Riding into a Bolivian town is not the same thing as riding into an Argentinean town. For one, it’s a little harder to pull off the inconspicuous gringo when you are all brown-caked with road dust, riding a motorbike about 3x times the size of anything else in the town, over-loaded with gear. And looking lost.
In the first Bolivian town I roll into, Tupiza, I experiment with I'm-such-a-trusting-traveller-I-don’t-need-the-Lonely-Planet-guide-Faith-will-find-me-a-hostel. And ride around for over an hour. Then concede to dig out the LP for directions. Finally I settle-in-clean-up and meet the first of several German guys I bump into on the trip who are cycling round South America. Good on them. But fuck that. I head out the door for food and tourist friends from earlier in Argentina are hanging out in tourist bars and it really dawns on me how strong the gringo-trail is here. You’re either heading North or you are heading South and same direction travellers will see each other again in an inevitable town or two.
I'm feeling pretty much done with the gringo-trail so I bail town and resolve to take the path-less-trodden which is a direct road to Uyuni and the Salt Flats despite warnings from Ricardo not to ever ride that road if you can avoid it but that's just a red flag to me. And it’s really not that bad. In fact I’m making great time. In fact it must have been upgraded heavily. An hour-in my creeping suspicion is enough to make me stop for directions from some local workmen. And in fact this road is the main highway to Potosi. Not Uyuni. Aha, right. So that’ll be why then. So looks like I’m heading to Potosi today then.
The Devils Mine
At 13,420ft perched on the side of Mt. Cerro Rico the mining-town of Potosi is both brutal and wonderful. The getting-lost-hostel-search in Tupiza was a mere hors d’oeuvre to this treacherously sloping warren of streets. Gringos come here to take a tour down the mines inside "The Hill That Eats Men". In the 465 years of mining here since the Spanish-occupation it has consumed over 8 million lives. Thanks to Greed.
I go and sample the hell that 5,000 miners live with everyday that my addiction to consumer products made from the minerals extracted from here encourages. I love getting cheap silver and cheap computer chips made from the death of these guys and I won’t deny it. A kilometre inside the mountain, the snaking corridors have splintered branches holding up the roof scarcely delaying a cave-in. Only through sacrifice to their devil, Tio, do the miners get out alive every day. Well, some of them do. www.thedevilsminer.com tells the story of the many children that work in here. 3 hours inhaling silicosis-inducing-dust and crawling through Hades leaves me weak physically and emotionally and I shamefully keep asking myself how is it possible these conditions are allowed but I already know what the answer is.
Truth in the Whiteness
With my soul feeling shaken I trek west to Uyuni and to the spectale of the salt plains. A natural wonder of white vastness freezing at night and blinding during the day. I head out of town solo in the afternoon after I arrive to poke-my-nose-into the flats, until about halfway there I look around at nothing as far as the eye can see and I can hear my mum saying that when you break down isolated and helpless you won’t feel like a such a bold daring adventurer anymore. So I sell-out-a-bit or let-reason-prevail I'm not sure which and allow myself the safety of a one-day tour the following day in amongst all the other gringos crammed into 4x4s and I sway between awe and cursing my lack of nerve. I’m out riding on the flats first thing early the next morning for painstakingly-dedicated-self-timer-perspective-shots of me & Aroha. And it's incredible. I'm blinded and freezing, as well as breathing hard from the altitude and wobbly from the intensity of just being at this amazing place. Satisfied, it's time to get moving and I pin-back my ears for the back-track through Potosi to the next-trail-stop of Sucre. About an hour out of town I crest a small rise and almost ride straight into another solo-KLR-brother, Igor from the US. In the middle of dusty-desert-cactus-nothingness we swap maintenance tales, and bike-loading tidbits, and email addresses, and laugh about KLR quirks that only a special brotherly bond born out of saddle-knowledge provides.
Nourishment and Heartache
As if getting off the gringo-trail isn't reward enough, Sucre feeds me good coffee, good people and less touristy-things-to-do. It's really easy to stay a week. I get that oil-change done that was about due. I spend relaxed cafe-time sitting and route-planning and staring at the map for hours, pondering this way or that way, pouring over the spiderwebs of roads on the map looking for the just-right track that will unlock the secrets of this amazing countryside. I spy an off-the-trail back way to La Paz, dropping down off the Andes through the jungle and I can't wait I'm totally excited for it.
Just as I'm thinking about leaving, I have my drink-spiked in a gringo-bar while I'm unaware and with my guard down, and somehow next thing I know I'm stumbling, violently-ill, through some street-darkness back alley, all-alone. I look on helplessly as that local-couple from the dark corner of the bar ride up to me on a motorbike, casually dismount, walk up beside me while looking down on me buckled over there, and they take my wallet right out of my back pocket. I don't know where I am, I'm completely chemically messed-up, I have no money, I am in a Bolivian alleyway in the middle of the night, I don't know how to get back to my hostel. I am pretty sure, that this time, I am completely fucked.
And it's right then that I hear a New Zealand accent in the dark, out of nowhere, unmistakable in those beautiful flat antipodes vowels: "Are you ok?". Ngaire, happened-to-be-walking-by-kiwi-girl, totally rescues me from the pavement and through the drug haze I have to ask her which city we are in. She gives me her bed and sleeps on the couch and I take two days to recover. I went and filed a Police report for whatever that's worth, and cancelled cards and arranged for some replacements to be shipped out to me. And yeah, I am pretty well ready to never be around anymore obvious tourist spots for the rest of this trip.
When I'm a bit more recovered first day back in the saddle I go easy on myself by only riding 8 straight hours of treacherous-powder-dust-near-miss-mountain-hairpins. Nobody said that this trip was about being sensible. And though I pull into Samaipata in the dark, it’s also clear that I've pulled in to a completely new chapter and a new Life. In the local dialect, Samaipata means rest in the mountains. The very first crew of hostel-people I meet when I walk-in dusty through the front door are all Searchers, who have all been here a month already taking Tai-Chi classes and not-travelling, and meditating, and being. And within a week we are all staying on an organic-Dharma-farm high-up in the hills, taking meditation classes with a one-legged-ex-buddhist-monk-spiritual-guru, Da-Dennis. Completely stoked on the silence. Completely wonderous of the grace that always follows the breakdown.
“The unknown is not to be feared, as it is the region from which the next good thing will emerge.” – Deepak Chopra.