THE SAMAY HOSTEL bustles with young twenty-somethings and me. I have the last available bunk in an eight-bed dorm. The bed is wide and covered sheets and one thin bedspread. Warm enough for the climate and light on my body, so comfortable, that the next morning, I book another 3 nights.
Cochabamba is a city with a population of over six hundred thousand but with a small town feel. The days are sunny and warm exceeding the mid-twenties, a good ten Celsius above La Paz. It feels good to be out of a coat and in t-shirt once again, it’s been a while…
Giselle is a young Brazilian volunteer at Samay, keen to learn English, which makes it easy for me booking in. Marwa is half German and Egyptian and volunteering at Samay. Nico is Argentinian, has a Suzuki 125 and is also a volunteer.
I mistake the owner, Denise, as a guest. She’s mid-twenties and beautiful and trusts her volunteers to run the place enough that she comes and goes at will. Andrea is the cleaner, stocky without being overweight and with my poqueno de Espanol and her little English we communicate economically but with good cheer. Andrea is busy with the donkey work of changing beds and ministering the laundry but finds time to go upstairs to flirt with the muscle-bound builders constructing the house next door, a source of early morning commotion, loud enough to wake the dead – or gap year travellers.
Up the hill is the Cristo de la Concordia. A monument to JC himself, a metre taller than the famous monument in Rio de Janiero. The Teleferic up the hill is closed for maintenance with no sign of maintenance activity as I walk past shortly before 5pm and head for the stairs up the hillside to catch the sunset.
The sun maybe above the horizon but is already behind a hill in the distance. I climb the stairs rapidly to see if I can catch it but the sun is sinking faster than I am rising and I stop to catch my breath. The climb takes about thirty minutes and is a fair workout for the legs and cardio system. With the cable car out of action, there are no elderly or infirm visitors here but a good smattering of families and couples taking pictures and admiring the cityscape light up through the balmy dusk.
Darkness falls before I descend and I quietly tread the steps down through the chirp of tropical treefrogs and crickets. Dark but not cold feels like a dream after La Paz: like it shouldn’t be possible in reality. No-one is around between the descent and arriving at the hostel.
Later in the week, a young couple staying at the hostel, descending the Cristo stairs in the dark were robbed at gunpoint. They were more shocked than physically hurt… fortune, good and bad, finds us all along our path from cradle to grave.
Will, an English Ski instructor who works 6 months and takes 6 months off, on his mission to make it a full 12 months, a year is in the bunk below me. Directs me to useful shops and cafes within walking distance and recommends a barber that gives a good straight shave. I’ve never had one before so I head there first thing in the morning. I arrive less than a minute before the young latin owner turns up to raise the anonymous-looking matt black shutters revealing what looks like an immaculate looking fifties style film set of a barber shop.
I recline in the chair and feel the warmth of the street wafting through the open storefront. The barber is young, maybe 25 with short black hair and golden skin, smartly presented and looking professional. The blade intimidates as it approaches my throat and the theme tune to the Sweeney pops out of my memory banks in a tenuous association with cutthroat barbers.
The blade doesn’t feel how I expect. It feels like a wallpaper scraper peeling ancient emulsioned woodchip off my face. A small nick under my lip makes me flinch a little but I pretend not to notice. This is the ‘man’s’ version of a pampering I suppose. The experience did feel good, and the result was a surprisingly smooth face plus feeling special for half a day.
Over the next 10 days. I enjoy Marwa’s breakfasts and getting to know some of the travellers that pass through the hostel and following the World Cup qualifiers and the Argentina France match in the initial knock out stages with two Argentines and two French people.
Out and about revealed the opulent Recoleta area, with the gem of a ‘Game of Thrones’ themed cafe named the Coffee of Westeros.
Half an hour walk south of the hostel, the steel corrugated roofs of the Mercado La Pampa basque in the sunshine, beneath which resemble one of the hidden worlds from a Clive Barker novel – narrow passages lined with hidden treasures, magical potions and cheap tat. The longer I stayed, the harder it was to leave: either the hostel to roam the city, or the city to explore the rest of South America. It took a decision, a line in the sands of time, once crossed, no going back.
And so, I found myself eastbound on Route 4. After a far too leisurely morning packing and then talking to a German couple that rode in on 150 Hondas from Chile. 3 pm and I was only just exiting Cochabamba with the sun on my back. Glancing over my shoulder the distant Cristo on the hill had his back to me. I didn’t expect him to wave, but still… I could have stayed longer, in fact, I wanted to but I’d hit my visa limit in Bolivia in short enough time. 90 days a year, Bolivia allows tourists. 3 months in, 9 months out. I needed to save some time for the return trip… or take 9 months through Braazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina.
3pm. How far could I go? It would get dark in little over three hours.
The warmth of the sun was ebbing away as the shadows were lengthening and I was already feeling the cold whenever the road swept me into the shadow of the mountains. I felt more relaxed having caught the junction to Route 7, no longer worrying about missing it.
Luck was eluding me finding a camping spot between the farmsteads along the way. Exploring a riverside clearing drew an old man with the face the colour and texture of antique saddle bags, one cheek bulging with coca leaves.
“Puerdo el campar aqui?” my memory for the phrase had evaporated 2CDs ago on the audio course. The hombre’s black eyes stared blankly. I might as well have been talking to a llama. Our communications petered out and I mounted the bike hoping to find a less conspicuous place along the road before dark.
Five kilometres down the road, trees on a hilltop. A track leading down to the river between a roadside cemetery and the wooded hill. Turning right of the road thirty metres down the dirt track I veered into a clearing up the hill discovering a Plateau that was level and fairly hidden from the road and the view from the settlements on the surrounded hills.
I took off my orange jacket to make myself less conspicuous while I deployed the silver tent as discreetly as possible. Clouds were brushing the green peaks of the surrounding mountains. A farmer was burning fields further up the mountainside to my Northeast. I could make out a figure in the doorway of their farmhouse. Were they looking at me? No, I was in the shade of the tree and they would be busy with the fire. Dogs were barking in the distance, as they seem to all over South America. A continent of a continuous network of barking.
A dog had been here within a day or so. Its crusty turd holding the interest of local blowflies. I was far enough away to not accidentally tread in it moving around the tent. It would be unlikely anyone would come this way tonight. This place was a natural cul-de-sac. Nobody walked dogs here. Dogs were an independent life form, living within human society without the constraints of its rules, providing a greater level of freedom than that of us humans.
Even so, the Plateau was steep on three sides and the only access was from whence I came. A no through route. The dirt track continued winding around the hill down to the bridge a hundred metres below me and two hundred westward. Another camping possibility but a little more exposed to the eyes of the hills. The track was quiet and I heard two or three motorcycles pass by in the twilight. The main road was close enough to hear the trucks pass but far enough away to not be a disturbance.