May 13, 2006 GMT
(1) Bolivia: La Paz

There were seemingly a few good reasons to go to La Paz. However none of them balanced with the chaos that greeted me as I rolled off of the hill.

There are so many buses, mini buses, mico-buses and taxis in these Latin cities that they consume 99% of the road. El Alto, the city at the top of the bowl, was no exception. Six of the eight lanes were plugged with the 'load' and 'unload' activities of these public transport vehicles. The other two lanes were blocked with drivers trying to escape the chaos. I was somewhere in the other two lanes.

I had a strange feeling about me. Within the chaos, and rising above it, was a chanting sound. It had an eerie taste, like a crowd being encited to action. I wondered if the rioting and demonstrating was still going on. With the mass of humanity and buses about me I could not see what was going on. I edged forward. The sound encompassed me. What a strange, unforgettable feeling.

Later, the next day I discovered what it was. Where all of the buses gather to collect and disgorge their contents the ticket taker opens the sliding door and calls out to the people on the street, reciting the fare and the destination, trying to gather customers in this free-market system. Combine that with a thousand buses and a thousand chants and you get a cacaphony of sound that matches what I heard.

Every vehicle is a diesel...even the micro-buses. Their 1.1 liter engines producing a black smoke cloud equivalent to an eighteen wheeler. With 1.5 million people in the area and 1 million buses you can just imagine. The air is a black, murky, foul tasting mess. Down below in the bowl, where everything just settles in, it is even worse. If these diesels were tuned for high altitude operation they would smoke less, run more efficiently and cost less to operate. I guess it makes too much sense to happen.

I entered the bowl. The police at the toll gate waved me through. They knew that the five minutes it would take me to de-glove, find my wallet, pay, pocket my change and re-glove would create more chaos than the 25 cent toll was worth. I dropped into La Paz.

I had only a few good reasons to come to La Paz, all of which made sense before I got there...good food, good museums and a movie. I had been thinking about a good movie ever since I had been sick. I was not going to give up on that one. The rest be damned.

I satisfied my first need. I hadnīt eaten all day and even thought it took a while to find a good restaurant I settled into that. The next day I captured my museums and topped it off with "Memories of a Geisha". I found it quite enjoyable. They still maintain "old world" movie theatres down here. You get a huge screen, about 40-50 feet across and a nice lounge chair to relax in. Movies are cheap...about $3 and popcorn is 50 cents. Need I say more!

The first time I had ridden the Yungas Pass to Corioco, Peter and I had encountered the "dog gods". Dogs line the road up and over the pass expecting passers-by to contribute a portion of food to their well-being and in return receive their blessing for a safe voyage. We had thought this worship to be unique to this pass.

I was wrong. In all of the passes I had crossed this trip, the "dog gods" were in evidence. I had just never noticed them before. One must ask oneself, "how does this thing get started and how does it expand in perpetuity to all of the passes in Peru?" "Are they really gods?" "How do they communicate?" This is a most perplexing phenomenon.


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Back on the altiplano I headed south and east for Cochabamba. The thin 13,500 ft air refused to climb above 12C. Wind chill was much lower. The air was clear and still, and I wore a smile as I moved on. I had a nice easy day ahead of me. I settled in for the ride.

As I slowed for a toll booth, I heard a sound I have come to hate and recognize instantly...that gunshot sound where a projectile entires your tire and creates an explosive noise as the carcass is pierced and the precious air begins to escape. Goddamit. This shit always happens at toll booths and check points.

I pulled over to have a look. A 7/16" x 3" long bolt had been driven into the tire, dead center. My heart sank. I didnīt even know if my plug would fill the hole. All I could do was try. It slipped it in, with only a few bubbles of air escaping as I re-inflated the tire. I had almost 400 km to go before my days end. I did not want to fix it again before then.


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I rode all day. I had forgotten how lovely the pass from Oruro to Cochabamba was, rising to 15,400 feet at its peak, the temperature dropping below 9C. Finally I was over the top and into the verdant valley below. Cochabamba, the bread basket of Bolivia. The temperature soared to 27C.

In town, the back end squirmed as I accelerated away from a light. The tire was deflating. I made it to my hotel, just as it went flat. I didnīt even ask how much. I just checked in...I had made it...barely.

I had the hole patched for $1. The tire was now filled with Bolivian air. I should have done that before. With only one oxygen molecule instead of two, it is lighter, runs cooler, accelerates quicker and has higher rotational speeds.

I changed my oil in Cochabamba. It is a much more complicated procedure than one can imagine. First of all you have to find the "oil vendors". Everyone seemed to have a different idea of where I could find them. Finally, I found a Taxi Driver and said "Take me there." Once there you have to find the vendor that sells the oil you want. Then you have to find a place to change it. All in all it consumed the better part of an afternoon. But the price was right. Synthetic oil was $15/liter in Peru, $20/liter in Chile and $7/liter in Bolivia. This economy of price is consistent with other costs in Bolivia.

Food is very inexpensive. A filete mignon is about $4. And, do not kid yourself it is excellent. $1 for 1/2 liter of wine and then dessert and coffee. The total is less than $6. An ice cream cone is 50 cents, gas is down from a high of $1.60 per liter to $0.70, a six course breakfast with croissants, toast, juice, coffee, ham and eggs and fruit salad is $2. Life at the top of the food chain is just fine.


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Posted by Robert Bielesch at May 13, 2006 12:52 AM GMT
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