My dad motivates his travel-stiffened limb to make it over the motorcycle seat with the same determination every time. Most times he makes it.
This time we’re in Loja, Ecuador. A typical lunch of legumes and potatoes made up lunch, and now we’re back on the road. Gotta make it to Quito for the flight out in a few days. Plenty of time and not too much distance to worry about, but as he has learned travelling on the back of my bike with me before, things don’t always go to plan.
It was pretty smooth sailing the first time when he met me in Belize in 2012, actually. We lazed about on the beach, made cowboy sock coffee, and only went for a short ride of a few hours as he was worried about his back not being able to handle it, and besides we didn’t have a helmet for him. That would be a serious problem anywhere but the coast. The ocean sun bleaches your worries to the faded beige of driftwood and suddenly everything seems alright, doable, don’t worry. So we just wrap him up in his keffiyeh (I’ve been using it as a travel scarf) and head out, no idea where, just let the cracked and pocked highways and byways of this new land lead us where they may.
We stop at an intersection. Fields for at least half an hour in any direction, and here an incongruous huddle of a nondescript wood and corrugated aluminum shack leaning toward an open ended diner with plastic furniture. But we’re hungry, so we decide we’ve gone far enough, and sit down to a simple lunch. An old timer sits across from us and eyes dad for a while before getting up the nerve to ask, “So what’s it like in Palestine?”.
He complains a bit about his back when we get back to the beach but we’re both pleasantly surprised at how comfortable it is to ride together. Still, a couple of years later when he asks me to take him to Machu Picchu from Cuzco I make sure there are alternatives for him in case he has to tap out halfway. It’s a full day’s journey, loaded down, stopping to stretch out, taking photos, releasing tension after the narrow road taking us up into the mist through 61 hairpin turns after passing through the lost-in-time town of Ollantaytambo.
The point where he really starts to regret it is when we reach the dirt roads. Every rut and rock is transferred through the bike’s strained suspension right to his aging spine. He toughs it out, I try to go slow, but the noises coming from my passenger tell me that this won’t be a two way trip on the bike.
Macchu Picchu is, of course, incredible. We get there early enough to lose ourselves in the thick morning mist, quickly escaping the tourist crowds until we are surrounded by nothing but the finely engineered masonry of the Inca. The isolation, our footsteps muted by wet grass, it feels as if we could be the first ones to discover this mystery. The muffled noises occasionally piercing the fog could be echoes from any when; the diffused light trying to make it through to us casts gives everything a timeless, desaturated cast.
It doesn’t last, of course. The sun burns off the mist and tour guides lead their packs diligently through the twists and turns so they can get all the regulation selfies without wasting too much time. We enjoy a lull around the afternoon when everyone seems to tire and fade away. Not sure what to do with the place without anyone to lead them by the nose, the greater part of the crowd trickles back down to two-for-one piscos in Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of the mountain that is the jumbled mess of consumer worship one inevitably encounters in small towns swallowed whole by the tourist industry.
It’s a two edged sword of convenience. And dad is glad for the convenience. After trekking down the train tracks once, he’s happy to take the train back to where we parked – and the tour bus from there to the asphalt. Without the extra weight, I blast through the dirt roads with the joyful abandon of someone who had forgotten to appreciate the mobility and resilience of their youth until given something to contrast it with.
Dad makes it to the end of the dirt road a long time later, as I should have predicted. It’s started to rain so we decide to stop there in the unfortunately named town of Santa Maria. I wander the few blocks of town through the drizzle, down the road a loud sound system is inviting everyone to the town party. I go get dad and we stand around the dirt courtyard marvelling at how everyone, young and old, seems to come out to celebrate. Even the steady rain that we’re avoiding under the tiled awning, people keep bouncing to popular Peruvian cantina tunes. A drunk hauls a shy girl to me and grabs my had to put us together, we laugh nervously but go with the flow and have a quick dance before escaping back to our beers. Dad pokes fun at me, “How’d you get to be so stiff? Your mom is latina, and I’m not like that. Get another drink in you, loosen up!”.
When we get back to Qusko the next day we are both hurting. My back is in worse shape these days thanks to straining it on a weeklong solo ride into the desert. I find myself asking my 77 year old dad to carry his own bag to the hotel room, and decide we both need a few days of rest.
Cusqo is a hell of a town. Start walking from the old town and thirty minutes later you can find yourself walking alone along the endless waves of the Andean chain. Tourists from all over the world bring in their money and the infrastructure just grows more and more polished. A tourist hub, it naturally attracts all the weirdos looking for weirdos, as I discover when dad meets a guy with a wizard beard in a funky hat at the main plaza and an hour later he’s sweating into his beard as he holds himself up between two chairs while walking on our backs. The city bursts at the seams with bars, restaurants and lodging for all budgets and tastes. Tacky souvenirs and girls posing with llamas for a dollar share ancient passageways to art galleries and cultural museums. On Saturdays you can wander into the local’s turf for the baratillo market where you can stock up on salvaged circuit boards and doll heads, empty medicinal glass phials and cheap imported products of all descriptions. Keep your hand on your wallet, I warn dad, but he’s too busy taking pictures. He is at least smart enough not to share a drink from a plastic bucket with me.
He’s not quite as lucky with the frog soup from the San Pedro market. At least, that’s what we blamed – really, it could have been any one of dozens of novel foods I made him try. Despite my prediction that we’d be at if for a couple of weeks before he gave up for the comforts of home, he seems to have been inspired by these lands and says, “That was fun! Where to next?”. I suggest we ride down to Bolivia together, but some gastrointestinal distress on his part leads us to a doctor’s visit. He tests positive for a trifecta of bacteria, parasites, and amoebas. The doctor tells me I should get tested too, but I feel fine! Some antibiotics later, we’re ready to head out and he really learns what it is to live life to the unpredictable rhythm of the road.
The Salar de Uyuni is a giant flat saltscape, a dehydrated sea that has left behind a thick white crust of salt covering the planet’s richest known lithium deposits. Nearly eleven thousand square kilometres of this austere landscape have humbled many adventurers, and inspired countless souls. I particularly want to explore the desert region south of the Salar, where I had come up on my motorcycle not too long ago and been almost defeated by the unforgiving terrain. But first, we need to make a quick trip south from Qusco to the Bolivian border on lake Titicaca; sacred site of Inca mythology and home to the Uros people who still build reed rafts to float homes on the lake – though no longer to protect themselves from invaders.
We leave Kusqo early enough to get there before dark, already savouring the fresh lake trout awaiting us at the finish line. A few hours later, we come upon our first roadblock-mob. I ride around them, then around a curve just down the road I see some semi trucks stopped in the road and several boulders and rocks. Behind them I can just make out another group. I try to sneak around the left side of one of the trucks but stop when I see they have filed out all the way to the ditch I would need to ride through. I try to start up again, but the bike bucks as I start forward – turns out I stopped just in front of a large rock. Because I’m on the edge of the ditch, when I put my foot down there’s nothing there. The bike falls over, and dad with it. I get him and the bike back up, but the way he’s cradling his scratched pinky finger lets me know in the future I will be dealing with tales of how I left him “pinned under the bike, bleeding and broken with a maimed hand!”. Storytelling runs in the family. Too bad I have a bigger audience, dad 😉
The plot thickens as the roadblocks become increasingly difficult to circumvent, until I run into a wall of campesinos, country folk, resolutely holding fast while a trio of motorcycles idle in front of them. I park and walk over to find out what’s actually going on, and they explain that they are protesting the government’s decision to rob their region of the locally extracted gas and jobs promised, instead selling it abroad for pennies on the dollar to what they have to pay. The congregation grows and a speaker explains the situation to the crowd, rallying them to hold fast and send a message to those who consider them too insignificant to listen to. I agree to let them paint their protest slogan on Lost, but they still don’t budge on their roadblock. Another KLR rider makes an ass out of himself by trying to ride through the crowd, but the sturdy country folk hold fast – I will never forget the outraged lady in her typical skirts frantically beating on his helmet with her bag. Hours pass, we learn that our motorcycle companions are on a celebratory ride – another father and son, celebrating 30 and 50 years respectively.
Riding with my dad isn’t something I really thought about so much, but after seeing how hard the journey had already been on him I understood. Time slowly siphons away all opportunities, until eventually all the things you could have done at any point, on a whim, are gone, and you have to content yourself with a smaller and smaller set of possibilities. Already, the joy we share on this journey is corroded by a body that can’t keep up. I understand this, and am grateful to him for sharing his indomitable spirit of adventure. It puts my own pain in perspective, and also reminds me to look forward – if I want to be able to do this at his age, I’m going to have to take better care of myself.
But for now, the mob is parting at last. A medical mission wants to get through in a truck and after heated debate they agree to let us all pass. It is late now, and we have to contend with this situation once more before arriving at the town of Juliaca. They warned us to avoid it so we go around, and I see the other KLR guy working on his bike in a parking lot. He’s having some trouble with his chain, I stop to help and we decide to head out together – it’s getting dark and they say the stretch between here and Puno is the worst.
It looks like a war zone. Telephone and light posts have been toppled, fires are smoldering on the road from tire fires, and rubble is strewn for kilometres. I thank dumb luck that I just put on a pair of auxiliary lights when my main goes out, and that I don’t hit any rocks in the stretch of darkness while I fumble to remember where I placed the switch. Three wheeled moto taxis, other motorcycles, and even the occasional car brave the obstacle course, with no respect for lanes, just trying to find a path through the maze of debris. My smile widens as I pick up speed, dad holds tightly as I deke between boulders and oncoming traffic.
We make it to Puno after riding for a good hour in the dark. The stars are beautiful, I turn my lights off from time to time just to look up and see them. I tell dad the circuit is faulty so he stops complaining. This will bite me in the ass later, when it really does fail.
When we arrive to town the KLR guy catches up with us, in the chaos we lost track of him and I never noticed that he stopped to pick up his footpeg when it sheared off on one of the boulders in the road. We get together for a bite and I get to hear dad tell his life story – one that I learn new facets of with every telling. All I knew at the beginning was that once upon a time he went to Europe for a quick vacation and ended up staying nine months, becoming a teacher, and even meeting his future wife. Hearing about how his horizons expanded and his wanderlust was tempered by his world view and society, I am filled with gratefulness for the upbringing I was given and the society I was born into. At the table we are three different generations of explorers, each manifesting their own personal definition of freedom. And we drink a toast to sharing a day filled with all the hallmarks of adventure: unexpected delays, obstacles, danger, friends, wonder, and beauty.