I really don’t know what to do: route 40 with the highest pass in Argentina? Or route 51 which runs parallel but is lower, asphalted and has traffic. I don’t even want to throw a coin because what if it tells me to take route 40? I simply can’t. My modest body is not designed to the thin air in combination with my heavy load. My mind has matured enough not to try. And start gasping for air each time I cycle 5 rotations. And start pushing a load of 35 kilo up a 5000 meter mountain pass.
I can’t believe route 51 is far less interesting. To find out, I go for it. Because when I wake up in the morning, stiff from nerves to take the pass, I decide that this is not what cycling is about.
Leaving San Antonio de los Cobres behind me already exhausted me. Trying to get air out of my lungs feels like I am inhaling from a very small stiff bag. It feels like the stiff bag is too small. After 13 kilometers I decide I rather camp.
With Abra Blanca in the background and myself in a river, hoping it won’t start raining, I give myself a last pitiful view at this mountain I won’t mount.
I imagine how peaceful, quiet and absolute it is over there. And I realize it must be somehow rather similar on the other side, the road I will take. It can’t possibly be a boredom!
Cycling the next day goes well. I am fit. I feel I took the right decision and I am happy. Climbing up to Abra Blanca pass is easy and I soon reach 4100 meter from where I start descending 108 kilometer.
Then the open vastness gives way to a masterly heap of mountains, leaping over each other. One soaring over another, windswept beauties are right in my face. Damn happy I am descending. Sometimes it seems my consciousness is taken to another level, just because a shift in perception takes place. And this is possible because the mind is unaware of views coming up, hiding behind monster mountains.
I yell and I let my tears flow, mainly because the Chilean sunscreen is of a bad quality. But happy I am! I fly down with 65 kilometer an hour and I take it in as if it is the best chai in the world. At the quietest tea stall in India!
I stop for remarkable cacti I have never seen before.
I stop to climb a hill to get the best view of other cacti.
Somehow I love cacti, just as my mom did. As children we used to scratch sharp items in its stem so white milk would flow. I have long passed that desire.
I stop when I see a desolate mud brick house. That’s mine for tonight. When a guy enters he is shaken by surprise, he is as curious as me, and had never expected someone. But it’s Cindy’s tonight. He agrees on my ‘wind and maybe rain’ excuse. I fetch water from the river, just as the indigena population did years ago.
The wind is back to normal. Lama’s exchanged for sheep. The extremely shy vicuna’s gone. People look as if they have lost connection with Earth. No more rough weathered faces. The color of the sky is back to normal.
I feel like I am off heroin for the first day. Or as if my unimaginable great lover has left me. I feel lost. I can as well return home now. What else is there for me if there’s no more climbing, no more altitude. All the work starting from south Bolivia is over. I am descending, hard.
I am going back to absurdity, where cars and buses, taxis and coaches are the norm. Where media has the highest bid. I don’t want to go down. Down is where everyone is. Down is where the original habitat of the once strong indigenous has faded into a joke. Down is where everything is easy. And all what is easy doesn’t give as much satisfaction.
Down is mechanic sounds, electric fashion.
Down is where people dress weird. Down is where people eat unhealthy and get fat. Down is where people take selfies with a selfie stick in the middle of the road. Down is where are too many people.
San Antonio de los Cobres to Campo Quijana, the door to the high Andes
My lover. Without exaggerating he was one of the best ever. He was brighter than the skies of cloudless kingdoms. He was more attractive than the reddest hibiscus on earth are for honeybees. He was clear about his intentions, pure as clarified butter. Yet I let go of his hand and it feels like he has stepped backward, hiding in mystery and not revealing what once was, not so long ago. A beauty of unimaginable solitude. The high Andes. I am out of it. It’s over. I am back in so-called civilization where rubble and redundancy rules.
As if I have left a death person.
As if I have left the heavens of truth.
The road going down from San Antonio de los Cobres is a long process. The road is meandering as the river below me. Sometimes it hold on to the wall it is cut out in a frightening manner, as if it will tumble without its support. Sometimes it is screaming out loud as if it is happy to be free-falling into the vastness of empty space between the massive mountain ranges. Colors range from orange to red and from ochre to sand. From flowering cacti to sharp wind-sounds plummeting over the rocks above me. It’s a theater and I watch the show with an enormous zest. Although I had to leave the Lover Andes I am again in love with Earth. The beauty and the captivating promises are worth more than anything. One moment I feel like I am in Pakistan, where dust and long slender green trees are dotting each settlement. The other it’s more like I am in old Italy, where young gaucho’s and men are not strained in their prettiness.
One day I am sad and the other day I am elated, as if the poison potion has lost it’s magic. It is remarkable how mood changes occur, and only because I am slowly losing the altitude I worked so hard for in Bolivia. If I could stay, I would have. Because the high altitude is incentive. Like a heavy natural incense where suddenly clarity and euphoria are order of the day.
But down means more energy, I notice myself going fast again, oh goodness! Down means I can buy olives and figs. Suddenly I meet again with owls, and with the bird nests made from mud. I see vultures returning to their tree at dusk and recognize the cocoons which looks like marijuana cigarettes. It is warmer and down here is where every living being seems to prefer to live. Mosquito’s, flies, spiders, things, sounds: it is a kaleidoscope of buzzing.
I must laugh at the road workers who whistle at me; they wouldn’t want to smell me up close. I stink now the heat is reaching a 35 degrees and I’m still in my winter woolen socks, and without a wash for a week.
The bottle tree is back. So are the birds which remind me of Bolivia and Paraguay. Mosquitoes are back and itching ants too. Big spiders make big patches on my tent, thankfully the outside. I see campesino’s working on massive fields, by hand. I meet with one while I try to camp stealthy. He is amazed and impressed, to finally talk with a tourist on a bicycle. He sees them so often and now he can talk with one. He himself has never been out of his town, working for a rich Italian landowner, with countless horses and galloping gaucho’s.
The lowlands, still around 1200 meters, means rain too. When the heat has had enough time to glow, the clouds decide to cool things down. Within a few minutes the roads are running rivers, tree trunks and pebbles inclusive. Dressed in white school youth is drenched while holding hands, I wonder how early they start dating here? I have decided to find a campground to charge electronics and wash laundry, including myself. But after 4 campsites, none of them either open or with electricity, I move on. Although the rain is heavy and the thunders severe I give it a try. I don’t allow myself anymore to check into a hotel as Argentina is too pricey to my liking.
I see cars stopped before a wash running down the road in an overly enthusiastic manner. Brown mud-colored water slashes down, and the guys must be city guys, maybe worried their expensive car accessories will break in the wash. Well, I’m not going to wait till the water stops, I had worse things on my path. I am barging right through, with my leather shoes, with a car following and splashing me full with mud and with a smile, that is: my own. I like getting wild and dirty.
Camp is nearby, a beautiful although cleared from bushes, grazing field. It has trees and I choose the farthest, widest and one which keeps me dry. I have troubles to keep a fire going but I manage. When the meal finally is ready, yet another trying-to-be-original pasta meal, the pan slides of my knees. But I wouldn’t be Misses Achievable if not I saved myself another splash.
Cycling on through Quebrada de la Conchas is soon becoming very beautiful. I meet briefly with two other cyclists from Argentina, a young couple. They think I am slow because I made only a 40 kilometer while I find it a beautiful number: ‘Only 40’, Jeronimo replies. He also thinks a man from 50 is old, and not very interesting to be with, though I should try to get hold of him. He talks about a cyclist ahead of me, so I am not alone anymore. The boy clearly has no idea how fantastic it can be to be alone. His girlfriend does, I can see it in the way she doesn’t agree with Jeronimo’s views.
When the river meets with a red sandstone rock formation I abruptly stop so I can set up camp. I would like to sleep right along the red clay-colored river. Scampering through a dry river I meet with a female shepherd. She looks utterly shy and even fearful. But she does shriek a few words and that is that I should not go near the river as rain may fall.
That makes sense! I decide it is indeed better not to risk a flood at my camp. Then my eyes stumble upon a cave and I decide that’s going to be my camp. In case of a heavy downpour, I would be stuck in the cave. But I carry enough water and food to stay happy for 2 days.
Big hairy spiders accompany me in the deep hollow niches of the sand. Clouds gather thick and dark grey above me. I feel like a true yogi in my cave yet the walls are kind of suffocating me.
Once in Cafayate I head for a campground and a long desired shower! I get a dog as a friend, something I initially like. He sleeps right alongside my tent and accompanies me into the shower. When he start pulling his claws on my tent-door, continuously and viciously, I get annoyed. I get rid of this young German Shepherd when he runs with me while I cycle into town. I buy him a giant, aromatic sausage and that was the end of our relationship. Good.
The atmosphere in Cafayate, a bit higher up on Ruta 40, truly unleashes the yogi feelings in me. Massive trees remind me of India. My neighbors on the campground are young Argentinean in an old Volkswagen van, which they named Malbec. Both have left their jobs and belongings, to travel. The crisp morning air is of such a delicacy it is exactly same to Indian desert air. And my ability to change direction, to move with a certain flow is almost bewildering.
When the young Argentinean neighbors leave for Salta and I wave them goodbye after a chat full of connection, I feel goosebumps. Am I doing good to leave my path for now, I wonder?