2007 – Year in Review

El Ostional, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.

2007 is a defining year of my life.   I feel so lucky that I had the opportunity to embark on an adventure that most people only dream about.  Before the trip I was wondering how or if the trip would change me.  I have changed, but not in the way that I thought.  Before leaving, my worldview was based on what I had been exposed to in the media, which was largely based on fear and frankly ignorance.  The media and even my own government’s travel advisories gave the sense that at any moment I would be robbed, killed, or kidnapped.  I was led to believe that people outside of the first world placed less value on human life.  Based on the media’s portrayal of the non-first world, I thought that maybe the trip would make me cynical of human nature.  I expected to become world-weary and jaded.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Over and over again I experienced warmth, hospitality, and generosity.  Much more so than Canada, where we pride ourselves on being a caring society.  Yes we have a social safety net.  But the effect is that we can walk by a hungry or sick person on the street without guilt because we have the sense that they will be taken care of.  There is no such luxury in many other places in the world.  If you come across a hungry child in a remote area of Peru, for example, he or she may not eat that day if you don’t help them.  The effect is that people seem more willing to directly help those in need, even if they have next to nothing themselves.

This is true even in countries that have experienced devastating civil wars and natural disasters.  Perhaps shared adversity brings people closer together and instills the desire to help your neighbours in times of need.  People have learned not to rely on help from their governments.  Instead they look to their families and communities.  It is absolutely absurd to think that people value human life less outside the first world.  People care about their families and friends just like anywhere else.  They help strangers in need, perhaps even to a greater degree.  They want the same basic things: food, water, shelter, education, and health care.  They want their children to have the chance to enjoy a decent quality of life.

Another surprise for me was discovering just how addictive travelling by motorcycle is.  Yes you experience more than driving or riding a bus.  Yes you get a greater sense of achievement by making yourself vulnerable to the elements.  Yes there is a sense of freedom from choosing your route and your schedule.  There is also the sheer ethereal joy of riding a motorcycle that only bikers would understand.  But you also are forced to live in the moment.  You are forced to directly experience the world.  Your most pressing concerns become where you will have your next meal or where you will spend the night.  Gone are the stresses of your other life.  No longer do you worry about finances, exams, career planning, or whether your life has turned out the way you wanted.  Instead your focus becomes whatever wonder you happen to be riding through.  It is a liberating and therapeutic experience that helps put other aspects of your life in perspective.

The downside is that it is a tough adjustment to come back to your old life after such a fulfilling experience.  The concerns of some of the people around you start to seem petty and inconsequential in the overall picture.  You miss the warmth and hospitality of strangers.  You miss the camaraderie and loyalty that comes from tackling a challenge as part of a team.  The stresses of your old life start to creep back in.  You wonder if the sacrifices you are making are worth it.

For me the answer is yes.  I got a good dose of motivation on this trip.  People are generally good and decent.  I have been gifted with solid confirmation that I have chosen the right profession.  One day I will be able to give back.  I have decided to work overseas as soon as I pay off my loans, probably with an organization like Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders).

Race Against Time

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Volcano on the edge of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni.

The planning for next year’s trip from London, England to Cape Town, South Africa has begun in earnest.  Tom and I have been dreaming of Africa for more than two years now.  Ted had been looking forward to joining us this summer, but his injuries from the last trip may prevent him from coming with us.  I certainly hope he will recover in time for the trip.

My enthusiasm for last summer’s adventure has rubbed off on another friend and classmate though.  Jeremy, a fellow member of the PhD club, has decided to take up motorcycling and join Tom and I on our African adventure.  He recently took a weekend motorcycle course.  He has just bought a 2006 KLR 650.  To make things interesting, most of his pre-trip training will probably have to wait until the spring because winter has arrived in Toronto.  He will literally only have weeks to gain riding experience before attempting some of the harshest most challenging terrain on the planet.

It’s impossible to learn about Africa without becoming engrossed with the HIV pandemic.  There are 40 million people with living with HIV in the world, and 27 million of them live in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

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Jeremy made this graphic showing the prevalence rates of HIV (according to UNAIDS) in the countries we will pass through on our trip.  During the 90 days that it takes us to go from London to Cape Town, over 1.2 million people will become infected with HIV in the world.  We truly are in a race against time.

Only 5-10% of HIV infected people in Africa receive life-saving antiretroviral treatment.  It costs a few dollars to reduce mother to child transmission by 50%, yet only 5-8% of mothers have access to such programs.  A tragedy has been unfolding in Africa and the world has largely been watching indifferently.

This has to change.  Those of us living in priviledged societies must pressure our governments to increase foreign aid.  We must get the word out to as many people as possible that a modern day Holocaust is unfolding before our eyes.  We must support international organizations that are struggling to get treatment and prevention programs to AIDS ravaged areas.

One such organization is Dignitas International, a humanitarian organization that works to increase access to essential HIV/AIDS-related prevention treatment, care, and support, including antiretroviral medications.  Dignitas trains and supports caregivers, coordinating services with governments and grassroots groups to empower communities in their response to AIDS.

The University of Toronto motorcycle gang is raising funds for Dignitas international by selling 2008 calendars featuring pictures from the adventure Ted and I had in Latin America last summer.  We are getting the calendars professionally printed.  They are going to be stunning.  They will make fantastic Christmas presents.  And best of all, 100% of the proceeds will go to Dignitas International.  You can make a difference and have adventure shots from some of the most spectacular places on this planet at the same time.  What could be better?  

Check out the pictures that will be featured in the calendar.

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This picture from the rim of an Ecuadorian volcano is an example of a picture that didn’t make the cut.  Find out which pictures DID make the cut.

An Image from Peru

I witnessed a lot of poverty on this trip.  I spent time in villages where there was no running water or central heating despite the chill of the Andes.  I ate dinner with Bolivian miners who risked their lives everyday to eke out a meager living for themselves and their families, and who talked about the death of their comrades in the mine as if it were just something to be expected.  It was dangerous work and they knew it.

But some mental images are more powerful than others, and keep playing in my mind’s theater over and over again.  A day has not gone by since getting back from South America that I have not been haunted by one such image from Peru.  We had been riding on a dirt/gravel road in a mountainous wilderness region to the southeast of Ayacucho.  We had ridden for many hours without seeing any other vehicles.  There was nothing but dead grass, rocks, and mountain ranges that extended to the horizon on all sides.  We had not passed any huts or farmers.  There had been no sign of human habitation at all.  The road was rough and filled with enormous potholes that could swallow an entire wheel.  It was painful riding (and I didn’t even have a broken wrist).  At one point I nearly rode my motorcycle off the side of a mountain because a section of the road had been washed out.  Clearly, this section of road was seldom travelled.

That’s why it was such a surprise to see a man running towards the road, waving for us to stop.  He was speaking to us quickly in Spanish.  He was gaunt and looked over 60, his unkept beard streaked with white.  His clothes were torn and dirty.  He had sores around his mouth.  Most of his teeth were broken or missing.  He said he was hungry.  He was begging us for food.  

As if out of thin air, a boy of perhaps 9 or 10 suddenly appeared at the old man’s side.  The kid looked absolutely pathetic.  Where had he been hiding?  What were a child and an old man doing in the middle of nowhere?  When had they last eaten a decent meal?  I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach: I knew that we did not have much food with us.  I started going through all my luggage, desperately looking for anything to give them.  I thought we might have some instant noodles left, but I couldn’t find anything other than one small tin of tuna.  “Pescado,” I said, handing it to the man.  He looked at the small tin with obvious disappointment – and rightly so.  It wasn’t enough for a snack, let alone a meal for two hungry people.  I took some soles (Peruvian currency) out of my wallet and tried to hand it to the man.  He waved it away.  He didn’t want money.  He just wanted food.  Money would not help him there.  Still, I insisted, pressing the bills into his hand, more to easy my suffering than his.

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The pictures above were taken in the same area that we encountered the old man and his young companion, on the road between Ayacucho and Ocros.

That night Ted and I stayed in the tiny village of Ocros.  We talked about the old man and the kid.  We wondered if a truck would stop and give them a ride.  We hoped that at the very least they would be able to buy some food.  To this day, I still wonder what happened to them. 

Our room in the back of a convenience store cost us the equivalent of about three Canadian dollars.  There was no running water or showers (cold or hot).  Ted was surely in pain from his injuries.  I was still sick with a bad cold that I had been fighting since Lima.  My nose was dripping, my throat was sore, I coughed non-stop, and my muscles were aching.  Yet I still felt lucky – I had eaten a hot meal and had a bed for the night.  What a luxury.

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Top – You can see the village of Ocros way down in the valley
Bottom – The Village of Ocros, Peru. 

Most spectacular unpaved road

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The ledge of a road that carved its way through the Peruvian Andes between Ayacucho and Abancay was the most gravity-defying stretch of the trip.  The route was too narrow for buses or trucks, which was fantastic.  (We ended up taking a road marked as a thin gray line on our map that ran parallel to the “main” gravel road).  The downside (literally) was that one mistake could send you over the edge and into the abyss.  It’s hard to describe the magnitude of the altitude changes, and the pictures hardly do it justice.  We would switch-back our way up the side of a mountain for hours, gaining dizzying views of narrow valleys beneath us.  Then the road would turn and instead of looking down from above we would be on the floor of a higher valley itself surrounded by towering Andes.  The road seemed to just ascend indefinitely.
It was on this narrow gravel road that we overtook a group of mountain bikers.  I had been starting to feel fatigued from a hard days’ ride, but I realized I had no right to complain when I saw people riding pedal bikes on the same stretch of road.  It turned out it had taken them over 3 days to cover the same distance that we had traversed in just a few hours.  The mountain bikers included a husband and wife, Oliver and Chloe, who were both medical doctors from France.  They had been riding around the world for the past year and a half after having completed their training.  They had started in France and had already crossed Eastern Europe and Southern Asia.  They were now crossing South America from west to east.  Their plan was to then cross to South Africa and return home to France through Africa over the course of the next year.  They planned to be on the road for total of 2.5 years.

I have been following their travels on their website http://www.bicyclettesnomades.com/ and am happy to report that they are now in Brazil.  They have wonderful pictures posted of their trip.  In particular, I recommend looking at their pictures of Peru http://www.bicyclettesnomades.com/photos-perou.asp.

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Left to Right: Oliver, Benjamin (Chloe’s brother, joining the couple for a few weeks), Chloe, and Ricardo (a friend from Peru joining them for a week).  

Most spectacular paved road

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Chicamocha National Park, Colombia.  The highway from San Gil to Bucamaranga was one of  the most spectacular (if not the most spectacular) paved roads I have ever had the pleasure of riding.  The road winds along the top of a mountain range thousands of metres above the Chicamocha canyon.  (You can see Ted rounding a curve in the distance in the top left picture.)  The road then plunges down into the valley, switchbacking its’ way down a steep mountain.  The rapid change in altitude is dizzying.  From above, the curves and switchbacks look almost like a go-kart track (as seen in the picture on the bottom right).  Somehow this avian perspective hides the staggering altitude change between each parallel ribbon of highway.  At the top, the weather is cool, but by the time you are riding beside the river, the heat is suffocating.  If it weren’t for the heavy bus and truck traffic, this would be my all-time favourite section of paved road anywhere. 

Because Chicamocha was so congested, I have also included Copper Canyon, Mexico (below) as a runner-up.  It is not as gravity-defying as Chicamocha, but riding through Copper Canyon is about as much fun as you have riding a motorcycle on a paved road.  The scenery is mind-blowing, and you could easily ride on smooth twisty asphalt for hours without seeing another vehicle.  Unfortunately, I was enjoying the ride through the main canyon so much that I didn’t even stop to take any pictures.  The pictures below were taken in a side canyon shortly before we reached Copper Canyon proper. 
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Near Copper Canyon, Mexico.

My Favourite Colonial Towns (in no particular order)

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Humahuaca, Jujuy, Argentina.  We discovered Humahuaca by accident.  From the highway, it looked like an ordinary dusty town typical of northwestern Argentina.  However, it was lunch time and we were hungry, so we left the highway looking for food.  Suddenly we were riding down cobbled streets through an outdoor craft market with cafes and restaurants all around us.  It was a pleasant surprise.  I ordered Llama, which was delicious. 

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Villa de Leyva, Boyaca, Colombia.  We were lost when we stumbled across Villa de Leyva.  We were trying to find the highway to Bucamaranga from Tunja.  All morning we had been riding through arid mountainous terrain that reminded me, unexpectedly, of New Mexico.  It turned out that we were not on the right road, but it was a lucky mistake because Villa de Leyva was gorgeous.  Its bright white colonial buildings, flowery inner courtyards, and stony streets made me feel like I had travelled backwards in time.  The picture on the right shows the view from our table in the courtyard restaurant where we ate lunch.

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Antigua, Guatemala.  I fell in love with Antigua.  It was a colonial gem surrounded by towering volcanoes, one of which was spewing ash into the sky.  It felt like a scene from a fantasy novel.  The picture on the bottom shows our hotel.  You can see my motorcycle parked safely in the lobby.

Riding through the pain

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“Hi, my name is Ted.  I rode my motorcycle 5,000 km with a broken wrist.  Why?  Because I’m tougher than you.” 

Last Friday Ted had his wrist examined at the Univeristy of Toronto health services centre because of ongoing pain.  Ted had been playing down his pain for weeks.  He had played soccer and ultimate and even attempted lifting weights since his return to Toronto.  This was despite a sore ankle, shoulder, and wrist.  The doctor at the health centre referred Ted to the radiology clinic for X-rays.  The images showed a broken scaphoid, and he was sent to Emergency to get a cast.  In addition, he was referred to Orthopedics for an appointment this past Monday.  After being examined in the Orthopedics clinic, he was able to get a CT scan the same day.  A medical student with a damaged wrist was deemed a serious enough matter to justify an immediate CT scan. 

The CT scan revealed that the two pieces of Ted’s fractured scaphoid were not aligned (the scaphoid connects to the radius at the wrist).  There was also evidence of necrosis (areas where the bone cells had died).  He would require surgery to re-align the two pieces of scaphoid.  Moreover, a chunk of his iliac crest (the top of his pelvis) would be removed and used as a graft.  A screw would be introduced to hold everything together.  He was told that he could begin physiotherapy 3 weeks after the operation.

Ted was perhaps not as up front with the surgeon as he should have been.  The surgeon did learn that the injury had happened 5 weeks prior to Ted seeking medical attention in Canada.  Ted was appropriately chastised for this. The doctor told him that he should have known better as a medical student.  

However, the surgeon did not learn that Ted had ridden his motorcycle more than 5,000 km across some of the most challenging terrain in all of South America with a broken wrist.   Nor did Ted mention that he had repeatedly aggravated his injury by falling off his motorcycle multiple times and landing on his outstretched hand.

The operation was scheduled to last about 2.5 hours.  In the end, Ted was in surgery for more than 5 hours.  The surgeon emerged covered in sweat when it was finally over.  He said it was one of the most difficult operations of that type that he had ever done.  He reported that a large area of bone was “mush”.  Apparently the first screw came out halfway through the operation, and he had to put in a second one.

Ted is recuperating at home.  He is sleeping on the floor, as the girl who sublet his apartment threw out his bed.  Something about bugs.  His friends have been plying him with waffles, cookies, pie, and ice-cream.  He was prescribed a pint-sized bottle of percocet pills and warned that the pain would be excruciating beginning about 12 hours after the operation.  I wonder if it could possibly be any worse than that day in the Bolivian desert when he bailed 3 times and we rode 13 hours before finding shelter for the night.

Get well soon Ted (Tough Bastard) Macher.