“52 kilometers – that’s not so bad. It will be over in 3 hours, Yasmine. Take it slowly. This isn’t a race. Don’t you dare let your competitiveness kick in. Just focus on the road. Don’t look at the steep overhangs or the narrow, never-ending switchbacks.
Pedal! Shit, the mountain is so steep that pedaling is pointless.
Don’t look that far. Focus on what’s in front of you.
Okay, remember what the guide said. Brake with two pumps, once on each brake.
WHAT THE F*!&? That didn’t do much, do it again. Keep pulsing, this bike isn’t slowing down enough.
OH MY GOD, here comes a curve, press down HARDER!
Wheeew, you made it. Don’t celebrate yet, here’s another one. Brake more often. You know what, JUST BRAKE THE WHOLE TIME!
Don’t think about how you can no longer see anyone else. This is your life. You’ve been on your own for almost 5 months now, you’re not going to get yourself killed weeks before you come back home. Think about how much you miss your family, your friends, chai tea lattes (why don’t they have them in South America? Maybe a business opportunity?). Okay, just focus. You’re almost at the first check-point. You’re doing fine.”
My heart is beating, my shoulders are tense and I don’t dare fix the sunglasses that have slipped down my nose. I count to remind myself to breathe. I’m only concentrating on the road ahead of me, taking it one step at a time until it’s over.
On October 10th, I did the most idiotic, challenging and stimulating thing I’ve ever done. I went mountain biking for the first time on the world’s most dangerous road, appropriately titled ‘Death Road’. A total of 52km (or 32.3 miles) of which 95% was downhill and teetering on the edge of sharp cliffs, we started at 15,500 feet and descended to 4,000 feet. Paralyzed with fear during the first half, I finally let go and had an adrenaline pumping, exhilarating time.
I first learned about the road from two members of the Salt Flats tour I just finished in South Bolivia. They raved about the excursion, from the ride to the scenary, to the people they met, and the company they did it with. Soon after, I heard about it from everyone. At this point in my travels, I no longer consulted guidebooks and relied on other travelers for things to do and places to go. Without even thinking, I put it in my mind I would do it as well so I signed up with a friend I was traveling with at the time.
I say it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done because I had barely picked up a bike since high school, I had never been mountain biking, and I completely underestimated the premise behind the meaning of “Death Road.” You may be wondering, why keep going when you realized you were in over your head? That’s a simple, unflattering answer. I’m a stubborn individual and I decided I would reduce the risks by riding as slow as possible.
Before I get comfortable with the asphalt, we learn we’re going off-road for a couple minutes to bypass a tunnel and get back on. “That means rocks,” my brain tells me. “Just do it.”
The shift from the smooth road to the rough, rugged terrain is shocking at first. “Don’t let yourself feel it. Steer and react. Steer and react. Shit, that’s a big hole, TURN! Oh no, no, nooooo.”
“Whew, you did it! YOU MADE IT! Yippeeeeeeeee! Just 10 more km on asphalt, you got this.”
Then we’re told the rest of the path will be off-road, to be careful of trucks and cars coming the opposite direction because the main road is closed and there will be more traffic than usual.
My hands hurt from clutching the brakes so tightly. My crotch starts to feel the effects of the relentless shaking of the bicycle due to the rocks. I catch a glimpse of the deep drop-off at the next curve and I want to quit, to get into the van following us on and off and just meet everyone at the bottom.
“But you’re halfway there, Yasmine. Stand up during the rough patches, you’ll reduce the pain. Stop braking so much, just let go.”
“There you go! Let go juuust a little bit. Okay good, now wait longer before braking. Do it again. And again. Stop letting the fear consume you. Goddamnit, stop trying to control everything and let yourself go.”
And somehow, I did. It’s difficult to describe exactly what came over me and this is the part that gets muddled when I try explaining it to others. In essence, it was almost like I scared myself out of the fear if it’s even possible. I felt like the road was my control issues and the bike was me – the more I tried to contain it, the more unenjoyable my ride was. When I embraced the experience, I was able to look around at the majestic mountains and beautiful waterfalls around me. I felt like I released myself of something.
I let out a big “Whooooop!” I no longer felt the pain in various parts of my body. I felt alive, unstoppable, and on top of the world.
Without even thinking about it, I let out more screams of excitement. It was as if I was releasing the fear and replacing it with wonder, joy, and a fresh perspective. I was the one now in control. I had “biked” through the fear and put it behind me. I had vanquished its power.
What is fear exactly besides thoughts conjured up in our own heads? I realized the longer I thought about it, the longer it would take me to overcome it and the more I denied it, the stronger it became.
This magnificent feeling, this pure, unadulterated joy I felt as I went faster and faster, as I took in the stunning scenery around me, as I breathed in the fresh mountain air and felt it go through my lungs, as the little voice in my head went away…this was an emotion I didn’t want to go away. Ever.
I was disappointed when the next check-point came. I didn’t want to stop. Thinking back, I realize how incredibly fortunate I was. I had no business being on that road and the ordeal turned out to be the most life-changing and awakening experiences of my trip. It completely redefined my relationship with fear.
Curious as to what Death Road is like or planning a trip to Bolivia? Here’s a hair-raising Youtube video of the attraction:
“Dropping my used toilet paper straight into the toilet!” That was the first thing I blurted out when my brother asked me, three months into my trek across South America, what I missed most about being away from home.
I recently came across a Quora thread titled “What facts about the United States do foreigners not believe until they come to America?“. It got me thinking about the cultural differences I encountered while I was away so I decided to make a list.
Which of those surprise you? Are there other things you noticed in South America not listed above?
Update: I was featured on Buzzfeed’s “11 Inspiring Stories of People Who Left Normal Life and Embarked on an Adventure” post! Back in May, I announced I was quitting my job, selling my stuff, and traveling the world. I’ve been back for 3 months now and I just spent this past Sunday uploading the thousands of pictures I took and reminiscing about the trip.
To recap, I flew in to Ecuador, visited Colombia, was deported from Argentina, went to Chile, made my way back to Argentina with a one-day visit to Uruguay, headed to Bolivia and finally Peru. The trip was undeniably life-changing. I embarked on the journey for 2 reasons – 1) I finally had the means to do it after becoming a U.S. citizen in 2012 and 2) I’ve worked since I was 9 years old and I was burned out.
I came back with fresh eyes and a new perspective on everything from my goals, surroundings, being, and the human race. Shortly after I finished Spanish school, I lost track of what day and time it was. I eventually got to a point where I stopped looking at guidebooks, I no longer made todo lists for myself, and I didn’t have a schedule. It was spectacular and I miss it immensely. Here’s a brief summary of the things I did and the places I went (or you can view it in pictures by visiting my Instagram feed):
There’s so much I want to share – from travel hacks I picked up, lessons learned, lost in translation moments, how I only spent $15k, and general observations – that I’ll save them in another post. For now, I’m happy I spent the weekend going through my pictures, finally uploading them, and reliving the experience again by writing this post.
Are you planning a trip to any of the countries mentioned above? I’d be happy to help by sharing more details about my experiences.
Other travel posts: