Camping in a third world country always is an interesting proposition. You could be seemingly miles from anywhere and any population yet somehow someone shows up bringing a huge dose of curiosity. Last night while setting camp we were visited by three passersby and their eagerly aggressive and loud dogs. After a quick PodCast recording, I feel asleep. My senses awakened me twice in the middle of the night to the sound of footsteps. Nobody bothered us. Packing up the next morning a local campesino man, Marco, paid us a visit. Clad in worn sandals, a fading sombrero and sporting a machete and pack made of animal skin and fur, he spoke good Spanish in an area where perhaps most of the villagers speak Quechua — and indigenous language the ex-coca farmer and current president Evo Morales is requiring all school children to learn.
I’ve been in Bolivia for two weeks. And while questions of my origin and country are commonplace, the conversation never gets too heavy — that is, into issues of politics, religion or humanitarianism. But here I am stuck between two water crossings 50 miles from the closest town that might have one hotel, a mile outside a town that has no telephone, internet and where only a few privileged have electricity and Marco asks about the war in Iraq. I’m stuffing my tent back into its bag and he enquires as to what I might find to be a solution. This gets complicated with my poor but developing Spanish language skills. This question never came up in metropolitan Sucre, buthere in the middle of nowhere, Marco manages to blow my mind.
Gas stations are difficult to find. Little ladies sit in darkness surrounded by 55 gallon drums. Anyone got a light?
The trucks on the road spew gravel, dust and sand. Getting behind one of these on a series of switchbacks taxes patience and concentration.
I managed the third water crossing unscathed and continued down the road. It was 7am. According to my calculations we had 52 miles until we hit the major paved road. But as I unfortunately learned five hours and 52 long miles later, this was simply the town that had the hotel. We still had another nearly 20 miles to go.
Did you read that? Verdad. We managed to track 52 miles in just over 5 hours. Making a good clip you’d surmise, huh? Well with every mile closer we moved toward pavement and Santa Cruz the road turned into fine sand and suffocating dust. We certainly moved faster than the trucks traveling this by way. But the aggressive, fearless and faceless drivers in cars would blast by leaving us in visually unpenetrable dust — and this says nothing for the grit in our teeth and the asphyxiation of our lungs.
The road climbed up and over, descending and ascending in and out of valleys. The agriculture was richer but the roads got tougher with increasingly looser sand that deepend between the truck and car tracks and piled up high on the shoulders. The switchback turns were worse. With deep and loose sand that played tricks, our tires just squirreled uncontrollably as we white knuckled around the turn. We beseeched our bikes didn’t slip and fall, or worse, fail to make the turn for fear of falling only to slip off the slide of cliffs usually hundreds of feet high.
To keep my bike upright meant intense concentration following a sure and steady line — intensely working hard to inhibit any potential target fixation on those huge dropping cliffs. But blazing cars would often leave me in a cloud of dust where I couldn’t see the road. I’d either have to stop or push on hoping i didn’t accidetally dive into a deeper pile of sand or run into a car coming the opposite direction. At one point I found myself climbing a steep sandy incline in a cloud of dusty. I couldn’t see anything. As the dust settled I found myself precariously close to a car; nearby was Jeremiah stopped and shaken. A lunatic rider had tried to pass the car I barely missed nearly running into Jeremiah.
The sun drove the temperature to nearly 100 degrees by 9am. Combined with the dust this heat dehydrated me at frequent intrevals. Fortunately I was carrying sufficient water. Last night’s sleep wasn’t adequate enough for the stamina and concentration for this type of riding. By the time we rode into Saipina – the place I thought the pavement would begin – I was exhausted. And upon learning we had another 20 miles of this I was heartbroken. Jeremiah eagerly downed a coke, a few pieces of bread and contemplated an empanada.
“Allan you’ve got to eat something,” he quipped.
“I’m too tired.” I moaned. Complained. And nearly cried. If it wasn’t bad enough to be faced with muddy roads on day one of my return to the road, tthis second day facing mile after mile of dust and varying depths of slippery and squirrely sand did me in. I was besides myself. With all the churches in this country I faced a willingness to convert and pray for the almighty pavement.
I downed half a coke and gave the other half to young boys who were oogling our bikes.
Despite the dust, trucks and mental overhead negotiating a tough roud, the vistas are outstanding.
The vistas were stunning, for sure. We’d passed through red rock canyons that reminded me of Utah, dry hills with tall cactii reminiscent of the central highlands of the Sierra Madre outside Durango, Mexico and fertile irrigated valleys like Northern California. Vistas aside. The ride was so taxing it became nearly impossible to enjoy. At one point I got stuck behind a huge dust spewing truck that made it impossible to see while forcing me to slow to a crawl. I had to pass. This was a hard decision. Knowing the unpredictable mounds of sand that trace back and forth over these roads I’d risk plowing into a plile that could potentially washout my front tire and send me down for a sandy faceplant. But I had to get out of the dust. I pushed forward. Sure enough the sand got me. My bike squirreled back and forth like a sidewinder whisking through the desert. But I kept it up and quickly but treacherously passed the annoying truck and its wake of dust. But to these hands and legs and this fragile and fearful mind it felt for sure I’d fall. And if I did, the picture wouldn’t be pretty: imagine 18 wheels about as tall as my motorcycle churning down the dustry trail with my bike and body in tow.
When we got to the pavement I was in heaven — sort of. My tires were way under inflated for tarmac. Jeremiah rendined me that we had only 15 miles of pavement until the turn-off for Vallegrande — which would take us another 30 miles down a dusty, dirt road. It was 1:30pm — six and a half hours since we left camp this morning. We’d traveled about 70 miles.