Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Friday 25 June 2010

Follow the yellow dust road (or pink or grey)

We´re not in Kansas anymore. A tornado has blown this Dorothy and Toto (you decide!) away from their `home´of the last four months somewhere over the rainbow.

We´d only been in Bolivia for three minutes when Phil was attacked by the Wicked Witch of the West. Admittedly she was a rather small, ancient version and not actually green but it was still quite a shock to look up from my bike by the public toilets, yards from the border post, to see Phil batting a old lady off as gently as he could as she tore and grabbed at his jacket. It was rather like watching a bemused Great Dane being attacked by a Chihuahua. Apparently the public toilets were not public, but her personal preserve, and she wanted him to pay for his privilege. So far, so faaaaar!
Borders are odd places. I really couldn´t believe that whilst we still had Argentina in our sights the cars suddenly had Bolivian number plates, time had gone back an hour and ladies were walking about with bundles tied to their backs and bowler hats perched proudly on their heads. Everything looked different. Especially the populace. I hesitate to make any comparison to Munchkins but the people of Bolivia are markedly diminutive in stature and make us look like Martians. We really were in a new world.

And we had a new Wizard. Evo Morales´image met us as we arrived at the border office beaming out from a photo of him kitted out in all his Presidential garb. A hero of many of the population, his name is painted on walls and buildings, lamposts and pavements and on the signs for the road works on our road out of Villazon. So, the old lady´s cries ringing in our ears, we decided to get on the road swiftly and head out of town. We hoped to get to Tupiza about 95kms away and we knew we needed to crack on.

And boy did we. This really wasn´t any kind of yellow brick road. It started well enough but the tarmac didn´t last long and then all sorts of comedy obstacles crossed our path.

I am sure if there was ever to be a theme park ´Oz World´(maybe there is) there would certainly be a `Yellow Brick Road Ride´. However, I sincerely doubt that it would put as many demands on its participants as its equivalent in ´Bolivia World´. First, as the ride whisked you away on a tornado blown bicycle, obviously, the leg power of the passengers would not be required. But the differences don´t stop there. Imagine a ride where one minute you are on smooth sensible tarmac and then about every kilometer a little yellow, almost invisible, ´Desvio´sign appears and you are hurtled down a slope onto dust-riddled ripio. On this ripio there are hilarious sand pits, rocks the size of gerbils and occassionally such a pathetic attempt at a road surface that it virtually disappears all together. Add in that these wiggly diversions enjoy gradients of staggering stupidity and are usually only wide enough for a skateboard and you know you are at the extreme end of theme park entertainment.

And it isn´t the tin man, the scarecrow and the lion that cross your path. The things that lurch at you from out of nowhere are vast herds of goats, the occasional donkey, trucks with very tippy looking loads or a complete block provided by a bulldozer. Or the drug police. About 20kms into the country we stopped at a temporary road block and met a large group of Bolivian police who were checking coaches for bundles of coca leaves heading South to Argentina. The first thing they did was offer us some for the altitude, reaching to grab a handful from one of the bales they had retrieved that day. After our refusal, a very revealing conversation ensued where they filled us in on the `activity´of the region before posing for a photo with us and their disproportionately large guns. They waved us merrily on our way, back onto the terrible road, wolf whistles ringing in my ears. Because this ride also comes with sound effects. 100% increase in whooping, whistling and `appreciative´comments (most of which I don´t understand). It must be my shiny red shoes (mmm), since I passed through Argentina utterly unnoticed.

And so the ride sped on, or more accurately crawled on. Progress on these kinds of roads is painfully slow. It is necessary to stop when anything goes past in order not to inhale the huge dust clouds we are enveloped in, the colour depending on the rock surface we´re struggling along. The overwhelming colour is a sort of yellowy beige, which you find yourself wringing out of your clothes as you wash them and scraping off the front of your teeth. This is also the colour of most of the properties, since they are made of bricks fashioned from the earth and baked in the sun. It gives the horizon a very confusing, very neutral appearance and, in the powerful sun of the cloudless altiplano days, it can look very bleak. And poor. It took us no time at all to realise that Bolivia is very, very poor and large numbers of those we have seen so far live lives of tough subsistence. As the route became more populous so did the notices by schools, or basketball courts or other edifices of European Union, or multinational projects that have brought some infrastructure or contributed a building. And the road surface is being done. But it is taking its time because much of it is being done by people wielding pick axes and chipping away painstakingly at a mammoth task. However, everywhere you look there are signs of things changing, of progress being made.

Unlike our journey which was progressing at a snail like pace and meant that we quickly realised we would not make it to our destination. And so, at about 4pm, the hunt for somewhere to camp began. Just as I was fending off a grumpy dog in a small village we were contemplating, out onto the road sped a friendly man called Isa. Now, Isa also had a problem with the dog and once he´d given it a hefty shove and rescued me he asked where I was from. He was delighted to hear England and swiftly pronounced that it was `the most powerful country on earth´. I didn´t disabuse him of his notion since he had obviously been imbibing some of the earth´s more powerful beer (in the name of John the Baptist apparently, whom I´m sure would have been thrilled) and he seemed so pleased with the statement. He asked us what we were up to and, realising we needed somewhere to sleep, suggested we follow him to his town a few kilometres away where he was sure something could be done. We were fairly broken by this point and he was too enthusiastic to resist and so we did.

He led us on, uphill (!!!) and down dale and over a pass where we were suddenly staring into an extraordinary valley. It was beautiful and after a day of dust and slog and heat was a vision of loveliness. A train went by. A train!! All those months in Argentina bemoaning the lost railway and here in Bolivia it is going strong. It snaked a crazy route down, as did we and passed through the railway village of Arenales.

Which is where we spent the night. Isa was true to his word and introduced us to the local school who astoundingly cleared a classroom for us and let us sleep in it. It was so much fun! We made a pen of desks in which we made our bed up, we had a dining table created from other desks, we covered the broken windows with our groundsheet and a water proof map and we settled in for a night under the blackboard. The small school has a few students who sleep overnight who were especially intrigued by us and who were polite and sweet and funny. We loved it. We cooked on the basketball court and we washed at the outside sink and we were so grateful for a place that was sheltered.

Up with the lark the next day we sneaked out of the school before the rush of day pupils arrived and headed back out onto the route. The road was no better but the countryside was amazing. Harsh, cactus ridden and with wonderfully dramatic coloured rocks. We descended at one point into a ravine through which a river quietly snaked and realised we were right in the heart of Butch and Sundance country, only a few kilometers from where justice finally caught up with them. It was atmospheric stuff. When we stood still and let the silence dominate, we could quite imagine fugitives hiding behind every rock and crag and picture why anyone evading the law would choose to do so here. It is harsh and empty and you could potter about for years with no one finding you. Not much fun though, no wonder they couldn´t resist another stab at civilisation and glamour.

So, less Dorothy and Toto and more Butch and Sundance we reeled into what seemed like Oz to us at the end of that day. Tupiza, in all its shining town-like wonder. We were very tired and found a hotel and collapsed into it immediately before heading for the temples of ice cream, and wine and delicious dinner.

From here we are planning or next assault on the hardcore roads, this time up and over a massive mountain pass that will see us 1300m higher than we are now. Eeeeek. By the time that´s done we really will be somewhere over the rainbow.


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