27 October 2012

Bolivia - October 2012

20/10/2012

Today was border crossing day. After two and a half months in Argentina, it was finally time to leave. Woke to some terrible news affecting one of my closest friends. Took my mind off my own sadness of leaving this wonderful country - how I would have liked to stay forever. Breakfast and plenty of coffee to keep my alert. Sat and chatted to the hostel owner for a few hours, getting information on where and how to cross the border as well as the location of cash points and the train station.

Said my goodbyes and headed off for the border itself. Nothing unusual about the La Quiaca/Villazon border. Fumbled about for ages thought trying to find out where exactly I need to go. All I had to do here was get stamped out of Argentina. Not much advice forthcoming, so I attempted to tackle the one women who was calling out names at the front of the cue. What I wanted to know was where to stand, whether I had to fill out forms etc. Despite standing right in front of her and asking very nicely where to go, she simply talked over or around me. A few minutes like this and I was quite ready to grab her by the shoulders and shake her until she gave me the simple answer I wanted. For the first time in four months my aggressive and violent nature returned and this person was about to collect. At about that moment, my host from the hostel walked past - she explained where, what and how. 

After one and a half hours, I managed to get the exit stamp I needed from the Argentina border control. I now liken Argentina to the Eagles's song Hotel California, I expect that reference will be lost on many. The salient line I'm thinking of went something like this, "you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave". Bumbling over, the Bolivian border was something much easier. Fill in a simple form and get stamped in. Then I noticed that I had only been stamped in for 30 days, not the three months I had expected. I enquired of the border official, a very helpful chap. He assured me that this was normal at the border, but when I was in La Paz I could have this extended to the full 90 days. He had better be right, I need a good 80 days at least to get around Bolivia. 

Then it was off to do the basics, change out my Argentina Pesos and head for the train station. Almost missed the train station as it is a rather small affair with no signs. The ticket office wasn't due to open for another hour or so. With nothing else to do, I sat to finish reading some books. Got through Henry David Thoreau's essay Civil Disobedience, before starting Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The ticket office opened 45mins late, but this is to be expected. Bought my 'Ejecutivo' ticket costing B261 (£36). Had to pay a little more to get my bicycle on. Continued with the book while I waited for departure. 

Oddly enough, the train departed on time. A very comfortable seat, but certainly these railways had not been built by the British. We may as well have been travelling over a heavily rutted road in a saloon car for all the bouncing and shaking. Dinner service began very early at 18:00. Nothing fancy, some rice, a hamburger patty, 3 fries and some mixed veg. Even had to pay for the coffee. Back to my seat and resumed reading. The Heart of Darkness is not a long book, which is unfortunate. Packed inside this small novella is one of the most imaginative and dark books I have ever read. It would of course mean different things to different people. Unless you have travelled down an uninhabited river surround by jungle, it may be difficult to imagine the associated feelings. I don't think the book specifically mentions the location, but I would guess it to be The Congo, certainly it is west/central Africa. Interestingly, the film Apocalypse Now was based to a large degree on the book, barring its location - the film was based around the Vietnam War rather than the ivory trade of Africa. 

Book finished, I lowered my seat to try and get some sleep. 

21/10/2012

Woke at 05:30 having slept for the best part of 6 hours. The train continued to bash about before we arrived in Oruro just after 07:00. Now I needed to find a cash point and get to the bus station. Cash point found, I drew money over the sleeping body of some itinerant - who quite clearly didn't bother to move from his spot even for lavatory requirements. Welcome to Bolivia proper, might well have been in India for the all empowering reek of human excrement and the appalling litter and rubbish lying all over the place. 

Bus station found, ticket for La Paz only cost B20 plus another B10 for the bike. I was able to lift the bike fully loaded straight into the hold. Whether it would remain standing was more debatable.   The bus finally pulled away 30mins late, having done their best to load as many last minute passengers on as possible. Another 3-4 hours and this leg of the trip would finally be over. We managed to take on another 4-5 people while the bus was leaving the station. Many similarities between Bolivia, Africa and India.

Despite the road works, the bus managed a very respectable speed, arriving in little over 3 hours. Now that I was in La Paz, my next objective was to find my hostel for the next few days. Unusually, I had booked the hostel in advance. Having pored through the various options, it seemed that hostels here only catered for the young and drunk kids on gap years. So it was a case of choosing the least messy option. The Wild Rover it was - requires no imagination as to the clientele. Found the hostel easily enough, as with most things in La Paz - it was up or down a steep hill depending on where you came from. Checked in smoothly, but was rather disappointed to have a green armband tape to my wrist. Let time this happened in Cuba I threw one of my memorable tantrums. This time I let it pass - probably a good way for the local cabbies to get legless home after a heavy evening. From the hostels point of view, they could even dump you in the correct bed as it had your name and bed number on it. From my perspective, it was a simple enough way for the hostel to run my tab. There would be no getting legless here for me.

The usual course of affairs followed, decent hot shower and catching up on emails. Everything from food to laundry could be handled by the hostel, so almost no reason to leave. Dinner done, I sought the sanctity of bed. Fortunately the other 5 jokers in my room were leaving the next day, so they all turned in at the rather reasonable hour of 23:30.

22/10/2012

Rather unreasonably, they also got up at 06:00. Never mind, I had work to get done. Breakfast only started at 08:00, so had the best part of 2 hours to get my plans organised. Today I needed to arrange another data card for my mobile and get my extra 2 months stamped into my passport. Having done my research, the passport would wait for the afternoon while I tackled the sim card first. 

Breakfast and heap of coffee before skating down the extremely steep hills to find a sim card. Long story short, there was no paperwork to fill in, no passport verification etc like there was in Argentina. I asked for a specific provider and card and off I went. Cut the sim to fit my iPhone4 a no one seems to have micro sim phones up here. Fiddled about for a while trying to work out how to register it before going back tot he shop and having them do it for me. The rest of the data I had to fill in online and 10 minutes later I was up and running! By comparison, certain providers in Argentina refused to give me a sim as I was a foreigner. When I did eventually get one, it took the nest part of 4 days for registration to occur before it finally worked. From that point onwards it behaved perfectly. 

With this early success, I decided that my bike needed a clean and some maintenance. Spent the next 3 hours removing dirt and grime and re-adjusting my brakes. Thoughts of the North Yungas Road had me tighten them as tightly as was possible. (North Yungas Road, also known as El Camino de la Muerte or the Death Road).

Problem 1 solved, now for Problem 2. Part of me figured that this was going to be some tedious beurocratic affair, so I was mentally prepared for a long afternoon. My thoughts seemed to be clarified when I entered the office at 15:00 to find it packed. I approached information for help and she dispatched me across the road to get a few photocopies. Still expecting the worst, I went back to information to be lead immediately to the back office where it too the chap longer to sort out his tea order than it did to stamp my passport and have me on my way. I was out of the office with the requisite stamps by 15:09! This was the second piece of usually beurocratic bumph that Bolivia had dealt with exceedingly efficiently - why can no other country do this? 

With both tasks for the day sorted, I had the entire afternoon to continue with my bird planning for Bolivia. Not much left but not too exciting either. Went to pick up my laundry 15 minutes before due collection time and was told to come back at 16:00! Perhaps I was starting to get ahead of myself with respect to efficiency in Bolivia! Having planned on doing something before returning, it was only a few hours later that I remember to get my clothes. Many of which I needed, as it started to get cold. Had dinner before departing the bar around 21:00. The louts were just getting started on tonights festivities. Returning to my room, I was rather chuffed to find that no one else had arrived. Unloaded my gear and started getting my things re-arranged. Tomorrow was to be an early start for some birding at the small town of Mecapaca.

23/10/2012

Up and ready by 06:15, proceeded to reception to get me a can. Was told I needed to 'check out', just in case I 'didn't come back'. Tried arguing the point that I wasn't going for a mountain bike jaunt down the death road, bird watching at Mecapaca rather. Made no difference, but did win the battle of not having to remove all my gear to some dodgy locker in reception until I returned. I tried most inoffensively to remind the chap that I was 32, not 18 - my priorities were different to his typical clientele. So I got some slack on the gear front, but had to pay off my balance and next nights stay, just in case.

Taxi driver arrived soon thereafter and off we went. Hostel were very good, they bargained the price and thus made sure I couldn't be ripped off. I immediately regretted catching the taxi Bolivian drivers have a reputation for recklessness and this chap while not dangerous, did like to use all of the available road. I am sure much of this nation suffers delusions of grandeur in the form of an F1 driver. We came to a halt at the Lunar Valley, or Moon Valley? Not sure why, I instructed the driver to get a move on, I wanted to get to Mecapaca soon before it became to hot and birds dried up. No, this was not possible he told me as the road block of rocks had been laid down my the government workers who were on strike today. Why would you strike on a Tuesday anyway. I could see no road block, but then I also couldn't hear what was being said on his radio. Either way I was not best pleased as I was not completely convinced of the problems. Back to the hostel then James.

Rest of the days was spent finalising the remainder of my Bolivia trip. In fact, I had everything sorted untilI reached La Paz again. Only a few outstanding issues that could not be resolved until later in the trip. I had the hostel room to myself again, good for me and good for those who were not around to hear me getting up at 05:30 tomorrow morning. Dinner at the bar again, decent Indian to fill the stomach ahead of tomorrows arduous cycle. Managed to get chatted up by some drunken kid, having spotted my name and bed number assured me she would 'see me later'. Chance is a fine thing, of that she had none. I had done so well to avoid interaction with the reprobates until the final hour! Never mind, off for a shower and final pack before getting a decent nights sleep. 

24/10/2012

Up early again, but no strikes were going to have an impact today. Got out of the hostel at 06:15 and bumbled my way around for 30 minutes until I found the correct exit road. I have to say that my options didn't look pretty. I knew I was going to be doing a lot of climbing today, but these roads looked damn steep even had they been sea level.
 Up we went, 200metres then stop and rest for a minutes, then another 200m. This pattern was to be repeated for much of the day. If the altitude and my decreased lung capacity (asthma) were not significant enough foes, they were no match for the mini and midi busses which belched almost pure diesel out do their exhausts. My 200m pattern got altered quite a bit, having to stop every time a bus or truck passed so that I could bury my head in my jacket and breath sweaty air rather than this cancerous rubbish. The laughable part of this was that every kilometre or so were 'vehicle inspection' posts. Quite what you had to have wrong with you to fail one of these is beyond me - 3 wheels, no steering wheel? It is safe to say that not one vehicle in La Paz would pass a UK MOT test. 

Up the mountains we continued. Got passed by some minibuses loaded with the young reprobates and mountain bikes. Off to ride down the 'Death Road' and get their T-shirts - and hopefully come back, something that a few have not done. An Israeli girl was the last known casualty having gone over the edge last year, the circumstances unknown. There is no regulation on outfitters here, some are good and some are bad - something to keep in mind when going for the 'cheapest option'. Then again, as I found in the business of elective eye surgery - something that few people take into account until it bites them in the arse. 

The mountain landscapes were breathtaking in more ways than one, something Ai was able to appreciate no end while I stood panting over my bike most of the time. My first significant marker was to get above 3780masl, the highest I had ever been as well as cycled (Tres Cruces, Argentina). That marker fell pretty early, every pedal from that point onwards was a new record height for me. The higher I went and the colder it got. Every other stop had me adding a piece of clothing until I looked ready enough to visit the South Pole. Cold as it may have been, I re-applied the sun screen - UV up here was grossly amplified. 

So far I had been able to cycle the entire section, but when I hit the 4400masl mark, the road simply became to steep for any meaningful cycle no matter what the altitude. I pushed from 4400 to 4600masl, which was only around 2km's (average ratio of 1:10!). Cresting 4600masl, I knew that I didn't have much climbing left - at that it was going to be at a much larger ration too. Never the less, the road still seemed steep. A breaking thunderstorm had me pedal a little quicker, it was cold enough - I hardly wanted to get wet too. 

Having been on the road since 06:30, I finally arrived at La Cumbre just after 14:00. I had travelled 25km's in 7 & 1/2 hours. According to my ODO, I had only been 'cycling' for half of that - in other words I had been bent over the handlebars trying to catch my breath for half the time I had been on the road. At this altitude, I only have about 57% of the oxygen content available at see level. I essentially need to breath twice for every breath taken by those at sea level. In all I had climbed from 3640masl to 4673masl - tough enough on any given day, but when you baseline is over 3600masl, it is only amplified to the extreme. For the first time on this trip, I actually felt proud of myself. Many people tell me I am mad, loco or just plain stupid - but they are proud of me none the less. I have not been so inclined. As far as I see things, I set out to do this. Therefore there is nothing to be proud of, my options are only disappointment or failure. Today felt slightly different, to reach this kind of altitude was special for me. Childhood asthma having killed 30% of my lung capacity followed by 12 years of I'll advised smoking meant altitude was a tougher challenge for me than most other people. Not only did I make it up, but I felt pretty strong too. No sign of altitude sickness this time.

La Cumbre was freezing and the prevailing northerly only made the temperature feel worse. The objective now was to get down the other side ASAP but not quick enough to find the edge. This stretch of the North Yungas road is well maintained, good tar road with barriers. Never the less, I still had to play with the trucks and busses and many areas where errant direction could easily be fatal. The volume of crosses next to the road testified to the roads moniker, even on the safer section of it. I had been told that a few minutes down the road one could get some soup, something I was now very keen on. Descending was a little tricky to start as cloud barrelled over the pass.

Escaping the cloud, I could see the salvation of soup not far ahead. First I had to clear the anti-narcotics road block. For a country that provides the world with the highest percentage of cocaine, it is surprisingly dangerous to have any of the stuff on you. Growing coca is perfectly legal however, many locals wouldn't survive without the stuff. It is chewed or drunk as a tea to help with the effects of altitude. Heaven help you if you process the leaf into its more 'western' constituent though. One look at me and I was let through. I must have looked to loco or too sane to use the stuff. Best I not mention that of all the worlds illicit drugs, cocaine is perhaps the one drug that would work for me. 

Descending further I picked up the odd bird - good photos to be had of a Mountain Caracara, but everything el was quite twitchy when I got the camera out. Other highlights of the day included Cream-winged Cinclodes, White-winged Diuca Finch and Blue-mantled Thornbill (a hummer at last!).

The road wasn't completely downhill unfortunately, a few more inclines to be had before I reached the 'village' of Cotapata or to be more exact the petrol station - there was nothing else here. This was one of the major trails I wanted to walk, so I would look for a likely camp site here. With great luck I found a large shed, covered in corrugated iron without walls. Would do very nicely. Camp set up and dinner sorted. They don't call this habitat 'Yungas Cloud Forest' for nothing. For most of the afternoon and evening I was enveloped in cloud. I was just getting used to sundown occurring around 20:00, here it was dark by 19:00 already - a combination of cloud and mountains no doubt. While my body felt thrilled with the lower elevation, I was still at 3000masl. I knew from my experience in Humahuaca, Argentina that I was quite comfortable at this height though. 

It is still very cold, fortunately I changed quickly from my cycling gear to my thermals. It is almost 21:00 and the rain has started to fall. I wasn't able to rig my tent up under the roof completely, having to tie up between the uprights. Now all I hope is that the rain disperses from the roof in such a way as not to form a river over the one side of my tent.

Blog up to date for once. Will have an early night before an equally early start in the morning. 

25/10/2012

Today was the big day. Hardly slept at all due to the freezing cold and intermittent rainfall. Nothing for it though, up at 05:30 to start the Cotapata Trail. First bird of the morning in the neighbouring bamboo, Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant.

It hadn't occurred to me yesterday when I looked down the eroded, scree slope in the middle of the forest, that is was in fact the trail. The incline was near enough 60 degrees! This was going to be a very carefully carefully descent, not helped by the near constant cloud induced blindness. Fortunately the cloud started to break up, allowing me to descend and bird for 5 minutes before returning. This carried most of the morning, but I was able to get some quality birds in the gaps.

Birds started to arrive thick and fast, I was battling to keep up and could not make sue of the camera either. An iridescent blue White-collared Jay, followed swiftly by other spectacularly coloured birds including: Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager, Hooded Mountain Tanager, Violet-throated Starfrontlet,, Scaled Metaltail, Band-tailed Fruiteater, Plushcap, Barred Fruiteater, Bar-bellied Woodpecker, Plum-crowned Parrot, the endemic Black-throated Thistletail, Rufous-naped Brush-Finch, Three-striped Hemispingus, Collared Inca, Spectacled Whitestart, Rust-and-yellow Tanager, Scaly-naped Amazon and Citrine Warbler. 

All this in less than 2 hours of birding before the forest suddenly went quiet. It was about time for me to push on in any case, but I resolved to come back here at the end of my trip t try and get the other endemic species. Slogged back up the hill and packed my gear away. Now it was time to head down to the beginning of the Chuspipata Trail, also the beginning of the 'Death Road'. Most frustratingly, the information provided for this site was complete crap, I ended up free wheeling another 2.5km's past the entrance before realising I would have to turn around and cycle back up the mountain. Although only a 2.5km error, it cost me 45 minutes to cycle back up. Stopped for breakfast at one of the roadside stalls - interesting concept they have here for breakfast, rice, potato, tomato, onions, beef and bread. I'm finding Bolivia is quite different to the other Latin American countries I have been to, they eat large breakfasts and don't have late dinners either.

Breakfast finished, it was now time to start descending the rocky dirt road. I cycled the proscribed distance but didn't recognise the trail head. Messed about for another 30mins before deciding to skip and cycle down the road proper. Again, the website information was complete rubbish - the trail head was fully 2 kilometres away rather than 600m. Stop and change again, start birding, but the trail was so overgrown I barely got 50m before turning around. Added an Amethyst-throated Sunangel and Pearled Treerunner as well as getting much better photos of some of the species I had already seen. By now, the lost time was starting to pressure my birding. I had to get a move on now, but resolved to bird as much of the 'Death Road' as possible. Actually, I am not a fan of the name 'Death Road' preferring it's correct name - The North Yungas Road, or perhaps now called the Old North Yungas Road. The new bypass has meant that the only traffic still using this road are the downhill mountain bikers and their vehicles. 

Plenty of cyclists passed me while I birded, perhaps as many as 60 tourists setting off for a thrill ride. Turns out that they don't even start riding from La Cumbre, the transport bring them all the way to Chuspipata and they cycle for only 30km's, all downhill with their transport vehicles right behind. Then they load all the gear away and drive back to La Paz. And for this you get a t-shirt? Well, there was going to be no nice and comfortable down hill mountain biking for me. A fully loaded touring bike is hardly the recommended method of descent, in fact I have only read of a handful of people who have done this before. So, all things considered - ie. if I lived, there would be more people cycling the road on a mountain bike today than had ever gone down on a touring bike. More pain and no t-shirt for me, but a decent level of pride no less.

It doesn't take long to see why this road carries such a moniker. It is hardly used these days, if act on my trip down the only vehicles I came across were those carrying the cyclists. Not many years ago, prior to the new asphalt bypass, this was the only road to the Amazon from La Pas and anywhere between 200-300 people perished every year. There are stark reminders everywhere, crosses too numerous to count, most with multiple names on them. On one particular been, there were more crosses than rocks, most with at least 4-5 names each with the same DOD. Clearly this had been a bus accident. I have read one report of a bus accident here in the 1980's that killed over 100 people. This particular site was the scene of another bus accident in 2006 that killed 29. Not too far along, I found a cross written in Hebrew. While I could not read the text, the dates were obvious enough. This was the young Israeli girl who disappeared over the edge in 2010. It is a sharp 90deg bend, looks as though she never saw it and it simply went straight on - 600m+ to the bottom.

To make things more interesting a large thunder storm started to drench the mountain causing numerous waterfalls. The road turned into a river, the rocks slippery and my brakes now fighting for traction. Them came the sleet and thick cloud making further progress impossible. I stopped and took cover under one of the numerous overhangs, perhaps not the brightest idea given the numerous rock falls and landslides. The cloud having dissipated, it was time to get a move on again. While I was not keen to look down, I have a morbid fear of heights - I did stop to admire the distant view and occasionally peer down to the bottom of the valley. It was enough to send shivers up my spine, I'd have been happier BASE jumping off the edge than trying to remain on this precipitous 'road'. Whenever the road allowed me to park safely, I took advantage of the break and did some bird watching, collecting a number of good species on the way down : Masked Flowerpiercer, Blue-capped Tanager, Andean Guan, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, Pale-eyed Thrush, Purplish Jay, Olive Oropendola, Violaceous Quail-Dove, Black Siskin, Grass-green Tanager, Streaky-necked Flycatcher, Long-tailed Sylph and Black-faced Tanager. 

My major problem, aside from an aversion to heights was braking. The nice mountain bikes have full suspension and disc brakes operated by the entire hand. I have none of this. Not only do i have no suspension, but I am also carrying 50kg's more weight in gear. My brakes are old style canti-levers, mounted of racing drop bars. Braking isn't the intention of such handlebars. If I brake from the top, I am only using my bottom two fingers. This very quickly causes serious hand and muscle fatigue. The alternate method is to bend over in the racing position and use my top two fingers. Ts allows for better breaking but causes a similar amount of fatigue. I could only maintain either position for about 400m before having to stop and let my hands and biceps have a rest. 

After 10km's the road appeared to lose its danger and fewer crosses marked the edges. While still possessing steep sides, the road was now less rocky and I was able to make better time. I finally made it to the bottom after cycling for 4 & 1/2 hours. I didn't feel particularly celebratory or happy at time, I had just been down the worlds most dangerous road but felt only that I had done what I came to do - look at birds. The full impact would come to me later, but for now I still had to reach the town of Coroico. 

I reached the bottom of the climb to Coroico at 17:00, more than enough time to cycle up the purported 6km road. My biceps and hands felt as if they had been bench pressing my own body weight for hours, they were quite numb and unresponsive. Not that I was going to meed the, from here on, it was all uphill now. Again numerous Internet misinformation had me rather frustrated. Wikipedia itself is well out in so far as the altitude of Coroico is concerned. Rather than being 1200masl, it is in fact over 1800masl. A climb of 600 would not normally present a problem except when the 'road' has been made out of cobble stones. If you were thinking of the Paris-Roubaix road, the you are sadly mistaken - this is 100 times worse. The cobble stones have not been placed flat, but simply chucked on in a haphazard fashion meaning it is impossible to cycle in a straight line. The rain soaked road also meant that my rear tyre got no grip. After much effort, it was decided that cycling was simply a waste of time, so off I got to hump up the hill. My poor biceps and wrists were going to have to take the strain again, despite the effort already induced on the. Hour after hour I pushed, seemingly no closer to my destination. My predicted arrival time of 18:30 came and went. The 'new' prediction of 19:30 also disappeared as it got dark. I pushed into town at 20:30. Now it was time to get to my hotel. It would have been very easy to pick the first hotel and call it a night, but I had my mind set on a specific hotel due to its location within the forest. What I didn't know at the time was that it was at the top of the hill. More pushing, up even steeper hills. I arrived at reception just after 21:00. I still had to get the bike in though, and there was no road or path to the hotel which sat on the edge of the mountain fully 50metres below - access by steps only. Well, if I could push the lump up the hill, I could take it down the stairs too. Trying to keep 70kg's of gravity infused wheeled belligerence was easier said than done. With much effort, I managed to get to the bottom without losing control of the bike or contents. My arms were now shattered. 

I was now seriously hungry too, ready to envelope a cow or llama, whatever was on the menu. Firstly though, I needed to get into a shower for I was now very dirty and stinky. Shower sorted I reposed to the dining room for dinner. Unfortunately dinner service had finished - it was only 21:30! I was learning quick that Bolivia is not like the rest of Latin America. People here eat early, much more in keeping with northern European dining times. So, my hunger would have to be sorted some other way. It momentarily crossed my mind that I could haul out my stove and cook a pasta and tune dinner on the balcony. That would take too long though, so I resorted to chocolate Maria biscuits and my last tub of Dulche de Leche. I say last, as I doubt that Dulche de Leche is found this far north into Bolivia. Will make a point of checking the shops in town, but I am not expecting to find any. What on earth to do without Dulche de Leche?

I didn't bother unpacking anything simply finished my biscuits and went to sleep. 

26/10/2012

Woke up at 04:00, by bladder reminding me that I had drunk a lot of fluid yesterday and that I must have missed a pit stop at some point. Considered starting on my list and photos now, but having thought better of it went back to bed. Woke up again at 06:00 and this time I could not get back to sleep, perhaps the large amount of work to be done was getting to my head. I had somewhere in the region of 90 bird species to work though and over 200 photos. Many of the photos needed identification, for I was not able to identify all the bird specie in the field. 

Was caught cold as I walked out of my room ready for the day. The view was something that only photos can describe. Perched up here at 1800masl, I was surrounded by a deep valley followed by a range of mountains well over 4500masl, many of them snow capped. Even though I had cycled down one of these mountains, it was only now that I started to feel some level of pride and accomplishment at what I had cycled down yesterday. When looked at from this position, the 'road' is simply a tiny ribbon snaking down these huge giants - how insignificant. 

It was fresh outside, but definitely much more comfortable than La Paz even. I started to work my way through the hundreds of photos. The breakfast service was being prepared and I figure I'd grab a coffee while working. I hadn't even started to pour the coffee when I w given a stern telling off my the waiter - breakfast started at 07:30, not 06:45! This was the second time that I had beehives a telling off for being to early (my washing in La Paz being the other). Whether I was just groggy from lack of sleep or what, but this quite irritated me. While I have found Bolivia to be much more efficient than Argentina or Brazil, they don't half go on like the Germans. You cannot be early, not even by 15 minutes in the case of my laundry. There is little in the way of hospitality or friendliness here either. It was impossible to walk past someone in Argentina without stopping for the obligatory 'good morning, how are you?'. I find myself greeting everyone here and getting little to no response. No one smiles much here either. I had been told to expect this, particularly in the high Andes of Bolivia, apparently everyone reverts to 'norm' in the lowlands. I have decided this must be the weather, the cold and wet makes everyone here as happy as the northern Europeans it would seem. In some respects I actually move quicker as a result - no stopping to tell every second person where I am from and where I am going or pose for photos. However, I was really enjoying the amazingly friendly nature and attitude of the the people in Argentina and Uruguay - hopefully all will be resolved in the lowlands.

Spend the major part of the day working on photos and my bird lists, but manage to see a number of birds just from the deck : Black-billed Thrush, Bananaquit, Versicoloured Barbet, Speckled Chachalaca, Pale-edged Flycatcher and a Smoke-coloured Pewee. More depressingly, I have photographed two species of Hummingbird which I am unable to identify. This is one of the problems I have in Bolivia, there is no national Bird Guide. So I am left to fudging between the lines of the Birds of Peru and Brazil instead. 

Breakfast is easily the best I have had in the four months of my travels. Pig out, as I am still hungry from yesterday. Get through my lists and manage to get my photos labelled at least, still lots of editing to do. Decide to have lunch too, just in case I miss dinner per chance. Coffee is on tap, so I take numerous intervals to fill up on caffeine. Throughout the day I gaze intermittently at the mountains, they are amazing things which I have been drawn to since a child. I might have grown up in the beech city of Durban, but I was never much attracted to the beech. I only attempted to surf/drown depending on various view points for the first time when I was legally allowed to drive! No, my 'spiritual' home was the Drakensberg - a place synonymous with my birthday (it always fell in the winter school holidays). My parents used to take me up there even before my brother was born, partly to assuage my fathers desire for photography I suspect. It was also a holiday invariably cut short by illness on my part - little did my parents know at this stage that I was asthmatic, the mountains never quite a friend of mine as I would have liked. 

Every other year, there would be a heavy snowfall, coating the 'lower Berg' in a deep layer of snow. This meant that we would be in the car first thing to visit the nearest snow fall. The Drakensberg (Dragon mountains) range stretches from the northern parts of South Africa's Mpumalanga Province, the length of KwaZulu Natal all the way to the Eastern Cape. While they are certainly not as high as the peaks here, from memory the highest peak is Thaba Nchu (3400masl), they do still strike me as much more attractive than what I have seen until today. The mountains I have been through while high, have been mostly 'rolling', rather than jagged edifices. Today the mountains took on a bit of character. They changed throughout the day, different angles of light, cloud and rain meaning they always looked slightly different than my previous observation. With the sun starting to dip now, the mountains are covered in thick cloud and certainly there is some heavy rain in one of the valleys. I could well stay here, my affinity for mountains being much stronger than any other habitat. For while I was never cut out for the city, my schoolboy moniker of 'Bushman' was rather inaccurate for I am much more 'Mountain Man'.


27/10/2012

Another rest and research day. Breakfast was ready much earlier than normal, possibly due to the large group of cyclists who arrived the previous day. Sat on the balcony with a mug of coffee, camera in hand for any birds that might come through early in the morning. Went to another section of the platform to admire the view of the mountains when a Black-throated Toucanet landed in the tree next to me. Bobbed his tail and beak a few times, but didn't stick around long enough for me to retrieve my camera. Still haven't learnt to keep that thing stuck to me at all times. 

Spent the remainder of the morning getting my blog pieces uploaded before retiring to my room to deal with my bike. Remarkably everything was still in good order, despite the heavy bashing on the crude rock road a few days before. The only thing that wasn't working was the ODO. Upon closer inspection, it turned out that I had repositioned by bar bag strap over the ODO wire causing it to become crushed and eventually snap. Small wiring problem should have been easy to solve. Problem was, the wire itself was very small and it took much patience to join the finicky thing. I now only had a small amount of washing to hang up and the afternoon was mine. Sat in the dining room fiddling with bird images and trying to get ID's for a few outstanding species. 

Suddenly it got very dark and the electricity went off. The mother of all electrical storms was about to strike. A dark grey, heavy and dense cloud moved through the valley obscuring all vision. Rain drops the size of the proverbial bucket lashed down. Rather glad I was sitting inside than somewhere on a road getting soaked. Oddly, the blinking WiFi device that had hardly ever worked managed to keep up an Internet signal while everything else had lost power. 

It was too late to rescue my drying clothes, so I let them be. They could dry tomorrow on the back of the bike perhaps. The excitement lasted for a few hours before dissipating. I decided to take dinner early in order to get my gear stowed for tomorrows departure. I could order off the menu for a change, although the Mexican food I had wanted was not available. Second best option, something Bolivian - llama steak mixed with fresh vegetables. People had told me that Bolivian food was rather crap, low in diversity and normally cold. This meal was cracking however, so either I have gotten lucky or most tourists only visit the same tried and tested places on the Altiplano? I'd suggest the latter is the problem with their opinions - unhinge your boots and get out of the cheap La Paz bars, leave the heavily cut powder alone and actually visit the country you are in. Heaven help any of this lot that happens to bump into me in a few years time and tries to tell me how they 'saw' Bolivia. 

Gear sorted, I sat down to start reading my next book - The Motorcycle Diaries, notes on a Latin American adventure by Ernesto Guevara. It is one of those books I have been meaning to read for many years, but just never seemed to get around to it. The book is now much more relative as I have spent some time travelling the continent. Oddly, the adventure of Che and Alberto Grenado has yet to cross paths with mine. We will do so eventually in Cuzco, Peru. Book is not only interesting, but very funny - the young Guevara is an insightful writer, an equally inveterate joker and mischief maker.

28/10/2012

Today was the end of my stay in Coroico. I would continue to cycle down the valley, hopefully ending up in the town of Caranavi this afternoon. The journey was only 80km's, much of it down hill - so I was looking forward to a fast and enjoyable day in the saddle. Finally, I could take proper advantage of all the climbing I had been doing over the last few weeks. First I had to go back down that horrible rock path of a road.

Taking the best part of an hour to carefully shake my way down, I then turned onto a horrid, dusty dirt road for a few kilometres before seeing the beautiful asphalt of the Ruta Nacional 3. Onto the asphalt and a little climb through a small village before the road fell away in front of me. What a joy it was to open the taps and free wheel at 40km/h+. I got a great deal of enjoyment out of this. Looking forward to an early and effortless arrival in Caranavi. 

My day dreaming was short lived unfortunately. With some abruptness, the road lost its asphalt and turned to dirt. At least this was heavily compacted dirt, so my plans didn't alter much at this point. The further I cycled the worse things became though. First was the driving dust clouds, every time a bus, lorry or one of those belligerent Toyota taxis came flying by, a huge column of fine dust would engulf the road and myself. Every time I heard a vehicle approaching I sought refuge at the side of the road, face buried in my cycling jersey in an attempt to filter out some of the choking dust. The road now became incredibly rocky, much worse than the 'Death Road'. Worse still, the inch thick layer of fine dust obscured the true road surface. So I rattled and jerked all over the show with increasing frustration. 

The road narrowed to a single lane in some places as it hung onto the side of a mountain - very reminiscent of the so called 'Death Road'. Yesterdays heavy rain had formed large, mushy mud tracts in some of the these areas. Again, you could not see the road surface and simply had to hope you didn't hit anything too large causing you to veer off in some random direction. Then it was the heaving dust again. I couldn't just stop every time a vehicle passed, I'd have been here all week - so off came the bandana and I wrapped this over my nose and mouth. Now I looked like some criminal drug thug on a bike, but it would help keep the dust out of my lungs. Despite being at an altitude of less than 1000masl, I was hyperventilating over every minor hill. 

This was now becoming a monumental struggle with the bike and the bleeding taxis. As if my day could get any worse, a heavy wind now started to blow up the valley, keeping that dust blowing into my face even when vehicles we long past. Despite the road being mostly downhill, the odd uphill section was crushing. The geniuses here had built the road like a large, elongated 'W'. Instead of gradually reducing the roads altitude with that of the river, they kept the road dropping to riverside height and then building insane climbs before repeating the process. Pillocks should have visited the Humuhuaca Valley in Argentina for an education on how to build valley roads.

With my energy lagging, I stopped at a small village to pick up a bottle of my favourite tipple, Fanta Orange. Gloriously cheap around here - only 5 Bolivianos (US$0.60). I had about two slugs before by legs started to itch - not even my sand coated legs could keep the sand flies off. Every section of the road that had any human habitation was simply infested with sand flies. Sand flies were half the problem around human habitation, the other issue were the damn dogs as usual. I am now pretty good at throwing stones from a moving bike - I still aim to miss the dogs by a few metres, the bouncing stones have the same effect as if I had hit them. Today I had a particularly pesky individual that would not disappear at the sight of stones, running within ‘my kicking zone’ or ‘it's biting zone’ depending on how one looks at it. When dogs get this close, they are liable to do damage to me, either by biting me or hitting one of my panniers and knocking me off. At times like this I am no longer an animal lover unfortunately - had it been rugby ball, the penalty would have carried from 60m with change to spare. This only bought me a few seconds as the dog seemed only to pause momentarily before continuing the chase, my foot a little sore at this point. Thankfully the dog gave in after a few more seconds otherwise it would have been dispatched with the hunting knife. 

By this stage I had decided a few things. One is that the 'Death Road' is now a complete fake - relying on it's pre-2006 record of carnage to perpetrate the tourist trap that it is. There are no vehicles on that road other than the cyclists and there own transport minibuses. I almost laughed when some long bearded hippy gave me advice on how and where to cycle on the road down. Ascending vehicles travel very quickly he said, so always stay on the left hand side of the road - pretty much what the signs say. I'm not sure at what point I figured out that the entire setup was just another tourist trap. Was it the knowledge that thousands of dumb rich kids on their gap years take a break from their binge drinking in La Paz for a morning and manage to survive? Was it the hippy 'bike guide'? Was it only after having ridden it on a bike that was never meant to have been taken off road in the first place? I know not, but I'd speculate that less than 1 person per year dies on this road now. There is a lovely asphalt road that gets you to the lowlands much quicker and safer, so no locals touch this road now. You really have to be quite a useless plank to die on that road - surely worthy of a Darwin Award. If you really want to take a risk and play with a dangerous road, then cycle the Coroico to Yacumo Road in its current state. Apparently it is going to be asphalted at some point, but as some locals pointed out - this is Bolivia, it could be 2 years, it could be 20 years. [Post script (05/11/12) - with the way they asphalt roads here, it may make no difference anyway]

While struggling with the road, I contemplated what little I knew of Bolivia. A country we know as landlocked, but did at one point have it's boundaries on the a Pacific ocean. They still have a navy! Bolivia also lost some of its land to Brazil, Paraguay, Peru and Chile through various wars. It has about 10 million inhabitants and more that triple the number of official languages than that of South Africa. The Catholic Religion affects almost 95% of the population, but they still find a way to have up to 80 000 abortions a year, all of which are illegal! Up to 85% of the inhabitants are indigenous, the country is also the poorest in the continent despite sitting on some the worlds largest mineral deposits. That being said, I wondered if the people of Bolivia really wanted to advance in the known Western way. Did they want to embrace Capitalism and build a country with some decent infrastructure in order to say one day that they were a 'Developing Nation'? 

I got the impression, albeit developed over a short period of time - that the majority of people here were either too apathetic to care or were simply incapable of making any improvement to their lives. Please accept all uses of the words 'improvement or development etc' to mean what they do in Western Europe and the USA. I am by no way implying that 'our' way of life with its focus on materialism etc is better - different debate for another time. I think the majority are quite happy with their lot and don't see or can't understand how it might be bettered. Che Guevara himself suffered from such a grave miscalculation in Bolivia, paying for it with his life. He thought that much like in Cuba, the proletariat was only too keen to rise up and create a more equal society. Guevara didn't learn his lesson Africa, and grossly miscalculated the apathy of the Bolivians. 

I saw an old women (80+) in Coroico lugging a huge sack on her back. She was bent over at 90°, shuffling along with this heavy pack up a hill. I have no idea what it was or where she was ultimately going, but it looked to be a heavier bag than I might try to carry in these parts. In fact, reading Guevara's thoughts on Northern Bolivia, I couldn't help by identifying with the many observations he made - the difference being that Guevara wrote about his experiences in the 1950's, it is now 60 odd years later and the words may as well have been written today. The people are still very dirty and unhygienic, the same applies to food - nothing quite like 'open air' butcheries. The infrastructure of the country was crap in the 1950's and hasn't changed much. The socialist government in power has tried to accomplish some improvement in infrastructure, but no sooner had poor Evo Morales attempted to improve the lot of some distant people by building an improved road and the populace there put up road blocks, marched pretty much to La Paz, even took the foreign minister hostage in protest. In fact, I am quite relieved that mankind did not originate in Bolivia, for we would not have invented the wheel yet. Guevara tried to alleviate the suffering of the proletariat in Bolivia in the late 1960's, they thanked him for his effort to help by killing him on October 9th, 1967. I suppose one could say that the Bolivians deserve to have the country in its current state. 

After many more stops and much hyperventilating, I reached the town of Caranavi - absolutely shattered. Found the hotel I had read about and checked in for a a few days. I was only planning to stay for one night before moving on, but I was absolutely wrecked. Am finding it seriously difficult to even concentrate hard enough to write this blog piece. Arriving in reception, I sorted out my particulars, the chap at the desk did everything he normally would. I went upstairs to check the room and saw myself in the mirror. I was now quite taken by how the receptionist had maintained a straight face, going through the various details as if I were any normal client. A quick look at the photos will explain why in more detail. 


I was absolutely filthy and needed to get into the shower ASAP. The floor of the shower soon became a thick sludge layer or stones and find muddy sand. Washed my clothes to see just as much sand and dirt fall out of them. Think I was battling the effect of a sudden altitude loss & some heat stroke again. While I was much lower - heavy humidity, a hot sun, dust, wind and a trying road surface had drained me completely. A total of 8 litres of fluid today and not one trip to the side of the road. Severely comatose, I had to force myself to walk the 100yards to a local chicken and chip shop to have dinner. Fried chicken, fries and rice all came to the princely sum of B10 (US$1.20). Even now I am lounging in a chair, my head falling back occasionally out of sheer exhaustion. 

I will sleep well tonight, tomorrow I need to do some research on the state of the roads from here onwards. I cannot take my bike or myself through such ridiculous road conditions again. Besides the draining affect on me, the bike is going to start breaking spokes and the risk of a damaged rim is constantly on my mind. If the road is to remain pretty much the same, and I cannot see why things would change to be honest - then I am going to catch a boat if possible or a taxi at least to the next town that can boat me down the river to Rurrenabaque. The bird life, when I was able to stop was disappointing. I only added two new birds to my Bolivian list today, none of which were terribly exciting. 

My lids are starting to close involuntarily now - time for bed. 

29/10/2012

Woke at 06:30 to a slightly cooler morning. Some heavy rain last night being much appreciated. I was not feeling all that much better than yesterday, but decided to try and make use of my extra morning here to see a few birds. Sat next to the pool watching some of the early risers - Eastern and Tropical Kingbirds making mince meat out of the insect community. I really do need a few tame ones to sit in my room at night to deal with the mosquitoes though. Breakfast is served early, I was rather looking forward to 'Desayuno Americano'. Well, I'm afraid their interpretation of an American breakfast is somewhat lacking - 3 pieces of a bread, a fried egg and coffee was not what I had in mind. At least the coffee was damn good. Now for a short stroll.

The hotel is not far from the river, so I only had to stumble a few hundred metres to get there. Remarkably, the bird life was rather good for what amounted to a cleared river flood plain. Yellow-rumped Cacique, Russet-backed Oropendola, Collared Plover, Yellow-browed Sparrow, Little Ground-Tyrant, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker and an Amazon Kingfisher all putting in appearances. 

The heat and humidity were becoming oppressive already, so back to the hotel by 08:00 to deal with my bike. I had found a tap and hosepipe downstairs, so lugged all my gear downstairs for a spray down. I had no sooner sprayed my bags and bike and they were already dry. Applied some oil to the bike and put all my gear back in my room. Headed off to town to change some of the very large Bolivian notes I had and visit an Internet cafe. It has been many years, possibly as far back as the time I owned my own Internet cafe since I have been inside one. Had to find my way around the new keyboard layout and adjust to the whopping 1000kb dial up connection. Took me an hour to access 4 emails, respond to 2 of them and spend a few minutes looking at the upcoming road conditions. It cost just over B4.00 (US$0.50) for over an hours use of the Internet. 

For South African readers, you can simply forget all my US$ calculations - Bolivianos and Rands trade at about 1:1.3. Strange that, RSA has the infrastructure of a 1st world country - but it's currency is on a par with a country what I would consider positively 4th World.


Town done, I returned to the hotel for a spot of lunch and some time by the pool sorting out my latest batch of photos. I was starting to get very fatigued again, so headed back to my room where I promptly passed out for a 3-4 hours, I cannot be sure. Either way it was after 18:00 when I woke - straight into a cold shower to try and get my temperature down. Has taken me a few days to cotton on, but the answer to my lack of roadside visits has been found. While I certainly don't feel sick, odd stomach burble - I have been taking my arse for a piss for the best part of three days now. No doubt I drank some water I shouldn't have or it was from the copious amounts of salad I ate at the previous hotel. Irritates me that they made no mention on the water front if that was indeed the problem. My body needs to get used to the new bugs, so I will let it 'run' it's course so to speak. 

Dinner at another road-side setup. A very tasty Texas Chilli style affair. After months of mild flavour, it was a treat to have something hot for a change. My stomach reminds me shortly afterwards that this may not have been the best idea though. Fed and watered I head back to the hotel to try and make sense of my online bird list. Thing has been driving me nuts for months now as it cannot keep tally with my offline lists. The website has been undergoing some large changes recently, so it was to be expected - but still irritating, I like my numbers to tally! Seem to have found a number of the problems which I will deal with next time I have a WiFi connection. 

Tapped away the latest blog piece although most of the time was spent correcting the atrocious errors from last nights effort - I must really have been out of it. Bed time, tomorrow I have another 60km's of duff road to tackle and I am not really in any physical condition to do so. Hung up my mosquito net, had enough of mosquito bites now.

30/10/2012

Up at 05:30, not that I had intended being up at this time. My curtains are as opaque as my slightly dusty windows. Roll over for another few hours, but make a cardinal error of coming into contact with my mosquito net. Wake up an hour later to find a mosquito had nailed my hand through the net - so much for DEET soaked material. I'll have to soak the net myself before using it again. Now that I am up, I may as well get my bike kitted up. Debate over today's attire - think I will put the Skins back on to try and give me some protection against the sand flies. 

Fiddle with my rig, decide that the bags on top of the rack need to change position. My day pack keeps slipping down the main bag over the really bumpy roads. So, instead of having the main bag sitting in the middle of my pannier, it gets switched around to sit perpendicular to my direction of travel. The day pack then gets lagged on behind that. At this time of the morning, this process takes some consideration and planning. Half an hour later and I think I have found the winning combination. Just in time for breakfast.

Down goes the 2 bread rolls and a fried egg with some half decent coffee. In fact it is such strong coffee that I take it with milk - normally a substance I avoid in its natural state. Of course, should one turn that milk in cheese, condensed milk, Dulche de Leche or ice-cream then I take it by the gallon. Yesterday was rather refreshing, squeezed lime juice - today it is treacle like guava or some similarly revolting fruit. Pay up and leave by 07:30. 

Enjoy the small amount of bricked road through the town, the only hard and even substrate I am going to see for hundreds of kilometres yet. Yesterday's research confirms the lack of any tarred road from Coroico to Rurrenabaque and beyond. In terms of association - that is like the N3 from Johannesburg to Durban or the M3 from London to Southampton being a single dirt track! The temptation to use another form of transport was there until I saw the roads and the way these morons drive. 


Out of town and immediately we are moving up a steep dirt hill. I decide not to waste energy and get off to push. I reach the top only to find some cones blocking the road. A rather unhelpful woman in an orange jumpsuit tells me the road is shut until 16:00 this afternoon. My enquiry as to whether the road will be open tomorrow gets met with the same response. It would have been cheaper to plant a sign in the road than employ pillocks like this - or maybe it is cheaper to employ humans than put up a sign here?

A 16:00 start is of little use to me, especially given the volume of traffic that is likely to be waiting to rush onto the road at that time. Whether or not the road is indeed open tomorrow is still unknown. One thing I did learn today is that is it stifling hot at 08:00 already. Tomorrow I will be leaving at 05:00 sharp and get as many km's out of the way as possible. Depending on the remaining distance, I will either set up under a tree and wait for the afternoon to pass or scoot the last few km's to the town of Sapecho. In the space of 60km's, I move from a major coffee growing area to a major cacao growing area. Coffee barely exists here, and I already know that the chocolate is refined in La Paz. I've been to Ghana, origin of almost half the worlds cacao - so not much to see there then.

I'm slightly disappointed not to be away today, but it does give me another rest day to try and get up to speed. Clearly I must have taken quite a hit from the gypo guts as my strength has only started to recover by the afternoon. Spend a few interminable hours in the Internet cafe trying to check a few basics like my mail. Spend the best part of 3 hours replying to two messages and getting a little information on the upcoming towns and roads. I don't recall 33.8kb dialup being this slow! I catch the name of the store on the way out, boldly emblazoned on the floor above the store - Dumbonet. This gets me to thinking whether the names of stores and the stuff they sell actually makes any sense to the locals. Do they even understand what the English words mean? 
It was something that I wondered after only my first day in Buenos Aires actually when I walked past he rather apolitically titled Kaffa Bar!

I walk past the local textile stores plonked in the middle of a side road. How unfortunate that everyone is taken with the Yankee culture - here you can buy all the ostentatious crap sold in the name of America, made in China. American culture (as in the USA) is a complete contradiction in terms. Cultural destruction and usurpation perhaps, and even then they can't master the English language correctly. Here it reaches it's nadir, everything labeled 'American', and everything a cheap ripoff made by the Chinese, every DVD or CD a pirate copy. Why on earth are a people with a culture thousands of years old, descendants of the mighty Incan empire so keen to degenerate themselves to this fake crap? 

I could go on, perhaps I'll write a full length piece for my Rage and Rumination page later. Now to find some accommodation. I could go back to the place I stayed for the last two nights, but they were hellishly expensive and had little to show for it. There are plenty of 'residencials' on the main road, I'd give one of them a try - all I need is a bed. Turns out that the first place I look at will do, single room with enough space for my gear and even a swimming pool out back. Traffic might get noisy later, but this is no different to many places on the second floor overlooking any busy London road. Lived like that for years and the traffic didn't interfere with my sleep then, so shouldn't be a problem here. 

Sit in the shade next to the pool and tap away at the blog as well as getting my bird call playlists for the next month sorts out. With little else to do, I head back to another Internet cafe to check on a few other bits and pieces. The destruction to New York comes as a bit of a surprise. Last time I checked, Sandy had been downgraded to a Tropical Storm rather than a hurricane. Quite incredible to think that a country like Cuba manages to take a full hit from Hurricane Sandy and loses only a few lives (11) while the the US, with all the fore-warning in the world has lost 113 lives and counting. I can feel myself wanting to launch into another tirade here, perhaps another time. 

Late lunch today, fried chicken and pasta. Every second road side stall serves food here, but there is no such thing as a proper restaurant. There is no variety either - everyone has the same chicken under the same heat lamp. I am obviously far enough north that plantains have become de rigueur. So alongside my rather tasty fried chicken and pasta are a combination of fries and fried plantains. I give the plantains a miss - seemingly useless, tasteless starch like stuff. I might have tried a friend banana. It is no surprise that most of the population here is on the rotund side - there is nothing to eat here except deep friend starch and the odd bit of equally deep fried protein. All those good salads and vegetables I was having in Coroico are now a distant memory. 

I do find the odd shop selling decent fruit and veg, which makes the food of choice here seem bizarre. Avocado pears, mangoes etc, are all growing wild - there are thousands of them around the town. It has become very difficult to find Fanta Orange. The only soda available is regular Coka Cola or the locally manufactured Coka Quina - and I suspect the local version has that additive that Coca Cola had to remove early on, so I am giving it a miss. Nor am I tempted to give the coca leaves a chew. I've read too many stories of people reacting rather badly to it. At night one can smell some sinister acrid smoke, the byproduct of Coca leaf 'conversion' into something the west find more palatable than leaf chewing. Every hotel or hostel I have been into carries dire warnings of the punishment for being in possession of cocaine. While coca itself is perfectly legal, the powder is not and yet the government and officials seem quite powerless to stop it happening on the micro (and macro?) scale. Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia was himself a coca farmer for many a year.
Before a launch into my pro-legalisation of all drugs repertoire, I'll call it a day. More fried chicken and chips for dinner. Climbed into bed completely naked, but was still sweating like a pig. After a few minutes I got up and headed for the shower. Jumped into a very cold shower just to lower my core temperature. Satisfyingly cooler, I resumed my position in bed without the sweating and dozed off.

31/10/2012

Up at 04:30 to get packed and ready to leave. On the road just after 05:00 and heading for the checkpoint that I was caught at yesterday. I Just make it through, but the volume of traffic heading towards town is incredible. The air is filled not so much with a dust cloud, but a dust storm. I take shelter in an alcove and wait for the stream of vehicles to quieten down. An hour passes without let up. At 06:30 everything suddenly goes quite and I am off. A bowser sprays water on the road, but the lanes are dry within 30mins - complete waste of time. My diarrhoea has become rather explosive and I set a number records this morning for greatest Defecation Distance. 

I get caught at another road block a few km's later. While waiting to pass, I get lucky with a small bird party. White-throated Toucan, Yellow-bellied Tanager and a host of other species I have already seen. Landslide has blocked the lane which is currently being opened. The road is now filling in certain areas with construction trucks, graders, bulldozers and backhoes. I sneak through a few more construction areas before being confronted with a fallen tree. Soon one of the company SUV's and a lone motorcyclists join me at the tree. I'm told the next landslide won't be cleared until at least this afternoon. Clearly these are man made - I could certainly hear blasting earlier. One of the contraction workers tells me there is an alternate route just behind us. The deliberation centred around sitting and waiting for the next 6 hours or trying the alternate. I chose the latter.

First km is all uphill, backbreaking work to shove my bike up. The dirt track then flattens out somewhat and I can cycle again. Reach the small village of Israel (why?) before being told by a local that there is no such alternate route. I have had quite enough of this mess about now, so I head back towards Caravani to hook up with a cab to take me to Sapecho. Worst case scenario, I'll stop at the small town of San Lorenzo (twinned with Mallorca and Ghana!!) to stock up on fluids and on food, then wait for the 16:00 rush hour. 

I cannot even make it back to San Lorenzo - stopped by an over officious worker and told to return at 16:00, for that is when the road opens again. So now I am stuck in no mans lands without access to anything - no more fluid than what I have on me (just over 1lt left). Nothing I can do about it, so I head back to the Ruta 3/Israel fork and find a place to stop for 4 hours. A half built house, it does have the requisite 4 walls and a roof, looks just the trick. The temperature must now be over 35deg, with the humidity reaching almost 100%. It is certainly no time to be cycling. I could really do with a nap, but don't want the owner of the property to return with me half asleep in his half built new house. 

Shovel some choc-chip biscuits smothered in Dulche de Leche down my throat, it occurred to me that I have yet to eat today. The rest of the days plan now needs some working on. At 16:00, there will be a 20minute delay before the road is swamped from both sides. I'll probably have no more than an hour of cycling time before having to find a place to bed down - something that will not be easy in this steep banked environment. I can try to flag down a SUV or a bus, but they may not want to stop to load up given the time it will take to pop the bicycle on. Alternatively, I could head back to Caravani and catch a taxi first thing in the morning. Will have to put some thought into this. Some rather large storm clouds are brewing, which may well throw a spanner in any of my plans. Hopefully it will start raining before 16:00, then at least the road will not be so dusty.

One of my choc chips has fallen on the floor and a host of small ants is busy lugging it to their hole. I while away a good 20 minutes simply fascinated with the power of these little creatures. The choc chip is fully 15 times the size of an individual ant. A few get together and alternately push, pull or get lifted into the air and carried along. Problem comes when the choc chip won't go down the narrower nest entrance. I watch them struggle to twist and turn the meal all different ways before taking pity on them. I grab the choc chip off them and crush it into smaller pieces. Disappears like, a rabbit down a burrow.


Managed to get a couple of hours sleep perched on some wooden benches. Hardly the most comfortable 'bed', but it was just what I needed. Thankfully there were no pesky bugs biting me while I was out. Sat and ate some cheese wafer biscuits, the only savoury biscuit widely available here. Some of the biscuits have been crushed to dust by all the shaking and rattling about, so I spread the powdery stuff liberally by the ant nest and watch again as they hoover every morsel up. Hit the road at 15:30, hoping to sneak on a little early. This I managed but the going was slow as many other vehicles had tried the same trick. Started to make my way around the huge landslide section. They must have done some major blasting here for it was a good 500 metres of road that was affected. The end result was a rocky single lane open to the traffic. Ploughing on, I got half way before noticing some very large dump trucks heading my way at speed. There was nowhere to go except stand behind my bike perched on the lip of a 500m vertical drop. All I could hope was that the lip held, for a slip of the edge would have been the end of me. I got off here at the first available opportunity, jogging and pushing my bike as fast as I could safely manage. Danger averted, I now had a refreshing downhill into the village of Carasco.

I stocked up on my water supplies, drank a cool Coca Cola at the same time. Fanta seems to be thin on the ground in Bolivia and cold is something their fridges don't really do. Slightly cooler than room temperature is about as good as it gets. Continue onwards, but soon I am off the bike and pushing again. Have spent almost no time cycling since I left the top of La Cumbre near La Paz. I have either been free wheeling downhill or pushing up a hill. These roads as previously mentioned are not for cycling up. The cars and trucks have returned to the road in full force adding to my general dislike for this road. Mercifully there is a small breeze blowing most of the dust plumes away. Up and up I go. I start getting despondent, I started my trip in Caranavi at an altitude of just over 600masl, Sapecho is slightly over 400masl. Yet all I do for the next 7km's is push up hill. By the time I stop for dinner, I am well over 1200masl. I try to look at things positively. At least tomorrow there is going to be a decent downhill somewhere. 

Well, the plan was to stop for dinner and then continue onwards at night. I can see where I think the pass ends, still another 150m above where I am, perhaps 2km's of pushing to come. I am also weary of leaving myself too much ground to cover tomorrow for fear of being trapped between construction sites again. The last thing I want is to spend another night on this stupidly short 58km sector. So far I have wasted one day having to return to Caranavi and now I will be sleeping out on the road. Dinner of pasta with a soup of some form mixed in. Hits the spot, hopefully help my stomach a little. Having said that, have had no further 'episodes' since early this am - perhaps I am in luck. I am carrying Immodium but prefer not to use it unnecessarily - I am not feeling unwell, so this can simply run its course and my body can adapt to the micro organisms that originally caused the problem.

I sat and wait for the moon to rise, but there seems not to be a moon tonight. The sky is pitch black and I can barely see where I am going even with the head torch. While part of me wants to push on and get over the pass, my brain knows this would be a foolish thing to attempt. As usual, the road is full as ever with trucks. Sense prevails and I pitch my hammock between two utility poles I spotted before sitting down for dinner. The air has the feeling of a storm, and indeed there are multiple lightning flashes over many of the surrounding hills, but not here. Cover my bike up in any case and settle myself down to write some more of the blog. A Spectacled Owl calls not far away, but I have little hope of seeing it. I try some playback, but only get a few responses rather than the fly by I was hoping for. 

Tomorrow I will be back on the road at first light to see how far I can get. I don't think I am even half way yet, but I can only hope for a decent downhill somewhere to speed things up a little. Then it will be up to the construction bunch, I may well end up sitting for half the day before being able to make any further progress. Sapecho sits right next to the large Beni River, one thing is for sure - I am catching a boat from there to Rurrenabaque. I have had more than I can take of this damn dusty road and the waste of time and effort it is extolling on me. One day when these roads are tarred, this will be a very interesting cycle I would think. It may well be Bolivia's birdwatching answer to the famous Manu Road of Peru. 

Given that it is still early, I finish 'The Communist Manifesto' by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Odd how time and venue changeth a person. Colleagues from my school in South Africa will remember me for having very strong sympathies towards Hitler and generally being on the very right of the political spectrum. Ten years living in London, visits to Cuba, Vietnam and the USA - and I am almost a Commie! I still consider Hitler to be a 'great' man but not necessarily in the context that most might use such a term. Equally I have added the likes of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Marx and Engels to my list of personally influential people. My view of the USA, specifically it's foreign policy has nose dived completely to zero in case that had not already been evident. 

I am not even bothering with the sleeping bag tonight. I may not even take my Skins off. The temperature is a beautifully cool for a change, something I best enjoy before descending to the hot and humid lowlands for the next few weeks. 

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