Minimalism & Romanticism at an Altitude
I am not sure what exactly I was thinking when we primed for this trip? It could have been lightweight. Or perhaps it was minimalism, which is about the same topic. But maybe I was just all about romanticism? And when romanticism is at play, even an organized, wise and thought-through mind makes mistakes. Obviously.
Geo and I are heading to Uyuni and will move further on the Altiplano. We have no set plan. We will decide at a junction where we want go. There is one major pointer and that is fuel.
We come into Bolivia on the same road I took with my bicycle. Back than, I was warned about the state of the ‘road’ and now I could inform Geo about it. He finds it worse than he imagined it after digesting my words.
Our fear is a crash. We’ve had so many in the past. We know how it feels. Geo his elbows function as steel pipes, tucked in an angle to keep the handle-bar straight. Every stone underneath the wheel can tip the balance. I sit as a wooden plank behind, trying not to move with the constant cadence Geo is slightly swagging with. I much fear a crash, especially now I have giving up control. Geo is in charge now.
Mind you, a motor-rider may be cool to look at but think again. About the one sitting in the back. I dread a collapse. A crash on gravel, which pierces the skin, exposes the flesh. The gravity of the motorbike that hurts and the heat of the exhaust that sears.
Traversing these roads with a bicycle is perhaps easier, the handle-bar wavers from left to right and back to left again until it comes to a standstill. The motorbike goes on in a round until it crashes. Onto the one who sits on it. Us.
A body reacts impulsive. Limps sticks out by itself to protect. But sitting between Geo and an iron rack I must restrain these limps. My brain has to be stronger than my reaction. It’s not an easy task.
Bolivia is in turmoil. Would I have my Optimus stove with me, there would have been less of a problem, since we never run out of fuel. It takes us effort to find gasoline and sometimes we pay triple the price for a liter, but we always manage. We can pass every barricade, calm down angered insurgents. But I can’t make fires, resulting in great difficulties to cook.
When we left for South America I wanted to have a concentrated version of my former bicycle lifestyle, which comes down to making a lot of fires. Fires are romantic, warm and cozy. But it was a mistake, I should have taken the gasoline burner.
Evo Morales is the reason for the turmoil. Bolivia works with a voting system where a president can stay in power for maximum 1 term. That would be 5 year. Evo is now in power for 13 years and some say he has characteristics of a dictator. He doesn’t want to let go off his power and this made the Bolivian people angry.
Evo is in exile in Mexico. The Bolivian people throw barricades. Every entrance and exit to towns is blocked. Not just with bags of sand and barbwire but with every transportation vehicle possible. Huge coaches, row upon row, block the roads. This means also that gasoline trucks can not supply towns with gas. In short, the country sort of comes to a halt.
It was my intention to walk in between rides. I study the map, something I dislike, but which has to be done in order to know where I can walk. I have selected all the lightweight stuff to walk. In Villamontes we collect food, unappetizing tinned fish, sugared tomato paste and more unhealthy stuff to fill the stomach.
We are both happy to leave Villamontes. The town may have produce Paraguay lacks but Villamontes is not a pleasant environment. The open poverty shows us that the government can not take care for poor and the mental unstable. Together with the many stray dogs and a few lost Mennonites, they wander around the mercado central. We find ourselves obnoxious to some locals, who probably find us too noisy, not acting in a relaxed manner. But Geo and I are simply happy with the quality of the food and more variety than in Paraguay.
We find the start of a trail to walk for me. It runs along a river, 40 kilometer to Entre Rios, where I will meet up with Geo. ‘No, this track is private. You may not enter this path! A bit further is a trail you can take,’ says a man with one prominent tooth left in his mouth.
This turns out to be the typical Bolivian, if not South American, way of dismissing people. Same happened in the mercado central when asking for stuff.
In desperate need for camping, at the late hour of 5 o’clock, we set up camp on an old patch of road. Geo loves green lush nature and soaks this particular camp spot deeply in.
The Kenton motorbike counts 150 CC. Not much for the load and our bodies it carries. I am not fully happy and so isn’t Geo. Is it that we have to get used to this mode of travel? Do we need to find our way in it?
Evo Morales is the first indigenous president of Bolivia and would you ask me, I am certainly not against Evo. I am not a bright light about politics but I really see no benefit in constraining a country when it are the people who are hurt by it, not the president. Without gasoline, the common people can not reach their jobs. The common crowds can not travel about. Evo, we will soon see, replaces old mud-brick houses for stone ones with corrugated roofs. Whole villages are renewed. Water, electricity and sport-halls are all coming from his rein. In the most far flung corners of Bolivia. I find it impressive.
Geo seems not to be comfortable. I see often a frown or his face in a thinking mode. He says he is worried for the Kenton its capacity. The load is simply too heavy, especially when we are climbing.
My anxieties are more about the lack of exercise. I am sitting on a machine and can not get off without telling Geo that I want to get off. I feel I miss out on literally touching the earth, the ground, the soil.
Like Geo, I am troubled we crash, which is painful. We are both worried that the motorbike will come to an abrupt halt.
In Bolivia a tourist pays more for gasoline than a local, that is, of course, would we be able to come upon fuel in a gas station. Usually we hear ‘no hay’. Geo heed to the advice of buying gasoline on foot with jerrycans in hand, not that Geo looks like a Bolivian but so that our Paraguayan number-plate is not seen.
When we are above 3000 meter we are both elated with the Kenton motorbike! That this machine has brought us so high, though sputtering and slow, often in the first gear, there is triumph on our side.
The landscape opens up, far above Tarija, where roadblocks and tension were. It is cold and rainy. Wind blows fervently, as it often does on higher altitude. Undoubtedly, in my romanticism mixed with minimalism I brought my lightweight Big Agnes tent and, ultra lightweight, no stove. Geo has his own tent, a Chinese quality no-name. He doesn’t pay as much importance to comfort or brands as I do to an outdoor lifestyle. It took me already much convincing skills to get him a down jacket, down sleeping bag and rain jacket.
Fact is that especially my tent can not withstand harsh wind. And so I am on the look out for a structure that can protect us.
We find a cemetery with a stone portal.
The roof is almost waterproof. The wind blows right into the exit to the cemetery but is secured by Geo with a smart use of walking sticks and tarp. I manage to get a fire going but not to secure enough dry wood for the next morning.
We are now in a hostile environment near El Puente. Beautiful cacti and colors surrounding us. Smoke is driving Geo out of our little dwelling, while I breath it happily in. Utterly quietness. A safe feeling. Part of the safety is coming from Geo. With a man on my side, all possible danger is automatically shoved to him. The rules of nature, where I am happy with. It’s easier with the right man, that much is sure.
Although, it surely is not easier without a stove by my side.
I love being in these poem-like surroundings, more than I like cycling them. The romanticism of being here is what I long for mostly.
Sure, to have cycled these roads is much, much more satisfying than coming on a motorbike. A feeling of proud and power and gain is very admirable to one self. But being in the environment nonetheless, in this little house, an entrance to a graveyard, is the highlight of a hard day on a motorbike. Simply, because this is comfort.
There is a difficulty in two people coming together at a later age than, say, your 25th, who wish to travel together. There is difference between much recognised likings, known habits and rusty customs. Especially I have rustiness. Our biggest difference is that Geo want to get through nature, whereas I want to be in nature. I think we each compromise to an extent where we both like to do what we do together.
Geo loves to camp in natural surroundings mirroring his desire to live in. He likes green, lush mountainous nature dressed with leafy trees. I love naked bareness.
Glad we are where I love to be. Geo less so.
What I find difficult on a motorbike is that I can not simply stop, get off and make a photo. On my own I can spend a long time to make a composition I am satisfied with.
I can spend more time on photographs than on moving. I can spend hours investigating the area, the lava stones, the cacti needle, the dung beetles. Now, I don’t want to have Geo wait for my artistic perfection, though he would, unless dark clouds filled with sand awaits us…
There comes a point that I think even with a motorbike it is a hard task to cross the Altiplano! I am glad I am in this position because traveling should not come easy. Easy traveling is for tourists, right?
Fires are not easy once reached a certain altitude, not so much because of the lack of oxygen but perhaps more because of the sort of wood, the wetness of it, or the absence of wood altogether.
We get stuck in a hail storm. It feels, and certainly sounds, as if we are right under the culprit. The sensation of thunder was never so near. The ice particles pierce my legs, dressed in sturdy jeans. Its painful and I scream. The same ice particles land on Geo his bare hands, yet he doesn’t utter a beep. The road turns into an icy parlor, with a deep ravine to the left. A bit later, when we are in camp, Geo takes a bath in a river.
Eyes hurting, lungs protesting; trying to keep my much desired fire going keeps me occupied for hours. Trying to have a rest turns out to be a struggle. I develop an incredible headache, while Geo feels nauseate. He has heartburn, I constipation. We probably tackled the height too quick, slept too high.
The wind blows in our tents. Sand has the weak, thin zippers of my Big Agnes derailing. I need to pee 4 times at night, anxious to touch the zippers.
We are climbing to 3650 meter. Geo has never been so high in altitude and although his body suffers more from altitude sickness than my body, I admire him a great deal! He plunged into the lifestyle I love so much. He camps like me, without having had a run-up. He went right into the deep, into a moon landscape, void of sea-level oxygen, filled with unease, smoke-fire, rice-potatoes-meat as breakfast (due to not being able to start a fire), sleeping in abandoned roofless clay houses and always on edge for someone coming to bury the death when staying the night at a cemetery.
Route: Villamontes, Entre Rios, El Puente towards Tupiza… next post: more of Tupiza, Atoche, Uyuni (where we sank through the salt), Tahua and on to Chile via San Martin and very small communities.