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

Monday, March 25, 2002

Montero

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Cochabamba

Friends: I'm down off the Altiplano, enjoying the extra oxygen in the air of Cochabama, a city of 400,000.  I'm still way up there at 8,600 feet, but the air is the thickest I've been able to breath since I arrived in Bolivia ten days ago. I first became aware that the air had some substance to it when I heard it whistling in my ears at around 11,000 feet as I descended a 15,000 foot pass. The sudden noise made me think a truck was coming up from behind me.  It took me a few seconds to realize what was making the sound.

Though its nice to have a little extra oxygen, I was almost sorry to leave the Altiplano, as I had finally adapted to it. It no longer seemed an altogether inhospitable place. It wasn't until mid-morning of my fourth day of  biking after a week in the country that I discovered my blood had thickened enough to be able to exert myself without feeling faint. It was a great moment to be able to actually ride my bike rather than merely nursing it along, as my oxygen-deprived blood had forced me to do my first three days up there.

I remember the moment well. It came a couple hours after I passed through El Alto, a sprawling shanty-town of 100,000 surrounding the La Paz airport. I had camped on the fringe of the airport the night before after crossing back into Bolivia from Peru. I passed through El Alto during the bustle of the morning rush hour with throngs waiting for buses and congregating around small stands selling coffee and coca tea and breakfast nibbles. It was overcast and cold. It wasn't until noon that the sun emerged from the clouds and the temperature vaulted from barely 40 degrees to nearly 70. The difference between sun and no sun is most dramatic at these elevations.

There was so little oxygen in the air I had to breathe through both my nose and my mouth as I pedaled along. I couldn't eat or drink on the bike unless I were coasting or descending, as I needed my mouth open functioning as a breathing apparatus. Even a momentary lapse to swallow or chew had me gasping. The first time I tried to drink from my water bottle as I biked along I immediately started gagging from the lack of air. It wasn't the most pleasant cycling, but I was on my bike in a faraway place, and that had me smiling. I did manage 198 miles in three days under such conditions, putting me within 240 miles of Cochabamba.

I finally realized I could push hard on the pedals without gasping or feeling faint when a slow-moving road construction vehicle pulled out on the road a little bit ahead of me. Without thinking, I accelerated to chase after it, something I've become conditioned to do in third-world countries, as such vehicles offer the possibility of drafting.  I'd forgotten that I was disabled here in Bolivia and such exertion wasn't possible.  Not this time.  Before I realized it, I had latched on to this giant tractor and was able to cruise along in its slipstream up a gentle climb at 18 mph. I could hardly believe it.  I had finally adapted to the altitude and I could pedal with vigor. The air is so thin at 13,500 feet, I'm not sure how significant a factor drafting is, but I was speeding along faster than I would have otherwise and with less effort.

After we reached the summit, I swung around him and shifted into my big chain ring for the first time on the Altiplano and left him behind. The 52-teeth on my large chain ring were barely adequate. I was actually wishing I had a 54 or 55. I was able to genuinely exert myself, getting my speed up to 25 and then 30 miles per hour.  Up until this moment whenever I had pushed it, after three or four strokes I'd have to let up as I'd feel myself going faint. It ended up being one of my great days on the bike with 117 miles and only the dark stopping me. I've had many days of greater mileage, but never before had I had such a thrilling breakthrough, shedding-the-shackles, kind of day. I could readily understand why racers go to a high-altitude, quarter-mile track when they want to break the hour-record.  The air is truly thinner, providing much less resistance.  I was gliding along with minimal effort.

When I went to sleep that night, I was eager to get back to it the next day. I was 125 miles from Cochabamba, where the Internet and my first shower in five days awaited me. I wasn't sure which I was looking forward to more. Since it was 5,000 feet lower than where I was camping, managing it one day seemed perfectly reasonable. A storm that night, however, prevented me from getting as much sleep as I would have liked. It is the tail end of the rainy season. I've ridden in rain every day except my first. A little after midnight, I awoke to the patter of rain on the tent. I was quickly lulled back to sleep. An hour later though, I awoke to what I hoped I was a false alarm or my imagination--dampness at the foot of my sleeping bag. Unfortunately, it was all too true. The ground was so saturated from all the rain, it was turning into a lake. I ducked out of the the tent and hurriedly dug a trench around it with my Tupperware bowl, but the trench immediately filled and overflowed into the tent.

The only solution was to sit up and bail, soaking the water up with two of my trusty, multi-purpose neckerchiefs, then squeezing them into my equally trusty and versatile Tupperware bowl as I sat slightly elevated on my sleeping pad. The water was gathering so fast, I had to enlist my socks as well. Generally, these rains didn't last more than an hour, but this one was already into its second hour. My sleeping bag was soaking up moisture. I was just barely staying warm with all my clothes on. I thought of Shackleton and his crew in the Antarctic and the cold and wet they endured and was relieved that, even though I was all alone aways from the road, a town was only eight miles away if hypothermia started to threaten.

After a while I noticed some slightly higher ground in the corner of the tent. I moved to it and silently sat, giving up on the bailing. The rain quit about five a.m. I sat hunched in my elevated dry corner with eyes closed, pretending to sleep, until six, when it started getting light and I could get up and get in motion. I didn't feel too tired and knew the pleasure of pedaling the bike would energize me. I knocked off a quick six miles in twenty minutes, riding as effortlessly as yesterday, when I came to the turn to Cochabamba and my anticipated descent off the Altiplano. But instead I was greeted by a gradual climb that went on and on for six hours to over 15,000 feet. It was as disheartening a stretch of riding as I've experienced. For hours I hoped every distant bend in the road would be the summit and I could begin my glorious descent of miles and miles. I took not one iota of consolation that all this climbing was going to make it an even longer descent. Time after time I was crestfallen as the road continued upward and upward. I began fearing to look up when I reached a bend, putting off the bad news that it wasn't the summit nor was it in sight.

My thought drifted to Laurie and how nobly and stoically she suffered in similar conditions several years ago, when she and I biked from Mexico City to Oaxaca through the heart of Mexico's mountain ranges before continuing on to the Pacific over an even higher and steeper mountain range. We had climbs that went on and on.  It was the first time she had biked in mountainous terrain. This was no easy introduction.  We had chosen a route that a book on bicycling Mexico recommended to avoid at all costs. I had done a considerable amount of biking in Mexico, so knew I could handle it and had confidence that Laurie could too.  As a veteran, year-round cyclist in Chicago, I knew her toughness, though I also knew that these extended climbs would test it.  The worst part of the climbs, just as the climb I was presently on, was not knowing how long it lasted.  That too is the worst part of being tortured.  When one knows when it will end, it is much much more endurable.

I hardly had to suffer on the ride with Laurie as she suffered  enough for the both of us.  As we climbed and climbed I tired to keep her mind off the task at hand with stories of my tours over the years as she silently pedaled on.  She later admitted she wasn't paying all that much attention. Rather she was silently counting from one to one hundred in the several languages she knew. I tried her counting trick here in Bolivia to distract myself from my ordeal, but the sub-vocalization actually left me panting.

Laurie wasn't all that happy that I wasn't suffering as much as she was and could remain cheerful and upbeat. She particularly resented that I told her that in time she would come to enjoy and welcome climbs.   I assured her that she would look back on our ride with a great sense of accomplishment, and, in fact, she later said it was the first thing she had ever done that impressed her father.  She said it also gave her a great measure of respect from her Mexican friends back in Chicago who well knew these mountains.   I was proud to be  a witness to her grit and determination to keep going when she really didn't want to.

Many of the stories I told her featured my great friend Siegi, a former national caliber bicycle racer who had ridden the Tour de l'Avenir (the amateur version of the Tour de France) and had finished second in the inaugural Tour of California in the '70s and had won the Memorial Day U.S. classic the Tour of Somerville in the same era. He awaited us in Puerto Escondido, a small fishing village on the Pacific, 250 miles south of Acapulco, where I had spent several winters. During those years Siegi and I made it a tradition to bike from Puerto Escondido over the mountains to Oaxaca each winter. I told Laurie about the first time he and I did it on the very road that she and I would eventually descend to the Pacific. It was a 60-mile climb from the ocean to the summit. Not knowing the time and effort it would take, we were caught by the dark before we reached the summit and were suffering. Even though we had both traveled the road by bus and car several times, we couldn't remember how many more switchbacks remained to the village at the top where we planned to spend the night.

For better than an hour, as one switchback after another was not the last, as we kept hoping, we were becoming more and more disheartened. As we rested, munching the last of our rations in the dark, we were both wondering why we were doing this. We could be back on the beach in paradise watching another sunset with our girlfriends. We kept asked, "Haven't we accomplished enough on the bikes over the years? Why in God's name are we inflicting this upon ourselves? What more do we have to prove, to ourselves or anyone else, after years of racing and touring all over the world?" We vowed never to attempt such a thing again. We finally reached the summit, more in defeat and relief, than with the usual thrill of accomplishment and triumph. The next day we continued on to Oaxaca. That evening, as we sat in the zocalo sipping liquados, one of us said what the other had been thinking,"That was great, we'll have to make this an annual ride." And so we did for several years back before I discovered the joy and the riches to be earned as a bicycle messenger during the winter months.

Laurie, however, found it difficult to accept that eventually one could enjoy and welcome climbing in other than the most minimal of doses. When one can slip into an easy rhythm, it can be a great pleasure, and I was proof positive right there alongside her. I had found that rhythm in Mexico with Laurie, but, unfortunately, not here at this much higher elevation, nearly twice as high. My struggles bordered on agony. My speedometer dipped to 2.5 mph, about the bare minimum I could maintain and keep the bike upright. I wasn't handling this as well as Laurie had, though thinking of her perseverance helped keep me from breaking. A day or two after she confessed to counting as she pedaled, she had the courage to ask, "Do you know at which point I was closest to tears?" I was shocked by this admission, as I never suspected. But that's what being let down, time after time, when you think you have reached a summit, but haven't, will do to you. It is worse than torture, continually being denied after constant anticipation and longing and praying for a summit, not only to be freed from the strain of pedaling, but also the reward of a thrilling descent.

When I finally started my descent at about 1:30 in the afternoon, after 41 miles for the day, all but the first six climbing, I still thought I could knock off the remaining 84 miles to Cochabamba in the remaining six-and-a-half hours of light and get a shower and email and ice cream cone. I flew down five miles to 14,000 feet in no time and then had a door slammed in my face with a five-mile climb back up to 15,000 feet. That wasn't fair at all. I'd had enough climbing for the day. That second climb took close to two hours, including stops to eat and flagellate myself and to finally lay out my soaking gear from the night before to dry, as I had to concede I would be camping again that night. Next came a ten-mile descent to 13,000 feet and then another staggering blow to the solar plexus--a climb to 14,000 feet that was totally uncalled for. What had I done to deserve this? I was finally beginning to feel the effects of four hours of sleep and not a meal all day, as not a one of the restaurants in the shanties along the way were serving. My lone food acquisition for the day were two apples that cost me fifteen cents. I used them as filler for my peanut butter sandwiches, a first.

I polished off the tin of tuna I brought from home for just such an emergency, and another couple of energy bars. I would have loved to have just stopped and slept for a day, but this was stark, barren countryside with no place to disappear behind. I wanted to at least get down to 12,000 feet. Finally, at six p.m., when I reached that last 14,000 foot summit, my final descent to the valley began. But first I had to endure some less than playful stone throwing from several dozen young men who lined the road on both sides and thought they would have some fun with me by rolling stones at me as I passed. They seemed to be bored more than hostile, having ended their shift in a mine and waiting for a bus to take them home. It wasn't the first time I had been stoned, but never in this manner. My previous stonings in Guatemala and Morocco had been by kids, though they were much more aggressive and threatening than these Bolivians, aiming for my head and body and throwing as hard as they could, though not with much accuracy. I didn't feel particularly alarmed by this stoning, as I had been by others, but still I did not welcome it.

After I dropped to just under 11,000 feet, I came upon an elevated mound in an elbow of the road where I could set up my tent for the night. There hadn't been any real camping possibilities along this road dug into the side of the mountain, so I was happy for it. I wouldn't have dreamed of finishing off the 35 miles to Cochabamba in the dark. For the first time I didn't have to rush to set up my tent and wrap my sleeping bag around me to keep warm as I ate my dinner. This was the lowest elevation I had been at in a week. I had a vista of miles and miles to gaze upon as I opened a giant tin of sardines to dine upon. As I ate, I thanked Laurie and Siegi once again for helping me to get through this most trying day. And if you wonder why in the hell I subject myself to such agony, just ask them.

Later, George

Saturday, March 16, 2002

Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

Friends: It is with great joy and no small relief that I am able to report from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. I reached this storied lake and the town of Copacabana after a 98-mile bike ride from the capital city of La Paz. With the majority of the ride at over 13,000 feet, including one pass of over 14,000 feet, in the rain no less, this ranks as a century ride unlike any other. It is the first leg of a 1,500-mile circuit of Bolivia that will eventually take me to the steamy jungles of the Amazon before I climb back up to La Paz on the "World's Most Dangerous Road."

Never before have I been so uneasy and so uncertain before setting out on one of my bicycle adventures, not even that first one back in 1977, coast-to-cost across the US.  I had a severe climb of over 2000 feet out of La Paz immediately awaiting me that had me greatly concerned. I wondered if I was adequately acclimated to this high altitude to be setting out just yet, if my gearing was low enough, if my sun block were strong enough, how dangerous and demanding would be the "World's Most Dangerous Road" that would culminate my Tour de Bolivia and would force me to climb 10,000 feet in less than 40 miles to over 15,000 feet on a mostly one-lane wide dirt road, and what anti-American hostility might await me, particularly in the coca growing regions that US drug agencies had meddled with.

Less than three days before, when I arrived at the La Paz airport at 13,500 feet, I was staggered by the lack of oxygen in the air. Five steps with my 45-pound duffel and I was gasping, on the verge of passing out. Fortunately, my friend Teresa, who I had come to visit, insisted on meeting me at the airport, and wouldn't let me bike to her home. Teresa has plenty of experience adapting visiting friends to the altitude and kept a very close watch on me. She plied me with coca tea and regularly checked the inside of my lips to make sure they weren't turning purple, an indication of a lack of oxygen circulating to the head. If need be, she could rush to a nearby pharmacy for an oxygen tank

La Paz, the world's highest capital, is down from the Altiplano at 12,000 feet in a dramatic steep canyon that is about three miles across at its widest. Teresa lived another 800 feet lower, three miles down the canyon from the town center. That helped my acclimatization, but that was an extra 800 feet I had to climb when I set out on my ride back up to the Altiplano. On the morning of my second day in La Paz I gave my reassembled bike and myself a test ride to see how I was adapting to the thin air. On my brief ten-mile ride I could climb without any light-headedness. Later that afternoon I tried again, this time with Teresa's 18-year old son, a sometimes competitive mountain biker. I was good for twenty miles and then some. We didn't encounter another cyclist. The steep, narrow streets and thin, thin air make any riding a true athletic endeavor--not only putting extreme demands on the heart and legs, but on the bike as well. The typical third-world bike wouldn't hold up long under such stressful conditions. The altimeter on my cyclometer recorded 2,000 feet of climbing in our wanderings of ups and downs, a plenty good workout. I had gotten my heart beating quite significantly, forcing me to pause to catch my breath from time to time, but I had been spared any of those sharp stabs of pain to the brain indicating a shortage of oxygen. It was an encouraging test ride. I was adapting just fine. I felt as if I was ready to leave the next day, but let Teresa persuade me to give it an extra 24 hours.

It had been a strain to ride the steep streets of La Paz without any gear. With 50 pounds of camping equipment, clothes, spare parts, books, food and miscellanea, that strain was going to be something I didn't want to think about. I knew I was in for a struggle and would suffer. The question was, "How much?" When I set out at 6:15 Friday morning in the semi-dark, I at last saw a cyclist in La Paz, a young man on a mountain bike. He, like me, had to stop every ten minutes or so to catch his breath on the steep climb to the city center. I was relieved I could still pedal my overweight bike without the thin air assaulting my head. I wasn't so happy though to have to use my lowest gear from the very start. I have gone many a tour through mountainous terrain, from the Sierra Madres of Mexico to the Himalayas of India and Nepal, without having to use my lowest gear. I always like to keep that in reserve just in case a road should suddenly turn super-steep. But here I was, already in my lowest of lows, and I had over 2,000 feet to climb. Not once though did I regret declining Teresa's offer to drive me up to the Altiplano to start my biking.

For half an hour, I continued to stop every ten minutes or so when my heart started pounding too hard, until I found a better rhythm. I found that by lessening my exertion just a bit, I could maintain my effort for twenty minutes or more. That was a relief. I didn't want to be like my novice bicycling friend who joined me on a bicycle tour of Cuba. He ignored my advice to adequately train for the ride and had to stop every fifteen minutes the first four days of our ride to rest and walk as he adapted his body to being on a bike for hours a day. I also had to resist standing on the pedals for a little extra effort, as it would immediately send my heart to my throat with an accelerated beat wanting out. It was eleven miles and 2,360 feet of climbing to the 13,500 foot Altiplano.

I reached the flats of the high altitude plain two hours and twenty minutes after setting out. My cyclometer told me I had averaged 5.9 miles per hour for the time I spent pedaling. That's a lot of numbers. I prefer not to dwell on such things, but when it comes to the extremes such as this, it's nice to know what effort it required and what I'm capable of for future reference, but also for the sake of others who may wish to attempt this ride themselves. It's always nice to know what you're in for. I had shed three layers of clothes as I climbed. I was down to a t-shirt and shorts when I reached the summit, despite a temperature cold enough that I could see my breath. I was so overheated I could sit and eat several 15-cent empanadas for twenty minutes before I needed to add a shirt, even though everyone around me was bundled in winter gear.

Then I had the joy of a flat road, my first of Bolivia. There was a slight headwind, but I could pedal with minimum effort and propel myself at 10 to 12 mph and rediscover the pleasures of cycling. Off in the distance were 20,000-foot peaks shrouded in snow. The landscape had enough green scruff that there were sporadic clusters of goats and sheep and cattle, each monitored by a shepherd. An occasional unattended llama reminded me this certainly wasn't Kansas. I'd finally cooled down enough after a couple of miles to stop and add an extra layer and a pair of gloves. I couldn't overly exert myself to warm up, as then I would get light-headed, but at least I could keep pedaling with a moderate effort for as long as I wished without tiring. I stopped after a couple of hours for a lunch of chicken, rice, two kinds of potatoes and shredded carrots. The cost--85 cents. The intense sun was getting to me more than the thin air. For the rest of the day I rode for an hour and then took shelter from the sun for an hour. Lunch had so filled me up I needed no more nourishment than a bowl of soup for the rest of my miles. Around six, after 68 miles, I found a place to set up my tent that I couldn't resist, even though I had an hour of daylight left. My goal had been 75 miles for the day, but there hadn't been too many places suitable for camping along the road, so I thought it best to seize this one. Dinner was a fish dinner I had ordered earlier in the day and had packed in my Tupperware bowl.

Just as I was taking down my tent at 6:15 this morning, it started to sprinkle. That wasn't as aggravating as the long climb that awaited me. It wasn't the best way to start the day, but at least it wasn't as extreme as yesterday's, less than a thousand feet. Still it had me huffing. I gave just enough effort to keep the bike upright and in motion, at 3.5 miles per hour, not knowing how much higher I would have to climb. I had to dip into my emergency rations of energy bars for the first time. It was tough going. The lone consolation was the succession of spectacular views of Lake Titicaca and the minimal traffic. Yesterday it was two or three minutes between vehicles, today it was two or three times as long. From the summit I descended to an inlet of the lake that required a ferry to cross. There was more climbing and then another descent.

By the time I began the final descent to Copacabana, the rain had penetrated to my skin, and my hands were frigid. But whenever the sun would momentarily break through, I was quickly warmed. The descent wasn't as great as it could have been in the wet and the cold, but the site of the picturesque town nestled against mountains, highlighted by a couple of stunning, jutting promontories similar to those of Rio de Janeiro, which has a Copacabana of its own, diverted my thought from dwelling too much on my discomfort. The town is on the gringo trail. I encountered my first travelers since arriving in Bolivia. There were restaurants advertising pizza and spaghetti and outfitters offering excursions. It's quite tranquil here and would be an ideal place to hang out for a few days, but I have no time to dally. After I sign off it's back on the bike. I'll follow the shoreline to Peru. I'll be in Peru for about fifty miles then swing back into Bolivia. I'll be happy to descend to more sane elevations, but I have a week or so on the Altiplano ahead of me. That ought to make me super-charged for the weeks to come. Elite, and would-be elite, athletes go out of their way for such training.

Later, George