Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Farewell to Boliviyeauuuurghhhh!!

Happy Christmas everyone, and a lively New Year as well. right, now that's over with...

So, we were in Oruro, if you've been paying attention, and about to head in the general direction of La Paz, which we duly managed to do. En route, as is our wont, we decided more precisely where we were going to try and get to, and picked a...suburb, I guess you'd call it, 12km out of La Paz called Mallasa, situated in the Bolivian Valle de la Luna (oh no, not another one, we thought). Unfortunately, we had no map with Mallasa on it, and as we got closer and closer to La Paz, the lack of road signage, though normal, became increasingly confusing.

And then, while stopped at a set of traffic lights in the middle lane of 3, a guiding angel appeared, thinly disguised as a local traffic cop. The cop came over while we waited for the lights, and asked the usual curious questions about where we were from, where we had come from today and where we were going. When we said Mallasa, he started giving ¨easy¨ instructions to find it that would take us off the crowded main streets. We were clearly struggling with his directions, so he suggested we move out of the now moving traffic to the side of the road, and he tried again. Seeing the looks of utter confusion still on our faces (not easy through the helmets...) he grabbed his mate, jumped on his own bike, told us to follow him and sped off through the unpredictable traffic. I dropped visor (there was a lot of both dust and dirty water being sprayed about), indicated left and pulled away from the kerb, with Rich in hot pursuit. Until, that is, my front wheel dislodged a storm water drain cover, and my back wheel dropped neatly in the hole. Rich came back, realising I wasn't on his tail any more, and we managed to lift the back end out of the hole without dropping the bike, but by now our guides had surely gone?

Not a bit of it. They too had realised we hadn't followed them, so had (probably illegally) U-turned and come back to find us. Reunited, we set off again, our wider, slower bikes finding it harder than the lighter cop bike to weave dangerously through the traffic, but we kept them in sight, and eventually got through a maze of streets to the top of a long and winding cobbled street leading into an incredible craggy valley. Hear, the friendly police pulled over, gave us some final directions for Mallasa, told us to ask any other policeman if we needed help and bid us farewell. Slightly dubiously, suspecting some kind of Bolivian rip off scam perhaps, we followed the amazing road into the valley.

After several pauses to check our direction, we were confident we were on the right road to Mallasa. And then, inevitably enough, things became a little pear-shaped. The road was rather unexpectedly blocked by a construction crew, large lorries waiting to take earth away, and a larger JCB type machine in the middle of the road, scooping it into the backs of the trucks in turn. We were assured that if we were ¨tranquilo¨, the road would be clear soon enough, so after one failed attempt at a sneaky detour, we waited it out.

Once clear, the first vehicle, a Toyota Hiace van, tried to come up the relatively steep and by now very muddy and wet road, and unsurprisingly got totally stuck. Lack of air, hot clothing and the nasty mud prevented us from leaping to the van's aid, but others tougher than us stepped in, pushed it through, and the road was open! I launched myself down the chute, throwing caution to a walking pace wind, and promptly lost my front wheel in the slippery deep mud, dropping my bike and blocking Rich and the rather large lorry behind me from being able to get past. A frenzied pick up of the bike threw it on to its other side, before I manfully and totally-out-of-breathedly managed to get it up (so to speak) and successfully out of the muddy slick. And so, on to Mallasa with no further interruptions or issues. Phew.

The Bolivian Valle de la Luna certainly deserved its name, with totally amazing rock formations we totally failed to photograph, as we were by this time just keen to get to the end of the ride. We had a very comfortable night in a fairly luxury hostel, and next day proceeded through La Paz and on to Copacobana.

Now I made that sound easy, but getting through La Paz on a Sunday morning (surely less traffic on a Sunday?) was preceded by a climb up and up and up a crazy winding road (hopefully Rich got good video footage of that), providing a steadily improving view of La Paz below us, a truly stunning location for a city, albeit a rather busy and dirty city. At the top of the hill, we hit real traffic, and had a thoroughly entertaining half our weaving our way with a recklessness surpassed only by the true locals, through the traffic and out of town. A quick, straight spin followed to get us to within sight of Lake Titicaca, and a short hop on a very rickety boat put us across from San Pablo to San Pedro, and on to an absolutely superb, high level, top quality tarmac, contour-following road around the edge of the lake to get to Copacobana.

Here we stopped for about 5 days over Xmas, enjoying a couple of nights out, met some friendly locals, had a crack at high altitude fitness activities (a hill climb and various push-up type things), and on our last night - Xmas night - a bout of food poisoning courtesy of the poshest food we'd eaten in months, and needless to say chicken. We should have known. Never mind, Rich spent the night shouting Huey and Ralph at the roses outside, and my first duty of the morning, under the impression I had escaped his fate despite an uncomfortable night, was to talk to God on the big white telephone. Having not purged myself as early as Rich, I also suffered bonus discomfort, which need not be highlighted, but altogether it did cause us to have a recovery day and mount a pavement protest which in due course got us a refund for the meal.

Which, sadly, had us leaving Bolivia with, quite literally, a sour taste in our mouths, despite having enjoyed every other aspect of the country enormously. It certainly hasn't put me off the notion of going back in March while Rich is otherwise occupied, to do a stint of voluntary work with http://www.intiwarayassi.org/, who work to rescue wild animals form zoos and circuses etc and rehabilitate them for release into the wild. Should be good, as long as I avoid chicken in Copacobana on the way there!

And so we entered Peru, homing in on Cusco at last and our 2 months of voluntary work for Bruce Peru. On the way we stopped at Puno for a night, not having fully regained our strength yet, which was very nice town from what we saw of it, narrow cobbled streets and old Spanish type buildings etc, and arrived in Cusco yesterday afternoon. It was another incredible drive in, totally well above 3000m all the way yet still surrounded by enormous hills and mountains. It really is a very high part of the world, round here! We have settled in to our digs, and found out a day or two before arrival that, rather than just being classroom volunteers as we had expected, we have been asked to take on the role of directors and coordinators for volunteers and fund raising (basically running the joint), as our predecessor was called back to the US rather unexpectedly and urgently. A bigger challenge certainly, but we have had a couple of working liquid lunches already, brainstormed some ideas, and are quietly confident that we will be highly successful! Of course, what else?

So wish us luck, keep an eye out for further updates and photos, and try to keep Auntie Beryl away from the sherry. You know it plays havoc with her plumbing.

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