Departing San Pedro de Atacama for the fourth time funnily enough felt like the final time. We waved a fond farewell to a woolly band of domestic llamas, sauntering over the tarmac and grazing atop the hillocks against an arresting backdrop of Lickancabur volcano. It was Siberia, the wind was screaming at the top of her lungs and the air hitting us at punishing temperatures. Whether Mother Nature was ticked off at something, I couldn’t quite tell but she was determined to ‘get my knee down’ on the straight as an arrow desert ruta 27. I wondered if she was playing with me because the more I leaned into her, the more she pushed back. My grunts made those of Venus Williams during her US Open tennis tournaments sound like soft newborn whimpers.
There were no weathervanes, trees or wind socks present but at that moment, if I’d been able to perceive the wind’s movements with an equivalent infrared spray: namely its raging swirls, violent thermals, currents blowing from all directions, hostile gusts crossing this way and that, I would not have ridden my motorbike. This began as a blessing in disguise, short-lived and replaced with a white-knuckle ride, testing my resolve to bite through it and chew harder than I’ve ever gnawed before. I knew that six months previous, I would’ve ‘lost it’ – Pearl and my nerve would have been blown off the road. Now I was 15,000 miles into my riding career, two thirds of which comprised capricious roads and challenging conditions such as these. I was in no mood to give in so easily. The Venus Williams’ standard grunting continued, Jason pressed me to keep counteracting; leaning into an imaginary corner so lean on Pearl I did – against a vicious wind with an inner-strength I didn’t know I had.
Off the plateau we came, twisting tightly and descending around a corner. Low and behold, an oncoming white minibus driver faced me square on. Same lane. Both of us exchanged a startled split-second glance ‘What the hell…!’ and swerved at 40 miles per hour – me into the hard shoulder and him back into his own lane. There goes yet another of my nine cat lives, how many had I spent already? I decided not to dwell on my spiralling number of near misses.
Our neck-straining efforts against the gusts were rewarded with a geological genital looking monolith, ‘The Indian Stone’, near Salar de Tararock. The last of our longed-for ‘Wish to see’ sights in Chile. It didn’t disappoint. Discovered by happy accident we were overjoyed despite our precarious position on a nearby plateau; it was still raining down a savage wind lashing at any traces of exposed skin. At least its substantial presence meant I could get a good enough look from afar – size on that occasion undeniably mattered. Approaching Argentina we were lulled onto a calmer road having left the plateau. We took a renewed pleasure in lifting the visors. Out of nowhere, a zooming freighter whizzed past and sandblasted us both in the faces. Still invigorated by the bracing wind and now exfoliated, these were the instant gratifications of two-wheeled travel.
At the border, a bonny Chilean lady who spoke superb English greeted us. She processed us in record time while remarking how well the pair of us must be doing in such merciless winds and cool climes. She winked at me as I handed her Pearl’s registration document and revealed, “I can’t even ride a push bike in this weather, I think you’re cool.” What a lovely lasting impression of Chile.
The next lady to process us at the counter assumed an officious persona. Lets call her ‘Miss Customs’. With a warm menace in her narrowed eyes, she sharply beckoned Jason over. No time-wasting pleasantries, her hard-boiled instructions were, “Come here. Documentation. Passport.” No problem señorita, as Jason handed her the said items with passport open on the photo identification page.
“Where is your passport number?” she bridled. I was surprised to hear the question coming from as official customs officer. She spoke swiftly in Spanish at Jason and her rhetoric was unmistakably clear, “Why are you travelling through South America without speaking Spanish? You don’t understand do you, do YOU?!” she barked in a moue of distaste.
“Er, umn, sorry”, Jason apologised – his eyes darting as his mind raced wildly with excuses.
“Why do you NOT speak Spanish? This is BIG problem”, she said with eyes that swam with rage. Jason simply stared back at this lady.
“Where are your friends that speak Spanish?”, she continues to glower down at Jason. Without coming up for air Miss Customs wanted to determine, “Which border you use to exit Argentina?”
“One closest to Salar de Uyuni, south of Bolivia.”
“Yes but what is the name of the border there?” The scowling intensifies another notch.
“I have no idea.”
“Urgh! How long are you staying here in my country?” Jason had already stated three months so confirmed this again in his most lucid Spanish.
“Mmn”, she bristled again with a look that could’ve boiled cheese.
Projecting a profound loathing of Jason whose face clearly didn’t fit with this woman, she continued to harangue him. It appeared she was playing a game of billiards with us as the caroming cue ball successively striking two other hapless balls. This was not going to end well. Or was she just sick and tired of foreign travellers whose Spanish was ‘work-in-progress’? I made a mental note to learn more of the language and rapido.
This woman was a study in ego. Jason sat on the receiving end of more unfathomably fast Spanish in a tone that was patently taking pleasure that what she was saying would not be understood. Miss Customs was getting her Schadenfreude-induced kicks in reducing Jason to a scolded child. She was a living Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Jason royally failing to please at Crunchem Hall Academy in standing before her. I had to hand it to her, she was enjoying herself immensely and a character I wouldn’t forget in a hurry.
Jason was getting increasingly riled even if this individual was our gateway to the rest of our road trip. And as well, he really had no choice but to eat all this excrement and praise the taste; just bite your tongue Jason, graciously swallow it whole and smile sweetly. Miss Customs eventually processed Jason’s paperwork despite her reluctant misgivings. For her, he was clearly disappointing in the most gormless gringo approach possible. She had a tortured soul and I wondered what hidden truths lay beneath all that hostility.
As a ‘forgetting nothing and forgiving less’ type, I thought I better try and curry a little favour with this lady. Otherwise, I’d be toast. My turn. Oh Lordy Lou, here goes nothing. I tried to change tactics and initiated a well-intentioned conversation in the best of my limited Spanish. I knew full well she could speak a little English although being conscious of this fact was as useful as mudguards on a tortoise. I unleashed my most disarming smile under hopeful eyes and politely informed her in Española, “We speak a little Spanish but it is difficult when learning from zero. It is a pleasure to meet you in your very beautiful country and thank you so much for stamping my documentation.” To my surprise, she relaxed a little, measured out a small smile and responded, “No problem chica”. I was free to go.
Our final encounter before entering Argentina comprised a 20 minute wait for the barrier to be lifted. I asked a casually dressed young man in a sports cap if it would be possible to let us through. Boom! It was if I’d whacked a wasps’ nest with a stick. The guy exploded in a Spanish tongue, spat out that I needed my paperwork processing and gestured aggressively which way I needed to go. It reminded me of the sound of a hornets’ nest might make an instant before the hornets all came boiling out. It took everything I had not to get rankled and rapidly produced my stamped documentation. It seemed to semi-appease him somewhat and annoy.
We rocked up to Susques, a spit and sawdust settlement we’d once stayed overnight in the Jujuy region. Our hostel was called ‘El Cactus’, very befitting as the ladies hadn’t been overly obliging the first time round. What a comeback! Exhausted after a long day, we settled quickly in our spartan room and Jason thanked the woman. Cue a deadpan expression. Our heater didn’t work and in desert-dropping temperatures, Jase didn’t hesitate to appeal for one that emitted heat. Not too unreasonable? The lady liked his request not one iota. She threw a dart in his balloon of hope and waved him off like an irritating fly. Jase looked at me in despair to try the Morris powers of persuasion. I walked to the nearest unlocked and unoccupied room and helped myself to a functioning heater.
With our fair of share of warped misogyny and misandry consumed, we could only laugh about it afterwards. What an unparalleled obscenely comical day – there’s nowt as queer as folk.