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Tales from a Rolling Stone

Riding Down the World´s Most Dangerous Road

BOLIVIA | Thursday, 16 October 2008 | Views [532]

…also known as ¨Death Road,¨ but I´ll get to that a bit later.

First off, let me just mention that I´m not going to write where I´m going next because this is the second time that would be inaccurate.  Last I wrote, the plan was to head into the Peruvian Amazon... well, it was until Jen and I found out it was a 24-48 hour bus ride because the 350 miles of road was that bad.  Screw it, we figured, rather risk our lives in Bolivia than sit on a  bus for two days, so south to Bolivia we went.

First, however, we made a stop at Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia.  Man if I only knew there was a lake named Titicaca in fifth grade...

Anywho, in order to get the best of the lake we decided to take an overnight trip to check out three of the islands and do a homestay.  Although we got sun for the first time in a week and had a lovely host family, naturally I got sick just as we left shore.  And I´m talking the kind of sick you don´t want to be when you´re at a homestay and don´t have indoor plumbing.  Go friggin figure.  A nice trip in theory, but a very uncomfortable Sara.  Especially since I was already donning a cold and the 4100m altitude was kicking my ass.

Luckiy, lots of Cipro later we were still able to take off the next day and cross the border into Bolivia.  Gotta love the $135 border fee.  God Bless America.

In any case, Bolivia´s where I´ve been for the last two weeks, despite the continued travel advisory from the United States. Honestly, I´ve felt just as safe here as anywhere. It´s interesting, the second I heard the States were advising people not to travel here, I tried to get some media from somewhere else. I just don´t trust the US´ motives for its foreign policy and wanted check out other sources just to be fair. (If you want an interesting read, check out this letter home from a Peace Corps volunteer who was evacuated out of Bolivia due to the ¨danger.¨ A really fascinating firsthand account of the situation http://ain-bolivia.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=137&Itemid=32.)

Because it´s really difficult to find unbiased English media, my information came through the owner of my hostel in Bolivia: a Mohawk sporting Irishman who´s lived in Bolivia for a year and a half.

This is what he said: When Evo Morales won the presidency, he beat out a US backed guy as the first indigenous president ever to be elected. In the last two years, he has almost eradicated illiteracy in Bolivia. Moreover, he received nearly a 70% approval rating in the recent referendum. Of course, all of this stuff doesn´t make him the beacon of good and hope for all democracies, but it´s intriguing to say the least – especially when you´re government plays him out to be the evil sidekick of Hugo Chavez. For example, I know one of the reasons the US / people are suspect of him is because he wants to nationalize the land. On one hand many people are very much against it, but on another, a vast majority of the land here is owned by a small, small minority of families (mostly descendents from ex-Nazis who fled to Bolvia after WWII) who don´t even use it. As the poorest country in Latin America, the people need this land. That´s where it gets tricky. There are great ideas in the new constitution he is proposing, but also difficult things like the nationalization of land. Muy interesante.

Like I said though, I feel very safe here so no worries. (Apparently a big reason Morales kicked out the US Ambassador is because he met with a prisoner in San Pedro Prison thought to be a part of a deadly attack the day before it happened. But I´m guessing you didn´t hear that in the States...)

But anywho, about Bolivia. Jen and I arrived to La Paz a week before she had to take off. The city is enormous and looks like an inverted San Francisco with all the hills going down. Ironically, it´s the highest capital in the world at 3500 feet. It´s incredible, you walk up three stairs and are winded. And I thought I was at least kind of in shape.

 Anywho, with very little time, we almost immediately jumped on a really uncomfortable 20 hour bus ride up to Rurrenabaque (flat tires, windy and bumpy roads included), where we sought to find a jungle tour from there. Although we booked our tour, even after the company tried to go back on their quote and say it cost something else (very typical and really annoying), the timing of it couldn´t have been any less spectacular. Although the pampas are known for their cobras, anacondas, and all sorts of other wildlife, we unfortunately made it during a time where there was tons of rain, so while the animals hid the monkeys at our camp site stole our food. (Who knew monkeys fancied mayonnaise?) Three days of tramping in the Bolivian bush and fishing for piranhas later, we made it back to Rurrenabaque in just enough time to find out that our flight back was cancelled since the dirt runway had turned to mud, and Jen and I had to book it back to La Paz for her flight on another 20 hour awful bus ride.

Needless to say, this was not the best last week for Jen.

After arriving at the airport immediately after hopping off the bus, I returned to the hostel alone. Deciding that it´d be in my best interest to improve my Spanish since my official translator was gone, I signed up for private lessons, and figured I´d stay in La Paz awhile since there was a ton of things to do and a great night life (something Jen and I had not partaken in anywhere else because it was too expensive).

For the next few days, I studied Spanish for three hours a day and learned the city of La Paz, hitting up Witches (overpriced) Market and the Coca Museum. Coca, the leaf that cocaine is made out of is very important in Bolivian society and you can see people selling it and chewing in on the streets daily. Not providing the same effects as the concentrated powder, the leaf not only helps allow more oxygen into the lungs - very helpful when up so high - but also relieves things like headaches and gives people the energy to work longer. In Potosi, the city I´m in now, the mining industry thrived for hundreds of years because the miners were more productive by chewing coca.

Making my mouth numb when I tried it, I decided it was best kept for others as continual use of it will rot out your teeth. Delish.

Although I had high hopes of checking out various museums in Bolivia´s capital, including the aforementioned San Pedro Prison, a prison that is still in use and where it is common to get tours provided by inmates, sadly I did not get that far. While I was pretty intent on hitting it up, another American brought to my attention that a) it was illegal, which actually didn´t bother me but b) tourists often go to buy cocaine, and c) I am American and there is no longer a US Embassy. Okay, so maybe not the best of ideas. I guess that if I want to check out a prison I´m going to have to get arrested first, so maybe I´ll just leave that experience to the chicken thieves.

Lastly, I spent the weekend biking down The World´s Most Dangerous Road, given the name because of the 300 fatalities/year going off of the 600m drop. The road´s not paved, is characterized by hairpin turns and is about 3.5m wide in some parts to give you some idea. Not exactly the best road for two-way traffic. In any case, they opened a new road last year for cars so the danger factor has reduced dramatically for bikers, but after learning that I went for the most dangerous company that operates I was still pretty unsettled riding the bumpy road down. (There´s nothing like getting ready for a bike ride down what´s called ¨Death Road¨when the owner of the hostel tells you that everyday he waits to hear about a fatality because of the dodgy bikes my company uses. Fabulous.)

I rode the brakes the whole way down.

So that brings me to today, where I just arrived in Potosi to go tour the mines that made the one-time town as large as London or Paris famous. From here, I´ll spend three days at the Uyuni Salt Flats freezing my ass off, and then back into Peru to head towards the sun. Well, I say that now but I´m pretty sure I vowed at the beginning of this post that I wouldn´t announce any future plans so I suppose we´ll see what really happens. 

Anywho, hope all is well and life moves on without me in the US. Take care and write soon.

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