What can you say about the unexpected? Sometimes such events bring joy. Other times pain. The unexpected. Whether good or bad, smart or stupid, ugly or beautiful or even happy or sad, unexpected events evoke undeniable emotion. Today, little did I know that after embarking on a early start under blue skies and bidding Potisi a fond farewell that today’s events would dramatically change the course of my journey.
Miah and I prepared for the worst weather. We layered our clothing, fitted our rain gear, and pulled out our warmest and heaviest gloves. The chilling air of the highest city of the world at 6:30am was one reason. Rain was the other. Despite the blue skies littered with few puffy white clouds we knew the chance of rain was 100%. Then Doc started acting up again. Over the past few weeks riding the high altitude plains (altiplano) of the Andes, Doc’s been a bit temperamental. Seems my bike just doesn’t like to start without a little coaching or attention. Even pulling over to take pictures Doc would stall and give me trouble starting up again. Jeremiah had some bit of trouble with his Dakar, exactly the same bike as mine, but not to the degree of my starting hassles. Obstinate as Doc could be I’d eventually get the bike started.
Often when traveling through Latin America people would inevitably want to know the cost of my motorcycle. I’d beat around the issue as best I could because the cost of this motorcycle is more than many of the curious make in a year. Sometimes I’d simply reply, “Oh, I’m sorry, you want to buy it? It’s not for sale.” But when I did divulge the approximate cost of Doc, I’d footnote my answer with some basic facts:
“Mi moto es mi casa,” I’d say explaining that this motorcycle is my home.
“Mi moto es mi cama,” I’d further explain that this bike and my things are my bed.
And finally, I’d explain “mi moto es mi mujer”, that is my motorcycle is my woman — my wife.
This of course would follow with much laughter and after explaining some of the problems and joys the bike gives me our conversation transcended from one of a monetary discussion, to one of a more common ground — women. And these mornings my woman had a bit of issue with the cold weather and high altitude. But she’d always give in after some needed attention.
The ride to the tiny town of Uyuni which lies on the fringe of the Salar de Uyuni would take 5 or 6 hours. We winded past the Potosí hospital and up a dirt road to a guard shack and a road block. Hanging on the walls inside the shack were pictures of scantily clad and even bare breasted women. I asked if I would find these women in Uyuni and was simply told “buenas suerte” (good luck). The gravel and dirt road climbed over brown rocky hills with very little vegetation. The scenery brought back memories of eastern California and western Arizona as we followed a river and up and over lime and sandstone hills. There were barely any cars as the dirt road carved and curved along cliffs and dropped into small valleys.
We stopped and greeted a llama herder who wouldn’t stop reaching his hand out to shake ours. And never once did he ask for money. He allowed us to take his picture and of his llamas. Later we ran into other smaller herds of llamas. And always sitting nearby were a few men and women just staring at the road and watching their herds. They seemed happy and content in their simpler life and eagerly returned friendly waves as our two odd-looking motorcycles swept by their view
Soon we dropped into a valley and through a grove of cacti and tiny trees – almost shrubs. Doc was running exquisitely and as the heat turned up we pulled over to shed some of our layers. While there was plenty of evidence of the rainy season — we passed through several muddy patches, crossed a few rivers and saw pools of water on the road — the sky remained blue with no evidence of impending rains. Yet rounding one corner we encountered a bus that had slid in the dirt and mud off the road.
But for the next two or three hours we didn’t pass through a single town, see another car or truck. Instead we were treated with the blissful scene of herding llamas, geological wonders and the living desert and rushing waters. After cruising through the cactus grove we came upon the first village. We slowed and rode through exchanging waves with the local people sitting or standing about. Leaving town and winding around a series of hills with sheer hundred or more foot drops and a few switchbacks we soon seemed to be in redrock country with eroded sandstone gorges. The riding was phenomenal. I felt secure and meditative in the vast emptiness of the desert. My bike felt comfortable, I was dressed perfectly and the weather was giving us much needed relief. Even so, I couldn’t imagine riding this road in the rain or just after a heavy rainfall. Today under the sun the rocks, dirt and occasional sand and mud meant an average speed of 40 mph or below. But this was no problem. The journey isn’t about speed. The faster you go the more you miss and your reaction time is cut exponentially if something were to happen.
We passed through one town of muddy streets. A new central plaza and church were under construction. The town was rather empty, vacant. We passed other groupings of adobe buildings with thatched roofs. We’d been on the road for nearly 5 hours. But frequent breaks for photography or just taking in the expansive scenery meant the ride would be slightly longer today. Yet as long as the weather held up, we didn’t mind. After all, today was perhaps one of the best days riding in several weeks. it packed in all of the elements that define adventure motorcycling: dirt roads, desolate wilderness, water crossings, canyons, gorges, and the wonderful feeling of solitude — nobody had passed us from behind and only a few cars passed us from the other direction. Riding bliss.
Rolling into the town of Tica Tica I was immediately taken by the scenic narrow street lined with brownish red adobe buildings with the ubiquitous thatched roofs. A beautiful Bolivian girl locked her eyes on me as we slowed into the outskirts of town. I pulled out my camera to capture Miah as he rode into Tica Tica. I noticed the road ahead deteriorate into a muddy mess. I put the camera away and pressed on.
At one point the entire middle of the road was a pool of water and mud. Jeremiah pulled to the right. If there was such thing as a sidewalk, he was riding it. I decided to go to the left. My tires swished and slid a bit as I gripped the bars with apprehension and continued moving slowly. Then in a matter of seconds without warning my bike slid out from under me. As I fell I watched my left leg in slow motion as the Jesse bag lands on top of it and I flop into the mud. Everything is still. My leg was caught under the bag — I was worried. Something felt funny. I gently pulled my leg out from under the bike. My senses started reeling. Funny alright. I knew it immediately. It’s broken.
Jeremiah pulls over on the other side of the road. “My leg is broken,” I yell to him. “It got caught under the Jesse bag,” I explain. “Get your camera!” He idles his pace makes a U and grabs the camera. “My leg is broken, I know it,” I explain to him. “Take a picture.” He grabs a quick snap and leans over me. By now a small group has gathered around. I’m lying face up in the mud.
“Allan, we are in Bolivia. We’re in the middle of fucking nowhere. We’ve got to figure out how to get you out of here,” Jeremiah whispers to me while verifying that I’m okay, conscious and in control of pain. Pain. Hah! What pain?
“My trip is over, J.J.,” I say to him using the nickname he has kindly requested I avoid. “I’m so pissed.”
This shouldn’t and couldn’t happen, I thought. I’ve fallen off this bike in sand, mud and dry pavement before. Never has my boot or leg been trapped. As I laid there with the sun beating down on my face with my left lower leg most certainly broken, my mind spins trying to understand what happened.
Even though I was lying in a muddy mess of bad luck, two things were going right for me. The first was having Jeremiah as my riding partner here in Bolivia. Before starting his clothing business in Colorado Jeremiah (Miah) served several years as a ranger for the National Park service. Trained in EMT he exudes a calm sense of control and action when speaking to the local people. He knows what he’s doing. Soon his patience is taxed as more and more locals ask how they can help. In Spanish he simply responds we’re fine, we’ve got it taken care of.
The second thing that was going right for me was to land in the mud in Tica Tica. By some twist of fate the town where I took this muddy dump happened to be the only town between Uyuni and Potosi that has a medical clinic. Staffed by a 27-year old doctor, two medical assistants and a janitor, locals direct Jeremiah to the clinic. The crowd thickens around me. A young boy about ten years old appears at my side with an umbrella shielding my eyes and face from the beating sun. Acting swiftly and determined, Jeremiah moves my motorcycle and tosses me my Camelback hydration backpack and my camera which was sitting in the open on my bike. “Drink lots of water, Allan. Keep drinking. I’m going to secure your bike and make sure nothing disappears and go find medical help.” it’s hot. And I’m in the mud.
The crowd is deeper now. And another young boy pops open an umbrella and shields the rest of my body from the beating sun. It’s 1pm.
With Jeremiah on his mission I start talking to the crowd in Spanish. To know me is to know that I rarely let anything lower my spirit. This was no different. Broken leg or not, I started making jokes. People move in for a closer look and to hear this crazy gringo talking. I keep saying “gracias” to the boys holding the umbrellas. I follow Miah’s advice and keep sucking the water. As for the crowd, I’m amazed at how quickly they appeared and reacted. Fully aware of the affect of the high altitude sun at midday they were quick to protect me from further harm. More people offered their help. I simply said Jeremiah was taking care of things.
The clock was clicking. I was running out of jokes and starting to feel tired. Where was Jeremiah? Was the clinic in another town? I was worried. But then again — I wasn’t Before I embarked on this trip people would often ask me what are you going to do if something happens to you in the middle of nowhere? I’d reply that things always work themselves out and that wasn’t a concern.
Here I was in the middle of nowhere. With a broken leg. And we were working things out.
I sense come commotion so I craned my neck up only to see a woman in a white smock running down the road. In one hand was an orthopedic boot, in the other a 3 foot long cardboard rectangle tube. She appears at my feet and asks me how I’m doing. I’m worried about Jeremiah and ask his whereabouts. In minutes he shows up and takes charge. He tells me that he just took a dump on his bike on rough terrain near the clinic. Two women helped him get up.
Miah and the female doctor confer. My boot must come off. I dreaded this. Worried about swelling, pain and what’s next, but working together the three of us successfully remove it. Then comes the scissors and soon the pants of my Rallye II suit have a slit and my swelling appendage is exposed for all to see.
The ortho boot the doctor brought from the clinic will be useless but the cardboard tube becomes my splint with the help of gauze and an ace bandage. Miah, Doctor Sylvia and nurse Jacoba carefully splint my leg. The boys still hold up the umbrellas while Sylvia, the local doctor and jeremiah discuss evacuation options. There is a place to land an airplane just a few miles down the road. Or we can summon an ambulance from Uyuni to take me back to Potosi. Sylvia explains that the plane could take me to Santa Cruz where a more modern hospital may be better equipped to handle my injury. We decide to get the plane. Sylvia disappears and then returns and says the plane is busy now but we are awaiting to hear. Meanwhile a local good samaritan has retrieved the stretcher from the clinic and is offers his truck to take me to to the clinic where I can rest in a bed while waiting for the plane.
I kept thinking. My mind playing tricks. How did this happen? Perhaps I was going to slow and with the sudden stop in the heavy mud there was no forward motion to throw me further from the bike. Or perhaps I should have been standing up. I’m sure I was sitting and moving slowly. I’ve never been caught under my bike before. How did this happen?
Clouds started to move in and daylight slowly dimmed under the black billowing beasts. We worried that the plane might not be able to land due to the weather. Should we consider the ambulance?
At the three room medical clinic which I must have passed on my way into town the evacuation plan is discussed further. More calls to the medical plane aren’t encouraging. I could be here awhile. Sylvia explains there is an ambulance. But it would take several hours to get here and then another 4 hours to get to Potosí. Jeremiah retrieved the Vicadin’s I had my doctor prescribe in the event of an emergency, but he suggested that I hold off until medics were able to evaluate my injury and understand my pain. I obliged.
Sylvia returned and said the plane might not be able to make it until tomorrow morning. What did I want to do? Jeremiah was lost for a decision. Did we want to spend a night in Tica Tica? He was stuck here with me. I could tell he didn’t want to go back to Potosi, but he wouldn’t leave until he was confident I was in good hands. I asked him to pull my Medivac information from my bike. Every traveler should carrying some sort of medical evacuation insurance. I signed up with MedJetAssist before departing in July. Little did I know that I’d have to call on them 7 months later.
Just then a huge bang of thunder shook the building. Then another. It was just after 2pm on Sunday afternoon when Sylvia came back from one more call over the radio telephone in the clinic. The reception was getting worse due to the weather and communication extremely difficult. But it appeared that the medical plane wouldn’t be available until Wednesday. I decided that we better call the ambulance. With the radio phone practically useless I asked Jeremiah to go with Sylvia to the only “true” telephone in town to call the ambulance and to also call MedJetAssist and put them on alert that I’d need to be evacuated out of Potosi tomorrow. I asked him to call my girlfriend Angelique in Southern California with the news and that I was alright.
The rain started pouring buckets. Had I not slipped in the nasty mud of Tica Tica we might have pulled into Uyuni before the rain. At least that is what I thought until I learned that a river just a few miles down the road was running high — over 4 or 5 feet — making a crossing difficult or impossible. A few days later Jeremiah would encounter this river and be forced to return to Potosi on his bike. We would have turned around and got caught in this rain.
The rain pounded on the roof of the Tica Tica medical clinic while we waited for the ambulance to arrive. Uyuni was just over an hour away, we expected the ambulance in a couple hours. Meanwhile, Jeremiah pulled all my gear off Doc and started consolidating my things. The two spare fuel cans would be added to his tank. And as he sifted through my stuff a few other items caught his eye. I’m not going to need that for a while, referring to a small dry bag I used to carry my pocket digital camera. He added this to his pile. I offered him some of the food we bought in Potosi in preparing for camping on our long journey to Uyuni, Laguna Verde and south to desolate northern Argentina — places I’d have to wait to visit when I continue my journey sometime in the future.
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