Bolivian roads are prone to being blocked by acts of nature and protesting locals; they are also, in many places, fairly straight and usually void of traffic empty. A yellow Humvee (a very strange sight in Bolivia) passed me going twice the speed limit – literally. Seeing him pulled over by the cops, only to continue on his way soon after, emboldened me to followed suit. Progress was good. As night was falling I reached Potosi – claimed to be the highest city in the world at 4000 metres and that which made the Spanish empire rich on silver, at the cost of thousands of indigenous lives.
The following morning I was on the road at 6.45am, just as first light was creeping into the eastern skies. I reached the border in good time, raising my hopes for a Sunday evening arrival in Buenos Aires. Argentine customs were frustratingly slow, but eventually I was through. An open road to Salta and beyond lay ahead…. or so I thought.
When I stopped in the disheveled border town of La Quaica to fill up with petrol, the guy working the pumps told me the road was “cut” a few kilometres ahead and wouldn’t be open until the evening. Again my heart sank. On some occasions in the past I have been able to ride through or around whatever has been blocking a road – be that a rock fall, roadworks or protesters – but here I was being told that was impossible. For the second time in twenty-four hours I resigned myself to pushing on in vain hope rather than expectation.
I arrived at the ‘cut’ to find a line of stationary vehicles, a group of police nonchalantly standing beside the road joshing with each other, and a cluster of tents pitched on the road itself. A group of college students were protesting about something at the inconveniece of the wider population – such is the way in South America. Whilst they had succeeded in stopping the cars and buses, their blockade was not a well-planned one. There was plenty of space between the tents, so with a cheery wave I simply rode on past them.
By the time I reached Salta in had been dark for an hour, and I set off well before first light the following morning. The darkness gave way to low cloud and mist, but then the skies cleared for half an hour to reveal the majestic Andes. I felt something very poignant in that moment. For the last two and a half years, the Andes have been the canvas on which this wonderful adventure has been painted. For me, South America and the Andes have been synonymous. As the mist cleared to expose the towering mountains one last time, it felt like they were saying farewell to me. Soon after the mist closed back in, the road turned south-east on to the lonely Pampa, and the Andes disappeared into the distance behind me.
When a would-be traveller asks my advice, I always recommend setting a leisurely pace – to enjoy the ride and to allow time to absorb one’s surroundings and experiences. But travelling long distances in a short period of time has its own particular qualities. I was now riding across the arid, cactus-strewn Pampa and into the agricultural heartlands around Cordoba, when only a day before I had been on the lonely Bolivian Altiplano, and a day before that on the shores of the mystical Lake Titicaca. Such a journey is like watching, from the inside, a natural history programme. The variety of the landscapes – both physical and human – is so evident as your surroundings continually pass by, changing hour-by-hour and day-by-day.
But just as the change and variety in brought into sharp focus, so to is the similarity and connection of the world which is so often hidden behind artificial differences created by man and society. When you cross from Peru to Bolivia, the Ayamara people and culture doesn’t change – only the colour of their passports change. A Bolivian and and Argentine on their respective sides of the border look exactly the same. Borders are literally only lines on a map.
Yet those lines have such impact on our experience of life and on our perspective on the world. If you live on one side of the line, you may have a significantly better standard of living than your fellow human on the other. You may view that fellow human very differently to yourself and your kin. (The final of the Copa America between Argentina and Chile was played during my ride south and the hostility between humans that can be generated by a line on a map was clearly on display.) You may grow up within a very different social structure to your neighbour.
It makes you think and it challenges your view of the world. It makes you question the inequality and the differences that manifest in a negative way within the world. And whilst there are of course fairly obvious explanations, based predominantly on politics, economics and the history that those two mechanisms create, you can’t help still feeling, intuitively, that we’ve got some things within the social systems which shape our world very wrong.
The miles passed slowly. Wearing virtually all the clothes I have with me, I was still cold. My final day saw me once again on my way before first light, riding 700km along the autopista from Cordoba to Buenos Aires with a biting cross-wind trying to pushing my bike of the road. It may have been mind-numbingly boring, but at least there were no more borders, it’s very difficult to blockade a dual-carriageway and the bike was running well. After 850km, my longest day’s riding during my entire time in South America, I arrived.
As I write, my moto is on a plane destined for Barcelona; I shall follow this afternoon. I have been enjoying the gritty Latin charms of Buenos Aires and reflecting on my time here in South America. Whilst I have a very strong suspicion that I will be back, I nevertheless feel a sense of sadness saying goodbye – for now, at least – to this very special continent. It has taught me so much and more importantly, it has helped me learn things myself about the world and how I fit into it. I could write several posts about those lessons alone – and maybe I will. But for now, I am enjoying a cortado and letting it all soak in…..