I. Abrazos en Casa Herrera
II. Guanaco maldito
III. Hermanos argentinos
I. Abrazos en Casa Herrera
After a bit of urban exploration with Matias and Sebastián, I arrived at the address given to me by Adrian, the security guard from the grocery store whose parking lot I had used as my garage for the afternoon. After two days of stressing over my broken bike and a long hot afternoon of bike maintenance, Adrian's wife had the perfect thing waiting for me: beer and empanadas. We had our fill of empanadas and talked late into the night.
Adrian's four-year-old son, Leo, didn't take long to warm up to the tall blonde bearded stranger in his house after I gave him a flash drive with dozens of Super Nintendo games that he could play on the family's computer. (Thanks to my Chilean friend Sergio Peña for giving them to me in the first place). His favorite greeting was to run up to you, look you in the eyes without saying a thing, then suddenly yell "abrazo!" and throw his arms toward you. It was impossible not to feel your heart melt.
The family was originally from Mendoza, Argentina but had moved to Spain a few years back. Adrian beamed as he showed me the pictures of the family in Spain and I could tell that he really enjoyed the life he had made for his wife and son there. Unfortunately he was unable to find work after the economic situation turned sour in Europe, so the family had moved back to Argentina just a few months earlier. Adrian, like a lot of folks I got to know in Puerto San Julián, had decided to come to the south to look for work.
The south of Argentina is still a pretty desolate place, but as you ride through you can't ignore all of the construction, mining, and oil trucks on the roads. Commodity booms like this usually carry over to other sectors, but the trick is whether communities can sustain economic progress once the boom is over. Otherwise all commerce dries up once the oil and mining companies leave town, and with it goes the people and the money that had come to the area. I can think of many empty towns in west Texas that look as if a plague had suddenly driven all of their residents away some time in the nineteen fifties. Only gas stations and Subway sandwich shops seem to be immune to this plague.
I'm hoping for the best for Adrian and his family. It was certainly nothing new to me by this point, but I was particularly struck by the compassion of this family. Even though it was apparent that they didn't have much to give, they took in and fed a total stranger without question and refused to take a single thing from me in return. Adrian was willing to do whatever it takes to provide for his family, even taking them to the other side of the world and back, and his family was by his side without question.
II. Guanaco maldito
After a good dinner, good conversation, and a good night's sleep, I set off the next day. The radiator problem had cost me a couple of days and it was more urgent than ever to keep heading north. "She'll be in Perú in just a few days," I reminded myself. The wind and I did battle for one more day as my newly-repaired machine roared up Ruta 3.
Whether by the universe's inherent chaos or by some agent of karma that sought to even out my sheer joy of having a functioning bike once again, there was a moment that afternoon that was the most exhilarating and most terrifying thing that has happened to me yet. The Patagonian pampa of south Argentina, as has been said in this blog once or twice before, is vast and barren. After awhile I had run out of ideas of interesting ways to photograph the same five things that make up the pampa; desert hills, shrubs, clouds, ñandúes, and guanacos. The repetitiveness seems neverending after several hours on the straight road, makes it difficult to keep yourself mentally engaged with the ride.
It was precisely at one of these moments where my camera was turned off and my mind was only halfway turned on that I emerged at the top of a steep hill and saw a herd of guanacos up ahead on the road. I kept the throttle steady, knowing that this herd, like all the herds of guanaco I had passed before, would move off the road. Sure enough they began to march to the left, stepping out of my lane in their nonchalant guanaco way. A glimmer of white popped up from the other side of the hill, coming my direction, and in a second the blur had settled into the shape of a small white car. A few guanacos still in the left lane froze and turned from me towards the car. The steep hillsides didn't offer a good view down the road, and the eternal whip of the wind eliminated the animals' ability to hear approaching vehicles before they were very close. The sudden appearance of two vehicles coming from opposite directions, along with the fact that guanacos are not very smart animals, precipitated panic among the herd, and in their fright their nonchalant step turned into a frantic gallop in all directions. They all cleared the road save one particularly confused beast who darted left but froze only a few feet from the road's edge when the car blared it's horn. This made him completely forget about the motorcycle coming in the other direction, and he turned around and crossed back into my lane with only a couple of car lengths between us.
I perceived the next few seconds entirely in slow motion: I laid on my own horn as the beast swung his long hairy neck around and I could see right into one of his very frightened eyes and, though I couldn't hear anything over the sound of the engine and my bike's horn, I saw his lips parting to show his teeth and red tongue as if he were giving out a guttural cry of dumb guanaco panic. Long hairy legs stretched down to black hooves that tapped the asphalt one-by-one across the center lane marker just in time to avoid the white car, its horn still blaring. With about ten feet between us he arrived in the middle of my lane, and I was close enough to really size him up; he was your typical fully grown guanaco, covered in golden brown shag with white legs and black on his face, ears, and his tail. With his long legs and neck he stood a bit taller than I was seated on the bike. My headlight was perfectly aligned with his shoulder, which is the thickest part of his body and would be the worst place to make contact for both of us. It was well past the time to put on the brakes, and the left lane was occupied by a noisy, white metallic blur that I knew to be the passing car.
It is amazing and disturbing what our instincts are capable of in those moments where our actions are completely overridden by lower brain function and muscle memory, and our conscious selves are just along for the ride. I felt my right shoulder dip as my arm plunged the handlebars to the right. My hand pinned the throttle as the bike dived right toward the road's edge. Although my left hand held tight to the handlebars and my thumb was cemented to the horn, my conscious self imagined stretching my hand out and lightly passing it along the the animal's hairy neck that was now only a few feet away. Once I resolved that impact was imminent, another instinct kicked in and I felt my eyes shut tighter than they ever had before. In the darkness all of the sounds came flooding back to me at their normal speed and volume and I awaited the sudden jolt and the subsequent sense of being airborne that would signify contact with a two-hundred pound guanaco.
I felt a shift to the left, but it was much more fluid than I was expecting, and I opened my eyes to find my body was correcting the bike's lean and I was back in the center of the lane. It was as if I had simply passed right through the damn guanaco. Conscious control came back online and I realized I needed to exhale. My left hand shakily reached up and adjusted my mirror, but when I looked back neither the car nor the big hairy guanaco were anywhere to be seen.
I pulled over and laid down on the side of the road, feeling my hands and feet tremble as adrenaline continued to course through my veins. I repeatedly visualized myself riding off the side of the road into a barbwire fence, or glancing off the guanaco and tumbling down the highway, or burying my front fender right into the animal's ribs and the bike catapulting my body high above the pampa sending me spinning helplessly like a rag doll. But it hadn't happened. Somehow I was there, lying on the roadside by my own volition.
I'm not a smoker but I'd been carrying cigarettes to give out to local police or border officials when I need good directions or a favor. I figured I could use something to settle down, so I took one out and tried to light it, but my fingers fumbled the cigarette and the wind made it impossible to use the lighter anyway. I dropped the cigarette and it blew away into the desert, so I laid back down in the shade of the bike and reminded myself to exhale again.
The remainder of the ride wasn't nearly as eventful. There was an ongoing paro (strike) by a truckers union in Caleta Olivia, so I weaved my way through roadblocks of concrete chunks and tire scraps and kept going north. From here the highway hugs the coast for this stretch, presenting a rider with the dichotomy of barren pampa on the west side of the road and the deep blue Atlantic Ocean immediately on the east. The road curls around seaside cliffs as it climbs its way toward Comodoro Rivadavia.
The sandy cliffs burned orange in the late-afternoon sun, and after rounding yet another curve the city burst into view ahead. The mass of grey and brown buildings was shrouded in a haze of orange desert dust and blue glare coming off the surf. From afar it had the look of a lawless seaside port out of some dystopian sci-fi movie. This image was fueled in my mind by the numerous times that people in Rio Gallegos and Puerto San Julián had told me how dangerous Comodoro Rivadavia was supposed to be, and that I should do whatever I could not to stay there at night.
Arriving at sunset in a place with that kind of reputation had not been my plan, but after the guanaco episode I had no intentions of taking my chances on the road at night. Luckily I found a cheap hotel whose staff let me park the bike inside next to the parrilla.
III. Hermanos argentinos
El Bolsón was surprisingly hot that afternoon. After the fourth lap around the town square looking for a parking spot I decided to take advantage of my motorcycleness and mount the curb. Within an instant a cop was tapping me on the shoulder and pointing to a sign that said I couldn't park there. On the other side of the plaza I tried the same thing, and sure enough another cop was there to shoo me away even after I explained I would only be there a moment. The truth was I had only stopped in town to sell some dollars.
I suppose I should stop to explain dólar blue in case anyone reading this has intentions to travel to Argentina soon. Due to a variety of reasons, the main one being inflation, an informal market exists for US dollars in Argentina. People carrying US dollars can "sell" them for Argentine pesos at a better rate--one dollar usually fetches about ten pesos--than you can get exchanging them at the official rate, which fluctuates around six or seven pesos to the dollar. This informal rate is known as the dólar blue, which is an especially appropriate name. Even though these transactions--which I have done on street corners, cash registers at convenience stores, behind a hotel bar, and the back offices of many restaurants, kioscos, and even a candy store in Bariloche--are definitely illegal, it is so blatant and widespread in Argentina that the blue rate makes the front page nearly every day. It is as if they agreed that, while it is illegal, it is not on the same level as other black market transactions, so they decided to call it "blue".
While bickering with the cop over parking my bike on the curb, four more motorcycles rolled up and parked alongside me. The cop now looked exasperated at having to argue with five motorcyclists instead of one foreigner. In typical Argentine style, a stranger noticed the scene and told us we could park the bikes in his private yard just a few feet from where we were on the curb. After we parked, I introduced myself to my new allies; Jorge from El Bolsón, Marcos from Rosario, Diego from Buenos Aires province, and Lucas from Santa Fe. Marcos and Diego were friends who had met on a previous motorcycle trip, and they met Lucas on the road this time around, who had been riding on his own. In El Bolsón they had teamed up with Jorge, a local from El Bolsón who was showing the guys around.
After another successful illegal transaction, this time at the customer service desk in a grocery store, we grabbed lunch and Marcos, Diego, and Lucas asked me to ride with them. Our ragtag team included Marcos' Harley Davidson, Diego's Yamaha V-Star, Lucas' KTM 990, and my KLR. We rode north through Bariloche and past Lago Nahuel Huapi at sunset, which was far more spectacular than the first time I rode through this pass in the middle of a cold, windy storm. We made camp at the shores of Lago Espejo for the night, enjoying the culinary work of Diego and wine-fueled conversation under a clear starry sky.
Over the next few days we made our way north along the famous Ruta 40. With the Andes on our left and a big blue sky on our right, we cruised over mountains, through canyons, and under forests, making camp at Las Lajas the second night and Malargue the third, each night enjoying pristine weather and even better dinners prepared by Diego while we discussed things as varied as world history, motorcycles, crime in Argentina, and women.
In San Rafael we finally had to part ways. I was still in a hurry to get to Perú and my route carried me over the Andes back to Chile. Lucas had a worried mother who was expecting him back home, while the warm weather and smell of vineyards convinced Marcos and Diego to take it easy in San Rafael for a day or two.
In the way that can only happen on a motorcycle/camping trip, we had truly become brothers in the span of just a few days. I remembered the long ride from Las Lajas to Malargue after I had lost the group immediately after buying gas in the morning. I spent the whole day trying to catch up, looking for the guys in every town I arrived in, but I never had any luck. While filling up in Malargue late in the afternoon and assuming I wouldn't see them again, I heard the rumble of three motorcycles rolling into the gas station. In truly Argentine fashion there was lots of yelling, cursing, hand gestures, and in the end hugging and smiling.
With a heavy heart and many hugs we said goodbye, but my brothers were sure to send me off with extra bottles of beer and wine for the road ahead. I had said it to myself before (and no doubt I will say it again) but the kindness of Argentines had once again amazed and humbled me. I am forever convinced that there is nobody in the world with a bigger heart than an Argentine. It was my last day in Argentina on this trip, a fact which truly saddened me as I turned my bike toward the Andes.