So Far, So Good (3)

By John Harris | December 10, 2002

Imagine Bolivia as roughly a circle, with a line drawn across it from northwest (starting just above Lake Titicaca) to southeast. That line marks the mountain ridge where the altiplano drops straight down to the jungles of the Amazon basin. Almost two-thirds of Bolivia drains into the Madeira River, a colossal stream that flows north through Brazil to join the Amazon just below Manaus.

The altiplano (peaks averaging 16,000 feet and basins 11,000) holds all of Bolivia’s big cities and most of its population. The elevation is high, but the climate mild and the soil rich. There are large deposits of silver, tin, and lithium. The low part of the Bolivian Amazon is almost at sea-level, about 150 – 200 meters. Once the polar ice melts, half of South America could disappear into the Atlantic, and a good part of Bolivia will go with it.

As far as I was concerned, it couldn’t happen too soon. One of the things that had weighed on my mind back in Prince George, getting heavier as we approached Bolivia and then went to work in Copacabana, was that we had to get into the Amazon area quickly before the rains set in and the water accumulated. Our winter is Bolivia’s summer, but their summer is really for them their winter — rainy season, October to March, when life is not so easy.

"Soon," said Rick, "the locals will be rowing up and down the roads, and the place will be like a sauna."

"But there’s lots to see?"

"I did Canada in an old truck I bought. You know that road around Lake Superior?"

"The Trans-Canada. Miles of nothing."

"A circus midway compared to the Amazon."

I could see it. Endless dirt roads. Every fifty miles or so a town, probably a string of adobe brick sheds with rusted tin roofs, the odd Mercedes or Volvo truck fueling up, a half dozen green or red tin tiendas with their lids flipped up, selling pop, stale buns, or chicken on rice, starving dogs competing with pigs and chickens on the garbage piles. And always the possibility of washouts, of getting stuck somewhere in a cockroach-ridden hotel, malaria-bearing mosquitoes buzzing in the window and (worst of all) locals listening endlessly to Andean pan-flute music cranked loud
on their ghetto blasters.

If I have to go to hell, that’s the one waiting for me.

But it was going to be even worse getting there. Viv’s chosen route was the main one from the north into La Paz. But it also had the distinction of being chosen, by the Inter-American Development Bank, as the world’s most dangerous road. Just a few kilometers out of La Paz, where the road starts on down, it drops 10,000 feet in forty miles. As a humanitarian act, the Bank was funding a new road, but money had run out before a crucial tunnel had even been started. Work had stopped.

"About thirty vehicles a year vanish over the edge," Rick explained. "Almost a hundred people die every year. No use going down to look for them even if you could. Some of the drops are three thousand vertical feet. Where the road scoots around the cliffs it’s about ten feet wide. One thing could save you. You could do it on a bike. A few years ago, the tour agencies in La Paz noted that more and more big, muscular, mainly American guys in bicycle helmets were going around town looking to buy or rent mountain bikes, and then when they got them heading up into the mountains and hurtling down to the Amazon, screaming with joy and excitement. The agencies quickly bought fleets of bikes and now you can get a tour, with a guide, a ride up to the pass, and a back-up vehicle to look after you and bring you back."

Viv was doubtful, but I insisted. "It’ll be good for the book."

Once we got to La Paz, we found that Rick was, as usual, dead on. The agencies were full of photos of happy tourists, clustered for group photos at El Cumbre (the peak) above La Paz and then later clustered around beer-laden cafe tables at Coroico down at about 8000 feet. "Gravity-assisted biking" it was called. There were photos of hordes of cyclists barreling down through alpine and jungle, negotiating the hairpins, riding under waterfalls that came down on the road, always screaming with joy and excitement.

Viv and I like biking, so why not? It cost 35 US dollars each, and you got fed. It took only 6 hours to get to Coroico, and to the beer and safety. Coroico billed itself as "Gateway to the Amazon." The backup van could carry our big backpacks for us and we could continue out into the jungle to hunt for crocs and anacondas.

I e-mailed my kids the same day we paid for our tours. "The Highway of Death," I told them. "If you don’t get another message in 24 hours, the key to the safety deposit box is in the crawl space, ten joints from the south end, on the middle brace. Enjoy."

At ten a.m. the next day, we were at El Cumbre helping our valiant (as the mimeographed tour descriptions had it) guide Elli unload the bikes from the top of the van. There were four of us, all Canadians, a real breach of probability. We each got a helmet (mine badly scraped), a pair of light nylon gloves (mine torn but free of blood), and a reflector vest. Elli gave us a speech, telling us to listen carefully.

"Stay behind me. If you have trouble, wait for the van. If you happen to have any cocaine or any precursor chemicals, get rid of it all. There’s a checkpoint at Unduavi. The jails here don’t have TV."

I noticed, on the other side of the road, a large cross, laden with flowers and surrounded by trucks.

"A monument to the dead?" I asked Elli, pointing.

He shook his head. "The truckers pull in there to put wine and beer on their tires, a tribute to Pachamama, the earth goddess."

Also, of course, the goddess of gravity.

Having no wine, we doused our tires with our water bottles. The fact was that, having examined the bikes and ridden small circles on them, we were losing some confidence. The bikes were shit. In the tour agency, we’d been shown a new Trek. The others had been shown the same.

"The brakes are good," said Elli. "That’s all you’re going to need."

The first hour was on pavement. Elli went all out, leaning deep into the curves. The other two Canadians, young guys, were in hot pursuit. Viv and I, snapping photos, stopping to talk to locals walking the road, soon fell behind.

"There are dogs all along here, every half mile or so, like they’re waiting for something," I said to Viv. "I wonder what that’s all about."

"We’ll ask Elli."

By the time we caught up to him, we’d dropped about 3000 feet. The air was milder, soft. We peeled off our sweaters and stuck them into the van.

"Let’s go, let’s go," said Elli. "Rain’s coming."

About the dogs, he said that the truckers tossed food, mostly bread, for them, another tribute to Pachamama.

The army at the Unduavi checkpoint ignored us. They were busy rooting through the roof rack of an upgoing bus.

Just before the lunch stop, at the junction of the roads going into the north and south Yungas (the foothills), the pavement ended and the rain started. Here, it was almost hot. We ate through a pile of fried egg sandwiches that tasted very good.

"Go, go," said Elli, rousting us out into the rain. One more rule. Downhill traffic had to be on the outside edge of the road, which was the left side. Uphill traffic had right-of-way. "Go to the edge," he said. "Lots of pull-outs."

Soon we were soaked and plastered with mud, but it was so warm that none of us cared. We concentrated instead on watching ahead for upcoming traffic, gauging the distance to the next pullout, guessing what might be around the next one or two curves before we ventured out on what seemed more like a ledge than a road.

On the worst spot, lined with wooden crosses, all marked with the names of the dead, we saw a man, standing in a little shack made of poles and a blue plastic tarp. He was in a pull-out that projected over the edge, in a position where he could see a curve about 300 yards back and high above, and another curve 300 yards ahead and far below. He held what looked like a gigantic plastic Ping-Pong paddle, red on one side and green on the other. He signaled to the truckers going both ways, indicating what was in the intervening curves.

"This man lost his family here," said Elli. "He has lived here ever since, helping the drivers. Everyone gives him some money for food."

We duly forked over one Boliviano (fifteen U.S. cents) each.

A year ago, the man told us, he had to go away for awhile. The government made the road one way one day, the other way the next. Accidents were few, so the government ruled that he was not needed. But then the truckers complained that the new rule was effecting their income, so the government canceled the rule. He was glad to be back.

He explained too that driving on the left meant that the downhill drivers, who had the most ability to maneuver, could look out their windows and see directly where their wheels were relative to the edge. And then he told us that yesterday a bus had gone off the road far below, where the edge was not so high. Twenty dead and forty injured.

"Funny the tour agency didn’t mention that," said Viv.

But we were happy to be on the bikes, masters of our own fates, captains of our own souls.

By the time we made bottom we were tired, wet, and very dirty. Hotel showers got rid of the dirt, and we put on dry clothing to go out to celebrate in Coroico, at the Bamboo Pub. We treated Elli to a beer (the driver, who had to go back with the bikes, Elli, and one of us, was too professional to drink) and some excellent Mexican food. The only problem was that we kept dropping our beer glasses: our hands had been frozen on the brakes for six hours and the muscles had atrophied. Elli understood, and asked the waiter for straws.

December 10, 2002: 1773 w.


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