Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Salar De Uyuni

In a country blessed with an abundance of natural beauty, Bolivia’s southwest walks away with the plaudits for the most beautiful region in the country. The Salar De Uyuni which is the stellar attraction here is found in Bolivia's Altiplano region, a high plateau formed by uplift of the Andes mountains. (Thanks Wikipedia.) This entire region looks like a landscape that‘s been photoshopped in advance before you've taken your camera out of your pocket. Photographs can only diminish its beauty. It’s a wishlist of nature’s most stunning natural occurrences; volcanoes both active and dormant, impossible rock formations, spurting geysers, snow-capped peaks, multi-coloured lakes dotted with shocking pink flamingos, traditional Aymara rituals and celebrations, the glorious Salar De Uyuni, a cemetery for trains and overly excited camera toting Germans determined to get the best shot at your expense. Phew.
Getting there is easy but choosing the right company to do the trip with is the tricky part. There's little to choose between the tour companies with regard to price but it’s the service factor where your choice can leave you either helpless and shivering beside a rusted 4WD some 4,000m up or being driven around in comfort in a heated jeep by a driver/guide who knows where to lose the crowds. In the end I go with Tupiza Tours and on the morning of Day 1, our group (there’s a maximum of 5 per group) meet with Javier, our driver, and Celia, our chef and pile into the 4WD which will get us through the rugged landscape over the coming days. I’ve opted for 4 days and 3 nights, at the end of which I’ll be transferred to San Pedro De Atacama in Chile.
Day 1 is easily the least compelling of our 4 days and yet still offers up some incredible views as we make our way slowly, climbing all the way to the city of Uyuni. We pass by the scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s last hold-up and soon after, they met their maker in a neighbouring village. As the light drains from the day we make our last stop at Uyuni’s train cemetery, an oddly beautiful place where decades old steam engines lie to rust out their last days. We spend the night in a nowhere village, a tantalising 5km from the Salar.
Day 2 begins before sunrise and Javier drives us onto the Salar just in time for sunrise. As we make our way in the darkness we can already see the blinding whiteness of the Salar outside. At 10,500 sq km in area, finding a spot to ourselves is easy. Once the sun rises, the magnitude of the place becomes apparent but nothing prepares you for just how beautiful it is. Two colours dominate - the blinding white of the Salar with its hexagonal shaped salt crystal formations stretching as far as the eye can see where it meets the softer blue of the sky. Javier, it turns out, is not only our driver but also specialises in capturing those cheesy tourist photo moments on the Salar. His props include a toothbrush, cracked egg shells and us. Our two friends from Hong Kong willingly accede to each and every one of Javier’s photo requests.
I’m pretty certain that the Salar De Uyuni is the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited. Right in the heart of it there’s the Isla Del Pescado, home to gigantic cactii, incredible views of the Salar but otherwise uninhabited. In the early morning light the place is awash with epic vistas in all directions. Our luck’s in too as on the day we arrive on the day that the Aymara people are on the island’s highest point celebrating their New Year. As we make our way to the peak there’s a group of about 60 gathered together, two llamas lying to the side their throats cut offered up as a sacrifice. There’s no tiring of the views of the Salar even after 5 or 6 hours driving and stopping, emptying out of the jeep to take the same photos over and over again. Everything after this is bound to be an anti-climax.
Except it isn’t. Day 3 brings us higher, above the 4,000m mark to a region where still active volcanoes smoke and where the lava from previous eruptions has hardened into comically shaped rock formations. None moreso than the Arbole De Piedra - a tree shaped rock seen above - which is just one of several remnants of past volcanic eruptions combined with the effects of the elements this high up. From there we drive across the treeless landscape making our way to the Laguna Colorado but not before our first encounter with some of the region’s flamingos on one of the many other lagunas which litter the place. On arrival there’s a flock of about 15 but by the time we leave there are maybe 50 or more, tantalisingly out of reach for a decent photo on a shit camera.
Our last stop of the day is also the most breathtaking - the Laguna Colorado. It isn’t the size which beggars belief but the colour - huge bright red patches caused by the sun’s reflection on the algae which infest the place. It too is peppered with flamingos, the whole place a photographer’s wet dream. Normally picking the 5 photos Google allow me to use above each post is pretty straightforward but for this one I could have included 50. I think I took almost 200 photos on Day 2 and am finding it impossible to reduce that number. Not sure anything can top these 3 days for natural beauty.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Getting high in Potosí

And so my travels have come to something of a sprint finish. With notions of dipping my toe into the waters of Chile, Peru and Ecuador before I depart for home, travelling has begun in earnest once more and having spent two days exploring Sucre, Potosí is next on the list. It’s a remarkable city in that it’s found at a lung-bursting 4,070m above sea level, quite a jump from Sucre’s more bearable 2,700m. From now on in Bolivia it’s all going to be about getting high. Potosí is probably most famous for its co-operative mine in which miners work in Victorian-era conditions; its gnarly ladders, unventilated shafts and wildly fluctuating temperatures adding up to a miserable existence to the hundreds who try to make a living there. There’s a tour to the mines which is aggressively sold but which I steer clear of mostly to avoid coming across as a day-tripping western coming to mix it amongst the filthy masses struggling daily to make a living in life-threatening conditions. The fact that I’m claustrophobic and afraid of the dark has absolutely nothing to do with. Whatsoever.
Besides, there’s much to see and do in and around Potosí. The city itself is as undersold as the miners’ tour is oversold. In common with Sucre it has an old world charm, a beautiful, if gaudy, central plaza and some of Bolivia’s finest budget accommodation in refurbished colonial-era houses. There’s also some wonderful trekking in the vicinity so I trek up to the Lagunas de Kari Kari, in themselves unspectacular, but set amongst the rolling hills above the city and offering perfect views of the urban sprawl below. The trek also gives me my first close encounter with llamas. Dublin zoo probably has some llamas but in common with most of the animals there, they were probably ‘asleep’ on the day I visited as a youngster. Llamas are weird, having all the characteristics necessary to be a sheep but it’s that downright weird fucking neck which makes them stand out. I take some photos, self-consciously peering over my shoulder as I do for fear that some locals will laugh at me for taking snaps of what are, after all, the South American equivalent of sheep.
During my time in Potosí I was also encouraged by none other than Hugo, my Spanish teacher, to visit the city’s National Mint museum which was reason enough to give it a miss but I decided to check it out regardless. There’s a tour in English which is ideal because unless our guide wants to repeat instructions about how to order a hotel room or how to buy a kilo of oranges in Spanish during the course of the hour the tour lasts then I’d be completely lost. She turns out to be Bolivia’s most cantankerous woman. Having shown us a display featuring some of Bolivia’s coins from the past and having encouraged us to ask questions if we had any, I meekly enquire as to why - as she previously had alluded to - Bolivia doesn’t mint its own coins any more, she curtly responds “Because it’s cheaper in Chile.” Right. Thanks for that.

To Sucre

There’s official time and there’s Bolivian time. If, for example, you’re told that a bus journey will take 14 hours, you can safely assume that this means 18. Leaving Santa Cruz behind to move to Sucre, I’m informed that the overnight bus will be in Sucre (still the constitutional capital of Bolivia) by 7am so I anticipate a noon arrival. It’s a 17 hour journey and within an hour of being on the bus I’m being squeezed from the front and behind for good measure - the prick sitting in front of me has already reclined his seat fully and there’s a kid sitting on his Dad’s lap behind me and is kicking my seat with monotonous regularity. There’s not much that you can do on a 17 hour bus journey but grin and bear it. There are roughly three stages to a bus journey like this;
1. Stage I - The ‘Wow, it feels wonderful to be on the road again, getting the chance to see the countryside pass me by and seeing the locals go about their business on the charming villages which litter the route’ stage.
2. Stage II - The ‘Christ, I’ve only been on the bus for 7 hours, I can’t sleep even though everybody on the bus seems to be in a deep slumber except for the child behind me who is still kicking the back of my seat with the aforementioned monotonous regularity and when do we get to stop to take a piss?’ stage.
3. Stage III - The ‘Only 5am in the fucking morning - wasn’t it 4.30am three hours ago - driving through yet another tedious fucking village, 7 hours from our destination, neck and back no longer on speaking terms, unsure of whether I’d rather eat or vomit’ stage.
All of this and a road surface which must surely have been used for quality control testing of landmines mean that by the time I get to Sucre (not long before noon strangely enough), all I want to do is leave again. But Sucre is wonderful, a beautiful old city with magnificent colonial buildings, dazzling whitewashed facades and a little bit of history around every corner. In common with most Bolivian cities it also has a wonderful central plaza where the young and the beautiful sit around (and me too) eating ice-cream and sipping on freshly squeezed orange juice. There’s a fantastic market where you can sit and drink freshly squeezed juices for the day if you so wish.
Now that I’ve left the security of Santa Cruz, it’s sink or swim time with my Spanish. On arrival in Sucre, tired and grumpy I make my way to the hotel and will have to utter my first official words in Spanish without having someone there behind me to clarify that what I’ve just said was indeed Spanish. I’ve even visualised the scene a few times, strolling into the foyer, casually enquiring; “Tienen habitaciones libres para dos noches?” However, by the time I get there not even I understand what comes out of my mouth, yet somehow I’m understood and I leave the reception, key in hand feeling like the road to fluency will be a short one. I almost feel like going back to reception and engaging the receptionist in a breezy conversation but, hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Mañana, quizá mañana.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Lo Siento Pero No Hablo Espanol

I have two and a half months of travelling left and all of that time will be spent in South America and at this stage I’m sick of surviving on a few words here and there in the local language. The aim is to develop my non-existent Spanish skills to a level beyond the usual ability to ask for a room or order some food. Of course I don’t expect to be able to discuss Aristotelian philosophy once August rolls around but to have developed some functional conversation skills should be achievable. So it was that decided to spend two weeks in Santa Cruz attending a language school where I would attend lessons for 4 hours a day, 5 days a week. My teacher was Hugo whose motto, which he endlessly and irritatingly repeated, was “To love all and to serve all.” As part of this immersion in all things Spanish I spent two weeks living with a Spanish family, sharing meals with them and watching an unending stream of Mexican telenovellas.
Things started pretty encouragingly when Hugo had written the aims and objectives of the two week course on the board as I arrived on Day 1. Initially my enthusiasm was boundless and the first couple of days began with an introduction to the verbs in all their various forms. By Day 3 though it started to becomes clear that the aims and objectives of Day 1 were quickly forgotten and instead we’d spent relentlessly tedious hours reading over verbs and random articles in magazines that I couldn’t understand. I was at the Sesame Street stage of Spanish and Hugo was half expecting me to translate Ulysses. I can barely read the fucking thing in English. So it continued for the rest of the week. I’d explain my very basic language needs, Hugo would acknowledge them and then completely ignore them. His motto was rapidly becoming “To love all and to teach fuck all.”
Meanwhile over with the family, things were progressing pretty smoothly. I had my own room and three meals a day which offered the best chance of interaction with the family. Truth is that I couldn’t understand a word of what the mother or father were saying but fortunately their daughter understood that I was patently hopeless when it came to Spanish and spoke to me like I was Forrest Gump. This left things awkward at mealtimes as the family spoke less because there was a stranger in their midst and I spoke little because I didn’t know how to. Many times I’d begin a sentence only to be half way through and realise that I didn’t have the words to finish it. Everyone would stare, waiting to hear what I had to say but I’d give up and reach for the spoon and shovel some soup into my mouth. As the two weeks passed though I did develop the ability to sprinkle some banal sentences throughout mealtimes which made it seem like I was making an effort. In typical Irish fashion though, many of these were about the weather.
Back in the classroom with Hugo things didn’t improve. Hugo is from the school of teachers who believe that once something unknown is written down it automatically becomes known. The few things I felt that I had understood previously - use of direct and indirect objects for one - Hugo managed to unravel completely. We’d spend an hour each day watching a film in Spanish which would have been fine if there were some activities based on the film but no. So it was that I had to sit through ‘Love In The Time Of Cholera’ with Spanish subtitles. If you’ve seen the film you’ll feel my pain. Ironically enough, Spanish seems to be a relatively straightforward language to learn. Here’s a pretty good example of what I mean. Opening the English-Spanish dictionary under S, here’s five consecutive words and their Spanish translation;
soccer - futbol
sociable - sociable
social - social
socialism - socialismo
society - sociedad
At one stage I even looked up the translation of ‘bestseller’ to find the word ‘bestseller’. Magic. Who could not love a language like this? Who could not teach a language like this? Well, Hugo for one. By the end of the course, by accident or design I’ve managed to develop the ability to converse at a very basic level and have two more months left to work on that. I just hope Bolivians like to talk about the weather.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

To South America

Vegetarians, be afraid. Be very afraid. Welcome to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, the most carnivorous of all the cities I’ve visited to date on this trip. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of Santa Cruz’s existence until I found a cheap flight here from Frankfurt. It’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as Bolivia’s other urban heavy hitters such as La Paz, Sucre and Cochabamba and it‘s easy to see why. It’s quite the underwhelming place and under normal circumstances it would serve as an urban doormat, welcoming me to the country before I made my way to Bolivia‘s other urban jewels. I’m here for two weeks though and for one reason only - to learn Spanish. Having travelled through West Africa for 2 months and having added approximately 5 words of French to my vocabulary, I’ve decided that I’m sick of struggling with the local language and so I’m going back to school.
I find it impossible to write about my initial experience here in Bolivia without making reference to food. The streets of Santa Cruz are lined with street vendors. You can eat anything you want here, as long as it contains chicken in one of its multitudinous forms, and chips. Santa Cruz is the embodiment of the fat guy who says “I don’t have a problem with my weight. I eat, I get fatter. No problem.” The only living thing more worried than a vegetarian here in Santa Cruz is a chicken. If I was playing a word association game and the words Santa Cruz were uttered, my immediate response would be ‘CHICKEN’. Roasted. Broasted. Fried. Smoked. Grilled. Baked. Barbequed. Shit, if you wanted your chicken dressed in a tutu and smoking jacket, I‘m sure that even that wouldn‘t be a problem. As long as you ordered it with fries of course. I don’t know what the statistics are with regard to coronary disease in Bolivia but if Santa Cruz is anything to go by then I’m pretty certain that it’s one area in which Bolivia is a world leader.
I spend two weeks in one of Santa Cruz’s outlying neighbourhoods and it gives me a good chance to see life here up close. On my first day in the neighbourhood, wandering in search of a bottle of mineral water, I pass by shop after shop with metal bars across the entrances and so I walk on assuming they’re closed. It turns out that they’re not - the bars are in place as a type of security blanket for the shopkeepers, fearful of armed robbery. It takes some getting used to though, shouting your order in through the bars and waiting for it to be passed through the little hatch. It all leaves me feeling like saying “A Mars, a bottle of Coke and my conjugal rights please. Gracias.”
The bars are a symbol of the fear which is whipped up and served thick (with chicken and fries probably) on a daily basis by the endless number of lowest common denominator tabloid news programmes which are only outnumbered by the deluge of telenovelas from Mexico (and you thought The Young And The Restless was overcooked). It’s a wonder some folk leave their homes at all given what they witness on the likes of Uno, to name but one station. Genocide, pestilence, sexual assault, global warming, rioting - and all of this happening in the local supermarket - all form part of a daily dose of an around the clock onslaught of intimidation and fear. It’s like Eastenders, only real. Uno seems to have a team of reporters whose job it is not to seek out stories in the various neighbourhoods of Santa Cruz but to whip the locals into a frenzy which would explain how they never fail to be there on time to see a local gangster have his face rearranged by a kicking and spitting army of seething mujeres.