Peru to Bolivia - April 27th, 2010 (The Santa Catarina Pro - Day 5)
Checkpoint Alfa, a Bolivian borderguard flips through my passport like a porno - turning the pages on their side to catch a centrefold before flicking his thumb through the corner of the pages like a deck of cards. He thrusts the passport back in the window a little to close to my face, I take it out of the air and reach for the glovebox, phantom echoes of my old beretta leach through the aluminium compartment. A second border guard on the passenger side senses it, I see his gaze shift across to my hand, I fumble at the latch, it flies open spilling road maps, print outs from the ASP website and a copy of Perus version of Leg Sex Magazine. I push it all into a neat stack and shove it under the seat. A hispanic version of 'Smooth Operator' burns from a dying speaker in the complex as the two guards cross behind me and chat about the Brazilian license plates, I grip the steering wheel so hard that I can see my fingerprints in the leatherette. On the other side of the line into Bolivia, sad mountainscape villagers shuttle back and forth in the rarified air, going about life in the borderlands. I know now why the people in Bolivia are so sad...they lost their ocean.
1879-1884, The War of The Pacific - A weary Peru and Bolivia join forces against Chile in defense of the mineral rich Antofagosta coastal region of Bolivia. By the end of the war, Bolivia loses its coastal region to Chile and becomes landlocked forever. The grey skys of the mountains weep in sorrow as I struggle to imagine what it would be like to loose an ocean. I get the all clear to proceed and push off onto the road, the guards watch me curiously, staring at the surfboard on the roof racks, an artifact from their past blowing past the border for a moment, a flashback vision of the ocean like the twinge of an amputated limb...the road curves towards La Paz.
I make fantastic time along the road, its a beautiful pure black strip funded by drug cartels and American investment. I would get to La Paz early with a few hours to spare before sunset, enough time to wander the streets. I like these mountain towns with their ramshackle antique stores full of the wreckage of The Spanish Empire, ancient text books illustrated in the monasteries of Toledo, fractured headpieces of desecrated Incan tombs. By 3pm I hit the outskirts of La Paz, row upon row of motorcycle shops, tyre merchants and local shot bars. Bored prostitutes fold their arms and shoot glances through pancake makeup. The streets here are impossible to follow, my folded map stops making sense and I'm drifting. The back of the map shows mid 70's tourist shots of brightly dressed locals showing hand woven textiles to a group of tourists with a waterfall streaming in the background, I cant see any of this, just the outskirts of an unseen town, its like driving through the ejecta wreckage blasted out of a crater. Just as the landscape improves and brightens I'm out of La PAz, it's gone behind me - I missed the whole capital. I had planned to spend the night in La Paz, it's a long way to the next city. Thee is no where to turn around, no way to go back and so I press on into the void, planning to make Oruro, a further 200's down the line by nightfall. The sun burns in the rear vision mirror but there's no warmth in it up here anymore, the heater is still dead, the fan pushing around stale transient air that has the smell of brake fluid to it. The open plain closes in again and I am back into the switchbacks of a complex mountain ridge. Oruro by nightfall seems a massive stretch now, my head ache begins to throb in unison to the jostling fuel cans in the back seat, I throw down the last two painkillers I have and focus on the final stretch.
Night comes quickly now, what seems like a few hours grace before darnkness sees the sun shift behind a mountain ridge as I turn south and it's over. My headlights arc through thin mountain air as the first fluries of snow begin to fall. The car has the cold of the tomb about it, with no heater to stir the air I sit surrounded by the fog of my own exhalation. Turning around a bend in the road I see the town of Oruro ahead across the chasm of a great valley. The dim yellow of carbide lanterns flickering in the snow drifts, pale blue smoke rising from mysterious stacks. Thirty minutes later I'm there in full darkness. It's like the people in the town have evaporated. Dirt mountain streets deserted, drifts of snow gathering like white frames around bolted doorways and windows. No lights. I knock on the door of the building putting out pale smoke through a crumbling chimney but no-one answers. Pressing my ear to the door I detect the sound of low voices, whispering. I knock again but no-one comes. Back at the car I fold out the map, accepting the inevitable. The next 300k's across Bolivia were some of the worst mountain roads I had read about. Originally I had timed my run to do that leg by day in good weather, now I was about to push on and run it overnight in a snowstorm. I thought about going door to door again through the village asking for shelter but remembered the superstition many of the inland settlements had - never open your door after sunset....not to anyone. Always made me wonder what horror moved amongst these mountains in the past that had instilled that fear in them.
Pure mountain snow caps the nose of my board on the roof racks, there is enough moonlight for a moment to show that the sky is leaden in snow clouds that will boil all night. I can only see one star as I roll out of town in VW Golf D3 Mode - Vega I think....