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Just the two of us

Northern Mexico. Tom’s Spanish is much better than mine, by which I mean he actually has some. I am terrified of going into a shop – I may just about be able to ask for what I want, but I surely won’t be able to understand the response. I volunteer to mind the bikes. It doesn’t really work as a language avoidance strategy; instead of talking to the women in the shop I find myself faced with little boys curious about the bikes.

It’s no good. I need to shop, to learn. And because Tom keeps shopping, he’s the one with the meal plan and also keeps cooking, which hardly seems fair. We introduce a strict take it in turns approach. Today is my shopping and cooking day; tomorrow is his. Works for us.

Where possible, we shop at local fruit and veg markets. The produce is good, it’s cheap, and often the markets also include mini tiendas where we can buy oats and pasta and other things we need. We eat well.

Playing Mother – Maya Pedal, April 2011

At Maya Pedal, I begin to feel like Mother. Many of the other volunteers are in their early 20s; I have a niece their age. I find myself listening to travel stories and relationship woes, and am unable to curb my impulse to clean up after everyone (sadly my tolerance for dirt in a shared house seems to be lower than most).

There is not much choice other than to cook collectively, as we have only a tiny kitchen with 2 gas burners. We take it in turns to cook for the “family” – a group of up to 14 people!

For me this is a terrifying prospect. I have never been a confident cook. I lived alone for most of my 20s and ate bread and salad! I’ve become a bit of a master at the camp stove “one pot wonder” on this trip but Tom is a pretty easy audience. Cook for 14? Now there’s an entirely different prospect!

I soon realize that I am not the only one who feels this way. It’s a big job. I also realize that expectations are not high; mostly we are just grateful that someone has gone to the effort and put food on the table for us. What’s more, I discover that going to the markets is one of my favourite aspects of life in San Andres. It’s the first time we’ve stuck in one place for any length of time, and I enjoy the fact that the vendors come to know me, and I them. This is a non touristy town where people know that anyone with a white face is likely connected with Maya Pedal. Instead of being subject to the “gringo markup” we are actually cut a good deal and I am continually stunned by how cheaply I can feed such a large group. Or maybe they have just been well trained by Gavin, a hard bargainer who refuses to buy 3 packets of pasta for 10 pesos when he knows he has previously had them for 9!

There are some great cooks during our time at Maya Pedal. Jen is so dedicated to quality and taste that she cycles all the way to Antigua and back one afternoon for ingredients – a round trip of around 40km! Pedro, who feels himself to be more useful in the kitchen than the workshop, frequently volunteers to cook – and we are always happy when he does.

But by the end of my time at Maya Pedal, I have made a welcome discovery: I am perfectly capable of cooking for 14. What’s more, my food tastes just as good as pretty much anyone else’s.

And then there were three – Costa Rica, June-July 2011

Anna fits in easily with us in the cooking department, as in pretty much every other aspect of travel. We develop a three way turn taking system. We have met cyclists who seem to live on pasta and ketchup, but Anna is not one of them. She is a woman who cares about food and believes meals should contain vegetables. Like me, she carries around a pantry of olive oil, herbs and spices. Unlike me (moderately paranoid about the weight I carry and upset if I reach the next town with leftover food, a sign that I could have carried less), she has an entire pannier filled with food. She carries for maximum flexibility and variety and is never caught short (but envies my lighter bike!)

We cook together, pasta or rice on one stove, stir fry or sauce on the other. It is fun and social; Anna remarks on how much easier it is to eat properly when in company. I learn a few tricks from her; popcorn over a camp stove is a brilliant idea and one I’ll imitate.

Man on a Pugsley – Peru, October 2011

Tyres scrunch on the road behind me and to my surprise, another cycle tourist overtakes me on this remote stretch of dirt.

“Is that a Pugsley?” I’m not sure who’s more surprised: me, to see this bike I’ve heard about, or him, that I recognize it.

We catch up to Tom. “Are you the friend of Cass Gilbert’s who’s been riding Inca Trails?” Small world, this cycle touring one.

Within a very short time there’s enough curiosity and enough “click” that we invite Joe to camp with us. But I don’t have much food, he says apologetically. Ah that’s fine, I say expansively, we have enough to share. It’s my turn to cook and I’ve done my usual trick of getting overly excited at a good market and buying far more veg than we actually need for one meal. Just this once I’m glad of the bounty and happy that cooking for a random stranger does not stress me.

Joe is a bit delicate in the belly department the day he joins us, and I totally over face him but it’s no problem; Tom is up to full cyclist appetite and easily polishes off the leftovers.

Joe blows the dust off his stove for us

As the days pass I will learn that Joe rarely cooks, preferring to travel fast and light and aim for the next town. He has a budget that allows him to eat in restaurants and considers cracking the stove out a bit of a faff! He carries very little food, just chocolate and fruit, goes hungry if he doesn’t make his destination. I envy his light setup but I prefer being able to stop anywhere – and having the capacity to carry more than a week’s worth of food, should I want to tackle a long stretch with no shops on it.

We are, and remain, grateful that Joe wants our company enough to adapt his travel style to ours, taking his turn at the stove and somehow stashing a meal for 3 away in that frame bag that has previously only carried snacks for one.

Hollow legs – Peru, October 2011

Hollow legs?

When Angus and Eugenio catch us up, I assess at a glance that these boys must take a bit of feeding. Long, stretched-out lads in their early 20s with not an ounce of fat between them, I’m pretty sure they’ll have what my Mum would call hollow legs.

The boys are in the habit of eating uncooked oats for breakfast, a filling “almuerzo” in a cheap local eatery for lunch, and just biscuits and fruit in the evening. They seem genuinely surprised that our relatively lighter loads contain truly useful items, such as a water filter and a stove! It’s my cooking night again and I try to figure out how I’ll make a meal intended for 3 hungry cyclists stretch to 5.

Come camp time, it’s clear Joe has been thinking along the same lines as I have. We pool our resources and cook up literally all the food we have. I make popcorn for starters (thanks Anna), while Joe nips out to the local store and comes back with beers for the boys, the local popcorn equivalent, and bananas and pastries for desert. I ask him to help me cook; he cooks up all the rice I have left – more than enough for 3, less than enough for 5 – on his stove, while I make up a veggie stew on ours. Onion and garlic, corn soup packet, pumpkin, peas, beans, peanuts, a bag of bean salad that I couldn’t resist at the market earlier…. I’m pleased to see that there is enough that I need to use both our pots, grateful that once again I bought too much food this morning. I throw in our remaining sémola, for extra bulk, and we add the avocado and mozzarella that Joe’s been carrying. He also has 5 tortillas, just enough for one each. Perfect. We serve it up. The portions are not huge but there’s some for everyone – and it tastes good, to my hungry self anyway! There is almost complete silence as we eat, broken only by occasional mutters of “increíble” from Angus.

“Well done”, Tom whispers as we climb into our sleeping bags.

I go to sleep happy, and surprised by the immense satisfaction I experience at being able to spontaneously feed these strays.

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