Already on my first day in Bolivia I could see silhouettes of mountains on the horizon. All the time, pedalling the plains of Paraguay, I was aware of the Andes hidden somewhere in the distance. Could not see them but I was aware of their presence.
A few days in Villa Montes to mentally prepare myself for the inevitable climbing ahead. Then, to “battle”! After a few kilometres the asphalt stops. I don’t even manage to make it up the first proper climb, already I have to deal with a puncture. I change the tube, patching it will wait until evening.
About a week of a bit up, a bit down. A bit on paved, a lot on dirt roads. These are a mix of fine powder and loose rocks. Every time a vehicle passes my by, I’m left in a cloud of dust. It has been two years since they started widening and improving the road and the works will go on for another two years. That is, if all goes to plan!
Thanks to road blocks which are the result of the road works, the last 50 kilometres to Tarija, the first major city I have encountered in Bolivia, I’ve spent in the cabin of Daniel’s truck. They open the road midday for an hour and a half, while the workers go for lunch. Absolutely not enough time for me to make the necessary 20 km uphill. So I’ve stopped, lifted my thumb and Daniel with an empty truck on his way back to Tarija has stopped.
In Tarija I’ve ended up in a hostel. Sort of unplanned, but based on the welcome I have received, it was immediately clear to me that I simply had to stop here. Juan, Argentinian volunteer working at the hostel, received me with a “torta frita”, a typically Argentinian snack, sort of a fry bread. Not even managed to finish it, I already had maté in my hand. Just as a welcome!
The warm and pleasant atmosphere of the hostel as well as good company of Marcos, Tomas, Virgi, Lele and the others “kept” me there for a whole week. Just to be clear, it was not all about doing nothing. Lou was looking for a new rear rim which again “developed” anomalies. It was better to take care of it there and then as opposed to later somewhere amongst lamas and alpacas.
The next stop on my repeated climb into the Andes was Potosi. Between me in Tarija and Potosi, there was about 350 kilometres. And 3 very decent climbs. The first of which started just outside the city and ended 1500 metres higher up. At least that was what I have thought. There was a tunnel up there and I have naively expected that the road will start to descend on the other side. Well, it didn’t!
After surviving some stressful moments in an otherwise lit tunnel, where the lights in the middle of it started to go out just as I was passing them, the road first went a bit downhill before it started to slowly but surely climb back up again. But what goes up must come down. Just that this time way more aggressively than when it was going up. The brakes were suffering. Up to the point when I started to hear a metallic noise. I’m losing the brake pads in front. So I stop and change them.
Front brakes always were and continue to be Lou’s weak point. They are practically impossible to properly adjust. The rest of the descend I was stopping every 2 km. To check if the breaks are OK. At the beginning they weren’t and they demanded some attention. Just as I managed to come close to fixing them, I was almost at the bottom of the descent. With an empty tyre. So I was again changing the tube and patching it in the evening.
The first climb done, about 100 km of almost level cycling, another flat (this time it was a thorn from a roadside bush). Starting the second climb. Not feeling well, I have a headache. A stop in the shade for about an hour. Not feeling any better, definitely not in shape for a new climb of more than 1.000 metres up to 3.500 metres above sea level. So I turn around, back to the first town. Looking for a cheap place to hide away in a bed and wait for tomorrow. In this search, I pass by a service centre of a local mobile provider. For almost a week I’m unable to connect to the network. Well, since I’m here, I might as well enter and solve this.
Alejandro receives me, solves my problem and in the meanwhile offers me to wait for 5 minutes for him to finish his shift. Then I can go with him to his house, where I’m offered a room that they don’t use, so that I can lay down and rest. I’m also treated to a lunch and dinner.
The next day, well rested and without a headache, in my second attempt I to drag myself up to 3.500. Wasn’t that easy, but I’ve managed. At some point of this ascent I’m still climbing. Slower than the inclination would deserve, the legs also aren’t tired, but it just can’t go any faster. That energy that still lays hidden in the legs, just cannot come out. Then it occurs to me – there is no oxygen up here! So I continue in my own slow pace. To the top, then a short, violent descent and again a flat tyre at the bottom. This time due to the excess of quality of the patch still from Nicaragua. Again, I change the tube, another half an hour climb and that is it for today.
I come to an abandoned village of about 20 mud houses. The only sign of life is and elderly woman sitting on the ground, her back against the door of one of the houses. I park Lou, approach and start talking. The answer I receive is: “Mana intindini castellano.” The lady doesn’t speak a word of Spanish, only Quechan. With her hand she points somewhere behind a nearby wall. I interpret this gesture as that there I will be able to find someone speaking Spanish. An old man is just taking a donkey into the yard. I ask for permission to pitch my tent here between the houses, where there is shelter from the wind. Highlands are the realm of the wind. Permission granted I look for a suitable location.
I pitch my tent, next on the list – water. There is no running water, of course. The old man directed me towards the “river” which is not a river. A group of puddles in an otherwise dry riverbed. I look for the cleanest of them. I take out a filter that is supposed to filter up to a litre per minute. After about 20 minutes I have about 2 litres (would probably have more if only I would have cleaned it after the last use). Then I treat myself to a litre of unfiltered water to quickly wash myself before the sun goes down together with the temperature. The next task is to patch the tube, but first I have to locate the hole. This requires another visit to the puddles. After locating the bubbles, I’m almost there. Returning to the tent where I put a kettle on my camping stove. After all this I deserve a coffee and a smoke!
Gazing at the stars, listening to the wind (and an occasional truck passing by on a nearby road) and I simply Am. With every passing minute I’m further away from all the effort I have put into this day. I simply am Here and Now!
New morning, new day. The sun pushes away the clouds.
Breakfast, coffee, drying the condensation on the tent, putting away all the stuff, loading up Lou and we are off, exploring the mysteries behind the curves. All day I’m climbing and descending, a little up, a little down. For 100, 200 metres. After 5 – 6 hours, with the wind picking up and black, stormy clouds looming, I’m just tired enough to start looking for a location to hide away for the night. At this point I see a white van, stopped on the road a bit further on. It’s apparent it is waiting for me to pass by. Indra’s friendly smile greets me as he immediately offers me to take me a bit further on.
“Where are you heading?” I ask.
“And you have space for me and my bike?”
Such a gift from the Road cannot be turned down. We load up Lou and about an hour and a pleasant conversation later I found myself on the main square in Potosi.
Before I manage to collect all my stuff, there comes Lucas, a guy I’ve met in Tarija and now works here at a hostel as a volunteer. Together we go there and I end up at a new hostel.
Coffee in hand I sink into an armchair. Next to me there is a couple, looking at Lou, leaning against a nearby wall. They are talking about how nice it must be to travel by bicycle. In silence, I unintentionally listen to the conversation, just being content with being where I am.
They are dreaming aloud, all exited, how one is cruising the roads on a bicycle, taking the curves at one’s own pace. I’m thinking:” Yes, and meanwhile hoping that you don’t get a flat!”
And again, how on a bicycle one can take one’s time to soak in the surroundings, listening to the wind, smelling the autumn leaves,… And again me: “Yes, and inhaling profoundly the big, thick, black cloud of smoke that the passing old truck is leaving behind!”
I move away silently, before I burst their romantic bubble.
All that being said, I can, with a complete peace of mind, say – I like it!
I did however take some days off here in this hostel. In about a day or so I’ll embark on a new search of romantic on the high mountain expanses of the Altiplano. Heading for Uyuni, the biggest salt flats in the World. To let the wind blow through my soul.
With a Smile on my face, until next time!