La Paz: dead baby lamas and alpaca socks

I took a bus from Potosi to the capital and for the first time in my Bolivian bus travels I was so cold on the bus. I barely slept. I was so envious of the man snoring softly on the seat next to me, warmly wrapped in his fluffy blanket. at some point i considered waking him and asking him if he would be so kind to share it with me. and it is not like I wasn’t properly dressed. I had my hiking boots on, a thermal shirt, a fleece and a jacket. Mistery…
The first thing I did when I arrived in La Paz, was to research the onward bus tickets to Cusco. It turned out that there was a bus leaving at 2pm and I thought it would be ideal, since I only needed a few hours to do some shopping. After a long wait in the public bathroom, I had some breakfast and headed back to the bus company to purchase my ticket. The lady I had spoken to wasn’t there and the new lady told me buses weren’t going all the way to Cusco because of a riot on the Peruvian side. I got the ticket to Puno, and decided I will deal with the rest upon arrival.
I headed to the market only to find it very closed. What was I expecting it was still very early in the morning despite the scorching sun. I had some time to kill so I walked around a bit, visited some monuments and interesting sights, charming little street. For some reason I didn’t feel safe at all. Of all the clothes I carry with me, I happened to worry the two items that scream ‘Foreign!’ for my walk around town. I remember standing at a bridge overlooking a busy road, when I realised that I guy I had seen at the main plaza was standing a few meters away from me, staring. I decided to walk away, see what he does. Luckily, next time I stopped further down the bridge he kept walking. Still, it wasn’t over. There was another guy, again carrying a backpack, standing and staring. I felt really uncomfortable. I did the same thing, walked away,hoping he would leave. Luckily he did. There was no way i was walking the same way though. I went back and hid at an Internet cafe. Back at the market the big search began.
I knew I wanted to buy a lot of alpaca socks for family and friends, but I needed this particular type. and there was the price issue too! I looked, and looked, and thought, and finally found them. It took a lot longer than I thought but at the end I had all the present I needed. By the time I got to the witches’ market where they sold all sorts of crazy items (dead baby lamas at various growth stages, herbs, syrups, etc.) it was too late and I had to go back to catch my bus. Shame, because I was really looking forward to it, wondering what funky stuff I will come across.
On the way out of the city I was amazed by the views. The way La Paz is spread over the hills, over such great space is truly impressive. It was a short but a nice visit. I am glad i managed to squeeze it in.

A long day of travelling (From Potosi to Santa Cruz)

July 31, 2010
We got up, repacked so we could only take our small packs for the weekend, took care of the bill and headed to the center of town where Mario dropped off some laundry. We were so close to the agency that we decided to drop by and make sure that they knew what we were doing. We had already told them but I wanted to be clear about it.
Evelyn, the lady who spends most of her time in the office while Helen and Basilio run the tours, welcomed us. We reminded her about the 6.00pm meeting on Monday and told her we were going to the bus terminal. It turned out that no buses were leaving from there because of the road blockage but they did leave from a place beyond the blockage just outside of town. We said bye, took a taxi and left. Evelyn had told us it shouldn’t come to more than Bs5 and we thought it was for the whole taxi and not per person. We were a bit surprised when he asked for Bs15 but had no choice and took it. It later turned out that we had struck a real good deal with the guy.
The taxi took us way out of town and at some point I wondered what was happening and where was he taking us. We got off at the end of the blockage when the driver couldn’t go any further. We first bumped into private cars offering to take passengers to Sucre or Bs40pp before we bumped into the bus that charged only Bs15. We sat down and got ready departure when Mario suddenly remembered that he had forgotten his camera battery at the hostel. By then we had already found out details about the strike. We had thought it would only last two day (the Thursday and the Friday) and that it was all over. It wasn’t however. Apparently, the roads had only been open for a few hours until noon that day and would be closed again, this time indefinitely. We had no idea, whether we would be able to come back on Monday if we left now. Mario decided he wanted to get his battery and one thing led to another. Before we knew it we were walking to the taxi point having made up our minds to get all our stuff and leave town until the strike had passed.
Back where the blockage began there was no taxis and about 10 people waiting. A car soon appeared and we quickly secured a place before anybody else could get it. We shared it with four other people, two of whom sat in the trunk holding the door. A lady that had wanted a taxi gave up on it upon hearing the charged price of Bs10 pp. Normally, taxis charged Bs5, but now they’d upped it to double that amount because of the strike. You see what I mean when I said we had gotten a really good deal with that first taxi driver who had only charged us Bs7.50pp.
Back in the crowded taxi…we only got a couple of kilometers away from our departure point when the taxi driver said that the road is blocked and he couldn’t get any further. We all protested that we will not be paying the fully asked price of Bs10 since he didn’t get us into town although some people still paid and left. Mario gave him a Bs10 note for both of us and we left. There was a steady stream of cars, and minibuses to our left, either trying to get back into town or leave and people were running all over the place. We stood on the road trying to figure out our next move. We didn’t quite understand what was happening but we figured we could wither get another taxi or a bus to the center of town. Mario hailed a taxi; we agreed on a price and asked him to take us to the hostal and back.
After a long while we finally made our way back to the hostal. We grabbed our bags, the battery and once again we were in the taxi. He made his way back to one of two town exits and people were already blocking it although it was only 11.30am. The driver said he couldn’t get through. We told him to try the other exit, the one that we had first used to get out but he was reluctant, saying it was already closed. We kept insisting and eventually he took it. It took a while to get to the outskirts of town while we were making slow progress through the congested town but once we were on the road there was hardly a living soul. We were back to the bus stop in no time. We did understand why the taxi driver was so reluctant though. This exit was a lot further from town than the one that everything and everybody was seem to be taking. I guess people were trying to save money by going through the shortest route if possible. In this case though it was a bit silly, since everybody was going through there and it was the worst of places.
We got off the taxi and as soon as we had our bags out of the trunk a couple of local boys ran up to us with their metal carts offering to carry our bags for us for a small fee ($0.25). I think they meant it per person but when Mario joked with them by saying he would pay that for both of them they quickly agreed without any bargaining. They sure didn’t know how to do business. They took our bags to the bus area where there was no bus. We gave them $0.50 each and enjoyed their reaction when they saw the money. They couldn’t quite believe their luck.
A bus came in a few minutes and we got on it. In the last hour and a half the price of the regular bus tickets had also gone up. They were now charging Bs17 instead of the original Bs15. ‘Everybody is trying to get a piece of the action’ Mario had said. Back on the bus we weren’t very happy to have to leave town like that, not having fulfilled our commitment to Basilio. Yes, we were coming back…but still. Under the circumstances though it was the best thing to do. We couldn’t spend much longer in Potosi, just waiting around for the strike to finish.
On the bus to Sucre we decided to head straight to Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest city. We were both sick of the cold and the desert and were craving a warmer, moist climate and some trees. Being close to the jungle, Santa Cruz sounded like an excellent option. Nevermind that when we got there it was cold, cloudy and windy. Apparently, some cold front had come in that same morning and they were expecting it to disappear in a couple of days. Let’s hope so!
The trip to Sucre took about three hours. Once we were at the bus terminal, Mario left me on baggage duty and went looking for onward transport. Luckily there was a bus leaving in 40mins. When he told me the ride took 18h I didn’t believe him at first. For some reason I didn’t think it would take more than 10h. Well, nothing I can do about it…we were just hoping it would be a decent bus ride. We quickly got some lunch and boarded the bus.
I got on trying to find our assigned seats while Mario was taking care of the bags. I walked to the back of the bus where we were supposed to sit only to find out that a couple was already sitting there. I told them these were our seats but they said it didn’t matter and that we should just take some others. I shrugged and sat closer to the front of the bus. All was good until two young men came and claimed their seats from me. I told them what had happened but they wouldn’t have it. I told them I couldn’t go anywhere until that couple was sitting in my seats so we all just stood there sort of arguing until the person responsible for the seat allocation came and attempted to sort it out. Nobody seemed to be going anywhere and eventually the two boys just took another pair of seats and seemed to have settled down. By then Mario had already come up and we could finally sit down and relax.
The first couple of hours took us through some amazing views. Ever since Potosi we were going down in altitude and this was still the case. The road weaved through the steep mountains, revealing spectacular hills crushing into deep precipice. After a while I got a bit dizzy because of all the curves and must have dozed off because when I woke up we had switched the paved road for a bumpy dirt one. For the next I-don’t-know-how-many-hours we remained on the dusty road. The sun went down and soon nothing could be seen outside. It was pitch black and Mario finally had to put his head back into the cabin after having spent a couple of hours sticking it out of the window with the wind messing up his hair.
It was 7.00pm and I was getting impatient. The man who had sold us the tickets had said that we will be stopping for dinner after 3h and I had decided to wait until then to go to the bathroom. I was getting a bit desperate. And by the time we finally stopped (8.30pm) I could hardly hold it. We had a quick rather disgusting dinner, brushed our teeth and back on the bus, we settled for the next 12hours. We slept through most of it, it was pretty comfortable. The seats reclined, it wasn’t too cold or too hot and we were happy.
I woke up with the first daylight only to see a grey sky. The scenery had changed tremendously. We had left the dusty, desert rocks for lush green hills. We were in the jungle again. We were due to arrive at 10.00am and for the next couple of hours we went through many small settlements that looked wealthier than similar place in the west of the country, in Potosi for example. Here people seemed to have more money. Colorful, brick houses and lush, well maintained front gardens have replaced the scruffy adobe houses of the west. We still saw them, but they were a lot rarer here. The sun and the warmth we craved so much were nowhere to be seen and felt though.
We arrived at the bus terminal, got into a taxi and headed to the hostal. We had chosen one that seemed to offer en-suite rooms but just before we got there we decided to change it for a nearby hostal that had a lush patio, hammocks and pet toucans. That meant the driver had to turn around the block. We had agreed on Bs15 (everything is a lot more expensive in Santa Cruz) but because of that turn he wanted to charge us an extra Bs5. Mario wasn’t having it though. At first he spoke to the driver nicely, telling him that an extra Bs5 was too much for just this one turn, but the driver said that it was the custom around here and that others would charge us a lot more. They went back and forth for a while until Mario got tired of him, shoved the agreed Bs15, got his bags from the back seat and we went inside the hostal.
We were happy with the garden and we soon saw the toucan (now only one since his buddy had died some time ago) hopping about. He couldn’t fly since they had chopped his wings off. How else are you going to keep a wild bird around? He was extremely friendly and before I knew it, Mario had him propped on his arm.
We got settled in a small room after wondering whether we shouldn’t stay in the dorm since they didn’t have a room with a double bed available but we still thought it better to have our own space even if it meant separate beds. We cleaned up and went out for lunch.
For the last two days we have been walking around a lot, exploring town as well as going to the cinema (we saw two cartoons – Despicable Me, and Shrek 4 as well as Karate Kid) every night. It is not as cheap as Potosi, and we have been paying considerably more but it is still cheaper compared to western standards. We have been very impressed with the city – a very modern, pleasant place, offering good living opportunities. There is a very Brazilian feel to it, which is not all that surprising so close to the border.
We are thinking about going to a nearby town and use it as a base to explore the national park that’s near there. Hope the weather picks up and we get to do some swimming and sun bathing.

Potosi and the Devil’s Miner

Please watch this documentary and help build awareness for the children who work the silver mines of Bolivia to support their families. The life expectancy for someone working in the mines is 40 years old as many die of respitory failure from lung disease silicosis: http://www.thedevilsminer.com/index_new.html


Day 1: July 24, 2010

We had made our way to Tupiza on July 23. Mario wanted to spent a day there and do some horse riding, while the rocky formation of the local quebrada (yet another one) didn’t appeal to me and I decided to head straight to Potosi. I spent a few hours in Tupiza and caught a 9.00pm night bus to Potosi. I feared the ride since I had heard many horrible bus stories about Bolivia but was pleasantly surprised to find a warm bus with comfortable seats. I chatted with a local man who sat next to me for a while but soon felt very sleepy and dozed off. At 5.00am my neighbor was shaking me, trying to wake me up since we had arrived. I had slept comfortably throughout the whole ride.
I got off the bus into the not-so-cold Potosi morning and walked into the bus terminal. I was surprised by how fancy it was although it wasn’t at all heated. For the highest city in the world (4060m) and in the middle of winter, Potosi was amazingly warm. I decided to wait at least an hour before I headed to town. There was no way the hostels would be open that early in the morning. I read until 6am, then got some breakfast and took a taxi to a central hostel. The taxi dropped me off quite a way from the hostel saying the streets were blocked and I believed him. It only took a couple of hundred meters to find out that this wasn’t true and there was a road taking you straight to the front door. Anyhow, once I’d walked there things didn’t get any better. It was fully booked. I didn’t not see that one coming. Two tall, blond, rather large girls were obviously in the same situation. One of them asked me a question that I didn’t quite understand since I was talking to the owner in Spanish. I looked at her and said ‘Huh?’. She took that as I sign that I didn’t speak English, waved her hand and gave me a dismissive look. I didn’t like that. ‘Do I speak English?’ I asked. ‘Yeah, I speak English’ I said when she looked at me. ‘Are you doing the mine tour?’ she asked. ‘We are doing the tour and we are only going to rest for a few hours here’ she added. I wondered whether I wanted to do the tour with them but I hadn’t like them too much and I decided against it. I am telling you this story because it is related to what happened later.
The owner of the hostel suggested another place to stay and I walked the deserted morning streets of Potosi in search of another hostal. I found one but they didn’t have any singles available. I went to another one but it just looked like a disturbing mental institution, a couple of other places were just way too expensive. In the end I found a decent place and dropped my bags. I took a shower and went to bed for a few hours. It was lunchtime when I woke up and I went out looking for a place to eat. I came across the market and accidentally saw an ad for a restaurant serving a 3-course lunch for $1.50. Too good to miss!
I went in and was pleasantly surprised to find a clean, airy, rather pleasant space. Two minutes later I was eating my cream corn soup. Then it was the main course – tongue in red, spicy sauce served with rice and potatoes. I also got some fresh salad from the buffet and a funky looking, rather disgusting drink that was delicious though. Very satisfying. I thought I had hit the jackpot with that lunch but soon after I left the market I saw ads for other restaurants, serving 4-course lunches and a drink for the same price. Damn it! I had been cheated :).
After lunch I wandered the colorful streets of Potosi, took some photos and drank an innumerable amount of freshly squeezed juices. I decided to go to the tourist info office and I ended up at this travel agency that doubled as the office I thought. I hadn’t realized that the actual office was a bit further up. I went in, asked for a map and information, asked about the mine tours and soon after I had entered the lady running the place decided to be all honest with me. ‘Hardly any of the money we charge for the tours actually goes to the miners. We help them very little.’ she explained. She also invited me to watch a documentary about the mines at 6.00pm on the following day, Sunday. She had told me there isn’t much going on on Sunday and I thought watching the movie would be a good idea. Once again I hadn’t read my guidebook properly and I had no idea that the documentary she was talking about was a highly looked after movie called the ‘Devil’s Miner’.
After the agency I walked further up the street to the ‘Casa de la Moneda’ – one of Bolivia’s best museums, dedicated to the minting history of Potosi. I paid my $3 entry fee and got on the tour. More than 1.5h later we had gone through the whole, rather impressive building and we had acquired a whole lot of information about the processes and the different machines making the silver coins throughout the centuries. We had seen a whole bunch of minerals not just from Potosi but also from all over the country. Frankly, most of them looked like regular stones. I thought of my mom and a bearded colleague of hers that would have been raving about the place having studied geology at university. I was most impressed with the mummies of babies and young children, the metal chests they used to transport the coins that had some elaborate secret locks as well as a huge amethyst rock that could only be found in Bolivia apparently. The building itself was very nice too.
After the tour I had a quick snack and I went to the movies. I was very surprised to bump into a cinema earlier that day and even more surprised to find out that they had a movie I hadn’t seen. As for the price of the ticket…$1.50. Just too good. I saw Ironman 2 and greatly enjoyed it. The final scenes almost got me shaking from excitement. I sat in my seat giggling from pleasure. A good one.
After that I walked back to the hostal and spent some time writing in bed since it was pretty early. At about 22.30pm I felt a bit hungry and I walked out to a nearby café to get some dinner. The lady running the hostel warned me it as dangerous but I assured her I was only going 50m away from the hostal. I got some not-so-good fried chicken with fries and watched a silly movie about two teenagers stuck on an island. It was bad yet I still sat there eyes glued to the screen. That’s very much like my dad who is a TV maniac. He watches everything and anything and completely switches off.
After dinner it was bed time. Mario was coming at 5am and I had to get up to open the door for him.
Day 2: July 25, 2010
At 6.15am I heard a knock on the gate, waited for a few seconds to see if the lady of the place would go out as is the custom but nothing happened. I put on a pair of trousers and went out in the dark, cold morning to open the gate and let Mario in. He dropped off his bags and got into bed. When he woke up we decided to change the hostal since the lady didn’t have any double rooms available. We went to a nearby place that I had previously researched and it turned out so much better than I thought it would be. A leafy, charming courtyard, free Internet and Wi-Fi, better bathrooms and the best of all the same price! We were so excited with our find.
Once we were settled we went out for lunch. We found another one of those cheap lunch places and had some cold meat with salad as a starter, a big plate of home cooked soup, spaghetti with mixed meat in red, spicy sauce, and a desert. We also ordered a liter of local beer to share that turned out to be more expensive than the 4-course lunch. We wouldn’t making that mistake again. In the few days we have spent in Potosi we have tried many different restaurants that offer set lunches. Still Mario’s favourite is the one described above.
After lunch we spent time walking around. At 6.00pm we went to the tour agency to see the documentary. This was our first meeting with Basilio who was soon to become the center of our days. We watched the ‘Devil’s Miner’, an American production that told the story of the life in the mines through children’s eyes. Basilio, then 14-years-old, and his younger brother were the main characters, along with his young sister and his widowed mother. After having lost his father at a young age, Basilio had to work to support his family. He started as an assistant, being paid Bs20 (less than $3) per day in a smaller (but safer) mine that was almost depleted of minerals. He later decided to look for another, better paid job in a bigger but more dangerous mine. He found it in Rosario, one of the oldest mines in Potosi. His daily salary increased to Bs30 completely out of proportion with the risks taken. Throughout the whole film, Basilio stuck to going to school despite the tough living conditions he was subjected to. He never gave up.
Towards the end of the movie both Mario and I were overwhelmed with the sadness of it all and sat on the couch trying hard to hold our tears back. All e could say when Helen, the owner, asked us what we thought was ‘It is very heavy…very heavy’.
While we watched the movie, an older lady that sat with us (Helen’s mother maybe?) told us that Basilio was their guide. Neither of us understood very well though, not until Helen confirmed it after we’ve watched the movie. She told us she had met Basilio in the mines during her continuous trips there as a guide. She had decided to help him out and asked him whether he would be interested in working as a guide for her. He had agreed and no takes Spanish speaking tourists into the mines. There was a trick though. Since Basilio didn’t have a tourism certification (5 years at university) he couldn’t work as a guide openly and most other agency turned him down. Helen’s workaround was the following: she would leave town with the tourists as the official façade of the company and then Basilio would do the actual mine tour.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t too much work for him since the company was newly opened and worse even Basilio couldn’t take English speaking tourist into the mines since he didn’t speak the language. There are well over 1000 children working in the mines. We couldn’t help all of them (at least not in the immediate future) but e could help Basilio. Mario and I had an idea.
– How much are the English lessons here? – I asked.
– It costs about Bs200 (less than $30) per month – Helen said. ‘Hmmm, interesting’ I thought.
We booked the mines tour for Tuesday (two days from now, since the biggest mining cooperative was having an election on Monday and the mine would be closed), thanked Helen for all the information and left. Mario and I exchanged impressions of the movie and a few hundred meters away from the agency I broke crying while tens of tens of locals were parading on the streets dressed in colorful costumes. I felt so bad for all these children working in the mines and not just them but also the men whose life expectancy was 50 at the most. I had to do something. We thought that maybe we could get Basilio some English lessons and help him develop his career as a guide.
Earlier that day I had told Mario about my cinema experience and he decided he wanted to watch the movie too. We were having a great time together and he asked whether I wanted to see it again. We had a quick dinner and went to the movies again. After that we went back home and slept.
Day 3: July 26, 2010
Today Mario had some work to do and while he was busy with that I walked around town looking for English schools. After a while I came across a private college offering classes and asked them whether they had anything available, how it was structured and at what cost. The man told me they had a yearlong course starting soon at the cost of Bs100 ($14) per month. I couldn’t believe how cheap it was and asked him to prepare a detailed outline of the course that I were to pick up a bit later. I walked back into the center and came across another school. They offered three month individual classes for Bs150 ($21) per month. The time of the classes was also negotiable.
I met Mario for lunch and told them all about the classes. He was really excited and amazed with how cheap they were. We decided to help Basilio.
We went for lunch and afterward we climbed to the top of a local church for the views it provided. It was pretty impressive. The way to the top went through a very narrow, dark, steep staircase that was rather claustrophobic after a while. From the top we saw Cerro Rico (the mountain where silver was found hundreds of years ago, and that is still exploited for minerals in the present day; a total of more than 450 years) and a smaller hill with what looked like a monument on top of it. Mario suggested we climbed to the top. We asked the guide how we could get there and she suggested the public bus that cost $0.15 as well as the taxi that cost $1. We opted for the taxi, although it ended up being a staggering $2! We thought we were paying $1 to the base of the hill, and $2 to the very top of it where the monument stood. We were a bit surprised when the driver asked for $2 at the base of the hill. We weren’t going to argue though. It is funny that we cared for his car though (considering the rough dirt road) and we asked him to drop us off before it got too hard thus not making the most of our $2. He-he.
We slowly climbed up the hill that revealed some sweet views of town as well as Cerro Rico, dotted with hundreds of entrances to various mines (a few hundred in total). Mario wandered off to the side while I chatted to what turned out to be an Ecuadorian traveler. He told me about this 12-year-old kid that had offered to take him on a tour in a small mine for $3.50 (the regular price agencies charge is between $10 -14). The traveler however didn’t carry cash with him to which the kid responded he would do it for as much money he had. In this case it was less than $1. They went a few hundred meters into the darkness of the mine, the kid told him about all the minerals, as well as the legends related to the mines. All in all he got a pretty decent vie of it all.
Once we were done with the hill we slowly made our way down. We saw some miners walking down, the houses of the families living at the entrances of mines guarding the equipment for a mere $20 per month, we saw kids playing football on the rocky, dusty ‘front yard’ of their adobe houses. We walked by several mine entrances, saw an indigenous woman sitting on the dirt, weaving. We took a photo of her and walked up to give her some money to which she gave us a toothless smile and thanked us politely in broken Spanish. One of only few words she probably knows. Most families working in the mines speak only Quechua. That same lady had two pig shed, little, short circles made of adobe – one was for a big, fat pig and the other for a bunch of little, baby ones.
We walked further down, passing by another house where a whole family was gathered in front. None of them spoke Spanish but we gathered from their gestures that the father as trying to sell (jokingly of course) his teenage daughter. Mario went along with the joke, asking ‘How much?’ to which the girl responded with violent punches on her father’s body.
Further down there was yet another mine entrance and yet another adobe house. There was an old lady sitting in the sand a few meters away from it that caught our eye. Mario stood a few meters away from her holding his camera on one hand asking whether he could take a photo of her in exchange of some coins. He didn’t understand a word of Spanish. Mario repeated it several times while also reaching into his pocket for some coins to show her. She must have gotten scared of us because she got us as quickly as an old woman can get up and tried to run away, while also shouting to someone in the house. By then Mario as already was trying to take a photo. We ran after her, trying to get her to stop and give her the money. When she saw the coins and finally understood what we were trying to do, she hissed ‘Gracias!’ through missing teeth that sounded too grateful for the couple of coins we had given her. We were amazed by ho grateful they were. We also noticed that none of them, regardless of their miserable living conditions and profound poverty actually came to us begging for money or even asking for any in exchange of photos. They all just humbly stood there, quietly minding their own business.
An interesting thing about that same old lady were her ultramodern pink glasses she had propped on her forehead. ‘I might be a 100 –year-old and my life might be shit but I am going to look at it through pink glasses! Literally.’ we joked. The spirit of this people is truly amazing.
A few hundred meters don the dirt road we stopped to take a few photos of what looked like an ancient mineral processing facility. It looked run down and out of business but I have a feeling it wasn’t. Knowing about the century old working methods in the mines I wouldn’t be surprised with that same century looking facility was actually still functioning.
We got on a small public bus that was to take us back to town. Once we got into town we got a bit stuck in a traffic jam that was due to a miners’ gathering in one of the cooperatives buildings. As I mentioned earlier the biggest cooperative was having elections and this is what we were seeing. Mario asked whether I wanted to get off the bus and mingle with the miners. He suggested we get a beer with them. I felt completely out of place there and by the time I had made up my mind we were a few hundred meters away from the gathering. When the bus finally stopped I urged Mario to get off and go back to the meeting (read drunken party). He couldn’t believe I actually wanted to do it but slowly got up and we got off. I thought it would be a good idea to chat with some miners (if we managed to do so of course). On the way there we got a burger each from a street stand (less than $1 and delicious) and walked up the street back to the miners. Oh boy! It was a jungle there. The road was covered in empty beer cans; it was smelly with alcohol and urine and sticky. The miners hung out in small groups, standing around towers of beer cans. We found a small shop hoping to get some beer thus ‘blending’ better with the crowd. They had run out of beer though. We stood around for a while slowly realizing that chatting to them would be impossible since they were talking only among themselves in groups. I felt completely out of place, not only being a foreigner invading something very much ‘theirs’ but also being the only woman there. We made our way into the building (seeing a man peeing on the back of a truck on the way) thinking we might find some beer and feel a bit more comfortable. Oh no! I haven’t felt so out of place in my whole life! As soon as we walked in all eyes were on us and on me in particular. A man standing in the corner of the stinky, dark, sticky hall to our right was grinning at me, gesturing me to go to him DESPITE Mario’s presence there. I threw a quick look to my left and although nobody was waving at me all eyes were thirstily locked on me. I urged Mario to get out of there as quickly as possible. On the way out of the crowd Mario had let go of my hand for a moment when a man smiled at me and said ‘I like you’ while another advised Mario to hold me tight if he were to keep me to himself. Mario did not let go of my hand again.
Although we didn’t talk to any miners our visit to the gathering was still a success. We had managed to see them in their natural environment when they were not putting a show for the tourists. It was a very harsh reality. Most didn’t speak Spanish, only Quechua, were drunken and generally disgusting. It was an experience alright.
We went back into the center in town, hoping to visit the cathedral that seems to be permanently closed for renovation. It was still open when we got there but they wanted to charge an entrance fee for the visit which we thought wasn’t worth it since we had already seen similar attractions. Instead we headed to a bookstore where we would get various items to give away to the children living on the mountain (as advised by Helen). We bought notebooks, pencils and pens, color pencils and markers, as well as some pencil sharpeners and erasers. Nothing fancy, just the basics. We then went to the local market and bought some fruit (green apples and tangerines) for the miners and some milk and yogurt for the children (milk reduced the risk of silicosis of the lungs; the number one disease in the mines).
We then dropped off the bags at the hostel and went out for dinner.
Day 4: July 27, 2010
We got up early, had a quick breakfast and went to the tour agency here our tour would begin. As we were walking down the road we recognized Basilio standing at the door. He greeted us and welcomed us inside. My first thought was ‘This guy doesn’t need any help…’ after seeing his rather fancy mobile phone and gelled up hair. We sat around for a bit, me keeping a close eye on Basilio. Mario and I had talked about getting him English lessons but decided to get to know him first before we say anything. My only concern was that he would turn out to be a piece of shit when we met him and that he would be absolutely undeserving of any help.
We got onto the van, Helen accompanying us and made our way to the miners’ market, which was our first stop. To our surprise it as the same place where the miners were gathered for their meeting the day before. We got off the truck and Helen told us about the importance of coca leaves to the miners, the use of 96% alcohol, the dynamite, and the cigarettes. The coca leaves and the cigarettes (special mix of coca, tobacco, etc.) were helping against the dangerous dust in the mines and the alcohol is used in rituals.
We bought coca leaves, big bottles of cheap soda, and some dynamite that we were to give to the miners working inside the mine. We were going to visit the same mine (Rosario) we had seen in the documentary and here Basilio had spent 6 years working. Our next stop was a small room packed with safety equipment. We got our pants, jackets, boots as well as the helmets and the lanterns. Once fully equipped we were back on the van that took us to the entrance of the mine. As we walked the path was lined with miners sitting on benches chewing coca leaves (they chew between 150 and 200 leaves before entering the mines), preparing to enter the mine. They were still feeling hung-over after the previous day’s party and were rather late for work. As soon as they saw us they attacked us, each wanting some fresh fruit. Basilio had offered to help me carry the bag and he now had control over it. He gave away a few apples, a few tangerines. But they wouldn’t leave us alone. They kept coming in hordes. Mario tried to stop them and so did Basilio. We walked away in direction of the mine.
Once inside we made our way through a narrow rather low tunnel. It was flooded with rain water and we carefully progressed ankle deep in mud. Basilio told us we would visit El Tio (the miners God) first instead of last thus giving the miners some time to get into the mine and start working. We took a very narrow, rather stuffy side tunnel and crept through it until we reached the opening into the gallery. There he was! El Tio! The Devil like statue Basilio had so feared when growing up. The statue was sat on a higher platform and two benches were carved in stone to the left and right of it. He was covered in colorful paper decorations remnants of past religious celebrations. His lap was full of coca leaves and cigarette fags hung from his mouth. Basilio sat next to him and invited us to sit on the benches. He lit a cigarette and respectfully put it in his mouth. He then spread some coca leaves onto his lap and urged us to do the same. He also kept a handful of leaves for himself to chew. We did the same. I had never tried it before. The next step of the offering was the pure 96% alcohol. He spilled some on El Tio and some on the ground before him for Pachamama (said to be his wife) and he also drank some. We had to do the same although Basilio advised us to only have a drop of the alcohol since it was so strong. I tried some and it didn’t really feel that bad. It was kind smooth and rather warming. We sat for a bit longer listening to stories about how El Tio became to life, how the silver was discovered, and legends of the mines such as the one about women not being allowed in the tunnels as well as stories about religious celebrations and offerings. The following section tells the stories in detail.
Legends and myths from the mines
 How Cerro Rico was discovered?
More than 450 years ago a Peruvian pastor was walking in this area with his llamas. He got lost however and decided to spend the night in the mountain since going back was too far away. He went into a cave and lit a fire. The light from the fire illuminated a silver vein and that’s how the exploitation of the mountain began. Funny enough the first thing the pastor did was report his findings to the Spanish conquistadors.
 How El Tio came to life and who he is?
When the Spanish started taking out the silver from the mountain they got millions of indios and African slaves to work in the mines. The conditions however were appalling and they refused to work. In an attempt to force them back to work the Spaniards created this horrible looking creature and told them it would kill them if they didn’t work. The creature was an evil God (Dios in Spanish) but since the consonant ‘D’ didn’t exist in Aymara they called him ‘Tios’ hence today’s name ‘El Tio’ which also means ‘The Uncle’.
Today El Tio is an essential part of the miners’ daily life. They pray to him to give them minerals and to protect them from danger. They believe that if they don’t make offerings to him he would kill them.
All the people working in the mines are very religious (mixed Catholicism and indigenous beliefs) and strongly believe in God outside of the mines. The saying is that God doesn’t reach deep into the mine thus leaving them to the mercy of the Devil. He is their only God under the ground.
Why women are not allowed in the mines?
It is believed that El Tio is married to Pachamama (mother Earth) and that she would get jealous if another woman entered the mines.
 Why only pure alcohol is used?
Only pure alcohol is used in the offerings to El Tio because it is believed that if it is mixed El Tio will give the miners mixed minerals (lower quality) instead of pure ones.
Why llama blood is used for religious celebrations?
Every year a few llamas are sacrificed to El Tio. Their blood is generously spread onto the entrance to the mine. It is believed that if El Tio doesn’t feed on the animals’ blood he would feed on the miners’ blood.
Once our offering to El Tio was completed we walked further into the tunnels. We could hear the miners moving about now. We walked through the tunnels distributing coca leafs, sodas, fruit and cigarettes. All the miners were extremely welcoming and grateful. We saw them oiling the wheels of the metal carts they used to transport the rocks (each held 200kg and was pushed by 4 men), we saw them pushing empty carts and each time they came our way we had to stand to the side of the tunnel and let them through. We met a ‘jefe’ (boss) who had worked in the mines for over 25 years. We met up with a ‘second hand’ miner which is a level below the boss and Mario helped him load one of two 200kg tubs that were to be pulled up and then taken out. By the time he was ready sweat had broken on his forehead and he said how hard it was. Basilio explained the hierarchy in the mines and also told us the average monthly earnings of a miner. The truth is they make an average of $500 per month which is a lot of money for Bolivian standards. I couldn’t help asking how come most of them live in extreme poverty then. Basilio explained that most do not know how to take advantage of their salaries and that a lot of it got wasted on booze. Some however bought land, build houses, started up small businesses, etc.
Once we had given all our goodies away we headed back to the exit. The tour wasn’t over though. Mario had bought some dynamite and Basilio was going to make a demonstration. We walked to a bare sand field away from the mine, Basilio prepared the dynamite, lit it (2 mins), we each took turns taking photos with the lit bomb and then Basilio run a few hundred meters away from us, placed it in a ditch and ran back before it exploded. It made a huge bang when it went off and there was all this smoke in the air. I didn’t expect it to be so noisy and I nearly dropped the camera when I heard it. I still managed to take a photo although it wasn’t very good. While we watched Basilio prepare the explosive he told us he started working with dynamite at the age of 6. He also explained why he would only place the bomb on the grounds surface instead of burring it into it. The impact of such an explosion underground could be devastating to the mines. It might move layers resulting in collapses in the mines. It wasn’t a good idea at all.
We were back on the truck and on our way to a locals’ gathering point. We had gifts for the children and this is where all the families from the mountain gathered. As soon as we stopped and opened the door to the van we were swarmed with young kids. They asked for notebooks and color pencils. Mario and I distributed the school materials and the yogurts as fairly as possible but still some kids left empty handed.
On the way to town we saw Vanessa, Basilio sister who also featured in the documentary and was then 6-years-old. He had no grown to a young teenager and was almost unrecognizable. We took her with us. We stopped to take our safety gear off and that’s when I realized I had forgotten the pens, the erasers and the pencil sharpeners in the pocket of my jacket I had left in the room. I told Basilio and asked him to give them away to kids he knew since he still lived on the mountain. He said I’d better give two pens to his sister. I gave it all to her and asked her to keep some to herself and share the rest with her friends. I was so nervous doing this. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing and offend them in some way. I wanted her to feel good about herself. We dropped her off in the outskirts of town where her school was and carried on toward the agency.
I was growing more and more pensive wondering how to approach Basilio and ask him to get a coffee with us so we could talk about the English classes. In the beginning of the trip he had told us how he doesn’t like English (but ho he needs it) and prefers French instead. He thought the English pronunciation was difficult. During the trip I had asked them as many questions as I could, trying to learn more about him and his life, get to know him better. He had been an excellent guide, very professional, caring, and a wealth of information. He had proven a stable young man, who had persisted with school despite the hardships and who still looked after his family. I was convinced more than ever that he deserved a chance. I just didn’t know whether he wanted a chance in the form of English classes and that’s all we could offer.
We got back to the agency (Amigos de Bolivia) and were met by Helen who suggested we all went to lunch. I decided to talk to her about our idea hoping for a good advice. I explained what we wanted to do and I also shared my concern with her, that maybe Basilio is not interested and that we didn’t want to force anything onto him. She said she would talk to him and soon after we sat at the table Basilio had said yes. It took some convincing to get him to even come with us. He was embarrassed that he didn’t have any money but we asked him to let us treat him and thank him for the great tour. He smiled and agreed. We spoke a bit more about our proposal, and arranged to meet at the agency later and discuss it in detail. We then switched onto more general subjects.
A couple of hours later we met Basilio and his girlfriend Marta at the agency. I opened my mouth to talk but Helen took the word and almost lectured Basilio into agreeing. She told him hat a great opportunity this was and how she would give him more responsibility at the agency if he learned the language, etc. I told them about the two schools we had found and what they offered. They also suggested some schools and we agreed that the 3-month individual lessons offered at this one school were the best option to start him with. We then went there hoping to talk to a teacher but one wasn’t available until the next morning. Basilio got some more information from them and we headed to another school that was supposedly the best in town. Again there wasn’t a teacher available but Basilio talked to them about the classes available and the schedule. When we found out that the schedule of the group classes didn’t suit him the guy tried to offer him other study programs in a low voice so we didn’t hear.
It was late afternoon by the time we were done and Basilio and Marta had to go but we agreed to meet at 10.30am on the following day and go talk to one of the individual teachers (we had tried to speak to them on the phone that same afternoon but couldn’t get through to one and the other had refused to speak English to Mario saying we couldn’t judge her level on the phone). Basilio seemed happy and enthusiastic and we were excited.
We went back to the agency and reported our findings. We spent some time chatting to them and they had asked us to translate a brochure for them. We had started with just one brochure and had left with six :).We went for dinner and then went back to the hostel.
Day 5: July 28, 2010
We got up early, had a quick breakfast and head to the agency for our 10.30am meeting with Basilio. Before I continue with the story though let me tell you about this cute little girl that we met at the restaurant during breakfast.
We had attempted to have dinner there the night before but someone had ordered nine pizzas to go and it would take ay too long to get our food. We were hungry and we decided to go someplace else. But not before Mario had a funny thing happen to him in the bathroom. He was washing his hands when this snot of a person (he thought it was a boy but it turned out to be a girl; surprised he didn’t notice the sparkling golden earrings hanging from her ears) looked up at him boldly and told him in her broken, 2-year-old Spanish that her mom (a big indigenous lady working in the kitchen) didn’t want any people using the bathroom. Mario had seriously doubted her statement ( I am surprised he at all understood what she as saying), had grabbed her under the arms and attempted to carry her into the kitchen and confront her with her mom. The little devil she had been though, she wasn’t gonna surrender without a fight. She tried to get herself out of his grip by cleverly lifting her arms up in the air thus sliding out of his arms. Mario took her back to her mom and came back to tell me the story.
The little devil herself proudly walked through the dining hall a few minutes later focusing her attention on a French tourist who was waiting for her food. The little girl with the burnt cheeks mounted her leg and insisted they play horse riding. The lady tourist obliged for a while but soon got tired under the weight of the little bugger. She wouldn’t give up though. I tried to get her to come to us and give the French girl a break but she wouldn’t hear of it. She looked at us, didn’t like what she saw and turned around with a scared look on her face. We canceled our order and left the restaurant. We went back there for breakfast though. Again ‘little Miss Bossy’ welcomed us (that’s an overstatement) at the door and said e couldn’t go in because they were closed. She was very convincing and we almost didn’t doubt her. We still looked up at her sister who grabbed her and invited us in.
We each ordered a separate dish but the lady said she could only make two of a kind since they were cleaning at the back. We agreed and sat waiting. Before we knew it little missy was climbing up my legs, having completely forgotten her fears of the previous night. I wasn’t going to complain. She sat on my lap for a while looking for the printed image of an ice-cream covered in chocolate cream that she called just ‘chocolate’. Then we decided to have some fun. I grabbed her under the arms and threw her into the air a couple of times. She loved it and asked for more. With a huge smile on her face she would count to three with me before I threw her up. I got tired and asked for a break, but she wouldn’t have it, she wanted more and I pointed her to Mario. ‘If you ask Mario nicely he would play with you’ I told her. ‘Por favor’ she said looking up at him. He couldn’t say no. He grabbed her under the arms and threw her up a few times. After a while he got tired too. She was anything but skinny. A healthy little girl. We sat down again, looking for the chocolate while also showing her some other photos – salads, fries, soups, etc. Every time she came back to the chocolate though. Soon enough she asked to be thrown up in the air again. Mario and I took turns.
We were having so much fun that her elder sister who was quietly watching cartoons on TV came up to ask asking to be thrown up in the air. I told her I wasn’t strong enough for her but that maybe Mario could throw her a couple of times. She was a bit scared but had a blast.
Soon our breakfast came but the little, fat girl wouldn’t leave. Instead she arranged herself comfortably on my lap and aimed at my food. We were having omelets and orange juice and I ended up feeding her small pieces. She ate. I would cut a bigger piece for me and she would want it. I would tell her that it was too big for her and would cut a small one for her. We were running late for our meeting though and although we were having a lot of fun I had to put her down and quickly finish my breakfast.
The elderly sister kept coming up to us asking if we wanted to play Uno with her for a bit but we had to turn her down. Mario finished first and went to the office. I took a few more bites, paid the bills and followed him. But not before the older girl had come up to me asking where Mario had gone and whether I would play with her for a bit. It was endearing and I had a hard time saying no but I had to. As I was leaving the little girl looked up at me and said ‘Don’t go…!’. I told her that maybe e would come back later and play again. It was an excellent start to the day.
Back at the agency Basilio was running late. We waited for him but it wasn’t looking like he was coming and we left for our appointment with one of the English teachers. It was the lady Mario had spoken to on the phone and that hadn’t left the impression of being able to speak English. We were prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt though. Before signing up Basilio for classes we wanted to make sure that the teacher actually spoke English. We arrived at 11.00am as previously advised but the teacher was running late. Mario wasn’t happy and didn’t think it was a good sign. ‘She can’t speak English and she is late for her class!’ he said. We waited and asked the secretary whether she usually came in late but she assured is it was an exception. We decided I would talk to her, since I was more patient and gentle. We knew she would be nervous particularly after being late and we didn’t want to pressure her any further to the point of her forgetting her English. If there was anything to forget that is…
She administered an exam and finally made it to us half an hour later. I asked her if she minded speaking English to us and explained the situation. I spoke English to her and she responded in Spanish, clearly not having understood half of what I had said. I politely asked her to speak English is she asked us where we were from. I wondered whether to say that Mario was from the US or from Brazil. I didn’t want to intimidate her further by facing her with a native speaker. Mario didn’t say anything. He just counted the English words she had actually mumbled in the five minutes I spoke to her. 6. She had said six words in English. She clearly wasn’t the teacher for us. She saw our disappointment and pointed us to her colleague who supposedly had 4 years of experience. We told her that we will be coming back in the late afternoon to talk to her colleague. We thanked her and we left.
We decided to go to another school and see if we could talk to a teacher there. Pretty much the same thing went down although this time the lady said a few more words in English. ‘How long have you been working here?’ I would ask her slowly and clearly. And she would say ‘Yes.’ Thinking I was asking whether she worked here. I spoke so slowly and so clearly that Mario was having trouble holding back his laughter. It sounded almost retarded. This was also not our teacher.
We wondered what to do and we decided to hit an Internet café and look for some NGOs in the area that might be teaching English. We looked and looked and the nearest volunteers we found were in Cochabamba. I don’t even know where that is but I know is it not in Potosi. I spoke to a couple of British run agencies hoping they would help me with information about agencies working here. That was a waste of time. The lady at one of them was even bordering rude. ‘I don’t understand – you are looking for volunteers, you wanna volunteer, what is it that you are looking for is?’ she had asked. I apologized for not making myself clear and told her I was looking for volunteers. She couldn’t help me. I tried another organization, or should I say company that didn’t even pick up the phone. The research we did that afternoon led to some eye opening results. Did you know that the average person pays $1600 for two weeks of volunteering? That’s not the funniest part though. Let’s see what the ‘fee’ includes. ‘Essentials’ such as information pack, an orientation program, or our personal favourite an airport pick up! Of course, there is also a volunteer position that is carefully and diligently selected especially for you, to best suit your needs and personal traits. Now, let’s quickly do the math. If language classes in Bolivia cost an average of Bs600 or $85 per month, and an average of 4 months is needed to pick up the language at a conversational level, a $1600 can buy lessons for 5 people. I don’t know how much each volunteer helps people in those two weeks of work, but I do know that $1600 is a lot of money. Imagine the actual change you can make in the life of people with that money.
I still don’t understand why the above mention volunteer organizations charge that much money. What do they use the money for? Do they support the community the work with? Or it fills their own pockets? In any case, please think before you hand in a small fortune to the next volunteer organization that comes your way. Wanting to do good and make a positive change is a noble thing but be smart about it. Do you really want to help people or be able to say that you have volunteered with such and such organization? There are millions of way to make a difference, which leads me to the next topic – the only volunteer project that could be potentially useful. Mario came across a forum posting from an American girl who had come to Potosi some time ago and had setup an English teaching program for young adults. Now having had to go back to the US she had found a replacement who will be resuming the classes in August. No organization, no cost, just plain teaching. We decided to keep in touch with the girl and her successor and suggest the classes to Basilio as an addition to his paid classes. Afterall, it doesn’t get much better than that – a native speaker teaching you English for free. Even if the timing of the classes or the level do not suit him, it would be nice to have the contact.
We walked back to the agency hoping to find Basilio and to report the findings of the day. They hadn’t seen him and we went to a nearby café to kill some time. A bit later Mario had gone downstairs where the bar was and had seen Helen eating lunch. Later she had told Basilio where we were and on one of my trips to the bar I bumped into him and Marta. We ordered banana milkshakes for the three of us and a lemonade for Mario and spent the next couple of hours chatting. We couldn’t quite understand what had happened in the morning to make him miss his appointment but he was with us no (looking like he had looked for us) and that was enough. We told him about the disappointing results of the morning and then switched to lighter subjects. We spent a lot of time talking about movies, and found out he had watched many new movies well ahead of their premiere in the cinemas. We then switched to comparing living costs in Chicago, London and Bolivia, or Potosi to be exact. They were amazed by the high cost of living and so was I. You could rent a room for a month in Bolivia for the cost of a monthly website subscription in the UK. We chatted a lot, Basilio feeling relaxed with us, laughing, talking, just like any other young men while Marta sat quietly most of time. Later e found out most local omen felt shy around tourists. It was time to go to the school to meet the second teacher. We met her and were very disappointed with her. She didn’t say a word of English to us. ‘This is not looking good’ I thought. ‘Two schools, three teachers, and none of them speak any English’. I wondered what we were going to do.
Just then the young lady recommended a friend of hers who was also a guide and spoke perfect English having practiced with tourists for years. She turned around to grab a paper and there he was, the man himself. I immediately switched to English and he responded calmly and comfortably. He spoke English. ‘Finally, someone who speaks English!’ I exclaimed unable to contain my excitement. On top of that he was a teacher. ‘We might have just hit the jackpot’ I thought. Unfortunately he taught in Uyuni and only came back to Potosi on weekends. If Basilio was to learn anything he needed regular weekly classes at least three times a week. He recommended some of his friends though who also spoke and taught English. We were so excited that we forgot about Basilio. There we were, three strangers, speaking English, discussing him and his future and yet he couldn’t understand a thing. He moved away a couple of steps and sat on the stairs with Marta. It was either that or the fact that Mario had told the older guide who Basilio was i.e. the young boy from the documentary, still working in the mines. Through the film we found out that there is a lot of stigma towards the miners and Basilio himself had to go through a lot of verbal abuse because of his job. Miners were looked down upon. Very unfair, but a fact. Maybe Basilio didn’t want anybody to know what he did hoping to avoid trouble. He just wanted a normal life.
We got the information from the older guide, making sure he was available for lessons on weekends should we need him and made our way out. Basilio and Marta had to leave because Basilio had night classes starting at 7.00pm and it was 6.45pm. We told him we would speak to the recommended teachers and let him known through Helen. We hugged and kissed and took our goodbyes.
We quickly walked up to the private university and inquired about Licenciado Winston. We found out that he no longer worked there but we asked the secretary to get his phone for us. She also suggested they had other teachers who were just as good. We decided to check them out since we were already there. One of them, the best as we were told was coming in in just a few minutes and we waited. We were now looking at private lessons that would cost nearly seven times as much as the group lessons but it was the best option. It still was relatively cheap for us and divided between the two of us it was almost nothing.
The lady met up with us and Mario spoke (I had asked him to do so since I was feeling a bit tired from all the talking) to her in Spanish explaining what the situation was. ‘Why don’t you speak to her in English?’ I suggested and both of them smoothly switched into it. The teacher spoke excellent English. We were so happy. She was a true teacher, patient, calm, clear. She would be perfect. Unfortunately her afternoons were busy and this was pretty much the only time Basilio had available with work in the mornings and school in the evenings. She was also awaiting confirmation about some Spanish classes which made her pretty unavailable. Nothing to despair about though. The school had other teachers to offer.
We met up with another lady teacher called Teresa. She also spoke great English having spent a few months in Scotland. ‘So where is that Scottish accent?’ I joked and Mario joined in with a very successful accent imitation. ‘I didn’t get them at all’ she admitted. ‘That’s alright’ Mario assured her. ‘I don’t get them either’ he added. We laughed. She as very nice although she didn’t strike me as a very strict teacher compared to the first lady. It would have been very nice to have someone pushing Basilio. We weren’t really in a position to choose though.
There was also a male teacher and we decided to talk to him too thinking that maybe Basilio would feel more comfortable with a man. A pleasant surprise again. The gentleman spoke English although not as comfortably as the ladies. He too though wasn’t available in the afternoons and just in the mornings and weekends. He was happy to help us though should Basilio manages to work out something with his schedule.
We were so happy. After a whole day of disappointments we couldn’t believe our luck. Things have worked in our favour, everything had come into place. In 15mins we had found four teachers who spoke great English. We were beyond ourselves with excitement. We wanted to subscribe him as soon as possible but unfortunately the whole workers community would be on strike the following two days and then there was the weekend meaning Basilio could only talk to the teacher on late Monday afternoon. There was nothing we could do but wait.
We went back to the agency to relate the good news to Helen so she could inform Basilio. We let them know that we were going away to a another ton for the weekend since e had already spent almost a week in Potosi but that we would be back on Monday to accompany Basilio to the university and hopefully subscribe him. Helen told us how his mom had been to the office that day and that she had told her that Basilio had serious problems with his left arm, making it impossible to work in the mines any longer. When Helen had told her about the English classes she had broken into tears. I am glad we had managed the perfect timing. Helen also told us that the agency was moving they safety equipment to a bigger room thus emptying the smaller one for Basilio’s mom who is to open a shop there selling coca leaves, and other miners items to locals and tourists alike. Maybe, just maybe they were one of those families who will be able to break out of the vicious circle of the mines and make a better life for themselves. It is all very touching.
It was late, we were tired and hungry and we went for a quick bite before we headed back home.
Day 6&7: July 29&30, 2010
The lessons were sorted but there was nothing we could do until after the strike, which was Monday. The lady had told us to go back on Monday to talk about a suitable schedule but until then our hands were tied.
We had decided to leave town for a couple of days, visit a nearby town before we went back to subscribe Basilio but we couldn’t even do that until late Friday afternoon. We decided to wait until Saturday morning and catch an early bus to Sucre, spent the weekend there and come back for our 6.00pm meeting on Monday. It all sounded doable.
The next two days we spent working on photos and catching up on writing. We had seen most of town, and there wasn’t much else to do.
On our last night (for now!) we went to dinner to the restaurant with the little girl. We were having some pizza before bed. Little girl was asleep on the floor, hat half way down her face. Her sister was watching TV again. We ordered the pizza and soon enough the girl came to check on us. She had remembered us. ‘Oh, it’s you…’ she said. We said a few words and I went to the bathroom to wash my hands before dinner. When I came back Mario had his computer out on the table. Before we knew it the young girl was standing by the table asking if she could play games. Mario wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea, but still disconnected his external hard drives (in case she decided to press buttons blindly) and let her play. By the end of dinner she had won us over.
It turned out that she also had a computer and that she was a big fan of Solitaire. She knew exactly what she was doing although the same can’t exactly be said about us. Mario kept an eye on her progress as well as the machine and pretty soon he was into the game as much as she was. At first she complained about the mouse a bit, asking whether there was a regular mouse, but when we told her that those mini laptops only came with the build in mouse she shrugged and quickly got used to it. 5 mins later she had mastered the mouse and completely forgotten about the inconvenience of not having a regular one.
Mario was very impressed with her, saying that should he have a daughter one day he would like to be as smart as Dayana (girl’s name). How many 6-7 year olds do you know, who patiently sit in front of a computer, playing a relatively challenging game (at least for their age), saying ‘Let me think about this…’ instead of throwing it all out of the window and running away to comb their Barbie’s hair. She was a very smart, well-behaved girl. A real pleasure to have around. Mario’s battery died just before she managed to finish the game. Shame! That’s when her parents also started chatting to us, asking questions about Mario’s laptop. He told them where he had bought it from and how much he had paid for it and they asked whether he wasn’t interested in selling it to them. As we were chatting about computers I got mine out to show them a different, longer lasting battery and also had to decline a purchase offer. Dayana quickly grabbed it from me and switched it on. She found the game, but didn’t insist on playing it when I told her we had to go. She just switched it off and handed it back to me. It was very nice of her – there was no nagging, no drama. I said ‘No’ and she gave it back. Very nice little girl.
We talked to the lady of the house, who also seemed to be the matriarch. She referred to their second restaurant as ‘hers’ instead of ’theirs’. I thought that was funny. Both Mario and I wondered whether they really had the means to buy a laptop then and there. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. I have noticed many Bolivians appear to be rather poor (dress wise) while driving around in the latest SUV. Before we said good night the lady offered we went back the following morning so she could warm up our leftover pizza for breakfast. Unfortunately we were leaving early so we would have to eat it cold.
That is all from Potosi for now. Let’s see when the strike is over so we could go back and finish what we’ve started.

Trouble crossing the Bolivian border: where law is a matter of personal interpretation

July 23, 2010 – Villazon
At 8.30am we boarded the bus that was taking us to La Quiaca, the last Argentina town before Bolivia. Four hours later we arrived and took a taxi to the border. We went through Argentine immigration and quickly got our exit stamps. From there on everything went so wrong.
Before leaving Uyuni for my salar trip I got an exit stamp for Bolivia and the officers assured me that I could enter the country again with that same visa (it had cost me $60). Upon entering the country the officer had told me I might have to pay Bs100 to keep the right to enter the country with the same visa but still nobody had requested it I wasn’t going to push it onto them. Back in Bolivia I felt comfortable that there wouldn’t be any trouble. Yeah, I couldn’t be further from the truth. As soon as I handed my passport to that same official who had sold me the visa he said I couldn’t enter with the same visa and I needed a new one. I told him what the official in Uyuni had told me but he wouldn’t bulge. I told him I wasn’t buying a new visa since I had done everything right and had followed the rules. It was clearly their fault and I wasn’t paying for it. After a while they sent me to the consulate that was a few hundred meters away. Apparently the consul would sort it out. I took a taxi there while Mario stayed behind looking after the bags.
Once in the consulate office I explained what had happened to what I thought was the consul but the lady turned out to be the secretary. She went to a back room and related the story to the consul ho came out a few minutes later, asked me whether I spoke Spanish and when I nodded he told me to go back to immigration and look for Sr. Rivera. ‘You got it?’ he asked. ‘Señor Rivera.’ he repeated.
I walked back and one of the officers asked me how it had gone. I told him I wanted to see Sr. Rivera. I had no idea who that person was but by the look on the official’s face I figured he was someone important. ‘Sr. Rivera. Carlos Rivera’ he repeated. He asked me to wait and went into a back office. He came out a couple of minutes later and said I had lost the right to enter the country on the same visa. He said I have to go back to the consulate. I lost it.
I told them it was their mistake and I wasn’t paying for it. I told them I had already been to the consulate and they had told me to deal with Rivera. I demanded I saw him. They refused and Mario and I stood in a corner trying to figure out what to do. I was so angry I broke crying. I hadn’t done anything wrong and yet I was being punished for it. It wasn’t fair. An official came a few minutes later and said we had to leave the office and that Rivera would be there at 14.30pm. I said I wasn’t going anywhere and he snapped saying ‘Wait forever then!’.
It looked like our best option was to go back to the consulate. We walked there and upon seeing us the secretary just told us to go into the consul’s office. I explained what had happened and he said he couldn’t do anything since Rivera was the immigration’s boss. I told him they had said he could give me another visa and only then he asked for my passport. He saw the pretty photo I had and made the most inappropriate comment I thought. He said I looked very pretty in that photo and asked what had happened with me. Why was I wearing a baseball hat, looking like a revolutionary? I thought he had no right to such comments in his position, thought it very sexist and broke crying. He didn’t get it. He thought someone had abused me. I hated him.
He said he would give me a new visa for free. Just like it should have been the first time. He said I needed to have a passport photo though. Obviously I didn’t have one and he wanted to send me to a photo studio to make some. When he saw me crying thought and after his secretary advice he let me just make a color copy of my passport along with some other copies that would be sufficient. Mario and I went looking for a Xerox and eventually found one. I got all the copies and went back. The secretary lady helped me with the application and the cleaning lady took it to the consul to sign once it was ready. 15min later we were still waiting for the papers. ‘What is he doing in there?’ asked the secretary. ‘Nothing.’ Responded the cleaning lady dryly. The secretary was the only person along with the cleaning lady who actually did any work at that consulate. I found the consul reading a newspaper and checking his personal Hotmail account upon entering his office the first time. The secretary also explained ho Bolivian visas for Bulgarians worked and that they are free. All it takes is a visit to the nearest consulate. Nobody had told me that the first time I had gone to immigration. They had just charged me the $60. She said different officials interpret the law differently. It is all about personal interpretation. How convenient!
Eventually the consul was ready to receive us and sign the papers. He signed the application as well as the visa the secretary had stamped into my passport. He stressed how this was a 30-day single entry visa and how I could have it extended if I wanted to. ‘It is a single entry visa’ he repeated several times before he let us go. I hated him so much but still politely thanked him before leaving the office. I thanked both the secretary and the cleaning lady from my heart before leaving.
Armed with my new visa we went back to immigration where more drama awaited us. We stood in line waiting to get our entry stamps. Mario got his 90-day stamp first and then it was my turn. The official took my passport, looked at me and called out to a colleague of his. He pointed at me and said ‘Look at this face and remember it!’ he said through his teeth. His boss, Sr. Rivera, had misinterpreted what I had said to the consul and had given him a hard time saying he wanted to charge me Bs100 (almost in the form of a bribe) to let me in the country. I opened my mouth trying to explain what I had said but he wouldn’t listen. He just put words in my mouth. I stood there quietly, waiting for my passport and once I got it I left. I couldn’t stand the look on their faces. I ended up being the bad guy although I hadn’t done ANYTHING wrong. I was on the verge of shaking from rage. I was so pissed. You think they would have given me my $60 dollars (paid for the first visa) back?! Ha-ha-ha.
Because of all that trouble Mario had also had some problems. Having left him with all the bags the first time he had been asked to leave the office with all the luggage. He had tried to explain what was happening but nobody would listen. When I came back and we were about to go into the office again one of the officers standing outside in control of the crowd in need of exit stamps snapped at him threatening not to let him into the country if he continued disrespecting his country. All he was doing was trying to make his way into the office loaded with four backpacks.
I was glad to be out of there. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I had told the officials how as a tourist I rely on them to advise me on the correct immigration practices and I have not the slightest idea that different offices interpret the law differently. ‘How is it my fault’ I had asked ‘if you colleagues in Uyuni supposedly belonging to the same Bolivian police, to the laws of the same country have told me something completely different that what you are now telling me?’.
What had also really pissed me about the consul’s behavior was that he was also trying to blame me for what had happened saying that I hadn’t done my homework before leaving my home country. He mockingly said ho I should have logged onto the Internet and read the immigration rules and prepared accordingly. Didn’t you hear me tell you that I had phoned (Inet site are often out of date) the Bolivian Consulate in Holland well before the beginning in of my trip where a lady had informed me about the immigration procedures. She had assured me I didn’t need a visa and that it only took a stamp to enter the country. She had advised me to get a Yellow Fever vaccination though since it might be required upon entry. And I had done so. That’s why I was surprised when they told me I needed a visa the first time I was here. I should have doubted them and gone to the consulate the first time. Nobody though (besides the secretary) thought about apologizing, not to mention giving me my money back. Instead the consul lectured me on how I haven’t done my homework. Very disappointing, frustrating, enraging!
After a few hours we were finally out of there. A piece of advice to all of you out there. Do not trust the immigration officials at the border crossings. If you are in doubt just refer to the nearest consulate. Do not doubt yourself. Good luck!

Salar de Uyuni: the largest salt flats in the world

Day 1: July 6, 2010
Woke up at 8am, took a great hot shower, packed my bags and went out looking for a tour agency for my salar trip. As I was packing my bags, a couple of ladies working for the hostal which also doubled as a travel agency hassled me trying to sell me their tour. All was very nice, except that I wasn’t going to hand them a $100 before having researched my other options. Not like I did a great job but still…
I entered the first agency that I came across and handed them the money after some hard core bargaining. What they offered was great and they seemed like a respectable company but I wanted a lower price. All companies out there offered the same thing at a slightly different price and this is exactly what I told the guy. ‘Give me a discount or I am walking out of here!’ I bit harsh and certainly not the exact words I used but the message that was transmitted. I told a lie saying the other company offered the trip for Bs500 (he charged Bs600). We went back and forth a bit and settled on Bs560 including the transfer ticket to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. All in all a very good deal.
I then ran to the immigration office to get my exit stamp, and when they requested a Bs15 fee I had to run back to the ATM near the hostal to get money out. Back at the immigration office I paid the fee and the officer assured me I could get back in the country on the same visa. Great news! Hope it holds.
I then headed to a nearby Internet café, trying not to look around at other travel agency or listening to their offers hoping I had made a good deal. I sent Mario a quick e-mail as promised and bought a few bits and pieces I would need for the 3-day trip that was coming. I was advised to get some snacks, water, gloves and sun glasses. The glasses were an excellent purchase as I didn’t take them off all day and they saved my sorry as* from having to squint all day. Mario insisted I bought a pair and I resisted saying I never wore sun glasses and I felt uncomfortable doing so. I am glad he insisted.
Immigration procedures, correspondence, and shopping were done. Now all I had to do is take my bags to the office of the agency and wait. I had breakfast under the warm morning sun as I did so.
Soon the driver came to pick me up and helped me carry my bags a couple of blocks down the street, where the 4×4 was parked. Imagine my surprise when I was told my travel buddies for the next three days were five guys. I was even more taken aback when it turned out they were all French and friends traveling together on top of that. Oh joy! I had specifically asked about the group at the tour agency (Mario’s recommendation) and the guy had said that there were people from France, Italy, Germany, and England. ‘Are they all travelling together?’ I had asked and he had assured me that they weren’t. Luckily, the guys turned out to be real nice – very considerate and helpful – and we had a blast together.
Our first stop was the Train Cementery – a deserted area just outside Uyuni, piled up with rusting trains that were once used to transport minerals. Took a few quick photos before we went back to town to pick up our cook for the next few days. We then hit the road towards the salt flats.
Our first stop was the Montones de Sal (Salt Mountains). Our guide Carlos explained something but I was too busy marveling at the view to hear what he was saying. Very bad of me. We ran around, taking photos, before we gathered for departure.
Next stop was a place called ‘Ojitos’ or the ‘Eyes of the Salar’ which was a small area covered in bubbling water. It looked hot but we couldn’t be further from the truth. It was simply a place where air came out from underground rivers. Funky shapes and colors!
Our next stop was a small community just on the edge of the salar. We went around, shopping or just checking out the merchandise (they guys bought some hats, gloves, ponchos all hand-woven of alpaca wool and I got a doll and a pair of salt dice for Mario. Thought it would be a nice addition to his new backgammon board) while we waited to enter the salt flat. Once we hit the road we drove through the flat whiteness for a while before we stopped for lunch and a set of ‘funny pictures’. While Aleja (our cook was preparing lunch inside the salt hotel (that was now officially a museum but still illegally used as a hotel) we went out picking our brains for fun things to do. The guys I was traveling with sort of went to one side doing their thing and I decided to check on out guide who was taking photos of two girls. I figure we could be useful to each other and I asked them whether they wanted to take some photos together. They agreed and we got down to business. Unfortunately, we didn’t do anything too original. As a matter of fact we only took a couple of classic shots that were somewhat boring. Oh well, better that way then no photos at all. I got frustrated because this was the place to be with friends and take your time acting on creative ideas.
We had a great, rich lunch of llama steak, quinoa, salad and Coke, followed by fresh bananas and a crunchy chocolate desert. Yum!
On the go again, we made our way deep into the salar in search of salt crystals. We stopped at a few small cracks into the solid salts that were full of water. They were absolutely hidden from the eye unless you knew what you were looking for or where to look for it. We all kneeled looking at the perfectly shaped cubic crystals thinking we were not allowed to do much more than that. That’s when Juan, our driver, stuck his hand into the water, trying to crush a crystal. Before I knew it all the guys were sticking their hand into the water, breaking salt crystals off. They were perfect, some small, others bigger, while Alex’s crystal was huge and beautiful. The other Alex shared his catch with me but before I thought about it I threw mine out. How silly of me! As soon as we all got back into the car I regretted my decision. It would have been great to have it as a memory or give it to someone as a present.
Our next stop was an island (the salar was once the oceans bottom), home to hundreds of ancient cactuses. When I say ancient I mean hundreds and hundreds of years old (some as old as 12-13 centuries) reaching a height of 12-13m (1cm per year). The coral that was once alive (and kicking!) but having died a long time ago it now looked like a little more than common rock. As a matter of fact you had to look real close to notice anything at all. Thank God for the guide!
We climbed all the way to the top from where we could enjoy a 360º of the endless salt flats in all they blinding glory as well as the gigantic, fluffy (only appearing so!) cactu plants. Carlos told us how the ancient inhabitants of these lands used to traverse the flats along with their cargo loaded llamas. I mused about means of transportation. A journey that took, weeks, maybe months back then, only take two days in the 21st century. A curious fact – the lamas wore sunglasses (the salt reflects the sunlight like nothing you have ever seen before and it spreads for miles and miles) made of black wool and they also wore little leather shoes to protect their hooves from the rough, cutting salt. Cute!
Lots of goofing around later we finally made our way back to the trucks where we inquired about the semi-final World Cup game. Holland was playing Uruguay and they were even just before we started the climb, 25mins before the end of the game. When we came back Holland had beat the last remaining Latin American country at World Cup 2010. Damn! Who am I supposed to cheer up for now?! Life goes on.
We drove through the salt flats, enjoying the view, until we reached an area where salt bricks were stored. It was our last stop before we stopped for the night and we took some more ‘funny pictures’ before we head to the hotel. I asked the French guys to take a photo of me but they were helpless. I gave up after I tried two of them. ‘This is why we didn’t want to show you our photos from earlier today’ they said. ‘We suck at it!’ they added. Earlier when I had shown them the rather boring funny photos I had taken, they had just said ‘Classic..!’ in French which I had interpreted as a negative, as a criticism referring to the lack of creativity. I spent the next couple of hours thinking they had no right to such comments since they hadn’t exactly helped me and I had done the best I could with what I had. I’d held a grudge against them. But when they admitted to their weak photo taking skills and moreover have asked me to take photos of them and have really enjoyed it I realized how silly I had been in my assumptions. It was really I who was having a problem with my photos, not them. We only got really comfortable with each other later that day when it was too late for photos as we were out of the flats. I’ll save all the ideas for next time…
I asked Carlos, our guide to do it instead, since he was really good at it. Speaking of taking funny photos, Salar de Uynuni classic, it is harder than I thought. I tried taking photos earlier that day, and although I managed to do it, it took a while. The sun was setting when we left.
Soon the white, sparkly salar was behind us and we were surrounded by nothing but brown dust. We reached the hotel (a salt one again but this time legal I assume since it was outside of the salar) and soon fell in love with it. The floors are salt, the walls are built with salt bricks, the tables and the chairs are carved out of salt blocks, and so are the beds. Great! Just like an ice bar, it is a unique experience. Let’s just hope we are as warm as we are fascinated by it.
Soon after we arrived, the fire in the big common hall was lit, and tea and cookies were served to us. Soon after it was dinner time and we started with a delicious, rich, potato soup. That was followed by a typical Bolivian dish of fries, meat, sausages, boiled egg, onions, and peppers all mixed together to a thick stew like thing. Absolutely delicious. Then we had my favorite canned peaches for desert. All this served in proper ceramic china, metal cutlery and glasses. Don’t forget we are in the middle of nowhere and there is nothing but salt and dust for miles around us. I never expected anything like this when I signed up for this. A three-course home-cooked meal?! Served to me in proper china and cutlery?! In a cool salt hotel? Doesn’t get much better than that.
The lights (supplied by a gas generator) would be turned off at 9pm (having been turned on at 7pm soon after we arrived) and Carlos rushed us to take showers. The shower here was hot and the one tomorrow night would be barely warm he had said thus showering tonight was a better option. I ran into the room to get my stuff and hung around waiting for Alex to get out. They were switching the lights off in ten minutes so I rushed, and rushed before I was left in complete darkness. Of course, that didn’t happen but anyway.
I joined the rest who had got together with a group of noisy English girls and were playing games. I tried to join but the girls seemed to be playing their own thing completely ignoring everything else around them and I soon gave up on the whole thing. I got my computer instead and decided to catch up on my writing that I had completely abandoned in the last couple of weeks since we had left the boat.
It is now 22.30pm and the owners’ son (who is helplessly charming and confident in a very mature way) had just warned us that there shouldn’t be any more noise after 11pm. Since I am almost done with this post I would soon go to bed. Speaking of bed, I have been put in a room with three guys (Cristian, a Peruvian tour guide, an Australian tourist, whose with Cristian, and Carlos, our guide). All that because they wouldn’t let me sleep alone in a room. A blessing or a curse…soon to find out.
Que sueñen con los angelitos!
Day 2: July 7, 2010
After a wild night on the salt for most of my group members we were woken up at 7.30am for our second sparkling day. The guys had some trouble getting out of bed having partied until the early hours of the morning and one guy in particular felt extra bad (spent most of the day, lounging in the jeep). We had breakfast served to us and I was surprised by how light it was at as early as 7.30am (usually sun went up at 8am but that’s probably because they are one hour ahead in Argentina; still sun had barely come out on the horizon when we were sailing the Chilean canals – Bolivia and Chile run on the same time). Another great meal (scrambled eggs with peppers, onions, and parsley, toast, jam, dulce de leche (but of course!), juice, tea, coffee, and cocoa. Yummy-yum!
We loaded the bags and hit the dusty road again. There was a lot to do and just one day to do it. Our first stop was spontaneous and improvised, inspired by the stunning view on our way to the mirador to the most important local active volcano. We just couldn’t resist it. We knew it was pretty but we didn’t realise how truly magnificent it was until we turned around and saw the mountain peaks we have been weaving our way through from a higher point and in all they rocky, colorful, misty glory. It looked more like a Mars landscape than something from this planet. Wow! No camera could capture the beauty. Stunning.
Five minutes later we made our first official stop for the day. A rocky area, boasting funky shapes, unusual plants (the carrot smelling bush/chair like plant that I first saw in Ushuaia; didn’t know it grew in such hot, dusty, dry climates) and the glorious view of the smoky volcano. We listened to our guide’s explanation and dispersed to explore the area on our own. I took photos of other people as I normally do. The idea being I will look at them later or showing them to friends and family reminiscing of the places I had visited. ‘This is where I stood!’ I would say pointing to the stranger perched on a steep rock. With a little imagination you would see me standing on that rock. The joys of solo traveling.
On the road again it was time for some lagoons. The first one was very pretty but I don’t remember its name. It perfectly reflected the surrounding mountains, like a mirror, and boasted a few pink flamingos, some ugly, grey baby flamingos as well as some rather vain seagulls (or something of the like) who just posed. It was impressive and I was so frustrated that I didn’t have a better camera or at least a bigger screen. In such cases you better look carefully and soak as much as you can and simply forget about the photos. Carlos, however, took a great photo of me. Wow! We slowly walked back to the truck where Victor, another French guy I was sharing the jeep with, was sitting on a rock, washing his feet. ‘What happened?’ I asked. They told me he had walked on what appeared hard ice covering the lagoon and it had broken, resulting in Victor getting knee deep in flamingo poo. He-he! To use Lonely Planet lingo – ‘extra curious and inobedient have fallen through’.
There were a few more lagoons further down the road, more flamingos and lovely colors. We stopped to have lunch at one of them. The other lagoons were sort of bright green, milky, bright green surrounded by what looked like ice but was actual mineral deposits. Stunning really.
After another hearty lunch (miraculously cooked in 15mins) we got back on the truck and headed to our next natural miracle. It took a while since everything that day was quite a way apart (2h in between attractions) but we were heartily entertained by stopping at various improvised locations. The second one being a red desert accompanied by a rainbow colored two peak mountain in the back. Mars – is the single word that describes the scenery the best. It was red and rocky and sandy and immense. The red stretched as far as they eye could see. We were surrounded.
Alex, one of the French guys I was travelling with performed his little trick (it seemed to have become a habit) which consisted of taking his clothes off and running across the desert while being filmed by his buddies. It was a good laugh. The first time he had done it, nobody knew about it because they had stayed behind at the top of the cactus hill from the day before and nobody had seen anything. He took it to a whole new level this time. We all could see. Brave. Crazy. Silly. If it were anybody else I would probably think it was plain stupid and sneer at it. But the guys have proven to be really good-natured, humorous boys and I laughed and clapped along with everybody else. What else did you expect from a bunch of 20 year olds on summer break?
Back on the road we headed for a rock desert. A bunch of huge rocks, in funky shapes somehow just appeared in the middle of the red, sandy desert. It turned out that they were ‘placed’ there by the surrounding, erupting volcanoes. Funny I didn’t see any in the close proximity. Imagine the size of the eruptions if the rocks ended up miles away from the volcanoes. The area was famous for this rock that looked like a tree, hence the name Arbol de piedra or Stone tree. We busied ourselves climbing other rocks and jumping on top of them while Carlos took cool photos. ‘Naked Running Alex’ very kindly helped me get up and down the rock. How well mannered.
Our last stop for the day was a natural wonder candidate or Laguna Colorada. It is this massive lagoon colored bright red. Carlos explained it was due to the algae and the microorganism. Another very good, very expensive camera location that I didn’t have the means to fully capture. Still I had a blast taking pictures of the lamas who were casually munching on the green, regular looking algae in the fresh water puddles, formed around the red lagoon. I was so happy to see them as we were approaching that I didn’t waste any time getting out of the truck as soon as we stopped and running down the rocky hill to get a closer look at them. They of course wore their typical colorful ribbons and I was ecstatic. At first I was more than surprised the animals let us to get so close to them and seemed absolutely undisturbed. But then I remembered lamas here were a domestic animal, just like sheep are in many countries and this explained their relaxed behavior. How cool and unusual. What is a most exotic animal to me is merely a sheep to a Bolivian. They colorful decoration was also far from romantic. It is simply used by the owners to mark their stock. ‘So they don’t do it to make them look pretty?’ I asked Carlos in a rather disappointed tone. I took a lot of photos of this single lama and its nearby munching buddy. Mine was particularly wonderful since it was double colored both in white and brown. How cool is that?! As we were leaving I noticed the tens of tens more casually napping on the hill, near a little stone house. Bolivian ‘sheep’ rock! Looking forward to seeing more.
Speaking of animals, let’s not forget to mention the numerous vicuñas (a lama like animal, but a lot less furry and far more elegant) running wild around us as we passed through the flats. Their wool is the most precious of the whole lama family since it is hard to get and is particularly fine. We also saw the Andine fox which was also totally relaxed around us looking for some food. I have said it before and I will say it again ‘I love wildlife!’ and I think it makes a trip so much better.
A few kilometers outside the lagoon was our hotel for the night. Nice but nothing compared to our sand castle from the night before. Speaking of castles and before I continue with the story I have to throw in a few words about the Bolivian military establishments. I was surprised to find out that they looked like mud castles (literally) built by children than official military quarters. I found the little towers (just like in old times) particularly amusing with their tilted walls and baby flags on top. Next thing you know, little kid soldiers with wood swords and guns come running out shooting each other with paint. No wonder Bolivia lost three important wars in the past.
Back at the hotel we got settled. This time I shared a room with all five French guys. While we waited for tea and later dinner we tried to keep ourselves warm as it was particularly cold in the hallway. Even with the wood stove on and the hall full of people and steaming food we could see our breath. That night Aleja had cooked some delicious lasagna for us and two young girls (daughters of the owners most probably) entertained us with some songs and drum beating. Amusing. While we waited for dinner we also chatted to some Brazilian girls who invited us to visit their capital Brazilia and stay at their houses only five minutes after they had met us. Brazilians for you. That night they also kept us awake for a while, singing and drumming their bottoms off. That is also Brazilians for you. They had even brought a flag with them that proudly hung on the outside of their dorm door.
Soon after dinner we all went to bed. A Belgian girl got me a hot water bottled and our driver Juan filled it up for me while I was talking to the other Belgian girl about cold feet. Apparently she had had the same problem until she had met a lady who had advised her to channel her thoughts to her feet instead of keeping them in her head. I just realized how ridiculous this sounds. What I am trying to say is that one should try to feel his body more, be closer to the Earth than simply looked in his head. In any case I understood it and I will try it but until then there is always my lovely hot water bottle. I also borrowed Jean Marco’s poncho and put it underneath all the other blankets. He had let me wear it all that night anyway. I was so grateful as it kept me super warm. I was worried I would be cold that night since everybody had repeatedly pointed out how cold that hotel was. Luckily I was super warm, part because of my bottle (that stayed warm until the morning), and part because of the few layers of warm blankets.
The cold wasn’t a problem but sea-sickness was. I woke up in the middle of the night with a rather strong headache. I immediately knew what it was. We were at 5000m above sea level. I have no idea at what time I had woken up but until 5.30am (get up time) I couldn’t fall back asleep. In the morning I found out that two of the guys had also felt sick. One of them had even vomited. Damn! We all felt like sh*t in the morning and the hot water bottle Belgian girl saved the day once again by giving us some altitude sickness pills. For the rest of that day we felt fine but the headache was there. The previous morning I had woken up with a mild headache but I didn’t think anything of it. I just thought it was due to the lack of sleep.
Day 3: July 8, 2010
Last day of our salty adventure. We got waken up by Juan at 5.30am as previously agreed. It was pitch black and I improvised with brushing my teeth and going to the bathroom. Tricky business! The loaded the trucks and left within 15mins of our getting up. It was dark and Juan drove by habit or instinct or God knows what. All that rush was to do with geysers. We had to get there before it got light and warm in order to see the steam coming out of the ground. We got there and we saw it. It was freezing cold, unsuitable for photos, unless you had a decent camera, we were sick and couldn’t be bothered to stay out for too long. After a quick look we ran back to the truck and watched the steam from the warmth of the jeep.
Our next stop was a thermal, hot spring. It was also out breakfast location. We had pancakes, cereal, and fruit before we jumped into the hot water. Well some jumped others just dipped. The guys all went in, but unfortunately I couldn’t and I just settled for sitting on the edge with my feet dipped into the 40º volcanic water. Yummy! We were all so grateful for the warmth after the -10º temperatures of the morning. It didn’t last long though. Carlos came rushing us out as we had to go and make the bus that was taking us to Chile. Five French guys and I (our truck) were all going to Atacama, while our buddies from the other truck were going back to Uyuni. We made the border, which was basically a shack in the middle of the desert. I didn’t understand what all the rush was about since we had to sit around in the cold wind waiting for the bus to pick us up. Eventually it came and we made our way to Chile on the international Mercosur road, spanning from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Pretty cool!
The Atacama adventures are to follow…