The Schizophrenic Bolivian Vagabond [Day 178]

This entry is part 30 of 34 in the series Latin America Series

Image from Wikipedia

I am riding through the black Bolivian night towards Salinas de Garcí Mendoza, a town north of the Salar de Uyuni. The salt flat is the largest in the world. It dwarfs the Bonneville Salt Flat in Nevada 25 fold. I wanted to cross this white sea of nothingness from north to south. It spans about 60 miles according to my route, but I wanted to zig and zag through it, spending a week in it. Riding throughout Latin American alone for six months hadn’t quite achieved the level of solitary that I wanted to experience. I wanted the earth to go away too leaving a landscape that cut the sky like a straight razor. Ironically during this ride I encountered company. It was a schizophrenic vagabond who was searching for his brother. He was now sitting behind me, arms wrapped around my waste and hanging on as I plunged through rivers and soft earth. A moment of clarify set in and I wonder, “What the hell is going on?” Let’s back up…

Earlier in the day I had been making my way towards the town and confident I would make it there by nightfall. It was only 60 miles away. Even with the aid of my GPS, navigation was difficult. The solid yellow line on my digital and paper maps would have me believe it was a major thoroughfare. There was couple miles of pristine asphalt, however, it was blocked off with a large mound of dirt. All traffic, including huge buses and trucks were diverted into a field that turned muddy after the previous week of rain.

Trails in the field were constantly changing due to the rainfall. A solid path yesterday was turned into a muddy trap. Evidence of this was left behind with grass and brush that was left under sinking tire tracks. It was the only way to gain traction. The trails covered the field like vines. Left or right? Free to move forward or stuck for an hour digging and grunting was the gamble. At one point I thought I found a third choice, a “shortcut.” Half of my front tire sank into the soil after traveling a few yards off the trail. A few passersbys help me out. Afterwards directing with their hands towards the correct route. After the huffing and puffing I managed to blurt out, “Pienso esta via es mejor, perro muy mal” (I thought this way was better, but it’s very bad). They all laughed, perhaps at my bad Spanish, poor choices of routes or a combination of both.

After escaping the muddy field I made up some miles on solid dirt. My engine was cutting out like in Peru when my carburetor was choking on the thin air, but I had already fix that problem with a new jet. I hobbled up the hill to a village where a man helped me troubleshoot Jenny. He looked at my air filter and cringed, “Es muy sucio” (It’s very dirty). It looked fine to me and I was sceptical about his diagnosis, but he was insistent and I helped him clean it. You can clean an air filter with gasoline, the only problem was finding some kind of basin to clean it in. I began looking around to see what I could possibly use. An old woman was selling plastic liters of soda. I bought one, took as big of a gulp as I could and poured it out as I was walking away as the woman looked on puzzled. I cut the bottle in half so that I could siphon gas into it and wash the air filter in it. After replacing the air filter Jenny roared to life. This guy knew the problem after only listening to the engine run for 30 seconds. Saved again by a knowledgeable Bolivian.

The main road kept forking and I would always follow a phrase that usually works, “when in doubt, go straight.” So I went on, choosing the most straight route assuming that a sharp fork would spit me out into a farm. Eventually I was spat out onto the edge of the Salar de Uyuni where the mud was dry and I was able to pick up speed. It wasn’t long before I noticed a discoloration ahead and before I knew it me and Jenny were sliding across the muddy desert for 10 yards or so. I started laughing, which is always a good sign. My leg was pinned under the Jenny, but mainly because of the buildup of mud. It was impossible to pickup the bike in the muck. I couldn’t get a proper footing.

I abandoned Jenny and started walking to a ridge that I realized was the main road I should have been on. The “when in doubt, go straight” mantra failed me this time. I planned on sitting on the side of the road until I found someone to help me lift the bike. Instead I stumbled on a small village, population seven or so. An old man, directed me to an old woman who in turn directed me to a younger man who might be able to help me out. I asked for his help and offered some compensation for his troubles. He agreed and we walked a mile into the muddy desert. We lifted Jenny and she roared to life. The man directed me to a path that would get me back to his house and onto the road. I rode through the muck with my heels dug in acting like skis as my rear tire fishtailed left and right.

Eventually Jenny died before I even made it to the dry trail back to town. I diagnosed all I could before I gave up and started pushing. I had to stop every ten feet to catch my breath. It would take hours at this rate, so I walked back to town to ask of the man another favor. He was already walking towards me, realizing something was wrong since he hadn’t heard my engine running. We began pushing together, making good headway. After a while I had to stop to take breaks and I could tell the man was growing a little frustrated with my lack of endurance. It took us an hour but eventually we made it back to his house in town. I asked him how long he lived there and he replied, “60 years”, his whole life in this town of seven homes in the middle of no where. It was a little embarrassing to find out this old man was kicking my butt as we were pushing the bike. I was always the one stopping for a break. These Bolivians are strong as oxes.

He had to leave for the evening, but I asked if I could camp in his yard for the night which he accepted as if it was assumed. I had an hour or so of daylight left so I decided to sit on the side of the road to try and hail down trucks that might be able to take me to Salinas so that whatever problem my bike had could be repaired.

As the sun was setting a lone man was walking down the road. He approached, we traded greetings and he sat down to chat. He was also on his way to Salinas. I told him my predicament and said that perhaps the driver of a truck I hail down could take him too. The town was about 20 miles away. We began trading stories. He spoke quickly and emphatically about everything. He was going to Salinas to try and find his brother. He handed me a business card with his picture on it. He carried a plastic grocery bag filled with three empty bottles for water, toothpaste, and a toothbrush who’s brushes were worn down to the nubs. He had only two or three teeth left. He learned the lesson that you only realize how important something is to you until it’s gone, and apparently hanging on gratefully to the remaining ones.

He began to show me the other members of his family. He had a bundle of business cards and coupons, showing me one after the other and smiling proudly. I asked how many brothers he had and he said, “two hundred twenty.” I started to make sense of the situation, realizing that this man hardly had any sense left.

I continued talking to the man, it was nice to have some company even though it was hardly sane. I finally flagged down a truck. I began explaining my predicament, all the while the vagabond was talking furiously behind me and making the couple in the truck nervous. “Lo siento, yo no conosco esta persona” (I’m sorry, I don’t know this person). His madness was jeopardizing my ticket out of the town and eventually he walk on off, frustrated with the driver’s harsh words that I didn’t understand. They were willing to haul my bike to Salinas after we came to an agreement on price. They pulled around to my bike, and just for kicks I tried starting it and miraculously Jenny fired up! I was ecstatic. “Esta bien! Esta bien! Garcias perro no necisito tu ayudar” (I’m good! I’m good! Thanks, but I don’t need your help!). I kept the engine running, gathered my things and hit the road.

On the way out of town I saw the vagabond. I had been on the receiving end of so much kindness that day, that I was searching to give back some way. “Qiueres vas?!?” (Wanna go?!?) I shouted and in no time he hopped on the back. I knew this vagabond was never going to find his imaginary brother in Salinas, but he was going either way so why not give him a ride.

It was tough riding with the extra weight of a passenger along with the dark void closing in around us. “Just 20 miles” I kept thinking, and was looking down at the odometer when I wasn’t dodging boulders and crossing rivers. We approached a river that was wide and littered with boulders. Blasting through in a straight path was not an option. I asked the vagabond to get off since it would make it easier for me to cross. I plunged into the ice cold water, zigging and zagging and feeling the force of the water pushing against my boots. I was screaming in my helmet at myself as I often do when hesitation starts to take over in cases where speed and boldness is necessary, “GO GO GO! GIVE IT GAS! YOU GOT THIS! GO GO GO!”

I made it about three yard shy of the edge of the river. The bike had fallen into a tricky spot that made it difficult for even me and the vagabond to pickup. A flood of light illuminated the river as a huge truck approached and sped through knowing that stopping would spell doom for them like it had us. They kept going despite my cries for a moment of their help. A car coming from the opposite direction stopped to right the bike, and now Jenny wasn’t starting. I had to hold her up as I diagnosed the problem. Headlight was out, so it was most likely a fuse. Turned out to be true. The water was pushing against Jenny’s crank case and it was difficult to keep her upright. The vagabond had jumped ship and was too busy trying to get rides from the trucks that were passing by. I assured him, “Just give me five minutes!”. Five minutes later I had fished out my fuses, replaced them and Jenny roared back to life and I rode her to dry land. Having no success at getting a ride, the vagabond still was up the road and I told him to get on.

We finally made it to Salinas de Garcí Mendoza and the vagabond directed me to a place to stay. We had only spent a few hours together, but the intensity of those hours made me feel like we were life long friends. It was sad to see him go. He disappeared down a dark street, in search for a brother he would never find.

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  • vilen19

    Very entertaining to read. Look forward to more.

  • Box

    Is it normal to have tears in my eye?

    If I may give a humble opinion, you HAVE to write a book.

  • Atlas

    @vilen19 Thanks, there’s plenty more coming.

    @Box I’m working on it. Consider these posts my first draft :)

  • Ryan

    Atlas, Reading the tales of your adventure are truly inspiring. The many generous people you’ve met along the way is refreshing to the spirit. I look forward to reading more and to second Box’s comment: Yes, please write a book.

  • Sven

    You’re a good writer, I envy you. I think far too fast to write anything logical.

    Much love.

  • Abe

    Man your spanish is terrible! I mean the wording is bad, but the spelling is even worse! You spent 6 months in spanish speaking countries and came out with “Garcias perro no necisito tu ayudar” and “Quieres vas”? it’s pero, not with two r’s, and in the first sentence you don’t end in an infinitive verb, it’s ayuda…his help, you don’t need his help, not you don’t need your to help. Then in the second comment you made the opposite mistake. You can never have two conjugated verbs in a row (as a general rule), so you should have said “Quieres ir?” as in Do you want…to go….not do you want you go. Also I’m pretty sure you just used translator on that one too lol, because someone as bad as you at spanish should not know to use the subjunctive in that situation, which you used properly with Quieres, instead of Quieras.

  • Nathan

    The Bonneville salt flats are in Utah. I look forward to reading your book. Writing the book will probably be as instructive as the trip itself.

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