Wet. Cold. Fast.
I am zooming down a mud road (well, more like a path) and the rain is stinging my face like a thousand pissed off bumble bees.
Shit, I just barely missed a pothole which could have sent me and my bike flying – maybe over the edge.
My sunglasses seem to be helping, but they are fogging up and the water is making thing very hard to see. It guess it´s better than having the water sting my eyes though. Faster and faster I go, but it´s hard to slow down. My hands are so numb that I can barely pull the brakes – and the fact that the back brake doesn’t really work isn’t helping matters. I´m wet. Very wet. With every movement, I can feel my water logged shoes squish. I´m wearing sponges on my feet.
A tree branch smacks my helmet really hard.
The guide said that we only had a few more hours of this. Some people are wearing shorts, some don´t have jackets. Some don´t have gloves. But we all continue on, zooming down the mountain.
When a bus or truck is coming up from the opposite direction, we pull off to the side – but I can barely even see, so I just tail behind everyone and stop when they stop. While riding, I can see the 100-1000 feet drops off the side (and there is no guard rail) but sometimes (and perhaps for the better), the canyon views are obscured by clouds. I dodge a pile of rocks in the road. How have the buses been getting past this, I ask myself? They haven´t had to. The side of the mountain had *just* collapsed and as I zoomed by, I could see some tiny bits still falling.
My bike hits a rock and the front tire dances around while it decides whether it wants to send me flying or not. It straightens out and I sigh in relief.
I can´t believe how fast everyone is going. Are they crazy? I speed up to catch up and splash through a waterfall dropping straight onto the road. Oh well, I can´t get any wetter. Right after, we cross a small river. My foot instinctively crashes down into the water to keep from falling. Again, I can´t get any wetter. Just a few more hours…just a few more hours.
Yeah, it was a pretty hardcore trip. When we finally arrived to the base of the mountain (4 hours later, because the guide broke a rib), we rinsed off and had lunch. We were all literally caked in mud. The tour agency hadn’t suggested that we bring a change of clothes, socks and shoes, so we had to wear our entire muddy and soaked attire the whole four hour ride home. The road we had biked down is called The Most Dangerous Road In The World, and after this, I can believe it. The best part about the whole thing was: on the way back, we got to ride back up it to La Paz. I figured that if I didn’t sleep on the bus, I would at least sleep in the canyon when the bus fell off the side (but for a bit longer).
But we survived. And when I got back to the hostel, I can assure you, a hot shower never (ever ever ever) felt so good in my life.
And the cold, wet, and muddy clothes got to sleep in the corner of my hotel room. I´ll worry about those later.
After a night on the town in Copacabana (which did´t last very long since everything closes at about 10PM), Martin and I got up early to get some breakfast and catch the 8AM bus out of La Paz, Bolivia. The proceeding bus journey ended up being one of the most uncomfortable bus rides yet. The seats were so packed and my knees were forced to jam into two bolts in the chair in front of me and I couldn’t really sleep because the kid behind me kept opening and closing his window about every 10 minutes which prevented my head from resting comfortably against my own window. We did, however, get some incredible views of Lake Titicaca and about halfway through the journey we ended up actually crossing it. They load the bus onto this big raft (yeah, a raft), and the passengers onto another and everyone arrives at about the same time to the other end. You see, they used to not make the people get out, but then the bus sank once and they decided to change the policy. So back on the road, and after another few hours, started getting close to La Paz. You can tell you are getting close when everyone starts getting anxious and throwing all their trash out of the bus window into the street (hey, what can you say. It´s their country, right?). La Paz is in a huge trough surrounded by mountains and as you descend, you get some pretty awesome views of the city. You can see the city deep in the center and there are thousands and thousands of multicolored houses completely surrounding the sky scrapers in every direction. The houses make the mountains look like someone dipped a huge paint brush in a bunch of different colored paints and then spun around in a monumental epileptic fit. It´s quite a challenge to take everything in.
After we got to the bottom, we got our bags out after the bus stopped at a street corner – which was no easy task, since we had cars honking at us from every direction wanted to get past the bus (and they told us that this was a light traffic day!). A cabbie solicited a ride and we took him up on the offer and we were at our hostel before long. We got settled in and headed out on the town to get some stuff. We ended up getting some pizza and trying to figure out what were were gonna do. Martin only had a day more in La Paz and most of the museums were closed. We decided to go check out the Black Market. Yes, the black market is a very well known region of the city where you can get designer brand named clothes (that actually aren’t), music CD’s for a buck (with photocopied covers), DVD movies, software, knives, porn, food, toys, trinkets, etc… . We ended up leaving with quite a few CD’s and DVD’s between the two of us and I was sporting a pretty bad ass 3″ switch blade knife (which cost me two bucks – WITH holder). We then went and got a haircut by a real pro. It was almost like this guy just snipped his scissors as fast as he could and before you knew it, your hair was done. He cut me, though, when shaving my neck so I opted not to tip him. We headed back to the apartment and listened to music before going out to dinner. We decided to go catch a movie after dinner and when we were through with our feast (which cost of $5 each for food, salad bar, and beer at a really fancy restaurant) we saw the movie SWAT. If you go see it, make sure you don´t buy any popcorn. The corniness of the movie will be enough to satisfy any craving you may have. We then went home and got some sleep.
In the morning, Martin and I packed up and I moved into a different hostel. I was pissed at the first hostel. When Martin and I were out exploring, we ran into Nic (the English guy I met on the bus to Copacabana) and when we tried to bring him up to our room, we got yelled at saying that it was a $100 dollar fine to do so. Yeah…I´ll take my business elsewhere. That´s a lame ass rule. Martin was to leave in a few hours and we wanted to check out a few museums before he had to leave. We got some breakfast and checked out the archaeological museum first. It was pretty cool and fairly interesting. The officials at the museum kept encouraging us to take pictures and I ended up getting my shoes shined by some kid wandering around the museum soliciting his services (the guards just had theirs’ done).
After that, we checked out the Coca Museum. This museum is dedicated to letting you know anything and everything you ever wanted to know about the coca leaf. The leaf has quite a history. It has been used by the locals to help them get through their boring and hard lives and is now given to tourists to help with the altitude.
We all had a bag of it on our trek to Machu Picchu and it did help quite a bit. It doesn’t really have a noticeable affect (but is supposed to make you feel better) since it takes quite a few more chemicals to turn it into the well known drug, cocaine. We wandered around for a while after eating a Coca leaf candy and then went out to get some lunch.
Over chicken, Martin and I discussed our travel plans for the upcoming weeks and then headed back to the black market to get some last minute stuff (he wanted a jacket and some more jeans). Then it was time for him to go so we headed back to the hostel, got his stuff packed into a hostel and bid each other farewell. It´s really weird saying goodbye to someone with whom you have been traveling for a while. You always talk about meeting up again, but the reality is that you probably will never see each other again.
Then I went for a walk to contemplate some of the stuff that had been on my mind since I arrived.
La Paz is a fairly big city and it has a ton of poor people. Some are selling things, some are begging, some have just given up and are just sitting in an alley staring at the wall. As you walk along the streets, it´s hard to focus on anything in particular. There are so many people biding for your attention that you can´t really think. There is so much to see. In any given stretch in the city, you can see people cooking things on the sidewalk, selling meat or nuts or fruit on little tables they set up (yeah, people buy unrefrigerated and uncovered meat from people on the side of the street), booths selling toys, postcards, belts, books, purses, suitcases, sweaters, gloves, pens, DVD’s (pirated), CD’s (pirated), software (pirated), knives, candy, beer, water, and soda. Smells and music from restaurants, little kids tugging at your leg and old ladies holding out their hats for money, shoe-shine boys in ski masks (don´t ask me why, and yes, it is kind of creepy), tourists and locals bumping into you and cars zipping by making it virtually impossible to cross the street or step into it (which is sometimes unavoidable) all work together to make a simple walk an energy draining experience.
But what really bothers me is the poverty. What do you do as a tourist here? You can´t help but notice how little everyone has and how dependent everyone is on the tourists. They both beg and offer services, both of which leave you in a catch 22 if you contribute.
If you give them money for nothing, you are encouraging the kids and people to not work and not put any effort into making their life something positive. If you give money for shoe-shines, for instance, you are encouraging the kids to not go to school, thus perpetuating a cycle of ignorance and poverty. Parents here send their kids out on the street to make money so the family can survive (and not starve to death) and their take is, why waste your time in books when you could be out earning money and feeding your family.
You even worse by just ignoring them. When you have 6-11 year old kids come up to you, one after another after another, asking for money “so (they) can eat”, you can´t help but feel bad. How do you proceed? Martin made the comment that all the Indian women look either very old or very young. I attribute it to the fact that they just look sad. You can look around and see people in suits, the same age, that look like they have a mission. They have somewhere to go and you can see it in their faces. The Indians here have no future and nothing. They look old and sad and I am sure there is a stage after your first kid where the reality of this hits them and changes how they look forever. One Boliviano (about 16 cents US), could probably buy one person a meal, but you can´t give money to all of them. It may but them a piece of bread but what do they do next? You could spend all the money you have “helping”, but when you’re done, although people ate for a few days, they will go back to the exact same predicament after. You can invest in “programs” via charities that help the people help themselves, but many of these people don´t want to help themselves – they just want to eat. They aren’t interested in getting higher education and getting out of the run, as they can´t afford it. The sadness and desperation, in conjunction with the fact that everything is moving so fast leaves your head spinning and your mind in the state of constant exhaustion. There is no quick fix here and it´s virtually impossible to even wrap your mind around the complexity and the magnitude of the problem.
So anyways, I´m going on a downhill mountain bike riding trip tomorrow. I don´t know what to expect really but I’ve been told that you go down a very long vertical distance in a very short horizontal one. It costs $30 bucks for a whole day, bike rental, breakfast, transportation, snacks, lunch and dinner, helmets and a bus to follow behind the group with your gear. Pretty cool, eh?