The Daily Grind
A Cyc-o-path Loose in South America
A Motivational Book About Cycle Touring Through South America
A Book by Bob Lutsky
"Life expands according to your willingness to go beyond the comfort zone
and having the courage to leave the familiar"
A Bus Through Peru And Bolivia
and A Ride On The Death Train
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We arrived around mid day at the Ecuador/Peru border. Time to change busses.
Often times buses don't cross boarders so its necessary to get out and walk
across the frontier. My bike is still in the box, and weighs almost 70 pounds
which should prove to be real easy to carry on the mile walk across the border.
This problem I'll have to deal with later, first I need to get to the box.
The driver locked the luggage compartment and demanded 100,000 sucres, or
about 20 dollars. I was not told this before the trip began. After all the
whole bus fare was $20, which of course included that great meal. Apparently
You can bring 100 kilos of potatoes, goats or pigs for free, and of course
children go for free, but a bike costs you double the fare. Without
having the language, I called the office in Quito to confirm my licensed
bandit's motives. They said it was the decision of the driver as to the
amount. Well after delaying him two hours of his precious sleep time and
much haggling, he agreed to $10. One problem down, 30 million to go.
The border was one mile from there - a great distance when carrying such
baggage. There are countless taxis willing and insisting to take you but
the word taxi does not exist in the vocabulary of a budget traveler.
Fortunately, after about 100 yards of carrying this burdensome box, a child
about 8 years old offered to take it in his home-made wheelbarrow for
60 cents. I put my box on his cart, but he could barely lift it, but I smiled
at his valiant efforts. So without hesitation I took one side and he took the
other and in 45 minutes we covered the mile dash to the border. I gave him
a dollar and indicated that I did not want change and he rewarded me with
the biggest smile. To see this youthful, industrious entrepreneur really
impressed me. These people here have very little but they sure know how
to make the most of what they have and they're not looking for any
handouts. As I would come to learn in the coming months, they actually
have so much more than we do. Family and friends are more important than
work and career. That does not mean that they neglect work, they just have
a better sense of priorities. Also, they have a genuine kindness and a
sincere interest in other people and a patience for foreigners that goes
beyond anything I've ever witnessed at home.
Customs was the usual routine - unlike our borders, you can freely cross
back and forth all you want. No one stops you. Actually, it takes quite
an effort to even find the customs office but you must have an exit stamp
from one country before you can get an entrance stamp in the next. It's
easy to get into a country without stamps, but there are numerous checkpoints
along the roads and if you don't have the proper stamps things can get
very difficult (as if they weren't already).
With a fresh Peru stamp, about 10 of us from the bus shared an old 65 Chevy
for about a dollar each, driven by another industrious local entrepreneur.
With the bike box tied to the roof all 10 of us crammed into this jalopy and
rode the 12 miles to the next town, where we stepped into the next south
American bus experience. It's about 18 hours down the long, albeit paved
road along the coast. Fortunately you are always several miles away from
the coast so you aren't subjected to having to look at any glorious
ocean views along the way. Nothing but sand on both sides but at least we
have the meals to look forward to. Amazingly enough, the meals were much
better this time and there was even a movie in English. After the film
they passed out a bingo card to everyone and since I knew most of my numbers
in Spanish I was able to participate. It seemed like it was a long time
before anybody won which is why I was the first to shout bingo but the reason
why it was so long was because in S. Am., in order to win, you can't just
have 5 across - you must have completely filled your card. Everyone thought
it was rather amusing - another foolish gringo trick, but they awarded me
with a consolation Pepsi for the effort.
I was quite anxious to get cycling but there was still a ways to go to
Bolivia. We arrived in Lima to a 5 hour wait for the next bus to Arequipa.
I secured the bike and ventured out to a market to find some food for the
next bus trip, just in case we got served another Marshmallow Surprise. In
front of this huge market there were several women sitting on stools changing
money, yet there were no tourists around. This implies that the local
people were doing most of their business in American dollars, exchanging
them for the local currency only when needed. Each woman had approximately
$20,000 in cash, mostly $100 bills, and possibly an equal amount of Soles
in her pouch pocket. I didn't see any police around but I'm quite sure that
someone was looking after them.
After the simple exchange without any paperwork or lines and a good fair
rate of exchange, I popped into the market to buy some groceries. I was
looking forward to another exciting bus experience so with a few treats in
hand and about 2 gallons of water, I trudged back through the city to
the bus station. It was a long night bus ride to Arequipa in Southern
Peru. We arrived at 6:30 in the morning and the next bus was scheduled
to leave at 6:00 PM - isn't that special? Thankfully, the bus station was
peaceful. Unlike the bus to Arequipa which was somewhat less luxurious than
the others. Shortly after we left Arequipa the road conditions deteriorated.
The road was unbelievable. Huge rocks, holes and extremely dusty. The
average bus speed was 15 mph. Feeling sleepy I looked around and saw the last
6 rows of seats were left empty. I wondered why, but without giving it much
thought I went back to stretch out. After 10 minutes I couldn't take it
any more. I was bounced around so much my insides felt like they were in
a blender. My stomach flew up into my head as I continually bounced
12-18 inches off the seat. I had to give up my comfort and return to my
seat. Sometimes there's a good reason for seats to be left empty.
They showed a film (Braveheart) but the rattling and banging
of the bus drowned out all the sound and the continuous bouncing made it
difficult to focus on the screen. But it's just as well for we were climbing
into the Andes once again and as the temperature inside the bus went below
freezing I had other things to worry about. For example I remembered to
stow my sleeping bag and sweater in the luggage compartment so I don't
have to worry about anything like sleep or over heating till morning.
I'm new at this bus thing so I'm allowed to make some mistakes. By morning
I was wishing I had a chisel or a blender so I could make a few snow cones
with all the water I brought. I could put a few apples under my arm pits
till they defrosted enough to squeeze the juice over the ice. I keep
forgetting we are in the tropics, it was so hot when we left Arequipa. As the
sun comes up we arrive in Puno. Time to do the bus change thing again and
go to the border. We board a new bus and drive to the Peru customs office.
We must all get out and go through the customs thing. I come out of the
customs office and no bus. I walk towards town a bit away from the border
and there are about 100 busses that all look alike. I can't find the one
I came in on anywhere and as always no one knows anything. After about
30 worry filled minutes of searching I return to the border and here
it comes from the opposite direction naturally. Another couple of minutes
and I would of missed it. Back on the bus we pass into Bolivia, get our
entrance stamp and we're off.
Once in Bolivia the road improved and so did my spirits. The beautiful
ride across the alti-plano, and around lake Titicaca made it all seem worth
while. With the smooth road and lack of sleep the night before. I soon fell
into a deep sleep. Several hours later I woke up, looked out the window and
saw the most impressive sight I've seen on this trip, 2nd only to the pink
marshmallow of course. 1500 feet below with houses and buildings rising up
all sides of a huge crater was the capital city of LaPaz Bolivia. At 12000
feet above sea level its the highest national capital. I was in awe, my mouth
hung open all the way around and down down down into the city center. The
last 20 minutes of this bus trip is one I'll not soon forget. It will be
even more impressive when I cycle this same road 6 months from now. Everyone
should visit La Paz at some point in their life. WOW! We arrive at the bus
station and for the next 2 hours right there on the curb, I decide to
completely assemble the bike and pack up all the gear. The box which looks
like it just went through WW 2 served its purpose well. To my surprise after
all that travel and bone jarring bus rides, the only damage was a broken brake
and a lost screw. I always knew I had a screw loose somewhere. After a few
minor repairs I pumped up the tires strapped things down and headed of into
this amazing city. First I changed money, and at this time its 5 bolivianos to
the dollar, then I found a hotel had a shower and fell onto the bed and began
to ponder where I was in the world.
The next 3 days were spent resting my bones, my mind, and my soul as well as
planning, thinking and trying to get my stomach to like and appreciate
south American food and water. In LaPaz, right on the street it's possible
to buy fresh squeezed orange, apple carrot or papaya juice for about 20
cents. It's soooo good! Also dinner in a restaurant in the market costs about
a dollar. Its also possible to find more modern restaurants for about 3
or 4 dollars a meal. But no matter what you do you will likely ingest
small amounts of the local water. So for the first three weeks I had a
slightly unsettled tummy which meant I never had a trouble going to the
toilet. By the second month, I drank water and ate food from everywhere and
never had a problem, knock on wood.
One thing missing from the south American diet is vegetables. They seem
to have a phobia of any food with color, commonly referred to as animal food.
Their idea of a salad is a thin slice of tomato with a sliver of onion
next to it, neither of which anyone would ever eat. The meal is always
basically the same, soup meat and rice.
After a few days in LaPaz I met Stuart, a fellow cyclist from New York who
was also on his way to cycle from Ushuaia to Ecuador. He is a big guy, about
6 foot 5 inches, long hair, a beard a cute smile and a good sense of humor.
We decided to travel together. We spent all afternoon playing foosball and
table soccer. It's a very popular thing down here. There are tables everywhere
but most are not in the best of condition. Many have dents on the field, one
leg is shorter than the other, the ball isn't completely round and there
is usually one or two players missing, otherwise each table is perfect. However
you look at it the handicap is usually equal for all. When I see a figure missing
I always think someone must of been very angry at him, possibly for missing a shot,
and thus removed him from the game probably with a hammer or something. They
take their soccer very seriously down there.
I was all set to cycle out of the city when I learned that El Nino inflicted
heavy rains west of LaPaz and that several roads were washed out. This
created many problems with food and water supplies. They told us it would be
best to take a bus and train to the Brazil boarder and start cycling from
there. As I was still unfamiliar with the land, a little afraid and overly
cautious, I took the advice. It turned out to be good advice.
The bus to Santa Cruz was routine but a big problem arose trying to get the
bikes off the bus. The driver wanted us to pay double for the bikes. I had
already paid in LaPaz but apparently to wrong person. A local guy from
LaPaz, Marco, who spoke English helped explain the situation, but it was
a huge argument that lasted several hours. Finally after much hassle and
delay, they said forget it. Marco also followed me to the train station
and helped buy me a train ticket which can be a very difficult thing to do.
It's always over-booked and very crowded. We got in line several hours
before they were to start selling tickets and people started crowding
around just as they opened the window at the ticket counter. We still
had to fight and push people out of the way. Many tried to get in front
of us, but Marco pushed them back and shouted something to them in Spanish.
He said you have to fight for everything here. Traveling in third world
countries is a battle of attrition. I can't wait to get on my bike.
After paying the usual bike tax, and carefully watched it being loaded
on the train, I got on the train and found my seat. This very seat
that I fought so hard to get was not only wet with some sticky foreign
substance but also as comfortable as an inverted pin cushion. Despite that,
I was happy to have it. It's about 100 degrees, no dining car, no
air-conditioning and the train doesn't go fast enough to generate any
breeze. The best part is that if you accidentally fall off the train, you
can easily get right back on. This train is actually labeled the death train,
not because of bandits or landslides that so often plague other Bolivian
trains but because so many people die on it each year from dehydration, heat
exhaustion or just plain boredom from the slow, seemingly never ending trip.
I'm happy to say that no one died on this particular run of the death train
however, there were a few interesting experiences worth sharing. I noticed
earlier in my conversations with Marco that he had a habit of dropping the
last letter of peoples names. Something I discovered but never questioned while
Stuart never noticed despite being called 'Stuar' several times. One night
'Stuar' and Marco went off to sleep and all the lights were turned off in our
car. I noticed that in 2 cars ahead, the lights were still on, so forward
I went. Don't ask why but in south America, 'why' is not important. Because
all the seats were occupied, I laid down on the floor and began to read for
I was not yet tired. But I soon discovered that I needed a pillow or
something to increase the comfort factor, for any change in any way would
accomplish that. I went back to our car to grab something from my bag but
my stuff was under Stuart's. I didn't think he would mind if I borrowed a
sweatshirt or sweater for a few hours, actually I think he would mind more
if I woke him up shuffling stuff around to get my sweater. I grabbed the
first sweatshirt I found in Stuart's bag and headed back to the lighted car.
I laid back down on the floor and began to read. About half an hour later
Stuart wakes up and starts looking for something in his pack when he notices
that his favorite sweatshirt is missing. This being Bolivia and his first
time in South America all his paranoia about crime kicks into high gear.
In a semi-panic state he woke Marco up and asked him where his shirt was.
Marco said, "Oh Robber was here in the night and took something". Stuart
automatically thinks to himself that he's been robbed. Marco said "Do
you want to go look for Robber?" Stuart responds with some uneasiness, OK.
Together they go forward one car and Marco shines his flashlight around
and says "Robber isn't here, do you want to go to the next car to look for
Robber?" Again with some apprehension Stuart says OK. They arrive in the
car I'm in and as soon as the door opens they take a few steps and Marco
points down on the floor at me and says somewhat loudly, "There's robber!"
They tell me the story and return to their car and we're all amused at
the misunderstanding. Stuart was going over all kinds of scenarios and
a little worried about what would happen when he met the robber especially
with the total misconception we have about south America.
Over the coarse of the next hour, as I was reading, I noticed the light
which consisted of a long fluorescent bulb along the ceiling of the car
was gradually getting dimmer, I didn't think too much of it till it
actually got too dark to read. So I glanced up to see what the problem
was. The light was densely covered with mosquitoes so thick it blocked out
the light. The first thing I thought was this is malaria territory and
I don't have anti malaria pills which is ok because I forgot my mosquito
repellant. Funny thing about traveling, the thing that I was far more
concerned about was the lack of light and the fact that I would not be able
to read anymore. The bugs were not really an issue. I'm not bothered by
people stepping on me or spilling something on me as they try to step over me.
What bothers me, is if they mind me being there.
I couldn't care less if the train is 4 or 5 or 6 hours late - big deal. Just
don't try to charge me again for my bicycle. 5 bucks is a lot of money to
the long term traveler. One time we had to change trains for some reason
and were told we would have to wait about 2 hours. But after 3 hours
they said it would be another hour. This pattern went on for 11 hours.
the only frustrating thing was not knowing. If they would of said it would
be 10 hours, great we could go out and enjoy the town, instead of only
enjoying the train station. I still had a good time, talked to lots of
people studied a little Spanish, had a long peaceful lunch, watched cargo
trains come and go. It doesn't matter what happens as long as you make
the best of it. I find my train experience to be normal or common so if
you find yourself thinking that doesn't sound like much fun perhaps you
should stick to western countries for your holidays.
My original plan was to fly into Brazil and return from Ecuador, but
the airlines were uncooperative as usual. They won't sell you a ticket
like that without a substantial increase in the fare. It's also extremely
annoying that no airline will sell a one way ticket. A one way ticket is
only a one-way ticket if it cost half the price of the cheapest return
ticket. Also when buying a plane ticket they want to know my return date
well, I can't even give them the month let alone the day. Buying a plane
ticket is perhaps the most time consuming and challenging part of my
preparation. Life is a lot easier with money but not impossible.