Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Value of Struggle: Biking Bolivia

An 18 Minute Readimage

In our modern society we have been conditioned to think that the quickest way is the best. People thrive on speed and ease. We expect information to come in seconds and feel empty even when we have access to more knowledge than ever. Conversations that used to last hours are ended in moments with a quick Google search. We believe in 7 day weight loss programs, a pill for every ill and that the world generally owes us something. We live in a world of I.

The value of struggle has been lost. We want something and we want it now. Get rich quick schemes are all the rage. My junk mail box proves that. People are hoping to get ahead and not have do anything for it. With the New Year upon us, it is a booming time for gym memberships and diet programs. Typically, people will forget about these resolutions in a month, when life gets busy again. It is not that we aren’t good enough to follow through with these goals, we just approach things the wrong way. People give up because they weren’t ready and someone else told them what to do. No one likes being told what to do or how to do it. Take every child someone told do something. You need to come up with your own path to the changes you think you need to make.

We forget that any of the great feats in our world were not accomplished in a day. They instead took time, careful planning and exponential amounts of energy. The invention of the light bulb, automobile and the development of Wayne Gretzky’s hockey skill did not come overnight. All of these things took a lot of dedication.

I understand we are all busy, tired and stressed by modern day pressures. However, there are some simple things you can do to feel better about yourself in the New Year. Start small and grow gradually until those positive aspects become cornerstones of your life. Get to the point where you don’t talk about the change anymore, but just do it. It becomes part of a better and new you.

Making a regular healthy dinner is not that difficult, nor is writing a letter to an old friend. These are just examples, that involve simple planning and execution. However, the rewards far exceed the effort necessary in return. If you pour yourself into something that truly means a lot to you, you will succeed. Make 2016 something you can be proud to remember.
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May the sun set on where my love dwells.” ~ Bolivian Proverb

Crossing the Paraguayan border into Bolivia was not exactly what you would expect. I had essentially been in cycling limbo for the last three days after checking out of Paraguay some 300km beforehand. I crossed the military checkpoint and finally was able to punch into Bolivia at an ‘immigration’ post called Ibibobo some 50km from the border. The border control was basically a shack with one man giving stamps and a lady to change money.

As I was leaving another cyclist from France named Laurent rolled in. A huge surprise given our locality. We decided to have a bit of lunch together and shared stories from the road. As I was leaving Laurent tried to get his exit stamp to the sight of the border control taking off with the money exchange lady on a motorbike. I found out later he had chased the man down in the nearby village and received his exit stamp.

I rode off very tired into a new country after ten straight days of riding through the Gran Chaco of Paraguay. Though I was very excited to see a hill for the first time since Asunción some 800km back. There were parts of the road which were full of loose gravel where I had to walk my bike for short stretches. I thought very little of it at the time. I was mainly focusing on making it to the first town, Villamontes. Not far down the road was a return to civilization and a well deserved rest day. What I didn’t realize that this was a small warning for things to come. An ominous look into the misery of the Bolivian road system ahead.

Arriving in Villamontes I promptly ate two dinners and fell into a deep sweaty sleep. This part of Bolivia is known to be the warmest in the country. The temperature in my room was 38 degrees and only a small fan on the wall to cool off. After the first night I pushed my bed to the other side of the room to be closer to the fan. It didn’t help much and I avoided the oven of my room as much as possible. Instead, I stuck to drinking awesome fruit juices and eating Salteñas in the market. Though a Salteña is similar to an empanada, it is decidedly much better in my opinion. Click on Salteñas to see a delicious and savory recipe.

From Villamontes I decided to begin my ascent to the altiplano of Bolivia where the weather would be cooler and less rainy. The total climb would be upwards of 4,000 meters higher than where I currently was. The ascent started almost immediately. I was followed by hoards of little biting flies and a scorching sun as I cycled up the dusty dirt road. Stopping in a roadside village, I was invited in for lunch at a school. The kids all laughed at me and I shared a bottle of local cola with one of the teachers. Pushing on in the heat was draining and slow but the views along the canyon I was riding up were fantastic.

Near the end of my day I heard a terrible sound coming from the back of my bike. I inspected and my cassette had come loose. I tightened it back on but it didn’t last long and I was stranded with no hope of moving. I hitched a ride to the next town where a mechanic and I with the proper tools ‘fixed’ the problem. About 45km into the following day towards my next destination, Tarija, the problem returned once again. When I tried to fix the problem the cassette opened up and ball bearings went all over the road. I was upset as I had just replaced this part in Paraguay, but was sold a very cheap piece of equipment. Because of this my continuous route of cycling from Buenos Aires was broken. I felt down as I waited on the side of the road for a ride to the city over the mountain pass. When you invest yourself in something like this and things don’t work out, it is sometimes hard to swallow.

A nice man, also named Mark, picked me up not long after. Luck would have it he knew a mechanic who could help me in Tarija. We found a new cassette in the bike market and returned to the nice mechanic who promptly put the heart back into my bike. He wouldn’t take payment when I offered. I thanked him a dozen times and went off to my new friend’s pizza restaurant. His restaurant was inspired by his travels overseas and we shared a bottle of Orange Fanta while I admired the decor. I found a restful hostel called CASA BLANCA and got my mind back in order.

It’s easy for people in an air-conditioned room to continue with policies of destruction of Mother Earth. We need instead to put ourselves in the shoes of families in Bolivia and worldwide that lack water and food and suffer misery and hunger.” ~ Evo Morales, Bolivian President

There was a very long and steep climb out of Tarija as I made my way towards Tupiza. By the time night rolled around a nasty storm was upon me and a little old lady invited me to sleep in her house. She cleared a room for me in what was most certainly one of the poorest families I had stayed with in a while. There was a knock later at my door and the lady had a nice looking soup in hand. I ate it quietly feeling humble as ever on my chair missing the back.

Talking to locals back in town, I was told that the road I had chosen was very difficult and I was decidedly crazy. If it was crazy and terrible that also meant it would be beautiful. I was certainly right about the beautiful part. But the locals were also right about it being terrible. It was one of the hardest roads I have ever traversed with rutted dirt tracks to the top of mountains and a howling wind. Once in a while tarmac would appear out of nowhere and I would coast like a giant along empty smooth roads. I have amazing memories of larger than life views with clouds crawling over the sides of mountain ridges. In a small town one night I had nowhere to sleep until a nice guy named Osman welcomed me to his house. He was still working, but let me into his place all the same. When he returned we watched a new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and I fell asleep.

In the morning Osman and I had some chicken soup together before I descended down my own ‘Road of Death.” Thousand foot drop offs with zero railings and crumbling loose gravel on the edges of the road. Every once in a while a bus would come roaring around a blind corner and shower me with dust. I usually stopped on some firm ground and waited for it to pass if I heard something coming. Though it was some white knuckle riding, it was completely worth the effort. The ride to Tupiza was stunning and the struggle for beauty was the reason I chose to come this way through Bolivia.

Arriving in the canyon town of Tupiza, I found a delicious lunch after days of cooking bland pasta. I then found a cold shower and scrubbed the dirt from my life. After exploring the markets of Tupiza I planned what can only be described as a hair brain venture down the wrong road. I was headed towards the largest Salt Flat in the world near Uyuni. Everyone I asked told me the road directly to Uyuni was the worst in Bolivia and I should take the route twice as long that was paved. I was here for adventure and I chose the exactly what you would expect. I chose struggle and misery, mixed with dashes of solitary beauty.

If ever there was a road I am happy to have left behind it was this one. It began with sandy riding through spectacular canyons. Supposedly where Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid met their end. I pictured olden days of people struggling through these passages with ox carts as I rode. Lightning struck off in the distance and set the scene for an end of days western shootout.

Bolivians die with rotted lungs so that the world may consume cheap tin.” ~ Eduardo Galeano, Writer

Eventually, I made my way up to Atocha. It was one of the most interesting settings for a town I have ever seen. Set into the edge of mountain it lay at the side of an extinct river and a sleepy railway. As an old mining town it seemed that everything here had seen better days. There is a long history of exploitation in Bolivia and the use of their people to mine plentiful natural resources by developed countries at low cost. Nevertheless, I was welcomed by friendly curious locals into their town. I couldn’t afford the nicer hotel in town and was shown to the second cheapest room of my entire trip, at the equivalent of $2. The bed smelled like spit and the odor of the communal toilet wafted into my room through the cardboard window in my 4×4 square. I slept in my sleeping bag, with my cycling buff over my face and didn’t dare touch the stained sheets. I escaped the room as soon as possible in the morning and gagged one more time as I headed back in to grab my bags.

The following two days to Uyuni saw some spectacular but difficult riding through amazing rocky landscape. I followed a volcanically poisoned river and passed along high canyon walls. Later I bumped past as Llamas grazed on the sides of the road. I huffed up steep hills into a strong wind as the corrugated road bounced me to pieces. Sometimes the road wasn’t much more than a drift of sand and gravel. In spots roadwork was in progress, but at the rate they seem to be going it will be done in ten years. Eventually the dusty tourist jump off point of Uyuni emerged and I tumbled into reality like a space monster. Tourists laughed in the streets as they headed off on their tours with blinders on. I could see them through windows in English looking pubs eating pizza at outrageous prices while they drank cold Corona beers. It all seemed extremely odd to me after where I just came from. I ate my regular local meal of chicken with rice and hid away from it all in my room after a fruitless search for a new bungee cord for my bike.

At this point I was far more consumed by the adventure ahead. The largest salt flat waited for me in the morning. I was truly excited. It serves for most cyclists in South America as the quintessential cycling experience. As I approached the entrance to Uyuni the following day I heard a loud snap and a broken spoke. Terrible timing with Uyuni some 15km behind. I rolled into the town on the edge of the Salar and found a truck mechanic. We used his tools to take off my new cassette and my ball bearings exploded all over the sand. With his kids we picked up all of the little pieces and put the thing back together. A ten minute job turned into two hours. (I have now purchased all the tools to do this myself) When I finally entered the Salar de Uyuni, the wind was already roaring, not in my favor. I met four cyclists around one of the hotels made of salt. They were being carried by the wind without even pedaling. I’ve never been so jealous.

I pushed onwards into one of the most naturally stunning landscapes on the planet. A completely flat and a magically disorientating experience to cycle. At first the Salar was truly fun. I took lots of silly photos as I headed to an island called Incahuasi in the middle of the Salar to camp. However, after seeing the island in the far off distance for more than half the day it seemed to come no closer. I kept thinking it must just be a few more kilometers ahead. But it never materialized. The sun was getting low and I stopped in the howling madness to snap some photos. At this point the wind was stronger than ever and I was exhausted. I resorted to pushing my bike towards the outline of the looming island. My mind was playing tricks on me and I imagined nightmarish creatures following me. To be honest I whimpered a bit and felt delirious from the sun and wind. By the time I arrived it was after 9:30pm and had been dark for hours. I found the tourist centre and pitched my tent with my last ounce of energy. I ate some cookies in my tent and passed out.

I was awoken early by the arrival of hoards of tourists to the island. Less than impressed, I packed up and ate some bread as people snapped photos of me where I gave a begrudging thumbs up. The nice ticket man let me go up the island and take a photo for free and gave me a bottle full of tea. He said he saw me arrive late the night before and I think he was worried about me. I felt exhausted beyond all belief, but knew I couldn’t stay where I was. I headed for land and the volcano in the distance.

After a few kilometers of riding I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt awful and threw up a number of times from exhaustion. I positioned my bike in front of the sun and lay in the shade under my bike and had a nap. When I woke up the sun was beating down on me, but I felt much better. I got back on my bike and slowly made it to land where I found some nice tourists that shared their dinner with me.

From the volcano Tunupu, I carried along a very beautiful and sandy road towards Salinas de Garcia Mendoza feeling much better. In this part of the world water is very precious and it was many days before I was able to get a shower. As I turned to rejoin the main road towards La Paz, I met a cyclist from Mexico who told me just three kilometers down the road it turned to asphalt. I have never been so happy. From that point on the hills were less strenuous on a fully paved road all the way to La Paz. Along the road I watched deer grazing in the distance while dust tornados whipped up around them. I flew past Llamas and Alpacas as I rode with speed on the finished road.

Approaching La Paz I was on my last bit of steam and in need of a break. When I came around a bend in the road and saw La Paz in the valley below from El Alto, I was speechless. I had never seen anything quite like it. I felt insanely small as I pictured myself down in the mass of buildings that seemed like little toy pieces from above. As I weaved my way down into La Paz I felt like an airplane coming in for a landing. I landed in the famous Casa de Ciclista where I recharged my batteries and met some nice people before heading to the border of Peru and onto the next adventure.

It was a month long journey through Bolivia with extreme highs and some serious lows. Coming through on the other side I can certainly say that it was a challenge worth the time and effort. It is one of the most raw and beautiful countries I have ever been to. Biking here definitely has all of the rewards you can imagine. Getting away from the main roads is where the adventure happens and the light of the world sparks the engine for adventure inside your heart. Maybe it was the adrenaline of sheer cliffs or the pressure of thin air, but I look back with extreme fondness on my days in Bolivia. Here you can learn the true value of struggle.

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*We are now at 195 donors and over 1/3 of the way to the schoolhouse in Shuid, Ecuador. Pretty awesome stuff! If you hung on and read this far, I am proud of you. I also like to honour the type of lessons I preach. Therefore, I will be sending every donor up to #200 a personal handwritten thank you letter in the mail. Your name will also appear in the next post. If you are lucky you may receive a letter from the Amazon as I head north. I know most people don’t collect stamps anymore, but I think that would be really cool location to get a letter from. But, that’s just me. Thank you for all of your support! CLICK HERE TO DONATE.

**At the moment I am riding in Peru, where the views are larger than life and the mountain climbs are monstrous. I spend most of my days huffing up massive hills as I head north and will eventually find my way down to the Amazon Basin. Here the road itself ends and I begin my great Amazon adventure towards Ecuador. Thanks for reading and stay tuned.

*** Below is a nicely written message from my walking friend, David, which I received around New Year. It is hard to stay in touch with everyone I have met along the way, but this is one chap I am always happy to hear from. Walking to India at A TASTE OF ANCIENT ROUTES.

“You are doing the ultimate and every day brings you closer to your final goal. This is for you my friend, when I think about your journey:

It can be tough, it can be a breeze;
some days are filled with hardship,
others gust with ease.
The people wave,
And smile and frown,
You pass them by,
Heading out of town.

The bed is hard,
the ground is your home,
Even if you feel it,
You’re ever alone;
Thoughts move in your brain
As you leave the road behind you,
Again, and again, and again.

But never stop feeling,
The beating heart of your soul;
For even in the darkest days,
It keeps you going,
And will bring you home.”
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