Humahuaca, Argentina 20 Oct 06
Odometer 32,888 m 52,928 k

The Gran Chaco of Paraguay, Bolivia and northern Argentina is a hostile environment for motorcyclists. It's unbearably hot. There's no water, no fuel, and very few people. The sandy soil has the consistency of talcum powder. And every plant that manages to eke out a living here is covered in long, prickly thorns. Nevertheless, I wanted to ride across it.

Locals invariably recommended that I traverse the area using the better roads to the south. One dirt-bike aficionado from Asuncion summed it up this way: “None of us in the Motocross Club of Paraguay ride out there. Even if you manage to carry enough fuel, food and water, there are two basic problems: it's impossible to ride out there when it's
wet; and it's impossible to ride out there when it's dry. If something goes wrong, it could be weeks before someone finds you.”
A good challenge I enjoy--masochism is something else. I opted for the more hospitable long-way-around. But just as I thought my obstacles were behind me, I encountered a sandpit of another sort.

“Sus huevos,” the military policeman snippily demanded.

what,” I responded in disbelief?

I had already been stopped eleven times over during the past couple of days. The first few checkpoints wanted to see my passport, visa, vehicle registration and import documents. The next few wanted all of those things plus my international driver's license, proof of insurance, and even my vaccination records. The last cop just wanted to know how fast my bike went, but this guy wanted something else.

Huevos, in English, means “eggs.” Now, I had been asked to show nearly everything during this trek, but never had I been asked to produce my eggs. At first, I thought maybe they were quarantining all poultry products due to a nearby outbreak of avian flu. But why would I be suspected of carrying huevos? I mean, there are plenty of chicken buses here, that popular form of Third World transportation used to transport every person, package and parrot that cares to board, but have you ever heard of a chicken moto?

Now, these guys don't join the military for the great pay, but some of them figure out that they can augment their wages by using their authority to garner bribes. Was their question purposefully scrambled? Was it all just a bad yoke?

A huge knife was strapped to his vest. A side arm was neatly holstered at his hip and a machine gun was slung over his back. In the middle of nowhere like this, I could be shot without any witnesses. But if you're just looking for some easy money, would it be smart to kill off the clientele? After all, I could be a repeat customer.

With more volume and less patience he was going to ask me nicely only one more time,
“Sus huevos, senor!”

Now, there's an alternate meaning for the word huevos. In the slang version they're not eggs, a female reproductive part, but rather the similarly shaped male version of the same thing. Did the officer really want me to drop my drawers right here to prove that I wasn't--ahem--a
I was taking too long. With a wave of his gun he communicated something that needed no translation: Get off the bike. He yelled for two companeros, similarly armed and equally agitated. Poking and prodding, they told me to empty this, asked what's in that, then demanded that I shed my helmet and jacket. I was in effect being strip searched, but for what I still didn't know.

Picture being surrounded by three heavily armed young men in foul moods with virtually all of your gear strewn out on the ground. Never mind that my panniers held more possessions than probably all three of them combined owned at home. I was completely at their mercy.

The notion then occurred to me that maybe it wasn't
huevos that they were saying, but something that sounded similar. There are different accents and dialects, often influenced by native tongues that are sometimes a soldier’s first language. I was beginning to wish I had actually studied my vocabulario before leaving home.

Maybe what he really said was
juegos (games)? But are these guys so bored they would fleece passersby for any games they might have on board? I did have a hacky-sack; did that count?

Wait a minute. What if instead he said
huesos (bones)? They too sound almost alike. But while I was carrying nearly every conceivable document to prove this or that, never in my pre-trip planning did I think to include a full set of X-rays!
pampa del infierno
Then, apparently not finding whatever it was they were searching for, the commander simply barked in Spanish, “You can go.” Although given his facial expression and curt decree a more accurate translation might be “get lost, gringo!”

I wasted no time complying. I threw my stuff back into the panniers, donned my riding gear, hopped over the saddle and pulled a small wheelie in my haste to depart: my
juegos, my huesos, and, most importantly, my huevos intact.

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