Sunday, April 7, 2002

La Paz!!

Friends: The Internet was down in Coroico, a charming small town high on a mountain ridge just before the start of "The World's Most Dangerous Road," so I wasn't able to report on the last 200 rugged, unpaved miles before beginning that notorious 39-mile, 11,000-foot climb to over 15,000 feet on a mostly unpaved, one-lane wide road without guardrails that I have been greatly anticipating since even before I arrived in Bolivia. The Inter-American Bank designated it "The World's Most Dangerous Road," as some 26 vehicles a year plunge over its side, one every other week, with a higher mortality rate than any other road in the world. Another road is being constructed to replace it, but the project is stalled awaiting funds. Coroico was a tranquil oasis to catch my breath before my final ordeal. The town is a gathering spot for travelers heading up to or coming down from La Paz and the Altiplano. It is the gateway to the agriculturally rich Yampas and the Amazonian basin.

For a week since I left Trinidad I had been biking from sunup to sundown, even using my alarm clock to awake me before sunrise so I could be on my bike at first light. Every moment of light was critical if I hoped to arrive in Coroico with some time to spare to rest up for the final coup de grace of my Tour de Bolivia. Since my last communication from San Borja, I have been lucky to manage 50 miles a day, as the road turned the roughest yet. The hard-packed dirt of the flat lands gave way to a rock-studded surface as I began climbing through the foothills of the Andes. I began one day with a 13-mile climb on such a rocky road that I was barely able to average four mph. It was followed by an even more treacherous eight-mile descent that took nearly two hours. It was imperative to hold my speed down with all the rocks threatening to incapacitate me and my bike.

When I stopped for lunch a bit after noon, having come 21 miles for the day after a 6:30 a.m. start, I was actually feeling as if I was having a good day even though I've had days on this trip when I've had that many miles by nine a.m. I was excited to see a blender on the counter of the restaurant. I immediately asked for a liquado. The lady knew I had an appetite and asked if I would like one glass or two. When I said three, she filled the blender to the top with several bananas and icy fresh 'pure', as she phrased it, milk. When it was done, I told her not to bother with a glass and drank it straight from the blender. I had downed it all by the time she brought out my lunch of rice and meat and fried bananas. A guy who had joined me at my table was so impressed he asked if I'd like another, almost daring me. It was a ton of calories, but it hadn't come close to filling me. I wanted to be sure, however, my stomach would accept all the solid food of my main course before putting the blender to use again.

Besides the bounty of my banquet and the steady progress I was making, I was cheered by the spectacular beauty of the lush, mountainous terrain little marred by man.  If I had any doubts about what I was doing, they immediately dissolved when the occasional jeep or bus passed and I noticed a white gringo face peering out a window, faces that always looked extra white and constrained and not at all happy about being rocked around suffering the torments of this wicked road. Far better to be part of the scenery, to be living it and breathing it, then being held prisoner in a moving box. The only negative was being bathed by a cloud of dust from each passing vehicle, what few there were, maybe two or three an hour.

I was also happy, as I ate lunch, to have finally reached a gorge of a sort with a river that the road would follow for the next 50 miles to Coroico. I had had to climb over one or two significant mountain ridges each day for the past several days since leaving San Borja. There would still be plenty of climbing to be done, but it didn't appear as if it would be anything sustained. Those 50 miles through the gorge were as stunningly scenic as any I've encountered anywhere in all my travels. The gorge was narrow and the road went from hugging the riverside to hovering 500 feet or more above it. I preferred to be up high, as the sound of the rushing, cataract-strewn river drowned out the sound of approaching vehicles when I was down low on this mostly one-lane wide road. I wanted to take a picture at nearly every bend.

I pushed on again that night until dark, camping in a rare abandoned house along the road. Camping had been less than optimal for three nights straight in the mountainous terrain, as the road is carved into the mountainside leaving vertical terrain to my left and right. But with so little traffic and virtually none after dark, I knew I could set up my tent practically at road's edge and not be too worried. I was able each night to disappear a few feet off the road into the brush, which remarkably was always thorn free.

Teresa had warned me of anti-American sentiment throughout Bolivia and especially in the coca-growing regions. But since most people take me for being German, Dutch, French or even Argentine, physical assault was the least of my worries. Teresa's concerns had me contemplating passing myself off as Canadian, a cowardly ploy I have never resorted to, nor could I here. I admitted to being American several times a day without any repercussions, or at least until I came to the town of Caranai 1,400 miles into my travels. For days I had been looking for someone to sharpen my knife, ever since one of those ten-year old boys who helped me clean the mud off my bike on Easter Sunday had given me a dirty look when he borrowed my Swiss Army knife to skin a grapefruit and could barely slice thorough it. He rubbed his thumb along the blade and shook his head while sneaking a look at me to see if I noticed. Yeah, yeah, I knew it was quite less than sharp. It was pretty humbling to be silently reprimanded by a ten year old. I had woefully dulled it last summer in Sweden when I turned to it in desperation to cut the end off a derailleur cable and had neglected to sharpen it since I don't use it often enough to make it a priority.

As I passed through Caranavi, a town of several thousand at a rare crossroads in the mountains, I noticed a hardware store that advertised knife sharpening. I leaned my bike against a pole and entered the store. An older gentleman was behind the counter with head bowed totaling some figures. After a minute or so he finished and turned his attention to me. He took my knife, worked on it, asked for two Bolivanos and after returning it, asked me where I was from. When I told him, he scoffed at how little the 15 cents he charged me was and launched into a harangue, little of which I understood. When I heard the word "petroleum," I interrupted him to say I didn't own a car, just a bicycle, and gestured out towards the street and my bike. At the site of my overloaded bicycle I was suddenly transformed into a bicyclist and was no longer an American. He was as eager to know about my travels as anyone I had encountered in Bolivia. If he had seen my bike from the start, he probably wouldn't have charged me for the sharpening. He sent me on my way with a shake of the hand. Here was evidence again why I need not fear for my safety. As long as I am a bicyclist people treat with me kindness and favor. My motto could well be "In the Bike I Trust."

The road beyond Caranavi slowly climbed through a tropical gorge with no wide or open spaces for camping. As dark neared I came upon an abandoned house, as if it had been awaiting me. I had seen few houses, occupied or otherwise along this stretch. I politely thanked my always beneficent provider. It left me 37 miles from Coroico. The road at this point was well enough maintained that there were few jutting rocks. If it allowed me to average seven or eight miles per hour I could arrive at Coroico by mid-afternoon, affording me time to indulge in email, rest the legs a bit and have a good feed at my choice of restaurants offering gringo fare before the Big Climb. I just hoped that I hadn't overextended myself the past week and would have enough in my legs for it. Low-lying clouds filling the gorge prevented me from taking picture, but also kept it cool. After an hour the air grew misty. I was hoping the mist was the clouds I was passing through and not rain, but unfortunately, the mist grew into precipitation once again. It was the first rain I had suffered since I was stymied on Easter five days before. This road was more solid than that one, but still it had a few muddy stretches, slowing me considerably. Once again I recalled Robert Altman's favorite joke. "How do you make God laugh?" "Tell him your plans." God had been laughing uproariously at me during all my time in Bolivia.

So much for an early arrival at Coroico. The rain didn't last much more than an hour. It stopped as I was having breakfast--the usual rice, steak and fried banana. It took a couple hours for the road to dry before I could ride with impunity, not worrying about slipping or sinking in. I took full advantage of the many springs along the road to periodically fill a water bottle and spray the accumulated mud off the bike. I arrived at what should have been Coroico at four only to learn that I had to pedal another seven kilometers, all upwards, 1,500 feet worth, as Corico was perched high up on a ridge. I wouldn't have minded so much if it was on the way to La Paz up "The World's Most Dangerous Road," but unfortunately it was off on a side spur that I would have to descend in the morning. These were wasted miles and wasted time and a wasted expenditure of energy. Rather than setting out the first thing the next day with the actual climb, I would have to double back down this rough, rocky road. Ugh.

Corico would have been a most welcome place for some R&R, but since I only had a one-day cushion before my flight back to Chicago, it was out of the question. I found a hotel for $1.50. After my first hot shower since Trinidad I went for a gigantic spaghetti dinner. I planned to let it digest while I was on the Internet, and then have another. But neither of the two Internet cafes in town had a connection, nor expected to. I wandered a bit around the cobble-stoned streets, trying not to be intimidated by the towering mountains all around. I felt like an athlete the day before the Big Game, trying to relax and psych myself up. There were a few jeeps parked here and there, but there was absolutely no one driving about, not even on motorbikes. The quiet was deafening. I bought some tuna and yogurt for tomorrow's ride. The next town was 26 miles up the road. It could take all day to reach it. I stopped in at another restaurant for a hamburger, then returned to the spaghetti restaurant. I ate half a plate more, then put the rest in my Tupperware bowl for the next day. Back at the hotel I cleaned my bike and panniers. They were absolutely saturated with dirt and dust from the past 300 miles. My blue panniers were brown. There was always a residue of dust on the inside of my sunglasses at the end of the day, more than on the outside of the lenses.

Once again I set my alarm for a dawn departure.  After my descent from Coroico and before the road began climbing I came upon a small chapel where one could light a candle and offer a prayer before starting up "The World's Most Dangerous Road." I paused to sprinkle a few drops of oil on my chain, a symbolic gesture as the oil only made it easier for the dirt and dust to adhere. The road rose 210 feet in the first half-mile, a grade of better than eight per cent. It would be a tortuously hard day if it continued at that rate. I wondered how bad it would have to get before that cliff's edge started to look inviting. At any time, I could join Che and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who after lives of defying convention had met their ends in Bolivia, all gunned down. After that initial steep ramp the road relented, at least for a while. In the first ten miles I gained 2,730 feet--slightly more than a most manageable five per cent grade. I was happy to have maintained a five mph average. It wasn't a breeze by any means, but I was gaining on it. I didn't know which to cheer more, each mile or each 300 feet gained. I knew as the air thinned, it would become more and more demanding. I wasn't ready to start celebrating by any means. It was well I didn't, as the grade grew steeper, then a sign gave the dire warning of a steeper grade ahead. After the sign the road gained 3000 feet in eight miles.

I had been stopping every mile at first for a photo and a bite or two of an energy bar, trying not to overexert myself. Other than a few wrinkles in the road, I could pretty much see the road unraveling on and on in the distance. There were no switchbacks on this climb, just one long slog up the shoulder of one behemoth of a mountain. For miles and miles I could see the road ahead angling up and up and up. There were maybe six or seven vehicles an hour. For the most part the road was barely one-lane wide with just occasional wide spots for passing. I could hear the traffic coming and had ample time to pull over. The rule of the road here is that the uphill traffic hugs the side of the mountain so when passing occurs the downhill driver can look out his window and see how close he is to the cliff's edge. Drivers from England or Australia or any country with left-hand drive would feel right at home, other than having their steering wheel on the wrong side. Only once, as I was eating my leftover spaghetti along the road, did I see a near calamity. I actually leaped to my feet to avoid the impending carnage as a jeep came charging up the road oblivious to a rapidly-descending truck. The jeep swerved towards the side of the mountain as the truck braked to avoid a collision. There had been two or three exceptionally sharp, blind curves with a human traffic signal--a guy with a flag, waving at vehicles to stop or proceed. This blind curve was wide enough that a flag-waver was not deemed necessary.

Biking down this road is a popular adventure with the backpacker set. There are a handful of outfitters in La Paz who offer the trip for $50, more than I spent in my eight days between Trinidad and Corioco. But I didn't get an "I Biked Down the World's Most Dangerous Road" T-shirt for my efforts as do those who fork over the big bucks to make the descent. I passed four different groups ranging from three to nearly a dozen cyclists, each wearing a distinctive reflective company vest so the groups didn't get mixed up, and also, the better to be seen. Each group was led by a guide on a bike and was followed by a van with a sign warning of "cyclistas" ahead. They can make the descent in less than four hours, including a stop for a picnic lunch, and then are driven back to La Paz that day.

I encountered one group on their rest break. I had already climbed fifteen miles and had gained 4,500 feet at that point. As I pulled up to the group, the guide, a young Australian woman came bounding over and exclaimed, "Wow! You're biking up the road with a full kit and you don't even look puffed. Good on ya mate." She wanted to make sure I was aware of the left-hand drive rule of the road. It wasn't much of an issue with the four-wheeled traffic, as I could avoid them easily enough, but it was a concern with the cyclists barreling down the road at me knowing which side of the road to be on. She had the good news that the pavement started in about five miles. According to the map, I thought I had another eleven miles of dirt. She underestimated the distance by a mile, but still it was the closest anyone had come to giving me an accurate distance here in Bolivia.

After having climbed 20.9 miles, at a bit after three o'clock, a little over a week and 350 miles after I had left Trinidad and started on the dirt, I was back on a divinely smooth paved road. I had been in the smallest of my three chain rings at that time. I still had some 19 not-so-easy miles to the summit before I could give my other chain rings some attention, but it was a monumental relief to have survived my perils of unpavement without a single flat or broken spoke or worse. I wanted to bike up to Waterloo, Wisconsin after I returned to Chicago and visit the Trek plant to seek out whoever it was who had welded this frame and give him a great big bear hug of gratitude. I had ridden over 1,000 miles of dirt up the Alaskan highway and other stretches of rough, unpaved roads in Patagonia and the Himalayas, but nothing to compare with this. I am anxious to see how the much reviled road to Timbuktu compares.

I had no delusions of making it to the summit in one day, though Reinhold Messner, the first to climb Everest alpine style and without oxygen, surely would have. And I would have too, if I hadn't had to start the day with that descent from Coroico, setting me back nearly an hour. Doing it in one day would be my challenge next time. I was over halfway there with little more than three hours of daylight remaining. Every mile now would be a bonus mile and would make tomorrow all the easier. By half past four, I was in the thin air of 11,000 feet and wearing down. The road had steepened to eight per cent once again, holding my speed to four miles per hour. Still, I pushed on. I desperately wanted to get to within ten miles of the summit. I knew those last ten miles would be extra-demanding as I approached 15,000 feet again. The paved road was two-lanes wide, but still carved out of the side of the mountain. I had hoped that the terrain would open up.

Finding a spot to pitch my tent was not going to be a snap. I came upon a nice little clearing twelve miles from the summit that was tempting, but with an hour of light left I didn't give in to the temptation. There was another a mile later, but I was determined to push on. I had gained over 8,000 feet on the day putting me within 3,000 feet of the summit. Maybe I could knock off another 1,000 feet. After 31 miles for the day, when I was withing ten miles of the summit, I was at last ready to camp at the next available spot. A little over a mile further I saw an abandoned series of stone buildings 50 feet below the road. The path to them was too steep to push my fully loaded bike down. It took three trips to carry my bike and my gear to my campsite. I was 40 feet under 9,000 gained for the day. The elevation was 13,300 feet, higher than La Paz and higher than I had camped anywhere. I had definitely been plodding, just barely keeping the pedals going, the last few miles, but I was happy for every mile and pedal stroke. I knew I would have one of the greatest sleeps of my life that night.

For the first time in days I was in no rush to get started in the morning. Still, I was on the road by eight, wearing tights and jacket for the first time in a couple of weeks. When I halted yesterday, I was struggling to keep the bike going at 3.5 miles per hour. After a night's rest I was up to 4.5, but after four miles up into even thinner air, it was again a struggle. I was closing in on the summit, but I was back to plodding, just short of staggering. I was happy to come upon a few clusters of llamas, giving me the excuse to stop for some picture-taking. I also had to stop to drink and eat, but only after catching my breath. I was looking forward to the first batch of cyclists coming down the road, knowing some groups tried to start by nine. I was glad to know how far I had to go to the summit, as several bends in the road appeared to be a summit, but I knew enough not to give in to the false hope that they signaled the end of my toil.

I had a smug satisfaction that they couldn't fake me out. But for once, I was faked out to my benefit. I thought I had anywhere from 8.7 to 10.1 miles to the summit, but it came after 6.7 miles and another 1,960 feet since my campsite. All told, the climb amounted to 38.9 miles and 10,920 feet. Any climb I make in the future will seem puny by comparison. There were several memorials at the summit, including the ubiquitous Jesus with arms out-stretched. There were two groups of cyclists testing out their bikes before setting out. No one acknowledged me. And then I had my own, well-deserved, fifteen-mile descent into La Paz. Now I can sleep for a week. Bolivia is mine. Home on Tuesday.

Later, George

Tuesday, April 2, 2002

San Borja

Friends: I stumble upon an unexpected Internet outlet, half-way through 300 miles of unpaved road, in the town of San Borja, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, at 8:30 in the morning. Now I know why the past 150 miles were unpaved--no one travels on the road. Yesterday, from 7:30 in the morning until 6:30 p.m., only three vehicles passed me in a 75-mile stretch--a Toyota pick-up delivering workers to a field, a dilapidated bus late in the afternoon, and an SUV that was stopped at one of the two houses offering food and drink. The driver of the SUV offered me a ride the last 30 miles to San Borja. Never have I been offered so many rides as here in Bolivia. If the offer had come the day before in the rain, when the road was an unrideable swamp of goo, I would have gladly accepted, but there was no traffic whatsoever on that Easter Sunday when I was in a "do-or-die" situation.

I set out from Trinidad at noon on Saturday, a somewhat iffy decision with the temperature in the 90's, but there was nothing to do in Trinidad except sit in the zocalo and watch the motor bikes zip around the square, then meander over to an Internet cafe to check in on the Final Four. An extended river crossing awaited me a few miles out of Trinidad. I was concerned the ferry might not be operating on Easter, the next day, or at a greatly reduced schedule, so I wanted to get that over with. It was nine miles from Trinidad to the crossing. Once again the ferries were all flat-bottomed wooden boats. Most were only big enough to carry one car. It was a 20-minute trip negotiating a maze of rivers, each several times the width of the Mississippi. They merge to form just one of the many tributaries of the Amazon, hundreds of miles away.

The heat wasn't overly oppressive, so I began pedaling the dirt road. It was deeply rutted, sometimes as much as a foot deep from the softening of the rain and the vehicles digging in to it, but perfectly solid now. One side of the road was usually uneven and cratered, worse than a lunar landscape, and was avoided by all, while what little traffic there was stuck to the side of the road that had been semi-smoothed by previous vehicles. It could be either the left side or the right. What was in the best of times a two-lane wide track carved through the jungle was essentially a one-lane wide road. But that's all it needed to be. Not once in four days did I encounter two vehicles at the same time. Rare was it to see two vehicles in the same hour. The worst stretches were where a herd of cattle had come along after a softening rain and had deeply pocked the entire road with their hoofs before any traffic could come along and smooth it out before it hardened.

I was alternating between four and eight mph with very rare surges of nine. For five seconds or so, I'd get it up to eight mph and would almost exalt, "At last a smooth stretch," but it never lasted very long. But I was moving along, making progress, and since I knew I was in for this for miles and miles, no inner voices were screaming, "How much longer can this last?," as on those unexpected, long hard climbs. Every mile was a mile gained. I knew I had 60 miles to the first town and then it was 90 miles to the next. Even though it was a wretched, God-forsaken road, I found myself whistling for the first time on the trip. My heart was light. I was glad I was out on the bike and not lingering back in Trinidad. I had food and water for better than a day, rations enough unless a storm materialized and I was suddenly stranded.

After an hour, I came to another river that required a crossing--this time in a canoe, for a mere 75 cents, much cheaper than the three dollars for the major crossing. I was slogging along averaging a little more than six mph, not having to overly exert my legs. It was a pace I could maintain for hours. I just had to be ever vigilant to slow for the ruts and the washboard so as not to overly abuse the bike. Broken spokes, a broken axle, breaking the frame itself, were all legitimate concerns. But at least for the first time in a week-and-a-half, there were possible nooks for camping. Even if there hadn't been, there was so little traffic, not even a vehicle an hour, and no doubt absolutely none after dark, I could have just set up my tent anywhere along the road and not had any concern. The prospects of camping once again for the first time in nearly two weeks, contributed to the lightness of my heart. Every five miles or so, a waterhole had been dug off to the side of the road, perhaps for cattle. Any one of them could have hidden me and my tent from the road. But camping at a water hole could be risky, as they could well attract the pumas and jaguars of the region. I had also been warned about slipping into them too unwarily, as they were often home to anacondas and other slithering creatures.

About 5:30 I came upon a small village of a dozen or so thatched houses. The one nearest the road had a small Coke sign. I stopped in, more curious than hungry or thirsty. There were two tables on the porch. I had to call out to arouse the woman of the house. She opened her refrigerator door to show me her stock--just three bottles of soda. As far as food, all she had was a small package of crackers. But she did have a papaya tree with one ripe enough for eating. It was an hour til dark. I could have asked to camp on her property, but the riding was too good to stop, and I wanted that thrill of finding the perfect spot down the road in the waning moments of light. After 15 minutes of taking on fluids from a bottle and with a spoon, I was back on the bike, sorry once again I wasn't in Scandinavia in the season of the midnight sun, where I could continue biking to my heart's content unrestricted by the setting of the sun. After half an hour, I passed up a couple of possible campsites, not caring to quit just yet. Forest and a barbed wire fence lined both sides of the road. When I came upon a gate in the fence I stopped to see what lay beyond it, and if I could open it. It led to an overgrown field full of cow pies, but no cattle. With some straining I could pull the wire loop that secured the gate and I had my campground. I had to clear cow pies from the only area that wasn't overgrown. They were old and crusty and easy to flick away and had no lingering odor. It had been a 36 mile day, leaving me about 24 to the town of San Ignacio. I could be there by noon tomorrow. All was well with the world.

The next day I arrived at San Ignacio an hour earlier than anticipated, as evidently some of those 60 miles from Trinidad were included in the river crossing. I was plodding along just merrily, not at all fearful of flat tires, as there were no stones on the dirt road nor fragments of broken glass. I just had to trust that the bike would hold up and that over 70,000 miles on five continents in the past decade-and-a-half hadn't fatigued its metal to the point of giving out on me. There was a light cloud cover, so the sun wasn't beating on me nor was the temperature heating up. The road remained dirt through the town of San Ignacio. There was a decent restaurant where I had a big pitcher of lemonade and eggs for five Bolivanos (75 cents). And I was able to fill my water bottle. The lady couldn't make change for a ten Bolivano note, so I had to go and buy some crackers from a neighboring store so I could have exact change for her. I had knocked off 19 miles in two-and-a-half hours and was back pedaling at ten a.m. with hopes of 60 miles for the day putting me within 50 miles of San Borja. That would make a good dent in the longest stretch between towns of this trip.

An hour down the road the air grew misty, another gift keeping me cool, but then that mist grew into a drizzle. Still the sky wasn't dark or ominous. It would likely be one of those minor, passing showers that aren't unwelcome at all. But after half an hour, the road was no longer soaking in the moisture and the dirt was beginning to adhere to my tires. A little while later it began clogging my fenders. It didn't matter that it clogged my brakes or derailleurs, as I wasn't using them anyway, but then it began to take an increasing amount of effort to push the pedals. I had to stop and use the handle of my spoon to dig the mud out of the fenders. My front fender had the least clearance and was causing me the most problems. I kept waiting for the rain to quit, knowing it could happen at any time, allowing the sun to quickly dry and harden the road, but after an hour it was looking bleak.

In the two hours since I had left San Ignacio, not a single vehicle had passed me on this Easter Sunday. If the skies truly opened and soaked the road, it could be days before it was drivable. I could be marooned indefinitely. I had seen no ranches or homesteads that might provide refuge along this stretch after San Ignacio. With my water purifier I would have water aplenty. I could ration my food for a couple days, if I were truly stranded. I came upon a stretch of mud that stuck to my wheels like a super adhesive. One revolution of the tires and there was no pushing on, as everything was totally clogged. I was walking the bike at this point, but could only walk the bike one tire revolution before I had to stop and clean the muck from the tires. The bike was too heavy to carry with an extra ten or fifteen pounds of mud in everything, even coating each individual spoke. Those 48 spokes on my rear wheel, twelve more than the usual 36, were now a liability. Even if the bike and gear wasn't too heavy to carry, over 80 pounds, I couldn't have carried it, as it was too slippery to walk without using the bike as a crutch of-a-sort, helping to keep me upright. I finally gave up on unclogging my front fender, and simply removed it.

It took almost an hour to go about a half mile through this muck. It was more strenuous than those 15,000-foot passes. One solution I considered was to set up my tent and wait it out. But I had no idea if just ahead there might be a town or house that would provide shelter. Or maybe, miraculously, the road would harden if the storm hadn't reached that portion of the road. By three I came to a small town along a river spanned by a paved bridge. A car was parked on the bridge, its wheel wells clogged with mud. Its driver was trying to clean the mud from the wheel wells with a crow bar. Beyond the bridge was a soccer field with a shelter alongside. As I pushed the bike to this miracle-of-an-oasis 13 miles after San Ignacio, several young boys approached. They said it would be okay to stay there, and then they hung out with me. I was wet and cold. I put on some dry clothes and then started scraping gobs of mud off the bike. I put my Tupperware bowl out in the rain to collect water. One of the boys left and returned with a bucket of water. That was hardly enough. The older of the boys, maybe a 14-year old, suggested we take the bike to the river. Five of us spent a hour in the rain cleaning the mud off. They told me a woman in town had a store where I could purchase some food. It was after five when I went to her house. She said she could cook me a meal and suggested I set up my tent on her property.

The sky was clear the next morning, but I had no idea how long it would take for the road to be rideable. Surprisingly, I could start at 7:30 without mud adhering to the tires. The road was a bit soft, but I could keep the tires spinning. It was futile asking how far it was to San Borja or if there were any towns along the way. People in these parts didn't calculate distance by kilometers, but rather by time. I was told it was three hours to San Borja when the road was good, four hours when it was bad. What that translated to for a bicycle, no one knew. After ten miles I came to a house along the road that offered meals. I had the usual eggs and fried bananas. That was it for 32 miles. I was hoping for a 50-mile day, but with no place to pause, I began to think I might be able to do more. The road climbed a bit and the surface became harder and smoother. After averaging 7.1 miles per hour over the first couple of hours of the day, I inched my average speed up to 7.5 miles per hour. If I could put in eight hours on the bike, I'd have 60 miles for the day, putting me within twenty miles or so of San Borja. Life was hopeful, and even wonderful.

I could rejoice once again that I wasn't just dreaming of bicycling Bolivia, or thinking of bicycling Bolivia, or talking about bicycling Bolivia, but was actually, in fact, bicycling Bolivia. It had humbled me all too many times, bringing me to my knees and worse, but I hadn't been defeated yet. But it was way too soon to feel triumphant. At three o'clock I came upon the second house of the day offering provisions. The best this lady could offer was rice and friend bananas, plus a giant grapefruit. I was able to refill my water bottles with some murky water that took quite an effort to pump through my filter. I was back on the road with three hours of light remaining, intent on 60 miles for the day. I was joined at this restaurant by three guys in an SUV headed to San Borja. They said it was 30 kilometers away, but also that it was one hour by car. The road was either very bad or they didn't have the distance right. The road improved enough that I occasionally got my speed up to ten mph, but my speed varied so little I did not need to shift gears. I couldn't get too eager, as without notice the road could suddenly turn bumpy or sandy.

I'd had one momentary lapse earlier in the day when my front tire hit the edge of a pool of water and the bike slid out from under me. I dove head first. I instinctively tucked my shoulder landing on my back. If I my shoulder had taken the brunt of the fall I might have snapped a collarbone, a common bicyclist injury. I've had two of them, one as a messenger and one in my pre-messenger years, though not on tour thankfully. I kept gleefully knocking off the miles until I had come 64 for the day and was possibly within an hour of San Borja. Five or six days earlier, I would have had enough moon light to keep biking. Instead, I was curtailed by the setting sun and had a morning, rather than an evening, arrival in San Borja. And here I sit at 9:30 a.m. wrapping up an hour at this unexpected Internet outlet. It would be best if I were biking in the cool of the morning, but the satisfaction of sharing my recent travails will sustain me the rest of the day. It is 30 miles to the next town and then 220 more to La Paz and the completion of my circuit of Bolivia. My flight home is in six days. If the rains hold off, I should make it.

Later, George