Sunday, January 20, 2008

A wee catch up on Bolivia...

I haven't travel-blogged in quite a while - for obvious reasons - but thought I'd better catch back up on things before it all gets away from me...

I'm in La Paz at the moment, and have been for about two weeks - we're staying in a brilliant Irish hostel called The Wild Rover, run by Davey - who is a prince amongst (Tipp) men!! Incidentally, he also owns a hostel in Cusco, which we'll be staying in, and has allowed me to use his name and address there to send some books from Amazon.......there was only so much longer I could hang on without stimulating reading! I've done well out of the book exchanges in most hostels, but it's still an uphill battle to find something that lasts me longer than two days reading! Also, I'm learning guitar (more on that later), and got a huge book of songs sent there too. Davey's sourcing a hostel in Colombia in April, so we're gonna meet up with him in Colombia too. You really do meet some fantastic people while travelling....

Anyway, I have to dig into the past a bit now to remember our first views of Bolivia! When I last wrote, we'd just finished New Year's in Salta, and said goodbye to the fantastic visit of EJ from Canada (he's safely back in Canada now, and his brother had a baby boy, so he's an uncle too!). We set off for the Bolivian border on the midnight bus from Salta, arriving in the Argentinian border town of La Quiaca at about 6 in the morning, when it was still dark. The bus station was unreal - like nothing I'd ever seen before, and a bit of a 'eek' introduction to Bolivia. Argentina is so western and modern, that this was our first real view of indigenous life in South America. The station was small, filthy, smelly, and the floors filled with bodies sleeping in the colourful, but dirty, clothes of the Andean Indians. Children were barefooted, and the whole place had an air of hopelessness and poverty - very frightening! As the sun started to come up, we set off towards the border, where we would cross into the Bolivian town of Villazón. It took us quite a while to find the border, as there were no signposts, and nobody to talk to at this hour of the morning! When we got there, we joined the large line of backpackers at the exit post to Argentina, where uniformed officials slowly stamped us out of Argentina, and crossed the bridge to the Bolivian entry point, where an un-uniformed man stamped our entry into Bolivia with friendly ease, and a ready smile. Maybe Bolivia would be OK!

Unfortunately, Bones was a bit sick, and his first action in Bolivia was to vomit into the gutter. Nice! The last thing he needed was a bus journey, but that's where we were heading - to the bus station! We changed our Argentinian pesos into bolivianos - the exchange is about 11 bolivianos for 1 euro - and walked uphill towards where our bible (Lonely Planet) had aimed us. If we thought the bus station on the Argentinian side was bad! This place was a small, dingy, crowded place, with tiny stalls for each bus 'company', where they wrote your name onto a piece of paper as a bus ticket. Well, so bed it! We had planned on heading to Uyuni, where the salt flats were, to take our tour of the flats, but on talking to some other travellers - a guy named Keith from (you've guessed it) IRELAND - we decided on Tupiza as a better starting-off point for the flats. That, and the fact that the next bus to Uyuni was 7 hours away, and the next one to Tupiza was in half an hour! The bus arrived in style - slamming itself into the sidewalk, with no announcement of it's destination, as crowds of people (surely not everyone would have a seat!) surged forwards. Using instincts bred from many a fight at the number 65 in Blessington, I made my way to the front, ascertained that this was our bus, got my bags onto the undercarraige, and boarded my seat in record time! The bus was, as envisioned, packed, and there was no toilet for poor Bones - what a journey that must have been for him! There were kids everywhere, and it had the haphazard feel of a tottering festival bus, so friendly were the Bolivian people aboard! A couple and their three kids sat across from us, and I passed some of the journey making faces at the kids, who evidently thought that my pale skin was reason enough for staring, and the 'making of faces' superfulous to requirement!! The mother could only have been 19, and the father looked perhaps 30, but such is the way of the world....

The bus journey was unreal! The rainy season had wreaked havoc on the roadways, so for much of the journey the bus slid and bumped across landslides and partial-roads....the most frightening of which was when we rounded the valley on our way into Tupiza, and felt the bus dip alarmingly to the side on a regular basis as we traversed the eaten-away road along the edge of a 500m drop! Even the locals screamed at some points, which was hardly heartening! And hardly a day goes by in Bolivia in rainy season without a bus crashing, so you can understand my clenched hands and sweaty palms.....

We arrived in Tupiza and booked into the first hostel on the road - Valle Hermosa, which turned out to be a grand little place but, most importantly, had a tourist office inside through which you booked jeep treks to the salt flats. We signed up for the next day, for the four-day tour, and seeing as it was only 10 in the morning (due to the time difference in Bolivia), we headed out to explore our first Bolivian town. What a place! I would have definitely have spent a few days exploring the beautiful town, and the gorgeous surroundings, but we were on a bit of a deadline with Mac, who had to be back in Buenos Aires to meet his girlfriend off the plane on a certain date. So, we ate some good food (served by an industrious ten-year old!), and wandered the streets a little, preparing ourselves for the jeep trek the next day.

Early next morning we were all packed and ready in the sunshine, in shorts and tshirts, ready for the off. Our jeeps arrived, and myself, Alan, Mac and Bones were in one jeep, with our driver Alberto, and our cook Elisa (Elisabeth). Gail, Alan, Welly and Ed were in the other jeep with Javier, their driver, and their cook, whose name I can't remember. We had paid a little extra (130 dollars instead of 110) to have four in each jeep instead of six, for reasons of our numbers (eight people) and also comfort - which turned out to be a very wise decision! Eight people would have been hellish for four days!! Our first hurdle was heading up out of Tupiza into the mountains, where we drove in sunshine along dirt tracks barely wider than the jeep, with drops down the side of dizzying proportions! What would happen if we met something else coming down the mountain? Banish that thought.....

We stopped at a high point for some photos of our gorgeous surroundings - wow! It was unbelievable! We drove onwards into the deep Andes, where we could see no sign of life for ages. Our guides spoke only Spanish, but our language skills are definitely good enough now for comprehension, so he filled us in on the Llama farming of the area, and of the ore mines nearby. One thing that strikes you in Bolivia is the ethnicity - in Argentina it is so mixed with European that we never felt like we stood out. Here, in a country that 87% of people claim Indian blood, it is impossible to be anything but a gringo. So be it! We are tourists, but unlike Chile - where a tourist is there to be robbed, or Brazil - where they just don't seem to want you around, here you are welcomed and treated to the height of hospitality.

We stopped for lunch during the day, in a field of llamas. Myself and Gail, being the only girls, had to walk for a while to find some ground not visible from the other guys to heed the call of nature that becomes very strong in a bumpy jeep! The lunch was amazing! They dropped the tailgate of the jeep, and layed out a spread of breads, cheese, ham, tomatoes, and llama fritter things, cooked in corn paste. I ate one, without much gusto. The llama meet is stringy, but luckily very heavily spiced! Memories of the 'beef stew' in Peru came to mind.........

Later that day, after much driving across mountains, we came to a village where we were to spend the night. Wow, the cold was unreal!! My shorts were suddenly seeming a very bad idea.... We were set up in one hut, and our friends in another, further up the road. The altitude was really hitting us all at this point, as our village for the night was at 4600 meters, which is higher than the highest point I reached in Peru hiking. But, luckily, I was not suffering as I did in Peru - obviously HIKING to that level and DRIVING to that level are different things! However, Bones and Alan were both a bit sick with it. Our hut was very rustic, and the beds made of stone (but with plenty of blankets!), and Elisa brought us in some hot water and coca leaves - for the altitude - and crackers, so we soon warmed up. Well, that and the fact that as soon as our backpacks were unstrapped from the roof of our jeep, I got on my thermals, jeans, hoodie, jacket, hat and runners!

As darkness began to fall, children began to wander into our hut. There was no question of locking the door - and why would you? So they just wandered in, selling hats and gloves made from llama wool, and bracelets they coyly said they had made themselves (but their giggles said otherwise!!). Mac was pretty amazing with the kids - it probably comes from the profession he is in, but he has endless patience! While the rest of us looked on, he made funny faces and made them laugh. The three lads went for a walk, and I stayed in the hut for a bit - disturbed only by a pudgy little two year old, who staggered into the room and gawked at me for a while. All bundled up in colourful clothes, and embroidered hat, she was just beautiful! She chatted for a little while - luckily, my 'gobble-de-gook' toddler talk is well practised! No language required at that age - the just touch everything, grab at things, point, and gabble at you. Her Mam came in after a while and apologised - as if that was necessary! Later, as darkness fell, she brought in a gas cylinder with a light thing attached at the top, which flamed enough to light our little table. I strolled up through the mud streets - breath coming short due to the lack of oxygen at this altitude - to find the boys, as dinner was nearly ready. There was a game of football going on in the streets, and kids were running everywhere. It was only then that I noticed that they were all barefoot - and there was me wrapped in every layer I had, and still cold. I felt even worse when I got back to the hut, and Elisa had prepared the most beautiful vegetable soup for us! We wolfed it down, thinking this was dinner, when she came with our 'main course'. Unfortunately, for my 'princess' mentalities, it was 'Smash' potatoes and llama steaks. My God I hate llama!! I bravely attempted to eat some, before deciding that my memory from Peru was sound, and llama really was the most disgusting meat.... Mac, on the other hand, ate every morsel of his! Alberto came in as we were settling down to a game of cards and informed us that we were leaving at 5 the next morning, and he would call us at 4.30am. Hmmm.... Even though it was only 9.30, we decided we might just hit the old stone bed.......

I slept like a baby on the beds, though! Not too shabby at all.... At 4.30 the next morning, as promised, we strapped our bags onto the roof of the jeep and, dressed in our warmest clothes, climbed into the backseats for day two. The sun was just rising as we set off, and we could hear the small town waking up to a new day - after all, with no electricity in the place, you really have to just go by the hours of daylight you have. We drove downwards and upwards across wet, muddy, high mountains, until flecks of snow began to appear in the grass next to us. We came across an abandoned town nestled below a snow-covered mountain, which had been wiped out suddenly. He said that it had been a rich town, mining the silver from the nearby mountain, but the Spanish had invaded and sacked the place, killing and looting. Those who were left died from the smallpox the Spanish brought with them (a new disease that desecrated a lot of South America, as they had no immunity to this foreign illness). The town had a very eerie feel to it, something similiar to a Marie Celeste type thing - that everything had been abandoned with great hurry. It was no surprise to me when Alberto told us that at night, the miners of the town can still be seen hiking up the hills to mine the silver - it felt every inch the ghost town.

As we left the village, we began to climb through some serious mud. All went well until we got to a particularily slippy bit, and our jeep began sliding towards the edge with such force, that Alberto twisted the wheel with all his might to no avail - the jeep had no grip. Elisa grabbed Alberto's arm in fear, and we were no less terrified behind, but Alberto was a brilliant driver, and he managed to get us back on track (the jeep behind us told us that they were terrified when they saw our jeep doing that - they thought we were going off the mountain!). After another hour of this, we hit a particularily deep spot, where the jeep got imbedded. Alberto struggled on, before shouting at us to get out of the jeep! We jumped out with Elisa and, following her lead, jumped into the mud and began pushing the jeep. We got covered in muck spinning up from the wheels, while Elisa bravely slotted rocks under the wheels to gain grip, but eventually we got the jeep through. Alberto parked up ahead, and came back to help the other jeeps coming through, and after about an hour of pushing, we got everyone up the hill. Phew!! As we got higher, the snow got worse, until eventually we parked on a hill overlooking an immense valley, with snow thick on the ground around us. We took photos, and threw snowballs, before realising that at this altitude we could do little more than stand without losing breath!! We drove on to some volcanic area, where we could bathe in hot springs if we liked. I didn't like! I was so cold and dirty at that stage, that that thoughts of getting into lovely warm water sounded great, but getting out into the freezing cold and trying to dry off sounded like the least appealing thing in the world! Mac, Bones, and Allan (Gail's one, not mine!) bathed, while the rest of us strolled over the sulpher lake surrounding it, marvelling at the 'gooey' white ground.

We headed to the Dali desert, next, where strange rock formations inspired the name. We decided to walk to some of the rocks which looked close to where we had parked. After an hours walking in high altitude across a freezing desert, we finally got there, knackered tired and completely underappreciating the beauty of the rocks. I had forgotten my inhaler in the jeep, and was feeling particularily rotten. Nothing comparted to poor Ed, though, who we had seen dropping away from the walking group, and lying down in the distance. We all thought that he was joking, but when we got to him, we realised that he was extremely sick. The jeeps drove across to meet us, and Ed had gotten sick and was feeling diabolical by the time we got him into a jeep. Due to the rainy season, the road was blocked to the Laguna Verde, so we got to our next night's stay a little earlier than thought. Ed went straight to bed looking, it has to be said, pretty sick. Again, due to the high altitude, everyone was a bit sick, but a footie game kicked off and a few of our boys joined in. The rest of us played cards, drank coca tea, and shivered. Later, dinner came out, and it was chicken and chips. What joy for us all!! We tried to get Ed to have some coca tea, or soup, but he just wanted to sleep. Welly's laptop had a bit of power left in it, so we watched a couple of episodes of the Simpsons before all falling asleep - at the late hour of 10.00.

Next morning Ed felt a little better, but still wanted to get out of altitude as quick as possible. However, today was to be our highest day - 5000meters, but we were just driving it, so hopefully he'd be OK. We drove to the Laguna Roja - a lake which appears red due to the algae living in it. The strange volcanic countryside spread out before us, as strange lakes seemed to have 'grown' from the valleys. Flamingos and llamas roamed everywhere, so we were busy taking snaps of everything we saw. Unfortunately, we couldn't drive across a small salt flat that day, as the rains had come in too heavy, and it was too dangerous. Neither could we see the promised volcano, as it was hidden in the low-lying clouds. That night we had been promised a shower, but unfortunately that was not to be the case! We arrived in Uyuni, which looked a dismal, dirty town - but then again, it was lashing rain, so who are we to judge? We drove about half an hour outside the town to the 'Salt Hostel' we were to stay in. And Salt it was! EVERYTHING was made from salt! From the bricks of the walls, to the beds, to the tables, to the chairs - it was all salt!! But no showers! Day four minus anything but a baby wipe, and no change of clothes....eeek! It was great fun staying there, mostly due to the low altitude, but we were all miserably cold and's hard to fully enjoy things when you feel that way! Dinner that night was spaggetti bolognaise (kinda), so we had some card games afterwards again, and some wine was drunk.

Next morning we were supposed to get up at 5.30 to see the sun rise on the salt flats, unless it rained. And, of course, it rained! So, instead, we awoke at 9 and headed up to the flats. Due to the rainy season, there was about an inch of rain on the flats, which looked amazing, as you could see the sky perfectly reflected all around you. We drove into the centre, where there is a Salt Hotel, and jumped out into the water to take our photos. You'll have to just look at the photos on my bebo, because there's no describing the absolute weirdness of the place!! We all splashed around, not caring about the mess, in our five-day old clothes, having great fun! Then we hopped back into the jeeps and headed off to the train graveyard for lunch - our final lunch with our guides!! It was great fun. We climbed all over the rusted old locamotives, before stuffing ourselves and chatting to our wonderful guides. After that, they dropped us back into town and tried to help us find a way to Potosi (the highest city in the world, where you can visit the mines and blow up dynamite - the lads were all keen on that!). Unfortunately, there was no buses, and we couldn't even hire a taxi or minibus to take us (Bolivian prices allow what would otherwise be an extravagant cost!), so we decided to just head to La Paz. We got tickets on a bus leaving at 8.30 that night, so resigned ourselves to 8 hours in a dingy town. After saying goodbye to our wonderful guides, and tipping them loads, we headed off to discover that Uyuni was actually quite pleasant! I bought my longed-for Bolivian hat in the markets, and we strolled through the sunshine in our filthy clothes, before landing in an internet cafe for a couple of hours time-wasting. Here, we all discovered that the four-star Radisson Hotel in La Paz was having a special - 99 dollars for a room! Oh, we sat there in our dirty clothes, having not had a shower for five days, thinking of the luxury of sinking into a BATH, of having a shower without queues of people outside waiting to use it, of warm beds, of a swimming pool and sauna, of room service.......and made our decision!! We had decided to spoil ourselves once on this holiday, and nowhere could we do it as cheaply! So, myself and Alan got a double room, as did Gail and Allan, and Bones and Ed got a twin room for our first night in La Paz! Welly and Mac went on to the hostel, The Wild Rover, where we would join them the next day.

Well, we took the night bus to La Paz - dangerous in rainy season not just because of the roads, but of the likelihood of a drunken driver! Which turned out to be OK. As with most of Bolivia, it was dirt road, but I slept like a baby (not so poor Alan, who tossed and turned all night!). We had a couple of toilet stops in fields and one in a restaurant during the night, so the lack of a toilet wasn't a huge issue. On arrival to the bus station we headed off to the Radisson, while the others went to the hostel. We had asked for an early check-in - 10.00 am - and were hoping it was still OK! We got to the hotel in a crumby taxi, with our clothes still covered in salt and mud, stinking from five days without a shower, with our filthy backpacks, to be met by a doorman who took our luggage from us, and opened the door! The shame!! We checked into our rooms, and were treated perfectly, despite us feeling like ruffians in the luxurious lobby! Our rooms were fabulous, and we all had baths and watched cable TV, and ordered roomservice! Wow!! Mac and Welly came over that evening and we all had dinner in the Radisson, on the fourteenth floor, with a beautiful view of La Paz all around. What a night! Next day we had the buffet breakfast downstairs, and asked for a late check-out - 6pm - and headed to the pool. Mac and Welly had booked the Death Road for the next day, but we decided to let fate decide whethar we'd join them, and went back to the sauna.

We left, unwillingly, at 6, and headed to The Wild Rover, which turned out to be a beautiful hostel, with the most comfortable beds I've ever been in, and a great bar, with dinners every night! So not too hard to stay here..... We went up to the Witches Market (so called because it's streets and streets of stalls selling everything you could possible imagine, from dried llama foetuses (buried in the foundations of new houses for good luck) to powdered frog (to bring money to the bearer) to cushion covers to handmade jumpers to cameras to DVD's), and tried to book ourselves onto the Death Road with the lads the next day. We couldn't do it, so were forced to go the day after. Which turned out to be really lucky, because the guys got rain all day, and therefore a bit more dangerous, as well as the fact that they wouldn't get any good views!

OK, I'll quickly give a run-down of the Road of Death, because I'm rattling on for ages here! We headed up the hills to the starting point of the road early in the morning, and were given our bikes and gear - goggles, helmet, kneepads for me! The bikes were really impressive - disc brakes and everything! Worth about 2000 euro at home. Anyway, our guides - two guys - were really good fun, and it was six of us, plus an Aussie bloke, so that's why the photo's on bebo look so good - it was all our group! The first 31km of the road is paved, and it's dirt track after that (some parts only 3.2 meters wide!) for the last 34km. You go from 4633m down to 1700m, which is quite a drop in altitude, and should give you an idea of the steepness! There are drops up to 1000m next to you as you cycle, and it really is terrifying to look to your left and see nothing but a cliff - there are no barriers to stop you going over the edge! And this was MAIN ROAD up until two years ago! An interesting point we noticed was just before the Devil's Tail part of the road, where the ruins of a stall stand. Apparantly a man used to live in the town at the bottom of the road, and his family were travelling from La Paz, and the bus crashed off the road killing everyone on board - including his wife, four children, and mother and father. He went crazy for a couple of years, then began standing at that point of the road - the most dangerous - with red and green flags to try help the traffic going by. He survived on food or gifts of money that passing travellers would give him, and he is said to have saved many hundreds of lives by doing this - and others copied him at other points along the road, thereby cutting the accident rate on this dangerous road. Since this road is no longer a main road, he moved back to the village, but our guide tells us that if you see him now, he has the most serene face, and is perfectly at peace with himself. Quite a beautiful story!

Not so beautiful a story is how many crashes had happened quite recently - buses still travel the road, and two days before we cycled it, a bus fell off the edge, killing all 23 on board. Unbelievable! The first part of the road is paved, so was quite easy, despite some drops along the edge, but for some reason, tarmac gives you a sense of safety. Once we hit the dirt road it was a different story! Flying along at breakneck speeds, looking (or trying not to look) at the drops on your left, and feeling your back wheels slip on gravel, and your heart stop with the fear of tipping over the edge! What an adrenalin rush!! The guides told us about a guy who had foolishly taken out his camera to film himself cycling, and had cycled straight off the edge only a few months before, dying of course. And the place is full of stories like that! Our tour company had never had anyone die - one of our reasons for choosing them!! They were also only 55 dollars (B-Side is their name), much cheaper than the others, but highly recommended to us by other travellers. Incidentally, there are only three companies in La Paz who can boast the 'nobody has died with us' tag for Death Road!

Anyway, the whole thing was amazing! We stopped for snacks at high points and admired the view, and cycled under waterfalls and through rivers. It was the scariest, and most amazing thing, I've ever done, and I'd tell anyone to try it!! At the end of the road, we had a free beer in the local village, then on to another beautiful town nearby, where the group had organised hotel rooms for us to shower in, and a pool to swim in, plus a delicious lunch. All in all a fabulous day!!

Well, that's about up to date on me. The photos on bebo really give a good impression of things - especially the jeep trek and Road of Death - but hopefully I've caught up on things a little too! We've pretty much just hung about La Paz, wandering through the fabulous Witches Market buying wonderful handcrafts. Oh - I nearly forgot! I bought a 3/4 size guitar!! It's so beautiful, and was the most expensive guitar of it's size in the place, but was worth it because it won't warp in heat or cold, and has the warmest sound! It's so beautiful! So, I got the guitar, a padded case handmade red and embroidered, spare strings, a capo, and a plek for 50 euro. Wow!! Unbelievable pricing! So, Alan's been teaching me chords, and it's going really well! One of the books I'm sending to Davey's hostel in Cusco is a bumper guitar book of songs, so that'll be wicked, because I'm copying stuff down from the internet at the moment, which is very time consuming.

Gail, Allan, Welly, Ed and Mac went to the jungle for a few days, while me, Alan and Bones chilled out here, and they had a fantastic time - got to feed an alligator and all! We were quite happy to wait for Peru or Colombia for our jungle trek, and just wandered La Paz a little more! Gail's Allan, Mac, Ed and Bones are gone to Potosi now to the mines, but that didn't appeal to me - climbing into working mines, where men are still working in inhumane conditions, to take photos of them? I know you're helping them by giving them money and all, but still, I don't think I can do it. And I'm not bothered about blowing things up! (you can buy dynamite in the market, and they'll let you blow it up in a field after the mines). So, myself, Alan, Gail and Welly have stayed in La Paz for another few days of relaxation!

We're heading to Lake Titicaca probably on Tuesday or Wednesday, so I look forward to that, and from there back to Peru for me. I'm really looking forward to it!!

Phew...what a long blog! But, at least it's all caught up now. I had been homesick, obviously with everything that was going on, but on talking with my family, I feel a good bit better. I guess when I get back in June I can mourn things proparly. It's very hard to know how to feel when you're this far away. So, ever onward, I'll continue with my travels. We had to say goodbye to Mac yesterday, which was very sad. I've really enjoyed getting to know him probarly while travelling - he is definitely one of the nicest people I know! So we were sorry to see him go....but hopefully he'll come back down to meet us in Colombia, which is kinda his plan.

Best get back to my guitar.......I've been sadly neglecting it this past hour typing this!! Until next time, hasta luego muchachos!

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