I'm a complete idiot. Only idiots make mistakes like this.
The thought repeated itself as I moodily shuffled through Salta's empty streets, cleats clipping the cobblestones, carrying two bike tyres. The part of Salta that wasn't sleeping peacefully was on their way to or from church, because it was a SUNDAY, not a MONDAY as I assumed it must be. I couldn't leave Salta without some bike parts and gas for my stove, items that are easy to find on any day of week in Salta, except SUNDAYS. And it was definitely a SUNDAY. That was clear, as clear as the fact that only nomadic, dreamy idiots who have been travelling for over two years make mistakes with the day of the week and end up staying an extra day when they should be en route to Chile.
So finally I escaped the clutches of the cosy city and I cruised up a cloudy gorge, Quebrada del Toro, to San Antonio, brimming with the same sense of nervous excitement that always builds when I know I'm about to leave civilisation behind, this time for around five days. But I was a little sad to leave Argentina behind, it's the largest country I've travelled through so far and I have spent more days cycling here than any of it's twenty nine predecessors on my route so far. So it's lucky that it also happens to be one of my favourite. The landscape of the North is captivating and hugely varied, the people are helpful and friendly (although as a Brit I had to ignore the occasional whinging and muttering concerning the Falklands), the tourism industry is organised, the food is great and many small towns have free campsites for tired bikers like me. Plus there's the girls... enough said.
Paso Sico - another venture above the 4000 metre mark. Paso Jama, a little further north is the paved and popular route into Chile, making Sico a kind of reclusive kid at school nobody wants to know. After a few days of lung crunching, leg breaking, lethargic ascent I arrived at the far flung and lonesome Chilean border post and wondered what the Chilean policemen could have done to get stranded out here, on the side of a mountain, two hundred kilometres from the next sizable town. I decided that at least one of the three men who worked out here had got a little too drunk at the Police Christmas party and said something inappropriate to a senior officer. They were ticking off the days they had left on the wall like prisoners in a jail cell. To brighten their spirits I told them how beautiful I thought it was up here in the mountains, but my comment was met with a derisive laugh that said "you want my job? Have it!". They warned me of a monster that roamed around the mountains, a name I hadn't heard for twelve years, the legendary Chupacabra. When I was last in Chile farmers told me tales of this mythical beast, a bit like the Beast of Bodmin or the Loch Ness Monster, which they blamed for disappearing livestock (Chupacabra literally means 'goat sucker'). It was good to know that the Chupacabra was still alive and well, although if animals were going missing then I probably should be more worried about meeting a puma, the more likely culprit.
Check for scorpions hiding in my shoes
Put water bottles in the sun to melt the solid ice (its usually around minus five degrees C at night (23 F)
Curse when I eat porridge because I'm fed up with it but there's no alternative
I've been around tourists a lot of late and I don't really mind the questions. The trials and joys of a cycle tourer are intriguing to other travellers, and my answers to their questions have become fine-tuned and automatic, but perhaps in a year's time I'll resort to barefaced lies in order to avoid the predictable inquisition...
'Hey are you travelling by bike?'
'Ummm no. Definitely not. I don't even like cycling.'
'Isn't that your bike?'
'Oh that. No no. I'm just watching that for a friend.'
'Is that Lycra you're wearing?'
'Errrr, yes. I always wear Lycra. I like how it feels against my skin.'
'Wait a minute, isn't that a spanner in your pocket?'
'I'm just pleased to see you'
Somebody once told me that a burden of cycling around the world is that you will be expected to talk about it at every dinner party for the rest of your life. Fast forward thirty years, I can envisage the following scenario.
'Hey everyone, this is Steve. Some years ago Steve cycled all the way around the world! He's got some great stories. Go on, tell us a story Steve'
Shotgun to temple
Chh chh boooooom!
I ruin the dinner party
So to avoid brain landing in someones lemon sorbet thirty years from now I have devised a few alternative answers to those common questions, answers designed to stupefy, perplex, outrage and entertain. From now on I will be using these when anyone asks a question about my life on a bicycle, be it backpacker, journalist or curious local.
Why do you travel by bicycle?
It was part of a deal brokered by my defence team at the trial. My prison term was commuted to bicycle touring years. The judge, the prosecution and my victim's family all agreed that five years of bicycle touring was a fair trade for twenty five to life in solitary. I went along with the plea bargain. Mostly, I wish I hadn't.
Isn't it dangerous?
Yes, it's very dangerous. I wear full Kevlar body armour underneath my Lycra, I carry heavy arsenal in my rear panniers and I have a handlebar mounted flamethrower which I can discharge by tugging on a piece of brake cable.
What has been your favourite country so far?
England. I especially enjoyed the M25 ring road and the suburbs around Milton Keynes. To be honest, it's all been a bit underwhelming since then.
What do you eat?
I live off the land. Most days I stop a few hours before sunset to collect nuts, berries and wild mushrooms and to trap field mice and hunt small game. In cities I live almost exclusively on deep fried confectionery.
How do you afford it?
People smuggling. I can just about fit a refugee in my rear pannier. But only small ones. After a few border runs it can be quite lucrative.
Where do you sleep?
I usually just lie down in a ditch or put the bike on autopilot and slump across the handlebars.
What do your family think?
I didn't tell them. In our culture bicycle touring is shameful. They may have disowned me.
How many kilometres do you ride per day?
It depends on many things - the wind, the road, the hills and the quantity of amphetamines I managed to score from the last big town en route.
What type of bike do you have? How much did it cost?
Very little. I constructed it myself using common household items. The handlebar is half a broom handle, the frame is composed of central heating pipes welded together and the rims are hollowed out undersides of metal trash cans.
How much does your kit weigh?
Difficult to answer because I no longer work in kilograms. Like most cycle tourers the unit of weight I am most familiar with is the Packet Of Pasta (POP). My gear usually comes to around 68 POPs. More with a refugee on board.
Do you ever take lifts?
No. Although sometimes I give backies to tired motorists.
Don't you get lonely?
No. I have Jake.
(which begs the question 'and who's Jake?')
Oh you've not met Jake yet? He's around here somewhere. Here he is, hi Jake!
(at this point I will produce a sock puppet and begin a conversation with Jake the Sock Puppet using a high pitched screechy voice for Jake)
How long have we been friends Jake?
Since you started cycling Steve
You're my only friend aren't you Jake
Yes I am
I will continue the pantomime until...
1. Someone asks another question or
2. Everyone slowly backs away from me and I am alone or
3. I feel a sharp stabbing sensation in one of my buttocks. A syringe wielding orderly has just dosed me with a potent dose of antipsychotic medication and I will soon be rendered unconscious. But at least I won't have to answer any more questions.
How do you cross the oceans?
(I hate this one. Since teleporters have yet to be invented there aren't that many options, are there? Perhaps it doesn't deserve an answer, but to appease all the curious idiots out there...)
First I will politely ask Curious Idiot to bend over. Once in position I will insert the end of a bicycle pump and inflate, rapidly. Before 50 PSI the Curious Idiot should be airborne, at which point I will shout 'Like that!' in answer to their question (hence the title of this blog post). If the Curious Idiot isn't a projectile then they probably have a massive hernia, better call the paramedics. No need to apologise though.
What will you do when you come home? Will you write a book?
No. I will walk a bit funny for a while and then marry my bicycle. Eventually I will probably shoot myself in the head at a dinner party when someone asks me a question about what I will do next. And then someone else will write a book about it.
If anyone is interested in the real answers, I have recently updated the FAQs on my website.
So here are some shots from Quebrada del Toro and Paso Sico -
Finally I made to San Pedro where I had to wait until I received a parcel from home containing essential bits of new kit for Bolivia, a parcel that still hasn't arrived, a parcel that was left in a corner of the customs building in Santiago whilst everyone ignored it, a parcel that has been the bane of my life for the last two, boring, expensive, stir-crazy weeks. Whilst looking for a campsite in San Pedro I asked some street side hippies for direction. Just camp with us! came the invitation. OK. They had been working converting their home into something that I couldn't quite tell yet, mainly because after five years 'working' on it they hadn't got very far. They worked harder keeping the tourists and inhabitants of San Pedro stocked up with marijuana. Around mid-morning, after smoking vast quantities of weed, one of them would forget where they had left the joint and so they would usually abandon the days work on the house at this stage to find the missing drugs. Occasionally they would go to the nearby sand dunes to take LSD, a place called 'Valle de la Muerte' which translates as Death Valley, perhaps not the most sensible option if you plan to take potent mind altering chemicals. I tried, with limited success, to be as constructive as I could be in San Pedro - I wrote, pitched and submitted freelance travel features (a new line of work), I read several books, I visited the valley of the moon, even though I'd been there before and every country seems to have a valley of the moon, and I helped the hippies locate missing marijuana.
I realise that on the whole this has been quite a moany post, so on to a more optimistic future. Bolivia is next, a place that will undoubtedly contrast sharply with my experience of South America up until now, being as it is, one of the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America. I will cycle to and across the world's largest, most famous and most photographed salt lake, The Salar De Uyuni and then make my way up to the capital La Paz from where I'll send the next post. I can't wait, even though thanks to a certain international courier, CALLED DHL, I have to. (Hence the title of this blog post).
|Running down dunes in Death Valley, near San Pedro (there was no LSD involved, I promise)|