The Surprise Box

The thing that kept popping into my skull as we rode through Bolivia was the movie about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  It’s still pretty rough here, with long views often containing little to suggest the modern age.  Imagining a journey by horse or train through Bolivia and Argentina over 100 years ago sure does generate respect for those that lived here.

As for us, we saddled up our modern mules and headed out of Sucre after a fantastic time checking out fossil dinosaur tracks, relaxing in the Plaza, and buying new tires for the bikes.  We decided on a route to take us through Cochabamba to the northwest, and so we pointed the bikes that way, and bounded through valleys and over ridges, following the two-lane road.  The rock in many places has a distinct sheen or polish to it, and the layers presented themselves not on edge, but flat, as though you could read them were they printed with text.  A giant could reach out and peel back another page on which to read the fossils lettering, and the road seemed to travel up the gutter of an open book.

Halfway to Cochabamba, the road swung to the northwest and began to climb higher into pine-covered ridges.  As we rose, the temperature dropped and we stopped to put on layers at some road construction.  My Dad is an engineer, and so it was with some surprise that I observed quite a lot of ups and down to the decking of the newly built concrete bridge over a deep chasm, and I knew it was wrong.  Looking back after crossing, it was quite out of true, visible to the unaided eye.  Instead of a smooth, level deck, it had definite rises and falls between the sections.  I had to wonder how this happened, and how long the bridge will last.  I so wish I’d taken a photo – how did I miss that one?

The weather was looking ominous ahead, and kept getting colder.  We considered finding a place off the road to wild camp.  The area has a high desert feel to it, with open pines and sparse grasses and brush underneath.  But we eventually worked our way through the dark clouds, and found ourselves in sunshine again on a drying road.  Blue sky after rain has the power to pick up our spirits like nothing else, and with our newfound energy we made Cochabamba and found a place to stay.  Typically, when we are the hungriest, there is a delay, and sure enough, the owner/manager was not there.   Long story short, we finally had the bikes parked and were shown to our room about 90 minutes later.  We walked to where we were told we could find food, but no dice, and we went looking on our own.   At the meltdown point, we settled in at a decent polleria, and ordered another dinner of chicken, rice, or fries.  Monotonous, yes, but it’s reasonably good, deep-fried, fast, and safe (I always like it, anyway).  The morning brought another day of mountain riding to Oruro, where, after looking around, we pushed the easy button and headed for Hotel Sucre, where we’d stayed before on our way down from La Paz.

But in the mountains between Cochabamba and Oruro, we twisted and turned as the road followed the contours around the ends of ridges, and followed side canyons in a typical route to cross an Andean range.  The road this day offered us a few interesting and unsettling events.  First to mind is when we came around a curve going steeply uphill and encountered a tractor-trailer flatbed, loaded with guardrail sections, entirely upside down and blocking the road.  It seemed to have just happened within the last few minutes, as the leaking diesel fuel had only run down the road about 10 meters, and the deep gouges in the asphalt above it were fresh and white, tracing curving arcs far uphill above the wreck.  The cab was intact though badly damaged, as a result of a long slide along the pavement downhill.  I assumed the driver was either inside still, or had crawled out okay.  Either way, the people along the road were simply standing there, so what urgency there had been was now over.  We crawled by it, and I decided a photo would be in poor taste.

Observation number two had to do with the dogs down here.  I’d noticed in Bolivia, and other countries such as Peru, that dogs tended to be seen sitting or lying at regular intervals along the roads.  For months I thought that some of them must be herding dogs with unseen llama or sheep herds nearby.  Today that theory went, quite literally, out the window.  We were following a bus up the mountain, looking for a passing opportunity.  A bunch of garbage came flying out the bus window, and the nearby ditch dog grabbed it, quick as lightning.  And that’s when the whole ecology of roadside feral dogs came into focus with a question: Is the frequency of the dogs along the road directly related to the frequency that cars and buses that come by? (and throw garbage out the windows).  Thinking of other roads in Central America, Colombia, and Peru, and now watching closely in Bolivia, the observations strongly suggest that the dogs control as much road length as they need to have enough to eat.  Busy roads, more garbage thrown, smaller territory needed, more dogs per given length of roadway.  With less traffic, there is less food, more competition, larger territories.  Observations over subsequent days showed that the pattern held.  I can’t prove it but it sure seems plausible, and I wonder if someone might be able to fashion a project of it.  It would need to take into account the size of the dogs, quality of the food, and many other factors I could think of.

We came down out of the mountains and back onto the Altiplano again, descending into Oruro.  I’d been commenting to Jalene for an hour or so about how often I could smell the brakes and clutches on the trucks climbing by or descending.  But as we slowed for an intersection, I smelled it again more strongly, with no trucks nearby.

It’s not a good feeling to be in the middle of Bolivia and watch a puff of smoke come up from under your instrument panel.  Every time we stopped, I saw another puff, and they seemed to be coming from the back of the headlight.  This was confirmed when I jerked my burned fingers out with melted rubber on them.  The headlight connector was overheating and melting, so I unplugged it and we rode to the hotel.  In the gloom of the underground cochera, or parking area, I peeled the insulation away and found the ground wire nearly worn through after being lightly rubbed by the clutch cable at every turn.  With most of the copper strands broken, resistance rose steadily, and the wire was now hot enough to melt the plastic connector and rubber cover.  Surprisingly, after wandering around and asking, I found an auto-electric shop in town that sold me the exact H4 connector, complete with wire pigtails, and I was able to quickly replace the connector for about 3 bucks.  A zip-tie solved the rubbing problem, and I had a headlight again, with no more smoke.  A quick look at Jalene’s bike showed the same issue developing, so I treated her clutch cable to a zip-tie, followed by a new H4 connector a few days later.

With the smoke now banished, and a good night’s sleep, we were ready to head across toward Chile and enter a new country.  We were taking a route across the flat, dry terrain on a path that would brush the northern edge of the Salar de Coipasa, another big salt flat of Bolivia.  The road is paved all the way to Chile, which was a surprise, but there were many desvios, or detours, where a bridge was still being finished, or had yet to be installed, and we often were turned down off the road into the softer sand and dust where we crossed a dry arroyo and then climbed back up onto the roadway.  We would sometimes climb over low ridges or cross broad flat areas or open basins, steadily working our way south and west.  In the afternoon, we could look out onto the salar, which on its northern shore has hundreds of little black rock islands poking through the white of the salt crust.  Again, in this open, broad land, with it’s volcanoes developing as we moved further west, I was again strongly reminded of horses and trains, cavalries, mines, mules, and rusty iron.  Finally, late in the afternoon we came to Pisiga, and crossed into Chile with little drama.  Just a kilometer on the Chilean side, we elected to give in to the cold wind, and found a hostel that served us dinner and lock up the bikes.  We had no Chilean money, and had luckily decided to fill the bikes just before crossing, so our tanks were full.  The hostel took Bolivian pesos, and so, with quite empty pockets, we only had to make it to a town with an ATM to get some Chilean pesos.  We fell heavily asleep in the cold high altitude, and in the middle of the night, with the power shut down over the whole town, the stars put on an incredible show out the bathroom window.  Tomorrow we would transition down off the Altiplano into the northern Atacama Desert, and learn why they used this area to test the Mars landers.

Bolivia turned out to be an incredible, beautiful place, but we had to work at it to reveal it.  Along the north coast of Chile, an Argentine fellow on a Yamaha rolled up, and we learned he was on his way to Bolivia for the fifth time.  He agreed it was a bit more work, but fairly shouted with excitement “Bolivia is such a surprise box!” and that captures it perfectly.  Buying gas turned out to be mostly a non-issue, but supplies in general are just a little harder to find here, and selection is something to forget for the while.  Bolivia is a land where, if you find what you need you are happy.  This ain’t the land of WalMart, that’s for sure, and we were quite happy with that.


More photos HERE.