A short-story reflecting an adventurous journey in 1979 Bolivia
These were moments I understood my life was little else than dust in the wind.
On World’s Most Dangerous Road
This road doesn’t belong to heaven, nor does it belong to hell. Shrouded in gloomy fog, it wiggles through countless serpentines incised in unstable soil and rock, immersed in fog and running along perilous cliffs and abysses. Bolivia’s capital La Paz depends on this road. It links the barren, almost desert altiplano with the fertile Yungas, were vegetables are grown, and sheep flock green hills. Yet this road became a curse for many. Built in back-breaking manual work by war prisoners during the early part of the 20th century, it achieved a legacy of death right from the very begin. Paved with cobblestone, a solid wall protects it from gliding into the precipices. Yet there is hardly ever space for more than one bus or truck. Passing traffic arriving from the opposite direction is a maneuver that requires courage, and good nerves. It’s true brinkmanship, in brief.
When I stepped into the pouring rain to catch a bus to the Yungas I had no clue what lay ahead on this rainy day in February. Horning twice every minute, the bus rumbled along a narrow path cut into the mountain. It left the city behind and headed for the realm of the clouds, were sight is even poor at daylight. Graffiti on rock faces, plastic flowers and shrines stood testimony for the many who had badly negotiated the road’s unprotected edges, and found death in the gushing icy waters some 2000 feet below. The first three hours passed uneventfully, but then our bus suddenly stopped. I left the bus to have a look. Surrounded by gloomy fog, a column of some five busses and ten trucks stood waiting. It was drizzling. Suddenly, a gush of wind lifted the fog and unzipped a rather unsettling perspective: ahead lay a strip of perhaps half-a-mile, where the slope’s green carpet had completely vanished. On this stretch of bare earth, the entire road had collapsed and slid away into the abyss, all in one single gigantic landslide. Ahead of us, bulldozers were scrambling to dig a relief track through almost liquefied yellow-colored soil, and de-composed weathered rock rubble.
But right now, there was no way forward. Like a mighty yellow snake, a landslide was creeping down from the mountains shrouded in clouds, and filled every depression on a 150 feet stretch between us and the muddy track. As soon as the bulldozers pushed the slurry away, it would flow back and form a pile of jelly cake. It looked kind of an endless job.
After a while the rain stopped, the slurry seized to flow, and the bulldozers seemed to gain the upper hand in the struggle on the mud track ahead. The view, however, gave me the creeps: the bumpy track, only some three yards wide, was cut into wet, unstable soil that could slide downhill at any moment. High up loomed some dark rock giants of the sierra, covered with a bit of snow. Deep below rumbled yellow-brown waters, caught in a gorge. Our bus horned. I ran back and took my seat. Slowly the bus negotiated the narrow track ahead. I sat on the right side and could see only a bit of white-crested water rushing in the gorges.
Suddenly the unimaginable happened. Chocolate-colored avalanches of soil, rock and water came thundering down on either side of us, narrowly missing the column of busses and trucks. Frankly, we were locked up, there was no moving back. There was only one bulldozer ahead of us, and one more on the opposite side of the frontal landslide. Loaded with several trucks and buses, the mud tracks cast in weathered soil would not bear the load of the vehicles for long. Peeking out of my window, I saw the road ahead crumbling away. Worse, there was nothing I could do. Our only hope was the bulldozers. My life and the lives of the many others were now entirely depending on what these two rusty, struggling worn-out caterpillars could clear right now. It depended on their drivers’ skills to free the road in time. Avalanches might strike at any moment in time, and drown us for good. Time was ticking. With desperate energy, and screaming engines, the caterpillars cleared the landslide ahead. The bulldozer on our side horned, spew a gush of dark fumes, and gave signal to advance. The new track was even narrower, hardly of a car’s width.
Our bus driver marked the sign of the cross, and released the brakes. Slurry was creeping over the tracks as we approached this bridge of death. There was no time to loose. With utmost caution he negotiated the treacherous path, which I saw collapsing and creeping into the abyss ahead of us. Our situation was more than desperate, and everybody felt it. There was total silence in the bus. As we advanced, it wobbled dangerously from left and right, and back and forth. I contemplated the unthinkable. One wrong move and the bus would slip, first kneel down at the right side, slowly capsize then roll into the abyss, where death was waiting for us with big hollow eyes. Its presence was almost physical. It engulfed everybody and everything. Women had their rosaries in their hands. Mumbles of prayers filled the car. I prayed too.
Seconds, minutes passed that seemed to take forever. With a screaming engine our driver negotiated inch after inch in low gear. A crumbling mud wall passed at our left, nothing but empty, foggy space loomed on the right side. All my life, all my achievements of my previous spoiled gringo existence looked very silly and illusory. My life, and those of the others in the bus now depended entirely on the skills and courage of some underpaid Bolivian coca-leaf-chewing driver. I could not stand the view ahead any longer, and closed my eyes. I felt the vibration of the engine, and smelled diesel fumes.
When I dared to open my eyes again, we were approaching the end of the emergency track. We regained the ‘stable’ mud tracks, and reached the ‘safe’ cobblestone-paved road. Looking back in awe I saw trucks and buses creeping along the narrow treacherous path. Having survived once more I experienced a deep sense of thankfulness. I felt a few years older. These unknown heroes, both stoic bus drivers and bulldozer champions had saved my life.
© 2005 by Franz L Kessler