“Life” in La Paz

I am sure the first La Paz entry was a little shocking, but some good, old-fashioned fun occurred as well during my time at Wild Rover.

The staff is like one giant family. We worked, slept, and played all together in the confines of the hostel without any major tiffs between us. These conditions enable relationships to blossom at an extremely rapid pace. One particularly family-like moment was hanging out Christmas day, each of us disappearing for our Skype dates home, everyone happy and a wee bit teary all at the same time. This was my first Christmas not with my family and it was harder than I thought it would be. Fortunately, I was able to Skype home and see everyone, hear everyone´s voices. If I had been in the company of such wonderful people, it would have been just that much more difficult. Though I was put off by the fact that for our proper Christmas supper, only five of us from the night shift ate together while the other twelve or fifteen staff all shared supper together later that night. The dividing ration was not agreeable to me. I might still be a bit peeved… At least the food was good and we did get to sit and enjoy it without trying to eat while rushing around working.

I went to Death Road with Lamb the day before my birthday. As Wild Rover staff we got a free tour through Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking (GravityBolivia.com). Death Road, also known as the North Yungas Road, Grove´s Road, Coroico Road, Camino de las Yungas, El Camino de la Muerte, or Road of Death. It is a 63 km road from La Cumbre (4,700 masl) to Yolosa (1,200 masl) en route from La Paz to Coroico, northeast of La Paz in the Yungas region of Bolivia. It is legendary for extreme danger with 600 meter sheer cliffs, single-lane width (predominantly just barely over 3 m), and lack of guard rails. The downhill driver gets the ride-of-way, except the direction of travel was reversed, thus you go down on the left which is the cliff side of the road. Which, yes, means that we are riding mountain bikes down a still in-use road where we are required to stay as close to the cliff edge as possible. Not the most reassuring instruction I have taken. The 1995 Inter-American Development Bank christened the road as the “world´s most dangerous road” due to the estimation that 200 to 300 travellers are killed yearly along the road. As well as the still held record for largest fatality in a single vehicle accident when in 1983, a bus veered off the road into the canyon, killing more than 100 passengers. Numerous crosses dot the road marking various fallen vehicles. It is this danger that brings the 25,000 mountain bikers each year to attempt this dangerous road. Though do not let me fool you too much. Yes, the road is quite dangerous, but only about 19 riders have died in the last decade or so. This year, the last rider fatality was in June. It was a Japanese woman completing her second go at Death Road with three other experienced riders. Coincidentally, I actually met an English guy in Quito, Ecuador, who was in that group.

It was quite a thrilling ride. I was highly reminded of the downhill biking portion from my first day of the Inka Jungle Machu Picchu Trek. And you all will pleased to know that I never fell once (on the road or off the road). There was only one time that I feared the worst. A car was coming up the road and I have to move into the loose gravel of the cliff side. Right as they passed my back tire fish-tailed. If I had fallen, the decision would have been to be hit by a vehicle or fall off a cliff. Luckily, I kept it together and simply continued on my way. 🙂 The best part, though, is when we passed through the waterfall area. The waterfalls drain directly over the road. This is a bit more dangerous and very lovely at the same time. The worst part of the day was that from the second we left the van by the lakes outside La Cumbre, we were snowed on with that wet, heavy snow slush. Then when we reached a lower and slightly warmer elevation, the snow simply became rain. Haha! What a delight! At least we were able to visit La Senda Verde, a not-for-profit animal refuge that raises funds to look after recued animals. Their main animal inhabitant happens to be the approximately 60 monkeys of various species! Most of which are freely roaming the grounds! The quite entertaining rule about interacting with these monkeys is the “strip club” rule: they can touch you, climb on you, and do whatever they want, but you are not allowed to touch back. The people who run the place were not particularly friendly, which seems odd since the whole facility and purpose of guests is to promote donations. The monkeys were awesome and I have two different ones decide I was perfect for use as a jungle gym or lap to rest on. 🙂 It made me quite happy. The amazing part is that despite being completely unleashed, these monkeys also do not have any type of perimeter fencing system. They simply choose not to leave (with only the occasional departure here and there to the nearby banana plantation). The ride back to La Paz included an unexpected thrill as we retraced our tracks back up the Death Road instead of taking the new paved road. This fact did not please Lamb as he had to brave Death Road for a second time. Though to be fair, this road is tremendously more dangerous by vehicle than it is by bicycle.

The following day, on my BIRTHDAY, I returned to Pepe´s Tattoo to have a cherry blossom tree with the word “Perseverance” at the trunk put onto my left side. I know Mom is probably shocked right now as she already was not pleased about the other tattoo, but it is a very elegant original drawing of my own specifications that I am very pleased with. For those that understand such things, I also received a great deal when comparing to U.S. standards. Two sittings, six colors, 3 hours, original design, and with proper sanitation and licensing for just under $175 USD. That is a true bargain. The artist, Milan, is very keen on detail, so it was also very well done. It was one of the most painful things I have ever subjected my body to, but now that it is healed I can barely remember the pain. It was not good towards the end. And Mom, do not worry, I will not return home covered in tattoos. I only plan on maybe one or two more tiny ones before I am done with tattoos. 🙂 And they are all quite concealed besides the lizard on my foot.

Anyways, that evening of my birthday, everyone was so wonderful. They all signed a birthday card (which was actually a Fathers´ Day card…thanks Aisling!), had cupcakes with candles (while the whole bar sang Happy Birthday), and various odd gifts with a bouquet of flowers. I could not have asked for more. Though I could have done without it being UV night…haha. I am now 23 years alive. How time gets away with you, huh Mom and Dad? I have this strange idea about birthdays. All the important ones happen until you turn 21. Then you are finally a real person with all your rights and privileges. Technically I would say that age is 25, what with renting vehicles, taxes, etc., but those are not exactly things we look forward to, so the age is 21. The next important age is 50, when you start rolling down the other side of the hill. Therefore, I have this odd misconception that the 25 or so years in between are these fluid, free years. You can do whatever you want. Ideally, I think most people begin plans for a career and settling down, but luckily I feel no hurry to check those off my list. So for now, I am content on traveling and not thinking forward much beyond when I return this coming summer and plans for grad school.

Aside from all the adventures in Wild Rover, I did get out occasionally to explore La Paz. I especially used the cheap prices of Bolivia to my advantage for a bit of shopping. There are great shopping opportunities along Calle Comercio (conveniently the same street WR is located along), all the way to the “market” areas (black market, witches market, craft market, etc.) ending at the thrift market beginning at Calle Illampe to the top of the hill. If I was not leaving the hostel to dine at a tasty restaurant, I was likely somewhere within these shopping streets. I decided at some point that I wanted to update my wardrobe while in La Paz, and it required serious thought and several shopping visits. Mostly, though, that is because I am apparently a giant in Bolivian standards. The maximum shoe size is a US women´s size 8 (which happens to be my size, thank goodness), and most tops come as one size only, take it or leave it. Sadly I mostly had to leave everything. However, after six months of wearing the same seven days´ worth of apparel every single week, it was time for some change. I also sent home an 8 kilo package. The sad part is that about 90% of it was all personal belongings I no longer wanted to lug around with me. Though that does mean the package contains a few gifts for home. Despite losing some things, my pack is still not particularly light now…oh how I never fully moved passed my pack-rat days. I suppose that I just really enjoy being prepared, even if that means carrying around essentially useless items.

I even went with Jack, Jonas, Lamb, and Hurston, to the enormous 10 hectare shopping market in El Alto, the city up on the valley edge overlooking La Paz. Had I been on my own, I would probably have become severely lost. I did not make many purchases, but it was thrilling to see the never-ending rows upon rows of vendors selling everything a person could imagine. Literally, you could start at one end and build an entire vehicle from scratch before reaching the opposite side. They even had the token section of “second hand” items which I quickly realized must consist mostly of the stolen belongings from tourists. I was not particularly pleased seeing these items in such abundance. There was everything from the actual suit cases to underwear and larger than size eight shoes (of recognizable brand names).

This has already become too long, but I genuinely enjoyed my time in La Paz at the Wild Rover. I am sad to have left, but I was becoming too far sucked into that time warp. I needed to get out while I still had motivation. Besides, I know more adventures await as I finally start exploring Bolivia and work my way into the remaining countries.

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