I’ve lived several different lives on this South American bike tour. If you’ve read past posts then you know I tend to wax poetically, so I forgive you for thinking this intro a neon metaphor to prove a point, but I mean exactly what I write: I’ve lived several lives. People have opened their homes and hearts to me; my time with them has affected me in ways I’m just beginning to understand as time passes, as new perspectives contrast against the old. Like a collage on two wheels, a piece of each person stays with me. I’ve been a fireman, a policeman, a rebel sympathizer, a medicine man that evokes jungle spirits, a curious child awed by technology, an ex-pat awed by the Third World, an ecovillager, a Venezuelan socialite drinking rooftop martinis, an environmentalist in a sea of socialism, a humble fisherman, a Peruvian cheese maker whose family was threatened by terrorists, an Amazonian barge captain, a lonely widower, a man lost in love, just to name a few.
These lives are connected, fused even, to the bike lifestyle not because I go from place to place and have the chance to redefine myself wherever I am—that can be done by any form of travel—but because the bike specifically sprouts different mes by bringing the in-betweens into focus and to the forefront the forgotten peoples that didn’t make the guidebook (the same ones who have never met a foreigner). The quiet lull that would normally be considered down time on a bus or even in an airport has become the very purpose of my travels, not the two ends of a line that are where I began and where I will end. Since Cochabamba—where I stayed for a week to attend an environmental conference—I’ve added the lives of volunteer, coca worker, and pro-autonomy Bolivian rancher to the different shades of me.
It was difficult to leave the Sustainable Bolivia (Bolivia Sustenible) volunteer home where I arrived to the front gate unannounced and was given garden space to pitch my tent. Sustainable Bolivia houses young people from all over the world who work for organizations that promote economic and environmental sustainability. It was a nice balance to attend the conference, soak up opinions that spanned the spectrum, then discuss their practicality with people who have first-hand experience with development issues. Every evening I’d return home to a communal meal atop a wooden table for ten, several bottles of wine the centerpiece, an industrial steel bowl that never arrived counter-clockwise to me with salad left in it, and lively bilingual conversations that would, more often than not, spill into the nearby bars until late, depending on the day. As with their work, fun is taken seriously in this two story plantation-style home surrounded by green and filled with people destined to do great things.
A Brit and an American from the house had biked the 236 miles (380 km) from Cochabamba to Santa Cruz, the final Spanish-speaking city before I cross the Brazilian border and revert to baby talk in Portuguese. Just outside the city they mentioned a challenging four hour climb to 11,482 feet (3,500 m), which I dismissed silently as a just warm-up to my day. Mid-conversation, I defiantly decided to picnic at the highest point, exposed to the cold Altiplano air, my spread of grapes and peanut butter sandwiches clinging to the rock face as the wind whistled in disapproval. Still surrounded by Cochabamba’s eternal spring I imagined this a masochistic celebration of sorts, letting the wind pierce my skin one last time a forced memory of what I won’t miss, an attempt to imprint the sad yet mystically grey skies permanently onto my mind before Brazil’s permanent sun, to mark triumphantly the last time I’d shiver after so many hypothermic highland nights. (The actual picnic was less dramatic: un-rinsed red grapes and square bread onto which I spread peanut butter with my fingers, a lake in the forefront). From Santa Cruz onward the landscape is all tropical trees, unknown fruits, a new European language, and flatness that deserves nothing less than 20 kmph.
More exciting than half-a-day of climbing mountains at 5 mph (8 kmph), the two hour downhill toward Villa Tunari was the longest, most exciting descent yet. It descended immediately from the Altiplano overpass into a winding road that stretched past the sub-tropical trees with thick bark and powerful trunks; past the flat coca plots carved into the vertical, rain-soaked mountains; through lush canyons and over several rivers with sandy beaches, until all vegetation grew from one level ground to one level height, the trees now with spines and scales, more exotic and tropical as the East became me—or I became the East—, where plants sweat in the sun and bees flirt with flowers.
At one point during the descent it began to rain a rain that only those from the tropics can understand: everything was dry, then everything was wet. Just like that. The humidity forms around you; the drops do not come only from the sky. This magical dimension of wet forced me to pass the semi-trucks with extra care as they braked around sharp corners, their heat a noticeable three-second blast that warmed my soaked body when I’d squeeze beside them.
Surprisingly vivid even now, I remember one straight-away that ended in a wall of white fog, where trees arched over the roadway and raindrops fell from leaves like perspiration. My brakes too were wet; a melted rubber sludge had built up around their casings. Emergency stops were twenty feet minimum, unless I dragged my shoes’ sole against the asphalt. I began to pass a descending truck on the left just as another was climbing out of the mist. Tracing the center line, an obvious solid no-passing yellow, I soon found myself wedged between the two trucks. I imagined an oven baking me evenly, the overheated engines red coils and the trailers’ aluminum walls broiler pans that bounced warmth back into me. For an instant I wished—forgetting how I had enjoyed the earlier wide-open views—to stay in this metal alley of central heating until the lowland tropics, or at least until the rain let up. As quickly as it appeared, it disappeared, and I was once again rocketing down the slick highway toward an unknown jungle.
Several days later I arrived to a sleepy town called Buena Vista, just one day’s ride from Santa Cruz. This is what I do when entering a city for the night: I seek out the main plaza—a Spanish architectural gem sadly missing in many U.S. cities—, ask a taxi driver or gas attendant for directions, pedal in the vague direction they give me (“It’s that way,” an arm sweeping across the horizon), find a park bench near the fountain that is eternally streaked a pigeon white, wave the juice señora in my direction, breathe deep, drink deep, and comatose into a state of serious people-watching in which I read people like newspapers, see their memories, hear their thoughts—all without a single word exchanged between us. It’s a hobby, like guessing nationalities. I finished my orange juice, went to the municipality to ask permission to camp behind their building, was granted a grassy area by a man who used me as a Spanish-English dictionary to learn surrounding objects’ names (“Arbol?” Tree. “Pared?” Wall.), then returned to plaza for an outdoor coffee, success in my pocket.
This is when I met Fred and Nena (see “Bolivia Divided” post), the couple who invited me to their ranch the night before arriving to Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz is the largest, most modern city in Bolivia’s eastern jungles. Before visiting I was told just five things: 1) there is a downtown park with sloths in its trees; 2) if mugged at gunpoint throw your cellphone in the air and punch the man in the face when he goes to catch it; 3) the local Cambas—Santa Cruz residents—don’t want to separate from Bolivia, they want autonomy, like Quebec in Canada; 4) the girls are the most beautiful in the country; and 5) it’s the last place I could apply for a Brazilian visa before the border. Other than these five facts, Santa Cruz did not register on my fun radar, not even a blip on the perimeter of interesting. In short, I was going to just pass through.
Here I am though, settled into the seventh floor of my Couchsurfing host’s white-walled, guarded apartment complex mesmerized by how the clouds turn pink and the distance mountains become a hazy purple at sunset. Watching the round-about traffic and a skyscraper slowly illuminate with flicks of switches, one room at a time, until the building is an over-sized circuit board have become a nightly routine as I wait for my host to return from work, to hear about her day, to tell her these types of thoughts. Six nights now I’ve meditated this scene; it has yet to grow old.
Though the city continues to be just another city, the people I’ve met have made my stay worthwhile, among them a Canadian-Indian-Pakistani environmental professional, a Swiss engineer on a South America sabbatical, a Venezuelan juggler and extreme unicyclist covered in tattoos, and a 60 year-old Chilean woman backpacker who is more than a bit out of touch with reality. We’re all sharing the same downtown apartment. A Colombian friend with whom I tried to sneak into Machu Picchu arrived today; a French-Canadian friend of a friend arrives tonight. It should be an interesting weekend.
Monday I catch a train to the Brazilian border.