Kirwin was one of my compatriots in Peace Corps-Colombia 44; a figure larger than life. He worked in the Pereira district¸ an area still tense from La Violencia, but he managed to make friends with both the soldiers and the guerrilleros. Stories about Kirwin got around. One of his campesino clients had invited him to his daughter’s wedding, and Kirwin got a ruffled dress shirt custom-made for the occasion. He liked the shirt so well that he kept on wearing it after the wedding. A large man riding a small mule, dressed in a ruffled wedding shirt, was a much-discussed sight in the Pereira agricultural districts.

I was passing through Pereira and on a whim, decided to get off the bus and look up my comrade. Pereira was strategically located at a crossroads between Bogotá, Medellin and Cali, so even though it was midnight, the main square was a tumult of buses, trucks, food vendors and drivers. Kirwin wasn’t expecting me and I had no idea where he lived, so I took a chance and asked a truck driver. I was halfway through my description of this large gringo who spoke fractured, Ohio-accented Spanish, when the driver simply pointed to an open-air bar on the edge of the square. As I walked toward it, I saw the place was lit up like a carnival midway, and the everpresent cumbia music blared through a tinny loudspeaker on the roof. I found Kirwin sitting with a group of men in the back. Their table was a damp forest of beer bottles and aguardiente glasses. My American compatriot welcomed me with abrazos and introduced me to his friends, a group of long-distance truckers. Kirwin was a horticulturalist but trucks were second nature to him, since his father drove semis for a living back in Ohio. I sat with them as they talked long into the night–about diesel injectors and nightmare breakdowns. These Pereira truckers drove the narrow and precipitous Andes mountain roads like they were on missions from God, but Kirwin had stories to match. I cringed as I listened to his cartoon Spanish, but none of his trucker friends even raised an eyebrow.

The next morning we were having a breakfast of empanadas and strong coffee at one of the open air cafes on the square. A large crowd had gathered, and there seemed to be a quiet sense of anticipation. I asked the waiter what was up. “Ahorita llega el Giro de Colombia,” he said.  I had never seen a bicycle race before, and didn’t know what to expect. As we nursed our coffees, I scanned the waiting crowd and a woman caught my eye. She was raven-haired and beautifully proportioned, and the excitement of the upcoming Giro put a flush along her high cheekbones. Disparate bloodlines of Chibcha and Conquistador had merged to produce exquisite and chiselled beauty. I pointed her out to Kirwin. At first he was dismissive, since I was prone to pointing out beautiful women everywhere, but as he looked, the sarcasm stopped. He fell silent and stared. After lengthy comparative analyses against Bergman, Loren and others, we agreed that she was the most beautiful woman we had ever seen. I was content with that decision and turned back to my coffee, but Kirwin did not. “If we agree that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, then we’re absolutely obligated to tell her,” he said. My friend was simply unable to speak without using his arms in large, embracing gestures. I begged off, preferring admiration from a safe distance, but Kirwin would have none of it. He began to fume. Finally he slammed his coffee cup down and stood up, glaring down at me. “Not to tell her would be a crime against natural justice, and a colossal failure which we will regret for the rest of our lives.” With that, he crossed the street, bought a single rose from the street vendor, and went up to the woman in question. I watched, guilty but mesmerized, seeing Kirwin’s theatrical gestures and imagining his fractured explanations. He pointed back to our table and I acknowledged with a pathetic wave. I could see the woman’s expression progressing through concern, confusion, and then fluster. Finally she accepted the rose, and bestowed a radiant smile on both of us.

The Giro came through soon after. The crowd fell absolutely quiet, idling semis shut off their engines, and even the cumbia loudspeaker went silent.  Just before the tightly packed peloton arrived, you could hear the faint whine of narrow tires on pavement, and the rush of a thousand spokes slicing through the mountain air. None of the grim-faced riders looked up, no one spoke a word, and the silence was reverential. Like the truckers, and like Kirwin, these riders were men born to embrace the Andes, and nothing would stop them. The Giro de Colombia was in and out of Pereira in one breathless moment.