Today was all about Bettina.
We’ve just left a lunchtime break on an Argentinian lake shore. Today it isn’t raining, which is an unexpected treat given the hail storm of yesterday. We are gunning it along the road, using the wind and warm air to dry our pants and socks off the back of the bikes, when we spot a cycle tourist standing at the side of the road. She is next to a golden yellow bike, looks to be in her sixties, with a strong build (calves you could crack walnuts on) and short grey hair.
We pull over and begin to venture a few words of greeting. Seeing as we never know where in the world other travellers are going to be from, it’s always best to start in Spanish and go from there. After a couple of spanglish sentences, we detect a German accent, and the lady rumbles that we are English. Now in (in a more natural English language) I ask her where she’s going.
‘Well, I’m going into Chile, but I was thinking I might stop here and hitch a ride. I haven’t really got enough food, and there’s nothing for a while to get any along here’ she says.
We’re carrying the bare minimum on supplies for this stretch and haven’t got any spare food to give her, but I reach into my front bar pouches and pull out two toffees.
‘Have some toffee power!’ I say, handing over the goodies.
‘Oh thank you!’ She falls silent for a moment, and begins chewing on a toffee. ‘It’s a big mountain to get over you know’ she adds, motioning to the road ahead towards Paso Cardenal Antonio Samoré. ‘And I don’t think I can do it.’
‘You know you could do it if you really wanted to’ I say, before trailing off – thinking I shouldn’t get all preachy on this woman I hardly know. ‘… but at least you’re on a good road to get a ride.’ I continue, remembering that I’ve seen a fair few big ute style trucks go by in the last hour, and knowing that they could easily fit a bike in them.
‘I’m not so sure, I’ve been here for 30 minutes so far and seen nothing!’ she replies.
We chat for a few minutes more and I learn that she’s a teacher on a one year sabbatical – she has a husband back home in Germany, and two grown up kids.
‘That’s pretty cool that your husband is happy for you to go off exploring!’ Faye says.
‘Yes, well he doesn’t like to travel so much, so I say OK! I just go alone.’
We start making moves to leave and bid the cycle tourist a farewell, at which point she begins to put her cycling helmet on. ‘Well – maybe I’ll just see if I can keep up with you two for a bit, and go a little further along the road?’
We welcome her on to the McNuff-Shepherd peloton and begin to pull away. I stop turning the pedals for a moment, because if we’re going to be cycling with this woman, there’s one crucial thing we need to know:
‘What’s your name?? I call over my shoulder.
‘Bettina!’ she shouts back.
What Bettina thought was going to be just a few extra kilometres and then her stopping to hitch a ride, turns into us making it 17km further up the mountain, and to the Argentinian border post. There, she says she’ll catch a ride, because ‘definitely can’t make the climb up to the top of a 1,300m pass.’
‘But I would be so proud of myself if I crossed the Andes’ Bettina mumbles wistfully, putting her passport back into her front bar bag.
Faye and I see our chance to distract her with some chatting, and before we know it – Bettina is back on the bike. It’s a further 40km from here to the Chilean border post, and so we ride on into no-mans land, slowing the pace and putting Bettina up the front of the peloton. She huffs and puffs with a determined look on her face, half grimace-half smile, and after some time we all stop talking and climb alongside one another in silence.
Two and a half hours later we crest the top of Paso Cardenal Antonio Samoré and Bettina is elated! There are hi-fives and pictures taken and muchos cheering.
It’s now just a 20km zoom down the other side to the Chilean border post, but the clock has struck 7pm and we’re not sure how late the crossing will stay open for tonight. There’s a chill in the air and the sun is beginning to drop behind the surrounding grey mountains, so we pull on all of our layers and descend as fast as we can.
At 8.05pm we round the final bend to the border and are greeted with 10ft high metal gate and a sign that reads: ‘Frontera Cerado’. Bugger! We’ve missed it! We can still see people milling around beyond the gate, and so conclude that the guards must have closed it just five minutes earlier.
There’s nothing for it but to set up camp right by the border, and to wait for it to open in the morning. Bettina opts for a small patch of grass just off the side of the road. Faye ducks down under a canopy of dead wood and bush, into a ditch and pitches her tent on some kind of bog (complete with frogs), and I do the same in a separate (albeit slightly less boggy) spot just a little further along. Tents up, we all reconvene to cook up dinner, enjoying a feast in middle of an entirely deserted and pristine tarmac road. In the fast fading light, trapped in no-mans land, it feels all rather surreal – like some kind of Mad Hatters tea party.
‘I just didn’t think I could it.’ Says Bettina, shaking her head and spooning rice into her mouth.
‘We did.’ I say, looking at Faye and grinning.