Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Road to the Road of Death

We’re in the office of one of the thousands of agencies offering bike tours of El Camino del Muerte. The guide has warned us to accept no shabby agencies, but to go for the one that offers English-speaking guides trained in rope rescue with top-of-the-line, well-maintained American bikes. We went to an agency like that, the price they were asking was twice was all the other agencies wanted. The other agencies may have not had English-speaking guides, but what’s so hard to understand about, lento, izquierda, para and derecha? I didn’t expect that the guides would need to tell us more than that. We were only biking down a road; yeah, It was a road that was, in some places, little more than a cliff hanging on to the side of a mountain, trellised hundreds of meters above the jungle floor, with no rail of any kind and lots of irregular-sized rocks as pavement-rocks that would cause your tires to jump in different directions or even to cause your bike to topple over, but still, it was just a road. Considering what paying half-price would meant later on in the trip, we decided to do it. The lady at the agency seemed nice enough and the bike she showed us looked top-of-the-line. It seemed to me that anyone with as much experience riding bikes as Gina or I would be ok, as long as the brakes worked OK. The next morning, when we set out, I wasn’t so sure. The entire trip has been really mellow. Since we left Argentina, we haven’t had a night pass in which we’ve been out later than 11 o’clock. Starting a routine of getting up early every day, has helped. Since the beginning I’ve been getting up at six am every morning. Usually, by 11, or sometimes even ten, I’m ready for bed. The night before we were to ride bike down the death road was, predictably, the one exception to this. After we had bought our tickets, it was still early in the evening, and not having much else to do in the capital city of La Paz, we thought that we’d check out a nearby recommended bar. We had a drink there, but it was a little pricey, so we left. On the way back to the hostel, we passed another bar that looked a little more local and decided to pop in and have a quick beer before going back. We did and then remembered that we should buy some food to take with us. On the way back from the grocery store we drank the cans of beers that we had bought and suddenly remembered that our hostel provided one free beer each evening. We drank that one too, for a little night cap and then began talking to some Australians and decided to have a beer with them. This all ends with me lying awake in bed at about 4 in the morning riddled with anxiety, what the hell were we thinking? We had to leave at 7:30 for the world’s most dangerous road, way up in the mountains, and there was no way I was going to be in top form or even capable enough to go racing down cliff-hugging mountain roads. At six, still over whelmed by these uncertainties, I got up and went downstairs to make coffee. Outside, I noticed there was a van with bikes on the top of it. ‘Wow,’ I thought to myself, ‘one of these groups starts off really early.’ Just as I had gone in to start the hot water, a man came in and said ‘estoy buscando por Jonny y Gina.’ WHAT! I dashed out of the kitchen and tried to fumble my way through an explanation. We were told 7:30. Gina isn’t even awake yet. Our stuff is still all over the road and, my god, man, can’t you see how haggard I look? I need coffee. I need an hour to get ready. I need to get my head back on before heading out with you and your suicidal crew. He gave me 5 minutes. About twenty minutes later, we’re on top of a mountain putting on gear, all of which looks like something out of Mad Max. The knee pads are shredded. The elbow pads are cracked and there are bits of rocks embedded in them. The helmets actually seem to have some kind of carbon scoring on them, as if they have been exposed to metal and extreme heat at the same time. In short, ever piece of equipment that we are now putting on looks like it came off some crushed and broken body at the bottom of a landslide. The bikes are not much better. The one that we had been shown in the office, was obviously, a display model. The ones we were now apprehensively looking over, looked like zombie versions of the same bike. Different parts were joined into the original design at obtuse angles. Parts that didn’t fit were broken to be made to fit. Gear cables wrapped in ways I have never seen before, brake handles that were totally different makes and therefore, sat on the handle bars in complete opposition to each other, one on the top the other sort of out in the front. The bodies of the bikes themselves had been subjected to the same vicious scoring, as if they had been drug behind us the entire trip up the mountain, instead of sitting on the rack above the van. Somehow, I suddenly felt surprising optimistic. I may have just been trying to put on a brave face for Gina, who was still upset about having been woken at six in the morning to me running in the room and yelling. ‘Oh, shit, we’re screwed! There’re here! Get up! They’re here already!’ Since then, El Camino del Muerte, was nothing but a stupid novelty for her, sleep or at least rest, was the only thing she cared about, and all this gearing up with battered and broken pads and looking over shotty, worn-out bikes was not helping. ‘Buen dia, amigos!’ the guide begins and proceeds to say a bunch of things in a rapid Spanish that I can barely understand. He says, ‘por las dudas’ and ‘si no quieres morir’ a bunch but the rest goes over my head. The first part doesn’t look too bad. We’re up in the mountains, but it’s paved and there are shoulders and guard rails. We begin and the ride is exhilarating. Even with the gear in the lowest setting, it is impossible to pedal because we are coasting so fast, coasting, down the mountain highway, through cloud banks and around corners that jut out over the misty abyss below. It’s like riding a bike in the sky. There’s a slight chill, but we are dressed warm enough and no effort at all is required. Just hold on and brake. It’s hard to keep your attention on the road because the scenery is so ethereal and a couple of times, I look back down to see myself heading toward the edge and quickly correct my course. The scenery gradually grows greener. The bare rocks begin to be swarmed by moss and then a panoply of undergrowth begins to swell out and drift up the mountains in fuzzy green currents. The smell changes, the dust is soaked with fog and oxygen that all the plants are producing. The air is heady, suddenly there is almost too much of it after a week in the oxygen-deprived heights of southern Bolivia. We come around a corner and find that everyone has stopped. It’s time for a short break, before we continue on to the actual death road. The guide offers everyone a coke. ‘Coke!?’ at seven in the morning, what’s wrong with these people. He asks me if I want a coke and I tell him I’d much prefer even the worst instant coffee if it’s available somewhere. In a minute he comes back with exactly that. It’s too light to be coffee. It’s too terrible to be anything else; it’s hot and it’s earth-colored so I’m happy. I eat a few generous spoonfulls of peanut butter to try to give myself something to burn for the day and I drink the coffee to help it down my paradoxically dry and filmy throat. The drive to the death road is uphill. Most of the road that we are continuing up looks like that which we earlier came down. It is nothing like a death road, it could be a highway in Colorado. There’s a turn a head that looks like some old hermit’s private driveway. The green wraps around us. The paved road gives way to a slurry of rock and mud that narrows to a desperate-looking two track. Above it, the mountain roars up into the clouds, below, it breaks off into nothingness. From where we stop I can see the road snaking all the way across the mountain. It goes on for mile after unguarded mile, all of it nearly toppling into the green emptiness below. To contemplate even having to go down this road for a few minutes is scary. It’s something that you’d hold your breath to do. Considering that we are going to spend the whole morning going down it, through the mud and the rock, around sharp turns on these Frankenstein bikes is almost too much to contemplate. It’s something that’s going to have to be done one pedal at a time. There’s brief safety lecture, very little of which I understand. I keep looking at Gina, hoping my look conveys, 1. Are you OK to do this? and 2. Am I OK to do this? She looks back at me in the same way and I get no reassurance before we are on our bikes and desperately squeezing our loose and poorly positioned brake handles bouncing treacherously over gobs of mud and human head-sized rocks. We slip and gasp and clutch our way past, wet, mossy outcroppings, giant ferns, waterfalls in which the water has fallen so far that it has broken down into a mist, into little clouds that drift downward lie autumn leaves. Every couple of hundred feet there is a memorial of some kind: a copper cross covered with verdigris, mildewed plastic flowers or a lichen-eaten stone cross, all of them with names and dates, placed on the part of the road that they last touched before going over. It was all dizzying, but eventually, the green swam up around us in such a cooling and leathian way, like a fatal overdose, that we broke loose from our fear, or just accepted the fact that everyone dies sometime and that if it were to happen to us now, at least it would happen in a beautiful and serene place. Riding on, the sun broke out through the sweltering clouds and the evergreen around us became a wild jungle light. Birds that had songs that sounded like rocks skittering across a frozen pond shot above us, heedless of the height. Bananas hung down in emerald green bunches between explosions of wet, surf-board-sized leaves. Gina and I are now riding past each other to talk. The stupor of the early morning is gone. The beauty competes steadily with any remaining fear. You never forget how high you are and how close to the edge, but after a while you begin to feel like you know the road and respect it enough to not be another of its casualties. We bank and brake and bounce and the green and blue flies by in torrents, in silhouette waves and we are down; we are at the bottom. Not able to believe that it is over and already considering if we have enough money to do it again. ************ There is something that sounds like a large drop of water hitting an empty wooden bucket. You hear this sound in quick succession, about three times, before it turns into a cranking whistle and then levels out to the sound that mourning doves make on hot summer afternoons. The birds making this sound live in the tree in front of our cabin. They are black with bright yellow tail feathers and beak and their nests are woven and hang from the branches. If I were to try to look them up I would probably start with something like ‘hanging nest bird-Bolivia.’ Then I would continue my search to include, ‘screeching vulture-fowl, colorful neck, Bolivia,’ and ‘green moth,’ firefly beetle,’ ‘giant pool spider,’ ‘largest snail in the world: shell like a baseball, mollusk part like a cow tongue,’ and finally glassy-eyed monkey with incredibly long fingers.’ After all of these animals I would have to write Bolivia, or northern Bolivia, because that’s where I’ve seen them all and I can only assume that such jungle animals are indigenous to this place, well, except the birds, I guess, but that snail couldn’t have been going anywhere. After we had finished with the death ride, we got dropped off at the bus stop for Cororico, the place that I think I had been the most excited about visiting since leaving Buenos Aires. Coroico, is a small town on top of a misty green mountain where they grew everything from coffee to coca leaves. I looked forward to visiting it after ungainly making my way through the saltiest, driest and dustiest places of South America. I eagerly anticipated bathing my tired and dry eyes in jungle humidity and diversion. The place, largely due to our lodgings, has not been at all disappointing. First of all, without even going for a trek through the surrounding area we have seen all the animals mentioned above and a few more. The monkey was waiting for us on the road in. The mini bus driver, who had been fairly laconic most of the ride, suddenly turned to us and made a little whistling noise. I looked up to see this ‘mono’ sitting on the side of the road, regarding us suspiciously, but not without some curiosity. He would look about himself as if he’d misplaced something nearby and then suddenly dart his glance back up to the van. It was the first time I’d seen a monkey in the wild and I was pretty much bouncing up and down in my seat. We arrived in the town after taking about forty looping switchbacks up the plantain-leafy mountain. From the road you could only see a profusion of greens, the type of endless varying green that I imagine would begin to drive someone lost in the jungle insane with its all-encompassing beauty after a while. When the green was interrupted it was by vistas, pauses that opened out to the cloud valley straight down the face of the mountain. The town, once we arrived, was slightly colonial-looking. I mean the building façades were high and flat and they crowded a narrow cobblestone street. There were few cars and women drifted up and down the lanes carrying loads wrapped in bright tapestries. From the back, the only human detail that could be made out was their long braids, so encumbered by their loads and garments as they were. Quaint as the town was, I was glad to leave it. After traveling for about two weeks, I wanted to get away from everything for a day or two. Since we don’t have a tent we took up residence in a hostel that was about a twenty minute walk up the mountain from the town. I say hostel because that’s what the place calls itself, but it is absolutely nothing like any hostel I’ve ever seen. Our room is a cabin that sits up on top of the hill. The shower and bathroom are outside, near the fire pit. The area is demarcated by ornamental gardens, coffee shrubs and plantain trees. There is also a little wooden balcony that overlooks the valley and the other green mountains of the area. Since we have arrived here, we have done nothing at all except remark to each other on the beauty of the place, often in the limited vocabulary of ‘wow; look at that; shhh, look’ and in the case of the giant snail: ‘holy shit!’ If I had more money, I would stay here at least three more days. As I write that, I cannot tell if I mean it as a tribute to the place or an indication that I am getting older and learning how to relax. In all my travels, I have always been ready to move on after a few days in even the most beautiful places. Perhaps this is because most of them were cities, or towns and the attraction was man-made, startling at first as the Venetian canals or the madrassas of Samarkand, but becoming less remarkable almost as soon as you realize what they are. There is the moment of realization where you look upon the bricks and shattered columns of global antiquity and reel with the heady image of these near-eternal things that the Mongol hoards, the Visigoths or the Incas once looked upon, but continue to look upon these things for days and they shed their mystery and assume the appearance of old bricks. The life in the jungle is more of a continuum: the sun, the mists, the rain, the hunt, the migration, the back and forth trail of leaf cutter ants, the bloom and the return to the nest in the evening. I am as awed in each moment that I am here as I was when I first arrived because what I am watching is renewal rather than petrifaction.

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