THE TRIP: LATIN AMERICA
Mexico City. At long last Ken was on Latin American soil. He immediately noticed the difference in the rhythm of life.
It was more spontaneous. More vibrant. He realised that the type of adventure dreamt of six years previously with Alan now lay at his fingertips.
He cycled through Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala with Luis and Jose. They then returned to Australia and he continued south through war-torn El Salvador. Thus began a series of Latin American calamities.
He nearly froze to death on a Costa Rican mountaintop, all but fried under the hot sun in the Panamanian interior, took a spill from the bike which cut him up badly, got bitten and bedded for a week by a poisonous spider, and was accused of being a spy by secret police.
His personal challenges continued. Teeming up with Guy Ruan, a Frenchman, he crossed The Darién Gap, a notorious jungle between Panama and Colombia...
THE DARIEN GAP
Palo de Los Letras
Gulf of Uraba
Ken crossed the Darien Gap with Guy Ruan, a Frenchman.
These days the Pan-American Highway extends through the interior to Yaviza but when Guy and Ken did it there was no road on that stretch.
They had to slog through the rain forest, along a difficult, very muddy track, carrying their belongings up and down over small hills for hours on end.
The total crossing of the Darien took them ten days. They walked and hired locals from the odd villages to pole them down rivers in piraguas (canoes hewn from tree-trunks).
At Palo de Los Letras they reached the Colombian border.
After six years of travel and some dangerous episodes through Europe, Asia, and Australasia, Ken had finally made it to South America. But the biggest test was still to come...
On the last day of the trek, they crossed the Gulf of Uraba with locals in two large piraguas with motors on the back. It was ten Kilometres across to Turbo in Colombia.
At first, the waters were calm. But later, in the middle of the gulf, it became rough. The heavy swell was too much for the small craft. Waves started to enter them and the motoristas (drivers) and their helpers began frantically scooping out the water.
Suddenly, the motor of the second craft cut. When it did so, the piragua sank lower in the water and more waves piled in. There was sudden confusion and panic with the motoristas yelling at each other. The motorista and his helper from the second craft quickly jumped into the piragua carrying Ken and Guy. Their craft submerged. It all happened in seconds.
Ken realised then why they took two boats. But now there was only one. They managed to make the far shore but only just.
How would Ken transport the bicycle through the jungle in the Darién Gap?
That remained a big question for him until he saw Guatemalans in the market-place, carrying huge bales of wood on their backs.
The bales hung from their foreheads by means of a mecapal (Indian rope strap). As they leant forward when walking, their forehead helped in the distribution of weight.
Potter could see no better way for a human to transport heavy articles unaided.
He bought a mecapal for the bike and carried it through the jungle as in the pictures(right).
Two ends were tied to the crossbar and the flat middle of the rope rested across his forehead.
The second and third image shows him crossing one of the many fast flowing rivers in the jungle.
Sometimes slippery rocks and the strength of the current made the going difficult.
(Bottom right)At the Cuna Indian village of Paya which was extremely friendly.
The Corregidor(Chief) invited Ken and Guy to stay in his family's hut.
(Below)Guy Ruan. Guy was a lot of fun but he was also prepared for the long, hard slog through the jungle.
I swear before God and by my honour never to allow my hands to be idle nor my soul to rest until I have broken the chains that bind us to Spain.
– Simon Bolivar
...walked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu...
The Inca Trail
Walking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu took three days.
When Ken walked down to the magnificent ruins at dawn on the fourth there was nobody around except for a policeman. The policeman looked surprised.
"I have been guarding the ruins for a long time," he said. "You are the first to arrive via the Inca Trail with a bicycle."
"It must seem crazy," replied Ken."Walking in the mountains with a bicycle."
"It doesn't just seem crazy," said the policeman. "It is crazy."
He then asked Ken for his autograph.
...cycled through Chile and over the Andes...
(Right) Nearing the summit on the Argentine/Chilean Andean border crossing. It's tough going in a blizzard.
At the time there were border disputes between the two countries.
Soon after this, Potter passed an Argentine army camp with a solitary armed soldier standing outside.
When the soldier saw Ken struggling through the blizzard he shouted in Spanish:
"One more kilometre and down you go..."
...and down he went. After passing the summit, the most amazing sight lay before him – 'Los Caracoles' (Left).
At first, he stood at the top in a blizzard. Far below, in the valley, he could see sunshine. It was a bizarre experience.
Having just spent three days struggling up the Andes, he now free-wheeled down the zig-zagging road for ages.
He can't describe how good that felt.
...cycled around Argentina...
In Argentina and Chile, Potter cycled through the lovely Andean Lake District to find Bariloche lacking in snow but with the banks of the blue-green and placid Lago Nahuel Huapi covered in the golden bloom of amancay.
The natural beauty of this region is often compared to Switzerland.
Ken rode 300kms across the pampas in the province of Buenos Aires with a heavily-laden bicycle to arrive to Mar Del Plata at sunset.
He rode almost non-stop and it took him fifteen hours.
Feeling like a beer upon arrival, he entered the first bar he came across in the suburbs. It was empty save for the barman who asked where he had come from.
When Ken told him and explained that he was travelling by bicycle, the barman couldn't believe it.
"No lo creo..." he said, and stood there open-mouthed.
Don't talk unless you can improve the silence.
– Jorge Luis Borges
...let's get back to the blog...
28th April, 1981 6.15pm
Arrival To Argentina
I arrive to Embarcación, a small town in the remote north of Argentina, having just cycled down from the Bolivian border.
It was an enjoyable ride through open countryside and I had the usual rush of excitement about arriving to a new country.
Tonight I'll stay in Embarcación and then tomorrow press on to Formosa on the other side of Argentina. Should be a fairly straightforward cycle ride. It's about 700kms.
From Formosa, I'll make my way up through Paraguay and into the south-west corner of Brazil to see the Iguazu waterfalls. That'll be the wonderful culmination of this stage of the journey.
For the moment I have to think about finding a place to stay in Embarcación. Happily, I still have my bicycle, the panniers, and all my belongings with me.
That's been a struggle. Journeying down through Latin America there's plenty of people who want to deprive you of your belongings.
Because so many of the people are poor and they think that you're a rich tourist you're a target. Being a budget traveller means nothing to them.
28th April, 1981 7.00pm
Absorbing The Vibes
Walking around in Argentina, I feel so relaxed! It dawns on me that I don't have to keep my eye on my belongings. All of a sudden it's obvious that I'm in a different class of country.
The coaches I see are streamlined. The townsfolk well-dressed. The streets and pavements spotless. This is a lot different to the other Latin American countries I've been to.
There's also a difference in the people. The Argentinians walk tall.
I think I'm going to enjoy Argentina.
28th April, 1981 7.30pm
I've found lodgings but there's a problem. The señora informs me that I can't cycle to Formosa because of the rains.
"Is there a bus that goes to Formosa?" I ask.
"No, señor," she says. "Nothing can get through. All the roads are flooded."
Wait a minute. I try to absorb the implications of this unwelcome news. All of a sudden I'm aware of the predicament in which I'm placed.
I thought it would be a simple case of cycling for 700kms along a country road that led to Formosa. If I can't do that what are the other options?
I'm in a remote place in South America. I'm on one side of the continent and I want to be on the other.
The distances are vast. I can see from the guide-book that to back-track and try to get through the Bolivian wilderness would probably be extremely difficult.
To cycle south through Argentina and try to miss the rains and loop back up again would probably add a thousand kilometres to the journey. And I'd have no idea which route to take.
"You could try for a train going to Formosa," says the señora.
"Where's the station?"
28th April, 1981 7.50pm
The Train Station
The town's very quiet. The small station's deserted. Inside it's dark and gloomy.
Thankfully, there is a man behind the counter. I ask him if there's a train going to Formosa. He shakes his head sadly.
"No, señor," he says. "No hay trenes de pasajeros que vayan a Formosa."
No passenger trains! He goes on to say that they're not selling passenger tickets at the moment.
The worst has happened. I'm stranded. I walk away from the counter dejectedly.
Suddenly, another man who I hadn't realised was there appears out of the shadows. He's wearing railroad clothes.
"Señor," he says. "Quieres ir a Formosa?"
"Si!" I reply.
He explains that, although there are no passenger trains going to Formosa, there is a goods train going there at five o'clock tomorrow morning.
When I ask if passengers are allowed on it he says no, not officially. But if it was him, he says, and he wanted to get to Formosa then he would take it.
"Gracias, señor." I return to the lodgings determined to get up early and take the train. I feel that's the best option available.
It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.
– Gabriel Garcia Márquez
29th April, 1981 4.35am
It's still dark. I'm pushing my bicycle down the road to the station. There's not a soul in sight.
I feel uneasy. What I'm doing doesn't seem quite right. But what can I do? If I want to get to Formosa, there's really no other way. I try to block the uneasiness out of my mind.
As I get close to the station, I hear voices issuing out of the blackness. I don't know what to expect.
I walk up onto the platform. There's a group of South American Indians standing around talking.
"Buenos dias, señores," I say. They return the greetings.
They're all doing the same as I am – waiting for the goods train. My uneasiness lifts. All of a sudden I'm part of a group.
29th April, 1981 5.10am
There's a bit of a wait but it doesn't matter. I'm listening to the Indians, trying to understand what they're saying.
The train arrives. I follow the others, lifting the bicycle and my belongings into one of the wagons through an opening.
Inside it's dark. There is nowhere to sit save for the floor.
No thanks! It's caked with dried cow dung. The stench is awful but at least the producers aren't present. I lean against the side of the carriage.
After an interminable wait, there's a hiss of steam, a clank and a jolt – the train rolls into motion.
Puff...puff...puff...it picks up speed and soon we're rattling into the dawn ...clackity-clack...clackity-clack...clackity-clack...clackity...
Rattling is the operative word. It's a bone-shaker.
29th April, 1981 4.00pm
We've been travelling all day. Kilometre after kilometre of green fields.
One by one, at stations along the way, the Indians have disembarked. Eventually, the train stops, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and the last of them picks up his belongings.
"Adios, señor," he calls. He disappears through the opening.
The train starts shunting and soon it's clattering down the track again.
I'm alone. I feel lonely. Suddenly, I realise how tired I am. My body aches. But it's impossible to sleep. The wagon's shaking and rattling about all over the place.
I lean against the opening and watch as the green fields pass. One after another after another...
29th April, 1981 11.50pm
It's night again. My legs gave way hours ago. I'm now sitting on a plastic sheet that I've spread over the dried cow dung.
I'm exhausted but it's still impossible to sleep. Every time I begin to nod off, the wagon jerks me awake.
The train slows. There's lots of noise. It sounds as if the train's shunting into a siding. There's a hiss of steam. Then silence.
Aaaahhh...bliss. I lean my head against the side and drift comfortably into the black abyss. Total wipeout. I relinquish all claims on consciousness.
Well, almost but not quite. A distant noise intrudes on my slumber. A clanging of metal against metal. A hiss of steam. Puff...puff...puff...
We're moving again. I can hear the train drawing off.
Through my groggy consciousness, realisation suddenly dawns on me. The train's drawing off but my wagon's not moving. The train's decoupled the wagon. I jump up, look out the opening.
Through the blackness I can see the lights on the back of the train disappearing slowly down the track. There goes my ticket to Formosa.
Shit! Blind panic! I've been dumped in a siding in the middle of nowhere. I haven't got a clue where I am. And the distances are vast.
Instantly, I become fully awake. I grab the bicycle and panniers and clamber out the wagon.
30th April, 1981 1.15am
Don't miss your train
I chase the train down the track. It's difficult, carrying everything and running over rail-track sleepers in the dark. I try not to trip.
The train's about forty metres down the line. Luckily, it's taking time to pick up speed. After about a minute, I manage to catch it up.
The last wagon is an open wagon. Its sides are about two metres high – high enough to prove really difficult to get into with the luggage.
I manage to throw the two panniers over the top. The bicycle's a bit more difficult. I stumble then have to catch up.
I lift the bicycle as I'm running. Wow! This is difficult. Up. Up. Up. Got it on to the top of the wagon and over she goes...thank fuck for that.
What I haven't realised is that the train is now speeding up. It starts to leave me. Christ! There goes my stuff!
I'm breathing hard but rush after it. I manage to catch up, reach up and grab the top of the wagon. For a short while I just hang there, dangling from the wagon by my fingertips.
The train's going faster now. I'm still hanging on by my fingertips.
Grimacing, I attempt to haul myself up. It takes a superhuman effort but I manage to swing my right foot up and get that and my chest over the top of the wagon. I roll over and into it.
Aaaahhh...I'm so tired I can't feel it anymore. What I can feel is bumps and bruises and cramps from knocks and strains that I didn't even realise happened.
But I made it. Together with all my belongings, I made it.
30th April, 1981 10.45am
All through the night the train rattles on. Not sure if I sleep or not. Doesn't feel like it.
Morning comes. Clackity-clack...clackity-clack...clackity-clack...clackity...the green fields are no more...
Now there's kilometre after kilometre of swampland. A wilderness. Flat and flooded with long strips of water and just a few lonely trees.
No man disturbs this land, only the train as it clatters by, causing a flock of about a hundred pink flamingo to take to the air.
What a sight! What an incredible sight! That's one of the most awesome sights I have ever witnessed. Nature at it's best. Magnificent. Breathtaking.
30th April, 1981 5.00pm
It's five o'clock in the afternoon. The train draws slowly into Formosa. At last. At long last. I gather my stuff and leave by a deserted side entrance.
The first thing I need to find is a hotel. Get some rest.
For thirty-six sleepless hours I have endured that constant shaking. I feel groggy. My weary body is wracked with pain and tiredness.
Yet I'm happy. I would not have missed that journey for anything...
Someday, somewhere – anywhere, unfailingly, you'll find yourself, and that, and only that, can be the happiest or bitterest hour of your life
From Formosa, Ken journeyed on to Iguazu to see the splendid waterfalls.
In Argentina, he met with Mario who invited him to stay in Buenos Aires. His experience there provided an invaluable perspective on Anglo-Argenine relationships just prior to the Falklands War.
In Santiago, the Chilean capital, he was fortunate enough to stay with Chavela Edwards of the Edwards empire – one of the wealthiest and most powerful of all the Chilean oligarchies.
"Chavela was a sweetie," he said. "She was as eccentric as me – I think that's why she asked me to stay.
"She told me that she used to roar around Santiago on a motorbike in the twenties and was the first woman to climb a local mountain."
Potter eventually arrived to the Rio carnival six years behind schedule. He was now very much a changed man.
The 'British Ambassador to the World' had become a veritable 'Citizen of the World'.
Having achieved his objective, he returned to England and the same pub in Whitehall that he left from nearly eight years previously – The Clarence.
Keeping a stiff-upper lip in Regine's nightclub at the 1982 Rio carnival.