Adventure is Relative (revisited)
It was back in Colombia when I first began to consider and question the relativity of my adventure. Through pushing my pride to the side and accepting a ride with Yefferson and his chihuahua pal, Honey, I was forced to explore my own definition of adventure and what I hoped to gain from this two-wheeled exploit. Over the following days I attempted to record this internal dialogue; the ramblings of which can be found in a previous instalment (The Road to Popayán). Within that chapter, I made reference to Cas and Jonesy; the two young Australians who became the first people to kayak, unsupported, across the tempestuous Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand. Forever enthralled by physical pursuits which substantiate the unrivalled endurance of the human body and mind, I purchased a ticket to hear the boys talk about their journey as soon as the opportunity arose. In the wake of their presentation they made themselves available for book signings; an archetypal component of this type of event. Walking out of the venue, I opened the inside cover of my annotated, dog-eared copy of their book, to find the words ‘adventure is relative’ scrawled beside the boys’ signatures, of which they were adept in churning out with enviable consistency. Whilst the concept of relative adventure is simple enough to understand, incorporating it into my daily cognitive processing continues to present an exigent challenge. Naturally, we are comparative beings. However, by constantly comparing your own tracks to the direction and nature of someone else’s tyre marks, you’ll soon come to realise that you’re riding with the brakes on. It’s becoming increasingly clear that I need to release my grip on the brakes, look up, and focus on the things that only I can feel; the wind against my skin, my racing heart, and the fact that this ride belongs to no one else, but me.
Sitting around the coffee stained table in the Casa de Ciclitis, I listened intently to the other riders as they shared anecdotes from their own adventures. Tight-lipped, yet mind agape, I frantically tried to absorb their tales with objective astoundment. Unfortunately, fatigue allowed cracks to form, making room for my old, haunting thought patterns to take hold. A familiar self-deprecation began to drown out the rich, worldly stories that were drifting around the table; a ‘never good enough’ rhetoric denied coalescence, positioning me as a self-imposed outlier, sitting on the periphery of this welcoming group of like-minded travellers.
Fielding a battle of internal narratives, I did my best to engage with the group which consisted of French, German, Swiss, and Uruguayan riders. Two of the Swiss boys were settling in for a few days to celebrate the completion of their ride together. Both carpenters back in Switzerland, they had quit their jobs around two years ago. Setting off from their own front gates, they had ridden south towards Turkey, before hooking back through Egypt and crossing the top of Africa’s ice cream cone, from east to west. After arriving in Dakar, Senegal, they had wrapped their bikes with old TV boxes and caught a plane to Paraguay, where they began their east-west crossing of South America, finishing in La Paz. Despite this being the end of their journey together as one of them had to return home, it only marked the midway point for the other guy who thought he might continue pedalling for another ‘year or so’. Interestingly, from a financial perspective, the boys explained that the Swiss government will pay you 80% of your previous wage whilst you seek a new job. I’m sure there was more to their unflappably relaxed demeanours, but this sort of financial security on their return home must help.
Another carpenter, this time from Germany, also shared his dilemma of how much longer to continue riding. After setting off alongside his girlfriend with the intention of cycling for a year, their relationship got a puncture in the first few weeks and she returned home to Europe, leaving him completely deflated. In the wake of the breakdown, he decided to use the opportunity to ride for as long as he wants. He did say, however, that when the time comes to go home, he knows that booking a direct flight to his city will be be too much of an emotional and cultural shock. His solution is to book a flight to somewhere in Scandinavia and take his time ‘riding home’ and readjusting to the life that awaits him.
A bottle of rum moved around the table at a necessary pace. One of the Swiss boys ensured there was a steady stream of pancakes flowing from the ‘well-loved’ kitchen. The rider from Uruguay let the others do the talking while his fingers danced across the fretboard of a disheveled nylon-string guitar which he has ridden with since leaving home over a year ago.
The scale and magnitude of these rides, combined with an apparent absence of time restrictions, left me questioning the comparatively regimented nature of my own trip; a journey pre-determined by self imposed boundaries in space and time. Again, the decision to catch busses in a race south stabbed at me. When asked how long I plan on riding for, I caught myself replying with, ‘maybe sometime in December’. Knowing in my mind that I already have a flight home booked, I recognised that my inhibitions were beginning to strangle the authenticity of both this experience, and the person I was presenting to the guys around the table. For as long as I can remember, my identity has had chameleon tendencies; altering my vernacular to avoid uniqueness, saying and doing what I think should be said and done. I question every action and inaction within my day; my responses to questions and contributions to discussions, are played over several times in my head, analysed and interpreted from every angle. Why I felt the need to describe my plans with nonchalance and a façade of uncertainty, I am not sure? It’s just what I do.
Most people I am meeting on the road have more or less cut ties with their lives back home prior to embarking on their own journeys. This was something that I wasn’t able, or willing, to do myself. During the last few years, this trip has been firmly rooted in the back of my mind. Decisions in my life have centred around enabling the ride to happen in the safest way possible; strategies to ensure emotional, social and financial security on my subsequent return home. I bought a house within a location and a price range that ensured rental repayments would cover my mortgage whilst I was overseas. I worked the required number of years in a job (which I’m still deciding whether I like) just to ensure a permanent position and guaranteed employment on my return. I found myself at the necessary end of a relationship, and soon thereafter at the beginning of something new, ensuring I wouldn’t be alone on my return. Reflection highlights that every decision I have made in the lead up to this journey is grounded in fear and, consequently, selfishness. I am afraid of vulnerability, of taking un-calculated risks, and, when it’s all stripped back, facing the possibility of being truly alone. I am also yet to decide whether these traits are unhelpful, arrogant, shallow or necessary. Regardless of their purpose, these habitual thoughts and actions are most definitely impacting my perspective of this adventure. I’ve always found the winter pruning of roses to be confronting. But, just like the woody perennials need to be stripped back to encourage maximum growth, perhaps I also needed to cut away all traces of previous seasons to fully bloom throughout this experience?
My mind drifted in and out of the conversation on that first night in La Paz, overthinking and convoluting the present moment to an extent which rivals the previous passages of text. Listening to the stories and insights over the course of the evening, it became strikingly clear that although we have all chosen two-wheels as our medium to paint murals across this continent, we are all creating something unique, albeit some just smaller in size and less vibrant in colour. Acknowledging that I was not in a compatible headspace for the casa at that current moment in time, I decided to spend only one day exploring La Paz, before continuing south, striving to improve my outlook on this journey. Writing about the relativity of adventure is redundant if I don’t begin owning this ride with a sense of pride and contentment; a challenge larger than any climb on the road ahead.
Following a day of laundry, walking and contemplation, I left the Casa de Ciclitis and again loaded my bike on to a bus; this time with purpose and clarity. The importance of breaking this ride into stages, and treating each like a micro adventure, has became strikingly clear. After all, adventure is relative, and I am the only person in control of defining this one.
Llama foetuses and Austrian engineering
The sleeping arrangements in the Casa de Ciclitis were reminiscent of those in a mountain hut. Equipment from various eras was sprawled around the room. Musty clothing hung from withered lines stretched between doorways. Bags were stacked around the perimeter of each person’s sleeping setup, providing token privacy. The conditions made for a wonderful resting place.
Slow to rise on my first morning in La Paz, I wound my way down the decorated staircase to the lounge, expecting to find others preparing for a day of exploration in the city. Instead, a few of the guys were sitting around the room, on their devices, and claiming to have no plans other than hanging out there for the day. I guess that a journey of years allows for an existence of this pace. Even if I was unrestricted by time, I would struggle not having something to achieve each day. I downed a bowl of oats, topped with some strawberries I’d bought from a street vendor on my ride into town the previous night, and headed out into the streets.
My first, and most pressing port of call, was somewhere to do some laundry. The first lavanderia I came across, aptly named ‘Bubbles’, was a ‘sit and wait’ affair. In addition to various spin cycles, they also offered a strong wifi connection. I took this opportunity to complete some life admin and form a plan of attack for the day ahead. An hour and a half later, my warm, folded clothes were handed to me with a smile and a subtle gesture to disconnect from their wifi. Clean clothes become a symbolic component of an overland trip; a sort of fragrant, reset button, indicating the terminus of one odoriferous stretch of riding and the commencement of the next sweat-soaked leg of the journey. However, it is the morning after a trip to the laundry which presents the most ethereal sensation; the knowledge that whatever you pull out of the small bag of clothes will be clean and appropriate to wear in public, as short-lived as that may be.
I sauntered along Avenida Mariscal Santa Cruz; the main thoroughfare through the city, which dissects the valley from east to west. With two or three lanes in each direction, this road possesses a wonderful median strip, adorned with fountains, palms and plentiful seating options. Wandering within the heart of La Paz, it is impossible not to notice the dramatic relief on either side of the city. Hillsides rise sharply from the valley floor, draped in a blanket of dense, red brick dwellings which appear to rely on each other, as much as their own foundations, to stay put and avoid sliding away.
According to guidebooks and a plethora of online sources, a trip to La Paz is incomplete without a visit to the various artisanal markets that the city has on offer. After following the main road to the head of the valley, signified by the magnificent San Fransisco Church, I veered off into the maze of narrow avenues and steep backroads in search of the markets. It didn’t take long before the stone facades of buildings became completely hidden by cascading displays of alpaca wool garments. Dark, cave-like entrances to the shops were barely visible amidst the vibrancy of the hats and jackets. With the prospect of gift and souvenir shopping hindered by a lack of available space in my panniers, I was wary of getting too close to each stall and giving the vendors false hope of a sale. However, the charm of any market is lost on the person who fails to interact with store holders and experience the tactile wonder of the items being sold. It didn’t take long before my hands were running over the instantly warming pelts and luxuriant woollen sweaters, of which I began fantasising about wearing beside a fire in the depths of Tasmanian winter. I couldn’t leave the market empty handed, but any purchase larger than my fist would warrant the subsequent acquisition of a trailer. Alas, I walked away with a gorgeous woollen jacket and beanie combination for some close friends expecting a baby around the time I’m due home. I’ll just have to live vicariously through the newborn when winter rolls around again.
Continuing deeper into the tightly woven urban fabric of La Paz’s hillside avenues, the woollen wares gave way to much more sinister yet alluring items. It didn’t take wizardry to work out that I had stumbled into ‘El Mercado de Las Brujas de La Paz’ (The La Paz Witches Market). Dried turtles, snakes and starfish were readily available, as ingredients for complex spells, or simply to be added to everyday diets for their aphrodisiac properties. Alternatively, pre-packaged spells were available, neatly bundled up in colourful arrangements; the Two-Minute Noodles of the supernatural world.
Amidst the stalls, it was hard to miss the famed Yatiri (witch doctors) who roam the market, coca pouches in hand. Identifiable by their black, wide-brimmed hats, these women are thought to be some of the last remaining witch doctors in Bolivia. With the power to contact the supernatural, the Yatiri are still relied upon by Bolivinos to treat a host of spiritual and physical ailments, such as marital issues, fertility struggles, financial problems, and, of course, to have their fortunes read and gain advice on various spells. I also read that the Yatiri congregate outside churches on a Sunday. Given La Paz’s large Catholic contingency, they wait outside the churches to offer ceremonies to Bolivianos who also want a pagan blessing, just to be on the safe side.
Out of all the items available within the Witches Market, it would be the dried llama foetuses that draw the attention of most tourists. Hanging in bunches, with twine around their necks, the unborn animals (the result of miscarriages not murder I was assured) are available in various shapes, sizes and colours. Despite withered limbs and shrivelled eyes, there is a sense of peacefulness which emanates from the creatures’ expressions. According to Bolivianos, burying a llama foetus beneath the foundations of a new home is considered the ultimate offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth). It is the hope of locals that the gesture will bring protection, health, happiness and good luck to the family who reside in the home built above the foetus. With some good friends currently building a home in the Tasmanian bush, it seemed a llama foetus would be the ultimate gift. It would also be a sure way to a staring role on Border Security when returning back into Australia.
Whilst the market places of La Paz demand the attention from every sense, it is impossible not to feel the presence of something high above. As godly as it may have appeared to locals following its installation, I’m referring to Mi Teleférico; the Austrian engineered cable car network which bypasses the congestion within the city by simply flying over it.
I’m always intrigued by strategies and designs implemented by cities around the world as they strive to improve their liveability. This was no exception and was calling out for a joy ride. Without a map of the city, I figured I would find a station by just following the line of the cable car to where it met the hillside. By the time I found one, I wished I’d had a cable car to take me up the hill.
Opening in 2014, Mi Teleférico (My Cable Car) was considered to be the longest aerial cable car system in the world, consisting of three different lines and a total distance of 10 kilometres. Each line is assigned a different colour, which is evident in both its name (e.g. Green Line) and the colour of the cars hanging from the cables. As of 2018, there are now 25 stations along eight different lines: Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, Orange, White, Sky Blue, and Purple. The master plan includes an additional three lines (Brown, Silver and Gold), to take the total distance of Mi Teleférico to approximately 33 kilometres.
Arriving at the station of the Orange Line on the northern slopes of the city, I entered the airport-like terminal and purchased a ticket. When asked where I wanted to go, I simply pointed to the other side of the valley, as it seemed the longest possible route. The lady at the counter explained that this would involve changing to the Red Line at the first station I would be arriving at on the journey. I tried telling her that we also have a Red Line where I live, but the comparison was lost in translation. I took my ticket and joined the queue.
As I stood in line, I felt as though I was within a bee hive. In the same way bees purposefully come and go from the entrance to their hives, the cable cars approached the station at pace, before slowing to a jarring standstill, long enough for the passengers to step out safely. Another load of people would then shuffle in, the doors would seal behind them, and the small orange capsule would accelerate out into the open air for the return journey. My turn to board quickly came and I squeezed in to one of the cars, ushered quite forcefully by one of the staff. With the never ending arrival of cable cars, I could appreciate their evident stress to keep things ticking along smoothly.
Immediately, the car dropped away from the station, down into the heart of the city on the valley floor. Conscious of being the only one on board taking a joy ride, I tried to ignore the stares from the local passengers as I eagerly shuffled around taking in the views from all directions. Following a seamless transition from Orange to Red, the cable car commenced its climb up to El Alto; the adjacent city overlooking La Paz from the lofty heights of the southern slopes.
The dichotomy between the gleaming Austrian infrastructure, and the living conditions below its path, was stark and confronting. I felt uncomfortably voyeuristic as I stared down between my feet at the ramshackle brick homes where clothes hung in every available sliver of sunlight. Steep, narrow concrete paths weaved their way between the multi-storey homes, providing the residents of these suburbs with their only connection to the city below. The congested constructions defied physics in the way they hung onto their sheer, rocky foundations.
The only disruption to the mosaic of red brick and corrugated iron homes, was the orderly grid of La Paz’s Cementario General. Is is customary in Bolivia to bury the bodies of loved ones, where they will lie in temporary peace for 10 years before being dug up again for part two of their farewell ritual. The bodies are then cremated and housed in small glass-fronted compartments in the walls of the cemetery. Despite the thought of seeing your Grandma’s semi-decomposed face ten years after she has passed, the concept of vertical graves seems like a sensible, space-efficient strategy in a future of growing cities and ageing populations.
Climbing higher above the city, snow-crowned peaks became visible beyond the immense urban sprawl. Despite the apparent, economic chasm between the hillside residents and the Austrian engineers responsible for the cable car, there is no denying its ability to mobilise people within the city. And, after all, mobility enables interactions which can lead to the spread of ideas and development within urban environments.
Stepping out of the station in El Alto, I discovered a seemingly horizonless marketplace, abuzz with locals and tourists. From pig carcasses to car chassis, this was clearly a one stop marketplace. Requiring neither of these items, I had a brief walk around before making my way back to the cable car terminal and commencing the return descent into La Paz.
Back at street level, I chased the fading sunlight through narrow streets, which were thrown into momentary darkness whenever a cable car flew overhead. Following a bowl of ramen from a hole-in-the-wall Japanese restaurant, and an obligatory slice of pizza from a restaurant offering free wi-fi, I made my way back to the casa under streetlight. A few of the boys were still sitting where I had left them earlier that morning. I made a cup of tea and small talk until fatigue overcame my ability to converse in broken Spanish, English and Swiss-German. Once horizontal, sleep came instantaneously.
Having bought a bus ticket on my way to Mi Teleférico the previous day, I woke early on my last morning in La Paz. Trying desperately not to wake the snoring bodies sprawled across the floor of the room, I bundled my possessions under my arms and headed down to the kitchen to pack. By the time I was ready to go, the others had risen as they also planned to leave that morning. Unfortunately, in an early morning dash to the bakery, one of the French guys, Adrien, had watched helplessly as an ATM ate his credit card. As it was a Sunday, they were forced to hold tight for another day before retrieving the card and getting back on the road.
As I was leaving, I asked one of the guys whether Christian had anywhere for recycling in his house, as I had accumulated a few plastic water bottles. Almost in unison, the guys told me about the ‘bottle room’, assuring me that I couldn’t miss it as I left the apartment block. Sure enough, as I wheeled my bike out of Christian’s apartment, a glow from beneath a door caught my eye. Slowly pushing the door open, I was confronted by thousands of plastic bottles, refracting the sunlight which streamed in through the window. Light danced off all of the walls, giving the ‘bottle room’ the feel of Aladdin’s ‘Cave of Wonders’. Considering the overall hoarder vibe in Christian’s house, the ‘bottle room’, came as no surprise. However, it was an impressive collection and one that begged the question, ‘why?’. I threw my donation of bottles to the top of the plastic mountain and bid the Casa de Ciclitis a final farewell.
Considering my headspace 24 hours prior, it felt good to be back on the bike, even if I was riding towards a bus station. The next leg of the journey excited me. With an hour or so to spare before the bus was due to depart, I decided to treat myself to a good coffee. I had read of a café, which happened to be owned by an Australian man, which specialised in beans from small scale farms throughout Bolivia. Located at the top of a steep alleyway, the aptly named ‘Higher Ground Café was heaving with tourists. I had found the my people; those privileged enough to critique the quality of coffee. I watched as a local man, inebriated by drugs and despair, danced shamelessly a few metres down the alley from where I sat. As his hips moved to the music in his head, a smile swept across his face. He extended both arms in my directed and gave me two middle fingers, with purpose and pleasure. It felt appropriate. If I was him, I probably would have felt inspired to flip the bird in the direction of the man with the gleaming bike and not a real worry in the world.
Feeling far from peaceful, La Paz had certainly provided me with the chance to reset and recapture a yearning for adventure. As the bus pulled away from the station, the cable car passed overhead. It definitely felt better being on the ground. South of La Paz, the map is relatively featureless. Salt flats and high altitude deserts are dissected by occasional roads. The blank space is exciting. It is time to continue with my own version of adventure.
Over the last few months, La Paz has seen a number of devastating landslides, sweepings away the homes and livelihoods of those who reside on the steep hillsides surrounding the city. Having observed the fragility and vulnerability of these constructions during my time in La Paz, it’s been difficult engaging with the media coming out of Bolivia’s city of peace. It presents yet another challenge for the government in South America’s most impoverished nation, where people continue to flock to the city in the hope of a better life.
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