From Huancavelica, Peru to Uyuni, Bolivia
From Huancavelica, Peru the further I rode South, the more remote the roads became. I cycled along the altiplano South of Cusco and the northeastern shore of lake Titicaca. This all accumulated in some glorious days of cycling in the North of Chile. I cycled from one national park into the next, a string of snowcapped volcanoes on my left and an unimaginable vastness in front of my wheels before crossing the salar de Coipassa and the salar de Uyuni back in Bolivia.
To me, the desire to go to remote places is never better captured than by Rebecca Solnit in ‘A fieldguide to getting lost’.
‘For many years I have been by the blue at the far edge that can be seen. That color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of the distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here. The color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.’
I too feel that desire and still, for the first time since Alaska, I felt intimidated of the remoteness that was ahead. There are lots of unknoen factors and they are all a source of worry. Will I find enough food and water? Will I find a shelteted campspot from the afternoon winds on the altiplano? And how will my bike and body cope in these extreme conditions?
According to Solnit ‘ Worry is a way to pretend that you have knowledge or control over what you don’t, and it suprised me how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown.’
There is a loss of control whenever you go somewhere remote. Then I remembered the words of endurance cycling legend Mike Hall, ‘If you get lost, get unlost‘. I guess that is what you need when you are heading somewhere remote. The confidence that whatever the situation, you will find your way out. What is scary about those remote roads is whay makes them irresistable at the same time. To lose control and to be totally on your own.
And then there are these small towns, islands of nowhere in an ocean of remoteness. Some of them totally deserted, others booling little enclaves attempting to ignore their geographical juxtaposition. It seems like no one except the odd cyclist uses the road in and out of town. In those small towns I cycled through, I always feel sorry for the young people because they do not have the opportunities I have. At the same time, I feel envy for the old people, because they did not feel the pressure of an excess of opportunities. In spanish, to hope and to wait means the same thing (esperar) and there is nowhere this seems more applicable than in an altiplano town.
It is easy for me to define the people living in those towns by their poverty, because that seems so apparant. But people are not defined by the conditions they live in, but how they cope with these condotions. It seems for the people of Bolivia, the preferred coping mechanosm is a fiesta. In about every town I cycled through there was a fanfare playing and a parade prancing arround. At first I thought it was coincodence, my impeccable sence for timing, but after I stumbling upon a gazillond fanfare, I realised this wasn’t coincidence. This is a way of life.
Another intriguing coping mechanism of the Bolivianos is the confidence that it is always a little bit colder, a little bit further down the road. I think that is a sound outlook on life. Whenever I arrive in a town, this is the conversation that unfolds.
– Es frio aqui ( It is cold here)
– Si, bastante frio (yes, really cold)
– Siempre frio aqui ( it is always cold here)
– Muy frio (really cold)
– Donde vas? (Where are you going?)
I say the name of the town a little bit furthet down the road
– in bycicleta? ( on your bike?)
– si (yes)
– Ah mas frio aillar ( it is even colder there)
For the first time it feels like I’m mastering smalltalk, but this is beside the point. A strong believe that things always could be worse is optimism in disguise and a sign of resillience.
Remote regions also make for more relaxed border crossings. Gone are the days of hagglers and queues woth no end of Central America. When I arrived at the border between Bolivia and Chile, the Bolivian official arrived more than an hour after official opening hours. On the other side the Chilean official opened the door in her pyjamas. After that, Maria, the woman who was in charge of making sure I wasn’t smuggling any vegetables into Chile offered me coffee and bread. I stayed for 2 hours answering her questions about my trip and asking her what life is like here at the end of the road. During that time no one else crossed the border.
Cycling to the end of the road or living at the end of the road are two very distinct things. The aspect of temporality makes all the difference. But whether you are cycling remote roads or living in the middle of nowhere, a loss of control is inherent. It is how you deal with this loss of control, how you react to the unknown, that will determine if you will find your way out.