Miles’ Memories Part 1: The South American Epic Cycling Expedition
A 4500 m high salt lake littered with flamingoes flapping wings. Vicunas hiding behind volcanic boulders. Wind gusting, creating a sandy haze from the desert landscape and eventually a purplish sunset. To me it sounds beautiful, but with the temperature near zero degrees, the sun setting and me standing out in the open in the process of cooking for a group of cyclists crossing South America, it was hard to focus on anything other than the struggle. This is near the Chilean, Bolivian border. It’s, to say the least, remote. A large area with a skull and crossbones sign and fencing nearby illustrates the unrecovered land mines planted in the ground during times of heightened tension between the two countries.
The cyclists on TDA Global Cycling’s South American Epic cross from Cartagena, Colombia to Ushuaia, Argentina. It’s a 5-½ month journey covering nearly 14,000km. As an expedition chef, the job is to keep those bodies fed, healthy and in good spirits. If you can succeed in at least 2 out of those 3 you’re doing well!
South America presents countless opportunities as a chef to experiment with the local culinary scene, shop the small village markets and in the case of Argentina gorge oneself on the local grilled meats and wines. One of my favourite memories from the 2009 edition of the trip, which was at the time named the Vuelta Sud Americana and traveled from Rio de Janeiro to Quito, is arriving to a small coastal town just outside Lima, Peru. It was about 10 in the morning, but as our dinner was going to be at our hotel’s restaurant the pressure was not on me to cook. Taking advantage of this, myself and some of our other tour staff found a nearby restaurant by the sea and ordered ceviche’s and beer. Nothing could possibly compare to that ceviche. It was the perfect blend of citrus, heat from local chilis and the freshness of the seafood caught just that morning. Being a chef takes it’s toll, you end up all twitchy and irritable, but it’s mornings like that that make traveling the world as a hobo with tongs worthwhile.
On a trip that long you also get introduced to some oddities that you could have done without. Like having all of your belongings stolen from your tent by someone with a big enough knife to slash a gaping hole in it, luckily I wasn’t inside. For every instance like that though there are ten such times that make up for it, like buying an entire crate of mangoes in Ecuador for about $5, or zipping through a coastal desert city in Peru on a Tuk Tuk to go to the market and buy 10kg of Crayfish, or watching a local in Uruguay cook a pig by cold smoking it over the course of 9 hours.
When I started working on the 2009 South America trip, I had just completed the Orient Express tour in Europe a week before and had spent 3 days driving from Istanbul to Vienna, then flying across the Atlantic to Miami, then flying across a continent to be at the start line in Rio de Janeiro on time. Sometimes the countries all become a blur and the borders take on an absurd hue that makes you hope one day for their erasure.
One of the great surprises and pleasures of arriving was finding a long-haired Brazilian guy in the hotel room we’d be sharing for 1 night in Rio before the tour began. His name was Cristiano, little did I know we’d be working together from that time, 11 years ago, right up till the present, and into the future, and that he would be organizing TDA’s trips in the Americas and as far away as India. He introduced me to one of my favourite foods in the world, which only exists at Brazilian street vendors and truck stops, the Coxinha, a deep fried dumpling full of chicken salad. Another Brazilian treat was Feijoada, a stew of black beans with salted pork and sausages!
As a last story from TDA’s 2009 South America tour, I’ll mention a tiny village tucked into a high mountain valley in the rugged Andes between Cusco and Nazca, Peru. The group camped in the field of a local farmer who was kind to have us sleep there for the night. I was busy cooking for the group, as the farmer watched from a short distance away, when dinner was ready, he sat and ate with us and communicated in Spanish to those others in the group who could speak to him. As we cleaned up after our meal, he came over and motioned for me to follow him towards his nearby home. He led me to a small shack next to his house and with a big smile opened the wooden door for me to peek inside. It was very dark, with a dirt floor, but as my eyes adjusted, I could see small animals scurrying around on the ground, guinea pigs. He shut the door and went about getting a fire started outside, turning wood into coals, then did some business with a few guinea pigs that left them skinned and skewered. Sitting there in the deep night with mountain stars overhead, smelling the roasting guinea pigs and getting ready to try this dish for the first time, I reached for a deeper meaning in it all, but after my first bite, all I could say was…“Tastes like Chicken”.