3-6 Aug 2014 – Permanent marker, an argument with altitude & fabulous Fatima
Our lives six months after saying our heartfelt goodbyes in old Blighty – no longer concerned themselves with mainstream matters on which the average Brit might dwell: work, bills, making some imaginative weekend play before the cycle’s put on repeat. Our affairs now involved: getting from A to which B faring through foreign lands in often unpredictable conditions. Risk assessment, daily contingency plans, expectation management and damage limitation. As well, on-the-road health, our welfare in the wilderness and staying sane with each other 24/7 while riding a rollercoaster of emotions. Sourcing fuel for both bikes and bodies alongside motorcycle maintenance. Budget management where every purchase is a ‘considered’ one from shampoo to sprockets; wear and tear on our gear – can I live with the four finger holes in my gloves or would another patch job using dental floss extend their life a little longer? It’s a two wheeled nomadic life, which, I’ve said before – I love more than yesterday, less than tomorrow.
Why do I find it so thrilling to travel by means of motorcycle? Getting from A to B on all manner of terrain under my own steam perhaps? It was a gamble that I’d fare fortunately astride the saddle long-term but not all risks lead to ruin. I would have only brooded on the road not taken although threw plenty of oil on my fire of fear beforehand. Having already ridden over 9,000 miles I’m so puffed up with pride towards Pearl. Pray continue old girl. I love her like a person! It’s empowering to live on two wheels, it’s like nothing else in my former life on English soil. Total autonomy combined with flexibility governed only by an unquenchable thirst for exploration, coupled with letting go of all the controls that I hadn’t really harnessed to begin with breeds spontaneous excitement. And rich opportunity for firsts coexisting with the unknowns outside the comfort zone just waiting to be unearthed and experienced. Am I getting somewhere close to the answer?
No one day’s the same, the people we’re meeting and experiences we’re having is a life for which I think my soul had always yearned. The same applies to Jason. We’ve traded the life conventional for the ride of a lifetime. It’s already left me with a brighter spirit in which to retell tales on the road with a hungry gusto. I’m not sure if I’m riding to write or writing to ride, I think it’s both. It’s adding another meaningful layer for me anyway. I want a life worth living where it matters not how many miles I ride, nor what bike I ride those miles on or even where. Whether it’s a Honda C90, a Harley or even a Goldwing, the only thing that really matters is you’re enjoying yourself, mindfully. Truth be told, it’s the first time I’ve felt fulfilled…
Salta on first impression was another biggish city screaming with traffic, noise and negligent road users. I would’ve been happy to keep riding but it was approaching dusk and I was ready for a rest. We spent a sweat-soaked hour ‘hostel shopping’ to accommodate our daily lodging demands – within a strict budget. It had been punishingly hot and sticky all day when I found out that my mother had suffered two recent mishaps – and on an empty stomach feeling capricious, I overreacted at something picking up on Jason’s grouchy tone. I had a grievance about God knows what and couldn’t let it go; like a mastiff with a bone I had to gnaw it down to splinters. The pressures of the day had been coiled up for too long – I royally fell out of favour with Jason. A long day on frayed patience.
We’d planned to stay in Salta for a few days on others’ firsthand recommendations – despite the odd colonial building glimpsed I had still wanted to make a sharp exit on arrival. Thank goodness for happy accidents. Salta’s silver-lined serendipity emerged through its BMW garage – Berlin Motos, whose employees accommodated Jason’s bike on the spot. They were pleased to replace a valve-cover gasket for just over forty pounds labour cost saving Jason the hassle, making some timely tweaks on top from recent wear and tear. It was the mechanics’ Saturday and they stayed open longer than their assigned half day for us. Superb staff that deserve the highest commendation.
Ruta 9 took us out of Salta onto a 4 metre wide road, not a single track but split into two lanes for oncoming traffic. Narrow was an understatement although we cared little and less; we were riding through 30 degree delight. The slender road snaked through a sub-tropical rainforest – it felt like we were following the frilly hem of a rah-rah skirt as we meandered through a multitude of tight twisties. All I could hear was the song of freedom that the wind sang as I fell into a pendular rhythm to its melodic tune. There were butterflies fluttering past my face, a crested caracara lunching on a lizard and a sparkling lake tucked off the main drag. We parked under cover of an ancient tree making a perfect picnic spot for our midday munch. It was not always but that day was a charmed one.
Purmamarca we pronounced as ‘permanent marker’ was no broader than the tip of one. As a flyspeck town, it sat against Cerro de los Siete Colores – the Hill of Seven Colours, which can only be described as a jagged rock formation resembling the marzipan fantasy of an over-zealous pastry chef. The village makes its coin by the congruent rainbow of colours interlaced through woven goods and handicrafts on offer. You could buy anything from a hat, poncho and slippers with a matching hippy handbag. A straggle of ochre adobe houses and age-old algarrobo trees next to a bijou 17th century church surrounded the hubbub of the central plaza.
The place was bustling with hordes of holiday-makers, although we found our own personal snuggery for the night away from the packs of people. Ensconced within the heart of the seven coloured hills we chanced upon a local guy whose beret barely covered his shock of black hair. He was somewhere in his fifties, placidly looked up with enquiring eyes while tending his four horses. This guy was unhurried in and unruffled by life. Some revealing chitchat later, we were cooking on the stove, sharing our coffee with Pedro and his two young apprentices with permission to stay over on private land; we laid out only the sleeping bags for a starry night’s sleep. Our wheels had won us the jackpot, yet again.
My ears the next morning popped to the sound of corn kernels bursting open. We surpassed the height upon the summit of Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu, over 4,000 metres – there’s a footslog I’d never forget. It wasn’t Everest although I was still light headed and short of breath between jumping in and out of the saddle to take pictures. The day ended somewhere off ruta 9 in the region of Jujuy at a spit and sawdust settlement, Susques. We joined the road workers at an unmarked café and chowed down a meal for less than two pounds. Bargain beaut.
Our day from Susques on ruta 52 had started at -7 degrees. In fact the morning saw our coldest day yet in the coolest of sunshine. Moreover we were riding at around 50 miles per hour, which further lowered the unforgiving temperature courtesy of the wind chill. The day previous, we’d been slathering on sun cream, wearing the minimal of clothing. I simply didn’t think ahead and dressed according to balmy breezes and a warm window of sun. I’d blown a fuse on my bike so thought nothing to donning a thin base layer as opposed to my heated jacket, temporarily out of action.
I confess, after an hour or two riding in a raw -7 without my heated gear I was running low on heat reserves. Wearing a face etched in anguish, I was cold as ice clad in goosebumps, every breath laboured. My hands were turning a purply shade of blue with a white band across my knuckles and joints where blood had taken its leave. I was starting to shiver uncontrollably while trying to fight my inner ‘ginger whinger’ rearing her ugly head. It was no good. I pulled over stiff as stone to warm my fingers on Pearl’s exhaust, but not before letting myself wallow in a pitiful but cathartic cry. My affinity with the climbing altitude left much and more to be desired; I guess peaking our ride at 4,800 metres was pretty high, almost on a par to Everest’s base camp. My heart was punching out every heartbeat, I felt fatigued and my skull was pounding in what felt like an expanding head. Get this helmet off! My weep was worth it. With the mini-thunderstorm on my face over, I glugged down my grogginess with water and drank in the vista before me.
The low sandy hills were all soft lines and gentle curves in calming hues of dusky pink, salmon and peach. They sat serenely on the outskirts beneath a perfect blue sky unblemished by not a whisper of cloud. It was a visual banquet that seemed to keep further brushes with altitude sickness or hypothermic symptoms at bay – although wriggling into additional layers on which I could quickly lay my hands helped. We re-entered Chile for the umpteenth time on ruta 27, destination: San Pedro de Atacama. The day’s misadventure had passed and it gradually got warmer as the afternoon wore on.
Rolling into San Pedro de Atacama was a whopping 30 degrees higher than the morning’s rude start. I looked ahead to the oasis town but on my left spotted volcano Lickancabur – not too difficult to miss at just under 6,000 metres – which if carved down the middle, one half belonged to Chile the other Bolivia. The town itself was a bohemian jewel in the desert. Geared up for the day-tripper yes but it still retained something special and pocket-sized about the place. I liked it.
Fatima warmly greeted us on arrival at Hostel Tuygasto. What a sweet natured, well-informed and helpful lady. Not comfortable until she had given me a tour of the premises, ensuring I knew how the oven worked, to manage the tricky door lock and which was the hot shower tap, was she at ease. She thanked me for early payment with a receipt, gestured if I had any questions waiting with patient eyes for my response and resumed her cleaning duties around the hostel’s courtyard. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been accorded with such courtesies. She was nine years old! I could not have been more astonished if John Lennon had come along juggling lemon pies. I adored people like her, she melted my heart in half a beat and it didn’t take more than a thimble of sense to realise why – her father exuded a gentle bonhomie about a happy aura as well.