Monday, August 23, 2010

The Road Home

I decided to try a different route for the trip home. I would try the more eastern, and quieter border crossing of Bermejo, and then stay the night in the Bolivian city of Tarija. I would be making the trip back in two days, rather than the more relaxed three days I took to get down.

The border crossing was in fact much easier and faster and I was able to roll into Tarija at dusk. The next morning was bitter cold. I did not have the luxury of waiting around while it warmed it up, and there were no guarantee that was going to happen anyway.

What I did not know was just how cold it was going to get. Within an hour outside of Tarija I was climbing over a dirt road mountain pass with thick fog, snow and freezing rain. I couldn’t see more than 15-feet in front of me, or the cliff’s edge to my right. I was limited to about 25-mph. Trucks, however, had no problem going much faster around the hairpin switchbacks. I was losing valuable time and body heat. Finally, I crested the clouds while topping out at 12,500-ft. Once above the storm below, the sun was warm and revitalizing. I turned up the iPod and the throttle. I would be home by dark!

While loading up the bike earlier in the morning, I had talked to one of the hotel owners. He mentioned that there was now a road blockade in Potosi and that I would not be able to get through. Road blockades are popular here, and it is the chosen way to get the desired attention from the federal government when things are not to their liking. In this case, the miners and other workers were protesting the lack of work projects in the area and a border dispute with the neighboring district of Oruo over mining rights. Blockades stop all traffic coming in and out of the targeted city, cutting off food and gasoline supplies – cutting off everything until their demands are met. The good news is that the blockades are usually peaceful and everybody has learned to live with them.

No worries for me though, I had found a small road on the map that would by-pass the city of Potosi and connect with the asphalt road to Sucre. I would avoid the strike and save time by cutting off a significant chunk of unnecessary road.

The dirt road north was filled with zigzagging detours due to road construction, a real time killer. The only town along the route with a gas station was completely out. There was no way I would have enough fuel to get all the way to Sucre. I bought a warm Coke and a pack of knock-off Oreos and took a break. It’s all I would have to eat for the day, and I didn’t finish either.

I made it to Puna, where I would catch the small dirt road – again, no gas. The shadows on the ground were getting longer. It would be dark in a couple of hours and I need to get to the paved road before that happened.

My “small dirt road” bypass turned out to be a bombed out disaster of a trail filled with craters, large rocks, and pockets my favorite talcum powder-like Bull Dust! The only thing worse, would be trying to do this in the dark. I was now exhausted, my shoulders felt like cement, and I was completely fatigued. The cold, altitude changes, and the already 8-hours on the dirt had taken it's toll.

I had no choice but to push hard and race the setting sun. I was standing up on the pegs and going as fast as I possibly could go. On my GPS I could see the thick red line going west to east across my screen and me, the arrow atop a perpendicular thin blue line heading north. I was so close. Once I reached that red line, it would be 80-mph to my front door, an ibuprofen with a scotch chaser, hot shower, and straight to bed. It was all I could think about. Meanwhile, there was no avoiding the potholes and rocks. On several occasions, after a bone-jarring impact I made a mental note to check for bent rims when I got home. Then BLAMO, another deep hole – “also check for cracks in the frame”.

Coming to a fork in the road in the middle of a small village. I stopped to ask a man for directions. He pointed out my direction, but mentioned that I would not be able to get through. “Por que?” “Bloqueos”, he replied. That’s not right, I thought, and headed out again. I asked someone else, and they said the same, and suggested I use a walking trail. No thanks. I kept going, but the news started to sink in. I was so tired. Then it happened. I entered a long patch of bull dust going too fast. I fought it for as long as I could, but eventually with the front wheel “swimming” in one direction, and the rear wheel seemingly in another, the road won and I went down (thanks to Adam for adding “drama” to the above photo). I will never admit to wanting to cry, but I was completely and utterly frustrated. I was so close, but the carrot dangling in front of my face was now fading from view. I somehow managed to pick the bike up without unpacking it.

Eventually, I hit a patch of paved road that connected to the main highway but I also started coming across people walking in the opposite direction. I started asking every other person about the situation. ARGH!, the blockades where not just in the city of Potosi, but the whole department (or State) or Potosi. Again, I had no choice to continue.

It was now dark and I was the only vehicle on the road. It was a creepy feeling. Finally, I reached the first roadblock, a line of rocks across the road. In the photo above I had turned from the crowd of people mingling in the road behind me to snap the photo. I got off the bike and tried to talk to a couple of guys about getting through. I could see a gas station down the road and ask if I could go there. Nobody was in charge, and these guys were just standing around, so of course they said “yes, it was okay”. What did they care? I crept by, but could feel the glares. I made no eye contact with anybody. At the gas station, naturally, I was told that they were all out. I asked if I could just stay there and sleep next to the bike in the parking lot, it seemed like the safest option, and I was down to only one bar on my gas gauge. He told me that I could get through to the town of Betanzos where there were a couple of hotels.

The road was strewn with boulders and people milling about, from either being stranded or because of the “excitement” of the event. Once in town I was pointed to a hotel. They had a room for $3 and I could bring my bike in through the front door to park in the back. Oh, and the owner of the hotel had a few liters of gas that he would sell me in the morning. That was the good news. The bad news was that my bike was not going to fit through the door, and up the salmon ladder-like flight of stairs. I would have to unload the bike and take off one pannier. I loosened my mirrors and fished my handlebars through the doorframe and powered up the stairs, while both bar-ends scraped each wall. I looked to the hotelier see if he minded the scratches, but he just nodded.

The hotel was full of stranded workers already in bed at 9:00. I locked all the gear to the bike and pulled the cover over it. I took only my remaining cookies and water up the two flights of stairs to my room. I had two more cookies, stripped down to my Capilenes (long underwear), relieved my bladder into an empty water bottle, and fell into bed. Usually, after a hard day of riding, there is always a sense of accomplishment, but on this day I had none. I couldn’t remember being this tired.

At the crack of dawn, the Mrs. of the house said that I would be able to get through the blockades. I loaded up the bike and bought 10-liters of gas out of a jerry can. I followed in the direction of the crowd of people. Again, I was the only vehicle moving, I thought there would have been a line of cars and trucks wanting to get out. As I passed the people walking I started to hear disparaging remarks being shouted at me, it was a tense scene. Then I approached a line of men, four deep, standing across the road. It sure didn’t look like the blockade was over, but I was not going to stop to ask. With my feet, I paddled the bike up to the crowd in first gear, the choke still on. I couldn’t let the bike stall, or to get pushed over, I just needed to move through the crowd slowly, never allowing the bike to come to a stop. Men instantly gathered around the bike. It was obvious that many of them had been up all night drinking. Many started grabbing at the gear on the bike acting as though they were taking something, shouting who knows what at me. Thankfully, the crowd continued to part and once there was no one in front of me, I hit the throttle, half hoping that I was dragging someone behind me.

Since being home the blockades lasted another 16-days, with tourist being trapped the whole time. The town was seriously close to running out of all food and drinkable water. I was lucky, my inconvenience was minor compared to what others had to endure.

Currently, there are blockades throughout the department of Ouro.


On July 19th, I somewhat reluctantly left Sucre during a window of good weather to head down to Argentina with the sole purpose of initiating Bolivia’s arduous visa extension process. Bad weather had been passing through on a weekly basis, and there had been a road blockade a week prior in the southern Bolivian district of Tarija.

However, once I was on the bike I was fine. The day warmed up and I was reminded how good it felt to be “going somewhere”. I would also be traveling on familiar roads and stopping in familiar towns with familiar hotels, which offered a since of ease about the trip. Once in Argentina, I would be meeting up with some past acquaintances that I never thought I would see again.

The road to Potosi was paved and clear, the weather perfect, south of there it would be dirt roads and construction all the way to the border. I would stay the night in Tupiza in the same hotel as I did back in October. It had ample parking and was poplar with overland travelers and jeep tour operators so it would be a good place to get information on road and weather conditions from the northbound travelers.

Do to recent rains, many of the riverbeds had some "flow" to them. In Bolivia, the usually dry riverbeds are incorporated into the road system. Nothing was too deep, but I did get stuck while crossing one riverbed. I just so happened to be wearing my GoPro helmet camera when it happened and was able to film it (video). It was not the most dramatic video ever shot, but what it does show, is how fast and friendly people come to your aid, even without asking. I always ride alone, but in many respects, I am never really alone.

The next day I crossed the crowded border of Argentina a La Quiaca. From there I had two hours of driving in the open plains battling some pretty strong crosswinds. Once in the mountains, I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn for the 5th, 6th, or 10th time (?) and entered the town of seven colors, Purmamarca, for a repeat visit. The next day would be an easy three-hour ride into my destination of Salta.

I had passed by the city of Salta on two previous occasions, writing it off as a congested larger city (Argentina’s 8th largest) that I thought best to avoid. I was wrong. Salta is one of the better-preserved colonial cities of Argentina, and has loads of charm. It was founded in 1582, and was a major hub between Lima, Peru and Buenos Aires, when the Spanish would transport their gold and silver laden loot from Peru and Bolivia (Potosi) in caravans to the Atlantic coast. The city is said to be the most Spanish of all Argentine cities. I thought it very reminiscent of Seville, with it’s main-square encompassed with orange trees, colonial buildings, and outside cafes. I liked it!

Friday, I got my passport stamped without incident.