In Bolivia, and elsewhere in South America, you can ask the same questions to ten people and you’ll either get ten different answers or simply the same answer which will turn out to be so far off. When we asked people about the road from Sucre to Santa Cruz — remember the one that took us 2 days including mud, sand and scorching temperatures — we were told it’s a fast and easy road. Perhaps we should have learned our lesson. People either don’t travel that much or grossly overestimate the speed in which we travel on these loaded motorcycles.
Estimates for a trip to Las Missiones (San Javier and La Concecion) varied from two to three hours – and this was fairly consistent. One guy with a roll of his eyes and a nod of his head said we could do it in an hour and a half. Seemed easy enough. We understood the road was mostly paved and that our journey would serve us incredibly old and restored Jesuit Missions — something that is unique in Bolivia. So Jeremiah and I agreed to take a “Sunday” cruise to “church”. We’d leave early in the morning and then return to Santa Cruz that night. This way we could deal with Aduana and my motorcycle first thing Monday morning and then be on our way toward the Salar de Uyuni.
It took us an hour to get to the bridge.
We’d heard about this bridge. But according to the map and the attendant who directs holds and directs the one-way traffic — which sometimes includes a train — we had 4 more hours till the missions. If this were the case we’d never make it back to Santa Cruz before nightfall. But it was Sunday. Even if we didn’t make it, we’d have a nice ride. As the long line of trucks exited the bridge I just stared down the nearly 1/2 mile trestle and prepared for the crossing.
It didn’t look pretty. The bridge was narrow and was comprised of rotting, nail ridden and uneven vertical boards about six to eight inches wide. Many were missing. And of those boards in place many were missing large chunks. And rain, sun and humidity had warped the boards so much that nearly none were square or aligned next to each other. As the huge trucks passed the sound of boards flapping hit decibels higher than the diesel engines.
When the last truck crossed I looked at Jeremiah. He looked at me. I guess I’m going first. There were three options. To the left of the railroad tracks, between the railroad tracks or to the right of the railroad tracks. I looked at the condition of the boards. The center looked the cleanest so I released the throttle, jumped a rail and sped my way down this incredibly long bridge. I got my speed up to a good 25 mph as I watched the gaps beneath my feet whiz by. Some were sized so perfectly that if my front tire were to fall inside I imagined the bike would come to a halt and I’d go over the handlebars. If that weren’t bad enough, we were contending with nearly gale force cross winds. This challenged my control of the bike between the railroad tracks while I dodged the bad and rotten boards. It seem to take forever to get to the end of the bridge. But when my rear tire finally hit solid ground I was relieved.
Relief only lasted a fraction of a second — before I knew it I crashed — hard and fast. I went down on my left side. I couldn’t see much until the dust and gravel settled. A bridge guard ran toward me from one direction. Railroad workers rain from the other. Jeremiah kept his bike between the rails and ran to aid. I was limping around. Dazed. Shaking my hand. The profanity didn’t seem to do much for the pain nor for those that had come to my aid. I didn’t even bother trying to pick up my bike which was still running while lying pitifully on its side.
We made the decision not to carry gear today. And a good thing. I’m afraid of what conditions my Jesse bags would be after such a hard crash.
I seemed to be alright, though my ankle and knee — my left leg; the same leg I just spent nine long months rehabilitating — was hurting. I didn’t think anything broke. But I wanted an x-ray. Jeremiah suggested that there was a hospital two miles up the road.
“No. I want to go back to Santa Cruz,” I moaned. “And I don’t want to ride over that bridge again,” I figured I could ride the bike, but another 1/2 mile over that bridge played with my psyche. On my bike, Jeremiah wouldn’t do it, either. The railroad workers managed to get my bike up and to the side of the road so the traffic now building on the bridge could get through. Jeremiah suggested we’d have to find a truck to take my bike back to Santa Cruz, as he didn’t want me to ride.
Mala suerte. It’s my second firggin’ accident in Bolivia. What have I done wrong? I don’t deserve to get used to this. Get me out of here. Tierra del Fuego! Can you hear me?
Just then as if my guardian angel dropped relief from the heavens, two cars pulled over the side and five or six guys pulled out. They asked if we needed help and asked if I was okay. When I pointed to my knee one of the guys jumped back into his car and pulled out a set of motocross knee and shin pads! These guys were bikers. They weren’t optimistic about finding a truck quickly, so one of the guys Victor, slightly heavy set with thick arms and powerful hands suggested he’d ride my bike back to Santa Cruz and I could ride in the car with his friend. I had a good feeling from these guys. Though I was worried about him on that bridge.
As he hopped on the bike I handed him my helmet, which saw a little scrape on the side including the left side of the face-shield. As he grabbed the clutch he caught air. The clutch lever broke off. I was in the car shouting to him what should we do when the rest of his buddies got behind Doc and ran and pushed the bike into gear. He was off. And on the bridge.
Over the last few days I’ve learned quite a bit about this bridge. Apparently motorcycle accidents happen frequently — on the bridge. And yes. Sometimes when the angle of the front tire is not perfectly square, some motorcycles find a similar fate with their faces in gravel. For me it happened so fast. But I will attest to the quality and protection capabilities of my BMW Rallye II riding suit. I hit the road hard. And the only injuries, though not to be taken lightly, were from a bit of a twist as the bike went down.
For the next hour I rode with Ervin back to Santa Cruz while Victor seemed to be enjoying his ride on my clutch-lever-less BMW F650. Wearing shorts and sandals he’d buzz the terrain in front of us, riding the shoulder when it offered a little dirt or gravel and even slowed down to chat with me through the window as we breezed 50 mph down the road. Turns out Victor is a motocross and motorcycle rallye champion somewhere in Bolivia. The guy was a nut. And when I offered to pay these guys for gas and for riding my bike back, Victor looked at me slanted and said in Spanish “pay me for riding your motorcycle!?” He thought that was very funny.
The amazing fact of these guys’ generosity and time is that they were heading in the opposite direction. They took a few hours out of their Sunday to take me and my bike back to Santa Cruz. They’d have to ride another hour or so back to the bridge to continue their trip to Beni — a northern state of Bolivia.
As for my x-ray, Jeremiah and I found a taxi and unlike the time I was in Tica Tica and Potosi, I asked to be taken to a private clinic.
I don’t know what it is. But Bolivia is beating the crap out of me. Sitting on the side of the road with dust in my lungs and my bike eating rocks my spirit sunk deep. For a second I thought I should just throw in the towel. For it’s my same leg. And it’s hurting. But I’m patient. And I will heal once again. And then Doc and I can continue the ride.
Meanwhile, Jeremiah has decided he must move on. I can’t walk for a few days and then it will be longer before I can put weight on the leg. I remember spraining my ankle last August while walking in Seattle. Then it was my right ankle and even slightly sprained I could still manage to ride the bike without much problem. But this is my left — the side of the kick-stand and the side where I must use the leg to right the motorcycle. I’m bummed.
The weather is bearing down on us and to see the Salar de Uyuni before the rains is paramount. Jeremiah can’t and won’t wait. He did take a trip to Las Missiones, by the way. Took him 5.5 hours.
It’s going to take me longer.
Photos by Miah.