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Friday, 12 October 2012

Bolivia, Part 1: Guayaramerin to La Paz

Crossing into Guayaramerin, I started to feel better. Bolivia has always been a must see destination for me, and was probably the country on this continent that I most wanted to visit on this trip. At the heart of South america, Bolivia is where the mighty Amazon jungle is halted by the towering Andes mountains, whose high altitude plains contain the mesmerizing salt plains of Uyuni, and run down to the endless plains of the Chaco. It is one of the warmest, wettest, lowest and yet coldest, driest and highest countries in the Americas. The contrasts don't end with nature - Bolivia is one of the poorest yet resource rich countries in the world. Bolivianos have a well recognized reputation for being a hard working and tough people, yet quick to celebrate and welcome foreigners. I was excited to get off the boat and start exploring. But first, Izzy needed some serious TLC.

Once I got stamped into Bolivia, I headed to Customs, where I was told the system was down, and to return in the morning. I checked into a hotel, and started exploring the town. The next morning, I headed to Customs - still closed. It turns out it was the anniversary of the foundation of the state and the boss was watching the celebrations, but would return around 11. I've lost count of how many holidays I've stumbled into, but at least I could go watch the celebrations to pass the time.

The next morning I headed up to the closest repair shop, which was also the local Honda dealer. I reasoned that they, of all people, would know where the competition (Kawasaki) were. Not only did they know where the dealer was, but they offered me the use of their trailer, if I could get Izzy to them. I hurried back, and pushed her (she's quite light without all the gear & myself) to the dealer. It was only about 200m, but in that distance, several people stopped and tried to help me, despite my protests. In those few blocks, I could already tell I was going to love Bolivia. I got to the dealership, and the receptionist had bad news: the Kawasaki boys couldn't help me today, but possibly tomorrow. Then the Honda mechanic stepped out and had a look at the bike. Good news: he'd fix it for me. Great result. We set about pulling Izzy to pieces, and determining what had gne wrong. A trip like this isn't exactly easy for any bike, and so we went through a few periods of discovering a problem, fixing it, and then finding that wasn't the problem that stopped Izzy. I retired for lunch, returning after attending a health fair run by a missionary school (picked up some muesli and wholemeal bread - missing from the rest of the continent). Izzy now had a clean carburetor (sorely needed), but Camillo (the mechanic) eventually worked it out - the spark plug connector had worn out, and so wasn't providing the necessary electrical power when needed. Immediately I was thankful - I have the knowledge to fix Izzy, but the spark plug connector would've been at the bottom of my list, after dismantling the clutch and gearbox. what would have taken me days (and many more parts, he had done over several hours. The damage to my wallet? Less than $20. I don't think I could get a mechanic to look at an engine for that kind of money. I was rapt.

I rode back to the hotel, grinning from ear to ear. If there weren't so many people, I may have popped a small wheelie (yes it's possible, I have done it more than a few times, mostly by accident). I came back after closing with some beers, and Camillo, Orlando and I shot the breeze in the local plaza. Camillo's daughter joined us - it's worth pointing out just how safe Guyaramerin (And Bolivia in general) is: the locals all hang out after dark in the local parks. Taken for granted in Perth, it is a rare luxury in this part of the world. After the plaza, we headed back to Camillo's house, where he tried to give me a pair of boots (they didn't fit), and his daughter delighted in showing me her Disney videos for learning english. I got a lift back to the hotel, but not before receiving a Honda shirt. The next morning I headed back to Honda to say thanks, and show them what Izzy looks like fully loaded. I left Guyaramerin with two new friends, and high hopes for the rest of the country.

**For those of you who are following in my footsteps and need a service, the boys at Guyaramerin Honda (on the Eastern Plaza) can't come more highly recommended**

The Southwest corner of Bolivia has long been on the traveler's radar, but I would be starting my journey on the opposite end of the country, where an Australian visitor is not exactly a common occurrence. My Spanish would again improve through necessity, as I wouldn't be speaking English for a week (Actually that's a lie: in Guayaramerin I phoned home, and actually had to translate for some Brazilians who spoke a bit of English, but no Spanish). This is exactly what I wanted, to see a part of these countries that not many outside it's borders see. I would join the Gringo Trail soon enough, but for now I was happy to be amongst the locals only.

The first day's ride was interesting. It was pretty flat terrain, so I was able to cover about 500km. The first 100km or so was beautiful tarmac. I had to wait a bit in town for fuel - Bolivia subsidizes it's fuel at great cost, and therefore rations it out - I would pass many stations with signs of "No Hay Gasolina" hung prominently. After fueling up, I got lost in Riberalta. Getting lost in a town with only one road in and out seems a bit stupid, but when there are no signs it's easy to miss a turnoff. Eventually I got back on the road after a few attempts, only to run into a blockade.

Bolivia is somewhat socialist country, and unions/collectives have a relatively strong position in politics here. That bing said, it appears they are not above blocking a bridge to get what they want. People were allowed to pass without hindrance, but vehicles were going nowhere. As the only to La Paz, they had me by the cajones. I asked how long it had been going on - 3 days, with no end in sight: shit. I walked around a bit, and mingled with the workers (only two didn't notice me, as they were deeply involved in a game of chess). As I walked back to Izzy contemplating my next move, a young man made that choice for me by suggesting I go through the river. I had given it a thought, but dismissed it as the banks were too steep. Like 60 degrees steep. He assured me it was possible, and arranged a small posse to help me. We walked her down, and crossed the river on a submerged log, which took all my oncentration, and destroyed my nerves. Getting Izzy up the other side was another story. For the record, pushing a motorcyle up a slippery mud bank can cause bad language from up to 5 guys. I definitely heard a few swear words from the group, and may or may not have called Izzy a "stubborn, fat bitch" when she simply refused to budge. The workers blocking the road didn't say anything, just watched us from the bridge. I'm sure the aim was to block trucks, not tourists, and judging by how we were struggling, there wouldn't be many following us. I thanked (and paid) my 'crew', and headed down the road.

Down the road (after being asked several times how I managed to cross the blockade, I stopped at a fuel stop for energy for the both of us. I noticed a big bag full of leaves next to the cashier, and instantly knew from what plant they were. Coca leaves have been used by indigenous Bolivians to ward off the effects of altitude sickness, fatigue and hunger pains. It's completely legal and non-addictive. The same can't be said for it's famous derivative, Cocaine. The legal uses for the Coca plant extend beyond the ubiqutous cola drink, and it's unfortunate that one of the many alkaloids in the Coca leaf has proved to be so destructive. I bought a bag and started to use.

There's somewhat of a ritual to follow when chewing coca leaves and it takes the better part of an hour to get to the point of benefit. Overall, I will say this - it definitely helps with headaches and altitude sickness (and may numb your mouth), but it tastes horrible. If it wasn't for the impending extreme altitude, that would have been it. As it stands now, I have gone through two small bags, dozens of cups of tea, and a few lollies. The tea and lollies are actually quite nice, and while not as strong as the leaves by themselves, have managed to keep me up and moving at over 4000m above sea level. But that's another story.

I kept on heading down the lonely and dusty road, enjoying the view of the savannah. It was eerily familiar - red pea gravel, low scrub as far as the eye could see and not another vehicle for miles. I had to keep remembering to stick to the right! As the sun began to set, I came across a series of man-made waterholes and a veritable safari worth of animals: Capibaras (a large animal, resembling a wombat) and thousands of birds were all quenching their thirst in the disappearing sun. They paid little attention to me as I passed, then only curiosity when I swung Izzy around. I sat transfixed for a while - these were completely wild animals, in their natural habitat and they allowed me to stay. Eventually, they trotted/flew off, and I continued on towards Santa Rosa.

I had to fuel up again, but there hadn't been a station in over 250km. I started to panic a bit, and pull over every now and again to ask where I could find fuel. After a few failed leads and a gas station selling nothing but false hope, I found a store that sold me 6 litres of refined black gold. In 2L coke bottles. I can't say that this is new to me, but petrol sold in plastic bottles seems a little risky. I was in no position to argue, and readily poured the fuel in, all the while apologising to the motor that no doubt would soon be suffering.

I found a place that would safely take us, and promptly passed out asleep. Unfortunately, they also safely took most of my remaining cash, as I'd thought there would have been an ATM in a city of 15,000 people. When I explained this to the owner of the Residencial (a cheap form of a hotel, but above an Alijomento) when he asked if I wanted breakfast at the restaurant and I explained, he was nonplussed - he'd organize something simple for me for free. I should clarify that breakfast definitely wasn't part of the deal, so I was gratefull for the coffee and toast. I then left, for the fuel station in Santa Rosa, which turned out to have a massive line (a symptom of the fuel rationing in Bolivia). I asked one patron leaving whether there was another station nearby. He obviously took pity on me, and told me that he'd sell me some of the fuel out of his jerry can back at his house. I took one look at the line and followed him back to his place. But before we fuel'd up, we needed breakfast. His wife cooked us brekkie, with coffee, bread and eggs, both chicken and turtle. I enjoyed my second breakfast, and walked out a full and happy man. For the second day in a row, I set out thinking that Bolivianos are some of the nicest people in the world. I did leave with a few niggling worries though: I had been warned that a few years ago, some Canadians had been murdered and robbed on the stretch of road I was going to cover, and last night it had rained. Rained probably isn't the right word for this part of the world: when I say rained, water came down like someone had lifted a pool with a crane, then took to the bottom with a stick of dynamite. it's not unusual that I wonder how buildings survive these kinds of storms.

As it turned out, the first worry was unfounded - I met nothing but great people, quick with a thumbs up and a smile. They may have been smiling however, as a result of my second worry. The rain had turned what could have passed for a road into something the devil couldn't concieve in a bad mood. The previously passable clay and rocks had now joined forces in a concerted effort against my health, and turned my riding into a (for an outsider) comical series of mishaps. The mud went from too slippery to walk on, to so deep I'd worry we'd drown, and back again. And that would be in the space of 20 metres. The back wheel acted like it was attached by a slinky possessed. over the next 60 kms I dropped Izzy more than a dozen times, and narrowly avoided falling far more than that. A particularly nasty fall saw the gear change pedal (the lever operated with your left foot, for those who don't ride) land squarely on my foot, pinning me down. I managed to wriggle out, letting off a stream of curse words that would make George Carlin (RIP) blush. On a side note, that's a great thing about being surrounded by those who don't speak your language - if you feel like swearing, go for it- no one's going to care. But basically, I was very glad for all my protective gear that day. I finished that day with a grazed left knee, and a badly swollen right leg, but still able to walk.

I awoke in Yucumo, which lies at the base of the climb into La Paz. It would be the last time I'd experience warm weather for weeks,and I foolishly looked forward to the impending cool change. But first I had breakfast with some locals who told me that the road ahead was closed until 4pm for roadworks, after which I would get as far as Carnavi, not Coroico as I had hoped. I decided to partially take their advice, and left at midday, thinking that I could pass the time at a roadblock easily if it was only a few hours. But every time I reached a section of roadworks, the workers allowed me through. I had to dodge some equipment and do some offroading, but it wasn't too hard. The road itself was pretty challenging though, a never ending series of hairpin bends on a relentless uphill slope. I made it to Carnavi in the late afternoon and tried to press on, but quickly recognized it was foolish, and headed back to reach Coroico the next day.

I set off early this time, trying to make it past the roadworks before the rest of the traffic was allowed to pass, and the road becomes a chaotic deathtrap. I was making progress (although I almost needed to be dug out by a roadworks crew in a particularly bad section), until I came to a section with a couple of workers and a policeman, who said the road ahead was definitely closed until 4pm. I was going no further for about 6 hours. Thankfully, they had chosen a great spot to stop traffic - a nearby stream cascaded over a particularly beautiful cliff. I enjoyed the waterfall, and was able to wash my clothes (all caked in mud from the previous debacle of a day).

 I hadn't brought a lunch, but again the Bolivianos came through for me, and graciously gave me some of their lunch - sardines and bread. It was around this time that a van ferrying people to La Paz turned up. I got talking to one of the passengers, who happened to be part of the Bolivian Navy. Although a landlocked country (a sore point for Bolivianos, who lost their coastline to Chile as a result of war), Bolivia maintains a naval force on border rivers and Lake Titicaca, which it shares with Peru. The navy also co-operates with the other forces in the effort to rationalise coca production. As he explained it, there are particular species of Coca that are only grown for cocaine, but the law enforcement agencies are hamstrung by political macinations. I ended up having a great day at the roadblock, but at 1530 it was time to leave. I raced away, trying to get as far as possible before the traffic became a problem. I hadn't got very far when the trucks started passing by.

A bit of perspective is needed: this road is built into a cliff with a serious drop off the side. It is only wide enough in parts for two small vehicles to pass - for two trucks to pass, they must travel (one reversing) to a 'passing area'. Made from compacted earth, the amount of dust created is incredible. Overtaking a truck is heart in mouth stuff, as you can't see more than 5 metres in front of you - hence my desire to be in front! when you approach a blind corner, you just hope a truck isn't barreling around from the other side. I have been riding on some of the most dangerous so-called roads for months now, and I was worried. I made it to Coroico, and happily stopped at a cheap hotel with internet (what a luxury!). I parked Izzy, and saw proof of just how rough the road was - the licence plate had broken off. There was no way I was backtracking, so resolved to make a new one in La Paz (no licence plate on a bike is common here, and ok as long as you have documents that prove the bike is yours, like registration papers).

The next day was the big one - the North Yungas road, otherwise known as El Camino del Muerte (Road of Death). Prior to 2006 when the government finished paving one section and bypassing another, this road earned it's name as the most dangerous road in the world. Taking over 200 lives per year, the road demands respect and many truckers used to pray to Pachamama (Incan mother earth) or God for safe passage before travelling the 100km or so. Originally built by Paraguyan POWs during the Chaco war (at the cost of thousands of lives), one section was deemed impossible to widen, and bypassed with a new paved road. This section is not nearly as dangerous anymore as most traffic sensibly take the new road. I wanted to see the old road, and whispered a few prayers before setting off - adding to the blessings and prayers offered by strangers. The road rises over 3000m, peaking at the mountain pass La Cumbre (4660m) before plummeting back down into La Paz (3600m).

As the old road is rarely used, I found it in reasonable condition and not too dificult. I did however see sections that reflected the horror stories told - a section that had clearly given way, the neighbouring crosses remembering the lives taken. Nowdays, the only real traffic is tourists on guided mountain bike tours down the road. Give me a Central American trucker anyday - the tourists were impossible to predict. On these roads, you actually drive on the left, as trucks used to travel to La Paz full of goods, and return lighter. To prevent excessive damage to the road, the lighter truck travels on the outside (it also allows the drivers to see their outside wheel, preventing them from falling off). I was obeying the rules, and treating the road with the respect it deserved - and almost killed someone in the process. As I rounded a blind corner (and I would beep the horn before doing so), a tourist came flying across, cutting the corner. I slammed both brakes on but it wasn't enough - I was going to hit this guy and send him over the cliff.

In the end I threw Izzy into the ground and jumped clear, preventing a serious accident. Izzy stopped 30cm from the skid line the tourist had to make just to take the corner. I got up and turned to see who could possibly be so stupid. He stopped and asked if I was ok, but otherwise seemed oblivious to how close it had been, and seemed unfazed when I tried to explain. Idiot. The sheer drop would have been the better part of 500m at that point, and with the closest hospital 2hrs away, an ambulance would have been unnecessary - just call the Coroner.

The rest of the ride was less intense, but the other tourists were annoying. Some passed on my right (as they're supposed to), some tried my left. Some came flying down with little thought of their safety or that of others, and some stopped completely, too petrified to move in traffic. I started to get angry at the lack of respect the others were showing to the road - thousands of people with far more experience on these kinds of roads had become victims of this stretch, and these people were attempting it with no more than a 10 minute safety briefing that obviously didn't warrant listening to. Granted, they were no longer trucks on the road, but if you struggle to safely pass a motorcycle, I'd think twice about doing the trip. It says alot when I can honestly say I preferred to pass the locals in vans (following the groups to take them back to La Paz) than the bikes. I read later that 18 tourists have added to the toll while on rides, and I can't say I'm surprised. There's no way I would have started my trip here, and it's crazy to think that others attempt this when their entire experience of roads in Latin America would have been by bus, or out the window of a plane. Rant over.

Eventually, there were no more tourists, and I could relax a bit. Then I hit the asphalt, and the ride became alot faster, and alot higher. KLRs are naturally aspirated, and Izzy didn't appreciate riding higher than any of the peaks in Europe or Australasia. It was slow going when we reached La Cumbre, the highest point of the road. It was here that the gods thought it'd be funny to send snow. I had got rid of all my cold weather gear in the USA, and have an open face helmet - it wasn't pleasant. Once over though, I was able to cut the engine and coast all the way into La Paz, where I found my hotel and almost passed out - this altitude is going to take some getting used to.

This is only part 1 of Bolivia, but all of Bolivia in one post would give me RSI. Part 2 includes La Paz, Salar de Uyuni, and a route that leads me to believe the world's most dangerous road is still in Bolivia.

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