Growing up in San Juan Capistrano, California I anticipated each March the return of the migratory swallows that leave Argentina in successive bands from the town of Goya in the province of Corrientes on Feb. 18th. Arriving together in 30 days covering 12,000 kms (7,500 miles) they do not eat or drink, flying 15 hours daily with a velocity of 30 kms. (18 miles) per hour. We celebrate with abundant eating, drinking, a parade, music and dancing like fools in the streets. Now that I barely recognize my old haunts, I hold these traditions even moredear.
After Mirin, the swallows route changes West, in search of the valleys of the Andes later crossing the equator, they go to a higher flight altitude in order to take advantage of the dynamic currents that produce the large masses of air that move towards the North Pole. They do not cross the Andes until they have reached the Gulf of Mexico, and by way of the Yucatan they look for the west and the Pacific, in order to fly along the shore of Baja California and enter the valley of Riverside.
Gazing above my window as a youngster at their nests made of mud pellets they spat out, captivated with all of my being by this voyage from Argentina which felt as far away as outer space. The warbling of my guest golondrinas and their 24,000 km roundtrip were my tangent proof of long journeys that didn´t require gasoline. And so hatched the concept of expeditions, migrations and how massive yet simultaneously small the world truly is. As sure as I will always need glasses, I knew one day I too would get to this Argentina place by my own means. If I can’t have wings, I utilized the next best thing…two wheels.
Here, aqui, acá, there, ahí, allá, where my sister city lies, I have arrived…in the country where I will end in Tierra Del Fuego which lit a fire in me from such a distance.
The line between what is part of my bike tour and what has changed my life has growned so many other lines that I no longer differentiate. I still look up at birds and think about the places beyond what I know of. Looking out from the inside is to know the thrill of traveling by bicycle. To break bread with others who have trodden the same mountains on foot, barriers seem to dissolve when people see my mode of travel which also happens to be my home for the last year and nine months.
By choosing the outdoors over the windows of a bus or airplane, the lock of a hotel, I am enmeshed in unfiltered ambiance…or chaos and everything within that spectrum. With more doors and hearts opened to me than I ever could have fathomed (often by people without conventional doors) a foundation of mutual respect is ever present, a recognition of both obvious vulnerability and strength that brought me to their land by thigh power.
The last Frontier
Entering Argentina wasn`t easy, but convenience has been something I let go of early in my travels. My initial dilemma was that I had the spirit to ride through the 8th largest country in the world, but not the $160 reciprocity fee to enter. This Argie tit for a USA tat matches our unfriendly US message to international tourism. A close friend, Abby sponsored my Argie crossing. Before I left on my trip she took me to a Native American sweat lodge. Once inside, and faced with the pitchest black I have ever known, I wanted to flee. Heart jumping out of me, I turned into a fountain of sweat. 3 hours later, I could have stayed forever. I`m going to sound like a huge hippie now, but the idea was that the lodge is the womb of mother nature and that wherever you are in the world, you are still at home inside this refuge. This idea has tremendously helped my mental determination, often more criucial than the physical on a trip like this.
Sometimes being alone represents being in the dark. At first riding for 10 hours with only your own thoughts can make you face many obstacles, then a rewarding comfort surfaces.
Finally in around 8pm, I was singing and howling along with the wind, over the moon to be here. I found a ditch near a drain to shield me. I think back to Central American borders which can be like preparing for combat, this was tranquility.
I met Aileen last Xmas in Costa Rica. She felt like someone I had known all my life so when she valiently joined me in Jujuy with a bicycle it was the greatest gift. She speaks Spanish well and loves to speak it. Our first time camping at a municipal site she boldly asked if we could pay less, just because..and it worked. I loved having such a travel savvy partner in crime.
In Salta we met a flying Dutchman, Tijs, riding on a cheap whip he got off eBay and raising money for http://www.laffcharity.org.uk/. Initially I didn´t want to break up our girl party but he ended up being exceptionally interesting and every day my guts hurt from laughing. We had no idea where to spend Xmas, which is just how I like it. We ignored a private property sign and the tobacco farmer who owned this family farm was happy to let us camp. A fire, fine Argentine wine (even the boxed is tasty) and camp cuisine made for a holiday to remember. A guy in Chile had given me this fuzzy Santa hat and Tijs wore it all day in the sweltering heat. We had our sights set on a sparkling blue levee but couldn`t find a way in. After an excitingly rough track we jumped into the mud where I covered myself head to toe, splashing around amongst the cows.
The ride through the Calchaquí Valley to Cafayate gave way to epic rock formations and colors. We stopped in this town Alemanía (Germany in Spanish).Less than 10 families live here where a railraod was built in 1916. It is said that expectations had turned the village into the Far West, where contractors become millionaires, everything was done by hand by groups of dozens of workers; This unbounded growth brought along all kinds of excess, vice and earthly pleasures which immediately led to considering the place and its dwellers to have made a pact with the Devil. For many people, was “possessed”.
All came to an end when the First World War began.. Now it is like a ghost town.
Apachetas were built by Incas as they climbed the trail up the Andean mountain passes. They picked up a small stone and carried it for a short distance to the summit. They then added the stone to an existing apacheta located along the trail or left the stone as the beginning of a new apacheta. Travelers then said a prayer to the gods for luck and protection during their travels and for the elimination of travel fatigue. If no suitable stone was available, travelers would add other objects such as sea shells or coca leaves. In addition to being a source of spiritual power, apachetas also served as trail markers for the rugged mountain terrain.
The word apacheta means “the source where the flow begins”.
Always guiding the way are the roadside saints of Argentina. ¨Gracias a Guachito Gil!!¨ I bellow with all of my might. Legend has it that he performs miracles and you never have to go far to see a shrine thanking him. Difunta Correa is another legend of a woman who disappeared searching for her sick husband in the war and died in the desert while nursing and keeping her baby alive. Filled bottles are left to honor her. With some of the dull stretches of Ruta 40 this stuff really perks me up. I have a Gauchito Gil flag on my bike.
In La Viña we bulldozed into a radio station and had listeners on the edge of their seat with our interview which was esentially about how much we love Argentina.
When I got my certificate to teach English, I was certain (despite never visiting Argentina) that I would go live and teach in Salta or Bariloche. Then I thought maybe I would just ride my bike there to live and teach…that is exactly how all of this started. What if we could see the turns our life took on a map?
Ringing in 2015 I felt in continued awe of life. The family at our hostel in Belen shared a home cooked dinner with us took and us out dancing. I shudder to think how one moment can be so carefree and the next, life jolts you with the reality of how fragile and even cruel it can be. Aileen´s best friend was killed in a hit and run accident in NYC. She had shared many stories in our days of riding and spoke of her as often as I do my sisters. This extraordinary person, Guler, who escaped an arranged marriage at 14 and built a successful photography business, traveling the world solo was taken too soon. I never met her but I will never forget how she reminded me to see life as it is, precious.
Sharing this interview that I love:
If you say ‘no’ to adventures because you are too busy, I’d suggest you think of these three reasons to say ‘yes’ instead:
1. One day you and everyone you know will be dust, and nothing you said or did, or bought or promised, or saved, or downloaded, or uploaded, or typed, or Tweeted will mean anything, and that day grows closer by the second.
2. Your future self, 40 years down the line, will hate you if you don’t have the balls to live now.
3. On your return you will find a new job, another girlfriend/boyfriend, a bed for the night, and all those people who said not to go will be sorry they tried to stop you, and will wish they’d had the strength to go too.
– Andy Kirkpatrick.