Monday, November 27, 2006

un pequeño descanso

hello there.
i wish i could write that with my time off something exciting has happened such as: living in jungle with my very own tarzan, meeting an argentinian prince that is a polo champion, being kidnapped by guerillas or even helping orphaned children; but alas no i've merely been a little too lazy to write! sorry. so here is what i've done since i left Potosi....
Ursula and i met again in southern Bolivia, hired some horses and followed in the final footsteps of Butch cassidy and the sundance kid. We had a great time but in retrospect in probably wasn't our best idea to tell our guide that we had loads of experience horse back riding and that we wanted super 'buenos' horses! we both wore the skin from our inner legs and mine were even bruised. The following days' bus journey to Mendoza, Argentina (36 hours of travelling in one go!) was therefore rather more uncomfortable than it could have been.
Argentina is a world away from Bolivia- its almost european, tree lined city streets, pavement cafes, chic clothes shops, real coffee, beautiful people.... on arriving one of the other guests in the hostel pointed out that it was easy to tell we were no longer in Bolivia for some of the above reasons and that all the people seemed to now have teeth! (this wouldn't have been so funny if it wasn't true). Mendoza is the wine capital of Argentina with many vineyards just outside the city limits. Ursula and I hired bicycles and set off on a tour of those nearest- the wine was tasty and the tours interesting but i have to say we only made it to half of those on our list because of our tardy riding (and excessive wine guzzling).
The next day we headed for the thermal baths a couple hours from mendoza toward chile in the mountains- the water (oddly) was cold but the sun was hot hot hot and consequently we both looked like lobsters on retuning to the hostel that evening. I burnt my chest so, that i was unable to wear a bra for the following week (oops- lesson learnt, use sunscreen a little earlier in the day)
Here in Argentina, there is much more of a mixture of nationalities: saturday night Ursula went disco dancing with the isrealis in our hostel, sunday Ursula left for the airport and her long journey home and i moved into to a room with 3 austrailians, monday i walked around a beautiful lake with an irish and an american, monday night i went out with some spanish to celebrate the birthday of a french man, monday i had a date with said french man and tuesday i left Mendoza for the small town of Malague and found that I was the only English speaker in the little hostel.
The last week i've spent here in Malague and, more or less its been a good week for my spanish, (as thats what i've had to talk all week) and has confirmed that all spanish people seem to be lovely and lots and lots of fun. I've been on a couple of excursions to some strange places, a huge salty lake filled with flamingoes, rivers seemingly appearing from nowhere- bubbling up through the ground, huge black and red mountains with no vegetation but tiny tufts of bright yellow grass, a park containing 800 volcanoes and i've also learnt that almost every other nationality knows the words to their own national anthem. I know only the name of ours- am i alone here and was i the only English to miss that class at school?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

oh, and i forgot..

Go back to Sucre. I forgot this bit but it will probably make you smile and gives an example of my brilliant trip planning.
Surce is famous for its traditional methods of weaving, we visited the museum and were impressed enough to want to visit the villages that produced them by hand and so set about trying to find where the villages are and how to get to them. We'd got up early and looked at the guide book- not early enough it seemed our book told us the buses had left at 7am, back to the drwing board then and we decided to go the following day instead.
Saturday night came and went, we set our alarms for 5.30am and were waiting for the bus by about 6.50, only to be helpfully told by a local that the buses don't actually leave til 9.30 but we could buy a ticket from the office. We did, but there seemed only to be standing room available, nevermind and we bought our tickets. Only to find moments later a second bus pulling up going, also to our village but earlier, with seats and all for 3 bolivianos less... We tried in vain to sell our tickets.
We waited the 2 hours until departure time and squeezed aboard the ridiculously packed bus. so full in fact that people were hanging out of the door and the person behind me was so close that from our hip to our ankles were touching for the entire 2 hour journey. Arriving in the vilage we seemed to be somewhat of a novelty, people couldn't quite understand why we had come. we wandered around the village- not much inthe way of food without meat. we had stale sandwiches of tomatoes, onion and olives. walked around some more- no weavers to be seen.
We then realised they were probably miles away at the famous tourist market trying to sell their products to tourists.
We made another circuit of the village this time with a bolivian trying to conduct a census. We went to the river (the following day i found this had left me with 2 ticks!) and found a woman selling homemade beer from a make-shift pub that was really just a shed.
Then realising the final bus left in 5 minutes sprinted through the town and returned to Sucre, having not met even one weaver.

i'm going underground

I've arrived in Potosi (officially the highest city in the world, fact fans) really just trying to kill a few days before meeting Ursula near the argentinian border. I was suprised the town, although cold and breathless was pretty and my hostel was full of friendly people (luckily i got the very last bed and great views over the city).
Potosi is famous for its large silver mine and it is even possible to visit the mines and so in a very gringo-like manner i booked a tour and off i went, well after being dressed in suitably ridiculous clothing that is. The first stop on our tour was the miners market where we were able to buy various gifts for the miners, soft drinks, coca leaves, chocolate and most excitingly for us- dynamite. Then on to the processing rooms where the minerals are recovered. This basically was huge rooms filled with horrid smelling chemicals none of which were covered or kept away from human hands- our guide found it amusing to smear silver dust on our faces, we did too until he told us the other ingredient in the mixture was lead!
And now to the actual mine, upon reaching the entrance i did feel slight trepidation at descending deep into the mountain. The disclaimer i'd signed stating that in the event of a mine cave'in and my death the mine would not be responsible swam vividly before my eyes. I took a deep breath of the clean mountain air pulled up my face mask and followed the others of my group inside. It wasn't long before we reached a shrine to the devil (affectionately called uncle george) who the miners believe to be the god of the underground (and therefore their god whilst at work), we left some coca leaves and asked for safe passage through the mine.
The mine was hot and dark, the air very dusty and the miners we saw seemed to work tirelessly in these horrible conditions. As we descended into deeper levels the passages we crawled through became narrower but the loads the miners had to transport got bigger. Although it wasn't frightening it certainly wasn't pleasant and thinking that the miners do this all their lives was pretty awful, we finally reached a rock face that miners were working on; three of them chiseled the face whilst two of them sat in a preceeding chamber chewing coca leaves (they eat nothing in the mines for the entire 10 or more hour shifts). I had a go at chiseling a hole for the dynamite and was utterly terrible- we then watched the foreman show us how to do it and he asked us to help by singing a song. Our version of 'Help' by the Beatles (terribly sung) did go down very well, they shock our hands and thanked us for the coca leaves and soft drinks we left.
Everytime we passed a group and gave them either coca leaves or a soft drink they removed there filthy gloves to shake our hands, smiled and proudly explained their particular role in the mine, they then got straight back to work- lifting, pushing, hammering. And i was left feeling slightly uncomfortable at the fact that their incredibly hard work was fast becoming a tourist attraction. Despite the gifts and no matter how sensitive/responsible a tour you take didn't they feel even just a bit of hostility towards us coming down and taking photos?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

a brief update...

sorry for the recent lack of photos- just when i think i cannot possibly arrive in a town with a slower internet connection i do! The internet in Bolivia is worse than crap! - it does however only cost about 12p an hour so i can't complain too much.
After park Amboro we passed through Santa Cruz and on to Sucre for a bit of partying and shopping, well actually we went to a museum as well. then Ursula left for the salt flats and i have arrived in Potosi- the highest city in world, over 4000m above sealevel!!
Then in a few days i'll be heading to Argentina the land of good wine and steak (not sure what Ursula will be eating however).

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Living in a fairy grotto

You might think after wimping out of a jungle walk after only 30 minutes just days previously, the last place that we would be returning to would be the jungle-well we thought we'd give it another chance (prove how hard we are and all!!) - We were on our way to Amboro national park after a late start and possibly the most wreckless driving i have seen so far from our taxi driver (leading us to believe that just maybe he'd had a little drink). Following the rain of the previous night the roads were extremely muddy, so muddy in fact that we were unable to even reach the entrance of the park- giving us and extra 13km walk!
As we began walking through the deep sticky mud and swatting not just the odd mosquito i did wonder why exactly i was paying (again) for this experience. But we applied more repellent and soldiered on bravely to our lunch spot- where to our suprise we found a hut with a table and two chairs (nearly one each then). Our guide however seemed distinctly unimpressed by the fact that we not only had no meat for our sandwiches but no cheese either.
Our suprise for the afternoon was that to reach the campsite we had to walk up a river for about 30minutes- having brought only my walking boots and flimsy flip flops this new piece of information didn't please me. Why hadn't we been told this before we had set off and walked for many hours- i demanded to know from Carlos (our guide), a single shrug was all i got and so (not my finest hour i hasten to add) I had a minor strop on the river bank. This obviously struck home as he changed into his sandals and gave me his shoes fairly sharpish and with me feeling rather sheepish we continued up the final stretch of river and to our camping spot.
On arriving at the campsite, it seemed to be perfect- a small sandy bank beside the river beneath an overhanging rock surrounded by small bushes and flowers. What we realised as we began putting up our tent was that 'our perfect spot' was also perfect spot to about a million bee's!! Also we had no sleeping mats and i, to save weight, had only brought my sleeping bag liner- which made for a not too clod but definately uncomfortable nights sleep. Not a great start to our three day trip.
The following day, we set off to explore the surroundings (me wearing Carlos's shoes again)- they were amazing! we walked up the river hopping from stone to stone wondering at the steep moss lined walls and pretty little flowers (and even better the total lack of mosquitos). We climbed our way up to a view point over looking nothing but trees and mountains. In the afternoon we again made our way up a river but this time to an enormous water fall descending about 100m over totally vertical sheer rockface and best of all we had it all totally to ourselves, or did we?
As we were entering the water Ursula noticed some tiny footprints in the damp sand, heading to the waters edge- fairy footprints! But alas no, after a few minutes of being amazed Carlos informed us that they were in fact monkey footprints; fairly cool but not quite in the same league as seeing a fairy footprint i thought dissapointedly and the water was a bit too painful as it was falling so far onto us.
That evening Carlos was again slightly bemused by our supper (we were also cooking for him) of vegetable soup and asked several times when we were putting the meat in- they really don't get being a vegetarian let alone vegan! But i do think he was pleased with the results and ther was nothing left in the pan by the end of the evening.
Our final day was mostly taken up with walking back to the pick up point for the taxi miles outside of the park for the same mud reasons as before. (same driver but less wreckless driving- supporting our previous theory). After several hours of walking and many many river crossings we were finally leaving the park and as i sat on the muddy river bank and looked back to where i had spent the last 2 nights i was struck by total awe. For as far as i could see were the greenest tree tops leading to steep but still jungely hazy blue mountains and all covered by a pale nursery blue sky filled with wispy white clouds. Totally beautiful. Ursula and Carlos both seemed to think however, that i had taken leave of my senses when i asked them to stop and just look at the beauty for a whole minute. Afterwhich i filled the rest of my memory card taking extreme close ups of foresaid beauty (flowers and pebbles and such like).
It really was lovely.

Friday, November 03, 2006

running, singing and swimming

We left Yacapani the day after we had recovered from our hangovers and headed on to Buenavista with the hope of organising a tour to the nearby national park, Amboro. Buenavista is a sleepy little town described as 'more mild west than wild west' in the guide book (it is however in the east of Bolivia?) anyhow it had a pretty plaza and an intresting market to wander about. We managed to organise a tour for the following day, cost not including food so we spent a good deal of time (and budget) on vegetables in the market and then chilled in hammocks for the rest of the afternoon.
We'd been told that there was a lovely swimming pool belonging to a hotel about 2km out of town and feeling energetic in the late evening, decided to run there (a great idea in principle). However, in real life the directions we had were terrible, so much to the amusement of the locals we ran about 4km in a huge square we found ourselves no nearer the pool, very sweaty and just slightly disheartened but not to be beaten we set off again. The evening sun rapidly becoming dusk as we continued to run on, after asking twice more for directions we were finally on the right road but the sun had set and the dusty road was dark as it wound its way through a small wood, we carried on running.
I was beginning to think that in fact the pool may be closed but decided it best not to turn around at this stage (not least, as we had 4 children giggling and running behind us- i have some pride). The road curved on and we picked up a man on a bicyle who assured us he knew where we were going and suprisingly he actually did, we had finally arrived at the pool.
The only problem now was the fact that in seemed to be well and truely closed with the gate bolted. After a few minutes of shouting over the gate Ursula climbed over to have a better look, there seemed to be noone around and the pool in the moonlight looked very inviting. I too climbed over the fence and very soon we had both jumped in, watched by a very lazy guard dog laying at the edge.
Running back (well mostly walking really) we noticed what seemed to be a music concert in a nearby hall and went over to investigate. This 'concert' actually turned out to be an evangelical church service which we were invited to join (remember we are both soaking wet, sweaty and have our bikinis tyed to our running clothes), we accepted and joined the congregation and were soon clapping and miming enthusiastically if not slightly surreal. At one point a six year old was lead singer on stage then the vicar got up with an electric guitar and was accompanied by a moody teenager on drums after which a half naked tramp had to be removed after causing a disturbence.
We returned home feeling both physically and mentally cleansed.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

slowly moving east

The following morning we tried to leave for the direction of Santa Cruz for found that the buses only seemed to leave mid afternoon- undeterred and not really wanting to spend another day in Villa Tunari we decided to take the local form of transport and just hop from town to town along the road, stopping when we flet lik it and enjoying the scenery a little more.
The local transport are called taxi collectivos- and what this means is that along the main roads (many of which aren't tarmac) several enterprising car owners drive up and down picking up as many passengers as will fit into the car and drop them off at the next town. These taxis will not even leave until there are at least 6 people in the car and then proceed to pick up any one who sticks out their thumb en route, the first journey both Ursula and I sat in the front with the driver, their were four adults in the back seat, one with a baby, three children, our rucksacks and various other luggage in the boot! I think the recod for the day was 14 including the driver.
The vehicules themselves are usually very very old toyota corollas, all seem to have been converted from right hand drive, so the driver sits at the glove compartment and all the dials are in front of the front passengers. Reading the dials is irrelevant really as most of the gauges no longer have needles, so the driver must only guess how fast we are travelling and at what point he needs to fill up with petrol. It seems to be a luxury if the windscreen wipers work or if the windows open or indeed close.
However an odd feeling of deja vu struck me en route; too many people all crammed in, driving slightly too fast, unable to choose the music, with a bag of our belongings on our knees, sun beating down and wind whipping through my hair; what was it? oh yes, just like an old family holiday driving down to France!
We spent that evening (a friday) in a small town called Yacapani, had slightly more to drink than we'd plannedans ended up singing kareoke to ABBA's Dancing Queen- i don't think the locals knew what had hit them.