Riding on the Edge

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I’m on a bike, up a mountain, in Bolivia, and I’m remembering that bit in The Beach, the part where Richard talks about the futility of Travel. Travel deserves a capital ‘T’ because it’s not achieved by just going on a poncy holiday somewhere. You don’t Travel just by grabbing a backpack and this year’s edition of Lonely Planet. Travel is a state of mind, it’s about doing something different. Only it’s hard to actually succeed in being different when no matter how far away you get, someone with the same guidebook as you has got there first. So you keep trying, thinking that that elusive, profound, and above all unique experience of Travel is just past the next llama. Bolivia is a good place to visit if you want to experience “the world’s most” of pretty much anything. For example, the road starts just north of La Paz, the world’s highest capital city. Carved into sheer mountainside, it was built by prisoners taken during Bolivia’s war with Paraguay in the 1940s. To get the image of this stretch into your head, imagine a road slightly narrower than Turl Street. Imagine this ‘highway’ stretching for miles, almost always downhill at a sharp decline, with a vertical drop permanently to one side. Imagine that the road goes unpaved in many places, with numerous potholes, and every corner a hair-pin bend. Now imagine that two lanes of traffic run all times, including articulated lorries and large passenger buses, with no attempts to control the traffic save the occasional locals who wave vehicles around corners seemingly at random. Other than that, drivers avoid certain death only by beeping their horns when coming at a turn at high speed. Often two trucks end up facing each other, both perched on a corner, resulting in a battle of wills to ascertain who will compromise his manliness and reverse, very, very slowly. The sides of the road are dotted with memorials to the dead; the highest death toll yet one crash is eighty. Unsurprisingly it has taken on a kind of notoriety among Bolivians. Then, one day, some enterprising young travel agent realised that here was a golden opportunity: buy some mountain bikes, hire couple of guides, and market this jaunt as an unmissable adventure experience. This is how it came to pass that this road now daily sees collection of die-hard cyclist nuts from across the world zoom down it at break-neck speed, hugging the edges and feeling their masculinity assert itself at every turn. This is also how, bizarrely, dangerously, and almost certainly suicidally, I ended up on it as well. The irony is that you don’t actually have to hurl yourself down 4000m of badly paved highway to come home with decent stories from Bolivia. Wandering through La Paz, nearly five hundred years after colonisation, one can never be sure to what extent Spanish culture has ever taken hold. Shopkeepers burn llama foetuses in their doorways to ward off evil spirits, while many women still wear their traditional dress of long flowing skirts and bowler hats. Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire, is still widely spoken. Travel in the countryside reveals many who have no knowledge of Spanish at all. West of La Paz lies Lake Titicaca, which is where, according to the Inca legend, the sun was born. It used to be the case that any traveller on the lake who was swept overboard could not be rescued: he or she would be left as sacrifice to the gods. Luckily, we were never forced to discover whether this rule still applies. To the north of the capital lies the Bolivian section of the Amazon jungle, where tourists can take jungle safaris, living river-side for days, and seeing alligators, anaconda snakes, and curious pink fresh-water dolphins. Those seeking a unique experience can travel to the south, where a guide will drive you on a three day journey across wilderness-like terrain and into Chile. The trip takes you past volcanoes, steaming geysers, hot springs, and over the enormous Salar de Uyuni, a salt-lake of perfectly flat whiteness stretching in every direction to the horizon. For sheer terror, however, there is little to compare to that road just outside of La Paz. In the end, my bicycle juant proved every bit as scary and painful as I thought. A 60-year-old French woman overtook me half way. I rode consistently in the rear and slowly. The American drugs checkpoint was a particular highpoint: they have installed a post to search all traffic for the raw ingredients of cocaine. Nevertheless, I would recommend the Bike Ride Of Death to any would-be Traveller to the region. It may not make you into a man, it might not be as original as you hoped, and it certainly won’t make women fall at your feet (except when they collapse in boredom at your latest story about llamas), but it will be different to anything you’ve done before. Especially if you’re scared of heights.
ARCHIVE: 4th week TT 2003

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