Friday, March 29, 2002

Trinidad, Bolivia

Friends: I have made it to Trinidad, a ramshackle city of 80,000, the largest I have been in by far in a week. It is in the heart of Bolivia's Amazonian basin. It has been 15 days since I left La Paz. Other than two rest/recovery days in Cochabamba, all of them have been spent biking. I went over the 1000-mile mark this morning. Less than 400 remain to La Paz. Bolivia has remained unrelentingly demanding. There hasn't been a single day so far when, at some point, I thought I would have been happy to be just about anywhere else in the world. It is quite a contrast to last summer's foray in the Arctic of Scandinavia when every day was a pleasure, and my mind was free to wander in joyous reverie. Here my thought is a prisoner of the task at hand and wondering what new challenges could possibly lay ahead.

All too often I am counting down the miles, happy to be a quarter of the way to some destination, then a third of the way, half and so on. That's not how I like to occupy my thought, but that's how it has been. And there's not all that much to look forward to down the road. Cold drinks are a rumor. Rare is it to find anything other than a tepid soda, and they only come in larger than half-liter sizes. I was hoping the papaya soda would be a quencher, but it is a syrupy goo of indistinguishable flavor. I've been looking forward to Trinidad for days, knowing there would most likely be fresh squeezed orange juice carts in the plaza and ice cream and other delectables. I've downed a couple of liters of OJ already since I arrived here a few hours ago and am ready for more. My meals have mostly been a pile of rice with some potatoes and some sinewy slices of indistinguishable meat and fried bananas. Rare is it to find chicken on the menu, which I'd much prefer, as it requires a lot less chewing than the usual meat. Frijoles and tortillas, the staples of Mexico are unknown here.

There have been days that started out with easy, pleasurable riding, and I thought, at last, an enjoyable, uneventful day of cycling, but it fails to last. Three days ago I was humbled by 70 miles of steep hills and this after three days of virtual flatness. I climbed more vertical feet that day than when I had hours of sustained climbing, according to my altimeter. Hills can be a pleasant diversion, but not in the heat of the tropics and not when they come in waves with each a climb of a mile or more and not when I never know if the next oasis of shade or little store or restaurant is around the next corner or 35 miles down the road. Here in Bolivia it's been miles and miles between supply points.

Yesterday was another day when I thought I had finally broken the Bolivia hex. I had 50 miles by 12:30, when I came upon a small store selling drinks and snacks. I was starving, and needed more food than that. The store was just a hut alongside a house in the middle of nowhere. Very often whoever owns such a store is happy to cook up some eggs or share whatever they might be cooking for the family's next meal. The senora said she had nothing else to offer other than what was in the store. I pleaded that I was very, very hungry and wondered if she might not have at least some rice. She replied,"Un momento," and went back into her house.

When she returned a minute or two later, she beckoned me to follow her into her home. She led me into a room where a cluster of eight or nine men, a work crew of a sort, were seated around two tables and were finishing up their lunch. The foreman was an American, the first English-speaker I had come across in days. I could hardly believe my good fortune--a solid meal and a solid conversation. He offered me a ride to Trinidad, 100 miles away. It was tempting, if only to spend a couple more hours with this fellow and possibly receive an invitation to stay with him, but I declined. I was having a good ride and the remaining 100 miles to Trinidad promised more of the same.

I was 21 miles from my destination for the day. The road had been flat through a river valley, though the river was so engulfed by vegetation, there was no hint of there being a river in the vicinity. I thought the worst the day held for me would be having to curtail my cycling prematurely, several hours before dark, when I wanted to keep riding, but couldn't since camping was too iffy and towns too scarce. I am embarrassed to admit I have stayed in hotels, or what pass for hotels, the last nine days, an absolute travesty. My tent and sleeping bag are howling over their neglect. The expense has been negligible, as they have cost between $1.50 and $3.50. They have been delightfully rustic, sometimes with bucket showers and never with hot water, not that hot water is necessary. Having to stay in hotels has somewhat restricted my mileage, but I've still been able to get in at lest 70 miles every day except one. I sleep much better in my tent. Its cooler and quieter. But it's a much appreciated luxury to be able to shower every night. There have been virtually no rivers or bodies of water along the road for bathing the past five days in this far eastern part of Bolivia.

Anyway, yesterday's major headache wasn't being stranded in a non-entity of a town, but rather a hard downpour for my last two hours on the bike. Not a day has passed since I came down from the Altiplano, and just about every day up there too, that I haven't had some rain. Here in the tropics it has always been welcome and, usually very short-lived, seldom lasting even five minutes. One day a downpour suddenly materialized as I was having lunch. I went out and stood in it to cool down. When this monsoon hit yesterday, I assumed it would be another brief drenching, so I didn't bother to stop and put the rain covers on my panniers. That was a big mistake. Rain seeped through dampening most of my gear, and here in the tropics, when things get wet, it is hard to get them dry. The $1.50 hotel I stayed at that night in San Pablo had two beds. I laid all my damp gear on the one I wasn't using, but nothing had dried by the morning. I can only hang so much stuff on my bike to dry as I pedal along, and there is literally no place to stop along the road to hang things on to dry. There is virtually no traffic, so I could lay my gear along the side of the road, as the locals do to dry their rice, but it is too hot for me to sit there in the sun and wait for my things to dry. Yesterday's rain continued for a couple hours after I arrived in San Pablo, confining me to my hotel. No great loss, as there wasn't much to see anyway.

Most of these occasional towns don't amount to much more that a cluster of shacks. San Pablo was the only significant town over a 125-mile stretch, yet it didn't have electricity until after dark and then only for a couple of hours. When I went to the market and asked for a liquado, the woman vendor had to go get her husband to start up their generator to power the blender. He spent more time struggling to get the generator going, repeatedly pulling its cord, than it took for the blender to mix the drink. All that for 15 cents. The husband then sat and talked with me as I drank. Everyone has been inordinately friendly. He, as did many others, wanted to know how much my bicycle cost. That's a common question in third world countries the world over. I always say, "About $100," about one-tenth its cost. One question I'm repeatedly asked here, that I've never been asked elsewhere is, "How much did your plane ticket cost?" I underestimate that too, but not as drastically. I say, "About $500." Everyone thinks I mean to say $5000. When I repeat that it was indeed $500, they are quite pleased to learn that a ticket to the US isn't as bogglingly expensive as they imagined. Although Bolivia's average annual per capital income is $900 a year, the lowest in South America, those who earn more and have the dream of getting to the United States, acknowledge $500 is a price they might be able to afford, though they all admit that getting a visa would be difficult.

I am the first person from the United States most of these people have met. Hardly any of them have heard of Chicago, or even Michael Jordan, though I saw some highlights of him playing for the Washington Wizards on the national news here one night. It was the night I ended up in someone's home in Puerto Banegas, a dirt road town of about 90 people. I had no clue the town would be so inconsequential. I had heard one could occasionally find boats at this town going down river to Trinidad, the major city of Bolivia's Amazon basin. I figured it had to be a fairly significant and thriving port city. The last eight miles to the town were on a dirt road, my headache for that day, as I had less than an hour before dark to get there and I could just barely manage eight miles per hour on the road, worrying all the while it could turn worse at any moment and cut my speed by half.

When I arrived at the town at dusk I passed right through it waiting for it to begin and had to double back and start asking if there was any place to stay. I was directed to an older couple who had an extra room that they occasionally rented out. Dinner and bed came to $2. I was ready for sleep at nine, but the lady of the house stayed up til eleven with the TV blaring just outside my palm frond partition. There were chickens penned up outside my other wall. It made for a very sleepless night, and I paid for it the next day. I was so tired, for the first time I took an hour-and-a-half siesta on the porch of a closed shop, plopping down my sleeping pad on the concrete and curling up like some homeless indigent, until a police officer came along and urged me to me on my way. Ordinarily in such an emergency I can find a spot of shade along the road to put my sleeping mat under, but not here in the jungle.


I may rest a bit tomorrow here in Trinidad before setting out on a dirt road that could be a quagmire if it rains. It is dirt, not gravel, and, if moistened much, can be impassable. Better than 200 miles of it await me, and the bitch of it is, there doesn't promise to be any shade along the road and only a few token towns. This has definitely turned into more of an adventure than I anticipated...just the way I like it. I'm just sorry I have a specific flight to catch, otherwise it would be nice to be able to linger here in Trinidad, not that it has much to offer beyond the Internet and some cold, tasty fluids. At least the bike has held up, only one flat so far, and that on a gravelly stretch when I hit a rock and knew I was in trouble. If the rain holds off, the dirt could be smooth sailing. If not, I'm in for some more anguish.

Touring cyclists are so rare in these parts that several nights ago in the town of Ascunsion de G. as I was pulling into a hotel at dusk, a cameramen and reporter astride a motorcycle awaited me. I gave a several minute interview in Spanish that turned up on the town's local news. No word if CNN picked it up.

Later, George

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