Australia and everything which has happened during our time on that vast continent consumed most of our thinking and talking during the – long, long, – incarceration on planes flying towards our fourth continent so far (South America). In between bouts of sleeping as we flew further and further from Sydney, our minds turn towards the future. It is a future which is uncertain in many ways. I say uncertain as Bernard could always ‘see’ Australia but, for some reason, seeing ‘past’ Australia leaves him looking at rolling mist with shifting, indistinct, shapes flitting out of reach when he tries to focus on them. Throughout the 12,000 miles or so he has been clear in his directions and thinking; he ‘knows’. For most of the journey we have travelled South, South East or even East. Little has happened in a northerly manner; at least not for any great length of time. He ponders as his mood changes and reflects on whether it could be related to the fact we will be following a Northern compass setting; heading ‘home’?
It surprises me as he talks about it in this way with still so far to go; the whole of South and Central America before even hitting the states and our eventual goal of New York. This where the final chapter of the book sees the climb to the top of the Empire State building. If you knew Bernard you would understand even more why he picked this location. We think it will be a fitting end to a journey which will have taken us ‘around the world on a motorcycle’.
Australia, however, has left ‘something’ in his head which he cannot shake.
I ponder if, with the country being so much like England, perhaps it is a form of ‘home sickness? Perhaps he has had enough?’ It is almost as if “we’ve got to Australia” even though the goal was ‘all the way round’; a piece is missing from his mental world. He cannot see past it at the moment . This is in contrast to me. I have always, always, wanted to land in South America and even the words ‘Peru’ or ‘Chile’ sends me daydreaming about a life-time’s yearning to travel.
Bernard, meanwhile, feels up and down in terms of mood about the next leg of the journey and I wonder if the Lariam (or Mefloquine – the anti-malarial drug) is impacting as it can be a side-effect? We had stopped taking them within Australia but have started again as we enter ‘hot zones’ marked red on the malarial maps.
He laughs as we talk and it is good to hear the sound before he goes on to promise he will tell me if he starts to think of murder and mayhem. Perhaps it is ‘just’ tiredness and I know months on the road have left him tired in new ways he has never encountered before; the constant straining to keep the two of us safe over the day, weeks and months as we cover thousands of miles. He fixes Bertha with a head torch in the dark, edits photographs, or video clips, while all the time acting as chief cook and bottle washer as we string words together, fighting empty pages where the words will not come. Then the light bulb goes off in our heads as we bounce ideas off each other, then they will not stop flowing; images and experiences pour out faster than we can write them. We land in Chile, still talking, and very tired.
We stumble off the plane onto the tarmac with our left legs not talking to our right, with our brains feeling like they have been wrapped in cotton wool. We wonder where Bertha is in the airport as Bernard lights his first cigarette for over 20 hours, smoking two in celebration at his restored freedoms and his ‘right to be a leper’, as he puts it.
Fortunately the anaesthetic effects of jet-lag on our body enables us to sit like zombies as the evening landscape goes past at Chilean Warp Speed Taxi Driving for over 25 minutes before reaching the hotel. It is in down town Santiago and we had booked a stay of three nights; Day 1 (Arrival), Day 2 (Retrieve Bertha) and Day 3 (Repack and prepare to leave). We are confused and disorientated and ‘Dog tired’ does not describe it; it is so profound we fall into the room and pass out at 11pm only to waken every two hours through out the night – eventually getting dressed at 5.30am with sore eyes and everything aching. While tired, we are happy to begin Day 2 (Retrieve Bertha).
After breakfast we settle into a taxi to the airport (driven by another Chilean Lewis Hamilton) and find the cargo depot. Bertha is nowhere to be seen and, eventually, we find out she is not due to arrive until – at the earliest – Wednesday. It is Monday as we stand even more confused now. We show documents to the cargo staff; booking slips, confirmation of cargo space and the Sunday departure from Sydney on the direct flight to Santiago with Qantas. They shake their heads and repeat she is not due until Wednesday, at the earliest. We have nothing but the clothes we are standing in as the news sinks in. We calculate what it means as we have left everything with the bike; timing everything to land together. We feel flattened. Despite all the careful planning somebody, somewhere, has changed the flight without telling us. In many ways we fume with impotence as we head back to the hotel to book an additional three nights. We have the clothes we stand up in.
The taxi driver speaks very good English and we ask him to stay with us as we enter the labyrinth of Chilean Motor Insurance to fill our time. We end up in an office with a nice young lady who struggles manfully, or should that be person-fully (woman-fully?) with the computer system; it does not like our number plate. Chilean number plates have four letters and two numbers; Bertha is adorned with four and three and the computer does not like it. It doesn’t like our British Passport numbers either.
Bernard helpfully suggests she could just miss one of Bertha’s numbers out then the computer will be happy. She doesn’t think she can do this; despite his prompting. Eventually she concedes defeat after several phone calls to her boss and it transpires we cannot get insurance. The company worries in case we have an accident, it is our fault, and we are back home in the UK for a ruinous court case for which we fail to appear! Today is definitely not going well so far.
We trudge out of the office with Bernard ruminating it was easier to get things done in Pakistan than in Chile. Our driver picks the sentence up and it amuses him no end; he chuckles all the way back to the hotel as he repeats “It’s easier to get things done in Pakistan than Chile” while projecting the car through the traffic like a missile. We’re too worn out and depressed to care as we hurtle towards possible oblivion.
The driver Jorge (Horge in Spanish) rings the local police station when we arrive back, thankfully unscathed from the hurtling descent into the city. He explains our predicament and, to them, the answer is simple. The officer advises us to “Just show the UK insurance if anybody stops you, it is unlikely they will be able to read it anyway.” We just laugh when Horge says (innocently) “Problem solved and much cheaper this way!” Perhaps the Chilean police are to be different than we expect?
We take a taxi to the shopping mall where the driver takes my arm as we get out of the car, guiding me to the pavement, gently lifting my arm to indicate a step up before waving as he pulls away. Replacing shampoos and toothpaste – as the airport security at Sydney had relieved us of both commodities – we wander around the shopping precinct looking for maps along with a local Sim card for the phone. All the time the effects of jet-lag makes our legs feel like deep sea divers so heavy do they feel. We find no road maps at all of Chile which puzzles us.
A Sim card however is rapidly found as every second shop is for mobile phones; the Mall is besieged with them. We shuffle our way through the afternoon shoppers wondering how long we will be here as we do not even have a change of clothes. We put off buying a change for another day until we can track down Bertha’s location; running on reserve by the time we fall onto the bed to have a ‘siesta’; resulting in us being up until 6am watching movies before the cleaners wake us at 1pm that afternoon wanting to service the room. Bernard includes the terms ‘jet-lag’ to his Spanish vocabulary to explain our tardiness!
Frustration and what we call ‘Qantasitus’ sets in from this point as Emails wing their way backwards and forwards with Australia as we try to find out if Bertha will even arrive this week! Eventually it becomes clear she has left Sydney. Now we cross our fingers she will not be ‘off-loaded’ at Auckland in New Zealand. ‘Off-loading’ is a euphemism for ‘taken of the plane because somebody else’s goods are more important than yours’. It seems to happen a lot from the information we have and it is the explanation offered for our current predicament. The term is ultimately dropped when Bernard points out in one conversation with Australia:
“It wasn’t off-loaded, you never even put it on! If you never put it on, you can hardly have off-loaded it can you!”
Ever Mr Direct.
All the time he chews on cigarettes as he thumbs through his Spanish phrase book while we sit and wait. Like people all over the world he stumbles through foreign vocabulary with his first words, ‘Gracias’ (Thank you) and ‘Por Favor’ (please) rapidly followed by ‘Buenos Dias/Tardes/Noches’ (good morning/afternoon/night or evening). He amuses a young shop girl in a shop with his new found language as he hunts for something he will smoke, sucking loudly on a cigarette to demonstrate he is getting nothing out of it; despite all the hard work he is undoubtedly putting into the endeavour. He wants something stronger.
She eventually gets the classic (noisy) pantomime as people in the queue watch the show before he discovers the colour-coded system of Chile follows the same pattern as Australia. The sentence “Red please” rapidly becomes “Roj Por Favor” to denote the colour of the packet he wants. So it is the intricacies of the Spanish Language are used, first and foremost, to satisfy basic needs (food, water, cigarettes). A self-satisfied sigh follows as he settles on a bench outside the shop and pronounces himself ‘sorted’.
For the next days he no longer buys packets of foul smelling cigarettes which, even he thinks, he cannot stand. He now settles on an American brand which he hopes he can get throughout this leg of the journey.
As we sit and wait while running out of clean clothes, I badger Bernard to fill out the post cards we bought in Malaysia and which still sit in our journal. We set off to find the post office. Miles of walking in the heat takes place before we push open the door and join the queue – shuffling forward, Bernard flicks through all the Spanish phrases he needs in his little book. As he reaches the front he gives up and asks in English while the whole queue watches – at first – amused. The man behind the counter tries to find stamps smaller than a dinner plate which would cover half of the writing – the whole queue watches while he roots through folders before disappearing to find smaller ‘sticky things’ – eventually returning with Christmas 2007 stamps – all 54 of them for 1350 Pesos (about £1.60).
He gives us a bucket of water – it seems he may be concerned about dehydration from licking so many stamps – and we retire to another counter to thump our way through all 54 under the baleful glares of the Chilean Office Intelligencia on their lunch break – which we have managed to destroy while they waited.
A hefty thump signals either an earthquake or the post cards landing in the box before we exit the building with heads held high at another job achieved. Once again we wonder if the people whose letter boxes will receive them will ever realise all the tales, and effort, involved in the sending of a simple post card! At least we did not have to move cows out of the way to get in as in India!
We eat lunch at a cafe pondering if Bertha is in Auckland (off-loaded) or winging her way to Santiago. A sigh of relief could be heard half-way across Chile when we find out she is now in Santiago – better late than never as now we will both soon have access to a second pair of socks! Tomorrow we do battle with Chilean bureaucracy. Our mood lifts as we fire off an email to Qantas pointing out if OUR flight was cancelled they would have funded hotel bills and meals. Could you imagine if an airline told a passenger:
“Maybe you can fly tomorrow, or maybe not”
“But I have a reservation for Sunday…….”
“So sorry but somebody far more important than you has been given your seat.”
There would be a riot at the airport and, at the end of the day, we should have been a thousand miles further up the country before Bertha will now set a tyre in Chile. The end result was the same with Bertha’s ‘cancellation’. Three days waiting.
The next morning we set off with a friend of our faithful translator and taxi driver Jorge; called Raimundo or ‘Ray’ as we reduced it down to.
We are still suffering from Jet-Lag and wake in the night, turn on the TV, drift off to sleep, waking, sleeping and all out of time with the world around us. We get up as tired as when we went to bed; while vowing to stay awake all day only to fall asleep in chairs, startling when we wake with cricks in our necks. We console ourselves when we hit the road it will all settle down after being out in the air all day riding the bike.
While tired, Bernard is bouncing like a two-year old at Christmas when we leave for the airport with Raimundo to help us as we enter the process of reclaiming Bertha. My erstwhile companion nearly leaves me behind as the taxi pulls up at the cargo terminal, such is his haste to see if his ‘beloved’ is there before realising, from the taxi window, Bertha can be seen through the open doors of the warehouse. He manages to contain himself long enough for me to get out of the car!
We spend the following hours trawling through the paperwork, going from here to there, and back again, with the staff still laughing at the big hug Bernard gave the back box when he was reunited with Bertha. We hand over more dollars at each reception and at each new desk. Often we have little real clue what they are for but we have no doubt they are all legitimate. Hefty thumps of stamps fill the air and issued receipts flutter like confetti as Raimundo does his best to explain; the values are so small we do not worry anyway.
Raimundo disappears to find some petrol and comes back puffing as he walked to three petrol stations further than he anticipated before finding a container; returning with 5 litres of the precious fuel. Meanwhile the staff at each counter are patient and helpful, offering chairs for me, while paperwork is completed and signed off.
Eventually we push Bertha out of the warehouse and into the shade as the temperature gauge shows over 30 degrees. It’s funny how you notice little things. The heat is different. It is a nice heat and not the burning heat of Australia nor the moist wetness of Malaysia. It is somewhere in between. Hot enough but moist enough. We have adjusted.
People gather to watch as Bertha is brought back to life (her battery connected, the fuel decanted) before she sits rocking on her centre stand as the engine fires up. The voltage shows 13.5 and we heave a sigh of relief. Our bike gear is retrieved and boots unloaded from the panniers as we dress to an appreciative crowd. It has grown over the 20 minutes we have been standing in the shade and they are now blocking the warehouse entrance. The fork-lift truck drivers coming in and out, who previously had driven with gay abandon, now make their way carefully instead of rushing here, there, and everywhere.
Bernard cannot find the tyre pressure gauge which is ‘somewhere’ amongst all his gear and so we pull out following the taxi to the petrol station to re-inflate Bertha’s tyres to full pressures. Filling up with petrol Bernard misunderstands the pump prices and thinks 16 litres is 1600 pesos and Raimundo laughs with his comment “Petrol is cheap in Chile, it is not free!” as over 8000 pesos or 480 per litre are handed over.
It feels good to have a full tank of petrol and the whole of South America before us as the tyres sing a song of freedom on the tarmac. The sun is warm, Bertha sounds good. Our whole mood has lifted as the three of us are reunited. Bernard even forgives her all the recent troubles – so much has he missed the bike. He has been irritable, short tempered, and moody, and it happens every time Bertha is away from him; if she was anything other than a bike I would worry!
It took three-and-a-half hours to clear her and get back to the hotel where she instantly draws a crowd as Raimundo helps carry our belongings up the room (clean clothes at last!) The whole day has been full of nice people trying to help and Raimundo was a treasure as he disentangled languages and paperwork. When the evening comes it feels different as we wander through the streets to a cafe we have used several times since we arrived. The first laughing for days occurs when I tell Bernard:
“Let’s go the Red Rooster for tea.”
He laughs and replies:
“Do you mean The Ruby Tuesday?”
I knew it had something to do with ‘red’ but I’m not sure where the ‘rooster’ came from – perhaps it is a fragment of memory from staying in a caravan at the bottom of a garden in Mitta Mitta in Australia with a cockerel shouting “Good Morning”?
We manage to walk the wrong way as we head towards the cafe, by a considerable distance, before we turn back and find it. The staff greet us like regulars as we settle into ‘our’ booth at the back, sipping cold drinks, reflecting on a good day while mentally preparing for the leaving of Santiago.
The next day sees us repacking everything into their normal places as Bertha’s petrol tank is taken off and Bernard replaces the Voltage Regulator with the original, firing her up to reveal 14.2 volts. Now he has his answer to the breakdown in Sydney. The Diode Board (which he replaced at the time as well) has been bothering him since that night. I knew he would not be able to let it go until he had the definitive answer to the question posed under Sydney Harbour Bridge. He still keeps the old Diode Board as “It might come in handy.” I throw my hands up laughing; it is so typical. He goes on to explain he can salvage parts from it in the future, if he needs to. I give up as it is stuffed with the other spares he meticulously carries “Just in case.” I don’t mention that the things which break always seem to those we do not have, meaning delays and shipments from the UK! Little did I know as this thought crossed my mind how it was going to come crashing down on us at a later date, thousands of miles further on.
Bernard is still conquering the world of Spanish and now has a smattering of phrases and words. As always, so confidently does he use them people assume he speaks Spanish more fluently than he does; being met with a return volley as he stands shrugging his shoulders before responding “I do not understand” or like poor Manuel in Fawlty Towers with “Que?” We are definitely struggling here more than anywhere else in the world – English Imperialism was not so big in this part of the globe as the Spanish got here first! So it is we console ourselves that our linguistic problems are a product of history and not our own inadequacies!
We sit in the evening watching TV which is full of the new USA President saying Pakistan is the most dangerous place in the world before the story switches to a man in America who shot multiple elderly people in a killing spree; we shake our heads at the story. It rapidly switches to Mexico which has seen 1400 drug related shootings in three months before bouncing to the world-wide financial meltdown which shot our own budget to pieces along the way. It rumbles on as we nervously watch the value of the pound bobbing up and down like a ship with broken masts caught in a storm.
We watch video clips on the internet of Miles Hilton-Barber (another blind ‘adventurer’) and are reminded of people who asked “Why?” before we even left England. Miles has flown micro-lights around the world and trekked to the South Pole with people asking “For what purpose is he doing this?” Interestingly, it was sighted people who asked the question. Never once have either of us heard a blind person ask the same question. Same event but different perceptions; depending on whether you can see. Perhaps you have to be blind to understand why. But then again, maybe not.
When you can see and are able to do things without great effort (like drive a car) perhaps it would puzzle you why a blind person would want to do the same thing? “What’s the point?” We laugh at his definitive line of “Life is too short to drink bad wine” and love the concept of “If your boat does not come in then swim out to it”. It is what I have done. I swam out to the boat when I lost my husband Peter. In the following years the ebbs and flows of the current led my boat here, to Chile. Through long and torturous years of struggling to ‘be’. As we sit and listen it strikes me. I like his words. They sit well with me as we prepare to move on after this final night in Santiago watching TV.
It’s funny really how we cannot wait to move on. It shouldn’t surprise anyone as we have spent the intervening days performing dry dull logistics; hunting for maps, sim cards, distance calculations, petrol calculations, costings, finding city information for the route, searching for hotel availability amidst a plethora of other details. The hundred things which take time in each country as we circumvent the world on a motorcycle. We fall asleep for the departure in the morning after clearing all the papers and clutter from the top of the bed; making space for ourselves.
We sleep fitfully and wake from 2.30 – 4.30. At 6.30 we give up, get dressed, and prepare for departure. The old routines re-establish themselves as Bertha is brought up from the underground car park to stop the traffic as she sits outside the hotel. People appear to talk to us the instant the side-stand is dropped. Car drivers stop to look at the traffic lights, only to be disturbed by the urgent honking of horns as they fail to realise the lights have changed, so deep in their reverie were they.
It is only when we pay the bill do the hotel staff realise we have come this far on the bike – thinking we had shipped straight in from the UK. We hear the best answer so far from the young receptionist who responds to a question we are asked “How have you afforded it?”
“With a life-time of work” she confidently answers.
The words ‘with a life-time of work’ stick in our brains. We like the answer as it brings home everything. We know the words will never leave us; it is one of those moments, one of those sentences which we will carry from this point onwards.
It is true you spend a life-time in the track of daily life, deviating little. Then in one definitive moment you are presented with, perhaps, the only opportunity you ever have to ‘swim out to your boat’. Many people choose to keep their feet on dry land when the boat appears. Others plunge in and hope for the best. So it is that, after all these months, we now swim quite well. Gone is the fear of what we have done.
We set off into the Chilean traffic with Bernard’s new arrow stuck in the windshield (pointing right) to remind him of the side of the road to stay on. It has been months since he drove on the the ‘wrong’ side (lastly in Turkey).
We soon find our way through the maze of Santiago’s ring roads despite having no road maps; they seem to be rarer than snow. Entering the slip roads for the road marked with the number 5, we find ourselves on the famous Pan-Americana Highway as Bertha romps along singing happily with all her gauges showing ‘normal’ on all dimensions, and of which, I receive regular updates. All is well with the world as we take the first day steady; letting everything settle back in, ourselves along with Bertha.
We plod our way along the highway, not rushing, as ‘a long way’ is now ‘no problem’. We recall the receptionist’s eyes widening when she realised we are heading for New York. It is another planet away as far as she is concerned. To us it simply is. It is far less than we have covered already. The distance does not really mean a lot anymore.
Ever careful and meticulous of the 20 year old bike, Bernard looks and listens over the early hours for anything ‘different’ or ‘not right’. He finds nothing and settles back into his seat for the first day of mileage. Before we left Santiago he, again, went over every nut and bolt on the bike in preparation.
We navigate largely by road signs and compass which sets itself firmly North as we soon realise there is little to worry about, the Highway stretches along the Western spine of the country. It doesn’t matter we have no road map. We hum along with Bernard locating town names, shifting Bertha from this lane to that lane, keeping the compass North as we pass through a landscape very much like the Nullabor; apart from the big hills and mountains as a backdrop! The land is bleached with colours of beige and gold dominating everything all around us.
A whole tale comes through my intercom of how the Cowboys are chasing the Indians over the hills; or was that the Indians chasing the cowboys? For some reason I’m not convinced but it is typical of some of his descriptions. It sets the scene for me although I question the accuracy of his description at this point. My voice gives away the fact I am less than convinced. A feigned, upset, voice responds:
“What, you do not believe me?”
He leaves a dramatic pause before going on, indignantly.
“I wouldn’t lie to a blind woman!”
I laugh. All is well with the world.
The traffic is light and our thoughts turn to how we will ever cope again with the density of people and traffic in the UK; both being stacked on top of each other; where 200 miles can take all day instead of all morning. After existing in such wide open spaces for so long, where the stillness and openness can be sensed without being seen, we both think it will be very hard. Not as dense in concentration as Northern India perhaps but far, far, more than we are ever used to now.
The town of Coquimbo is our destination for the day’s end as we muse our way through the distance; about 300 miles to cover before dark.
We eat our hotdogs as we mull over insights into blindness and people’s perceptions when they meet us while Bernard points out perception itself (or understanding) is influenced and constructed by, attitudes, beliefs and values. These, he goes on, are unique in many ways to the life experiences of people; which vary from person to person. Huge shades of grey within an area many people assume to be ‘black or white. We climb back on the bike and continue one of our many long conversations about blindness and the journey as we meander through a moratorium of our life on the road; opened up by the trigger of the ‘simple’ word perception.We deviate far in the conversation as the miles pass below the wheels. Occasional stops to pay the tolls interrupt the mental meandering. I place money in his gloved hand which is passed over to another before we accelerate away again. Deserted roads stretch before us as we travel the roller-coaster under the canopy of blue, cloudless, skies with the exhaust notes changing and growling as we make progress towards Coquimbo; exhausts popping on the overrun as we descend steep mountains to valley floors full of beigeness.As we ride Bernard tells me of what he knows of the history of Chile and South America; of the Mayans and Incas of Peru in the old world, of the secret police and the days of Pinochet in the new; of the problems during the period of the Military Juntas where people simply ‘disappeared’ in places such as Argentina. The time passes as we talk of Argentina itself and of our sadness we could not travel through the country due to time constraints; now starting to impinge on our thinking. We have a creeping, uncomfortable, realisation that we have less than we had.Soon we enter Coquimbo where we slither and slide down a red clay road to a ‘Caberna’; a wooden built self-contained cabin like a big triangle sitting on the ground.The walls are steep and it takes a little getting used to as a blind person to avoid scalping myself on the steeply sloped roof.
I now adapt quickly. No longer are my routines and needs so rigidly organised. I have relaxed and flow easily, comfortably, with the ever changing ‘maps’ I have to create of where I find myself.
The site has a dog and he soon appears to introduce himself with his tail wagging happily when he finds out he is welcome. He takes up station in our cabin and my fingers fuss him incessantly as we settle in for the night. Bernard even helpfully looks up the Spanish for ‘sit’, ‘stay’, and ‘down’ as his front paws end up on my thighs as he searches for my hands.
We eat a local cafe and it is hilarious as Bernard searches his book to translate the, small, menu. He fails miserably as so many words are missing from his book but we muddle through ending up with steak and cheese sandwiches; along with the most enormous bottle of beer Bernard has ever held. We fall asleep while trying desperately to stay awake for as long as possible – it is 9pm.
“No, no, please stay!”
We leave him to seek out the next pair of willing hands while struggling with the side-effects of the anti-malaria’s we are taking – Bernard is feeling irritable and tired as we set off for the day. We ride in silence before his mood lifts a little with the help of copious amounts of caffeine at our first petrol stop.
The Chilean people try to help anywhere we stop as we struggle to communicate; never is it more true than when we stop for petrol. Often a small crowd will gather as we sit and munch ‘something’ before somebody comes over and tries to start a conversation with us. Sitting eating ‘tostada’ and drinking coffee in the morning sun of a foreign country surrounded by interested people. In many ways it does not get better than this.
The road winds upwards to 4000 feet and the sun gets hotter as we travel through the day. Bernard now wears two pairs of sun glasses so powerful is the sun in his face and he covers himself with factor 50 sun cream against the power of it.
Occasionally we see other motorcyclists coming towards us. We return the waves they give us as we pass through this ‘nowhere’ land with the sound of their ‘beeping’ of hello fading behind us.
Two motorcycles complete with metal panniers baring the words ‘Alemania’ (Germany) pass us at over 100kph. Bernard describes the outfits as they both wave happily at meeting another bike on this road. Each aspect of their luggage is described before he pronounces them to be ‘too light’ to be travelling around the world. They disappear at high velocity into the horizon as we plod along. Discussing the speed they are doing and the overall layout of their bikes he comes to the conclusion they are ‘time-limited’ although he ‘hurrumps’ at my suggestion that, perhaps, they just ride faster than him!
After hours of passing through miles and miles of scorched sand we pull over for a petrol stop and there we meet up with Peter and Bernard (would you believe) our two German bikers who flashed past us a while back down the road. We wander over to them finding out they are on a six week ride around South America having flown into Santiago; taking in Peru and Bolivia before returning to Santiago to fly out for Germany. As we sit in the shade and drink coffee it is clear to me that they are two really nice men. Peter has obviously been around bikes for a long, long time. He and Bernard trade talk about fixing bikes and all things bodging! Peter rode India 25 years ago and still bares the scars as he shows us the ugly long, long rip which dissects the palm of his hand before going up into his arm; a memento of an Indian truck which left it shattered as he rode India before the time of mobile phones, digital cameras, and the internet.
Bernard (mine!) laughs with him as he points out it must have been such a different world at that time. He agrees before going onto tell us the Indians thought he was a very clever man as his (two cylinder) bike “had a spare engine”. We laughed as people – 25 years later – said the same thing to us as they looked at the two cylinders sticking out of the bike, one each side.
“Some things never change in India” he agreed.
It must have been an truly ugly break to have left such a scar and he goes on to tells us of the Doctors saying “Simple break” while they wrenched the bones back into place before he flew back home to recuperate. It is obvious ‘there is something’ about Peter which my companion recognised straight away; like Mick in Australia who had done five Paris-Dakars. Simple statements about extraordinary things. Not exaggerated. Not ‘ramped up’. Just what happened.
Peter and Bernard are not phased by my blindness and we are all comfortable sitting and talking while my companion heads for the petrol pumps to fill up. As we continue the conversation, they strip off their bike gear leaving two scantily clad men standing before me on the veranda; both over-heating in the body-armour they wear. They were kind enough to tell me as they undressed to the rustle of heavy clothes. The rumble of Bertha and her approach soon leads to hand shakes all around as we climb back on to our bike while Peter takes photographs. We wave as we pull off and settle back onto our seats. They pass us further up the road with throaty roars, big smiles, and huge waves as we all head for the same destination; Copiapo.
Hours later the town appears and we settle into another hotel, this time with a small balcony; pleasing Bernard as he does not have to descend flights of stairs for a smoke. Now he can simply pop out the door. We stand on the balcony waiting for the non-existent satellite ‘lock’ of our Spot Messenger (“Where mobiles fail….”) while staring at the full signal on both our mobile telephones. However, the Spot Messenger is a wonderful idea.
It links to satellites allowing you to send a message to your nearest and dearest (by text messages or email) letting them know you are safe and well. We bought it in Australia (in Sydney) after earlier trying to get one delivered from the company while we sat in Eastern Turkey waiting for our Iranian Visa. We gave up and cancelled the order when it was ‘out of stock’ for several weeks. It works intermittently and we cannot work out why. We email the company numerous times; no reply ever comes to our questions.
The next day sees us moving ever northward from Copiapo to Antafgasta; 355 miles of sand. The full extent of Bernard’s descriptive capacity is tested to its maximum as he uses every word he can find to describe ‘sand’. I believe the Eskimos have over 100 words for ‘snow’ but Bernard reaches nowhere near 100 as we blast through a barren landscape.
We pass through mining areas which throw huge pales of dust into the air which he can see from miles away. Later on it becomes clear 35% of the world’s copper comes from Chile and the landscape is littered with these mines as we travel towards Antafagasta. The dust clouds announce their presence long before anything else. Small gauge narrow railways cross and re-cross the road near the mines. Everything slows down to walking pace, hazard flashers on, before bouncing over the little tracks. More trucks than cars use the road and it is a flat world with little to interrupt the wind which blows dust in scurrying whirlpools as traffic passes. It is monotonous and we gratefully get off the bike for a break giving me the chance to adjust my air seat as Bernard says:
“It’s the altitude, not sure what altitude we are at, but it’ll be the altitude.”
“You don’t know what altitude we are at?” I asked before going on laughing:
“Perhaps that big blue thing on our left might tell you” referring to the ocean which he occasionally told me appeared from behind hills over the previous miles. He went very quiet. I do worry sometimes. I really do.
We pull into the town of Antafagasta and find a hotel where the receptionist starts to talk to you before breaking off to answer the phone. It happens time and time again, exasperating Bernard as he stands, often, in mid-sentence while the phone gets priority and our boots fill up with the sweat running down our legs. It is something we have seen so much in Chile at receptions. At one point Bernard mutters (loud enough for the English speaking receptionist to hear):
“Let’s ask for the phone number, sit on the couch, then ring them. It’ll be quicker than being here at reception”.
We seem to book in instantly after the call was finished for some reason; the phone dances off the hook while we check in.
We find ourselves in a restaurant a hundred metres down the road where the music is turned down (after Bernard requests the ear shattering volume lowered) to get completely lost in the menu. Giving up we ask for the drink’s bill. From all smiling (lowered music) to music increased at the stroke of a second as they realise we are not ordering food after all.
100 yards down the road we do not mess about, asking if they have a menu in English and it is instantly produced as we are led to a table. It feels good to know what food we are ordering for the first time in days. Leaving the restaurant, wandering along the promenade to a comfortable wall, we sit, talk, and just listen to the sounds of the ocean 10 foot below us; retiring and falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves through the open window breaking against the harbour walls of this Chilean Coastal town.
When I ask about the landscape Bernard struggles (unlike an Eskimo) to describe the flat, barren, ‘devoid of a blade of grass’, ‘not a tree, a bush, anywhere’ on the horizon as the straight road stretches off towards the sky.
I think he is actually pleased when he sees a car with its bonnet up, pushed to the roadside. It will break the monotony as the bike comes to a halt just past the car and we dismount.
The driver walks over to us and words like ‘Agua’ (water) can be heard as they try to communicate. It becomes apparent he has lost his water through the radiator and we show him the bottles we have strapped onto the bike. He points to the front of the car where Bernard discovers it is not so much a water problem as a radiator problem – a big hole where it once sat now fills the bonnet with emptiness.
Bernard had thought he could, perhaps, fix the radiator but you cannot fix what it not there!
We work out the missing item from the beaten up old car has gone ‘somewhere’ with ‘somebody’ to be fixed, leaving him to sleep in the car all night. It must have been a cold, cold, night out here in the middle of ‘nowhere land’ – as we call it. The poor man has had nothing to eat or drink since the previous day and as soon as we hear this we hand over a bottle of water and a packet of biscuits; at least he can have something to eat and drink as he waits for ‘somebody’ to bring him back his radiator! He thanks us constantly for stopping as we stand at the side of the road. After a little while we realise there is little else we can do for him so we wave goodbye, leaving him to wait for the return of the part to fill the space in the front of his engine.
All through the ride North Bernard tells me of ‘the old road’ which travels parallel to us. It is dust covered, rough, but I can tell by his voice he would like to ride it. There is a longing in it as he describes each little detail of the surface before wondering if Bertha would be able to make her way down its length, “Even for a little while?”
He muses about what it would have been like before the Pan Americana, when people used that road on their motorcycles; the time before all the modern conveniences of mobile phones, travel insurance, and good tarmac! He says it feels like the road is ‘calling’ to be ridden and I know he is seriously contemplating taking one of the little gravel entrances to its surface.
“It’s like a siren calling” he says while admitting, for some reason, it is so hard to resist.
I remind him we have spent months chanting ‘Safety First’ to reduce the risks to a manageable level. All through the roads, from the Swiss Alps to the sand and gravel of Pakistan and India, he has calculated ‘risk’. Calculated ‘can it be ridden safely?’
When we tried to find a shorter way out of India, being confronted with deep sand and Indian drivers waving at him to ‘come on’ as they waited for the entertainment to begin, he had resisted; muttering “Safety first”. If he was on a different bike, or on his own, I have no doubt he would be bouncing along that rough surface ‘just because’ it is ‘the old road’. He is this way but keeps it under control due to our machine’s constraints, being two up and so heavy. Bertha’s 350kg is a bit rotund and her 18 inch alloy wheels are definitely unsuited to such adventures; unless absolutely necessary. It has happened on occasions but not through choice, purely through necessity. He resists his temptations and the road goes untraveled by Bertha.
As the road continues winding through the hills, shrines appear beside it.
The shrines vary from a simple cross with flowers in a vase to enormously elaborate, and complete, small structures complete with flags fluttering in the stiff breeze. Statues of the Madonna or Jesus stare outwards towards the passing traffic from the doorways of these small chapels. We wonder who looks after them as they appear beautifully maintained and spotlessly white washed to perfection; gleaming against the backdrop of sand and desert in the brightness of the sun. Like beacons or an oasis of the spirit in the desolate surroundings where life must be so hard and tracks lead of from them into the hills around.
The flag of Chile flies everywhere above these shrines and we start to notice in the small ‘villages’, as the Pan American drives straight through the middle of the streets, the Chilean flag will adorn everything; lamp posts, buildings, cars, wheel barrows and anything where it can be attached to. We have noticed this in other countries where the national flag also flies everywhere; from Turkey to Thailand, from Nepal to Malaysia. Everywhere. We wonder why this is so as we talk about England and the resistance in our homeland to ‘flying the flag’. Could you imagine St. George’s flag flying from every building and lamp post; without the trigger of a football match? We could not imagine it.
Time passes to the next petrol stop after we set off from one of the shrines in a pause to stretch our legs on completing a long road of nothing. We find three bikes pulled up with Brazilian number plates and five people appear in the door of the cafe to watch as we fill up. Crossing the road we find drinks and relief in the shade. The two Harley-Davidsons and single BMW sit loaded for a journey as their owner’s smile at our approach, finding two couples and their friend completing a loop of Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Peru and Bolivia before returning home. Language is a problem but we manage to muddle through it as they speak halting English in an apologetic way. They say their English is ‘not so good’ while our Spanish is so primitive they sound positively fluent; sometimes it is embarrassing being English with our island mentality and poor grasp of languages.
Meanwhile, outside, people gather around Bertha.
We sit as Bernard wolfs down a stew and I sip cold Fanta before we all leave the shade at the same time and they reach for my hand and wish us ‘good journey’ (even though we are not going to Brazil!) They say the hotels are good in Iquique – the direction we are all headed – and we may ‘see them later’ as they plan to stop there for the night. Iquique itself is a 40 km detour off our route and Bernard is convinced there will be something at the ‘junction’ where the road splits with the highway continuing North while westwards is Iquique; at a place called Pozo Almonte. He stays on the highway and heads for there. We have little time for detours really as we need to make progress. Chile is a transit point to the North and one of the few places we actually set out to see all those months ago when we left England; Machu Picchu in Peru – the ‘hidden’ valley of the Incas which the Spanish never ransacked as they did not know it existed.
The petrol station, people, and bikes at Oficiana Victoria recede in our wing mirrors as we head for the small town where the Pan Americana heads straight up its main street. Children play beside the road as dogs chase vehicles; particularly motorcycles! The church bells boom in this town as the side stand is dropped outside the only ‘recognisable’ motel.
The Estancias Inn finds us in a room where the latch of the window is tied to a chair with chord to stop it flapping in the stiff breeze – where the buses and coaches compete for noise with the TV as Manchester United play Porto at Old Trafford in the Champions league. Sir Alex Ferguson chews furiously on his gum as it ends up 2-2 on the night; he is not a happy bunny by all accounts as Bernard explains the ‘away goals’ rule.
The chair grates on the floor as the wind stiffens. Not to be beaten by a chair and a window, Bernard ties the chair to the table and then loads it with all our clutter – he ponders about also tying it to the TV stand but decides against it as he doesn’t want to pay for a new TV should the wind get any stronger! Whatever short comings of the room, the staff are lovely as we eat Pizza to the backdrop of bells which rattle the windows before turning in for the night. Listening to the diminishing sounds as people head home, we are soon asleep; despite the occasional scraping of the chair legs on the tiled floor.
The next morning as we sit eating an ‘improvised’ breakfast (again we cannot read the menu), while the staff fuss around us making sure we have everything, we talk about the fact we do actually prefer staying in a small, local, motels rather than the big chains. They may have everything it is true; Wi-Fi, bars, big TVs, laundry services and all the other comforts which we all probably take for granted but they hover on the ‘impersonal’. It is the best word we can summon up.
So it is we wash our clothes in the sinks of small motels, hotels, and guest houses, hanging them to dry on balconies, or even on Bertha at times. The world is more personal, friendly, and it feels ‘better’ in this way. We always remember the small places we have stayed whether in in Turkey or India. We remember the resort at Kuala Kangsar and the friends we made with the staff as Bertha was stripped and repaired, Greece and Heleni the elderly lady whose heart was ‘hot and heavy’ when she realised I was blind. Of how that meeting led to the fish restaurant with the free meal and drinks by the cafe owner. Of sending his father two copies of the picture we took after we reached Athens. The memories of ‘bigger’ hotels are just not as distinct or as deeply imprinted within us.
Yes, the buildings can be imposing or grand; few people can resist the charm of a liveried doorman and ‘eager to please’ staff hanging on your every need. While this is true even in these places you will find Bernard with the gardeners or the person cleaning the floors; the ‘bell’ boy or the waiter.
In India he would talk to drivers outside wherever we landed for the night. Often they would be sitting waiting for the richly dressed people they had disgorged from the cars. He would go out for a smoke and come back an hour later telling me he had been sitting on the grass talking with people whose front seats was their accommodation for the night; passing the time until the morning when their more affluent passengers will emerge. The same was true at the small hotel in Delhi where the staff sat outside on the steps with us as Bernard puffed away while watching the Indian Police stopping vehicles yards away. Small places perhaps but staffed by big people who have left imprints in the windows of our mind.
The Hotel Estancias was such a place and we say goodbye as staff come out to wish us luck; my hand is grasped and women whom we met only last night kiss my cheek as if we have known each other for far longer. A one night stop but something far more inserts itself into this brief time and it occurs over and over again; always in a ‘smaller’ place.
We pull out and accelerate hard to outrun the dogs who seem to have been waiting for us to appear. The Doggie grapevine perhaps has also been drumming up support for our exit?
Before we left the motel we had checked the small tourist guide, bought yesterday from a petrol station, and can find no petrol for a greater distance than Bertha’s tank will take us. We keep our fingers crossed it isn’t accurate. If the map is right Bernard does not think we have enough to get all the way to Arica; considering there are a few 5000 feet climbs along the way. He tries to conserve petrol by the usual juggling of throttle and coasting down hills where possible. This is not a place to run out of petrol. Pulling into a zonal crossing at Punta Camarones we are waved down by the Cabanarres (police) who check our documents (Carnet) before waving us through.
“Gasolina?” he asks hopefully.
“Arica” they respond (a 100 kms away)
“Cuyo?” he asks hopefully.
“No, Arica” they come back, again shattering his hopes.
We stand by the bike and ponder if we will make it. It will be at the extremes of our range.
Meanwhile the police continue to stop cars to examine documents while we stand checking and rechecking distances and fuel consumption. Bernard wanders over to one car and tries to find an additional 2-3 litres of fuel but to no avail. He eyes the police car (probably full of fuel) but it is obvious the police will not help. They stop car after car without seeing if anybody can spare 2 or 3 litres.
We decide to push on and travel at 60kpm, a constant speed to conserve petrol – every downhill stretch involves coasting until we hit the next hill when Bertha is very gently pushed up. After a nervous 100 km we top the hill and look down into Arica with 205 miles on the clock; 25 miles past our reserve capacity. We breath a sigh of relief as we coast the miles and miles of descent to another Chilean coastal town. The final port of call before crossing in Peru.
The first petrol station is pulled into and we fill up with 17 litres of their finest discovering it would be possible, at this rate, to cover 240 miles with extremely gentle riding if we ever need to. We hope we never need to. Driving around and around the traffic of Arica a hotel appears which has everything we need for a couple of days stay (internet, wi-fi etc.) and the room is nice as Bertha works her magic on everybody. We have covered 1400 miles over four days through the hottest landscape ever encountered; far, far, hotter than anything before in any country. We need a little down time.
When we move again we are heading for Cuesco in Peru and the magical land of the Incas (Machu Picchu). We know the altitudes (up to 15,000 feet) will cause some problems so we need to rest and recuperate before moving on; time also to catch up on some of the writing as the days pass so quickly.
As we settle in two motorcycles appear complete with Chilean number plates and ridden by Jaime and Conti; a husband and wife team from Salamanca in Spain. They have hired the bikes in Chile for the journey; touring the area for a month. They leave their business cards at reception as an introduction before spotting us coming through the hotel. We shake hands and they want to interview us about the journey for their Internet TV site in Spain.
As we sit around a table Jaime’s first question demonstrates he is amazed there are so few sponsorship stickers from companies on Bertha; they received about 80% of everything through this avenue. When we talk about this aspect he readily agrees, that, often it is ‘not what you know but who’ as Bernard stares enviously at their bike’s panniers, festooned with company logos and details of organisations. The softly spoken husband and wife team think such a trip as ours would have attracted enormous interest in Spain before suggesting ‘we should move there’ due to the life-style, the sponsorship, and the people; along with the inevitable discussion of the English weather! It rained constantly when he and Conti visited our homeland. The conversation spends a long time around the area of financial backing and it becomes apparent it did not take Jaime long to attract the support. My companion sounds rueful as he tells of the two years we searched for sponsorship from companies and organisations before finally giving up six months prior to departure in order to concentrate on preparing the 20 year old bike.
Through the following hours it turns out Jaime is a medical Doctor but now works importing Italian cars into Spain (being a mechanic for them as well). Bernard laughs as he talks about broken bikes and people all fixed by one person; handy to have along. Jaime does not understand how anyone could do such a journey without knowing something about engines as we both recount the people we have met who seem to have little mechanical knowledge. We spend a long time talking of the ‘trade-off’ of using easier to fix technology (read older) versus likelihood of breakdown (read newer) before he thinks:
“Perhaps if you know nothing, then nothing will go wrong?”
It sounds like a very pragmatic way of looking at it as I threaten to wipe Bernard’s brain of all things mechanical; if I could. Perhaps then we would not accumulate all the things which seems to have broken on the bike!
The time passes as we sit under the parasol and the sun goes down. Evening draws in with us still talking about all things people and bikes before wishing them goodnight after arranging the interview for tomorrow.
The morning comes and Bernard describes the horseshoe shaped pool which he patiently walks along as I swim up and down. The occasional ‘left a bit’ or ‘right a bit’ comes from the side to redirect me before we spend hours walking through Arica searching for a map of Peru without success; but finding the precious ‘Chile’ badge for Bertha which is stuck on her within seconds of returning to the hotel! Bernard now sports a new (Chile) baseball hat as he ponders carrying a small reserve of fuel; he doesn’t want to take any chances again in this matter.
We catch up on emails as we consider petrol containers and have no luck, subsequently, finding anything which will fit on our limited space. It plays on our thoughts and we are reminded every time we go out as I learn Jaime’s bike sports a five litre can strapped onto his seat as the tank on his GS650 is too small to cope with the distances between petrol stations. Worryingly Conti tells us it does not get better in Peru as they are returning from that direction.
The daylight fades while completing the eventual interview before we retire and sit talking through the gathering darkness. They leave early tomorrow morning and as the night draws in we hug and kiss as if we have known each other for a long time. It’s another one of those partings where you have just got used to people and will miss their company even though you have just met. It does happen that quick sometimes, but it still surprises us when it occurs.
We talk as we lie in bed about it and decide it is the ‘need’ to link with people which leaves us this way. ‘Like-minded’ people also springs to mind as we lie awake and mull over their comments that we (and they) become ‘separated from everyday life’. They have also found when they return to the ‘real world’ it is changed and different in so many ways. It is a feeling of ‘separation’ in a way you cannot explain as you struggle to ‘fit back in.’ The normal patterns and worries which everybody else live their lives by, you no longer share; everything is altered.
I fall asleep with these thoughts in my head.
We wake in the morning and the space where two other motorcycles sat by Bertha is now empty and we are back on our own again. In some ways it unsettles us, as it always does, when we met and then say goodbye to people but we fill the day relaxing and writing in order to catch up while also starting to repack the bike. Tomorrow we head for the crossing to Peru and so settle in early for a good night’s sleep. The jet-lag has completely left our system with the normal cycles of day and night having re-established themselves, meaning we now sleep soundly. Neither of us now wander around the room in the dark and silence of the night.
We pull out of the hotel and cross-cross Arica trying to find the Highway with not a sign-post in sight. It’s not that Bernard cannot read them, they simply do not exist. He resorts to working with the compass and just keeps driving North until he hits a sign declaring “La Frontera” (the frontier) which we follow before the comforting small road-side posts reappear with their distinctive small shield with the number 5 in its centre; the ‘5’ being the Chilean section of the Pan Americana Highway. The road leads us all the way to the border with little traffic either with us or against us. Sand and scorching brightness are the order of the day as the landscape quickly returns to sand, sand, and more sand.
In the far distance Bernard tells me of the mountains of Peru and how they are white with heat as we move towards La Frontera. The border crossing rapidly appears and can be seen from a distance away due to the cars, coaches and people milling around as we nose the bike forward past all the cars, drop the side-stand and climb off. Helmets are tugged off heads and, without a breeze, the heat hits you within seconds of standing still. A wall of heat crashes down on you and within a fraction of time the inside of my bike gear is awash with sweat. Ten foot away from us gleams an immaculate 750 cc Honda Africa Twin as the sun bounces off a pristine 900 cc KTM Adventure only feet away. Bernard, once again, tells me how he has always wanted an Africa Twin; of how he cannot understand why Honda stopped making them. He has told me this so many times before but it doesn’t irritate me; he has that ‘enthused’ voice as he waxes lyrically on about THE Africa Twin.
Both bikes show Chilean number plates and, as we retrieve all our papers from the pannier, he hopes the riders will speak English so he can talk to them.
A pair of Chilean police officers beckon us towards them as the sections of my stick pop into place and we cross to where they stand in the shade. They soon realise we have absolutely no idea what they are saying or talking about – one of them smiles and indicates Bernard should follow him while leaving me with his colleague. Bernard does the whole ‘so sorry but no can do as she cannot see a thing’ and so he nods and gestures for us to follow him. He leads us to several flights of stairs and he stops, looks up the long set of steps, before quizzically looking at Bernard as if to say “Will she be ok?”
“Si Senhor, no problema” my fluent Spanish speaking companion confidently replies as we ascend to the first floor where our officer friend talks to a lady who gives us several forms to fill out – all in Spanish. Bernard reaches for his trusty Spanish-English book, finding, as always, half the words are not in it.
The helpful lady appears from behind the counter as she must have seen Bernard’s frantic flicking through the book in the vain search for translations. The draft from turning pages, we think, was threatening to blow all her leaflets off the counter so desperate did it become at one point; I could feel my own hair tugging in the wind of their turning.
We sit struggling to fill out the forms and, with her help and between all three of us, we muddle through their completion to self-congratulations all around. We thank her profusely, well Bernard does in his halting Spanish, as we go back down the stairs into the sun where our policeman takes us under his wing as soon as we appear. He shunts us past a huge queue of form clutching people to the uniformed customs officers who take all our papers. A colleague is sent off clutching our passports to get them stamped with the ‘Departed stamp’ from Chile and he returns with more forms for us to fill in. As he fills out half the paperwork for us, we set to on one of the new documents. He waits patiently for us to work our way through the lines of questions. Putting the bundle of papers together, everything in sight is stamped and then he points to another building on the Peruvian side while saying ‘Pasaporte’.
Handing Bernard all the paperwork we again thank everybody in sight with Bernard, in the habit he has adopted from Turkey, placing his hand on his heart as he thanks them. He does it automatically now. I can feel when it happens by the movement of his arm across his chest as he says ‘Gracias’. He did the same all the way through Asia and South East Asia. I suppose he will always do it now as it has become a part of his behaviour; part of his ‘way’.
We head towards the cool of the Peruvian building where the 90 day stamp is bashed into our passport. A security guard decides we need protection – or thinks we will get lost – and so he leads us across the building, outside the door, down the steps, around the back, then across the road to another customs hut. It is here we find our Chilean bikers baking in the fierce noon-day sun which bashes down unmercifully on your head. You stand waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy to grind their ever turning circles while sweltering with no shade. Bernard wonders, as we wait, if he should go back to the bike and get our umbrella but we decide against it; made dogs and Englishmen – and a few Chileans – out in the noon-day sun.
The other bikers smile but little conversation occurs, even though Bernard tries, so we stand in silence. It seems this queue concerns Bertha as Bernard leans forward to look at the sheaves of paper they seem to be filling in for their bikes. The customs officer examines each piece of paper, looking for any miss-spelt word, perhaps a missing comma, something, anything. It is obvious we are going to be here for a while as there are three bikers in front of us (one must have hidden his bike somewhere else).
The officer is meticulous in the details and only when, and if, the papers match his approval does he then come out of the booth to go and look at the bike; which are all parked on the other side of the main building. We shuffle from foot to foot (even the ground is hot under our boots) as Bernard tells me when the officer disappears and then reappears five minutes later. By the time we get near the front of the queue he has made the Chilean bikers fill out more paper which threatens to explode into flames so hot is it in the sun. Bernard wishes he had a magnifying glass so he could clear the queue in front while he giggles at the thought of the mischief he could get up to with a well placed sun driven ‘heat ray’. The Customs officer gestures towards us and Bernard, hopefully, passes the Carnet through the small opening.
Within minutes it is filled in, he is out of his cabin like a flash and across the car park with us struggling to keep up. He looks at Bertha when we catch up, walks around her, points to the engine and chassis number on the paperwork; Bernard points out where they are on the bike and, bingo, we are done. It was that simple. He gestures for us to follow him and we walk leisurely back to his cabin where our Chilean friends have nearly ran out of ink by this time – one more stamp and we are finished. Envious stares follow us as we walk away.
A Carnet (import / Export) document may not be ‘needed’ for South America but it certainly does make things a hundred times easier and quicker. We were to find this out time and time again in Peru over the coming weeks as it was well thumbed by so many police. Jaime and Conti had told us that when they appeared at the border the customs staff nearly stripped their bikes as they were made to empty everything. Every bag was examined, every canister opened. We wonder if it is the number plate? Is it something to do with having, or not, a Chilean number plate. Is it something else?
People, subsequently, told us that the history of Peru has left a lot of people with a form of ‘genetic- not very fond of – memory’ for the people who conquered and destroyed a civilisation (i.e. the Spanish). We came across this aspect ourselves at times in India where we were reminded of ‘The Empire’s’ mistakes in dealing with its colonial peoples; of the wounds which leave long memories through generations. Perhaps Jaime and Conti did indeed pay a small price for the landing so long ago of Francisco Pizarro in 1526 who, on his return in 1528, found the Incas already considerably weakened by the diseases he had left behind when he sailed away. He landed for the second time with only 102 men on foot and 62 mounted soldiers and with permission to conquer the country we now call Peru. Horses, cannons, guns, and the clash of steel were heard in the lands for the first time. It was never to be the same again.
An Empire was brought to its knees and, ultimately, eradicated with the execution of the final Inca Emperor (Tupac Amanu), in 1572 at Cuzco (one of our destinations). It all took less than fifty years to accomplish and leaving behind only the echoing whispers of history of what once was in the high shrouded mountains. We will never know what the truth is and whether a number plate or an accent has such an impact. Jaime and Conti thought it did. Being Spanish in Peru was to be ‘different’ in a way that being ‘English’ would never encounter and perhaps they are right. The only thing we found was everybody could not have been more helpful or more friendly at the crossing from Chile into Peru; whether Chilean or Peruvian.
We stand realising we have all the pieces of paper we need and are free to go.
From where we stand Bernard can see across the border and he describes the mountains; through which we will soon be riding at heights of 15,000 feet in places. They have a ‘mystique’ so shrouded in mist are they, according to the person who has safely brought me this far.
We walk back to Bertha and I stand as the contented sighs of a happy man and his cigarette fill the air.
We pull across the border.
The Land of the Incas.