Fear. Horror. Terror. Catastrophe. What are these guys doing with my bike? And why is that shirtless Spaniard straddling it?
In truth, I do know what they were doing. They were taking my bike to the Stahlratte to cross to Panama. I didn’t know this when I started this trip but there’s no road across the Darien jungle and the only way is to take a boat. In my case, I’ve chosen a 4-day cruise on the South Caribbean through the San Blas islands. I’ll be sailing on the fabled Caribbean Sea! Woohoo!!!!
Two things are in my mind as I think of the journey ahead and none is probably what you are thinking. Here they are.
An argentinean song:
And, of course, this great classic of classics:
More than anything else, that game always made me dream of the Caribbean Sea. Now, will I find the Big Whoop treasure? Will I at least get to insult-fight the Sword Master? More in 4 days when I’m on the other side.
Oh, and I won’t have internet until I’m on the other side. See you!
I felt it for the first time in Humahuaca. I had been riding through the beautiful, what do I say, stunningly beautiful, Northwestern tip of Argentina. Purmamarca, Tilcara and finally Humahuaca to settle for the night. The days were warm enough, very warm even and the scenery just impossibly colorful.
But when night fell, it was time to hide away. Time to crawl under a blanket as fast as possible and don’t go out until morning. Yes, I was getting closer to the Equator, the weather could only get warmer, but at the same time, I was climbing higher and higher in altitude. The nightly chill followed me into Bolivia and though the scenery was getting even more beautiful (Bolivia is kind of the undiscovered beauty of South America), it was getting colder and colder. On my way to Uyuni, night caught me in a smallish town called Atocha. Over time, I’ve created a category for this kind of town, I call it « ghastly little mining towns ». They give you a much deeper insight of life in the country outside of the tourist circuit but the regular comforts that I’ve come to expect from city life are non-existent. I checked-in at the better looking *hotel* without even realising that the name meant that it was right next to the train tracks.
But the train stopping next to my window and blowing the horn multiple times at 1AM wasn’t the worst. The worst part was that I had to sleep inside my winter sleeping bag. Partly because I didn’t want to touch the bedsheets but mostly to avoid freezing to death during the night. It was also the most expensive accommodation I paid in my whole stay in Bolivia.
Eventually I woke up the next day in good enough health to ride to Uyuni and enjoy the incredible views of the altiplano. I almost didn’t survive the electrically heated shower (proper insulation being one of those comforts we’ve come to expect from civilisation) but that’s just a small detail.
The scarcity of oxygen was playing some tricks on me and at some point of that beautiful ride through the high plains, my wondrous steed and I found ourselves moving at different speeds and both with the wrong parts of our bodies touching the ground. I, slowly dragging with my ass on the ground and her sliding on one of the panniers. None of us were badly hurt but it was sobering. I should be more careful when I’m lacking oxygen. Also, sand was involved; I hate sand.
I eventually found the salt flats, wondered at their white flat immensity, took the customary false perspective pictures, then gawked a bit more and withdrew to the town of Uyuni. A town that would probably fall in the aforementioned category if it wasn’t for the proximity of the salt flats.
It was also freezing at night. A side effect of freezing night and unheated hostels is that the common room quickly becomes a place where you don’t want to be and everyone is sleeping by 10PM.
It’s getting late and I ride to Colombia tomorrow so the rest of this post will just be pictures of other beautiful places where I froze my ass. Suffice it to say that I was getting tired of being cold and breathless (for lack of oxygen) but stayed at high altitude because, paradoxically, I didn’t want to miss any of the breathtaking scenery that Bolivia has to offer. Also, because most of Bolivia isn’t very close to the sea.
The chill followed me into Peru and stayed with me until around the Ecuadorian border. I don’t regret it, it was an awesome experience and I’ve seen scenery, ridden roads and met people that will stay in my mind and heart forever. It was incredible and there will be more posts about Peru. I just wanted to convery a bit of the other things that you don’t get to feel in the pictures. In this case, the cold.
Ever since I reached Buenos Aires, I have been posting songs on Facebook, songs that where related to the place I was or the ride I did, songs that I grew up with and are part of my cultural baggage. Here’s the retrospective, with the comments.
March 27th, arrived to Buenos Aires, I posted two songs
Record day: 1066km today. At 9:15am I was leaving Las Grutas, in the province of Río Negro. At 11:30pm, I was entering my parents apartment in Buenos Aires.
Can’t sleep now. Must be all that Coke and Pepsi and coffee flowing through my veins.
Here’s a song for you 🙂
That day I had started in Patagonia, crossed the Pampa Húmeda and finally arrived to Buenos Aires, going through 3 provinces and many different climates.
April 21st, I hit the road again and arrived to Rosario
I’m finally back on the road and I’m in Rosario. The birthplace of the Argentinean flag. It is also the birthplace of one of my favorite pop stars, Fito Páez, and of our most beloved comedians, Alberto Olmedo.
I also discovered today that the concert I thought I had missed one month ago was today. I did miss it after all… Here’s a song I could have heard tonight, a song Fito Páez dedicated to Alberto Olmedo. Enjoy!
April 23rd, I was already in Córdoba
There are places in Argentina where I’ve never been before but have always been in my mind through songs. I’m in Córdoba now and this one comes to mind. The rhythm is called Cuarteto and it’s typical from Córdoba. Enjoy!
April 27th, I left Tafí del Valle for Cafayate
I have left the rock region and I am now officially in the North, home of some of our most beautiful folkloric songs. Yesterday I spent the night in Tafí del Valle, a beautiful city in the province of Tucumán. Atahualpa Yupanqui, one of our greatest authors has written a very special song to the Tucumán moon. It is very difficult to choose a version to post but here’s one. Start at 2:49 if you want to skip the speech.
April 30th, I was in Salta after Cafayate
Yesterday I tried to leave Cafayate through National Road 40 (the famous Ruta Cuarenta) but after 5 km of sand, I turned back and took National Road 68. It reminded me of why this song was written 🙂
There it is, I hope you have enjoyed the songs of my country. As I leave Bolivia, there may be more posts if the internet connection gets any better. I leave you with one last song, a rock version of our national anthem by the greatest rock artist Argentina has ever seen and will, Charly García. In a way it’s related to any post that may come about Bolivia too but I will have to explain that in another post.
People oftern ask me which way I came and when I tell the full story, they ask why I couldn’t ride through China the second time. To explain that, I usually have to go back to the first ride through China. I have told this story countless times and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no good way of telling it. This is more or less how I remember it happening.
In this post, I won’t tell about the great roadside food we had in Xinjiang, I won’t tell about the amazing Jiaohe ruins we visited, I won’t tell about the beauties we missed because of the dust storm that enveloped us for three days, I won’t tell about the motocross race departure we watched where the pilots wanted pictures with us, I won’t tell about our guide Benny making us take boring highways and not letting us camp. No, those stories I may tell later or I may even leave their fate to oral tradition. I won’t tell all those stories now because there’s another story I need to tell. Because I let someone ruin my Chinese riding experience. Doubly so. Yes, I am talking about you Robin L. I don’t hold a grudge against you, I’ve learnt from the experience and hopefully I won’t let it happen to me again (not holding a grudge doesn’t mean I don’t blame you for what happened later). I learned I have to screen more thoroughly the people I travel with, I learned to distrust overly enthusiast people, I learned to not feel responsible for other people’s stupidity.
Some people go to China as they go to their city’s Chinatown, feeling that they can impose their rules on the behemoth that is the Chinese bureaucracy and that they can go against the more than 5000 years of uninterrupted unique cultural evolution that China has on its back. So, aside from the great memories I’ll keep of us drinking from the beer penguins in the night market or eating freshly made noodles by the roadside, or the sad ones like Lyn having to abandon us halfway to go back to Australia to take care of her dying father, my most patent memory from China is from this dude wandering off with his wife on a road that we had been told not to take, camping out instead of coming to town, and, the crown jewel of his shameful ignorance and closed-mindedness, insulting our guide and calling him a f*cking liar and a d*ckhead in front of the whole group thus causing him to lose face in front of us and with it the last trace of sympathy he could have had for this group of foreigners. That happened in Turpan, on the 6th or 7th day of our Chinese voyage together. It wasn’t the first incident and it wasn’t the last. Well done, now the guy that has to write a report on us that will probably influence the approval of our second crossing of China is mad at « us ».
With this incident in mind, on our last day, in the quaint little town of Qinghe (or Qinggil), the one thing we hadn’t dared to put into our Big Brother analogy back when we were about to enter China happened: we held a Tribal Council, Survivor-style. During that meeting, Richard stated that he wouldn’t be joining the second part of the trip if the rogue couple (him and wife) was joining, I stated that I needed them to be there in order to reduce the cost of the trip but wouldn’t be enjoying their company, I was also accused of being a mellow person while all the British bunch mellowly told him that he could maybe think about possibly reviewing his attitude before the second part of the trip, if he pleased to join us again. Sorry guys if you don’t remember it this way, I do and this blog’s written from MY memory. There were some more insults from the accused (or is it accursed) and they finally told us that they wouldn’t be joining the second part. Pity, it could have been fun to see him go to prison for whatever other outrage he might still have had in stock for the second part.
Some of you may be thinking that it’s sad that this is my strongest memory from this part of trip. It is. I needed to tell this story because it’s also part of the experience. I felt betrayed in my confidence because when you enter China as a self-driving group, you are bound by the same destiny and you implicitly trust your travel companions to be as respectful, obedient and open-minded as yourself. They weren’t and we all paid the price.
On a happier note, here’s a little video of the noodles we had just before crossing the border at Takeshikenzhen and a photo of some bum we ran into at the border.
One of the first things that got my attention on the roads of Argentina was the profusion of little shrines surrounded by offerings and decorated with red flags that can be spotted in most provinces I’ve visited. They are usually under trees but not restricted to that (especially where there’s no such thing as trees).
There isn’t nearly as many as there are roadside wats in Thailand but there is enough to be noticed.
I knew somehow that this was not a Christian thing, there’s always been little shrines dedicated to Virgin Mary of Luján along the roads of Argentina but this felt different. Only after a while my subconscious finally made the link and I realised they were shrines dedicated to the Gauchito Gil. But who is this and why is it everywhere? The devotion to Gauchito Gil is a heathen devotion that originates in Northeastern Argentina, in the province of Corrientes, and is apparently propagated by truck drivers. He is said to work miracles.
The legend has it that the gaucho Antonio Gil, an adorer of San La Muerte (another pagan devotion), had a romance with a rich widow and that earned him the hatred of her brothers and of a police sheriff that had courted her. Seeing the danger to his life, he enlisted himself to fight in the Paraguayan war. After coming back, he was enlisted by the Autonomist Party of the province of Corrientes to fight in the provincial civil war against the Liberal Party but he defected. Defection being punishable by death, he was hanged from a tree by his foot and his throat slit. Before dying, he told his executioner that he should pray in his name for his son’s health. The executioner’s son healed miraculously and so he decided to give Gil proper burial. The red flags are the symbol of the Autonomist Party.
There is other versions of the story and more on San La Muerte in wikipedia in Spanish and in English. Some of the versions even omit the bit about San La Muerte and make him a Christian, thus trying to make him into a Catholic saint. The Catholic Church obviously wants nothing to do with it.
It’s one of those things you only notice if you are riding the roads instead of sitting inside a bus.