All Wit & Pedal Power

It is an especially challenging feat to bicycle across a mountain range. When that mountain range is as beautiful and unpredictable as the South American Andes, the challenges are multiplied. David Aagesen and his brother Doug - with an almost ludicrous lack of planning - rode all-terrain bikes 5,000 miles, crisscrossing the mountains in Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina from September 1988 to August 1989. David kept a journal of their adventures, including run-ins with various quasi-governmental `officials.' What follows is excerpted from a two-week portion of the journal, describing the brothers' sojourn in Bolivia and Peru, at the onset of their trip. Not once during the trip did they transport their bicycles by vehicle or train. It was all wit and pedal power.

After 24 hours in transit, my brother and I found ourselves in the Bolivian capital of La Paz. This was where Doug and I had chosen to begin a mountain-bike odyssey - 11,926 feet above sea level - through the Andes, the majestic backbone that runs the length of the South American continent.

Our decision had come about rather suddenly. I had returned home only three months earlier from a sailing trip off the coast of Mexico. Doug had bought a slick new Japanese bicycle; he was thinking about pedaling through the Andes. His idea caught me, and over the course of the summer we acquired all the equipment, secured plane tickets, and put together a meager $1,000. Our only contingency plan involved tutoring in English if we ran out of money.

Doug and I had spent the past few years vagabonding around the South Pacific, Asia, and Europe, coming home to California to work odd jobs until we had enough money to set off again. We spent practically no time planning or researching routes for this trip.

First, however, we had to convince ourselves that we would enjoy bicycle travel. Our 18-speed toys were the first real bikes either of us had owned. Never before had we done an overnight bicycle trip, nor did we go through a physical training program; neither had we taken any courses in elementary bicycle maintenance.

Doug and I didn't pack a map, so we thought it might be a good idea to get one. Any decent map cost nearly $25 in La Paz, so we decided to go with the government tourist office map. It was a piece of paper with a few lines on it, and it looked good enough for us - two uninformed and inexperienced gringos looking for a bit of adventure.

In the upper lefthand corner of our map we noticed Lake Titicaca, the high inland sea that Bolivia and Peru share. The lake beckoned, although simply mentioning Peru sounded scary. Our mother had insisted that we stay away from the place. She read a newspaper article to us about a young American who was killed by the Sendero Luminiso (Shining Path), a group of Maoist guerrillas that have been terrorizing Peru for nearly a decade.

``Let's just give it a go,'' we told ourselves, ``and stay away from the hot spots.'' There was only one major flaw: We had no idea where the most dangerous areas were.

We had two routes to choose from. One was along a relatively flat and paved road flanking the lake's southern shore. This is the preferred route for nearly all overland tourists who cross the border between Bolivia and Peru.

Not only were we warned about disastrous road conditions, but several Bolivians in our hotel suspected that two foreigners on bicycles would not even be permitted to cross the border here. Other people told us we would have no problems.

After five days of gear organizing and acclimatization in La Paz, Doug and I were eager to hit the road. At 7 a.m. sharp, on one of Bolivia's chilly late-winter mornings, we left on the first leg of the trip, heading from La Paz to Puno, Peru.

Sept. 3, 1988 - Altiplano campsite, Bolivia

It is now getting dark up here. A cold wind is starting to make itself noticed as well. Doug and I are sprawled out on a tarp, about 100 yards off the road that we followed for 28 miles out of La Paz. It was a very ambitious day on our bikes, so our aches should come as no surprise. We actually didn't expect to make it half this far, but our promising start this morning brought us much enthusiasm and this kept us going.

We started off pedaling up the El Alta Autopista. It is a four-lane divided highway with a paved shoulder. In 7 miles it climbs 1,250 feet out of the depression in which La Paz sits. It took us nearly two hours before we were actually out of the capital and up on the Altiplano, a bleak, wind-swept plateau, most of it being perched at least 12,000 feet above the sea. It stretches over parts of Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina, and it is a result of the Andes temporarily splitting into two distant subranges.

Mother Nature opened her arms wide, and across the Altiplano we pushed. The low, rolling hills are pock-marked with adobe huts. Apparently two-thirds of Bolivia's residents live in such huts. We also noticed many whirlwinds or localized dust storms. They come and go. I suppose sooner or later we will get our fill of llamas, the Altiplano's beast of burden, as well as alpacas, a close relative prized for its wool. We hope to spot vicuna, chinchilla, and red fox, the main wild animals up here. Living conditions seem pretty severe. We saw a few campesinos (peasants) tending a small number of sheep and cattle, but grazing land is sparse.

Well, the first stars are starting to appear, and I think I will do some gazing before nodding off. I am glad to be here - to be sleeping outside, on the road again, seeking new surprises and new adventures - it sure beats working!

Sept. 4, 1988 - Near Achacachi, Bolivia

What a day! I will get to all the details shortly, but first I want to mention last night. We stayed dry indeed, but not very warm. It was absolutely frigid, and for two guys who just stepped out of a California summer, it sure was a real slap in the face. The temperature dropped to at least a few notches below freezing, as this morning our water bottles were rock hard and there was frost all over. It was a long night for both Doug and me.

We started off this morning by blazing over a paved road to a village called Huarina. We followed the shore of Lake Titicaca for a while. Once out of Huarina we lost our pavement, much to our dismay. We were also low on water, and there was no potable supply to be found. We asked all around for water and repeatedly we were directed to Achacachi, 12 miles up the road. We pushed on and on, parched as we were. If this wasn't enough, we had two good hills to climb and the early afternoon ``breeze'' brought headwinds of up to 20 knots. The elements were beating us back, but at last we came to a well in a schoolyard. On to Achacachi we grunted, where our arrival only seemed to bring stares of bewilderment and indifference.

Doug and I thought about finding a place to stay in Achacachi, but considering our apparently cool reception, this idea didn't last long. Although we could barely move from our lunch table, we reluctantly picked ourselves up and pedaled on down the road in search of a campsite. We were still somewhat apprehensive about sleeping outside among throngs of strangers.

Today we just couldn't seem to shake off our followers from Achacachi. Some raced along on foot and others bounced along on their one-speed Taiwanese clunkers. In desperation we stopped and threw up our arms. We pondered our options; 1) Go stay in Achacachi; 2) Pitch a tent close to the road and take our chances; 3) Continue pedaling in search of a more uninhabited area; or 4) Ask a campesino if we could erect our tent in the vicinity of his hut.

Discussing the possibilities in English, and taking comfort that the dozen or so onlookers couldn't understand, we ruled out option 1. The second option wasn't too attractive because two people had warned us, including one policeman, that disgruntled campesinos would slit our throats. Option 3 was out because of sheer exhaustion. That left us with the fourth option, and nearby we saw that some adobe houses were being built. We pulled off the road and soon became friends with the construction crew. Doug and I were assured that we could safely pitch our tent outside their living quarters.

Our hosts were all very friendly. As they marveled at our bicycles, we felt obliged to let them take a spin. They are poor and simple folk.

As Doug and I were quite beat, we took refuge in the tent shortly after sundown. As we were getting situated, we heard a musical procession. ``Here comes the Bolivian Philharmonica,'' chuckled Doug. In a matter of minutes our friends were upon us, tooting strange wind instruments and beating their bass drums. ``Fiesta Boliviana'' they shouted, and at least a half-dozen musicians carried on quite frantically outside our tent door. After a cordial applause and our heartfelt thanks, they wished us a good night's sleep.

Sept. 6, 1988 - Lakeside campsite, Bolivia

There were very strong winds last night. My tent, a four-season model designed specifically for gales, was worth every one of those $325. Fortunately, we managed to sleep very well. This morning I got daring and went for somewhat of a bath in the brisk lake. I hated to get the water so dirty, but I felt like a new man afterward.

We moved 19 miles today, bringing our total up to 91 miles. We are getting there and starting to feel better. There are no complaints about anything so far. We couldn't ask for a better beginning.

I suppose the time is right to ramble on about a few observations I have made since pulling out of La Paz. They are as follows: A) The campesinos often gather reeds from the lake. They serve as food for their livestock. B) Children are either very happy to have interaction with us or they are extremely frightened by our mere presence. In the former case, they wear beaming smiles. In the latter instance, they look stunned. One young girl ran off wildly crying to her mother. C) The locals have a peculiar concept of time and distance. We have quickly learned that is it is often futile to even make such inquiries. For one campesino the next village might be 1 mile down the road, but for another it may be 7 miles away. D) ``Staring squads'' are starting to rival those encountered in China. When we stop, people immediately cling to us. Naturally, the people are curious and we do our best to understand.

Sept. 8, 1988 - Puerto Acosta, Bolivia

This morning as Doug and I were breaking our camp, two jeeps stopped along the road. Three ordinary-looking men approached us, spreading out as they did so. They closed in on us and we took a big gulp, shortly after which they identified themselves as members of the Bolivian Army. They were very polite, and simply wanted to check our documents and make sure the country folk weren't giving us any problems. We were fine, Doug assured them, and on that note they wished us well and sped off toward La Paz.

By noon we arrived in Puerto Acosta, the last Bolivian village. It is just like a movie set with a plaza grande and a plaza chica linked by a maze of decrepit alleyways. Every 50 yards there is a streetlight with a 60-watt bulb. It is really starting to get primitive and exciting. Tonight a flea-infested double room is setting us back $1. In these parts, we can't be too selective.

Sept. 9, 1988 - Lakeside campsite, Peru

Today we wasted no time getting started. Bright and early we were up doing errands before making tracks for the Peruvian border. First we stopped by the bakery to bid farewell to Enrique, a local baker we met yesterday. He loaded us up with enough bread to feed a family of four for a week. We then restocked our dwindling supply of noodles and sardines. With a local merchant we were able to swap our remaining Bolivian money for Peruvian currency.

By far our most important errand of the morning was a trip to the immigration office. We stated our intention to go to Peru, and the man in charge seemed confused, like he really didn't know what to do with us. He asked us a couple of questions about our passports and then he had us write our names on a piece of scratch paper. After putting a stamp in our passport which read Debe presentarse a migracion (Must present himself to immigration), he indicated that we were free to leave.

Out of Puerto Acosta there are two roads to the Peruvian frontier. We couldn't get much information about either one of them. We have nothing more than a crude sketch of the area, which we put together with Enrique's help.

One road to Peru went inland and the other apparently stayed quite close to the lake. Logic told us to follow the latter, and off we pedaled. Our choice turned out to be a total disaster. Right out of Puerto Acosta we started climbing a ``road'' littered with boulders and troublesome cobblestones. It didn't take us long to understand why the preferred crossing between Bolivia and Peru is via the southern shore of the lake, where the road is even and paved. But the preferred route is what we opted not to take. We aren't looking for convenience, but rather high rewards. It just seemed as if we were going through more trouble to get there, as we pushed, pulled, and carried our 110-pound bikes up a seemingly endless hill.

To be continued tomorrow.

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