Seán Daly has a timeless face. He was wearing cropped hiking pants, Tevas, and a fuzzy alpaca hat with earflaps when I met him, but I could picture him as easily in the black jacket and flat cap that our grandfathers would have worn in the west of Ireland. He is my age, from Crossmolina, Co. Mayo, and joined my table as soon as the mountain biking guide mangled my name in the roll call.
‘Dervala! Sure you can’t get more Irish than that! Where are you from?’
(Only my countrymen recognize my name as typically Irish. Americans believe Shannon and Kerry are Irish names—which they are, but for rivers and counties. I used to threaten to name my future US-born children Mississippi and Kansas.)
Seán was traveling in South America on his way to Australia, like the rest of the young and single Irish population, as far as I can tell. Ireland had gone to the bloody dogs, we agreed. We chatted about house prices. The property market has replaced the-number-of-pints-you-drank-last-night as the topic over which Irish people obsess and bond. It is as dreary as our weather.
Nonetheless, Seán was good fun, even at 7.30 in the morning, and I was sorry we were in separate jeeps heading up to the top of The Most Dangerous Road in the World for our mountain biking adventure. At La Cumbre, a bone-chilling 4500 meters, we were fitted for bikes and helmets. Zane, the Kiwi guide, interviewed us on whether we rode British or American style—apparently, front and back brakes are on different sides, a crucial detail when you try to save yourself freewheeling down these mountains. I felt faintly unpatriotic when he slipped off my front wheel to move my brakes to the American side.
We tried our helmets and our reflective jackets, and did some trial runs around the parking area on our expensive, beat-up mountain bikes. Zane pulled out a small bottle of pure alcohol, intoned a twangy blessing to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, and then sprinkled every one of our 23 bikes. The Bolivian guides looked on. In their baseball caps, fake Oakley shades, and high-end competition bikes, they seemed to shun Pachamama’s help. I was glad of the Aymara rites. Get her good and drunk so she’d be too happy to claim one of us.
Zane explained the route. For the first 15 kilometers, the road was paved, a practice run to get used to the gradient. We’d stop every five minutes or so, and there was no need for speed. The front brake held 70% of our stopping power. We were never to touch it without squeezing the back brake first, or we’d flip right over. We’d stay on the right for this first stretch, but just to make things interesting, traffic switched to left-hand-drive at the start of The Most Dangerous Road proper. The dogs were mostly fine, but the pigs were a threat—a jogging piglet could take out your front wheel.
I was nicely terrified starting off, though I’d ridden much worse than this smooth and swooping surface. I hunched over the brakes like an old lady pedaling to Mass, and moaned at each glimpse of the valley below, and the hairpin twists that would take me down to it.
Two kilometers in, one of our riders stood by a bend in the road in front of a parked truck. I glanced over, expecting directions, and saw a bloodied, unrecognizable face in the cement gully below. The turn was too tight to stop, so I continued to our group gathering around the next corner.
‘Someone’s down. I don’t know who.’
More riders crunched into the gravel bay.
‘Did ya see that girl somersault?’ said John, the Australian.
‘No, but there was a guy in the ditch back there. Sure it wasn’t him?’
‘No, a girl this was. Her back brake failed, they said. She went tumbling right over the front, poor thing. Banged up a bit. Her hip seemed messed up and her trousers were torn. They’re patching her up in the jeep.’
‘Anyone know about the guy? Is he one of ours?’
We waited. News filtered down the crackly walkie-talkies. The bloodied face belonged to Seán. There were two doctors in another bike tour who had stopped to help.
‘Stopped himself with his face,’ said Zane. ‘I think his back is a bit sore too. They’re taking him back to La Paz to stitch him up and check him out. The jeep will come right back once they’ve got him to the clinic.’
No ambulance. He must be all right, we thought. But we were subdued after forty minutes waiting. Two wipe-outs in the first five minutes, on this gentle warm up stretch. It started to drizzle. We started to talk about the fact that this wasn’t an adrenaline trip for us; we were just interested in the views, in avoiding the suicidal public buses, in getting to Coroico. For the next stretch, we all rode the brake like grannies.
The rain grew heavier. We rode through a cloud that got thicker and thicker, and were half-glad to be blinkered from those far-below valleys that we’d paid fifty bucks each to see. Rain and mud sprayed up from our tires, blinding us and painting dirty stripes front and back.
‘It hasn’t rained in a month,’ sighed Zane as the guides changed one set of brake pads after another, quickly worn down by the gritty mud.
We switched to the left-hand side for the official start of the crazy Coroico road. Downhill traffic drove closest to the drop, and had to yield to vehicles going uphill to La Paz. This was terrifying. The edge of the road often crumbled to nothing, and often there was only room for one car, requiring slow backward creeps around blind corners. The locals weren’t bothered, blithely overtaking on these corners with Pachamama’s drunken blessing. The honks of the oncoming trucks, above and below, made me feel like jungle prey. The girl who had somersaulted right at the start joined us back on the bikes, despite her bandages. We congratulated her on her bravery.
‘You don’t understand,’ she said, ‘It’s much, much scarier on the bus.’
A bus rumbled past so close that I stopped on the edge to avoid wobbling over. On the back was a fresh mural: Osama bin Laden and Che Guevara smiling over a burning Twin Towers. I gave them the gringo finger.
We grew filthier, hungrier, and more miserable as the ride went on. The famous views were wrapped in cotton wool. The road was churning with liquid mud, and it was too wet to stop for lunch. At our rest stops, the four skinny English boys looked like period photos of World War One tommies, daubed in khaki mud and hunched. One wore a new alpaca sweater that stretched towards his knees as it got wetter.
‘Look!’ he said, pointing to the stripe of mud on the back, ‘it’s reverting to its natural llama state, shitty bum an’ all!’
As we got closer to Coroico, 2000 meters down, the rain finally let up. The guides set up the picnic table they’d earlier used for Seán’s stretcher, and 23 rich tourists circled tightly like coyotes. It was 3 o’clock.
‘Okay. Chicken?’ said Aaron, eventually. For a moment, we shuffled and eyed each other.
‘Over ‘ere,’ said one of the English lads, and then we all reached hungrily. We ate standing, heads down, like dogs.
My new bike shorts, the cutest little skirt-covered shorts I’ve ever owned, were mud-caked and failing to pad my screaming rear, since I was too chicken to stand on this endless, bumpy descent. I talked with Susan and Norman, a Denver couple, about why we kept signing up for frightening, unpleasant activities.
‘The sense of achievement. And the bragging rights,’ said Norman.
‘Conquering fears,’ said Susan.
‘It’s like banging your head against a wall,’ I offered, ‘It feels so good when you stop.’
I’ve traveled solo too long. I have no patience with the endless faffing of large groups. As we waiting for every set of brake pads to be checked and changed yet again, for every straggler, for every lunch tray to be tucked away, I mourned the pisco sour I’d already be drinking by the pool if I were alone. As it was, we got to Coroico just as it got dark.
We dripped mud in the lobby of our posh hotel and wiggled in the sub-tropical warmth. This was my self-treat, a reward for survival that I’d hesitated about paying for in advance.
‘The sixteen-dollar rooms are so worth it,’ said Karin at the bike agency. ´There’s a balcony with fabulous views down the mountain, great showers, a DVD hook-up, a sauna, a pool…’
I had stayed in two-dollar hotels throughout Bolivia. You could class them as flea-pits, but fleas didn’t survive indoor cold that had me huddled in sleeping bag and blankets shortly after dark every evening. My mind reeled at the idea of a room eight times more luxurious. A hot shower? I suffered lethally-wired but still freezing showers for two weeks. At 4000 meters, on sub-zero mornings, only masochism had kept me clean. At the Hotel Esmerelda I stood under the solar-powered stream until it finally ran clear.
The next morning I discovered I had, as usual, been given the Single White Female room, at the back, facing the wall. At breakfast, the couples and groups babbled about their fabulous dawn views while I sulked. The manager shrugged when I complained, until I sweetly explained it was difficult to do my job as a travel reporter in a room too dark to see my notebook. Her breastfeeding baby squawked as she stiffened. of course, they would find me another room. And breakfast would be complimentary to make up for the inconvenience. Had I seen the new sauna?
Too little, too late, lady. I took my princess strop back to La Paz. The rain had stopped and the valleys revealed themselves below our crazy little road. The colectivo driver kept adding coca leaves to his wad. The man beside me swigged from a bottle of liquid codeine. Without chemical help, I was unable to suppress jerks and yelps of panic, even though we were on the inside lane. I clapped my mouth like a silent movie star. I slapped the door to brace against our plunge. I muttered ‘Oh dear Jesus.’ In extremes, it is still Jesus, not bodhichitta, who springs unbidden. The Bolivian passengers stared or snored.
We stopped under a waterfall to wash off yesterday’s mud. A rockslide rumbled below. A few hundred meters on, we passengers rocked forward in a sudden stop, an arm’s length from the noses of two huge Volvo trucks. The red one had decided to overtake the blue one on a blind corner. Another few seconds and we would have been nudged over the side. Our driver shook his fist, but he knew his little Hiace van was prey in this hierarchy.
Back in La Paz, I went to the agency to find out about Seán. Karin said he was in good spirits, but they’d kept him in hospital. He had, um, cracked a few vertebrae. I took his name and hospital address and went to see for myself.
‘Dervala!’ he said in his deep Mayo brogue, slowly turning a face that looked like raw meat. Oh dear God. He was hooked up to an IV drip and countless bags of painkillers. Several ribs were cracked and bruised. Two vertebrae were fractured, one was crushed. When he smiled I could see where his bottom lip had been sewn back on. The words of comfort from my childhood emerged by instinct, as much for me as for him.
‘You poor old darlin’, you’ve been in the wars, look at the state of you, you’ll be better before you’re married.’
But he was mobile, sort of, and cheerful as ever. The doctors felt he would make a full, if slow, recovery. All afternoon we chatted, while I lay on the sofa and chewed his coca leaves for altitude sickness. I told him about my best friend, who had destroyed two vertebrae in a fall from her bike three years ago, and how her husband loved the sexy corset she had to wear for months. Seán was being fitted for his corset that afternoon. We got him drinking straws for his poor torn lip; the Lonely Planet phrasebook didn’t cover such eventualities. We bemoaned the lack of Irish tea in Bolivian hospitals. I translated his thanks to the nurses who looked after him. And we laughed at the strength of the Irish kin-selection reaction, how it seemed inexplicably worse when one of our own got hurt far from home.
‘I knew it was going to happen, you know. I didn’t even feel I was going that fast, but I decided I’d start to slow down a bit. So I pulled the back brake, and the wheel started to wobble like mad. I tried to pull the both of them slowly, and the whole bike was just shaking. And I knew—I was such a long way from that bloody bend, but I knew there was no way I was going to go around it, given what was on the other side. I wipe out over there and I’m gone for good. So I just watched as the bike went out of control and I flew into that inside corner. Completely aware the whole bloody time. I think me alpaca hat saved me.’
He showed me photos of his pulped face in the jeep, before the doctors cleaned him up.
‘ ‘Twasn’t the most gorgeous nose before anyway,’ he said with a grin. ‘They might even straighten it out for me before I get to Australia.’