Strong oscillations of fever and chills are swinging me hard and fast on the 6th floor of the Hotel Milton. The effects of the sun get worse the higher you rise from sea level and La Paz, Bolivia is the world’s highest capital at 13,000 feet. Consumed by the heat, I threw off the covers and in the next few moments I’m suffering teeth chattering chills as the sweat drenched sheets cool down. The ambivalence of hot or cold makes this illness twice as bad. Origins of this illness were a mystery, but I had a relatively strong suspicion that it came from the street food I ate on Calle Illampu a couple of days before. Street food is the best stuff you can eat or so I thought. It’s a long standing travel theory of mine that street food is generally safe because these folks are in the business of feeding their neighbors. It’s hard to play fast and loose with food preparation when your customers aren’t anonymous. I just hoped that when Terry and Steven returned and found my body that they would agree on a Hemingway-esque story about how I died, preferably one that left out the punchline of “Yeah, he shit himself to death”. Maybe they could even embellish some details…. I would have liked that.
* * * *
The central municipality of La Paz makes its home at 13,000 feet, but the airport is even higher at nearly 16,000. Being transplanted from environs closer to sea levels to half the height of cruising airliners made staying vertical in the Bolivian Customs and Immigrations line a genuinely monolithic struggle. The government officials were, as one might expect in a third world country, fulfilling their duties at a glacial pace. Two hours ticked by from the time we landed, until our visas were stamped, allowing us to legally enter South America’s most impoverished country and into a taxi where we continued to gasp for air. It was 4:30 am.
Descending from the thin heights of El Alto to the thick, inky depths of the city proper was an astonishing experience in night gazing. It was as dark as coal with an immaculate, star filled sky and no discernible delineation of the heaven and earth. Where land should have started on the horizon there was only more perfect darkness punctuated by the occasional, solitary bright light from buildings perched on the sides of completely invisible mountains. It was nearly 360 degrees of stars and I could make up my own temporary constellations in those star filled mountains and they might have even had interesting names if only my brain weren’t so addled. Thankfully, as we lost altitude, we gained oxygen. Sweet oxygen that was full, rich and satisfying to the lungs, satiating to my brain and the rest of my tired body. Only then was I confident that I wasn’t malfunctioning in some way.
After securing rooms at the Hotel Milton, we slowly marched, especially up the stairs, to lapse forward into well deserved sleep. I woke up after a few hours to a gorgeous detonation of color and hue. On the street below blankets were spread out and the locals were selling oranges, lemons, handicrafts and housewares.
Saturday is a market day in La Paz and the next couple of hours were spent strolling by women wearing traditional highland indigenous fashions hawking their wares. “Hawking” might be a charitable description since these women were generally placid and just waiting for customers to walk up and buy. It was a nice change from most of my travels in the developing world where the autumn color of my skin subjects me to infinite, optimistic assertions of “I make you good deal!”.
Yeah, I bet you will buddy.
Once again my friend Steven Newman was with me as well as another friend, and fellow software engineer, named Terry Knowlton. Whereas I get really weary of the constant wails of locals trying to chat me up in order to part the fool from his money, Steven always has a smile and ready conversation. He isn’t afraid to look like an idiot, something I admire greatly. Terry, has a sterling resemblance to Hunter S Thompson when accessorized with the right hat, sunglasses and brandishing a Cohiba and that alone was an interesting spectacle. I wasn’t sure where he was in this street scene, and as it turns out later it didn’t matter because, as we later discovered, Terry possesses the navigation qualities of a spring Capistrano swallow. Steven was easy to find: a gentle, red headed giant making conversation with a cross legged indigenous vendor who was smiling and nodding her head because she was either agreeing with his witty banter or, more likely, was just nodding her head affirmatively at babble she didn’t understand which is the default mode of street sellers worldwide. It was a nice scene and I was reminded that success only comes when you’re open to others. I simultaneously resented and admired his cheerfulness, something that happens often when we travel together.
Steven and I turned a corner and witnessed a beautiful sight. It was a beautiful, bubbling stockpot with fresh chicken, potatoes, carrots and local spices all rolling in a boil and we only got hungrier the more we looked at it. The elderly lady only asked three bolivianos a bowl and it was the best tasting 43 cents I have ever spent. The three bolivianos turned into six which later turned into nine.
Lost in our ecstacy of soup neither of us noticed Terry until he said “Hey guys”. He had, not surprisingly, found us. I expected him to say “We can’t stop here, this is bat country”. Again, the resemblance was impeccable.
* * * *
It’s 8:00 am. Where is Jesus? You know? Son of God?
I’ve never been this high without some sort of fuselage around me. Le Cumbre sits at a lung sapping five kilometers above sea level and light headed is about the last feeling I want at this moment. Jesus is here somewhere in the form of a statue with outstretched arms and I’d be happy to hug him back if I could only find him. I’m not generally a religious man, but a word with Jesus might be a good idea before I go screaming down, and hopefully not off of, the Yungas Road on my bicycle. The Yungas Road is better known as El Camino de la Muerte; the road of death.
It is not a marketing ploy, friend.
Before alternatives, it was estimated that 200 – 300 people a year die on the single track road that’s only about 50 miles long. In one year alone, 25 vehicles plunged off the road and into the arms of their savior. That’s one every two weeks. It’s easy to see why the Inter American Development bank christened it the world’s most dangerous road back in 1995.
There we stood on top of Le Cumbre pass, astride our bicycles with the snow coming down and Jesus was nowhere to be seen. Time to call out the celestial understudy: Pachamama, the goddess revered by the Andean people. With a touch of the pure grain alcohol to our lips and a little spilled on our tires, as is the custom when invoking Pachamama’s blessing, it was time to go.
We followed each other single file down the wet, frozen highway and for the first 10 minutes everything was fine.
And then the sleet started.
I was hoping that the descent out of the snow would be quick, but conditions turned treacherous as I pulled down my goggles, which were fogging up, and the ice started pelting my corneas (ouch!, ouch!, ouch!).
Was this ever a mistake.
No way was I was going to risk a catastrophe by trying to put my goggles back on so the regular process was to look ahead, endure the hideous sting of the ice pellets hitting my eyeballs and look away, hopefully not to wreck in the process. Descending down into the coca country, that’s how it went until we reached the police checkpoint where it would be quickly confirmed that we weren’t carrying drugs. Our collective gloves had small holes in them which rendered our hands to a solid, frozen state and it was hard to even know when I was successfully pushing the brakes hard enough to stop. Snow and ice by this time were melting on us and in cahoots with the water spray from the road we were saturated to our cores. Terry pushed his hands into his pants to warm up to which the tour guide, a quick witty Aussie name Marcos smiled and said, “Now’s not the time to be playing with yourself mate!”. It got a pretty good laugh, but Terry was really feeling the pain of numbness, as we all were.
Only the first 14 kilometers of the road are paved and by the time we had descended that far the precipitation had stopped, but we were still sodden. The heavy, saturated coveralls were a heavy and uncomfortable liability and they had to come off. That felt countless tons better, but we were still waterlogged. Thankfully that would dry out during our ride relatively quickly all except for one part: our feet. The capillary action of our socks managed to bring the water all the way down into our shoes resulting in our feet becoming, and remaining nearly, 100% soaked until the end of the ride with every pedal downstroke, emphasizing an uncomfortable squish.
A few kilometers more of squishing along and at the top of the road we stopped. Before us lay the challenge. It was a thin brown line stretching into the distance, hugging the green mountainside. It’s the longest and trickiest part of the road, a skinny dirt track of a road, about eight feet wide, with a 90 degree (sometimes less) cliff on your right and dropoffs to your left with no guard rails. Sheer drop offs that measure over 2000 feet where were were now. I was pretty confident in my brakes at this point and had the ride started here, I might have been more apprehensive. Regarding the Yungas road, I understand the “why”, as this was the only link between La Paz and Coroico for many years, but it’s the “how” that intrigued me.
* * *
Google “List of Bolivian military victories” and you don’t get much if anything. Bolivians are the Bad News Bears of the Latin American military league. With the exception of the war to gain independence from Spain (which they wouldn’t have won without the help of Colombian and Peruvian forces), Bolivia has been a naively optimistic country when it comes to military battles. Bolivia’s record is 1-4 on the battlefield and the last war was the most bloody.
The Chaco war between Bolivia and Paraguay was fought from 1932 to 1935 and the whole thing was about, and I know this will surprise you, oil. Bolivia and Paraguay have one thing in common, they are the only landlocked countries in South America and that made getting arms something of a hardship since both countries depended on the goodwill of their neighbors’ access to the ocean. Both had previously had access to the water and both lost their access due to military conflict. Bolivia had a relatively lucrative mining industry and certainly a much bigger army than Paraguay so you might think that this would be a fairly easy walk in the park.
External oil interests were convinced that there were oil deposits in the sparsely populated, hot and semi-aridlowlands of Gran Chaco, as area extending into both Bolivia and Paraguay. Echoing what is a modern routine, international corporations jumped into the fray and financially backed their dogs in the fight: Royal Dutch Shell funded Paraguay and Standard Oil stood behind Bolivia. That tended to level the playing field a bit more, but there were two reasons why Paraguay would ultimately win the war. One, they were just plain better fighters. Two, having lost nearly half of its territory to Brazil and Argentina in the Paraguayan War, it viewed dominance of the Chaco as its last viable economic source and in no way could they allow that to fall to Bolivia. Paraguay was hungry.
And it didn’t fall to Bolivia, but it was a bloody war; the bloodiest of all South American conflicts with some estimates placing the dead at 130,000.
That brings us to the Yungas Road, Bolivia used the captured Paraguayan prisoners of war to construct it and it claimed hundreds of Paraguayan lives, but the lives being lost now are overwhelmingly Bolivian and they number in the thousands. Here’s hoping that it doesn’t claim a few American ones and we took off hoping to appreciate their sacrifice.
This was certainly a much trickier ride because the beginning of the road was quite muddy and momentary panics set in as I hit my brakes and still managed to slide a bit. It was short lived stretch of road to my relief and and it turned more into a gripping and gravelly roadway.
Over 2500 feet, nearly half a mile, is how far down the chasm plunged and I got queazy just looking over the edge. That doesn’t compare to what happened to some political prisoners though back in the 1980s. Latin America is full of political brutality and Bolivia is no exception. We were at a pass known as Martyrs of Democracy and it was here where several members of the opposition party met their end. They were simply thrown off the cliff to plunge to their deaths.
Yes. Just like that.
That’s the way brutality works in Latin America. During the Guatemalan civil war, opponents were often taken up in helicopters and dropped into either volcanoes or into the open ocean.
Really? Does it have to be THAT bad?
Latin American conflicts remind us that sometimes fictional people are more real than actual humans who live and breathe.
For as big balled and hairy chested as “cycling down the road of death” sounds, you’d have to be pretty inept to plunge off the side, at least as far as bicycles are concerned, yet it has happened on a few occasions. Where motorized transportation is concerned is where it gets a little complicated. You drive on the left when coming down the road. This allows drivers to get a better handle on whether or not they are getting too close to the edge of the road. If you happen to be the driver descending the Yungas when coming upon an ascending vehicle, there is an added complication: you have to back up to a spot where the other vehicle may pass. Count me out on this. Even if you manage to stay on the road, there is a good chance that the road will crumble beneath you if you are too close to the edge putting you on St. Peter’s roll call. Drivers with years of experience have taken themselves and passengers to their deaths underestimating this.
When writing about the descent, it’s hard to come up with adjectives to convey the whole experience. It was indeed, an excellent ride and one that I highly recommend if you are willing to take the chance. At the end of it all there’s a nonstop spaghetti buffet at the monkey preserve. If cycling 40 miles of this doesn’t do enough for you…..well…..
My first ziplining experience was in the Peten jungle of Guatemala and that was at a comparatively kindergarten sized 120 feet above the jungle floor and because you can’t see down to the actual floor, you don’t really get a sense of how high up you happen to be. The Flying Fox completely dwarfed that experience by a factor of 10. You fly from peak to peak, above the valley floor at a height of 120 STORIES. Speeds reach up to 60 mph and unlike the jungle zipline you can see
There’s also another experience you get with the Flying Fox that catapults you from the ranks of merely crazy to the clinically insane: the superman harness. It’s a full body harness where your back gets strapped to the rollers that speed you down the wires. It’s as close to bird like flying as the bi-pedaled get and if you find yourself in a suitably and mentally impaired state as I did apparently, and are comfortable with the possibility of lavishly wetting yourself with fear, excitement (or something else), I highly recommend it. I own a GoPro and decided to video the whole thing so that you, dear reader, may experience this for yourself.
Adrenaline flush adventures like skydiving and bungee jumping are not options for me now that I only have one kidney. It’s another essay as to why I don’t have my left kidney any longer but ole “lefty” was remembered and fondly thought of on this trip. Bolivia was country number 48 in my travels, and it was bittersweet getting my buzz on without lefty cheering me on and filtering the impurities in my system. I say that with all seriousness because while some people collect spoons and christmas ornaments wherever they go, I get drunk. I can hear the eye rolls now but this is harder than it sounds. I have been completely hammered in the bone dry Sahara in the Islamic republic of Mauritania and that is not an easy thing to do.
We survived the road of death again, this time going up as bus passengers and, of course, hammered. No, sledge-hammered.
At four AM Newman banged on my my door. “I don’t have an alarm and I thought I’d see if you were up” he said, smiling, chipper and ready to go. I had been up for about two hours when I felt a heaviness in my stomach as dense as a neutron star. A heaviness that progressed to diarrhea and if that wasn’t bad enough, the worst projectile vomiting I’d ever endured. We were supposed to start the three day, arduous Choro Trek through Bolivia’s Andean Cordillera Real and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it if this kept up. When I first started feeling ill I sent an email to my local friend Paul Osborne asking if he could get me Cipro and apparently something was lost in translation as he showed up with charcoal tablets. I quickly popped a couple.
We were supposed to begin at La Cumbre again and maybe if I had spoke with Jesus or Pachamama I would have made it. Sadly it was not to be.
In the taxi, Paul was sitting in the passenger seat and I was behind the driver, Steven was in the middle and Terry was on the other window. I would occasionally have to roll the window down and lurch, but one time too many I was not fast enough and managed to soak the car door, my arm and the back of the driver’s seat. Obviously I could not go through with the trek in this condition and when we got to La Cumbre I gave the guys my part of the expedition gear. I kept thinking “I could have made it” as I watched them walk away but in retrospect, it would have been a terrible idea.
The taxi driver didn’t seem at all upset that I ruined his taxi and he shuttled me back to the Hotel Milton free of charge.
I slowly plodded my way up to the sixth floor and the bed was so very hot from the high sun baking it all morning. It felt unbelievably nice and that’s where I collapsed into deep sleep and only got more ill.
The problem with having one kidney is that you can’t just take every drug someone hands you, NSAIDS like aspirin, are a definite no no. In hindsight, my desperate request to Paul to bring me Cipro was a terrible idea. I didn’t even know if I could take it so I emailed my nephrologist at Johns Hopkins.
The waiting went on for a day and a half and my sickness only grew. By this time I would drift off to sleep, have a weird hallucinatory dream and wake up either frozen or incinerated. While I don’t remember precisely if my mother was riding a camel or a pterodactyl, the dreams’ vivid nature is something I’ll never forget. As far as sicknesses go in my travels, and I’ve had many, this one was a doozy.
My nephrologist’s email had great news, Cipro was fine and I wasted no time asking the front desk where I could find a Pharmacia. Través de la carretera; across the road. The cost for a 1 week treatment ? $1.75, and the effect was near immediate. Finally rest, finally no strange dreams. After a day of treatment, I was feeling well enough to go out into La Paz proper.
I never made it to Cordillera Real to go trekking so I’ll always have an excuse to go back.