A whole century later, I must have had the same look as the Sundance Kid as he stepped off the train in Bolivia. I stood in front of a mound of rubble, no sign, no road, no nothing, but a narrow mule track straight out of the 1900 which marked the border of Bolivia.
To tell the story of the damned Bolivia, I must first tell the hellish story of getting to Bolivia. Imagine yourself sitting under the August sun in Texas, dressed in thick black Kevlar pants and jackets, full-face helmet, pair of gloves and black combat boots, then fancy sitting on top of a black motorcycle with 300lbs of film and travel gear with an engine hot enough to fry bacons on. Now add another person with the exact same outfit to your pillion and for the finishing touch, imagine sipping boiling hot water and you might get a grasp of what I felt as I left the capital of Paraguay for the Chaco region to the north. I visited the Chaco in Argentina in winter and came out just short of a heatstroke, yet I was riding in the middle of summer to one of the most isolated and hottest places in South America.
The ordeal of getting a visa for Bolivia is a story of it itself, but to not make the long story longer, the Bolivian Embassy doesn’t really give you a visa. What they give you is a piece of paper that you take with you and then you have to find the immigration office somewhere past the border deep in Bolivia to get your actual visa. And as everything takes a million years to get done in South America, my visa process took so long that when I finally got the paper, I had only two days to get to the border, almost 900km away.
Visa in hand, I went to the parking garage to bring out the motorcycle for oil and tire change, and as Mr. Murphy had it, the battery was completely dead, reading zero volt on the voltmeter. I took out the battery and took it to a shop to recharge, and I had to wait until the next day to get it back. When I finally got the battery back, I tore the bike apart until I found the short but it was already too late to get on the road. The next day I changed the tires for a pair of new dual sports, changed the brake pads, and loaded the bike for the marathon to the border with only 12 hours left on my visa.
Paraguay has very nice highways, and discounting the occasional wandering cows, you can rack up pretty good time, but this road wouldn’t end. From 10am to 7pm, we rode straight shot only stopping for gas and a short lunch break and we made it to Mariscal Estigarribia, the last frontier town in the Chaco in Paraguay. We got the passport stamped and I was officially out of the country, although we had 250km from Mariscal Estigarribia to the border and 150km more to Ibibobo, the first town in Bolivia. It was already 7pm and the sun would set in an hour or two so we kept pushing on to get at least closer to the border.
As we went deeper into the Chaco, the road started to get worse and potholes the size of a fin-tailed Cadillac started to cover the road. I double checked a few times on my GPS and it seemed that we were going the right way, but the total lack of traffic was telling me that either people don’t go to Bolivia for some reason or this was going to be a road from hell. As my luck had it, it turned out to be both. Potholes steadily grew in size and worse yet, the ground turned into some sort of sand that was finer that Baby Johnson ass-powder. Going on a straight line was impossible and the more I dodged sandpits, bigger and wider versions kept showing up. It was like a DMV test, except that if I ran over a cone, I would send us crashing in a ditch.
I was thinking that there is no way in hell that we could make the border, but there was nowhere to stop either. Both sides of the road were like the Atlantic beach with that powdery stuff going down to China and I just kept going with hope of finding a solid ground that we could crash at night. As I was thinking about all this, we hit a deep sandpit and went flying on the ground. We were Ok but the bike was stuck. We were both exhausted from the long ride and as much as we tried, we couldn’t even upright the bike in the sand as we kept slipping on the soft ground. There was nothing we could do so we waited, hoping that there would be another idiot going the same road who would give us a helping hand. A cigarette or two later, we spotted a fruit truck in the distance and our deliverance came in a form of an 8 man team. All these guys pushed and shoved and I kept on the throttle until the bike made it out of the long pit.
We thanked our saviors and knowing that there won’t be a soul on the road if we got stuck again, I chased after them and got in front just in case. I don’t remember how long we rode in the dark but I know that it felt like an eternity as we kept going in and out of sand pits, and the bike trashed about every direction. Finally we saw a light. A lone dim light of a common house on a cattle ranch and I raced for it. We asked for permission to stay there and we were home free – for the night at least. The fruit truck arrived a few minutes later and we bought a dozen bananas and a giant watermelon for the dinner.
The watermelon turned out to be as white as Dick Cheney, but I didn’t care, I was so dehydrated that all I wanted was something with water in it. We pitched the tent next to an old abandoned Jeep, and a three legged calf, and retired for the night. My face was so burnt from the sun and it was so hot outside that I stayed awake for the longest time before falling asleep in my own sweat with the three legged cow howling nonstop next to my head until dawn. As it would turn out, the road to hell was just about to begin; the past section would be a walk in a park in comparison. Stay tuned.