22 February 2009

Tracking, Bolivia

Road, rather, surface conditions through Southern Bolivia led to shameful progress through the scarcely oxygenated desert. Thankfully, the scenery was compelling enough to occasionally distract me from realizing my misery. As always, I have chosen to inflict this sort of torture on myself, so however dramatic my accounts may appear, I´m secretly enjoying it. A closet masochist in pitiful disguise.

Of the dozen tracks that fanned out from the sand-socked nucleus amid the field of flowering lifelessness, each one proved to be worse than the last. Employing flawless scientific method, I rigorously tested each one, measuring their quality on an explicit scale of profanities per hour; but, by the tenth procedure, I was hoarse, rendering the experiment a failure.

From what observations I was able to collect, I noticed that the bumps habitually repeated with sinusoidal frequency into perpetuity. No amount of cursing could alter their mathematically precise spacing, which, for the scholar, equalled a wavelength slighly shorter than that of a bicycle´s wheelbase. Such a discrepancy, while going unnoticed by the few speeding Jeeps that actively floated over them, made for a jostling ride, resembling the coin-fed mechanical pony at the edge of the grocery store parking lot that wouldn´t relent long enough for the toddler to dismount, explaining his wavering wails.

When the fiendish corrugation finally subdued, the replacement surface came as no great relief. Instead of agitating my organs with a solar-powered whacker-packer, the substitute sucked my slick tires into its slimy slophole like a hungry, hungry hippo. If, by some miracle, I was able to actually mount my bicycle in the intended ergonomic fashion and pedal through a brief section of microscopic monsters, I would - inevitably- be speared from my weakening steed by the sharp lance of my medieval opponent. With little more momentum than would be required to overtake a speedbump, I would lethargically crash into piles of devilish aggregate like a lazy participant in gravity´s cruel game. If, by chance, I would encounter a dip in the terrain that increased my velocity to that of a trot, I would encounter a hidden stockpile in Satan´s sandbox and flop like a wet fish atop an overcooked construction of pasta noodles, contorting in unthinkable dimensions under the weight of a week´s worth of provisions.

As soon as I reached the conclusion to my hypothesis that cycling Southern Bolivia will tax my bones like the IRS, I was relieved to find a sweet dessert after a gut-wrenching main course. On my last night in Bolivia, possibly as some semblance of an apology, I encountered a steaming pool of sulphrous-free, exhausted-appendage soup, simmering on the edge of an otherwordly expanse. Long before the sun rose, while the sliver moon cupped the last remaining darkness, I nursed my pistons back into working order while the flamingos scoffed at my euphoric groans. Again, I wouldn´t be doing this if I didn´t think it was enjoyable. Secretly.

Rock, Bolivia

What I thought would be a city of stones turned out to be a metropolis of rocks. As the sole feature in the broadening landscape of Bolivia´s central altiplano, I was immediately drawn to the presence of something, due largely to the recent lack of everything. A series of sandstone towers perched on the horizon in picket formation lured me into the metamorphic fortress like a tired knight in search of solace. In true, red-white-and-blue fashion, I staked my claim on the fringe, holing up in a quaint little suburb with ample breathing room and an infertile lawn that separated me from any potential of intrahuman contact, also requiring me to travel for hours to obtain supplies while inhibiting the potential for appropriate transportation in the sprawling expanse of soulless abodes. Density be damned, I wanted my own backyard.

Stationed at the acoustical center of a sandy amphitheater, the improvisational itch came over me like an easily contractable rash which resulted in equally spasmatic side-effects. With an empty potato pan in hand and a Hohner harmonica on my lips, I proceeded to awe the bystanding stones with a savagely enthusiastic soundscape, brought on by a socially stagnant stint through days of torrential terrain.

Performances such as these are usually reserved for a select audience, one that exhibits the apathetic characteristics necessitated by an amateur performer such as myself. The more inanimate and unresponsive the better, hence the spontaneous outbreak of expression among geologic giants that carelessly echoed my every attempt at rhythm and melody. After obliging the roaring demand for multiple encores, I crept backstage and wallowed in my stardom. I interpreted Surely´s silence as complimentary and the rustle of my sleeping bag as constructive criticism.

The wind I expended during my rambunctious prancing must have created some kind of butterfly effect within the labyrinthian landscape because as soon as the sun went down, an atmospheric torment arose. From inside my precariously sand-staked tent, I imagined erosion to be happening at an alarming rate. But come morning, after having only drifted a few paces from my original pitch, I found the stoic façades of my faithful fans imperceptibly altered. Erosion apparently proceeded according to protocal. The bit of grit between the gaps in my teeth will remind me of my breakthrough debut and serve as a token rose from the crowd that unwantingly observed my attempt at rock.

13 February 2009

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Seven cans of meat paste, two kilos of pasta, three packages of crackers, one kilo of oatmeal, and thirty-six liters of water crowded the flanks of our industrial porters. Soren, I admit, carried the bulk of it. Within the narrow strip of sand-infested quinoa farms that separated the two salares, we ransacked the only sizeable village of its entire sotck of cold consumables. If the Salar de Coipasa was a formidably empty section, the Salar de Uyuni would be an inter-planetary mission.

From the shore of Uyuni, fifty kilometers separated us from our destination that day: an isolated island overrun with cacti, liquified by the light-bending mirage that swept over the salt surface. Compass in hand, I confirmed our bearings with the pictographic map that beautifully, if inaccurately, depicted Southwestern Bolivia with shaded earth tones and precision cross-hatching. The landmarks were evidently an afterthought. With a familiar rush of uninhibited planar freedom, we launched into the void that would consume our reality for the following few days.

For four hours, we veered back and forth on our sloppily-plotted route, comforted by the impossibility of losing our way with a singular landmark on the horizon. As before, Soren would cruise ahead - 5, 10, or 20 kilometers - and I would plug along in solitude. When engulfed in such strange terrain, one gets the urge to glorify diversions that, in other places, might seem childish or mundane. To illustrate this, I stashed my bike and took to spinning dizzying circles - for ten minutes. The horizon maintained perfect consistency as I twirled like a lunatic, and at one point - eight minutes in - I had the sensation of being on a giant, horseless merry-go-round. It was the white platform that was spinning, not me.

Games aside, I carried on, finding Soren crouched beneath a customized umbrella. In the middle of the flats, shade is as uncommon as sugar, but thankfully, Soren had crafted a rickety device to soothe our singed skin. When moving, the breeze was enough to cool my bones, but as soon as I stopped, the radiation assaulted me from every direction with 360 degrees of relentless ultraviolet exposure. Lunchtime came, but, according to tradition, we had to do the Meat Paste Dance before we indulged in our pureed pork-beef. Games commenced.

The ¨Island That Never Got Any Closer¨ finally did. For the first time in fifty kilometers, we experienced an elevation gain, but not more than ten meters to our elected campsite. To our great fortune, a neatly stacked pile of aged cactus beckoned us to burn it. That night, we slept in an aura of campfire aroma, dreaming of off-white garnishes.

From the saddle in which we slept, we watched the sun rise directly over our next destination. For a moment, before the sleep flaked from my eyes, I thought we were looking down on a blanket of clouds, through which only a few mountaintops punctured the fluffy sheet. In past experiences when I have, indeed, experienced that nebular phenomenon, I have wanted to run out onto the untainted plane and slide along the white condensation. This time, I could satisfy that fantasy.

Approaching the ¨Island That Attracts Tourists,¨ I met a familiar specimen clad in grungy garb, perched atop two wheels. This guy had been cycling for 20 months from Alaska, en route to Ushuaia, and had just crossed the 30,000 kilometer mark. There were volumes of such accounts enshrined on the island, bursting the spines of four, tattered accounting books. For the remainder of the day, I pored over the interesting anecdotes of past cyclists, hikers, and pilots that have made the pilgrimage. That night, I crept over to the other side of the island and camped beside another blazing cacti-fire.

The next day, our route bore no recognizable landmarks, so we navigated solely by the magnetic pull of our compass needles. Once again, the emptiness consumed me and I took to experimentation. To begin with, I craned my neck upward and dove into the deep, blue sky. For thirty minutes I rode like this, not once glancing at the terrain I passed over. Next, I perched myself high on my saddle and rode without hands. Big deal - although I did so for twenty minutes - often closing my eyes for ten seconds at a time. These activities, among others, can be realized in such desolation.

Approaching the opposite shore of Uyuni, the Jeep traffic became dense, relatively speaking. Twice in one hour I saw the distorted silhouette of a beetle-like trajectory, far in the distance. As we approached the Salt Hotel, their frequency increased, and I began to witness the peculiar activities of salt-bound tourists from a closer, recognizable vantage.

Depth perception ceases to operate in a world of blue and white, much to the advantage of the surrealist photographer. As I passed a pair of parked Jeeps, I witnessed the process by which a Japanese schoolgirl, from behind the lens, will be eaten by an unconcerned cannibal, slowly spooning mouthfulls of innocent flesh. Elsewhere, a frying pan full of unsuspecting gringos was simmering on an imperceptible flame. Soren and I constructed similarly fantastic photo ops, given the few props we had.

With red dirt in sight, we rolled through the last remaining kilometers of salt-pack with grateful, gritty smiles. Over the past five days, we had traversed over 250 kilometers of untainted sodium chloride. Once ashore, I relished in the fecundity of familiar turf, but relented the fact that now I would be bound to previously tread tracks. Everything after cycling the salares will seem normal, no matter how diverse the vistas. Nothing compares to nothingness because everything is usually something.

Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

If one could have observed our progress from above as we entered the salt flat, our tracks would have spelled ¨stupified¨ in jumbled cursive script. Once on the white plain, all navigatory indications disappeared in the stark, spaceless expanse, allowing us to assume an unhindered, undirected, unbelievable course through the magnificently desolate plain. Since the past 5,000 kilometers have been directed by either animalian, pedestrian, or vehicular traffic, we took liberties with the ditchless, trackless, dustless, shadowless, topographicless, anythingcomprehendableless environment at hand. Circuitous routes abounded.

Our first experiment in the featureless landscape involved blind-riding in one-minute intervals. Eyes closed, pedaling at a consistent rate, I pursued what I thought was a direct route, but upon opening my eyes, the horizon that had been seared into my retinas a minute earlier had disappeared. Panic arose as I hurriedly scanned my surroundings to find something recognizable because the panorama that lay before me had completely transformed from the time that I began the experiment. Geology must have been operating at an astounding rate to have transformed an entire horizon. I collected myself within moments of opening my eyes, but the initial shock left me thinking that I had been transported to a frozen lake in northern Minnesota. Pinching a fingerful of the surface I stood on confirmed my whereabouts. Salt, not snow.

Throughout the day, I had to remind myself of its composition, because everything in my experience led me to believe it was frozen. When a section of salt creaked under my tires, I cringed at the thought of breaking through, mistaking the glistening crystals, yet again, for a different chemical compound. Lunchtime reassured me when we seasoned our ground bologna with the very ground we sat upon. Flavor was in no shortage that day.

The afternoon wore on, our giddiness subsided, and thoughts moved toward finding a campsite. Suitably flat spots surrounded us, but Soren and I agreed to meet in another 10 kilometers to find a perfectly empty panorama to pitch our tents. He motored off into the distance and was soon out of sight, leaving me alone.


Nearly an hour later, I saw a black spot hovering above the layer of reflected heat. I figured that no one else would be strolling the salt flat at this hour, and within fifteen minutes of first spotting the blob, I confirmed the Soren-sighting. We threw open our tents and attempted to drive the stakes, but, as expected, the surface was as comparably hard as concrete. As the sun went down, a storm brewed to the north, striking the white surface with frequent bolts that kept us anxiously awaiting an electrified night. Thankfully, we had enough gear to keep our parachutes grounded and enough faith to fend off the tempest.

Early the next morning, after crumpling my salt-caked gear into their respective stuff-sacks, I resumed the bearing from the day before and pedaled toward the slightly darker divergence in the duotone horizon. As the surface became increasingly wet, I felt a surge of vertigo brought on by the bottomless mirror created by a thin layer of standing water. For over an hour, I freed myself from gravity´s pull and proceeded to pilot my pedal-powered plane through absolute absence.

Once grounded, my heart sunk as I saw how destructive the outing had been for Surely. I couldn´t think of an eviler deed done unto a steel machine, but I apologized, promising to compensate with an oil massage and a new paintjob once we reached more familiar terrain. Until then, confounding experiences would dilute my sympathy for corrosive acts of machinistic cruelty.

12 February 2009

Despoblado, Bolivia

From underneath their ill-fitting bowler hats, precariously affixed to their flowing black braids, the Aymara women bubbled with chuckles, almost losing their silly caps while teetering on their miniature stools. Evidently, I provoked their laughter after explaining my plans for the following week: to cycle 500 kilometers through sand and salt. Judging by their reaction, this wasn´t common, much less intelligent. But nevertheless, I kept my ambition through the humiliating encounter and loaded Surely with as many provisions as could be hoarded in the decrepit village. As I wheeled out of town, I glanced over my shoulder to see the glint of gold-rimmed teeth still glaring with hilarity. They waved, kindly acknowledging my departure, or, more likely, in anticipation of my demise.

Starting out, the washboards were so rhythmically consistent that I wished I had cogs instead of wheels. After hours of jostling my joints on the pitifully-kempt road, I resorted to a singletrack that I had spotted earlier, far off in the open plains. Following the narrow ribbon of compact dirt through thoroughly chewn prairie brought a grin back onto my crusted complexion. The llamas didn´t respond to my hoots and hollers, but the shepherds found it entertaining to watch someone on the fast track to desolation - or delusion.

Pink flamingos pranced across the reflective surface of a serene, saline deposit. Their tracks disrupted the mirror image of Sajama, looming leagues away under the cloud-stippled sky. Llamas and alpacas intermingled with their characteristically domesticable demeanor while nearby, a herd of vicuñas sauntered by, flaunting their freedom. This populace, unlike the others, didn´t laugh at me.

Hours later, the wind became so strong that I could have peed on Chile had it not been for the swirling vortex created by my body-shield that sent it instead, spraying into my face. Through the gusts, I think I heard Chile giggling. Next time, I´ll reconsider such vile acts and respectfully soil the adjacent ditch. Once again, I humbly mounted and labored along under the mocking observation of wiser beings. Thankfully, the gales coincided with my direction and swept me along the arid plains until another aid came rumbling from behind.

Soren and I had split that morning, calculating a route through this forgotten country, hoping to encounter one another along the way. As evening approached, we found each other, despite our caked, camouflaged apparati. That night, we holed up next to a cool spring - an anomalie of extraterrestrial significance. For the next few days, we would leapfrog our way through dust devils and sand traps as we approached the otherwordly expanse of the world´s largest salt flats. Soon, the laughers would be silenced by sweet, if salty, success.