Where the Air is Rare

Trip Start Sep 06, 2005
Trip End Jan 08, 2006

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A headache greeted us in Bolivia. At an altitude of 3400m and a temperature of 30 degrees the Argentinian-Bolivian border saw us gasping and spluttering for air as Bolivian ladies in wool stockings, petticoats, skirts, thick jackets, and bowler hats carrying massive improvised blanket bags tore past us. And so much for the troublesome border we had been warned about, we breezed through without even a question or rummage. The bus station at the Villazon (the Bolivian border town) was 800m away but it felt like 8 miles as we whimpered up the hill. Our next stop was Tupiza, a stopping off point before the salt plains, and only a straightforward three hours away (conceivably our shortest bus journey.) But actually getting the bus was far from straightforward.

In a state of disorder and chaos we were passed from shack to shack trying to identify a company that would take us. We eventually found the right one which left in 20 minutes. Perfect, but the booking procedure was far from our experience of Argentina. We were used to being offered a choice of fully reclining chairs, semi reclining chairs, part reclining chairs or standard. In Bolivia we were offered standing or a wheel arch. We opted for the wheel arch and were hastily shepherded onto the bus by the conductor in order to bag our prime position. Our haste counted for little though, as we were still joined by another man who somehow managed to rest one bum cheek on an inch of wheel arch.
And then the rush started. They obviously thought Norris McWhirter was in attendance as they were clearly going for the Guinness World Record for the number of people that can be wedged standing up in an already over-crowded, groaning bus.

The journey itself passed through spectacular countryside of mountains, desert and scrub land which managed to momentarily take our minds off the wheel arch. Bizarrely the bus stopped intermittently, depositing passengers at random uninhabited places amongst this barren expanse. Who knows where they were going ? However there is only so much pondering of this we could do when our bums were screaming for mercy; glad is an understatement when we finally rolled in to Tupiza and were relieved from our 3 hour wheel arch stress position.

Tupiza itself is a small town of dirt and cobbled streets nestled between colourful mountain ranges (a Bolivian mining engineer we met at breakfast explained that the area is still a valuable source of zinc and other deposits, which gives the vivid flavours to the region.) As we are at altitude we decided to start our training proper and headed straight for a drinking establishment to sample our first Bolivian beer - judging by the froth it was very excited to get out of the bottle! Bolivia itself is such a contrast to Argentina. It sits like an impoverished dinner guest futilely fending off the advances of hungry neighbours who keep taking bites out of what is soon discovered to be a rather over-cooked, intermittently dry and poverty stricken dish. Only Cocaine and tourism seem to provide any means of consistent income (and both clearly bring their problems.) But from our short time here, it is a great country to visit. The people are friendly in a surprising way with strangers continually stopping to say hello and ask how you are and whether you are enjoying their country and what we should go and see - no ulterior motive beyond interest and inquisitiveness. And of course it is very cheap (lunch today cost 1 pound for a three course meal.)

Tupiza itself is very close to the final shoot out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their bodies are buried just up the road. We decided to follow in their footsteps (or hoof steps) by embarking on an afternoon of horse riding through the cowboy landscape: this time it was to be a 3 hour extravaganza. Once again Helen explained that my experience was much much less than that of a very bad novice and I needed a very tranquil horse. Apparently Sanchez was just the steed for the job, a fine looking horse but with a rather large appetite as we were about to find out. Helen´s horse was a young ´un with a long sad face but a glint in his eye. He started naying very enthusiastically when Helen mounted him. Soon after, my horse decided to take our 3 hour walk into his own hooves. We think they must´ve been communicating to each other with Helen´s naying to mine, "you´ve got a right one there, no idea what he´s doing, you´ll be able to give him the right run around." And so he did. We eventually came to a compromise which involved me letting him stop and eat whatever he liked, wherever he liked and him allowing me to ride very badly. Helen´s became skittish (horse talk apparently), obviously taking his cue from mine, and started bucking when we were mid canter (we even had a little gallop but not sure it was intentional.) Helen managed to hold on but had to spend the rest of the ride comforting him and telling him what a good horse he was. Our impression of Butch and Sundance was not really up to much. But the scenery certainly lived up to the part. Nevertheless our bottoms can now attest that Bolivian saddles are about as comfortable as Bolivian wheel arches.
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