Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Las Nubes desde Nuestra Ventana

It rained hard all night long but was clear again by morning. The clouds lingering in the valley made for a beautiful and dramatic scene. A few hours later all the remaining clouds and fog had burned off.

Las Nubes Otra Vez

Rolf and Claudia purchased tickets for the four of us on a 2:00 p.m. collectivo, so we had a few hours to kill. After all the activity yesterday, we weren't really up for a hike. So after we checked out of the hotel, we just wandered around town for a while. I needed a replacement for my watch that imploded and accidentally bought something really cool. When we left the store, the face of my new watched was a different color than I had thought it was. No big deal; I was just kind of surprised. Then when I looked at it a few minutes later, it was yet another color. It turns out I bought a mood watch! After that, we just walked around town looking at the bella vistas and soaking up the sun. We ate some lunch, and it was time to go.

Una Calle en Coroico

We picked up our packs at the hotel and loaded up in the van. There was a Peruvian teenager getting on with us that had a "Surf Oklahoma" t-shirt on. Seriously. I couldn't make this stuff up. The ride to La Paz should take three to three and a half hours. For $1.90 each, it seemed like quite a value. Tom and I were in the very back seat for the very bumpy ride. And unfortunately, as we departed, I realized I had left my Dramamine in my pack which was tied on the roof of the van. Hopefully I'll live.

The first hour and a half of the ride was uneventful. It started raining some, but we were making good time. Then things took their first turn for the worse. We got stuck in the mud and were spinning our wheels. The driver said something in Spanish, and all but the last two rows of passengers (including us!) got out of the van. The driver then backed up (almost off the edge of this narrow road) and made a run for it. He fishtailed quite a bit. It was scary! But not as scary as what happened ten minutes later.

Tom and I couldn't see what was ahead of the van since we were in the back seat, but for some reason we had stopped. Then the driver turned around! On the freakishly narrow road! He backed up until the rear of the van was totally hanging off the edge of the cliff! We could see straight down into the nothingness. When he felt his wheels at the precipice, he pulled forward! What a dick. He could have let us all out before he attempted such an asinine feat.

We got out into the rain and encountered the biggest traffic mess ever. A truck had slid crossways in the narrow mountain road, and traffic was backed up in both directions, though we didn't know what the problem was at the time. We all suspected a landslide was blocking the road. Our driver suggested we could walk ahead and see if the road was passable on foot. If it was passable on foot, perhaps vehicles coming downhill would turn around and go back and we could hitch a ride with them, and our driver could do the same with passengers coming downhill. Our other option was potentially spending the night in the minivan. All 17 of us.

So Rolf and Claudia and Tom and I took off up the road. It was impossible to see around the corners and past the traffic to see what was ahead. A short time later we came to the truck in the road. Apparently the genius driver had taken off on foot and was nowhere to be found. We should have pushed the damn thing off the side of the cliff and been done with it.

We walked and walked, uphill in the rain, with all our belongings and one half-liter bottle of water to split between the two of us. As we were walking, I noticed a few people had set up tents. Not a good sign. An hour later we told our Swiss friends to go on without us. There's no way we could keep up with them - they're Swiss! Save yourselves, Swiss people! We continued walking.

How 'Bout a Lift?

Finally, two and a half hours and probably about 5mi/8km later, a few vehicles started coming uphill towards La Paz on our side of the blocked road. We didn't know if vehicles were starting to get through the impasse or if people were finally turning around. But thank God! We needed a ride. We hitched a ride in the back of a pickup with a Bolivian army guy. It was very cold by this altitude and still raining, and the guy drove maniacally fast. He was sliding all over the place. He took us several miles to a drug checkpoint, where hopefully we would be able to find a ride on into La Paz, hopefully actually INSIDE a vehicle this time.

We waited at the checkpoint about 30 minutes before getting a ride in another collectivo. We were wet and freezing. I'd never been so happy to be crammed in a van with a bunch of strangers in my life! As we passed La Cumbre, I noticed all the beautiful fresh snow on the mountain tops that hadn't been there the day before. It was another hour and a half before we finally arrived in La Paz, where yet another adventure began. All in all, the whole ordeal from Coroico to La Paz took a little over six hours.

We got in a taxi to return to the hotel we had stayed at for three nights before going to Coroico, Arcabucero Hostal Inn, and things seemed kind of chaotic in the streets. The taxista told us that it had rained and said some stuff we didn't quite catch and that thirty-plus people had died in San Pedro. San Pedro is the area of town where our hotel was! Then he pointed out where people where hauling off mounds of hail in five-gallon buckets to clear the streets. We stepped out of the taxi and the streets were dark. No electricity.

We went in the hotel. No electricity and no rooms. They were very, very nice and very helpful there. The proprietress invited us to come in and sit down while we figured out what to do next. Tom asked if we could change our clothes, as we were still wet and freezing, and they said of course. Then they told us of an area of town with electricity and recommended a couple of hotels. They hailed a taxi for us and told him where to take us. They were taking good care of the cold, wet, perplexed gringos! I might mention that nobody from the time we left the Swiss couple has spoken a word of English, which just adds to the adventure!

When we got to our new place, Columbus Palace Hotel, luxurious with electricity and an English-speaking staff, we found out more. Just hours before, about the time we should have arrived in La Paz, there was a TERRIBLE freak flash flood and hail storm. There was golf-ball sized hail, flash flooding, traffic accidents, and collapsing buildings. La Paz is situated in a funnel of a canyon, so you can imagine the ferocity of the waters rushing downward. The president of Bolivia has declared La Paz a disaster area.

We switched on the local news. They were calling this "Un Día Negro Para la Ciudad de La Paz," a black day for the city of La Paz, and "Martes de Tragedia in La Paz," Tuesday of tragedy in La Paz. I'll say. We couldn't follow a lot of what the commentator was saying, but the video footage was HORRENDOUS. They showed bodies floating away and collapsing buildings with people jumping out and all sorts of tragedy. They even showed dead babies in a morgue having numbers written on their little chests. At that point, Tom wisely switched the channels. There was no telling yet how many people had died.


Continue to day 10.

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