Sunday, February 17, 2013

Adios Bolivia

I stayed in Potosi for long enough to remember, once again, that I am a small town kind of guy.  I was aware that the town had a tremendous history, and that the Mountain of Silver had basically given birth to the town, as well as the  New World.  I knew about the mine tours, but I am old enough to accept the fact that I am claustrophobic, and the idea of going into tunnels with lots of booze, and the odd stick of dynamite did not appeal to me.  My friends Dan and Lisa had undertaken a tour, and their record of the mine tour is an excellent read, as well, in my view a fair comment on the working conditions that Potosi men must endure in order to feed their families...

I travelled from Potosi to La Paz, the jurisdictional capital of Bolivia.  I had planned on finding a place to stay before La Paz, because I had heard horror stories about the traffic, and it was a Saturday, so I was hoping for a smaller town with a hostal before the crowded and busy streets of La Paz.  Well, what appear to be medium-sized towns on my maps did not even warrant any kind of hostal or habitacion from what I could tell.

 Before I knew it, 500 or more kilometers had flown by, and I was at the  top of the drive into La Paz, and it was 5:00 pm on a Saturday nite.  Even though it is not my style, I have learned that in order to survive the traffic mayhem of cities like La Paz, one must be aggressive, and also imagine that your bike is much slimmer than she really is.  I don't like lane splitting because  of my panniers, and generally, I obey the traffic rules.  As one of my riding partners said to me: "You are not in Canada now," and it is very true that the give and take of North American driving has gone by the wayside months ago.

 It amazes me when I reflect on these kind of situations that I actually have managed to maneuver my way through some of the incredible traffic jams that I have encountered. Thanks to Mr. Garmin, I was able to find a decent accommodation, with parking for Blondy nearby.  I hadn't realized how far I had ridden during the day, as well as not recognizing that I was averaging about 3200 to 3400 meters in elevation for the past 700 kilometers or so.  I was bagged, and glad of a hot shower.  I had chewed cocoa leaves during the day, as I had bought a bag from a street vender in Potosi.  The cocoa leaves certainly help with the altitude sickness which comes from travelling at these altitudes.  While I had a lingering headache, the cocoa tends to minimize ones' appetite, and I had not really had a good meal all day.  I had been very aware of the building thunderheads and black skies which seemed to be about an hour behind me for the past few days.  Clearly the rainy season has begun in this part of the world, and every nite it has poured.  Fortunately, I have not encountered any Vancouver Island style frog chokers yet, so I am glad of the night time rains.

The rains were instrumental in my decision to not visit the salt flats south of Potosi, as I was not about to subject Blondy, or myself, to water-filled roads or salt flats.  I had also decided that I was not going to do a three day tour out onto the flats, so I have to live with that decision, although I think that they are iconic of a bike tour of Bolivia for most riders.  Oh well, as long as the Bolivians don't decide to let some foreign company mine the lithium under the flats, they will be there for the next generation of riders to see and enjoy.

My stay in La Paz was not as refreshing as I had hoped, as the hotel had a disco in what seemed to me to be the next room, and I swear that the endless thump thump beat of the disco was the exact same one that driven me a bit batty in the Baja.  I think I made a rule about not staying in places with discos or bars, but under the circumstances, I was glad to be out of the crazy traffic, and glad of a hot shower.   I did a bit of a walkabout, but the streets were incredibly crowded, and a six foot gringo in riding boots stood out like a sore thumb with the Bolivians.   I did not get a very positive vibe from the La Paz streets, and after a poorly cooked chicken, I retreated for the night, to escape the downpour and the Saturday night street crazies.

 These kids are Potosi high schoolers holding what I determined was a huge pep rally.  Each school had a band of major proportions, and from what I could tell about five or six different schools, with about three or four hundred kids, mostly boys in varying states of costume and dress, paraded about the square, engaging in roaring chants, trying to outshout the other schools.  Their bands did a good job of keeping the noise level high, too.





 This little tyke was far more interested in feeding the pigeons.  The central plaza of Potsoi was a pleasant place to relax and people watch, as well as feed the birds...


Given that the city was founded in the early 1500's, it is understandable that the colonial style and the architecture are reflected throughout the downtown centro area.





An early morning pic of the ever changing geology of the area.  The folds and ruffles of Mother Earth are readily evident every where one looks in Bolivia.

 Heading North West, towards Peru..

 This range was snow-covered, and I am guessing at the 14,000 foot level...


Periodic breaks to give Blondy a rest and me a chew of cocoa kept the day going...

The morning started out with bright sun and very little cloud: a great day to be riding at 13,000 feet...

I could not get over the miles and miles of stone fences that were constructed everywhere I looked.  These fences must have taken years of man hours, and when you look for the people, the hills are barren....

 It was at this juncture, as I was taking a picture of the lama herd, that a rock went whizzing by my head and landed next to Blondy.  I looked over into the field, and this teenaged lama herder is advancing towards me, ready to throw another rock.  I am afraid I lost my cool, and blasted him with every Canadian expletive that I could think of.  I got off my bike, and started towards him asking in no uncertain terms WTF he thought he was doing and that I am only taking a photo.  I was pissed, and I am sure that he could tell that the old guy was ready to kick ass if he came any closer or threw another rock.  I had heard about Ethiopian kids throwing rocks at riders for entertainment, but I was a long way from Africa, and I was not amused.  The kid saw that I was not going to take his BS, and he retreated.  Needless to say, that was not a good step in what had been an early start to the day...



 For the next few hours, the number of lamas increased to a point that I would have to stop and let them wander across the road, as there were literally hundreds of them in different herds.








The rock thrower had rattled me, as I have not had any bad encounters of any kind prior to this.  I was thinking that the Bolivian education system was sorely lacking in teaching that brat some manners.  Or, possibly he was completely unaware of moto tourists and thought that I was some alien.  Mumble, mumble...
I stopped to take some more lama pics, and this guy wandered over to talk to me.  We were two old guys out in the middle of the Bolivian highlands talking about motos and lamas.  That small conversation restored my faith in human nature, and we even had a chuckle over nagging wives, as his stood on the other side of the road, and kept telling him to get some money from the gringo for the photo....jeez...

 He pointed out his home, which is a little shack over in the hills...


I stopped in a village for something to eat.  The chicken soup would have been great if I could have recognized what was in the soup besides the chicken wings.  The owner had place an 1948 Citroen in the main area of the restaurant.



 The weather was changing dramatically, and I wondered how many sheep would roll over when the advancing lightning storm took them out.  I was managing to keep ahead of the rains and the squalls provided for some interesting views of the landscape..



Down the road, I ran into a small village celebration.  It was a dance competition, and there were different groups competing for a dancing cup.  The boys in the band kept up and interesting and continuous rhythm for the dancers.
 Some of the guys had giant flute like instruments, and with the pan flutes, the dance music was catching.

They had their work cut out for them, as there was about 5 different dance groups....






The next group, with different costumes, preparing for the contest...


These mountains are the backdrop to La Paz, giving an idea of the elevation that these folks live and work at....



Adios La Paz...



 Lake Titicaca...






I headed towards Lake Titicaca, northwest of La Paz.   I encountered another village group off to another celebration, as it was now Sunday.  They were all smiles and waving at the gringo, and again I felt much better about being back on the road, and out of the city, not to mention away from crazed lama herders...

Somehow, between my route falling off the map, and Mr. Garmin not really showing much detail, I arrived in Peru.  I had managed to somehow come into Peru through the backdoor. Now I blame it on simply poor signage, but I guess I should not have simply passed the huge line of trucks, and maybe broken out another map.  The Peruvians who finally got me straightened out were very good about it, and eventually I found a border post and an aduna office to get myself and Blondy into Peru.  I had to walk over the border into Bolivia to get myself stamped out, and they did not seem to care too much about where my moto was, so I was glad to be into Peru.

Every country and each culture has its own "feel", and I am by no means an expert on any of this, and generally rely on my gut to give me a sense of which way the wind blows.  On the physical side, the fact that the rains had begun, and that the very high altitudes of Bolivia were not being kind to me, I was somewhat relieved to be back in Peru.  The Peruvian border people were kinder and gentler, and I believe that as soon as I entered Peru, people were smiling and certainly giving me more of the thumbs up, with respect to the moto, than I had seen in Bolivia.  I was feeling very good  about being back in Peru, and the border crossing had been confusing, but manageable, and I was getting very close to Puno, where I had been earlier in the year..

As I was rolling along, up came another police check.  I had been through lots of these in different countries.  My practice was too open my helmet, let the boys see the grey, give them a thumbs up, and roll on.  Not this time, as the young cop had me roll over and stop.  Hmm, I thought, this is different..

Sure enough, we went through the dance of passport, bike papers, and oh "where is your insurance?"
Hmm, I thought to myself, I think I have just run into the bad cops of Peru that I and Uli had missed  the last time through.  I explained that the Aduna at the border had told me that as it was Sunday, I could purchase insurance in Puno, on Monday.  The young cop was not having any of this, and called over his buddy, who spoke some English, and also had an electronic translator, in case I didn't  have one.

"Mr. Willis, no, Mr. Wilson (sigh), it seems we have a problem.."  Needless to say, they had their song and dance all figured out, and they even hauled out their infractions book and pointed out very clearly to me that it was necessary to have insurance, and that I could not continue my journey. He very politely showed me that the fine for this was the figure 444.  I said something like "444 pesos? Shit!", forgetting the sole is the Peruvian coin of the realm.  He said, " no, 444 dolares"  Hmnn, I thought to myself, this is not going to end well.  I repeated my story about no insurance on Sundays, which is accurate.  I asked if I could go back to the town and purchase insurance...."Mr. Willison,,,we have a problem (now comes the bite} but it can be solved.."  We eventually negotiated a deal at $150 soles, which much to my shame, is way over the top in terms of cop bribes.    I read on Horizons Unlimited that other riders had gotten away with $10 sole bribes.
The funny thing about the whole encounter is that these two assholes did not anger me as much as the rock throwing crazy had.

 While there is no way that I condone this blatant highway robbery of tourists, I recognize that as long as there are idiots like me who pay the bad cops, the practice will continue.  The difficult thing is that while this kind of encounter is going down in a foreign country, and you are alone without the language skills or witnesses, it is hard to take the high road.  When I said that I hope he could guarantee me that the other cops down the road would not bother me, and how about radioing them, he said that the other cops would not understand...

So, prior today, I was feeling rather smug about my dealings with authorities down here.  Up to now the cops had been helpful and given good directions and not appeared threatening in anyway.  I guess I can now join the rest of the riders who have been ripped off by corrupt cops.

On a lighter note, Blondy and I had another falling down situation as I was leaving La Paz.  Perhaps I should remember my rule about being extra careful in the first 30 minutes of a riding day, as that is when most accidents occur.  I had stayed in a hotel, and Blondy was parked in a secure underground parking lot, with a very steep incline to the street.  After I checked out, and loaded Blondy, I proceeded to leave the lot, mindful of the street traffic at the parking lot entryway.  Sure enough, between not pushing Blondy too hard into the traffic, and the early morning sputters,  She decided to stall at the top of the ramp.  Between trying to ride a stalled bike backwards down a steep ramp, applying front breaks and dabbing like crazy, we all fell down....the parking lot attendant learned that old guy tourists can swear a lot.  Because I was so pissed at myself for not giving her more throttle, and anxious about getting out of Dodge, I had dropped my bike again....