Friday, September 22, 2006


Greetings, dear readers. I have started a pattern that I do not expect to break anytime soon, and that is to compose my updates solely from cities with fun-to-pronouce names. In this case, that means that Señor Neubz and I are tucked away in the hopping hamlet of Cochabamba, Bolivia. Its people, like my friend Brad Huebner, have a deep appreciation for whitewashed jeans, and they, too, send their regards.

I am going to make it known in advance that this E-mail will be peppered with superlatives. Understand that this is simply because this past week has been one of those rarest of runs that reeks of rich experiences laid back to back to back.

Bolivia has surpassed my lofty expectations and has earned its place as my favorite country of the trip. This was not difficult. I knew before I crossed the border that the new Bolivian President, Evo Morales, wears a sash whenever he is in public (and most likely while he sleeps). I love civil pageantry, so admittedly Bolivia had a leg up. I also appreciate a politician with a good sense of humor. On a recent trip a month or so ago, our esteemed Secretary of State Doctor Condeleeza Rice paid a visit to President Morales in an effort to get him to limit his country´s production of coca leaves - the base element in cocaine. Bolivia is one of the world´s leading producers of coca, as it has been used in its benign natural form by the indigenous people in this area for over a thousand years for its myriad benefits in both tea and in herbal medicine. As Morales was previously a coca farmer, he probably had little intention of doing anything at all to curb the growing of coca. At the end of the meeting, he presented Rice with a guitar decorated with a coca leaf inlay. Rice, not knowing what coca leaves actually looked like, accepted the guitar and smiled for pictures with Morales amidst laughter by the Bolivians in attendance. Only back in the US did she realize that it was a shenanigan. I can´t say that I agree with his choice of enemies, but that´s pretty funny.

When Neubz last wrote, we had just left a prison in La Paz. What he failed to report in his E-mail is that he accidentally left our pass from the Director of Prisons in an inmate´s cell, so we were temporarily trapped between the prisoners (and their cosmopolitan suggestions as to what we should do with ourselves) and the iron faced guards, who would not let us leave without it. Thankfully our prisoner/guide retrieved it and we were on our way.

Since Neubz´s time is limited, we are striving to hit as much as is humanly possible before he heads home to begin his life behind a desk. One item on our collective wishlist was to dip into the Amazonian rainforest, and that is what we originally set off from La Paz to accomplish. About four hours from La Paz, it became clear that this was not going to happen. We´ve been fairly lucky with the quality of roads we´ve traversed on the whole on this trip, but here that luck collapsed.

The road that exits the Bolivian capital to the northeast is regarded as ¨The World´s Most Dangerous Road¨, and thus is concurrently touted as a tourist attraction. If one is so inclined, a mountain bike can be rented in La Paz on the cheap and you can join a guided group in riding the 25 or so miles down one of the steepest roads in the world, praying all the while that your brakes hold out as you zip through the fog around sharp switchbacks. While this was not our reason for being there, we had no choice but to take that road, and in doing so simply cut our engines and coasted at around 55mph past herds of petrified bikers who probably did not appreciate Neubz and I honking our $3 bicycle horns and hooting at them.

It didn´t take a seasoned environmentalist to realize that we had arrived in the rainforest about 20 miles later. Here the asphalt and the two-lane system both stopped, and the mud and the spirited driving began. I use the term ¨spirited driving¨ not to describe our speed. That hovered at around 20mph. Rather, I refer to the conduct of the other savvy personnel on the roadway. Typical passenger traffic was, for the most part, no longer part of the game. All that remained were buses, dump trucks, and cargo vehicles. All three varieties had little interest in our presence, and treated our meager attempts at advancement with disdain.

To augment their glaring absence of a second lane, the Bolivians had strategically positioned a series of top-notch state employees (mostly children) at various curves along the road, each armed with what appeared to be a snowshoe covered with red fabric on one side and green on the other. From their omniscient posts, they employed the mock snowshoe (usually by waving it wildly) to signal approaching traffic whether or not there was a large diesel delivery truck making haste towards the curve in the opposite direction. If that was the case, the truck ordained by the child to lay in wait would seek refuge on one of the few legitimate pull-offs to await his turn to proceed. Even these legitimate pull-offs lacked a railing, and moreover, were perched precipitously above a significant fall into the land of bad dreams.

This would have been difficult enough had the roads been in good stead, but they most certainly were not. A persistent drizzle (perhaps a factor in the rainforest gaining its namesake?) and then downpour littered the dirt road with puddles - some deep, some not - and woe to he that attempted to pilot his two-wheeled gadget along their crests, for unto him was delivered a warranted descent into chaos. More than once did Neubz and I nearly brakedance over the edge in our efforts to correct and then overcorrect our mistakes. Between the slippery tracks and the merciless advance of the cargo trucks that did not wait for us to find the shoulder, our morale was shaken. And when we realized that the distance of the round trip was more significant than the map indicated on account of the many curves (a lip smacking total of approximately 600 miles, the equivalent of driving through a jungle from Milwaukee to Nashville, Tennessee...or for the Coasties, from New York City to Winston-Salem, North Carolina...and, again, at an average of 20mph), we wisely counted our blessings and headed back to La Paz.

In lieu of our rainforest adventure, we set our course south by southeast for Salaar de Uyuni, the largest salt lake in the world. We did not know what to expect, but had read and heard good things, so we thought that it would make a fine second fiddle. The road there was uneventful for the first half of the trip, save for a small discovery. As it so happens, amongst the many coups that have shaken this country over the last half-century, Bolivia was apparently ruled for a very brief period by a group of kindergarten students from rural Iowa in the early ´60s. The youngsters accomplished little before they were ousted, but their achievements last to this day. Their sole goal was giggles and snickering. Their major work, obviously, was the renaming of the world´s largest mountain lake to Lake Titticacca. But they didn´t stop there. The second largest lake in the country they named Lake Poopo (look it up). On its eastern shores you will find the town of Poopo, and southwest you will find - perhaps in anticipation of Neubz´s rank feet - the small town of Aroma.

It was not far past Poopo that we holed up for the night in a little nugget called Challapata. In keeping with tradition, we chose another town that lacked that was wanting for electricity. After wandering around the town´s unpaved streets in search of a restaurant, we came upon a tired structure and ordered by lamplight. Under normal circumstances, the arrival of two tourists would have been the most exciting event in the past 30 years, but when there was no electricity, it was colossal. Neubz admirably went outside to play circus performer to the fifteen or so children that had gathered around the bikes. I sat inside and sipped my tasteless broth. But within a half hour the children turned ugly and started to ask for money. They didn´t know the English word for ¨money¨, so I told them that it was ¨scratch¨ and that Neubz was Señor Rico. As I drove away, Neubz was encircled by a phalanx of youngsters calling out for ¨Scratch! Scratch! Scratch!¨ And so continued yet another underlying tradition of the trip: throwing the other guy under the bus whenever possible.

For the latter half of the journey south, we passed through a desert terrain dotted with wild bushes that resembled the hair on those Troll pen-toppers from days of yore. It was a Martian landscape accented with interleaving bodies of swirling red and yellow dust, and it was in this kaleidoscope of color that we began to wage war with the Kryptonite of motorcycles everywhere.

Under no other circumstances does the exclamation of the word ¨Sand!!!¨ elicit such terror in the heart of man, much as the bellowing of ¨Berg!¨ did from the crow´s nest of the Titanic did a century ago. Or to put it in more modern and tangible terms for you, the aristocratic reader, it is similar to the alarm experienced when you look down and shout ¨Fire!¨ upon seeing that the sleeve of your chartreuse smoking jacket has caught alight, and you curse yourself for splurging on that giant pewter candleabra at Liberace´s estate sale...and even more so for placing it so perilously close to your favorite reading chair.

As you sight the sand, there is little you can do but to cut the throttle, hold the clutch, batten down the hatches, and ride out the storm. There were times when we would be cruising at fifty, crest a hill, and spot thick sand lining the descent. These were times when verbal reactions ranged from the profane (¨#%!!&¬¬$¨) to the obscure (¨Polynesian Appetite!¨), but always resulted in miraculous recoveries. Whatever of our nine lives remained from the jungle, we expended in the sand.

The other hallmark of the road south was wildlife. If my mom and I have one thing in common, it is that we find llamas to be the funniest animals on Earth. From there we start to diverge; she, for example, likes to eat chalk. For those of you that disagree with my claim, I challenge you to hold your composure for 20 seconds under the weight of a llama´s sly smile. Whatever your stance, this was Llama Row. I have never in my life felt more like I was absolutely in the middle of nowhere as I did upon that sandy road, but if we did perchance feast our eyes upon the countenance of the living, it was usually the craned neck of the llama.

From what I can gather, llamas engage in but four activities: nibbling, taking tasty sips, keeping it real, and scheming, though the last activity is seldom undertaken except under the guise of one of the other three. The llama herders down here are typically old indigenous women. They realized - and quite correctly, I might add - that it would be a tall order to brand a llama, so they have taken to marking llamas in their herds by tying foofy pink pieces of yarn in distinct patterns around each llama´s ear. I am sure that the male llamas are by now aware of this unjust mockery. Once they have adequately schemed, I foresee a comeuppance for many an old woman when these goofy creatures come together in an ¨Animal Farm¨-style mutiny.

At last we arrived at the salt lake at Salaar de Uyuni, and I can say without reservation (again the superlatives) that it was the most bizarre place that I have ever been in my life. It defies a worthy explanation, though I will attempt to post some pics. It differed chiefly from all other lakes that I have visited in one way: you could drive on it. I´m no limnologist, but I do not understand how so much salt could form on the surface of a lake. Alas, I forgot to pack my auger for this trip, but I would estimate that the salt was anywhere from one to three feet thick at any given point, based upon the disconcerting holes that I saw periodically as we raced across it. How strong is salt? Well, I saw a coach bus drive on the lake at one point, so I´m guessing that it´s pretty serious. It was truly surreal. We drove about fifty miles in, and I was thankful for my sunglasses. The salt was as blindingly white as my upper thigh, and it flowed out identically in all directions for what seemed like forever.

Again, I don´t understand how so much salt crystallized, but in doing so it developed a set of geometrical lattices across the sheer white surface of the lake similar to what you could look down and see in the pattern on the surface of your skin. In this way, I felt like I was speeding across the chest of a giant Albino. Now, when you´re driving across a giant Albino´s chest you need proper musical accompaniment. Those of you familiar with the voluminous works of the late Ray Charles probably know ¨One Mint Julep¨. If you don´t, I suggest that you go to and look it up, as this is salt lake racing music.

Making the whole experience even more outlandish, we stopped at two increasingly peculiar places on the lake. As with everything in life, there is always one overly passionate person that is not content with merely appreciating something that they enjoy in life, and this is the person that decides to take it to the next level. Anyone who has ever been to the Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, knows what I´m talking about. In this case, someone decided to build an entire hotel out of salt. By cutting segments out of the lake, he or she built quite a grandiose structure, complete with salt tables, salt chairs, and assuredly plush salt mattresses for the beds.

The second place was the Isle of Incahuani. The island was relatively small - perhaps 1/2 mile by 1 mile and rising about 200 feet out of the lake. But it supported life, and a slew of cacti as tall as 35 feet slithered up out of its soil. According to a Bolivian tour guide that I met on the lake (and who secretly shared his llama meat with us meant for his Israeli clients), the story goes a little something like this: In the 1500´s, silver was discovered a few hours away in Potosí. Not wanting to be forced by the Spaniards into working the mines, a few of the Incas around the area banded together, rounded up some food and some cactus seeds, and fled to the island, where they lived off of the water from the cacti and ate the cactus ¨meat¨.

Potosí was in fact our next destination. Perched amongst the mountains at over 4100 meters above sea level, Potosí is the highest city in the world, with a history that ranks among the world´s most tragic. The only reason that a city this high was founded in the first place was that in 1545 rumors of a silver deposit were swirling around the area - rumors that proved true. And so began the mining of the richest source of silver that the world had ever seen.

The Spaniards couldn´t be troubled with working the mines themselves, so naturally they turned to the indigenous tribes around the area. When they started dying in waves during forced 48 hours shifts in horrible conditions under which - among many others - the workers had to sleep underground between shifts, were fed minimally if at all, and if brought to the surface had their eyes bandaged since they couldn´t tolerate the light. When the indigenous fodder started to wear thin (¨What´s that? You accept Jesus Christ as your Personal Savior and renounce your pagan gods? Well, get back in that mine anyway!¨), the benevolent Spaniards brought in African slaves by the boat load. Within a hundred years, Potosí´s population had mushroomed to over 160,000, making it more populous than even contemporary Madrid. Conservative estimates put the number of slaves that died working the mines somewhere in the vicinity of nine million. Adjusted for population inflation, that would put any of the colonial Spaniards in the running against Uncle Joe Stalin for the title of ¨Most Murderous Rat Bastard In the History of the World¨. I can´t help but hope that they´re all burning in hell as I write this. How much silver did they pull out of Cerro Rico in Potosí? The common Spanish boast at the time was ¨enough to build a silver bridge from Potosí to Spain and still have silver to carry across it¨. The mineral wealth from Bolivia floated the Spanish Empire for more than two centuries.

When we rolled into Potosí our main goal was to somehow take a tour of the mines. Even now, almost five centuries later, the people of Potosí are still working the mines (and they still only last an average of 15-20 years in there before they succumb to silicosis), though its stocks are understandably now wearing about as thin as Neubz´s mustache. We found a guide in a 30 year-old named Willy, who had himself actually worked in the mines for seven years (from the ripe age of 12 to 19). I won´t get into the details of how we found him, but suffice it to say that it was an accident resulting from the fact that we are idiots who either consistently receive faulty advice or simply fail to understand it correctly.
In any case, it was a stroke of luck, as Willy was one of only seven guides in the town who had previously worked in the mountain - and he spoke great English on top of it. We set out in the morning for the mines, donned our ill-fitting mining gear, and stopped by the miner´s market for some gifts for the poor saps working underground whose work we would be interrupting by traipsing around in there. We spent all of about $2.50 on a large sack full of goodies (a massive amount of coca leaves, small bottles of 98% alcohol, unfiltered cigarettes, soft drinks). We were about to get back in the cab when Willy stopped me and pointed to a lady with a makeshift booth about ten feet away (right next to the guy selling alligator heads).

Willy: (in English) ¨One more thing¨.
Me: ¨What?¨
Willy: ¨Dinimita.¨
Me: ¨What?¨
Willy: ¨Dinimita.¨
Me: ¨Dynamite!?¨
Willy: ¨Yes. Do you want some?¨
Me: ¨How much is it?¨
Willy: ¨10 Bolivianos ($1.25). We can make it blow.¨

Dynamite in hand, we made our way to the entrance to the mine. I´d say the average Bolivian male is around 5´6¨, the average Bolivian miner shorter still. When they carved out the narrow passageways through the dark, their primary concern was not the ease with which foreign visitors could stroll the corridors, so Neubz and I were forced to saunter through like a couple of Quasimotos. It became immediately obvious that this tour would not fly in the US. We had signed no waivers, yet we started to descend and ascend rickety homemade ladders that lacked both rungs and sufficient nails (and in one case, half a supporting leg) as we made our way deeper and deeper into the mines, stopping only to pin ourselves against the walls as a couple of boys in their early teens bound for daylight would roll by pushing a mine car loaded down with 2000 pounds of raw minerals. From time to time we would come upon miners working in the darkness at the end of a hall by the dim light of their headlamps. We shared some of our coca and alcohol with them, got to hear what they thought of the mines, and watched them work with tools more primitive than hammers (one older guy was tapping away with a metal tent stake). It was absolutely fascinating. I could write more about the statue of the Devil that they built and offered gifts to every time they entered the mine to guarantee their safety (they called him ¨Tío, a mixture of Spanish for ¨uncle¨ and Quechua for ¨my good friend¨) while they were in his territory underground taking his minerals, but this E-mail is getting long and I have to run. But, yes, we set off the dynamite. And, yes, it was loud.
So now we are in Cochabamba, set in the heart of Bolivia´s agricultural region. We made our way here yesterday while weaving through a couple of miles worth of backed-up semis whose progress was impeded by a oil tanker train car that had been wheeled across the road and adorned with a giant Bolivian flag. Apparently some of the other political parties are not a fan of the new Constitution that Morales and his circle are penning. But we squeaked through, and now will head east to Brazil.
- Tom

Manifest - 9/22/06

Friday, September 15, 2006

What could possibly go wrong in a Bolivian prison?

Hello all from La Paz, Bolivia! This is quite possibly my favorite city that we have stopped in on this trip. But more on that later...
Tom last wrote in Ollyantombo (yeah I don´t know how to spell it) in Peru. We were stuck in that town for a couple days, having fallen victim to the tourist trap that is Machu Picchu. Tour buses from all over the region converge on the city and dump load upon load of foreign tourists upon the Peruvian version of Disneyland. Led by local tour guides who wave flags to keep their herds separate, these camera-toting and suncap-clad visitors sack the town in search of the perfect wall hanging or painting to show that they had in fact been to Peru. This city is a bottleneck; the only way to get to Machu Picchu is to take the one train that runs out of the city. Tom and I felt that it would be shame to be in Peru and not see MP, so we bought our train tickets and settled in for the fiscal raping. The train ride to MP takes about an hour and half. It costs over $50 a man. By comparison, you can take a bus 1000 miles from Santiago, Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina for less money. Once off the train, you must buy a bus ticket for the 20 minute ride to the site: $12. The coup de grace is the admission itself: $40 for us lucky foreigners. Although MP is undeniably an interesting place, it probably says something that the best part of the day was watching a Japanese woman get thrown from a llama as she tried to mount it for a photo.
After MP, we cruised back through Cuzco for a quick lunch with some priests at a monastery / youth mission. From there we headed to the Bolivian border. The route ran along the southern shores of Lake Titicaca. I had first heard of Lake Titicaca in 4th grade music class amidst the chuckles of my fellow male classmates. They can´t be serious with a name like that? But they are, and the highest navigable lake in the world is a site to see. The blueness of the waters makes the oceans take a step back. Its shoreline is filled with indigenous people digging irrigation trenches for crops or building brown adobe houses. At times you can barely see the mountains on the far side of the lake that are the welcoming wave from Bolivia. Furthermore, the inspiration for the Barry Manilow song "Copacabana" apparently is located somewhere around these parts, although thus far it has eluded us.
As we had hoped, the border crossing was extremely relaxed. Gone were the throngs of young men vying for a chance to do our paperwork. The border officials didn´t want our money, but only to fill out some forms and send us on our way. I chatted with the border police and shared a bag of peanuts with them while Tom went through the border formalities. Once in Bolivia, we found ourselves back in the land of the high sierra. The road to La Paz is overlooked to the north by the spine of the Cordillera Real, a mountain range that boasts at least ten white-capped peaks over 6000 meters. Black and white cows graze the amber grass, and the houses are painted with signs calling for ´Morales - Presidente´ in support of the recently elected Evo Morales, the first indigenous leader in South America.
Between its setting at 14,000 feet, the constant trudging up mountain city streets, and the diesel clogged byways, La Paz literally takes your breath away. This sprawling city is a mass of energy, where there is constantly a shop to look in, a minibus to dodge, or cheap restaurant to take advantage of. Prices have continually dropped the farther we get from Cuzco. Our first night in the city, Tom and I had a dinner with three entrees and a couple cokes for $2. Two-thirds of a liter of beer costs a buck (although the beer, like in the rest of Latin America, generally sucks). And for those of you with money to burn, you can acquire a nicely mummified cow fetus at the witch´s market for about $10. After almost sliding backwards down a mountain road into traffic on our KLRs, Tom and I found a nice hotel with hot water for about $15 a night. The staff has been very friendly, although they were taken aback by the stench that has resurfaced in my socks in recent days. After two nights airing out in the hallway, my socks mysteriously disappeared on the third day. Tom went in search of them, the owner of the establishment knew quite well of my stinky socks. A housekeeper eventually produced the beasts from beneath a kitchen sink, wrapped in a plastic bag to quarantine the disease. ¨Tell your friend his socks are quite rich,¨she said as she tossed the bag to Tom. Sorry. Its mold. What can I do?
La Paz has no shortage of churches and museums to go and see. However, Tom and I had heard that it was possible to tour the prison of San Pedro, so that is what we first set off to do. The prison is downtown and within walking distance of our hotel. We strolled over and covertly asked a couple guards if it was possible to get in to see the place. They said they doubted it, but directed us to go see the head of the prison, Colonel Guzman. We found the steel door that contained Guzman, and after 15 minutes and several requests he finally produced himself. Dressed in his prison uniform, Guzman politely told us that this was a secure facility and that the public was not allowed. He asked if we had a friend inside. I wondered if my elementary school friend Carl was still locked away in that Bolivan prison, but I couldn´t remember, so we told Guzman that we just wanted to see the building. He was a really nice guy, so he told us that if we wanted to get in we would have to get a memorandum of ingress from the national director of prisons. He probably thought that this would dissuade us from trying anything further. So we asked directions...
The national director was one Dr. Garcia Llamas. At the government building that held his office we traded our passports for red access badges, and asked to see Dr. Lorenzo Llamas. We knew the name was incorrect, but we couldn´t stop giggling when we asked to see Lorenzo Llamas, the beautiful pony-tailed star of the hit 80´s action series Renegade. After a few false starts, we were finally told by Llamas´ secretary that the Doctor was sleeping (either sleeping or busy - she talked really fast so I´m not sure), but she directed us to a different official who could help. At this point we decided that a back story would be helpful. Instead of being just some random motorcycle adventurer, I became law professor who studies penal systems throughout the world. Tom became a medical sociologist (whatever that is), but later switched to a law professor who volunteers at medical clinics when that became easier to explain. We were told by this official that we could not get into San Pedro; that it was too secure. We then asked if there were other prisons we could get into, because Bolivian prisons were the linchpin to my scholarly research. She listed some other facilities and told us to write a letter to the top dog explaining what we were studying. We asked what prison this would get us into. ¨San Pedro,¨ she replied. Confused? Yes. But we didn´t ask questions.
Using our elementary Spanish we scratched out a request to the national prison director, and were rewarded with a letter from him the next day granting us access. We arrived at San Pedro at the designated time, gave the guards the letter, were searched, and were let in through the gate. Now this was not your ordinary ¨Hey come check out my cell¨ kind of prison. There are no cells. There are just 1500 inmates milling around in a kind of complex reminiscent of a low-budget version of Melrose Place. All the guards stay on the outside during the day. As the gate slammed behind us, we were swarmed by a bunch of residents. Not really sure what to do, we asked if there was anyone who spoke English. One guy ran off. Another in black warm up pants and gelled hair told me to be careful in here; accidents happen. He then produced a homemade knife, expertly flipped it in the air, and casually slid it back into his pocket. Our requests for an English speaker were rewarded when a red-headed Spaniard introduced himself. He knew about enough English to explain to us that he was in prison for another 20 years for narco-trafficking, told us it sucked being the only white guy, and asked me for some cash. Finally we found a real English speaker who had been in the US for eight years. He took us on a tour of the place, all the while being followed by a small posse of thugs. He explained that those guys were going to accost him in his room after we left and demand the money they assumed we were paying him.
Inmates at the prison have to pay rent. Depending on how much they can afford, they can either get a private room with a private bath (rare) or a closet-sized room to be shared with two other guys. If they couldn´t afford rent from outside sources, then they worked twelve hours a day for the other prisoners doing laundry or making juice. Most prisoners get help from outside; the state only contributed 50 cents per prisoner per day for expenses, plus the costs of electricity and water. Everything else that happens in the prison comes from outside resources, or from working the internal economic system. For example, the biggest drug lord in Bolivia recently spent two years in San Pedro. Since he had boat loads of cash, he built himself a third level onto the prison structure just for himself and lived the good life until he was transferred. Money is everything, and if you have none you´re screwed. The guy who who showed us around was very helpful. We paid him with $15, a Twix bar, and a pack of cigarettes. He paid off the gang of thugs with half the money, and escorted us to the exit. It was a very strange experience.
Sadly, our little adventure will be parting ways with La Paz tomorrow. It looks like Tom will be back. Tom´s plan for after I leave is to volunteer at a hospital down here for the next eight months until he returns to the States next summer to pursue a medical degree. While in La Paz he visited several hospitals and seems to have found some positions that may work out. Just like gaining access to the prison, it took a little stretching of the truth ("I think I may have accidently told them I was a first-year medical student. Ahh, what do you learn in the first year of med school anyway?"), but it looks like he´ll return here in a few months, either to assist in surgeries or to scrub toilets. He´s not quite sure which yet.
For those of you concerned about the bikes, they are running pretty well. I get my second flat tire a couple weeks ago courtesy of a three-inch nail. Tom´s bike has been slowly losing oil recently, although I think we finally found the source of the leak and (hopefully) clogged it up with a liberal application of gasket sealant (and in the process virtually destroying the white garbage can from our hoptel room: grease and white plastic do not make good bedfellows). The KLRs have handled the thin air of high altitude quite well, although sometimes when ascending a steep mountain they seem to have the pòwer of a moped. But they´ve made it 8,000 miles, and I think making it to Tierra del Fuego is well within their grasp. Tomorrow we will be heading into the Amazon basin rain forest to the city of Rurrenabaque for a few days, and then southeast to the colonial mining (and virtual Indian slavery center) at Potosi. We will be challenged with sub-par fuel, tires that are running our of tread, and a reappearance of malaria-toting mosquitoes. So long for now.


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Manifest - 9/15/06

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Take That Bird Down...With Extreme Prejudice

Greetings from the very fun to say and very difficult to spell town of Ollantaytambo, Peru.
We are trapped in this quaint little pueblo until tomorrow, when tickets are again available to the great ruins of Machu Picchu. There was a train leaving at 8PM which returns tomorrow morning; it was a quite reasonable $173 per person (first class, she calmy explained) for the 35 mile trip, but I suspect that it may be a wee bit creepy to attempt to drift away to the Sandman while nestled on a stone bench under the moonlight with angry Incan spirits circling above. Go ahead. Ask the icy lady working the ticket booth. She´ll tell you the same thing through a forced smile as her eyes flash a more sadistic message: ¨Burn in hell, gringo.¨
The road to this town was a curried journey flavored with freshly roasted haste. Wanting badly to rendezvous with our Wisconsin comrades LeRoy and ¨Slippery¨ Rix before they flew home, we had a lot of ground to cover in just a few days. When Neubz last wrote, we were holed up in a city that reeked of processed trout. From there we headed east away from the PanAmericana and into the mountains near the second highest peak in South America: Huascaron.
The road started out innocently enough, but quickly deteriorated. Within about 20 miles the pavement came to an abrupt halt and the road became a delicious mash of large rocks, gravel, and dust. Luckily I was in front, and I´d be lying if I were to say that I did not relish the thought of kicking up a cloud of silty delight for Neubz to trudge through. Having not showered in about three days, the shroud attached itself nicely to the layer of grease on his face, and within about an hour he looked like Ben Stiller in the coal mine scene in ¨Zoolander¨.
The ¨road¨ wound through a dammed canyon for about four hours, passing through 38 dynamited tunnels that still had debris left behind that had crumbled from the jagged ceilings. Piloting through in total darkness was more than slightly unnerving. Apparently in Peru it is a cardinal sin to use headlights during any time that the sun is up - regardless of the situation - so every once and awhile we would make the acquaintance of the other rare traffic, dump trucks and pickups crammed full of miners in hard hats coming in the opposite direction, while emerging from one of the tunnels onto the one-lane road. Needless to say, it was a lot of fun.
The 20,000 feet peaks of Huascaron and its little brother, Alpamayo, were breathtaking - much like Neubz´s rank socks. We are still in disbelief, but someone actually stole them in the middle of the night while we were in a hotel in Huaras, at the base of mountains. The richness from the mold that was growing in his boots was so robust that they were literally nauseating, which is why Nuebz - always the gentleman - would put them in the hall before we went to sleep: out of courtesy to us both and in a flagrant act of biological war against the hotel´s other inhabitants. Whether it was in fact an incidence of perverse larceny or simply a desperate act of self-preservation by the hotel staff, we do not know. What I do know is that Neubz was too embarrassed to ask.
Embarrassed, too, am I to report that I have at last faltered...not once, but twice, in the fallen bike game. One was the result of shifty gravel in a hotel parking lot; the other was the fruit of a partially extended kickstand that almost felled me, too, as the bike fell. In any event, the score is still 8-2. In baseball, hockey, or soccer, they call that a shallacking. I call it ascendancy. You can call it what you will, but I call the rainbow colored hula hoop Neubz snapped up for me for sixty cents ridiculous. Lucky for me it snapped in two, then three and four, in the high winds and only a small section remains. And, besides, the score is actually 9-2, as Neubz´s bike went down again while he was preparing to change the oil a couple of days ago. The brightly colored womens´ scarf with poofy pink pom-poms on each end that I bought in a Cuzco market has been triple-knotted to the back of his bike. Come rain or come gail, that baby is never coming off, though it does wave gallantly in the breeze.
The accumulation of character is something that is garnered slowly along the way for these bikes, but I´d like to relate a few choice morsels that have found their way onto the beasts in the past month.
1.) While at a market in Ecuador, we locked in on a couple of stickers long enough to go across the windshield of a car. We snipped them into sections and put them onto our gas tanks. Mine reads ¨Gordito pero Agilito¨ (Chubby but agile). Neubz didn´t know what his meant when he bought it, but a glance at a dictionary a week later revealed that ¨Dolce Venena¨ translates into Sweet Venom.
2.) It was extremely cheap to have your clothing professionally laundered in Guatemala. We washed everything we had, and discovered the next day that we were mysteriously one black woman´s cardigan (here I mean that the cardigan itself was black in color; it may or may not have belonged to an African American woman) richer, an item which has since been knotted to the side of my bike.
3.) Under cover of darkness, someone at a hotel in Guatemala peppered our bikes with about a dozen ¨You Did It!¨ stickers. I´m not so sure what it is that he or she was congratulating us for, but if they were referring to the clogged toilet, they should reserved the stickers solely for Neubz. Those stickers fit in well among perhaps ten others, including an apple that reads ¨Oklahoma or Bust¨, a yellow ¨Commando¨ sticker, and the packing label for a mattress.
The road out of the mountains was a ridiculously winding one, and it is clear that it was the work of famed Peruvian civil engineer ¨Curvy¨ Sanchez. It is rumored that when Señor Sanchez lays out a road, he fixes himself a plate of angel hair pasta, twirls it with a trident, and then traces it with a pencil and paper. The road constantly curved so sharply that both of Neubz´s front turn signals flew off about ten minutes apart, one of them skidding about 100 feet and almost going over the side of a cliff.
The other impediment to the route back to the PanAmericana was wildlife. Now I like wildlife as much as the next guy, but I could have done without the bird that kamikazied my face. Luckily I had my face shield down. Yeah, the little suicide bomber died upon impact (I had to brush his limp carcass off my leg), but his beak put a big scratch right in my line of vision. And shortly thereafter Neubz nearly wiped out a flock of sheep that bounded out of a bush in front of him while he was doing sixty. That would have been an ugly scene: sheep being toted away on gurneys, a contorted Neubz struggling to get his bearings - his toupee jutting curiously out the front of his helmet.
As the sun began to set and we started to roll though small mountain villages, dogs began to get into the mix. They would leap from their posts (laying at someone´s feet or nibbling on garbage, or both) and bolt into the street with reckless abandon. Sometimes they would almost get you, other times they would give up and stand like idiots in the street as the second guy would have to swerve around them. One nearly latched on to my leg, so I gave him a shot to the jowels with my boot. As I drove away, I could have sworn that I heard him whistling Matthew Wilder´s ´80s classic ¨Ain´t Nothin´ Gonna Break My Stride¨...or was it Whodini´s ¨Freaks Come Out At Night¨?
The final push to meet our buddies meant our departure from the main road that traverses South America. This point was at Nazca, which some of you may know on account of the legendary and inexplicable Nazca Lines - elaborate designs of trees and animals made hundreds of years ago, some stretching over miles and miles while still remaining straight and clear. Before you book a flight down there to check them out, I´ll let you in on a little secret. I could have made some of them myself with a gardening spade in about two and a half hours.
The road from Nazca to Cuzco was a slow one. It was in fairly good shape (the Peruvians know the tourist treasure that they have out here), but it wound through two sets of mountain ranges, and it revealed to us the true meaning of the word ¨brisk¨.
Now before I go talking about the temperatures up there, let me first assure you that Neubz´s and my BRCs (Briskness Recognition Credentials) are in good order.
1.) Neubz spent the latter half of an eight-day horse trek through the Tien Shan mountain range of southern Kyrgyzstan last fall sleeping in a tent without a sleeping bag. When the sun went down at around 5:30 and the temperature dropped from around 70 to, say, zero (not taking into account the wind), he slipped into about four pairs up pants, eight shirts, and as many pairs of socks that would fit onto one another and then tried desperately to fall asleep in between a couple layers of the sweaty wool blankets that had been festering all day between the saddle and the hot flesh of the horse. He still blames Ryan Heinemann and me for the mysterious disappearance of his bag, but we lost out nearly as bad from the horse hair that clogged our lungs and stung our eyes as we slept three-wide in that tent.
2.) I spent a winter in Moscow - a place so brisk that they remain the only city in the world to use a de-icing agent on the roads so intense that its caustic vapors actually chew through the electric lines for the cable cars that hang overhead.
So, yes, suffice it to say that it was brisk as we drove into the night over two mountain passes at around 70mph. My hands hurt so bad that I considered asking one of the natives that live in the remote mountain villages if I could sleep on their dirt floor. But we decided to lay on, MacDuff, to a town with a small hotel, though not before being accosted outside of a shack selling hot chocolate by a drunk man in a bright sash that asked us how old we were about twenty times (including one time when he zipped down his fly and took a leak right in front of us before asking Neubz for a smoke), and only after narrowly missing a kid on a bicycle riding down the middle of the pitch black road who in turn swerved and almost hit a donkey in the other lane.
We arrived in Cusco exhausted and sore, but loving the dining options. Indeed, we felt as though the last week through small mountain villages bestowed upon us a certain degree of clairvoyance at the dining table. ¨Wait, wait. Don´t tell me. I see...rice...yes, rice!, beans, and perhaps...chicken...but chicken chopped up casually so that each bite gives you a one in six chance of cracking a tooth on a small piece of bone...¨. And we did in fact find our friends. We watched as Rix dined on alpaca meat and we kicked back a few brews, depite protests from LeRoy that the beer was ¨bubbling up in [his] throat¨. And it was awfully nice to carry on a conversation in English with someone other than Neubz.
So here we sit. We may have caught the early train this morning, but as usual, people we meet think that these motorcycles are faster than fast. We were told that it would take us 20 minutes to get here from Cuzco. It ended up being 60 miles on a mountain road. You do the math. The only way we´d make that kind of time is if I rode Falcor from ¨The Neverending Story¨and Nuebz a six-winged pegasus - something I understood he did quite often in his Advanced Dungeons and Dragons days.
The Machu Picchu racket and the $5/gallon we´re gulping from the Peruvian gas spigot only furthers the financial bleeding that reached its ghastly crescendo with the transportation of our bikes and ourselves from Panama to Quito via Bogota. I´d rather not disclose the actual price tag on that sweet breeze, but suffice it to say that our suspicious joint checking account took substantial hit and that we are lamenting our lack of time in the hurried preparatory stages to secure corporate sponsorship of some kind. Nevertheless, the beat goes on.
- Tom

Monday, September 4, 2006

Is that ... my .... backpack....? Santa, Peru

Hello all! Its been a little while since we´ve been in touch. Tom and I are on a quick stopover in a small town in Peru called Santa, which lies about 100 miles south of Trujillo along the Pacific coast. This charming hamlet is only 15 miles from the largest fish processing plant in the world (the holder of this distinction is determined not by size, but by smell). Luckily, the trucks and buses that cruise the road adjacent to the city contribute enough dust and pollution to overpower any fish stink that may stray this direction. The centerpiece of this little slice of heaven seems to be the gas station, as those were the only lights that didn´t go black when the power went down several hours ago. We were forced to park our bikes by candlelight in a huge empty garage that is fit to be used as the setting for a hollywood slasher flick. The halls of the adjoining hotel are decorated with posters of a variety of topless models, although their purchaser seems to have a taste for short brunettes. As we left the hotel to find dinner, the hotel´s operator (and probable decorator) warned us that the area was a little dangerous. Luckily for us I brought my trusty Kyrgyz switchblade along, although I must admit that the number of "fight-until-someone-is-bleeding-to-death" type battles that I have been involved in during my life is less than 20. Okay, maybe less than 10. But don´t tell that to the guy at the next computer who has that evil look in his eye...
In Panama last week we finally managed to load the bikes onto a plane bound for Ecuador. AND THEY DID IT FOR FREE!! Hah. Not even close. Tom and I beat the bikes to Ecuador by a couple days, so we spent our free time getting a haircut. The salon offered cuts for $1, so we splurged and each got one. In addition to the normal sample haircut photos they usually have at salons, this one also provided sample photos of Jean Claude Van Dam circa Bloodsport, pop superstar Christina Aguilera, Governor Schwartzennegar in his Oscar-nominated performance from 1985´s "Commando", and crucified Jesus. I love Van Dam.

We knew the bikes were to make it to Quito last Wednesday, although beyond that we had no idea how we were to go about getting our steeds back between our loving legs. After finding the office of the airline (camoflauged as a house), we realized that we would be forced to hire a broker to get our bikes released from the black hole of Ecuadorian customs. I won´t chronicle the ensuing eight-hour orgy of paperwork that devoured the rest of our Wednesday. Suffice it say that, even though he may be in this staunchly Catholic country and armed with every stamp and signature that man or deity can obtain, Jesus Christ himself would have a hell of a time getting his healing hands on his Holy Harley without the aid of a broker. So we sat back .... waited .... waited some more .... paid a small bribe ... and rode off into the Ecuadorian sunset.
The road from Quito went south through a stretch known as "Volcano Alley". Along this route, snow-capped peaks punctuated a landscape of steep hills and harvest-awaiting crops. We spent a day driving along winding roads through this spectacular setting, stopping at a local market and cruising through indigenous communities. The local children were adorable, dressed in little shawls, hats and boots, and we had a great time indulging both their and our photographic desires. That evening we arrived late into the city of Ambota. After criss-crossing the downtown in search of lodging, we learned that there were only three hotels in the "centro", which was probably responsible for the ridiculously high prices we had found. I may pay $25 to fill up my tank for a day of riding (sometimes fill it twice), but I for damn sure will not pay $12 to be unconscious, especilly in Ecuador. Tom and I got some directions and headed to the cheap(skate?) part of town. From the main road, a sign for the Hotel Mary beckoned to us. We obeyed.
A knock on the steel-gated window of the Hotel Mary was promptly answered by a middle-aged man. "Sir, do you have a room available? Yes, for the whole night. You have to check? Okay." Five minutes later we hear a click-click coming from inside the window. "Is that a walker?" Indeed it was. Was this the hotel´s namesake? Tom again requests a room. Ancient Mary gives Tom the staredown, then offers me the same treatment. "They´re all occupied." Hmmmm. I didn´t see any people. But it was clear we were supposed to leave. A few minutes later Tom and I are conversing with a nearby welder, who has let me use his hacksaw to cut down my bent brake lever. He laughs when we mention the episode at the Hotel Mary. The welder informs us that Mary is a place where you rent rooms by the hour. The old lady must have come down, had a look at the size of the two of us, and figured there was no way her antiquated bedframe could survive an hour-long romatic tryst between the two of us behemoths, much less a night-long binge session. And honestly Mary, I think I would be tempted to agree with you.

The next morning we set out for the town of Baños, where a neighboring volcano had erupted two weeks earlier. We had heard tales of ash piled two feet high in the steets and an air clogged with volcanic gasses. So of course we had to check it out. Although not quite the apolcalyptic scene that I had been expecting, it still was interesting to see a stretch of road completely destroyed by a lava flow. The citizens of the town were just beginning to return, and the shovels were in action making piles of ash along the street. We had a quick dip in the hot springs and headed toward Peru.

The next day was a miserable blur, as I was sacked with a 24-hour bug that brought a little bit of everything and a whole lot of somethings. I stumbled along through what would have been a beautiful drive through the southern Ecuadorian highlands. Tom said it was his favorite ride of the trip. I would have preferred to have been dead. Luckily my affliction dispersed as quicly as it had arrived, and by the time we reached Peru I was able to undertake my document chasing duties. As I was filling out some form or another, Tom was watching the bikes and chatting with passers-by. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of a guilty countenance slinking away. He looked more closely, and saw his Camelback backpack strolling away as well. A few seconds later the middle-aged thief headed down an alley and Tom gave chase. As he reached the alley, Tom bellowed in his most threatening "I´m-6-foot-3-and-you-sure-are-not" voice "SEÑOR!!!" The thief made the correct decision: dropping the pack and running. And its not as if the pack was any sort of treasure trove. What would the guy have done with a liter of stale backwashed water, hand sanitizer, a russian novel, and a South American guidebook? Enjoy.
We´ve spent the last two days crossing a giant desert in northern Peru. In some places the sand stretches as flat as the ocean for as far as the eye can see. In others, 30-foot dunes tower over the road. Waves of sand trickle down onto the pavement, forcing you to keep a watchful eye at all times. For the first time in a long time, the roads are long and straight. I´ve become so relaxed on the bike that unless there is something to swerve around, my attention wanes. Yesterday I almost fell asleep on the bike, and not for the first time. I don´t think I have to delve into the afteraffects of taking a brief nap at 75 miles per hour.

Tomorrow we head east; away from the coast and into the mountains. We are taking a partially-paved backroad for two days that meanders between Peru´s Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negra ranges. The views should be fantastic, as the road spends the majority of its time above 15,000 feet. The summit of Huascaron (the highest in Peru at some 6700 meters) will be constantly in view. We´ve readied our electric fleeces that plug into our motorcycle batteries and put every liner we have into its proper place. Its going to be brisk. The altitude will push the limits of these KLRs, but the drive should be amazing. After we get back to sea level, we will skirt Lima and make a two day drive into the mountains again to get to the old Incan capital of Cuzco. Here we will meet our friends Nick and Jason who are now trekking in the region, and together we will explore the ruins at Macchu Picchu. And that night, good times will be had by all.


Manifest - 9/4/06