Tica Tica, Bolivia 15 Jan 06
Odometer 15,605 m 25,114 km

Some say Cero Rico is mined out, its precious metals--once enough to build a road of silver from Bolivia to Spain--gone. But miner Guillermo Randori Ramos knows better. His time in the mine provided a living, a wife, and a daughter with a heart of gold.

How I came to know this was quite by accident. Literally.

American Allan Karl, who I met and had last seen in Mexico, joined me again in Cusco, Peru. Together, we rolled into the tiny village of Tica Tica some 100 miles south of Cero Rico, never suspecting that only one of us would roll out. But the muddy streets proved too slippery for my
amigo, and in an instant--he was down.

I instinctively grabbed my camera as I dismounted and raced back to the scene of the crash on foot, fully expecting only his pride to be hurt. It was much worse. His leg was crushed between the ground and his metal pannier. As I worked to stabilize his injured appendage, he cried out in pain and grief--his trip was over.
“Allan,” I admonished, in an attempt to bring him around, “We’re in Bolivia. I’ll get you fixed up, but it’s going to take some time.”

At nearly 12,000-feet elevation (3,650 meters), the brutal Bolivian sun pierced the variably cloudy sky like a dagger. I instructed two boys to go and find umbrellas. Allan's fair skin was too exposed as he lie face up in the mud, exacerbating his trauma. Meanwhile, I fetched his hat and camera--a much-needed psychological diversion--then stepped away to assess the situation.

The weather was worsening. Strong winds were picking up with monsoon rains imminent. We were many hours on rough roads from the nearest town of any size. Tica Tica's unpaved streets were lined with modest adobe homes, punctuated by a single street lamp, and pocked with holes still full of water from recent rains. There was only one restaurant--the kind of place where you eat what they have and they don’t have much--and no lodging. There was no Internet access and only one radio-phone--that doesn’t work when it’s cloudy.

In short, I had to get him out of here.

Few Bolivian villages have access to any kind of medical care; we were lucky enough to crash in one that did, thanks to U.S.-based
Mano a Mano. Dr. Silvia Randori Laurean--gynecologist and daughter of that Cero Rico miner--and two of her assistants responded with basic first-aid materials including a cardboard splint and some bandages. They had no ambulance or vehicle of any kind to make it from their clinic to the scene--so they walked--meager supplies in hand. Although I'm a former National Park Ranger and EMT, it was a relief to get some help.

We splinted Allan’s leg and prepared to carry him on their aging stretcher to the clinic. Fortunately, the whole village joined in and a Good Samaritan appeared with a truck to assist in transport. Once we stabilized Allan in one of the clinic’s two beds, Dr. Laurean and I ran to the village’s radio-phone to call for assistance.
A 4WD ambulance of sorts was dispatched from Uyuni, 60 miles to the south. They arrived four hours later over mud-stricken roads, fording multiple swollen rivers en route. Neither driver had any medical training. They brought no drugs or supplies. And incredibly, their gurney lacked any method of securing it to the floor of their vehicle!

Despite the uncertainty, Allan tried to keep it together as we loaded him into the truck. Three more hours bumping down the dirt road to Potosi in a driving rain didn’t help. I used motorcycle tie-downs to secure him to the gurney, but as previously mentioned, it was free to bounce and roll about with the vagaries of the road.

The drivers paid us no mind--they were busy. The rough road was awash in rain-soaked mud and hidden ruts. Visibility sucked. They chewed mouthfuls of
coca leaves to stay alert, and uttered only two words the entire trip: “hold on.”

Every bit of movement sent shooting pain through Allan’s unstable injury. With no way to sit, I squatted beside him, cradling his broken leg in my hands. It was like trying to steady a skyscraper during a severe, 3-hour-long earthquake--every rattle, sway, buckle and heave defeating my attempts to counter them.

Muscles cramping, my mind drifted. We had ridden this very route from Potosi
to Tica Tica on our bikes--in the brilliant sunshine--earlier today. It was one of the most spectacular and joyful rides of the entire Journey. So much so, I recall wishing it would never end. Hmm, be careful what you ask for.
Arriving at the hospital well after dark, primitive X-rays revealed what we had already suspected: three fractures to the tibia and fibula.

Ever so slowly, Allan was admitted, re-splinted, given pain meds and put to bed. Then, nearly everyone went home. I spent the night in a hallway on the hospital floor listening to his moans and those of his three roommates echoing down the deserted corridor. It was eerie.

A piercing shriek woke me from the dead around 2:00 AM. Unmistakably, the cry for help was in English--not Spanish. Restrictive bandages securing the splint had cut off Allan's circulation, causing unbearable pain. I rousted the sleeping nurse.

"Nothing can be done until morning when the doctor returns," she intoned with a yawn and a finger-comb through her disheveled hair.

His swollen, purple foot wouldn’t survive the night. I ransacked the place in search of scissors and cut the bandages off myself.

With pressure relieved, near-normal blood flow returned, but more pain medication was needed. Unfortunately, the hospital’s pharmacy--where I had earlier been forced to purchase all of Allan's drugs and supplies in advance of any treatment--was closed.

Stealing drugs I spied in the drawer of a nearby patient’s bed stand seemed the only recourse. The nurse disagreed.

"I'll replace them tomorrow," I assured her, “the patient’s sleeping, my friend's suffering-- the drugs should go to whoever needs them most!”

Finally, she relented, and the intravenous medication slowly trickled its way into Allan’s brain. Blessed relief.

At first light the nightmare continued--a swift kick to the gut my alarm bell. My groggy, still glassless eyes stared forth from my sleeping bag at what appeared to be my assailant, just inches from my face: a pair of well worn, but nicely polished, black leather army boots.

Out of them rose a thirty-something Bolivian soldier in full battle fatigues. He wore dark, aviator sunglasses in spite of the early hour. A machine gun hung from his shoulder. Menace adorned his face.

“Get out,” he commanded, before inhaling a protracted draw from his cigarette.

I rushed to assure him that the doctor had given me permission to stay the night near my ailing friend. He made it clear that
he was in charge of security, not the doctor, and that homeless, hallway vagrants were not permitted. I packed up my gear and headed to the pharmacy--I had pain meds to replace before a certain patient woke up...

Late that day Allan was airlifted to the United States via a long and circuitous route, and finally underwent surgery a full three days after the accident. He’s now recovering in California knowing I cached his bike someplace safe, and following my web tales as I journey south alone.
I returned to Tica Tica via bus and was subsequently pinned down for three additional days in heavy rain and mud. During that time I learned more about Dr. Silvia Laurean’s heroic efforts to provide basic health care in this remote part of the world--something for which I now had far greater appreciation.

I couldn’t listen to her stories of selfless dedication to the indigenous people of this mountainous country without believing there’s still plenty of gold left in Bolivia--you just need to know where to look.

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