From somewhere in the black of a dreamless sleep, the ring of a phone begins to define itself through the slow flop, flop, flop of the ceiling fan cutting through the humidity that hangs like a cloud in my hotel room.
“Señor, we will be in the lobby for you at 8 a.m.,” says an accented female voice on the other end. “For the plane.”
The fog lifts off my consciousness and I now remember laying down just a few minutes ago after flying from Miami past the part of La Paz that sticks above seas of clouds to land below them in Santa Cruz de La Sierra — a trip that seems not of our time or of our world.
Looking through the arch of the velvet-draped window past a palm tree covering most of the patio, pink ribbons of morning light spread like dishwashing soap to clear away the dark blue of the Bolivian night sky. In the tree three turquoise parrots with yellow breasts are staring back at me.
On the table by the window is an uncorked bottle of Cristal.
My Submariner says 7:40 local time. I wonder why in the hell am I here in all of this with a first-class hotel room if I am leaving too soon to enjoy it. Taking the bottle, I pull my Tumi out of the room.
In the gilt edged lobby, on the Napoleonic-era clock hanging by a large cactus,
8 a.m. comes and goes past my drooping eyelids. At a bit past noon, the little bellboy wakes me to deliver a message lettered by hand on a small card. It says in English that I will be picked up exactly at 1:00. I hope to finally get on with the adventure I came here for.
That adventure is the annual Caravana Amazonia.
14 days. Crossing the most bio-diverse country on the planet on ATVs. Bolivia. Where mountain peaks over 6,000 meters high pierce the sky above earth’s tallest navigable lake. The most dangerous road in the world races down past Indian women in bowler hats to be lost in the intoxicating Amazon. Lost in a dream like the ancient pink opera house and private railroad built in the jungle by the first rubber baron that we will find.
Two countries. 2,000 kilometers. The per-person price (check rates at http://www.caravan-atv.com/) includes ground transportation, hotels, breakfast, dinner and a Honda ATV with four-wheel drive and a semi-automatic transmission. Organizer Juan Carlos Salvatierra adds an extra gas tank and throws in oil changes with all other maintenance. You have to go out of pocket for gas, water, a few meals and tolls, which average about $1.50 per for a crossing of some of the most beautiful water scenes this side of Thomas Kincaid.
“Señor, sue coche esta aqui.”
A Lexus SUV with opaquely tinted windows sits in the black shade of the porte cochere. It is now a bit past 1:30. A tall man in a black bomber jacket who looks like a bodyguard for a dictator puts my bags in the back. Without speaking, we drive through Santa Cruz on cobbled streets under roofs of red tile burnt at the edges like homemade bread.
There is a precisely executed cathedral. A canvas-tented mercado of fruit and vegetables. Raw red meat. Fish dried hard. A thatched-roofed hospital. Rows of barefoot tailors spinning old sewing machines. A bank sits high on the tiled sidewalk with a lone guard cradling a rifle in his arms waiting in front for the return of Butch and Sundance.
A half hour passes. We turn onto a white gravel road — the kind usually found only south of Jacksonville. On an airfield whacked out of the jungle for the surreptitious comings and goings of the CIA or for the dropping of large bundles of entertainment produce from the sky, a rusty DC 3 lies dying on the edge of burnt grass.
Is this the runway my plane into the unknown will finally take off from?
“Bolivio’clock,” says Jeff Shulz, a forty-year-old housing contractor from Riverside, California when I apologize for being so many hours late.
We are standing on the linoleum floor of the anteroom inside a lonely tin hanger. He is wearing a Fox Racing off-road jacket like mine so I figure we are in this together.
David Wilmot, the big, bearded truck driver from Memphis, introduces himself to me. “Welcome to Bolivia. Time is told with a different clock down here.”
‘’Lee Klatcher. Minneapolis,” says a cherub-faced twenty-something offering his hand to shake mine.
Sitting on tubular chrome chairs that must have been in a 1920’s beauty parlor is the fifth American of our party — ex Green Beret Mick Hogan– now working in the American Consulate of some third world oil-producing fiefdom, and his very tall dark-haired wife.
Jeff whispers, “Mick Hogan is CIA.”
“And I think she’s the Dragon Lady,” says David.
“Mick is big and blonde enough to be Hulk Hogan.” Lee tells them both.
Looking silently past our chit-chatting cast, beyond the doorway with no door into the darkness of the hangar, I get a little anxious seeing a propeller on the ground under a turbo prop with one flat tire. A dirty Tupperware bowl under the motor appears to be filling up with oil. If I don’t find a tranquilizer before we take off in this crate, I just may walk to Brazil.
Pointing to a new and very clean white Brasilia: “Ese es nuestro aeroplana alla,” says a guy who looks like Ricky Martin in a starched white shirt with epaulettes.
”But the captain went home for lunch.” says David.
“Bolivio’clock,” repeats Jeff.
Like a thousand pound gorilla at a Chuckie Cheese birthday party of overweight school kids, delay in Bolivia is accepted as the norm. So is fun.
There are no lap timers or pulse meters. No snooze buttons. And no one will be hiding in the bushes with a citation book just in case you might enjoy yourself. The few cops around have other things to do.
I got used to it. Changed my life.
I uncork that champagne. “ To Bolivio’clock.”
The plane didn’t leave until sunset. I don’t think we noticed much except the awesome view as we flew low above the serpentine river that turned orange in the sunset snaking through a green world empty of anything human.
(To be continued….)
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Nice. You have even more fun than I do. Raymond B.
Thank you for sharing! (you have truly been putting me in awe…) Trish O.
Cool, Mike! Hey, when will you come to Brazil? You are my guest! Demian
Wow. Thanks, Demian. I should come to Brazil again. MS
Let’s plan this, my friend! Demian
Respect for not being all cushy all the time ;). Love the shot with the mariposa. Rebecca O.
Wonderful! Joe T.