Bariloche to Santiago, Chile (May 2003)
“Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted
Would you capture it, or just let it slip?”
—EMINEM “Lose Yourself”
Stephen Hawking worried that each equation he included in “A Brief History of Time” would halve it’s readership. Similarly risking your boredom I have a couple of numbers for you: I recently passed the 15,000 mile mark and I have reached a latitude of 33° South which means that I am, at last, once again further North than Cape Town.
The drink of the South was maté, a hot infusion of what looked, and tasted, suspiciously like grass cuttings. Maté is drunk from a calabash through a silver straw. It is a drink to share, a social event, an excuse to idle time and to talk for hours. Whilst the locations and people changed each time, the maté and the conversation never did. In Argentina the dialogue would be passionate: a country that has had, almost literally, more presidents in the past year than I have had hot showers cannot be boring. Besides which there is Diego Maradona, revered and adored by all, an endless source of conversation, slandered and blasphemed vociferously by me (“Tramposo” was one of my first-learned Spanish words). But in rural Chile it is different: “What do you think of the Argentineans?” (“Not much” is the reply they want) or “What did you know of Chile before you came here?” (errrr… Pinochet, Salas, Zamorano, Rios and nice wine are about all I can ever muster).
Chileans seem to have a bit of a complex about their status in the World. Until the recent economic crisis, Argentina tended to look down their noses at their Chilean neighbours and I get the impression that Chileans would like the world to take a bit more notice of them. I reassure them that the South of their country is wonderful (true, plus most Chileans have never ventured that far) and that Chilean manjar is better than Argentina’s (untrue, but appeasing). [Manjar is condensed milk boiled until it turns to caramel. It is much loved here and, spread on bread, has become my new staple foodstuff.] I am enjoying Chile, the people are very friendly and life is good yet I don’t think that it will ever get under my skin and into my soul like the Middle East or Sudan or South Africa.
But I was reminded of the danger of generalising a country as I spoke with a beautiful girl in a grey town alongside Ruta 5. Ruta 5 is the spinal cord of Chile; a grubby, throbbing motorway that hurries people between the extremes of North, Middle and South showing them nothing at all. The beautiful girl had been backpacking in Europe and regretted to inform me that she disliked Britain. ‘Dirty, grey, expensive and unfriendly’ were amongst her reasons. Edinburgh and Oxford, the Highlands and Cornwall all now bear this unfortunate epitaph after a few days spent in a London winter. It is a major downside of my chosen method of travel that I too am only ever passing through. I am constantly amongst strangers and never really get to know a place. It is like an extended wine-tasting tour without the pleasures and pitfalls of ever submerging your head and drinking one entire barrel.
The last couple of thousand kilometres have blurred together in my mind. This is a little unfair as there were days of perfect volcanoes, conical and white, majestic and aloof, breathing a thin curl of smoke with James Dean nonchalance and an insinuation of waiting menace. There were forests of monkey-puzzle trees, spiky and dark whose pale fruit in it’s soft red case tasted like hot chestnuts on icy Princes Street in an Edinburgh winter. There were miles of empty coastline with pelotons of pelicans gliding in formation inches above the noisy Pacific waves. But I have over 20,000km more noisy Pacific waves to watch so I did not linger long. There were enough days of dirt road to remind myself that I was in an adventure yet not so many as to remind me of how much I could be earning sat on my bum in an office in London looking forward to lunch and idling on the Internet.
There were small low caletas (fishing villages) with yellow wooden rowing boats pulled skew onto the black sand beaches. Once I needed to cross an estuary but a combination of laziness, tight-fistedness and shyness meant I did not ask for a ride across. Instead I rode upstream for hours to cross the river at the first bridge, thereby ending that day more kilometres away from Santiago (and England) than I had begun it. I was pretty unimpressed with myself that night.
But there were also hundreds of interminable kilometres of pine and eucalyptus plantations. I crossed the first river in Chile whose water was too polluted to drink. Grimy towns near Temuco were nothing but liquor stores flogging cheap pisco and gloomy wooden shops spacing their wares carefully to try and fill the shelves. Old Mapuche men stand still and remembering, wearing arbitrary free baseball caps from petrol stations or battery fitting centres. The air is quiet. It is a heavy air of people existing, not living. The sky is dark and rain begins to fall. It rains all day. Constitucion was a weary town huddled around a belching paper mill. A kind family took me on a proud tour of their town, but it was late and too dark to see much. It was like the old postcard “Constitucion by Night”. I think I saw the best of it this way. I was missing Patagonia.
One evening I knocked on a door to ask for water. Several hours later I was alone and half-drunk, sitting on a soft sofa listening to an Ella Fitzgerald CD. The man who answered the door had replied to my request with “wouldn’t you rather have beer than water?” He ushered me inside, consumed a good deal more beer than I, poured out his life’s woes to me, ate ½ a Viagra pill (“I’m not so old that I need a whole one yet!”) and headed out to meet his young girlfriend, half his age. I felt flattered that he would not allow me to meet her in case my youth and legendary, dashing good looks swept her off her feet! So I fell asleep on the sofa instead. I never did get my water.
In Concepcion I gave a talk at St. John’s School where one young class felt sorry for me not having had a birthday party for the last two years. So, on my last day in town, ‘5a’ threw a surprise party for me, complete with hotdogs, cake, lurid fizzy drinks and enough chocolate to see me half way to Bolivia. What is more, that morning Leeds United had rescued a farcical season by beating Arsenal. What a great day!
On a quiet stretch of road a car stopped beside me and the driver warned me that it was far too dangerous to be out in this area at night. “Thieves?” I asked. “No,” was his reply. “Pumas?” Again, “No”. It turned out that the grave danger was that there was ‘nothing’ ahead. No people, no houses, no thieves, no pumas and no psychos. Nothing but beaches and forests. Assured of a very safe night I thanked the man for his concern and rode on. It made me think about the fact that 99% of the world spends every night inside a building and a comfort of enclosed familiarity and security. In that light I could understand how ‘nothing’ could then be seen to be a frightening concept. But I felt lucky to not know where I would camp, to live my days by the hours of the sun and to sit watching the lonely sea and the sky, listening to the flung spray and the seagulls crying.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the ride could not continue forever in the same glorious vein as the Carreterra Austral. But as things descended to normality after the splendours of the South, so too I have come down with a bit of a bump. I have begun to realise that Alaska is still a fair way off and the exhilaration of my own company (which consists mainly of high-volume, half-remembered song lyrics, daydreams of Wembley and devilish little voices saying how nice it would be to stop riding) is wearing a little thin. For many months now I have been so busy with clearly definable challenges – sailing the Atlantic, outrunning the creeping Patagonian winter and reaching the city of Concepcion where my first welcome in South America awaited. But as I left Concepcion I had nothing much to aim for anymore except thousands more miles and hundreds more days. Of course, once those miles and hours lose their emptiness and fill with memories they will improve drastically. It is just the anonymity of the anticipation that is unsettling.
As I felt glum after Concepcion, so too did Rita, my bike. Spokes have been snapping, punctures popping, brakes breaking, gears grinding and a splitting tyre that I repaired by rummaging around a village dump and using the Achilles of an old rubber boot as an effective, if bumpy, repair. I must sort it all out here in Santiago for once I leave here the hard work begins again – a long duel with the Andes and the altiplano awaits. But, apart from the tedium of my own company, I am looking forward to the challenge.
THANK YOU to Bluedome and Karrimor for sending me a relief parcel. It is much appreciated. So, if you see an Englishman wandering around the Andes in an exceedingly smart pair of new trousers….it’s probably me!
CONGRATULATIONS to my friend Will Colquhoun for a performance of which the ‘Jokers Sporting Club’ whole-heartedly approves: as the Black Watch Regiment marched on Basra, Iraq, it was Will sitting atop his Warrior tank playing ‘Scotland the Brave’ on the bagpipes. Sterling stuff, Will!
GARIBALDI offered “neither pay, nor quarter, nor provisions; but hunger, thirst, forced marches, battles and death”. Cycling with me might be marginally (but not much) more fun – drop me an email if you are keen to join me for a while in northern South America.
MUSIC has been a constant factor in my journey. It adds depth to the good times and helps drag me through the tough days. My MiniDisc player has become one of my most important possessions. And I have just got some fantastic new music to listen to: ‘Poem’ by Eva Katzler is wonderful and I would rather relinquish my one pair of clean socks than that disc. It is definitely music to watch the world go by. Listen for yourself on her website – it’s a beautiful find.
AS PROMISED, here’s a good, cheap hostel for cyclists in Bariloche – “Auka Albergue, Pje. Gutierrez 798, Bariloche, Argentina.”
email@example.com. Phone 524 384.