The Bicycle Feat

Jungle Fever
By MARIANNA FAYNSHTEYN  |  February 17, 2010

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In the corner of the lab of Shire Human Genetic Therapies in Cambridge, you'll find a guy with DEVELOPMENT SPECIALIST written across his lab coat, unassumingly purifying proteins. But if you wanted to find this science guy two months ago, you would've needed an extensive GPS system and a boatload of courage. And even then, you may not have tracked him down — after all, the jungles and deserted roads of the Amazon aren't exactly tourist-friendly.

For 10 weeks last fall, Somerville resident Douglas Gunzelmann trekked the TransAmazonica, a 3700-mile highway through South America, on a bicycle — something only a handful of people have accomplished. Here's an added Digital Age novelty: he blogged about it the whole time, at amazonpilgrim.com. The blog chronicles his journey in nine chapters, with photos and an interactive map that tracked his progress from Lima, Peru, to the mouth of the river in Belem. Not only is Gunzelmann a survivor, then; he's also resourceful enough to find an Internet connection in the middle of Brazilian boonies.

Even more incredible: this Bostonian had almost zero background in long-distance cycling and minimal Portuguese-language skills. But he wasn't completely unprepared. "My research was googling," Gunzelmann offers, adding, "Training didn't consist of much."

Confessedly a man who is prone to conjuring up far-fetched plans, Gunzelmann was this time decisive about his trek, inspired by a National Geographic article. "I said, 'I'm going to do this."

He took four months off his lab day job and, further endowing the trip with purpose, began his journey on his 29th birthday. Riding took up most of his time, as Gunzelmann cycled as many as 12 hours per day. As he rode by shantytowns, some so desolate they were named by the kilometer marker on the road, Gunzelmann witnessed class divisions of the indigenous and mestizo peoples, the prevalence of drinking by the few truck drivers on the road, and the occasional rioting that led to impassable streets.

"What I imagined my journey would be barely resembles what I found," Gunzelmann admits on his blog. But his lack of experience didn't thwart the events that followed. He ate sheep brains and watched cock fights, held a poacher's gun and a machete, and now knows the difference between a puma and a jaguar thanks to personal experience.

Asked if he'll be doing anything like this again, Gunzelmann hesitates: "One crazy thing at a time."

  Topics: News Features , Science and Technology, South America, National Geographic Society,  More more >
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