The alarm clock went off at 6 am and I sprang up from the bed. It usually takes me a dozen snoozes to get rolling but leaving Bolivia was too exciting to sleep through. As I opened the door, I saw a thick cloud of smoke coming from the middle of the hotel (an open area between the rooms) from a bonfire only meters from my bike. With four 5-liter plastic jugs of gasoline strapped to my bike, the hotel staff decided to have an open fire right outside of our room at 6am to celebrate another bogus Bolivian ritual.
When I asked the woman in charge of the fire what was going on, she grunted that “it’s a Bolivian thing, foreigners wouldn’t understand.” And she proceeded to put more shit on the fire. Well she was right; foreigners don’t have a comprehension of why there should be a bonfire outside of their hotel room next to a vehicle! We packed the bike in record time and got the hell out of the hotel. I was determined to leave Bolivia that day – no matter what – and I chose the shortest direct route out of this godforsaken country. Not wanting to go back through the same border crossing that we came in from; the only route was going southwest towards Argentina.
The distance was 900km but I didn’t care. Town after town, we filled up the bike and proceeded towards humanity. The sky opened up and a torrential rain started to come down and if we stopped anywhere, we got showered with water balloons and paint from the passing cars and trucks. Each tollbooth was a shakedown scene as the corrupt Bolivian police tried tongue in cheek to collect bribes and each gas station was a highway robbery of charging $9 a gallon for gas. At one of the checkpoints, one of the “officers” bluntly asked for “contribution” in a bright daylight with no shame at all. My answer was always a hell no.
After 16 hours of riding finally we got to the border town of Yacuiba and we found the town flooded. Water was running like rivers in narrow streets with garbage floating on top. There was no sign as where in the hell the border was, and I tried for almost an hour following the misdirection of the locals – wading through waters as high as my exhaust pipes to no avail. Against my will, we had to stay one more bloody night in this country and hope for the waters to go down in the morning. We found a very questionable hotel, parked and triple chained the bike and settled down for the night.
At 9 am, we packed our soaked gear, and after another hour of looking for the invisible border crossing we arrived at the immigration. The stench of the town was truly unbearable and as the sun came out it got even worse. This last Bolivian outpost was a scene straight from a Mad Max movie. George Miller should have filmed Mad Max in Yacuiba and would have saved millions on studio sets and extras.
The paperwork for getting into Argentina was done in 5 minutes, but the Bolivian office took their sweet time. They took the passports and closed the door and told us to wait for another two hours to put an exit stamp in my passport. At last we were free. We rolled into Argentine side of the town and it might sound like an exaggeration but everything changed in a blink of an eye. In only 1km, the streets got cleaner, the stench went away and we saw smiles on people’s faces again.
We had a delicious lunch at a super clean restaurant for less than $8 for two people including desert. The owner even sent out one of his boys into Bolivia to exchange our useless Bolivian money, and sent us away with best wishes. Five miles down the road we stopped at a police check point and after a friendly chat we were welcomed into Argentina. The officer actually apologized for taking our time and stopping us.
Maybe it’s worth mentioning that North-Western Argentina is not a rich region; in fact it’s one of the poorest regions in whole Argentina. The difference is the hospitality of its people, their warmth, their helpfulness and their open arms. A few hundred kilometers down the road, we rolled into a very poor town in hope of finding a shop to weld the broken box that Bolivians refused to fix. We found a shop and the guys got to work, and in no time, the broken mount was welded and ready to go. The Argentine mechanic refused to take any money for the welding as he said it was “nothing”. The Bolivian shop in Santa Cruz wouldn’t fix the box even for money!
We needed a place to stay for the night and since the small town had no hotel, a young boy on his bicycle tried to find us a place and when he couldn’t, he invited us to stay at their home. Home is an exaggeration to call that place. There was a metal roof, a few brick walls, dirt covered floor, an open cooking pit and a few trees, not counting the pigs and chickens. In this muddy place, I found some of the most generous, down to earth, and giving people that I could ever hope to meet. They were poor, but they put every Bolivian we met to shame with their generosity and their smiles.
We bought a kilo of fresh chorizos (Pork Sausage) from the Grandma next-door, more knickknacks to share with the family from the store and settled in. The boy and his younger brothers and sisters proceeded to grill us to no end about what’s in the outside world. They were so eager to learn, so curious and polite, and so much full of life that it was hard not to answer their questions. They had no television, and they loved watching videos and pictures, and I had plenty of both. They were glued to their wooden chairs and watched pretty much every video on my computer.
We combined our chorizos with their dinner and we sat with the family and a few of their relatives. Given their situation, there wasn’t much to go around so we insisted that we weren’t really hungry and nibbled on the bread. I sharpened all their knives, and gave them my favorite diamond knife sharpener as a thank you gift. (I’m running out of things to give away.) We slept under open skies in their backyard and were relieved to be out of Bolivia.
The next morning, we bid farewell to our gracious host and started the 950km long leg to the Paraguayan border. It rained on an off but we just kept on riding. Fifteen hours of riding put us in Asunción, the capital city of beautiful Paraguay and we could rest at last. I never get tired of the Chaco; it’s a peaceful place, packed with extraordinary people, and little gem towns that still have the old ways of being decent, hospitable and welcoming. This was my 12th trip to Argentina, a record that I don’t mind breaking at any time.