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Sticky Rainforest Memories


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I started tearing down the pass on the winding road into the misty unknown. The sparse yellow grass was replaced with increasingly lush vegetation at an astonishing rate, then the pavement ran out. I discerned in glimpses though the clouds that the road was poised over a sheer abyss.


Down to the Yungas

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At the village of Unduavi, after only 22 kilometers from the barren pass, I was surrounded by luxuriant emerald-green tropical forest. Near shoddy roadside stands, police opened a few zippers of my cycle bags for a superficial curious search.

The surroundings at camp included a vacant straw hut, numerous flowers, ferns, elegant and unfamiliar insects. The air was dripping wet. What a difference from the deserts!



Straw hut

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April 15: What a fantastic experience riding the wet rocky narrow road along continuous precipices, as the fog comes and goes in patches, and splashing across streams every 100 meters! Water dripped from lush vines, huge ferns, and other flora hung above the road.


Giant firn

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The drenched brake shoes were wearing out rapidly going down steep rocky slopes. Platforms for passing were spaced about 100 meters apart, and the road was elsewhere so narrow that I dashed to the closest one every time a truck passed. They came almost one per minute, full of fruits and passengers in their open back. I passed thundering waterfalls, some splashing all over the road and prompting people in the trucks to scramble for their plastic tarps.


Waterfall on road

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When the overhead clouds thinned out, it became steaming hot, with the terrain visibly steaming. The sensation of breathing was like in a sauna. Where I stopped for bread, the villagers felt the front tire and asked the price of the bike.

I think they had dropped the bag of leavening in the bread it because it started fermenting in my stomach bloating me up with incredible quantities of gas. In acute pain, I resigned to an early interruption the day's progress, heaved the bike up a two meter bank, and assembled the tent in the forest. The condition cleared swiftly after I uncorked and depressurized by profuse flatulence. Rain poured abundantly all night long and puddles accumulated on the tent floor. My gear inside garbage bags was spared from becoming drenched. The mattress and more bags spread over the floor guarded the sleeping bag from the puddles. All these bags now required to be meticulously maintained by sealing any holes with transparent tape.


April 16: I met an elderly couple of American protestant missionaries eating lunch by a stream. Río Coroico at the bottom of the ravine was getting quite wide since it collected all the streams it could find. All this water would find its way to the mighty Amazon.

The search for a place to camp was the longest of my life—4:45 to 6:00 p.m. Where precipitous cliffs did not hug both sides of the road, flat spots were occupied with shacks and villages. I checked 15 trails into the mountainside bush before finding a flat spot. It offered a grand view of the river as a bonus. On the banks below, the natives were restless at dusk and howled in the jungle. I hoped their communications were not about me!


April 17: Butterfly day—thousands of them, dozens of psychedelic types. I followed a green and black one around with my camera, but it only landed for a few seconds before fluttering off again and again—I gave up. I spotted others sucking pebbles along a stream to ingest salt, which is a scarce resource in the rainforest. Some species of cute butterflies lost their attractive appeal when I saw them swarming on putrefying feces.

While I was packing groceries in Caranavi, a raging woman repeatedly threw stones at a man as a crowd watched. I entered a restaurant with walls decorated exclusively with assorted tiger pictures. Boys examined my bike in the open front during the entire time that I ate. I was so sick of being asked the price of my stuff, that I quoted exorbitant prices to see their reactions. My watch cost $2000 and had satellite connection and my $3000 bike had gold parts! I had them fooled for a while.

I took a refreshing bath in the stream at camp by banana trees.


Yungas

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I ate garlic to help my immunization system shake off unfamiliar microorganisms in my sore throat. They may have drifted in from roadside fecal matter raised up as dust.


April 18: Snake day—a one-and-a-half-meter brown one dead on the road, and skinny long green ones slithering on the ground or hanging in bushes. While I ate snack in an open straw shelter, I held a staring contest with a lazy green lizard that was perched on a roof rafter.

The weather dried up, resulting in a choking cloud of dust, rich in microorganisms, every time a truck passed, which forced me to close my eyes and stop breathing. It took forever to make any progress on the map because the road follows the contour of the mountainsides, rounding every gully, doubling the distance. Every low point (400 meters above sea level) is a muddy quagmire 15 centimeters deep, filling the mudguards with the heavy stuff. After the top of the next ridge, I descended phenomenal slopes, concentrating on dodging rocks as the mud whipped off the tire all over the place.

In the hot, humid tent, I was terribly worried about a trail of large red ants to nearby fallen bananas. If they smell anything good in a tent, or if it is simply on their path, they can shred it up with their sharp mandibles, and bite you insane if you don't wake up when you hear the cutting sounds.


April 19: Ants did invade, but they were so small that they had passed through tiny preexisting holes in the floor, so I blocked the holes with tape. I startled a lone man picking bananas in the plantation when I called out to him.

I felt as if the scenery was an endless loop as in a Flintstones sequence when they run somewhere—down to a stream that crosses the road, up to an adobe house, along a flat stretch, past an open straw shelter, down to a stream that crosses the road, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. For snack, I picked a grapefruit right off its tree. I felt so tired, that I extended the break to over an hour, while writing the log.

Crossing the town of Guanay in the rain was an obstacle course through a muddy mess, resulting from the installation of sewer pipes. The bike's rear tire was becoming frayed on the side, so I bought a spare at a hardware store, rolled it in two, and tucked it under the hooked elastics. From here to Mapiri, I didn't know if it would be possible to continue cycling, since the map only showed a dotted line, representing a trail, but that was in 1973. Back home I had psyched myself to try even if I had to walk the bike 50 kilometers, or if even that would be impossible, I would hire a small boat on the Río Mapiri. They informed me that a road exists, but they laughed as they pointed the way... I wonder why?

The road started up ridiculously steep, and continued at this grade forever. A boy followed me from town, but there was no way to lose him since I was going so slow walking and pushing the bike up with great exertion. Campsites were elusive again as I desperately checked out side paths, but no luck, and it was getting dark. My mood progressively deteriorated. By 6:15 p.m., I fueled up on rosé wine and biked up like a maniac. The boy finally got the message and hitched a truck down.

In complete darkness at 6:45 p.m., I located a level clearing, and put up the tent by flashlight as moths buzzed around and bats whipped by. I saw multitudes of brilliant orange dots on the bike handlebars when moth eyes reflected the flashlight beam. I felt bad for the impression I must have given to the boy.


April 20: After a driving rain you suffocate in the humidity. While you wait at a fork in the road for anyone to pass by to ask what goes where, you take care of the chain that makes grinding noises begging for oil. It is so dry and clogged that you cannot turn the pedal in reverse without it going off track. In an hour, the new oil completely disappears as your chain is splattered with red sticky mud as you ride in deep tire grooves.


Muddy road

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Your cycle bags bang on the sides of the groove and drag through muddy water that infiltrates in your stuff. Then you get so much friction from the tire rubbing on the mud stuck in the mudguards, that you fetch a stick, but it is rotten and breaks. Finally you find a stiff stick and pry the sticky mud off, as hundreds of insects bite you. After an excruciating climb of 500 meters, you go down the terrible grade riding the brakes so hard that the abrasive mud finishes off the brake shoes and you hear the scraping sound of steel on the rear rim! You stop, take out the tools, rotate the shoes upside down where bit of rubber remains, and swear to use them sparingly (use the front brake more). Then you have to cross a rushing stream without a bridge. After that, the pedal axle bearings make terrible grinding noises, but you say "f... it." You pass a large bulldozer with a team of men shoveling under the treads. You ask what happened so they tell you it is stuck in this slippery mess. What? A stuck bulldozer? Incredible!

Exhausted, you put up camp on an abandoned pile of straw, taking care to hide from the road below. Then a truck goes by, curves a switchback, then passes above camp and they wave hello at you! Fun. This was definitely the most difficult bicycle expedition I had ever done or heard of. Frogs sang a chorus all night.


April 21: At the village where the road repair crew were based, they invited me for snack under a thatched roof. The dish of warm milk and manioc (cassava or tapioca) was terrible, but I politely drank it.

DEET insect repellant worked wonders, but my thigh got a tattoo of "ANDES MACHINE" in mirror image blue-ink letters. A continuous line of red ants carried cut leaf pieces across the road. They seemed indifferent to their sisters squashed by passing vehicles.

I located a convenient place to do bicycle repairs by a stream channeled to a hollow split tree trunk making a drip like a shower; parts could be washed there. While I replaced the bent rear axle in the sauna heat, children came out of nowhere to observe. Later, an old woman came by and took a shower topless right next to me on the side of the road.

I was astounded to see that the road was washed out by a 30-meter-wide swift river! No wonder I didn't see any traffic all day. Determined to get across, I performed a balancing act in the meter-deep and three-knot current, while holding a garbage bag of stuff in each hand. I succeeded two ferries and returned for the bicycle. The current pulled hard on it as I struggled to hold on.


River crossing

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The cycle bags made it float, and rapids cascaded right after this section, so if I lost it, God knows how far it would go.

Satisfied with my accomplishment, I put up the tent right on the shore. A man appeared and warned me that the river would rise in the night, washing me away. I thanked him with four cigarettes, then he reached in his basket and embarrassingly gave me four tangerines that he had laboriously collected in the tangled forest, whereas I had bought the cigarettes for 25¢ a pack. More people arrived, and one guy asked me if I was solo. I answered yes, then he asked me if I had maligno. I wondered what he meant, so he clarified "Do you have a devil in you?" Quite upset, I tried to explain that I am an explorer-adventurer, not a possessed person, and what he was talking about was superstition.

I slid the tent with everything in it to higher ground, then blasted hundreds of moths, flies and mosquitoes out of it with a map. By flashlight, I spent 15 minutes killing the ones remaining after the door was zipped. Was I ever thankful for the chloroquine antimalarial pills. In the night, I was astonished to hear a truck splashing across the river.


April 22: The river had only risen a few centimeters after all. Maybe I did have a devil in me or else the guy gave me one, because the problems would only get worse in the next two days. I was riding down one of the countless ridges when I heard a blowout. The abrasive mud had scraped a gash in the rear tire wall, so the inner tube had poked out and exploded. Good thing I had spares. Sitting in the middle of the road, I removed the rear wheel and proceeded to install the spare tire, but although the raised characters directly on the rubber spelled "26 inches," that was a mistaken label and it didn't fit! Desperately improvising, I used a sewing needle and thin steel wire to close the gash, and swapped the tire to the front where it would suffer less stress. A truck unexpectedly approached when my stuff was scattered all over the road. I waved my arms to signal it to stop, and scrambled to clear the way. My delight at getting moving again was short lived—all the wire sections broke of metal fatigue. Heavy-duty nylon fishing line worked much better.

All these delays set my lifetime slow cycling speed of a pathetic 11 kilometers per dedicated day, and setting me far behind schedule, not to speak of dwindling supplies in this backward jungle. From my hill-top camp in two-meter-high grass, I was totally discouraged to see the road tracing an insane route zigzagging over mountains, when it could have passed far easier ridges right beside them.


April 23: I was very relieved to deduce with the compass that the insane route across the valley was not the one I had to worry about. As soon as I started on the road in the fine mist, the red mud began sticking to the tires.


Mud locks wheels

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The wheels completely jammed on the mudguards several times, but I freed them with a tent pole. I have never seen such sticky clay; I collected a giant clod from a single cleaning, held it upside down, and it didn't fall apart! The distance between cleanings reduced until the wheels locked in only three meters, even if I walked the bike! To remove the source of the blocking, I took an hour to detach the mudguards altogether, telling myself "I'll be laughing." When the clay started collecting on the frame, brakes and baggage rack jamming the wheels again, I was far from laughing—punching the saddle like a madman and screaming my head off, "Stop raining!" I continued advancing despite the frustration, now resorting to using my bare hands to remove massive clods dozens of times, and making no attempt to wipe off my hands before riding on. The clouds eventually obeyed me and the sun started slowly drying the road.

Now critically out of supplies, I stopped by some straw and adobe huts to ask if I could buy any food and candles. The elderly Aymara couple barely spoke Spanish. The woman who was drying coca leaves sold me 10 bananas, six of which I devoured on the spot. A welcome change in local soil vastly improved rideability. At the next raging river, 25 people watched as I carried the first load across to their side. Some children were nude and had hundreds of insect bites. I was nervous of leaving that bag right by them while I went back for more. Some guys found me interesting and volunteered to help me bring the rest. While the bike was under water, we tried to rub the mud off, but much was stubbornly stuck in hard-to-reach places. However troublesome current was, it kept the piranhas and alligators away in calm waters not very far. Everybody stared as I repacked everything. When I noticed that the odometer was missing, I started asking who took it, but I may have made a fool of myself because it might have fallen in the river or been ripped off by the clay assault.

To my relief, the store with the turkeys roaming around the yard had a half-decent selection, including luncheon meat cans labeled "gift of Denmark."


April 24: Repairs took forever, but I had a paradisiacal place in the shaded bush, by a brook. One of the nylon repair threads on the tire had snapped, but the doubling up precaution had paid off. I reinstalled the mudguards in an act of faith that no more rainforest clay roads would clog them. I installed the spare odometer, and juggled the brake shoes around. In the process, a nut fell in the brook. I searched meticulously in the shallow clear water, but it was still elusive and had me combing through a hundred handfuls of pebbles until I was going mad. Then two guys came by, and one just casually plucked the nut out of the water. I felt so stupid! These people are close to nature and have a keen ability to recognize unnatural objects. I thanked him with the customary cigarettes. They were ferrying loads of corn for their chickens, and firewood.

By the time all that was done, it was hardly worth moving on, so I stayed another night. A few giant (two-centimeter) ants scampered around and I hoped they would not come in armies. The music that played in my head was getting repetitious and I couldn't remember most of the new-age music. I also missed my friends, videotape machine, "Star Trek," "The Simpsons," barbecue chips, corn chips, peanuts and sweet cereals. It won't be long now.


April 25: A lone woman was panning for gold in a roadside stream, but she had found nothing today. Outside a little store, two guys asked me the usual. I retorted $3000, and cycled on. They followed me walking, but I couldn't shake them since the grade was so steep. They were eager to help me push, but I declined, feeling that it was against my "non-cheating" ideals and I was anxious that they might covet my "precious" machine. I stopped and took my time doing sewing repairs on my boots, and succeeded in losing them.

Finally I spotted Mapiri, but of course I had to lose 600 meters to get down there by the river of the same name. Zigzagging down switchbacks, the brakes were squealing so loudly that everyone turned their head. Mapiri is a sizable town with dozens of shops and stalls. I was in ecstasy to find bicycle parts including a proper tire at the hardware store. I tried to sell the one that didn't fit, but even if I lowered the price three times, he didn't want it, so I just said "Gratis" (free). Children started playing with the old inner tube as soon as I handed it to them. I stopped at a one-table restaurant and had delicious breaded chicken and fries. In there, the new toy pedal jeep for kids seemed incongruous with the building that didn't even have glass in the windows—but who needs it in this hot weather. I tried chicha, that I heard is some sort of corn beer. It had thick consistency, tasted terrible, and had not a trace of alcohol.

Just past town, another wide river confronted me, but surprise—a bridge crossed it! The structure was in pedestrian scale, and suspended with steel cables, but the wooden planks looked questionable. I handed the camera to a kid to take my photo, but I didn't realize that he only pressed the zoom button.

After dusk, I went for a walk further up the camp trail, and found that it leads to a tunnel in the hillside. Several bats flew around the entrance, turning me off from entering. I explored other trails, but the headlamp decided to fade out suddenly when I was in the dark jungle. I stumbled around distressed for a while searching for the tent. I had souvenirs of the chicha when I had to go out fast in the night.


April 26: As I replaced the tire, a crowd gathered and watched even at my concealed camp in the bush. The eight guys were going to work in the tunnel mining for gold, platinum, or copper. They were getting on my nerves, so to change my mood I requested to visit the tunnel. I installed fresh batteries in my headlamp and followed my proud guide. As we entered, the bats dashed out passing right by our heads. The tunnel forked near the entrance. The left branch had hit solid rock so we continued on the right branch walking crouched down. The air became progressively deprived of oxygen. I breathed deeply, but all I got was carbon dioxide that had been breathed thousands of times already. It ended incredibly far (100 meters) for a mine that had been dug entirely by hand in these conditions. It is astounding what these poor souls endure for a living.


Mine tunnel


I congratulated their accomplishment and went back to my chores. When they came out two hours later, I asked to buy a little piece of gold for souvenir, but they were empty handed! Thinking back, I should have helped them build a ventilation duct from wire and garbage bags, powered by a propeller even if someone has to turn it manually.

After more bike pushing and river crossings, I stopped in a village snack bar. The lady would hardly let me eat the pastries, so intensive was her questioning. She had the whole Bolivian collection: "How much does your bike cost? Don't you have a motor? Where do you come from? Where are you going? Where are you sleeping tonight? How much is the airfare? Did you buy the bike in La Paz? Can I buy your bike? How much does your watch cost? Where did you start from? Are you solo?" I managed to slip her a question, asking if she had any native gold for sale. She took out a small jar and unwrapped no less than five layers of paper and plastic. The precious goods inside were only two grams of tiny pieces, some were almost dust. She said the largest piece was a half gram, and asked Bs20 (US$5)—deal. It is smooth on one side and rough on the other, like a fallen tooth filling. I would later evaluate it to be 0.65 grams worth US$7.50 (assuming 24 karats). They showed off a three-meter snakeskin with black diamond patterns, caught in the area.


Snake skin


A clearing looked OK to camp, but it was decked with so many cow pies that it was a puzzle to fit the tent between them. A symphony of insects chirped all night, but the one that got on my nerves was like an electronic beep one second every three. I was woken in the night by my watch countdown timer, but I didn't know why I had set it, until I realized it was another strange chirp with four beeps in a half second repeated every second.


April 27: A green toucan hung around while I packed up. After another river crossing, a guy helped me to push the bike up. I tolerated the "cheating" for the sake of not being too antisocial.

Two motorcycles with aluminum boxes approached from the opposite direction. One driver had a faded red jacket so I was sure it was Jim again, but when we met I realized I had been mistaken. They were Hugo and Bruno from Switzerland doing an Africa and South America tour. One motorbike's rim was badly dented. They asked about the rivers, so I told them the bad news. In turn, they informed me I was far the end of steep rocky roads.

The road passes right over several three to six-meter humps where landslides had fallen; no one had bothered to clear them. It wasn't long before the Swiss came back saying "Impossible!" I was laughing to myself because they had retreated at the first river, whereas I had crossed more than 10. That is the reason I don't want a motor. All those Bolivians harassing me about a motor don't understand that they get flooded and stall under water.

The road went around huge (two-meter-diameter trunk) twisted trees with lianas tangled on top.


Giant tree

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Back on abysmal mountainsides, I gave up the campsite search and settled for the side of the road. I had not seen one truck in hours anyway, but traffic picked up in the night. They know it is safer at night rounding the countless blind curves because they can see oncoming headlight beams reflecting in the mist. I just hoped they would see the tent and not run over me. This would be my last night camping in the Yungas tropical rainforest, because I would be forced to take trucks from Consata to La Paz to catch my May 1st flight.


April 28: Just about every plastic rib of the front cycle bags was broken. When the flabby mess rattled on the spokes, I kept adding wire and wooden sticks. One time I was rolling full speed down the rocky road and just as I passed a local cyclist, a zipper stitch snapped and my things tumbled all over, making me look like an idiot. The bearings were complaining loudly, not to mention the infernal squealing brakes, as I rolled into Consata.

Here was as far as I could cycle with the allocated time. I had managed a treacherous 60% of the Yungas plan. I was simultaneously exalted at the accomplishment and sad not to be able to complete the loop to La Paz by muscle power. What an experience! I had been profoundly immersed (literally and figuratively!) in this tropical rainforest: the colorful butterflies, snakes and birds, the overhanging trees with lianas, the thundering waterfalls, the steaming mist, the gold diggers, the twisted three-dimensional roads, the rivers... and more rivers, and the mud! It had been enough to establish a strong sense of awareness of this fabulous ecosystem.

A girl storekeeper tried to charge me double for everything. She didn't expect me to walk out and go to the other store. They had 96% drinking alcohol for US$1 per liter—36 times cheaper than in Québec.

The old man operating the "lodge" was sure friendly to me, but he was a loud-mouth slave driver to the men heaving rocks to build a facade wall. When I asked him where to pee, he told me to go in the bushes. As for washing clothes, he told me to go to the river, but I refused to soap it up, so I shuttled pails of water from a stream drip across the road. I had to shoo away chickens flying up on the clothesline, landing their dirty feet on my clothing. Various other fowl roamed around fruit trees. My room was part of his house and the boy had to go through it to get to his room. I spread out hundreds of soggy effects to dry. Judging from the dusty electric plugs on the walls, the town once had (or expected to get?) electricity.


April 29: From the lodge balcony, I watched the children in the school yard repeating after the instructor "¡Viva Bolivia!" Some of them had become aware they were being watched by a gringo with a camera, causing much rubbernecking.



Consata school

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