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

No comments: