“Tomorrow, sell our camel and buy a horse. Camels are traitorous: they walk thousands of paces and never seem to tire. Then suddenly, they kneel and die. But horses tire bit by bit. You always know how much you can ask of them, and when it is that they are about to die.”
Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
After our climb up to La Raya pass at 4335m above sealevel, which gave my lungs an extra burn since we had been off our bikes on a family vacation for the previous three weeks, I was really looking forward to soaring across the flat Altiplano. There were times cycling down the spine of the Andes in Ecuador and Peru that I never thought I would see a flat road again. However, as we crested over the high pass, riding past the busloads of tourists who step out to see the snowcapped mountains at the highest point of La Raya and maybe buy some alpaca woolies from entrepreneuring local ladies, our flying dreams were dashed by a strong headwind. I have read blogs where cyclists flew across the flat Altiplano plains, doing incredible distances like over 150km all the way to the city of Juliaca in one day Unfortunately, our mighty invisible foe blowing against us made it much more a fight than flight.
It was in this struggle for every inch that our riding styles came to the forefront. The last 40km from Santa Rosa to Ayaviri was the hardest as we kept looking for a camping spot sheltered from the wind but couldn’t really find one on the flat Altiplano. The culvert ditches beside the highway were looking better and better all the time, eventhough they’re a terrible idea. Because the landscape was so flat, we could see Ayaviri in the distance hours before we actually reached it (which we finally did as the sun dipped down under the horizon). When we were about 8km away from the city, we stopped for a water break. As I turned around, Bryan quickly asked me if I was ok. My lips had cracked in dry, cold wind (eventhough I had put on lip balm mulitple times that day) and I had blood all over my teeth. Bryan had been mad at the headwind since he had been expecting easy riding while I had accepted the situation and grimly pushed onwards. He realized on that long ride into Ayaviri that I was getting dead tired and switched to being amazing encouraging. He later said that the ride cracked my “Camel-Shield.”
The “Camel Shield” is a reference to a passage in The Alchemist where the differences between camels and horses are discussed. Horses tire bit by bit while camels stubbornly keeps going until the moment they can’t. It gives new meaning to the saying “the straw that broke the camels back”, looking at the camel rather than the straw. The camel carries on strong until the breaking point when it all ends. I keep riding steady, with far too few water breaks in Bryan’s opinion, and just don’t stop. When the going gets hard, I slow down to conserve a bit of my strength in reserve, put my head down and keep pushing those pedals. I find a pace, a rhythm, and stick to it. It doesn’t happen often but when that final bit of strength kept in reserve is used up, I am done!
Bryan, who naturally rides faster but has been staying close behind me to keep us together on the roads, has a different style of riding. His natural rhythm is like a sprinter to my endurance runner. He can go fast, really fast, and then stops for some water in the shade while I would slowly and steadily plod by until he races past me again. If riding conditions worsen, if our calories need a recharge with more food, or if we’re just getting tired, you would know it from Bryan. For me, I have my head down and pushing onwards until that point my batteries are drained. A part of me feels that it is not worth wasting the extra energy to complain when it does nothing. Shouting into the headwind how terrible the headwind is doesn’t get us any closer to the next town while continuing to pump those pedals does.
I think both riding styles, the camel and the horse, have benefits and disadvantages. On the one side, you might ride faster after a break but on the other hand, falling into a rhythm is also benifical. Afterall, though the Alchemist is less than flattering about camels, another famous fable of the Tortoise and the Hare speaks of the virtues of going slow and steady. In camels, this translates to stubborness. In the end, what is important is balance, and true wisdom is knowing when to be stubborn and push on and when to stop and recharge. For this, I’m reminded time and time again how lucky I am to have met my perfect partner, Bryan, who balances me out so well.