On a lighter note, that weekend, Liz and I decided to do the "World's Most Dangerous Road" mountain biking trip. Originally, we'd planned on going to Rurrenbaque, a popular destination in the Amazon Jungle. However, as it's the rainy season here, we were told it would be much too dangerous for us to try to get there by bus (dirt roads don't do well with lots of rain, and there's always the chance of landslides), and apparently the airport there isn't able to land planes using instruments, so if it were rainy and visibility was poor, the plane wouldn't be able to land at all. We'd heard a lot about the mountain bike tour, and since it ended in a small town bordering the jungle, we decided it would be a good compromise. The road itself used to be the only way to get from La Paz to the Northeastern part of the country, and is dubbed the "Death Road" due to the narrowness of the road -- often only wide enough for one vehicle to pass, and the fact that there is a huge cliff off to one side of the road. Before the new road was constructed, an estimated 200-300 people per year died on the road, most when their cars fell off the cliff when attempting to pass oncoming traffic.
The day of the bike ride was one of the best, and most eventful, days of my life!After a slight delay in leaving due to mechanical difficulties, we were comfortably en route when we noticed a few vehicles pulled off to either side of the road. I didn't give it too much thought, that is until we passed an upside minibus with a large group around it, seemingly trying to upright it. Our bus pulled over, and I ran out, heart pounding and with Liz right behind me, to see if there was any way we could help. Even though I'm trained in first aid and CPR for my CNA certification, I've thankfully never had to use it, but was prepared to if need be. Once we reached the bus, the onlookers had changed strategies, and were busy popping out the plexiglass windows of the minibus to let the trapped passengers out. I observed the passengers as they exited, seeing lots of bumps, scrapes, and a few pretty bloodied up faces. There aren't seat belts in minibuses, so they'd all undoubtedly hit their heads during the collision. However, thankfully no one seemed to be critically injured (at least no resuscitative measures were needed), and since ambulances were already on the way, Liz and I agreed we weren't needed.
I stood back to take it all in, and saw the taxi that had hit the minibus pulled off on the opposite side of the road -- it's front end completely totaled. The driver of the taxi was stumbling around, apparently inebriated. What I couldn't believe was that there was a government checkpoint not even 15 minutes before, so if the driver was inebriated (and it wasn't an injury from the accident), he would have had some form of contact with a government official just prior to crashing into the bus. An official who could have easily stopped him from driving on. A woman was yelling at him, berating him for driving drunk, and before I knew it, she had slapped him square across the face. A man in the crowd of about 20 stepped between the woman and the driver, and Liz and I looked at each other, deciding it was time to go before anything escalated. As I got back on our bus, I looked at the steep hill on the other side of the road from where the minibus had gone, and thought about how lucky they were. Had that they had gone off to the right, it might have been a very different scene, and quite likely not everyone would have been as lucky.
It was definitely a surreal experience. You spend years preparing yourself "just in case", but can never really know how you'll react in a potential emergent situation. I'm glad that apparently all that time put into practice and prep paid off, and if I'm ever in the situation again, I'm confident in my ability to act quickly (which is certainly a necessary skill in the health care field).
We continued up to the top of the mountain and pulled into a gravel lot on the side of the road. It was higher up than in La Paz, and not only was it insanely foggy, it was also snowing a bit. We had about a 10-minute briefing on safety and basic biking technique, and then the guide pulled out a little plastic bottle filled with clear liquid. He said it was tradition to offer Pachamama (mother earth) a sacrifice to keep us safe. So, we each took a turn pouring a little of the liquid on our front bike tire, on the ground, and then taking a sip. UGH, it was awful! It was some type of alcohol, and how I imagine rubbing alcohol tastes. I was the first to take a drink, and it was fun to see people who'd originally thought I was just a wimp take a swig and spit it right back out.
The bike ride itself was 62 km (about 30 miles), luckily mostly downhill. We chose the most well-known company since we were told by numerous people it was the safest, and they were great! The first 18km were on the new, paved, road to give us a change to get used to our bikes. The very first leg was a bit of a struggle as the condensation from the clouds we were in kept me blinking every second or so, making seeing a bit tricky. But that issue was easily solved by grabbing a pair of ski goggles to wear at the first stop. The rest of the ride was a BLAST! Speeding downhill around curves, with the wind in your face, is quite possibly one of the best feelings in the world, turns out. After a quick stop for lunch, it was time to start the actual "death road" part of the road, which meant going from nice, new, pavement to gravel roads with potholes, rocks of all sizes everywhere, and the occasional water block. The death road definitely earns its name, as the entire ride was spent about 5-15 feet to the side of a cliff whose height was somewhat unknown, due to the fog and mist that made it impossible to see the bottom. About halfway through the ride though, the sun came out, and we were able to enjoy the amazing views as we entered the rainforest.
Sadly, the ride had to come to an end at some point, and it did, as we rode into a tiny village at the bottom of the road. We all got our "celebratory" cold beers -- provided by the tour company, as well as a few snacks. We were just hanging out, taking it easy, when our guide announced he had the forms for anyone who wanted to do the zip line. Liz and I looked at each other, and after a little discussion, decided -- when are we ever going to have the chance to do this again? For $30, it would be totally worth it. And it was! The zip line had three separate parts to it, the first being the highest above the rainforest floor, the second the fastest, and the third the longest. Now, a lot of you who know me will know I'm not exactly a fan of heights. But, somehow if put me in a "superman" pose about a thousand feet above the ground, I'll be alright!
The last part of the day was dinner and a shower at an animal refuge. The four of us who'd decided to do the zip line were taken in a taxi to meet up with the rest of the group, who was already there. I was slightly dismayed to see our Bus unattended on the side of the road, with my belongings in it, so my first priority was finding someone to let me into the bus so I could grab my backpack. One of the guides came back out with me, and much to our surprise we found our bus not completely empty -- someone was in the process of going through all our stuff!!
The guide with me opened the door and asked the thief what he thought he was doing. I stepped behind the guide to block the door -- the way the bus was set up, the open door was the guy's only way out. The guy inside was young -- maybe 20, and as soon as he knew he was caught, he took everything out of his pockets and put it back, pleading with the guide to just let him go. He even offered the guide money to just let him go, to which the guide (obviously) said no. Then, for some reason that I will never understand, the guide told me to go stand by the driver's side door. The door that wasn't actually a door, and therefore didn't open. The window was open and we assume that's how he got in, but it was a pretty small space, and if he attempted to escape through it, he would definitely take long enough for the guide to grab him. The door would be his only escape route, so I stood my ground there. However, the guide insisted I go to the driver's side door, so I did. And, naturally, the thief used that as a chance to get past the guide. I ran back over to the door I had been guarding, but by that point he had a lot of momentum, and I was only able to grab his wrist, a grip which he easily overpowered.
The thief started running back toward the town we'd stopped at earlier, with the guide in close(...ish) pursuit. They passed a man walking on the road who just kind of watched until I yelled "Help!!", and he seemed to go "Oh, right!" and then started chasing after the man, too. Luckily, another tour group bus was coming up the road and saw what was going on and managed to block the road so the thief had nowhere to go. He thought about turning around and running back the other way for a second, but seemed to realize that would get him nowhere, and resigned himself to being caught.
We all waited by the bus while someone went to get the rest of the group so they could do an inventory check on their belongings. As I stood there, I watched the thief. He was young, as I said, and there was nothing malicious about him at all. He had no weapons, he'd not tried to hurt anyone, and he was now sitting quietly on the front bumper of the bus, awaiting his fate. I've experienced plenty of thievery in my lifetime -- things that meant so much to me, that someone felt they had the right to take away. And I never got the chance to tell those thieves how they were affecting my life, but here was this guy right in front of me who (I'd already figured out) had tried to steal my money. I finally couldn't stand being quiet anymore, and just kind of let him have it.
"What, do you think we're all just rich Americans who have so much money it doesn't matter if you take it?" I asked him. He nodded his head a little in agreement.
"Well, look. I am American. But I'm definitely not rich! I'm a student, and I came here not as a tourist, but to learn about the culture and people. I spent all of my money -- money for rent, for food, to come here, and then people like you do this."
I don't remember exactly what else I said, but apparently it got to him, as he actually started crying. I have no idea if he actually thought about it more after that, but either way it felt amazing to be able to talk to him face-to-face, and at least try to help him see the people he was hurting by continuing to steal.
Thankfully, the rest of the day was uneventful as we drove back to La Paz. I don't think I had enough energy in me to deal with anything else. While it wasn't the rainforest tour Liz and I had originally hoped for, it was such an amazing experience in and of itself, and was definitely one of the best, and craziest, days of my life!