Culture shock rating: 4/5

Each ‘Intrepid’ trip is given a rating for how physical it is, and how much of a culture shock it’s likely to be. This trip rated 4/5 in both categories. Physically it’s hard work, so i figured that rating was justified. Culturally, however, I had doubts. While it’s certainly very different to what I’m used to, i never found it particularly challenging. That is, not until the last couple of weeks. Ladies and gentlemen, i give you …

Bolivia!!

Bolivia’s a strange place. The landscapes can be truly spectacular, but this is in stark contrast to the filth in the cities and the extreme poverty which is evident pretty much everywhere. We arrived in La Paz, the highest city in the world, and were amazed by how vast it is. I could write it off here as just another seething cesspit with little to differentiate it from others i have visited – it’s overcrowded, dirty and has a seemingly endless amount of shops selling llama-patterned tourist tat. However, it stands out in the respect that it’s the first place I’ve been to where the extreme level of poverty is right up in your face. Beggars are everywhere, on every street. From children to ancient old ladies, aged by circumstances rather than the passage of time. They come into shops and restaurants, often the children are sent by the adults who wait outside. It’s impossible to ignore, but giving is discouraged because it exacerbates the problem. The best way to support the local economy is to buy the tourist tat, so now i have another sweater, gloves and a pair of fluffy socks – the “overnight bus survival kit”. Bear Grylls, eat your heart out.

La Paz itself wasn’t much to write home about, although we did take a walk to the local “witches market”, which was around the corner from the hotel. In the stores you can buy all manner of lucky charms and potions alleged to cure everything from cancer to erectile dysfunction. You can also buy dead baby llamas, or rather llama fetuses, which are, frankly, fucking horrible. They are used as offerings – build a new house, bury a dead llama foetus next to it and it won’t blow away in the next big wind. Or something like that. Basically the whole street smells like dead things.

La Paz is the main jump-off point for one of the most popular day trips – cycling Bolivia’s ‘Death Road’. Remember that episode of Top Gear? Yes, it’s that one. The road itself is rarely used these days since a safer road was completed some years back. Now the traffic is mostly tourists on bikes. It sounded great in theory – hire bike, bounce down hill for 60km. The reality wasn’t too different!

So the first mention should go to our guides. Our group of 5 girls had 2 guides and a support car and driver. Safety is paramount on this one – there have been a couple of cyclists who have met a sticky end because they didn’t take it seriously. Fall off the road, and you die. We were very well looked after, so our guides (B-Side Adventures) deserve a name check and a thank you! The first 28km or so is just regular road. Well, regular road with spectacular mountain scenery. It’s all downhill, so there’s no effort required – you just ride the breaks all the way to the end! We were suited-up in protective helmets, trousers, pads (i looked WAY cooler than The Stig, honest!), so stress was minimal and all we had to do was get to the end. This section passed without incident, and we were at the end before we knew it. At this point it was back in the car for the uphill part (11km ish – cycling uphill is no fun for anyone!!). After the uphill stretch, we arrived at the start of the Death Road. Time to strip off a couple of layers – the start of the run is at really high altitude and is Baltic cold. The end of the run is much lower, and tropical!

I’d been lulled into a false sense of security by the nice smooth road ride. On reflection, I’m not sure why they call it the Death Road, cause it sure as hell ain’t a road!! It’s more of a ‘track’ or ‘trail’. Basically it’s windy, high, rocky, and downhill again. Because it’s rocky, it’s damn difficult to go in a straight line, and staying in control when you haven’t done any mountain biking in the last 15 or so years is, um, challenging. I hit every rock i was aiming to miss, and nearly snotted myself several times. The whole thing was really quite stressful and felt like one long rumble-strip. I had two thoughts running around my head on loop – 1) I’m going to die, or at least fall and break a leg or arm 2) if i don’t, I’m at least gonna have one MONUMENTALLY SORE ARSE!! Anyway, I didn’t die, or break anything. I did, however have one MONUMENTALLY SORE … you get the picture. The scenery was spectacular and we got some awesome pictures. Also, whilst it would be a stretch to say i enjoyed it, I did get a great sense of achievement at having done it, and have been wearing my tacky souvenir t-shirt with pride.

During the day, we noticed that when we stopped and our bikes were checked, they also took the opportunity to blow up one of the tyres on the support car. We didn’t really register it as a problem until they’d done it about four times. It was only at the start of the return journey that we knew for sure we had a problem, when we watched them fixing the flat tyre … with a bicycle puncture repair kit. And asked us all to sit on one side of the bus. The concentration on the driver’s face was intense as he negotiated the winding road home. This was actually scarier than the Death Road – higher, and we were taking some of the corners on 2 wheels. Did I mention that Bolivian drivers are the worst I’ve encountered on the trip so far? Fuck. A. Doodle. DooAnyway, we survived, although every scare knocked a bit off the life expectancy! Turns out we were to have an interesting run with flat tyres, when the overnight bus we were travelling on blew a tyre at around 2am. It seemed the driver lacked the equipment necessary to fix the problem, so we were stationary for a good couple of hours. There’s another piece of vital equipment that Bolivian busses lack – working toilets!! The flat tyre stop had one advantage – it was a perfect opportunity for a jungle wee (or ‘desert wee’ given that we were completely surrounded by miles of nothing). It was, it has to be said, the prettiest scenery i have ever enjoyed while taking a jungle wee – i have never seen so many stars, anywhere, ever. The downside? I sat on a prickly bush, and was so busy looking upwards that i pee’d on my feet, slightly.

Next up, Sucre – capital of Bolivia. Sucre is about as different to La Paz as it’s possible to get. Whilst La Paz is huge, dirty and completely overrun by people and traffic, Sucre has the feel of an old Spanish colonial town, and most of its colonial buildings have been whitewashed, earning its nickname ‘the white city’. There wasn’t a huge amount going on here, and indeed a lot of places were closed. I did, however, get to spend Christmas Eve in the spa having a massage, manicure and pedicure – a post-Inca Trail treat. Whilst there, i met another English girl who is memorable only in that she had the most disgusting feet i have ever seen – they were BLACK, and the poor woman doing her pedicure was scraping the dirt out of the creases in her feet. Eww. I also scored my first decent case of sunburn for the entire trip that day. It didn’t feel overly hot, but after a couple of hours i had my the outline of my bikini top and the shape of my pendant branded into my chest. Not for the first time, i was glad my backpack had wheels, as there was no way it was going on my shoulders for a few days!!

Christmas Day arrived, and it was time to move on again. While everyone back home was tucking into the turkey, we spent the day on the bus (well why should Christmas Day be special, right?!). We arrived in Potosi at dinner time to discover that everything was closed, and we walked around in the pissing rain looking for somewhere that would feed us. We eventually found an Italian restaurant (i use the term ‘restaurant’ loosely) and after a seemingly endless wait, tucked into Christmas dinner consisting of pizza, pasta and pathetically bad Bolivian red wine. Most wines improve as you drink them. Bolivian wine doesn’t – you just come to accept its shiteness and carry on.

The big draw in Potosi (there has to be one) is a visit to a working silver mine. “Not for the claustrophobic” say the trip notes. Still, I figured that i survived the caving in Columbia, so I’d give it a bash. The guides arrived to collect us from the hostel and get us ‘suited up’ in protective jackets and trousers, along with hard hats and headlamps. You are also supplied with a canvas bag, in which you are instructed to put only the money you need and your camera. “Nothing else. If you lose your credit cards it’s not my problem, it’s your problem” said the guide who was clearly pissed that he had to be working on Boxing Day.

First stop – the miners’ market. Here you can but coca leaves and alcohol for the miners (WTF??!!!) as well as your very own bomb-making kit for the bargain price of 20BS. This kit includes dynamite, ammonium chloride and fuse wire. All together in a nice little plastic carrier bag, ain’t that spesh?!! In one of the stores we had a demonstration of how ‘safe’ the elements are, even when combined, and we learned about the miners’ drinking habits – drinking almost pure alcohol at work is acceptable in a job where every day might be your last. At least it’s acceptable in Bolivia – can’t imagine it taking off anywhere else!

Then it was time to visit the mines themselves. We followed our guide, single file, into the tunnel. I wished, not for the last time that day, i was wearing brown trousers. Just in case. It didn’t start out too badly – some parts of the tunnel were pretty low, but nothing too challenging. The first indicator that this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park came when we arrived at a spot where we had to scramble up through a hole in the ceiling to continue. No ladders to be had, naturally. This had one of our number beating a path for the exit – i should have joined her! At this point i felt, i was pretty much committed, so i pushed-on. More fun awaited – a slimy plank over a black abyss, and an optional climb down a 40m deep hole to see work going on down there. Naturally, no ladders, and you have to get yourself back up again. Fuck that, i thought. Thankfully the sentiment was shared by the rest of the group.

Being Boxing Day, it was not a normal working day in the mines. If it had been, there would have been blasting to contend with too. The air was full of dust and my lungs felt full of it; we paused to rest in a cave-like area where there was a statue of a devil with a huge penis. I vaguely remember the guide saying something about pouring the alcohol on the penis as a offering for fertility, but by that point fear had taken hold and i was entirely focused upon not actually shitting myself when we were instructed to turn all our lights out. Pitch black. Wow, I didn’t see that coming … (boom boom).

As we exited the mine i was overcome with relief, having been on the verge of a full-scale melt-down 5 minutes earlier.  Outside, there were a couple of children, and a litter of puppies. Well, nothing soothes like petting cute puppies, and within 5 minutes i had a puppy on each knee and had forgotten that i wanted to push the guide down a shaft. The Potosi silver mine – that’s your culture shock 4/5, right there!

Writing this a good few weeks retrospectively with only Argentina and Brazil left on the Intrepid programme, i can say categorically that Potosi was the low point as far as places visited goes. But Bolivia wasn’t done with us yet. Next stop, Salar de Uyuni. Uyuni feels a bit like the Wild West. It’s dry and dusty, and you expect to see big balls of tumbleweed blowing across the street. This remote small town sits on the edge of the high altiplano, a wilderness that extends for hundreds of kilometres towards the border with Chile and Argentina.

Uyuni was to be the starting point for a 3 day excursion by jeep into the Salar de Uyuni, the Bolivian salt flats. Whilst the going is a bit rough, this trip was one of my favourite parts of the tour so far. After the Inca Trail the conditions didn’t seem all that tough – still no shower for 4 days, but the toilets were better and we got to sleep in actual beds!! The first day of the tour took us to an active volcano (or at least within photo range), and then on to the salt flats where endless blue skies meet endless white salt on what was once a prehistoric lake. I’m sure you’ve all seen examples of the crazy perspective-defying photos that people take here – pictures of people walking into cans of Pringles or being chased by toy dinosaurs. To my disappointment, getting these to look really good is WAY harder than it looks. However, trying was still really good fun. It was a perfect day – baking hot on the salt with bright blue sky. We spent that night in a salt hotel – that’s a hotel made of salt – in dorms of 7-8 people. There was only power for a limited time in the evening which was switched off at 10pm, giving us no choice but to get an early night. Besides, it was Baltic cold and bed was the warmest place for us!

The next day we were off to visit the lagoons. The most striking thing about the lagoons (apart from the flamingos which I’ve never seen in the wild before) were the colours – blue, green, white and red. Again the weather was perfect, although i don’t think the camera has quite captured the colours as i saw them – the scenery was truly stunning. The day was rounded-off with a visit to some stinky geysers before another early night. One of the guys travelling with our group for the 3 days had sunstroke and had gone to bed and passed out – and he was making some creepy breathing noises in his sleep. Dorms are always interesting!!

The next morning was an early start – we had to be out by 6 to drive to meet the bus that would take us over the Chilean border. It was another beautiful day, and with it being so early in the morning the light conditions made all the colours look different. Bolivia, it seems, is a country of extremes – parts of it are unbelievably beautiful and untainted by the filth and poverty and corruption evident in other parts. As we headed for the border that morning i looked out of the window at the landscape and i realised that the mountains actually looked purple in the morning light. Purple mountains, red earth, green and yellow plants – i wondered how i was going to be able to do it justice in my write-up. But as i sat there thinking about how beautiful everything was and how (maybe) i could come back one day, i was brought back down to earth with a bang. The other two cars forming our little convoy had stopped in the road ahead next to a third car which, from the state of it, appeared to have rolled, scattering debris all over the road. We drove past the car and pulled over. It was only when we got out of the car that i saw her, lying at the side of the road covered with a coat. The gory details are unnecessary here, but our driver speculated that they had probably been speeding on the dusty road and lost control. When we arrived at the border and spoke to the police about the incident, it became apparent that they had no intentions of doing anything about it, presumably until the family turned up and paid them to do something about it. As we crossed the border into Chile, i felt that I’d never been so glad to be stamped-out of a place in my life.

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