The Snail-way to Serendipity

One more day on the road

My alarm clock makes no sound, she breaches distant hills and warm filaments of rubicund light filter into my tent, gently spurring me to wake. I rise and prepare for one more day on the road.

I munch and I guzzle, carbs and caffeine my first call. Over the next half hour my tent is slowly purged of its contents and my bike becomes bulky, panniers and dry bags tethered to the rack and frame. Packing up is an automatic ritual now, whilst my hands complete the task my mind replays the events of yesterday, or any other day behind me. There’s no radio or TV news in the background, the world is a mystery. I could guess the time but I don’t know it, there’s no deadline to rejoin the road and nobody will get upset if I’m late, but I never wait long, I look forward to the moment too much.

I roll my bike back onto the road I left in the dusky dregs of yesterday and the moment begins. Time slows for peaceful speculation, some seconds of intrigue and of calm. I zero my speedo. My eyes stray to a point somewhere up ahead or I muse over my map, imagining what the dots and lines have in store. Yesterday feels a long time ago.

Maybe today I’ll breeze across perfect tarmac through a desert on a raging tailwind clocking up two hundred kilometres before sunset. Maybe I’ll battle, curse and sweat up rough tracks high in the mountains covering little ground.

Maybe today I’ll be bullied into roadside dust by the hasty drivers of city and suburbia, maybe I’ll freewheel in solitude around deserted lake shores and through sprawling forests, redolent of pine.

Maybe today I’ll spot exotic wildlife and snatch for my camera, maybe I’ll face the stench of anonymous roadkill, maybe I’ll hear strange sounds but never glimpse their owners.

Maybe today I’ll join some locals for food or tea, maybe I’ll swap tales with another cyclist, maybe I’ll yearn for company, maybe at the end of the day I won’t notice or care that I haven’t spoken with anyone.

And when that end comes perhaps I’ll wish the sun could hover above the horizon for a few more hours and I could ride on, or perhaps I’ll retreat from the road, defeated and depressed, wishing that today never was, whatever the case I know that tomorrow morning there will be a moment of time waiting for me when I will ponder again an unknown future that comes hand in hand with the drift of the road. If I ever lose that moment I will know it’s time to come home, but tomorrow there will be other roads to ride and I’m hungry for them. Tomorrow is full of maybes and tomorrow will be different, in small and subtle or brilliant and explosive ways. The surprise of tomorrow is just one more reason for aiming my sights at the horizon and pedalling on into one more day on the road.

The journey continues…

The Andes lined up like children in a school photo, distinct rows of rock increasing in stature, rising up from the east. In there somewhere was Aconcagua, the lankiest pupil in Class Andes, it’s peak resides at almost 7000 metres above sea level. In there too was Paso Libertadores, my route back into Argentina, the busiest of the forty or so connections between the two countries. For me it was just another jaunt through the mountains but for the Chilean biker I met en route to the pass it was more like a pilgrimage. He told me that his father had died six years ago, his ashes had been scattered at the top next to the four tonne statue of Christ the Redeemer on the old road that marks the frontier. On this day every year he cycles the pass, every year he talks to his dead father as he pedals.

The road to the pass followed the twists and turns of the river and a claustrophobia built as I became more hemmed in by the surrounding rock. The peripheral sky shrank away, traded for the craggy shoulders of mountains, which framed an ever diminishing blue streak above. For half a day of riding the road clung to the river, but when the bond was broken it was a dramatic parting, the river idled away around some corner of the valley and the road took a desperate leap up the side of a mountain in a series of sharp, intimidating chicanes. Locals refer to this section as Paso Caracoles – Snail’s Pass. Everything that climbs up does so at a snail’s pace, trucks, cars and me. The Andes in summer are unlike any mountains I have seen before, the spectrum of colours from oxidised minerals, all shades of brown, yellow, amber and deep scarlet, fashions an unearthly feel. The popularity of this pass with motorists took out some the adventure the other Andean passes had offered but there is a certain kudos that comes with tackling Libertadores. At the top of the main section of switchbacks it was possible to see at once just how far I had come up, the drivers could see it too and for hours they honked, waved, cheered and applauded. At 3200 metres there’s a tunnel, my bike could have been loaded onto a truck but the old road up to the statue of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) looked too tempting to pass up, a rough road leaves the tarmac and wiggles up to 3832 metres above sea level. Not only would this be the highest I have managed to cycle so far but the gain in altitude would be fairly quick, enough for the effects of low levels of oxygen in unacclimatised lungs to add to the challenge. I had camped at 1300 metres the night before so I faced a continuous climb of a meaty 2600 metres over one day, dwarfing my previous biggies, riding from the Dead Sea to the Kings Highway in Jordan and The Blue Nile Gorge of Ethiopia.

Translation – Mountain road. Take precautions. Steep gradient for 55 km.

The suplhur stained rocks of Puente de Inca
At the top of the pass stands Christ The Redeemer of The Andes, a statue donated by the Bishop of Cuyo to help ease tensions between the two countries. In fact Chile and Argentina were on the verge of war when various religious figures stepped in like school teachers forcing two feuding pupils to shake hands and make up. The statue was carried up in pieces by mules in 1904 and the two armies, who were days before ready to do battle with one another, fired gun salutes together. A plaque on the statue reads 
“Sooner shall these mountain crags crumble to dust than Chile and Argentina shall break this peace which at the feet of Christ the Redeemer they have sworn to maintain.”

The last three hundred vertical metres were tired, hypoxic ones but I gleefully freewheeled down the other side, weaving my way through loose stones with just the afterglow of dusk and a full moon to guide me. It was cold at the top so I decided against camping with Jesus.
In Santiago there is a rebellious group of bikers who call themselves Los Furiosos Ciclistas – The Furious Cyclists. On the other side of the pass I wished I had joined their ranks. Trucks careered past, too close for comfort, emitting the long hard horn blasts that say “Get Off My Road!”. Last month two Dutch cyclists on a tandem were hit and killed by a truck in Argentina and it’s easy to see how it could happen. I have nothing against truckers in general, they helped me out when I hitched across Europe, they have stopped to give me fruit, they often give me a wide birth and I have even grabbed the back of them to get up mountains in Ethiopia, but I fantasised about what I would do if I ever caught up with one of the careless idiots on this road. I memorised number plates. I imagined myself strolling into a roadside cafe and walking out minutes later, in the background a trucker is face down in his fried breakfast.

Just as was I losing my rag with another speeding juggernaut a character arrived on the scene to cheer me up. Winold, The Potty Mouthed Polish Cyclist.

Winold was on a six week loop from Buenos Aires, I asked him a few questions about his journey.

“So why did you choose to ride Argentina?”
“One day I was, you know, picking the shit out of my nose and I just thought “Argentina!” he announced with a thick Slavic accent
“Oh I see. Is that a GPS you’ve got there?”
“Yeah. My girlfriend gave it to me”
“Good present”
“Yeah. Then she dump me”
“Oh right”
“Yeah. She say me or Argentina. I say Argentina. She say fuck off”
“I see”

Winold The Potty Mouthed Polish Cyclist then shoved his hands into his lycra shorts and rummaged vigorously
“Ahh my ass and balls man. They are really suffering! I tell you!”

Winold was a good companion. His propensity to erupt into profanities in both Polish and English never failed to amuse me. We rode together for a few days, explored Mendoza’s wine routes and sampled some of the produce as we went but entering the city was a minor fiasco. We were stopped on the road by a young earnest looking Police Officer who began a detailed search of our panniers. He made a point of smelling the contents of our wallets and head bags, hunting for narcotics. I had a sinking feeling when he removed the tube of electrolyte tablets, the feeling was akin to the one you get when you lose your balance on a downhill and know you’re about to hit the ground but haven’t yet made impact, this feeling was because I knew that the tablets had long since crumbled into a fine white powder. He eyed the container with suspicion and pried open the lid sending a puff of white into the air and when his eyes met mine they were wide and dangerous. I laughed, I think I had to, and did my best to explain. To our relief he gave us an irritable wave and permission to continue.

After I split from Winold The Potty Mouthed Polish Cyclist I made good ground with the help of a couple of days of tailwinds and flat terrain. To the West the arresting form of the Andes exploded from the plains, there were no rolling foothills, just the sudden silhouettes of giants. It was harvest season for the wineries, trucks full to the brim with grapes passed by. The air felt dry and torrid in the morning but it became muggy in the afternoons and violent summer storms gathered by the early evening, the rain was usually slight but the lightning spectacular and intimidating if amongst it. My plan was to tackle a remote pass back into Chile but it was only open for four days of the week leaving me two days to kill in Villa Union. Whilst I was wondering about what to do with my two days off in a small village, Belinda, my bicycle, decided for me. The gear cables leading to my Rohloff Hub became detached. It had happened two weeks earlier on the approach to Santiago. I rode in on one gear and went to find the head mechanic of a renowned, clean, shiny bike store, the largest in Chile’s capital. He charged me a whopping sum and now two weeks down the road the problem was back. In Villa Union I found the town’s only mechanic. I suspected his work would hold up because everyone knows that a mechanic’s ability is proportional to the blackness of his jeans, the level of chaos in the workshop and the volume of the ambient music. He was swathed in oil and grime and shouted questions to me over the blare of Argentine pop whilst he sifted seemingly without focus through vast containers of metal parts amongst the total disarray of his grubby garage. He had never encountered a Rohloff Hub before but half an hour later the job was done, he had given me a couple of tools and a tutorial in case the problem recurred and then refused all payment.

I decided to leave my bike in Villa Union and hitch hike to Chilecito and back to use the Internet and ATM, a simple plan that fell apart in the best way. A Chilean family on holiday took me there, the journey was interspersed with gasps and sighs of delight, behind the glass of the car windows the views were sublime. Layered sheets of rust coloured rock, ancient layers of sea, lake and river sediment, jutted out at angles, teetering ships sinking into a red sea of sandstone. The cliche here was unavoidable – the enormity of nature, the insignificance of me amongst it. The bulbous tops of columnar cacti the height of small houses poked up from the precipitous drop next to the road and the vista was a tricolour, the deep blue of summer sky, the blaze of dry red earth and the deep green of cacti, succulents and other foliage. It was a combination of contrast, one that felt desiccated and tropical at once although the latter is a fallacy, rain is sparse and fleeting here.

I tried to hitch hike back in the afternoon but ended up sitting roadside, bored and fed up, the traffic had completely dried up as the town prepared for Carnival. After four hours I had no choice but to return to Chilecito to spend the night, but when down and frustrated, serendipity struck. I found the cheapest hostel in town, from the garden I could hear music. Outside two girls were dancing, waving handkerchiefs in the style of zamba dance, two were singing in perfect harmony and a guy strummed a guitar. The music was the traditional sound of folklore, gentle and breezy. They were practising for a performance that night in the town and invited me along. We danced and partied until the earlier hours. The next day they left Chilecito to continue their tour of the regions Carnivals, aiming for the most popular shindig, La Rioja, on Saturday.

The next day I tried again to hitch back to Villa Union. After two hours without joy three Chilean hitch hikers turned up. No cars came by but at least I had company, we played drums, danced and joked about for hours in the sunshine. Somehow they had blagged two roast chickens from a previous lift, these were used to entice truckers but eventually it dawned on me that we had no chance of catching a ride. I had to return once again to Chilecito to find a hostel, the next day I heard there was a bus to Villa Union. I had with me just the clothes I was wearing, a bottle of water, my wallet and my journal and the next day when I was told that the only bus was full I had no idea what to try next, but as I digested the grim news and pondered my options a bus for La Rioja turned up. Without hesitation I jumped aboard. I knew I had to make the most of a bad situation and it was this philosophy that put me on a four hour bus ride in the opposite direction to my bicycle and almost all of my belongings, wearing the same clothes for the last three days, in search of some dancing musicians and a flour fight.

The Carnival in La Rioja is known as La Chaya and most of the fun occurs in the stadium outside town and is set to the musical stylings of folklore artists and musicians. The origins of the festival lie in a tragic love story told by the native South American Indians. Chaya was a very beautiful girl who fell in love with a young prince of a tribe. The families and elders of the tribe forbade the relationship and Chaya became so sad she disappeared in the mountains, becoming cloud. The Prince searched for her in mountains without success and then drank himself to death. During La Chaya it looked to me like young Argentinians were doing their best to imitate the prince, but for a less noble cause. The entire city was sloshed.

I tagged along with a group from my hostel after failing to reach my dancing musician friends. Once inside the stadium one of my new friends asked me whether I was ready to be part of the party. When I nodded he tipped half a bag of flour over my head. Within half an hour an immense flour fight had begun, nobody escaped the action. Every one of the 15,000 inside the stadium was caked in flour, people threw bags of it and sprayed their friends and strangers with flour guns.

Eventually I made it back to Villa Union, sat on the bus, still wearing the same clothes but now also wearing a thick coat of flour. It’s in moments like these that people so often muse that everything happens for a reason. I don’t honestly believe that some higher power had directed me to be amongst 15,000 revellers covered head to toe in flour, and serendipity may be an overused and corrupted term, but I think it fits.

I apologise for the paucity of photos this month, I didn’t have my camera with me when most of the fun was happening. On the next stage I will be rubbing shoulders with some of the highest volcanoes on earth. I plan to take a remote pass back into Chile, hauling 12 days of food and climbing to over 4000 metres via a pass that is only open for thirty odd days of the year. Then I loop back through another pass that climbs to almost 5000 metres, the second highest between Chile and Argentina. I will report back next month.

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Comments (6)

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    Very good I feel like I am there with you keep up the great work.


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    It's official: I just love you, Dr. Steve. Flour fights and laid-back attempts to hitch and a summary of what the entire experience feels like…you are so much Very The Great.


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    Steve, your posts are like little nuggets of inspirational escapism, fantastic mate, can't wait for the next one, Pete (jungle medicine in Oxford..)


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    Fantastic pictures Steve, keep going, incredible!


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    Ewan Larcombe


    Keep on going Steve



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