Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tricksey Bolivians

(La Paz - Rurrenabaque - Potosi, Bolivia)

We have managed to fill the last 10 days with more dust, mud, rain, and adventure than expected. From alligators to un-controlled intersections, icy roads and piranhas, it's been some kind of fun. Let me tell you our tale.

We left La Paz and headed Northwest toward Rurrenabaque and the wild rivers and jungles that awaited us there. It was two days of driving on unbelievably dusty roads, twisting and turning their way through the continuously warmer mountains. By dusty, I mean two inches of silt that filled the air and coated every part of us, the bike, our ridng gear, and everything underneath. We had dirt circles where our sunglasses had been. Each bus we passed caused such a stir that we couldn't see past the front tire. We decided to leave the main road to explore the downward slopes of "The Most Dangerous Road in the World," but I think we both agree it didn't hold up to it's name compared to some of the roads we've come across in Peru, nor the road that came a bit later in the day. Suddenly the buses and loaded semi-trucks are driving toward you in the wrong lane! Turns out, fully loaded cargo trucks come up from the lowlands to La Paz, and due to the narrow roads and perilous dropoffs they hug the mountain side of the road. No problem, but they don't provide signs. By the afternoon we were stripping off our multiple layers of clothing, and spent a lovely, warm night in Palos Blancos.

The next day we arrived in Rurrenabaque in the afternoon and found ourselves a comfy room at Hospedaje Santa Ana and signed up for a tour with the Amazonicas Tour Company for a three day, two night excursion into the Pampas starting the following day. We were prepared for tropical air, swimming, hiking, boating and nature watching. The next day our group of eight loaded up in the safari-style jeep and rode four hours on dusty roads to the river bank where we loaded our gear, the guide, the chef, and the food into a long lancha (open wooden boat) for our four hour ride to the campsite. Dry season means the water is lower, exposing muddy banks where alligators and caimans (three times the size of alligators) sunbathe on the shore and beautiful birds (such as cranes, fishing eagles, and loons) decorate the trees. Pink dolphins crest the surface with soft exhalations, and are gone again before a proper photo can be attained.
We arrived at camp, ate our dinner at the long picnic tables, sat around a bonfire, and settled into our comfy cots with our mosquito nets draped around us.
At five AM the rain started. It pounded on the tin roof, thundered on the leaves, and turned the clay ground into muddy goo. We awoke and ate breakfast, hopped across little rounds of wood to get to the toilets, watched The Italian stand in one of the water-filled boats to fish for piranhas, and stood around on the narrow porch waiting for the rain to stop. It didn't.
Finally, at a loss, the guides (there were two, one for each group of eight) decided that we should proceed with at least a part of the plan. They had us pick out rubber boots (several people ended up with two Lefts, and the rest of us just dealt with the holes), layer up with whatever rain gear we had (I used a black plastic bag) and eighteen booted folk tromped out through the jungle and the wild marshes of the Pampas to see what they could see.
We had hardly begun before we were soaking wet from head to toe, our boots had begun to fill with water, and four of us had fallen behind. The rest of the group was soon out of sight, but we were with our guide Domingo (who was actively searching for Anacondas among the trees). Soon we saw him heading off into the forest, so we stopped and waited. Fifteen minutes passed, and we realized he wasn't coming back so we decided to try and catch up with the others. Adam and I were in the company of Gíl from Israel, and The Italian. The four of us happily tracked boot prints and followed muddy puddles, to no avail. At last, the rain coming down with fervor, we realized we'd been "tracking" for nearly 1 1/2 hours, and as the hike was supposed to
take about 3 hours we decided to give up and try to find our way back to the camp on our own. Easier said than done.
The rain had by now washed away any boot prints (even ours) and the muddy puddles had settled to look like the hundreds around them. At one point The Italian picked up a long stick, flung it into the air and declared that wherever it pointed when it fell would be our course. It did not point the way we wanted to go. Due to our incredible skills, we managed the last hour and a half through the jungle, guided by familiar looking trees and mushrooms to the edge of the Pampas where we were a bit stumped. The high grasses stretched out before us to more jungle on the other side of about two football fields. We couldn't remember where we'd come from, although I thought I recognized a white-ish tree across the rainy expanse. We headed out into the black mud, our feet sinking, our boots filled with muddy water, and soon discovered that the trail we'd followed was a cow path. Hoofprints, not bootprints. It was then that the rain started coming down with renewed strength, and the wind started up. I decided to try and intersect the path I hoped was heading for the white-ish tree. It was! We sloshed the rest of the way to camp, arriving just 10 minutes before the other group. The guides were quite irritated at our disappearance, although I have to say I disagree that they had the right considering it was they who lost us in the alligator/anaconda/cobra infested wilds. Domingo asked Adam, "Didn't you hear that bird?"
"I heard a bird," Adam replied.
"Yes, that was me," said Domingo, shaking his head in irritation that we hadn't known to listen for wild bird calls in the jungle. Just a thought, Mr Guide Sir: When searching for lost turistas in the jungle, it might be a bit more productive to call out in a human voice or yell Like A Human. There are a lot of birds out there, we might not know it's you.
We poured the black water out of our boots, hung our soaking clothes out to dry, and scrapped together what clothing we could to keep warm in the chilly evening air. Everyone went to bed early except for the Irish who sang pub songs and eventually lulled us to sleep with their renditions of Van Morrison songs.

The next day as we took the boat ride back. Adam jumped into the river to swim with timid pink dolphins as alligators slipped from the shore into the water nearby. At last we were back in Rurrenabaque, where we found out Michael Jackson had died. We met up at the popular Monkeys Bar for Cuba Libres and Caipirinas and with the rest of the group listened to the DJ spin out MJ classics. It would be one more day before a Bolivian metal worker would ask me why Michael Jackson hadn't recorded any Spanish music. All I could think to say was, "Because he couldn't speak Spanish?"

It took two days to get back to La Paz, and after all the rain the once-dusty roads were now slick with silty mud. It was nearing the end of our first day of riding when we lost control on a particularly slick corner and the bike slid out from underneath us, leaving us splayed out on our backs in the middle of the wet and rocky road. No harm was done although we were a bit sore the next day. We took a short break to gather ourselves and clean off the mud and got back on the road.
The following day we came upon an accident which included a cattle truck-turned-bus fully loaded with people charging off a cliff and dropping into the jungle below. Children with bloody faces were sitting along the road as men with ropes worked to haul up the rest of the passengers. Needless to say we were a bit shaken up, and more than happy to offer some of our water to a man bloodied from the fall. Taxis were being loaded with the most seriously injured, and we raced ahead to get help from the nearest Puesto de Control.

Back in La Paz, we had new brake rubber bits (Pastillas) added to our bare brake pads as a parade of wildly dressed women and men danced by in glittering costumes with bands following behind and playing enthusiastically. Later that night we were downtown and noticed bright rainbow flags decorating the main street. I thought they looked a lot like Gay Pride flags, but we've come across Peruvian and Bolivian rainbow flags before than represent different Indigenous groups so I was surprised to find that the parade winding by was filled with beautifully costumed Transvestites! They looked impressively like the women we'd seen earlier in the day, and were even accompanied by bands playing the same music. Bravo, Bolivia. I wouldn't have thunk it.

Adam got The Bug, and from La Paz we ended up in Oruro splurging on a $14 (100 Bolivianos) room at Hotel Bernal with hot hot water and cable TV. I tucked him into bed and weathered the freezing air to fetch dinner and sprite for his tummy. He's feeling much better but not quite 100%. In other news, the weather is cold. Icy cold. We've both had to purchase extra layers, new gloves, scarves, a poncho, and I even got some sweat pants. Yesterday I realized I was wearing six layers of pants, and I was still cold. Yarggggh!
We arrived yesterday here in Potosí, where, amazingly enough our room has a heater in it, and our shower water is gas heated (which means hot water). Today we took the Cerro Rico Mine Tour, purchasing Coca leaves, cigarettes, soda, and dynamite for the miners (who were hard at work as we wandered through their dark domain in our ridiculous yellow outfits and construction helmets with lamps). Adam helped put together a nice little stick of dynamite, and we were up close and personal when our guide, Johnny, lit the fuse. Two minutes (and a safe distance) later, the explosion made us all jump.
Then we toured the Museo de Moneda, where Bolivian money was minted on incredible machines using horses and pulleys and wheelie things that were very impressive. Potosí was the silver capital of the world, and the richest city in all of the Americas (and some say the world) in the mid-1700's.

Now for a bit of motorcycle information: Things have gotten interesting.
After passing 20,000 mileson her odometer, pretty Peter has started to fuss a bit. Adam has been hard at work repairing a broken tail light wire, a crack in the air box (on top under the seat) that he has sealed with silicon, reattached a severed starter cable, and shortened the chain (new as of Cali, Colombia) which had stretched about two inches.

Okay, I'm done. My fingers are sore and I need some dinner. Tomorrow we head down to Uyuni to meet up with Woody for our ride through the incredible salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni. We've purchased an extra gas can for the vast expanses ahead as gas stations are few and far between and are often out of gas anyway. Just two weeks to fill up before we reach Buenos Aires, and we're doing our best to do it right.

All the best from this cold little corner of the Americas,
Grace and Adam

And thanks for the title Bethany, here are some pics!

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