In a semi nervous state I leave Tarija but I don’t want to stay any longer either because the sounds of airplanes flying over low, the suffocating diesel fumes, the harsh thuds of crackers and the idiotic sight of sledge heels have been enough for me.
From Tarija to Villazon it’s 187 kilometers. The first 45 kilometers lead to the first pass and into a tunnel, at 3500 meters altitude. The road is paved and functions as the main road to Potosi, so traffic is higher. And of course, that annoys me. Cycling through the lush, fertile valleys of Tarija, where wine is being made, is still hot. Slowly I gain altitude and start looking out over Tarija. When I reach quiet barren landscape I wish to camp, but I don’t have enough water and there are no houses around. Except for one on the hill. I walk towards it to find out no one is there, not even a tap. Strips of meat are hanging out to dry. It’s barely a hut, those of a shepherd, where I do see a bottle and jerry cans of water. I steal a liter of it. I do feel guilty.
With enough water for the evening and oncoming morning, I choose a most beautiful spot to camp. And though it all seems so wonderful, the reality is hard work. I need to keep the fire burning while I need to keep an eye out not to start a fire all over (especially since fires are forbidden). I need to take down the tent but not let it be blown away by the fierce wind. I need to pack my bags and fry the meat I took with me, since it start smelling. While frying the meat I am packing the bags and wrapping the tent, I need to keep an eye out for dogs who are attracted by the smell of the meat. Then the clouds gather to such an extent I cannot do all these things in a relaxed mode, if it start raining I need to be prepared to leave. Yet, I am enjoying it all.
Multitasking. I can do it. Cycling in the Andes or Himalaya is different than the Chaco in Paraguay.
‘I don’t dare very well to cycle alone, but if a woman can do it’
Says one of the Amsterdam guys I met some days ago in Tarija
It’s not so much about daring, but more about feeling comfortable alone, about relying on your intuition and using common sense. I start to use my common sense soon enough when I am not very much enjoying the ride. The nature has become more beautiful but the balance hard work versus beauty is not yet in equilibrium. I feel I work harder than I am rewarded.
Reaching the tunnel is an achievement, especially because I denied being rope-pulled by a police motorbike. Imagine? How could I sell myself such a story? No way, I rather move forward ultra-slow, catching my heavy breath every 10 meters than being pulled.
Reaching the top covered in clouds I fetch water and seek shelter in an abandoned mud brick house which is made to grow vegetables, a kind of glass house without any glass. I am surrounded by other mudbrick houses, and even seen by a man who thinks my seeking shelter from the wind and cold is an excellent one.
But since no one in Tarija could tell me whether there would be villages to buy food I have to measure things out. When I find out the village someone said of ‘nothing to get there’ and which in reality has a hotel, internet connection and everything you can wish for, I start to load up again. And from the turnoff to Iscayashi traffic is minimal, since no tourist-coach takes this road, only the villagers.
Back home I looked forward to cycle the most lonesome routes in the Andes. Not anymore. To be honest, the whole Andes undertaking seems a bit ridiculous. I retrieve pleasure and satisfaction only from the views, camping and the downhills, which becomes lesser and shorter. Cycling itself doesn’t fulfill me. Afterwards it does, but not the actual climbs. With 35 kilo my load is too heavy.
My thoughts become more negative day after day. I want to return, which is only downhill. Or I want to take a taxi. I dream of cycling in the Paraguayan Chaco, I really loved cycling there. Now, what I really enjoy is arriving in camp. And so I stop at 4 o’clock sharp. Whether I cycled 20 or 30 kilometer, I don’t give a damn anymore.
While cycling I worry constantly about the amount of water I carry, whether I have enough, and shall I be able to find more?
When I have enough water another worry comes up.
When I speak to people their glances are not about ‘peligroso’ anymore but about ‘Oh! Difficile! Legos! Pesado!’ and then they add ‘solita? Con bicicletta?’ Well, yes…
Sometimes I start hoping for my chain to break. Or a tiny little accident, so I have a good excuse to take a taxi. But the next day I wake up afresh and all I want is to cycle in this beautiful nature. To find out what is beyond the next bend. Past that next hill. Really, curiosity drives me.
I wash my dishes with Fanta I find along the route, only to save water. The route climbs gradual after Iscayashi and only start climbing right before the second pass of 3950 meter. This route is actual pleasant. People below the road are hardworking farmers, who use every patch of workable ground to grow vegetables. Houses are small and built from mud. Earth is plowed by hand, men and women working together with their cows and donkeys. In the evening I usually have several shepherds passing my camp, often women. They are too nervous to come over and have a look.
I pass many crosses where cars or busses took the bend too merrily or thought the road was slightly broader than it actually was. Deep down below are the carcasses of the vehicles. I believe traveling by car or bus is more dangerous than bicycle. Often the drivers are very young guys. Like the mothers are young when they get their first baby. A big family is a blessing here.
Although I do start to enjoy a bit, the next day I notice I am checking my passport to see that perhaps I have reached the end date of my visa. If so, I could still legitimately take a taxi. When I see the next climb coming up I lose all my power, which was not much to begin with. I stop and look back to where was a tiny communidad with some cars. ‘Shall I go back and take a taxi?’ but the thought of doing so is as much effort as cycling on.
I stop at every chance, like making a photoshoot of shoes. They have my mind go back to India…
The thing is, it is absolutely amazingly beautiful. I am now at 4000 meter altitude and this nature is what Bolivia is all about. And all I am doing is whining and being annoyed. Is it because I have my periods? Shouldn’t I be damn happy with those? I am at Cordillera of Sama Biological Reserve! Standing at the top of the pass I was amazed, I was overruled by beauty. I was stunned. Speechless. In awe. I was jumping of joy.
Back in Tarija overlooking the map I wished to stay at the lakes, and now I am at the lakes and I have to reach those goddamn 30 kilometers a day. Which is not much, but it means I cannot stay at the lakes. To give myself extra power I play Blondie. This works, I gain energy.
Then my back tire has a flat.
Actually, it has 5 punctures, gathered over the last 1.5 year. The SlimeTubes held on long, but now they gave up.
I don’t believe in coincidence.
Can you imagine my luck!?
I roll the bicycle, precious Shanti, into the prickly grass sharp as needles. Through the tiny cactus plants and other harsh sharp plants surviving this altitude and coldness. Far off the route I settle myself. I am now in between the lakes, the nature is unmercifully beautiful. Yes, there is a harsh wind. And yes, it takes 20 minutes to make a puncture free spot to lay down. Also, it takes forever to get the flame of my stove burning, especially with a lighter near to empty and the newly bought reserve lighter broken.
More luck, because of my constant worry for water, I had loaded up with 3 extra liter in the Ortlieb water-bag. I got this at the last house I could see. Thanks to Evo, the president, people here have tap water and although nobody was home, I found my way to the tap.
This means, I stop the next day after 9 kilometer. I want to stay another day between the lakes.
Upon seeing an abandoned mud house, just before the climb, I have learned to let go of numbers. I have just mastered the art of letting go of information about altitude, of letting my family know I am all right in time, of the amount of kilometers, about the amount of food, about water. This is now, and now is all I have. Will I be without food tomorrow, I’ll take a taxi.
See where my worrying about water has brought me: 2 extra days of camping at the Sama Biological reserve.
The house I am ogling at is in a semi abandoned state. The door is gone but the opening filled with rusty oil drums and rocks. Before I move in I check all the rooms. It’s a big house. Some rooms are locked and the ones which are open are stocked with lama hides, empty wine and beer bottles and empty peach tins. It’s a big mess. The kitchen is used very recently as I see a new egg shell in the ashes. Must be a shepherd, yet I count on a solitary stay and move in.
Lama’s are grazing around the house, I wonder what they graze on? The entire building is built without a nail, only with wood (which must once have grown here), mud, dried grass, stones, water and reeds. Those reeds, I find out later, come from the valleys below where a river flows. The kitchen has plenty of wood in stock, as well as dried cow dung. It reminds me of my year-stay in Pakistan. In fact, it reminds me of a past life. And this is how I would love to live. Actually, this is coming home, except that it isn’t my house.
Sometimes I wish for a handsome shepherd with a worldly view, or just a rough looking one whom I find attractive. And he is in need for a Dutch wife who loves being on her own. He has already a bunch of animals, a mud-house, a water boiler and a total understanding of western thinking, which lifestyle he rather rejects.
A shepherd will appear.
In the evening when I make a photo I am seen by a shepherd. I try to make clear that I stay only one night in this house. It turns out it’s his father’s former house and while his donkeys run all directions I try to get a confirmation out of his mouth.
The man tries to gather his donkeys while I try to make myself clear. The man doesn’t understand me, and looks at me in total disbelief. His small round eyes are sunken in it’s sockets, his nose seems to be damaged by frostbite and black hair grows on his cheeks. He wears a warm hat while his neck is bare, his clothes are a broken match of old garments. This shepherd leads a hard life with minimal income.
He looks at me from head to toes, and keeps saying ‘no entiendo’, while I am usual the one who replies so. His eyes shoot fire, his whole stature doesn’t agree. Then he keeps on herding his donkey’s back down below.
And I go to sleep terrified. What if he comes back? Will he kill me? Will he rape me? I can clearly hear his moaning and snorting right behind the door, on the outer wall of his father’s house. I am convinced he is eavesdropping. I hear his footsteps too.
I am afraid, so I keep as quiet as I can. Until I fall asleep. A deep peaceful sleep takes over where no one bothers me, neither my over reactional mind. The man did not return to kill me, nor to rape me. Why would he? If he was angry, he would have thrown me out. But the likelihood of his returning up the hill after having walked all day, is small. But the mind likes to make things up, especially when it’s troubled.
The snorting and moaning were donkeys.
Continue cycling on towards the pass is hard. I start to count the stripes on the road. The day before I had 10 and this day I count a maximum of 30 before I need to grasp for air.
When I reach the pass the next morning I am again in awe. I need to sit down and gulp it in. The feeling is absolute, all my puffing forgotten. It’s bigger than the range below me. It’s massive. I am above the vastness in front of me. I feel powerful and strong. Yet I feel like an ant in this enormity of Earth. Again, the Earth appears as a mystery when viewing it from this point. I get a clue of the crust of the Earth and at the same time I see the insignificance of something like a tin can.
To see the Earth deep down below me yet so tangible is surrealistic and realistic brought together to one. I wonder whether other planets have these clouds too but thinking of other planets is making my head swirl. This is enough.
I don’t know it yet but what I am overlooking, including the 1000 meter deep gap in between, is the direction I am heading to. A few days later I will overlook the spot where I stand now.
Seven kilometer later I hit Yunchara. There is a ‘hotel’ with an owner dressed in a suit, his teeth lined with gold and his manners a bit too friendly. But I need to stay will I be able to buy food on a Monday morning. There’s no shower so I don’t wash myself. That’s okay, I am not dirty anyway.
The 1000 meter drop down is a pity. I lose the altitude I worked so hard for. In 20 kilometer I am back at 2660 meter. The long snake-like downhill made my legs into a paste and so I am not able to climb much. I stop when I see a perfect place to hide: between snarled dry trees, cacti and in between the walls of mountains.
A fire is made without effort. The quietness is deafening. This side of the mountain is different and I soak it all up. It reminds me of India, or Oman, but probably more like Argentina already.
The Bolivian people may be quiet and not very exuberant, they may be shy and I hardly dare to ask for photo’s but they are an honest folk. They work hard and they know how to party, as I often hear the sound of bands playing. The mountains are a whole different lot and I won’t go to touristy places, I actually don’t meet many people. My contact is mostly about asking for water and even the poorest, elderly lone women will hand me some, carried up the hill in jerry cans.
Taxi’s ply the non-asphalted route, old rickety cars carry wrinkled lady’s wearing all sorts of beautiful hats. Huffing trucks laden with semi-useless products like soft drinks have roaring engines, they too have troubles pulling themselves over the 3500 meter.
As for me, believe it or not, I am rather enjoying the uphill. I even carry an extra 3 liters which I fetched from the river. When I managed to get another two liter from a handsome truck-driver, I use some of my extra river water as mini shower.
When I reach the plains at 3500 meters I meet with the forceful wind. Oh, just great. Now that!
The wind blows so hard that I cannot possibly enjoy camp, let alone making a fire to prepare milky coffee. I seek another mud house. This time I am sure it’s abandoned. Except for a dozen yellow birds in the morning who sit on the roofless walls.
To see Villazon is feeling proud and euforic, I have made it, however slowly. The hotel manager assumes I did come from Tupiza, when I say ‘Tarija’, he is amazed ‘con bicicletta??’ and his eyes are round with surprise. So am I!
From Villamontes to Villazon, it was quite a journey. Villazon might be an uninteresting border town, I like it. I finally eat meals without pasta, and I don’t have to cook. I sample quinoa- and peanut soup, corn drink and lama meat. The people in Villazon are a most interesting spectacle, if my eyes were a lens I had made a 10.000 photo’s. The color of the sky, the paint on the walls, the combinations of the women their dress, woolen socks and bowler hats. The multi colored cloths they carry their children in, old men with their grandson’s. The eyes of children, pure and so clear. The skins of elderly, dried out by the high altitude sun. Women from afar laying cards. Selling lama hides. Selling birds’ nests.
The hundreds of dogs begging for food and if they forget their hunger, they run around playing. Handmade goat cheese, brought by a farmer in knotted cloths; who knows from how far he comes? Painful bright cakes, papaya’s, skin colored stockings, plastic shoes and plastic flower garlands for the death. The biggest difference with Tarija is that here are no rich people to be seen, hardly any ladies with sled heels and flat bums pressed into tight jeans. Here are still young girls, early mothers, dressed authentic, which is so much more beautiful! Well, exceptions aside…
I stay 3 days in a nondescript residencial. Another lone traveler from Argentina appears, a man with a half meter long beard. I want to meet him, and so happens. We talk for hours, in Spanish. We sit on the cold concrete ground, grind masala spices, eat papaya and drink maté from a plastic travelers gourd. But mostly we laugh, a lot.
Coaches load up nonstop with travelers. Trucks stock up with goods and locals, a colorful bunch of campesinos living a simple, hard but seemingly satisfying life. Bolivians are beautiful people! And I understand why their first question was ‘solita?’ No Bolivian moves alone. Alone is for the shepherds…
Detailed info about Bolivia here