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The Midnight Ride of Paul McCormick

August 3, 2006

You know you love someone when you’ll ask a hotel receptionist for toilet paper in stumbling Spanish, which is what Paul has had to do for me several times already in Bolivia (the rolls of toilet paper they offer you are so damn insubstantial compared to the food they feed you).  You also know you love someone when you’ll arrange a 5-hour midnight ride down a winding dirt road to evacuate him or her to a lower altitude.

That’s what I did for Paul last night when his soroche (altitude sickness) didn’t get better after almost 24 hours of queasiness, weakness, and feverish headaches.  Our triathlon adventure may have been one of the most exciting days of our lives, but at a price. 

At 5:15 p.m. yesterday, shortly after I returned from writing my last weblog entry, Paul confessed to me that he was really worried about his illness.  I went downstairs to the hotel manager and asked him whether it would be possible to hire a 4WD vehicle and a driver to take us to Tarija that evening in order to get Paul to a lower altitude, as well as closer to an airport should he need to get back home.  The manager, being extremely friendly and genuinely concerned about the comfort of his guests, immediately phoned the affiliated tour company and arranged a driver to bring us down to Tarija within the hour.  By 7 p.m., we were headed out of Tupiza on the mountainous dirt road we had ridden in on three days earlier.

The ride was bumpy but beautiful, the half moon shining so brightly that it illuminated the peaks and ridges rising around us, and cast a dim glow in the valleys below.  It was much less harrowing a ride in the jeep than the bus, so I was able to enjoy the ride and the rural Bolivian culture it revealed; even though I was concerned for Paul’s health, my mind wasn’t preoccupied by the immediate concern of tumbling down the mountainsides. 

As on the ride into Tupiza, on the ride out we passed campesinos waiting along the side of the road in the remotest of locations:  in the middle of flat expanses absent of anything besides a few mud-brick dwellings; along curves in the mountainsides.  We also saw people walking along the roadside heading away from each of the two tiny towns we passed along the way, presumably trekking back to their homes after buying or selling products in town (town being no more than 10 buildings lining each side of the road).  I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in such an extremely rural location, but all I could think of were questions.  How often do neighbors interact with each other?  How often do they go into the towns or bigger cities?  Do they enjoy their lifestyles?  Do they feel slighted by the vehicles that pass through carrying signs of development that doesn’t benefit them?  Or do they not care for more development–perhaps only for better prices for their crops so that they can live more comfortably where they are?

It continues to boggle my mind that the only way to get to and from many of Bolivia’s towns and cities is by dirt roads–roads that become impassable during parts of the rainy season, when water washes away chunks of the already treacherous route and mudslides block passes through the highest peaks.  As we jounced along, my mind kept returning to the fact that Paul and I could whip out our wallets and pay for a ride to safety when we needed it while most people living in this part of the country can’t do that even though they would give you the shirt off of their backs if you needed it.

Our driver, Jose, did almost just that:  when he found out that Paul was feeling ill, he stopped at his house–a small, tidy, mud-brick building across from the traintracks–to pick up a blanket before leaving town in order to keep Paul warm during the chilly ride.  It nearly brought Paul and I to tears.  Not only was Jose taking a risk by driving us on one of the world’s most dangerous roads after dark, but he offered us something personal from his own home to keep us comfortable along the way.  Had we not offered to pay for a hotel room for him and his nephew when we arrived in Tarija so that they could rest overnight, he would have turned right back around and driven another 5 hours along that same road in the pre-dawn hours of the morning, another risk he would have taken both because he needs the money for driving us and because he was willing to do so in order to help heal another human being.  He was clearly weary from the bumpy drive by the time we arrived in Tarija at midnight, so Paul and I were relieved that he accepted our offer to put him and his nephew up for the night.  We even had the opportunity to share breakfast with them this morning before they headed back home–in full daylight.

Although I am disappointed not to have made it to Uyuni and Oruro, and even more disappointed for Paul that he lost a day of our honeymoon due to sickness, I am happy that we had the opportunity to experience Jose’s generosity.  We (Paul and I, and you, my reader) have a lot to learn from him. 


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