For some occult reason I had given my dad a woolen thermal shirt, woolen socks and a fleece sleeping bag liner when he visited me in the Atacama desert.
While I knew I would head to colder lands. Now I am here, in Patagonia, not even in the winter and not all the way down south, and nighttime temperatures quickly jump from minus 10 to plus 4 in only 20 kilometers distance. One night I wriggle in my cocoon sleeping bag like a worm desperately trying transcending to a butterfly, only to get on my socks. The tiny opening surrounding my face is barely big enough to pull in the down jacket to cover the patches where the down sleeping bag doesn’t.
I hate sleeping in a closed sleeping bag. I can’t move and every turn is a hassle. Let alone going out to pee, something I avoid and postpone. Ice forms on the bag and tent and falls in the warm nest I have created when I shake the construction just a fraction of a second. Then, when I do get out to pee, cold biting on my warm body, solely covered in a tank-top and underwear, I don’t feel the cold but the speckles of ice in my bed are unpleasant.
Then, when the morning arrives and I again have mistaken where the sun comes up, standing in the shadow until I leave at 11.00, I wonder what is wrong with the galaxy over here? Something is inaccurate, as the sun sets differently every evening. Or my compass is wrong, it could be that too.
Olive oil start to solidify, the spongy is frozen. Water too. The tent poles stick to the slots where they slide into. My hands get painfully cold.
From now on I often cook in my tent, wood is wet and a camp fire would take way too much effort. And I can’t afford that as in these cold temperatures I start late and stop earlier. I barely cycle at all. And the funny thing is, it is not that cold. It is only minus 5 average on the nights in Araucanian May. I feel like a hero nevertheless, and don’t even try to think about cyclists on ice roads in Canada, or worse, the interior of wintry Russia! No, I am cool and I feel a hero!
I have my own ice road soon anyway. Whether I like it or not.
Coming into the province of Araucania I was disappointed to see no Monkey Puzzle tree anymore. People told me ‘they are way up there, not here, it it too low’, and luckily I was going way up there. Cecilia, whom I slept over with at the last stint of Atacama, told me to go to Conguillio National Park. And here I am.
It’s only 70 kilometer to the next town. I take food for 3 days and no extra fuel as I have enough. I will swirl around a volcano, but the only thing I wish for are the Araucania trees.
I am ecstatic when I see the first tree appearing after 25 kilometers. Less so with the big rocks on the route. Of course I had enthusiastically rejected a lift with a pick up truck with the words ‘me gusta la nature’, I am here not to be ridden around in a car. But damn, I should have done it!
I can’t tell whether the route is steep, definitely not as steep as the downhill. But the composition of the lava ground has me sink into it, the gradient has me slowed down and my load is, as always, too heavy.
The first day has me starting with 2 punctures to fix. The second day has my energy totally used after 10 kilometer, the third day I am sure I will make more than 10 kilometer. But being on my very own ice-road, I cycle less this day. I don’t care so much, I laugh with it. Even though I am running out of fuel to cook on…
The thing is, an ice road without properly working front brake and a missing rear brake is risky. Pushing my load up a steep ice road, is another thing! Descending a steep ice road isn’t that fun either. Even when there is no ice I can’t enjoy the gradients pulling me down, as I would smash hard into the oncoming bend.
Nevertheless, I jump out of joy. Well, not at that very moment, but every time nature tumbles into another surprise, I am overjoyed!
I don’t want to cycle at all. I want to stop. Walk. Watch where I am. Make 10.000 of photo’s.
I slip from one incredible beautiful moment into the other marvelous fairy one. I often have to get off the bicycle, start jumping out of an energetic happiness. ‘See where I am. See where I am,’ I tell myself.
There is so much to see. I am going from high to low, from totally covered forest shade cold to open spots where the sun shines onto me. I step from a living National Geographic episode into disbelief: cycling over an 11 kilometer long field of lava has me grasping.
Here thick forest with icicles rules over the few birds. I cycle over hollow grounds, skirting along a volcano, woods with colors of flames. Rivers have cristal clear water, ready to drink. And at the end of the day, of this arduous tour, a camp with dry wood, brought along with a mud stream means finally wood, and with that: heat.
This is Mapuche territory and again I start the inner debate about oppression, discrimination, rights of land and to whom it belongs. To be honest; can today’s land claimed by youngsters who have Mapuche blood running through their veins? As is the case with the whole world, it is all about moving forward, although not too fast in these regions, where gaucho’s still sit perfectly still on sweaty horses. Their legs covered in animal skin to keep warm, their lasso made of twined leather.
There are housing schemes for the indigenous, and this makes me wonder whether the natives are weaker than the average Chileno? And why? Or are they just kept calm and silent with a free house to live in? Are they still holding on to a more original lifestyle? And do they want to be autonomous? Are they oppressed? Angry?
Then again, can you blame the Chileno who is your neighbor? He didn’t asked to be born on Mapuche land? The Mapuche are obvious better off and much more advanced than the indigenous in Paraguay, whom many keep holding on to living in poverty and doing rather nothing, or half baked… I wonder how the Mapuche are oppressed and how it affects them? To be honest, I notice no obvious signs, other than the wall paintings and graffiti, though very few businesses seem to be run by Mapuche. Later, Fernando tells me: ‘We are all Mapuche, the whole of Chile!’
Then I start thinking back about the 9 months I lived with indigenous people in Pakistan. They are animists among Muslims. Their lifestyle is still soaked with their own believes, their own rituals and very deep rooted culture. They have their own valleys to live in, were their ancestors were born. Though Muslims live their too, and a few kilometer upstream is a complete Muslim part, close to the border with Afghanistan. And further into Afghanistan are more Kalasha, apparently. Some Kalasha are converted, some under friendly pressure, some think it’s better to do so, seeing the fact that Pakistan is heavily Muslim. Yet when Chaumos, a winter festival break loose, the Muslims need to retort inside their homes and try not to interact with Kalasha, they may certainly not touch a Kalasha during these days. I was regarded a Kalasha, and I found it totally normal that these lands, their rules and all the little common gestures, behavior and philosophical system was as it was. There was no doubt that these valleys were theirs! And should be theirs, as long as Kalasha decide to live there. The government did give care with the basic elements of education and health care, albeit very little. That the Kalasha did things by many hypocrite Pakistani regarded as evil, wrong and not Allah fearing, was fine. So yes, just as I witnessed with the Tibetans and the Kurdish, I believe the Mapuche should own their own origin lands. Because that is their home and no one else should take advantage, commercial benefits and homely pleasures in their territory, unless they let you.
Most parts out of the natural parks and the desert, I find boring. Not interesting. Farmers district. I avoid big towns and highways but after the continuous beauty and quietness of Argentina I find myself in danger on narrow provincial roads, and I switch. The truth is too that I have cycled too far and am on the wrong road. I turn into farmland and the roller-coaster starts over again. I am at once in a misty fairy tale, cold and lonely. It’s hard work, going against the grain of the hills.
When the days are Dutch, a sky heavily covered in clouds, I at once feel more downcast, I even feel back in the Netherlands. Cycling becomes boring, uneventful and solely a means to get on. I get annoyed by feeling tightly wrapped like a candy-cover in my sleeping bag.
As soon as the sun appears, however little peeking through, the sleeping bag goes outside to dry, my toes thaw, I start to make selfies -a sign of happiness- and suddenly all is just perfect!
I am curious what Pucon and its surrounding towards the border crossing will bring me, suggested by hard-working construction boss Claudio, it may be very different in mental representation compared to Conguillio, which was suggested by artist Cecilia.
I arrive in Pucon while clouds are barely able to rise farther than 100 meter. It rains all day, and previous night, and there is no sign of any volcano nearby. There is a bicycle repair shop though, and that’s where I need to be. ‘Yes, we have the best quality Shimano brakes, and they will be strong enough for the load you carry,’ is what is translated to me. ‘Come back at 3.00, and we fix it immediately.’ Three hours later I am back and get to hear a slightly different story: ‘We don’t have good Shimano brakes. I have only 1 front brake and the quality is not that good.’ I have already learned to accept this is the typical South American way. ‘Well, one not so good Shimano front brake at the rear will do then,’ is my reply.
Where ‘Rambo the Invincible’, the bicycle repair man in Curacautin thought he could fix the hydraulic brakes by simply unscrewing the entire airtight system, I don’t even have another try, as the trial in Mendoza did work a mere 3 weeks.
Pucon is the outdoor cherry on the rich men cake, not my cup of tea. Though I am able to buy a new woolen shirt, 100% cashmere, a quality I could never afford before, now hangs hiding for me in an outlet for a very good price. And then I get out of Pucon as soon as I can, the cold dormitory and the communal kitchen and most of it’s occupants are just too nervously charged for me. I get annoyed at once.
In general, I prefer the Mapuche villages, one supermarket, a butcher -where I buy sausages for frying, which I mistakenly eat raw- and a hostel all for myself.
Oncoming days are filled with rain. I just cycle on and hope for the best. And indeed the second day is showered with shiny warm rays of sunlight.
The night however is bathed in wetness. Again my sleeping bag is soaked in condensation from my sweaty body while my air mattress start to form a big hump. Cycling in wetness and cold is now all about keeping warm and dry. I still keep happiness as my guiding line. As long as I feel more happy then annoyed, I shall continue South.
Starting the day in rain is something I don’t like, but the route being quite steep and almost twice as long as I thought, 17 kilometer instead of 10, is new information I have to take in. I soon settle my negative thoughts with a new positive one: ‘I have plenty of food, so it doesn’t matter when I arrive at the border,’ and I happily cycle on. Then snow start to form on the forest road. I begin to slip and loose grip, having to cycle in the middle of the road, where a single track has formed by a car. I reconsider: ‘Shall I return and cycle northwards?’ I ponder. ‘No, it will rain there too. Onward South. Soon the rain will change into snow.’ Before long I need to push the bicycle and walk further. I realize this is going to take me more than 1 day, as I move with 4 kilometer an hour. The very few passing cars return and I guess the border is closed.
Then a police car stops and tells me what I suspected. ‘By the time I reach the border it may be open again,’ I reply, and much more quick are my thoughts than my actions, and I add: ‘May I get a lift to the border in your car?’
Half an hour later I arrive at the border of Mamuil Malal, having slipped and slide through gaining depth in the level of snow, almost knee deep now, it continues to snow through the night. I am very proud of my own actions, as I simply was not able to cycle, or to walk and push a 50 kilogram load!
At the immigration I am very hospitable welcomed and immediately befriended with Daniel, a guy from Hong Kong, who embraces me combined with the typical South American kiss. It surprises me from a Chinese. Daniel decided to switch public transport for a bicycle, as he want to see Patagonia at a slow pace. I am offered a bed, a hot shower, drinks and food. Daniel reached the border the evening before, just when it started to snow, and I am the last to arrive after a few car drivers, who are waiting until the late evening, hoping to spend the night in the immigration office. A treatment only for us cyclists.
Talking to an immigration man who speaks perfectly English is firing all my collected question to him. When he finds a tiny opening, he fled off to watch football. I’m off to admire the snow white world where I could not cycle through.
Daniel has no kitchenette and eats white bread, sausages and cookies to quiet the craving. He’s always hungry, he says. He relies on staying at Couch Surfing addresses almost each evening. He has never cycle-toured before and has loads of clothing strapped in a Chinese bag on the back of his bicycle, carrying a heavy backpack on his back. His mattress is thin and his 10 dollar tent leaks, maybe because the outer sheet is half a meter above the ground?
I admire him because he is not worried about the fears which will arrive at every new camper; he simply plays music before he goes to sleep in his tent, to block out disturbing sounds of animals, wind or insects. I admire him too because he doesn’t have the regular gear while he’s out towards the winter in Patagonia (he simply books a flight just before more snowfall arrives and cycles on in the far South).
Sleeping at the immigration office is a change in temperature of 25 degrees in nighttime. I feel at once back at desert atmosphere. The central heating is blazing like an inferno, and I sweat the night away.
Next day Daniel and I are offered a lift by two wealthy gentleman in a pickup truck. We sit in the open truck, I soak in the landscape, which I loved to cycle through, but be it an icy road. Seeing the world from the back of a pickup truck, positioned such seeing the views getting quickly smaller instead of coming slowly closer, is a fun and surreal game for the mind eye.
Once in San Martin de los Andes the two gentlemen offer us a plate full of pastries, Daniel and I search for an air-mattress for my bumpy broken one, go to the supermarket and find ourselves a spot for camping. Next morning, Daniel chewing on white bread, his bones cold to the core, we heartily say goodbye and go our own way, as we’d made clear very soon we both love cycling on our own. I need a new air mattress and a fleece blanket to cover the baldness of my sleeping bag and avoid condensation.