I remember being about seventeen and watching you up ahead of me, knowing I’d never keep up. Even at eleven years old – my little brother – you were stronger and faster. I’d watch for you from a distance, spotting the back of your blue jacket and the flash of your silver bicycle as you made it up a hill and then – just as you reached its crest – you’d disappear. I’d have to climb the same hill before I could see you again.
I thought of this when I was lying on that cot in Bolivia.
“I can stitch up your chin if you want.” The young woman pressed yet another alcohol-soaked cloth on my bleeding face. A monkey peered at me from the window, and I could hear the cries of exotic birds. My clothes were still caked in mud, and everything hurt.
I struggled to find the right words, as I didn’t want to offend her.
“Have you…” I paused. “Have you ever stitched a human face before?”
I can remember holding you for the first time, your tiny pink hand slowly clenching and unclenching around my finger. By the time you were walking and talking we were inseparable. When you were old enough, we’d go out on long bike rides, riding to the convenience store for Slurpees and five cent candies. We’d then whip around the neighbourhood, going as fast as we could leading up to the hill down Crescent Drive, toward the golf course. People joke that you can watch your dog run away for three days in the prairies, and we had to make the most out of every minor hill, every chance to feel the rush of wind on our faces. We’d race each other through the pathways of Wildwood Park, stopping in each playground to eat candy while sitting on the swings. We knew those streets like the back of our hands, knew every crack in the sidewalk, every low branch, every yard that had a dog that would bark as we zoomed past. When it would be time to go home, we’d cycle down South Drive slowly, seeing who could ride with our hands off of the handlebars the longest, both of us showing off.
By the time you were ten and I was sixteen, our big sister Zalie had moved out, or moved on, backpacking around Asia and living the life that I so longed for. We still went on family trips together every year, a beach holiday or a road trip through the States. That year, though, mum and dad decided to do something different: we were going to cycle across Vermont, starting south and heading north. It ended up being a great trip, with all of us loving the east coast scenery from our bicycles. Mum and I preferred to stay in the back, stopping often for photos, while you and dad would race ahead.
We all liked it so much we booked a similar holiday the following year, but this time to Ireland. For nearly a month we cycled through various counties, staying in castles and little bed and breakfasts that served us tea and scones in the afternoon. While you were more than happy to talk to me over meals and before bed, you left me in the dust when we got back on the bikes. You’d speed ahead, your little shoulders hunched forward over the handlebars, until you were only a dot in the distance, a force to be reckoned with against a backdrop of green.
I had just said goodbye to my friend Kerri in La Paz, that backpacker mecca in Bolivia. She was going to a smaller town in the north to volunteer, while I decided to stay in La Paz on my own, then travel to the Amazon. We had vague plans to meet up again near Uyuni to travel through the famous salt flats together. The day after we said goodbye, I was going to bike down Death Road.
“Don’t die,” she joked as we hugged.
That morning I walked to a small coffee shop on a wide boulevard to meet the rest of the people riding with me. I recognised a loudmouth American Kerri and I had met during a tour of Lake Titicaca a few weeks earlier; he had argued with me about the authenticity of my trip to the Sahara with my mum.
“Wait, so you only went to the Moroccan Sahara?” he asked. He wore all khaki, including a pair of zip-off trousers that he turned into shorts whenever the sun came out. His handshake had been clammy. “That doesn’t count. I’ve been to Angola.”
“Cool,” I answered, turning my back to him. I wasn’t happy that I’d be cycling with him on Death Road. That’s the thing about travelling on well-worn tourist tracks: you run into the same people again and again, for better or worse. I knew two others on the tour, too, Kelly and Sean, an Irish couple Kerri and I met on our journey to Machu Picchu. The rest of the tour group consisted of an older English couple and our guide, Mike, a cocky young Australian. We climbed into the van that would take us to the starting point of our cycling trip.
“First thing you need to know,” Mike said, turning from the passenger seat of the van to look back at us, “all accidents on Death Road are the fault of the cyclist.” I had heard this kind of warning before, always from scuba instructors. The scuba equipment is never at fault, only the diver. I wasn’t sure I believed either warning.
The North Yungas Road, nicknamed Death Road, is a section of nearly seventy kilometres that’s part of the route from La Paz to the Amazon in the north. The section is so named because it was once the most dangerous road in the world, causing numerous traffic accidents every year due to its winding curves, lack of guardrails, and six hundred metre drops. The road is the width of one lane. Very few cars and trucks drive it anymore as there’s a newer, safer road to La Paz; now, instead, it’s a tourist attraction in South America. Only reckless gringos felt the urge to ride its trail, felt the urge to show off.
By October 2012, when I decided to join the ranks of tourists who tempted fate on Death Road, there had been nineteen deaths on these bicycle tours.
“There’s an average of two deaths per year,” Mike went on. “But all of them were easily preventable. Most have happened when someone tries to take photos or videos as the same time as riding. Pretty idiotic if you ask me.” We all chuckled. I had heard a few horror stories from other travellers over the years. One guy told me about a coworker who flew over the edge and landed twenty metres down, shattering his pelvis. He had to be airlifted out, and then spent months in hospital first in Bolivia and then in America. Another traveller told me about someone on his tour who was too careless for his own good; whipping ahead of everyone, he ended up flying over his handlebars and breaking both wrists. These were the stories of those who had survived. There were obviously more about those who had died while cycling, all tourists, just like us. I calmed myself by thinking of the thousands of other successful tourists who took this road every year. The number of deaths and accidents was low if you thought about it that way.
We pulled over about an hour outside of La Paz, where we’d start cycling. This was a relatively easy leg compared to the rest of it, the actual Death Road; it was paved, at least, though we had to share with huge lorries that passed so quickly there were times I thought I’d be blown off my bike. We were given regular bike helmets and knee pads before starting.
“Hey Mike,” I called out. “I thought we were going to be given full-face helmets and wrist guards.”
“Yeah, I thought so, too,” Kelly added. We had signed up at the same time, choosing the company for its flashy brochure. On its pages, groups of tourists grinned, suited up in safety gear from head to toe. They wore bright red suits for protection. I remembered this brochure when we were handed our measly equipment. The other tour groups around us were wearing suits, and had all the protection we had been promised, including full-face helmets.
“Nah, you don’t want one of those,” Mike said. “Trust me, you’re going to get so hot wearing one.” Kelly and I looked at each other. There wasn’t much we could do at this point; we had already paid for the tour, and we were an hour outside of La Paz. We set off.
By the time we reached Death Road, about an hour of cycling later, the skies had turned a dark grey, the colour of wet concrete. The road changed dramatically here. No longer paved and wide, it was an uneven, rock-filled path with green shrubs on either side. As Mike explained how to manoeuvre the bikes, clouds of white fog started covering the road. We couldn’t see more than ten meters into the distance.
“You guys will be fine! Just look down a lot to avoid rocks. And remember: stay to the right, closest to the wall. Don’t go near the edge!” He cycled off into the fog, and we followed him.
I was nervous at first, but soon got the hang of it. It was bumpy, and we were going fast, but I had enough biking experience to feel confident. We’d essentially grown up on our bikes, hadn’t we? Even though Winnipeg was devoid of hills or any real off-roading, I spent most of my youth and even my teenage years cycling around the south end. On particularly nice days, when the ground was dry, we’d ride along the riverbanks, following the flow of the copper-coloured water. Later, when I got my driver’s licence, I cycled less and less, preferring to roll all the windows down in the car and drive around the city for that rush of wind and sense of adventure. The bicycles remained in the garage, though, waiting for use.
As I continued to ride down Death Road, my confidence grew even more. I was third in the group, following only Mike and the annoying American. The fog was no longer as dense, but it had started raining, making the rocks shine slick. Puddles formed, and I avoided them, sometimes swerving dangerously close to the edge to do so. But we never think it will be us. We never think that we’ll be the one to fall or to slip or to – on this road, at least – die. And then, in that split second, that never-ending second, my front tire twisted right, and I flew through the air, conscious of everything, aware of the ground coming closer and closer to my face. In that second, I thought of Mike’s words: “All accidents are the fault of the cyclist.” And then all went black.
You never travelled as much as Zalie or me, were never driven to go out and explore the world in the same way that we were, at least not in the way that we did. Whereas I was relatively unsocial in high school, preferring to stay home with movies or books, you were always one of the popular kids. Tall and handsome, mum used to send me photos of you performing onstage, your face contorted in concentration with your instrument of choice, your dark hair hanging over your eyes in thick curls. You could play anything, it seemed, guitar or drums or whatever suited your fancy that week. You have always been that way; whatever you set your mind to, you were able to accomplish, whether it was skateboarding or speaking Spanish. It has always been easy to be proud of you.
When I left Winnipeg for good in 2002, you were still a kid, only thirteen. Every time I came home you had grown up in some way, learned to shave or to drive, or had a girlfriend. After Mum and Dad got divorced, it was often only you and Mum in the house. I imagine you grew up a lot faster because of this. Sometimes I’d see you from afar and barely recognise you; sometimes, when you’d answer the phone, I was taken aback by your voice, deep and assured.
I didn’t see you for over two years when I lived in Japan. I almost felt nervous to see you again. I worried you had grown up without me, and I worried you had forgotten what it had been like as kids, when we spent all our days together, when we’d ride our bikes for so long that we’d only come home as the sun set, our hair wild from the wind.
I sat up. I saw Kelly and Sean running toward me, their bikes already thrown down behind them. I couldn’t see out of my right eye. I licked my lips, tasting the metallic shock of blood.
“Are you okay?” Kelly, a registered nurse, was scanning my body for obvious injuries.
“My teeth,” I mumbled. I had had nightmares of this exact situation, smashing my teeth out in a country not known for dental care.
“They’re okay, they’re okay,” Kelly said. “Sean, go flag down the van.” The van was following the group, and it took a few minutes to arrive. By then my face was covered in blood, pouring from my eyebrow and chin. My hands were shaking beyond control, and I could barely walk.
“Something’s wrong with my arm,” I told Kelly. “And my leg, too.” It hurt to talk.
“It’s okay, let’s get you into the van first.” She tenderly wiped the blood from my face, though nothing would stop bleeding. “I think you’ll need stitches in both your eyebrow and your chin,” she assessed. My forehead had split open along the brow, and my chin had opened up in the shape of a cross. There were still pebbles embedded in both wounds. “Do you have any bandages?” she asked the driver. He had to rummage around for a while before finding a tiny first-aid kit. It had a couple of small bandages and an antiseptic wipe, which Kelly used as softly as she could. She wrapped up my arm in a makeshift sling and ordered me to stay as still as possible. I was still shaking. I was more embarrassed that I couldn’t stop crying, my body unaccustomed to the waves of adrenaline and pain.
Mike must have figured out something was wrong, and he soon showed up. I had to bite my tongue, wanting so badly to ask him how this was my fault. I didn’t have to say anything; the rain continued to fall around us, and his face was pallid. He knew as well as I did. Sometimes accidents happen.
It was a long afternoon. There was no option but to continue down the road, as my injuries weren’t life-threatening. I continued to soak tissues with my blood, creating angry designs in deep scarlet that dried into brown on the wispy material. The rest of the group had gotten back on their bikes, but rode slowly and carefully, stopping often. I was following behind in the van, muffling my tears in the backseat. I felt so stupid and embarrassed and angry. I was sure that the American would be filled with glee at my misfortune, and that made me even angrier. I tried not to think of my injuries, which were still undiagnosed – all I knew is that I could barely close my hand into a fist, and that my chin and my knee were both throbbing. We finally reached the end of Death Road, the van pulling into an animal sanctuary, where we were going to be served lunch. While the rest of the group settled in for bland spaghetti and warm Cokes, I was taken to the vet’s office. They told me this was the only option, as there was no hospital or doctor for many towns over, and I wondered what the locals did if they had an emergency. I focused on the green trees outside while she examined my face and arm. I avoided eye contact with the monkey who stared in, stilled by the strange sight.
The veterinarian, a young Bolivian woman with a steady hand and a thick black ponytail, cleaned me up as best she could and gave me a couple of painkillers she happened to have in her purse. My face was still bleeding, but I opted for butterfly stitches, thinking that the hospital in La Paz would be a safer bet.
The ride back to La Paz was horrible. I was put on a van with a different group, as they were leaving earlier than mine. It took what seemed like hours and hours to get back to the city, though at least we weren’t on Death Road anymore, taking a smoother and newer route back. I sat in the back seat, trying to avoid having to speak to anyone. Everyone else on board got progressively drunker, sharing open bottles of rum between them.
“C’mon, some rum will heal that face!” a loud Brit, his long hair wrapped up in a bandana, shouted back at me. I tried to smile, but it hurt too much. I just wanted everyone to leave me alone.
The hospital in La Paz was clean and quiet, and the nurses gentle. After hours of assessments, including some back and forth in Spanish about whether or not to attempt stitches despite a total of seven hours since the accident, I got the final verdict: a sprained wrist, a sprained elbow, and a hairline fracture of the jaw. My eyebrow and chin were still taped up, covered in huge ugly swaths. The doctor kept pressuring me to put my arm in a cast for a month, but I decided against it, choosing a sling and elastic bandages instead. I couldn’t possibly imagine travelling on my own, lifting my backpack up and down, with my arm in a cast. I got back to the hostel after midnight that night, weary from emotion. Climbing into bed, I took my phone out and texted mum, then dad, then you and Zalie, all with the same photo: me in the back of the van, face bandaged and bloody, arm in Kelly’s makeshift sling, giving the thumbs up. On each, I wrote the same caption. “Well, I survived.”
My injuries plagued me for the rest of my trip through South America. My arm eventually felt better, and my face slowly healed, but my leg – which the doctors had said was just bruised – got worse and worse. I couldn’t sit on buses for more than a couple of hours before it would lock in pain, my knee burning and throbbing. The bruises up and down my thigh turned from black to purple to a soft, sickly green.
If I told people that I had crashed on Death Road, a few of their faces lit up in recognition.
“Oh, I heard about you! You’re the one who broke her jaw!” The stories had grown, like all stories do when they are left with time and a group of people hungry for adventure and gossip. My chin bore the white cross of a scar, a permanent memory of the day etched onto my face. It was only months after the accident that I started to question why I had even gone on Death Road in the first place. Why did so many of us seek fear? Was it because simply being in a new country wasn’t enough for me anymore? Perhaps doing these things, putting myself in these strange and dangerous situations, was my grown-up version of taking my hands off the handlebars, my new way of showing off.
The next summer, I was back in Winnipeg. I had left South America just before Christmas. I was preparing to move to London – after a few months in Winnipeg and Toronto, it finally seemed like I had found a place to settle for a little while. I was going to start a master’s degree in writing, hoping to use the base in England as a jumping-off point for more travels around Europe. This was different than strapping a backpack on and taking off; this time I was moving, packing up my life and leaving. It felt much more concrete, much more resolute. In some ways, it felt much more intimidating too. I’d lie in bed at night, the lights from cars passing by casting shadows that waxed and waned on the ceiling, and wonder if I was doing the right thing. I had finally gone to a Canadian doctor, and it turns out the crash on Death Road left another injury, and one that had first been overlooked – my MCL, the ligament to the left of my kneecap, had torn in the accident. It had since healed incorrectly, which is why I was always in pain. I didn’t mind the facial scars, but this would be a constant reminder of the day on Death Road. Ironically, my doctor suggested cycling as a way to strengthen the weakened muscles.
You were living in British Columbia by now, having finished university. You, too, had done your bachelor’s degree in Halifax, and you had gone on to study music and sound production at a school in Vancouver. From there, you found a job in an animation studio. By day you’d work on movies. By night you’d create music in your apartment. You always were the musical one, the artistic one, the one who could take nothing and turn it into something extraordinary. You came home for a visit just before I left for England, still so tall and handsome and now so frighteningly grown-up, too.
It was a muggy evening in Winnipeg, one of those perfect summer nights when the air crackles with energy and the promise of a thunderstorm. The sky blushed with a looming sunset, the clouds streaked across it. We were sitting outside together, our feet dangling in dad’s pool, drinking cold beer. Every so often we’d hear a screech of laughter from a neighbour, the smell of barbecue reaching us.
“Let’s go for a bike ride,“ you said to me. We hadn’t been on a bike ride in years. This wasn’t even our neighbourhood; after mum and dad’s divorce, they had both left our childhood neighbourhood of Fort Garry. Mum moved to Toronto. Dad moved to River Heights, an area of town with just as many green trees and quiet suburban streets. I finished the rest of my beer in one long swallow before answering.
We grabbed two bikes from dad’s garage and set out. We didn’t know the streets as well, but we followed Wellington Crescent until we hit Assiniboine Park, still filled with joggers and cyclists and people walking their dogs. On the open green fields men in white uniforms played cricket, and a few families sat out on picnic blankets. We rode mostly in silence, taking in the warm air and the sense of freedom that never left us when we got on our bikes. Occasionally you’d open your arms wide as you rode, but you weren’t showing off anymore. You were taking it all in, all of its familiarity and its comfort and its ability to make us feel transformed, like we had the freedom to go anywhere and be anything, like we were two grass-stained kids again, just on our way home.
Please note: iterations of this story have already appeared on this blog; some of the lines were used in For All the Places I Once Lived, and some of the story was told in Near Death on Bolivia’s Death Road. This story is similar to those that will appear in my first full-length book. And good news: my first e-book, called The Last Time I Saw You and based on this series of letters to my travel romances, will be out soon!