Bolivian Shocker

There are times when it’s preferred that we are traveling slowly, down dirt tracks, exploring the vastness of the countryside, oppositely there are the times that you abruptly blow out a shock in a Bolivian pothole minefield going 80 kilometers an hour. After a chilly, restless sleep at 14,500 feet in the Sajama valley, we awoke to our cholita hitch hiking grandma herding her llamas down to the very river that we couldn’t cross the previous evening. The rising sun, the oatmeal with instant cafe mochachino mixed in, and the slow seeped tea, combined to warm up our van and in turn, our morale. Taking advantage of the sunny, windless morning, we decided to do a little van TLC before driving into the assumed craziness of La Paz and hopefully find our good friend Andrew still bartending at the party hostel Loki.

We gave the vans interior a much needed deep clean, as the previous day’s dust storm open-vent-fiasco dropped an unforecasted two centimeters of the finest, driest, dust we’ve seen thus far. While Marlie reorganized, and shoveled out the dust, I started sanding the many tiny rust pimples that have cropped up on the vans exterior over the past 28 years of coastal cruising. We toiled throughout the morning and into early afternoon exfoliating these post puberty blemishes, spot by spot, exposing more and more of the vans metallic dermas. Sanding, masking and spray painting sparkly blue new patches turned out to be a rewarding activity, time flew, as did the percentage of sparkly blue paint versus the original clouded midnight glossed blue paint. Mid-afternoon came and went, the van had received a makeover, and we’d later find out that we had received our first high altitude sunburn treatment. After enjoying the scenery and a massive sandwhich lunch, we bid farewell to our llama friends and Bolivian grandma as we slowly made our way down the dusty track, out of the valley and onto the main paved thoroughfare. 


While slow cruising we passed through small settlements of mud brick homes and rock walled llama corrals, they appear to be dwelled in but rarely did we see the occupants. One of these settlements had a manual hand pump on their water well, with multiple troughs stair stepped below to collect the excess water for the llama herds. Seeing no one around except thirty looking llamas, we were able to pump up some fresh water to refill our bottle and van tank. A simple act of volunteering to pump llama and van water, left us feeling dually accomplished, and now allows us to check off the volunteering box on the the quintessential Savvlers Checklist*. Filling our van with well water is essential as we can longer trust the hose water at Bolivian gas stations, like we’ve been doing the last two months in Chile and Argentina. Now having scored quality well water while volunteering and a new paint job in Sajama National Park, in a single day, had our stoke on high. It’s these moments of elation that trigger memories of pumping water in my formative days, to create mini streams to dam and race stick boats at Greenough Lake campground south of Red Lodge, Montana. 


Continuing on with our day by driving back to nearest gas station and bartering for gas, we were able to fill our gas tank for the equivalent of four USD per gallon and soon found ourselves racing the sun to La Paz. I can imagine Savvlinvans nightmares mainly consist of driving at night, let alone navigating the narrow, steep, dark, and rumored to be crime ridden streets of La Paz after sunset. Roads in Bolivia are notorious for their poor quality, outside of their main North south four lane highway that runs the length of the country, roughly through the center. Marlie was at the helm, cruising at 80 kmh, with the wilds of western Bolivia spread before us, and hulking Mt. Sajarma filling the side view mirrors in the rear. The altiplano is at an elevation of 13,000 ft, green high desert flora fills the valleys, while the canyon walls consist of red desert rock formations ranging from the red scoria hills of the badlands of North Dakota to the red rock escarpments of Bryce Canyon in southern Utah. The dreamy afternoon conditions, the altitude, the new landscape, and the seemingly pothole less road, all lulled us into a relaxed contented state. 

We suddenly lurched forward as Mar applied the brakes and tried to navigate the crater filled road before us, she daintily guided the ramvan through the moonscape, and as soon as I let myself think we had dodged a bullet, the bomb exploded with a loud smash of tire rim and asphalt. After an untold amount of driving the finest roads in central and South America, it appeared that the van had met its match. We looked at each other with a bit of WTF, as Marlie slowed and eased off onto a paved widened shoulder shortly after the van crashed through the moonscape and back onto the Bolivian road. 


Neither of us are mechanically inclined, but it surely didn’t take a mechanic to notice the new amber colored oily substance dipping off the left front shock. We checked the oil level, transmission level, and the power steering level, all levels checked out level. Now level headed we decided to push onward to La Paz at our most glacially cautious pace that we could muster. Soon the sun was setting, the nightmare of a road was easing and we were grinding our way in to the depths of the La Paz valley. Our trusty guidebook led us astray on the address of the hostel and we soon found ourselves limping up and down the dark streets just looking for a place to rest our poor van for the night. Marlies driving ability shone bright, as my copilot skills guided us up and down, to where I thought a parking lot would be. On instinct she maneuvered hard left while plowing uphill and landed us into the only parking lot we ever did see in our whole time of La Paz. 

I’ll spare the readers the details of our time in La Paz, as after we found a mechanic we trusted, we entrusted the van to his lot, called a taxi, cracked a beer, and took a bit of a vacation from our vacation.



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