Posts Tagged ‘lakes’

Ice lakes and frozen worlds

To the lake…

I was just a few kilometres from Ulaanbaator, but there was no hint a world capital lurked close by. The sky reached to wider horizons, plucked of the reaching soviet tower blocks, city traffic surrendered to silent space. Concrete was traded for yellowed steppe, salt and pepper peaks and the odd gur clinging limpet-like to the leeside of hills.

Fugitive faces

Cambodia and The Lake Clinic

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, can I have your attention please? We have reached the office where we will all get our VISAs to Cambodia’

‘Scam!’ crooned someone from the front seats on the bus bound for Siem Reap, Cambodia.

‘It’s not a scam!’ the man beseeched us. ‘Scam! Scam! Scam!’ The shouts ricocheted around the bus, each one a whip crack to our disparaged guide. With a final hangdog sigh, he sat down and our bus moved off, gangway untrammeled.

Our ‘guide’ was not savy enough to know that scores of forums, books and blogs all take pains to explain the routine: a representative of the bus company will try to get the passengers to pay for an unneeded, expensive VISA well before the actual border. It’s a bare-faced pretense that helped the epithet ‘Scambodia’ do the rounds, and we were all hip to the jive.

I left my bike in Bangkok for this fleeting side trip to Cambodia. From Siem Reap my plan was to visit a floating medical clinic on the Tonle Sap Lake and the temples at Ankor Wat before hightailing it back into Thailand and riding into Burma, chasing the clock as my Indian VISA marches on, and assailed by monsoon rains.

At the border I looked out from the vantage point of my bus seat to the bumpy terrain of tops of heads cut by trains of rickshaws and hand-pedalled carts with raggedy kids gripped to the sides, and chickens under free arms; a TV camera crew filmed the melee. An estimated 200,000 illegal workers from Cambodia were fleeing the country in the wake of the Thai military coup, fearing arrest.

Siem Reap, the launching point for tours of the world’s largest temple complex at Ankor Wat, is a vast muddle of tourists, haranguing tuk tuk drivers (slash drug dealers) and well-primped transexual masseuses, a pair of which grabbed me by the arms. ‘Massage! Massage!’ I slipped the grip of one, ducked, side stepped, tugged my arm away from the other but her grip was more determined than I imagined and the effect was to drag her brutally down the street which made a cluster of backpackers giggle wickedly.

There are several sureties that come with visiting any of the world’s most popular tourist attractions and Ankor Wat was no different to the Pyramids, Petra or Machu Picchu. Someone will usually try to convince you that a more authentic experience means arriving on the back of a large mammal. The British will get miffed because for those of other nations, forming an orderly queue is not such a venerable pastime. There are always people too skinflint to pay for their own tour guide who glide around the margins of tour groups, their deceit half-cloaked by the unfurled maps and newspapers they feign to study. And someone will perform an indecent act with one of the religious statues to the glee of their friends – this may include high fiving Buddha, picking an imaginary bugga from the trunk of Ganesha, or riding bareback on the Virgin Mary.

‘Dr Fabes!’ John stood up, festooned in a billowing Hawaiian shirt, a crop of silver hair tinged red; his voice spiced with the subtle twang of his Rhode Island roots.

John is a self-proclaimed ‘problem-solver’, and with obvious and abundant talent for it – he founded the Paediatric Hospital in Siem Reap and once managed psychiatric wards amongst a fleet of other varied endevours. He is also the man in charge of the Lake Clinic which serves the people who live in floating houses on the lake and river systems of the Tonle Sap.

Years before John had been drifting on a boat down the Tonle Sap, in tranquil admiration for the beauty of it: the swatches of water hyacinth amidst the glimmering water, the house-boats in gentle sway. But he took a closer look: at the houses, eight bodies a piece; at the murky margins of the image in his camera viewfinder; and there they were – scores of people washing, drinking and defecating in the same frame. It was that moment that he vowed to help, take up the slack, and the first spark that would later emerge as the Lake Clinic was cast into the black.

My journey to see the project for myself began at the staging post of Kampong Khleang, a village set on the banks of the river. I was encompassed by a host of stilted houses, but not for another six months would the wind-rushed wavelets of the lake water slap against their floor boards – now the lake drains into the Mekong, though when the direction of flow switches, as happens twice a year, the water will back up, filling the lake anew and swelling it’s area five-fold.

A clutter of long boats rocked near the bank as men loaded petrol and watermelons onto the out-going vessels and buckets of fish were claimed from the incoming ones. Nine of us packed into the boat and we set off, growling through the muddy water and sending a spray like erupting lava out behind us. Soon a thin layer of land on each side of us was all that divided the lake from the sky.

After three hours we turned into a river, past a slew of fishermen, the air rank with fish, and pulled up in front of a low-slung blue hut: The Lake Clinic, one of four floating clinics on the Tonle Sap, the water too low this time of year for the pontoons beneath to be of use. We debarked as clumps of green water hyacinth drifted by as easily as swans. Three hours on a boat helped explain why the people here might need the clinic, but it opened up a question too: why do so many people live in such isolation?

Life is cheap on the Tonle Sap. The path to a rickety floating home, far from cities and roads, might start with some small event, explained John, a sick child perhaps the first domino to fall. To cover medical costs the family might sell their cow: domino two tumbles. No cow to plough the fields? Then you sell your land, and so on, until deep in debt they drag what they have left to the lake and set out on a life of subsistence and for many, struggle. Some of the old timers have a different tale – after the war, fresh from the forced labour camps, they returned to their old homes only to discover new occupants. Often these intruders would have some document from the Khmer Rouge which supported their claim to ownership, some others may have a six-chambered and rather more persuasive argument.

The setting is sumptuous, a backcountry Venice and the very essence of serenity. Somewhere a radio speiled, a hammer concussed, the voices of gabbing neighbours carried. Thick armed men brandishing long wooden poles propelled their boats through the water. Wood smoke corkscrewed through the purple haze that lingered after the sunset.

Next morning the waiting room was soon well stocked with wriggling children and their wet coughs, women in loose patterned clothes, a few men: sun-wizened and blinking. They brought with them the scent of wood smoke, which hung from their clothes.

Many patients came with ailments that were bound to their lifestyle and habits on the lake – a fish smoker with a cough, babies with diarrhea, and spindly boys with skin and eye infections. There was the usual gamut of patients that might rock up to any family practice, bright looking teenagers with acne and arthritic older ladies, though I didn’t count any patient much over 60. Every third patient would respond to ‘what’s wrong?’ by pointing to their upper abdomen. Gastritis, driven by diet and perhaps by parasites, is rife.

But there are others, too. A small grubby boy, sunken-eyed, body lost inside a Man United top, hopped onto the chair; aside him his mum, her face a road map of wrinkles etched into caramel-coloured skin. She looked forlorn, uneasy and very poor. The boy was weighed and it was roundly agreed – 15kg is far from the ideal in light of his nine years. ‘Skinny, dirty…’ said the doctor to me, and I wondered whether she trailed off with thoughts of the relative futility of a few vitamin pills when there were forces at work were well beyond our ability to set right. They left with a prescription, hand in hand, incanting blessings in Khmer.

For the men, a visit to the Lake Clinic means time off fishing, and so I quickly started to steal myself as we examined the ones who did show up, their ailments so often long-standing and severe. One man complained of a lump in his neck. A long term smoker with a new raspy edge to his voice and a tennis ball sized lump would cause even the most green medical student alarm, but with no possibility of imaging the tumour, let alone treating cancer, it would have to remain the realm of gloomy guesswork. He didn’t seem disappointed when it was explained there was little that could be done, just stone-faced, but then perhaps he’d never courted much hope, only the relative privilege of life away from poverty and the lake begets those kinds of expectations. Or perhaps he was considering next the traditional healer, the revered traders and tappers of hope. All too often, the doctor tells me, the aftermath of the widespread local treatments reveal themselves – patients with small circular burns made by traditional healers, sometimes infected. Another common practice is to spit into wounds – and suddenly the inexorable bloom of tuberculosis began to make sense.

The Tonle Sap is the source of so much for the people that bob and drift on its waters: it’s their culture, their sustenance, their profit and their world. But the lake is a two-faced mistress and its gifts are not always as desirable, within the ripples gather disease, and the isolation it foists on the people who live here breeds an unrelenting cycle of poverty. The Lake Clinic helps with a fraction of these burdens, a true lifeline for a few and a boon to many.

Andrea, a Swiss doc

Western Thailand

I looked over my worn out Brooks saddle like an adolescent appraises a groin rash. I was reticent to deal with it – my old saddle, Bernard, had been a long and constant companion; moulded to me, dented by sit bones, splayed and bum-ready. So for months I’d just shot the thing an occasional doleful glance before shoving it again to the dregs of my to-do list, beyond the motivational wastelands of ‘sew pants’ and ‘find old to do list’ – a job that features on almost every one of my to-do lists. Bangkok though was the logical place for swapsies, and my arse stealed itself for a thrashing the likes of which it hadn’t seen since Kent.

The west of Thailand was laced by myriad small roads which coursed through chartreuse rice paddies as evenly hued as golf greens. In Bangkok I watched what seemed to be every single person in a frenzy of technology where only selfies were worthy interruptions to facebook – I didn’t anticipate the same in rural Thailand. An effete old man approached me though as I peered at my map; he was shabbily ragged, unshaven, grizzled. He towed a battered cart behind him past toward the ramshackle hut he called home.

‘No GPS then?’ he enquired


‘You don’t have a GPS?’

‘Um, no’

‘No Iphone either?’ He was mildly startled now. I shook my head.

‘But you must have a satellite phone?’

A few days after leaving the city behind the mountains peeked up over the horizon, as sudden as a bend in a race track. Chieng, a young tall Chinese biker on his first national exodus, rode with me for a day. He had a hunger for the road I envied a little now that it seems more ordinary; his face filled with joy as he told me of a free coffee he was given at a police station, pausing then to let me absorb the shock of it, and I smiled at the simple things that mean so much when you’ve pedaled 150 km and run countless laps in your own head. His mum calls him every day on his cell phone to persuade him to return home. ‘I want to cycle around the world too’ he said, dreamily. ‘Chinese parents…’ he lamented ‘they don’t understand’.

I climbed over the Tanontongchai Range to a market where women from the hilltribes in loose green robes sold me the best lychees I have ever tasted, as fat as satsumas, and then I finally arrived at Mae Sot. Since the 70’s the border between Thailand and Burma has seen a mass of refugees who are now settled in camps near the town. I had planned to visit one of these camps and to give a presentation to the students, but the Thai army took over command the day I planned to visit, evicting foreigners, ordering searches on the pretext of ‘drugs’ (which likely meant ‘uncertified people’). This was worrying to say the least, especially set against the backdrop of military rule in Thailand with no government to answer to.

Instead I paid a visit to SMRU, medics treating migrant workers and refugees along the border, (story to come in a later blog post) and also gave a presentation to some refugees who had been taken by an NGO into higher education in the border town. In my presentation I often share my perception of people the world over as munificent and good-natured – I want to counter the all too common belief that the world is a terrifying place replete with boogie men. Sometimes though, I feel like I’ve been conned. Bicycle travel doesn’t offer the warts and all vision of the world I had hoped for. Most days I am treated to a roadside of mad grins and shining eyes, I’m gifted food and sometimes a bed, I’m treated almost always with nothing but deference. It breeds a kind of naive and unchecked optimism: I have to remind myself I’m only a surface traveler, usually immune to the violence and mistreatment the malignant forces around the globe dole out to their own people beyond the ken of the passers-by. I spoke to these Burmese students of how lovely Planet Earth is, forgetting then that the very fact that they live in a foreign land was because the military junta at home has persecuted and abused their own people for decades. Afterwards, I felt a bit of a dick.

Burmese Daze

I sprawled my map over the bed – Burma looked up at me, daringly. The border crossing I would use had been open only seven months, and crossing the country into India had been the mission of only a half dozen or so intrepid bikers since the rules were relaxed. Rarely had the prospect of a new frontier felt so thrilling.

I rolled under the golden arch which declared ‘The Republic of the Union of Myanmar’ thinking about how debatable those terms are: Republic, Union, and even Myanmar.

I rode on, the inside of every passing truck was thick with bodies, their eyes ablaze amid the shadows of their neighbours, full of astonishment as they peeked at me. Bare-chested men, red-mouthed from chewing betel net, wearing lungis riding up to their naval, and with dragon tattoos from shoulder blade to small of back, nodded hello from the shade of teak leaf-roofed huts. I didn’t mind the steep hills, the mashed up tarmac, the tails of stench that trailed from trucks chocker with chickens. The scenery, the smiles, the exoticism – all more than a fair trade.

That night I found a hostel in a town of dust and nervous dogs. The plywood paneled room was only just big enough for the bed, and I lay down, watching mosquitoes dance on the ceiling, listening to the sounds of this new land.

Burma proved not to be as behind the times as I had expected, ATMs and Internet exist outside the capital despite what Lonely Planet says; change is afoot, and guidebooks are out of date as they are published. I stopped for food – the girl who served me instructed her friend to ready her camera phone and then she jumped into the frame with me, hand draped over my shoulder. A few minutes after fiddling with the device, she showed me her handiwork – on the screen the image of us was now surrounded by a pink, heart shaped frame, like a wedding photo.

A motorbike raged past, it’s driver had swiveled 180 degrees to assure himself the best possible gawk at me whilst his un-chauffeured machine rallied off on a tangent to the direction of the road, eventually satisfied he turned back to the road to find himself almost upon the forest, and he jerked to the left, turned to me again, grinned insanely, wordlessly saying ‘hey, check that out!’ and disappeared.

A mother and then daughter walked past, the first demure and expressionless, the younger smiling widely. I thought about what might be behind that grin. I’m a novelty here, and perhaps it’s just that, but change is upon Burma, perhaps not the upheaval many desire, but change nonetheless. Tourists are a clear stigmata of that fact, and maybe not always smile-worthy in themselves, but because they remind of future promise. Or perhaps I just looked idiotic, as I often do, and Occam’s razor prevails.

I cycled past sudden outcrops of rock, and gold pagodas which studded every hill. Burmese roads offered a conveyor belt of arresting sights – a cow in a rickshaw, drunk soldiers, beautiful flower sellers with heart-fluttering smiles, a mad man in conversation with himself, bands of monks in their burgundy cowls claiming free food from eateries and teams of local people, not workmen, repairing the roads – the forced labour human rights groups so oppose. 

A mum and her son. Burmese put Thanaka on their faces – a cosmetic paste made from ground bark

One night I stayed in a hotel and locked my bike in the downstairs restaurant for the night, the next day though it had been propped up unlocked on the street on the opposite side of the road, anyone could have wheeled off my entire life, luckily theft is rare here. It is illegal for local people to host foreigners in Burma, but I didn’t resort to hotels every night and sought refuge once in a tin roofed derelict building, listening nervously to voices that sliced the night, playing hide and seek against the world.

On many buildings were adverts, on huge plastic drapes, for Grand Royal and High Class whiskey, with their taglines: ‘enjoy life!’ and ‘taste of life!’, which given the state of the people I saw drinking the stuff is ironic indeed. I got to Yangon via a back road that journeyed past tumbledown shacks steeped in a swamp and reachable by four-strong bridges of bamboo poles. I’m staying with Al and Jess – a pair of brilliant teachers who work at the International School. So far I have scored a permit for travel north, presented to the lively school kids and gave an interview for national TV.

Burma must be amongst the most electrifying places I have traveled, and I can’t help remember Ethiopia, a country about which I felt a similar buzz. But with these destinations comes an uncomfortable truth – the exoticism of Burma lies in the same ‘apartness’ I saw in Ethiopia, and it’s this separation that has dealt such a blow to the people who live here. The world is becoming ever more interconnected and cooperative, and good – the less apart we are the better – but the result is that we slide towards an ever more homogenised planet.

My plan is a blur of pedal strokes to Bagan, and then if the soldiers at the road block let me pass, an adventure through the wilds of Chin state, eventually arriving in the border town of Tamu, hopefully before an expired VISA, and then I’ll cross into India.

Producer, Anchor, man with hair on his face, and Herb The Chicken

‘Dig beneath exotic surfaces to find something even truer and more troubling, go beyond the postcard vistas and tourist shots to a sense of how places can not only surround you, but transform you’ 
– Pico Iyer, Tropical Classical.

Thank yous aplenty this month – shouts out to Al and Jess, the SMRU crew: Steph and Anne, Francois, Mellie, the Bangkok crew: Elena and Mim, The Cambodia crew: John Morgan, Ian Fergusson and Jess, Tobi and Andrea, the teachers and pupils at Horizons School and Moses and all those at MITV.

The death-defying meesters

A windshield was just a slant of glass until East Timor.

Deep, aching regret chased my decision to add myself to the human-stuffing inside this microlet – the local bus – whipping through the clamorous streets of Dili, the country’s capital. I had bagged a front row view along with three other men whose buttocks also vied for a share of the two front seats. Despite the unyielding terror my perspective endowed, I was fascinated. I snatched a glimpse of a motorbike as it disappeared behind a two foot long yellow caterpillar. An ambulance, plowing so fast through traffic it was surely going to maim more people than it could ever save, flickered in and out of view amid plastic yellow birds and a limp Manchester United jersey. Where I expected sky, there was only yellow fur.

Almost every inch of glass was covered with cutesy toy animals and football paraphernalia, suckered on, through which the teenaged driver peered. His head jerked left and right to counter the motion of the dangling zoo. His red tinged Mohawk jerked too. And it went on like this – lurching past invisible vehicles, Daffy Duck consuming a gaggle of pedestrians, fleeting thoughts of my family and early life, a vision of a crumpled bus and a blood-stained Winnie the Pooh. Was it my audible whimpering that invited the driver to wink at me and offer a double thumbs-up? Maybe, but considering a Darwin Award was on the cards it seemed a perverse way to offer reassurance, all I could do was fake a smile and will those thumbs back to the only place thumbs of visually impaired drivers should be – on the steering wheel.

Given the circumstances, it was hard to imagine adding another dynamic more crippling to the driver’s ability to concentrate, bar a passenger launching a bucket of ice and another of fire ants onto his lap. For starters the Indonesian pop music that blasted from speakers was jet plane loud and each bass note sent tinny rattles through the chassis, bounced the vast array of juxtaposed cuddly animals and inspired violent head bopping from the front row, me excluded, though I was often jolted involuntarily roof-ward when we smashed into Dili’s cavernous potholes. A weave of scents – petrol fumes, cooking meat, and rank vegetables – gushed through the open windows. Between songs the noise of the streets clawed back, caged roosters crowed, the tangle of careering motorbikes revved and backfired.

I recognised my hostel (superimposed by Tigger) and tapped a coin on the roof to signal my stop. Disgorged now, a jumble of insouciant school children in the back of the bus stared out at me on the pavement. Perhaps only a front seat had offered full appreciation of our breathless foreplay with providence. The driver winked at me once again, yelled ‘See you next time meeester!’ and as he jerked the vehicle back from kerb to chaos I could only stand, watch and ruefully mouth those parting words – Next time meester. Next time. If we did meet again I might be on a bicycle, and on the less survivable side of the windshield.

It seems unforgivable to label anywhere in the world’s largest continent as quintessentially Asian but on the streets of Dili the clichés added up. Meandering roosters, pots of bubbling broth and dumplings, careering motorbikes adding to the heavy fug of hanging smog. These streets belonged to the people, they worked them and they lived them. For almost a year I have pedalled through sanitised, au fait, developed nations. My eyes are wider now, I’m leaning forward, senses piqued, and content because we have a new border to our back and a torrential rain of differences, drenching me with questions. We went in search of some history to help bring to life the newest country of the millennium, one of the poorest in Asia and a land without tourist information, a British consulate, or even a purchasable road map.

Rubble was one of those unanswered questions. In Dili piles of it spot the city, it’s a playground for children, and casts refuges of shade in the late afternoon for the city’s many stray, mangy dogs. It tells a story too – of a wretched history, branded by war and rebellion. The former Portuguese colony was heading for full independence in 1975 when Indonesia invaded with backing from the US who at the time were making warmongering something of a hobby themselves having just ravaged Vietnam. Indonesia was the most important non-communist state in SE Asia and the US wanted them on side. One inconsequential point I should mention: the Timor sea has massive oil reserves, though I’m sure American military strategists and politicians never once gathered around a map of East Timor, rubbed their hands and gawked with glee. That would be wholly unprecedented.

Australia were complicit in the invasion too, and their actions since East Timor’s independence have marked them out as guilty of coveting Timor’s black gold. They have acted in the classic bully boy style rich countries deal with poor ones, at best protectionist and deeply cynical, at worst corrupt and in violation of international law. It’s notable that Australia, in the the midst of a lucrative mining boom, enjoyed negotiating with East Timor only when the fledgling country was particularly desperate, at its lowest ebb, and would take whatever was on offer. More recently East Timor has accused the Aussie government of spying. It is all quite complicated, but there is anger on the streets of Dili, and the walls of the Australian embassy speak of the outrage…

The crocodile is the national animal of East Timor
After East Timor we’d cross into Indonesia and every emerging fact about the nation left me further incredulous. With 250 million people the population of Indonesia is larger than that of Brazil, 3.5% of the world’s people are Indonesian. The 19,000 islands (you heard right) have a land area about on par with Mexico. With 60 days on our Indonesian VISA the plan was an island hop, seven in all: Timor (where we’d cross into Indonesia), Flores, Sumbawa, Lombok, Bali, train through most of Java (to bypass the busiest Indonesian streets and a particularly cantankerous volcano) to Jakarta, Sumatra and finally exiting the nation via a boat to Singapore. 60 days was double what we might have been granted, though I like to think our letter in Indonesian to the attaché helped in that regard (Dear Sir, we are so excited about visiting your beautiful country, which whilst we have never been there, we are certain it will be the most beautiful in the world…)

We rode the coast road first which passed by thatched huts clumped in small villages, scented with wood smoke and teeming with shambling goats and tribes of popeyed children who chased at our wheels yelling ‘Bon Dia!’ – a Portuguese welcome that lives on. Our welcome rippled through villages and the smiles seemed to leap out at us, full-faced, awe-inscribed, made with great red-stained lips from chewing the Betel Nut and which made their owners look maniacal, like the Joker from Batman.

I hate to make naff comparisons between countries but there was something of Ethiopia in this part Indonesia, specifically the attention we were gifted, or as was often the case, stabbed with. The polite ‘Bon Dia’ was replaced in busier West Timor by a verbal orgy dominated by screams of ‘MEEEESTER!’ (aimed at both myself and Claire) as in ‘I LOVE YOU MEESTER!’ a favourite, or ‘I NEVER FORGET YOU MEESTER!’. Occasionally ‘I HATE YOU MEESTER!’ or ‘FUCK YOU MEESTER!’ and chased by a hysterical scattering of children. Often though it was just ‘HEY! HEEEEYYY! HEEEEYYYYYYYY!’ The ‘Hey’ is not the kind of ‘Hey, hows it going?’ kind, it’s the kind of ‘HEY!’ that ordinarily is only used in response to a stranger stealing a newborn baby, sprinting off down the street with it under their arm and shouting ‘Dave, go long!’. It’s a ‘Hey!’ that’s not meant to engage anyone or kindle conversation, it’s self-serving, in your face and imbued with unnecessary violence. ‘HEYYYYYYY!’ is not screamed so much as vomited all over you.

The attention luckily isn’t always so affronting, and these islands are a hotbed of hospitality, actually after four years of bicycle travel around the world it’s hard to think of a country in which local people have hosted me as often. We camped outside churches and often in people’s homes where we chewed betel nut, played with kids and aired our flaky Indonesian. Every face threw smiles our way, they bounced off our own. Huts were upended to make space, food was cooked in our honour, children milled around us, adults crouched on their haunches, content just to watch and grin those sardonic scarlet smiles. One particularly benevolent man became so embarrassed after ants got into our panniers and his chicken ran amok and over our sleeping bodies in the night, that he refused our offer of money and we left with panniers choking with fruit from his meager garden. It was heartbreaking and our Indonesian couldn’t communicate our gratitude, so we just smiled a lot until he understood.

In Timor motorbikes often pulled up beside us, their riders question-ready and beaming. One man sat beside me on the grass as we took a break, he’d been giving me the eye. ‘Oh Meeester Stephen, I so glad I meet you, you’re so handsome!’ he piped up, his head lolling coquettishly to one side. Every so often he giggled and chirped ‘Oh Meester Stephen!’ as if I’d told the funniest joke he’d heard in years. He referred to Claire as ‘Meester Stephen wife’ a moniker which, to her chagrin, has stuck – I use it every time I need her attention, enjoying the implied sense of ownership and theft of her individualism. There was talk before of the possibility of Claire getting harassed by leering romantics in some countries, so we decided to pretend we are married, we didn’t foresee though my meteoric rise to gay icon-hood in Indonesia and I think Claire’s secretly a tinge jealous she hasn’t been wolf whistled as much as I have.

Here’s how it works on Indonesian roads: A vehicle pulls level, perhaps a car, most likely a motorbike. Multiply the wheel number by two and you have roughly the number of occupants, unless it’s a bus, then square it seven times and add infinity. The driver will drill me with an undeviating gaze, oblivious does not begin to describe it, for him the known universe has just vanished. He is like a shark in a shoal of mackerel, scattering horn-sounding oncoming traffic to ditches and crash barriers. After a dragging infinitude, amid the screams of maimed motorists and police sirens, the driver will summon the courage to ask ‘Hello Meester. What is your hobby?’ Indonesian drivers are ambidextrous lane users who rarely resort to trifling things like binocular vision, still, they are genuinely better than Australians, which really does say something.

Ahhhh Indonesian food. Cheap and gratifyingly ambiguous if not always wholesome. Warungs are local haunts where the food is served, and it’s best not to think about the bound slavering dogs that can be seen on the back of Indonesian motorbikes en route to some local restaurant. Coffee comes with enough sugar not just to make diabetes completely unavoidable but to actually caramelise your circulating blood volume. We went economy class for the boat to island number two, Flores, and for our thriftiness we received a fish head and a sprinkle of rice for dinner. Cockroaches and chickens had the run of our shared living quarters and when we returned from sallies to the toilets we had tales of stomach churning adventure. We shared with about 70 men who were stretched out on black mattresses amid botanical garden humidity and hanging body odour. Because this is Indonesia our 70 cohabitants were also 70 rampant chain smokers puffing their way to emphysema by our next dock, some were almost certainly going to be photographed posthumously for government anti-smoking campaigns. Our floating dorm mates had other traits in common too – they all owned mobile phones with the capacity to play bass-less music and had strikingly bad musical sensibilities, evidenced by the frequency with which ‘you raise me up’ by Westlife drifted through the cabin like the unwelcome smells. They were also all very enthusiastic amateur photographers whose preferred subject matter was white people attempting sleep. They too were karaoke enthusiasts, hawkers, stand-up comedians, wide eyed voyeurs, incessant hecklers, greeny-hacking experts and English language students who would from time to time shake one of us awake and ask ‘Hello meester. What is your hobby?’ 

We arrived in Ende, the largest city on the mountain-crowded island of Flores, and after gleaning route advice from another intrepid long-term biker, the wise and dreadlocked Jonno of ‘Homeless But Not Hopeless’ renown, we decided to visit the venerated lakes at Kelimutu. We left our bikes in Ende for the detour and so on the way I was endowed with a wind-blasted panoramic view because I was about about two foot taller than the child who drove the Indonesian motorbike taxi. We dodged slumbering dogs, up, past the infinity pools of flooded rice paddies, up some more, into a world of tree ferns. We both later confided that our thoughts had at times veered towards craniotomies and neurological rehab. We jumped off the motorbikes and our drivers headed off, presumably for warm milk, cookies and bedtime stories, and we trekked up to the three lakes – one a bottle green, another black watered and red rimmed and the third a kind of turquoise that ordinarily belongs only to exotic butterflies viewed after a hit of LSD.

Leaving Ende we cycled past a statue of two extended fingers, the international symbol of peace or victory, or at least that’s what those who arrive to the town get, when you leave you get the more unwelcome reverse, perhaps whoever commissioned the statue hadn’t thought of that, but I like to think they had. Rain fell, big, sopping drops of it, making the road ahead steam. Black beaches were laid out below us, and the coastal road was crumbling slowly into the surf. Villages were a jumble of palm thatched huts and heaps of coconut husks where raggedy children played and the balmy smell of humanity loitered. Dogs harangued us. Women collected blue-green stones on the beach and carried them on their heads. ‘MEESTER!’ – the chant ambushed us everywhere, firing in from the road’s mysterious margins like darts from blow pipes. Sudden cones of volcanoes appeared through billowing cloud. Tribes of children ran at our wheels, all eyes, giggling into their hands. Buses swept past, honking, arms flailing, music pounding, giddy screams. Indonesia never lost its heady pace.

Indonesians love music, they love it marginally more than sugar, football and hair-gel and less than unfettered noise masquerading as music, which is the national obsession. Indonesian buses, or bemos, zipped past on our way into West Timor’s main city, Kupang, hecklers hanging out of the bass rattling doors, their rear windows decorated with an image of a local hero – sometimes pop sensation Avril Lavigne, sometimes Harry Potter, sometimes Jesus Christ. I wonder if these celebs ever share other territory here, Harry Potter on stained glass perhaps, sexy miniatures of Avril Lavigne next to Buddha and Ganesha at roadside shrines.

On the roads motorbikes back fired and smoke billowed from burning litter, both added a flavor of ‘war zone’ to our surroundings. Occasionally a great cavalcade of big polished cars sped past us, led by siren sounding police cars. The occupants I imagined to be some important visiting foreign dignitary, perhaps the third uncle of the former vice attaché to Mali.

One night we stayed in a convent and visited the nearby school, led by Sister Selfie and Father Fluffy, and I promise those names are genuine. Last year a section of the sea front school collapsed into the lapping waves. Most of the kids we were told are just lucky to be in high school, they won’t go on to university or city jobs, most likely they’ll be stone pickers like the bent and languid old people we saw as we arrived. It was a sobering thought, and whilst the ecomony is growing fast here, so is the population, and many Indonesians have the kind of obstacles I never did. I never opened textbooks to find starfish and hermit crabs. The blackboard was never obscured by driftwood. History class never got cancelled because of high tide.

Claire and Oscar looking out of the cobweb rice paddies near Ruteng
As we travelled across the island I sunk into a black mood, mainly because I couldn’t fix my brakes, the hills kept rolling in and the attention we garnered was exhausting. I could say ‘hello’ and mean it the first 679 times, but by 680, which in Flores is around 2pm, it got hard to keep smiling. Also, I had a rubber chicken on my handlebars called Herb, and it’s impossible not to look like a giant douchebag if you’re miserable and have a rubber chicken on your handlebars. I hated myself for being so grumpy, especially after children galloped out of their homes, yelping exuberantly, joy written in their eyes, only in place of the fun and fascinating foreigner they expected they found a mopey, stone faced let-down. For those Indonesian children it must be the same as coming down stairs on Christmas morning to find Santa drunk, puking on his santa boots, sexually assaulting his reindeer and then removing his beard to reveal that he is in fact Bob, your dad’s drinking buddy from the Red Lion.

Herb the chicken is the newest member of team Cycling The Six
People often ask me whether wild camping is dangerous. I’ve never been robbed in my tent, though I’ve met scores of travelers who have been stripped of their money and gear and almost always the story is set on a bus or in a hotel. Unfortunately in Ruteng our own story unfurled…

After four nights rough camping or sleeping in villages we choose a cheap hostel to spend the night. The next day we left our room to have breakfast which was served on the same floor, about ten metres away, and so we didn’t think to lock the room, and yes, that does make us giant shamefaced douchebags. After about twenty minutes we realised someone had been in our room, rummaged through our bags and snatched a couple of million rupees (about 150 dollars). The usual emotions ploughed in – anger, disappointment in humankind, and a not insignificant amount of self-blame. We called on the hotel manager who had a single agenda, and it wasn’t sleuthing or sympathy. He wanted just to communicate how far from responsible his hotel was for our problem. Light years, apparently. I set off for the police station.

I explained the situation to gathered officers and spent the next half an hour repeating bits of the statement and agreeing with them when they reminded me that doors have locks and that locks stop bad people stealing your shit and that I’m a bit of a twat for letting this happen. Whilst I waited for something else to occur, perhaps a police report, though the prospect looked remote, one officer staring glumly at a ream of papers said to me ‘Ohhh, it’s terrible. It really is. Do people die like this in your country?’ He handed me a real life crime scene photo of a very dead, mutilated man, his face barely recognizable as a face. Before I could laugh insanely or puke, it may have been either, six armed police men tore through the station, jumped into a van and set out for our hostel.

Meanwhile back in Hotel Rima Claire was busy penning a letter for the insurance company whilst the hotel owner peered over her shoulder and cajoled her into changing the story: ‘Can’t you just say you lost the money on a plane?’ Then the agitated squadron and heavy artillery arrived to photograph the crime scene. Claire was ferried to the police station where together we gave a statement. On recording our details Claire was awarded an extra decade in age. They asked all kinds of pertinent questions like ‘religion?’ and ‘how many children do you have?’ to which we answered ‘none’. There was a brief silence followed by muttering. I filled it by asking Claire what she was planning for her 40th next May. The silence deepened. Claire asked the officer what was happening now. ‘Well, we are just wondering why you have no children’ he replied. ‘And no religion’ confirmed another. We left wondering if the report would get added to a dusty pile labelled ‘atheists’.

The dregs of Flores were starkly beautiful with rice paddies and vibrant green corn fields in every direction. Children sometimes ran behind pushing us up the hills but they soon got tired and ended up hanging on, wobbling the bikes and making it harder. Three times in Flores the road spiraled down to sea level and rose to over a vertical kilometer, the last day though – Lembor to Labuan Bajo – had some of the most protracted and brutal grades I had encountered for months, 30% on some turns. Every bend in the road revealed another tortured future of leg pain, wheezing and a torrent of sweat. I promised Claire the road would soon stop its incessant reach for the sky, but it didn’t, and we brooded. After hours of agony and small conquered targets we topped a pass and I joked a bit about Claire’s thundering promises of capitulation she’d made two hours ago. We laughed, but my jokes were premature, the road dipped and once again we were battling slopes Olympic tobogganists would wince at. Once we arrived in Labuan Bajo (which in our parlance had morphed into ‘Larry The Badger’) we were elated and swiftly laid waste to the hostel buffet as the sky purpled in the wake of a sunken sun and the silhouettes of bobbing boats scattered the harbor. The view would always have been a pearler, but we knew it was our grit and those lung-crunching twists of road behind us that made it extra special.

Thank yous – Oscar, Dave and Karen, Dave and Mary, Nahad and family, and scores of anonymous Indonesians in villages thoughout Timor and Flores who took care of us, hopefully the pleasure was reciprocal. Next up: Komodo, Lombok, Bali and Java, and a blog post from Jakarta.

Claire has recently interviewed several local artists and musicians in East Timor – part of her project to explore world music and its creators – here’s her piece.

Sun and death in the lands of the Inca

Dodging The Drop  
Riding the World’s Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia

A waft of frigid mist drifts across the splintered wooden crosses, cloaking their detail, and a shiver ripples through my arms and down my back as I watch their shapes fade threateningly back to life. They were erected as memorials to the backpackers and locals who have plummeted to their death, and the abyss lies just a few feet from where I’m standing.

On first consideration it might seem surprising that people still die whilst cycling the North Yungas Road in Bolivia, a road eagerly referred to by its more popular and dread-inducing monikor – El Camino de la Muerte, Spanish for ‘The Death Road’. If a person were going to be a little more careful than usual, I reason, surely it would be at a location in which ‘Death’ was half the title. But, teeth chattering in the sub zero bite of 4700 metres above sea level at the very start of this now infamous freewheel, I change my mind.

The name it seems is just an invitation to push the boundaries of good sense and later bath in the glory of having nearly died, but not. This truth emerges as I catch glimpses of the fired up faces of the bikers, creased and flushed with surging adrenaline, as they rocket down the unsealed track next to a chiasmic drop which flanks the Death Road for most of its course, the reason behind all the crosses and the well-deserved reputation.

I’m here on my loaded touring bike, cleats detached for this ride, and in the midst of a throng of bikers who have opted instead to join an organised tour. In all seventeen companies now sprinkle the Death Road with bikes and riders and the setting is as staggering as the premise of riding it. Cut into the jungle-clad mountains of the Yungas, just one hour from Bolivia’s most populous city of La Paz, the foreboding rock-strewn track twists an almost continuous descent for over forty miles. Whilst rallying down over three and a half thousand vertical metres, riders travel not only from altitude to lowland but from cloud filled cold to humid tropical heat and from unsullied fear to, fingers crossed, celebration and relief.

After peering tentatively over the unguarded road’s edge and briefly marveling at the sheer cliff face and remote tree tops beneath, I wonder whether the Paraguayan prisoners of war who constructed this road in the 1930s had any inkling at the time of its eventual fate. Over the years the Death Road has claimed thousands of lives and is now a feared and notorious but popular attraction along the deeply rutted Gringo Trail of South America.

Inside the hostels of La Paz myths concerning the Death Road abound. A car flying over the edge only one week ago was the current star of the rumour mill, batted around mostly by a bunch of Israelis just back from a tour, one nursing a broken wrist after he had thrown himself from his wayward bike before it had thrown him into the jungle. To find out some hard facts, I decide to ask the experts. ‘The risks are very real. And this road is not the place to cut corners.’ Proclaims Derren Patterson of Gravity, the company home to the original posse of guides who dreamt up the ride back in 1998 and who still boast an unrivalled safety record. ‘The interest for most companies is to sell the tour as cheaply as possible because cheap backpackers often only look at the price tag without thinking that in Bolivia there are no standards for activities like this.’ Cut corners, it emerges, come in the shape of re-welded frames, underpaid guides, cheap parts and even fake brake pads.

Researching the road’s murky past only led me to further question my decision to join these thrill junkies. The Death Road was the site of Bolivia’s biggest road accident when, in 1983, a bus carrying over one hundred passengers hurtled over the precipice and tumbled into oblivion. By the mid-90s it was official once it was christened The World’s Most Dangerous Road following a review by the Inter-American Development Bank who estimated that 200 to 300 people careered off its edge every year and that, per mile, there were more fatalities here than on any other road on earth. Not long after this unsavory honour was bestowed on the North Yungas Road guides and backpackers arrived in force, keen for a slap of adrenaline and a photo on Facebook, complete with a boastful caption. By 2006 the riders had it almost all to themselves once the construction of a new thoroughfare to the jungle was completed, taking with it most of the traffic. Amongst the cyclists who have dared not all have reached the small town of Coroico near the finish line. In the last twelve years eighteen “I survived The World’s Most Dangerous Road” t-shirts have gone spare.

A view from the upper reaches of the Death Road

It’s near the top of the descent that resides the most hair-raising section. At this altitude clouds frequently invade the forest, obscuring both the three metre wide sliver of rugged terrain ahead and the vertiginous drop immediately beside it. I watch as the wind drives dense whirls of cloud into the foliage to reveal an exaggerated and menacing vista, tempting and deterring the gathered riders about to take the plunge. Rows of impossibly deep Vs made up of converging mountainsides stretch away, becoming ever more blurred by a distant and sullen murk. Jungle hugs every bulge and whim of the mountains; beneath the cliffs it hides the twisted and rusting metal carcasses of hundreds of trucks and cars. As well as the magic of the precipice, it’s exhilarating too being so enclosed in nature.

As I begin the descent an internal monologue kicks up, a perhaps predictable “DEATH road… be careful!” on repeat. But soon another voice takes over, going something like “YEAAAAAAH! I’m riding the DEATH road! WOOOOOOOOH!” My enthusiasm though is soon subdued as I begin wobbling wildly in the aftermath of a collision between my front tyre and a fist sized chunk of rock. I pull swiftly over to the right as a fleet of Konas and their hooting jockeys rampage past, each sensibly screaming “Coming left!” as they go. As a one day aspiring father I start to wish that I too had suspension. Throughout these upper reaches water patters onto the rocky road surface from high above, only the truly courageous, skillful or imbecilic veer to avoid getting wet; I am none of the above and receive a sopping for my cowardice. After each hairy switchback another huge curl of terror-inducing trail reveals itself along with one very clear impression – roads do not belong here.

The soundtrack of the Yungas doesn’t seem to fit with the chilling vista, a timid and quirky blend of squawks, buzzes and clicks attest to the richness of life that lurks in the nearby greenery. Underneath and barely discernible there’s another layer of sound – the trickle and gush of hidden jungle streams. At times it’s tempting to wonder at the scenery, to glance behind, to search for the source of that strange jungle sound, and then the inner voice shouts ‘DEATH ROAD!’ and I reign in my curiosity and refocus my attention on my juddering bicycle and the ever present peril to my left. Today, I remind myself, I’m careful. Every so often someone is going to do their best impression of ET going home and I have promised my mum I will not be the next abyss-bound silhouette.

At one of the viewing points en route I skid to a halt and begin chatting to a gaggle of hyperventilating but for now stationary bikers and as I discover, The Death Road draws all sorts. ‘My son challenged me to give it a go!’ a pudgy middle aged man confides with a nervous grin, now bathed in perspiration and perhaps questioning the wisdom of accepting a dare from a sixteen year old. Roughly twenty five thousand riders enjoy the buzz and bragging rights every year, from masters of downhill to slack fast food junkies and from multinational gangs of backpackers to honeymooning couples, competing for glory. The tour groups issue their riders with elbow pads and helmets, as we clamber back onto bikes I can’t help but consider what the protective kit and their human contents would look like after a hundred metre free fall and a jungle canopy crash-landing, but to avoid an embarrassing panic attack, I try hard not to. Behind a van trails our group of riders so that the guides can assist in case of accident, or get a front seat view if one of their clients flies a short cut to the finishing altitude.

Towards the lower reaches I relax a little more and gravity spins my wheels ever faster. The temperature rises, clouds evaporate, multi-hued butterflies dance beneath my handlebars and fetching purple flowers and banana plantations fill my peripheral vision. Then all of a sudden I’m coasting through a village and towards a rumbling river, above birds of prey glide languorously in low loops and Bolivia welcomes me back from the edge of reason with beaming children and ogling women festooned in bowler hats and traditional pollera skirts of shocking pink. I spot the father of the teenager, his face now as iridescent as the skirts but also alight with jubilation. I exhale my relief knowing that I too have made it, although I’m concerned for my brake pads, they are now at death’s door. The bikers swiftly pile into town and just as rapidly into bars where they high five and down celebratory beers. Others pull wheelies but most don’t feel the need to show off any more than donning their “I survived…” t-shirts. A quick body count by a guide confirms that, this time, everyone gets one.

There’s a subset of cyclists who enjoy climbs, I’m one of them, and from the off my inner masochist wasn’t entirely happy with the prospect of spinning downhill for hours. Where’s the payback? I needed to know. Where the pain to go with the gain? Fortunately for the guilty, the Death Road has another currency – you pay for the freewheeling with fear and there’s now no doubt in my mind – it’s more than a fair price.

But of course for the vast majority the Death Road will fail to fulfill its eponymous promise, in fact for me the opposite was true and I finished the ride not just giddy with relief, but fiercely alive. They could change the title, somehow though, I don’t think it would have quite the same draw.

An island of sun and a lake in the sky 
Visiting Sun Island in Lake Titicaca

After escaping the action of La Paz I headed west to the shores of Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America and the highest lake of it’s size in the world at a lofty 3812 metres above sea level. The road around the lake holds me tight to it’s shore, often just a few faded green fields melting into the lake water lie between us. Further out, amongst the passive blue ripples, rise the giant mounds of islands that from a distance resemble the humps of huge sea monsters frozen in time. Beyond the islands, and the invisible opposing shore, hover snowy mountain tops, their bases lost in a grey-blue blur which hangs mysteriously over the lake.

Copacabana is another popular stop on the Gringo Trail, a ‘path’ that I swore to abandon once I had made it as far as Cusco in Peru. A wave of drug dealers, gangs of Israelis revelling in their post army exodus, overly assertive restaurant touts and chocolate selling hippies surge through the cobbled streets. I sniff out the cheapest hostel in town and set about trying to repair my only boots which have a jagged gash which now reveals half the sole. South Americans have much smaller feet and finding replacements my size has been impossible. Tomorrow I want to escape the masses and trek across Sun Island.

The tree scattered hills behind Copacabana slowly deflate behind the frothy, parabolic wake of our boat and the expanding blue of Lake Titicaca. I sit hunched up, hugging my knees to my chest and shivering on the open top deck of a boat heading for Sun Island, one of the lake’s largest and famed for the array of Inca ruins pockmarking the rocky terrain. I am engulfed in different languages, I recognise German, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Portuguese. Amongst the assembled tourists is a German chewing coca leaf and a couple of French tourists who have embraced Bolivian culture to the extent that they are adorned in the loud colours of the traditional knit-wear. I smile secretly to myself as I imagine them wondering into the arrivals terminal at some major European airport, still festooned in the traditional garbs, perhaps also with alpaca fleece coats and pan pipes.

We chug along beside the southern end of the island. The choppy, tight undulations of the terrain have a wave-like quality, the land seems like an elevated, drab version of the lake itself. Spiky succulents sprout out of the rocky slopes and shore side wooden fishing boats break into a wobbly dance as they meet the churning wake of our craft.

We walk from the beaches up the rocky path with a guide who has a crooked toothless grin and a cow boy style hat, as large black and white birds of prey patrol the sky above. He takes us to an alter, the original sacrificial table used by the Incas when they killed virgins on special ceremonies. He talks us through the presumed details of the brutal process, the murder and subsequent removal of the heart. To demonstrate he raises a clawed hand enclosing the imaginary heart fresh from the virgin’s chest, the circle of gasping tourists fix excited and appalled eyes on the hand.

Afterwards I set off with Coni, a Swizz girl I met on the boat. For three hours we walk the path as it arcs and dips over the rolling spine of the island, the dark blue view of the lake never escapes my eye line. As I amble past terraced fields and watch the gulls gliding from lake to shore, I admire the tranquillity of the setting, impressed that it’s now a world away from the violent and dramatic distant past we have been privy to. 

City of the Incas
Visiting the ruins at Machu Picchu

The train seemed the most time-conservative way to reach Machu Picchu. I take a seat opposite an American couple from Colorado who chat away in that relaxed and familiar way that Americans have when they strike up conversation with strangers. A little later an older American lady sits down next to me, a conversational non-sequitur who rambles through topics, from the people she has met with very large feet to what happens to horses when they get a cold. The train tracks coddle the bank of the Urubamba river, frothy and eye-catching. With the passing minutes the forest grows thicker, trees overhang the far river bank, their creepers and vines dangling into the water like a congregation of still and pensive fishermen. The train finally stops at Agua Calientes and I step onto a platform full of jostling, confused tourists and hotel porters.

Crowded buses make runs up the hill to Machu Picchu but I feel a little guilty about taking the train instead of the trekking option so decide to redeem myself by hiking for an hour uphill to reach it. In the morning heat it’s a sweaty battle up, but when I emerge from the jungle foliage and Machu Picchu shouts it’s presence, I stop dead and appreciate the enormous landscape which is swimming in sunlight and throngs of sightseers. The feeling is akin to walking onto a stage and the curtain being drawn to reveal the audience because surrounding the ruins runs a huge circle of the blunt, verdant cones of even grander mountains.

After joining the shuffling hoards, and trying to covertly listen to knowledgeable tour guides, I make it back to Agua Calientes where I am chuffed to catch up with Tom, a good friend from my time in Liverpool, along with his wife Thea and her parents. That night the town is alive with outlandish costumes, noisy drunks and dancing backpackers. The occasion is a saint’s day, although as I have learnt of late, the Peruvians will take any excuse for a fiesta.

So in contrast to my usual type of blog piece, this month I decided to write three short pieces about popular tourist activities in Bolivia and Peru. For the next post expect my more usual tales of adventure from a remote part of Peru as I cycle one of the toughest routes so far, taking in over five passes each in excess of 5000 metres altitude and hitting some notoriously bad roads on which I will climb higher in one week than from sea level to the summit of Mount Everest. Once through the central highlands I’ll join the coast and scoot along to Lima where I plan to visit projects looking at TB control in the shanty towns around the capital as well as a project which is focused on the eradication of tapeworm infection. I will report back next month.

Fear and loathing on the Altiplano

Pedalling across the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
My breath was a fog, wafting through the roseate light of morning. The temperature on my thermometer had slumped to minus 15° C (5° F) in the early hours and was stubbornly refusing to get much higher whilst my mind was violently and reluctantly dragged backwards to the European winter of 2010 when I set off from the UK amongst similar climes. I had crossed the border into Bolivia and every night I wore my wardrobe to ease the chill, every night the cold created a struggle to find sleep and every morning began with the task of melting solid ice to make coffee. I’ve spent weeks climbing above and dipping away from the 4000 metre mark but at 4500 metres up in Bolivia, by some mystery of meteorology, the temperature had taken another dive and I have returned to the snow zone. But now at least, I have company. 

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” 
 Jack Keruoac – On The Road

A new character enters my story – Nicky Gooch, a solo cyclist, a professional bike mechanic, a Brummie and a roman candle. We had met before in Patagonia and rode together for a few days in a gaggle of other bikers. After my time-consuming mini-disaster in San Pedro I had been over-taken by many of the cyclists I had passed further south. Nicky was a tall, straggly-haired biker with ginger stubble and a thick midlands accent. We decided to tackle the Lagunas route through Bolivia together and we made a good team. Nicky helped when I freaked out about the state of my bicycle, offering his mechanical skills or doling out reassuring advice. Equally when Nicky, a hypochondriac, developed chest pain I would remind him about all the beer, cigarettes and coffee he consumes and offer him an antacid. 

On our second afternoon in Bolivia a frigid wind gathered momentum until it’s howl was all-pervasive and it’s thrust marred our progress towards the 5000 metre high Paso de Sol de Manana (pass of the morning sun). By evening all we could do was push our bikes up the sandy track, unable to ride in the gale. Decisions were now shared and some of the usual burden of choice off my shoulders, that night our options were to backtrack fifteen laborious kilometres to shelter or just rough camp where we were, we agreed on the latter.

I shouted to Nicky: “it’s going to be a tough night!”. 
 “Good job we’re f***ing hard then!” Nicky yelled back.

I hoped he was right. The wind was firing across the wilds with the force of a water cannon. With no natural shelter around I began to fear my tent wouldn’t hold up to the punishment and as we built a small wall as a protective windbreak using some of the surrounding rocks, all I could think of was sheering tent poles and a crumpled mass of polyester encasing two shivering bodies. Finally, inside my tent I imagined I should be penning my final words to relatives like Captain Scott on his ill-fated journey to the South Pole These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale…”. Instead, at almost 5000 metres above sea level, in freezing, storm force gales, on the slopes of a remote Bolivian mountain, Nicky pulled out his laptop and we watched ‘Only fools and horses’, a dated British sitcom set in Peckham, South London.

In the freezing Bolivian mornings I started my day by yelling temperature updates to Nicky in the neighbouring tent. “Time to get up dude, it’s only minus ten”. And then a little later “Nicky, it’s minus nine, time to get moving!” During the day the temperature often remained below freezing and the frozen ice inside our water bottles never had the chance to thaw. Instead of flagging down one of the tourist-filled jeeps travelling through the region we decided to use Nicky’s stove to melt snow so that we could drink. For most of the day my face remained concealed by an ice encrusted Buff. The apples I had saved for lunch were frozen solid and my coca cola had become a Slush Puppy. On the day we passed a thermal pool I plunged into the welcome warmth in my boxer shorts, a day later my damp underwear had transformed into a solid, crumpled ball of ice and fabric.

Nicky on the Salar
Cooking up snow for a drink
Nicky pushing up another climb, a salt lake in the backdrop
Bolivia was a collection of rumours and I had only a few, nebulous expectations. I had seen some photos of the traditional garbs – women wearing bowler hats, adopted from the British and a traditional skirt called the pollera, a symbol of pride in being indigenous. I’d also heard enough to be worried about the bad roads and bad drivers though I knew that compared to Chile and Argentina, the price of almost everything would be lower.

Occasionally Bolivia rekindled memories of Africa, although on the surface it was a world away, there were some subtle reminders. Whilst there were plenty of shops, business had moved to the street, African-style. The smell of grilled goat’s meat from the roadside vendors drifted through the cities. Bolivia had the typical South American ratio of stray dogs to people (roughly 20000000 : 1) and the outskirts of every sizable town were guarded by the ugly twin bouncers of a litter-strewn wasteland and stinking sewage. The dogs nosed through both. Tragically Bolivia joins the ranks of one of the dirtiest countries on my route so far, alongside the other unfortunates of Syria and Albania. Rubbish has become a feature of the landscape and is as prevalent as the speeding lunatics in unroadworthy vehicles plying Bolivia’s main highways. But Bolivia is also full of the things I love most when I travel somewhere new – Bolivia is full of questions.  I tried to decipher strange scents on the street, the contents of the weird drinks brewed by the road and when I felt the eyes of locals taking me in, what they might be wondering. I’m enjoying Bolivia, because it keeps me guessing.

I hadn’t done much research on southern Bolivia before we set off so when we rolled over the apex of another hill and a surreal cherry-red lake revealed itself beneath mountains I had no idea I was looking at the famous Laguna Colorada, the Red Lagoon, but I was impressed nonetheless. The sanguine stain of the waters is derived from a type of algae which thrives there. Flamingos waded and dipped their crooked beaks into the red, one or two began their run up to flight, dead ones were scattered over the salt-stained banks. White islands of Borax dissected the red ripples and when jeeps circled the far shore, a vaporous haze kicked up and I felt I had entered a severe, nightmarish netherworld.

The surreal orange/red of Laguna Colorada
A flamingo takes off
And so another character arrives on the scene: Marta – Polish, a solo cyclist and another roman candle. She was also only the second lady I have seen riding solo over the last two and a half years. When we met in a tiny Bolivian highland village she was explaining to a local man that she was starving after cycling all day and that she needed meat… “so do you have a machine gun so I can hunt some llamas?” she asked him with a wink. I liked her immediately. That night Myself, Nicky and Marta all binged on wine, chocolate, rice and chips in the village before setting off in opposite directions, hardy Marta was travelling to the increasingly chilly South.

Next was the small town of Uyuni and Nicky and I decided on a day off. The night before our rest day we went out in search of fun and happened upon the aptly named Extreme Fun Pub, a place in which the cocktail menu consisted of…

Hasta la vista, llama
The sexy llama bitch
Orgasmo multiple de la llama
The llama’s sensual naval
Llama sperm (vodka, chocolate liquor de cafe and ???)
Llama Sutra

The drinks were served in ceramic model of a llama vagina. It was an alcoholic orgy and I think this particular photo of Nicky well illustrates just how obliterated we got…

I admit it, I was worried about cycling the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt lake. My expectations, like the geography of the Salar itself, were high. Ever since I had first glimpsed photos of cycle tourers, beaming and, I imagined, effortlessly gliding across the perfect white sea of salt, I had yearned to ride there, perhaps more than anywhere else on earth. Cyclists talked of “an unforgettable experience”, what if the riding the Salar didn’t live up to my mental version? What if it was disappointing? What if it was forgettable?

“Look, over there!” shouts Nicky, motioning to a thin belt of white to the West, wedged between the horizon and a featureless expanse of brown earth. My pulse quickens as I think about the fact that where the white begins, it doesn’t end for almost 170 km, the Salar has an area roughly the same as the island of Jamaica. Soon we reach a memorial plaque for the victims of an accident in 2008 in which two tourist jeeps collided. The most probable scenario is that both drivers were playing the “Iron Man,” travelling head to head and trying to be the last vehicle to deviate from the collision path. Both jeeps were travelling at over 100 km/hr and gasoline containers were attached to the vehicle’s fronts. Thirteen died in the crash and ensuing blaze. After finding out these gruesome details, my faith in Bolivian drivers plummeted yet again, and it had been already cruising towards rock bottom, fuelled by my experience on Bolivian roads so far.

Ten minutes later we reach the edge of a mirror – a shallow but vast pool of water perfectly reflecting the azure sky above, a couple of clouds are in a listless drift across the ground and sky. Within the water, snake-shaped mounds of white salt protrude and I guess we can pedal across without getting knee deep in brine. On the other side lies the reason for all the water here, conical piles of salt stretch out in rows, this is where they mine lithium, the Salar holds up to 60% of the world’s reserves. We set off, splashing through the salt water and meandering between the shimmering islands, occasionally stopping to heave our entrenched back tyres out of the sodden gunk beneath the water. A minute later blue gives way to an unending honeycomb of bright white salt and we ride along, unconfined, free, ignoring jeep trails and heading just ‘across’.

The endless, gleaming jigsaw of wonky hexagons (salt tiles) has to be one of the most impressive sites in the natural world, it’s a privilege to ride it and we can’t resist camping out on the Salar that night as well. Our timing is perfect, tonight a full moon rides the eastern horizon, illuminating the string of tourist jeeps returning to town, and with only a light breeze I can just detect the faint thrum of their working engines. Fiery and towering tropical cumulus bunch up in the northern sky, alight with the dregs of sunlight and the occasional flash of lightning. For a while we frame photos as the final beams of light are replaced by the white glow of the moon and night claims the Salar. Coldness ends our photography session and we set up camp.

The next day we ride west, our spirited zigzag leaving faint trails and branding the crust of salt as we try to avoid the small holes which penetrate the Salar, linking the surface to an underlying pool of brine. As we travel, a light crunch of the salt beneath our wheels and the soft whistle of the wind travel with us. In recent years a sport, you could say, a tradition, has grown amongst cyclists on the Salar – The Naked Ride-By. Crazy Guy On A Bike, the largest online community of cycle tourers in the world, is full of photos of naked bodies on bicycles on the famous white backdrop. Nicky and I weren’t about to let the opportunity pass. We shed our clothes and pedal along, tourist trucks in the distance may spot us but I was relying on the weird, hallucinogenic nature of the terrain to diffuse their fears.

“George, George… is that… a, a cyclist?”
“No darling, you’re seeing things.”
“It is George! And he’s naked!”
“Yes darling, whatever you say. Driver! My wife isn’t feeling well, can we go back now please?”

Here’s a short video, thanks to Nicky, and some stills…

Bolivia is tough. Travellers regularly suffer the country’s many challenges and extremes, they complain of cold, of altitude sickness, of diarrhoea. For me though, it was infertility that was starting to look like the most likely outcome, courtesy of Bolivia’s notoriously bad roads. The sandy, washboard-type road surface amounts to back to back speed bumps and it was a painful bounce through sweeping sandy-coloured plains of sun-torched grass on the Altiplano. Nicky’s theory went that “if you don’t have lumpy balls in Bolivia, you’re not riding hard enough”. It was on these roads that I inadvertently invented ‘The Bolivian Omelette”. Here’s the recipe –

Put four uncooked eggs into front pannier
Add eggs to a bag of grapes, hoping the grapes will act as mini shock absorbers
Cycle down any unpaved Bolivian road
Collect mix of grapes, runny egg and egg shell
Add llama meat
Fry it all up
Voilà – The Bolivian Omelette

Bolivians living up on the Altiplano have a reputation for being reserved and shy. I don’t have any photos of the colourful people we met en route, nobody would consent to their photos being taken. I try not to generalise and stereotype people, I’m sure there are plenty of gregarious Bolivians, but after travelling though so many countries it becomes difficult not to, and I reckon Bolivians do the same. I’ve cycled through at least three Bolivian villages, the inhabitants of which probably now believe that the majority of British men have matted facial hair, mayonnaise-stained clothes and own an overwhelmingly aroma of onion and feet.

Riding through the Bolivian villages we ran a gauntlet of barking, chasing dogs whilst locals looked on, inanimate, silent and so I figured, complicit in the chase. We sometimes sang “Ghost Town” by The Specials on the way in to these deserted villages, even those locals who own shops or hostels need to supplement their income by working in the fields so it was often impossible to buy basic supplies or find a bed until the evening.

Gradually the terrain flattened out, women worked the fields, brightly coloured shawls tight across their back supporting mystery loads. A few returned my waves, but not many. By six pm I had another companion, a dark shadow-cyclist, pushed into the rough to my right by the low sun. At breaks Nick and I shared tales from the road, we sang bad eighties rock ballads and sang badly to better eighties rock ballads, we did impressions of some of the frightfully posh and endearingly naive Gap Year students called Rupert or Tarquin we’ve met along the way. And then we made it to Ururo.

Social protest is the traditional way of gaining government attention in Bolivia and the day we entered Ururo coincided with a 72 hour strike by The Workers’ Union of Bolivia (COB) whilst the physicians and other health professionals were continuing their indefinite strike and daily demonstrations against changes in working conditions. The UK foreign office site stated:

“There are currently several ongoing social conflicts in Bolivia and blockades may occur along the main roads without notice. Due to the risk of violence, you should never try to cross a blockade.”

As we cycled out of Ururo we hit a sequence of these blockades but brazenly pushed past them, hoping that, as cyclists, we’d be immune to any violent outbursts. The banner clutching crowds had used upturned bicycles, rocks and pieces of wood to close the roads, on some routes they had even drilled up the tarmac and piled up the fractured asphalt and soil to stop traffic. People jeered. I asked a woman what it was all about and she launched into a tirade.

“We are doctors and nurses! We work eight hours a day for nothing! No money! No money! Nothing!”

I wished the protester “mucho suerte” and continued on. On Highway One, the main artery to La Paz, instead of the usual heavy traffic there was a swarm of jostling pedestrians. Grim, downtrodden faces watched us ride past and the scene made me think of an exodus of refugees departing a war torn city. The burnt metal remains of something scarred the tarmac, maybe a motorbike. Up ahead there was a larger mob and I became nervous, but as we wheeled our bikes through the hoard a ripple of applause built and cheering began, we sheepishly said thank you and smiled our appreciation. A few kilometres later a group of young soldiers, wearing even bleaker expressions than the protesters, stood vigil, rifles in hand. I gave them the same enthusiastic and over the top smile and wave I reserve for all men with guns and kept cycling. We had been warned that Highway One was busy and potentially a bit dangerous for cyclists but with the blockades in place we had the road almost all to ourselves.

Finally – La Paz, which can boast perhaps the most dramatic entrance to any city in the world. As we cycled through the slum district of El Alto, suddenly to our right, La Paz jumped out of the trees. Loose folds of city were awkwardly sprawled over the sides of several mountains. The shiny tin roofs of the houses glinted in the midday sun and we freewheeled into the mayhem of another enticing and animated South American city.

La Paz
After a 17 day ride with only one day off, La Paz was a welcome break, and because one day it would be nice to father children, I decided to take a whole week off Bolivia’s bumpy roads. Next I ride past Lake Titicaca and to Cusco in Peru to catch up with Tom, an old friend from my time in Liverpool, before visiting the famous Inca ruins at Machu Picchu and then rattling through the rest of Peru.

Finally here’s a couple of links… an article I wrote about a border crossing from Argentina to Chile in an online magazine called Sidetracked and an interview with a US based magazine called Sierra.