Monday, June 16, 2014

A Fortnight of Confusion

2 day Transit Visa
This story has been told in part but never as a whole.  At the time, February 2008, I could not process or appreciate how chaotically, confusionally (yep I made that word up) and yet, perfectly and poetically these events unfolded. Let’s start nearly a year earlier with a random conversation that resulted in the tale I plan to tell. To confirm the accuracy of the title I ran into Justin at lunch a few weeks ago and he and I have totally different versions of what happened at the Argentina/Paraguay border.

Justin Kirkham and I went to High School together.  We ran around in the same group of friends but truthfully it was a 9 or 10 degrees of separation type thing.  I would never call him or vice versa but if the right mix of people decided to go rabbit hunting or to a party we’d hang out. No ill will between us just not the best of friends. I didn't talk to him for about 10 years after graduation. Then through happenstance our paths crossed through work.  We’d run into each other at events, exchange pleasantries, make fun of our mutual friends, but little more than that.  When I decided to quit my job and drive the Pan Am, I graciously gave my boss 6 months’ notice. Yeah I really just wanted to finish our FY07 so I could collect a bonus and have some more cash but it also gave me time to prepare.  Word spread about my plans and Justin caught wind of it. At an event in August we ran into each other and he started to pick my brain about what I was doing. He had been to Paraguay on an LDS mission and had returned a few times. He said “I want come join you when you get there so I can see the more remote areas I haven’t seen in 15 years.” I thought “sure I hear that all the time and you are just an acquaintance. Nothing will come of this.” Well January rolled around and I was starting to make plans for my friend J to join me for a trip through Chile. I can’t remember if I reached out to Justin or the other way around but I do remember emailing him something to the effect ‘If you can get to La Paz, Bolivia by Feb 18, I’d love to have you join me.’ Fast forward 6 weeks and I was picking Justin up at the terminal in El Alto, Bolivia.  I was pretty unsure exactly how the next few days, hours, weeks would unfold. Or in our case, unravel. Truth be told I wasn't quite sure about myself or my friendship with him.
Let’s look at me. I hadn't spoken to a native English speaker since leaving Panama three months earlier. I spoke almost entirely in Spanish for most of Colombia and all of Ecuador. In Peru I’d stumbled across a few tourists but rarely more than a ‘hey, how are you?’ was exchanged. I’d been by myself in my car since early December and aside from Ben joining me for 16 days in Central American I’d been alone for over 4 months.  The need for intimate and meaningful conversation was one of the more difficult challenges I faced over the six months I was on the road. My attempts at Spanish improved greatly and I could get along quite well with my limited vocabulary if the topics centered around where I’d come from, where I was going, ordering food or checking into a cheap motel. I could rarely add any depth beyond that because the conversation would always digress into explaining words I didn’t know, or me lacking that one word to advance it.  And then Justin arrived.  As mentioned we were friends but adulthood had made us more like acquaintances. I had no idea if we’d have anything to talk about. If things go stressful how would we react? It was a big question mark.
The route from downtown La Paz to the airport was miserably congested and not the slightest bit safe so I left Ruby Claire in the hotel parking lot and took a taxi. El Alto sits at the foot of the Andes near 14k feet. So when Justin arrived he was instantly out of breath. I’d been above 12k feet for almost a month and had acclimatized by that point.  We returned to the hotel with the hope of hitting the road shortly thereafter.  Justin abused our taxi driver with questions in his fluent Spanish and I was instantly relieved to have him in the truck with me.  After a painfully long call with ATT Global Blackberry support to try and figure out why my data service wasn't working we hit the road. It took us nearly an hour to get out of La Paz because of the horrendous El Alto traffic. Once free of the stress I opened my mouth in English and couldn't shut up. We made the trip down to the disgusting Oruro rather quickly and I still couldn't stop talking. The dude in the car with me spoke English. I couldn't contain myself.  After negotiating barricades of burning tires and loosely piled rocks we hit the dirt road south toward the famously beautiful Salar de Uyuni.  This is where our two weeks of hilarity and confusion began.

The metropolis of Huari, Bolivia
The town of Huari, Bolivia is the anomaly in a country of exquisite natural beauty, oppressive squalor and disgusting apathy. The cobble stone streets are swept perfectly clean. Fresh paint covered each and every building in town.  It felt like a movie set and not reality. I lost my way from the main route through town, there we turned a corner and spotted a red bearded Gringo sporting a KC Royals hat.  I locked up the brakes and rolled down my window.  He beat me to a witty greeting “how the hell did you get that thing here from Utah” After a lengthy conversation we discovered he was there with the Peace Corp and there was another member in Huari. Even more unbelievable all Peace Corp volunteers in the region were in town and meeting that night for dinner.  Huari was the last town we’d see before the Salar so we decided to check into the $8/night motel and have dinner with them.  2 hours later I’m sitting around a table with 7 other Americans. All of them were thinking, but none had the courage and/or courtesy to say. “Who is this bald guy and why won’t he shut the hell up?” Yeah I had diarrhea of the mouth. I had a shotgun approach to my questions. Get as many out as I could and without boundaries.  I was asking them, especially the cute ones, why they’d joined the Peace Corp, what were there motivations, did they really think they were making a difference, about their families back home. I couldn't shut up. It was an instinctive reaction. Not only could I talk to these people but I could actually communicate with them. It was amazing. We discovered that Huari was the home of the regional Cervezaria and in exchange for their water, the company agreed to maintain the town’s infrastructure.  It was close to a movie set in that it was all fake. People were paid to maintain the town, not something the locals did out of pride.  Unfortunately dinner ended and we said our goodbyes. Justin and I returned to our room just a few doors down from the restaurant. Our unheated, unlit, un-plumbed room with the 5’ high door had turned bitter cold in the Altiplano twilight.  As I returned from using the communal bathroom, a bucket in the corner of the courtyard, I ran into Lacey. (I have her last name written down somewhere) She was a Fulbright scholar studying gender roles in native Andean cultures. Oh and she was hot.  I ended up talking, more listening this time, to her for about an hour as the stars came out. When I finally decided to go to bed it was in the high 20s and I was exhausted from a long day of not shutting up and mental stimulation I hadn't experienced in months.

The next morning on the way out of the motel Justin slammed the diminutive door and shattered the window.  We apologized to the owner and gave her money for the replacement. The Salar de Uyuni lie just a few hours south and one the iconic places I’d dreamed about for years was close at hand.  The drive was short and fast and before long we were following the local guide out onto the salt flat toward the Salt Hotel.  Oh and guess what we found along the way. A bunch of Americans again.  An 80 full of friends from Seattle mentioned how miserable their trip had been going and wished they could join us. We persuaded them to shoot some action shots of us bombing across the reflective surface.  At the hotel the typical Land Cruiser conversation ensued with the local guide. He was driving a 3F (carb’d) powered FJ62 and told me how much he envied my coil springs and motor. Then he started dropping mechanic Spanish on me. I asked him to slow down and Justin to translate to figure out what he was talking about. I pulled my FSM so we could point at pictures and try and diagnose first, what he was saying, and second if I could help him fix it.  I’m still not sure he understood what I was saying, despite pulling out my spare and showing it to him but I think he had an issue with a relay. I can hear some of you laughing now, ‘you helped him with electrical issues? Yeah right.’ I was probably way off base with my diagnosis but it was my best guess.
I’ve written about the Salar more than once so no need to rehash it here but the place is impossible to describe and just as difficult to process. The mind and body can’t make apply any logic to the sensory overload. It’s amazing and truly one of a kind place.  The key is the elevation. It’s the element that changes everything and causes so much of the confusion. Cold as hell but instantly sunburned, blinding white yet full of color and contrast.
Sunset over Tupiza, Bolivia
After a day on the Salar we grabbed some food in Uyuni, paid $4 for the best car wash Ruby has ever had and hit the road south toward Tupiza. As we the descended from the Alitplano the tales of Butch and Sundance entered my head, we drove through the town of their ultimate demise (or did we?) and everything began to take on a familiar feel. That of the Southwestern US. It makes sense why they would settle there. Aside from the elevation the landscape was eerily similar to their US haunts.  We rolled into Tupiza under a blanket of yellow, orange and purple clouds. The red rock protected valley was glowing warm with the soft light.  Only a few hundred yards after we entered the town of 20k people, we stumbled across two more gringos. Mormon missionaries.  We chatted them up for a bit, learned of the town, offered to buy them dinner, they declined and we set out for the motel recommended by Lonely Planet.  And by recommended, I mean it had secure parking. Parking sufficient enough to park not one, but two Unicats, full of adventure travelers. And by adventure travelers, I mean stinky Europeans that had been trapped in these 4x4 buses for over a month and seemed to not be enjoying themselves. I chatted up the cute guide, however, (in English!) about the route South. We were warned about how miserable the roads were, that flooding had wiped them out and we’d be better off waiting a few days before heading out.  Okay. Apparently they didn't see Badass Ruby Claire parked in the back. The tourists told use we’d never make it. I don’t accept that kind of doubt very well. We were going.  We grabbed some pizza for dinner and again were warned by even more travelers from the Unicats that we’d never make it.  In retrospect I think they were jealous and/or bitter that Justin and I could do as we wanted and not limited by a guide. I don’t want to use the word indignant but at this point I was doing my best to toot my own horn in a very loud and disagreeable fashion. That is not like me and I was able to bite my tongue but my thinking was, ‘’I’ve driven here from the states by myself and have more off-road experience than all of you and your guides combined so kindly shut the hell up about how we can’t make it.” There was just an awkward attitude accompanied by a condescending smirk from every single one of them that I still can’t figure out.  Bizarre.
The next morning we hit the road toward the Argentine border with a bit of apprehension of how rough the road would be. When we hit the border by lunch time Justin and I spent 20mins trying to figure out what portion of the road had given the Unicats so much trouble the day before. There were a couple of washouts and some muddy sections but I never even used 4low. I was prepared to spend the day winching and digging.  It made the conversations the night before even more bizarre. I had glanced casually at the map but not too closely. In my mind we needed to head toward Salta, Arg then we could turn east toward Asuncion, Paraguay across the Gran Chaco. Well I should have looked a bit closer.  Just north of the border I should have turned east, instead I turned west. Both routes lead to Salta down either side of a very long and large mountain range with no roads traversing them along the way.  The road to the west added only two or three hundred miles to the route. Fun.  Normally I wouldn't care, just go where the road took me, but Justin was meeting some friends in Asuncion on Sunday and it was now Saturday afternoon. The border took two hours because of crowds not inefficiency. I’m glad we were driving, not on foot or bus. That line was easily 6-7 hours.   Justin and I couldn't help but talk about how nice people in Argentina were after only a few hours.  It was shortly after the border that I discovered my route finding mistake.  Luckily the roads were fast and smooth as we traveled South around the tip of the range then circled back north. We stopped to get gas in Jujuy and asked about the condition of the Gran Chaco road. We were assured it was long straight and boring but needed cash for fuel as using credit/debit was nearly impossible in the rural areas of Northern Argentina.
This is where the nightmare/24 of the most awesome hours of my life began.  So not only can you not use cc/debit in Northern Arg but apparently ATMs never have cash. We wasted almost an hour trying to get enough cash to fill the tank of Ruby Claire twice to get all the way to Paraguay.  The equivalent of $40 US from this ATM, from a wall of 4 machines we got $30. Drove a few miles to a different bank and got $25.  Seriously an hour of hunting for cash.  Around dusk we finally turned east and into the Gran Chaco.  I wouldn't fully understand what we were seeing until a few days later as the lush forests and fincas of Jujuy faded with the sunlight. The Gran Chaco road is a remote two lane road that is straight and smooth. When I say straight I mean straight. I don’t think it had a turn for over 400 miles. That’s not an exaggeration.  It was bizarre. Never experienced anything like it before or since. Seriously look it up on Google Earth. Crazy.  About half way to Paraguay we pull into a gas station about midnight to fill Ruby’s empty tank. I go inside to get a few bottles of coke as it’s a no brainer that we are driving through the night at this point. I figure Justin speaks fluent Spanish so there won’t be any issues with filling the tank.  We’d already done it a few times since he arrived. Gasolina is gasoline.  Simple. Except in Argentina. Nafta = gasoline. Gasoil= diesel.  Guess how we learned that fact? Ruby wouldn't start. It only took 2-3 cranks before I knew something was wrong and very quickly guessed the problem.
The attendants and Justin had suffered a breakdown in communication and we’d filled my entire tank, 26 gallons, with diesel. $100 worth.  Awesome.  I put the tranny in neutral and we pushed her back under the lights near the pumps. We rounded up 3 five gallon buckets, the attendant and I crawled under the truck with a wrench and pulled the plug on Ruby’s tank.  After 15 gallons I stuck my finger in the hole and my new friends at the gas station dumped the diesel into on big drum then came back to empty the remaining 10 gallons.  I was soaked in diesel and covered in dirt but the kindness of the Argentinians had me in good spirits.  They were eager to help and helped find humor in the mistake.  They, of course, took another $100 (pretty much every bill we had left) from me for 26 gallons of Nafta. We posed for a pic, shook hands goodbye and hit the road east again.
Covered in diesel fuel but still smiling
Around 3am we strolled into some tiny little town and again went on the hunt for cash from EVERY SINGLE ATM IN TOWN.  I think we managed to scrounge up about $80.  I also learned my first lesson about young Argentinians and how little they sleep. People everywhere, loud music blared, kids walked the streets, people sitting on car hoods on every corner. I would find this to be true in every town I visited in Argentina. People were active all hours of the night. Satisfied we’d tested every ATM we hit the road to Formosa and ideally a few hours of sleep in a cheap motel.  Formosa sits on the Paraguay River about an hour south of Asuncion.  Just outside the town we came to a police checkpoint. It was about 4 am, I was exhausted from driving all night and not in a good mood because of the mistakes made that day with map reading and the diesel fiasco. I need to apologize to my fellow travelers, Justin (again) and my mom who raised me to be a better person than the one I’m about to describe. But first some explanation. Aside from Mexico, I didn't have insurance on my truck the entire time I was on my trip. Most countries don’t require it and for those that do I just showed them my current but invalid State Farm card.  I figured if something happened I’d figure it out. When I got in a wreck in Peru I paid cash out of pocket. When I got side swiped by the bus in Quito I just accepted the damage and went on my way. Argentina requires insurance.
We rolled into a police checkpoint outside Formosa and this fat, greasy, 17 yr old cop with horrendous acne (Is it obvious I still harbor some anger toward the kid?) came out with his older, professional partner and started asking for my documents. We went through each one of his requests, one by one.  I could tell he was going to keep pushing until he found a problem. He just had that way about him. He wanted something from me and wasn't going to settle for letting me go.  Title, yep. Driver’s license, of course. Passports, got em. On and on we went then he asked for insurance. I went to pull out my card and couldn't find it. Justin and I looked and looked and it had gotten lost. I found one but it was expired. That was his chance. He made us get out of the car and go into the shack on the bridge leading into (and out of) town. He proceeded to rail at me in Spanish about not having insurance and he should haul us to jail blah blah blah. Just a young punk kid trying to act tough because he had a uniform and a badge. I basically ignored his pomp and bullshit posturing waiting for him to give me his bribe request. When he said ‘doscientos’ I thought ‘fine, that’s only about 40 bucks, I’ll just pay it because I want to go to bed.’  Then in broken English he said ‘not pesos, two hundred dollars.’  Dumbfounded I asked him again and he confirmed $200. Well as you know from reading this far we didn't have anywhere near that amount on us and out of pure principal I was not going to pay it. And I told him as much.  At first I was very polite in my Spanish but internally I was incensed.  He puffed his chest and told me I would have to go to jail if I didn't pay.  Then I lost it. I tore into him in English and used every single profanity and insult I could muster.  However, I did it all with a smile on my face and laughing, probably maniacally, because I knew he couldn't understand a word I was saying. He sat there with a blank stare on his face as I continued to insult him for over 10 mins.  Justin kept trying to interrupt and provide translation but I would cut him off as I was NOT going to pay this prick $200.  Said prick kept speaking to Justin in Spanish and I would yell at him in Spanish “don’t talk to him, talk to me. It’s me you’re trying to rip off, it’s my car, not his! Look me in the eye and tell me you are not ripping me off.” Then I would go back to smiling and laughing while I mocked him in English. Not my proudest moment.  His partner just sat there and didn't say a word. This went on for about 45 mins.  At some point I just settled on the fact that I would pay the fine but he would have to write me a ticket, then I could go to town, sleep in a motel and get some food. For those who have never experienced a Latin American shakedown the shtick they give is essentially ‘if I give you a ticket you’ll need to come back and see the judge but that will be few weeks, or you can just pay me now.’ They know most tourists are on a limited schedule so that is how they’ll get you. I kept telling this kid over and over, ‘it took me 4 months to get here and I have nowhere to go, give me a ticket and I’ll wait around and pay it.’ At one point he was literally begging me to pay the fine after he knew I wasn't going to budge.  Around 530am the sun started to come up and a supervisor showed up for his shift. He told me to pay the fine to the kid and I looked him square in the eye and said ‘I will pay anyone else in this building, but that fat fuck is not going to get a dime from me.’
He of course had no idea what I said so in my most polite Spanish I pointed out that the kid was unprofessional and a jerk, I will gladly pay any requisite fines but it would not be to that kid and someone would have to write me a ticket. He too tried to engage Justin and I gently reminded him it was me they were fining me, not him, and to issue ME a ticket.  The key being once it’s on paper (at least in my mind) it goes to the government and not to the person soliciting the bribe.  During this whole interaction Justin went from laughing, to trying to help, to calming me down, to telling me to shut up, to just sitting in the corner and trying to sleep.  After about 2 hours of me being an asshole I got my way and they gave me a ticket. The fat little wannabe slowly and painfully scribbled out the fine while I smiled at him victoriously.  $200. I’ll take it.  I pointed out to them that we had no cash so we’d go into town and come back.  I did have plenty of US cash hidding on Ruby but was always reluctant to use it, especially in this case.  I was not proud of my behavior and that poor kid suffered my wrath because of 50 other times a cop had tried to extort a bribe from me along the way but the fact was he was not going to see a dime of my money. I broke their law and I was more than happy to pay the fine for doing so but I was going to do it the right way.   A quick stop in town for some breakfast and fuel at the mini mart and Justin and I figured it was time to head to Asuncion.  He had people to meet and we might as well hit the road. Maybe we could sneak by the shack and head north. Well we didn't sneak by, we were stopped. Justin got out of the car. Took in some random number, like $42 worth of Argentine pesos, and told the guy ‘hey look, we’ll be back in a week or so or you can just take this and tear up the ticket, it really is all the cash we have.’ The acned super cop had gone home and the new guy figured he just made $40 and agreed.  45 mins later we were at the border. I was tired, physically and emotionally, and could see the city and the hotel room waiting for me there. Little did I know my day of negotiating with petty bureaucrats was not over quite yet.
I’d done 12 border crossings by the time we hit the Paraguay border early on a Sunday morning. South American crossings had all been efficient and organized and I didn't expect it to take more than 45mins to an hour.  Exiting Argentina took less than 15 mins.  We arrived at the Paraguay side and started the paperwork process.  Then he asked for our visas.  I had not done any Paraguay research as I didn't really plan on going there until Justin offered to join me.  All other countries give you the visa at the border. Not Paraguay. They said we’d have to return to Formosa and get our visa from the embassy.  Which would be open Monday morning.  Awesome.  Justin then started to take on a bit of my persona from the police shack a few hours earlier.  He had flown 6k miles, driven straight through the night and was meeting friends in 3 hours.  He was not going to accept the answer.  He decided to flip the payoff protocol on them and started to talk bribes with the customs officer. After about an hour of smooth talking and pleading the guy relented, ‘wait til my boss leaves, she’s won’t let this happen, but I’ll do it.’ The grand total was $68.  However it was made up of $30 in Argentine Pesos, $18 in Bolivianos and a US $20.  The guy gave us a weird look as we paid him off in a closet behind the customs building then explained to us ‘oh by the way I’m only able to give you a transit visa because if you have a real visa someone might ask for the document.’  Okay that’s fine, what the hell is a transit visa?  It’s exactly what it sounds like. A visa meant for truck drivers just passing through. We had two days to get back to Bolivia.  We were both exhausted and just smiled and agreed knowing there is no chance in hell we’d only be in country for 2 days but we’d figure that out when we left.
Justin had warned me about the poverty and rough state of Paraguay but it had been a while since he’d been there and after Bolivia and Nicaragua I found Paraguay advanced and clean. Hell they had pay at the pump gas stations and fountain drinks. That is progress in my mind.  I’ll wrap up Paraguay quickly.
We ate breakfast at KFC since it was next to our hotel and it was open.
I slept for 14 hours after not sleeping for the previous 40.
We crossed illegally into Brazil twice to see Iguazu Falls after the park was closed on our first attempt
WAY too many tourists at the falls including the two of us. Worth seeing however.
I ripped my big toe nail in half at a gas station parking lot.
I went to an ATM and pulled out $5m Guarani. Big Pimpin.  I know Spanish numbers but when a gas station attendant asked me for $1,345,500 I just held out a bunch of bills and he took what he needed and gave me change.
We stayed in a hotel run by a Swiss family near the Brazil border. Had strudel for dinner.
There is a town in the middle of the Paraguayan Gran Chaco called Filad√©lfia.  Look it up. All Amish people.  It was bizarre and awesome.
Sunset over the Gran Chaco
Spider webs in the chaco can be 10 feet in diameter.
The bugs at night in the chaco are the loudest I’ve ever heard. I slept better at the O’Hare Hilton, it’s somehow quieter there.
The chaco is hot and unbearably humid.
At a gas station in the middle of nowhere we asked the attendants if they’d ever met American before. At first they said no, then they said ‘si, los mormones.’ Ironic.
Paraguayan roads are smooth and fantastic.
The star gazing is incredible from the middle of the chaco.
The Gran Chaco is like no place I've ever been. Part jungle, part desert and wholly frightening. I would not want to get lost in there. I can’t even begin to describe it. Imagine a typical thistle bush but instead of 18in tall make it 20 feet tall. And instead of a few of them imagine a forest like the pacific nw.  Then just for fun throw in some pine trees and some palm trees. Why not some grasses every now and then as well. Lastly make it the size of american southwest with even fewer people and then you the Gran Chaco.  Beautiful but in a very ugly way. Or perhaps ugly but in a very beautiful way.
At the border we met a German couple in a converted 75 series that had been traveling for a couple of years. I fell in love with their truck. Too big for a single guy but still awesome and the ideal platform.
Upon leaving Paraguay the smooth pavement ended and the rutted mess of Bolivian roads returned.  At Bolivian customs the agent, who couldn't speak a lick of English, asked us if we were going to vote for Hillary or Obama. Awesome.  Neither he nor his Paraguayan peer even flinched at our two day transit visa that was now 3 days expired. We were getting low on fuel but the town of Boyuibe, Bolivia was within range. But just barely.  We thought there would be fuel at the border town but nothing.  We set off down the awful road laughing about our time in Paraguay and how truly impoverished Bolivia is and how modern, in contrast, Paraguay had been.  The road was wide and flat but really rutted from the rain so our pace was somewhat slow.  After about an hour I was starting to get worried about the amount of fuel left in the tank. Then we came to a river crossing.  The recent flooding had not totally receded.  What I imagine was normally a simple crossing was now about 100 yards across of unknown depth.  The water was full of silt and reminded me of the Colorado River back home.  I stared at it for about 2 mins and decide we had no choice but to try it.  We were within a few miles of the town and our only hope of getting gas. No chance in hell we could make it back to Paraguay.  I put Ruby in 4 low and eased my way down the slope. The first 30 feet the water was slow moving and only 18 inches deep. We got this no problem. Then the descent began in earnest and suddenly the water was over my hood and flowing up the windshield. I slammed Ruby in reverse and hoped the pressure from a redlined 1FZ would keep any water from back-flowing up the exhaust and backed out as fast as I possibly could.  Now what.
A swollen river blocks our path to Boyuibe, Bolivia
Justin: I think I saw a road about a mile back going off into the trees
Me: Really? That looked like a foot trail
Justin: do we have any other options?
Me: Nope.
The Goat Farm
So we turned around and sure enough there was the slightest hint of a road heading north.  Off we went and all of Ruby’s clear coat along with it. About a half mile later we pulled into a goat farm, they waved and smiled then pointed to the road exiting their property.  Another half mile after that we pulled out onto a newly paved, perfectly straight and fast paved road. WTF? Seriously? How did we miss it? Simple. I was using my Paraguayan guide book for maps on the Paraguay side and once at border just took to the road strait into Boyuibe.  Had I pulled out my Bolivian guide book I would have seen this new paved modern road paralleling ours. Why not on the Paraguayan side? Because it literally stops at the border about 2 miles north of where we crossed. There is no Paraguayan equivalent. Just more Latin American charm. I literally coasted into a gas station. Ruby was bone dry. We parked the truck, informed the attendant we needed to find an ATM and took a walk. We found some cash, ate a quick meal then walked back to the gas station to fill up the tank.   We were hoping to get to Sucre that night but knew it would a long night if we did. The poor navigation and conditions of the road had cost us most of the afternoon.  They guy at the gas station said it was about 14 hours. Confused I asked again, it’s only about 250 miles. 14 hours? Yep.  Okay fine, this guy doesn't own a car. I can read a map.
We took a nicely paved road north for a 100 miles or so and stopped to get some food about sunset and asked again, how far to Sucre? 18 hours. What? Yep 18 hours. Okay, she must mean on the local bus, no way.   So we asked another guy, 4 hours. That makes more sense.  Just to be sure we got gas an asked again, 11 hours.  Okay none of these people have ever driven a damn car how would they know and why on earth am still asking them for advice.  Just follow the map and go.  (seriously, I can’t count the number of times I asked advice or guidance from a local fully aware they’d never left their own town or driven a car. It makes no sense but it just felt like the right thing to do.) We left the paved road and took off into the hills on dirt/mud toward Surce and the darkness. It took us about 4 hours to make it the next 100 miles or so. Washouts, slicks climbs, numerous river crossings and a general lack of direction made for an awesome night of driving and some confirmation of why the locals were all confused.  We checked into a place, not sure what else to call it, to sleep. No bathroom and our two beds were essentially one huge bed as they were separated by less than a foot. Sun rose on Tomina, Bolivia and we found it to be a small charming town in the middle of the jungle.  A bit concerned about the road condition we hit the road early and found more of the same. Slick mud made everything more exciting but nothing over the top difficult. The route through the jungle was luscious, gorgeous and green. And green. And yes, green.  The small towns were idyllic and despite stopping for a washout to be repaired for about an hour we still made it to Sucre by mid-afternoon. A far cry from the 14 hours we’d be told the day before. Then we realized the route we took was not the preferred or recommended route.  We didn’t care as we had a blast and saw some beautiful country. 
Sucre is a nice, clean, advanced town, by Bolivian standards, with great food, a nice open air market and fantastic colonial architecture. Our motel was clean, parking was safe and we really enjoyed it there. The next day we hit road toward La Paz so Justin could catch his flight home.  We stopped in Potosi for some lunch and a view of history.  Amazing history and a very ugly town high in the Andes. Once the richest city in the world it’s mining history had taken a toll on the desert and the people. Also some of the worst traffic outside of El Alto.  We had a typical Andean meal, took some pics, Justin chatted up some locals about the benefits and negative effects of chewing coca leaves and then we made the drive to La Paz.

I was coming down with a cold and we settled into that ‘drive home’ phenomenon of riding comfortably in silence, reflecting on our own thoughts.  We were graced with a blazing, orange smear of a sunset beneath a slowly drizzling storm and the clarity of the altiplano air sharpened the beauty of the evening. We rolled back into the same hotel I’d been in two weeks before. I felt like a lifetime had passed and yet nothing had changed. I don’t remember if I took Justin to the airport the next morning or if he took a taxi.  I do remember sleeping most of the day and catching up on email and trying to rest before J would arrive the next day and my adventures in Bolivia would be renewed.  The two weeks I spent in Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil were two of the craziest weeks of my life and never would have happened had Justin and I not ran into each other a conference room in Sandy, UT. I’ve only talked to Justin a handful of times in 6 years since but I know that if we hit the road tomorrow it would feel perfectly natural, like we hadn't skipped a beat.  It’s weird how the world works sometimes. You never know when or where you’re going to find adventure, or beauty, or friendship. You never know when or where you’ll find that your crazy and romantic ideals about life on the road are indeed true. I found it in the chaos, and in the confusion, of a fortnight spent on the road to Ushuaia. 

a bunch of pics to help develop the narrative...

Protests in the Oruro District

We look like giants

The one and only Salar de Uyuni as photographed by a Seattleite

Best car wash ever

my normally orange Chaco flip flops and feet coated in salt from the Salar 
Poor pic of one of our many late night river crossings
green and gorgeous
nice little work truck
traffic jam
typical government, always doing road work...
The road to Sucre
Yep, blue ducks in Tomina, Bolivia
Into the hills of Bolivia
How far to Sucre? Really?
The 'road' leading through the trees to the goat farm
A few pics of the 75 we met at the border...

Factory Snorkel?
Looking back from Bolivia
Leaving Paraguay

lost?  At a gas station outside Filadelfia
Late night fuel swap
61 Series. Had to take a pic
hola, que tal?

Troopie at the same gas station
Spiderwebs in the Chaco
Sunset over the Chaco
Gigantic Ants on the Chaco road. they had to be the size of a quarter
The incredibly straight Gran Chaco road and a stack of Bolivian toll receipts
Searching for an ATM
Poor navigation in Argentina made for some excellent scenery
Getting ready to leave to Tupiza for the 'impassable road' south
Southern Utah or Southern Bolivia?
makes me long for the road

Justin shopping for pigs feet at the Sucre market
Sucre, Bolivia

On the streets of Sucre
Potosi, Bolivia congestion
Justin chats up some coca chewing locals

West of Potosi
Farming on the Altiplano

A dirty Ruby back safely at the hotel in La Paz after two weeks of Chaos

Below are some random pics of Bolivia and Paraguay

Some random bus images from Bolivia

1 comment:

Justin Kirkham said...

It has been long enough that some of the small details are starting to become hazy, however I would say this is a good narrative of those 10 days. I would like to note a couple things. I had never, and to this day have never driven a car in South America. Therefore filling up with diesel instead of unleaded is completely the fault of the gas station attendant.
At the Paraguay border, I did not solicit the bribe. We walked out of the office with our head down and dragging our tired feet when out of nowhere this guys shows up telling us if we will wait 45 minutes his manager will be off shift and he will "help" us get into Paraguay. I had been to Paraguay a few yeas earlier and entered at the airport with no problem. I still don't understand why they wanted to send us back to Argentina. I am not sure that they had ever had a tourist try to enter at that crossing. I was a missionary for two years in Paraguay and never saw a tourist.
The night we crossed the Gran Chaco in Paraguay, we stopped at about 11:30pm at a hotel called Buffalo Bill. We had to wake the owners. They escorted us to a cabin with lots of holes in the walls. The combined voices of all the bugs outside was truly frightening. We covered ourselves in bug spray and quickly climbed under the covers to try and stay safe.
A day or so later while driving late at night in the Bolivian mountains on mud roads the dropped off hundreds of feet on the edge was unbelievable. I still remember the bus we passed that was inching its way down the road with half the passengers hanging out of the windows. I thought at any moment they would slide right off the road.
Dave and I may lead lives as different from each other as possible, however our love for the adventure of the road brought us together for an unbelievable and unforgettable "fortnight of confusion". Dave, anytime you need someone to shotgun on a similar trip, please give me a call.
Justin Kirkham