten by mosquitoes and, other than a couple of waterfalls, it wasn’t even that pretty! Definitely not what I’d expected.

When I made it back to the paved road, a relief set in as I rolled along on newly-laid pavement, until 3km along I heard a BANG. My initial assumption was that my front tyre had gone. Nope, it was my back one, the Schwalbe Marathon Mondial that had been on my bike since maybe French Guiana. When I was back in the UK I bought two new tyres, but didn’t bring them both because I was expecting the rear one to last for at least another 10,000km so I was in the fun situation of having the holes in my front tyre gradually getting bigger and only working because of Seth’s tyreboot, and a rear tyre that needed a boot to stop the inner-tube bulging out of the new 2 inch slit in the sidewall. I got my new rear tyre on there and hoped for the best as I finished the last stretch into Andaraí.

The sun was about to set as I made my way through the cobbled streets, passing bakeries and photo opportunities that normally I’d have stopped at, but my goal was to get to a clinic. My foot wasn’t that bad, but with health care being free in Brazil it wouldn’t hurt to get it seen to. It took less than 10 minutes to be seen to by a doctor, who took a look, cleaned up the cut and then put a bandage on. I considered camping there, but instead rode about another 30 minutes and ended up throwing my tent up outside a shop that had lights on, but no-one answering the door.

Foot in pain

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Andaraí – Tanhaçu

I was up with the sun, and started the climb towards the pretty colonial town of Mucugê. I only got about 10km, as far as Mocambo, before I had to stop. My front tyre, which I’d noticed splitting back in Feira, was now a little bumpy so whenever I’d go down a hill I was having to break for fear of the tyre exploding at 50+ km/h. I decided to put what had been my old rear tyre on, the one that had had it’s sidewall split the day before, and use Gorilla Tape and the boot that I’d been using in the other tyre. The boot by itself had lasted for a good long time back up in the Guyanas, but this time within 2km it was very uneven and there was no way it was going to go far before exploding taking a tube out and probably me with it.

I made it to the next junction and sat down in the lack of shade to see if I could flag something down. I was there for about 40 minutes, and while there wasn’t much traffic it might have worked better if I hadn’t been dozing off. A bus did stop however, and I took that as a good enough option. It was going all the way to São Paulo, and while I was split between going all the way to São Paulo and getting off in Mucugê I chose neither and got off in a place called Tanhaçu. It was outside of Chapada Diamantina, but I hoped it’d mean getting a better tyre.

I got off in Tanhaçu to find it piddling it down, and that somehow my rear tyre had gone flat in the bus ride. I was pretty unimpressed with the whole thing and it was sorely tempting to jump on a bus to Rio to get a flight to Bogotá. Instead, I sat around the bus terminal, with the best part of 100 flies keeping me company, and swapped the tube out. My pump wouldn’t inflate the tyre, so I took it to get blown up, and you can imagine my annoyance when inside 10 seconds it had gone flat again. I’m not sure if the tube I put in was already damaged, but I got to switch to another tube and then go back to the same tyre shop who was rather surprised to see me asking for air.

With a rear tyre that was functional again, I set off pushing my bike to the bike shop in town, fearful that the front tyre would explode on the cobblestones. I stopped to check on my GPS, only to realise it wasn’t on my handlebars – where it always is. Images of Mexico City where I’d taken a bus and forgotten my camera on it came to mind as I rooted through my bags, but thankfully it was in the 5th one I looked through. Only having 6 bags that shows how it felt my luck was going.

I was going to go into a shop, but there was a lady on a motorbike and I asked her if she knew where the bicycle shop was, she did and said to follow her. I explained that I’d have to push, and she went slowly so I could keep up. Her name was Monica, and as she left me at the bike shop she pointed across the street and said that I could feel free to come over for a shower after I’d got my tyre sorted out. She owns a funeral parlour, and it was right there. It sounded good, and so after picking between the $14 and the $17 options ($14 cos it was knobblier) and making sure that all my tubes were patched I went over to see Monica.

I walked in to see her and Renata, the girl she had working there, chatting away and was welcomed in warmly. I asked if they had internet, cos I needed to get back to someone on Couchsurfing (my Kindle is fantastic for email and reading news but the browser is too basic to load the Couchsurfing page). They didn’t, because it was getting changed, but I was offered a shower. Monica warned me that it was cold, which didn’t bother me, but that there was a warm one available at her place. I obviously chose the warm one, so sat round talking with Renata as Monica popped off to find me a motorbike helmet so she could ride me over to her place.

We got over there and I was shown in and had the joy of a shower while balanced on one foot as I tried to keep my bandaged right foot dry. We then chatted for a bit, and Monica mentioned that if I wasn’t thinking of pedalling any more I was more than welcome to stay at her place, for at least that night. It was already within 30 minutes of sunset so I readily accepted, and we went back to the funeral parlour so I could pick up some things.

The evening was really good fun, as I got to hang out with her children. Her 9-year-old daughter Nikolly and recently adopted 13-year old son called Jai came home and had mouths wide open to see this bizarre man in there house. They’d never met a foreigner and had so many questions about me, my trip and the electronics I was carrying. While I’d been trekking in Lençois I’d met some people who mentioned that at their kid’s school it was compulsory to own an iPad, that’s definitely not a Brazilian norm and Nikolly and Jai were fascinated by my Kindle, camera and GPS.

Monica told me about Jai, who she had adopted less than a week earlier, and it was horrible to hear his story. His parents had both passed on so he lived in the middle of nowhere with his uncles that had no money for anything but caçhaca, the local alcohol. He was 13, but looked no bigger than some of the 6 or 7 year olds I taught back in Korea, and only had one set of clothes which he of course had to wash himself. Since she had adopted him, they had taken him for such normal things as a haircut, a new pair of shoes, some new clothes and to watch some sports, and they’d all been first things. He had never even had a birthday party, and Nikolly is going to go without this year so the family has the money to pay for his. By the end of the evening he told us that his goal in life was to be an English teacher and travel to meet me one day in England. A simply amazing experience to finish what had been a pretty miserable 36 hours before I met Monica.

Tanhaçu – Small town

While I’d planned on getting on the road early, it didn’t quite happen like that. After being given breakfast, Monica had to take Nikolly and Jai to school – and it’d be Jai’s first day at the new school – before she gave me a lift from the house to the funeral parlour. After that it was time to hang around to be introduced to Monica’s co-workers so it was past 9am by the time I started pedalling. 15km in I passed a clinic in a small town which looked empty, 10 minutes later the bandage on my foot had been changed out – impressively fast work.

Monica had warned me about the next 50+km and she was right – horrible potholes everywhere. It was bad enough that I frequently briefly overtook the few cars that I saw as they got stuck weaving between potholes. It’s not that it’s a good thing, but it did mean that there was no fast moving traffic passing far too close to me.

I kept rolling on and passed a small town just before the sun set. I’d thought of staying there, but decided instead to keep going on because on my GPS I saw an airport a bit outside of the town. It turned out to be a private airport for the local magnesium mine and the security guard told me he couldn’t give me permission, but that there was a small settlement just ahead. It was already dark and the traffic had picked up since the potholes which combined with a broken taillight and a lack of a shoulder meant I didn’t want to ride much further. It was a very small settlement, with little more than a couple of bars and 3 men standing around. I gave them my normally infallible speech and was told no. It was too dangerous to stay there, I should keep going for another 8km to a restaurant. They wouldn’t listen to my suggestions that that was a terrible idea and seemed more interested in talking to each other than helping me.

The restaurant didn’t exist, and it was 15km until I got to the next settlement. The only real choice was a bar at the exit of the town where I asked about stopping there. It had already gone past 8pm by then and I was really not that eager to keep going. The owner hesitated a little, before telling me that I could put my tent in front of the shop when they closed up at 9pm, until he remembered about a small empty room that I was shown to and I could stay there. A candle was lit and put on the table as well as a bucket of water to get cleaned up with. The roof proved to be a little leaky when it started raining in the early morning, but it was otherwise fantastic.

Small town – Guanambi

Having ridden into the night I had about 110km more to go and it was quite uneventful. The sun started to be consistently out, and I realised why I don’t use merino much any more. My blue merino cycling top that I’d carried around for ages but not used so much was starting to look moth-eaten. It had developed a couple of small holes, but the final straw was when Monica put it in the washing machine which made the holes big enough that I had a very silly suntan at the end of the day. It actually did something similar to my legwear, but that’s mainly around my knees so no problem.

I made it to Guanambi where I met Rodrigo and his family. I was the second couchsurfer they’d received, and first foreign. I immediately felt the Brazilian hospitality as after showering I was shown to the table to eat with looks of incredulity when I only had two plates of food and constant very genuine offers of more, more and a bit more on top of that.