Friday, October 06, 2006


Two streets leading down from Salta’s cathedral square are closed to traffic. I stroll through a hippy craft market circa Ibiza, 1970. The leather necklaces and pendants, wrist strings and bracelets are indistinguishable from the wares in every other street craft market. The people are indistinguishable. Their conversation is indistinguishable, as is their certainty in their uniqueness. These people are different. They have dropped out. In the year 2006 – wow! One man is Rastaring another’s hair - symbol of that most idiotic of all faiths, worship of Haille Selassie, King of Kings. Haille Selassie was Amharic. The Amharas believe that they are the only true white race (we are red). They have two words for black people: slave or outcast. Typical Amhahra proverb: Should you come out of your house and see a black man, go back in for a black man brings bad luck.


Joy! Salta has sidewalk cafés on the cathedral square that serve excellent coffee. I order a fruit salad, sip coffee, and people watch. I have been in a largely mestizo world for the past five months. Argentina is different. You see white people, white, white, white. A tall man selling fruit in the market is as white as an Irish nun in a closed order. Is he scared of the sun, frightened of skin cancer? What does he do at weekends? Watch football on TV?


I am in Salta. I have a room two blocks off the square at the Residencia Elena. The room opens off a patio full of flowers. The water is hot. The ceiling fan squeaks. The room rate is $20 for a couple. I am alone and pay $16.50. I don’t complain. I have ridden 400 Ks over country that is flat and boring. Agriculturally it is organised well in vast fields of sugar, some plant with a yellow flower, wheat and citrus. Mountains pretend to approach only to retreat into the haze. Entering the city is easy. The centre in clearly signed.


I am in the Argentine. Or I am in Argentina? I prefer the former. Crossing the border was routine, though time consuming. I have one more border to cross, that dividing Tierra del Fuego. Two young Frenchmen at the Bolivian frontier recounted their fears of the complications entailed in travelling by bike. There are no complications. A biker requires proof of ownership, a national driving licence, lots of photocopies, patience and a good attitude. Attitude is essential. Officials scent arrogance or impatience or contempt faster than hounds scent a fox. Same with the police. I have been treated with courtesy throughout this journey. I have ridden sixteen thousand kilometres. Other than at a frontier, I have been asked for my papers only once, on the approach to the Ecuadorian border with Peru.


Yuquiba is an odd place in which to meet a soulmate. Early evening and we sit together at the sidewalk café. He introduces himself: Luis Yudi.
Arab. Orthodox Christian.
Luis was seven when the family emigrated from Syria. Now he is in his early sixties. We are both early school leavers. Self educated, we are suspicious of what we are told. University graduates are less inquiring: a degree lies in the lecturer’s notes.
The exchange of opinions is serious stuff. Before speaking, Luis gathers himself and hunches his shoulders and dips his head the way a boxer does.
He is proudly Arab and full of odd scraps of Arab history. Did I know that Gibraltar is named after an Arab Admiral?
He has contempt for George W Bush and the US administration. Their ignorance offends him. The President’s use of the term crusade is typical. The crusaders were liberal in whom they pillaged and butchered: Muslim, Orthodox Christian, Jew.
He has visited England and Scotland. He has warm memories of London. He judges as reprehensible Blair’s failure to denounce Israel’s recent destruction of Lebanon. Does Britain no longer have its own foreign policy?
He is, of course, a true Semite. Most Israelis are mestizo. Yet to be sympathetic to the Palestinian ordeal and to criticise Israel is to be anti-Semitic.
And, though a businessman, he is also a writer. He has written a treatise on the Bolivian constitution. Eight copies of the book have been printed and bound. He fetches a copy from his house. He has dedicated the copy:
Para el amigo Gandolfi para que en tu tesis la midas con optimo calificaciones…

Luis, I thank you.
Travelling has value.


Yuquiba is a border town and a bazaar. Shops overflow onto the sidewalk my hotel’s side of the street. A young woman walks ahead, mid-twenties. Her build is too square for fashionable taste. She wears short blue shorts, sleeveless sports top, flip-flops. Add two teaspoons of creamy milk to a cup of good coffee and you have her skin tone. Her confidence and her independence strike me. Admiration is unimportant. She has dressed to please herself. I imagine her giving a nod to her reflection in the mirror: “Yeah, girl, you look good.”
I sit at a sidewalk café in the evening and watch other women pass. This female confidence is new. The mid-thirties and younger have it. They are freed of servitude. They create their own role.
Menonite women cling to serfdom. They speak softly, avoid eye contact. Whether gift of God or genetics, beauty leads to sin. Cover it up. Hats and head scarves are obligatory. The route to hell lies in the glimpse of a pink earlobe.
The hijab? A close relation to female circumcision…

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Monday I had a tail wind and cruising at 100 Ks was easy on a great road across dry forest patched with rough fields. Hot as an oven and I stopped where ever bottled water was available from an icebox. The only service station midway was out of gas. The next gas station was a further 100 Ks and I bought 4 litres from a drum at the next village as insurance.
Today I face a head wind and 80 Ks is a maximum. Cold drizzle stings my cheeks. I stop at the roadside and pull on jacket and rainwear. Miserable, I pull into Yuquiba and find a hotel on the square, bathroom and cable for £3.70. A great restaurant on the square has an upstairs packed with Menonites in fresh blue overalls and straw Stetsons. They don’t drive cars, trucks or tractors. A Menonite baby is sucking on a plastic pacifier.


My target is Yuquiba on the border with the Argentine. I fail to pick the left turn at Kilometre 13 and ride 30 Ks on the hill road to Sucre. Dumb! So I stop the night 90 Ks short of the border at Villamontes. I try the Hotel Rancho first. It is recommended by the guidebooks. A surly receptionist gives a $26 room rate. The next two hotels are full. Finally I stop at the Hostal La Oyerencia on Avenida Heroes del Chaco: $9 for a large roomwith fan, hot water in a good bathroom, cable with CNN. I have ridden 1,000 Ks in two days.


The first 200 Ks to Santa Cruz are biker heaven, easy climbs, swooping curves. I break at Villa Tunari. Midday and fish is on the menu, fresh from the river and grilled over charcoal - $4 with freshly squeezed orange juice. Yum! 470 Ks to Santa Cruz. Beyond the mountains the road runs straight across ranch land, dairy farms and huge fields of sugar cane. The heat is splendid: no need for a jumper or leather jacket. Dusk as I reach town. Sunday and the Boys on the Bikes are out and rowdy. I grin and pull in beside a clutch of Harleys revving at the sidewalk.
One of the riders (bearded) returns my grin and says, “Yeah, I know…”
I find a $9 hotel with hot water a block off the plaza. I unload and park the bike in a parking lot two doors down. A young man has carried my gear up to my room. That I didn’t ask adds to the pleasure.
I lick great coffee ice cream on the cathedral plaza. The population appears marginally paler skinned than in Cochabamba. The cathedral is vast; the ceiling is inlaid with wood; standing room only for 8 p.m. mass.


different country

A TV crew will film my departure from Cochabamba. I pack, load the bike and wait in the central square. The cathedral is the far side, police headquarters on my left. A brass band plays. Cops wander over to inspect the bike.
I tell them I intend riding the lowland road via Villa Turani to Santa Cruz.
Villa Turani has been a centre for the US DEA - THE WAR ON DRUGS as corrupt and corrupting, ill conceived and unsuccessful as THE WAR ON TERROR.
The cops warn that I may be stopped by civilians posing as narcotics agents. There are no agents in civilian clothes. I must insist that the fakes accompany me to the police station in the next town.
What if they are armed?
“Insist,” insists a cop
Sun shines. The TV journalist waves from the far side of the artificial lake. The lake water is clean. The flowerbeds are beautifully kept.
“Right,” I say, “Yes, right, I’ll insist.”
The band plays.
The cops shake my hand and wish me well.