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

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