November 26, 2005
When you travel long-term, there are bound to be good days and bad ones. This was one of the bad ones.
I ate breakfast at a local man's house. Afterwards, he asked me what I was going to do today. I told him that I was thinking of visiting the geysers. The owner said, "Sounds good. You can walk to them in an hour and a half." I made a slight frown when I thought about how far it was. "Or, he slyly inserted, you can rent a bicycle from me and get there in thirty minutes." Even though I knew he was being quite the salesman, I liked the idea of expending less energy and time to get there. "How much?" I asked. "$2.50 for the whole day." I wondered why I would need a bike for the whole day just to see the geysers, but I didn't ask any more questions and went for it.
I went back to my room to get my camera and a few other items for the day, and returned to see that the bike was ready for me. It wasn't exactly something Lance Armstrong would endorse. In fact, I think most street bums would reject it. The bike had a rusty frame, crooked handlebars, and no suspension to speak of. And with only one gear, I figured it would be almost impossible to ride up hills. Still, I had already agreed to take it, so I decided to try and make the best of the situation.
I didn't have a map of the area, so I asked the owner for directions to the geyser. "Go to the church," he said. "From there, you'll see a small bridge. Cross that bridge, then follow the path to the right. Always stay to the right, and the path will lead you there." That sounded easy enough to me. As I took off, he said, "Suerte," which means "luck," a common saying people use right before embarking on a journey. As it would turn out, luck would not be on my side for this trip.
I easily found the church and the small bridge at the bottom of the hill, but that's where my "suerte" ran out. As I coasted down the hill, I noticed that the ride was very bumpy, the bike seemed to steer itself wherever it wanted to go, and the brakes barely worked. That's what you get when you pay $2.50 to rent a bike for a day in Bolivia. Still, wanting to make the best of the situation, I crossed the bridge, ready to follow the path to the right, confident that I was on the right track.
The problem was that there was no path to the right. The road turned to the left, and there was only a soccer field to the right. There were no road signs or people nearby from whom I could ask directions. I thought the road leading left was surely the wrong path, so I went across the soccer field, thinking that the path would pick back up on the other side. Partway through the soccer field, the ground turned from a solid surface to one with loose dirt two inches deep. When I tried peddling, my bike sank into the ground, so I had to push it instead.
At the other side of the soccer field, I saw what I thought could be a path. I started pushing my bike down it for a few minutes, but then it ended. I could see a long distance, but I couldn't find a path. There were only massive fields with grazing llamas nearby. I then realized that I must have missed the path somewhere around the soccer field.
At that moment, I had a brilliant idea. The bicycle owner said that I had to keep moving to the right, so surely I was heading in the right direction and simply had to find the path. All I needed to do was to walk perpendicular to the path to find it. I turned left and walked for about fifteen minutes. Still no path. Frustrated, I turned around and walked the other way until I ran into a river.
The land looked flatter on the other side of the river, so I thought the path might be in that direction and maybe I crossed the wrong bridge at the beginning of my trip. However, the river was too wide to cross, and the prospect of turning around and walking all the way back to the bridge made me angry. I started walking along the river until I found a spot narrow enough to jump across, but I still had the bike with me. I was getting very mad by that point, so I picked up the bike in both arms, swung it back and forth a few times, and threw it across the river. It barely made to to the other side, making a loud noise as it came crashing down. Next, I thew my backpack over, then I got a running start and jumped across.
My "leap of faith" seemed to go without a hitch, but as I began pushing the bike again, it made a crunching sound. I had bent the wheel out of alignment a bit when I threw it over the river. I kicked it back into position and continued pushing, too frustrated to care what kind of condition I returned the bike in.
The ground may have been flatter on the other side of the river, but it still was impossible to ride on. In fact, the dirt was so thick that pushing the bike required all of my strength. Not only that, but the entire area was littered with little bushes that spread spikes across my legs whenever I touched them, which happened constantly because they were everywhere.
I thought I was heading in the right direction, but I still had no idea where the path was. Eventually, I saw a town in the distance. "Somebody there will surely know where I should be going," I thought. When I got to the town, though, there was not a person in site. It looked like it had been abandoned years ago.
Not sure what to do anymore, I kept walking with my bike at my side. Finally, way off in the distance, I saw someone riding a bicycle. I walked in that direction and ended up on an actual road! It was nowhere near where the bicycle owner had described, but at least it was a route that led somewhere.
I was finally able to ride a bit, but it was still very difficult. The road wasn't paved, so my bike still sank down about an inch whenever I tried riding it, making riding more difficult than walking. On top of that, the seat on the bike bent backwards after a few minutes of sitting on it. The front of the seat went straight up, causing enough pain downstairs for me to stop worrying about having children. From that point on, I had to pedal standing up.
After riding for about half an hour more, a truck finally came toward me. I flagged it down and it was full of park rangers. "Where are the geysers?" I asked. "You're getting close," one of the rangers responded. "Only about 300 meters to go." I was very happy that I was almost there, even though it had already taken longer than it would have if I had walked.
A few minutes later, I saw what appeared to be steam in the background. The road also forked off in that direction, so I headed down it. After awhile, the road split up again. Luckily at that point, a local man approached me on a bicycle and I asked him where the geysers were. He pointed toward the steam, but said that the road he was on led to the hot springs. I figured that as long as I was nearby and getting tired, I'd stop there first and relax.
I had to walk through a huge llama grazing field, but eventually I made it to the hot springs. I didn't even care that the entire pool of water smelled like sulfur. I relaxed in the hot water for a long time, then decided to find the geysers.
I rode/pushed my bike toward where I had seen the steam earlier. I saw it again after awhile, and went toward it. When I got close, I realized that it wasn't a geyser at all. It was a burning pile of llama shit!
It was around that time that I really wished I had brought some water with me. Luckily, there were a couple houses nearby, and a guy was standing outside one of them. When I asked him if he had any water, he went into his house and emerged with what appeared to be a gasoline canister. He grabbed a cup, filled it with something that resembled water, and handed it to me. I asked him if it was purified, but he didn't understand Spanish. Too thirsty to care anymore, I slammed it down and asked for another cup. He obliged and I drank it too. I handed him two boliviano's and continued on my quest, feeling somewhat refreshed from the water.
After walking/riding a bit more, I looked around and didn't see anything that even remotely resembled a geyser. I found some kids nearby and asked them where the geyser was. When they told me that it was nowhere near there, I wondered why the park rangers said it was so close. It had been such a long day already that I gave up and headed back.
I made my way back toward the main road, but another big problem emerged: I had to cross the river again, and there was no bridge along the path. I didn't know it at the time, but the path made a tiny detour leading to the bridge. I was completely focused on not dying as I quickly rolled down the hill on my bike, so I didn't see the small trail that split to the left.
I started walking along the river, again looking for a bridge or a spot where the river was narrow enough to cross. After about half an hour, I found a prospective location, but it wouldn't be as simple as the last time because there was an island in the middle. First, I threw my bike onto the island, then, I ran and jumped, barely making it. Next, I threw the bike as far as I could, but it landed in the mud just short of the other side. At least it didn't float away. Finally, I tried to get enough momentum to make the jump myself, but the last step I took, which I thought was on solid ground, turned out to be in a bunch of mud. My entire shoe, sock, and pant leg were covered.
So, with my muddy foot and barely-moving bicycle, I plowed my way back to the main road, sloshing on the ground the entire way. When I got to the road, I started riding again, but, as the bike had no suspension to speak of, it was very bumpy. Still given the choice of either walking in the thick dirt on the side of the road, or flying three inches in the air every two seconds on the corrugated middle of the road, I chose to chose to get back faster and sit on an ice pack later.
What I thought would be a leisurely two-hour trip turned out to be a six-hour nightmare. When I got back into town, I immediately returned the bike. The owner's wife was there, and she asked if I saw the geysers. Not feeling like telling her the whole story I said "No, I couldn't find the path and went to the hot springs instead." She asked if I wanted to keep the bike for awhile longer and go to the geysers in the afternoon. I said, "Lady, if I never see another geyser again, it'll be too soon," and walked back to my room, glad that it was finally over.