Bolivian Adventure: The Trek Continues

Trip Start May 18, 2007
Trip End Jul 28, 2007

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

We woke up the next day and still didn't have any news of Bo, William, the Tom's or Piter. Of course, we had to assume that Bo had, with the porters' help, gotten low enough the day and night before, and that he was fine. In fact, we all assumed he was, by now, in La Paz, possibly in a hospital, or even on his way home to the US.

But we couldn't know just yet.

The porters hadn't returned during the night, as Kate had thought they might, and now, as we sat around and had breakfast, the conversation turned to what we should do, in the event that the porters did not return until much later.

Looking to Kate for guidance, we asked her how far the porters had gone the day before with Bo and the group, and therefore how much walking they needed to do to come back to our campsite. We were trying to determine approximately when we might expect them back, and if it would be feasible, based on that time, to pack up and leave for the next camp today, or whether we needed to plan for another rest day and adjust the itinerary.

Kate was wishy-washy about it, with much supposition of what might have happened, and where the porters may be. We all discussed the situation for a while, and reached various "decisions" that kept changing, in part because Kate kept saying, "I suppose that if..., we could...".

At first, we agreed that we should pack up our gear, and be ready to head out by 11am, should the porters appear before that and be willing to work that day. But eventually, as the porters failed to appear over the pass, we finally reached the only decision that made sense: we would leave it up to the porters to decide whether they wanted to, and could, work on this day. This wasn't a case of letting "the staff" make a decision, it was very much a case of acknowledging that these 15 men had just worked extremely hard, in very difficult conditions, with relatively little food, water or rest, for the previous 24 hours. Our trip was a vacation -- we certainly were not going to treat our porters like slaves by forcing them to walk and carry loads just so we could stick to an itinerary, which, truth be told, seemed a bit half-hazard from the start anyway.

As we casually went around the table, each of us readily agreed that, yes, the porters would tell us how they felt, and whether they wanted a full rest day or not. We also agreed that even if the porters did want to get going this same day, we shouldn't leave camp any later than 12pm, to ensure that we reached the next camp before sunset, allowing porters to pitch tents before dark, and allowing us as well to reach the camp in the safety and relative warmth of daylight.

I say that "each of us agreed" - that's not quite right. Judy promptly said, "WE want to leave this camp TODAY! We want to see all the passes that are listed in the itinerary, and if today is another rest day, we'll have to change the itinerary."  Sitting next to his wife, Jeff nodded vehemently his agreement with her, reiterating that they wanted to go as soon as possible. 

If I remember correctly, this was received with a few seconds of stunned silence by everyone else, including Ro. Catrina was first to respond, with "Well, I really think that it should be up to the porters; it's not fair to ask them to walk again today, and carry their loads, without giving them an opportunity to rest, after all they went through yesterday. They're not even back yet, which means they're still walking". The rest of us concurred, and the conversation ended a bit awkwardly. Until the porters showed up, it really did not matter what plans we made...

Shortly thereafter, a cheerful shout was heard outside, and we saw the porters starting to trickle into camp, coming from a different direction than the high pass they had gone up the day before. They were visibly exhausted, and several just let themselves collapse on the ground near the mess tent, lying in the sun. We quickly approached them and thanked them for all their effort, in the same breath asking about Bo. How was he? How far had they carried him? Had he improved on the other side of the pass, going downhill? Was he in La Paz yet?

One porter, Felix, stood out as a quiet but unmistakable leader now. Had the porters turned on Nemesio? For the time being, with Nemesio still not back in camp (we could see more porters on their way down towards camp), Felix answered most of the questions.

Bo was fine. The porters, said Felix, had carried him until about 12:30am, at which time they had reached a village where, eventually, Juan had met them with the 4X4. In this village, all hell had broken loose. The villagers, woken up by a group of twenty men coming down the mountain in the night, with lanterns and headlamps, were frightened silly, and therefore assumed that this group of "invaders" were there to "steal their minerals" -- remember, this is mining country, not so used to tourists yet... Bo, William and the two Tom's sat in the 4X4 like caged animals in a zoo, with the villagers pressed against the windows staring at them.

The villagers, not quite understanding what 4 "gringos" with 16 Bolivians were doing in their village so late at night, decided to "arrest" the porters, and kept them locked up in the local community hall. It apparently took much persuasion by Piter and Juan to eventually get them released. It wasn't entirely clear, from Felix the porter, whether they were given tea and some food during this episode, but I believe so.

The 4X4 with the Americans and Juan finally left, very late in the night (Felix didn't specify or didn't know where to - he assumed La Paz), and eventually, the porters were also taken by vehicle (Don Adolfo's bus?) to the very small mining town of Araca, from where the hike back to our campsite was shorter and less difficult reversing back the way they had come.

Now - remember that this is Felix's version of the events, related to me and to Kate in his unsophisticated Spanish, then translated and discussed with all the others. Other porters also contributed bits and pieces of the account, such that in the end, the above is the version of the story that stuck with me. I'm sure I am forgetting some details at this point -- but it doesn't matter for now, at least not until we were rejoined by the Tom's a couple of days later, and they shed additional light on the story.

The most important fact was that Bo had gotten visibly better after going over the high pass, and that even the porters could tell he was recovering quickly with the loss of altitude. Great news.

As we all walked around from porter to porter, chatting with them and shaking their hands in appreciation of their efforts, Pancho and Ruben were busily feeding the guys, who were for the most part still sitting or lying down near the mess tent. Nemesio had also returned, and proceeded to tell Kate, in front of the other porters, some cockamamie story about how it was really the bus driver's fault (Don Adolfo) for taking the Gamow Bag away three days before. The other porters lying around were looking up at Nemesio with utter contempt in their eyes. It turns out that his "decision" to leave the Gamow Bag behind also really ticked off the porters, who, as a result, had had to carry a man out of the mountains. In fairness, Bo would still have had to be evacuated, Gamow Bag or not, but the ordeal might have been a little less demanding for the porters had he been in better shape to walk out. So Nemesio was no one's favourite person that day...

The next question to discuss was, what did the porters want to do? Rest or keep going? It was already about 11am by then, and all of us clients, including Jeff and Judy now, were absolutely convinced that the porters SHOULD rest all day. They were knackered, without a doubt.

Well - when asked, Felix immediately said that, of course, they would trek and carry! They, and we, must all go to the next camp today. Piter, our guide, had walked back with the porters only as far as our next camp, and he therefore would be waiting for us there tonight. We were pretty stunned, but we stood by our word that we would let the porters decide, and it seemed that they were all in agreement. We did discretely go around to a few porters, and confirmed that Felix spoke for the group - they all wanted to go, and thought that after a good meal and an hour or so of rest, they'd be ready to go. Wow...

We clients finished packing our gear, and got going just before 12pm. Clouds had started coming in, and we were heading up, towards the pass from which the porters had just come down. I was still very short of breath from my chest cold, and knew I'd be even slower than usual. I told Kate I'd be at the back, and she stayed close to the back herself. She and Pancho (the cook) had agreed that in Piter's absence, Pancho and Ruben would lead the way. Both of them knew the area well (much better than Kate, who didn't really know it much at all), and this was an agreement that made sense. So the group followed Pancho and Ruben as we headed up to the pass.

The ground was rocky at first, but then we hit this wide expanse of spongy moss. Going uphill on that was soft on the knees and back, but it was like walking in sand, with each step requiring more effort to push off! Really interesting...

Tully walked with me at the back the whole day, with Kate and Marcus alternating a few yards in front of me, so I had great company the whole time. Tully was healthy again, and could have easily run at the front, but he claimed he preferred not to get caught up in the "race" up front and that, since it was Sunday, he had decided to "take the day off" and go slow. Whatever his reasons, I was really grateful that he and Marcus stuck with me at the back.

It started to hail, then snow, as we got higher. Nothing too major or drastic - in fact, it made the whole landscape even more beautiful, dusting the top of the mountains all around with snow, and adding intrigue to the place with swirling clouds of mist.

I was slow, but not feeling too badly. I concluded that if one is going to get sick on trek, a cold is much better than a stomach bug that leaves one with no energy...

We reached the top of the pass. Breathtaking scenery. At one point, the clouds parted on one side, and the rocky peaks of the adjoining mountain were revealed -- they were so close, and we hadn't even realized they were there. Whenever we looked around, and were stunned into silence by the beauty surrounding us, I was reminded of why I had come to trek in Bolivia, and of course, all the events of the last couple of days, and little frustrations of the trip vanished.

With the hail and snow that had just fallen, the tall grass and shrubs around us had taken on a surreal appearance.  Tully, grabbing his non-digital SLR camera, knelt to take close-ups of the frozen grass. Very artistic, I thought.

After a good pause at the top of the pass, we started to head down. The steep snow-covered scree descent wasn't my favourite. In fact, Pancho stayed a couple of steps ahead of me, telling me where to put my feet, for the first hundred meters or so, and Tully was behind me. Nemesio (&%*%!!) even tried to help me, but was quickly shooed away by Tully who told him to leave me alone. After stating out loud right at the top, "¡Tengo miedo!" ("I'm scared!"), somehow I took control and I was fine. I could see just how easily Tully was coming down behind me, and thought, if the soles of his boots are sticking, why wouldn't mine? So with increasing confidence, I made it down.

At the bottom, the rest of the group had reassembled barely a couple of minutes ahead of me, and was getting ready to break for lunch, with Pancho and Ruben setting up their "kitchen" (a table cloth, giant tupperware, and a good swiss army knife) on the ground. That's when Jeff was heard to say, "God! That was TERRIFYING! That was just so SCARY!" By then, even I, who had confessed to fear earlier, thought it had been a whole lot of fun, and I didn't certainly think of it as "terrifying"... I think he liked the drama, and was expecting all of us to agree with him. Instead, we all ignored him...

We continued down towards our future campsite, and soon we could see the lake where the porters would put up the tents. They had already started overtaking us on the trail, and shortly, we could see little dots of colour in the distance. More of the spongy moss ground going down --- much easier than going up on that stuff! In fact, it's absolutely great to bounce downhill on that moss!

We crossed a couple of stone fields, and eventually, it was Kate, Tully, Marcus and me at the back, chatting, with the rest of the group further up front. About twenty minutes before arriving into camp, the storm started, with hail and snow hitting us squarely in the face. I love that stuff! It wasn't that cold, and it made the whole place look and feel like home in winter... Ahhh... (What do you mean, "you're nuts!" That's not very kind, is it? I happen to love winter!)

By the time we reached camp, the wind was trying to blow the tents away, and the temperature was dropping. I dove into my Mountain Hardwear ("the sick tent" left behind by Bo and William, of which I was now the proud single owner), changed into dry clothes, added a few layers, and joined the others for tea and snacks.

I say "tea" in a generic way, of course. All kinds of teas were available, as well as instant coffee. There was also what became my favourite, "Toddy". Not quite "hot toddy" after we finished off the whiskey, but "Toddy" was a kind of hot chocolate mix that, with milk (powdered or liquid) warmed us up in the afternoon. Besides, "can you pass Toddy down the table?" just sounds so much more interesting than "can I have some tea, please?"

Dark early, dinner, cold, snow, wind. Bedtime. G'night!
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