Saturday, 2 February 2013

Some Other Days are Just Like That Too...

We’ve no idea what height we’re at, we’ve no idea what the road ahead might do, for mapped contours and spot height are but a Scot’s Ordnance Survey obsession. All we have is a distance to Potosi, except that the sum of the road engineer’s chain marks and our odometers don’t add up to the total on the green roadside sign. Will it be the level plain of Jujuy, or will it be like yesterday, when the road gave us a repetitive succession of long, steep climbs and hot rim descents? A long, sweaty collection of climbed metres and a poor accumulation of altitude. Somewhere we need to find 400m before we can enter the world’s highest town. The temperature at night should be a height indicator, but we keep hearing the same mantra: it’s too hot for this time of year. The beds in the hostals come with a crush of blankets, yet we sleep on top all night, hoping for a cooling breeze to come in the open window.

What we do get is different from before. We end up in a valley, a road rising and falling as it clings to the valley sides, through cuttings of loose, unconsolidated shale embedded with giant granite boulders that are only waiting to tumble and bomb the asphalt, leaving small craters with a radiation of cracks. This is shaky country, one tremor would close the road; one deluge, wash it away. The route keeps clear of the scarce, sparse marginal cropping land set beside the dry river bed. Small parcels of corn and beans, patches of blazing emerald green, connected by a capillary of thin irrigation channels. Flowering peppers and greeting willows sun shelter the encampments of anonymous adobe steadings that are visually sucked into to land. Tall, fastigate poplars offer exclamations alongside the submerged river in it’s dry bed. The hillside a reversion to dry, heavy thorn country, of flowering cacti and acacia scrub.

We climb up through the differing vegetative bands, slowly reaching the golden tussock country and the return of…. The Eucalyptus. At over 3,500m, there they are, standing long, tall and straight, superior regimental ranks. Either the visa restrictions aren’t onerous enough or they’re back to lambast me, to mock for questioning their utility, their sheer ability and power to survive, thrive and colonise. Eventually they too must give way to the llama-grazed tussocks, the cropping reduced to minuscule parcels in terraced plots. Shrunk beyond my comprehension of viability, lost beyond the tenuous touch of my perceived civilisation.

My progress fractures into shorter and shorter spells of
activity, the pauses for recovery more frequent. Each and every vehicle sounds it’s horn to announce it’s intention to pass - it’s written in the national highway code. I can ignore it, even forget that it’s a warning of intention and not a greeting. To respond and wave is an invitation for the bike to visit the gutter. Then one of these intrusion catches my wrath: ’F… off, I know you’re there, I heard you long before you saw me’, but swearing only burns oxygen, the muscles are stiff with lactates and the brain’s depleted enough already.

We later calculate the height to be around 4,500 m, a new P-B pb,(loaded).

We had intended to break up this section into two days and we even stopped at an hotel that claimed to have a room, eaten and paid for the establishment’s lunch. We think that ‘señora muy vieja’ understood our request, she then disappeared, never to return. No room materialises, so we give up and push on uphill. Did they have a place, but felt it was inadequate or no rooms but didn’t want to admit the fact?

Now we have a second day to tag onto this morning’s. Although fed, we’re still running on a dearth of calories. The last few k-posts are slow, the last two hills we push up. Iconic Cerro Rico mocks us, sitting cold, bold and close, yet the town will not materialise. Crest that last rise as the sun sinks below the horizon, there far, far below is Potosi. Now I understand our lactated legs, the melting hail and the strong cold wind. This is high.

Descending, racing the dark and the rush hour, dropping into yet another Americas town. Into a maelstrom of litter and shanty, broken paviors and billowing fumes, wandering drunk miners and shiny Land Cruisers. The Navigator’s age or grey hair has it’s usual miraculous effect: stop and look perplexed, which only attracts out from the pavement a solicitous gent, an enquiry and help with a direction. Down, down, threading narrower and narrower streets, deeper and deeper into history. Down and out, into the happy ambience of evening paseo and a collectivo-clogged plaza. Map to hand the Navigator tries to plot our position, propositions a local who says.. ‘Potosi’.  A joker who points us to an hostal, and another 'two in one' day.

This place is growing on me, even if tomorrow I’ll be floored with amoebic dysentery.