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The Daily Grind
A Cyc-o-path Loose in South America
A Motivational Book About Cycle Touring Through South America

A Book by Ranger Bob Bob Lutsky

"You cannot grab hold of water, its soft and gentle yet it will always wear away the stone." - Wayne Dyer

Chapter Seventeen

The Bolivian Jungle

I had the usual problems trying to get out of town because everyone directed me down the wrong roads. I noticed a barber shop had a sign for $1.00 hair cuts so I stopped in to get cleaned up with a cut and a beard trim. I was amazed that the experience was almost exactly the same as a North American shop except it didn't have the white/red spiral pillar out front. It's also a chance to find out how much Spanish you really know when you're trying to say "Only take a little off the top".

Even though I'm at 13,000 FEET, I still have to climb another 2000 feet out of this bowl called LaPaz, before the road starts to descend into to the jungle. Soon enough, the entire city was behind me and ahead of me was nothing but a tundra-like landscape with foot tall yellowish brown grass bent nearly to the ground in my direction. A mute reminder that a gale force wind is pounding my face. This is good because I like headwinds. By afternoon, it had started snowing with temperatures at about 25F. The snow was accumulating on the ground, but the roads at this point were still clear. I camped at the military checkpoint where I was surprised to find the cold aloof military types feed me a hot dinner and subsequent breakfast, which I ate while surrounded by 4 men with machine guns. Boy did I feel safe, I don't think the president is this well protected. At no point did I feel intimidated. On the contrary actually, I felt rather supported and respected for going through the Andes on a mountain bike. They were trying to encourage me to take the truck down into the Amazon, but I told them that I actually felt safer on the mountain bike.

This stretch of road is the second most dangerous in the world according to the "Lonely Planet", the first being in Afghanistan. This road drops 4500 metres in about 60 miles and the temperature will go from 20F to 85F over the course of the day as I descend down into the Amazon jungle. Even though it's still snowing as I go down, you can already see some greenery. As the road drops further, the greenery transforms into jungle-like features, and soon the banana leaves start to appear. The road is unpaved, covered in dirt and stones which turns into lovely mud very rapidly. It's a very narrow one lane road with the right side up against a cliff face (which I could touch as I cycled) and no more than 10 feet wide. The left side of the road is a sheer drop straight down 3000 feet. You could see clearings in the vegetation where vehicles had gone off the side. As the trucks drive down the road, one side is brushing up against the cliff face on the one side and on the other side I can see where the tire tracks disappear because there are chunks of the edge of the road missing. Typically, about 30 people will pile into these trucks to hitch a ride and the reason this road receives such a high danger rating is because once every two weeks, on average, one of these trucks full of people crash over the edge.

At some points, I managed to catch a quick shower as I rode through one of the waterfalls that flow down the cliff face, creating lovely slippery conditions. Along the road, every couple of miles are little pull-out spots that are used to allow up-hill vehicles to pass because they have the right of way. Because the road winds around, you can see other vehicles coming miles ahead and many drivers are left to back up to the last pull-out to allow the uphill truck to pass. There was quite a bit of traffic on the road and if I saw a truck backing up towards me, I would also back up to the last pull-out. I came upon an overturned truck that had gone down that day (all the people had left) so since one had already happened that day, I figured I was safe for the next two weeks.

I can't imagine having to travel these roads every time you needed to go to the city. I'll never complain about road conditions again. Just like that I'm transported into a new world. Where yesterday it was snowing, today it's sunny and 85 degrees with dense jungle as far as the eye can see. My first stop is the town of Coroico, a picturesque town on a hill over looking a river valley. This area is known as the Yungas region, still mountainous, lying at the foothills of the Andes. The following day cycling proved to be very tiring, largely because of the heat, the unpaved road that went up and down, some climbs lasting about half an hour. I have done a lot of mountain biking in Colorado and Utah, but no where did I find the challenge and beauty that could match the Yungas of Bolivia. The route runs along a river valley, climbing to 1500 feet then descending to the river with hundreds of 1000 foot vertical river valleys entering the main valley. The walls of each are sheer cliff of dense green jungle with countless cascading waterfalls. Of course the best part is the unlimited supply of bananas and fresh papaya everywhere. When your hungry and see a bright orange foot long papaya on a tree, simply stop, walk over and pick it. Don't have to go to the market, don't have to carry it and don't have to pay for it, just eat it! That's my kind of shopping.

About 35 miles down river is the big town of Caranavi, a mile long stretch of shops, restaurants and businesses. It was here I bought a new Panasonic Walkman for $10,my old one gave as much service as its life would allow. Caranavi also brought my first hotel with a swimming pool and for only $1.75 a night. I felt like a rich man, lounging by the pool surrounded by palm trees, and watching the world cup soccer finals while sipping a tropical drink, yep just another day at the office.

I decided to take a small detour into the jungle, so I left most of my stuff at the hotel and cycled north 100 miles to the town of San Borja. Here the road becomes very flat and dusty and uncomfortably hot. Though this is the edge of the real Amazon, I found the Yungas region more attractive. This part of the Amazon basin near the Andean foothills receives 160 inches of rain per year and is the start of many of the 15000 tributaries that feed the Amazon river. The actual start of the Amazon river is in south central Peru, 100 miles from the Pacific ocean at 4700 meters 15,500 feet the tiny Quabrada Carhuassanta trickles north to meet two other headwater streams to form the Hornillos river to begin a 4000 mile journey to the Atlantic. 20% of all the world's running water flows through the Amazon collecting in a basin covering 4 million square miles.

In San Borja I stayed in the home of a friend who I met on the street in LaPaz, He just gave me his address and asked me to come for a visit. I asked my friend why he preferred living down here so far from civilization and his answer surprised me. The people have more enthusiasm for life here, life survives on the river, there is fresh fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, food is spicier. and the weather is better. I asked why most of the people live on the cold desolate altiplano? He said most of Bolivia is native, they have always thrived in the high altitude climate, and people tend to live where they were born. Also many of the natives live outside the monetary system and are totally self sufficient, I told him some day I would very much like to do the same. I also expressed a strong desire to cycle in India for my next trip and he happily gave me the address of his friend who is from Bombay but now lives in a town another 100 miles north of here in Rurrenabaque. I certainly didn't plan on such a detour but he assured me it would be worth the effort.

In the morning I set off loaded down with a pannier full of fresh eats to cycle 10 of the longest hours of the trip. Cycle touring sounds exciting, and it is, but like any endeavor it has its unseen side. The road and air is full of dirt and dust and my mind slips into an alpha state of semi-consciousness. Hour after hour I have no thoughts, just pedal, pedal, drink, drink, eat, and pedal, pedal. But strangely enough never once did I find myself saying why am I doing this? This is exactly what I want to be doing, but on this day I did ask myself why am I going to this town, to meet someone who may not even be there, who may not even want to see me, and, knowing I have to return the same way?

About 2 seconds after I knocked on his door I had the answer. Crossing his threshold was like crossing into India. The decor, his mannerisms, and his accent, all reminded me of a place I've never been. My first question was why Bolivia? He was an educated person of affluence who had the good fortune to travel, and on a trip to LaPaz met a local women, fell in love and decided to stay. He also said the caste system in India would not take too kindly to him marrying outside his class. His wife was native and poor but rich in knowledge of life and love. He also expressed some distaste for the politics in his homeland, and seemed very content right here. My interest was keen in the history of the caste system which we both agree is preventing progress on this subcontinent, so I asked him to explain it as simply as possible. Everything I've read so far on the subject has been too convoluted to fully comprehend, but his explanation set the record straight for me.

The following is a paraphrase from my notes.

'The ancient ethnic group Aryans were concerned above all to preserve their racial purity. Politically its members also wanted to maintain their dominant position with its subsequent social privileges. This was important because at that time the aboriginal population out numbered them many times over. The privileged Aryans therefore pursued a policy of divide and rule, classifying the populace into rigidly separate categories. It was in this way that the Caste System came into being. Then for the intriguing part - they took Brahma as supreme deity and with the worship of Shiva Vishnu became polytheistic. Now, the caste system with the authority of a religion behind it became part of the fiber and being of the people of India and has remained so for thousands of years.'

I have not visited India yet and don't fully understand the complexities of the caste system but I have read that many people in India actually believe that membership in a caste system is a function of world order and is god's wish, it's their fate. I can't imagine any god advocating repression but far be it from me to tamper with anyone's fate. What is the difference between accepting fate and cultivating progress? Was abolishing slavery and obtaining equal rights for women, gods wish, cultivated progress or just fate? Would it be against gods wish for the people of India to seek the same evolution?

In India people have no chance to rise out of their class, and are forbidden to marry outside their class. People are actually killed in the name of preserving the ancient caste system. I think the worst reason for doing something is because that's the way we have always done it. I once heard a good story that covers this issue fairly well. A friend once said that his wife was cutting the end of the ham off before she put it into the oven and he asked her why she did that. Her response was that her mom used to always cut the end of the ham off before baking it. So he called her mom up to ask her why she cut the end of the ham off before baking it and she gave the same response. So finally he called her grandmother up who was now 96 years old and asked her the same question, and would you believe she said she cut the end of the ham off because her roaster is too small.

Rurrenabaque is also a quasi tourist center for trips into the jungle but I had enough of the heat and was ready to return to the mountains. I never expected to learn more about India than the Amazon while in Bolivia but sometimes mysterious secrets lie in strange happenings. Naveen, my new found friend and teacher from India and his wife gave me my own hammock to sleep in where, after learning the diagonal technique of laying in it, I managed to sleep quite well. Sure feels nice to rock yourself to sleep. His wife much to my surprise learned to cook Indian style. She made the best madras curry I've ever had except of course the ones I make myself. Ha Ha. She also wore a sari and had many of the Indian mannerisms, yet she was still completely accepted by her fellow countrywomen, whereas the same situation only reverse in India might prove to be disastrous.

In the morning I inquired about cycling straight into Peru from here. The map indicated that there was a road or at least a track. But without hesitation my friends insisted I don't try it. There are many places where there is no road, all the river crossings are by prearranged launch only and there is no access officially into Peru. In addition to all that you may stumble onto a jungle tribe who might take your being there as a threat to them, or you may encounter a tribe who practices cannibalism, for that area is still undeveloped! I said, well aside from all that is it OK?

Needless to say I took their advice and caught a truck to take me back to Caranavi. Spent another night in the hotel, took one last dip in the pool and set off on more of the same unpaved, up and down, awe inspiring terrain of the Yungas. The altitude here is 1500-2000 feet above sea level, still hot, but more tolerable than Rurrenabaque. It was nice to be back with all my stuff but at the same time I didn't miss the 100 pounds of gear when it came to climbing the hills. With all my stuff I cycle slower and stop more and feel more secure. I can camp, cook, read and I'm prepared for anything. Without any gear, high miles are covered, not just because of the less weight, but because I feel more vulnerable, driven to get to the next town. Slow and relaxed is more my style.

Between Caranavi and the next village of Guanay, about 35 miles, the road hugged the river with dense vegetation all around. In Guanay I slept on the floor of a wooded shack next to a large room where 35 homeless kids lived. The large room contained no furniture what so ever and was just large enough for them all to have a spot to sleep, no mattress, not even a sleep pad. The kids aged from 5 to about 15, and were tended to by a volunteer from the Czech republic and a local women. Each day they would gather food from the field, and fruit from the trees, build a small fire, and in one large pot cook a soup for the meal of the day. They built a small lean-to out of palm leaves to cook under when it rained. They had no other possessions. In the afternoons they would be divided into small groups and taught basics such as math and writing skills. As I understand it, all these kids lost both parents either due to accidents on the road or illness. It was a real pleasure to see how well the neighboring communities pulled together to help these kids. Some were well adjusted, some happy, others sad and depressed, but considering the circumstances all well taken care of.

The following day I decided to take a break from the bike, for there was a big fiesta in the village. Everyone pitched in and cooked something, and several of the restaurants provided beer and drinks for all. Local people brought their own instruments and we ate danced and sang well into the night. I found it inspirational that people living in remote jungle communities in the poorest country in south America, with no government assistance, and no bank accounts, still manage to pull together all the necessities of life, food, drink, music, love and laughter were free for all. I tried to get them to let me serve the drinks or turn the chicken on the grill or even peel potatoes, but there was nothing doing. I was the gringo, the guest of the city and they told me to just tranquillo (relax).

Everyone I talked to insisted that there was no road to the next town, Mapiri. I said but the map indicates that there is, and I showed them the map. But they say no, muy malo, very bad, you must take boat. So 6 AM I show up at the dock with my fully loaded bike only to find about 25 other people with the same idea just that they had , 100 pound sacks of bananas or basic food stuffs, or commercial goods, radios etc. for in Mapiri there is no chance to buy anything and its very far to anywhere. The boat was a long canoe about 40 feet in length with two 75 horse power engines on the back. The boat was loaded to maximum capacity and stacked so high I couldn't see over it. It took about 6 hours to go 20 miles or so for it was up river, fighting a rather strong current. Guanay is the turning point in the terrain. The Coroi river which I had been cycling along, and the Mapiri river meet here to form the Beni river, a major tributary to the amazon. Along the way up I saw several kids doing the whole 20 miles by inner tube, wow that looked like fun. The boat runs every other day and cost 8 dollars for the 6 hour ride including the bike which counts as an extra person. Also along this stretch of river we encountered many families living in huts, no road access or plane access only the river, their occupation was panning for gold. On hands and knees with a bucket that had a screen for a bottom and a shovel. Some more industrious ones had diverted a river to slowly erode a large section of hillside to expose the soil , to wash out gold. Very few strike it rich, but all seem to make a living at it.

When we got to Mapiri I retrieved my bike paid, my fare then proceeded to push the bike and 120 pounds of gear up a steep rocky foot path, about 200 yards, and into the center of town. Little did I know this was only a taste of things to come. Then I checked into one of 3 hotels, rooms a dollar a night. Apparently because of the traffic on the river and such a long stretch to the next village, a town of 50 can support 3 hotels. First I did some laundry, then had a double dinner at the hotel restaurant, then fell into a deep sleep to rest up for the most physically demanding cycling I've ever experienced.

It took 5 days to cover the next 100 miles largely because of the road or lack there of, even worse than in Patagonia, if you can believe that. Out of Mapiri the track (and I use the term loosely) climbed and climbed with many sections too steep to cycle. In addition, it was scarred by deep ruts, some up to 18 inches deep. After about 2 hours of pushing the bike uphill, sweating profusely because of the exertion and the tropical weather, I'd managed to conquer about 800 feet in altitude. The real defeating fact came when I looked down over my right shoulder and noticed, due to the switch backs, I was still only a stones throw away from the town Much to my chagrin the rosy picture brightened even further. As I crested the hill, I could see the track ahead rapidly sloped downward at such an angle that it allowed the formation of mini canyons in the track. The heavy downpours that regularly occur in the Yungas have caused such erosion that I was once again walking my bike down the hill. Was there no relief? And road continued in this manner forever. Actually 4 full days but it sure seemed like forever. My routine was to put in about 8 hours of moving, about 50% of it spent pushing the bike. Along the way, I discovered a pristine, crystal clear stream and took the opportunity to set up camp and enjoy the water and the idyllic surroundings for one of the nights. The other nights were spent camping, stopping at a house and staying at a hotel in a mining village.

Due to the random stream diversions for gold mining, their are many areas of road that were buried under land-slides of mud, trees and rocks, leaving large mounds on debris that were never cleared away. In the five days that I was on the road, only one vehicle passed by and due to the nature of the road, the vehicle had to be a landrover jeep. At no point did I see any other vehicle on this stretch of road. Some of the mounds were so steep that I had to take all of my gear off the bike and carry them over one piece at a time. In one case I had to use a rope to haul the bike up the side and over the top of the mound. I used to think that anywhere that a vehicle could drive I could ride a bike, but this disproved my theory. The 4-wheel drives would manage to scale over the mounds by getting up enough momentum to plow up and over the 10 foot embankments of debris.

On the fifth day, I came upon a small mining camp town where I got a room in a hotel to rest for a day confirmed that there WAS a road and it did indeed lead to Sorata. I should make a note that when I started out to Mapiri, according to the map and everyone I talked to, there was absolutely no confirmation as to whether or not there even was a road or a track or any physical way that one could get from Mapiri to Sorata. I can't imagine why Joery wasn't keen on going into the jungles for this type of excitement.

My enthusiasm was escalated beyond belief when I got out along the track and looked down the river valley to see the layout of the ravines and tributaries. Along the far side of the river valley was a lush green vertical wall. On my side of the valley, you could see the rolling mountains of all the river gorges that fed into the Mapiri river below. I was standing on the edge of the confluence of two rivers. The river to my right is the Mapiri, the river feeding in from the left is one of many that work their way down from the Andes into the Amazon. This road parallels the Mapiri river as it winds its way back up to the Altiplano. From this confluence I face a deep canyon in front of me and another deep canyon to my right. From this point the road turns left and descends steeply down a series of switchbacks to the river below. The road is rough and many times I had to get off the bike and lift it over logs, large rocks or deep ruts. After about 90 minutes of pleasant frustration the road meets the river. At this point I'm about 2 miles up stream from the confluence of the Mapiri. Fording the river is no easy task for it is about 30 feet across, 3 feet deep, and very cold with a swift current. The good news is there is no toll. The bad news is it's too deep to cycle across. The crossing procedure is delightfully irritating and a little risky. First I take off my shoes, then take all the bags down from the bike, take a bungy cord and strap all the loose stuff together, and start to ferry everything across. First I walk the bike across, then return for the gear. If all goes well I can usually negotiate the portage in three trips. The danger lies in the possibility of a fall during the crossing. If by chance I was swept off my feet by the current, I would be forced to let go of my invaluable cargo. The current was so swift that the only safe act would be to swim directly to shore. If I was foolish enough to try to swim after my gear, I would soon find myself well down stream between two steep canyon walls with no hope of returning to the rest of my stuff and the only road back to civilization. Once on the other side, everything must be loaded back on the bike and secured for the rough cycling conditions ahead. Before starting off again, I always return to the river for a quick dip. This icy electric shock to the body is the equivalent to a jump start on a dead car battery. Before, weak and lifeless, after alive and energized. From the river the road follows the same pattern of steep switch-backs up the other side of the canyon. After 4 hours of hard work I stand at the confluence of the same two rivers only on the other side of the canyon and less than a mile up the Mapiri river!! If only there was a bridge here, I could have crossed the canyon in 10 minutes instead of 4 hours. Actually, I'm happy there is no bridge. From here the road or "deplorable track" as I prefer to call it, proceeds up and down in roller coaster fashion for several miles while following reasonably close to the Mapiri river. After about an hour of apparent progress up river, I find myself standing at the confluence of yet another tributary to the Mapiri. Once again looking across two deep canyons and the above procedure is repeated. This pattern continued for 8 days. Or was it 8 months? I can't remember.

By the end of the 8 days, I came around a bend and my eyes fell upon Sorata like a carrot dangling in front of my nose. Once again the roads were playing games with me and it took another two hours along this Bolivian labyrinth to cover the last visual mile. I was definitely starting to feel seriously tired - the type of tired that takes months to recover from. I went straight to a hotel, got a room, did the usual end of day duties and turned out the lights. The next time my eyes were in the open position was around 12 noon, two days later. Did I wake fully rested? Nooooo I awoke equally tired as two days ago only with a low grade fever, chills, and a general feeling of malaise. But I'm a lumber Jack and I'm OK.

Throughout the course of the eight days of winding roads, between Mapiri and Sorata the altitude went from 1500 feet up to 14000 feet where it is now cold and back into the Bolivian altiplano cultural atmosphere. I wonder if it's possible to get the bends rising up that far so fast? I'm surprised I didn't at least get a nose bleed.

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