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).