‘I will take all the high passes there are’
But that was what I’ve said back home in The Netherlands. Now I am on Ruta 40 and the prospect of climbing yet another pass is not too joyful. Though, I am enjoying way more than I was in Bolivia, only because everything falls together, just right into place.
But I find it hard. My load is well over 30 kilograms and where most people take 2 days I take 6. But have they kissed a lama? Have they waited till the ice in their bottles turned back to liquid? Have they found an earthen oven into the badlands to cook a sandy meal?
Probably not because they’re fast. And sometimes I wish I was too…
In Susques I meet with Christine. She is such a fast woman. Susques is heavenly normal and far away from touristy business. If you’re lucky there is old bread to buy and nowhere you will find socks nor hats knitted in brown lama wool with a lama pattern.
These towns are quite cut off from the world, as we know it. I see them as little worlds on their own. No need to get away from it, as everything is in its own sandy, mud brick built world. I guess the truck drivers are the worldly inhabitants of each mud brick world, as they move great distances. Dogs are always prevalent in each town, some dressed in a pullover to keep warm. When I laugh at them they look at me in confusion…
Later on, when I’m dragging myself over the Ruta 40, I meet with a film crew from Buenos Aires and I ask them many things, finally able to speak English. ‘Do the young people like to continue this lifestyle where no phones and no electricity is a daily occurrence?’ I remember when I was in a Pakistan valley many young people went to the capital to study and would not return to be a shepherd or live in poor conditions. ‘There is electricity and they have phones and the young people don’t know any better, they like it here,’ is Javier his reply.
Those seemingly cut of towns have free Wi-Fi and tap water. Most people in these towns earn a living making mud bricks, where houses are made from. Many of them have lama’s, sheep and goats. Towns are still growing. People are still walking long distances to herd their animals. Some do it on motorcycle, chasing lama’s in high-speed.
That’s one of the reason’s I like it here so much. People are not yet into this crazy unnatural living where one is totally disconnected with Nature. Houses are built to withstand harsh winds and kitchens are made outside, some built entirely from gnarled twigs gathered over long distances. Each house has a mud brick oven, like in Paraguay and Bolivia.
I cycle from Susques to Huáncar, Pastos Chicos and Puesto Sey. The distance is only 75 kilometer but I do it in 3 days. I kind of seem to manipulate my own thoughts, that is, ’if I stop before a village I have new water supply for the next day.’ And so I suddenly sleep in the surrounding of settlements. The uphill go so gradual I hardly notice it. The wind picks up at noon and often is a frontal one.
This makes preparing a fire hard but as long as there are twigs, knotty wood from very dry, low bushes, foliage eaten by lama’s, I prefer a fire. I make sure not to take alive wood.
Another camp at a beautiful spot, but best of all is the morning visit of a small herd of young lama’s! They come running towards me.
Black patches into a colorful surrounding of soft reds, pale greens, fresh yellows and many kind of ochre are droppings of lama’s. Millions of little round balls. Sometimes plastic too…
Most streams are dry, some harbor a bit of water. Nature does provide for lama’s and sheep but it’s not much. I wonder if ever this region had trees growing, or if they are all cut long ago. People cook on the same twigs as I do.
Sometimes, when the end of the day approaches and when I see a lone house, I make sure I have enough water to get through the evening and following day. I go over to the house to find some and usually no one is around. I search the entire handmade building for people, look into every room. The owner is out, herding his lama’s. There are no such things as computers around, or a microwave, or cozy lamps to light your reading book. There are reading books, on a simple bed, in a dusty room, where only necessitates are.
I hope the people realize how full of treasure their life is, to live in a magnificent nature. In an absence of redundancy, where pace is regulated by natural light. Life exists only of fulfilling the tasks to be done to feed one self, and to make an income.
Argentine is not cheap. It has almost European prices. I wonder how the farm people make a decent income? I never see transport of lama’s, like I saw huge cow transport in Paraguay.
The pass goes well too but with a slight bit more gradient. It’s not a hard pass yet I start pushing the last few kilometers as this goes way quicker. On the bicycle I need to stop every 5 meters or so, to catch my breath. The altitude is above 4000 meters (13,123 feet) and will go up to 4.463 meter (14,642 feet). Getting my breath back to normal takes about 4 minutes while I am only able to cycle another 5 meter. Walking doesn’t require this much rest.
Once at the pass the wind reaches its peak as the land is flat and stretched for kilometers. It is so amazingly beautiful and so total opposite of the Netherlands that I cannot resist the place and pitch my tent right in the middle of the plains. I am not really aware that this is a national park and when I have gathered a pile of most curious dried wood, I realize that maybe this is an offend!
Like picking Edelweiss in Switzerland to make your pillow more fluffy. Ridiculous, right?
I quickly throw the wood; fanning, flat Velcro alike cauliflower sized bunches with a short stem.
Then I get into the cold night where temperatures get close to minus 10. I am warm and sweaty but the wind makes so much noise I need to use earplugs.
But nothing can take my wonderment for the dormant volcano Tuzgle. What a beauty. It takes me rather long to find out this isn’t a mountain but a volcano though…
The following day I had counted on the café at the Polvorilla Viaduct, a tourist attraction where no tourist seem to come and where the owners prefer to herd their lama’s instead of serving food.
I search for humans but meet with a black Labrador who is in search for food too, a juvenile lama who sniffs my face and a red kitten who comes meowing at me. Damn it. My whole plan where to find food and water is now broken. Of course, I always carry extra and I could even cycle all the way down to San Antonio de los Cobres but without food in the tank, there’s no power.
I decide I need to cook first, as I have no bread. While cooking I decide to stay and set up camp as well. Soon camp is set up at another wonderful spot. I’m kind of annoyed by my own lack of movement though.
The wind start to become fierce, and Hillie, my tent, is flapping like the flags of a sail ship. Soon the fabric of the outer tent is smeared in oil stains as I have to cook in the vestibule. My meal is most unpleasant: spaghetti with sardines and garlic.
Meanwhile a shepherd pass by. Embrocio is an old man of about 60. His cheek is bulging with coca leaves and a few drops of green sap are dripping at the corner of his mouth. He walks great distances with his lama’s and he looks as if leading a meager, hard life.
His lama, a white macho, comes running towards us. When I spot him I notice he doesn’t run at Embrocio but at me. Straight and undivided. The lama comes to a halt with some clouds of dust and right in front of my mouth. Simple because he wants to kiss me. I am elated!
Less so with Embrocio’s wanting to kiss me. He makes sure I am solita and then tries it on me. I very clearly reject his trying to embrace me. How did he envision kissing me anyway, with his cheeks full of coca leaves?
The lama, Muchacha, trips over the guy lines of the tent. Not once but each time it tries to find food. It even sticks it’s head into the panniers. And each time it comes back to me to kiss me, truly: his lips are on mine, softly nibbling. Maybe Embrocio is jealous?
Then it’s a long slow downhill. Going down always seems to be much more steep than going up. I always praise myself that I took the best direction, but I wonder if that is really so? Upon arriving in San Antonio de los Cobres I feel an immediate sense of self-contained strength for this town, where life seems to be normal. Except for the first hotel I try to stay, it has a blaring radio which annoys me so much I need to cover my ears. I end up at a place away from the main street and enjoy the luxury of walls which protect me from the hard wind.
The coming days I walk around in a haze I can best describe as having eaten space cake: I feel light and see everything around me in a state of clarity. I expect this to be gone the next day but it isn’t. I keep feeling light and exceptional clear. I think it has to do with the normality of this seemingly autonomous town; there are hardly any tourists to be seen, people who live here do so in a modest, friendly and slow manner. We are all surrounded by mountains and nestled in a valley with a river, there is no fast traffic, no hard sounds, no visions which are trying to trick the mind.