Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Let the Peace be with you...

La Paz is one of my favorite cities that I`ve been to so far. Disorganized, indigenous, fast-paced, and set unlike any other city I`ve ever seen. La Paz is crammed into a very tight crater, with the offices and businesses at the lowest part of the crater and the houses climbing the steep crater wall all the way until the top. When driving in you start on the top of the crater where you get a glimpse of the city far below and the stunning snow-capped mountains (over 21,000ft!) off in the distance. The first day I spent just walking around and getting a feel for the city. Every type of market exists in La Paz for every necessity, honestly, there was a market for light bulbs that was about a block long. And food being sold on the street is everywhere, whether it is a hamburger or a 3 course meal...this, however, caused a few problems for me.

The second day we got up early to mountain bike down "El Camino del Muerto." I probably shouldn`t translate this for Mom`s sake, but, yes, otherwise known as "Death Road." After breakfast at the Hostel, a group of twelve of us, complete with guide, got in a bus and headed up to 4800meters to start the trip. 4800m is almost 16,000ft, land of llamas and snow. So we were all a little taken aback when we got out of the bus in our bike shorts and tops, chilly--we promptly added a poncho and windbreaker for the rain that was falling and started barrelling down the mountain. The first part which is actually the majority of the elevation is paved and not part of the Death Road, we got down this pretty quickly then hit the unpaved, and a bit more dangerous section. The road was given this rather notorious name because, and this may be obvious, quite a few people die on this road. Our guide told us that 30 trucks and/or busses (roughly 100 people) go over the edge a year...and when you go over the edge, that`s it...guaranteed. However, he also said that only 10 bikers have died in 10 years, which to me sounds pretty safe. Then again, a guy I met that went with another group told me that 3 bikers died last year alone...I have a feeling his guide may have embellished, or last year was just a dangerous one. Anyhow we headed down and it was amazing, who knows how this road was made. In many places the road was just cut into a cliff, with just enough room, barely, for a truck or a bus to pass.

The tractor trailers that drive this road are often loaded to the brim with lumber and are extremely heavy, especially those driving uphill towards La Paz. Because of this, uphill traffic drives on the left hand side, away from the edge (because if they get too close to the edge, the road could give and down goes the truck)...which meant we had to ride on the left side, right next to the cliff! And this explains the biker mortalities, people either loosing their cool in the face of oncoming traffic or getting clipped by it. Also, there are quite a few waterfalls that spill down the cliffs onto the road, which makes the ground soft, unstable and slippery. Anyhow, the bike ride was a lot of fun, everyone lived (but the two girls ended up taking the bus down...which I think would be a lot scarier), and towards the end of it the guide, Ben (a good guy and pro BMX rider), and I got a little competitive and raced the last bit of it. I think he may have neglected his duties a little bit, but it was a lot of fun--hopefully he`ll make it over again to ride in the U.S. and we`ll get to give it another try. We ended up at around 6,000ft, a big drop in a short amount of time. The altitude, coupled with some street food that I had eaten the night before took it`s toll (also during the ride, which wasn`t great) and I was immediately in bed when we returned.

The bus ride back was the scariest part, and I sat up front on the right hand side to get the full effect. The weather had turned so it was raining the whole time and when you looked straight down out the window it was usually just an abyss of fog that you saw. Scary. But worse for the people coming down the hill, who, when confronting us on the road had to reverse! until they could find a place to get out of our way. Some of these were tractor trailers with people riding in the back as cargo...imagine them reversing towards this cliff hoping the driver was doing a good job of judging the distance in his rear view mirror. Only in Bolivia.

The morning I was to leave La Paz I was waiting outside the hostel with my stuff when two guys walked by, one stopping about 10 feet past me to wait while the other acted like he was looking at the tour information that the hostel offered (while in fact he was just trying to steal my bag). He was clearly suspicious and I just stared at him inviting him to try while I stood there. Then, a third guy comes up who looks like he may be a bus driver with tickets in his hand, he comes over to me and reaches out to grab my hand in an attempt to distract me long enough for the other guy to get to my bag. Just then a guy who worked at the hostel came out and his presence for sure foiled their plan...but it was a close one and for sure a well organized attempt.

Out of La Paz and on to Copacobana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. What struck me as most amazing is that all of the land around the lake shows signs of it`s thousands of years of inhabitance. Every hill is terraced, stone roads and walls are everywhere and it is clear that every single rock and boulder has been moved into it`s current position by the use of a ton of human labor. The lake itself is beautiful, of course, and it was a treat to sit on it`s shores eating it`s trout (the largest species in the world) and watching a storm brew miles offshore. The scenery is amazing and at this altitude the light and reflections are all a bit different. This picture is taken (not by me) from a hill in the town with tombs on top, a beautiful view of Copa and the Lake from the top...

Another "Only in Bolivia" moment...while waiting for the bus today I decided to rent a dirtbike to see a bit of the countryside. $5.00 for an hour, no helmet or previous experience required, of course. Unfortunately the road I wanted to take was too muddy (slippery) to really get anywhere so I came back early, covered in mud. Lucky for them I realized how to use the clutch...I can`t imagine how long those bikes could last with people jerking them around all the time.

I find myself in Puno, Peru now, also on the shores of Titicaca but about 4 hours away from Copa. Right now are the fiestas, so the streets are full of parades complete with dancers, bands, fireworks, etc, no cut corners here. My buddy Stevie, from Scotland who I`m travelling with for a bit now, and I were taken to our hostel in tricycle taxi, cutting through the parade at times. The guy peddaling was sure to tell me that we were heavy...we felt bad between our uncontrolable laughter at how ridiculous the situation was that we found ourselves in.

Off to the floating reed islands tomorrow and then on Tuesday to meet my friend Dan, from Caracas, as we plan to travel Peru together.

Happy Valentine`s Day.


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