Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Danger in Bolivia

There are some things you shouldn't tell your mother you are going to do until you have done them, like joining the Taliban, getting a tattoo, or mountain-biking down The World's Most Dangerous Road. The Taliban rejected my application, and I am not brave enough to get a tattoo, so a few days ago I did the mountain-biking expedition in Bolivia.

Sixteen of us plus some guides started at the top of a barren mountain pass at 4700 metres, where an icy wind was coming over the snow and making our fingers go numb. A few hours later we had ridden 64 kilometres and descended down to 1700 metres (a total descent of 3 kilometres) into lush jungle in the mountains. Most of the time the supposedly two-way road was unpaved, barely wide enough for one vehicle, and with a drop of a few hundred metres over the side awaiting those who lost concentration. The biggest danger was from the scenery. We were warned at the beginning to ignore the scenery while riding, because there was a story of a guy who was admiring the views and rode straight over the edge.

To make The World's Most Dangerous Road even more dangerous, we were riding at the tail end of the rainy season, so we spent a good hour riding through torrents of rain, turning parts of the road into mud that flicked up and covered our bodies and our faces. There had been a mud slide that morning which bulldozers were already mending but which still gave us more challenge than we needed.

At the end of the road I loitered in Coroico, a small town located in the jungle and the mountains, for a couple of days.

Some days before the bike-ride I visited a town called Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. The town has nothing to do with the song, I think. Lake Titicaca is variously labelled "The World's Highest Lake" or "The World's Highest Navigable Lake", but neither of these titles are true, which makes its claim to fame as plain as La Paz's: "A Lake". However it is interesting to see an enormous lake at almost 4000 metres. The thin air does magical diffusing stuff to the light so that sunrise and sunset are particularly impressive. Well, I can vouch for the sunset but seeing the sunrise would involve doing what I consider to be one of the worst tortures known to the human race - getting up early.

On Lake Titicaca is an island, Isla del Sol, or Island of the Sun. This is where the gods of the Incas are supposed to have originated. I met up with a guy called Kashmir from Kanada, and we hiked from one end of the island to the other, a good 3 hours walk, always with great views towards either Bolivia or Peru. During the walk I found another reason to hate llamas. A Bolivian kid with snot all over his face blocked the path with his tethered-up llama, and wanted to charge us money so that we could take photos of his llama. I patted the llama's dirty, matted, thick wool and he reciprocated by trying to eat my shoe. It is not a shoe that I have any special sentimentality for, but nevertheless I didn't want it eaten. I pulled back, which started the llama-Steve war. He was determined not to let me cross the path, turning his back towards me and trying to kick me. Kashmir from Kanada and the enterprising Bolivian kid with snot all over his face both tried to distract the llama so I could cross but he wasn't having it. I had to clamber over the fields until I was well past him before I could get back on the path.

I spent more time than intended in Bolivia. I had a bus ticket booked to take me to Chile, but on the day before I was supposed to leave protesters blocked the roads in and out of the bus terminals with tires and rubbish. No-one was getting in and no-one was getting out. I could do nothing but pass the time, until I got word that a bus was daring to leave at 3am in the morning when the protesters were distracted with sleep or something. So I made it to Chile, where I am now.

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