We topped the ridge on the dirt road and began dropping quickly on our mountain bikes down toward the valley. We all knew that it would continue to get warmer and greener as we descended from the Bolivian highlands, but our thoughts at that moment were mostly focused on what awaited us at the end of the ride. For each person, those anticipated rewards were different- a warm bath, a cold beer, hot coffee, a dry room. And so, we thought of those things and little else as the town of Sorata came increasingly into view.
Slowly, our group split up, or perhaps it was more like fell into disarray. What actually happened was more a matter of reality, than perspective. It probably didn’t matter all that much, because the result was the same. We just got more spread out and separated as time wore on. Some, just liked to go fast and others were more cautious- so that’s just the way it was.
Undoubtedly, given the Andean rainy season fog, the number of potholes that continually plagued the dirt road and the uncertainty about where or how the thing ran, whoever was out in front was just going to have an especially challenging ride and somehow, I ended up in that position. And, I must say that riding fast downhill on a mountain bike was really never my thing.
Within moments of starting down, there was no more group, just five individuals heading down a dirt road, all decked out in the newest mountain bike garb, in the fog and going toward our various rewards. Was it all a myth, speculation or would there really be some sort of treasure waiting for each of us down below, I kept pondering? Besides wondering about what sort of “bonus” we’d find when we got down to our Sorata hotel, I did savor the pure easy riding of those few moments. And, I was able to do so without a lot of effort, since the road was all down and when you’re tired, going downhill is a good thing. Simple gravity had done its work as the descent had begun and then continued. As physics would have it, as we rode, our speeds increased and the technical aspects involved with the riding of our bikes seemed to lessen.
As I rode, I just kept hoping that there’d be nothing going up the road on the wrong (left) side, because I certainly couldn’t see very far ahead. I kept thinking that a person would have to be stupid to drive up the wrong side of the road or herd goats or lamas or some other kind of livestock up that same side—even in the mountains of Bolivia. But then I would think about it a little deeper and begin speculating about all sorts of negative possibilities. Such as, what if a herd of something was just crossing the road at the wrong time? What if I avoided a mud hole on the right side of the road at the wrong time? What if people just drove on the left side of the road in that part of the Andes for some unknown reason?
The fog deadened the sound and I could hear very little. Visibility was about 75 feet and I saw only the occasional bright skirt of a local woman, a smattering of cows and at one point, some kids running off to the side, as I zipped semi-smoothly along. Even though I couldn’t see or hear them, I knew that the other riders were back behind, more than likely each pushing their own pace, I figured. I know that I was going faster than I really wanted to in order to avoid having any of them catch up to me, as if that really mattered.
Even with my senses heightened, it happened unexpectedly. Thankfully, I had slowed just a bit to avoid a cow, when two figures appeared out of the fog. They were just to the side of the road in the midst of a long sweeping turn. It lasted for only an instant, but I’ll remember it for eternity. I can only guess about what was going through their minds when they saw me, but I have to think they saw a strangely clad entity of some sort that had appeared abruptly and silently out of the fog and was riding down the road on a bicycle toward Sorata (perhaps a spirit of some sort). I know what I first saw and it was simply obstacles to avoid.
But, as it turns out there was more to our passing than just that. While I was just trying to stay upright and on the actual road, our eyes had met for a fleeting moment. Undoubtedly, each of us saw and were confronted with the same events, but our interpretations were different. I’ve never been able to come up with a single word that really does justice to what I saw. For a moment, our two worlds almost literally clashed. Even though it lasted for only a second or so, what I saw in their eyes was not fright, bewilderment or confusion, but instead- a not so simple story. I don’t know what they saw in mine, but I can only hope that it was the same.
In that brief moment, I made several observations and came to a number of conclusions. I thought of the couple as shepherds, and I don’t know why. I noted that they were wearing traditional and colorful clothing. I was wearing a bike jersey covered with logos and blue lightning bolts. I could almost smell the sickening stench of their wet wool ponchos and they undoubtedly smelled the body odor I had accumulated from days of mountain biking. I figured they probably worried about where I would go to get out of the cold and damp and sleep that night. I know for a fact that I didn’t even think about where they would.
And so, I speculate:
The couple had been hardened by their years spent at high altitude, had likely never driven a car and probably lived in a rock house out in the middle of nowhere with only a fireplace to temper the Andean chill. They were proud of the path their lives were on. Their herd of lamas was getting larger all the time, they had a good field for growing Quinoa and potatoes and both sets of parents lived only a short walk away. And, to literally top it all off, their house was near the top of the ridge, and when the clouds left, they could see the lights of Sorata down in the valley below and the summits of Ancohuma and Huayna Potosi rising above the Altiplano to the east.
After our passing, in another instant I disappeared back into the fog and rounded a big turn which took me further down the road. I have no doubt that the three of us each wondered what had just happened. Whatever the case, we had briefly looked into each other’s eyes. It was probably something that would never occur again. I would ride on down to Sorata, where the five of us mountain bikers would get a hotel with a warm, dry room and I’d have a nice hot coffee. I was pretty sure that the couple was not thinking about hotel accommodations, but would likely be busy themselves with gathering firewood to warm up their house for the cold, damp night ahead once they had gotten their animals penned up for the night. All said, I was especially confident of the one inevitable fact which was that the night would surely come and we’d all be mostly content in our own worlds.
Eventually, our group made it down into the town by late that afternoon. We checked into a hotel and after hot showers and otherwise cleaning up, we all sat together in big chairs in one of the hotel’s lounges and drank cheap wine. We all recounted our day and the big descent. It’d been the same day for all of us, but we each had something different to say about it. I had almost run over the couple and we had looked into each other’s eyes. I started telling about what I’d seen, but even I couldn’t make sense out of what I was saying, and so in many ways it just became a small interlude, with profound meaning, in an otherwise busy day of adventuring in the Bolivian Highlands.
And I speculate again:
The young couple gathered wet firewood that afternoon and found a stash of dry kindling under an old tub that the old man had left. Soon there was a roaring fire going in their old house and the kids from the next farm came over and joined them inside mostly because it was something different to do. Soon, the children were joined by their grandmother, who’d waited for things to warm up before inviting herself in. The young couple talked about what they’d seen that day on their way up to the greener pasture and they wondered about it. The kids and the grandmother stared at the fire as they listened and mostly wondered why the thing smoked so much.