By the way!! I have FINALLY uploaded pictures from the last month on Picasa...here is the address (haven't had time to write captions yet, but I will!)
I write this from the Carribean shores of Bocas Del Toro in Panama. I feel very behind in recording my adventures during the middle of my time in Bolivia, and if I do not complete my story with due haste, I feel it may be overtaken with the far warmer memories I am creating at this moment.
I already wrote to you about climbing Huayna Potosi, and the previous email, I believe, left off with me the night before I joined a tour of the Salt Flats and the volcanic region south of them, on the border with Chile.
We left early in the morning for the train station as we were told that there were strikes going on in downtown La Paz and the journey to the bus station might be slow going. As it was, we were fine. The station was an experience for its toilets, which were quite disgusting..and like so many bathrooms in South America, inexplicably gave you a ticket for paying to use the facilities. Why do they do this? Are armed police going to raid you in the stall, mid pee, and demand to see your ticket?
The bus journey to Oruro was uneventful (yet again, I was the new addition to the group of 10 travellers and they didn't seem too keen to engage me) but I was very happy to see Michael, Tiago and Samara at the train station as we collected our tickets for the 7 hour train ride to Uyuni...one of the coldest placest on earth with temperatures in the winter of up to -100 degrees celcius. We all lunched together and then got on the train.
Unfortunately, they were playing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on the train. Whilst I love this movie, it is a very sad memory for me when I saw it for the first time, and that coupled with the fact that it is a very sad movie overall, had me crying for about 3 hours of the journey and arriving in a rather sour mood which was not aided by the fact that none of my new comrades wanted to share a room with me. Probably for the best, I cried myself to sleep.
We piled in groups of 4 into our 4x4's for the next 3 days and headed off to see the world's largest salt flats. The tour itself turned out to be somewhat disappointing with absolutely no interpretation...we were just driven around and told to get out at various points of interest and take photos. Not that the locations were not stunning, because they were.
The first day was a highlight for me as we took a lot of perspective photographs in the area of blindingly white ground, piercingly blue sky, and sun that could burn your eyes if you walked around without protection. The idea was to have objects in the foreground appearing to interact as if in the same plane and space with objects (usually other people) way way in the background, creating unique illusions. This was a lot of fun, but took a good while to get a hang of together with a lot of patience.
We also visited a very strange mountain covered in cacti which stood in the middle of the salt and seemed very oddly out of place. The entire area was like an illusion, especially as we drove on the horizonless "freeways" of salt that carried no mark or indication of direction. I would not want to be stuck out here with my own car.
That first night we stayed in a hostel that was made entirely of salt. Really. You could lick the walls. The ground was covered in thousands of salt crystals which crunched as you walked on them. Definitely an alternative to floor vacuuming and cleaning. ?
It was very cold that night, but thankfully our room, though not heated, had good protection against drafts. The evening meal was spent bundled up and ladling soup complete with gloves. My new group seemed to love playing cards, but I didn't join in, opting to read instead. Later, some musical talent from a local school stopped by to sing and dance for us. That was very sweet and we all tipped and thanked them.
The next two days we continued our journey south stopping at incredibly colorful lagoons scattered with flamingoes, unusual rock formations that stood out in stark contrast to the unending desert behind them, and beautiful volcanoes that had a pretty sprinkling of snow on top of them.
Our second night was far more frigid than the first and we resorted to wearing nearly ALL of the clothes we'd brought with us whilst trying to keep warm in the silly thin sleeping bags the company provided, all the while inside the beds covered in 7 more woolen blankets. If you didn't lay awake from the cold, it was from fear of being smothered by the weight of the covers. Just turning over was quite a task.
That morning we had to ready ourselves in the dark (other than a plastic roof which let in a blustery wind, the hostel only had electricity from 7-9pm) using our headlamps and set out into the night sky at 430 in the morning. our first stop were some steaming geysers and bubbling mud pots, which ended up being quite wonderful to stand in front of, trying to warm our butts and hands in the steam.
The thermal baths, therefore, came as a very welcome sight. Our guide had said she didn't like them because they were too hot, but I for one think she is mad, and after dipping in a toe, needed absolutely no encouragement to strip in the frigid cold and dive right in (keeping my wooly peruvian hat on, of course). The water was fantastic and Tiago and I were the first ones in. Lots of people came up to the water, hesitatingly putting in their toes only despite our shrieks for them to f*%^*ing get their kit off and get in! "Oh, but it'll be too cold to get out again!" Clearly none of them had lived in a ski resort long enough to know that if you sit in a hot tub for 30 minutes, you're very much protected from the chilly night air for at least a few minutes after you get out. After much whining, we were joined by more people as they got up the nerve.
I bid goodbye to my friends that afternoon as Michael headed back to La Paz on the night bus, and Tiago and Samara went on to San Pedro de Atacama (which, ironically was only about 20kms from where we were...and where I had spent such a fantastic time in March, 2008). I loved meeting you guys and hope that we stay in touch!!
That night getting back to Uyuni, we were all in need of some solid gringo food and fell upon the most delicious pizza, apparently, in Bolivia and washed it down with fresh homemade chocolate cake (heated!!) and ice cream. It was fantastic.
The following day we had a long, hungry, bus journey to Potosi, followed by an even more famished trip to visit the world famous unesco world heritage silver mines of Potosi. Somehow our guide had neglected to realize that the mines would not be worth visiting in the morning as it was a Sunday, and therefore had last minute arranged for us to have a late afternoon tour on Saturday. However, it didn't afford us any time to stop for lunch. By the time we had our second meal of the day it was 945 pm! Luckily, I had leftover pizza from the night before to tie me over.
The 3 hour or so visit to the mines will stay with me for a very very long time. The mines are now almost stripped of silver, during the time of Spanish conquest, thousands of African slaves were brought over the ocean to work the mines in unbearable circumstances, sometimes being forced to stay in and work in the mines for six months at a time. The descendants of the lucky few slaves who survived make up the tiny african bolivian population who live in the north of the country. We all bought gifts for the miners which consisted of coca leaves (which the miners chew religiously to battle symptoms of altitude, since the mine is at 4300 metres, as well as to suppress appetite and provide energy to work in the deplorable conditions) cigarettes, unfiltered, and sticks of dynamite. The mine is a cooperative, and each miner is not salaried, his wage is determined by the amount of mineral he is able to extract and sell. The principal minerals being sold today are tin and lead.
These miners work in horrifically cramped spaces, at 4300 metres, in temperatures of 45 degrees celcius (115 degrees fahreinheit), breathing air that is full of noxious fumes such as cyanide, and silica dust, carry loads of rock up to 100 kilos at a time on their backs several times a day through miles and miles of back breaking low clearance tunnels, risk their lives from accidental death or dismemberment due to explosives, and generally have a life expectancy of about 15 years after entering full time work in the mines, at which time they usually contract silicosis pneumonia. We asked several groups of miners how much they were able to make for a day's work: Their answer? Between $6 and $9 a day. If they have to stop working due to a loss of lung capacity of MORE than 50%..they can earn a pension of $1.50 a week.
I will never again complain about the working conditions of any job I have back home again.
We were all completely filthy and having great difficulty breathing after just two hours in the mine. Just walking was hard enough. I couldn't begin to imagine actually spending 8-10 hours a day here. It was too difficult to contemplate. The passageways were impossibly cramped and my heart was racing at some points from the fear created by such enclosed spaces. At some points we literally had to crawl on all fours and squeeze through the narrowest of halls. When asked if we wanted to go visit a blast site a few of us volunteered.
I soon asked myself what on earth I was doing as I found myself climbing up a ladder with more rungs missing than present (definitely no health and safety code in Bolivia) all the while with rocks and silica crashing down on my helmet and clothes. The passageway at the top of the ladder was not only tiny, but it had a significant degree of slope to it. Susie, who was ahead of me, was having a very hard time and eventually decided to back out. We were told that during the day, as many as 10 men would be working in this tiny tiny space. We all backed out and had quite a difficult time squeezing back down the shaft, not able to look down. I was very unnerved by it all.
Thankful to be back out into the fresh air (still hard to breathe though because of the altitude, Potosi is the highest town of its size in the world) we were next given the opportunity to experience a dynamite explosion. How cool? Well, first I managed to get a photo of me holding the lighted stick of dynamite before a volunteer together with the guide ran down the hillside to set the charges before legging it back to where we were. When the first bang came, I almost fell over from the sheer force of it. It was incredible. Forget taking a picture..I practically dropped my camera.
After a memorable morning spent wandering the streets of Potosi, which had many seemingly moorish influences in its architecture, we all jumped in cabs for the 3 hour ride to the capital of Bolivia> Sucre.
Our hotel was lovely, and at this point, I was enjoying my unpopularity in the group because I was still enjoying a room all to myself. After a yummy dinner we headed out for karaoke which Sole, our guide, had arranged. Of course, everyone in the group just wanted to have fun and I wanted to SING. And I wanted to sing alone, not with the entire group crooning drunkenly along with me. That's not karaoke for me, at least (but as you all know, I'm weird and a voice snob). Disappointed, I headed back to my room and settled in for a delightful if subtitled movie in bed.
I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the white capital of Sucre the next day. It was a stunning little city, and one in which I think I could happily live for a while. There were parks and trees everywhere with little outdoor cafes and lots of places to sit and watch the world go by. I was thrilled to find a beautiful Potosi silver ring for a ridiculous price, and drink glasses of fresh "tambo"...unripe passion fruit juice, at the local market. In the evening, a few of us took a cab up the main hill to a cafe called Mirador which had an incredible patio view over the entire city. It could have been Spain or Tuscany with the setting sun warming our toes as we sipped tea and ate fantastic chocolate cake. I was in heaven.
On our last day in Sucre, 3 of us decided to go on a guided walk through the mountain range east of the city, the Cordillera de los Frailles. The route took us first down an original Inca trail (apparently part of the trail that connected Buenos Aires to Machu Picchu), through villages inside an ancient volcanic crater strewn with violet and red rocks, and then several miles further over hills to a set of original and fossilized dinosaur footprints. They were fantastic and much better than expected as we could walk right up to them. Anywhere else in the world and these incredible artifacts would be cornered off away from tourists and viewable only by binoculars. The scenery was also very different from all else I'd experienced thus far on this trip, and together with the green hills, dramatic rock shades, glorious sunshine, and abundant eucalyptus trees, I would have guessed I was in Australia.
It was a long 18 km hike followed by a two hour off road drive through rivers and over many boulders. We were wrecked by the time we got back and after a shower, I barely had the strength to make it to a restaurant and get food to go.
The next morning a few of us boarded a plane back to La Paz as the rest of the group continued on their South American odyssey on to Santa Cruz and Brazil. I was looking forward to doing my own thing again...and as I mentioned in my last email..I decided on that flight to climb Huayna Potosi. The rest you know!
OK...I will leave you there and pick up next time with my last two days in La Paz before flying back to Costa Rica and journeying on to Panama where I am now.