Moriartys -- Dispatch from Puerto Montt, Chile

Ann and Kent Moriarty sent this dispatch from Puerto Montt, Chile, on Friday 22 January 1999. It is mostly the same as the unfinished dispatch that I mistakenly broadcast on 26 December 1998 (written from Los Andes, Chile). There are a few new details.

Their dispatch from La Paz, Bolivia, appeared in the travel section of the Contra Costa Times and the West County Times on Sunday 10 January 1998.

Ann and Kent plan to complete their journey and return to the United States in March 1999.

-- Phil Davidson

Dynamite from Bolivia. The perfect solution to every ecologically-minded bicycle tourist's garbage problem. Dig a small hole, place dynamite with its detonator and fuse in hole, cover with a rock (bad idea), light fuse, and run! Watch explosion and accompanying rain of rock bits which nearly hit you, carry garbage bag to the now larger hole, bury and leave. OK, then, maybe not completely ecologically sound but exciting! This never actually became our solution to garbage disposal, but we were tempted.

Garbage is a problem in most Latin American countries and not just for the passing bicycle tourist. Many times we have carried our bag of garbage for miles, hanging it from the bike, to give it to a store owner to dispose of properly. Invariably, he or she tosses it out the back window into a pile which soon will be strewn about by the wind, covering the country. Meanwhile we receive the Question and the Look: "Why didn't you just leave the garbage by the side of the road or something?" Sigh. Hence, the dynamite solution.

The dynamite is perfectly legal and easily available in Bolivia although there should be a law against people like Kent getting a hold of it. With the second stick he bought he wanted to blow up a cactus, but since I nixed that idea, he chose the next best thing, a deep puddle alongside the road. "The flying water will be great!" Fearing the passage of a vehicle, I ran away and hid further up the road and sure enough, seconds after Kent lit the fuse and started running, a truck crested the nearby hill. Disaster loomed. I yelled at him to do something. "What can I do?" he yelled back. Boom! A geyser of water shot up into the air not more than twenty feet in front of the truck. We were in trouble now. But thank God we were in Bolivia and not in safety-conscious California. For what could a macho Latin American male driver do but laugh it off and wave at us as he drove by, pretending that he was not one bit fazed?! As far as I was concerned, I was glad it was the last dynamite we had though Kent was as disappointed as a boy who had finished his pile of cookies. Dynamite would no longer be available once we entered Argentina.

We had left La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, a few weeks earlier to ride with five other cycling friends (three of whom we had ridden with through Columbia) south across the altiplano towards the mining city of Potosí. A lonely place, the altiplano, flat highlands with only enough water and vegetation to support sheep, goats and some llamas. We were glad to be travelling with five other cycling friends; the loneliness started to seep in while riding alone during the day but then we camped together cooking our various meals and sharing coffee until the cold wind picked up at dusk sending us scurrying to our tents to warm up! It was amazing to us how suddenly the temperature changed when the sun set. In the evening while the sun was still up some of the guys would strip off their shirts to keep cool while setting up camp. But as soon as the sun set the temperature would plummet so that it was cold enough to freeze solid an entire water bottle during the night.

The people in this area, nearly 100% indigenous, were a bit more reserved and overwhelmed by us (what would you do if seven aliens descended on your house?!) In areas that were completely uninhabited we could easily pull off the road anywhere and camp. But in areas that were populated, even sparsely populated, we made sure to find a house and ask permission to camp on the land to avoid inadvertently camping on someone's private land without permission. One evening Kent, in his tights and neon jersey, and Peter, with long blonde hair and arms covered with bracelets, approached a woman living on acres and acres of open land to ask permission to camp on some part of it. The woman eyed them warily, looked out over the acres of wide open space that she owned and told them that there just wasn't any space. We left and soon found a small adobe house and sent just Kent, the more conservative-looking of the two, and we were given permission to camp for the night.

In one town we were invited to sleep behind the municipal building and one of the gentlemen, a well-dressed young man from a nearby city, took us to sample chicha: a traditional fermented corn drink stored in huge barrels. The chichería was across the street, a blue tarp stretched for shade under which a large smiling woman with the typical black braids used a bucket to dip out the drink into simple clay cups. Three good-humored drunks occupied one of the benches and gave our well-dressed friend a hard time for not being Bolivian enough because he was from the city. His response to their needling? "I am Bolivianisimo!!!, meaning that he is 200% Bolivian. So then the drunks started off on that, mimicking him, lisping, whining, laughing, "Bolivianisimo, imagine!!" The serving lady kept rapping them on the heads with her chicha ladle and telling them to shut up while the rest of us laughed and were barely able to finish up our bucket of chicha.

Not all of our experiences on the altiplano were so positive. One day we were bouncing along a narrow washboard-filled dirt road that was nevertheless one of the main north/south bus routes, the group stretched out over several miles. Three of us sat at a roadside stop drinking a soda waiting for the others when we looked way back up the road only to see a disturbance. A bus was stopped and a crowd of people gathered. None of us could make out what was happening so Kent and Bruno, a French Canadian, set off on our tandem to investigate. Udo, one of the German cyclists, had gotten fed up with buses passing him too closely and at high speed and threw a rock at one of the offending vehicles accidentaly cracking its windshield. The bus stopped, reversed to where Udo waited, the driver got out and an argument ensued. Two other of the German cyclists, Peter and Nico, rode up and got involved. Passengers poured out of the bus and it quickly got ugly. While Udo was explaining to the driver why he threw the rock, he refused to pay anything for the damage. Several men threatened to take his bicycle and started pulling it towards the bus. Realizing how outnumbered he was, Udo decided to pay; meanwhile, the passengers were heckling him and Peter got really angry yelling at them that it was none of their business and they should get back on the bus. Someone threw a rock at the cyclists and the people starting telling them that "they had no right to be on the road, Bolivians paid for it (as did, ironically, German development aid), go home, you don't belong here, this delay is bad for us, we're working people, not rich travellers, ...." Thankfully, the situation was resolved without any further violence, Udo paid $300 to the driver, the people got back on the bus and the cyclists rode away. Whew! A close one and ugly, to us out of character for the normally passive Bolivians.

Arriving in Potosí, we took a few days' break to explore its famous mines which during the time of the Spaniards made it one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Now, the mines that made the Spanish spectacularly rich are mostly played out but miners still search for silver, tin, and the other minerals that are left in the very same mountain the Spanish mined, most working under conditions unchanged since that time.

We explored these mines, crawling on our bellies through the constricting pitch black tunnels that would drive a claustrophobic crazy, our carbide headlamps the only light, sweating from the damp heat given off by the reaction of arsenic and water and choking on the dust that the miners' shovels kicked up. Our guide told us that under the conditions underground, the miners' lifespan is only 45-50 years.

Most miners work in cooperatives, their territory staked out so that other cooperatives do not invade. The miners share any profits with their coop members and because they obviously want to keep as much profit as possible, they do not invest in machinery and technology like private mining companies do. Thus, picks and shovels dig up the ore which is tossed into big rubber bags pulled up to the next levels by hand or using a winch, and dumped into carts which are rolled out on tracks by teams. No electricity, no ventilation, nothing but their own muscles do the work. No wonder the miners stuff their cheeks full of coca leaves (the raw material for cocaine), chewing them for hours into a pulp that helps deaden hunger and feeling. And no wonder they construct an idol (called a tío which means "uncle") of rock, boots, hair, whatever. (The name tío originated from the fact that in colonial times the children of indigenous women and Spanish men weren't allowed to refer to their fathers as "father," but only as "tío." Thus they did not have the rights of children of Spaniards and their fathers were instead distant benefactors.) The miners hoped that the caucasian-looking tío statue would also act as a benefactor and protect them in the dangerous conditions of the mine. In an effort to please the tío, when they enter the tunnels they bring presents of alcohol and cigarettes to ensure his good will. On Fridays after work, the miners "share" their gifts with the tío, many ending up passed out on the ground in front of it.

But for me, perhaps the worst thing about the mines is that children between eight and ten years of age work alongside the men. Supposedly this is illegal, but the government does not regulate the system perhaps because the children's wages (usually double what they could earn on the street shining shoes or selling candies) are the only way some families can survive economically. So these kids maybe learn to read and write but nothing more. Their whole lives will be spent as moles underground seeking the big vein.

Riding with a group on the altiplano was great but we were again ready to be on our own and so after our time together in Potosí, the cycling group broke up, most going by way of the Salar de Uyuni, a spectacular dry salt plain, then into the Atacama Desert of Chile. We, on the other hand, by this time, were craving GREEN and the thought of more desolation was too much. So we chose instead to ride south into Argentina not realizing that we were headed for almost as much desert as our friends!

Glad to be riding alone, we left Potosí on my birthday after eating too much cake the day before. The road was going to be dirt and washboard for many days and we were not too excited about that but about the time we were getting hungry, we encountered road workers who insisted on sharing their warm lunch with us and sent us on our way with full stomachs, ready to confront the difficult road. That evening we ended up in a town celebrating its anniversary with traditional dancing (the dancers shuffling around with white-painted faces and elaborate colored costumes), the drinking of chicha and speeches. We decided to stay and walked the bike to a rear courtyard where the organizers said we could camp. There I was grabbed by a woman in costume who wanted to take us home, who wanted me to dance, who wanted us to give her money. Soon, others followed her example and we were mobbed by kids and adults asking for money, presents, whatever we had and we decided we had had enough. We were better off camping away from town, so off into the darkening night we rode.

The only place we could find away from habitations was under a graceful desert tree. Turns out this graceful tree was a thorn-filled vicious specimen and before setting up our tent we spent an hour on our hands and knees picking up thorns to protect our tent floor and precious inflatable mattresses. I grumbled the whole time about how if I ended up with a flat mattress, Kent would have to give me his (the tree was his idea!). But miracles do happen and we left the next morning without a single puncture in mattress or bike tires. Amazing.

As we continued riding towards the border, the road worsened, washboard and wind and long uphills slowing us down. However, we passed through some beautiful wild country, raced a thunderstorm and won, and ended the day on a long steep downhill which brought us to the town of Tupiza, in a verdant valley surrounded by towering red craggy rocks. This area is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fled to from the States and where they met their demise after robbing the payroll of a wealthy mining baron. The mining baron's property met its demise too, lost to land reform, and the house, once a stately mansion now in a state of disrepair, is now inhabited by a road construction company.

We crossed into Argentina two days later. A different world, a different planet, at twice the price. Argentines are, well, are more like we are. So it is very comfortable to travel but not quite as interesting. I have to admit, my stress level has plummeted because in many ways it feels as if we are back riding in the US.

We rode into the city of Jujuy and were overwhelmed by its similarity to the Bay Area: trees, hills, fancy houses, families out for a Sunday drive, youth walking around in shorts and Tevas and then miracles of all miracles, a huge grocery store. After months of haggling in markets over the price of a tomato and wondering if we had gotten cheated or not, suddenly the prices were written on the shelves along with the barcodes. Prices are very high here but at least we know what they are! In addition, I again feel comfortable riding in biking shorts instead of tights, we are not mobbed in small towns by curious youth and men, the people even look more like we do: taller, lighter skin and hair as opposed to the smaller, darker indigenous of Peru and Bolivia.

It is much easier for us to speak with Argentines, because our lives are more similar than those many of Peruvians and Bolivians. But perhaps the most striking things about Argentines are their nearly religious obsession with mate, the traditional herbal drink, and their love of the siesta. They are Kings of the Siesta! The hardworking Mexicans have the reputation for being big on the siesta, but it is the Argentines who deserve it. It is amazing they get anything done working from 9-12 in the morning and then maybe from 5 or 6 to 9 or 10 in the evening. Arriving in any town in the middle of the day is like arriving in a ghost town; no stores are open. Everyone goes home to eat a big meal and then sleep it off. Honestly, it is hard to understand how this country is so modern and developed when its people hardly ever seem to be working!

The Argentine traditional drink, mate, is part of the problem. A very social drink, you cannot do ANYthing else but sit and drink mate when you are sitting and drinking mate. It is a very high maintenance drink, involving water the perfect pre-boiling temperature, a special cup and metal straw, and, of course, friends to share it with. In Argentina, they mix wine with coke or beer with coke, but heaven help you if you mix anything with your mate!

Riding a bike in Argentina is an experience. In this country we have encountered the absolute worst roads of the entire trip. Carlos, a fellow cyclist in the town of Santa María heard about us and tracked us down to tell us "Heaven forbid you ride the next section of Highway 40! There is absolutely no way you will survive! It has huge rocks and hot sun and freezing nights and fog that you will get lost in and empty desert and so on and so on." Well, we decided to give it a shot anyway and the next day after enjoying a great dinner with Carlos, we attempted the impossible. Turns out the road was difficult but not as bad as the worst Argentina had thrown at us.

There was one part, though, that was almost hilariously terrible. We felt like we were living out a malicious video game. Started off with our breakfast energy points, and faced the first "hazard," washboard. Passed that test and in the next round sand traps were added, then steep uphill, then all together, then the addition of big trucks coming over the hills from front and back to keep your attention split and blinding you with dust clouds while still throwing the other obstacles at you. Diabolical! But we beat the video game, and arrived in a small town to camp in a park under lovely shady trees to prepare and enjoy our favorite Argentine meal, steak barbecued over a fire, bread and wine. (Also, virtually the least expensive Argentine meal!)

Other parts of Argentina's Highway 40 have been spectacular. The Quebrada de Cafayate is a fantastic fairyland of towering colored rocks that look like hand-dripped sand castles. Rock formations with names like "The Devil's Throat" and "The Friar," and "The Toad" greeted us along this road which wound alongside a tranquil river bringing green to the desert. At the end of this impressive canyon is the vineyard-surrounded town of the same name. Being from the winery region of California, we felt the need to visit one of the local wineries in Cafayate. After sampling too much of the offerings, we were content to find a campground nearby and prepare another barbecue. The life!

Along this highway (one of the longest in the world), we have camped behind police control points, fruitfly checkpoints, in road construction compounds, beside small "Mary" chapels, in riverbeds, have stayed with the Volunteer Firemen and in sports complexes. For us, the most rewarding times have been our times near people, talking, drinking mate, eating beef and just enjoying being around. In addition, since hotel prices are on a par with those of the United States, avoiding them has allowed us to save money with which to buy food!

We arrived in Mendoza, prepared to cross back over the Andes into Chile and were so impressed by the cool green beauty of the city that we stayed for a few days. Mendoza has the reputation for being one of the most beautiful cities in Argentina and we certainly enjoyed the tree-lined streets and extensive tree and fountain-filled parks. We stayed with a Cuban couple who kept us in stitches with their jokes and great humor. It was hard to leave, but we wanted to arrive in Santiago, Chile, for Christmas.

Crossing the border and the mountains, we rode into the town of Los Andes to the veterinary clinic of Eric and Kelo Savard, renowned hosts in the bicycle tourist's world. (Friendly and amazing people, he even invited me to help him in surgery.) Invited along with five other cyclists to stay in the house the Savards are building in the country, we gladly accepted and spent Christmas here, cooking a big dinner and enjoying the fun company of interesting people and soaking in the magnificant view of the Andes we had just ridden through.

As we leave Los Andes we face the final months of our trip, and after a visit to the World Scouting Jamboree (with over 35,000 Scouts from around the world), we will ride through perhaps the most impressive natural parts of the world as we visit the famous Lake District, the "little Switzerland" region of Argentina, go to the Perito Moreno glacier and ride through the fjords of southern Chile before confronting the incredible winds of Patagonia which have the reputation of blowing boulders before them. Tierra del Fuego awaits!

Copyright (c) 1999 Ann Moriarty. All Rights Reserved.
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Phil Davidson / / Last modified 30 September 1999