Buenos Aires: I’m back where is all started – two years and nine months, and 53,000 kilometres ago. The circle is complete.
After returning to Peru from trips home to Chile and the UK respectively, Pau and I had planned to spend a few months this summer in the States. However, things changed at short notice and this was no longer an option; we now have a new plan. A life on the road, living out of a bag and never staying in the same place longer than a month or so, has taken its toll. Whilst the sense of freedom born of a nomadic lifestyle continues to light me up, we are both feeling it is time to settle for a while; to enjoy once again a sense of home. So we have decided to head for Spain and a life less transitory.
Back in May, I had planned to leave the moto in Peru and thus suspended the Temporary Importation Permit until December. But when our plans changed, I decided to take the bike with me. This meant a long ride south to Argentina, from where it is considerably cheaper to send the moto back across the Atlantic.
It was a decision which I found myself reluctant to make. Whilst I have not been travelling, in the true sense, on the moto for some time now, having it here in South America nevertheless has a powerfully symbolic effect. For me it is the physical embodiment of the ideals of freedom, exploration, self-sufficiency – and it has been the centre-piece of this chapter in my life. Sending it away felt like an admission that I was giving these ideals up, and furthermore is emphasised the fact that this particular chapter was coming to a close. Several times I hesitated and questioned if I was doing the right thing.
The Universe too seemed to be testing my resolve. From the beginning, things weren’t flowing: on the morning I went to collect the moto, the screen on my GPS broke after more than two and a half years of travelling; when I arrived at where it was being stored, I discovered the document I needed from customs allowing me to leave the country had not arrived; and when I spoke to the customs people, they told me that a national holiday the following week would see the office closed on the day I wanted to visit and collect the document. I would thus lose a day from an already fairly tight schedule to reach Buenos Aires and catch the only reasonably-priced flight to Madrid.
But nevertheless, I set off. 3500km lay ahead of me, with six days to ride it. Any delays en route would risk arriving in Buenos Aires with insufficient time to ship my moto before leaving the country. I knew most of the route ahead and had three concerns: delays at the border crossings; mechanical problems with the bike; and road blocks. All these things came to pass.
I arrived in Puno, a two hour drive from the Bolivian border, on Monday evening after a steady ride down from The Sacred Valley. Here was the customs office which had processed my paperwork and which would provide me the documentation to leave Peru legally. I went to the office first thing on Tuesday morning, only to be told the the one official authorised to sign this document off was on holiday that day. So I now had five days – still doable, as long as I encountered no further delays.
Returning the following morning, I waited two hours until the much needed signature was delivered. The bike was loaded and parked outside and I set off immediately for the border, relatively confident I could make the distance needed that day to stay on my adjusted schedule. But the border officials had different ideas. Despite the paperwork being in good order, they told me that they couldn’t access the necessary computer system to log me out. Furthermore, they were in no rush to resolve the problem – lunch clearly took priority. The leisurely proceedings stole a further two and a half hours and my destination for the evening – Oruro, in Bolivia – was fast receding over the horizon.
The outskirts of La Paz sprawl for miles and miles across the Altiplano, and the main route south passes straight through this congested mess. So I opted to take a short cut around it, riding dirt tracks across the Altiplano to rejoin the main road south of the capital. The sun was low on the horizon and I had resigned myself to a cold night camping. Arriving at a junction in the road, I stopped to ask a lone policeman the way. As I slowed down outside his hut, I heard a harsh, metallic grating sound coming from the back end of the moto. After many miles together, a rider gets to know his machine well; I could tell that this was serious. I was left with no option but to stop for the night and investigate this problem.
As I considered pitching camp in the tired-looking and deserted plaza on the edge of the village, a group of locals told me it would be dangerous to do so. The policeman then backed them up; the people in this area, he told me, were ‘muy mal’ – very bad – including armed smugglers who operated during the night. He offered me the spare bed in his small hut, which I gladly accepted. Parking the bike beside the bed, it also gave me a place away from the biting cold of the Bolivian winter to inspect the damage.
The bearing in my rear hub had failed, leaving me with a loose wheel. I still had just under three thousand kilometres to ride and only four days left. I was in the middle of the Altiplano (though fortunately only fifty kilometres from La Paz), and felt that I couldn’t ride the bike further in such as state. The only solution, I figured, was to somehow get the bike to La Paz, find a decent mechanic and hope that the bearing I needed could be found somewhere in the city. But whilst I might be able to fix the bike, my deadline to reach Buenos Aires, along with my non-refundable ticket, was now out of reach.
As I sat in the cold morning sun contemplating my situation, a young boy passed by and asked if my bike was broken. There was a local mechanic in the village, he told me. I couldn’t see how he could help me, but nevertheless followed the lad to the mechanic’s workshop which was just beside the police hut in which I had slept. As we arrived, an old van pulled up and out stepped Freddy.
I explained the situation. He was optimistic that he could get a bearing from the local town within an hour or two – which being South America, and with plenty of experience now in such situations, I took to mean the rest of the day – and set about removing the wheel and the guilty part. He then emerged from his workshop, unbelievably with exactly the bearing I needed. Now the Universe was really playing with my mind; having given up on reaching Argentina in time just hours before, the door of opportunity was now once again slightly ajar.
By midday I was back on the road. 2850 kilometres lay ahead, and I had three-and-a-half short winter days in hand. There was no point returning to where I had come from, so I figured that I may as well give it a shot. What should have been an enjoyable, fairly leisurely, week-long ride had turned into an endurance event with an unpredictable outcome. South America wasn’t letting me go easily.
To be continued…..