With blue skies, extremely hot and humid weather, I took my last therapy dip into the pool at Gran Hotel Santa Cruz. Walking about twenty minutes back and forth in the shallow end then a few full brisk laps all in effort to keep the ankle joint moving without putting too much stress on it.
Perhaps later I reversed any non-stress therapy when I found myself in the busy market district of Santa Cruz looking for a large duffel bag — cheap. Nearly three days on a truck and potentially a fourth on a train to Uyuni, I had to do something with my riding gear. As a moto traveler my pants, jacket, helmet, gloves and boots are daily outerwear. They never have to be packed. If staying in a hotel they simply hang in the closet or sit in a pile on the floor. A large duffel sufficient to contain these items would ensure nothing would be misplaced, lost or worse.
There was a line of about 5 vendors. All of them claimed to have the biggest bag. All insisted the lowest price. With long poles they’d pull bags from their displays. I settled on a black one. It seemed large enough, but the lady wanted nearly $12. In markets bargaining and negotiating is given — and expected. I explained that the duffle would just end up in the trash or given away. We settled at just about $10. Next a stop to a supermarket — yes a supermarket — for supplies for the long ride: crackers, fruit, water and sweets. Back at the hotel I packed the riding gear and checked inventory. All was in order. Then like clockwork the phone rings at 3:30pm. The truck to pick up my motorcycle arrived.
They wanted to come earlier, but I explained that I go everywhere with my bike and since the truck wouldn’t leave until 8 or 9 that night, I asked for a later pick-up. The crew was very professional. They had real tie-downs, a ramp and numbered three so pushing that bike up the incline was easily facilitated.
About twenty minutes from the center of Santa Cruz we pulled down a dirt and sandy alley to the shipping office of Lozada Transport. About five kids kicked a soccer ball around the dirty driveway, but when they spotted my motorcycle the game quickly ended. As they pulled the bike off the truck and planted it in the warehouse I answered the usual barrage of questions. I fired my own back at them. The warehouse was moderately full of boxes and sacks of dry goods. Cars and trucks pulled in an out over the next half hour. Then I met Ramiro Lozada. For more then 25 years his family has been in the transport business. With about 20-25 trucks in their arsenal and offices in every major Bolivian city I figured they must be on one of the largest. But Ramiro shook his head and said competition is tough. Yet, they do alright.
Though the hours are astounding. I expected my truck to arrive around 7:30. They’d load the bike and some other cargo and we’d likely be on the road by 9 or 10pm. As I took refuge in their air conditioned office for about 3 hours, Ramiro approached me about 7pm. There was a problem with the truck. I couldn’t understand all the details he blithered to me in 100-mph spanish. What I did understand is the truck wouldn’t likely arrive until 9:30 or 10pm. Confident that my bike and things were safe and secure, I took this cue to get out of there and grab some chow downtown.
When I returned at 10pm a crowd gathered around a large Volvo truck, typical of what I’d seen for weeks on the roads of Bolivia and not unlike the one that nearly pushed Jeremiah off a cliff. Unlike the trucks we’re accustomed to seeing on U.S. highways, Bolivian transport trucks don’t carry containers or pull enclosed trailers. Instead, they’re something like massive stake-bed trucks. The cargo bed is about 25-25 fee long and fenced in by eight feet high heavy duty stakes and planks. To keep cargo dry they are wrapped neat and tight with waterproof tarps. Miguel Garcia, the driver of my 1983 Volvo F12, told me that the truck came to Bolivia by boat from Sweden about six or seven years ago and cost about $18,000. Most of those years he’d been driving it for its owner, another Boliviano from Cochabamba.
The crew had wheeled my motorcycle to the back of the truck. To these eyes the truck was full. Half the bed was packed with boxes of cooking oil, while the remainder with fifty or more 50-75lb sacks of rice, sand or some sort of grain.
“There’s no room for my bike,” I quipped. A few men were moving some of the sacks on top of each other in a move I thought was to clear a portion of the bed for my bike. Wrong.
“Hay espacia, no problema,” the anorexic looking worker with a handful of missing teeth assured me.
They attempted to create a flat area on top of these sacks. Another worker handed the guys in the truck stacks of cut-up cardboard boxes which were placed on top of the sacks. Then a forklift appeared with a broken pallet.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. “There’s no way my bike will fit on that pallet, where’s the ramp?”
I ate my words, sort of. They fit my bike on diagonally with my rear wheel precariously inching off the wood. Two guys took a ride with my bike about 5 feet in the air meeting the bed of the truck. The forklift inched the pallet snug against the truck. The angle was off and my heart was beating. Visions of my bike in pieces flashed before my eyes as two men grabbed the front wheel and jockeyed it around perpendicular to the bed and rested it on one of those pieces of cardboard. Then with a push, tug and roll they managed to get my bike situated on top of cardboard, on top of sacks of grain two or three high. My tie-downs worked a charm as we strapped doc down using four points while more cardboard was positioned vertically encasing the sides of the bike. Unfortunately my photos don’t do this whole procedure and position justice. But click to see larger images and you’ll get the idea.
At 37 years old and appearing more Hispanic than indigenous, Miguel’s hair was recently and neatly cut, his clothes had almost a tailored fit and he took pride in keeping the cab of his truck clean and somewhat organized. At one point the contoured velvet cover blanketing the dash had slipped down on my side of the cab. He asked me to tuck it back into place. His demeanor was open and friendly, but he’d unleash a string of derogatory epithets and profanity out the window when another driver pissed him off. Even when a peaje (toll booth) officer seemingly charged him the wrong amount and no reasoning would change the fee, Miguel called him things that I won’t repeat. As the truck pulled away the officer just yelled “Gracias.”
Before pulling out of Lozada Transport I sat with Ramiro and Miguel in the office and handled the business of payment and discussed details. Another Lozada employee popped in and was keen to ask if I liked the picture of scantily clad twins appearing on a calendar above his desk. I said, “Perfecto. Una para mi y una para mi amigo Miguel. Donde esta?” This was met with laughter and then a serious note from Miguel.
“Hay hujeres en la carretarra. Alto mujeres. No problema,” he explained noting the existence of available women – hookers – on the road ahead.
About an hour or so after our 11:30pm departure we passed a house on the right with a crowd gathered and several man holding women in their laps. We passed a number of other houses. Each had a blazing red light nearly as high as street lights. Miguel pointed each one out. “Alto mujeres.” Later we passed another cluster. So these are truly the Bolivian red light districts. We trucked on.
It was rather amusing to watch Miguel drive the sometimes bumpy road toward Cochabamba. His seat was on some sort of spring and shock absorbing system. But he had virtually no dampening set and therefore looked like a jack-in-box popping up and down as his gaze focused on the dark road ahead. At a police checkpoint he asked for the plate number of my motorcycle. When I told him “WRLDRDR” he thought I didn’t understand. “No que es numero de placa?” I repeated myself. Shrugging he headed into the police office, which was merely a small rotting wood shack bordered by vendors on either side. He came back to the cab and asked once again for the numbers I told him that there is a VIN number but all those papers were in the top box attached to the bike. Not believing me he untied the tarp and climbed into the back with a small flashlight then appeared moments later with a series of numbers written on the palm of his hand. Turns out he found my license plate there were numbers on the expiration date decal and literally handed them to the police. Documents were stamped, and stamped again and we were off.
Riding Bolivia in a commercial transport vehicle allowed me a chance peek into the culture of truck drivers, their lifestyle on the road and the bureaucratic motions required along the road. At a weigh station, Miguel explained that if the truck tipped the scale at 27 tons or more we’d be making a U-turn and heading back to Santa Cruz. We weighed in at 26.5 tons. More documents. More stamps. I counted at least five times we needed to reconfirm weight.
About 2 or 3 hours after leaving Santa Cruz our yawns became contagious. We’d have to stop for sleep. So just past another toll both Miguel pulled over explaining that we’d be safe close to a police stop.
The cab of our Volvo was small. Separating driver and passenger was a large platform where underneath the engine sat. Behind the seats was a narrow space with a thin and aging spring mattress with a few sheets and a couple stacks of blankets. He pointed to the mattress and said I could sleep there and he would simply sleep across his seat, under the steering wheel and rest his head on the engine platform. I protested explaining he was the driver and needed the better accommodation. This didn’t work so I gave way to his insistence.
We were on the road by 5:30 the next morning. The short 3 or 4 hours of sleep didn’t do much for me and I wondered how Miguel was doing. We passed through a flatland plain where oil and gas is drilled and though I didn’t see them, this is where the recently nationalized oil refineries process gasoline and other combustibles. Somewhere along this route we stopped for breakfast. I had some sort of soup with a chicken leg and rice while Miguel chowed on beef. We shared a nasty tasting non-alcoholic beverage that according to Miguel would give us energy for the day ahead.
Yawns continued as the sun rose steadily behind us and the terrain transited to more tropical, green and mountainous. We were heading into the Bolivian Chapare district which sits at the edge of the Amazon basin between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. I noted more military presence as we rode through this area which reminded me of parts of Costa Rica and Panama. Miguel explained that the military in this area looks for illegal drugs. One car pulled over had its entire contents sprawled roadside as the police looked for the illegal contraband.
Chapare is perhaps most famous for its coca growing. Coca in its leaf form is merely another stimulant, like coffee. Yet Bolivians use it to cure ailments such as altitude sickness and to stave off hunger, thirst, stress and stomach problems Though when dried, soaked in kerosene and mashed into pulp and treated with hydrochloric and sulfuric acid and later processed with ether you get cocaine. And its in this region that the Bolivian government, the US Drug Enforcement Agency and the CIA have spent millions of dollars with moderate success trying to eradicate crops, destroy processing labs and make arrests. When we passed a huge plantation of bananas and mangos Miguel was quick to point out that just a few years ago those fields were all coca. It’s another one of the programs the Bolivian government and US have had mild success — helping ex-coca growers sustain a living through agriculture or livestock.
When Miguel asked me if smoked, drank or liked chewing coca leaves, I was happy to say that Huari, a Bolivian beer from Oruro and La Paz was my favorite, but that smoking was off-limits and the coca leaf thing was merely a novelty and by now I had been there and done that. Miguel shuns all of these vices. Though he used to drink beer – – lots of beer. Now only a little, and only on rare occasions. As he explained this I gazed through the cracked windshield at the large decal of Cristo (Jesus Christ) with open arms and wondered. Though these decals and other imagery of the father, son and holy spirit grace nearly all trucks and are found on countless taxis and personal vehicles throughout Bolivia.
Making about one trip a week between Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, Oruro or La Paz, the truck generates about $800 in revenue every month. Out of this Miguel gets $125 or about $30 weekly. Fuel and maintenance likely eat up 40-50% which means the owner nets about $300-$400 a month. For my two day truck driving adventure I paid about $90 — which included a pick-up at my hotel and delivery direct to a hotel in Oruro — I’m not sure what percentage Lozada Transport retained, but I was clearly expensive cargo. Not that it would a viable option, I could travel from Santa Cruz to Ururo for about $15 and about 20 cramped hours riding a bumpy and stuffy bus.
Through the entire Chapare region my eyes were glued to the landscapes of thundering rivers, large spanning bridges, tumbling waterfalls and lush green mountains and valleys. As we began a steep climb out of the basin Miguel motioned his hand upward and said we had five or six hours of going up. At one point where the land is geologically unstable – and sign after sign reminds drivers of this – construction created further delays with one way traffic through a mile stretch. Miguel climbed onto the mattress while I rested my head against the glass until we were awaken from our nearly 2 hour nap by the thundering sounds of diesel engines passing us. It was our turn.
As we spent the next ten hours making our way to Cochabamba I kept refilling an arsenal of snacks to share on the platform between driver and passenger and offered Miguel a bottle of water. He gladly accepted these snacks which helped stave off hunger and keep us alert. I’d doze off occasionally and wake up to refill. It occurred to me at one point that the empty packages of crackers disappeared. I asked Miguel for his water bottle so that I could refill it from a larger 2 liter bottle. He motioned it was gone. That’s when I realized he’d been throwing the trash out the window. I’d seen litter thrown from busses, trucks and cars during my many months on the road, but now a grave disappointment sank in as I came to this realization that Miguel Garcia was like all the rest. I had to confront him but waited for the right moment. When a large bag tossed out of the truck we followed and smashed on the roadside spewing bottles and papers along the roadside I moved in.
“What’s that?” I asked pointing to the bag as it sailed in the air.
“Trash,” he assured me in very clear and easy to understand Spanish.
“Why?” I asked, “Why do Bolivian people throw trash on the roads.”
“It’s a bad custom,” he shyly and seemingly shamefully admitted.
“Don’t people love their country? Can’t they see the trash littering the roads and cities? It’s very ugly and it breaks my heart to see a country I’ve come to love get trashed by the people who have to live here.”
“It’s going to take education,” Miguel suggested in an answer I found rather astounding from a guy who’s been throwing the empty snack packages I’ve been doling him for hours.
“How?” I asked.
“I don’t know. But it’s bad and people need to be told.”
It’s not just Bolivia. Throughout Latin American there is a blatant disregard for the environment. Whether it’s casually discarding trash or cutting down 200 year old trees and clear cutting marveling landscapes or spewing black diesel fumes from inefficient trucks and busses, Latin America has a huge problem. And if everyone like Miguel is waiting to be educated to the ills of such behavior much of South and Central America will lie buried in plastic bottles, bags and more the middle of this century. Sad.
As we crested the mountains and began our descent into the Cochabamba valley the terrain quickly and to my amazement turned from this lush green landscape to dry, arid and desert. It’s this transition that many people in Santa Cruz explained was the reason for difference in attitude and outlook between people who live in the greener lowlands of Santa Cruz and Tarijal — the media luna and the people in Cochabamba to the altiplano. In fact, there seems to be a funny topic how those on this side of the Andes would like to separate and gain independence from the other side of Bolivia. And while Evo Morales, the coca-growing indigenous new president of Bolivia garnered 80% of the popular vote, I couldn’t find anyone living in Santa Cruz that voted for him. During one of my many taxi excursions while ankle-healing in Santa Cruz, I spotted a sign that read “Evo es anti-cristo” – Evo is the anti-christ. I began to understand and see the differences.
We arrived in Cochabamba by about 3pm. With the truck safely parked in a garage Miguel infomred me he was going home and we’d get an early start the next morning. At first he suggested I just stay and sleep in the truck, but with the prospect of encountering the mean and rabid looking garage yard dogs, we both agreed I’d get a hotel room and meet at 6am.
I had very low expectations of Cochabamba. Many told me there was nothing and no reason to visit. Others called it a modern city devoid of culture. I settled into the City Hotel and spent the remaining hours of daylight limping around the central plaza, market and downtown central. It was modern. Seemingly clean. And easily approached. The downtown cathedral provided a pleasant backdrop for a plaza rich in gardens and packed with people sitting on benches. The market had the biggest selection of potatoes I’d seen in Latin America and a shopping district featured tastefully adorned window displays and all the products of a modern western society. My dinner matched the best I had in Santa Cruz and while there wasn’t much I could see in my 12 hour stay, I easily could have stayed another day.
Checked e-mail quickly tonight and still no word from Jeremiah. I’m worried. Not like him.