We Are Officially Bike Touring in Bolivia

Well, we are officially bike touring in Bolivia. We left from Cochabamba, Bolivia just under two weeks ago, and have managed 250 miles, tons of climbing, and lots of Spanish practice. We have met hundreds of interesting Bolivians and have enough stories to write a hundred blogs. When we arrived in Llallagua yesterday, both of us were ready to live on the computer for a bit and put a few of our stories from our first days of bike touring in Bolivia. For Nia, these first few days have not just been her first Bolivian bike tour, but her first bike tour ever. Thus, we have both written a little something, with two different bike touring perspectives.

Enjoy the words, and when we find an internet café a bit less frustrating (where oh where?) we will fix typos and add photos.

Part One

by  Nia Thomas

Am I a sadist…

Am I a sadist? This is a thought I´ve had many times over the last 11 days.  When Sara said she was going to be cycling in Latin America I decided that Bolivia sounded like as good place as any to start. It´s my first bike tour , and what a start it has been!

By day three I had already climbed the biggest hill of my life (1085m or 3560ft is THE highest point in Wales), on a bumpy rock road, with a heavy bike in the midday heat. The next day we beat it. The feeling of freedom as we pedal our way though the mountains, stopping as we wish to take pictures, eat egg-tomtato-mayonaise sandwiches and just say WAW is complete. I have travelled before, but never quite like this.

Don´t get me wrong, as I grit my teeth and push my burning leg muscles up the steep dirt road in front of me, and my back wheel slips out on some rocks or sand, and my forward motion stops once again, I often look up, sweat dripping down my face and think “What am I doing?!”. But then I take a sip (alright more like an elephants guzzle) of water, get back on my saddle and struggle on, always wishing I just had one more gear… But then comes the crest, the ridge, the brow, the promise of some rest bite and a view that will take my already ragged breath away. Mountains beyond mountains beyond mountains disappearing into the horizon, making me feel at once both as small as an ant and as mighty as a giant. I catch my breath, absorb the view and pedal on.

Our pace is slow, even by biking standards. The mixture of dirt roads, steep climbs and ´must-stop-at´ scenic vistas at every turn results in an average daily mileage of less than 25. But this gives us time, not only to absorb the incredible landscape, but also the incredible people that inhabit it. We stop often; to ask directions, to buy food, or just to chat. We stop in villages that buses just rattle on through, villages we will never know the name of, and talk to people, people with big smiles, big hearts and time to chat for half an hour in our broken Spanish (and time to laugh at our mistranslations). Our bikes are always a conversation starter, a crowd gatherer; some people tell we are crazy, others tell us we are brave, several tell us we must be strong; but all are interested. On these two wheels I feel like I get to see a side of Bolivia not accessible to many gringos. The lives of sustenance farmers in the hills, of shop keepers in small villages, of old women with faces so wrinkled by the sun you could get lost in their contours.

This is my first bike tour, and really it is just getting started. For all the adventures that have happened, and all that are to come, I am eternally grateful.

Part Two

by Sara Dykman

Every time I set out on a bike tour, I know with perfect certainty that incredible, unforgettable stories will unfold before me. You can never plan for these moments, but cycle touring is the ticket. Bike touring is full of uncertainty and this uncertainty is like a hook, pulling in spontaneity. Most of the time when you bike, you don’t know where you are going to sleep, what you are going to eat, what the road will look like, or whose path you will cross.  For this, you are more likely to stop and camp on a perfectly flat mountain ridge, accept a bowl of soup or roadside beer, and ask directions and meet a person ready to show you their world.  On a bike, it would be impossible to avoid days that feel as if a thousand things have happened worth remembering. Bike touring in Bolivia is no exception.

When we left Cochabamba, 12 days ago, we really had no idea what we were getting into. We had heard warnings from a hundred different people leaving us apprehensive, and we had read stories from other cycle tourists leaving us giddy with excitement. As each mile passes (SLOWLY) my apprehension fades away, and my giddiness in tampered by a satisfying feeling of exhaustion.

I have bike toured something like 20,000 miles, but the last 250 miles are on the top of my hardest miles pedaled list.  We left pavement behind when we said goodbye to Cochabamba (and a ton of great people that I won’t forget).  It has been dusty, dirt roads or bumpy, sterilizing rock roads since.  These small roads are mouthwateringly photogenic, but they slow us to a humbling speed. We are pushing 25 miles per day right now, and when I look at a map and we have not traveled even an inch in two days I start to see Bolivia not as a smallish country in South America, but as a giant universe of unnamed roads connecting constellations of mountains and tiny towns.

Of course, I should say, that our maps are more like a lucky guess. On our maps the roads appear straight and obvious. In reality the roads are more like the ECG of an irregular, maddening fast heart beat.  We rely much more on maps made by locals in the sand or the pointing hands of passing sheep herders. A bonus for cycling in a developing country is the surplus of small villages and a country side filled with herders and their sheep, goats, pigs, and cows. For this we need not worry about finding water or a person to point us in the right direction. When we come to a cross road, we listen for sheep then spot the colorful clothes and full brimmed hat of someone that is going to keep us from heading the wrong way.

These herders in the countryside are a reminder that passing time doesn’t always mean startling change. It is comforting to see a world not yet raped by television and American culture. And while it proves more difficult for us, many of these hardworking, subsistence farmers know less Spanish than us. Here, in southern Bolivia, Quetchua is the local language. Sometimes a women running between stubborn sheep won’t spot us and we will listen to her sing in the clicks and ques of a Quetchua song.  We have learned a handful of words to crack smiles and get water. Here is the extent of our Quetchua:

Imaynaylla – How are you?

Allin púnchay – Good morning

Allin tarde – Good afternoon

Allin ch`isis – Good night

Pachi – Thank you

Yaqu – Water

Miski –Delicious

Besides ‘‘learning’’ Quetchua, we are spending a good part of everyday practicing Spanish. Many times we look at each other and thank what ever luck we have that I studied Spanish in Cochabamba so intensively. It would be very hard to operate here without knowing some Spanish. I might not be able to talk about a lot, but I can talk about where we are biking, why we are biking, what we want to eat, and ask for directions like a heavily accented pro.  Because we are visiting all the small towns where busses don’t stop and tourists don’t wander, the locals surround us and ask a dozen questions at once leaving us and them wide eyed and a bit uncertain as to what comes next.

 Much of the time, the locals are a bit shy and hide in the shadows of doorways or in small clusters at a safe distance. That is until the bravest asks what we are doing. We answer in funny Spanish that breaks the ice and soon a crowd gathers. Most don’t talk but seem to hang on each word. I love when I can get the crowd to laugh. In a country so shy to tourists, it is pretty magical to share a laugh with them.

 Often, it feels like I am in a movie. Most of the men wear these amazing, colorful, pointed hats with ear flaps that tapper into thin yarn and finish with fluffy balls of color. And the women seem to have a hundred layers of clothes, each a different color. And the sun has given each face, deep wrinkles that reflect a life of hard work and secretes learned only from living with what you can grow and little more.  And I want to take a photo of each person, but I keep my camera packed away and instead take pictures of the gifts they give us.

 In the United States a thousand people have given to me and my friends on bike tours. Poor, poor people have given us what they can, and each pushes me to follow their example. Here, where many of the people work not for money but for food, a gift of a potato or corn stalk is an unforgettable gift. We have found ourselves giving thanks just about everywhere we stop. We have received oranges, potatoes, soup, flavored milk, beer, places to sleep, dinners, and juice.  It is overwhelming and a wonderful lesson.

 One long day on our search for a town we never actually found, we stopped for water, and met Martina. As we filled up our water bottles she produced corn stalks for us to enjoy. If you peel the corn stalk, you can chew on the refreshingly sweet insides. We sat in front of her house until nothing was left of those stalks but a fibery carcass of corn.  Because our dinner prospects were unmotivating we asked if she might have a vegetable to sell us. With that, we were fed a heaping bowl of pasta, potatoes, and corn; invited to stay in the empty room of her sister’s house; and given the opportunity to spend a few hours one evening chatting in their small one room house sharing details of our lives. The next morning, we were fed a three course breakfast of corn, potatoes, beets, and soup. They were kind enough to suggest we take some with us for lunch, before we exploded. 

 A few days later, after asking permission to feed a pig our collection of food scraps, we started talking with a group of women. The youngest, and most fluent in Spanish, showed off her English, and we practiced a few words with her. Then out of nowhere we are delivered bowls of soup. The soup was for strength seeing as we were about to climb yet another mountain.

We have been climbing mountains ever since. We have learned to expect another mountain even when an entire town tells us otherwise. Five days before reaching the town of Uncia people were telling us we could get there that day. They would say ‘’one more hill, then it is downhill to Uncia’’. Well, it only took about five disappointing mountain summits and the view of the other side for us to stop assuming we were close to anything. We have worked out that an hour and half in bus is about a day for us. Though we have had people in towns two days apart by bike both tell us ‘’four hours to Uncia by bus’’, so really we are just biking and assuming we will get there eventually and enjoying trying to get somewhere.

 The getting somewhere has proven really, really hard, but after a day of rest, 4 doughnuts, pineapple, juice, soup, ice cream (they have ice cream here that is basically frozen mashed potatoes…and I am afraid to report a bit disappointing if you are looking for ice cream), and a day without looking at bikes, we are ready to head out to the salt flats on bumpy roads full of stories we will tell for the rest of our lives, but right now can’t even dream up.