The story that led to being a Cultural Ambassador
Author’s note: Because of the heart-warming events in this story, I was honored to be the Cultural Ambassador to Argentina by the U.S. Department of State. I returned to the Chaco and visited many schools to tell my story as part of their cultural outreach program. Myself, the embassy, the media, and even the Governor of the Chaco all searched for Ramero and his family. I especially wanted to find Pablo. I wanted to tell them that their generosity had gone on to inspire thousands of children, and maybe even more adults in many different countries. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find their small village, which wasn’t on my original map. If you happen to be in Argentina, please mention that I’d like to meet Pablo again someday. Miracles do happen. Thanks.
Learn more about The Search for Pablo.
Below is a chapter from my book Falling Uphill. Each begins with a popular question people asked me repeatedly, all over the world, regardless of age, gender, culture, religion, etc.
The Gran Chaco is a vast desert shared with Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. When it rains in the Chaco, the paved roads are chewed apart and swallowed by a quagmire, and the gravel and dirt roads turn into mud that either sticks to everything or melts into the desert. During the rainy season, it’s impenetrable.
Mist and mud spatter my face as I churn my bicycle wheels through miles of puddles and slime. I plunge into a section of the road churned loose by feet, hooves, shovels and wheels searching for traction. The sticky mud spins up with my wheels, gets caught under the racks and in the brakes, coats my legs, frame and panniers, and submerses my drive train. My bike seizes. I slide to a halt, squishing one foot into the muck for balance. [Photo above.] I’m stuck—again—and must walk my bike towards drier ground. I plow a deep furrow as I go. The thick mud continues to gather on my feet and bicycle, increasing the weight until my limbs are too weak to move. The Chaco’s muddy grip has reached the top of my head, gluing me to the earth.
When I regain my stamina, I push forward, stopping every ten meters to scrape the heavy mud off my shoes and wheels. I’m averaging one kilometer per hour when I’m moving. Even at that rate, without stops, I won’t reach the next village for several days, long after I run out of food and water. Dennis, camouflaged in mud, disappeared into the mist hours ago. Only one truck has passed me all day. The driver was too busy fighting the Chaco to notice me attempting to blaze a trail through the fresh, grease-like mud and thorn bushes alongside the road. He’s also caught in the rain and struggling to return home. That may have been my last chance to hitch a ride.
Maybe I’m congenitally or genetically unhappy, because when conditions become miserable it doesn’t take long for my mind to sink into a figurative quagmire. I had entered Argentina dreaming of civilization: cold beers, hot showers, comfy and clean beds, the infamously beautiful women, discothèques and, especially, the world-famous steaks, traditionally hanging over the edge of the plate, buried in french fries and accompanied by an entire bottle of Argentinean red wine to rinse down the grease.
I pin my hopes of steak and salvation on Dennis. Maybe he stopped the truck. So, despite exhaustion, I trudge forward. I relieve some of my depression by focusing on the moment: mist dampens the sounds of the distant desert. Except for the occasional flock of squawking, green parrots, only my breathing and the condensed mist dripping off my body vibrate the atmosphere. The waves of mud have splashed a raw, pungent odor into the air, smelling ripe with life only matched by a briny sea breeze. Judging by the footprints of birds, lizards and cats dancing among the sopping thorn trees and cacti, I’m surrounded by creatures alien to my experience and rejoicing in a rare shower. When I’m not struggling to tame it, the Chaco is a beautiful and peaceful land.
After an hour, I round a bend. Askew in the ditch is the last truck that passed. With renewed vigor, I drag my bicycle sideways through the muck. I feel awkward having to trust my survival to strangers. They appear to be a family of three. Many families live and work in their trucks. “Nice weather. No?” I say in broken Spanish. The burly yet roly-poly father laughs, spewing coca leaves.
I introduce myself and answer the usual questions: The United States; yes, on a bicycle; very tired; 31; no children; single; haven’t met the perfect woman yet; strong legs; 19,500 kilometers; 50 flats; eight tires; 14 months; for my education; almost everyone everywhere has been very kind; food poisoning; about a dozen, it’s not how many times you fall, it’s how many times you get up.
Ramero, the father, with his slight mustache, cherubic and charming face, reminds me of a Buddha figurine. On cue, he rubs his tummy as if for good luck. “Muy loco biciclista.” (Very crazy bicyclist.)
Realizing my plight, Ramero doesn’t just offer me a ride—he begins throwing my panniers into the back of his truck and easily lifts my mud-coated bicycle over his head; simultaneously his son, Diebe, throws down gifts of fruit and soda.
But before we can continue, we must unglue the truck. First, Ramero shovels the mud from in front of the wheels, creating a semi-dry track to follow. Then, with Ramero in the driver’s seat, the rest of us push the truck back onto the road, and we keep pushing—the Chaco sucking on our feet—until the truck reaches a section where it can stop without becoming bogged in the mire. All aboard: Ramero builds momentum slowly, spinning the oversized steering wheel one way, then the other, his feet braking, accelerating and shifting gears, his jaw chomping coca leaves and his pungent breath fumigating the cab. All his seemingly frantic motions keep the truck cruising straight and steady through the slushy mud. (For the record, Ramero says he only chews coca to stay awake during long and dangerous drives.)
A few kilometers down the road, we find Dennis, “Mi amigo,” and another truck stuck in the mud. We slide to a halt, and without words, Ramero and Diebe grab a shovel and pickaxe and begin freeing the first truck while Ramero’s wife, Yolanda, cleans the mud off Dennis and his bicycle. Ramero returns laughing, rubbing his tummy. “Another crazy bicyclist,” he says, and introduces himself to Dennis.
The two trucks combine their efforts for the rest of the afternoon in a tribal instinct to cooperate and survive. The road is elevated above the desert, and the worn edges make the surface convex, so the trucks tend to slide off sideways. The other truck is empty and often slides into the ditch. For several hours, we shovel and push, and build bridges of branches for traction over small streams and slippery mud until we reach the nearest village.
Dennis and I offer to pay for lunch in gratitude, but Ramero closes the debate, “You’re my guests.”
Currently, Argentina’s economy is crashing. According to the news on our short-wave radio, the government has borrowed too much money and squandered it on poorly planned social programs meant to buy votes and make politicians rich. Argentina is considering defaulting on its loans and the international community is losing faith in the peso, causing both inflation and devaluation. Ramero’s pesos are only worth a third of their value three months ago.
Having gathered the local gossip, Ramero announces that the road to Juarez, where the pavement begins, is impassable. We must detour down sandier roads—wet sand makes a hard, smooth riding surface because the water drains easily through the large grains—to Ramero’s house and ride a different route tomorrow. For the next 11 hours we drive a few kilometers until we get stuck, then we shovel mud from underneath the tires, or put chains on the wheels, or take the chains off the wheels. Mostly, we push and run, either from behind until the truck gains momentum, or from alongside to prevent the truck from fishtailing. “You must think it was easier to bicycle,” Ramero jokes during a tea break in the middle of the night.
We arrive at Ramero’s house in an “aboriginal community” and have an early morning dinner with the rest of the family: the sons Matías, Franco, Diebe, Andrés and Pablo, and the daughter, Patricia, and her son. Ramero tells us not to worry. We’ll try to reach Juarez tomorrow. He even offers to drive us to the bank in Corrientes, several hundred kilometers east. The banks have been shut down for a week because too many locals are emptying their accounts and converting their currency into the more stable US dollar. Ramero, Dennis, and I have very little cash.
“You’re like my sons. Eat. Drink. No problem.” Ramero speaks slowly and pantomimes because the conversation is beyond our understanding of Spanish. In every country, we must relearn the basics because the accent changes and the most common words, especially names of foods, people and places, are mixed with the indigenous languages. In Argentina, the locals refer to their language as Castellano, the official dialect of Spain, though the Argentinean pronunciation has some idiosyncrasies. “Stay as long as you need to, or longer if you want to,” Ramero says.
Everyone owns the land on the aboriginal reserve, or rather no one owns it. The land is communal property; however, Ramero and Yolanda do own the house. They built it with their own hands. It’s a ramshackle house typical of a developing country. The walls are constructed of concrete, brick or wood, depending on the available materials when an extra room was needed. The floor is concrete, an improvement over the more common dirt floors. The roof is corrugated tin. In the backyard live fat, corn-fed pigs and chickens (normally pigs and chickens must root through the garbage and weeds), three dogs and two cats. There are no doors in the back of the house, yet the pigs and chickens never venture inside looking for food; meanwhile, the cats and dogs are always sneaking inside and dashing back outside when Yolanda reaches for the broom. The front of the house is a small store with storage space. This is Ramero’s primary business. He transports staple products (meat, dairy, flour, rice, fruits, vegetables, toiletries and cleaning products) and some luxury items (candy, wine and soda) from the distant cities and sells them to the indigenous people. Tacked onto the house are Ramero’s secondary business, a repair shop, and Ramero and Yolanda’s bedroom. There are two more bedrooms inside the house for everyone else. Franco and Matías have given their beds to Dennis and myself. They sleep outside in the truck.
Ramero built his life in a similar ramshackle manner to his house. During his first few years he says he lived on the streets and owned nothing, not even clothes. At this young age, Ramero decided he wanted a better life. From the age of three until he was 14, he only owned one set of clothes and one pair of shoes and worked in his uncle’s garage as an unpaid apprentice, watching and learning everything. At 15, he began to earn small tips and wages. Now, Ramero owns two businesses, two houses, four trucks, and provides for his wife, five children—two with plans to attend college in the big city—one grandchild and two ravenous bicyclists.
Ramero and Yolanda are very proud of the life they’ve built, although they’re concerned about the community. According to them, there are too many young males intoxicated on rum or coca leaves, too many pregnant teenagers, and, generally, the neighbors are too content to drink yerba mate (tea) and watch life pass their doorstep. Going against the trend of drugs and social welfare, Ramero and Yolanda continue to build a life for themselves, their family and their community.
There doesn’t seem to be anything Ramero can’t do. He can shovel tons of mud, whereas I can barely sink the spade into the ground. With enviable charisma, he entices the local children to happily wash our bicycles. He fixes my bicycle rack, which three other mechanics couldn’t fix. He studies English with his children. And, one afternoon, we go fishing in a small stream. In one motion, Ramero hooks a tiny piranha and sends it flying over his shoulder to land in or near the bucket. (Dennis catches a few piranhas. I only have nibbles, and nearly fall into the stream.) I think we’re going to eat a bucket of piranha for dinner. Soon, though, we switch fishing holes to a raging, muddy river on the opposite bank from Paraguay and use the piranhas for bait. Ramero hooks two, large, feisty catfish, enough to feed the whole family. I desperately want to contribute a fish to the family, but I only succeed in losing my bait and hooking sunken branches. Ramero pats me on the shoulder, “Don’t worry. Next time.”
That night, as during every meal, Yolanda serves Dennis and me first—in this case, a pile of steaming fried catfish, french fries and salad. Yerba mate and long conversations follow every candlelit meal. (At this time of day, the power is rotated to another community.) If the family doesn’t ask us about our bicycle trip, Ramero jokes about how pathetic we looked drenched in mud. He also enjoys telling stories about the wild animals in the Chaco: pumas, piranhas, spiders and anacondas so gigantic that a truck could run over them and they wouldn’t even wake. According to Ramero, all the wild critters prefer white meat, meaning the crazy gringo bicyclists that camped several nights in the Chaco.
Every day Dennis and I entertain groups of visitors. On the first day, we meet the community elders, teachers and priests; the second day is filled with local businessmen and students; and the third day, a group of young, single women arrive; and the whole time we’re surrounded by children. Some people, too shy to venture inside the house, wait outside for a glimpse of us strangers. We also have many appointments: running errands with Patricia to meet the community; participating in bicycle races with the kids; watching the local football game; giving a two-hour lecture for the high school students; and visiting a charity organization that is building houses for the locals despite what the locals really need and want are jobs.
In Ecuador, I met a missionary who helped build latrines for the locals when they really needed storage houses. So, the locals ended up using the latrines to store their corn and the cornfields as toilets. The missionary explained that the indigenous population hasn’t adapted their nomadic lifestyle to the sedentary lifestyle of farms and industry and the arbitrary political borders. Traditionally, these people worked hard to earn their food—hunting, gathering and trading. Nowadays, food is piled high on street vendors’ tables; being farmed or growing semi-wild alongside the road; or running around the streets (many of the foods come from the domesticated plants and animals the European settlers brought). Likewise, shelter and clothing are readily available, handed down through the generations or provided by international aid. In this modern age it’s easy for people to meet their basic survival needs, especially if they have no ambition—we’re told that the indigenous people have had the ambition crushed out of them, first by the Spanish conquistadors, then by the Western World and now by their own greedy and corrupt governments.
On the morning of the fourth day, the roads are dry enough to risk taking a bus to Juarez, though Ramero won’t be joining us because the banks are still closed. Dennis and I profusely thank Ramero. Grinning as usual, he says, “No. Thank you for showing my village and my children that the impossible is possible.” Ramero chuckles and rubs his tummy, “Muy loco biciclistas.”
Weeks later, we reach Buenos Aires, “civilization,” the land of convenience, where money can purportedly buy anything and solve any problem. I’ve found my steak that hangs over the edge of the plate, bought some new clothes and gotten a haircut; but, now what I think about is taking the bus out of Ramero’s village and seeing his youngest son, Pablo leading the charge out of the classroom. The class must’ve been waiting for hours to throw themselves up and over the fence and chase us down the street to wave goodbye one last time.
Postscript: As I mentioned above, the heart-warming events in this story led to being the Cultural Ambassador to Argentina by the U.S. Dept. of State. If you happen to be in Argentina, please mention that I’d like to meet Pablo again someday, and tell him how his family’s generosity went on to inspire thousands.
Learn more about The Search for Pablo.
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