Monday, March 25, 2002


Friends: Greetings from Montero, 260 miles down the road from Cochabamba in the lush, lush tropics. It is the end of summer and the rainy season here and the vegetation is thick and out-of-control luxuriant. For miles after I left the mountains, I had no view other than a wall of green to the left and a wall of green to the right. Fortunately, I have been able to find hotels the past two nights, as camping would have been the ultimate challenge of this trip, since I didn't bring along a machete or a platform to elevate myself from the mushy ground. I am now in a region where there are patches of cleared land with grazing cattle and fields of sugar cane and rice and orange groves, some tended by Mennonites, but camping is still very iffy. Asking to camp on someone's property is a possibility, but not a very welcome one, with dogs and chickens and children on the loose.

Last night I had a frantic race with the sun to reach the town of Buena Vista in search of a hotel. It made for a 129-mile day, the last 70 in five hours, right up to dark at 6:40 p.m. I didn't intend it to be such a big mileage day. According to one map I'm using, Buena Vista was just 100 miles down the road from Villa Tunari, where I'd spent the previous night. Now that I was in the flats, that was a most reasonable distance. But I'd been thwarted previously here in Bolivia from my objective by either excessive climbing or bad roads, so I began the day warily. I was humming along at better than fifteen mph with a bit of a tailwind. Some scattered cumulus clouds lessened the heat and shielded my skin from the sun. This was cycling at its best, conditions that made it hard to stop riding, though I knew I needed to pause occasionally to eat and especially drink. I had 60 miles by 12:30 when I stopped for lunch, thinking the worst of the day was behind me, leaving me a leisurely promenade the rest of the day.

But shortly after lunch, a road sign said 80 kilometers to a town that I thought came before Buena Vista. I screeched to a halt and whipped out my map. Yes indeed, the mentioned town was in fact 14 miles before Buena Vista. Instead of 40 miles in the remaining five hours of light, my post lunch ride was going to be 70 miles. It looked like Bolivia might thwart me again. But my week of altitude training and years of messengering sustained me--five hours on the bike in the baking heat with one fifteen minute break for a soda. I was fried when I arrived at Buena Vista. One of the allures of this town was that it was a staging area for forays into a national park, promising gringo amenities, including the Internet. There was an Internet outlet there, but it had been down for a week. The only other gringos in this sleepy town were a German couple who were exhausted from a nine-mile hike and then even more exhausted hearing about my day.

Never have I biked in a country where each day has been so dramatically different from every other day. There are new and unexpected challenges at every turn. I ended up resting two-and-a-half days in Cochabamba, one more than planned, as I was totally exhausted, not only from all the climbing to get there, but I also needed to recover from an attack of a third world intestinal problem that had me spewing from both ends. My innards began rejecting whatever had disagreed with them at about one a.m. the night before my final descent into Cochabamba. I had never vomited on the bike before, but it was preferable to having to suddenly drop trou along the road, especially since the last 35 miles down from the Altiplano were in a fairly hard rain. I was severely tempted to stop at one of the motels I passed starting about fifteen miles from the city center and crawl into bed, but I kept going, assuring myself another hour of misery on the bike in the rain didn't much matter at that point.

When I finally left Cochabamba, I wasn't entirely sure I had recovered my strength and expelled the bug, but I soon discovered I had. I knew I had a climb out of the valley of Cochabamba, but I didn't know how prolonged it would be. After two hours I was more than ready for it to be over. At least my legs weren't rebelling, just my spirit. I knew another great descent awaited me, this one all the way to below 3,000 feet, but I didn't know when it would begin. My target for the day was the town of Villa Tunari, 100 miles away. The climb went on for two more agonizing hours for the most altitude I had gained in one sustained climb of the trip, 3,600 feet, but at least it was all below 13,000 feet.

When I finally began what could be a 10,000-foot, 50-mile descent, I couldn't fully relax and exult as I remembered all too well the several interruptions in my descent from 15,000 feet several days before. After a seven mile plunge the road did turn upwards, but only for three miles and then began what looked like the descent of a lifetime. There were thick ominous clouds ahead. I put on my vest and windbreaker to ward off the cold now that I 'd be no longer exerting myself and plunged in before rain could ruin it. There was a strong updraft so I hardly need to brake, while maintaining a speed of around 40 mph. Every mile or so I'd pass a truck that had passed me on the way up. A dog misjudged my speed as it came tearing at me, and we nearly collided, startling the both of us nearly to death. I was on intense alert for gravel and oil, and after that any more canines. An unlit tunnel half a mile long forced me off my bike as it was unilluminated and pitch black curving through the mountain, providing no guiding light for better than half of it.

After 18 miles in half an hour, with the rain holding off but the clouds lurking just overhead, except for one brief stretch when I was engulfed by them, I had to stop again at a coca checkpoint. There were at least twenty vehicles backed up, but I was waved around them and wasn't asked to stop. I had come from 12,500 feet to 7000 feet, about half of the descent. And then came a 25-mile stretch of dirt, gravel and mud--a devil's brew of muck that was the worst hell I'd ever experienced on the bike.

There had been one half-mile stretch of broken pavement earlier, so I expected to be soon done with this, but it went on and on, and it was raining. There were stretches where the mud was ankle deep. With the brakes squeezed, I was descending at a slower speed than I would have been if I had been ascending. My wrists were wearing out faster that my legs. I couldn't hold the brakes for much longer than two or three minutes before having to stop to rest my wrists. The occasional passing vehicle would spray mud on me from head to toe. I would walk a couple of minutes and then ride for a few. After a couple of hours and not even eight miles, I came to a broken down truck. I asked the driver how much further it was to the pavement. He said ten kilometers. I had about three hours of light left, so I could reach that in less than two hours at my present rate and then hightail it for Villa Tunari. About ten minutes later, I came to a road crew truck stopped along the road. I asked the driver the same question, He stuck up two fingers. I gleefully said, "Solamente dos?" (Only two?) "No veinte." (20K- 12 miles) I was sunk. Now it was time to feel desperation, as I trudged and skidded down this mountain of muck, my great descent ruined. My brake pads were nearly shredded. The spray-like shrapnel from the passing vehicles was caking on me and my gear. This was going to be one horrific night of camping...if I could find a clearing for my tent, something I had yet to notice.

About 15 minutes later at 5:15, with 90 minutes of light left, a truck slowed alongside me. I started to ask the guy in the passenger seat for a third opinion on how much further it was to the pavement. He quickly blurted it was very far, as he hopped out and was grabbing my bike to throw it up onto the back of his truck. I wasn't sure if this was a rescue mission or a kidnapping, as he hadn't even bothered to ask if I'd like a ride. He simply knew that I did, whether or not I knew it. If he had asked I would have hemmed and hawed a bit, as I am absolutely loathe to accept rides. It is an extremely bad habit to fall in to. I had turned down a ride several days before on the Altiplano in a driving, cold rain and the weather had almost immediately improved. But this offer I could not resist. I was in almost as bad of a shape as the road, and it was a disaster. I sat in the back of this open-decked 50-foot long truck with six campesinos. It was 45 minutes before we reached pavement. Ordinarily I would have insisted on getting back on my bike, but I was in no state to make any such requests, having entrusting my fate to these truckers. We reached Villa Tunari half an hour later, just at dark. I had ridden 70 miles of the 100 to my destination, and felt no guilt about being driven the final 30. A shower never felt better. I'm now less than 300 miles from Trinidad on a road that isn't all paved and has long distances between towns. Who knows what lurks and when I will next find the Internet.

Later, George

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