Sunday, June 5, 2011

Ruta del Che

Going away party
Cake in a box

I left Sucre on Monday June 30th and would have used the slightest excuse to stay another day or another week, but knew that would not make things any easier. On Sunday, the day before leaving, many of the kids from center came by the house to surprise me with a going away party. I had been tipped off a couple days prior but acted surprised when I swung the large wooden door open. Laughing hysterically at what they thought they had just pulled off, the children entered the expansive colonial courtyard. Eleven-year old Edmundo was carrying a cardboard box that when opened revealed a battered store-bought cake. Peering inside I asked if they had dropped the box down a flight of stairs or if it had fallen off the back of a truck. They played embarrassed as they lined up for a slice. I was presented with many homemade cards and a plastic Chinese made wall clock as a going away gift. “Ah, just what I needed!” After some photos, they scurried off to their next soccer game. There were other goodbyes during that last week in Sucre, but that is the one I will remember the most, and the one that made me want to stay the most.

The plan was to head east and then cut up north to the financial capital of Bolivia, the city of Santa Cruz. On the way I would take the dirt roads and follow the Ruta del Che and visit the last stand of Che Guevara. After a brief stay in Santa Cruz, head north on even poorer roads to complete a loop of UNESCO World Heritage Site declared Jesuit missions. The end of the loop would put me a day’s ride out from the Brazilian border at Corumba.

As Fidel Castro’s right hand man during the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara had always wanted to export the revolutionary movement to South America. Forming many of his political ideals on his own motorcycle journey throughout the continent while in his early 20s, he wanted to right the many wrongs he had witnessed. Bolivia, which borders five countries, was to be the kick-off point for the new revolution. However, many mistakes where made from the onset, and things went from bad to worse once the CIA got word of their existence.

My first night outside of Sucre I stayed in the small town of Villa Serrano. The head cold that I had been fighting worsened and settled deep into my chest and I was forced to stay a second night. The following day I headed out on smooth dirt roads with several small water crossings to navigate. Always traveling alone, I did not have any photos of me riding in the mountains of Bolivia, so I spent some extra time in the morning shooting some video (see below). The roads were fast and fun, but as I got higher onto the ridge, the road conditions deteriorated. I should have slowed down. I hit several large rocks and potholes that jarred the bike and me. Around one corner, I heard a muffled crashing sound and pulled to edge of the road. It is a terrible necessity, and overall bad feeling to have to turn over your shoulder to look up the road for parts of your bike. There, about 30-yards up the road was my right pannier. The previous welds made in Sucre, ones that I knew would only be a temporary fix, turned out to be very temporary. Luckily, I was able to re-attach the pannier and continue – though much more slowly.

Che’s ill-fated and ill-planned Bolivian campaign ended when a local villager informed the CIA trained military patrol of his whereabouts. He was captured and quickly killed while his hands where bound in a small mountaintop schoolhouse in the nothing-of-a-village, La Higuera. From there, his body was strapped to a skid of a helicopter and taken to the small town of Vallegrande. There, his body was put on display atop a laundry sink at the town’s hospital – a trophy on display for the international press.

Fearing that he would be viewed as a martyr and that his body would become a symbol for other revolutionaries, a small group of Bolivian soldiers secretly buried his body under the dirt runway of the local landing strip. For 30-years the location of his body remained a mystery, until a group of Cuban anthropologists found him in 1997, and transported his remains to Cuban where he now rests.

After visiting the now historic schoolhouse, I ventured on towards Vallegrande. The weather could not have been better, and other than tired shoulders and some coughing, it was a great day. The vistas were stunning with hazy blue mountains stacked up for as far as the eye could see. I was sad to be leaving the mountains that had become my home.

The dirt and clay roads were deeply rutted from previous rains and had dried hard and rigid, but manageable. I rolled into Vallegrande at about 3:30 and by 4:30 had checked into a $6 hotel, changed out of my riding suit and dropped off the pannier at a welding/machine shop on the outside of town. For $15 an aluminum plate would be welded to the inside panel of the box reinforcing all the weakened areas caused by previous breaks and welds. They would also machine a new mounting part that I noticed was missing from the opposing pannier. They promised the work done by noon the next day, giving me time to tour the sites of Che.

Since crossing into Mexico, Che’s presence has been a constant. His image is omnipresent. Whether it is on t-shirts, taxi or bus windows, stenciled graffiti, key chains … you name it, he is always there. I have tried to find greatness in him, reading his biography and his Bolivian journal, watching the movies, talking to Bolivians and Cubans, visiting museums and I could never really find what I was looking for. He is an icon, a man of his time and a man that was intensely committed to his ideals. He made the most of his life and I believe his intentions were honest - for this I respect his legacy. Seemingly, for a period of time, his stars aligned and he found himself in the right place at the right time and he changed history -there is no denying that fact. He has become an iconic image for college freshman and the oppressed poor everywhere. He represents change, albeit iron fist change. However, it is often overlooked that his vision of the “ideal man” was one that lived under the strictest of discipline and government control.

Last word: Some now call what is happening politically in South America, as “Che’s Revenge”. Hugo Chavez’s brand of government has spread to almost every South American government, wherever the majority of the population is indigenous and/or poor. Although, I would not call what has happened in Cuba and Venezuela a success story. What Cuba can be proud of, and largely thankful to Che, is a quality education and healthcare system. Cuba now trains young doctors from all over the world for free - even though the country cannot afford it. All Cuba asks is that graduates go back to their country and treat the rural poor. In fact, Santusa and Damian’s oldest son, Daniel, just graduated from the five-year medical program, gratis, room and board included. Now a doctor, he is back in Bolivia practicing in a small mountain village, treating people that otherwise would receive no care. Cuba also sends it’s own doctors abroad to staff clinics and hospitals where there is a shortage of physicians. In fact, the irony is not lost on the fact that Cuban doctors now staff the hospital where Che’s body was once displayed.

Here is a short video of my time on the Ruta del Che

Dos Hombres in the Land of the Lost

6:00-8:00 AM The Departure

We woke at 5:00-AM for a 5:30 departure. We left at 6:00 with enough food to last us two days, thanks to Santusa also waking up with us to prepare some food for the journey. The motorcycle was squeezed through the house gate and loaded up.

I was a bit confused as to why we were to still going ahead with the trip. The night before Damian commented that he could not get in touch with his friend, our guide, on the phone –his number was not longer in service. I asked him if we would be able to find the tracks without a guide. He said no, he had never been there before himself and did not know the way. The hike was to be three hours in and three hours out. In the chill and darkness of the morning I decided not to question our actions, besides, the damage was done I was now wide awake and nursing a mug of instant coffee.

Wearing several layers of clothes, we left Candalaria. The road would be cobblestone until Icla, then dirt to Uyuni, and rocky dirt to our destination. Several creek beds had to be crossed, with and without water, along with pockets of deep sand.

Two hours later I was waiting in the center of the village while Damian looked for his friend’s house. The village consisted of one street about three blocks long sitting at the foot of a wall of red rock. Memories of southern Utah came to me. He found the house, but his friend was not there, only his wife. In the house, a long discussion in Quechua ensued. I did not have a clue what was being said, but it was clear that the woman was not very happy to see us. Before setting off, I tried to park the bike up into their courtyard but could not get the rear wheel up and over the high curb. The crowd of 6-or-7 young boys offered no help.

8:00-10:00 The Beginning

The wife led us to a wide expansive mostly dry riverbed. She stopped there and pointed off into the far distance. It was now clear that we were proceeding without a guide. After the woman was out of earshot, I asked what was going on, “where is your friend?” “He lives in Santa Cruz now and has a new wife”, Damian replied. The tone of the conversation back at the house now made sense, but continuing without a guide did not.

The immediate goal was to follow the riverbed to where it snaked between two mountains. We came across a man with a donkey, then a group of kids in school uniforms, and a couple other men walking towards the village. I couldn’t figure out where they were coming from, where they lived. Damian asked each one for directions, but was not getting the information he needed. Finally, a man in his 30’s stopped and spoke to us, his tone seemed nicer than the rest (all conversations were in Quechua) and when it was over Damian reached into his Chuspa and gave the man a large pinched of coca leaves. “He told me that people do not want tourists coming here, and that is why the other people were not giving me the correct directions”. “GREAT”, I thought, “I just left my bike parked in the middle of a town full of unfriendlies!”

Now, about 9:00 we followed the man’s directions further up the riverbed sidestepping large rocks and boulders while crossing the stream many times. It was already quite hot and I stopped to remove a layer of clothes. (Damian never even took off his corduroy blazer or wool hat.) An hour later, we came across several dogs barking viciously. We picked up some rocks and sticks in preparation. Damian called out to a woman that was walking towards a primitive looking shelter. It took awhile for her to warm up, but finally she too got a pinch of coca. She had her hands full now, so I reached into my backpack for a small baggie of the leaves that I had picked up as a free sample from some coca growers at a coca fair in Parque Bolivar the day prior. It would be easier for her to carry, plus I thought it might be a beneficial gesture if the coca came from the gringo tourist. She warmed up some more.

They talked and she led us past her house, past the goat pen to a smaller dry riverbed. There we waited while she came back with a bowl of boiled corn on the cob, or choclo. She also brought with her two fossilized shells and a hunk of solid copper. She sat and shared some of our boiled potatoes and oranges. It was a needed rest under a tree and we said good-bye, after I agreed to her asking price of 30 Bs ($4.20) for all three relics. I thought how I should have brought my GPS unit, not only to potentially save our lives, but also to sell the coordinates to the Chinese for the copper find.

10:00-12:30 The Ascent

At 10:00, we left the riverbed and started climbing per the woman’s directions. The new plan was that we were going to take a more direct route up and over the mountain in front of us, and then return by using a system of riverbeds back to town. We started climbing, and continued to climb. There was only a goat path to follow and goats do not use switchbacks to ascend, they get from A to B using the most direct path – in this case straight up. Being that Damian must be part goat, and well acclimated to the intense Bolivian sun; he had little difficulty with the climb. I was a different story. While in the riverbed I was able to wet a bandana in the stream and place it under my hat, but the climb had taken us away from any water. It was obvious that I was not prepared or equipped for a hike like this in the heat of the day and at 11,000-ft. By 12:00 I was experiencing symptoms of heat exhaustion. My head under my black cap was boiling and I was becoming lethargic and nauseous and we still did not know exactly where we were going.

The terrain was sparse and rocky with nothing but cactus, scrub brush and a few small pepper trees baking under the midday sun. The rock and ground looked of ancient lava. We came across another goat herder and asked for directions. We were directed to a lone tree further up on the ridge. I told Damian that I did not think I could go on. We agreed to make it to the tree and decide there. Otherwise, the only way down was the way we came, which was steep and of loose rock. The only good thing about the ascent was that when turning around the views were stunning -full of red mountains, lush green foliage along the rivers and a clear blue sky. By the time I made it to the lone tree, well behind Damian, I was completely spent, useless. The high ridge dropped off into a deep crevice with a couple of thatched roofed homes at the bottom with crops of corn.

The wall of the opposing mountain was completely different from what we had seen all day. It was not desolate landscape of lava rock and cactus, but of smooth red rock dotted with tall Palm trees. “Palm Trees?” There was a creek running between the two mountains at the bottom of the “crevice”, the terrain along the water was green and fertile. The quest was over for me, but I had to admit, if we were going to find dinosaur tracks, there could not be a more primitive or bizarre looking setting as this. It was like cresting the ridge and finding the Land of the Lost.

12:30-1:00 Tracks Discovered

I followed Damian down to where the houses were and he told me to rest under the tree while he walked up the trail where the locals said the tracks were. I agreed, and collapsed under a tree. A small boy in ragged clothes stood and stared at me, probably never have seen a dying gringo before, or at least not one so pathetic. Damian came back just as I was dozing off. “The tracks are about three minutes away”, he said. “Verdad?” “Seriously?”

The tracks were definitely impressive, much more than I had anticipated, and along with the surrounding scenery it was truly like traveling back in time. There was even evidence of an old Incan irrigation system carved into the rock next to the spring that was feeding the stream. This water source had apparently been supporting life for many, many years, and there was evidence of this all around us that told the story. With the palm trees and ample shade, the area was quite tranquil. After a few photos, and it already being 1:00, it was time to leave. After more advice from one of the resident families, we were off to follow a system of dry riverbeds until reuniting with the main river. The estimated time back to the bike was five hours.

1:00-5:30 The Return

We followed dry riverbeds for three hours before reuniting with the main river. During this time clouds started rolling in. The relief from the sun was divine, but then the rain started. The nausea would not go away. Once back in the larger riverbed we had to wait out a thunderstorm under a clump of trees at the river’s edge.

5:30-7:30 The Road Home

The motorcycle was how I left it, untouched. The woman came out to greet us and seemed to be in a much better mood. Damian and I agreed not to tell her, or anyone else who asked, that we had found the tracks – their secret would be safe with us. (However, it is just a matter of time before the secret gets out and the tour groups show up.)

We blazed home and arrived back at the house at 7:30, a 13-hour day. Santusa had a plate of pasta waiting for me and Damian and I shared a beer together. By now, we were scrolling through my camera’s photos and laughing as we told the rest of the family what we had gotten ourselves into. Damian even admitted how tough it was, which boosted my spirits and ego some. I give him full credit for finding the tracks and getting us back safely, even if it was a bit longer than a six-hour hike.

Here is a video I made of the trip for Damian, Dos Hombres