On Biking Bolivia’s Death Road and Other Random Thoughts

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Perhaps it was out of sheer boredom that I decided to go into one of the dozens of travel agencies lining up Sagarnaga Street and booked myself a daytrip to bike the Death Road. I’ve been spending my days wandering around aimlessly and I figured why not get out of the city for a day?

I was picked up early in the morning by the guide Eddie, a really mischievous guy who made odd jokes about falling off the canyon with our bikes. We were all handed out the company’s biking outfit: a professional looking red and white jacket and pants and black pads. They seem to be one-size fits all but while they fit others well, everything was too big on me.  So I mounted my bike feeling like I was in a clown suit. At least my helmet fit my head perfectly and this somehow made me feel safe. The ride down was exhilarating, and very bumpy, like getting a not very gentle full-body massage. The landscape reminded me of the hike on the Inca trail: massive mountains, green forest, blue skies, and white clouds, only this time I was careening down Death Road. It was an amazing experience. My group consisted of Irish and English people, and one extreme mountain biker from Chile who made the rest of us look like kids on training wheels.

me and bike

bike road

bike  cliff

During breaks we’d joke around about the best way to fall off your bike without getting yourself killed. Like: “steer toward the mountain, it’s better to bash your head on it than falling completely off the canyon.” You know you’re in good company when you can joke about death.

Friendship while traveling happens faster, albeit fleeting. You become really close with someone for 1, 2, 3 days, maybe more if you’re lucky.  Some for just mere hours. Solo travelers gravitate toward each other. It’s like this unspoken agreement: for this period of time would you fill this void that I have and be with me, share the wonders of this foreign land with me, be each other’s witness that we were here? And then with the next breath you move on to your next city, and they move on to theirs. Weeks, months, years from now would we still talk about what we experienced? Would we keep in touch? I hope so.

2 lizards
from Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

I find myself alone again after having travel companions for a while. I thought I’d use this time to reflect on the past few weeks. Peru seemed like a blur.  I’ve visited way too many places in a short amount of time.  It seemed the only purpose was to get to the Inca Trail, not even Machu Picchu; it was the hike that I looked forward to. And now that the goal was reached, the days that followed were an anticlimax. The down after the high. I’ve been trying to recollect myself these past few days, planning the days ahead, thinking about what I wanted to get from this trip.

I’m getting familiar with the streets of La Paz, and even have a couple of establishments where I’m a frequent customer now: The nameless cafe close to my hostal where I get my coffee-fix twice a day. The barista would give me a smile when I walk in, and make my Cafe Americano (their term for black coffee) without me having to ask for it. I get my late breakfast of Yungueῆo (steak and eggs served over a bed of rice with fries and plantains) from a tiny eatery across the street. Not that I don’t appreciate the free breakfast in hostels. But since Mexico City free breakfast was mostly composed of weak coffee, bread, butter and strawberry jam. I welcome a little variety.

the nameless cafe. They make the best coffee in Llampu Street.
the nameless cafe. They make the best coffee in Llampu Street.

I left Mexico tacoed- and pupusaed-out, Ecuador corned-out, and Peru potatoed-out. Bolivia so far doesn’t seem to have a type of food that shows up in every meal and in danger of me getting sick of it…but we’ll see. One thing I noticed here in La Paz is the crazy amount of Pizzeria, Arabic, and Thai restaurants in every street, while it is difficult to find a decent looking, typical Bolivian restaurant. I went into one of the Thai restaurants close by and had a weak, almost bland version of curry. While eating I noticed the layout of the restaurant. Aside from the half dozen wooden tables and chairs to eat in, there was a big TV on one side flanked by a couple of couches draped with blankets. A cartoon show was on. I also noticed a stroller peeking out from behind the television. Then a boy came out of the kitchen and sat in front of the tv. And it occurred to me: this was their house, and I was eating in their living room! I’ve noticed this in other places as well: life and work blended together.

I finally gave in and bought a fake Sony MP3 player off the street for the long bus journeys. When my Ipod got stolen along with my bag in Quito I was too mad and stubborn to replace it. Good thing half the bus rides I took throughout Ecuador and Peru were night buses, so I just went to sleep. And the other half that were during the daytime I was too drugged up on anti-motion sickness pills so I spent them dozing off and on, or stuck in my own thoughts in between. But this time, in this new country, I thought I’d save myself from my thoughts and listen to some tunes instead.

harp man
a harpist from Ollantaytambo, Peru

The music here is growing on me. I’ve come to like the mixture of guitar and panpipes of the Andean folk music. There’s this one song I really like, El Condor Pasa, that I first noticed hearing in Cuenca, Ecuador and have heard it in every city I’ve visited since then.  It plays in my head all the time. Most of you would be familiar with the tune: Simon and Garfunkel made an English version of it titled If I Could. But the original, El Condor Pasa (The Condor Flies By) was written by a Peruvian composer back in 1913.

instrument shop in La Paz

It’s getting colder, and where I’m headed will be colder still. I remember, back in the beginning of my travels, I’ve met people who have been traveling for 5, 6, 10 months and I envied their know-how, endurance, and all the places they’ve been. Now I look at myself and where I’ve been and how I’ve changed and I know that I’m there.

The truth is I love being on the road.

And the other truth is that if I didn’t have a job commitment waiting for me back home I would keep going.

The road goes farther than I have time for.

empty road
a road to Colca Canyon, Peru

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