Monday, January 4, 2010

January 3, 2010: Bolivia...Fear Factor

The days after Christmas brought some adrenaline-filled experiences, some that we enjoyed, and some that we could have lived without.

Leaving Copacabana, Bolivia, after taking a small, rickety boat to cross Lake Titicaca with the motorcycles, we headed east to La Paz. Approaching the city, we hit the usual traffic, with buses and trucks spewing black smoke, and then got caught in a rainstorm which turned into nickel-sized chunks of hail. Seeking refuge under a bridge, we eventually got out and found our way to a hotel in the Plaza San Pedro section of the city. The big goal in our stop at La Paz was to ride the infamous Death Road.

This road, about an hour from La Paz, goes from La Cumbra to Coroico It is a narrow dirt and gravel road just over 3.2 meters wide which has cliffs and drop-offs (no guardrails)with a 3600 meter vertical drop.

The road winds around the mountain, and we found that we had to ride through waterfalls, avoiding mountain bikers on our way…these bikers are part of a tour that offers a van ride up the mountain with the mountain bikers then careening down. This road is so famous due to the fact that in the past, buses, trucks and other traffic were also allowed, and many a time buses would miss the turn and just hurtle off of the cliffs.

Crazy. The scenery was spectacular, and riding from the freezing cold, high altitude, down to the hot and steamy jungle climate was a thrill.

We were rewarded with some great photos and an “I survived Death Road” t-shirt.
After a few days in La Paz, we were on our way to Potosi, where we planned to spend one or two nights, then to celebrate New Years Eve in Sucre, where our Dutch friend Gert had organized some serious revelry. On the way to Potosi, a long day’s riding, we got an email from some of the group who had gone ahead telling us that they had found a great hacienda just outside of Potosi, a charming and interesting place which was about 15 minutes off of the main road.

We decided to spend the night there and then continue on to Potosi the next day.

 Somewhere along the way we got separated from Gino, Judy and Johannes, figuring that we would meet them at the hacienda. We arrived, checked in, and waited…and waited…and they still didn’t arrive. Chris decided to go back to look for them. Just after he left, a fierce rainstorm started, turning the dirt roads leading to the hacienda to slimy, slippery clay mud. After 3 hours Chris still hadn’t returned. Waiting outside of the gates, we finally heard his motorcycle and saw his headlight coming up the drive. He didn’t have happy news. Gino had an accident. His front rim had a dent which caused his front tire to separate just as he was coming around a corner, causing the bike to skid and Gino to fly off. His helmet, which he had fastened while wearing his gloves, came off when he fell. Judy and Johannes found him on the side of the highway when they came around the same corner. Chris got them to Potosi and then headed back to the hacienda in the dark, where he fell in the slippery mud. What a night. Thankfully, he had only a bruised rib and some aches and pains, but was OK.

The next morning we checked out of the hacienda and headed for the mining town of Potosi.

This town, the world’s highest city at 4060 meters, is a Unesco World Heritage site. The economy of the town is based on silver mining, with a checkered history of indigenous people imported to work in horrific conditions in the mines. The thing to do here is the Cooperative Mine Tour, which…..the only way to describe it……is indescribable.

You go to the tour company’s ‘changing room’ where you are given pants and a jacket to go over your clothes, and a hard hat with a light. You then go to the miner’s street market where you are told to buy gifts for the miners, things that they use every day…dynamite, coca leaves, 98% proof grain alcohol and cigarettes. These gifts help them deal with the deplorable conditions underground. The dynamite is used for blasting, to open up new veins of minerals. The coca leaves help them deal with the lack of oxygen due to the altitude and the lack of air in the mines. The alcohol, I think, just helps them overall to cope……and I guess that ingesting silica dust every day gives you a ‘what the hell’ attitude about smoking.

We began the descent into the mines. Following our guide single file, it got more and more difficult to walk and to breathe. Dust in the air coated our eyes, and breathing got more and more difficult. Some people turned back, unable to get enough oxygen causing them to struggle. We had to bend down, avoiding hitting our heads on the rock which protruded above us. We got to a place where our guide started explaining that the life expectancy of the miners is about 55 years, where no women are allowed to work in the mines due to superstitions……the miners think that if women are allowed, the minerals will be depleted and they will find no more value. The next step was to go to see “Tio” a statue that was erected down in the mine; the miners ‘worship’ this statue, bringing cigarettes and gifts to lay at it’s feet. The next phase of the tour involved climbing, crawling and scrambling down to the next level, tight spaces with even less air. Chris (a.k.a. “Safety Guy”) looked at me and said “I’m outta here.” How glad I was to hear that statement. Not wanting to show fear, I was prepared to do it, but happily escorted him out of the mine. On to phase 2.

Once outside, the guide then does a demo of setting off the dynamite. 2 of the guys in our group took the small bag filled with accelerant and dynamite, a long white fuse sticking out, and ran down a hill to set it off. 3 big bangs, lots of screaming and commotion, and our mine experience was over. Thank God. This was New Years Eve, after all. Our plan to go to Sucre was abandoned due to Gino’s accident, his bike needing repairs, and his injuries rendering him unable to ride. We set about finding a place to spend New Year’s Eve in this small mining town. Finally we settled upon the “Club Internacional” a private social club that was fully booked, but that was able to provide a table to accommodate the 12 of us. The invitation said “9pm, dinner, drinks, live music.” This being Bolivia, we got smart and decided to go late…10:30 pm. When we arrived, full of vigor and ready to party, the band was still setting up. We sat at our table and began to work on the 3 bottles of liquor that our cover charge provided. By 11:30 we were still the only ones there. As midnight approached, we waited for some kind of countdown, and tried to agree amongst the 12 of us who really had the correct time on their watch. With no band involvement, at 12 (on Johannes’ watch) we toasted, celebrated and rang in 2010. Finally the local folk started to arrive. The band kicked in, and we danced salsa, meringue, and our own brand of Gringo-Latin hip shakin’…all in motorcycle boots.

So here we were, 12 early-bird gringos, dressed in jeans and biker clothes, alongside the well-dressed cream of Bolivian society, ringing in 2010 together. An interesting tapestry, indeed.!!

We are now in Sucre, leaving Gino behind in Potosi for a few days to recuperate. Next on to Uyuni, Salt Flats which are supposed to be amazing. The adventure continues….

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