The Longest Night Of My Life

Traditional Bolivian Woman

A series of problems would soon impede my progress through Bolivia. However the country has so much to offer in terms of people, landscapes, food and culture that I would take these problems (more or less) in my stride and still enjoy my time there. I was so excited about visiting the Salar de Uyuni and Bolivia’s South West, I couldn’t foresee that I would end up losing my sight for three days.

I set off from Potosi with a full belly and lots of goodies from my lovely hosts Louis & Maribel. The roads out of the city were blockaded due to a strike against the government but this worked in my favour as there was no traffic. What made things a little tougher was the altitude. My body was still acclimatising and the four passes at 4,200 meters on the road to Uyuni left me panting and pushing.

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Nestled between two of the passes was a small village called Tica Tica. I stayed the night there with Justo Flores and his family. It was a very interesting insight into the lives of Bolivians in the countryside working the land. Their home is very simple. They have little in terms of material possessions and wealth. Yet they welcomed me into their home without really asking who I was. They fed me (we ate rice cooked in milk for dinner) and gave me a bed for the night (the mattress was made of cardboard, stuffed sacks and blankets) and asked for nothing in return. I was humbled that people with so little would give so much.

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Bolivia’s wild South West contains unique landscapes of coloured lakes, volcanoes and flamingos. I missed out on cycling this route as I was short on time to meet my friend Mark in Sucre, Boliva. However I was determined to see these otherworldly landscapes and on arrival in Uyuni I signed up for a three day tour of the region. I spent the next three days glued to my camera absorbing these awe inspiring sights:

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Returning to Uyuni after the tour I prepared to cycle across the Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt desert. This was something I had dreamed of doing for years since first reading Alastair Humphrey’s book ‘Thunder & Sunshine’. An endless expanse of hexagonal tiles is formed by the crystalline nature of the salt. As far as the eye can see white salt meets the blue sky on the horizon. It’s yet another dramatic and dreamlike landscape common in this part of Bolivia.

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Excitement swept through me as my wheels crunched over the salt for the first time. Navigation was a source of concern for me though. There are no roads or landmarks and the view is more or less uniform in every direction. So as I entered the Salar I took a photo and then sketched a picture of the volcanoes I could just make out on the horizon. I knew I had to head roughly west so kept checking my compass every five minutes. I needn’t have worried though, on this section there were a plethora of 4X4 jeeps headed in the same direction as me. Some zoomed past while others slowed down so the passengers could snap photos of me.

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That night I camped out on the Salar. I wanted to see sunrise and sunset in this unique environment. They did not disappoint. Completely alone, I greedily enjoyed them all to myself. I have never been to a place so lifeless but so beautiful. Nothing can live there due to the salt yet there is something magical about the Salar. I spent another day exploring Isla Incahuasi, a coral island near the centre of the Salar.

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On my third day in this white world I began to cycle north, headed towards another but much smaller salt flat the Salar de Coipasa. A seemingly innocuous decision not to wear sun glasses would turn out to be a major error of judgement. I enjoyed my final few hours cycling on the salt flat with no sense of the impending trouble that would soon befall me. There were no vehicles on this part of the Salar and I began to feel like the only person on earth.

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Upon reaching Tahua, on the northern shore of the Salar, after much debate I decided to stay. I found a ‘hospedaje’, a cheap room in what looked like an abandoned house. This would turn out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. I dread to think what would have happened had I carried on and wild camped. Suffering with a headache I decided to take an afternoon nap.

When I woke three hours later at dusk I had a burning pain in my eyes. I tried to open them but it felt like I was being stabbed. For the brief moment I was able to open my eyes everything was blurred and distorted beyond any comprehension. Terror filled me. It didn’t take long for me to realise this was the result of riding on the Salar without sun glasses. I lay in the dark for a very long time berating my own stupidity.

Eventually I considered my situation. I was alone in a remote village in rural Bolivia. No services, hospital or internet. Most people here spoke Quechua (a tribal language) rather than Spanish meaning communication was difficult. It felt like my eyes were being burnt with a lighter, I could not see and did not know if this was temporary or permanent. That was the scariest moment of my life.

Attempting to remain calm I kept telling myself I must have snow blindness which is temporary. I managed to convince myself that I just needed to sleep, rest my eyes and in the morning it would be better. Yet I couldn’t sleep. My mind was racing with a million thoughts and the pain was too great. That was the longest night of my life.

In the morning, though I was still in a great deal of pain, it had subsided just enough to give me hope that it was getting better and might not be permanent. At 7am the landlady arrived to collect payment and seemed unmoved by my attempts to explain the situation. She simply told me to rub water in my eyes. Having not eaten in almost 24 hours and feeling as helpless as an infant, I knew I had to do something. The locals must have thought I was some sort of deranged gringo as I staggered down the street with my eyes closed and my arms out in front of me attempting not to walk head first into a wall.

I needed to phone Louis and Maribel and hope they could help. My kind hosts in Potosi and the only people I knew in Bolivia. I had their number on my email but with no internet access I first had to call some old friends in England to get the number. I had not spoken Peter and Tricia in over two years since I began my ride and could hear the surprise in their voices. Not wanting to alarm them I tried to play it cool. So when they asked how I was, I had to summon all my English reserve in order to casually answer “I’m in a spot of bother actually”.

Speaking next to Maribel she told me she only knew one person in this region but to my unbridled relief her friend was a doctor who at that moment happened to be in Tahua, the same village I was. Maribel told me to go back and wait for him as he would be round soon to help me. This felt like nothing short of a miracle

A couple of hours later Dr. Victor Navarro managed to track me down despite me being unable to explain where I was staying. Presumably he asked the locals “where’s the blind gringo?”. My first question was whether I would be blind permanently but he calmly assured me it would pass. I just needed a few days in a dark room with my eyes closed. He took me to a different house where the owners agreed to let me stay in a spare room and make me three meals a day. This meant all I needed to do was sleep and rest my eyes. Relief coursed through me and my gratitude to Victor and Maribel was huge.

Victor came back with some eye drops and returned each day to check on me. Even when food was brought to me though, eating it was a serious challenge. Without the use of my eyes I had to eat with my hands. Each morning I would wake expectantly but it took two more days to open my eyes without pain. My vision returned slowly. Once able, I caught the weekly bus from Tahua to Uyuni and from there a bus to Potosi where I spent another five days convalescing.

Back to full health I set off from Potosi for the second time. Heading north I cycled for three days over giant red mountain ranges until I managed a spectacular fall whilst going faster than I realised. I was left with two gashed hands and a serious bruise on my thigh. Not able to hold the handlebars I had to hitch.

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After a few nights resting in Oruro I made the final push towards La Paz. It took half an hour to find my way out of Oruro’s sprawling suburbs. The city centre shops gave way to endless houses. Finally the organised city streets became a track and the two story houses became one room dwellings. The horizon opened up and I was back out on the altiplano.

The road from Oruro to La Paz was awful. The road was thick with traffic and had no hard shoulder for me to ride on. Bolivia’s famous ‘Road of Death’ runs east out of La Paz from the Andes down into the Amazon. It’s a major tourist attraction these days having been named the most dangerous road in the world. Personally I think the road from Oruro to La Paz is the real road of death. The road might be more than 2 meters wide and not have 1,000 meter sheer drops off the side but it is brutal. An endless stream of impatient drivers in heavy goods vehicles on both sides of the road leaves no space for a cyclist. For the first time in two years I felt in genuine danger. One too many trucks passed at speed, honking like mad, within arm’s reach and I decided it was not worth it. So I chose to hitch.

It took over two hours for someone to stop and offer a lift. It was getting late and I was just about to leave the road to camp when a small truck pulled over. Two friendly Bolivians jumped out and helped me load my bike and bags in the back. I found them almost impossible to understand as they slurred words and cut them short. They offered me soft drinks and coca leaf. In return I gave them ‘changkaka con mani’ (the Bolivian equivalent of toffee with peanuts). I was a little unnerved when they each took a deep swig from a bottle of clear liquid that smelt like paint stripper (perhaps the cause of their slurring). They declined to offer this beverage to me.

We arrived in El Alto at 9pm. El Alto is a city perched at 4,100 meters on top of a mountain and is joined to La Paz the Bolivian capital which sits in the valley below. I was dropped off in El Alto as my companions were not going to La Paz. This meant I needed to pedal the final 10 miles to La Paz at night on a motorway without bike lights. Adding to my concern was the fact that El Alto is no place for tourists after dark.

With no other choice I loaded up my bike and set off very focused on the road and what was going on around me. After 15 minutes I made it through El Alto and began the long winding descent on the motorway into La Paz. The big danger now was being hit by passing traffic. I turned a corner and got a breath taking view of La Paz at night, its lights twinkling like stars as far as I could see. I had to remind myself not to enjoy the view but to remain focused on the road.

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At 10pm I arrived at the casa de cyclistas (house of the cyclists) where the owner Cristian had agreed to let me stay. A few days passed exploring the city and getting various bits of admin done before I was struck down with flu and spent a week in bed. At the casa I met another cyclist, Alex, a heavily bearded and rather jolly Austrian. We were probably the last cyclists heading north as rainy season had now begun. As Alex and I got to know each other better we decided to cycle north together – both keen for some company. We began discussing routes through Peru and agreed on the mountains. I planted a seed in his mind when I suggested we buy a canoe in northern Peru and paddle on the Amazon into Ecuador.

3 Responses to “The Longest Night Of My Life”

  1. Beautiful pictures!
    This brought back so many happy memories for me.
    Thank you!

  2. Simon Dunn says:

    Holy smokes you must have been cacking it! glad to hear you are on the mend and still on the move :)

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