At the time of writing on Dec 1st, 2015 a logistical problem grinds like the proverbial sand in the transmission. The shipment of 8 Lithium-Ion batteries, to the Argentinean capital Buenos Aires, the starting point of Ernesto Guevara’s and Alberto Granado’s 1952 journey and ours, seems impossible. I’ve come to think of these batteries as immensely valuable, like big shiny gold bars. In the Inca civilisation of Peru, gold was considered the sweat of the sun god Inti. The Li-Ion batteries to me represent the stored sweat that I won’t have to shed to get to the heart of the former Inca Empire. With one-charge and good road conditions, one can reach about 40 to 50 Km on our FLYER eBikes that fully loaded weigh about 60 Kg, not counting the person’s weight. Without the charged battery we’ll be “bums without wheels” as Ernesto Guevara wrote in his diary when his 500 cc Norton motorbike broke down in Chile. We’ve tried a “worst-case” scenario on our testing ground in the Swiss Alps. By climbing the Klausen pass, where one has to overcome 1240 meters of altitude in 21km. With the ebikes fully loaded, we switched off the battery power and tried to pedal uphill. The predictable result is one that changes the pleasant lightweight experience into a gruesome Sisyphean task where you soon reach the point of rolling backwards. To reach the pass summit with my MTB it takes me 3 hours with the eBike fully loaded it takes 2 hours with the eBike without battery power it would take a day of pushing. The batteries are considered dangerous goods, and have to be handled with so much care that they cannot travel on a passenger plane. Special United Nation guidelines dictate how they have to be packed. The FAA has plans to go as far as regulating the percentage of the charge on a given battery to reduces chances of them catching fire. But this dangerous goods label is not really the reason for the failure, to temporarily or totally import them into Argentina. I have been trying to arrange a shipment to Buenos Aires for a month now, with the help of many, including my own government’s embassy. I knew it was going to be difficult when a German Journalist friend that has been living in Buenos Aires for years told me that she couldn’t get her mother’s Christmas present out of the customs office. Apparently she saw the packet behind bars but couldn’t place her hands on it. I heard many arguments trying to explain the import difficulties. Some said that it was very tricky because of the dangerous goods label, others that customs were too afraid that we’d be selling the goods on the road. The standard answer had a noble argument at the base. Argentina, hit by a strong economic crises at the end of the 1990ties, in order to revive its economy, decided to protect domestic industries and make imports very difficult. You could import yes but you had to export in exchange as well. 8 batteries for 8 bottles of good wine I thought would be a fair deal. The coming of Christmas was also cited as a factor for the slow process. By the end a shipping agent gave me the most plausible argument, perhaps not the real reason either but at least an argument I could live with. According to the shipping agent, the stalling was caused by the recent government change; it had brought an end to 8 years of rule by Christina Fernandez de Kirchner and triggered panic in the bureaucracy. Employees of all sectors put themselves in a sleeping turtle mode. Nobody wanted to stick his or her neck out to avoid a chop in the big jobs reshuffle that was to begin. Dec 5th, after a few last phone calls to Buenos Aires I gave up and decided to try and ship the batteries trough Santiago de Chile. The process suddenly became smooth and lubricated. A few phone calls with a shipping agent and the address of a friend seemed to be sufficient. The confirmation that the batteries will arrive in Santiago on December the 14th and that the clearance process will start immediately reinstalled a measure of tranquillity in my nervous system. The big pleasant day dreaming process of remote viewing how this journey could unfold began again. Santiago meant a big change of route. It would have been ideal for the start of “the eBike diaries” to be in Buenos Aires as it had been for Guevara and Granado in 1952. But It was clear from an embryonic stage that to attempt to remake exactly Ernesto Guevara’s journey would not be viable, what was more realistic was to maintain the same goal to cross the South American continent.
Diaries by Luca Zanetti
A brief introduction to the first of six travel companions, my mother Pia Zanetti. A 72 years old professional photographer to whom I owe both, my love for photography and my interest in Latin America. The story began in 1985, when she decided to take me age 14 to the Nicaragua of the Sandinista revolution. Apart from working on her photo stories her role was that of a photography teacher at the news agency ANN Agencia Nueva Nicaragua. I was given a Leica and a 35mm lens and roamed freely the streets of the capital Managua, where I started taking pictures. With the eBike diaries I thought it was now my turn to take my mother on a trip. Pia will be riding along on the second FLYER eBike, from Chile’s capital Santiago to the city of Mendoza in Argentina via San Carlos de Bariloche and will be posting on this blog.
The first strange mountain in Chile came while heading to Mellipilla 50 Km south of Chile’s capital Santiago. A mountain of dolls piling up like mass grave on the roadside, beside a small white chapel. Apparently the sight where a 16-year-old girl died on the day her father gave her a motorbike. Ever since the accident people stop and leave dolls in thanks for the received favors ascribed to the defunct. The second strange mountain appeared on a steep hill slightly hidden behind a slow climbing truck that we were chasing with the FLYER eBikes. At first it looked like a giant PET bottle collecting station with the anomaly that all the bottles were full with water. Then among the bottles she appeared the little statute of the Deceased Correa (in Spanish La Difunta Correa) that according to Wikipedia is: A semi-pagan mythical figures in folk religion, for which a number of people in Argentina and Chile, feel a great devotion. Cattle keepers first, then truck drivers, disseminated the figure of the Difunta, creating small altars in several routes throughout the countries, with images and sculptures of the Deceased. Full water bottles are left as votive offerings, “to calm the deceased Correa’s eternal thirst”. We saw several more Difunta Correa shrines with more mountains of PET bottles before reaching the Pacific Ocean near Navidad (Christmas) by sunset.
From the Bahia de Navidad the road detaches from the coast to head inland and uphill. Asphalt turns into compacted gravel; a gentle fresh onshore wind blows. Gravel makes for unpleasant and unstable pedalling. We take air out of the tiers to increase the supporting surface, shift into the small gears and press the Turbo mode on our eBikes. The going gets a bit easier but we have to push for sections, when the compacted earth turns into sand. José a 74-year-old cattle farmer (that doesn’t know who Che Guevara was) is amazed to find my mother pushing an eBike near his ranch. Back on asphalt we have a great lunch in Litunche and fill the tiers again at the Copec petrol station. From Lituche we head south then west towards Pichilemu. The head wind is strong, the many bags hanging from the eBikes, lend lots of air drag surface making for a slow advance. My eBike comes to an abrupt stop when one of the plastic hooks that stabilizes one of the rear side bags, cuts lose and finds its way between the cut open parts of the break disk; blocking the wheel and crushing the disc. After repairs we roll into Pichilemu (the town of Chile’s world-renowned big wave surfer and fisherman’s son Ramon Navarro) and head straight to Punta de Lobos or Wolfs Point where Navarro learned how to surf.
I never paid much attention to road surfaces. Now that I have been entrusted a FLYER eBike and sit on it for the better part of my days; road surfaces have acquired a totally different meaning. They can have the same effects on the soul as landscapes. You can get cheered by them infinitely or thrown into a state of despair. It’s a matter of smoothness. On one occasion in a flat river valley surrounded by pine forests and poplars lining the road on both sides, the smoothness of the recently laid concrete surface was so perfect, that the ground disappeared. The effortless advance in a windless channel had a wonderful levitating quality to it. But this dream state has been the exception. In general toll free roads have much older rougher surfaces full of friction and are heavily deformed. Big lorries loaded with wood that speed us passed (on their way to one of the many wood chip processing plants) extract a toll on the road surface and on our nerves. There are bumps, cracks, repair patches, wholes, stones, speed breakers, laying policeman. When a truck speeds by it causes a shock, first the noise blast then the air mass pushes you aside and forward. For a moment you pick up considerable speed no matter how slow the surface you’re riding on, the difference between your actual speed and the speed increase can make you feel weightless for a split second.
From the town of Victoria we head towards Curacantin where we plan to spend New Years Eve, before tackling the Paso del Pino Achado leading to Argentina. The regions volcanoes, the Llaima, Tolhuaca and Lonquimay flashing us with their white peaks from behind giant poplars lining the street. A poster nailed on a big tree announces in red paint: “Nacion Territorio Mapuche”. At a café in a hamlet, an elderly white lady warns us. The region is dangerous, we are advised to look out for old clunky speeding pick-up trucks: “They belong to the drunken Mapuche Indians the terror of the road”. At a bus stop where we change the eBike’s batteries we talk to an indigenous lady. There is a land conflict we’re told that is as old as the Spanish conquest and there is no end in sight. First the Mapuche fought successfully against the advance of the Spanish conquistadores, and Lautaro one of their leaders even killed the chief Spaniard Pedro de Valdivia. Later by the end of the 19th century, long after Chile won independence from Spain, the army of the republic conquered the lands of the Mapuche militarily. Chile’s government then began to advertise it to potential settlers in Europe. There was talk of a Garden of Eden, of the place of milk and honey. Desperate people responded from Switzerland, Italy, Holland, Germany, France the Lebanon etc...They all settled on some piece of former Mapuche land. Today Mapuche communities are trying to get their ancestral land back. They try this trough legal means as well as by occupying land, blocking roads and the burning trucks to pressure the government. “I don’t like violence even if I have Mapuche blood, I believe things should be achieved with dignity,” the beautiful proud lady says before leaving on the bus.
In Curacantin a hostel bed with a view on the snow peak of the volcano Llaima, we gaze at it and drink red wine till the sun disappears around 09.30 PM. The New Year is announced by the sound of a 3 minute long alarm siren, no fireworks no music no party noise from the street. Its past midnight first of January 2016 Curacantin sleeps we do the same.
From Curacantin to Lonquimay, a former railway tunnel connects the towns; build in the 1930ties as part of a line that was supposed to connect Chile and Argentina. The railway line never made it to Argentina but opened the area of the alto Bio Bio to a massive logging operation, the result of which are the many treeless hills, surrounding the valley. The road climbs along the Bio Bio River that we first saw wide in Concepcion, the air is fresh smelling of the many blossoming flowers growing on the side of the road. A bus stop with the sign Suiza-Andina advertising a restaurant. The tunnel allows traffic in one direction only; we accommodate in the waiting line behind ten cars and two tractors. The light turns green the column starts, just before entering the 4km tunnel, a man runs out from the tunnel checkpoint building waving his arms and screaming at us. It turns out as cyclist we’re not allowed to go trough. We have two options, the first one crossing over the mountain range, the second one putting our ebikes on a pickup truck. Luckily the second option materialised soon after, thanks to a friendly couple that gave us and our FLYERS a lift trough the Tunel Las Raices to other side, where a valley opens widely.
From Lonquimay to the Paso del Pino Achado, we have to climb about 1000 meters. Passed the Chilean border post there are another 20km to reach the Argentinean checkpoint. The number of Araucarias trees steadily augments as we pedal up into the Alto Bio Bio, an area where indigenous communities have for years fiercely opposed the construction of a series of dams to generate hydropower with successes and defeats, more information here: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_hidroeléctrica_Ralco. The line of cars waiting to be processed by customs at Paso del Pino Achado or the Pass of the axed pine must be around 80. With our bicycles the friendly families waiting patiently beside their cars wave us trough, some clapping as you would a cyclist sprinting towards the finishing line.
The first two border agents are young and friendly both from the Chaco region and new to the Andes. They check our passports and we talk about our bicycles and the beauty of the Araucaria trees and the fact that the Mapuche and other indigenous peoples of the region used to live of their seeds and make a mildly alcoholic beverage called chicha de piñón. The younger of the border agents tells that he has planted two Araucarias at home in the dry Chaco near Paraguay, and that they are growing 1 cm per year. With our passports back in our pockets we happily pedal besides the enormous queue of people going inside border complex, heading towards a last barrier with what we thought would be a last border agent. Looking at our passports first then back at us the agent says that well…we also needed to go trough immigration and customs before being allowed to enter the country. The feeling of having just won the gold medal and losing it ten minutes later began to sink in. On the end it took us three ours to get out of the Pino Achado border complex building, a tiring but interesting experience. We discussed with our fellow travellers that patiently waited their turn in the queue an array of topics. From inflation to corruption to our eBikes. After overhearing the discussion I was having with a young Argentinean on the eBike’s advantages, a Chilean man half jokingly accused us of being agentes infiltrados (undercover agents) of some obscure ecological organisation trying to change the world order. Finally facing the customs agent we were only asked if we had anything to declare we said yes two eBikes he replied anything to declare for Argentina? No seemed the right answer and we left.
The feeling of being released from the grip of the customs and immigration officials, together with the approaching sunset while cycling downhill facing an amphitheatre worthy of an Ansel Adams’s lens, made us happy beyond description. We sped all the way down to the town of Las Lajas on the highway to heaven so to speak, photographing landscapes, Gauchos, horses, Araucarias, snow mountains, rivers, flowers, birds….
A site is announced by red cloth fluttering in the distance on the roadside, somewhere in the mindboggling Argentinean vastness where a view can hold the whole of Switzerland. Get closer and you see a small chapel, look inside and you’ll find invariably the statue of Gauchito Gil standing in front of a cross. 36-year-old Miguel Leivan and his family came to the shrine to prepare a parrillada “barbecue”. That was the promised that Miguel made to the Gauchito if he made his wish and prayers come true. The wish and prayers had something to do with the health of a relative that got better. We would have been welcome to eat and celebrate with the family had we arrived a few hours later. The Gauchito Gil is a popular saint that has its origin in the province of Corrientes. Born around 1840 and killed on the 8th of January 1878, 8km from the town of Mercedes. He was killed for deserting in the army, hung by his feet on a tree and beheaded. Not much more is known of the figure that is not part of the catholic liturgy. Still perhaps because of his popularity and the fear of the church to lose followers on his remembrance day, mass is given in his name. A devotee tells me, that now with an Argentinean Pope hopes are running high for canonization: “he makes miracles and on top he’s Argentinean why shouldn’t he be canonised”? Hundreds of thousands of Argentineans are devotees and a massive manifestation of religious fervour (that I have witnessed years back) takes place at the site of his killing. From nearby thousands of pilgrims arrive on horses and from afar busloads are unloaded everything turns red. It’s a festive atmosphere in the blazing sun, people drink, eat, dance, sweat and wait in line to get to the spot where the Gauchito Gil was killed in order to light a candle pray and place a wish.
After almost 5 entire weeks and 2600 Km of roads my mother Pia has left for Switzerland! Today my friend and colleague Andreas Schwaiger will join me for about one month. We met some 25 years ago as young aspiring photographers in the offices of the long gone Swiss photo collective Lookat Photos. With Andreas we have many things in common besides several friends and photography. We gave up smoking together, our fathers both died at a fairly young age, we had the same girlfriend (not at the same time) and we both love biking! Andreas knows very well northern Argentina and the high -plateau or Puna as Argentineans call it. I very much look forward to our trip that includes the Abra del Acay in La Poma Department. Taller then the tallest European peak the Mount Blanc Abra del Acay is highest pass in the Andes with an altitude ranging between 4895 and 5060 meters, depending on the consulted source.
In the town of Zapala with my mother Pia and plenty of travel days still at our disposal, we decided to travel south and see San Martin de Los Andes. To tour the Route of the 7 lakes, one of Argentina’s scenic wonders. Police informed us that the last spot where we could charge our eBike batteries would be 50 Km south of Zapala, at a police post by the bridge, over the river A Piccun Leufù on the RN 40. After the bridge we’d have 200 Km without electricity. So far in Chile we had managed 165km in one day, in favourable windless conditions, without emptying the four 400 Wh batteries, available to each FLYER. 200Km, which translates in 8 hours on the saddle, sounded a bit risky but worth a try. We left Zapala late in the afternoon with a strong headwind and seeing that we only had to travel 50 Km south to the next charging station, we happily emptied four batteries in the Turbo mode. All the way brand new electricity pylons, interconnected by shiny silvery cables accompanied us on the left hand side of the road. Until the cables began to hang from the pylons and finally disappeared, together with our happy mood. We found the new police station empty and could not see any electricity cables going into it. At that moment the lack of electricity seemed the worst form of underdevelopment. If this was happening in comparatively wealthy and developed Argentina how about in much poorer Bolivia? We approached the only other visible building on the south side of the bridge noticing first two square meters of solar panels catching the last rays in the sunset. The panels belonged to a farmhouse surrounded by poplars full of screaming parrots, a small vegetable garden a chained unfriendly dog, two fattening pigs behind walls and a toothless man in a red shirt sipping mate an spitting it while rocking in a chair. We explained our situation and after sharing dinner, Luis agreed to let us sleep in his home and let us try charging the batteries. Electro panic leads to electro greed, I immediately plugged the four empty batteries on Luis’s regulator attached to two big truck batteries hidden in a box. At first the green blinking lights on the side of the battery that in the dark look like glow-worms, blinked nicely accompanied by a buzzing sound emanating from the regulator. Then disaster struck, the buzzing stopped the glow-worms gave up the blinking, the kitchen light faded the fridge and the radio went silent. I thought I’d damaged the regulator but Luis unworried simply said that we’d have to wait for the next day, sunlight will recharge the batteries and spat some more mate on the floor. Later before going to sleep I tried switching on the kitchen light again it worked. I tried to plug in one battery silently not to wake Luis and carefully in almost religious respect hoping against hope that the glowworm would appear. It worked the buzzing was back on and in a night interrupted by three hour intervals (about the charging time for one battery) we managed to fill the four empty batteries. Finally we decided to go back north to Zapala and continue the journey to Mendoza, a detour to San Juan de Los Andes with the prospect of having the full weight of the eBikes without battery power under us looked too risky.
It started when with my mother Pia in the town of General Alvear we approached the nice lady working out of a Swiss chalet type tourist office. You find them in most towns these chalet type tourist offices. Leaving with what information we could gather from the nice lady we made our way to a shopping centre. Water, cheese, honey and walnuts on the buying list. In a long cashier queue wait I ask the elderly lady in front of me, what requirements one needed to fulfil to be able to join the always-empty preferential cashier. She told me to forget it; only half dead people and pregnant woman had the right to that cashier. The shopping done, outside the mall a TV crew (a journalist and a cameraman from the local TVCOA) are waiting for us. The nice lady from the Swiss chalet type tourist office tipped them about our passing trough town. They had done pieces on groups of foreign bikers crossing trough town, but never on eBike bicyclers. This was considered more suffered and therefore more news worthy, we had to participate at all costs went the argument. After the talk we were asked to simply move on out of town on our journey, so that they could film us in movement. After about 2 km they had enough footage and left with the promise to send us the video that never came. Two days later we’re having a coffee break under a tree on the national route 151, nibbling at some nuts with honey, when a small white car coming from the opposite direction pulls over. A complete family, husband, wife and son come out and approach us. They saw us on TV and now live on the road and decided to turn around to say hello and to check on my mother’s well being. A song by one of my favourite Italian cantautori Enzo Jannacci, came to mind: «La televisiun l’ha gà una forsa da leùn». meaning “Television it has the strength of a Lion”. Indeed the strength to make people be concerned for total strangers. Regrettably we didn’t manage to cash in on our newly acquired social standing. The TV appearance didn’t translate into barbecue or cocktail party invitations. Fame, which we measured in the amount of honking and cheering we’d get from passing drivers, lasted for about three days or for about 300 KM.
Its early morning the 9th of February 2016, together with Andreas we’re leaving Salta, after a dreadful night, with the loudest fearful, thunder storm ever, a bit like trying to sleep inside an iron smelter processing plant. We leave the trailers behind in a private house turned hostel, run by a Bolivian lady a pensioned teacher that looks trustworthy. Without the trailers the FLYERS will have 30 kg less to pull up the gravel roads to the Abra del Acay that with its 4895 meters is the highest pass in South America. After 30 KM we make a stop in Campo Quijano a town at about 1500 meters that stands at the foot of the Andean range.
After drinking a cappuccino and partly charging the one battery that we’d used to come up from Salta at a café, we leave with the sky covered by dark brainy menacing looking clouds. It must be around 12 noon. People at the café assured us that it wouldn’t rain till late afternoon. (So far in almost two month of travel it never rained when it looked like it was going to. The usual signals like the smell of rain, a covered dark sky a strong wind pushing a dark sky in our direction, some thunder in the distance the first drops, all of this failed to produce the feared downpour. The only weather pattern that has emerged is the fact that when it rained It rained in the late afternoon).
From Campo Quijano the asphalt road soon ends and changes to gravel for about 20 km. The gravel has lots of “calamina” or “serrucho” as the road ripples are called here in Argentina. They are caused by a combination of heavy trucks passing trough as well as wind and rain. With a car or a motorbike you can drive above 60 km this way you won’t feel the ripples only your suspension will. With the eBike its impossible to avoid the permanent shaking and rattling that becomes really tiring in the long run. The road winds up parallel to the railway tracks of the Tren a Las Nubes with its perilous looking bridges and viaducts. In places the faces of the mountains are so steep and high above our heads that they seem to bend inwards as if falling into the valley below. Many sections of the road are covered with sharp stones recently fallen from the cliffs above.
Giant Cardones cactuses mark the landscape, growing straight out of the naked multicoloured rock sediments, that have been eroded by wind sun and rain into the strangest shapes and forms giving the journey a psychedelic quality.
Legend has it that during the war of independence to troops loyal to General San Martin, put hats and ponchos onto hundreds of Cardones cactuses to trick the incoming Spaniards into believing that they where much more numerous. Further up at a place called Ing. Maury we pass a permanent police control. We’re asked to show our passports and entry stamps. There is much curiosity for the eBike among the policemen and women but not for us. When I asked the police woman checking my passport whether I should take of my balaclava and sun glasses to ID my face, she said that it wasn’t necessary and waved me on my way. I lost site of Andreas at some point after the police check point, when I saw him again in the town of Santa Rosa de Tastil at 3100 meters, he’s having a break in a provisions shop together with two Argentineans drinking several bottles of Salta beer and acting drunk. Its about 5PM, we decided to find a place to rest and continue the journey the next day. Estelia the owner of the provisions shop agreed to let us sleep on the floor and take our eBike into the shop, on Andreas’s promise to bring her a Swiss watch when he next passed trough this place. It might be in two or three years Andreas said but its not unlikely that he will pass again. This is the fifth time he has come to this rugged region of Argentina that he loves dearly. In the morning we wake among cold clouds, and make our way up to the Abra Blanca 4080 meters where the primordial human urge to say “I was here” makes us stop for a selfie. The pass will lead us to San Antonio de Los Cobres where we intended to acclimatise for a few days before going up the Abray del Acay. In San Antonio de Los Cobres people are still celebrating carnival and run around in impossibly colourful dresses and painted faces. On Friday the 12th of February from San Antonio de Los Cobres we can see the snow peak of the Acay the sky is blue cloudless a perfect day for the 40 km of gravel road that will bring us to the highest pass in south America 4895 meters above sea level, once there we make another selfie.
Ruedi has been my first ever flat mate. For a while we shared a beautiful old town apartment with a roof terrace, together with his sister Kathrin in Zürich’s Niederdorf. Over the years we managed to keep in touch even if sporadically. We’ve even met by chance in a Bar in the town of Oaxaca Mexico.
At some point we both wanted to get involved in journalism and worked together on speculation on two stories. One a portrait of a glass blower, published in a local paper. The other story was on the auction of outdated Swiss military gear. A hilarious annual event where people literally storm a compound, to find the best gear that ranges from full thanks to headlamps. The work remained unpublished.
Ruedi went on to become an ecologist. He specializes in water subjects for the World Wildlife Fund in Switzerland. His main project concerns the reintroduction of the Atlantic salmon into the river Rhine basin. Where a century ago salmons could be found abundantly, today they are completely extinct, due to the many obstacles found on the way to their spawning grounds. When I was looking for a travel companion for Bolivia I dialed Ruedi’s number with little hope that it would be possible for him to join. Seeing that he has a family and a fulltime job. It turns out that Ruedi had plans of his own to come and visit me in Colombia where I’ve been residing on and off for the last ten years.
So by a stroke of great luck he jumped on the idea enthusiastically and we’ll cross the last stretch of northern Argentina and the whole of Bolivia together on the FLYERS. WELCOME RUEDI!!!
From the distance a glimmer of light, it must be the sun reflecting on the lake’s surface. We’ve been told at the Fishing village of Llillipati that a little water has come back. They also told us that the last time they saw a fish was three years back. People here keep their fishing nets at home ready. The boats are out on the dry lake waiting for a miracle. We approach the shores of lake Popoo on the FLYER eBikes pedalling inwards in Turbo mode as much as possible, until the mud becomes too heavy and we start to skid and sink. We continue by foot walking straight toward the distant silhouette of a fishing boat, floating on the edge between lake earth and sky.
Beside us in a marshy area a small stream of clear water flows towards the lake; a group of Flamingos pick in it and leave in a leisurely pace as we approach them. Our feet sink in a white salty mud that is turning crusty. We come across a Flamingo skeleton encrusted in the crusty mud then another one and another one. Countless birds must have died here others must have taken flight.
Tons of fish have been easily taken out during the gradual shrinking of the lake until the fish died apocalyptically. In 2014 on November the 18th more then 30 millions fishes died at once according to Juan Toroni Lapaca head of the Oruro fishermen’s cooperatives.
We walk and walk the ebikes disappear in the distance. The sky is blue, islands simmering in front of us. Everything is light or mirroring light glaringly intensely blindingly. For a moment it feels as if we’re walking on water as the sky is reflected on the dry lake’s surface.
In the town of Oruro we’re invited by Sister Roxana head of Caritas Oruro to attend the monthly meeting of the Oruro Fishermen’s federation. An organisation supported by Caritas Oruro that represents 736 families and 17 fishing cooperatives directly affected by the disappearance of lake Popoo.
Community leaders and elders chair the meeting. The basketball field sized hall is filled with about 120 people. The place has no ventilation it smells strongly of the coca leaves that are chewed profusely. Sister Roxana introduces me; thanks to her introduction I’m able to portrait the people in the hall. Unwilling at first, after a few volunteers the fishermen and women their leaders begin appear in front of my lens. It’s a fast portrait session four or five clicks per person or group. We write down names and the names of the community they belong to. Later I’m told that it would be better not to publish the names, as people are afraid of possible government’s reprisal.
Here we learn more about the drying of Lake Popoo. In October we’re told you can walk from one shore to the other of the lake or from Llillipati to Orinoca, the birthplace of Bolivia’s president Evo Morales, without getting your feet wet.
Fishermen and women tell us that the drying of the lake is partly due to droughts combined with the steady rise in temperature and evaporation rate due to climate change. But the main culprit they say is the diversion for mining and agriculture from the Desaguadero River, the source of 90% of the lake’s water. They also blame a dam constructed in the town of Desaguadero by the Titicaca Lake under an international agreement between Bolivia and Peru. The agreement they say favours Peru heavily allowing only a little water to flow into the Bolivian side unless the lakes risks overflowing.
The drying of lake Popoo has happened in the past but now the fishermen and women are afraid that the lake will stay dry forever. They are asking the government to help them with food and shelter and alternative means of living. Most of all the leaders, are convinced that a constant dredging of the Desaguadero riverbed would be golden bullet solution, allowing the waterflow to reach the lakes catchment area again. An expensive plan.
Ruedi Bösiger has just left, back to his family and job in Switzerland. We crossed together the last stretch of northern Argentina, the length of Bolivia as well as the first 130 Km of Peru, from the border of Yunguyo to Puno. The FLYER will now be handed over to my friend, colleague and surf instructor guru Alex Kornhuber. We met in Zurich back in 1998 at the offices of the now defunct photo collective Lookat Photos. Alex came in with a unique series of images from the frontlines of the war in Kosovo. He had managed to join the Kosovo Albanian rebel group KLA fighting the Yugoslav federal army at the very beginning of the offensive. Regrettably or perhaps luckily, at Lookat photos we failed to properly distribute the images that might have given Alex a career as an international war photographer. Alex went on to make Zurich his base from where he worked for various newspapers and magazines until 2004, the year he went back to his native Peru. Colombia’s (where I have been based for years) proximity to Peru made it possible to keep our friendship lively. Over the year we undertook countless trips together in Peru. We’ve worked together in the capital Lima, in the fabulous Colca valley, in the Amazon jungle as well as in the north of the country. Alex together with his girlfriend Fiorella Lopez de Castilla and his photographer friend Michael Robinson Chavez is the founder of hiddenplanetexpeditions.com
There are so few, it borders on the incredible when you come across a long distance cyclist here in the Peruvian Andes. None of the ones we meet have an eBike. There is usually a warm moment of mutual recognition as fellows from the same tribe.
We exchange tips, talk about the state of the roads ahead, inquire about altitude differences and distances between places, about sleeping possibilities with hot water and where to buy the next provisions. Then comes the moment when we say that we’re mounted on eBikes. Most fellow cyclist start laughing and look at us as if we have committed something morally outrageous. Tribe expulsion follows.
We met 27 year old Lucineide Lima from Brazil travelling north out of breath, making her way up the 4210 meters high Saraccocha pass that leads to the town of Ocros in the Apurimac department. The meeting was short, we offered her coffee and some oil for her squeaky bike chain but she didn’t accept either. We left thinking that she must be the toughest woman on the continent and that obviously we’ll never see her again.
That night we slept in the town of Chincheros beyond the Saraccocha pass thinking about Lucineide and wondering how far she might have gone up the pass. The next day we leave Chicheros late at around 10AM on a long downhill ride. At the bottom of the valley one crosses the river Pampas that divides the Apurimac and Ayacucho department. A few kilometres after the river crossing, a cyclist appears further ahead struggling uphill. It’s impossible, but here she is; Lucineide again out of breath, damming the mountains, smiling and craving for the high-plateu plains.
Happy about the reunion we take a break and have more time to talk. Lucineide left the town of Florianopolis in southern Brazil, after selling her belongings six month ago.
She wants to travel around the world with her bike because travel makes her happy and pedalling is like a therapy. She hates the dogs that run after her on the road and hopes to never feel enclosed or trapped in life. She’s afraid, yes, because she’s alone and something could happen to her; but so far nothing bad happened.
On the contrary when she left Brazil, people warned her to be very careful in Argentina because Argentines supposedly were bad people. When she arrived in Buenos Aires on her birthday she found lodging at a family that organised her a beautiful birthday party. They bought a cake and Cachaza to make Caipirinas and presented her with the saddlebags for her bike. From that moment on her thinking changed towards Argentinians and Argentina.
After crossing together the entire length of Peru and a bit of Ecuador from Puno to Loja, Alex Kornhuber will now go back to his home in Lima, where his girlfriend Fiorella and their Dog Chasca Ñawi are waiting. My friend Juanita Escobar that has just arrived to Loja from Lima with two brand new back wheels for the FLYERS will take over tomorrow. I met Juanita a Colombian photographer by chance last year; while working in Colombia’s eastern plains on a story about cowboys. There she was a woman among hard men. I thought if you enjoy the life of the cowboy chances are that you might like the idea to cycle on an eBike trough a stretch of South America. She jumped on the idea! Her incredible work can be viewed here: www.juanitaescobar.com
After cycling on the FLYER in Ecuador from Loja to Quito, Colombian photographer Juanita Escobar has now headed to Mexico on a work mission. Thank you Juanita ! The eBike diaries now continue together with Jason Baumann. The mission is to reach Colombia’s capital Bogota where the journey will come to an end. My friend Jason is a Swiss entrepreneur that has been based in Rio de Janeiro with his architect girlfriend Barbara for years. I owe Jason a big THANK YOU! for helping, together with Anne Oskam in the construction of the eBike diaries website. Welcome Jason!
Dear eBike diary followers,
The last weeks of cycling in Colombia from the southern border of Rumichaca to the capital Bogotá, have been wonderfully mesmerising. On our way to the Laguna de La Cocha, we passed with almost no visibility trough the thick cold fog enveloping the paramo the Bordoncillo where we managed to catch a glimpse at the stoically standing Frailejones.
In the Putumayo department on a road called the death trampolin, that cuts trough the dense cloud forests between the valley of Sibundoy and Mocoa. We marvelled at the explosion of biodiversity and about humans and their ability to move absolutely everywhere regardless of obstacles.
The endless view surrounding the lowland jungle town of Mocoa filled us with that special hope that you get from an empty landscape. The hope that there can be a new beginning.
On June 22 the day the Colombian government, and the oldest insurgency in the Americas the Farc signed a permanent cease-fire. I was hoping to make a symbolic image of the historic moment, instead a lone red cow appeared out of nowhere for a few seconds, on a mountain pass between the Cauca and Huila departments. This made me hopeful for the Colombian peace process even if, most people I talked to on the road were sceptical.
In the town of San Agustin we saw the incredible monolithic sculptures representing the gods and animals of a culture that flourished between the 1st and 8th century but of which little else is known.
We had our first sight of the mighty Magdalena River in San Agustin at the beginning of its journey of more then 1500 Km, towards the Atlantic Ocean; and didn’t lose sight of the river until the town of Honda 500 Km later where we started to climb towards Bogota.
We had a scary moment at a bus stop in the town of Pitalito when (while changing a chain), we overheard a couple talking about the possibility of being caught on a nearby CCTV camera if they where to rob us.
We stopped in Villavieja to see the Tatacoa desert. From there we placed our FLYERS on the boat of fisherman Rolando Rojas to navigate the Magdalena for a few hours and cross into the neighbouring Tolima department.
The Odometer marked 11.000 Km when we crossed a hilltop from Subachoque and saw the town of Tabio about 40 Km from Bogota. 205 days had passed since we started in Santiago de Chile with my mother Pia back in December 2015.
The density and speed of all this is difficult to process. I found that at first what happens on the road stays on the road. It’s only in retrospect when you look at the images taken or write about what you have experienced that you can somehow appropriate the experience with a degree of normality.
Now back in Zurich after returning the FLYER to their owners, I’m on my old mountain bike again, on my first trip out to the super market I was fined 60 francs for passing a red light.
THANK YOU FOR FOLLOWING!