We topped the ridge on the dirt road and began dropping quickly into the valley on our mountain bikes. We all knew that it’d continue to get warmer and greener as we descended from the Bolivian highlands, but our thoughts were mostly focused on what awaited us at the end of the ride. The anticipated post-ride rewards were different for each person- a warm bath, 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, and the uncertainty about the road details in general, destined it to be an especially challenging ride for whoever the lead rider was. And somehow, I ended up in that position. And, I must say that riding fast downhill on a mountain bike was never really my thing.
Within moments of starting down, there was no more group. We were just five individuals heading down a dirt road, decked out in the newest mountain bike garb, in the fog, and going toward our various rewards. I savored the simple and comfortable riding of the first few minutes. The road was all down, and when you’re tired, going downhill is a welcomed thing. Simple gravity did its work from the get-go. As physics and human nature would have it, our speed kept increasing as we rode, and the technical aspects involved with the riding of our bikes seemed to lessen.
As I continued, I hoped that there’d be nothing going up the road on the wrong (left) side, because I certainly couldn’t see very far ahead. I decided that only a fool would drive on the wrong side of the road or herd goats or lamas up that same side. But then I began speculating about various negative possibilities regarding that- things such as a herd of something crossing the road at the wrong time or me swerving to miss a mud hole. And then I began wondering if maybe people just drove on the left side of the road in that part of the Andes?
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 kids running off to the side, as I zipped 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 know that I was going faster than I really wanted to avoid having any of them catch up as if that 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 off to the side of the road amid a long sweeping turn. It lasted for only an instant, but I’ll remember it for eternity. I can only guess what was going through their minds when they saw me. I was a strangely clad entity of some sort. I had appeared abruptly and silently out of the fog and was riding down the road on a bicycle toward Sorata. Perhaps, I thought, I was a spirit of some sort). Conversely, I know what I saw at that instant, and it was merely 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 met for a fleeting moment. Undoubtedly, each of us saw 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 the episode. 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 conclusion. 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. They were 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, I quickly disappeared back into the fog and rounded a big turn. I disappeared as suddenly as I had appeared. Undoubtedly, the three of us each wondered what had just happened. Whatever the case, we’d briefly, but intensely looked into each other’s eyes. It was something that would never occur again. That afternoon, 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. The couple would not be thinking about hotel accommodations but would be busy gathering firewood to warm up their house for the coming cold and damp night. I wasn’t positive about much but was confident of the inevitable fact that the night would surely come, and we’d all be 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, 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 a different way to describe it. I’d almost run over a couple of locals, and the three of us had looked into each other’s eyes. I started telling them about what I’d seen but couldn’t do it in a way that made sense. And so in some ways, it just became an insignificant interlude, but 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 dry kindling stash 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 they wondered why it smoked so much.