Bites, Bikes and Buses

Trip Start Sep 1999
Trip End May 2004

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, May 18, 2003

This is one amazing country. It has the ultimate in one-stop convenience shops that are more thrilling than a fetishist's trip to an Ann Summers shop. Because here it's legal to buy dynamite and ammonium nitrate from most random roadside shacks. Better still, its cheaper than Ann Summers - the contents of your shopping basket cost less than the price of a beer. Which means you have no qualms about taking it to the nearest mountain and blowing it up, just for fun. You can also grab a huge bag of cocoa leaves for a few pennies. Its recommended that you chew these, rather than setting fire to them, if you want that authentic cocaine buzz. Realistically you only get the "hit" after a couple of hours of jaw-aching chomping through about 500 dried and pretty dam tasteless leaves. Never one to refuse a challenge though we spent the better half of a whole morning sitting like stoned camels in the cold sand, slavishly chomping and dribbling browny green saliva out of the corners of our mouths. Not one of my most attractive moments in life and the high was not much better than the general light-headedness you feel from just walking at altitude here everyday. Still, we were treated to some rather unattractive brown stained teeth and painful bleeding gums which at the time we found slightly hilarious, which goes to prove that there must actually be some narcotic effect after all. Like cocaine, with enough days, months and years of dedicated chewing of cocoa leaves, parts of you eventually rot away. It spares your nose but its rare to see an older Bolivian with any teeth left. All things considered, I can't imagine Kate and Naomi taking this up for a night out in the Met Bar.

When you are bored of shopping, you can always crawl into the middle of a shivering mountain. There's no reason to want to do this other than ticking the box that you did it. The mountain is officially about 5000 metres high, although no-one really knows as it's eroded like a huge lump of Swiss cheese by about 20,000 mining tunnels that induce claustrophobia. Your typical guide is likely to be a short-legged Bolivian woman whose age, as with most Bolivian women, could be anything from 25 to 85. Her introduction to the trip informs you that the mountain has collapsed "a little". Or more precisely when you read the guide books, it is now 200 metres shorter than it used to be. Once inside it is like being transported back 200 years and across to a mine in Wales, without the singing and cute ponies. The miners dig by hand. They work for 36 hours at a time and get paid less than 4 dollars a day. Such conditions would have had Arthur Scargill even more red-faced, apoplectic and ranting in the 1980s than he was most of the time anyway. By eerie candle light they are looking for the tiny glimmers of silver, tin, zinc, copper and hope. After watching the miners pack the walls with hand made dynamite, we tourists sat like very stupid lemmings in the darkness about 20 metres away waiting for the dynammite to blow up. The bangs and shudders were accompanied by the walls and floors shaking. It feels like the mountain groans, heaves it bulk upwards and then sinks wearily back down again into a new, hollower and more precarious state. My exit speed from the mine was officially recorded as 300% faster than my entry speed. Daylight never looked so good.

Bolivia then managed to rival Kiefer Sutherlands 24 hours. Unlike Kiefer, I am hoping that I never have to repeat them and I'm sure my two Candadian companions feel equally strongly on this point.

Firstly our "shit-my-whole-life-is-in-it" bag was snatched from our feet in a bus station by a gang of professionals. The police caught the swarthy Bolivian-looking culprit as he was running off with the backpack proudly displaying its Canadian flag. Full marks for their skills of observation.

Sadly the culprit was apparently David Blaine and escaped by pulling his hand through the handcuffs. Oh really? He left behind him only a trail of blood, the backpack and a hole in our pocket as to get the backpack back, we had to tip the police for their astoundingly successful work.

Next, we flung ourselves in front of a moving bus to try to get on it, whilst the driver pretended not to have seen us. Experience has now taught us that bus companies like to sell double the amount of tickets as there are seats. This allows them to put a full complement of people on seats, and the same number of people again under the seats. Having jumped on this particular bus we were unlucky enough to join the under-seat population, sharing with kids wrapped in blankets, guinea pigs in boxes and endless stinking feet for the next 9 hours. With our heads sticking out into the aisle we looked bizarrely decapitated. With hindsight decapitation may have been less painful. In our small precious space we concentrated mainly on trying to suck small precious molecules of oxygen from the stagnating air. It was a riot.

The rocky dirt track (laughingly referred to as a road in Bolivia) gave us no respite, just a bone-shaking journey. We had a driver with a policy of absolutely no toilet stops, which when combined with the constant bumping around meant we all suffered a tense mind-over-bladder challenge. The temperature in the bus swung from minus 15 to plus 15 degrees throughout the journey. Available temperature controls consisted of either opening or closing the window. It did little to lessen the heat or the odour of 100 sweaty, smelly bodies.

At the end of this 24 hours the bus dumped 3 very very grumpy people into a small, very very grey concrete town that looked surprisingly like the arse end of the world. Only possibly colder and more arsey. Welcome to Uyuni at dawn.

Suitably unimpressed, we then sat in the town square in a sleeping bag with a few dozen stray dogs eyeing us up as potential breakfast. Man and beast alike, we were in our own personal, silent versions of freezing, hungry misery. We eventually saw our equally miserable looking friends wandering aimlessly across the ghost town and greeted them enthusiastically with a raised eyebrow and bewildered nod in their direction. After breakfast of bread and bread, we put 5 heads together and managed to completely mess up our Salt Plains trips. We argued in Spanglish for 2 hours with a Bolivian tour agent to get said friends off/on/off/on our own prebooked trip and ended up with us missing our bus and waving our friends off on their trip without us. We retired to a room for the afternoon to recover with a beer, hot shower and some music. Ah the foolishness of youth. When would we learn that this was Bolivia? And in Bolivia there was a power cut, which meant no electricity, no hot shower nor cold beer and no music except the eventual snoring of our room-mates.

Thankfully the following 4 day Salt Plains trip we had come here to do more than made up for the journey, which was a considerable achievement after what we had been through! The Salt Plains are an indescribable place I will try very badly to describe. Just an immense white flatness, with the thin layer of top water reflecting the clouds so thatyou cant tell where land and sky start and finish. We were entertained by two naked Canadians running on the salt crystals (which are incidentally, very sharp and Canadians are, therefore, very foolish), followed by them donning ponchos naked whilst nursing their lacerated feet in thermal hot pools and posing for catalogue-man photos; we had mountains layered with rainbow colours like giant versions of the tacky sand bottles sold at sea-sides; we had nights so cold we slept in the complete contents of our backpack, and considered even the backpack itself, and were still cold - blankets, sleeping bag and all; we saw flamingoes on one leg, the other surely frozen solid at these temperatures. We saw plenty of dust and llamas, some with bizarre wool adornments strung through holes in their ears. We held an improntu game of basketball with some village kids. Generally we were fed inadequate amounts of stodgy food that failed to fuel the sports activities and the cold and left us miserably hungry. We took time to make friends with 12 metre high cacti on a cactus island in the middle of all the white saltiness, jumped between the roofs of rusty steam trains abandoned in a train graveyard.... it was all weirdly wonderful! Along with the Inca Trail and Angkhor Wat, this is one of the things to do before you die recommendations.

Another recommendation whilst we are talking of Bolivia, is to definitely go to the Amazon. Take plenty of photographs but not the medical advice on avoiding malaria. They suggest you cover up your limbs. The mosquitos resident in the Amazonian Basin share a good old belly laugh about this worthless piece of advice. Possessing diamond-drilling mouthparts they are more than capable of gleefully piercing through any cloth many hundreds of times. Any material you arm yourself with, no matter how thick, is simply like the finest spun muslin cloth to them. They especially come a-calling on your vulnerable white and fleshy parts - bottoms and upper thighs. It makes sitting in a river boat for 3 days a new type of itching, bleeding agony. Generally you are genuinely fed up. I would like to let you know that despite medical evidence to the contrary, it is possible to avoid going to toilet for 3 days. The toilet is a mosquito-paradise as it comprises a hole in ground with a wooden seat or a wooden plank suspended over a mosquito-infected river. So you see, avoiding the toilet becomes an obsession.

On the flip side, sseeing annocondas, eagles, howler monkeys, alligators, birds of paradise, pink dolphins and wading through pampas up to your knees (or waist if you are my height!) was incredible. But after 3 days with no shower and little relief from insects, I was craving a low oxygen, high altitude mountain to sit on. And obviously, a toilet!

So I flew (no more buses) to the highest city in this part of the world, La Paz. Never has a city been more inappropriately named ("The Peace"). Looking for some more adventure, as if I hadnt had enough, I went and found plenty of gun toting individuals in the streets. A few weeks before a few people had been shot for protesting. Noone really bats an eyelid. Last time I went mountain biking in Ecuador I suggested that someone should shoot me if I ever even thought about doing it again. Despite guns all around me, no-one volunteered to actually shoot me so I decided the omens were good and I would go mountain biking again. Surely second time round could not be as bad as the first virgin efforts?

You know there is this amazing survival mechanism the body has that works to dim the memory of pain and fear, so you can move on with life after traumatic events. This works fantastically well in women for the purpose it was evolved for. After the harrowing experience of giving birth, hormones flood the body and memories of the pain are numbed so that we are encouraged to further procreate. This ensures the continuation of the species. But it seemed to be working just as well in me after a spell of life-threatening mountain biking. As time went on, the painful memories started to fade until I was almost remembering an element of enjoyment about the whole episode. Suitably numbed, I turned up the fear factor and signed up to ride down the officially Most Dangerous Road in the World - affectionately known locally as "The Road of Death".

It is what it says it is. The word Death is entirely appropriate but Road is an oversophistication of what is, in essence, simply a mud track dynamited into the side of a rock face in a 3000 metre high series of mountains. This leaves 1500 metres of loose topsoil-and-tree landslide potential above, and 1500 metres of gravity-assisted death-drop potential below.

The track was designed to be one vehicle wide. Unfortunately due to a planning oversight they measured this against a standard small family car and not the average south American tourist bus. And then agreed to allow two way traffic. Every hairpin bend is also a blind corner. Theres pot holes big enough to bounce the endless speeding banana trucks right over the edge. Cover this in thick fog like cold gruel. And then add the ever present crumbling edges over which tyres hang precariously, hastened to their demise by frequent landslides and waterfalls that cascade across the road and take half of it with them as they go. Now you have it!

Quite simply the rules of the road are 1) loudest sounding horn 2) right of way (uphill?) and 3) right of weight (bigger = better). As I was about to undertake a 60 km downhill suicide run on two wheels I didnt qualify on any of these three counts. And judging by the crushed vehicle carcases littering the valley floor, the rules are frequently and fatally contested en route by everything going this way.

For too many kms to remember clearly, my fingers were gripped tightly in a battle to first to burnout - between the bikes brakes and my courage. Before you leave you pray to the God of Mother Earth by sprinkling alcohol on the ground before your tyres. Then you cross yourselves on the way down at every memorial to people lost over the edge (and thats a lot of crossing, trust me). And in between the switching between praying to any God that will listen and blaspheming them all at every corner, I was secretly praying for a small miracle like a (non disasterous) puncture so I could retire legitimately to the support bus trundling teasingly along behind me. No such luck, just pain and fear and mud the whole way. Vertigo kicked in big time and I got drop-fixated which only added to my severe balance problems on the huge potholes at 40 km/hour was all going horribly wrong for a nice day out biking in the sunshine and pleasant country scenery.....

So to cut a long story short, on the long, long, long, long, long etc etc route down it was ROCKY with ROCKS, my sweaty palms and racing heart the only testament to me being alive. My face was set into a permanent frozen grimace of sheer fear that my friendly Kiwi guide mistook for glee as he hurtled ,without even acknowledging the presence of brakes ,around every corner ahead of me. The bumps and slides were so frightening but great in a sort of near-death-experience sort of adrenalined-up way....I think. At the bottom my bruised hands and arse were only outdone by my bruised ego at not being able to keep up with the testosterone-fuelled freewheeling of the guys on the trip. The only bit I really enjoyed was the uphills, where I got to work hard and sweat and be in control. This was not appreciated by the Dutch girls, who were confused by the concept of hills, but were scarily keeping up with the guys on the downhills.

And I got to the bottom alive. I got over it. But this time I MEAN it. If I ever suggest going downhill mountain biking again with 1500 metre drops and tracks laughingly called roads, someone please please hand me a gun and i will shoot myself. Although (post note) the next day I did then get on a 16 hour Bus Ride along the same winding, treacherous bumpy road and felt equally scared but less in control. Ive suddenly found an urge to fly everywhere! Now I just have to find the money...

Now sitting in the wonderful colonial city of Sucre, trying to find a route through Argentina to Brazil without need for buses and debating whether to spend some time at an animal refuge walking pumas and talking to the animals. Decisions decisions....
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