I met Amit in the dusty courtyard of a hostel on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama, a small town in the driest desert on earth, Chile’s Atacama. Stocky, bald with a wide grin and cunning eyes, he was hunched above a computer that glowed against the starkness of the hostel’s mud brick barracks and thatched terrace roof. He brimmed with confidence and energy, pointing eagerly to the screen and explaining to his three Chilean friends something about “usability.” His English was fast, reflecting his Indian childhood and Canadian passport.
We introduced ourselves and he explained that he and his friends came here for the weekend from Santiago, Chile’s capital way down south, where they were working on launching a web startup. My own post-divorce solo sojourn was a bit harder to summarize, so I left it at “I’m traveling through South America.”
Night descended quickly onto the desert town, bringing with it the lonesome yelping of the neighborhood dogs under the Southern Hemisphere constellations that I hadn’t yet learned to recognize. One of the oldest settlements in Chile, San Pedro de Atacama has become a small backpacker haven with a few unpaved blocks of lively restaurants serving hippy South American fare; shops sporting garlands of colorful ponchos; and tour agencies offering trips to climb nearby volcanos, swim in salt lakes, and photograph pink flamingos that call this barren region home. I joined Amit’s group as we took the wide dirt road from our outlying hostel along crooked fences and one-story huts toward the noise, the lights and the smell of grilled meat that wafted from the town’s center.
We settled in at a cozy restaurant on the corner, ordered our hippy-cum-Chilean dinner of llama stew with spinach and quinoa, and before the two bottles of the spicy Chilean Merlot had a chance to turn into a headache, Amit had somehow managed to convince me to join him the next morning on a motorcycle ride through the desert.
I had never been on a motorcycle before, but his resume sounded bulletproof –- he had been riding since the tender age of twelve, had taken his bike through a dozen countries in Europe and Central Asia, and despite last year’s crash in Mexico that almost left him with only leg, was ready to explore South America on two wheels. He told me all this with an ebullient enthusiasm that disguised underneath it a minor key, barely audible but unmistakable. It may have been the wine, of course, but I thought I could sense that Amit was a fellow journeyman on the road from breakup.
I said yes without hesitation. I think it was the one leg story that convinced me. After all, now he’d be extra careful…
In the late morning of what turned out to be Easter Sunday, Amit and I went to meet our motorcycle guide, Juan, a handsome 31-year-old Chilean with blond surfer locks and a black motorcycle jacket. Juan took us to his headquarters just outside of town. There, emerging sleepily from the headquarters, which was also their house, we met Juan’s cousin and cofounder Rodrigo. Tan, with jet black curls and a squeaky clean white smile, Rodrigo was one more good reason for me not to crash and die today.
Twirling me like a tiny Russian doll in their rough hands, the two men dressed me in a padded jacket and a tight-fitting helmet that popped like a cork onto my head. Imitating tough Hollywood heroines, I hopped on the back of a black BMW 650GS, also known as the Dakar bike, and clasped my hands around Amit.
"Holding on tight?" I heard his muffled voice through the helmet. I flicked up my thumb and he started the motor, its roar jiggering my hip bones.
It wasn’t until we turned out onto the highway following Juan’s bike that it dawned on me that motorcycles don’t have seatbelts. I know it’s pretty obvious, but somehow I didn’t quite get the full meaning of it until I saw that the clasp of my hands around my riding partner was the only thing between me and sure death. Then, it dawned on me that I was not carrying any documents and that my new friend didn’t even know my last name. Smart…
Yet I suddenly stopped worrying because there was something incredibly romantic about anonymously dying in a motorcycle crash in the driest desert on earth. It looked so cinematic. I couldn’t stress much anyway because at 100km per hour, the wind is so loud you can’t hear yourself think. Your nostrils become dry wind tunnels and your neck hurts from trying to hold your helmet-head from getting ripped off. And that’s in the back.
After leaving San Pedro de Atacama in the rear view mirror, we entered no man’s land where copper-rich cliffs hugged the smooth two-lane highway, a landscape surreal enough to be part of a videogame. Soon, we emerged onto a plateau, dark red and barren with not a building or a tree or even a bush in sight. I half expected a sign that said “Welcome to Mars”.
I could see the earth curving toward a row of volcanoes on the horizon. The sky was close and intensely blue. The only thing moving in this landscape was Juan, eating up the snaking highway ahead of us. As we drove, my ears began to feel congested –- we were climbing, and climbing fast.
Then, Juan signaled to us and we turned onto a dirt road with a sign that read Rio Grande. With the asphalted highway behind us, we were now truly in no man’s land: just us, the dirt road, the Martian landscape, and the wind. I was starting to see the appeal of the two-wheel lifestyle.
Juan signaled again and pulled over on a flat stretch next to big boulders. When I jumped off the bike, with my left hip and my right wrist sore from leaning left since we left headquarters, Juan said he was sorry the highway part of the trip had been so boring. Boring?! Clearly, someone has been living here far too long.
“Just wait until our next stop in Rio Grande village,” he said, beaming. “You will see!”
We continued riding through the reddish crater as the dirt road narrowed and the turns became sharper until, like a startling patch of blue in a cloudy sky, we emerged onto an enormous valley sliced in half by the road, paved and gleaming, as it zoomed straight toward the giant cone of the snow-capped volcano towering ahead.
We passed an enormous billboard showing road workers with a sign that read “Better roads for better Chile.” We soon passed the road workers themselves, painting the lane divide and waving to us cheerily, the only visitors they must have seen all day. It occurred to me that Chile was clearly doing well if a dozen men were sent to pave a road through nowhere to a 100-person village. But when we saw the first glimpse of Rio Grande, I knew why.
After an otherworldly landscape of rocks and jagged peaks, we landed back on Earth to witness it in all its glory: from the top of a canyon we looked more than a hundred feet below onto a wide stream gurgling through a leafy oasis, the green so unexpectedly welcome after an hour of red. There, a round woman in a magenta skirt and a wide-brimmed hat herded a dozen wooly alpacas. Further upstream was her village –- mud brick houses, dirt roads, a whitewashed church with a thatched bell tower and a cross.
This was a place where a loud motorcycle visitor was an event of the week. When we parked our bikes, weathered indigenous men sitting in front of their low houses, waved hello. They all knew Juan, who used to teach English in the village.
The streets were quiet -– no car engines, no hammers, only the sound of drying laundry pattering in the wind –- and as we walked around the tiny village, the only tourists that day or maybe that month, Juan told us his story. He grew up on a farm not far from Santiago, but his father was a motorcycle enthusiast, so instead of riding a horse, he learned to ride a bike. After college, he spent eight years working in the tourism industry in Chile and Bolivia, and then decided to venture out on his own. He hoped the Dakar motorcycle race, an event of global proportions set to pass through Atacama Desert in a few months, would put this region -– along with his tour agency –- on the bike aficionado map.
We paused at an intersection of two dirt roads, surrounded by burnt orange houses that weren’t much taller than us, decorated only with a two dark narrow windows. Here, the conversation turned to Juan’s girlfriend, a college student living in Santiago. For the past year, they saw each other once a month, but just yesterday decided to try a “less committed, more open relationship”.
“We want to keep our feelings, but just be more flexible,” explained Juan, blushing a little.
Amit shook his head with skepticism.
“I’m going through a divorce right now and in my experience, that’s the first step toward the end,” he said.
I had been right about the minor key in Amit’s voice, after all.
“I agree,” I told Juan.
Let’s try separating had been my way of avoiding uttering the ruinous, irrevocable divorce. And now here I was, very separated indeed, standing with two more souls at a crossroad in a remote Chilean village.
It was time to head back. The sun was inching closer toward the horizon and riding through the cold night was beyond my romantic idea of desert martyrdom. Back on the bikes –- more stiff than ever -– we climbed out of the oasis, along the river canyon, onto the open plane, past the billboard (the actual workers now gone), through the dirt road, and out onto the highway where my ears popped several times as we made our way back down toward civilization.
As we drove, I watched the shadow of two people on a bike dance along the road as the orange volcanoes glistened in the setting sun. It was hard to believe one of the shadows was me. It could have been old lovers making their way around the country. Or, like in our case, two new friends riding through nowhere, hoping to make it out okay on the other side.