A few days ago, as Jan and I were setting off after a great night in the desert along the coast north of Huasco, in the Atacama, my bicycle suddenly made a funny sound, followed by a rattling that I knew was a broken spoke. This is not a sound you want to hear as a cycling nomad, especially when you are on a road deliberately chosen for its remoteness and lack of traffic. This choice of road was now potentially a great liability.
I hammered the brakes and got off the bike to check and saw the dangling spoke. Of course it was on the cassette side. Meaning: the wheel has to be taken apart so the spoke can be replaced. What was odd about it was that the spoke seemed intact and the nipple was still attached. As I gently rolled the bike forward it became obvious why. Where the spoke had been threaded through the rim was now a gaping hole.
“Now what the f*^k are we going to do,” I thought. This was far worse than breaking a spoke. The rim was now seriously compromised. My heart sank. Nothing we could do, really. I bent the loose spoke around another, checked that the wheel was still turning freely, and it was, and we continued north into the Atacama to Nowheresville.
Amazingly, the wheel remained true as we cycled 88 km to Puerto Viejo, a hamlet of small shacks and houses, precariously built on the sand of a large bay. We arrived as daylight was waning and, with the help of a very nice man, found a shack that we rented for the night from a lady who owns a small store.
This was about as rustic as it gets: no electricity, no flooring, no finished walls or ceilings, no kitchen and no running water in the shack. The bathroom was a small building out back but only had cold water once the tank was filled by the local water delivery guy. There was, however, a bit of furniture: four beds, a small table and some chairs. The proprietress brought us some sheets and pillow cases as well as a battery operated light that failed after about an hour, so, we resorted to using our headlamps. However, we were out of the wind and it was cozy. All this luxury for a mere CHP$20,000 ($40). Completely overpriced, of course, but beggars can’t be choosers, especially in Nowheresville.
It had been a long day. The cycling was okay, although the landscape somewhat bleak, but in the back of my mind, I guess, I was just waiting for my rear wheel to collapse and then we would really be in a pickle. Barely any cars had passed us all day. But now that the day was over and the wheel had held, the wine was poured and dinner being prepared, the tension finally let go and I just kept telling myself: “It will be okay.”
The next day was only about 35 km to a larger town with promise of a solution to our problem. Bahia Inglesa was indeed lovely, but did not provide a solution. After spending the afternoon and night there, we rode another few kilometres up the road to Caldera but the bicycle shop there only had 36-spoke rims and I needed a 32-spoke rim.
We did not dally in Caldera. We went to the bus station and bought tickets for the next bus to Antofagasta, the next big city on our route north. The bus departed at 2 pm and we arrived in this great city about 7 hours later. We rode into the centre of town to look for accommodation and very quickly found a lovely, little hotel for a reasonable price.
We found out there was a good bike shop just around the corner and went there the next morning with my compromised bicycle. At Oxford Bikes Antofagasta, the mechanic, Felipe, spoke English, making our life much easier. He had a rim that would work and he promised to have it done for us by 7 pm that night, all for the amazing price of CHP$14,000 ($28). We were absolutely amazed how well this was turning out. But it would get better.
Our next stop was the tourist info booth to get some maps for the next part of our journey and information about where we could get a Yellow Fever vaccine, necessary for Bolivia and Peru. Stephania at the tourist office was amazingly helpful and gave us all the info we needed. We walked over to the clinic and within half an hour we had both been shot up with Yellow Fever. We’re good to go for 10 years.
Next was the hunt for a new pair of shorts for Jan as her current pair are a sickly grey colour and just about falling apart, and some better gloves for me, as I will need them at the high altitudes in Bolivia. We walked to the monster mall on the waterfront and found both items in short order in a couple of great outdoor shops.
All in all, an amazing 24 hours with a great deal accomplished. But it was really the people we met through the day: The bus driver who took us and our bikes without a fuss and gave us two snack boxes when we left the bus terminal in Antofagasta; the guy at Hotel Horizonte del Sol, whose name we didn’t get, but got us a nice room and stored our bikes in the hallway, Felipe at Oxford Bikes, Stephania at the Tourist Information Office, and the nurses at the clinic where we got our vaccines.
This was how we spent our 365th day on the road, and it was the best example of what this year has been like: filled with helpful, friendly people, amazing scenery, courteous drivers and strangers who invited us into their homes without hesitation. The journey continues.